Scorsese’s novel adaptation

Rodrigo Prieto was nominated for an Academy Award for his cinematography on Martin Scorsese’s Silence. His work ought to be seen on the largest screen possible, because it is a beautiful and stunning piece of art. I saw Silence in a theatre just as it was dying a slow death at the box office. In the end the movie was a flop in terms of revenue – a disappointing business end to a long creative journey for Scorsese, who worked for decades just to be able to make it. His quest was best summarized by Paul Elie in a New York Times profile: in 1989 Scorsese read Shūsaku Endō’s novel about Portuguese Jesuit missionaries in 17th century Japan and immediately knew he wanted to adapt it for film. After years of delays Silence was finally released on December 23, 2016.

The movie itself got good reviews – and a few bad ones. A negative review appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, for example, filed by Adam Mars-Jones. This review is notable because Scorsese responded to it, writing in part:

Mr Mars-Jones contends that ‘even the most relentless book filters diffusely into the life of the reader, while a film suspends that life for the duration’, and that the ‘transposition’ from novel to film ‘can only amount to a distortion’. Mr Mars-Jones’s opinion of my film aside, this strikes me as an extremely limited and limiting view of the cinema as an art form.

Scorsese is, of course, correct. To their credit the TLS asked the director if he’d like to write an essay on the subject, in order to expand on the points in his letter. Scorsese agreed. It’s always interesting to hear or read him on the topic of movies and moviemaking. His short TLS essay doesn’t disappoint. At the end of the piece, in addressing the possible approaches to novel-to-film adaptation, Scorsese writes that, sometimes:

…the idea is to take elements of a novel and craft a separate work from it (as Hitchcock did with Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train). Or, to take the cinematic elements of a novel and create a film from them (I suppose that this was the case with certain adaptations of Raymond Chandler’s novels). And some filmmakers really do attempt to translate a novel into sounds and images, to create an equivalent artistic experience. In general, I would say that most of us respond to what we’ve read and in the process try to create something that has its own life apart from the source novel.

Scorsese did that with Silence, certainly, but his was a fairly literal adaptation of the source novel. I’d go further. I think Scorsese actually improved on Endō’s book in very specific ways. I wasn’t as enthralled as Scorsese and many other readers are with the book. It is a good novel, not a great one, and I doubted it could be adapted for the screen. For me a major issue in Endō’s book is the Japanese Christian peasant characters. They felt distant, unknowable, and unhuman. Their belief was not believable and the sympathy I might have had, as a reader, for their plight and suffering was diminished for these reasons. Scorsese fixes this in his film, and it’s an example in which a movie does for a particular story what the source material could not or did not do.

Scorsese’s achievement was a matter of casting, I think, which is perhaps a filmmaker’s primary task, as well as direction. The actors who play the Japanese Christian peasants in Silence are so convincing in their depiction of faith that the film is given a power that the novel, in my opinion, does not have. In fact, in the movie, the Jesuits and their faith seem small or misdirected by comparison. Without giving too much way, the collective portrayal of faith by the peasants also allows the apostasy of Father Sebastião Rodrigues to make greater sense, because a Jesuit-like fervency has been transferred in the film version to the peasants, where it better serves the story. The book gives the sense that the peasants believe without reason or meaning. Not so in the movie. Scorsese’s improvements also allow for the actions of the Judas figure in the story, Kichijiro, to sharpen, and for his betrayals to bolster the dramatic crux of the picture. In the book Kichijiro is simply irritating; in the movie version, he’s also an annoying presence but he has a greater purpose to the story.

The novel ends on a very down note. On the face of it that might seem perfect for Scorsese, whose protagonists almost always get what’s coming to them. But in his film’s final moment, Scorsese allowed for one of the very few significant changes he made to Endō’s story and thus the movie concludes with an uncharacteristic (for Scorsese) moment of hope. It works because of changes to narrative and characterization which were inserted along the way by Scorsese during the filmmaking process. That’s the way I see it, anyway.

I’d encourage everyone and anyone to see Silence. It is an important movie by one of America’s great directors. My own view is that one day we’ll look back on Silence and see it as Scorsese’s masterpiece.

. . . . . . .


Human optimization

From Kristin Dombek‘s essay in the July 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine. She’s referring here to The Happiness Industry by William Davies.

In Davies’s view, the language of good feeling and scientific utopianism are a cover for an older, more insidious goal: ‘a single index of human optimization’ that would reduce all human experience to qualities that can diagnosed, tracked, graphed, and, ultimately, controlled. The methods may be new, Davies argues, but this is what the architects of free-market capitalism have wanted all along.

