Archive for April, 2011

Been rolling the term around in my skull lately, think I’ve just about decided it’s wholly spurious. Some concept someone (probably not a writer) made up way back when that’s stuck with us, dogged us. Haunted some of us.

An elderly Monet, bed-ridden, fingers knotted grotesquely with arthritis, was dabbing at a painting propped on his chest one day when a dowager neighbor happened by, looked down at what was probably another take on lily pads and declared: “That’s marvelous! Especially considering your condition!” Monet reportedly looked her up and down with smug indifference. “Madam,” he replied evenly, “one does not paint with one’s hands.”

Poor analog or not, it’s my contention the same holds true with prose.

‘Writer’s block.’ Have noun and adjective ever been more damagingly coupled? The first valiantly cries, “Fluidity!” The second hatefully screams, “Inert!” Kind of an oxymoron when you think about it, and at the least grammatically confusing. ‘Writer’s block what?’

Themselves, I think.  Except that one can hardly be a writer without having written, so what got blocked?

I’ve no proof of this—all pure theory on my part—but I’d bet most even reasonably prolific writers rarely if ever go in terror of the blank page. Insipidly obvious as it may sound, it’s only paper. Just as the keys are only keys. The Kendal only plastic. They’re not what you’re writing with.

Okay, I’m stating the obvious: we write with our minds. And minds surely do get blocked. What I’d argue is what writing has to do with it. Worrying about the story or book that isn’t there yet is worrying about the non-existent, worrying about worry. “Fear itself,” as Roosevelt put it. Because, of course, the story is there. It’s just not set down yet. “How do you carve an elephant?” the man asked. “By cutting away everything that doesn’t look like one,” the sculptor replied. Feature a solid block of stone: does it really matter how or where you begin? In the end, it has to come out somewhere. But only if we start.

It’s not exactly brain surgery. No one’s going to die if we go down the wrong path. That’s what the delete key is for. We don’t have to know where it’s going to begin. And what a terrible bore if we did. Some part of everyone’s day is tedious; why concentrate on that part? Illuminate the day (and, if by chance, the human condition) with words! If Columbus had feared completing the first league, America would still have been there…I just wouldn’t be living in it. But someone would. Why not me? Sometimes the biggest hurdle is getting out of our own way. The idea is not to stop fearing the unknown, but to till it. Fear is the first cousin to suspense. You can make money off suspense.

“Ah,” some of you are saying, “I get it, Jones, you’re one of those guys that works without a net, goes charging off into the story without the least idea where it’s going! But I work from an outline, my friend! Chapter by chapter even! And I know exactly how it will end! Anything else is reckless. As Truman Capote said about Kerouac’s On The Road, ‘That’s not writing, it’s typing.’”

So okay, outline first. I don’t outline (except maybe in my head) and maybe my work suffers for it, but I’d never try to steer someone else from outlines. Outline all you want. Outline till the cows come home. Just don’t become its prisoner. If you use outlines for fortification, say the way you use coffee, hey–go for it. Hang out your clothespins and plot points. But beware: a blueprint alone does not a building make. If you aren’t, to some extent, “making it up as you go” —and often at the expense of those clothespins—you’re doing a disservice to yourself, your characters, your plot and whatever underlying theme or motive you assign the damn thing.

Author William Styron (Sophie’s Choice, etc.) remarked of the writing process: “It’s never dredged up. It pops up. Always a surprise.” He also went his last twenty years of life without writing another novel. And died bemoaning the fact. Styron suffered massive bouts of depression. And isn’t depression just another name for writer’s block?

I don’t think so. Many artists, sculptors, painters, suffer depression. Some amount of depression has been credited in aiding an artist’s work, even contributing to their best stuff. Anyway, it does seem to go with the territory. Styron wrote some grand, epic-style books. Then, at age sixty, facing the prospects of his own mortality, he grappled with his first round of depression. When he came out of it, he wrote a book about it: Darkness Visible (some irony there, I think, and maybe payback: make depression pay!). Then, convinced his muse had departed him, Styron plunged into a final phase of despondency that only died when he did. Jesus. I’m getting depressed just writing about it.

