Thursday, April 9, 2009

I'm Jealous of Movies

Reading the comments of the last post, I suddenly endured a wave of jealousy for people who get to make movies. Now, this isn't to say that I actually want to make movies. I think I would be bad at it, despite being a guy who knows how narrative works and likes taking pictures. It seems to me that, if you are going to be a director of films, you either need to find artistic collaboration appealing, or you have to be absolutely arrogant, charismatic, and commanding, so that you don't really need to collaborate. Neither of those scenarios applies to me.

But if I could make movies alone, the way I write novels, that would really be something. For one thing, as we have argued here before, movies now possess the cultural cachet that novels once did. Or rather, that novels once were allowed to cling to a piece of. Film is absolutely the dominant form of narrative in American culture, and perhaps this is as it should be, or as it is inevitably destined to be. The filmmaker equivalent of me--an indie director, say, with a small following--will have many, many times more viewers than I will ever have readers. And if there's one thing a writer wants, it's an audience.

I'm not talking about that so much, though. The joy in writing isn't really in its meager public manifestation--it's in the act of creation. And the filmmaker has access to things the novelist doesn't, things I sometimes desperately want.

Take the movie I discussed in the last post--"Broken Flowers", with its symbolic, metaphoric final image of two identically dressed boys driving past the protagonist in slow motion. This is an image of profound simplicity and elegance, and you can't do it in a novel. You could describe it, certainly, but it wouldn't be the same as simply holding it up before the viewer's eyes. And in a film, such an image is inherently fleeting, at least in the theater. You see it, and it's gone. Its aftereffects are more powerful than its actual manifestation.

Or how about the ending of "The Visitor," with our newly-angry hero working out his emotions by beating his conga drum in the subway station, as trains roar past. In a novel, a description of the scene would seem mawkish, overdetermined. In the movie, you don't even think about how it got there. It's just happening.

And the filmmaker has the advantage of tyranny over the senses. Compromises may have to be made in the creation of a scene, but once it's made, it's made--and every viewer sees the same thing, hears the same thing. The novelist can make her paragraph perfect, but she is doomed never to be understood the way she wishes to be--everyone will imagine different sights, sounds, and emotions as they read. The filmmaker makes iconic images; the novelist makes a map that leads the reader to generate his own images.

Ultimately, the filmmaker collaborates ahead of time, with all those people in the credits, then lords it over the viewer. The novelist works alone--but every reading of his book is a collaboration. A novel is inherently unfinished, inherently imprecise.

Naturally, I'm glad do what I do, or else I wouldn't do it so damned often. But when I'm asked a leading question, or read (God help me) a review, or am asked to explain what I do, I often wish that I had access to the dictatorial power of the image, the soundtrack, and flooding of the senses.


zachary-cole said...

Interesting. You mentioned readings as a way to bring stories to life--do you think an audiobook like "You Don't Love Me Yet," with its rock guitar interludes, comes close to using the tools you wish fiction had access to?

jrlennon said...

Oh God no. I mean, I think that text-only is an ADVANTAGE of literature. I can't stand tarted-up audiobooks (no offense to Lethem, I haven't heard that audiobook). And public readings, for me, while entertaining, are rarely as satisfying to me as reading quietly.

It's not that I want fiction to have access to these tools exactly--I want fiction to be fiction. But I personally sometimes long for different powers.

Zachary Cole said...

Just find a puddle of radioactive goo...

k. said...

I suppose once you start tarting up audiobooks, it's only a matter of time before they begin to sound like 1930s radio shows.

jrlennon said...

Or "A Prairie Home Companion"

Zachary Cole said...

k.: I'm reminded of "The Mist" audiobook, which is done in that style. Hilarious.

Matt said...

"A novel is inherently unfinished, inherently imprecise."

There is a saying in film, that a film is never locked but abandoned. You reach an inevitability you don't experience in writing: budget. As in, you literally cannot pay the editor to stay past this Friday so you *have* to lock and prepare thyself for the consequences.

When David Lean was allowed to re-cut Lawrence of Arabia for its re-release (late 80s/early90s), apparently it was as if he'd never left the editing room - he started from where he left off.

As for your note about The Visitor, it is true that films can deal with ambiguity in a way that can still be appealing to a wider variety of audience. That said, I *hate* writing in script format - it is sooo limiting (descriptively).

Derek Haas said...

I think it would be far more difficult to move from novels to filmmaking than the other way around. The biggest difference is simple: deference. With novels, even a probing editor will treat your manuscript with respect and ultimately defer to you for the final say. With a film, you can be fired at any time. You don't own the copyright... the studio (or whoever is putting up the money) does, even on your original spec script after you sell it. There are very, very few filmmakers who have final say on all decisions from pre-production through post. Even the titans of the business have to cede control at some point. It is a collaborative art... there is no way around it. Forget that you often deal with multiple writers, with studio notes, with producer notes, with focus group notes, with director notes. Let's say you are Spielberg and you get the exact script you want to shoot. Well you might have a shot in mind, but the performance is up to the actor, no matter how it is written. The director might get the performance he imagined in individual scenes, but rarely will he get exactly what was in his head. That's just the nature of the beast.

If you aren't interested in collaboration, then you wouldn't enjoy any aspect of filmmaking. ;)

jon said...

One of the daunting and entertaining things about writing novels is that you get to wear all the hats, actors, production designers, writer, DP and editor as well as director and producer. Sometimes when writing street signs or menus I am just struck at how much text there is in a book that has nothing to do with the narrative. You get to stage plays and t.v. news broadcasts and telephone and radio chatter. You can write false histories, fake reviews and bogus lectures. There is a way in which writing a novel is creating the most fantastic and impossible film in the world.

jrlennon said...

...and of course you get to take all the blame, too.

Derek's post is pretty much a list of the reasons why I'm not a filmmaker. Though I think I will try screenwriting someday. (I already have, though not successfully.) I like to think I could approach the form in a different spirit...that is, non-dictatorially.

Zachary Cole said...

I haven't read the whole thing, but the screenplay for "American Beauty" doesn't seem all that far removed from a "traditional" piece of fiction, in terms of how it's written.

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