Sep 28, 2009

Film Adaptations – Silence of the Lambs

One of the blurbs on the cover of Thomas Harris’ splatterpunk novel, The Silence of the Lambs, came from The Washington Post: “A virtual textbook on the craft of suspense.” I have not found the review that this might have come from, but the quotation is forcefully true.

The Silence of the Lambs is not only a textbook on the genre, but practically ready-made for the screen. If you compare the novel with Ted Tally’s second draft script and finally with the finished movie, you will find nearly perfect fidelity to the novel.

Here and there the director, Jonathan Demme, or Ted Tally made changes. In the script, the opening scene was a hostage training situation at the FBI academy. In the movie, the opening scene is Clarice Starling on a run, giving time for credits and orientation and setting up the metaphor that would persist through the film: Starling in solitary pursuit. (One of the devices used in the story is that Clarice’s solitary work is most successfully supplemented by Lector – she is fed by the kind of darkness which she is trying to eradicate). The novel’s opening scene is much quicker; Starling is already in Crawford’s office. Starling and the reader are thrown into the hellish world of Buffalo Bill and Lector immediately.

The film is another one of those mixtures where known quantities come together at their most potent. Anthony Hopkins is truly terrifying as Hannibal. I was in Boulder, Colorado in 1990 when a killer was on the loose. A lot of people left town. If I had known that Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal was out there, I would have left the country. Add to Mr. Harris’ story Jody Foster, Jonathan Demme, Ted Tally, Scott Glenn and Ted Levine (the poor guy who played Jame Gumb – apparently the role did not help his career), and you have a movie that matches the novel in its power. It was simply not repeated.

Sep 24, 2009

Contest Entry Redux

Today is National Punctuation Day, which strikes me as bizarre. Even more bizarre is that I entered Grammar Girl's National Punctuation Day Contest, which I neither won nor placed. Such is the democratic nature of the Internet that you may still read my entry below. This is the literary equivalent of wasting not even a single ingredient in the kitchen, even using the potato peelings.


If your morning cup of coffee is at war with last night’s wine, if you find yourself torn between Emily Post and Fight Club, if your id and superego have literary battles, then the parenthesis is for you.

The official pigeon hole of the parenthesis is to set off explanatory or qualifying remarks.

An example might help. Here is a snippet of my recent email to a friend. I was complaining about the lousy vocabulary of social networking. "Even the terms are crap: Blog (sounds like something I dislodge from my nose), Twitter (what old ladies do at a tea), Facebook (a hair shy of pornographic)…"

You can tell from his first three entries about the parenthesis that H. W. Fowler (a God in my grammatical world) hates the parenthetical statement. He admonishes on the appropriate length, relevance and identification of parenthetical statements. He hasn’t a kind word for it.

It is true that the parenthesis has its place, usually in short informal missives, where the mind can wander as it pleases. It is the kind of punctuation that does not belong in a novel. (I'll pay you a dollar if you find one in my first novel).

But I see something much more deviant in a parenthesis. It is the counterweight to the main line of thought. It is Mr. Hyde’s snide comment to the polite house call of Dr. Jekyll. “As I was trying to point out to my (dumbass) colleague yesterday over coffee…”

The parenthetical statement is the dose of comedy in a tragically serious line of thought. “As I was trying to console a Steve Irwin mourner (he was asking for it!)…”

It allows manic-depressives to conveniently pursue both mania and gloom in a single sentence. “Hope you enjoyed my entry (if you bothered to read it).”

The parenthesis is the Swiss Army Knife, the duct tape and the WD-40 of the multiple-minded writer.

Sep 22, 2009

Typescript Stolen. Carry On.

If you want a good example of a writer’s persistence, check out Anthony Burgess’s account of having a typescript stolen.

"I wrote a book on the language of James Joyce, I carried it in its Gucci case towards a Xerox shop to be copied, but it was scippato on the way. The typescript was presumably fluttered into the Tiber or Tevere and the case sold for a few thousand lire."

His response to losing his only copy of a typescript: "I had to write the book again, not with too much resentment: it was probably better the second time."

This incident incites a kind of anxiety in me that only finds acquiescence if I make three or four different backups of all my files each week and hide them in various places. It would make me paranoid to explain where, but trust me, there are backups everywhere.

This is the same Anthony Burgess who begins his two volume autobiography by writing that a writer’s life does not go beyond a picture of the writer at a desk. He simply could not be stopped.

I have complained to friends about the mammoth effort of writing a novel. For the last one, I pecked out 600,000 words in five drafts. It started as my Jazz novel, transited to a complete history of one family’s long ugly battle to stay rich and powerful, and finally settled into a story about two powerful Southern women at about 80,000 words. Whenever a pity-party started in my own head – usually at the beginning of a writing day – I had only to think of Anthony Burgess weighing the loss of his Gucci case and his typescript and turning around to go back home and rewrite it from scratch. It sent me back to work.

