Thursday, December 01, 2005

The Emerald City

I don't know whether to refer to this as a 'wake up call' or a 'reality check' or maybe just skip the cliches altogether and present the facts.
For the last few months a thriller I wrote has been haunting the atrium of the Creative Artists Agency, ringing ever more faintly, like someone’s lost cell phone. I was just hoping someone might find it behind the potted ficus tree before the last bar ran down. But that begins to seem more and more unlikely.
Still, some people there like the script, and they’ve been trying to get clients interested in making the movie. If enough of them commit, the people who get in-house projects financed there could go out and get the money for the production. It’s an odd situation. I’m not a CAA client. I suppose I might become one eventually, if some creative ignition happens. But for the moment my script is as anonymous as a Shaker quilt.
We were given a list of possible directors and then watched as each one took a different movie. It was like reading Ten little Indians, except that nobody died. Most of them never even saw my screenplay. There’s not much incentive to read some unknown’s work when big stars and Academy Award winning writers and studio deals with big paychecks beckon. Finally the only one left was Peter Weir. When I first saw the list it never occurred to me that they might give him my project. He’s in a different class than the others. He's an auhentic artist, a giant. I couldn’t imagine he’d be interested in my paltry adventure story. The last thing remotely like a thriller he did was Witness and this was no Witness, even I could see that. But I amused myself with some wary moments of hope as the weeks wore on. Finally he passed, as I had always been pretty sure he would.

What did he choose to do instead?
Well, he’s making film out of Shantaram, a book I read last year when I was looking for something long and engrossing. The first paragraph won me over as did the aphorism spouting love interest ("Truth is the bully everyone pretends to like") and the story, based on the author's life. He went to prison for drugs and robbery in Australia, escaped, wound up in Bombay, running a free medical clinic in the slums, and became the protege of the head of the Bombay mafia. I've given the book to many people, all of whom devoured it much the way I did.
Great book. Owned, produced and set to star Johnny Depp
Script by Eric Roth. If you think he isn't the best book adapting screenwriter in Hollywood, check out the novel of Forrest Gump. Then you'll want to give him another Oscar. He didn’t just solve story problems, he created the whole feel of the story, from the feather to the bus stop bench. (In the book Forrest and Lieutenant Dan didn't even meet in Viet Nam.)
I'm supposed to compete in that league?, asked the house painter from Nantucket.
I don't think so. I don't get to be ball boy in that league.
So that's today's humbling tale of Hollywood.
As a fan I'm looking forward to Shantaram. As someone who doesn't believe in portents and signs, I'm not taking this as the big blood red sky-writing message (SURRENDER DOROTHY) that it seems to be.
I'm more used to the other OZ paradigms. For writers, Hollywood is full of them: the poppies and the flying monkeys, the friendly munchkins and the angry trees.
All the quotes feel chillingly familiar: “Off to see the Wizard” (or is it the Head of Development); “Bring me the broomstick (or the next unnecessary free revision) of the Wicked Witch of the West.” And don’t forget that old favorite, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”.
Of course it ends with “There's no place like home” as you flee back to Kansas and tell yourself it was all a dream.
But I did that 20 years ago. And I'm still dreaming.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Leo and I

I have always had a problem with the classics. I find them remote and forbidding. Dauntingly verbose, armored with generations of academic exegisis, their aura of difficulty and virtue sealed under a yellowing veneer of remote time periods and foreign cultures, they were always a chore. I read them for the hard-won satisfaction I felt at being able to say I’d read them. Nothing in all of In Search of Lost Time (even the hilariously botched kiss with Albertine in Book Two), was remotely as satisfying as simply telling people I was reading Proust. I’d find almost any excuse to drop it into a conversation. Had I seen the Patriots on Sunday, started the new Salman Rushie (Proust trumps Rushdie without lifting a perfectly manicured finger); was I going to the circus, the left-wing puppet show, the local theatre production of Oklahoma? No, sorry, I didn’t really have time. I was reading Proust. Sure, it was about as much fun as sitting through a full-length Noh play or a lecture in particle physics. But that was okay – I was getting respect. It was a respect tinged with suspicion and concern for my sanity, as if I’d told people I was helicopter snow-boarding unstable glaciers on my weekends. They couldn’t quite believe I was doing it and couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to.
It makes sense. The dutiful concentration such books require has nothing in common with the carnal pleasure I get from the modern books I love. The advice from teachers and parents to “Give it a hundred pages or so,” seems to come from another world, too; as disconnected as a sex education class is from the sex itself, the real education of a first kiss.
With my favorite novels, it has always been love at first sight, or first sentence:
It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.
Robert Cohn was once middle-weight boxing champion of Princeton.
In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