Can we learn anything from the Styrons, Hemingways, Londons, and Plaths–great writers who, for their own reasons, chose to take the shortcut? Maybe only that, like black holes and quantum mechanics, the relationship between depression and art doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. On Monday the Universe seems to coexist with and tolerate them, on Tuesday it doesn’t seem to matter.

Depression is real. Very real. And god-awful. Been there myself a few times. Seems to hit many of us, with varying degrees, later on in life. But I don’t happen to believe in muses. And my guess is not that Styron, Hemingway, etc. couldn’t write, but simply believed they couldn’t. They aren’t the same thing. There are times when it doesn’t pay to think. To my mind, the worst thing a potential writer can do is stop and think about the act of writing. Because right away that prevents him from thinking about anything else. What’s surprising about Styron is that he knew this! He admitted that trying to “dredge it up” never worked, that it always “popped” up from nowhere. Like a gift from God.

Well…maybe. A pretty thought. And if God made us, then I guess he might have made some us writers too. But I kind of shy from the idea. Seems dogmatic. And it cramps my ego. Isn’t there a relationship between faith and something about choice? It may seem like a gift–and no amount of flailing and head-banging will bring it to the surface—nevertheless, I’m convinced it does come from us, from somewhere down there in the twisted corridors of our memory-packed, idiosyncratic, atavistic brains. I think the fact of this is reflected in the writing itself, the individual, singular “voice” we give it. In any case, who really cares where it comes from? In the end, who even cares at all? And certainly: who ever really cares more than the person who went to the bother to write it? We all die alone.

I had this night class in college: Drawing and Painting. One evening, weary and exhausted from three hours of life drawing, I was sick of the model, sick of myself and ready to tear up my latest masterpiece when my instructor came up behind me. He looked at my drawing a long moment, nodded, and said, “Go home” (meaning back to my dorm). I was astonished. “Go home!” I lamented. He nodded again. “You’re not having any fun.” I was still miffed. “Look,” I told him, “I’ve been working really hard at this thing!” He smiled. “I know. That’s when it’s supposed to be the most fun.”

Pretty smart guy.

I had a pretty smart English teacher, too. The kind of rare find who will actually listen patiently when you confess you’re struggling with a class theme. “How do you break writer’s block?” I asked him. “Put down the first sentence,” he said. I thought about it. “And if you can’t think of a sentence?” “Then put down the first word,” he said, “the rest will follow eventually. Let the damn thing write itself. Who do you think you are, Faulkner?” “Of course not,” I replied humbly. “There you go,” he nodded, “what have you got to lose?”

A native and lifelong resident of Montreal, Buell held both master’s and doctor’s degrees from the University of Montreal and was a member of the Communication Studies faculty of Loyola/Concordia University where he served as professor emeritus. More than that about him I’ve been unable to uncover, including whether he’s still living. All five of his known novels were published by Farrar, Straus, Giroux and each well-deserved of your time. His magnum opus though, for me, is 1976’s PLAYGROUND.

Buell’s works contain a similarly continuing theme: one perhaps best described by author Richard Matheson when speaking of his own work: “One guy, alone in the world, up against the wall.”  The books often share a linear nature, but there the likenesses end. The settings, struggles and motivations are always fresh and inventive, never self-imitative.

The “plot” for PLAYGROUND is simplicity itself: Spence Morison , typical suburban family man and wage earner, is en route for a two week fishing vacation with friends when unforeseen weather blows his Cessna off course and sends him crashing into a lake somewhere in the Canadian wilds. He struggles ashore to find himself a man alone, unfindable, and wholly without resources. Even navigation is limited to the sun and stars. With only a layman’s knowledge of survival and nature lore, the vast beauty and grandeur of his surroundings quickly become a mocking reminder of his uselessness outside society’s womb and his scant chance of survival without it. And that the terrors of the human psyche can be as darkly forbidding as the deepest forest night.

