Friday, February 12, 2016

Friday's Film Adaption: Fierce People by Dirk Wittenborn

A modern coming-of-age novel about a boy's struggle for survival in a lush and corrupting world that each day grows more seductive and more lethal.

New York's Lower East Side, 1978. Fifteen-year-old Finn Earl's mother, Liz, is a thirty-two-year-old masseuse with a taste for cocaine. When Liz's habit reaches its breaking point, she seeks sanctuary with one of her clients, aging billionaire Ogden C. Osborne. Less than twenty-four hours later, she and Finn have been dropped into a world more savage than anything in National Geographic, more cutthroat than anything New York's grimy downtown streets have to offer-the exclusive rural community of Vlyvalle, New Jersey.

In this golden playground for the super-rich, they find a new life and new friends amongst the decadent and beautiful denizens of Osborne's empire. Finn falls in love and grows up fast. He's living a twisted approximation of the American dream-and for a moment everything he wants is there for the taking.

But in Vlyvalle, social climbing is a blood sport. Even on what should be the happiest night of Finn's life-on an island in the middle of Osborne's private lake, naked and high with Osborne's bewitching granddaughter Maya-someone is watching him from the depths of the forest...and laughing. Soon, Finn is tangled in a web of secrets and betrayals so bizarre and so dangerous that getting out starts to look even harder than getting in.

`Oh, my God!'
When we lived in New York City, those three words out of my mother's mouth at 6.30 on a Saturday morning could only mean one of two things: either something had caught fire in the toaster oven again, or Mom had a new boyfriend.

`Oh, my God. Yesss!' I knew it wasn't the toaster oven.

We lived on Great Jones Street, between Lafayette and the Bowery, just across from the firehouse. It was June 1978. The block was a decade away from being trendy then. I was fifteen; my mother was thirty-three. I'll save you the math. Elizabeth Anne Earl, a.k.a. my mom, got pregnant two weeks into her first semester at the State College she attended after humiliating herself and her parents by not getting into Wellesley. My mother liked to say I was an accident. Don't worry: whenever she said it she would always gave me a hug — a kiss if she'd had a couple glasses of white wine — and add: `Best accident that ever happened to me.'

I stopped buying that when I was twelve. That's when my mother's father gave us twenty sessions of family therapy for Christmas instead of the trip to Kathmandu my mother had asked for. Grandpa was a semi-famous shrink. We'll get into that later. The point is, I was convinced then and am still now that my mother got pregnant on purpose. Why was I so certain she wanted me? She needed me. She wanted to run away, and was too scared to do it by herself. But such precociousinsights into my mother's rebellion did not make my own any easier.

* * * * *

My mother's bedroom was right next to mine. She slept on a secondhand foldout in a high-ceilinged space that tripled as our living room, kitchen, and her bedroom. An uninsulated wall was all that separated us.

The foldout squeaked three more times, then she gave a long, brittle groan that sounded like a board getting ready to break. I could tell she and whoever she was with were trying to be quiet. I tried to go back to sleep, but closing my eyes just made it easier for me to see what I was hearing.

I looked at the black-and-white photograph of her holding me when I was only a couple of weeks old. She was trying to be a beatnik, but she looked more like an immigrant from Ellis Island. Her boobs take up practically half the picture. She was big on breastfeeding.

The day that picture had been taken, my grandparents had driven to the city and begged her to move us back to the suburbs with them. They had already fixed up an apartment over their garage. They said it wasn't fair to me. She could go back to school. They gave her a thousand-dollar check just to think about it. My mother retells this story like it's a Norse saga, and always ends it the same way: `I thought about it just long enough for the check to clear, then called the Fun Killers up collect and told them, "Sorry to disappoint you, but I'm going to make it in New York."' If she'd ever actually made it in New York, I wouldn't have minded hearing her retelling stories like that to every new guy who came in the house. But then again if she'd made it, she wouldn't have had to tell them.

Mom had tried making it as a folk singer (she'd actually sang back-up for Phil Ochs at the Village Vanguard one night), a sandal-maker, and a painter — that was the year we moved in with a fairly famous abstract expressionist; when he threw a lit cigarette at me for walking on one of his wet canvases she moved out. If you look carefully you can see my footprints on a triptych that hangs on the second floor of the Museum of Modern Art. After that she had a go at being a real-estate agent, then a brief fling as a hat-maker before she found her true calling.