I seem to fall through the pages, pulled down into the intricate layers of someone else’s dream, all the way to the end:
He had won the battle over himself. He loved Big Brother.
“Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back endlessly into the past.
That’s what makes finding a classic you can actually love such a unique thrill. It’s a mark of adulthood, like realizing that sautéed calf’s liver doesn’t taste half bad, or writing tuition checks. Which brings me to my new friend Leo. “All happy families are alike,” were his first words to me. “Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
A famous line, famously true. But the next second he plunges into a particular unhappy family and barely pauses for breath during the next six hundred pages. It's one scene after another. Anna comes to Moscow to talk her sister in law into staying with her brother, the delightful Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky. First we see Stepan confronting Dolly; then we see Anna actually talking her out of a divorce. That’s more events and incidents (and full-blooded characters) than in all of the thousand or so pages I read of Proust, put together. Proust would describe how it all felt, and the way in which his memory of it all had warped over time, and how he felt about that subtle transformation, and how his memory of those feelings abut his recollections changed the nature of the memories he recalled … all of this deftly woven into several pages of description evoking the various root vegetables everyone was eating at the time.
Okay, I won’t belabor it. Tolstoy isn’t Proust. But it’s more than that. He’s the anti-Proust … he may even be the paragigm of the kind of fiction Proust was rebelling against. And Proust’s descendants seem to validate his position … Joyce, Pynchon, DeLillo. It’s a grand tradition of intricate and unreadable prose, cherished by cult snobs and degree candidates everywhere.
Whereas, Tolstoy’s descendants, many of them –- though vastly readable -- are mediocre at best: Clavell, Michener, Uris, even Ayn Rand. Tolstoy, along with Dickens and Balzac, more or less invented the big, broad-canvas, multi-character epic novel as we know (and sometime despise) it today. The party scenes that allow him to show a dozen fragmentary incidents at once, the great set pieces (Vronsky’s steeple chase, Levin’s wheat harvest) defined the way big-canvas epics are painted to this day. But it’s not only in the pulp blockbuster books that you can find his influence. Margaret Mitchell and Theodore Dreiser learned from Tolstoy; so did Nabokov and Tom Wolfe and Jonathan Frazen. It’s not just in the story telling, which is headlong and compulsive, but in the forces surging under the story, the class struggle and social change, the striving idealism, brute cynicism the warring political philosophies driving it. When you press your hand to the metal of that locomotive, you can feel the density of social observation and the immanence of revolution making the metal vibrate, making your feet tingle on the riveted floor, while that landscape of confrontations and embraces rockets past, buffeting you with the wind of its sheer exuberant momentum, until you pull into the station and there’s a dead girl on the tracks.
Every detail and description stokes the engine. Every thought we overhear leads to some action, the next action, the next event. Not a word or gesture is wasted. Russian novels are supposed to be baggy and digressive, full of bombast and padding.
Not Anna Karenina.
But the best thing about reading this monumental classic is the ease and intimacy of the experience. It’s incongruous: like having a picnic at Stonehenge, or going Christmas shopping with Nelson Mandela. It’s a shockingly enjoyable experience, a lark, burnished and made slightly surreal by the majesty, the unassuming greatness of the weather beaten stones rising around you or the self-deprecating old man taking your arm in front of FAO Schwartz.
Yes, Tolstoy was a giant of world literature, a titan of Russian history, but he was also … just a guy. A shrewd, overbearing, funny guy who understood people as they were and are better than almost anyone, before or since. I read him and it’s just the two of us: the crazy Russian landowner and the housepainter from Nantucket, sitting together in a communion so extreme it approaches telepathy. I am, quite literally, reading his mind. It's like the touch of a calloused finger on my cheek, like a smile of recognition over the third glass of vodka. What a bore Karenin is! What a big city fool Oblonsky is, selling off his trees without even counting them! And what a glorious moment for Levin, after his sleepless night in the fields, to see Kitty passing by in her coach, on the empty road at dawn.
A hundred and fifty years, fifteen hundred miles, a different language and a different alphabet mean nothing. Leo is a friend of mine now. We make a last toast to Levin and Kitty; bow our heads for a moment in the firelight, mourning for Anna; then we totter off to bed.
I’m looking forward to many more nights like this one.
I hope he is, too.

