Archive for the 'Books' Category
Phil earns his groundhog halo.
Back in 1999, my book Storytelling in the New Hollywood (Harvard University Press) was about to be published. It was an attempt to suggest that, contrary to the talk of “post-classical” or “post-Hollywood” norms having taken over American filmmaking, the most important classical principles that had been at work since the 1910s were still going strong.
I outlined those principles in the opening chapter, discussing character goals, deadlines, dialogue hooks, unity, and the like. I also argued that, based on my analysis of many films from the 1910s to the 1990s, the vast majority of features followed a structure involving four large-scale parts, or acts–not three, as the popular Syd Field model would have it.
To do that, I analyzed the techniques of ten films usually considered to be models of unified, sophisticated narrative structure: Tootsie, Back to the Future, The Silence of the Lambs, Groundhog Day, Desperately Seeking Susan, Amadeus, The Hunt for Red October, Parenthood, Alien, and Hannah and Her Sisters.
The book was not intended to be a screenplay manual as such, though I know it has been used in some classes and by some aspiring screenwriters.
Ordinarily the press would have asked me to name some prominent film scholars who could be asked to write blurbs for the cover. It occurred to me, though, that it might be better in this case to take each chapter and send it to its director and to its main screenwriter and ask them for blurbs instead.
That turned out to work pretty well. Several didn’t answer, and other answered too late to be included. I ended up with three blurbs of which I am very proud, from Ted Tally for The Silence of the Lambs, Susan Seidelman for Desperately Seeking Susan, and from Harold Ramis for Groundhog Day.
Ramis’ recent death prompted me to dig out that old file. He had written back to my editor not with a sentence or two to use as a blurb, but with a page-and-a-half letter on the subject; it included a blurb down toward the bottom. It’s a letter that reflects how kind and smart Ramis was, and how much he had thought about writing and narrative–even though the process of writing screenplays was probably largely an intuitive one. It shows that he knew something about academic film studies, even if he had some “quibbles” with them. I certainly never meant to suggest that everything I pointed out in the films I analyzed was intended by the director and/or screenwriter. I would say that everything I pointed out was a result of their skill and experience. Even when something happens by accident during filming, someone has to decide whether or not to keep it in.
Rather than just sticking the letter back in the file, I thought I would share it with you. Having a little more of Ramis available can’t be a bad thing.
Thanks for sending the chapters of Kristin Thompson’s book Storytelling in the New Hollywood and please convey my thanks to Ms. Thompson for including Groundhog Day among the “modern classics.” My only quibble with scholarly film analysis is the occasional tendency to read more significance into certain details than was actually intended, or to think that certain accidents of production, on-set discoveries, or improvisational dialogues were planned and scripted. I realize, from a Deconstructionist point of view, it hardly matters what I think anyway, so let me set aside my minor quibbles and congratulate Ms. Thompson on her new book. If you would, please pass this letter along to her.
I am not a student of screenwriting so I’m afraid I can’t comment intelligently on Ms. Thompson’s theoretical model. Certainly, the fact that most movies are about two hours long will determine to a large extent the length of the set-up, the placement of the crisis, the climax, and the denouement, but rather than look at films in terms of “acts,” I prefer to think in terms of “actions,” as if the narrative line were a string of pearls, dramatically linked, each taking the audience forward to the next point. If any particular action doesn’t advance the plot or contain some new information, it doesn’t belong in the narrative. As a writer I generally proceed more intuitively than structurally. As Ms. Thompson suggests, I suspect that most of us have simply absorbed the classical film structure during our formative years as members of the audience.
