Many years ago, I was up for the gig of adapting Where the Wild Things Are to the big screen, and I had the chance to talk to Maurice Sendak on the phone for two and a half hours.
It was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life, because in spite of being a much older man with an infinitely greater impact on world culture, Sendak and I had an immediate rapport and instantly talked like two old friends. I imagine many people have similar stories about him. He saw me, the both of us I guess, as adventurers in the artistic wilderness. He didn’t like rules, he had no patience with commerce, he was utterly unconcerned with the demands of the marketplace. He was a pure artist, a man of vision who did what he wanted, damn the consequences, and made the marketplace bend to his will.
To a screenwriter, an encounter like that is like heroin. The screenwriter spends his entire life in compromise, putting himself out there day after day, doing his best to make his voice heard, only to be told, a hundred times a day in a hundred different ways, that his voice is subservient to the studio executive, the marketing department, the producer, the director, the cast, the special-effects crew, the production designer, the product-placement people, and so on.
We talked about Walt Disney. I told Sendak that I thought Bambi was Disney’s artistic peak, Sendak said he placed it at Pinocchio. “Bambi is where he went wrong,” he said. “Bambi is where the cute animals took over. I liked Mickey Mouse, the early ones. That guy was a rat-nosed bastard.”
We talked about Samuel Beckett. Sendak loved his plays but had never read his prose. I told him I greatly preferred his prose and suggested a short story collection as a point of departure. I don’t know if he ever took me up on the recommendation, but I was gladdened that an artist with nothing left to prove to anyone was still curious and still looking for inspiration, still eager to learn.
Sendak told me he had only one demand for my (hypothetical) adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are. “All I ask,” he said, “Is that the movie be as revolutionary today as the book was in 1962.” Those are terrifying and liberating words for a screenwriter to hear. On the one hand, you’ve got a great author telling you that you are free to do anything you want, and on the other hand, you know that the word “revolutionary” is in the studio’s mind exactly nowhere.
I laughed. I said “I totally agree with you, that’s what the movie should be. The way that your book threw out every expectation of what a children’s book should be, that’s what the movie should do. It should boldly, recklessly experiment with form, it should deal with dream and metaphor, it should take penetrating psychological insight and present it as messy, wild comedy. But I gotta tell you, there’s no way a studio is going to spend $100 million on that movie.”
“That’s okay with me,” he said. “I don’t need the money, I don’t need the hassle, and I don’t need a movie made of Where the Wild Things Are. And if no movie ever gets made, I’m perfectly okay with that. These are my conditions.”
Loved that guy.
I am shocked, nay, stricken by the news of the death of Natasha Richardson. Back in the 1980s, she was, all by herself, a good enough reason for me to go see a movie. I loved her as Mary Shelley in Ken Russell’s absolutely stark-raving-mad Gothic, then as Patty Hearst in Paul Schrader’s movie of the same name, then in The Handmaid’s Tale and again with Schrader in The Comfort of Strangers. I knew that if Natasha Richardson was in it, it was bound to be smart, daring and a little bit crazy. I regret not seeing her on stage in New York when I lived there and she doing O’Neill with Liam Neeson. I have nothing else to offer, except my deepest sympathy for her family.
I noted the other day the passing of William Zantzinger. What did William Zantzinger do, you might ask. Well, every Bob Dylan fan knows the answer to that — "William Zantzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll, with a cane that he twirled ’round his diamond-ring finger." "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" is the high-water mark of Dylan’s "protest songs" era, a compelling, crushing indictment of careless racism and social injustice (Zantzinger was sentenced to a mere six months for killing Carroll in a drunken rage).
I mention the lonesome death of Mr. Zantzinger here because, a few years back, I was listening to a version of "Hattie Carroll" from one of Dylan’s many live albums, and I suddenly thought "Wait — this is a real guy." William Zantzinger is a real guy." Dylan recorded this song practically on the day the events unfolded, but he’s still singing the song in concert thirty, forty years later. In the song, Dylan paints William Zantzinger in all shades of ill repute, presents him in terms of lofty wealth and political connections, the better to contrast him to his victim, poor Hattie Carroll, who lived a simple, spare, selfless life of servitude and motherhood.
And it hit me: Jesus, what must it be like to be William Zantzinger? Just imagine, everywhere you go, you introduce yourself, and in the mind of every person of a certain age, a little song starts playing.
YOU: "Hi, I’m William Zantzinger."
