You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Writers on Screen’ category.
“I do not see myself as a footnote in someone else’s life.” – Martha Gellhorn
When I’m stuck for something to watch there are several resources I use and one of them is the list of HBO movies on Wikipedia. When I saw Hemingway & Gellhorn, starring Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen, was released last year I knew it would be one I’d want to see, given that one of my favourite writers is the subject.
The film is about the relationship between Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, a journalist and war correspondent who was to be third of his four wives. Hemingway and Gellhorn met by accident in a bar in Key West in 1936 and were together until 1945. They followed each other to various war torn locations and also lived in Cuba where Hemingway wrote For Whom The Bell Tolls, which subsequently was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
Hemingway and Gellhorn were in the thick of it for much of their relationship and the film captures their witty barbed banter and need for constant excitement. Ultimately they were too alike for the marriage to have lasted. Hemingway needed a traditional wife; someone to bolster his ego, nurture his talent, and keep the world away. Someone who would be part wife, part mother and part muse. Martha was incapable of a passive role and could never be someone’s muse. Martha was a creator, an instigator, someone who wanted to be at the centre of things and make a difference. She was more equal to Hemingway than any of his wives, and her independence and Hemingway’s inability to tolerate it ended the marriage.
By far the stand out performance is that of Nicole Kidman, who plays Martha Gellhorn both as a younger and older woman. As a younger woman you can see how aware she is of her natural allure and how comfortable she is in her own skin. As an older woman it is easy to see how witnessing the horrors of war has turned her into an embittered person. Clive Owen plays Hemingway in a completely over the top fashion, almost like a caricature but then perhaps Hemingway is a bit like Hunter S. Thompson in that way; it’s hard for an actor not to play them as caricatures because that’s what they became in later life. Their public personas became more important and eventually detracted from their writing. (And prepare yourselves for an incongruous cameo from the most annoying man in rock, Lars Ulrich, whose acting is just as uninspired as his drumming.)
The film’s main flaw is its meandering plot line and a more stringent edit would certainly have helped. With a running time of two and a half hours, forty five minutes could easily have been shaved off. Additionally there is a tendancy to overplay certain scenes and as a result render them faintly ludicrous. The scene of Hemingway and Gellhorn sleeping together for the first time while Madrid is bombed is utterly over the top and the music in the last scene is so determined to wrench our heartstrings into submission it’s comical. However the cinematography is one of the film’s strengths, with certain scenes shot in sepia, looking like old newsreel footage, and then blooming into full colour.
Despite the fact that the film has many flaws, it’s worth a watch for any Hemingway enthusiast, not least for the recipe for the cocktails Ernest invented which I intend to serve at my next party. In the movie he calls them a Papa Doble – “Two and a half jiggers of Bacardi White Label rum, juice of two limes, half a grapefruit, plus 6 drops of maraschino. You whir the whole mess with shaved ice in an electric mixer and you’re ready to rhumba. I invented the damn drink and I hold the house record in drinking them: Seventeen.”
Alex Gibney is in my opinion one of the greatest American documentary filmmakers working today and I’m not alone. In 2010 Esquire magazine said that Gibney “is becoming the most important documentarian of our time.” His recent filmography includes Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliott Spitzer and Gonzo, a wonderful film about Hunter S. Thompson that I’ve seen about ten times. When I saw that Gibney, along with Allison Ellwood, directed a film about writer Ken Kesey and his legendary bus trip across America with the Merry Pranksters I knew it was going to be good.
Magic Trip documents Kesey’s bus trip to New York for the World’s Fair in 1964. This film is the first time that the original footage shot by Kesey and his cohorts during the trip has ever been seen. Kesey had at this point published two novels to critical acclaim, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion, and he was firmly established as a counter culture hero. Wanting to take a break from writing, Kesey bought an old school bus, decorated it with psychedelic art and crammed it full of his friends, with road trip veteran Neal Cassady (who was the inspiration for Dean Moriarty in On The Road) at the wheel. They bought cameras and sound equipment that none of them knew how to use and started travelling from West to East. The idea was to make art out of everyday life, to bring happiness and joy to other people, and to explore America by road.