When I was hired to write my first Hollywood screenplay, Animal House, the producer handed my collaborators and I paperback copies of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and said, “This is what a good screenplay looks like. Just do that.” More than twenty years later, my only useful conclusion about structure is that nothing will work if you don’t have interesting characters and a good story to tell. One can argue for or against the three-action structure, but, whether or not there are consistent rules about the :well-made” screenplay, it’s already true that there are more well-constructed, formulaic screenplays than there are good ones. Also, one must always keep in mind that Hollywood films are almost invariably rewritten by additional (though not always credits) writers. One writer may be thought of as strong on structure, good for a solid first draft, another may be known for his dialogue, others for punching up action or comedy. Also , the Hollywood writer is always responding to script notes from studio executives, story departments, his producers, the director, and from his principal actors. In this convoluted and often tortured process, it’s sometimes impossible to attribute the final screenplay to the calculated intentions of one writer or team, and it’s often left up to a panel of Writers Guild arbiters to determine screen credit.
I didn’t intend to write such an inflated letter but there’s a lot to say on the subject and I have a considerable amount of experience.
If it’s useful to you, you may quote me as saying that Ms. Thompson’s insightful analysis of Groundhog Day and of the screenwriting process in general should be fascinating to both writers and audience alike. More thoughtful writing and more discerning audiences can’t help but lead to better movies, and this informative and provocative book is a step in that direction.
Best of luck on the publication of Storytelling in the New Hollywood and please feel free to contact me if you need any further comments.
Harold Ramis as Allan “Crazy Legs” Hirschman (SCTV, “Indecent Exposure,” 1982).
The Woman in the Window (1944).
O, gentle lady, do not put me to’t,/ For I am nothing, if not critical.
Movie aficionados seem endlessly interested in film criticism—not just in what a writer says about a film, but in the very idea of criticism. I’ve suggested in a recent entry some of the historical reasons for this: the rise of the celebrity reviewer in the 1960s, the surge in interest in foreign and alternative cinemas, the emergence of filmic experiments, from Persona to Memento, that seemed to demand discussion.
With the internet, you can’t turn around without bumping into a film review. Aggregate sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic get tens of millions of hits a month. Of course many people are just checking on the range of opinions of a specific release, but I get a sense that many readers are more or less addicted to critical buzz as such. Connoisseurs of sentiment and snark, they still follow favorite reviewers just as we did in the 1960s, and they enjoy reading a critic they don’t agree with because she or he is an enticing writer.
In one corner of my workroom a steadily growing pile of books is no less a tribute to the flourishing of film criticism. Yes, books. I’m a committed Netizen (I’d better be, after three e-books, several web essays and videos, and over 610 blog entries). And for certain purposes, such as word search, I prefer digital versions of texts. But nothing beats a book for reading anywhere you happen to be, thumbing back to check a point, marking up margins with invective, and throwing across a room when you’ve decided the author is a dunce.
Here, though, are some books that won’t become missiles.
One consequence of the 1960s cult of the movie critic was a new genre of book—the anthology of a writer’s reviews, think pieces, and long-form essays, perhaps spiced by an interview or two. Call it a predecessor of a website if you must, but such books were tempting packages to cinephiles who wanted their fix in big gulps, not weekly doses. Then we eagerly read through Agee on Film, Dwight Macdonald on Movies, Kael’s I Lost It at the Movies, and many other collections. Some of these are now classics, most are forgotten, but the format still has life in it. Roger Ebert, exceptional in all respects, kept it going for years and crowned it with his Great Movies series. The format passed to academic presses like Wesleyan with Kent Jones’ Physical Evidence (2007) and Chicago with Dave Kehr’s When Movies Mattered (2011).
Like me, James Naremore is a creature of the 1960s, but with his typical discretion he has waited forty years to bring together a collection. Jim’s 1973 Filmguide to Psycho introduced me to his elegant thinking about movies. Since then he has written about a great many subjects, always with wit, steady vision, and deep and unostentatious learning. Now we have An Invention without a Future: Essays on Cinema (University of California Press).
