Thursday, 15 December 2011

Writers on Film: From Emile Zola to Truman Capote

Biographical portrayals of writers lives through their work

Samuel Beckett 
Of the broad range of  human activity available to us, the act of writing is probably the least exciting for a cinema audience to be asked to  observe. But it can’t be denied that there are a number of interesting movies out there, concerning themselves with the lives of famous (and infamous) members of the western literary canon.  When entertainment value should be considered, you’d  think that watching someone with a pen and paper in front of them is not exactly  a world-beating idea for a movie. Just some hack sitting down at his desk, either tearing his hair out from writers’ block, or just ‘there’, in deep prestidigitation about -- God knows what.   Despite the Paris Review interviews that have been archived for posterity, and all  the biographies, and  the autobiographies that pass themselves off as fiction, (not to say the academic research), writers seem to have us convinced that they carry out  a uniquely public function in the world. But is this assumption correct, or merely a collective creation of writers’ lofty ideas about themselves?

 I believe that literary biographies on film fall into two broad categories: one is what I  call the ‘literature as public function’ category. The other, I call the confessional category, in which the writer is more subjectively  portrayed as dissolute, drug-addled and/or incapable of functioning in normal social activities.  The first category provides the public with the reassuring cliché that writers are concerned human beings, interested in what ‘normal’ people are, what they do, and their aspirations. They lobby about important issues on behalf of ‘normal’ people. They criticise repressive social structures like the government and the Church on behalf of ‘normal’ people. Hence they push the envelope of possible human experience on behalf of ‘normal’ people. The second or ‘confessional’ category is more problematic, which to my mind makes it more interesting.  In a number of filmed biographies that use a mixture of fiction and fact, the lives of writers are mythologised and melded into our collective bourgeois experience, without us knowing, or probably caring, if the so-called facts as presented are true, or not.  

Oscar Wilde
The function of this second category is not to be historically representative, its purpose is far more important than that. Its purpose  is to enable us to  carry  on, as if what writers do is important to the social fabric of our lives as individuals. Often, its their incoherent personal involvements which entertain us; or their problems with their art; or problems with their publishers. We want their lives to entertain us and we are less encouraged to listen to their opinions about the world. In this respect their public function is less important than their lived experiences and how these nourish their work and our appreciation of it.

  As a fan of literary biography, I once recall reading, in tandem, one biography of Oscar Wilde, and another of Samuel Beckett; you could not find two more contrasting personalities. Beckett was an aesthete, quiet, shy and retiring. Before he became famous in middle age, he led an uneventful life. Wilde was notorious all his life, for his flaunting of Victorian conventions, his homosexuality and his incorrigible wit. He chose to live in the glare of the public spotlight and was never ashamed of it, but had enemies who eventually  destroyed him. Beckett on the other hand, never had an enemy, was strict about his privacy, and never sought the public gaze for any other reason than it was possible that his work could enlighten people. I’ll give you three guesses as to  which book was the most entertaining: it was the one about Wilde. His very public and intriguing life seems to have been made for biography and the biographer did not let his readers down.

What point am I trying to make exactly? It’s this: no matter how much writers may talk, they exist in a state of perpetual self-creation, so what may have been right yesterday, could be wrong the next -- it’s their entitlement for putting in so many man hours. I suppose most of us do live in a state of perpetual self-creation, but the fact is, we just don’t write about it. We live it, and let the writers write about it. And how important is their function as public mouthpieces in any case? Wouldn’t we rather see them dissolute, drunken, sleeping with as many people as they could find, and generally living a life the rest of us dare not imagine?   Despite my  reservations,  I’ve picked five of my favourite films about  how writer’s lives, and our perceptions of them become  tangled webs of fact and fiction. It will be easy to see  how my ‘public function’ category has taken a beating lately, as political correctness is being questioned and writers are being told to loosen up more so we can watch them making more (and better)  fools out of themselves.

Emile to the rescue
 The Life Of EmileZola (1937). Made after the advent of the Production Code, but before the outbreak of WWII. With contributions from at least four writers (see IMDB) and directed by William Dieterle.   Starring Paul Muni in the title role,  produced by the Warner Brothers studio, which pitched its output to a less sophisticated audience. There were a number of titles in their catalogue such as this starring Paul Muni, and considered as more prestigious pictures than the studio was used to making, such as ‘The Story of Luis Pasteur’ (1936) and ‘Juarez’ (1939).

We see the emergence of this great French writer as he struggles to find his voice in various writer’s garrets, grappling with personal and professional problems. Not very long into the film, there is a time jag and we suddenly see Zola as a rich and successful older man, with his lovely wife and genteel home. At the risk of his personal comforts, he becomes involved in the Dreyfus affair, a scandal involving a Jewish soldier transported to Devils Island for a crime he didn’t commit.