They ended up with over forty hours of footage accompanied by an audio track that wasn’t synched. As a result the footage never saw the light of day bar a couple of screenings Kesey held for his friends. It took Gibney and Ellwood over a year to restore the film and then many frustrating hours trying to match the audio to the visuals. Their efforts were certainly worth the time. The footage, shot on 16mm film, is beautifully vivid, and the summer scenes fairly leap off the screen. Gibney and Ellwood have constructed the film around interviews with the participants which took place ten years after the trip and these are provided in voice-over, a welcome change from the usual “talking head” documentary format.
Kesey had volunteered for Project MKUltra in the 1950s, a CIA run experiment to test the effects of mind altering drugs including LSD, psilocybin and mescaline. As a result of his experiences Kesey was a proponent of the mind expanding and conciousness raising aspects of psychedelic drugs. He and the Pranksters regularly dropped acid on the road trip, danced around fires, tried to play instruments (with varying degrees of success) and communed with nature.
As Robin Williams famously said, “if you remember the sixties, you weren’t there” and this film shows exactly why. For the rest of us Magic Trip provides an insight into a legendary artistic journey that seems not so much subversive but in fact innocent, playful and idealistic.
What you are all looking for in your writing is for one person to come up to you and say “I love you because of what you do”.
- Ray Bradbury
I watched this lecture from Ray Bradbury on writing recently and found it so inspiring and knowledgeable I just had to share. The lecture is called “Telling the Truth” and it was the keynote address of The Sixth Annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea in 2001.
He touches on the topics of learning your craft by writing short stories instead of starting with a novel as it’s easier to learn from writing 52 short stories in a year than slaving away at a novel which may still not be finished at the end of twelve months; he recommends reading an essay, a poem and a short story every night for a thousand nights in order to broaden your knowledge; he advocates being joyful about writing, saying “I’ve never worked a day in my life”; and he talks about his experience of working with Gene Kelly!
It’s worth watching this nearly hour long film, especially if you’re a writer.
“Fran Lebowitz’s trademark is the sneer; she disapproves of virtually everything except sleep, cigarette smoking, and good furniture.” – The Paris Review, 1993
Public Speaking is a documentary about Fran Lebowitz directed by Martin Scorsese for HBO in 2011. The film is not a biographical look at Lebowitz but instead is a conversation where she holds forth on subjects including politics, racism, gender differences, tourists in New York, children, writer’s block, laziness, technology, the current fetish for nostalgia, talent and fame.
Lebowitz is a New York institution, a writer, journalist and cultural commentator whose deadpan delivery means that she is often compared to the late Dorothy Parker. She published two very well received books of essays (now brought together in one volume as The Fran Lebowitz Reader) early in her career and is also famous for her writer’s block which has gone on so long that she has now termed it “writer’s blockade”. She has apparently been working on a book on and off (mostly off, it has to be said) for the last twenty years entitled Exterior Signs of Wealth, but whether this novel will ever see the light of day is debatable. These days she mainly makes her living from journalism and public speaking at colleges around America.
Scorsese filmed Lebowitz talking over several nights at her regular table at the Waverly Inn in the West Village. Scorsese compares her to a jazz musician – give her a topic and she will riff about it - and you can see his delight in her humour during the film. He regularly creases up laughing at her more outlandish statements. Certainly Lebowitz’s strength is in her ability to tell a story, to communicate without being in the least bit boring or predictable. She is a lively, intelligent and engaging raconteur and Scorsese has captured this beautifully, interspersing her conversation with archival footage which gives a great sense of context.
Last Monday RTÉ aired one of the best pieces of programming they’ve done in a while, a documentary by Marian Finucane on Nuala O’Faolain entitled simply Nuala. Finucane and O’Faolain were friends for many years so it’s fitting that Finucane was the one to present and co-produce this documentary, which she describes as a “warts and all” look at a talented, warm and complex woman who never seemed to find lasting happiness.