Every essay here is a polished gift from a master of the literary essay. The book’s first section considers classic topics like adaptation, authorship, and acting. It includes a sharp discussion of the rhetorical dimension of both filmic creation and critical commentary. In the second section we see Naremore the close reader, turning to the classic Hollywood cinema he has done so much to illuminate. He considers Hawks, Hitchcock, Welles, Huston, Minnelli, and Kubrick—the subjects of earlier writing he’s done, but now refocused through new lenses. One recurring question is: Does cinema, either as a physical medium or a public spectacle or a humanistic art have a future? Although the book’s compass swings constantly to the 1940s through the 1960s, Jim is fully up to date, writing with sensitivity on Shirin, Uncle Boonmee, and Mysteries of Lisbon.
The latter pieces were among Jim’s efforts at real-time film reviewing at Film Quarterly. Perhaps the sharpest edge of the book comes in the section housing them, called “In Defense of Criticism.” Jim, I think, considers criticism as, say, Lionel Trilling or Edmund Wilson considered it. Endowed with a tolerant, generous mind, the critic uses all the resources of culture—philosophical and moral ideas, social forces, artistic traditions—to illuminate the unique identity of the artwork.
More deeply, the critic expects the encounter with the artwork to challenge and change us. This to me is one difference between the reviewer and the critic. The reviewer expects the film to live up to his or her solidly entrenched point of view. The critic is open to being shaken, taught, and even transformed by the film. The reviewer projects confidence, the critic displays curiosity.
This ambitious conception of criticism is at risk today from two forces. There is the sheer blather of pop journalism and the Internet, which have pushed film culture from criticism to comments to chat to chatter. At the other end, some professors are allied against film as an art.
Today the humanities are in danger of losing their soul. Academic film studies has tended to focus on formal systems, industrial history, fandom, and identity politics—essential topics without which good criticism can’t be written, but topics that don’t engage directly with questions of art and artists.
Admitting that a certain detachment is valuable for research purposes, Naremore thinks that academics have become somewhat too clinical. Part of his book’s purpose is to draw their attention back to the intellectuals who flourished outside the academy, and for whom quality was worth arguing about.
I nevertheless think that evaluative criticism needs to be encouraged more, and I miss the days before the full-scale development of film studies, when film was made exciting and relevant by virtue of critical writing and debates over value.
So the last section consists of thoughtful essays on James Agee, Manny Farber, Andrew Sarris, and Jonathan Rosenbaum—those who “had the greatest influence on the development of my taste.”
For my $.02, I’d just add that appraisals of quality shape a lot of academic writing, even in the Cult Studs vein. Showing that a film is racist or classist is surely an exercise in evaluation, employing moral or political criteria. Showing that fans of Twilight aren’t dumb no-hopers often springs from the researcher’s own esteem for the franchise. (Remember one of The Blog’s mottos: We are all nerds now.)
In effect, I think, Jim is pointing out that in a lot of film studies evaluation isn’t framed in specifically artistic terms. On that I’d certainly agree. Jim opens a new conversation by asking academics to look beyond their specializations and learn how the best arts journalists argue about quality. Seriously thought-through yet accessible to all, An Invention without a Future is a bracing, quietly subversive book.
Auteurs: From the ridiculous to the sublime
Jim would find signs of hope in two books dedicated to major directors.
Nil Baskar and Gabe Klinger’s Joe Dante, a collection from the enterprising SYNEMA series at the Austrian Film Museum. Dante is just the sort of auteur that cinephiles prize. Working on the fringes of the system in despised genres, he’s a Movie Brat who loves B cinema, noir, and crazy comedy. This thick, square book contains virtually everything you’d ever want to know about the man who could be seen as Spielberg’s demented, funnier alter ego. Dante’s kiddie adventure stories and teen terror pix have celebrated and parodied Americans’ feverish love of war, big business, junk food, and lunatic media.
From The Movie Orgy through Looney Tunes: Back in Action to The Hole (still not released in 3D in the US, as far as I know), Dante has been a paradigmatic case of the termite artist praised by Manny Farber. In this collection John Sayles recalls that for The Howling he and Dante agreed they would center on characters who knew horror-movie conventions and wouldn’t make the typical fatal mistakes. Bill Krohn, J. Hoberman, Christoph Huber, and Michael Almereyda are among the admirers assembled here, and their spirit of amiable, film-geek homage is infectious. There’s also a long interview with Klinger, a detailed chronology, and a filmography zestfully annotated by Howard Prouty.
