Monday, June 23, 2014

Movie Monday: Cannery Row


This week's movie is the film adaptation of John Steinbeck's classic Cannery Row!

A few weeks ago I took out Cannery Row from the library (The Grapes of Wrath was checked out) and found that, despite its brevity (less than 180 pages) I found the book difficult to comprehend. There isn't much plot really, just a series of vignettes about the various denizens of Cannery Row, and I kept saying to myself, what is Steinbeck saying here?

I was interested enough to keep reading, and I eventually finished it. I still felt confused as to what the deeper themes were, so I did some research online and came away with a greater appreciation for the book. I did genuinely like Cannery Row, so it made me think maybe the movie version was worth checking out as well?

The films stars Nick Nolte as the main character, Doc, a marine biologist. After a quick tour of the other locales in Cannery Row, it's clear that while Doc is admired and respected in the town, he doesn't really fit in: highly educated, he has a purpose of intent that a lot of the others do not (including a comical gang of underemployed fisherman, led by Mack, played by M. Emmet Walsh). Doc collects octopi for research, much to the general confusion of the others.
New in town is Suzy (Debra Winger), who comes looking for work but finds there isn't much. She's forced to look for room, board, and work at the local bordello, run by Fauna (Audra Linley).
The film tries to recreate the book, in presenting a series of short sequences about the citizens of the town. The one story thread from the book adapted here is when the motley gang of fisherman, all of whom like Doc very much, decide to throw him a party. But the festivities get out of hand and a brawl breaks out, which ends up breaking Doc's octopus tank.
The other story thread is lifted from Steinbeck's Cannery Row sequel, 1954's Sweet Thursday (which I have not read). That's where all the stuff with Suzy comes from, for she is not a character in the original book. Here, Suzy thinks she recognizes Doc, and wonders why such an accomplished man would choose to live in such a depressed (in more ways than one) little burg like Cannery Row. That sets up the movie's main plot, and gives the chance for Doc and Suzy to fall in love.

I had a difficult time with Cannery Row the movie as I did with Cannery Row the book, but for different reasons. From the Steinbeck I have read (which is, admittedly, not all that much), one of the virtues of the man's work was a directness and lack of sentimentality, even when he's talking about eccentric bums like the ones here, or his faithful dog Charley in Travels with Charley. But the movie--directed by first-timer David S. Ward (Major League and, er, Major League 2) is so cutesy presenting these lovable losers that the whole thing feels quite twee, an experience I've never had while reading Steinbeck.

Nolte is good as Doc, and Winger is okay as Suzy, but everyone else in the movie just doesn't feel real. There's narration from John Huston(!) which feels like the voice of Steinbeck himself. It works some of the time, but other times it feels like you're just having someone read the book to you. Visually, everything is shot through a gauzy haze, which again romanticizes all the goings-on, when living in Cannery Row was actually probably pretty depressing at times. I'm not saying the film should have been some gritty drama, but I can't help but feel that Ward just couldn't quite pull this tricky tone off. As I was watching, I wondered what Robert Altman might have done with this material.

Even with all my misgivings, I found Cannery Row tough to actively dislike, because it seems like the cast and crew is in their pitching (no pun intended, for those of you who have seen it). But overall the movie just doesn't really work, so I think you can call Cannery Row a noble failure.

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