Cinemaphile/Cinemaphobe: Me and the Movies
I love movies, of course I love movies. I knew movies before I knew books, growing up in a working class family, as I did. With us, the TV never failed, switched on when we got home from school and work respectively, switched off when we went to bed. The earliest movies I remember were the old black-and-white flicks of the thirties and forties that played nightly on the little screen, over which my parents, fortified with their highballs, waxed nostalgic. Back then I never really understood the appeal of the leading ladies—Lauren Bacall, Claudette Colbert, Jennifer Jones and the like—who were just old women from a bygone era to my way of thinking (which has now, needless to say, been adjusted by the passage of the years). I was more attuned to the network prime-time lineup than to the old stuff, but every once in a while “The Million Dollar Movie” caught my attention, especially when “King Kong” or “Mighty Joe Young” played over and over for a week at a time. Then too, like most kids of the era, I went regularly to the movie theater, secreting myself among my cohorts in the dark recesses of Peekskill’s venerable Paramount Theater to wonder over the riches of marvels like “Rodan” and “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.”
As I grew into my teens and my tastes enlarged (whether as a result of the advent of books or not, I can’t say), I saw some truly great films there, “Dr. Strangelove” and “The Night of the Iguana,” to name two that have held up brilliantly over the years. Still, I didn’t think so much in evaluative terms, of the movie-making process or of directors or even stars. I was just there for the ride, and some films—like books, like music—appealed to me in an individual way I would have been hard-pressed to describe. It wasn’t until I was at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop that I began to get something of an education in film, and not as a result of any formal classroom analysis or anything like that, but through the student union’s Bijou Theater (a bunch of seats in a drafty room all pointing towards a big screen). There, for a dollar—cheap date—you could experience the films of a single director over the course of several weeks, so that I worked my way through the oeuvres of masters like Bergman, Kurosawa and Renoir, as well as the films of neophytes like Scorcese, whose “Mean Streets” blew me away. In later years, once the VCR craze hit, I was able, like everybody else, to see what I wanted when I wanted. (Hallelujah to that, Netflicks notwithstanding.)
So I love movies. But when I found myself in L.A. on graduating from Iowa for the very good reason that USC had offered me a job to teach creative writing, I never gave even the slightest thought to participating in the industry, though innumerable overtures came my way. I published my first collection, Descent of Man, and fielded queries from people at studios who, after the Lucullan lunch, just wanted to know if I might want to adapt one of my stories for film or perhaps even write a screenplay or adapt somebody else’s work. I didn’t. Not then. Not now. Not ever. Shortly thereafter, my first novel (Water Music) came out to some smattering of acclaim and the phone began ringing all over again. I was very fortunate in those days to have as my representative one of Hollywood’s legendary agents, Evarts Ziegler, Jr., who was a fixture at the Polo Lounge and had been around since the first film came out of its can.
We lunched. We chatted. And Ziggy got various people interested in Water Music (still to this day, one of them keeps his hand in, though the option—which went on for twenty years, has finally dropped). Ziggy’s voice was very distinctive—high, hoarse and excitable—and he called me half a dozen times to report that so-and-so was interested and wonder whether I’d take a meeting or have lunch with the guy and his agent or just, well, hang out. I demurred. Until finally, one day when Ziggy called to say that a new and even grander so-and-so was interested, I acquiesced and made a formal statement of my demands: “I want to write, direct, star in it and play all the principal female roles in drag.” Funny. But now that I think of it, that would have made a hell of a movie, even if I would have had to shave my goatee and put on an extra two hundred pounds to play one of the book’s minor but truly larger-than-life heroines, Fatima of Jafnoo.
Why did I turn my back on any and all offers of participation? Was I crazy? Didn’t I want to be rich? Well, yes and yes. But I am devoted to what I do, to the magic of literature, of words and composition, and there is no way, in this solar system at least, that I could make an artistic decision in coöperation with anyone for any reason, no matter what the monetary rewards were. I am a writer of fiction, not a collaborator on a script for somebody else’s version of one of my books or stories. This is called rigidity. Pig-headedness. Stick-in-the-mudism. But it’s also called serenity. My books are on the shelf. I am responsible for them, for every slash and dot and nuance. Go read them if you like.
I am not, however, fully mad and I do understand and appreciate what a good film can do for a book’s sales—and, one hopes, readership—and, as I say, I do love the movies. So, as I see it, I have two choices: allow people to make films of my work by their own lights and accept the remuneration that comes along with that, or have my widow toss the manuscript on top of the coffin as I’m lowered into the grave. As most of you reading this now will know, I’ve chosen the former model.
Many films have been made of my work and I have been thrilled, stunned and happily amazed by a number of them. (By the way, instead of writing papers on an author’s work, nowadays many students are assigned to make short films of given scenes—go on the internet and type in “The Tortilla Curtain films” and you will discover innumerable attempts both here and abroad, and these for the most part do not thrill, stun and amaze me.) There have been terrific student films, like Greg Beeman’s “The Big Garage” and Jamieson Fry’s “Killing Babies,” and equally fine professional films, like Damian Harris’ “Greasy Lake,” but to date, there has been only one major Hollywood production of my work, and that is Alan Parker’s 1994 version of “The Road to Wellville,” a movie so unique and true to the vision of the novel that I still shout in wonder over it. But then, Alan is a master, utterly protean, able to make you swallow your shirt with pulse-pounders like “Midnight Express” and “Angel Heart” and yet produce a movie as sweetly beautiful as his version of Roddy Doyle’s “The Commitments.”
I’ve been lucky so far. So far there have been no major stinkers made from my work, but when you let the work go as I believe a writer must (think of the late Leonard Michaels and how he came to town thinking he would have the final say—any say—in “The Men’s Club”), then you have to brace yourself for the worst. But who knows, miracles may happen. Joshua Leonard has just wrapped his version of “The Lie,” and while “The Tortilla Curtain” lies fatally wounded and the “Drop City” and “Talk Talk” projects are beginning to bleed around the edges, one never knows. There’s always a chance, slim though it may be, that something will be made and made well. And if not, then you (I) can dream of the afterlife, when Water Music or World’s End or Drop City will play thirty years down the road as a 13-part miniseries on “Masterpiece Theater.” Just think of all those PBS viewers rushing the bookstores … if such a thing as a bookstore exists in that dim, image-haunted future. What can we do? Die. Collectively. And catch it all on film, for the delectation of the next species to come along, walk upright and peer into a flickering little box.