Monday, March 20, 2006

2006 SFIAAFF—"AMERICANese" Panel Discussion

In conjunction with Eric Byler's opening night film AMERICANese, the Center for Asian American Media presented a panel discussion—"From Novel to the Big Screen: American Knees to AMERICANese" featuring director Byler and novelist Shawn Wong in moderated discussion with filmclips. This discussion is not for the spoiler-wary.

Shawn Wong started out by stating that the film adapation of his 1994 novel American Knees has been a longer project for him than for director Eric Byler. He was first approached for film rights by producer Lisa Onodera over a decade ago and "10 short years later" the book has finally reached the screen. Exercising his right of first refusal to decline drafting the screenplay, Wong did assist in securing production funds by working up a treatment of his novel, but he was too fond of his own jokes, he readily admits. In effect he basically just transposed his favorite scenes from the novel into dialogue, which does not make a good movie. It took a cinematic sensibility like Byler's to transform the piece appropriately, to divest the novel of much of its humor to achieve its more relevant poignance. Intriguingly, Wong admitted that the scenes Byler took from the book were the most autobiographical, and the ones that articulated pain. Byler was able to take these articulations to create the emotional texture of the film.

Wong considers it "a practical joke" on Byler's part that he tweaked the character of Raymond (Chris Tashima) and made him a college professor instead of the administrator he is in the novel. This leant an illusory autobiographical spin to the character (since Wong is himself a professor), which has raised suspicions about his student interactions. No, Wong swears, girls do not come up to him and give him their telephone numbers. Nor does he solicit same. He has taught for 33 years and that has never happened. Due to this minor discomfort, the scene where student Silvia dalliances with Raymond is the only one Wong would have liked deleted from the movie. Notwithstanding, he feels Byler has skillfully captured the spirit of his characters in the film and, as a novelist, remains flattered that his characters have been used. Usually, having one's book turned into a movie is like "having your ox turned into a bouillon cube," he quipped.

Byler defended demoting the character of Raymond to professorship because it allowed him to raise the issue of Asian-American studies in collegiate settings. Throughout the film the books Raymond and his students are carrying are seminal treatises on Asian-American concerns, which Asian-American filmgoers could recognize. As for the dalliance with Silvia, that was more of a set-up to bolster a later scene where, upon discovering that his ex Aurora (Allison Sie) has partnered with a man who was once part of their social circle, Raymond attempts to balance his pain with desperate spitefulness. He ends up having too much integrity to do so, but, for a moment was hoping he could say, "You've got someone new and so do I!"

Along with being a writer, Wong's primary passion is driving race cars. He considers his major accomplishment to be that he made the cover of National Dragster magazine. In fact, when asked why there is a 16-year lag between his first novel Homebase and American Knees, Wong wryly explains he was working on his car.

Although the novel lays out how Raymond and Aurora meet, Byler elected to forego any kind of "meet cute" in the film to go straight to the aftermath of their relationship. He elected to focus on the painful adjustments of their break-up and, thereby, achieved a mature precedent for the remaining explorations of the film. As Dave Hudson so eloquently described when he viewed AMERICANese at Austin's South by Southwest Film Festival: "Unlike most independent dramas, Byler allows the actors the space to fully occupy their roles, creating a world where the characters seem to exist before the film begins and continues long after the film ends. As such, his films are more mature than nearly anyone else currently working in this country."