Dante’s opposite number is Béla Tarr, whose films run the gamut from glum to morose, but they’re no less exhilarating. They find their ideal explication in András Bálint Kovács’ The Cinema of Béla Tarr: The Circle Closes. Kovács scrutinizes all the films, some little-known outside Hungary, and produces careful analyses that balance thematic interpretation with precise examinations of style. As a friend of Tarr’s, András is in a unique position to take us into this filmmaker’s grimy, splendid world.
Tarr, Kovács suggests, asks his audience to accept the illusions shaping the narrative world. Yet his structure and technique in the end yield a clearer view of the underlying forces than the characters can achieve—often, forces driven by conspiracy or betrayal. Accordingly, Tarr’s narratives tend to be cyclical, even when the story situation is unchanging, and his camera movements often trace a circular path. Many readers will particularly welcome Andras’ exciting account of Sátántangó, Tarr’s most demanding film. Based on a novel with an intricately circular structure, the film finds its own means to suggest a story swallowing its own tail. Most film books nowadays have pretty good frame illustrations, but these are well-sized to illustrate some of Tarr’s fine points of staging. In all, this book is likely the definitive study of Tarr’s art.
There’s another way to make the case for an auteur’s value: produce a dazzling book that pays tribute with gorgeous illustrations and informed critical commentary. This has been done by Taipei’s Museum of Contemporary Art in its catalogue King Hu: The Renaissance Man.
The 2012 exhibition it preserves in its pages went beyond the usual regimen of talks and panel discussions. There were children’s events and in-person painting of film billboards. In one display, you could watch Tsui Hark’s calligraphy form a tribute to his master (“The integrity of swordsmanship remains as the spirited rain….”). An installation tableau by Tim Yip presents a modern woman watching King Hu TV appearances while texting, her vacant mind suspended between two spaces.
Open the catalogue and you’re greeted by a large gatefold that sums up King Hu’s career. Thereafter, articles like Edmond Wong’s study of King Hu’s archetypes (derived from legend and theatre) supply the academic ballast, while images of the gallery displays fill up page after page. There are photo essays devoted to each of the films, as well as more gatefolds, illustrating themes such as “The Eight Characteristics of Inns in King Hu’s Films.” Just the hundred pages of King Hu documents—stills, portraits and self-portraits, along with caricatures of Bill Clinton and Princess Di—would be worth our attention. In all, this is the sort of museum show every cinephile dreams of visiting.
Art historian Steven Jacobs, author of The Wrong House, has collaborated with Lisa Colpaert to produce a dream of another sort. Their book invites you into an imaginary exhibition.
Visualize a museum containing all the paintings you find in films of the 1940s and 1950s. Now assume that some diligent scholar has sniffed out the provenance of all of them and provided stylistic and thematic commentary. And now assume that the research is presented as a guide to this virtual museum, using all the paraphernalia of art-historical commentary.
Confused? Here’s the opening of one entry:
[III.9] Portrait of Lady Caroline de Winter
(Unknown Artist, late 18th Century)
This full-length portrait represents Lady Caroline de Winter (1760-1808). The carefully rendered white dress, the column and curtains, and the vista of the landscape are unmistakably reminiscent of the portraits by Thomas Gainsborough, for instance his often-reproduced The Honourable Mrs. Graham (1775-1777). The landscape with trees probably stands for Manderley, the de Winter family estate on the Cornwall coast. For more than a century, the portrait was hanging in a long corridor in Manderley’s east wing, which was decorated with ancestral de Winter portraits. In the 1930s, the portrait played an important part in the life of one of Lady Caroline’s descendants, Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). Maxim’s first wife Rebecca died in mysterious circumstances and once had a copy made of the white dress on the occasion of a masquerade ball at Manderley. . . .
