Novelist and the Megaphone
Authors who direct
By Grant Rosenberg
Gadfly Nov./Dec. 2000
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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."
then, is what opens in front of them. Why not let
more of these storytellers have a go at it?