Reminiscent of Jack London’s terse prose and eerie solitude in TO MAKE A FIRE, Buell weaves a riveting balance of first and third person narrative describing Morrison’s inward and outward plight. We learn who the real Spence Morrison is even as he learns it himself– the painful shedding of old ways that no longer work, of missed opportunities and discoveries that one moment parallel societal life and the next determine his fast vanishing future, what it means to truly be alive and how death is a distinct and discernable face hovering ever at one’s shoulder.  So in touch is the author with his protagonist and surroundings, his frailties and minor triumphs, experiencing PLAYGROUND’s authentic ring we have to remind ourselves this isn’t biography. Once you’ve walked in Spence Morrison’s shoes, it’s hard to look at the magic wonder of a simple cigarette lighter in the same way again. We know the story can only end one of two ways, but feel that to stop or skip ahead would somehow  betray Morrison.

Just how good the writing is, can be shown in the last pages of Spence’s plight, when physical deprivation begins to win its war over mental:

He waited and planed and even hoped. But he had already spent himself. He felt a slight dizziness, then the momentary seizure of sleep, and more, and tried to fight it off and couldn’t. …He managed to move away from the fire and crawled more and more into nothingness.

He didn’t do it the next time. He couldn’t even get to his knees. He was aware of day, and heat, and of deciding things that drifted into vague dreams, memories he couldn’t be sure of. There was a nighttime and fire, and presences, and no words to know them by. Once, it was raining a little. He kept slipping in and out of consciousness. He knew he’d taken his boots off. The waking told him he was alive. The other kept arriving like nothing. At any moment it would stay.

The whole world knows about Cormac McCarthy, his deservedly won honors and awards. But like his creation Spence Morrison–vanished and forgotten in the vast Canadian woods–John Buell has become lost in a forest of words, most of them vastly inferior to his own. It is our loss as well. Find this book today and treasure its power.

Talking of screenwriting today—so those of you who believe movies are not a true art form (I’m somewhat among you, but that’s another blog) feel free to put this aside in pursuit of the real art of prose. If it helps at all, this particular film was first a novel by Henri Troyant.

Rosalind Russell said: “Movies are made up of moments.” What first appears obvious and elemental becomes more subtle and true the more you think about it.

One of the old time moguls—Louie B. Mayer, I think—said: “Chase ‘em up a tree, shake a stick at ‘em, and chase ‘em back down again.” He may have been onto something–or just on something, I don’t know—especially about the ‘shaking stick’ part.

Some films we love for their greatness, some for their potential.

As kids, my brother and I saw a lot of movies at drive-in theaters because my parents were thrifty. Most of the time I had no idea beforehand what the program (usually a double bill) even included. One that stood out, though, was a Paramount offering called THE MOUNTAIN.

I’ll never forget the opening. I was still on the drive-in playground right in front of the screen when the picture started and I looked up from the push style merry-go-round to see the bold Paramount logo dissolve into a singular V shooting out of the screen to dramatically spell out ‘VistaVision—Motion Picture Hi Fidelity’. This was followed immediately by some impressive special effects work (circa 1956) of a plane emerging from a swirling fog to crash into the jagged peaks and snowy escarpments of THE MOUNTAIN. Then we dissolve to an establishing shot of the mountain itself amid the glorious Swiss Alps (or the French Alps, or the Ozarks, the movie never says) and the supered jagged fonts of the stars’ names, Spencer Tracy and Robert Wagner.

