Bullet in the Brain : from text to film

Jacques Lefebvre

Bullet in the Brain is a digital short film by David von Ancken which was awarded many prizes in various film festivals and selected as the most " hypnotic " film in the Hypnotic Million Dollar Film Festival in 2001. It is one of the very first films ever to reach notoriety through the Web and it helped launch David von Ancken's career. Von Ancken was offered a $1 million dollar deal with Universal Pictures and Hypnotic at a special presentation during the Sundance Film Festival in 2001. The film follows a single character, Anders, a professor of literature, who is gunned down during a bank robbery.

The film is adapted from Bullet in the Brain, a short story by Tobias Wolff whose rights von Ancken had acquired in 1998. Tobias Wolff is one of the great masters of the short story on the contemporary American literary scene along with such great short story writers as Raymond Carver or even Ernest Hemingway with whom he shares a very specific tone. There is a razor-sharp relentlessness in Wolff's handling of the narrative, which makes the reading of his stories a captivating experience. While remaining faithful to Edgar Allan Poe's theory of the unity of effect, Wolff often takes the reader off-balance by resorting to different narrative voices. The simplicity of his style gives added weight to each carefully chosen word and the characters are brought to life thanks to the sheer honesty of his writing. It was therefore an interesting if not a daunting challenge for von Ancken.

The short film format is in keeping with the brevity of the short story as such and the choices made by von Ancken are highly reminiscent of his work on a number of television series. The text begins in medias res, a device that allows the writer to plunge the reader in the midst of things:

Anders couldn't get to the bank until before it closed, so of course the line was endless and he got stuck behind two women whose loud, stupid conversation put him in a murderous temper. He was never in the best of tempers anyway, Anders - a book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed.

Wolff deliberately chooses not to describe the main protagonist and piles up negative connotations regarding the situation and Anders's personality. He is also presented as a book critic, a profession that may be seen as highly uninventive. The location is also made clear from the outset.

Von Ancken chooses a completely different angle. The sound of a siren may be heard, followed by a series of very brief shots taken with what seems to be a hand-held camera. The point of view is subjective and, through a series of flashes, one catches several glimpses of a silhouette, a tall man walking briskly. The man is wearing a casual shirt and braces. He does not look very neat. Now and again, one sees the blurred image of his face. The absence of credits heightens this opening sequence. This is the sort of sequence one would expect to see in a television series. The second sequence shows the protagonist winding his watch and checking that it works properly. It is 2:55 p.m. He is lecturing a group of students. This sequence allows the audience to become better acquainted with Anders. One sees his "savagery" in action. The sequence is rather long, dominated by Anders's speech, filled with his bitter irony and his frustration at his students not being able to choose the right word. He hammers down his spite, shows them the portrait of a woman painted by Picasso, tries to imprint in their minds the importance of truth in the choice of one's words. The speech is compelling, almost mesmerizing, all the more so as the students remain silent. The weight of their silence can actually be felt on screen. The speech is interspersed with glimpses of Anders as he makes his way to the bank and then insists on being allowed in although it is almost closing time. The viewer understands that sequence one and two are intertwined and that the lecturing is actually a flashback. But the flashback is not an external narrative device. The constant reminder of Anders's walk towards the bank combines two time sequences and somehow enables the viewer to apprehend the film from Anders's point of view. The watch is not only a time marker that indicates the time span before closing time; it is also an old-fashioned watch that requires winding. It suits the looks of the academic but it also refers to a more distant past.

The third sequence takes the viewer into the bank and actually corresponds to the beginning of the short story. The script borrows from the text quite closely and the tension of the dialogue is brought up to the surface. Tom Noonan's magnificent performance also contributes to the heightening of the tension. The discrepancy between Anders's attitude as a professor and his behavior inside the bank is disturbing and yet it illustrates the core meaning of the story: Anders's quest for the true meaning of life will bring about his own death in a tragic fit of laughter. "Capiche" means to understand and it is the last word Anders utters. The staccato rhythm of the editing, the pseudo point of view shots, the blurred images combined with the distorted angles chosen, are a reminder of the action scenes one is familiar with in most television series. The brutality of the images echoes the coarseness of the dialogue. The tension is also heightened by the treatment of sound. Behind the words uttered there is a kind of muffled silence that brings out each word, a weight one actually senses in the text and which is the mark of Tobias Wolff's style. The end of the sequence brings the viewer halfway through the film, and corresponds to the end of the first half of the short story.

Anders burst out laughing. He covered his mouth with both hands and said, 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry,' then snorted helplessly through his fingers and said, 'Capiche - oh, God, capiche, ' and at that the man with the pistol raised the pistol and shot Anders right in the head.

The robber's gun is pointed towards the audience, a shot that was introduced by E. S. Porter in The Great Train Robbery (1903) and also used on various occasions by Alfred Hitchcock, notably in Spellbound (1945). The shooting indicates the end of the sequence and introduces sequence number four thanks to a voice-over. One is first led to believe this is actually spoken by a journalist covering the event but this voice-over very rapidly becomes an omniscient narrative voice that follows the bullet's course as it enters Anders's brain. The text and the film coincide.

The last sequence accounts for the title of both the film and the story. The alliteration focuses the reader and the viewer on speed. The sequence is clearly delineated as in the text. The voice-over first refers to what he did not remember and then recalls what he did remember while the bullet was entering his brain at full speed. These are intense moments rendered first through an accumulation of chaotic flashes: Distorted close-ups of Anders's face, driving through a tunnel at full speed, Anders walking in the city, Anders lying dead, various reflections of Anders as he makes his way towards the bank, his first love, his wife, his daughter, the city at night in shades of blue. The piling up of such flashes contrasts with the smoothness of the tone of the voice-over. In the second part, one switches to a specific episode. Anders, as a child, remembers a grammatical mistake made by one of his cousins during a baseball game. Anders wears the same watch he is seen winding years later as a teacher. The watch is not mentioned at all in the text, but in the film version it becomes essential in order to illustrate the passing and the halting of time. Anders chooses not to correct his cousin's mistake, he looks relaxed on screen, and he smiles to himself. The whole atmosphere is almost idyllic and yet one is actually inside Anders's brain as he is about to die. The script follows the text closely; the film ends with Anders watching the city at night from the top of a building, time is running out but there is still time to rememberů

The bullet is already in the brain; it won't be outrun forever, or charmed to a halt. In the end it will do its work and leave the troubled skull behind, dragging its comet's tail of memory and hope and talent and love into the marble hall of commerce. That can't be helped. But for now Anders can still make time. Time for the shadows to lengthen on the grass, time for the tethered dog to bark at the flying ball, time for the boy in the right field to smack his sweat-blackened mitt and softly chant, They is, they is, they is.

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