O’Faolain was born the second eldest of nine children and her father enjoyed fame in Ireland as a social diarist who wrote under the pseudonym Terry O’Sullivan for the Evening Press newspaper. Despite her father’s success the family endured poverty and many house moves. In addition Nuala’s mother was deeply unhappy and sought refuge in alcohol, often leaving the house to go to the pub in the early afternoon not to return until nightfall. Nuala’s childhood was certainly difficult and she chronicled this in her memoir “Are You Somebody?“
O’Faolain’s sharp intelligence and intellectual curiosity ended up saving her. After studying English Literature at UCD, University of Hull and Oxford, she worked at the BBC and at RTÉ producing award winning programmes. From 1986 she wrote a weekly column for the Irish Times. This was followed by the publication of her memoir which made her a star both at home and abroad and was No 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. O’Faolain produced three other books; My Dream of You (2001), Almost There (2003), and The Story of Chicago May (2005).
Although never married O’Faolain had a turbulent romantic life which is examined in the documentary. Two of her partners declined to be interviewed, most significantly, the feminist, journalist and activist Nell McCafferty with whom O’Faolain had a fifteen year relationship. O’Faolain seemed to experience great dissatisfaction in her relationships with men, in part as a result of her own own issues having witnessed her father’s philandering.
O’Faolain was diagnosed with terminal cancer in early 2008 and she was interviewed by Finucane a month before her death. The result was one of the most brutally honest and heartbreaking pieces of radio I’ve ever heard. (You can read a full transcript of the interview here.) One gets the sense of a woman facing death as bravely as she can while still assailed by doubts, regret and loneliness. The interview prompted a mass outpouring of sympathy from the Irish public and Nuala was overwhelmed by the letters she received – they lifted her heart in her final days.
Nuala won Best Irish Film at the 2012 Jameson Dublin International Film Festival and I hope this brilliant documentary finds audiences abroad and wins the many awards that it surely deserves. Nuala is available to view in Ireland on the RTÉ Player until April 9th.
“The trick is not becoming a writer. The trick is staying a writer.” – Harlan Ellison
American writer Harlan Ellison is the subject of Erik Nelson’s 2008 documentary Dreams With Sharp Teeth. Ellison is the renowned and prolific author of over 1700 works of fiction, short stories, essays, criticism and screenplays. His friend Robin Williams describes him as “a skin graft on a leper”, Neil Gaiman describes him as “one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century”, and Harlan describes himself as “a hard pill to swallow”. All these things are true but he’s also a smart, funny, erudite and ethical man who I fell in love with over the course of the film.
Harlan grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. He gets visibly emotional looking at old video footage of his younger self, aged ten years old, with his parents. He vividly remembers what it was like to be small for his age, an victimised outcast, and believes this is the source of his legendary anger – the perfect revenge in Harlan’s eyes is to be razor smart and cut someone dead with a remark. His formative experiences so influenced him that he often used the names of his childhood bullies in his stories.
He often ran away from home and had a series of odd jobs throughout his teen years until, aged twenty one, he moved to New York City to become a writer. He published many short stories in the science fiction genre and had success, including a good review from Dorothy Parker for his short story collection Gentleman Junkie and Other Stories of the Hung-Up Generation. In 1962 Harlan moved to LA (where he still lives) and continued to write fiction while also forging a career writing screenplays and scripts for TV.
Spending time with Harlan (even if it is just in the form of a documentary) is like getting electro shock therapy. His energy, abrasiveness and passion fairly crackles through the screen, he speaks in a rapid fire way with power and intensity. He talks about atheism, the universe, writing, art, love, and television amongst many other subjects in the documentary, and on every topic he has a considered opinion.
Ellison’s irascible temper is legendary and can be epitomised by this rant on paying the writer – a rant every writer can empathise with. It’s completely well reasoned, almost without profanity, but still so vitriolic that you’d hate to be on the receiving end of it. He admits that everything makes him angry but rhetorically posits if we think he’s happy getting up and being that angry all day.
Even if you haven’t read Ellison’s work this is a fascinating film and worth watching – an insight into a brilliant man who is an inspiration for many writers.
(Another reason I like Harlan? [He'd laugh at me for this.] He is a Gemini and his birthday is two days after mine. He will be 78 this year.)