Monday, November 07, 2005

The J.R. Fowles Club, Closed Until Further Notice

John Fowles wrote a brilliant essay ten years ago, treating his personality as a private club, "to which I belong, for my sins." The members were always at odds, including "one fathead who fancies himself a novelist. Another pretends to be a feminist. I'd like to see him just once with a duster or an iron in his hand ... We are truly an unspeakably futile shambles. I honestly shall resign if they don't watch out. I've always hated men's clubs anyway."

Fowles was my primary connection to the world of letters, to the uses of imagination and the use of words. I learned to write by reading him and struggled to follow him as best I could. Sometimes I heard his voice in mine strongly, but it didn't make me feel feel puny and deriviative ... though of course I was. It just felt good. It made the monkey happy: I see, I do. Something about the way he would anchor an anecdote so precisely in time and place, giving memory an almost hallucinatory vividness: "We went straight to the front ... This is early in 1915. It sleeted and rained incessantly."
Or: "I still loved, or at any rate still practised, music. I had the big Pleyel harpsichord I use here in our Paris flat. One warm day in Spring, it would have been in 1920, I was playing by chance with the windows open, when the bell rang."

So when I write lines like "I first saw your mother on the Malibu Colony beach, just before lunch on the morning of June 17, 1956. She was playing volleyball, wearing a blue, one-piece Jantzen bathing suit with a little skirt. I fell in love absolutely and permanently at that moment." I feel that heavy, subby-fingered hand on my shoulder. As if I've become him for one sparkling moment, slipping into the foyer of the club before the doorman chases me out. Maybe it's the way Bernstein felt channelling Beethoven in the first bars of "There's a Place For us." Which may be why I feel like part of the writer in me died this weekend, also. It might have been the best part; it was certainly my favorite.

I met Fowles in the summer of 1972. I was in England and determined to have some kind of physical contact with the man who loomed so large in the life of my mind. I found his house in Lyme Regis (everyone knew where he lived, he was the town celebrity) and was lucky enough to discover that he had known my father during his days in Hollywood. There is a stong family resemblance and his delighted "Not George's son?" was my ticket to a long aftenoon drinking St Pauli Girl beer and touring the Undercliff. I wrote to him occasionally after that and always got a response. Some were chiding, as when he told me not to attempt a novel until I was thirty, adding, "I know that's a red rag to the American go-getting bull," and at other times startlingly complimentary as when he called my analysis of the godgame aspects of The French Lieutenant's Woman "shrewd." I was giddy for days. "Fowles thinks I'm shrewd," I would tell anyone I came across, including a cop who stopped me for speeding and a group of Chinese tourists who spoke no English. They nodded and smiled, though. That was enough for me.

