When I lived in Washington, DC, I remember there being a slew of excitement in the local newspapers and in local bookstores when a book like Primary Colors came out. Local interest is a big seller in books, especially when there’s scandal involved. Here in Los Angeles this means that books about Hollywood get top billing, and there are lots of them on the local bestseller lists at any given time. They come in a few different flavors. There’s the now-we-can-finally-make-all-those-juicy-stories-public, recent-history-of-Hollywood books. These books come out a generation or so after the action depicted in the book takes place. The main players have either died or they no longer wield any power so their stories are fair game for the reading public. Connie Bruck’s biography of Hollywood mogul Lew Wasserman, When Hollywood Had a King and A. Scott Berg’s biography of Katherine Hepburn, Kate Remembered are two recent examples. Then there’s the down-in-the-trenches, you-have-to-be-there-to-really-get-it, borderline-inside-joke, behind-the-scenes-entertainment-industry-workplace-dramas. Take David Rensin’s book The Mailroom, which, as far as I can tell, you would only want to read for one of two reasons. You once worked in Hollywood mailroom and you want to reminisce about those high-energy, low-pay days back before you became a high-powered agent, or you desperately want to become a high-powered agent and you want to read up about what it’s like in the mailroom, your first step on the road to glitz and glamour. Finally there is the true story thinly disguised as fiction like producer Robert Cort’s recent novel, Action!. I got to thinking about all of this Hollywood literature because of a recent review by Caryn James in the New York Times that assesses the latest crop of Hollywood lit. (LINK). Wading through big-selling tell-alls like Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures and Joe Eszterhas’ Hollywood Animal and all the rest, she finds a novel that transcends the Hollywood genre in The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters and also mentions that when it comes to books about Hollywood, The Day of the Locust by Nathaniel West is “unsurpassed.”
Longtime readers of this blog may know that I'm an enthusiast of HBO's serial dramas... which these days is about as unique as being a Springsteen fan. (Which I also am, but nevermind). Still, I don't spend nearly as much time thinking about The Sopranos or Deadwood as I do thinking about books. And so it was only this week that I discovered that a "dream team" of crime novelists has taken over the writing of my new favorite show, The Wire.My wife had popped in the second disc of Season Three, and I heard myself say, "Wow, this is really well-written." Plot, character, and setting have always been The Wire's strong suits, but in this particular episode, the dialogue and symbolism attained a nearly Milchean richness. I jogged back to see who was credited with the teleplay, and found that it was... Dennis Lehane, of Mystic River fame.Turns out Richard Price, author of Blood Brothers and George Pelecanos, author of The Night Gardener are also sharing writing duties. I have a lot of respect for these three, for whom crime fiction is art, as well as entertainment. Price's Clockers may not be Faulkner, but the depth of its reportage on the drug trade elevate it far above the kind of by-the-numbers pulp that fills the airport racks. "I really admired that book," David Simon, creator of The Wire, told an interviewer. "It unearthed an entire world that had never been contemplated by the literary world. 'Clockers' paved the way for a lot of the split point of view that The Wire relies upon."And given the solitary nature of the novelist's art, the idea of these three, bound by geography and class sympathies as well as by trade, trading ideas over pizza and beer... well, it's enough to make a fellow writer jealous. Simon joked with a co-producer, "I got Pelecanos, Price and Lehane. Who do you want next year, Philip Roth?"Stranger things have happened. Quick - someone call Elmore Leonard's agent.