When the Oscar nominations came out earlier this week I was delighted to see that Woody Allen’s most recent film, Midnight in Paris, was up for four awards including Best Film and Best Direction. The movie is a return to form for Allen and I enjoyed it so much, not least because it features one of my favourite eras in literature, the 1920s in Paris.
Owen Wilson plays Gil Pender, a part which Allen would have probably played himself if he were the right age. Allen has increasingly employed this tactic in recent movies, starting with Kenneth Branagh in 1998′s Celebrity, and Wilson does an admirable job here. Pender is a frustrated Hollywood screenwriter who dreams of writing a great novel. He is holidaying in Paris with his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams, playing against type as an unsupportive conservative shrew) and her parents. One night Gil gets drunk and wanders the streets of Paris trying to find his way back to the hotel. Shortly after midnight he comes across an antique car and its passengers invite him to join them on their travels and offer him champagne. He soon realises that he has travelled back in time to the 1920s and he is in the company of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. They take him to Bricktop’s famous nightclub and introduce him to Hemingway who promises to give Gil’s novel to Gertrude Stein.
Every night thereafter at the same time Gil goes back in time to the 20s and meets a host of famous literary and artistic people, including Gertrude Stein (played by Kathy Bates), Dali (Adrien Brody), Alice B. Toklas, Djuna Barnes, Degas, Toulouse Lautrec, Gaugin, and Picasso. He falls in love with Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a captivating girl who has been a muse to many great men and is now with Picasso, and gets advice on his novel from Stein and Hemingway. Gil struggles with his dawning realisation that Inez might not be the girl for him and his nostalgia for the world he visits every night after midnight. Should he attempt to stay there or should he return to reality?
Midnight in Paris is a perfect film for a writer, evoking the inspirational artistic milieu and hedonism of 1920s Paris exactly as I imagined it. It’s not a groundbreaking movie and it doesn’t tackle big issues so it’s unlikely to win Best Film at the Oscars, but it reminds us of the best of the movies, how a film can transport you and make you believe in magic and for that reason alone it’s worth watching. Highly recommended.
Margaret Atwood: Once in August is a documentary film made in 1984 by Michael Rubbo. In the early 80s Rubbo set about interviewing Canadian novelists for the National Film Board of Canada and Margaret Atwood is one in the series.
Atwood invited Rubbo to her summer home for the interview. The first thing that struck me was that I couldn’t think of a more different writer to me! Atwood lives in a quiet pastoral setting and is very connected to her family and the land. We see scenes from a country life; a log cabin on an island, mother and daughter swimming in the lake, her daughter calling the birds across the still water, baking pies in the kitchen. It might be an idyllic life for some, but would be sheer undiluted hell for me!
The documentary is unstructured and informal and mostly takes the form of conversations between Rubbo and Atwood. Rubbo admits that he is not a educated literary critic and so approaches the interview series as more of a reader. Atwood has a view of her own novels and characters that is almost incontrovertible. She listens patiently to Michael’s viewpoint but strongly disagrees at times. She knows her characters and their motivations and one gets the sense that she writes deliberately with a clear vision of what she wants to communicate and that his interpretations of her literature are often wrong in her mind.
They debate the biographical school of criticism in which Rubbo believes, i.e. that every writer is working in an autobiographical way and much is taken from their own lives, versus the craft of writing in which Atwood believes, i.e. that writers are creating from scratch and that it is work not therapy. She rejects the idea of the novelist as a tortured soul; for her it is a craft, a job. She writes the way she does because she is interested in it, not because she is trying to work out her own psychological issues.
Rubbo has a stubborn and naive sense of her work. There’s a push and pull between them and she tries to educate him in a gentle way but at times her frustration comes through. The most fascinating part of the film is when he turns the camera over to the Atwoods and they film themselves with no intrusion, the conversation becoming more scholarly and more revealing.
I’d love to have seen this as a conversation between a critic who was more educated about Atwood’s work and who could draw her out. She is a fiercely intelligent woman, very articulate with fluent fast speech, and is quietly self-assured. Having read and enjoyed many of her novels (in particular The Robber Bride and Alias Grace) I gained a new appreciation for this prolific and talented woman.
