A few years ago, I was on a jog with my cousin, Katie, and we started unpacking some book we’d both read decades before. We approached it on the thematic level, the sentence level, and tried to understand its context in literature. The book? A novel we’d both read in fourth grade called Maniac Magee.
At some point in the jog, I said, “Sometimes I worry that I overanalyze things like this and bleed the fun out of them…” Katie looked at me like I was an idiot. “But this is fun too, isn’t it? Just as much fun as the reading part. Maybe more.”
It was a hell of a point. Changed my whole perspective on things.
I first learned of Patrick DeWitt’s novel, The Sisters Brothers, in 2012 — when the paperback was released. An employee-authored call-out card at Powell’s bookstore in Portland (where I’m from and DeWitt now lives) compared it to another western I adore, True Grit. I bought the book immediately, on that recommendation alone — fighting back the feeling that it was something I’d end up wishing I’d written and, therefore, be murderously jealous of.
I started reading that same night and finished the next morning. Over the week that followed, I reread a dozen of my favorite passages. When I was writing my first novel, I read a page or two from the book every morning before getting started.
In short order, The Sisters Brothers became one of my three all-time favorite books (the only one written this century). Not because it’s particularly poignant or that it “broke my heart and put it back together” as breathless blurbs often say these days, but because it’s just so wry and plainly written. Those qualities count for a lot, in my opinion. (That’s not to say that the story holds no meaning either, it certainly does — but the theme is more “relationships are complex,” which is important but not easy to pin down.)
By the time I first picked up The Sisters Brothers, it was already slated to be a movie — thanks to an option from John C. Reilly’s production company. I was thrilled. Reilly would play the novel’s narrator, Eli, of course. The match was so perfect that it was easy to imagine DeWitt having a picture of Reilly taped above his computer while writing. (He might have, too. The actor is thanked in the book’s acknowledgments and the duo worked together on the 2011 movie Terri.) Since discovering that the film rights had sold, it’s been a waiting game. Two or three times a year, I’d google “the sisters brothers movie” for some snippet of news. When casting commenced, I started following blogs and Reddit threads. I watched the first trailer a half-dozen times and when reviews started coming out of the Venice Film Festival I read them all.
I went full fanboy. Totally obsessed.
Finally, a few nights ago, I drove 60 miles from home to watch the movie, which has enjoyed an incredible critical response (including from our own Mike Ryan). It was… good… but not a representation of the book I loved. I was bummed. Sad that I wouldn’t get to have a deep relationship with the movie like I do with the book. But now — a few days later — I feel glad. Glad that I got a movie to compare to my favorite book at all. Glad that I have a favorite book. Glad that we have art to get excited about in the first place.
There is, in the world right now, a sort of general disdain for obsessive fan culture. Part of this is well deserved. When fans harass actors online or try to excuse their bigotry as loyalty to some unwritten canon, the whole idea of “fans” becomes toxic. But over the years, I’ve found myself understanding the mindset of the convention attendee and the cosplayer more than ever. Part of this buckets into Mike Ryan’s recent piece about “liking things” and part of it comes from my own hedonistic philosophies of about the importance of fun.
If it’s fun for you to overanalyze art (as it is for me and so many people drawn to this site), I say go for it. If it’s fun to dress up, do that. Write all the fanfic you want. Argue on Reddit. As long as your fandom doesn’t hurt anyone, it’s every bit as worthy as someone’s food obsession or Sunday football watching or… Here’s me at my most nihilistic: All diversions are inherently pointless; All diversions have whatever meaning we endow them with.
Your pop culture obsessions mean nothing in the scheme of things, but it’s okay if they mean everything to you. Same goes for 19th-century poetry. Haute cuisine. Fashion. Bird watching. Whatever.
My biggest problem with The Sisters Brothers movie was tone. Those of us who enjoy our humor dryer than the Sahara get so few things made just for us. The drollness of the book is my favorite aspect and it was the only thing that I truly needed director Jacques Audiard to nail. Just look at this passage from DeWitt’s novel between a store clerk and Eli Sisters:
‘Your hat is tattered, also.’
‘I like my hat.’
‘You seem to have known each other a long while, judging by the sweat rings.’
My face darkened and I said, ‘It is impolite to speak of other people’s clothing like that.’
Oh, sweet Jesus how I hoped to hear Reilly deliver those lines! How funny he would have been — the perfect mix of impish petulance and boyish vulnerability. Like when he taught Marky Mark how to do a jackknife in Boogie Nights. But that scene is cut from the movie. Along with most of my other favorite scenes. And, in general, the droll humor and clipped way of speaking are replaced by a more modern sensibility.
I also have thoughts on how two of the gunfights were shot and a few omissions near the climax. The humor didn’t work for me and not nearly enough scenes and lines were cribbed from the book for my taste. I did, however, love the casting.
Want to talk about this? I’m just warming up. I could go for days. My mind’s been spinning on it since the credits rolled.
Our planet is riddled with problems. Everyone who writes about pop culture feels a deep need to remind you of that because sometimes we feel like our petty obsessions are… small. And I do believe that to build a better world we need all hands on deck. We can’t just watch movies, TV, and YouTube. We can’t disengage.
But we also need breaks. And in those breaks I’m all for embracing the joy people get from getting granular about their favs. Not because it somehow adds to human discourse but because it’s a good time. Even when you don’t like something it can be fun as hell to analyze, break down, and dissect. And though I didn’t really feel blissed out watching The Sister’s Brothers movie, realizing that fact (and figuring out why) is a use of the human intellect that I did deeply enjoy. It makes me feel grateful to DeWitt, Reilly, Audiard, and any creator putting their work out in the universe.
Thanks for letting us have interesting art to talk about. It’s a blast.