GUY: (thinks, humming) "William Zantzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll…"
(GUY slowly backs away, giving you a vaguely disgusted look)
I interrupt the holiday festivities to note the passing of Harold Pinter. To "serious playwrights" of my generation, Pinter was second only to Beckett in terms of being a must-read. Back when I was trying to figure out what a play is, I read all the Pinter I could get my hands on. As the years went by, I sufficiently developed my talent to the point where I finally began to understand that I didn’t have the slightest idea what Pinter was doing. I understood that his absurdist dramas were primarily about mood, that they weren’t meant to be taken literally, but it was a good twenty-five years before I started to get a handle on the full measure of his accomplishment. Pinter himself consistently refused to discuss his work in any but the most practical terms ("you stand there and say this and pause here and then stick the knife in, and that’s really all there is to it") but a piece last year from John Lahr in the New Yorker did an excellent job of putting the whole thing into something like a proper perspective. To paraphrase Beckett’s thoughts on Joyce, most playwrights write about something, but Pinter’s plays are something. They don’t find drama in social interaction, they are drama itself. They aren’t there to merely entertain you, they’re there to provoke an emotional reaction. That sounds easy, but try it some time, try to create a drama that pushes past the conventions of the form to arrive at a place where the drama is the play itself, and maybe you too can end up with a Nobel prize.
For those thinking "Who the heck is Harold Pinter?" I suggest you begin with Betrayal, a mid-period piece of his, a relatively straightforward romantic drama with a simple, ingenious twist — it is told backwards. For my illiterate readers, there is an excellent film adaptation starring Ben Kingsley and Jeremy Irons. Another good place to start is his electrifying anti-torture one-act One for the Road. Or, you could watch himexplain himself — in his own kind of way — in his Nobel speech. And here is the young Ian Holm as Lenny in a scene from The Homecoming. And here is Donald Pleasence and Alan Bates in a scene from The Caretaker. And here is some very late Pinter, a chunk of his adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s (actually Anthony Shaffer’s — see below) Sleuth with Michael Caine and Jude Law, directed by Kenneth Branagh, which well illustrates his way with threat and the power struggles that underlie the smallest conversational tidbits.
A few years ago, I had a devastating moment of self-definition in a hotel bathtub in Innsbruck. I was reading a little book of essays on Pinter, published in conjunction with his 70th birthday. One of the essays described him as England’s last "important" writer, that is, a writer whose work isn’t merely decorative, or "entertainment," but which has worth and resonance into the "real" world, the world of politics and world affairs, and which physically alters the shape of its form — plays would never be quite the same after Pinter, and any theatrical moment that wrings uneasy menace from a silence will be forever known as "Pinteresque." My devastating moment of self-definition came when I suddenly realized, with an electric chill, that no one is ever going to publish a little book of essays on my 70th birthday, describing me as an "important writer." It was a shaming moment, but also a freeing one, because I realized that the job of Harold Pinter was already taken, there was no point in my pursuing it. I decided then that if I ever wrote a memoir, I would call it An Unimportant Writer.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the passing of Yma Sumac and Michael Crichton. Sumac I knew through her gonzo lounge-exotica album Voice of the Xtabay, an LP I kept in my collection for many years. She was a true one-of-a-kind entertainer: how many other Peruvian sopranos were there who dressed like an Incan princess and sang oddball "exotica" in New York clubs in the 1950s?
Michael Crichton was, of course, a much more easily-defined talent: he wrote bestsellers. Lots of them. The Andromeda Strain was one of my first "grown-up movie" movie-going experiences, I was probably 10 or so when my brother took me to see it. It scared the hell out of me, images of the town full of dead people still linger in my mind. I remember, even then, admiring the deft twists of its plot, and the way it criticized the fallibility of science. I rushed to see The Terminal Man in spite of the fact that it was, of all things, a George Segal vehicle — pardon, a George Segal thriller, and Futureworld, which was a kind-of sequel to Westworld, which set the tone for a number of Chrichton plots to come: rich guy takes a cool scientific principle and tries to turn it into a theme park — with disastrous results. Chrichton had a hugely commercial understanding of how to make science cool to the casual entertainment consumer and was the source of many successful adaptations, as well as some interesting misfires — The 13th Warrior springs to mind, with its end-of-Act I moment where Antonio Banderas, after being kidnapped by a cannibalistic tribe, suddenly finds that he can understand their language. The scene is handled beautifully — Antonio is huddled by the fire, scared to death as the barbarians talk in their strange, brutish tongue, and then suddenly an English word pops up here and there, and then suddenly they’re all speaking English. The dramatic point of the scene is that Antonio can now understand them, but the screenwriters figured out how to express that the way it would seem to the protagonist, and I’ve always kept that scene in the back of my mind in case I ever need to steal it for something. (The 13th Warrior is based on Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead, which, well, if you don’t think Eaters of the Dead kicks The 13th Warrior‘s ass around the block title-wise, I just don’t know what to tell you.
UPDATE: Okay, okay, I didn’t describe the translation-by-immersion scene from The 13th Warrior very well. swan_tower , as usual, puts it much better below. And this blog entry must surely be the largest gathering of 13th Warrior fans ever assembled.
I gasped aloud this evening when I found out, several days late, that one of my favorite artists, Bruce Conner, died Monday.