Tracy, in his fifties by then but looking late sixties, hair snow white and body less than nimble, played aging mountain climber Zachary Teller, now content to raise sheep and take care of young Robert Wagner: whippet thin, agile, baby-faced in his early 20’s and–we’re asked to believe–Tracy’s brother. Both characters are classically one dimensional. Tracy’s Zachary is the wizened good brother tottering about their small house/barn, one kindly hand on his sheep; Wagner’s Chris a spoiled snot-nose kid longingly watching area tourists pass through his picturesque village with sports cars and blondes he’ll never be able to afford. His only escape from anonymity and the gorgeous Swiss scenery he apparently can’t see comes in the form of the tragic plane crash on nearby Bald Mountain–but only if young Chris can convince the team of climbers selected to search to take him with them. Chris is turned down, his long suffering pride further sullied when pious older brother Zachary is chosen over him. To add insult to injury the always benign Zachary not only fails to see the opportunity for fame and notoriety, he doesn’t even want it. A legendary climber in the little village, Zachary took one particularly bad fall that killed his climbing partner, and feels the mountain no longer wants him; he’s content to stay at home now and count sheep. Wagner, who actually has the meatier role, is thus forced to hang about village and hovel on slow simmer, practicing looking irksome while playing catch-up to Tracy’s effortless acting. It’s left to others to pursue the dangers of the icy peaks and collect any mail and valuable papers—all of the aircraft’s passengers are assumed dead.

But when the rescue team returns in failure after the death of their best climber, the wily Wagner sees a game changer in the making. The coming winter season is now deemed too risky by the others, further official climbing is postponed until the spring thaw—the mail and bodies, after all, aren’t going anywhere. But neither, Wagner reasons, are the watches, jewelry and wallets among the dead. His bankroll for getting out of the suffocating village is lying right up there for the taking. Of course, only a fool, not to mention an inexperienced climber, would attempt the summit alone. But Wagner just happens to know the best climber around—his brother. Now all he has to do is talk the older, reluctant Zachary into guiding him. And suddenly we have something like a plot, albeit a simplistic one. Or is it?

I was always a sucker for linear narrative. And at the age of twelve, there at the drive-in with my parents and brother, I was a lot more interested in the gorgeous matte paintings and trick photography than in mundane things like plotting. Yes, Zachary reluctantly agrees to lead his nasty brother upward through a series of climbing shots that still manage to be both beautiful and suspenseful after 50 years. The 2nd unit location shots blend near-seamlessly with the ones shot later on sound stage sets, even in those involving an obvious Tracy double. A notorious hard drinker most of his life, it has been suggested that Tracy’s incredible naturalistic acting technique owed at least a passing nod to the bottle; there are moments throughout his career when, in close ups, Tracy would hold a slow blink and nod so long it appeared he might actually nod right off on camera. He was, by the time of the filming of THE MOUNTAIN, clearly not up to the rigorous physical demands of even some of the soundstage setups, a fact conspicuously compensated for by a very real Robert Wagner making a long, torturous climb, face clearly toward the camera in at least one location scene. Tracy was on the wagon though during filming, maybe even had the demon rum licked, until Ernest Hemmingway bullied him off sobriety with his next movie, THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA. Good old Pappa; apparently you can’t be the world’s greatest writer and not an asshole too.

The disparity in the actors’ ages and physiques actually works to the benefit of some segments. Craggy Tracy looks wholly believable—confident and wisely afraid–when hugging-tight an icy ledge, and his fire plug build and facial tenacity convince us he’s actually able to haul up a limp Wagner’s dead weight hand over hand with rope-burned hands in an otherwise implausibly grueling scene (how those hands got burned is perhaps the single most teeth-gritting sequence ever filmed, aided by a stingingly appropriate musical score that nearly matches Hitchcock’s famed Psycho shower). Still, watching the film at home, I could scarcely imagine today’s audiences sitting still for so many long moments of silent deliberation without a car chase or two to break things up. THE MOUNTAIN was designed to impart the dragging weight of the climb on the viewer, and at times, perhaps, works too exhaustingly well.