This straight-faced experiment in creative criticism is called The Dark Galleries: A Museum Guide to Painted Portraits in Film Noir, Gothic Melodramas, and Ghost Stories of the 1940s and 1950s. All the conventions are there: the scene-setting introduction, the iconographic interpretations (“crimes and clues,” “paintings concealing safes”), and an exhibition guide that takes you from room to room, from Dying Portraits to Ghosts to Modern Portraits and more. They track the ways in which paintings in movies have altered time, refashioned faces, and, if the painting is disturbingly “modern,” signified madness and criminality. As zealous researchers, Steven and Lisa have done what they could to trace the provenance of the actual artifacts too, and they’ve discovered a large number of commercial artists hired by the studios.
A few years back at our summer film school, Steven impressed me when he identified the famously puzzling cubist still life in Suspicion as Picasso’s Pitcher and Bowl of Fruit (1931). The ultimate result of his and Lisa’s efforts is at once charming and deeply serious, enlightening us about a major motif in Hollywood’s “dark cinema.” It’s an extraordinary accomplishment, and an ideal gift for the patriarch, matriarch, exotic woman, or mystery man in your life.
Thanks to Lin Wenchi for giving me the King Hu catalogue. I’m unable to find an online source for this book, but when I do I will note it here. In the meantime, the sponsoring museum produced several videos for the exhibition. YouTube supplies a playlist of them. Our entries on this great director are here. I discuss his work in more detail in the books Planet Hong Kong and Poetics of Cinema.
For more exercises in creative criticism, visit Hilde D’haeyere’s website on silent comedy.
F for Fake (1972).
Earlier I’ve described our site as a series of experiments in para-academic writing—a strategy for getting our ideas and research to film enthusiasts both inside and outside educational institutions. Once we had created the site and mounted essays and blog entries, we pushed on to other possibilities.
Could we create a print book out of blog entries? Thanks to the University of Chicago Press, we did.
Could I post as an e-book a revised version of a published book, with expanded text and color stills? You bet!
Could I post a new e-book based on blog entries? Done.
Today we launch another experiment. Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages is offered to you as an e-book. It revises, reorganizes, and expands on several earlier posts. What’s the new wrinkle? For the first time we offer film clips “baked into” the text. A version without extracts is also available. The cost for either one is $1.99.
You can acquire either here, along with more information. What follows provides a little background on the project.
Is Christopher Nolan a good filmmaker? A bad one? Good on some dimensions, bad on others? What about the faults and virtues of individual films?
These are questions people consider typical of film criticism—questions turning on evaluation. Then there are questions of personal taste. Even if his films are good, do you dislike them? Even if they’re bad, do you enjoy them? Most people don’t distinguish between evaluation and taste, but I’ve argued before that this is an important distinction.
Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages grants that along certain dimensions Nolan’s films can be faulted. By some criteria, his technique occasionally falters. Along other dimensions, the work is valuable. But the primary concern of the book isn’t to evaluate Nolan. Kristin and I want to analyze some ways in which his narratives have been innovative.
Innovation isn’t inherently a good thing, of course, but we think that Nolan has fruitfully explored some fresh options in cinematic storytelling. Contrary to common opinion, we don’t think that the Dark Knight trilogy is a significant part of this tendency. We concentrate on Following, Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige, and especially Inception. We see in these films a consistent inquiry into how multiple time frames and embedded plotlines can be orchestrated in fresh and engaging ways.
The key problem is comprehensible complexity: How do you build more elaborate structures and still not lose your audience? How do you design a labyrinth that contains enough linkages to guide your viewer toward a unified experience? This is a problem that confronts any filmmaker who tries for ambitious storytelling within the tradition of mainstream American cinema.
So if one of your criteria for a good film is adventurous novelty, then there is a case to be made for Nolan. But maybe you don’t accept that criterion, or you resist the claim that he’s doing something intelligent with classical plot structures, or maybe his work just isn’t to your liking. Nonetheless, we hope that our analyses will shed light on his films—and more generally, on other films.
