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“There is a marvelous peace in not publishing … I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”
- J.D Salinger, interviewed by the New York Times, 1974.
On paper, a documentary about JD Salinger, known for being the most reclusive author of all time, would seem to be a very limited and potentially dull film; how much can we really know about a man who was so insistent on privacy? However Shane Salerno’s 2013 documentary Salinger turns out to be a very compelling and thorough look at the author of one of the quintessential Great American Novels.
Jerome David Salinger is most well-known for writing The Catcher in the Rye; at a rate of 250,000 sold per year it’s is one of the best-selling books (60 million copies so far) of all time. In addition to Catcher, he also produced three other works: Nine Stories, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, and Franny and Zooey. Salinger was convinced of his own talent, saying that he and Melville were the only two good American authors and publicly dismissing everyone else including Drieser, Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway (even though Hemingway was in fact his literary hero and his encouragement of Salinger was one of the great moments of Salinger’s early career).
The documentary gives a fascinating account of his experiences in the Second World War. Salinger was in the Counter Intelligence Corps and his first day in combat was D-Day, landing on Utah beach. He was present for the liberation of Paris and was part of the company that liberated the Dachau concentration camp. As a result of the trauma and suffering he witnessed, he was hospitalised for combat stress reaction for a few weeks. Many veterans talk about difficulties relating to those who have never seen combat and how their war experiences stayed with them for the rest of their lives. Salinger was in all likelihood no different which perhaps partly explains his later need for isolation.
The tone of alienation and disaffection prevalent in Salinger’s work and typified by Holden Caulfield was a direct result of his experience in the war, which he also used for subject matter. After seven years of repeated rejections by The New Yorker, Salinger finally achieved his literary goal of publication in the magazine with “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”, a story about a veteran struggling with the emotional aftermath of combat.
Salinger believed that an author should be known only through their work therefore he refused to do book tours and even asked that his photograph be removed from the cover of The Catcher In The Rye. The impression is that his work was the only important thing in his life and he needed peace and quiet to do it; publishing did not matter, the literary glitterati were of zero interest, and he hated being recognised. He began to retreat from public life in 1953 and from then until his death in 2010, he was seen very rarely. In his later years he was frustrated by fans from all over the world who hounded him, seeing him as a counsellor, wise man, the only one who truly understood them. Salinger was often impatient and told them that he was “just a fiction writer”, demonstrating his staunch refusal to buy into his own myth.
The documentary is an impressive exploration of Salinger’s life and work. As well as interviewing many people who knew him (including the women who was the inspiration for the character of Sybil in “…Bananafish”), it also contains interviews with celebrity fans, including John Cusack, Martin Sheen, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Elizabeth Frank, Edward Norton and Judd Apatow. As regular Multiverse readers know I love watching documentaries on writers and this is one of the best I have ever seen. Definitely one to watch.
Ernest Hemingway was dogged by mental illness for most of his life, yet managed to produce some of the greatest works of American literature of the 20th Century. I have posted on the blog about the documentary Wrestling With Life, a biographical film about Hemingway which touches on the subject of his illness and details his eventual death by suicide aged sixty-one. Now his granddaughter Mariel Hemingway has collaborated with two-time Academy Award winning director Barbara Kopple in a film entitled Running From Crazy which explores the Hemingway family “curse” of mental illness.
The Hemingway family history is riddled with substance abuse, alcoholism, depression and suicide; seven members of the family have committed suicide, including Ernest and his granddaughter Margaux Hemingway, sister of Mariel. The film talks about this legacy and Mariel’s own attempts to overcome it and create a healthier life for her daughters.
Running From Crazy premiered at the Sundance Fim Festival this year and one reviewer commented that it was “one of the bleakest snapshots of the human soul at this year’s festival”. Although it sounds like a tough film to watch, I hope it gets released here or on iTunes soon as I’d love to check it out.
I have a great fondness for documentaries and films about writers and I’m always on the lookout for more. Ages ago I heard about a documentary called The Ten-Year Lunch: The Wit and Legend of The Algonquin Round Table but had been unable to find it to stream or buy anywhere, despite doggedly searching for it online every few months. I had almost given up hope of ever finding it but, in a last ditch effort, I decided to email the director of the film and see if she could help. Lo and behold, when I went to her website there was a streaming link for the entire film. Happy days!
The Ten-Year Lunch is a documentary about the celebrated wits who lunched daily in the Rose Room at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City during the 1920s. The core of the Round Table group included: short story and verse writer Dorothy Parker; comic actor and writer Robert Benchley; The New Yorker founder Harold Ross; columnist and social reformer Heywood Broun; critic Alexander Woollcott; and playwrights George S. Kaufman, Marc Connelly, Edna Ferber, and Robert Sherwood. These people would go on to greatly influence the world of American letters for the next century.
The sharp humour of the members of the Round Table circle is legendary and the acidic one-liners have been quoted for decades. When Dorothy Parker was told that famously taciturn US President Calvin Coolidge had died she responded, “How can they tell?” On one occasion Woollcott was enduring a dull story and, unable to take anymore, he interrupted, “Excuse me, my leg has gone to sleep. Do you mind if the rest of me joins it?”
The camaraderie between them, they way they supported and encouraged each other seemingly without competitive jealousy, seems utopian. I dream of a life spent in New York, writing in the morning and then popping into the Algonquin to see who was about, having a martini and a sandwich, and returning to work with a stomach sore from laughing!
The film is narrated by American author and sportswriter Heywood Hale Broun, whose father Heywood Broun was a member of the Round Table. The film was directed by Aviva Seslin and won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1987. You can watch the film on her website and I also found it on Youtube for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy!
“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 Picture, Best Original Screenplay 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 offer him champagne and invite him to join them on their travels. 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 Picture 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.