The full essay is available on the Harper’s website (subscription required).


Who doubts G.E.?

Compare our monastery and the General Electric plant in Louisville. Which one is the more serious and more ‘religious’ institution? One might be tempted to say ‘the monastery,’ out of sheer habit. But, in fact, the religious seriousness of the monastery is like sandlot baseball compared with the big-league seriousness of General Electric. It may in fact occur to many, including the monks, to doubt the monastery and what it represents. Who doubts G.E.?”

The year 2015 is the centennial of Thomas Merton’s birth. Above is another quote from Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. Today he might have written instead, “Who doubts Google?” Or: “Who doubts Facebook?” Or started the paragraph:

Compare our monastery and the Apple store in Louisville…the religious seriousness of the monastery is like no-contact peewee football compared with the NFL seriousness of Cupertino….


The centenary of Merton’s birth

Thomas Merton

ON THE LAST DAY OF JANUARY 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the border of Spain, I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God and yet hating Him; born to love Him, living instead in fear and hopeless self-contradictory hungers.

Many online appreciations for Thomas Merton, on the centenary of his birth, start with the above quote. It’s the opening to The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton’s landmark spiritual autobiography.

One of my favorite Merton books is Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, which is an edited version of his journals. Conjectures contains Merton’s famous Louisville sidewalk revelation entry. But I want to post another quote here, a different but still very personal, reflective quote about his life. Merton rarely mentioned his family in his writing. His parents died when Merton was young and his only sibling, a brother, John Paul, was killed in action during World War II. Here is Merton nearly two decades later, all of which was spent living at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky:

The flow of events: our youngest postulant, from Canada, is busy today with a wrecking bar, smashing up the partitions of the room in the old guesthouse, on the third floor, where, twenty years ago, I first came on retreat, that silent, moonlit night at the end of Lent. I remember the spiritual awe of that night! And now, in the clear light of a summer day, the plaster crashes to the floor and sunlit clouds of dust float out the window where I wrote that poem about the abbey and Matins. This kid was not even born then. He is the son of an airman who married an English girl, as my brother did, during the war. He was born in the Blitz, in England. And now he is tearing down that room and my own history – a fact which I gladly accept, but with this sense of loss nevertheless!

Eighteen years since the three survivors in John Paul’s crew dropped his body off the lifeboat into the North Sea. His back was broken when the plane hit the surface.

. . . . . .

The golden cage

It was late afternoon on an unseasonably warm winter day – and I’d made a terrible miscalculation.

Thus: instead of alighting from efficient Viennese public transport, I arrived by foot at the Raimanngasse bus stop after a marathon uphill hike from the wrong stop on an altogether inappropriate line, one or two bus routes removed from one I’d been instructed to take by my host, Frau L—.

I should have listened closer to what she’d been telling me that morning.

She’d provided all the necessary and proper directions, but I’d been distracted.

I wasn’t lost though at present. I could still find my way to the day’s destination. It was just that I’d made my journey all the more arduous. And sunlight was fading now.

The purpose of my excursion to 14th district Vienna was to visit Kirche am Steinhof, or St. Leopold’s – Otto Wagner’s Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) church on the hilltop there.

And as a proud and dutiful tourist, I wouldn’t be denied my visit – no matter how tired I was, no matter how long the day got.


St. Leopold’s is at the edge of the Steinhofgründe. Its doors face ignobly southward – toward Hungary. I was still many steps below the church, whose golden dome was now obscured.

I’d been told what to look for.

I’d been provided clear directions and informed instructions.

(What were they?)

I noticed some strange things.

First, the houses nearest the bus stop. Odd little suburban neighborhood along the Raimannstrasse. Queer little boxes with high fences and small lanes that ran behind them and barbed wire and signs in German (of course) that warned that nighttime access was verboten.

Further along, the dull gates at the last elevation before the final stretch to the church above. Unsure where I should enter the complex — is this area restricted, or nicht? — I almost turned back. But I’d already hiked so far — leaving my travel companion behind — I thought I should continue.

No one stopped me.

No one tried.

But after I walked through the entrance and reached a walkway to the summit, an old man in a shabby suit came tottering wildly at me. He spoke in a discordant way.

I told this obvious nonemployee that I don’t speak German (in German).

Or perhaps I said: You don’t speak German.

I’m unsure which or what, but I quickly climbed the steps in front of us, toward Kirche am Steinhof, then moved along the stone walkway. The man ducked away, disappearing behind one of the pavilions.

