The Novelist and the Megaphone 
Authors who direct
By Grant Rosenberg

From Gadfly Nov./Dec. 2000


You write a book like that that you're fond of over the years, then you see that happen to it, it's like pissing in your father's beer.
Ernest Hemingway, after seeing the film A Farewell to Arms

Hemingway never made a movie. Perhaps he wanted to; most likely he didn't. He probably regretted selling the rights to his novels to Hollywood studios, where success was never found in the quixotic task of capturing the sharp, simple-truthed diction of his best writing.

Hemingway is just one of many literary figures to opine about Hollywood; the men and women of Letters have had a relationship with Cinema since the beginning of the Talkies. From William Faulkner through John Irving, the movies have been a way for novelists (and playwrights) to make a quick buck and attempt to bring some sense of prestige to another—some say lesser—art form. Whether writing directly for the screen or reworking one's own novel, it was only a matter of time before novelists were the ones calling "Action."

David Mamet (playwright, director, novelist and director) once said something to the effect that "most of my time is spent alone in a room having conversations with myself and writing them down." Directing is pretty much the exact opposite career: wide open spaces, irregular hours, many people asking many questions, complicated technical details and, of course, weather.

Is this itch for pop cultural success and an easy paycheck motivated from the same impulse that turns rock stars into actors? Or is it just a form of batting without the doughnut? And why, for the most part, are these films just plain bad?

* * *

Lulu on the Bridge, Paul Auster's 1998 film, came after Smoke and its partially-improvised companion piece, Blue in the Face, which Auster co-directed with Smoke's director, Wayne Wang. A prolific author (whose novel Music of Chance was made into an obtuse film starring James Spader and Mandy Patinkin, directed by Philip Haas), Auster assembled an interesting cast, premise and title. The film looks nice; it depicts New York City with the realism one would find on a typical spring day, not the lawless intensity typical of Martin Scorsese or the travelogue romance of Woody Allen. The characters live in homes that reflect their means. Yet when they speak, out comes drivel—which is unfortunate, considering that there is a novelist behind the camera as well as the typewriter.

The story revolves around Harvey Keitel's character, a jazz musician named Izzy Maurer who, at the beginning of the film, is shot while performing in a nightclub. As time goes on, he heals, but he can no longer play his saxophone. While walking home one night after a dinner party, he stumbles across a corpse, and with it, a mysterious blue stone and a phone number. He takes both and soon discovers that the stone, when in a dark room, emits a radiant blue glow that fills the room (and its inhabitants) with a healing, inner peace. Izzy tracks down the woman whose telephone number he found with the stone. She's a young actress who knows nothing of the stone, and the two have a romance that leads to her getting a part in a film through Izzy's industry connections. Eventually, as is always the case, there are sinister people who want their treasure back. For all its clichéd dialogue, the film is utterly unpredictable. It advances like a dream, with non-sequiturs and scattershot, capricious logic. And ultimately, as the film reaches its climax, it proves to be exactly that—a dream.

Just like A Hanging At Owl Creek Bridge, the entire film has taken place in Izzy's mind during the endorphin rush of death, as he lay dying on the nightclub stage. This violates the main rule of film: It Must Not All Be A Dream. Such a red herring cheats the audience, which has invested its intelligence in understanding and figuring out the plot. By the end credits of Lulu on the Bridge, we're left with the feeling of being swindled. I wonder if the film's participants felt this way as well. Featuring Willem Dafoe, Mandy Patinkin, Gina Gershon and Vanessa Redgrave, this seems to be an example of talented people involving themselves in a mediocre project based on their respect for the novelist's writing.

After poetry, translation and non-fiction, The New York Trilogy (City of Glass, Ghosts, The Locked Room) was Auster's first foray into novel writing. Each book is its own narrative experimentation, sparsely told stories of chance, perspective and the line between reality and fantasy. These themes permeate most of Auster's work, and it comes as no surprise that his film continues them. The films Smoke and Blue in the Face had played with the ideas of chance and identity as well. But whereas Auster was in complete control of the tone of The New York Trilogy's narrative, Lulu on the Bridge feels slight and awkward. Where it should be edgy and joyously unpredictable (like the best jazz, the profession of the film's protagonist), it is silly and wanly perfunctory. The end, rather than exhilarating and clever like The Usual Suspects (or the climaxes of Auster's fiction), feels like a betrayal. Perhaps he was charging a thesis, exploring Film as Dream, an aural-visual representation of fantasy and reality—presented simultaneously in first and third person. If this was Auster's intention, it is noble, but a failure. Stanley Kubrick's final film, Eyes Wide Shut (based on a text actually titled "Dream Story"), succeeds masterfully in presenting this idea.

What still remains, regardless of its success or failure as a narrative, is the sense that Auster's film is making fun of The Movies. This film is a genre-schizophrenic joke: love story, sci-fi, mystery thriller and finally, a movie about making a movie. It has been said that Vladimir Nabokov's zeal-less, unsatisfying and reworked screenplay for Kubrick's 1962 production of Lolita was born of similar motivations, making fun of the populist, less cerebral medium.