One of the goals of all our research, online and off, is to trace out broad tendencies. We’re interested in disclosing creative options that are available to filmmakers working in different traditions and at different points in film history. Other directors or screenwriters can push Nolan’s experiments in other directions. And we can study all these options and pathways while suspending evaluation and personal taste.
Old rules, and new
Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages sticks to some of the rules I outlined with respect to Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies.
The original blog entries aren’t taken down. All the original blog entries will remain available online. To see them, click on the Nolan category on the right.
The book isn’t simply a blog sandwich. One reason I created this book was to revise and reorganize the somewhat diffuse blog posts into something tighter, with a smoother flow of ideas.
The book has substantial new material. Some points in the original posts are expanded, while we add some fresh ideas about Nolan’s significance.
It isn’t an academic book. It’s written in the conversational style of our blogs. Nonetheless, the text and a reference section in the back provide links to documents, interviews, sources, and sites of interest.
The book isn’t free… Again, I’ve had to pay for design and work on the video clips. So my hope is to recoup my expenses and even pay myself something for my effort.
…but it’s very, very cheap. Planet Hong Kong 2.0 runs $15, which I think is a fair price given the cost of designing a long book with hundreds of color pictures. Pandora is a lot simpler and has only a few stills, so it costs $3.99. The Nolan book, quite a bit shorter than Pandora but with many stills and several video extracts, is priced at $1.99.
And there will be video. One version of the book contains six short extracts from films that are analyzed. These are “baked in.” That is, you don’t have to be online to watch them.
So now, some specifics. These are also reviewed on the purchase page.
We offer a vanilla version of Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages that is a pdf file of 10 MB. It contains lots of stills but no clips. It will display well on any computer or tablet. It costs $1.99.
The audiovisual version of the book is a much fatter pdf file, nearly 300 MB. That one will take longer to download, of course, but it will enable you to play the clips anywhere, whether you’re online or not. It too costs $1.99.
All the clips play smoothly on laptops and desktops, whether PC or Mac. As far as we know, Android-based tablets will run the clips organically. Still, some operating systems on some devices may not natively display the videos. Most notably, the Adobe PDF Reader on the iPad will not run the clips. But there is at least one iOS-friendly application available, PDF Expert, that will play the clips. Probably other apps exist or will be developed. You may want to experiment for best results.
Payment procedure is via PayPal, funneled through PayHip. PayHip enables us to put a big e-book file on the Cloud. When you make your purchase, you will be directed back to the PayHip site to download the book. An email will also be sent to the address you provided, with a download link.
Once more, you can go here to order the book. On the same page you can examine the Table of Contents.
As I said back in 2012 when we introduced Pandora: If you decide to buy the book, we thank you. And again we quote Jack Ryan from the end of The Hunt for Red October: Welcome to the new world.
Thanks to our Web tsarina Meg Hamel, who did her usual superb job turning the Nolan blogs into this little book, and who has set up the payment process to be quick and easy. Thanks as well to Erik Gunneson for his work preparing the clips for our analyses.
All illustrations in this entry from The Prestige.
Donald Westlake in 2001. Photo by David Jennings.
There can be no question of my doing justice to the writing of Donald Westlake, also known as Richard Stark, Tucker Coe, and other cover names. For background you can go to his fine site or to Wikipedia, or this warm appreciation by Michael Weinreb. Here I just want to pay brief tribute to a writer who, like Rex Stout and Patricia Highsmith, seemed incapable of composing a bad sentence. Elmore Leonard gets deserved recognition as a laconic master of language, but Westlake was no less skillful. In some ways he was more ambitious and audacious.
He was astoundingly versatile. He wrote straight novels, erotica, and science-fiction, but fame came to him when he worked in three registers: terse toughness, wry comedy, and straight-up farce.