 The film is expertly executed and it becomes understandable why Warners chose to make it. Zola is portrayed as a man of integrity speaking truth to power, a selfless fighter against injustice and prejudice, in the same way that connects the better known  Warners gangster movies with the social issues of Depression-era America. ‘The Life of Emile Zola’ almost has an aspect of propaganda to it, considering it was made before the outbreak of war with Germany in 1939. It focuses   on the sensitive issues of freedom of speech and the inequities of crime and punishment.  This must have struck a chord with liberals in the 1930’s who were concerned with German aggression and what it meant in terms of whether hostilities would break out once again in Europe after an uneasy hiatus.

The film’s style reminds me of Zola’s writing, the narrative is reasonably conventional, despite the time jag just mentioned, and it does not concern itself much with Zola’s personal life, save how he sacrifices personal considerations in order that he perform the public function of assisting a man who has been falsely accused of an act he did not commit. In this way ‘The Life of Emile Zola’ becomes a hagiography to the point of us today having little choice but to believe what we see in the movie, with no other surviving  recollections or testaments that Zola’s life may have been any different. Despite this, Zola emerges only as an enigma, with little personality, merely functioning as a public mouthpiece with no other purpose than to stir the masses into action.  3 ½ stars

Another example of the all-star cast. See older post.
Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man (1962).  The brainchild of producer Jerry Wald and made by 20th Century Fox, with an all-star cast including Paul Newman, Susan Strasberg, and Eli Wallach, with a screenplay by A.E. Hotchner. The film  is an old-fashioned rendition of the writer-as-hero and a good example of the German bildungsroman, which concerns a writer’s coming-of-age and his ultimate decision to practice his true vocation in life. Based on the autobiographical short stories of Ernest Hemingway, we can never know the veracity of the events portrayed in the book, much less the film that its’ based upon.  Made with obvious care in the aspects of cinematography, acting and production design, the film sadly is a bit stodgy, in its efforts to mythologise Hemingway as a post-war American cultural hero.

 Richard Beymer gives a glum performance as the young Ernest, dwarfed by the scenery, and lost  amidst the sturm and drang of family conflict and the wider tragedy of the First World War’s negative impact on an entire generation of young people. These Hemingway labelled as the ‘lost generation’  because of their experience of European indifference to what I would (perhaps unkindly) label  American war neurosis. A deeper examination of this phenomenon  would have been welcome, but sadly the narrative doesn’t concern itself with themes of such importance. Instead ‘Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man’,  is all around the ballpark and doesn’t seem to be about anything in particular. As  literary biography, it is sadly lacking in direction or purpose, save the limited criteria  to transcribe Hemingway’s stories into a narrative that the audience will be able to understand. I can’t deny though, that it works as conservative Hollywood entertainment, reflective of its time and place.  Whilst  disappointing and not terribly inspiring, it  endures as a testament of sorts to an antiquated notion of so-called manhood, and Hemingways’ undying commitment to such a notion in which he firmly believed.  3 stars

Jane Fonda plays Lillian Hellman in 'Julia'.
Julia (1977). One of legendary director  Fred Zinnemann’s last feature films, ‘Julia’ is a story originally from the collection ‘Pentimento’ published in the ‘70s by Lillian Hellman in her emeritus years as an acclaimed American playwright and screen writer. It was in turn adapted for the screen by Alvin Sargent and stars Jane Fonda as Lillian and Vanessa Redgrave as Julia. Some critics tossed ‘Julia’ off as being too effete and old fashioned. But the subject matter is compelling and to make it more so,  it’s  told from a woman’s point of view, which so rarely happens in any movie, much less in the genre of literary biography.  The story is told in flashback and concerns  a reminiscence of how Lillian Hellman once did a favour for a friend, and how this favour put her in great danger. Hellman was Jewish and was required to pass through Germany with a sensitive package at a time when Jews in Germany were the scapegoats of the Nazis. Nevertheless, out of friendship and a sense of public duty, Lillian succeeds in her task. The rightness of the task, or even its ultimate purpose, is left up in the air as the narrative jumps in time to explain Julia’s sad fate.  Lillian is unable to forgive what happened, nor  to forget what Julia’s friendship meant to her.