Of course I could never really be a member of the club, though I imagined myself on the waiting list from time to time. But it was like the great museums in New York. You might not step inside The Metropolitan or the Modern for years, but it's good to know they're there.The city would be a different place without them; and a far shabbier one. And that last sentence, with its syncopated emphasis and deftly placed semi-colon, is pure John Fowles, making the derivative divine for a moment, as his spirit moves in the blood and the synapses of his most devoted student.

The JR Fowles club was a landmark, an institution and an inspiration.
I hate to see it close its doors.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Writing and Screenwriting

Years ago, every insurance agent and cop and school teacher was writing a novel. It was the cool thing to do, the culturally approved aspiration. Not any more. Now they're writing screenplays.There are several reasons for that. Screenplays promise the quick score (but then so do powerball and starting your own drug cartel); they have an aura of glamour. But mostly it's because they're easier. Sorry, I hate to say it. I feel like I'm blowing Hollywood's number one trade secret. Screenwriters love to talk about how hard it is, and everyone from Robert McKee to Syd Field have made fortunes by mapping this supposed wilderness of plot points and third act reversals. Most screenplays are bad and most would-be screen-writers can't write. But that doesn't make the form intrinsically difficult. The only really hard parts are common to all story-telling: getting the idea, and making it work. Inventing plots is hard -- that's why so many people don't bother, or act like they're 'above' such vulgarities. Building a plot that makes sense is even more difficult, and incoherent plotting has been institutionalized by some of our best writers and directors, for decades.

But that's the subject for another post.

So,let's say you've cooked up a good idea, a high concept smoker, and worked out all the beats, motivations, twists and turns. Good for you, but novelists and playwights do that stuff, too. It's the basic minimum requirement of the job, buddy. From then on,life gets cushy for screenwriters because,as a screenwriter, not to put too fine a point on it, EVERYONE ELSE IS DOING YOUR WORK FOR YOU. What about dialogue?, you might ask. Fair enough, but let's face it, dialogue is either easy and natural or just plain impossible for most writers. There's not much territory between perfect pitch and tone deaf, clever and stilted. Most screenwriters can spin out ten pages of dialogue before their first latte in the morning. Cutting it back is the tricky part.

But other people do that for you, too.

And every other part of the job is a free ride for the screenwriter. Atmosphere? The cinematographer and the composer handle that stuff. Creating the physical world in which the story takes place? The director, the production designer, the location manager, the CGI teams have that corner hammered down. Chemistry between the characters? It's Brangelina for chrissake. Or Bogey and Bacall, or Tracy and Hepburn. It's handled. Sex? That's the director's lookout. Screenwriters don't even have to try. As Shane Black said among his memorable stage directions in his Last Boy Scout script, "Hey, my mother reads this stuff. Actually I probably lost Mom in the hot tub blow job scene."

But the most crucial aspect of writing fiction scarcely appears in the screenwriter's life. The only faint hints are the stage directions CUT TO and DISSOLVE TO.

I'm talking aboiut transitions.

There's a reason why Virginia Woolf, when someone asked her how her writing day had gone, answered, "It was great. I got them off the couch, through the french doors and onto the veranda." That's the tough part, making those physical transitions work. Even tougher are the mental tranisitions... or as they say in the movies: 'actor's moments'. Describing the intricate mental process by which a character figures out something important,or changes his mind, or makes a decision is the most technically demanding task a writer is ever faced with. If you make a single mistake, if a comma is out of place, if you say too much or too little, or lapse into cliche, rush or dawdle, over-play or understate, then you break the dream, and the reader becomes aware of you and your clumsy efforts, and the whole delicate machine comes to a grinding halt.

In fact, writing a book is just one transition after another, making things flow visually and physically, balancing action and thought and description in every paragraph. Compared to a screenwriter, it's like juggling a chain saw, a bowling pin and an apple (while eating the apple) ... versus, some guy lobbing a ball from hand to hand. "Look," he might remark, "Polish juggling." Pretty good line, slotted in there before the cut away. That's all a screenwriter needs.