As I continued along a creepy feeling persisted. The stark buildings around me: the design aesthetic: part of Wagner’s overall plan? The whole place had the feel of a mental institution — because it was. Or it had been, according to my printed guide; that is, a full-fledged lunatic asylum, as they were once upon a cruder time called.

I was at the infamous Steinhof, although only some of the sixty pavilions designed by Carlo von Boog were still a psychiatric hospital (Psychiatrisches Krankenhaus) of the now-renamed Baumgartner Höhe Social Medicine Center – Otto Wagner Hospital and Care Center.

The man who’d accosted me might have been definitively mad, I realized, as I trod on the church-ward path, or maybe he was perfectly sane.

(Who is to know for sure?)

What elevated my uneasiness and uncertainty was the German language itself, whose words often seem a deranged construction to me, particularly when shouted.

I’m mostly illiterate of the language.

I was still adjusting to the country.

Meanwhile the grounds were otherwise empty. I needed to move on and get to the summit pronto, because the vista there, whatever that might prove to be, would soon be ruined by the disappearing sun.

Then what?

I wouldn’t be able to take my photographs. And this of course is the most important thing these days: to acquire documentary proof of one’s own middle-class adventures. If you don’t snap your photos and, more importantly, immediately share those images with as many people as possible, you cannot have possibly experienced what you think you have.

That shabbily-dressed old man who’d accosted me. His ghostly presence was not photographed by me, so he is therefore a mystery and remains unknown.

He reminds me now — in my memory — not then — not the year I visited Vienna — of Paul Wittgenstein, the title character in Thomas Bernhard’s Wittgenstein’s Nephew, which I read after.

In that book of friend-love the Wittgenstein character resided temporarily in Steinhof’s Ludwig Pavilion and the character Thomas Bernhard, our narrator, in the Hermann Pavilion. They are separated by a short distance on the grounds below St. Leopold’s. However, the gap is greater in their respective treatable pathologies — the character Bernhard’s illness being pulmonary, the character Wittgenstein’s mental.

Bernard’s book was a work of autobiographical fiction: Bernhard (the now-dead writer) had also developed a respiratory disease and Paul Wittgenstein (Ludwig’s cousin’s son, really) had suffered from mental illness; they’d both been to the hospitals at Steinhof. But Bernhard the character/narrator also says: “Paul was no madder than I am: I am at least as mad as he was, as he was said to be, though I have lung disease in addition to my madness. The only difference between us is that Paul allowed himself to be utterly dominated by his madness, whereas I have never let myself be utterly dominated by my equally serious madness; one might say that he was taken over by his madness, whereas I have always exploited mine.”

(What are we to believe?)


I reached the summit and St. Leopold’s soon enough.

Wagner believed his Catholic church might have a calming effect on the mentally ill residents at Steinhof. This made greater sense to me as I wildly snapped my pictures that late afternoon and wandered about the grounds there. What I mean is: to this sane twentieth-first-century man, St. Leopold’s appeared to be nothing if not utter madness.

But first, note the amazing consideration for its resident churchgoers. Kirche am Steinhof forgoes the typical east-west orientation of Western churches. Wagner did this so that patient-parishioners might benefit fully from the healthy influences of southern sunlight (the pavilions also face that direction). Pews, designed by Wiener Werkstätte, had no sharp edges, so that patients might not injure themselves. Bathrooms were installed near the altar for obvious emergencies. Pew bases were made utilitarian in design and aisle floors sloped for easy cleaning when patients were unable to make it altar-side. Medical rooms off the sacristy for those needing mid-mass attention. Large doors at either end allowed for quick exits. Holy water dispensed in dripping taps instead of fonts.

Elsewhere: stained-glassed windows by Koloman Moser. Sculptures by Othmar Schimkowitz. Early on these features mattered little to the local churchgoers. Steinhof and the surrounding neighborhood had been one parish then, it is said, intertwined, villagers living among the patients, all part of the same ordinary community. And not long after its debut in 1907, the church folded itself into the backdrop of history. It survived Austria’s dark days during World War II, when Steinhof patients were experimented upon and murdered by Nazis. Today there is a memorial on the property. These and other atrocities were well documented; the more tyrannical a regime after all, the richer its archive.

