Friday, October 27

Pastoralia Ramblings

You might recall that my time with George Saunders was the literary highlight of my Bumbershoot experience in September. At that time I am fairly certain I was only familiar with the writer through an interview on The Sound of Young America and a discussion between he and Ben Marcus that is included in The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers. Saunders is a fascinating character. He has a B.A. in geophysical engineering, and worked in that field for about 15 years, picking up an MFA in creative writing from Syracuse University along the way. He now teaches creative writing at Syracuse, and just this year he was awarded a 'genius grant' from the MacArthur Foundation and a Guggenheim Fellowship. I have just now gotten around to reading some of his short fiction. I picked up Pastoralia at the library earlier this week, and after reading the title story I remembered why I so much enjoyed hearing him read aloud nearly two months ago. There's a certain charm to his satire that I think is missing in the work of many others. I don't know if 'charm' is quite the right word, but there is an honesty and a playfulness to it all rather than a lurking coarseness and bitterness. Don't get me wrong, his writing can be quite dark, but it always seems to maintain a hint of optimism that is slightly antithetical to his reputation as a distopian writer. But perhaps not. Regardless, he is an original and important American writer. I recommend his work.

Listen to Saunders on The Sound of Young America (Begins at 22:05)

I have also been continuing my journey through the drug-, ego-, and testosterone-fueled history of 1970's American film in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. A little too gossipy for my tastes but a damn fun read. I wish I'd been making notes along the way because there are just too many great anecdotes to recount. One of my favorites involves the strategic drug use of the bat shit insane Dennis Hopper:
One director wouldn't use him after lunch, when the alcohol kicked in. Another knew that Dennis would grab whatever was around--uppers, downers, what have you--and worried that, say, if Dennis took one drug during a long shot in the morning and a different one during a close-up in the afternoon, the energy levels would be different, making it impossible to cut them together. The two men went through the script and agreed on what drug Dennis would use in each of his scenes. When Hopper got the next day's call sheet, there was a notation at the bottom indicating the appropriate drug.
I suppose this tidbit is of particular interest to me because it perfectly illustrates how, while the era is remembered for its freewheeling approach and active abandonment of Old Hollywood techniques, the people involved in these pictures were quite serious about their craft. I suppose that's obvious, you don't produce several of the greatest works in the history of film by simply ingesting drugs and letting the cameras role, but it's one of the major points that I take away from the book. Well, that and the understanding of how, like with so many great writers and musicians, the ego and ambition that fueled the work of, say, Peter Bogdanovich and Bob Rafelson, created relationships with friends and lovers that were tumultuous at best. They were endlessly philandering, self-absorbed and destructive. Indeed, it sometimes seems as though these traits are mandatory for achieving greatness in the arts.

So how might this relate to the previous Book-Loop discussion regarding the acquisition of a writer's sometimes upsetting biographical details. Perhaps it's instructive that my new understanding of the salacious details of these filmmaker's private and professional lives has done little to weaken my appreciation of their work. If anything, reading the book has probably enhanced my appreciation of the films. My perception of Hollywood is that it's a seedy place--always has been. I expect bacchanalian excess and dirty double crossing. Not only do I expect it, but I think it adds to the legend and might even be an essential part of America's (dwindling) love affair with motion pictures. The written word is very different. Filmmaking is a group affair, vulnerable to in fighting, abuses of power and mutiny. Writing is a solitary act, it is personal. Why I place writers on a higher moral plane I cannot really say. I think it's mostly affect, but maybe it also comes from the (false?) idea that writing comes from the soul while movie making is one big put on--actors, costumes, make-up, sets, special effects, etc.--and even when it's a personal tale or a so-called auteur picture it lacks the one-on-one interaction that a book offers.

Ah, this post is a rambling mess. I seem to ramble much more on this blog than I do on my own. I'm not sure why, but I like it.

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