● ● ●
“The drop is a small ocean.” -Emerson "When people express what is most important to them, it often comes out in clichés. That doesn’t make them laughable; it’s something tender about them. As though in struggling to reach what’s most personal about them they could only come up with what’s most public.” -Terrence Malick Describing, let alone reviewing, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is almost forbiddingly daunting. Probably for this reason, critical reaction has been decidedly garrulous. A vast majority of reviewers have invoked some kind of "higher" culture to signify the elusive mood or feeling it evokes. Just skimming down the list, one picks up earnest references to Emily Dickinson, Tristram Shandy, Picasso, 2001: A Space Odyssey, W.B. Yeats, The Passion Of The Christ, the Sistine Chapel, and The Museum of Natural History. It’s been referred to as “beautiful“, “baffling“, “magisterial”, “unbearably pretentious” and putting the viewer at risk of emerging from the theatre “with a pretzel for a brain.” All of this is fair game, I think. Oscar Wilde‘s droll dismissal of controversy wraps it all up nicely and points the way forward: “When the critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself.” In some postmodern milieux it’s common to judge a work of art sight unseen and only by the reactions of others (you’ve done it before, admit it). The Tree of Life lends itself to this vulnerability, for sure. It was alternately booed and cheered by the discriminating cineastes of Cannes, ultimately winning the historic Palme d’Or. Robert De Niro, the head of the prize panel, explained in a very Robert DeNiro way that the film had “the size, the importance, the intention, whatever you want to call it, that seemed to fit the prize.” Roger Ebert wrote a lovely and moving piece about it, the first sentence of which calls it “a form of prayer.” This would be pretty decent praise from anyone but considering Ebert himself has been struggling with his own mortality for several years now, and doing so with grace and dignity, the accolade is especially poignant. I don’t usually mind getting spoilers before I see a movie for the first time, which probably has more to do with my tendency to be easily confused than a need for surprise. Not to worry - it’s almost impossible to give anything away. Part of the wonder of this film is that the visual style and narrative undulation (the term "arc" just doesn’t do it justice) not only allow for but encourage emotional and intellectual responses which are ultimately the viewer’s own. Certain moments in the film were vivid enough to sting me with recognition and tears came to my eyes. It felt like moments of my childhood reappeared, unbidden, and not the most obvious ones. Apparently, I’m not alone in this. Several people I know well admitted to a similar reaction. There is comfort in that. One of the things which is often asked of art, if not cinema itself, is that it move us, give us grandeur, something of the ineffable. This can be done with either massive, panoramic vistas or with detailed, minute shifts of insight. The Tree Of Life, to Malick’s abiding credit, offers us both. The narrative centers around a small lower middle class family in east Texas. There are three brothers, one of whom is revealed to have died in unexplained circumstances. Brad Pitt sinks so deeply into his role as the stern, frustrated, ultimately helpless father that you can see what Freud termed “the family romance” flickering behind his thick glasses and masculine scowl. Jessica Chastain’s mother is ethereal, loving, one of nature’s forgiving creatures. This dialectical conflict is subtly set up early on: one side of the parental wall is earthly, ambitious, occasionally brutal in word or gesture, brittle and seething with balked ambition. The other floats in midair in her children’s daydreams, enveloping all the struggle of life with a luminous, beneficent glow. Blessings are all, she suggests, by her mere presence. The boys are boys, pointy of ear and baby fat faces, reflecting the confusion and energy that comes with the humid rush of pre-adolescence. Sean Penn isn’t given a whole lot to work with as the middle aged son mourning his long deceased brother amid the modern-day glaze of skyscrapers in New York but he makes something happen nevertheless. The rest is, well, the rest is the world - a glimpse at the totality of creation itself. The editing is timed to the rhythm of memory - moments simply occur, evolve, glimmer, fade, and disappear. Trying to describe this film’s visual range is like describing a waterfall or a rainbow or the sparkling light cast for a moment on the wall: it can be done, but why not see it for yourself, and on the big screen while you’re at it? Terrence Malick has often been considered a spiritual director. This is not say he has a particular creed, or even necessarily a belief system, at least none that comes readily to mind. He has a degree in Philosophy from Harvard, taught it at M.I.T, and translated the notoriously dense and mystical Heidegger before going into film. The influence must have stuck with him. There really is something Heideggerian going on in his work. One could sum up the two major themes of his films with just the title of Heidegger’s magnum opus: Being and Time. Malick’s characters inhabit a landscape more than a frame. Their presences register over the looming, incandescent indifference of the world they inhabit. They build, they dwell, they think, in Heideggerian vocabulary. Language is a scattered thing in his films, a groping towards meaning. This aesthetic comes out memorably in Days of Heaven and Badlands, his still- astonishing debut. Accounts of the making of these films reveal years of the director’s prosaic research as well as on-set instructions to spontaneously just drop everything and follow a stream of rippling birds suddenly taking flight. There’s something mysterious about having been a filmmaker for over thirty years with only a handful of films to your name. Actors beg to be involved and sign up by the dozen for ever-expanding bit parts. Producers are sometimes driven crazy by his relentless perfectionism and visionary drive. His movies can be an experience unto themselves. You walk out with that strange, sober buzz a good film gives you, and inhabit the world of the film’s perception for a little while. Light is more like light, the earth below more compact, and the sky above the buildings is vaster than you ever quite noticed. Every reader is bound to come to any work of art with her own set of tastes, prejudices, and unconscious assumptions. Naturally, she leaves with them as well. Hopefully something has happened in between which causes (at least) a subtle, insistent, almost insubstantial change in the consciousness of the audience. All movies are in some way about seeing, of course, but no one making them or attending them ever sees them in quite the same way. It’s very rare that anything is seen in the way Terrence Malick sees it, which says more about Malick than it does about anyone else. In the end, watching “The Tree of Life” is best done in a spirit of generosity, curiosity, care, and a healthy dose of plain reverence and awe. Not a bad way to go through life.
