July 24, 2008
Waxing (Philip) Roth
The movie, "Elegy," which opens Aug. 8 and stars Ben Kingsley as David Kepesh and Penelope Cruz as the object of his desire, is the latest film to be adapted from the writings of Philip Roth. This one is based on his novella, "The Dying Animal."
Despite Roth's long, successful career in American letters, his track record on film has been far spottier. Yet "Elegy," directed by Isabel Coixet, who is Spanish, has created a certain buzz: Could it be that a woman, a European -- albeit working in English -- is what it takes to successfully translate Roth's work to film?
Let me get back to you on that. First, to set "Elegy" in context, I decided to watch every film adapted from Roth's work.
My mission started simply enough: a quick search on imdb.com turned up a succinct list of eight works on film and TV, stretching back to the 1950s.
Some had never been released on video, some are only in VHS, some were available at the local video store, some had to be tracked down in specialty shops or in university or museum archives. My quest led me across Los Angeles and afforded me the pleasure of visiting some of the city's most beautiful libraries and research facilities, as well as some of its best-stocked video stores.
In 1960, Roger Corman produced "The Battle of Blood Island," which was adapted from a 1958 short story that ran in Esquire titled, "Expect the Vandals." Shot in black and white and only 64 minutes long, "Blood Island" is part of a trilogy of films Corman made in Puerto Rico.
Netflix carries this film as a DVD double feature, paired with a non-Roth film called, "Shell Shock" (that has nothing to do with Roth). Locally, "Blood Island" can't be found at Blockbuster, the Santa Monica or Los Angeles public libraries or such local rare video sources as CineFile or Vidiots.
So, I turned to my video store of last resort, Eddie Brandt's Saturday Matinee on Tujunga Avenue in North Hollywood, a shop whose eccentric and extensive film collection rarely disappoints.
It was there that I found one lonely DVD of the film. The story is set on an island in the South Pacific, where two American soldiers, Moe and Ken, are the only survivors of an attack on Japanese forces and are forced to hide out and get along. Moe is a 35-year-old Jewish accountant, with a wife and kids back home, who sprinkles his conversation with Yiddish expressions. Ken, who was injured in the attack and whom Moe must take care of (but resents doing so) is a younger, more naive, all-American kid. Moe is not very likeable, but we understand his predicament. At one point, Ken, pushed to the end of his rope, makes an anti-Semitic jab at Moe. We know Ken didn't really mean it, but Moe feels Ken's comment justifies his worldview.
In the end, the two are rescued -- just before the island is to be used as a nuclear test site. The film is more a character study than anything else, and our feelings about Moe are left unresolved. Nonetheless, Moe represents an early proto-Roth protagonist, one who has not yet moved beyond ethnic identity, but remains plenty angry.
Roth's next adaptation to film appeared in October 1960, when "The Contest for Aaron Gold," originally published in 1955 as a short story in EPOCH, appeared as an episode of the television series, "Alfred Hitchcock Presents."
I first turned to the Paley Center for Media's library, but they did not have a copy. They directed me to the UCLA Film & Television Archive, which had a copy that I was allowed to screen only in the media lab of UCLA's Powell Library. The special treat here was Powell Library, which stands across from Royce Hall on the UCLA campus and is worth visiting just for the beauty of its main reading room.