 The sequence in which Lillian boards the train in Moscow to make a trip into Germany  makes for a lot of suspense, the audience alerted to the fact that it may be possible that she will be prevented by the Nazis from carrying out her task. If you’re familiar with Hellman’s memoirs, you will be aware of her radical political stance in the 1930’s and how her life was detrimentally affected when partner Dashiell Hammett served a prison term for being a communist sympathiser. She belonged to a generation of writers who fought Franco in the Spanish Civil War, and supported Russia against Germany when war broke out in 1939.  It seems natural that ‘Julia’ is primarily concerned with a writer’s attempts, in her own small way,  to be part of a public political process which has always in the past been the bastion of male participation. ‘Julia’ wears its feminism on its sleeve in a method which is audience-friendly, so that no one could possibly be offended by what it’s trying to say. In a world of limitations, I guess this is necessary if you want to get your point across without being killed by the critics, or at the box office in the process.

‘Julia’ actually exists within the frame of a dual narrative, in which the private lives of the two characters are as important as their ambitions and fortunes in the public arena. Personally, what I found the most appealing about this film was its portrayal of the private friendship of two women, and how that friendship sustained them through wars, and other great moments in history.  4 stars

 Johnny Depp as Wilmot, the libertine of the title
The Libertine (2004). Written by Stephen Jeffreys and directed by Laurence Dunmore, ‘The Libertine’ is the story of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, who lived during the 17th century of Charles II, restored  to the throne of England in 1660. Alternately a royal favourite, who was banished from court for causing offence and embarrassment to the monarch, the Earl’s poetry became better known after his death at the age of 33 years, due to his alcholism, provocative behaviour  and sexual proclivities. ‘The Libertine’ is by turns, serious and mocking, as it attempts to convince the audience of the pointlessness of the Earl’s adventures, since, as a man who does not believe in love, he can never be a romantic hero, but is, instead, a monster created from his own massive sexual appetites. He rejects absolutely, the  conventional society of which he is a part, but which he cannot bring himself to acknowledge. The women in his life, played by Rosamund Pike and Samantha Morton do their best to assuage the Earl’s debilitating fears and desperation, as he loses Charles’ support and begins a downward spiral of alcoholism and familial rejection, leading him eventually to death’s door. From this description, you may ascertain as to the lack of veracity of the argument that the Earl of Rochester had any interest in bettering the state of his society. (He certainly didn’t.)

Mock up of famous Avedon shot for the film
 Writers in 17th century England struggled along as best they could, with a combination of royal patronage, and family money, as they were usually  high-born aristocrats who weren’t expected to work. This goes to show that a different context existed for the writer in the 17th century. They did not exist for the betterment of society, but merely for its entertainment.  ‘The Libertine’ is  best described as an example of confessional biography. It deals with the Earl’s struggles with his inner demons and his desire for his work to gain some kind of acceptance, if not from the ‘merrie gang’ he socialises with,  then at least from his royal patron. ‘The Libertine’ is an excellent example of in-your-face confessional.  It’s an entertaining re-imagining of what it must have been like for a man with the Earl of Rochester’s intelligence to be penned by convention, and ultimately unable to come to grips with his innately creative nature and aspirations.  4 stars

Capote (2006). Directed by Bennett Miller, screenplay by Dan Futterman with material based upon the biography by Gerald Clarke. Philip Seymour Hoffman gives an understated but effective performance as Truman Capote who, whilst researching the murder of a family in Kansas, forges a relationship with one of the alleged killers, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jnr). Capote needs plenty of material for his book, but there’s something the killers aren’t giving away, and it’s the one thing he needs, but I have no intention of revealing  it, since it’s the moral pivot the movie revolves around.  Initially, I found ‘Capote’ puzzling. It’s pace is leisurely,  not hurried. The camera doesn’t seem to move much and there are many long takes with little MTV-variety cutting. It’s very lack of a judgmental narrative made me wonder exactly what the film was trying to say, or, on the other hand, trying to avoid saying. This elliptical approach was annoying at first, but then grows on you, as you begin to notice small gestures, and make connections which serve to illustrate Truman’s deepest feelings about the murders, and his ambivalent relationship with Perry.
Obscure purposes aside, ‘Capote’ is a fascinating journey concerning the nature of the artistic process, and the price it exacts upon writers, (but not only them),  aware that their words have the capacity to maybe hurt people, but go on writing anyway. The writer’s  public function in the 20th century  as seekers after truth is blurred by the ongoing redundancy of popular culture. It chews up and spits out information, seemingly for the sake of it, with little or no thought for the lives that are detrimentally affected in the process, and one of the lives in this case, happens to be that of the writer himself.  ‘Capote’ is an elegant, and elegiac, examination of the writing process in microcosm, over a period of years in which the work is created, produced, introduced to the world and finally left to rest. Unfortunately, there is little left of the protagonists, or the creator, to live to tell the real tale. But at least it’s a good movie. 4 ½ stars

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