the better truth

the better truth

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The River Runs Through It (1992)

The Words Run Through It

The written word is king in our culture. Writers are the spokespeople for the intelligentsia. Movie makers are media stars. This may be a sweeping generalization but it will be many years before there is a Nobel Prize for Film. More importantly the assumption that movies are a second rate medium affects how they are made. The River Runs Through It is a paradigm of the stifling ramifications of being overpowered by the written word.  

Norman Maclean is an excellent writer. The River Runs Through It is a magnificent piece of literature. I didn't read the book, I saw it; or to put it more accurately I saw the movie. It was problematic. The acting was strong. The photography was breathtaking. The costumes and scenery were accurate and beautiful. All and all it was very professional. Everyone performed there job with consummate skill. Unfortunately the reason for the failure of the end result can be traced to the belief in books; and conversely the lack of confidence in film.

Voice-over narration is something that is used often but rarely effectively. A strong example of this technique (and ironically another transformation of a novel into a film) can be found in Goodfellas. Scorsese has the central character speak to the audience as a unobtrusive guide. The words convey the events and descriptions which, in turn, propels the images forward. It is a symbiotic relationship. Ray Liota's voice would drop in during transitions or other critical moments as if it were a friendly insider giving the  "inside dope". A "local" giving the tourist-audience the lay of the land. The narration could never stand on it's own. What good is the lay of the land, without the land. The images would suffer a loss also; the land without the lay. In short, Ray Liota's voice-over is an integral part of the telling of the story.

Robert Redford's voice-over in The River Runs Through It is the polar opposite. It is a distraction, despite Maclean's gift as a writer and Mr. Redford's strength as a reader. I might go so far as to say "because of" instead of "despite". Mr. Redford has a distinct voice which any American moviegoer over the age of 10 would recognize immediately. He is, however, visually absent from the screen. This has the effect of drawing the audience away from the images and towards the  that familiar, unmistakable, disembodied voice. The visuals undercut themselves by mimicking the still photo montages which are the hallmark of film-as-slideshow documentaries. (e.g. Ken Burn's The Civil War) This technique might befit an educational presentation whose main objective is to inform. It is ill-suited for dramatic filmmaking whose mission lies in the realm of emotion.  La Jette proved that a riveting story can be told through the use of a series of still pictures. It is therefore the choice of images themselves and not their lack of fluidity which presents the problem. The antique photographs and beautiful landscapes were, in themselves, pleasing and appropriate but they were not specific. Any antique family pictures or beautiful montainscapes would work in buttressing Mr. Redford's reading. This lack specificity carried over into the action.

It is interesting to note that the film's emotional apex, the murder of one of the protagonists, is covered in the narration but ignored visually. This is consistent with the overall short-shrift given to the actors. The central philosophical underpinnings of the film were spoken by Mr. Redford, not performed by the cast. The characters were representational arch-types instead of actual people. The brief moments of levity were provided by minor characters (the Methodist family, the Calamity Jane bar fly…). The main actors were too bound up in being icons to be able to live and breath. This creates the specificity problem. As with the photo-montages any appropriate icon would work equally well. Any "good brother" or "dutiful mother" or "minister-father" would be as compelling. The result becomes a strange disconnect with the action. The protagonist death is meaningless in itself. There is no need to show it. The family response is characteristically stoic and uninteresting. The film maker is forced to abandon the actors quickly and move to his main vehicle for evoking emotion: words. The closing narration evokes the response. Tears began to flow as Mr. Redford reads the beautiful words and the image of an old man fishing in the river appeared on the screen. Norman Maclean's passing ironically supports the generic nature of the visual image. The old man fishing would have been the author himself; unfortunately he died. They used a stand-in. A generic old man reflecting on life encircled by the breathtaking Montana scenery. Filmically the choice was irrelevant. He worked equally well.

It should be noted that tears did flow. Many audience members have been, and will be, very moved by this movie. Perhaps some might see this as confirming the success of the transformation of Maclean's words to the screen. The goal of making the jump should be in liberating the text from the book. Unfortunately Mr. Redford's adaptation relies solely on the power of the word itself. In a sense the film is closer in spirit to a reading of the story by Mr. Redford accompanied by well chosen slides and carefully choreographed pantomime. Although professionally executed, the lack of specificity of the characters, worked against the audience forming an emotional connection with any of the central protagonists. The words mask the lack of a bond by striking passionate chords. Yes there were tears, but they were for the characters in Mr. Mclean's novel and not the actors in Mr. Redford's film.

Words are powerful, but so are images. Books are important, but so are films. When transposing between the two never be lulled into believing the strengths of one will play equally well in the other. Failure to take into account the differences will lead to results which are passable, but not exceptional. In The River Runs Through It, the audience heard a passionate tale, and they reacted strongly. One can only imagine the results if they had seen the story as well.   

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