1. James Franco walked into the classroom and took the seat next to mine. No introductions were made: Just a guy in a raggedy hoodie and crisp leather jacket, one of four prospective students ushered in by the director of the Brooklyn College fiction program. He wore a disaffected manner punctuated with spates of kinetic restlessness. His hair was dyed orange. How likely that a movie star would have nowhere better to be on a Thursday night than there with us, fiction-addled freaks? Wasn’t there something happening at, like, The Viper Room? We were discussing a story that novelist and workshop leader Joshua Henkin had assigned, “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien (really the story MFA programs assign). "Desire in fiction" was the ostensible topic. The guy who seemed to be James Franco focused intently on Henkin, leaning forward now and again so that his leather jacket creaked. He began to dine on a package of vending machine snacks after tearing the plastic open with his teeth and pouring a few morsels into a cupped hand. I looked from the page in front of me and up at James Franco and back to the page in front of me where Lt. Jimmy Cross was shifting a pebble around in his mouth while dreaming of his unrequited love for a faraway girl. A few of my classmates were smiling aimlessly in my general direction (read: James Franco’s general direction). On the table in front of him was a book: The Professor’s House by Willa Cather. And, there it was, confirmation in words, a manila folder at his feet whose label read "Franco – NY Schedule." The urge to smile was now almost overpowering. I fought it back. James Franco spoke up, the second prospective student to do so, addressing the point of view of Lt. Jimmy Cross and his comrades in Vietnam: “These are guys who’ve seen things we’ve never seen and hopefully will never see.” I rose out of silence to make my own comment. Joshua Henkin said: “That’s a really great point, Jeff.” Without looking his way again, I thought: James Franco now knows that I made a really great point. Then: how embarrassing to be patronized in front of James Franco. When the fifteen-minute break arrived, I asked James Franco about the book he was carrying. “It’s for… class,” he said, turning to smile on the last word before asking if I knew of anywhere nearby to get coffee. His manner was bemused, a Jonathan Lethem cartoon man. He was in his own synch, the pleasure of recognition trailing every gesture, consciousness of that pleasure gleaming in his eyes. It was part and parcel to the thrill of his being there, the spectacle of someone who had believed in the love of an imagined audience, the romance of possibility. There was just one thing: I didn’t drink coffee. When I tell the story to friends, their faces invariably darken. And I could have saved them that look by simply saying "Sure." But then I would have been walking across campus in tow to James Franco to get a coffee I didn’t actually drink with James Franco for the sake of telling the story of how I got a coffee with James Franco. So I pointed him in the direction of another student who was going to get coffee and James Franco turned away. Then, just as quickly, turned back. “Thank you,” he said, clasping two hands together, gesture performed as if in a vacuum, no eye contact, beatifically gracious. 2. Among his brief remarks this past Monday night prior to the Lincoln Center screening of Howl starring James Franco as Allen Ginsberg, the poet Lou Asekoff, retired director of the Brooklyn College poetry program recalled how Ginsberg once burst into his office to say, “I just blew the guy who knew a guy who blew a guy who knew the rough-hewn tradesman who as a boy lay all night in Whitman’s lap.” Ginsberg considered Walt Whitman a mentor, “Howl,” his expansive “Song of Myself.” For those expecting a character study of the Beats, the new film isn’t it. It is, instead, a passionate homage to the poem. The visuals skip between three different fields of reference: an outlaw fantasia animated by Erik Drooker; Ginsberg as played by James Franco in an unshaven interview doing things like sitting on a couch and lighting a stove while talking about his work and again, clean-shaven, in the San Francisco Six Gallery where the poem debuted two years before (1955), actors as Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady in silent tow; and a courtroom drama with Jon Hamm as defense attorney Jake Ehrlich arguing against the poem’s obscenity, David Strathairn as the D.A. Ralph McIntosh arguing to condemn it, in a sort of Humbert Humbert