Barton Fink [Blu-ray]

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Eight Horror Films About Writers


Doubt. Stolen manuscripts. Self-loathing. Censorship. Missed deadlines. Unanswered pitches. Typos in query letters. Spotty Wi-Fi? The horrors of writing range from the existential to the melodramatic.

Horror films are exercises in hyperbole. Writers are perfect characters for these tales of dread. Writers often become lost within the worlds of their minds. Their devotions to stories and poems can develop into frenetic obsessions. Writers crave solitude and distance, creating a barrier from the outside world. In a profession where rejection is constant, writers might take out their frustration on friends, partners, and children.

Writers are often the subjects of dramatic films, but less often the focus of horror. Perhaps writers don’t want to write their worst fears into reality. Still, there are enough tales of writerly woe and worry for poets, novelists, and essayists to ponder their deepest anxieties on the screen. Here are eight horror films about writers.

Images (1972)
The film begins with an extended scene of composition interrupted by a phone call. Cathryn (Susannah York), a children’s book author, labors over a draft. Alone in a large house, she crumples and tears manuscript pages. She kneels and rolls on the floor, and then traces letters on a window while rain sprays the glass. When she finally does pick up the ringing phone, she hears a woman ask “Do you know where your husband is tonight?” One of Robert Altman’s largely forgotten films, Images delivers slick scares that are secondary to the psychological terror of a writer whose past and present with her lovers intersect to the point of confusion. Cathryn’s voiceover of the manuscript continues throughout the film — which turns out to be In Search of Unicorns, an actual fantasy novel for children published by York herself.

The Shining (1980)
The Overlook Hotel: a nightmare writer’s residency with spectacular views. Frustrated writer Jack Torrance is the winter caretaker of an expansive hotel in the Colorado mountains. He is alone there — except for his wife, his son, and the various spirits that occupy unlocked rooms and tend empty bars. Jack’s single-sentence manuscript might be the sign of madness, or a recursive experimental novel. In Stanley Kubrick’s house are many mansions: from spatial disorientation to Jack Nicholson’s whirlwind emotional shifts within a single scene (watch the bathroom sequence with the butler closely — is Jack evil, manipulated, or something else entirely?), The Shining might be the ultimate horror film about a writer.

Barton Fink (1991)
“I’m just having trouble getting started.” Playwright Barton Fink has moved to Hollywood to write for the movies. Capitol Pictures wants Barton to pen the script for a wrestling movie since he “knows the poetry of the streets.” Between a struggling writer and hallway shots of a haunted hotel, the nods to The Shining are many, but the tone is quite different. The Coen Brothers — who allegedly wrote this film about writer’s block to break their own real-life writer’s block while drafting Miller’s Crossing — probe the horrors of Hollywood. “This is a wrestling picture,” says studio executive Jack Lipnick. “The audience wants to see action, adventure, wrestling — and plenty of it. They don’t want to see a guy wrestling with his soul. Alright, a little for the critics.”

Misery (1990)
Romance novelist Paul Sheldon crashes during a blizzard. He is nursed back to health by his “number one fan,” Annie Wilkes. Health, of course, is a relative term. Wilkes becomes Sheldon’s tormentor when she discovers that his new manuscript contains profanities — and that Sheldon has killed off her favorite character in his most recent release. Other than the infamous ankle-breaking scene, the most painful sequence of the film might be when Annie forces Paul to burn his new manuscript.

Sinister (2012)
Actor-novelist Ethan Hawke (Ash Wednesday, The Hottest State) plays Ellison Oswalt, a crime writer whose family moves into a home with a terrible past. Oswalt has been trying to recapture the success of Kentucky Blood, his first book, and turns to the murderous history of his new home as his next subject. He soon finds a boxful of Super 8 snuff films in the attic, and discovers a mystery far more frightening that any book he might have imagined.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)
Sam Dalmas, an American novelist living in Rome with his girlfriend, has writer’s block. He remains uninspired by Italy, but is soon about to become distracted from his literary worries. Sam views a brutal attack in an art gallery, and although the victim survives, Sam becomes embroiled in the serial killer’s carnage. Scored by Ennio Morricone, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was director Dario Argento’s first film. He would later direct Tenebre, another slasher about an American author in Italy.