Sep 19, 2009

Actually Induced Hallucinations

There seems to be a lot of excitement on Twitter about Jung’s The Red Book. There was an article in the New York Times Magazine about the release of The Red Book by Norton. The release date is 7 October 2009 and the price is $195.00 (Amazon is listing it for $117.00).

Jung’s method for creating The Red Book was called Active Imagination, which the NYTimes described as “actually induced hallucinations.” The contents of such an exercise are often a mixture of personal and collective unconscious materials, a sort of dumping out of the unconscious.

I thought I’d weigh in with some supplementary reading suggestions for those who are unfamiliar with Active Imagination.

You can read what Jung himself has said about the method in a book that collects his “key readings” on the subject. The book is entitled C. G. Jung on Active Imagination and is edited by Joan Chodorow. There is a great elaboration on active imagination by Barbara Hannah, who used case studies to further illustrate and explore the method. Ms. Hannah’s book is entitled Encounters with the Soul. And, if you want more, try Marie Louise von Franz’s Alchemical Active Imagination, a heavy duty look at an alchemist’s use of the method before it was called Active Imagination. I’m a huge fan of Marie Louise von Franz’s work, but this is not a zippily read book.

Dr. Sonu Shamdasani is one of the translators of The Red Book and provided the scholarly apparatus. He has studied Jungian psychology for more than 15 years and is the Big Brain who spent 5 years working intensively on The Red Book.

In the NYTimes article, Dr. Shamdasani injects the right note of wariness about people wanting to rush right into The Red Book: “Already there are Jungians planning conferences and lectures devoted to the Red Book, something that Shamdasani finds amusing. Recalling that it took him years to feel as if he understood anything about the book, he’s curious to know what people will be saying about it just months after it is published.”

(A couple of endnotes. Not all Jungians, as described in the NYTimes article, will strangely, immediately and sometimes inappropriately ask you about your dreams. A plug: My first novel, A Particular Obedience, flirts with Analytical Psychology. My second novel, to be released in the summer of 2010, uses a Jungian analysis as part of the narrative. It is entitled How Jung Fluffed My Cotton Candy Powder Dreams).

Sep 15, 2009

Appreciation of David Cornwell

John le Carré is the pen name of David Cornwell, a writer who is often not given his due. His genre is the spy or espionage novel. The Guardian actually labelled him Graham Greene-Light. I have read a lot of Graham Greene and all of David Cornwell’s novels (he uses the word “lugubrious” exactly once in each of his twenty-one novels). Mr. Cornwell’s novels stack up at least as well as Greene’s, if not better. If you want to see the difference, compare le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to Greene’s Our Man in Havana. Both are beautifully written examples of the genre, but there is a deftness to Cornwell’s narrative, to his characterization, to how he unfolds the story that Graham is lacking. To be fair, Graham’s weary self-confident style of writing suits his protagonist perfectly.

Cornwell is like Hitchcock in that he is often dismissed as not serious because of the genre in which he works. In his one non-spy novel, The Naïve and Sentimental Lover, you can see how the absence of an espionage backdrop loosens his writing. I heard an interview in which Cornwell said he realized after The Naïve and Sentimental Lover that readers did not want those kinds of novels from him. The implication is that he turned back to genre for money. Who can blame him?

It took François Truffaut to isolate Hitchcock’s technique and make the world see that Hitchcock was a master filmmaker not just a circus performer. I wonder when the literati will discover the depth of David Cornwell. He is an exquisite writer.

Sep 13, 2009

Projection in Paris, Texas

If you want an exceptional example of (Jungian) projection in film - and a killer soundtrack by Ry Cooder - take a look at Wim Wender’s 1984 film, Paris, Texas. It is another psychological powerhouse of a film and another film in which a triumvirate (i.e. Sam Shepard, Wim Wenders and Harry Dean Staunton) play off each other for exceptional performances.

Travis, played by Harry Dean Staunton, is the drifter who has been rescued by his brother. He finds that his wife has disappeared and left his son in the care of his brother and brother’s wife. His family is broken and scattered. In unravelling how this happened, Travis comes face-to-face with the great tragedy of his life. He’s trying to explain it to his son by way of describing how his father saw his mother:

“He looked at her,
but he didn't see her.
He, he saw this idea.”

It is a scene that explains the title of the movie. It explains why Travis’ brother married a French woman. And finally it explains why Travis can never return to his wife. He has figured out his problem and the tragedy that unfolds is that he knows he cannot solve it. The implication is that he has to chose who will raise his son: his wife or he.