For the last two years my mother had been making it as a masseuse. I was embarrassed to walk with her when she pushed her big black folding massage table on rollers around the city. Her clients said she had healing hands. Who knows? I stopped letting her give me foot rubs when she turned pro. The therapist told her it was a healthy way for an adolescent boy to establish boundaries. Oh yeah, and right now she was making it with ... The first time the toilet flushed, I knew it was her: no footsteps. Besides knowing which floorboards squeaked, Mom always walked on tiptoes when she was in her underwear — or was she naked? It made me nervous thinking about my mother that way.

I rolled over on my stomach with a flop. A copy of Club International slipped out from its hiding place between the box-spring and the mattress of my single bed. The centerfold sprawled open eighteen inches from my nose. May's Club Girl lay stretched out in all her pink glory, reaching up to me. The toilet flushed again. This time it was him. The floorboards squeaked so loud as he made his way back to my mother's bed you would have thought he was walking on an accordion.

Actually, he played the guitar — at least there was a guitar case and a pair of red, hightop sneakers inside the front door. It was my turn to tiptoe to the bathroom. My mother's overnight guests had gotten younger, and been musically inclined of late. I'd heard an English accent as I flushed the toilet and snuck back to bed.

I don't want to give the wrong impression. It wasn't like my mother had a new guy over every other night. Actually, it had been almost two months — a relatively long season without rain for her. And she never dated anybody she massaged professionally. Except for the Scientologist; even she admitted he was a mistake.

I wasn't crazy about hearing some English guy asking my mother in the first light of day. `Hey, luv, got any Vaseline about for Mr Johnson?' But everybody who was my age and lived in a loft in the late seventies knew their mom did it. (They were doing it again now.) Especially if they didn't have dads.

My father was a photo of a blond man with deep-set eyes and a broken nose that sat in a chipped dime-store frame on a bookshelf next to my little-league trophy. He looks uncomfortable in the rumpled seersucker suit he's wearing. His name was Fox Blanchard. He's actually kind of a famous anthropologist. There's an article he wrote in a copy of Natural History I keep hidden under my mattress with my beat-off magazines.

He was guest-lecturer to my mother's freshman Intro to Anthro 101 course. I was conceived a few hours after he gave a lecture on the Yanomamö — the Fierce People. They're this really weird tribe of South American Indians that live in the most remote corner of Amazonia, along the border of Venezuela and Brazil, that had never seen a white person who owned a TV and all until my dad showed up.

`First contact' is what the anthropologists call it. And besides being cool, it's really scary on account of they shot poisoned arrows tipped with curare and snorted hallucinogenic drugs every morning of their lives. And instead of shaking hands to say `Hello', they hit each other with clubs and give each other rabbit punches to the kidneys. And when you have something they want they don't beat around the bush. They come right out and tell you: `If you don't give me your peanut butter, your wife of your machete, I'll chop your thumbs off and shit in your hammock.' They call the Yanomamö `the Fierce People' because basically, they're the meanest people on the planet. Or, at least, that's what I thought then.

Anyway, the point is, Dad was back in South America when he found out my mother was pregnant. It wasn't a one-night stand. They dated a bunch and talked all the time on the telephone while he was on lecture tour that fall. He came to see us once. After I was born but I was too little to remember. My mother said they talked about him leaving his wife, but she said it was `complicated'.

My grandfather, being a psychologist, tried to put a more understanding spin on it: `Your father's field work is expensive ...'

A point which my grandmother further clarified: `His wife has the money, dear.'

When I was little, I used to think my father loved the Yanomamö more than Mom and me. Once I started reading about the Fierce People, I knew that was bullshit. I mean, he had to like us more than them: after a big meal, the women hide the leftovers in their vaginas; and everybody has green mucus running out of their noses from snorting enebbe all day. If you think I'm exaggerating, look it up. No, in my view of things it wasn't the Yanomamö's or my father's fault. It was money.