Anyway, long story short, the brothers make it to the plane unscathed and intact. We now know that anything untoward can only occur during the descent. Louie B. Mayer’s ‘chase ‘em up a tree’ theory of filmmaking is almost perfectly analogous here–all that’s lacking so far is that ‘waving stick.’ Some 1956 audience members may have seen it coming–I didn’t—but its appearance had the potential to turn a routine action film into something more thoughtful than even the filmmakers may have foreseen–and something perhaps all of us can consider when our script or novel’s structure is complete and we’re flailing about frantically for an underlying theme or ‘meaning.’

Now remember that Tracy’s Zachary was wholly against helping his brother climb the mountain, and only does so after Chris threatens to attempt the climb alone (both men know such an effort would be suicide, especially for the inexperienced Chris). Yet once past the most dangerous peaks, Zachary is transformed by the experience. He smiles with pride at his young brother even as Chris, licked with exhaustion, finally insists they give up. “But it’s a shame,” Zachary encourages in a surprising turnabout, “a good climb–something to be proud of!” We can almost see the optimism of youth return to Tracy’s leathery face. Tracy, in fact, is so caught up in their accomplishment he nearly forgets, upon arrival at the crash site, why they came in the first place: to pick the pockets of the dead. Brother Chris, meanwhile, goes about this with unfazed abandon, not neglecting even the smallest trinket until he unexpectedly comes across Louie Mayer’s ‘waving stick’. It’s in the form of a single surviving passenger holed up within the wrecked fuselage: a Hindu woman, half conscious, seriously injured but still alive.

This can easily be dismissed as director Edward Dmytryk’s (THE CAINE MUTINY) device to underscore the disparate motives and morals of the two brothers: of course Tracy, the good one, will rush to help the woman, and Wagner, the bad one, won’t lift a finger. And at first this seems like all the filmmakers have in mind. But! Finding a live survivor creates a sticky problem, an unforeseen schism in the original plan.

Tracy only agreed to the climb when Wagner—desperate for a new start– threatened to go it alone. Wagner’s trapped animal persona—self-centered or not—is quite painfully real to him. He’s convincingly sincere when admitting to big brother he’d “rather die” than live out his life in that go-nowhere village. With his Elvis hair and James Dean pout this might well be a sneaky nod to the angst-ridden youth culture of the fifties—it would help explain Wagner’s casting against the clearly older Tracy. Was it the single intentional effort to soften Chris’ otherwise irredeemable nature, give him a much need extra layer? Even an alpine paradise might seem an inescapable trap to the normal hungers of a youth with his whole life ahead of him.

In any case, neither brother foresaw the possibility of a survivor. But Tracy, who just rediscovered his confidence as a climber (a man?) now finds the very best reason for making the trip after all, which he would not have discovered, by the way, without the original insistence of bad guy Chris! This is both a pivotal moment in the film and the place things go most wrong…or more precisely, aren’t taken proper advantage of. While good brother tends the injured passenger, bad brother continues blithely robbing the dead. He’s hardly a golden character to be sure, but neither, perhaps, worthy of Tracy’s pious scorn. Like it or not, Wagner is right when he says the trinkets aren’t doing the bodies any good. He may be acting unlawfully but isn’t Tracy equally guilty by association? He knew from the get-go why they were going up there. Does he still retain the right to somehow come off more righteous than Wagner?

What ensues is a wonderful narrative dilemma too quickly dismissed. Wagner can’t sneak his booty back down the mountain if Tracy intends to bring the Hindu passenger along; she’s a witness. For that matter so is Tracy. It’s a step-back-and-think moment—a chance for teaching and learning for both cast and audience. But it never materializes. What could have given Wagner’s character at least a passing chance for redemption and some much needed emotional depth and Tracy, perhaps, a small crisis of faith is sold out for knee-jerk reaction. Zachary appears lost emotionally just when he’s needed most. Chris not only never wavers from his original goal of thievery, he even attempts to murder the Hindu woman to cover his tracks! Zachary prevents this, of course, nailing his irrepressible brother with a right cross as he’s attacking the woman. He then fashions a sled from a plane door and attempts to take her back down the mountain unassisted, in effect leaving his young brother for dead—just as surely as Chris would have left the Hindu woman. Again, is the message here that cosmic morality somehow supersedes plain justice? That might have been thought provoking but it’s never pursued. Tracy, after years of raising his obnoxious younger sibling, going through the thankless hell of being both father and brother, seems, in a moment of childish haste, to dismiss their relationship altogether. “Where did I go wrong with you?” he asks Wagner earlier in the picture. Where indeed? It would have saved everyone a lot of misery if he’d clipped Chris a good one back when he was ten years old. Everyone but the Hindu lady.

