Friday, November 25, 2016

S1mOne: Andrew Niccol and Linda Hutcheon

Simone (technically: S1mOne, 2002) offers a usage of the Pygmalion myth that surprises with an overt endorsement of Linda Hutcheon's adaptation theory. Not an especially sophisticated narrative, the technologically fantastic film directed and written by Andrew Niccol has a defining moment that could qualify it as one of the most interesting of all Pygmalion films. 

The reader(s) of this blog may not agree with my hang-up on the presence of an overt, smoking-gun allusion to the classical myth being used in a given narrative adaptation; but I hope my insistence on finding the overt allusion to the source-myth in an a adapted texts is clear. I want to know that the creator of a classical mythological usage is aware of the source myth and not merely creating an archetypal cognate. (I.e. not all sons with problematic father relationships are big-O Oedipus, although they may manifest oedipal tendencies.)

31 minutes into Simone, the prodigious cinemaste Victor Taransky (Al Pacino) is enjoying a domestic moment in a sunny kitchen with his precocious teenage daughter Laynie (Evan Rachel Wood). She is working on her laptop at the counter. Her activity on the laptop
A screen shot of S1mOne, 31:34, showing monitor
of Laynie's laptop Gérôme's Study for Pygmalion and
his Statue
 and text from

manifests her knack for computer technology which she shares with her father and which will resolve the film's final crisis, albeit implausibly. Laynie's skill gets foregrounded by Dad in the moment. He notes that she works on her computer too much. What he can not notice in this apparently meaningless moment is that Laynie is writing something about Pygmalion on her computer. In a fleeting shot past Laynie's left shoulder, a POV 180 degree opposite to Victor's (whose hands are in a sudsy sink of dishes anyway), for less than one second of screen time, the viewer sees a fleet image of Jean-Léone Gérôme's "Study for Pygmalion and his Statue". The image is cropped somewhat from the original; but the figure of Pygmalion embracing his marble sculpture in the moment of her erotic vivification is readily recognizable. Because Laynie's fingers are tapping at her laptop's keyboard we assume that she is writing something. To the right of the cropped image, a text is momentarily visible: "Pygmalion saw these women waste their lives in wretched shame..." Laynie seems to have written a couple of paragraphs on this topic. In point of fact, the text that appears on Laynie's screen is the text describing Ovid's Pygmalion narrative at Metamorphoses 10 on the website Although Pygmalion thus enters our awareness, Laynie and her father do not discuss the myth. No oral reference to Pygmalion occurs, neither at this moment in the film nor elsewhere in the film. By entering the film this way, the narrative is rendered into an acknowledged usage of the Pgymalion myth.

We might have seen the Pygmalion myth coming. Taransky has reached a professional precipice with the shenanigans of Hollywood's prime donne (exemplified in the character of Winona Ryder as director Andrew Niccols' antithetical Niccola Anders). Rather than jump of the ledge, Taransky throughout the film makes use of a mysterious computer code proffered by a probable lunatic who pioneered a simulation so realistic that the fabricated actress would dupe all viewers into believing her to be a real actress on screen. Simone is a name shortened from Simulation One. In the hands of the consummate director, which Taransky must certainly be, this encoded actress comes from out of nowhere to win two Oscars for Best Actress in one year. Plausible? No. Pygmalion? Yes. That moment in the kitchen reads the Pygmalion myth formally and securely into the record. 

Promo poster for S1mOne (2002)
The film, by the way, bears a PG-13 rating. Nicolls' screenplay largely steers clear of suggesting that disturbing eroticized relationship Pygmalions often have with their Galateas in the Rezeptionsgeschichte. Moralizers in late antiquity and early Christianity castigated Pygmalion over their discomfort with his creation of what they took to be a marble doll crafted for playing out lurid perversions sordidly realized by Venus' animation of the girl made flesh. Ovid, introducing the myth for the first time into established Western literature, had done nothing to allay such judgmental readings of Pygmalion's motives. Ovid's sculptor has a physical relationship with his statue. That's sure. Pygmalions of our age seem always destined for the sack with their lovely creation. (E.g. Zoe Kazan's remarkable, but in this regard, utterly predictable Ruby Sparks.) Nicoll's digitized fantasy is mostly a pretty face. Taransky creates her as a facial amalgam of Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Winona Ryder, and other gorgeous starletts. When he creates her voice, he throws in highlights of Bacall. Fawning entertainment reporters in the film observe that Simone bears resemblance to Sophia Loren; but the actress who plays Simone (Rachel Roberts) is statuesque more in the mode of early millennial Sports Illustrated models than from the Hollywood age of Loren. Taransky leads everybody in the film on to believe that he and Simone are romantically involved. When Taransky does interact with Simone below her neckline, he is mostly interested in clothing her with the right outfit for the moment. Not in disrobing her. Indeed, Taransky's involvement with Simone would seem to be asexual. If anything his love life is kicked up a notch or two as women — including his ex-wife — seem more turned on by his association with his famous, fictional fabrication. Niccol's Pygmalion is a creator who goes against today's grain.

Hutcheon's Theory of Adaptation (Routledge, 2006) defines an adaptation as an intertextual narrative that engages three principal matters: 
·      An acknowledged transposition of a recognizable other work or works
·      A creative and an interpretive act of appropriation/salvaging
·      An extended intertextual engagement with the adapted work

Therefore, an adaption is a derivation that is not derivative — a work that is second without being secondary. It is its own palimpsestic thing." (Hutcheon, 8-9)

Nobody who knows the Pygmalion myth will get very far into Simone without seeing the narrative as a Pygmalion adaptation. The elements of the zero-grade Pygmalion myth are all present and clearly developed: The artist despises the women in his society, so he creates an idealized woman as substitute for them; only superhuman intervention can personalize the creation and render it a reality. This is all true of Taransky, his spite for starletts, his fetishization of a bygone age, and his creation of a new girl endowed with perfect artistry. Yet, until the moment with Laynie and her laptop in the kitchen, when Gérôme's Pygmalion flashes on the screen (minute 31), the myth does not overtly achieve acknowledgement within the narrative. 

Niccol's screenplay takes a somewhat too clumsily orchestrated moment to read the Pygmalion myth purposefully into the narrative. It defines Hutcheon's element of acknowledgement. Once Pygmalion is recognizable by the creator's admission in the body of the narrative, the viewer is free to enjoy the creative and interpretive act of appropriation that takes place across the film. In other words, once we know that screenplay intends to adapt the Pygmalion myth, per se, the myriad choices the director makes in the film have particular bearing. 

So, is Simone a clever film? I tend to agree with the film's low scores on Metacritic, Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB. The film is not especially clever in many of its choices. A 2002 filmmaker's assessment of tricky relationships between coddled actors and the studios makes for a worthwhile tale, a satire on the remnants of the studio system. As a manifestation of Adaptation, it is textbook. For manifesting the adaptor's penchant for acknowledging the mythological usage it follows, Niccol steps right into line.