This quality Hudson describes of "the characters seem[ing] to exist before the film begins and continu[ing] long after the film ends" is what lends AMERICANese its truthfulness and exactitude. I am reminded of what Mark Jordon has written regarding the temporal texture of relationships: "The couple is a unit of time. A couple must exist in time, since we usually don't speak of a couple until two people have been together for some time. A couple is more importantly a unit for measuring time. Its duration marks time for the partners in it, but also for their families, friends, and communities. A couple projects a happy beginning and a sad end. It fixes anniversaries and sometimes precedes birthdays. It holds memories. The couple is a narrative—and perhaps a cosmogony. It is also the play of time over a series of dichotomies. A couple is supposed to be set against the world—that is one dichotomy. Yet the couple contains within itself a dichotomy of Self and Other. …Coupling authorizes or requires the potent 'we.' The 'we' is in fact either a script drafted by committee or else one partner speaking for both. Still it exerts extraordinary rhetorical force—strong enough, in the case of so many 'traditional' marriages, to absorb the voice of one (usually the wife) into the voice of the other (usually the husband). Authors of romantic comedies know enough to stop the tale just when the marriage is performed—just when the voice of the couple is fully sanctioned." Mark Jordan further refers to Laura Kipnis' work, Against Love, wherein she writes that "What the hell now?" is the "prohibited question" at the end of the love film (as in the closing shot of The Graduate).

Byler tackles that question—"What the hell now?"—head on. And he doesn't confuse us with an answer. He allows what is irresolute about life and relationships to frame such a query. Aurora has to leave Raymond because her voice is being subsumed by his political awareness. In such a pitched state of political anxiety, love cannot survive. At least not in its readymade forms. Wong and Byler seem to suggest that perseverance provides alternate forms of relationship, perhaps more truthful, more healthy ones.

The other challenge the film proposes is its depiction of an Asian-American male who, as Byler puts it, "does not appropriate another culture's performative masculinity." Most Asian-American males are usually depicted as either "model minority" white or wisecracking sidekick black. In Raymond's solidity, poise, and composure he projects an Asian-American masculinity that does not tapdance for anyone. His ambivalence, his inability to make a right decision because of his politics, characterizes his conflicted integrity.

The identity politics so prevalent in the novel were purposely muted in the film, partially because of all that has gone on since when the novel was written to when the film was made. To Byler's credit, he doesn't rely on slain dragons knowing that fighting dragons is an ongoing evolutional process. The film was meant to be more of a "romantic mystery." It's precisely all that is not said that intrigues me about AMERICANese.

I've already expressed that I feel the film takes a writerly approach to the subject matter by asking the filmgoer to read between the lines and to look into the blank margins to intuit aspects of marginalization that direct articulation betrays. The character of Betty (played by the magnetic Joan Chen) especially leaves much to the imagination and, not having read American Knees, I had to ask Shawn Wong if the book is equally as cryptic? If we understand Betty better in the novel? His response confirmed that her complexity is as troublesome in the novel as in the film. She took on a life of her own in the book, Wong explained. He didn't mean for her to become exactly what she became. He related how he was sitting at his computer writing the scene that took place after a night of lovemaking. He wrote: "Betty was late." Paused. Then added, "But not late for work." With the cursor blinking at him, Wong realized a whole new element of Betty's pregnancy had entered the story. Byler amplified that the future Betty wanted from Raymond, she got. Clearly she had done something questionable in the past to have had her husband gain custody of their daughter and, to live without her daughter, was killing her. And Raymond's efforts to uncover that past, to find out why Betty was scarred, proved fruitless. In trying to find out how Betty was scarred, Raymond recounts his own scars. But they are the scars of a normal American boyhood. And one senses that Betty's scars—which she implies she got all at once—were probably a consequence of the Vietnamese war. The distance between their experiences becomes a painful, irreconcilable cultural chasm. Byler commended Joan Chen's directorial expertise in bringing resonance to the cinematic portrayal of Betty. It was clear, Wong asserted, that Chen brought everything about Betty from the novel into the film even though certain scenes were omitted. She focused on the "dark Betty" and it was her idea to include the scene where Betty lost her keys. Byler was grateful for this because it allowed him to bring in the mysterious paper bag wherein Betty's pregnancy is confirmed.

The panel discussion afforded a welcome opportunity to access the liaison between novel and film and Steve Rhodes has provided photos of the event. Afterwards Byler was hawking dvds of Charlotte Sometimes. I bought one and he inscribed: "Keep true to your vision." Good advice from someone who knows.