Smooth Talk

All your seasick sailors, they are rowing home

All your reindeer armies, are all going home

The lover who just walked out your door

Has taken all his blankets from the floor

The carpet, too, is moving under you

And it’s all over now, Baby Blue

—-Bob Dylan, It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue

Yesterday I had time to watch another movie on The Criterion Channel so I scrolled through the offerings and found one I wasn’t expecting. It was called Smooth Talk and was made in 1985. It was directed by Joyce Chopra and featured Laura Dern in her first starring big screen role (a year before Blue Velvet).

I have no idea how I have missed this movie over all these years. You see it is loosely (actually not all that loosely) based on one of the most crackerjack of short stories – Joyce Carol Oates’ ” Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”.

I have been a huge fan of Joyce Carol Oates for a long time and have written about her short stories a few times before. There was Where are You? and Heat – but especially Life After High School – an incredibly interesting, subtle, and complex story.

And there was “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”. I first read this as a teenager and it made a huge impression on me. I have re-read it every few years and it hasn’t lost its power.

You can read it here. Go ahead, it’s worth it.

The story is based on the true story of “The Pied Piper of Tucson” – a serial killer that seduced and eventually murdered teenage girls in that desert town. Oates read the story in Life magazine (she refers to the killer as a “Tabloid Psychopath”) and then wrote the story as “Death and the Maiden.” She was especially fascinated by the fact that the Tucson teens didn’t realize this monster was a man in his 30s attempting to look young and many went along with the killings, keeping his secret.

During revision she made the story less about the killings and more about the teenage girl. The ending is ambiguous, though you get the feeling that it’s not going to end well.

I remember thinking that the story was unfilmable – it has too many phantasmagorical elements, an enigmatic conclusion,  and too much inside the girl’s head. But it looks like I was wrong.

The movie follows the short story surprisingly well. Obviously, it has to expand on the story quite a bit. Rereading the story, there is a lot to it that is spread out in the first half of the film. The girl’s mother has a bigger, more nuanced part – though a lot of that may be due to the genius of Mary Kay Place. Laura Dern has the young, beautiful, flighty, 15 year old, self-obsessed, stubborn,  teenager-y, Connie down perfectly. The story moved up into the 80’s where it fits better anyway, and the setting of a mall and big teen hangout hamburger stand across a busy road is dead-solid right.

****Spoiler Alert****

But at its mid-point the story and the movie take a sudden, terrifying turn. An odd, dangerous man named Arnold Friend (A Friend) shows up in an old Gold landyacht  convertible with mysterious writing on it. He proceeds to talk to Connie, left at home alone, and tries to talk her into going for a ride with him.

That is the first big difference, to me, between the story and the movie. In the story Arnold Friend is a borderline supernatural force, odd and mysterious (Is he wearing a wig? What is it with his boots? How does he know so much?). It is that character that I considered to be unfilmable. Treat Williams plays him in the movie and he is a bit too good looking and slick – though he does convey his own aura of danger and dread. I guess seeing the devil made flesh was going to be a letdown – but the movie was still interesting and harrowing.

And then, at the end, unlike the story, you find out, sort of, what happened after Connie went off for a ride with Arnold Friend.  He doesn’t kill her, he brings her back. In both versions it is implicit that her going with him was an act of heroism – she went to save her family from danger. Once she returns she seems to have grown a backbone. She tells Friend firmly that she never wants to see him again and then has a reconciliation with her sister. That is not how the story is leading – but it is a valid take and an interesting, almost happy, ending.

One other cool thing is that I discovered a movie review of Smooth Talk written by none other than Joyce Carol Oates herself. There is something amazing about a great writer putting down her thoughts on a film made from her work.

She agrees with me on the short story being ultimately  unfilmable:

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” defines itself as allegorical in its conclusion: Death and Death’s chariot (a funky souped-up convertible) have come for the Maiden. Awakening is, in the story’s final lines, moving out into the sunlight where Arnold Friend waits:

“My sweet little blue-eyed girl,” he said in a half-sung sigh that had nothing to do with [Connie’s] brown eyes but was taken up just the same by the vast sunlit reaches of the land behind him and on all sides of him—so much land that Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to know that she was going to it.

—a conclusion impossible to transfigure into film.

And she acknowledges the choice used in the different ending:

The writer works in a single dimension, the director works in three. I assume they are professionals to their fingertips; authorities in their medium as I am an authority (if I am) in mine. I would fiercely defend the placement of a semicolon in one of my novels but I would probably have deferred in the end to Joyce Chopra’s decision to reverse the story’s conclusion, turn it upside down, in a sense, so that the film ends not with death, not with a sleepwalker’s crossing over to her fate, but upon a scene of reconciliation, rejuvenation.

Serial killer inspires brilliant terrifying short story which is developed into a movie about a flighty young girl finding herself and her place and purpose. This is truly the best of all possible worlds.

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