As Westlake he wrote psychological thrillers. Best-known, I think, is The Ax (1997), about a downsized executive eliminating the competition for jobs that might come up. Also as Westlake, he wrote comic crime novels. Many of these center on a gang of inept working-class thieves led, if that’s the word, by the hapless John Dortmunder. As Richard Stark, Westlake wrote very hard-boiled novels about Parker (no first name), an utterly emotionless professional thief, and his sometime assistant Alan Grofield.
Westlake rang many variations, both high and low, on the heist formula, and his plotting was fastidious. He made one story do for two novels by telling it from different viewpoints (Slayground and The Blackbirder, both 1971). The plot of one Dortmunder novel, Drowned Hopes (1990), was so complicated that it left interstices for Westlake’s friend Joe Gores to fill in an intersecting novel, 32 Cadillacs (1992).
Nearly all the Stark books have a strict four-part structure. Part one takes place in the present, leading to a crisis. Parts two and three flash back to what led up to the book’s first chapter. Part four finishes up the action left hanging in part one. This pet pattern was both a trademark and a self-imposed constraint that Stark-Westlake had to overcome in every book. Today’s young fiction writers could learn construction from these trim, no-nonsense tales.
At the moment, though, our topic is style. Here is the opening of Stark’s The Mourner (1963).
When the guy with asthma finally came in from the fire escape, Parker rabbit-punched him and took his gun away. The asthmatic hit the carpet, but there’d been another one out there, and he landed on Parker’s back like a duffel bag with arms. Parker fell turning, so that the duffel bag would be on the bottom, but it didn’t quite work out that way. They landed sideways, joltingly, and the gun skittered away into the darkness.
There was no light in the room at all. The window was a paler rectangle sliced out of blackness. Parker and the duffel bag wrestled around on the floor a few minutes, neither getting an advantage because the duffel bag wouldn’t give up his first hold but just clung to Parker’s back. Then the asthmatic got his wind and balance back and joined in, trying to kick Parker’s head loose. Parker knew the room even in the dark, since he’d lived there the last week, so he rolled over to where he knew there wasn’t any furniture. The asthmatic, coming after him, fell over a chair.
The economy is remarkable. There’s no explicit indication that we’re in a hotel room, or that Parker has been waiting for the invasion. This is in medias res storytelling, a Stark specialty. (Many of the novels begin with a “When…” clause.) In a couple more paragraphs, Parker gets the advantage and knocks out both men. “The asthmatic went down, hitting furniture on the way.”
The faintly amused tone here (being caught by “a duffel bag with arms,” kicking a man’s head “loose,” falling over a chair) is stronger in the Stark novels centered on Grofield. He’s a semi-professional actor who goes in for theft to finance his small-town theatre troupe. Parker is introverted, stoic, and borderline sociopathic, while Grofield is laid-back, good-natured, and quick with backchat. The opening of The Damsel (1967), parallel to that of The Mourner, shifts toward the deadpan comedy of the Dortmunder capers.
Grofield opened his right eye, and there was a girl climbing in the window. He closed that eye, opened the left, and she was still there. Gray skirt, blue sweater, blond hair, and long tanned legs straddling the windowsill.
But this room was on the fifth floor of the hotel. There was nothing outside that window but air and a poor view of Mexico City.
Grofield’s room was in semidarkness, because he’d been taking an after-lunch snooze. The girl obviously thought the place was empty, and once she was inside she headed striaght for the door.
Grofield lifted his head and said, “If you’re my fairy godmother, I want my back scratched.”
Opening one eye, then the other: The micro-action is as vivid as Rod Steiger or Eli Wallach playing up to us in a Leone film. The tone has changed too. Words like “snooze” wouldn’t show up in a pure Parker novel, I think. And now we get some scene-setting, but that’s because the wounded Grofield, flat on his back, can’t give us a tour of the room through physical action. What replaces Parker’s tussle is sexy banter. After the woman finds a suitcase full of cash, she gets suspicious. Grofeld explains: “I wear money.”
