Wednesday, July 21, 2010

William Gibson

William Gibson has been tormenting my mind of late. There are a variety of reasons for this.

I was very much into Gibson and Cyberpunk through the '90s, which I know is not uncommon. As I recall, my first introduction to it directly was playing the Neuromancer video game, unusual for me as a non-gamer.

But Gibson's writing quickly captured me, with his Raymond Chandler meets William S. Burroughs prose.

I was disappointed last night to read him write on Twitter, @PSDungeonMaster: So when are we going to see a "Dogfight" or "Burning Chrome" movie? [Maybe Dogfight; endless option. BC never.]

I've always thought "Burning Chrome", available in the collection Burning Chrome, is one of his most obviously cinematic stories. In fact, there's a screenplay I've read - credited to Gibson, but I don't have that authenticated aside from that - that I've read more than once and think would make an excellent movie.

And then I stumbled on Natali takes "Neuromancer" for the big screen by Michael Gingold.

Now, Vincenzo Natali is as good a choice as I can imagine to adapt Neuromancer to the screen, and I know that it has always been a focal point of Gibson adaptation, it being the breakout, the definitive Cyberpunk book.

But then I've heard Neuromancer - The BBC Radio Play, which is quite good, and presumably reasonably close to the way a reasonably adaptation of the novel would or should play out. It is quite good. It hits the action, mood, key story points and characters. And it runs just under two hours, just like a good movie.

And I can't help thinking as I listen, "How many people would this appeal to?"

I've long thought Virtual Light would be easy to turn into a terrific movie. Even if one's determined to work from the Sprawl series, Count Zero seems much easier to turn into a commercial movie story without taking out the essence of what makes it work as a story.

How does one go about adapting Gibson onto the screen? It happens that the two most obvious Gibson adaptations take very different approaches.

For Johnny Mnemonic, Gibson, as screenwriter, and director Robert Longo decided to play up the more far-out elements involved, attempting to play it as comedy.

The story goes that when the movie was in post-production, Speed became a hit and the idea of having a big, insano over-the-top comedic action/sci-fi movie didn't seem nearly as commercially appealing as exploiting star Keanu Reeves new credibility as an action star, so the movie was re-edited to focus more on the action elements of the story.

I was very excited for the release of this movie in May of 1995. I was not working and watching movies and trying to figure out what to do with myself. I stayed up all night the night before, although not because of the movie, and saw the movie at a matinee, having not slept in 36 hours. I may have been in the perfect condition to see through the jumble to the movie Longo and Gibson intended.

I always loved it, but hid from revisiting it for fear that seeing it lucid would take something from that experience. Finally, a few years ago, my friend Ryan Allred convinced to me to take a look and, yeah, I still like it.

It's the best performance Dolph Lundgren has ever given, and knowing he thought he was working in a comedy only makes it make that much more sense. Frankly, it makes Ice T and Henry Rollins make more sense, too.

I can't speak to it, as I've never seen the director's own cut, which has never been released... although I have seen the somewhat different, and improved, Japanese release... but I can't help wondering if it ever would have completely worked as intended. I'm not sure most of it, Lundgren excepted, is quite big enough to play funny.

And while I have a certain affection for Dina Meyer, I'm still not fond of the not-Molly character. Certainly Meyer isn't able to capture the character of Molly Millions featured in Gibson's Sprawl series, but neither she nor Gibson seem to have created a new character here for this "Jane" to be.

But there is something charmingly kooky about it that I simply can't resist. I mean, they really did get a major studio to make a multi-million dollar movie whose climax revolves around a drug-addicted psychic dolphin! How can I not love that?

With New Rose Hotel, director/co-writer Abel Ferrara and co-writer Christ Zois go the opposite direction. It is a rather earnest affair.

Seeing the naturally film noir quality to Gibson's work, this plays out not entirely unlike a low budget Blade Runner, although the sci-fi elements of the story are pushed well into the background.

The movie stars Willem Dafoe and Christopher Walken as corporate espionage agents. They hire a Asia Argento to lure a genius from one corporation to another.