Was this Auster's train of thought? Something along the lines of "Oh, so this is what everyone pays attention to, the screen, not the page. Fine, then. I'll have Willem Dafoe, during an interrogation scene, perform "Singing in the Rain" (alluding to A Clockwork Orange as well as the Gene Kelly film?). I'll get Vanessa Redgrave to hopscotch like a bunny and Mira Sorvino to act so poorly that you'll want her Oscar revoked. And then Harvey will wake up, and poof—the joke's on you. I don't know the likelihood of this being the case; but then again, major film productions have been mounted for a lot less.

* * *

Let's say that a philosopher were to act in a film. It would probably be seen as a curiosity, something that would attract a certain kind of audience. But, to extend the example, if an actor were to publish a philosophical treatise, the laughing wouldn't stop for days. When Reagan was president, his acting past dogged him. Years later, Gorbachev appeared in Wim Wenders' Faraway, So Close, and we said, "Ooh, Glasnost himself is in a film. Cool." To be fair, that may be due to Reagan's reputation as an actor. Given that he was the Tom Berenger of his day, it might have been a whole lot different if it were instead, say, Humphrey Bogart or Burt Lancaster running for office.

Nevertheless, the point remains: your attempt at the more esteemed profession gets less respect if it's not your introduction onto the world's stage. Ethan Hawke isn't taken seriously as a novelist, but seeing Gore Vidal or George Plimpton in a film lends credence to the project.

The prejudice against film over literature is as flagrant a foul as they come. It's a virgin/whore complex. We adore these showbiz celebrities; we want to become them, yet as soon as they begin to speak of politics or literature, anything of note outside populist entertainment, we mock them as unqualified and want no part of it. Ethan Hawke's book The Hottest State could very well have been treated as a solid novel, were he a writer before he became an actor; but instead it was showcased like a novelty. The last thing we want to do is have sympathy for the rich and famous, but it's a dependable maxim that once you enter pop culture, you wear your typecast like a scarlet letter.

* * *

Though exploring an entirely different milieu than Auster, Maya Angelou, novelist, poet and sometime actor, made a film that is also an extension of her prose, the measured and noble Down in the Delta. She directed this film in 1998, a family drama about an African-American woman (Alfre Woodard) and her kids who are sent by her mother out of the crime- and violence-ridden city of Chicago to live with relatives in rural Mississippi.

The film concentrates on a very real story that explores real problems with both humor and seriousness, taking its time to let its story be told. True, the music plays like an after-school special, and the film itself can be preachy at times, but it doesn't sugarcoat itself. Rather than a false happy ending, it takes small suggestive steps in that direction.

Angelou didn't write the script, yet she takes it and makes it her own. Her film is like her own writing, telling a story of engaging African-American characters surviving hardships through courage, discipline and family. The film seems to be an extension of a novella, an audio-visual companion to her writing. Angelou knows what she can do on the page, and she does it here for the screen, which, statistically, would reach more people than her books.

Such statistics don't apply to Stephen King. Maximum Overdrive, the one film he directed, is less a continuation of his fiction than it is a love letter to shlocky B-movies. With a total lack of the style or narrative confidence that marks his continually successful science/horror fiction, the film—the story of machines that come to life and attempt to destroy humanity—doesn't even succeed at consistency or entertainment. For King, there is no greater horror.

Norman Mailer, the infamous novelist, essayist and sometime boxer, directed the film Tough Guys Don't Dance in 1987 from his own novel. The film is an homage to film noir, yet mired in unintentional (one hopes) late-1980s kitsch. As with Auster's film, the acting and dialogue are plastic, another disappointment from these creators of words and worlds.

As all creative works do, Auster's and Angelou's films have agendas. Hashing out their fiction on the screen, they take up the gauntlet to push the presentation of characters and plot off the page and onto that medium that gets so much more attention than the one that is their day job.

All these films have standard lighting setups and camera work and little concern for visual panache, instead focusing on the storytelling itself. One wonders what kind of film Philip Roth with his many novels of infinite self-reflexivity would make. Or Don DeLillo, Lorrie Moore or Thomas Pynchon. Would the films of these inventive writers be extensions of their typewritten words or would the new medium be treated as an opportunity to go into a completely different direction, where the image, not the word, is king?

Regardless, it's clear that the challenge of page to screen will forever be linked for better and for worse. But with the unpretension of more than a few independent and even studio films these days, there is hope in great art on the screen for large audiences. Writing about that very relationship in "The Critic's Notebook" of the New York Times last June, A. O. Scott said that "language is able to track the stutterings of consciousness, the bleeding together of thought and sensation, the dislocated experience of time, by the simplest and most efficient of means. Poetry, Robert Frost said, is what gets lost in translation, and a corollary might be that prose is what disappears before your eyes."

Film, then, is what opens in front of them. Why not let more of these storytellers have a go at it?