Here's the last secret: this peripheral role in story telling is the real reason screenwriters are so miserable. Yes, they're at the bottom of the pecking order in Hollywood. Yes they get paid worse than everyone else above the line. But their status is so low because they don't have enough to do. And they don't have enough fun. Making a narrative move all by yourself, keeping the action floating aove the shallow spots, tacking through the perfect channels, is a challenge, yeah, it's tiring and frustrating. But it's also a gas. And screenwriters never feel it. Moving from the young hero to the about-to-be-killed mafioso whose death will kick the story into gear, all the screenwriter can do is say "CUT TO". The writer can do it any way he wants ... this way, for instance: "Eighty blocks downtown, Alfredo Blasi was thoroughly enjoying rhe last two hours of his life." You create momentum with a line like that. you jazz things up and put a spin on them. And you can do it as much as you want. You can play. Screenwriters can only watch the game from the outside, at that first preview (if they're invited).

No wonder they gripe all the time. But it's an easy complaint to fix. Put that half-finished script aside, and try your hand at a novel -- or even a short story. Write a first sentence that lives and keep the action alive, hot and slippery, jumping in your hand, word by word until the end.

Try real writing. You may never go back.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Full Disclosure

Here's all you need to know about me (unless you're planning to blackmail me for something juicy and you'll have to work a little harder if you want to do that) -- would-be novelist, wannabe screenwriter, occasional poet (though I hate occasional poems) living on Nantucket (aside from Juno, Alaska and possibly Guam, the farthest point in America or its protectorates from Los Angeles), painting houses for a living. Often writing and painting at the same time, much to the annoyance of my customers. Officially too old to make it in film or TV, and finally beyond the last meaningful demographic. I also digress constantly. Like now: I saw a poster for some comedy today, starring one of those C-list Saturday Night Live punks, and all I could think about was the 20 year old, smart-ass illiterate film geek writers who pitched it to the 20 year old, smart ass illiterate film geek studio executives. And I'm just not interested. The fly on the wall in that room wouldn't be interested. (though the fly on the wall when they were pitching the Fly remake sequel thought it was a pretty cool idea; but then again my pug loves Men in Black). Anyway, I felt bad when I turned fifty, because I was finally out of the 34-49 age group. After that, they couldn't care less about you, unless they're selling laxative and Depends under garments (the same company probably makes both products). But I don't care now. I don't want their new pair of sneakers with the bubbles (I like my old sneakers with the holes). I have no interest in turbo charged pick-up trucks (I rarely drive up vertical dirt hills in the desert), or lemon coke. If I want lemon coke I'll squeeze some lemon into my coke, old school style. They can't bullshit me and they know it, so they've finally stopped trying. I take it as a compliment. This is a good demographic -- no suckers allowed.

Enough of that. I read books the way I always imagined James Beard would eat a five pound lobster (though I don't wear a bib); I watch movies like a rat in a Skinner box having my pleasure centers jolted. I'm absurdly opinionated (I've been arguing with son for two months about whether hummus is a food or a condiment. Food, obviously!) Feel free to argue with me unless you actually believe that the staple dish from Dubai to Detroit is just a sauce. In which case you probably think ketchup is a vegetable. No, that was Ronald Reagan. And if you are Ronald Reagan, keep your thoughts to yourself. You're dead, dude. Even if most of your speechwriters are still alive, working for your heirs and assigns, and it's looking a lot like late afternoon in America. There are a thousand points of light, Peggy, and this is one of them. Deal with it.

So this is a Bush-hating-screenwriting (member WGAW)- novel scribbling-agent bashing-movie reviewing, house painting tall tales-telling (What to do when you spill half a gallon of paint onto a wall of anqtiue bricks? How to force a customer to pay that last payment without lawyers or blunt weapons? )Blog. Parenting tips? Light verse? Hollywood war stories? (Okay, these anecdotes are from well behind the front lines, but those bombs can be pretty loud, even back where I'm stationed. Not to mention land mines. And the food sucks) It's all here. I'd say "And more!" because people always do. But there isn't any more. That's it. See you next time.