I had never heard of Conner before I wandered into the Museum of Contemporary Art in LA, one day in 2000. They were having a retrospective of his work, and I thought that it might be perhaps a cute little show of an artist of marginal importance. What a shock — the museum was jam-packed with room after room of staggering masterpieces in all manner of media — collages, assemblages, drawings, photographs, films and other, more conceptual works, less easily categorized. My head felt like, well, like the guy in the collage above.
The first thing I saw coming into the MoCA show was a room or two of these curious assemblages. So at first I thought “Aha, he’s a Rauschenberg also-ran”, except that, upon looking them over, I found his assemblages more interesting, more evocative and more haunting than Rauschenberg’s.
But then he also did these rather striking felt-tip marker drawings. Each drawing is a single line, wandering, snaking across the paper, never breaking, in bothdeliberate and abstract shapes, the variations of tone coming from the marker drying out before being replaced with a new one.
One of his more amazing series of drawings were a large number of “inkblots”, these intricately-detailed, symmetrical drawings. He made dozens upon dozens of these cunning works, in all different levels of complexity. At the MoCA show, drawings like this filled up an entire wall, in row upon row, a thrilling cornucopia of ideas. Presented with them, I said, well, either I have to stop looking at these right now, or else look at them for the rest of my life. As it happened, I split the difference, looking at them for an hour or so and then buying the show’s catalogue so I could peruse them at my leisure later.
He is perhaps best known for these detailed, wry collages — and if they were all he’d done, he’d still be a great artist.
But then there are his movies, which took all kinds of different forms, from oddball collages of discarded film clips to music videos of Toni Basil (from, like, 1969, when Toni Basil was an avant-garde artist instead of an MTV star).
In any case, do yourself a favor and check him out.
I am greatly saddened to hear of the passing of Stan Winston. I don’t think it’s too much to say that his creature designs changed and extended the realm of the possible in movies, and provided the hook, the fuel and the content of, literally, millions of dreams and nightmares.
I once came close to working with him on a project and his designs were, without exception, creative, inspiring, efficient and excellent. They were easily ten times more cool than the script that I had written and they made me wish I could start over again to better serve his work.
I am greatly saddened to hear of the passing of Sydney Pollack.
He had a great gift for infusing genre pieces — suspense thrillers and romances,generally — with sophistication, wit, humanity and spontaneity. He got great performances from some of our greatest leading men and ladies, and as an actor gave several great performances himself.
My favorites of his directorial works are Jeremiah Johnson, Tootsie and Three Days of the Condor — you couldn’t find three more different scripts, and yet they all vibrate with intelligence, warmth and a sense of detailed, lived-in reality. Johnson and Condor also offer us two of Robert Redford’s greatest performances.
and I were, just last night, watching Spielberg’s Munich, and I was reminded right off the bat how accurately it recreates the early-70s, gritty-realism vibe of Pollack’s best work.
My favorite of his performances as an actor include Tootsie, Husbands and Wives, Eyes Wide Shut and, quite recently, Michael Clayton. He was a very rare kind of actor, an intelligent man who was both easily likable and physically threatening. I can’t think of a false moment in any of his performances — whenever he came on screen you knew the scene was in good hands.
I came to Jules Dassin‘s work relatively recently, when I was researching heist movies and rented a dub-of-a-dub videotape of his French gangster classic Rififi. I knew nothing about the movie before watching it, only that it was supposed to be a classic and have a good heist in it. The tape I was watching was such a bad dub of such a bad print that the movie looked like it took place in the middle of the night in a Paris submerged under 50 feet of water. In those circumstances, the 25-minute silent heist sequence that forms the centerpiece of the movie took on an air of deep mystery and a kind of solemn strangeness. It felt weird and transgressive and dangerous, like I was watching a snuff movie or something.
Many years later I saw Rififi courtesy of one of Criterion’s typically pristine transfers and saw that there is nothing particularly weird or mysterious about the movie, except that it’s always weird and mysterious when a good movie gets made. The lighting in Rififi is crisp and lush, even occasionally pedestrian. The difference with the new transfer was that I could see the faces of the people in the narrative and witness the director’s skill with actors. With a name like Jules Dassin, I assumed that the director was an off-brand French gangster-movie director, the guy French producers went to when they couldn’t get Jean-Pierre Melville. I was wrong — Dassin was an American, working in France when the McCarthyites chased him out. Rififi remains a classic, and I have also hugely enjoyed Brute Force and Naked City. Topkapi is a movie whose charms elude me, but I look forward to watching Night and the City, starring the just-now-deceased Richard Widmark. I don’t necessarily believe in an afterlife, but it comforts me to think of Heaven like a kind of Valhalla, where whatever you were good at on Earth you get to do forever in the next world. In this case, I assume that Widmark, having signed on to star in some afterworld production, requested his favorite director or threatened to cross the street to make the movie with the competing studio.
Robert Fagles was not a movie star, director, producer or screenwriter. He was merely a translator, but if it wasn’t for his lucid, readable adaptations of The Iliad and The Odyssey my understanding of classic literature would be much poorer. Why not read one today?