Finally, here’s extravagant burlesque from a non-Dortmunder story, Help I Am Being Held Prisoner (1974). The plot, about a practical joker who is thrown into prison among hard cases, is preposterously enjoyable, but again it’s the style that arrests, and convulses. The protagonist is accompanying Eddie, a demented ex-officer after they’ve broken out of the joint, sneaked onto a military base, and settled down in the mess for dinner.
“Speaking of landing on mines,” he said, “that reminds me of another funny story.” And he proceeded to tell it. Soon our food came, and so did the wine, but Eddie kept on telling me his reminiscences. Friends of his had fallen under tanks, walked into airplane propellors, inadvertently bumped their elbows against the firing mechanism of thousand-pound bombs, and walked backwards off the flight deck of an aircraft carrier while backing up to take a group photograph. Other friends had misread the control directions on a robot tank and driven it through a Pennsylvania town’s two hundredth anniversay celebration square dance, had fired a bazooka while it was facing the wrong way, had massacred a USO Gilbert and Sullivan troupe rehearsing The Mikado under the mistaken impression they were peaceful Vietnamese villagers, and had ordered a nearby enlisted man to look in that mortar and see why the shell hadn’t come out.
It began after a while to seem as though Eddie’s military career had been an endless red-black vista of explosions, fires, and crumpling destruction, all intermixed with hoarse cries, anonymous thuds, and terminal screams. Eddie recounted these disasters in his normal bloodless style, with touches of that dry avuncular humor he’d displayed during our hour at the bar. I managed to eat very little of my veal parmigiana–it kept looking like a body fragment–but became increasingly sober nonetheless. A brandy later with coffee, accompanied by a Korean War story about a friend of Eddie’s trapped in a box canyon for nine days by a combination of a blizzard and a North Korean offensive, who kept himself alive by sawing off his own wounded leg and eating steaks from it, but who later died in Honolulu from gangrene of the stomach, didn’t help much.
It’s a challenge to a novelist to tell us something funny is coming up and then to make it much funnier than we expect, turning it into a crescendo of slapstick violence. It’s partly the appositional phrases, which pile up mishaps, and partly the mock-heroic word choices. Would you (or I) come up with epithets like “endless red-black vista” or “gangrene of the stomach”? Could we pull off that satiric stab of a massacre occurring “under the mistaken impression they were peaceful Vietnamese villagers”? Extra-credit assignment: Diagram the last sentence. Could we write something so complicated and impeccable?
By these standards, most of our novelists, beach-book maestros or middlebrow bestsellers or literary lions, don’t cut it.
Many films have been drawn from Westlake’s books. Made in USA (1966) and Point Blank (1967) are probably the most famous, but both are very free treatments. Closer to the brusque Stark spirit is The Outfit (1974), while the French version of The Ax (2005, by Costa-Gavras) is quite watchable. I haven’t seen the recent Parker, with Jason Statham, yet. Sad to report, the several Dortmunder movie adaptations don’t make me laugh much. But Westlake had no illusions: “A movie is not the book it came from and in almost every case it shouldn’t be the book it came from.” Westlake wrote screenplays too, notably The Stepfather (1987) and The Grifters (1990).
He died in 2008. He seems to have been the most easygoing, unpretentious writing machine you’d ever want to meet. The University of Chicago Press is republishing the Stark novels in handsome uniform editions, and there remain many other Westlakes that deserve unearthing. Read them for pleasure, for the smooth carpentry of their plots, and their cunning simplicity of style.
The top image, by David Jennings for The New York Times, is taken from the official Donald Westlake site, now maintained by his son Paul. My quotation from Westlake about adaptations comes from Albert Nussbaum, 811332-132, “An Inside Look at Donald Westlake,” Take One 4,9 (1975), 10-13. This postal interview, conducted by a prisoner at a penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, includes some insider information on Godard’s Made in USA.
The Outfit (1974), from the 1963 novel of the same name by Richard Stark.