Film, Went There

WENT THERE: Joyce Chopra @ HFA

Film screening at the Harvard Film Archive on 2/3 followed by a Q&A with the director



Film spoilers ahead.

Arguing about a film adaptation’s fidelity to the original written gospel might be a moot activity. At the end of the day, what works on the page might not work on a moving screen. When director Joyce Chopra and her husband, screenwriter Tom Cole, loosely adapted Joyce Carol Oates’ Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?, she called the original ending “unfilmable” at the Harvard Film Archive screening of Smooth Talk, the 1985 screen adaptation. It wasn’t a dig at Oates’ short story, which was inspired by a series of murders in Arizona that took place a couple of years prior to its publication in 1966. In watching Smooth Talk, I can see how it would feel acrid to watch a teenage girl get caught in the middle of a coming-of-age and a murder victim. If the film intended to show how the doors to womanhood open, there’s no reason to get the characters out into the world of gendered violence and sexist convictions. Let the girls have fun first.


This is not to say that Chopra trims down the thrills; there is a striking tonal shift in the third act that makes it as unsettling as the story. At its forefront, Smooth Talk contains one of Laura Dern’s earliest dazzling performances. At 17 years old, Dern is fluent in showing the depths of a teenager who embarks on the mental and physical games of sexual desire while also recognizing the knife-edge danger in these situations, which is the kind of language required to play Connie. Without reading Oates’ story, it might be hard to fathom where the movie is going. Connie lives in an unremarkable area between the suburban and the rural. A beach is within driving distance, a shopping plaza is the oasis of teenage freedom, and a hot dog joint is accessible by vehicle or sprinting across a state highway.

For the most part, we see Connie learning about her bodily autonomy as she veers from the safety of her family’s satiation in quiet evening activities. There is joy when the characters find pleasure in the simplicity of a shopping trip or giggling at older boys with desirable “buns” — a term that, along with bobbing blonde poofs, dates the film into an accepted corniness. In a different mission, Connie could be part of a Ramona Beezus story that ends in winning some community-based fundraiser and sharing a piece of gum with a school crush. Instead, Smooth Talk cruises down the yellow brick road accompanied by James Taylor and hairspray, not knowing that at the end of it lies a sinister uncertainty.

As Connie co-exists with men of varying ages (though I believe they’re meant to be in the 18-22 age group, some of them have a 28-year-old burliness about them), we see that her encounters with men, which become more intimate in each round, feel more threatening. The climactic third act sees a pivotal conversation between Connie and an older stranger named Arnold Friend (Treat Williams), who has been in the periphery of Connie’s social visits to the hot dog joint. Arnold is well-rehearsed in verbal and physical charisma, but watching the conversation is like watching an apex predator in heat toying around with a small creature putting up their best defenses. The conversation might be no longer than fifteen minutes, but dread slowly is injected into us, making it as tensely effective as watching the tunnel murder scene in 1983’s Angst.


After the screening, Chopra was intent on hearing on the audience’s thoughts about the movie. It had been preceded by her 1971 documentary short Joyce by 34, a landmark piece that featured a live birth (of Chopra’s daughter Sarah, who will be turning 52 this year) and a sort of reflection on generational motherhood. The double feature serves as a showcase of Chopra’s personal milestones. By the time she worked on Smooth Talk, her daughter would be close to Connie’s age. A scene where Connie rejects her mother’s touch is borrowed from an incident between Chopra and her daughter, who one day came down to the kitchen and told her, “I’m not your property,” when Chopra tried to hug her.

The documentary short was fun (I personally loved the quiet comparison between Chopra’s mother hanging out with her gal friends at a tea party and Chopra hanging out with her gal friends on the couch), but Smooth Talk‘s stunning ending superseded baby stardom (sorry, Sarah). After a few questions from the HFA moderators, Chopra first shared that an audience member at a previous screening asked, “So the last part was a dream, right?” It was a question that perplexed me, until I heard the other questions that night. Could Chopra explain how Connie manipulates people? (“She’s self-centered,” Chopra explains, “but she doesn’t intend to hurt others.”) With the lingering camera shots on Dern’s body, did Chopra welcome the male gaze into the narrative or is that on the audience member? (“I didn’t invite the male gaze,” she simply said.) At the end, I was bowled over by how differently I saw the movie from others.

Not all of them, though: one audience member, who talked about working with adolescents, mentioned a vital point at the end. When Arnold drops Connie back home after an implied off-screen rape, Connie heads to her room where she briefly mentions the incident to her older sister June (Elizabeth Berridge) before changing her mind. Perhaps some people have taken that retraction to heart, but Connie’s denial is part of a formulating, life-lasting effect. How she’ll cope with it in the future is another stage of a story, but it’s not this story. Instead, it ends with them dancing to James Taylor’s “Handy Man,” a song that reverberated during the making of this film (when Chopra contacted Dern about the role of Connie, the song was playing).


In these sort of perceptive discrepancies, I think about Elliot Page’s character in Hard Candy: “Just because a girl knows how to imitate a woman does not mean she’s ready to do what a woman does.” In an innocuous and safe space, Connie plays along with male desire, but she is still malleable under male power. She is also intelligently observant. Take the first time she “meets” Arnold, as she is walking away from him in the arms of another boy. Arnold leers over his sunglasses and says, “I’m watching you,” slowly tracing a Figure 8 behind her. One can assume that Connie didn’t see it, but in the next scene, she helps paint the house exterior with her mother (Mary Kay Place). Lost in thought, she outlines a looser version of the symbol with her brush. The game looks simple, but the players never make it so.

After Smooth Talk was released and became a huge hit at Sundance, Chopra was courted by Hollywood but felt restricted by the patriarchal powers. For most of her career, she directed television movies (“Two thousand, to be exact”), which included another Joyce-Joyce collaboration, Blonde. Chopra asks the audience if anyone’s seen the newest adaptation. Knowing Smooth Talk, it might not be surprising to hear what her opinion is.

“There is no meaning to life apart from the movie story and there is no movie story apart from the darkened movie theater,” Blonde‘s opening sentences read. The story that unfolds is well-known, even when the events become fictionalized absurdity. When a different storyteller shares the same story, the details that are important to one person (and, in turn, a specific set of moviegoers) won’t be as important to another. There are three forms of Blonde that exist and provide a different experience, which branches into different receptions, criticisms, et cetera that reduce the argument for accurate adaptation into a blip in the discourse. I personally might not even like any of these versions, but in observing her convictions, I at least know that Chopra adapts her movie stories from fiction, truth, and an unspoken integrity in protecting women.

Smooth Talk
dir. Joyce Chopra
92 min.

Screened Saturday, 2/3, with the director in attendance @ the Harvard Film Archive

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