Ladies-and-Gentlemen-of-the-Jury type treatise on literature’s angels and devils. Each section has high points. Consider David Strathairn’s delivery of the line, prosecutor Ralph McIntosh’s inadvertent poetry of frustration with Ehrlich’s defense: “I don’t want to box with him, he’s disturbing me. I open my mouth and out fly fists.” Regarding creative ferment, Franco as Ginsberg recalls the conversation he had with his therapist on whether or not to leave the buttoned-down life behind, having shunted away feelings of his own desires in favor of a desk job. How can he possibly part with that order, Ginsberg recalls asking his therapist, when if he does so he may well end up wretched and white-haired and alone? His therapist, he says, told him to go for it, adding, “You are very charming and lovable and people will always love you.” A gasp of laughter escaped from the movie theater audience. In the Q&A session that followed the screening, with directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman seated up front alongside their star, an audience member asked BC (and Columbia and NYU) MFA alum James Franco, what he made of his role as a cultural icon, or one rapidly in the making? Answered Franco, “I hope to bring attention to some areas being passed over, or dying, lost in the shuffle—you know, poetry is something that doesn’t get a lot of attention, so if I can help bring it some attention, that’s not a bad thing.” The evening ended and almost everyone took to their feet, a crowd of admirers clotting the exit lane around the movie star, writer and artistic frontiersman James Franco. I couldn’t help it—I was smiling. Okay, I had passed up on coffee. Perhaps, in a life not without its stupid moves, it was the stupidest of all: my friends’ faces say as much. Fame is voracious, and who hasn’t hungered for it? But alone on my row, looking to the front of the theater, I saw—I know that I was seeing—in some literary way, through the fever of my belief in the immortal word, the image of a different kind of friend: one I could trust to carry a dream forward.
● ● ●
As many of you no doubt have read in the trades (Wait, you don't read the trades? What town do you live in, anyway?), Stephen Gaghan, the writer of such sprawling, multi-narrative films as Traffic and Syriana, is set to adapt Malcolm Gladwell's latest quasi-scientific non-fiction potboiler, Blink (IMDb). Anyone who's read the book can tell you, it ain't going to be easy. Blink follows no central character, takes place in a multitude of settings, and covers such diverse topics as law enforcement, ancient art, and advertising.On the surface, this seems like pure folly, destined to lead to a Charlie Kaufman-esque exercise in navel gazing and postmodern self-reference. This Variety article seems to support this claim (By the way, check out the gaudy sum of money Gladwell pockets in this deal). According to the article, Leonardo DiCaprio is set to star as a jury selection expert who has a sixth sense about people based on first impressions. If that ends up as the plot of the film, it would be the worst adaptation since The Lawnmower Man (IMDb).But the more I thought about it, the more Gaghan seemed like the right choice, maybe the only choice, to adapt the book; furthermore, the book seemed like the perfect project for him. His last time out, Gaghan took two or three paragraphs from Robert Baer's CIA memoir See No Evil and turned it into a two hour feature film that dealt with practically every aspect of the oil industry. The finished project looked so different from the book that it was nominated for the Academy Award in the best original screenplay category (The official credit says that the book "suggested" the movie, whatever that means). Putting his three major scripts in perspective, it would seem that Stephen Gaghan has hit upon a new and arguably better way to adapt non-fiction to the screen. He doesn't aim to duplicate every twist of plot, every detail of character, but rather to hone in on the theme, the mood, and the message of whatever material he's adapting and to riff on it. The result is a movie that works on the same level as the book, discussing the same subjects with a similar tone, but also functions as a work of art separate from its original source material. While this wouldn't have worked for, say, The Godfather ("What? Why is Sonny's character now combined with Fredo's?"), it seems like the only way to tackle a book like Blink. Maybe if Charlie Kaufman had taken this approach, there might actually have been a film version of The Orchid Thief.
● ● ●