St. Leopold’s reemerged, as it were, into a general cultural awareness, in the latter half of the century. Renovated by the state several years ago and ably promoted by the Austrian tourist board, it now receives many visitors. Pilgrims are guaranteed to see at least four angels standing outside. Angels made in the form of modern young women of Wagner’s time. Bob haircuts and golden gowns and giant absurd wings. The architect’s trademark golden wreaths are ubiquitous, as are his black studs, on typical white marble exterior. Bright gold crucifixes abound. Robed saints sit in patina judgment atop columns, their faces lit by the setting sun. From ground level their dress and soles shine brightly; the view of Vienna obscured by trees. The church itself: of another world.


I took many photos of this place. Afterward I examined them on screen and was disappointed that they failed to capture Steinhof as I remember it. (A trick of the late-winter light? Or was it the photographer?) What could have been more accurately recorded in words and pictures? The mystery man of Steinhof. The ill-advised bus journey. Those angel sculptures outside the church. Maybe it all could have been better rendered in ink and watercolor.

A tourist’s memory is notoriously unreliable. Tourists are disoriented. The quotidian gestures of townsfolk are meaningless. Twisted around, the otherwise recognizable might appear bizarre to those unschooled in the routines of a place. It seems obvious — of course! — that St. Leopold’s would have been for a time just another parish church, although this might not be immediately apparent to the tourist. To him simple strangeness appears as mystery. And in mystery he might even see the spiritual, a god not above that European capital but one in the walls of its famous churches.

And what to make of all this confusion and all this gold?

Purposeful architectural design mitigated dissonance at Kirche am Steinhof, as intended, though not for everyone, I imagine — mostly for the fortunate patients.

Wagner’s was a mad church for mad people after all, or so it was said when St. Leopold’s first opened for worship.

Its geography also quickly begot a Viennese euphemism for “going crazy,” and so it might be said, unkindly, about Bernhard’s novel/memoir that in 1967 the person/character Paul Wittgenstein “went up lemon hill.”

And every day so do all the tourists.

As I did, they go determinedly up that lemon hill.

Steinhof was also called the Golden Cage, because St. Leopold’s dome blazes above Vienna in a rigid formation of auric squares. And though I couldn’t quite express adequately for myself, using crude digital tools, what I’d seen there in flesh, I can tell you for certain: my visit to that place did occur.

I have my documentation.

And I have now shared the proof of my experience.


A book from Canio’s

Over the years I’ve discovered a few bookstores that match my personal literary taste. Luckily these stores are still in business (for now), and they affirm my belief in the value of the serendipitous book search.

Enter a physical place with no idea what you’re looking for. Trust that it’s there. “It” being that one book you were always looking for – though, actually, you had no idea it existed.

You’ve followed your influences. You know the new or new-ish writers. In your mind you’re making all the logical literary connections that only you can understand. And you believe that that book you need or want but had no idea you needed or wanted just might be on the bookstore shelf, somewhere, if only you keep looking.

If it appears today, you will be rewarded. If it doesn’t, you’ll visit this store again – to try once more. Very soon. On another night. On a different Sunday afternoon. On some other lunch break during a lifetime of lunch breaks. Because you’ve got hope “it” will show up there, eventually.

But yours is more than wishful thinking: the bookseller knows what you want – even though you’ve never spoken – because what you want in a book is what she wants in a book. That is, of course, why you patronize this bookstore in the first place. It’s an experience (a way of living, I’d say) that can only happen in the offline world; it’s a type of book-searching that is vanishing.

There’s little use in denying – or raging at – that reality. Massive tectonic changes have long been underway. We all know what they are. I’m skirting the facts and the narrative here; simply acknowledging tacitly the monolithic corporate and cultural forces in play.

Though I admit that sometimes I feel as if I’m one of a dying tribe of practitioners: the last person in the factory who knows how to operate that obsolete machine in the corner, the final priest to understand the meaning of the words in our prayers.

In truth, there are many people just like me. Maybe you think and feel this way, too. If so, like me, for now and for the immediate future, you’ll live as you always have: you’ll go to your bookstore(s). You’ll search. You’ll browse. You’ll leave. You’ll return.

And sometimes you’ll find that one book that proves you were right all along.


Recently I was proved correct again at Canio’s in Sag Harbor, NY. It’s a great store but I could never have imagined the book I found there this fall. If you’d told me its title beforehand, I would’ve yawned. If you had told me the price for this twenty-five-year-old book about rural people in the state of New Mexico, I might have balked. But it happens to be a book I was searching for – though I had no idea it existed.

It’s called Villages of Hispanic New Mexico and it was published in 1987 by the School of American Research Press.

Its author is Nancy Hunter Warren.