Castle of Blood (1964)
Alan Foster, a journalist from the London Times, wants to interview Edgar Allan Poe about his tales of horror and dread, but Poe assures him that every story he has written is true. Skeptical, the journalist accompanies Poe to a haunted castle, where, from midnight to sunrise, the dead come to life. Classic black-and-white atmospheric horror.

1408 (2007)
An “occult writer” of “ghost survival guides” who plays up the camp of his experiences but is actually skeptical of the supernatural, Mike Enslin has found his newest subject is Room 1408 of the Dolphin Hotel. Early in the film Enslin is having a reading and book signing for his newest book about haunted houses, and quips ghost stories are “awful convenient for desperate hotels when the interstate moves away.” While mindlessly signing copies of his new book, a fan surprises him with a copy of The Long Road Home, his only novel. The fan says she bought the copy on eBay, and asks the question every author fears:  “are you going to write another one like this one?” Although the bulk of 1408 occurs in the devilish hotel room where the manager says no one else has lasted more than an hour, for writers, a room haunted by demons pales in comparison to the fear that our best work is behind us.

Image Credit: Pexels.

Will All You Literary Biographers Please Be Quiet, Please?

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A little over three years ago, I interviewed Scott Donaldson here about the craft he has been practicing with distinction for more than 40 years — the researching and writing of literary biographies. At the time Donaldson was writing a book with the working title of The Impossible Craft: Literary Biography, a sort of summing up of his career, its highlights and stumbles, its maddening difficulties. In that interview I asked Donaldson why he called his chosen line of work the impossible craft. He replied, in part:
Well, because if you try to construct the ideal figure for a biographer, you realize he or she has to be so many different kinds of things that no human being could possibly achieve. You’ve got to be a detective, you’ve got to be a drudge, tracking down every possible fact you can; at the same time you’ve got to be insightful as hell, you have to be psychologically acute, you have to take an objective view of things without losing sympathy for your subject…And let’s say that the most important reason of all it’s an impossible craft is that you cannot know what someone else’s life was like.
The Impossible Craft has now been published by Penn State Press, and in it Donaldson offers this concise justification for the writing of literary biographies: “knowledge of the (writer’s) life throws light on the work and vice versa.”

This statement is debatable at best, and Donaldson acknowledges as much, citing a master writer and a master critic. “Yet,” he writes,
“it may be regarded as ‘childish,’ as Nabokov commented in his afterword to Lolita, to expect a work of fiction to reveal significant information about an author. The critic Hugh Kenner maintained that he learned more about Samuel Beckett from watching a two-hour film of him playing billiards than from Deirdre Bair’s long biography.”
Aside from the unknowability of any person’s life, there are a number of factors that make the literary biography a dubious proposition, and Donaldson, to his credit, addresses them head-on. For starters, he points out, writers are by nature expert embellishers, exaggerators, and outright liars. You simply can’t believe a word they say — unless, I would suggest, it’s between the covers of one of their books.

As John Cheever, one of Donaldson’s biographical subjects, once wrote, “I have been a storyteller since the beginning of my life, rearranging facts to make them more interesting and sometimes more significant. I have improvised a background for myself — genteel, traditional — and it is generally accepted.”

For another thing, writers live most of their lives inside their own skulls while alone in a room with the door closed. Few of them lead lives of action, or even mildly compelling activity. This helps account for the fact that literary biographies tend to be dull as dust. Exceptions who prove this rule are Ernest Hemingway (another of Donaldson’s biographical subjects), especially when he’s on a safari or in a fistfight, or Anton Chekhov in the penal colony on Sakhalin Island, or Jack London in the Klondike, or Jack Kerouac in Mexico.

Come to think of it, the only literary biography I’ve read that was also a ripping good yarn was Geoffrey Wolff’s Black Sun: The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby. Crosby’s life — and Wolff’s account — had it all: Paris in the ’20s, old money, war, drugs, drink, wild sex, costume balls, poetry, fast cars, literary stars, and, finally, a sensational murder-suicide. What’s not to love about a story like that?

Donaldson comes at the dullness question a bit sideways. After acknowledging that the makers of great literature often have “otherwise insignificant or even reprehensible private lives,” he then takes a curious swipe not at biographies of writers but at movies about writers: “Depicting what a writer does is boring, and so it is that films about authors are almost universally awful.”