Though I had never met my father, I had read every article he'd ever written on the Yanomamö, and every book in the public library that referred to the tribe. I was prepared to answer any question he might ask me. I was ready to impress the absolute stranger I called Dad. You see, after much pleading I had persuaded my mother to write Mr Fox Blanchard about his progeny's budding interest in anthropology. And to our surprise and his credit, Dad had called immediately upon receiving the letter, and invited me to spend this July and August with him and the Yanomamö on the banks of the Orinoco River. He had made a point of saying his rich-bitch wife was looking forward to getting to know me. And he even offered to send the ticket. My mother had insisted money wasn't the issue; which, of course, we both knew was bullshit, because my grandparents were coming over for lunch to talk about whether they'd spring for the ticket.

If it weren't for the Yanomamö I would have gotten out of bed and barged in on my mother and the Englishman. Driven him and his fucking Johnson from her bed with embarrassment and reduced her to tears with guilt. I was good at stuff like that. Once I ambushed one of my mother's barefoot suitors with thumbtacks on the way back to the foldout, but that's another story.

The point is, I needed Mom to come through for me that day. Besides, even though I've made her out to be a total fuck-up, she could be great. I mean, when I was little, she'd laugh at cartoons with me for hours. Come on, how many kids can honestly say their moms were happy debating whether Space Ghost could beat up Speed Racer? Of course, it helped that she was high.

But the drugs were like the sex back then — everybody's mom was doing it in `78. I don't know when cocaine became an ingredient in our lives. A year, year and a half ago, about the same time she started bringing home wads of cash from the McBurn Institute. That was this ritzy private hospital on the Upper East Side. There was this old jillionaire who had cancer who handed her three hundred bucks every time she gave him a backrub. He's the one that told her she had healing hands. Whatever. She never snorted it in front of me. I pretended not to notice she was always sniffling when she came out of the bathroom. It was all pretty obvious. I mean, last Thanksgiving a white rock the size of a lentil fell out of her nose and landed in the gravy lake right in the middle of her mashed potatoes. I guess no one was watching but me.

It wasn't like cocaine was a constant problem. In fact, to be perfectly honest, sometimes blow had a downright positive effect on my mother. I'd come home from school and suddenly find her baking Christmas cookies, or dyeing Easter eggs, or making a yuletide wreath with dried roses and a glue gun. Doing one of those projects moms who read Family Circle do. OK, sometimes it was weird, her getting all Christmassy in the middle of July, but the point is, she made an effort. And she definitely was better at Parent-Teacher night when her nose was running. If she hadn't talked to Mr Kraus, my wedge-headed gym teacher, for forty-five minutes about winning second place in the Mr Staten Island beauty contest, no way that muscle-bound steroid freak would have passed me in PE.

`Oh, my God!' My mother's toaster oven was on fire again. She groaned, `Fuck me,' as the foldout slammed against the wall. I tried to distract myself by thinking about the Yanomamö. I tried to blot out what passed for passion next door out of my mind by rereading the Natural History article the father I'd never met had written about people I'd never seen. But a photo he'd taken of a topless, fourteen-year-old rain-forest chick with torpedo tits, naked save for her tattoos and the quills that pierced her cheeks — looking oh-so Stone Age punk — just made me horny for the pierced runaways of St Mark's I was too shy to talk to, much less hit on. I grabbed the hairless Club Girl from my bedroom floor and tried to imagine what it would be like to have her touch my nakedness, but ended up remembering a winter's evening when my mother was hurrying to get ready for the Parent—Teacher night where she talked Mr Kraus out of flunking me. Mom called to me from the bathroom to bring her the bottle of shampoo she had left in a grocery bag on the kitchen table. I closed my eyes when I passed it into her in the shower, but taking it from my hand, she snagged the shower curtain. The curtain and the rod holding it fell like a sail lowered in a gale. The shower sprayed in my face. My mother jumped back with a start and slipped. Grabbing hold of the hot-water faucet to keep from falling on her ass scalded her butt so badly that she leapt from the shower and into my arms with a yelp ... Believe me, the first time you hold a naked woman in your arms, you don't want it to be your mom.