Unconvincingly staged as Wagner’s attempted murder of the surviving passenger is, it does raise the stakes in the conflict between brothers and nearly saves the film.  For it forces Tracy into the aforementioned dilemma and brings his golden character down a notch. Not that the filmmakers took advantage of this. Within the strictures of the times there is only one way a fifties movie can end: by avoiding any and all later confrontations/forgiveness between brothers at the bottom of the mountain by arranging to have Wagner fall off it.  It doesn’t help things when good brother Tracy not only successfully rescues the woman but, in a somewhat cloying “hearing” at film’s end, deliberately lies to the townspeople about the above incidents, virtually trading roles (and personalities—come on!) with Wagner about looting the plane and retrieving the woman. Thus Tracy’s goodness is preserved while Wagner’s evil is forever sealed—and not just in the minds of the audience–not a soul in town believes Zachary’s clumsy “confession”.  Though Tracy gives it his best shot, the scene comes off about as realistic as it sounds and good Zachary rides  into the sunset in an ox cart with Claire Trevor in a thankless role whose only purpose in the film seems to be to assure audiences of the day there was nothing amiss with two grown men living together.

Looking back, the manner in which bad brother Chris dies seems another lost opportunity. There’s probably a million ways to fall off a mountain so it’s hard to believe the filmmakers weren’t being deliberately creative with Wagner’s demise. After decking Chris at the plane, Zachary starts down the mountain with the Hindu lady, getting a good head start on his dazed brother. Regaining consciousness in a scene of almost palpable panic, Chris quickly divines his chances of survival without big brother’s guidance and races off after him through the deep snow, stolen booty in tow. Zachary, meanwhile, has reached a crevasse in his glacial descent; the only opportunity for crossing lies with the existence of two snow bridges spanning the chasm. Zachary tests the left bridge with his axe but deems it unsafe. He tries the bridge on the right, which seems sounder and chances it, though he barely makes it across with his Hindu charge before it collapses into the icy depths.

Meanwhile, a desperate, hysterical Chris appears on the scene to confront the chasm and the one remaining snow bridge. “For the love of God,” he cries across to his brother, “how do I get across!”  An exhausted Zachary can hardly find his breath, much less voice a warning that the existing bridge is unsafe. Chris, abruptly (and unconvincingly) replaces abject fear with abject anger, accusing Zachary of lying on purpose so he, Chris, will be trapped forever on the other side. Of course bad brother then attempts the remaining bridge which dissolves under him, sending both his body and booty to a kind of figurative hell. It’s terrifically filmed, looking up from the bottom of the crevasse with the boulders of snow and tumbling Chris coming down at us—and it’s strangely satisfying, we’ve all had enough of bad brother by then.  Is the symbolism intended to be so pronounced? Are we to surmise that, as in life, there was a right path and a wrong path off the mountain? Maybe, but Zachary’s bridge collapsed behind him, so what’s the point–it’s not just how you talk the talk but walk the bridge? To his credit, Tracy does cry a last second warning but by then Wagner is committed. I can’t help wondering how the picture might have ended with both brothers still alive, staring at each other across the abyss between that dubious bridge.

But maybe the filmmakers got it right at that. After all, we all die, and Chris, booty still in hand, took it with him. And after repeated viewings I can still recommend the film if only for so many missed opportunities and the picture it might have been.