It is a carefully constructed scene and shows the destructive side of projection, in this case how Travis has projected his own idealized version of a woman onto his wife. All men carry this idealization with them. She has remarkable power. She can open the gateway to the unconscious or mess you about in a whirlwind of indecision. She can torture the women in your life or help you settle into the world. It all depends on the details of that idealized woman and the relationship a man has with her.

Sep 9, 2009

One Part Suffering

Writers have been forever talking and writing about how painful and difficult it is to write a novel. “It is like walking to China on your knees.” Even Gabriel Garicia Marquez complains about the difficulty of writing.

I think good literary novels are one part technique and one part suffering. Technique can be learned. The suffering is different. It is the slow maturation of the soul. The Ancient Greeks believed that “we must suffer into truth” or, to put it another way, suffering is knowledge. Jungians describe the perfect cooking of the soul. The good reader can see the author cooking his own soul on the page and the thrill, if the technique is good, is being a witness to it.

Sep 7, 2009

Southern Women - First Blush

I grew up in the American South and was surrounded by women who were beautifully described by Florence King in Southern Ladies and Gentlemen as “required to be frigid, passionate, sweet, bitchy and scatterbrained – all at the same time. Her problems spring from the fact that she succeeds.” As I was born in the late 1960s and began to see how people acted in the 1970s (Goodbye 70s), I was aware that this Old South ideal of women was clashing very hard with reality, especially the raging Feminism all around me. I knew Old South men who dismissed Feminism as “ugly women ganging up to snatch what is not theirs.” What I saw was something very different.

While I knew that I would be writing about strong Southern women in my first two novels, the issues those characters faced were far different from what I expected. Stockard Griffin, one of two main characters in A Particular Obedience, explores morality through sex and eventually finds that morality, which governs power, love, everything, is a very individual thing and certainly not dictated by church nor society. This was not consciously planned.

Sep 5, 2009

Film Adaptations - David Mamet

David Mamet adapted Barry Reed’s 1980 The Verdict for the 1982 movie. I’m not one of those blind worshippers of Mamet, but you can begin to understand Mamet’s brilliance in his adaptation. There was very little of the novel left unchanged.

One example of the changes Mamet made is the defense’s spy, Laura Fischer, played by Charlotte Rampling. In the book, the same character is named Donna St. Laurent and she is only deceitful for a small portion of the novel, very early on. In terms of literary tension, the novel character is almost a throwaway. Mamet stretches Donna’s deceit out for almost the entire film and makes it the final obstacle to the redemption of Frank Galvin (played by Paul Newman). When Galvin, a drunkard lawyer who is continually pummelled by powerful adversaries (e.g. the Church, the courts, the prince-of-darkness attorney, and even his own clients) learns that his newfound love is betraying him, the build up is already so complete that the characters' own mental pressures makes the audience's heads buzz. You almost want to offer Galvin a drink yourself.

(You might have recently recognized one of Galvin’s trademark lines cribbed by a few politicians. The line: “If not now, then when?”)

The director of the film, Sydney Lumet, delves into how brilliantly Mamet has written the script on the DVD commentary. He rhapsodizes about how Mamet never wastes dialogue or scene for just plot, but how both are continually used to characterize, how Mamet leads us up and down, hinting, pulling, registering details, and delivering a resolution to an almost impossible situation. All this and the movie is on the surface only a courtroom drama. The Mamet-Lumet-Newman tour de force is worth a long essay in itself, but Lumet recognizes the subtlety and power of the script. By my count, Lumet only deviated from the Mamet script three times.

It was said that Picasso could look at another’s painting, figure out what the painter was trying to do and then go home and do it better, which is why when Picasso came to Paris, everyone locked up their paintings. Mamet has performed the same trick on The Verdict.

Sep 1, 2009

The Literary Mind

If you write books, you might be pessimistic about your dwindling audience. The Internet and video games take most of the blame for dying newspapers, less watched television and a slumping publishing industry. There are plenty of reasons for hope, including the 400+ million Harry Potter books which have been sold. There is an entire generation growing up reading J. K. Rowling’s lengthy novels. The path to serious reading includes all kinds of books: Curious George, Judy Blume, Conan The Barbarian, and The Destroyer series. And now J. K. Rowling has helped create a generation of readers and they will be looking for more good things to read.

The other cause for hope? People are starting to recognize that the Internet might be doing funny things to the way we think. I first heard of Nicholas Carr on NPR’s On The Media. Carr said , “My fear is that we're substituting [sic] kind of the literary mind, which was a mind that was patient, could concentrate on a single line of reading for an extended period of time; we're replacing that mind with [sic] kind of the mind that the Internet is encouraging in us, which is a mind that wants to seek out as much information as quickly as possible.” The good news is that Carr is not alone in recognizing the problem and there are a lot of readers suffering from Link Fatigue and will find solace in returning to their Literary Minds.