It all happened so fast. I kept my eyes shut and, as God is my witness, I wouldn't even have been tempted to look if she hadn't started to laugh. (I have always been a sucker for laughter.) She giggled like a girl, not a mom. Doubled over in mirth, her breasts pushed together in a cleavage worthy of Penthouse, a dollop of soapsuds in her pubic hair, I guess it was funny. I was too startled by my mom's nakedness to see the humor in the situation.

Uncertain whether it was my mom, the centerfold, or the Yanomamö maiden with the d-cup giving me a hard-on, I felt worse than guilty.

My mom and the Englishman were giggling now. I knew they weren't laughing at me, but that didn't make me feel any better. I felt like I was the butt of a colossal, cross-cultural inside joke. The Yanomamö; the Fierce People chick with her coy smile and sharpened stick; the glossy Club foldout grinning like a village idiot as she sucked a Sugar Daddy and spread her legs for a gynecological exam; my mother, lubed up for the guitar-playing Englishman; they all seemed to be in on the same gag, everyone got it but me. You see, to add to all of my other problems that morning, I was the only virgin in my class I knew besides Slurpee — and he had an excuse: one of his legs was eight inches shorter than the other. And he slurped.

I felt better when I heard the Englishman pick up his guitar and clomp down the stairs. I went to the window and watched him go out the front door. He wore leather pants and his hair was cut in a shag. As he hailed a cab, he turned, looked up at our floor and waved. Christ, what a moron. Couldn't he see I was giving him the finger?

In a few minutes, there was a knock on my door.

`You want to come out and have some breakfast with me, lambie?' My mother only called me `lambie' when I was sick or she was happy.

`No!' I knew she was trying to be nice, I just didn't feel nice.

`Come on, Finn.' That was my name.

`No!' I threw one of my skin mags at the door to let her know that I meant it. Or, was I hoping that she would take the challenge, throw the door open, and see the other women in my life?

`I'll make you pancakes ...'

`Screw your pancakes.' I knew we didn't have any milk, anyway.

`Finn?' She opened the door. She didn't even see the open skin mag at her feet. Her cheeks were flushed with beard-burn. She looked more like a mom and less like a pet in her old terrycloth bathrobe. Her hands shook ever so slightly as she lit her first cigarette.

`I thought you quit smoking.' I didn't want to fight, but I couldn't resist.

`And I have.' She opened my window and threw the cigarette out. `Are you mad at me?'

`No.' Like I said, I didn't want to fight.

`Do you love me?'

`Yes.' It was sweet and spooky how a lie my mother wanted to hear could light her up inside. Like a candle in a jack-o'-lantern, it made her seem hollow.

When 16-year-old Finn is caught buying cocaine for his junkie but well intentioned mother Liz, his plans of spending the summer away from NYC with his anthropologist father studying the Ishkanani in the jungle are abruptly changed. In an attempt to get both of their lives back on track, Liz moves the two of them out to a cottage on the country estate of her sugar daddy, Mr. Osborne. Finn immediately makes his way into the 'tribe' of wealthy country clubbers that inhabit his new home.

Release Date: April 24, 2005 (Tribeca)
April 28, 2006 (Canada)
September 30, 2007 (United States)
Release Time: 111 minutes

Donald Sutherland as Ogden C. Osbourne
Diane Lane as Liz Earl
Anton Yelchin as Finn Earl
Chris Evans as Bryce Langley
Kristen Stewart as Maya Langley
Paz de la Huerta as Jilly
Blu Mankuma as Detective Gates
Elizabeth Perkins as Mrs. Langley
Christopher Shyer as Dr. Richard "Dick" Leffler
Garry Chalk as McCallum
Ryan McDonald as Ian
Dexter Bell as Marcus Gates
Kaleigh Day as Paige
Aaron Brooks as Giacomo
Teach Grant as Dwayne
Dirk Wittenborn as Fox Blanchard
Eddie Rosales as Iskanani shaman
Will Lyman as Voice of documentary narrator



Author Bio:
DIRK WITTENBORN is a novelist (Fierce People, Pharmakon), screenwriter and the Emmy-nominated producer of the HBO documentary, Born Rich. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter and summers on the wrong side of the tracks in East Hampton, NY.



B&N  /  ALL MOVIE  /  WIKI  /  IMDB  /  TCM

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