The movie isn't "bad", although I think I've seen it, too, classified as such. It just doesn't have much tension involved. Dafoe's and Walken's energies are too similar. The espionage storyline seems to all take place off-screen.

It's one of those movies to me where every moment in itself feels like it's out of a good movie. It's well acted. The look is a delight. There are interesting moments. There are funny moments.

It just doesn't quite feel like it adds up to anything.

Somewhere in this period where Ferrara transitioned from being a very talented, somewhat arty exploitation movie director to being a very talented, somewhat trashy, overly arty art, critic chasing art movie director. I can't say I like it as much. This movie needs a little more of the exploitation director instincts.

But maybe those elements were sacrificed as the budget fell apart.

Both of these movies are flawed but interesting. Neither comes close to capturing what it feels like to read a Gibson story. Maybe it's something about how impressionistic his writing is that makes each person's interpretation too unique and every adaptation is doomed to failure.

But then two adaptation, neither of which are said to wholly express the intentions of their creators, is certainly not enough to gauge from.

I wonder when (or if) another will come along. There's something compellingly cinematic about much of his work, but then there's something so incredibly literary, too. Whatever does come along, the important thing is the books, and I still love them and will continue revisiting them, probably as long as I live.


Kimberly Lindbergs said...

I'm a huge fan of Gibson's work myself, Neil. But I don't think any of the films made from his work have managed to capture any of his sensibility, style, wit or sensitivity yet.

My favorite Gibson work is IDORU (part of his wonderful Bridge Trilogy). It's just brilliant! I'd enjoy seeing it made into a film but I can't imagine who could do it justice and it probably would need a huge budget to succeed. I did enjoy aspects of Duncan Jones's MOON and Neill Blomkamp's DISTRICT 9 and both directors are planning to continue making science fiction films. Maybe one of them could tackle a Gibson book? Both directors give me hope that the science fiction films could get really interesting in the next few years.

Neil Sarver said...

I certainly agree that nothing I've seen captures the elements you mention, which is a very good way to put it.

I've never actually gotten around to reading Gibson's original screenplay for Johnny Mnemonic, although I certainly should. Perhaps in a little bit after I have the movie itself a little further out of my mind, so I'll have an easier time reading it for itself, and allowing it to find its own tone in my head. From what I've read, the tone they intended is interesting to me, but not necessarily what I'd hoped for from a Gibson movie.

"Idoru" is also my favorite, although I confess I am behind in reading. I love the Bridge Trilogy best myself, but didn't have much context to bring it up here, except to say that "Virtual Light" felt the easiest to adapt in my reading.

When "Pattern Recognition" came out, I was in a bad phase in terms of regular reading, and I was a little annoyed with his statement that he'd named the main character Cayce without thinking of Case in "Neuromancer". That seems a silly thing to have gotten a bug up my butt about now, but at the time it seemed irritating enough to me to keep me away. Having Gibson back in my head recently, I'm determined to catch up.

I also enjoyed aspects, as you say, of Moon and District 9, and will definitely be following both of those directors future works. I could see either of them having the potential to do something interesting with a Gibson novel.

I hope, one way or the other, that we get to see more interesting science fiction movies in years to come. There are so many avenues to explore, and science fiction cinema has been decidedly limited in the ones it has taken.

Neil Sarver said...

Oh, and not in response to anything in particular, but I'd love to see an adaptation of "Neuromancer" on the budget scale of a Cube, Moon or District 9, with a director willing and able to use creativity to substitute for money. I think that could stay true to some of the ideas in the story that I think would likely leave a big budget type audience confused and/or annoyed.

Or else they'd just think they were ripped off from THE MATRIX or whichever Gibson influenced anime they happened to have seen.

Kimberly Lindbergs said...

I'd like to see a big science fiction revival myself and it's possible that Jones & Blomkamp are the guys that could usher it in.

And I'm with you on "Neuromancer." It's the first Gibson book I read and it really blew me away and made me a fan for life. It was unlike anything published at the time. A lot of Gibson's ideas have become so accepted and mainstream now that any adaptation of his work will probably seem derivative of something else. But I still hold out hope that someday someone will turn one of Gibson's books into a great film.

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