Almost. One of my favorite movies is Naked Lunch, not because I’m a particular fan of the book or of William S. Burroughs, but because David Cronenberg’s film makes such ingenious use of lizards and bugs, and he hasn’t tried to film the words that wound up on the page, but rather the warped state of mind that put them there. The movie is not about a writer; it’s about writing. That said, I’ll concede Donaldson’s point about the dreary awfulness of most movies about writers, including Henry and June (Henry Miller), The Sheltering Sky (Paul Bowles), and, at the risk of offending the Coen Brothers’ many worshipers, Barton Fink (George S. Kaufman?).

The best part of Donaldson’s book, for me, is the final section, “The Cheever Misadventure.” Maybe this is so because of my abiding love for Cheever’s writing, and maybe it’s partly because I interviewed Donaldson for a newspaper article in 1988, shortly after his Cheever biography was published, and I came away impressed by Donaldson’s acuity and his pit-bull doggedness.

Whatever the reason, I enjoyed reading Donaldson’s new account of how the Cheever biography was begun on a gust of high hopes and then got dragged through the mud of familial acrimony and legal wrangling — and how Donaldson came through the ordeal bruised but game to do it all over again because, as he puts it, “writing the Cheever was the most stimulating and fascinating work of my life.” I enjoyed Donaldson’s candid dissection of his many “mistakes” in dealing with Cheever’s widow and three children, including the blunder of allowing himself to be seen as competing with the literary ambitions of Susan and Ben Cheever. I also enjoyed Donaldson’s comparison of his Cheever biography with Blake Bailey’s more expansive, award-winning follow-up from 2009, which included this jab disguised as an admission of another mistake: “But (Bailey) fell into the trap — as I had also done in my Cheever biography — of putting in too much of what he had found out. The reader is weighed down by repetitive mentions of Cheever’s obsessive drinking, sexual yearnings, marital complaints, cruel parenting, and terrible loneliness.” If Donaldson’s Cheever book was too long at 416 pages, as some reviewers felt, then Bailey’s 770-page doorstop is a case of serious bloat. Donaldson can’t resist quoting the critic Jonathan Yardley’s withering assessment of Bailey’s “vast inert pudding of a book,” and John Updike’s lament that it made for “a dispiriting read.” Without venturing to compare the two books, I will say, having written journalism and historical fiction, that any writer who empties his notebook indiscriminately is making a fatal mistake. I, for one, am not holding my breath in anticipation of Bailey’s forthcoming biography of Philip Roth.

Much as I enjoyed reading The Impossible Craft, and much as I admire Scott Donaldson as a researcher and writer, something was happening inside me as I turned the pages. I’ve never been a big fan of literary biographies — or of non-literary biographies, for that matter — but by the time I reached the end of this book, a vague misgiving had hardened into a conviction. It was beautifully expressed by W.H. Auden when he said, “Biographies of writers are always superfluous and usually in bad taste…(The writer’s) private life is, or should be, of no concern to anybody except himself, his family, and his friends.” With a flourish, Gustave Flaubert added, “The artist must manage to make posterity believe that he never existed.” I agree with Nabokov’s assertion that it’s “childish” to expect a work of fiction to reveal significant information about an author, and I also agree with the inverse — that it’s childish to expect an author’s life to reveal significant information about his or her fiction.

In other words, with books — with any art form — the work is everything and the artist’s life and personality are nothing. I would even argue that interest in artists’ lives can be damaging because it distorts and deflects attention from what truly matters, which is the artist’s work.

So here’s a modest proposal for you: We should outlaw literary biographies. Just stop allowing the things to be made. Basta! From now on, people who want to know about the life of a writer will have to glean their knowledge from that writer’s books. Attention will be focused where it belongs, and it will be heightened, sharpened, enriched. Fiction sales will soar. As an extra benefit, writers won’t have to worry that their deplorable drunken debauches and escapades and infidelities will be captured for eternity between the covers of books. Writers will, at last, be free to be their imperfect selves.

Of course I realize it’s unlikely that my modest proposal will come to pass. It’s like hoping for a ban on semi-automatic assault rifles, or super PACs, or Jeb Bush. Ain’t gonna happen. As Donaldson concludes, “Dedicated professional craftsmen continue to write biographies for an audience of interested readers. That will not stop until humans lose their curiosity about each other and about the way they lived and loved and did their work.”

Much as I hate to admit it, he’s probably right.

Surprise Me!