I have long been a fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I reckon anyone who has ever nurtured dreams of being a writer has been fascinated by the romantic legend of this great master. F. Scott Fitzgerald: The American Dreamer is a straightforward biographical documentary tracing Fitzgerald’s life from his beginings on Summit Ave. in St. Paul to his death aged 44 of a heart attack.
Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born in 1896 in Saint Paul, Minnesota to an upper middle class Irish Catholic family. He knew he would be a writer from a young age and showed unusual intelligence and a keen interest in literature. His first story was published in the local newspaper at the age of thirteen. At college in Princeton the two most defining influences on his life were already in place; literary genius and a drinking problem.
Fitzgerald published the three novels that would make his reputation in a twelve year period; The Beautiful and Damned (1922), The Great Gatsby (1925) and Tender is the Night (1934). He had a marvellous ear which informed his lyrical style. His first drafts were undistinguished but as he revised them and played them against his ear, the work was polished into the remarkable novels that have become legendary. He revised Tender is the Night seventeen times before he considered it good enough to send to his publisher.
However Fitzgerald’s alcoholism meant that he was washed up by forty, only five years older than I am now. He was widely regarded as a hopeless alcoholic who had squandered his talent. His friend and contemporary Ernest Hemingway chided him for his “whoring” as Hemingway termed it; writing commercial short stories in order to make money rather than focussing on his novels. It must have been awful for Fitzgerald to know that his best work was behind him at an age where he should have been looking forward to his finest professional phase.
Fitzgerald was not a man’s man like his contemporaries Hemingway or Mailer, but women were charmed by him nonetheless, most notably Zelda Sayre, the golden girl of Alabama society. They married in 1920 when Scott was twenty four and of Zelda he said, “it was a love that was one in a century”. It was a grand life-changing love and a destructive one too. Zelda couldn’t bear to be bored and hated when Scott disappeared to work and left her alone. She turned to partying to amuse herself and encouraged Fitzgerald to join her, therefore exacerbating his alcoholism.
Zelda was certainly the life and soul of any party she attended but this masked psychiatric problems. Those who claimed that Zelda was eccentric were mistaken. Zelda first developed schizophrenia at the age of thirty and was in and out of treatment for the rest of her life which was a huge burden on Scott both emotionally and financially. Even though they lived apart they never divorced. Zelda spent her last years after Scott’s death in mental institutions and died in a fire in a hospital aged 48.
When Fitzgerald died his books weren’t in print and his genius was only rediscovered in the 1950s. Nowadays The Great Gatsby is regarded as one of the great classics of American literature and Fitzgerald is considered a master of lyric style. For those wishing to know more about him, his books are the first place to start as they were inspired by events in his life but there is also a comprehensive and sympathetic biography by Matthew Bruccoli, who is considered the preeminent Fitzgerald scholar, which I would highly recommend.
Almost a year ago I posted about the movie Howl and how much I wanted to see it, and a couple of weeks ago I finally managed to watch it on DVD. The movie is about the obscenity trial that Lawrence Ferlinghetti went through for the publication of Howl, the seminal Beat poem by Allen Ginsberg.
Howl is not a biopic nor does it give an exhaustive portrait of Ginsberg. The movie contains three main strands: Ginsberg reading Howl to a beautifully animated interpretation of the poem; Ginsberg being interviewed and discussing the poem and his life experiences; and the obscenity trial itself. The narrative switches between these three strands and provides an impressionistic view of Ginsberg in the mid 1950s.
James Franco gives a considered and thoughtful performance as Allen Ginsberg and I thought he did an excellent job. The film also stars John Hamm, Mary Louise Parker, and Todd Rotondi, who looks eerily like Jack Kerouac. My favourite part of the film was the animation by New York artist Eric Drooker. I thought that these animated scenes gave huge clarity to the meaning of Howl and enriched the poem immensely. Apparently Ginsberg was a fan of Drooker’s and the two had worked together on Illuminated Poems. I think Drooker’s familiarity with the work greatly enhanced the cinematic interpretation.
Most of all the movie succeeds in showing how important this obscenity trial was to the freedom of creative expression currently enjoyed by artists in America. It was almost like the counterculture was accepted by the establishment for the first time. Definitely worth a watch.