Warren started visiting rural villages in New Mexico in 1973. She returned regularly for the next twelve years. Her efforts resulted in a history of the social life and customs of places named La Manga, Cleveland, Bernal, Abeytas, Chimayo, Tierra Amarilla, Ojo Sarco, Las Nutrias, Tecolote, La Joya, and La Cienega. She writes about the people, the Church (Catholic), the architecture, their economic lives, feast days, Los Hermanos Penitentes, and so on. It’s a smart, well-written, and well-researched book.

The reader gets the sense that Warren captured life very close to how it truly was in the mid-1970s through the late 1980s, and she did so with an affection and humility as well as with an unsentimental eye befitting an anthropological study. That’s hard to do, I’d imagine. And though she’s honest about what she sees – this includes poverty and suffering – she’s not gaping at her subjects, and therefore neither are we. She heeds without judgment; renders without voyeuristic results.

Her book appeals to me for many reasons, but mainly because I’m intrigued (have always been) by place and the role of place in our so-called modern lives. Warren’s book can be read now in part as a requiem for Place – that is, for those villages in New Mexico she visited repeatedly during one decade of her life, long ago. The religion of the people – inextricable from a specific place and an all-powerful landscape – also captivated me:

“The dramatic and elemental nature of the New Mexican landscape is too intense for some. There is little in it that is soft or yielding. Rather, people have learned to adapt to the environment. It is a place of the spirit, where the soul finds beauty in starkness and gathers strength from the forces of nature. As one villager put it, the mountains are ‘an anchor. They are here. They never leave us…they are nearer to God than us.'”

I’ve wanted to write for some time about my own experiences with religion and a specific suburban place; how that place and places like it alter and can in fact nullify a search for meaning, in a spiritual and religious sense. Eventually I will get to that project – or maybe I won’t. But in the meantime I have Warren’s book: a document about the rickety marriage of God to place.

And yet, all the points I’ve made in the brief paragraphs above – they are merely extra benefits. The truth: I bought Villages for the pictures, solely for the beautiful arresting photographs, also by Nancy Hunter Warren. (I only discovered afterward that they serve to buttress and elevate the fine text.) Fittingly, the best images are of the New Mexico landscape. But there are also many beautiful portraits of the people who lived there – residents Warren came to know well.


Where the Rio Chama approaches the Rio Grande

“the New Mexican landscape…too intense for some”

Portraits – Cleveland and La Manga

Portraits – Mora Valley and La Manga

Portrait – La Manga

The above cropped photos do little justice to Warren’s images as they appear in her book. So I suggest you buy Villages for yourself, directly from the publisher. That might be the fastest way.


“The fastest way.”

That brings me to my final point: at present Canio’s, the store where I bought Villages, is fighting for its survival. While writing this post I learned that Sag Harbor’s only operating bookstore is facing a punitive rent hike – an all-too-familiar tale for booksellers nationwide, in cities and towns alike.

Kathryn Szoka and Maryann Calendrille have owned Canio’s since 1999, and thankfully they’re not giving up. They’re carrying on with the help of the community, grants (possibly), and the good will and support of the people who value their wonderful bookstore. But like life in the Villages of Hispanic New Mexico, places like Canio’s are disappearing fast or are already gone.

And it causes me to ask: once new/used/rare bookstores disappear, what will replace them? What will supersede the pleasure of visiting them with no agenda other than to see what they’ve got?

I don’t know.

Whatever that might be though I can assure you: it won’t be found online.

It won’t be re-produced digitally.

It won’t be safely relocated to a web-based “community.”

Nor will it be delivered to you via an app that tailors an experience based on your user preferences, D.O.B, past purchases.

Something will be lost, undoubtedly.


Tiempo de vida

Marcos Giralt Torrente’s memoir Tiempo de vida won the Spanish National Book Award in 2010. It was published in English this fall by Farrar, Straus & Giroux/Sarah Crichton Books. The translator is Natasha Wimmer.

I reviewed the book for The Los Angeles Review of Books (2014-12-07):

AFTER HIS FATHER’S DEATH in 2007, Marcos Giralt Torrente read sundry memoirs “for inspiration,” as he prepared to write Tiempo de vida, his award-winning book about personal loss and the final years of Juan Giralt’s life. His writing had stalled and he’d failed repeatedly to come up with new ideas. “I finally accepted that all I could write about was my father,” he states in the book’s opening section. That’s a common sentiment from memoirists who publish accounts of the deaths of loved ones. But Giralt Torrente was conflicted about how to go about his task.

The full review is here.