Art or Wallpaper
I am a fan of Noir. I do not consider myself any sort of expert. I like Pulp and Hard Boiled and Soft Boiled and Neo 20th Century Realism. Simple stories, human failings, all the Seven Deadlies and Femme Fatales. As you can tell by the gratuitous cheesecake I think the latter is probably the lifelong addiction. One only needs to be young and see Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford set the screen on fire, or Lizabeth Scott and the rest of the blonde bombshells go coy and bat their eyelashes or the wide eyed innocent yet sultry Loretta Young brunettes…I digress.
I watched The Stranger a few nights ago. Edward G.Robinson, Loretta Young, Orson Welles. Hard to beat the cast. Directed by Welles. Unlike his other looming epics, this was a straight up nut case, sweaty faced maybe over acted bad guy and the guy after him flick. With Welles shot calling. With caveats. He had to come in on schedule and on budget (he hadn’t had a directorial gig for 4 years) or risk he and wife Rita Hayworth’s income potential going forward ending up in the producer’s pocket until it was even. A guy named Nims was assigned the editing tasks and he whacked 32 pages of script before they even got started. Sixteen pages from the front end, setting the stage.
“He was the great supercutter,” Welles said, “who believed that nothing should be in a movie that did not advance the story. And since most of the good stuff in my movies doesn’t advance the story at all, you can imagine what a nemesis he was to me.”
Therein lies the creative vs. the commercial, the artist vs. the editor, style and substance vs. shelf space. Let’s be honest. Most people with a grasp of the language who want to write could crank out serial romance, commercial YA, Kiddie books. An English degree might help, a good eye for what sells and how to plug yourself into that. Cloning is a cinch. From the Hardy Boys to I’m not really Robert Parker, give me a salary, a style sheet, an antagonist/protagonist scenario and a computer. You want what? When? Thank you. But…
A good deal of what Welles wanted, although he retained a lot of control for what made it, got cut. On the cutting room floor or never shot at all. He wanted to dial it up into nightmare, the money guys wanted a movie, not a statement. Noir film critic and historian Bret Wood wrote –
“Character development suffers from the loss of these scenes.”
What? Show me the “editor” or “content consultant” today who would say that.
Scenes that set up a more intense tone of suspense. Nope. The Bishop’s Wife as thriller. Box office. Good guys, bad guys, formula. Top notch formula. One could put it in the pop literary category with Elmore Leonard. Sweaty, swift, BAM, done. Well executed, suited for screenplay, good guys and bad guys and some tension.
What about the emotions left floating in the air in Faulkner, the things Steinbeck and Twain drop on us we never even see that most editors today would say we didn’t need? Particularly things hinted at and left unsaid that drive the story deeper, make readers participate? Reading what could have been in The Stranger and what was left out and considering the subject matter (Nazi war criminal), I can understand how it pales to what might have been. Still, it fares much better than the hint of Gothic and similar nutcase of 1950’s The Second Woman, which looks like it came in on time and under budget as a derivative NorCal Rebecca.
Welles pulled it off. One day early and under budget. I figure being married to Rita Hayworth and her ass being on the line with his might have been motivational. But considering other projects he did that pissed the money people off, that he did his way, are now considered high film genre art and classics, there’s a nasty undercurrent standard at work in this film. And the The Stranger, although excellent for what it is, failed to make the Welles art lexicon. It did well at the box office. But…
Steinbeck called it Hooptedoodle. Did he write some? Yes, he did. By current standards Faulkner’s intro to The Great Gatsby seems almost endless, but it sets the tone. It could be stark and short and bip bop or we could have been dropped right in it, but then the pictures wouldn’t come off the page like peeling Andrew Wyeth watercolors on a hot, breezeless summer day. The pace, and the “excess” that paints the picture, sets the scene and the tone are vital. Unless there’s a deadline and a budget and an editorial mandate. This by page 6, this by page 10, where’s the sex and the motivation by twenty or you’re out, show don’t tell unless it’s critical to character development and tone then- why are we seeing this?
I was prompted to write this after a trip to the local Half Price Books. Where all the buyouts from publishers and Amazon and the Barnes and Noble across the street sit on shelves in shiny similarity. The same covers, the same fonts. Pick your genre, shelves of sameness. And then there’s the well worn, well loved classics and obscure gems commanding higher prices, getting all the traffic. If it looks like it’s been read, maybe more than once, it’s a treasure. If it’s another MacComber or Rowling clone…
Once again, if you missed it – “And since most of the good stuff in my movies doesn’t advance the story at all,”
We can all tell a story, but the good stuff?
Art or Wallpaper.
What do you want to write?