I have been going through a spate of watching documentaries and films on writers. It started with me re-watching Gonzo for the millionth time a couple of weeks ago, in order to mark HST’s birthday. I then watched the Malcolm Lowry documentary and Iris about Iris Murdoch.
Peter Murphy alerted me to the fact that a documentary about Hubert Selby Jnr, writer of Requiem for a Dream and Last Exit to Brooklyn, called It/ll Be Better Tomorrow was on sale in HMV for only €5. It came with Requiem For A Dream, a movie I have seen once and would probably never watch again, as although it’s brilliant, it is also horrific, unsettling and emotionally draining. I rented it years ago and my flatmate at the time, when I came back with the DVD in my hand, gave it a knowing look and told me to be prepared. As the closing credits rolled two hours later and I sat in front of the TV shellshocked and unable to speak, she came into the room with a large glass of wine and said, “you’ll be needing this”. Damn right.
The documentary was surprising to say the least. Selby’s fiction mostly takes as its subject the underworld and the characters found there: junkies, pimps, prostitutes, longshoremen and criminals. His books are unrelenting, tough and almost claustrophobic in tone. I was unprepared to find Selby to be a man deeply concerned with spirituality and the evolution of his soul. Many people interviewed in the documentary voiced the same opinion; having read his fiction you assumed that the writer could only be a madman, and in fact when you met the polite, smiling, charming Selby you were totally thrown.
Selby (known as “Cubby” to his friends) suffered from tuberculosis in his late teens and spent many years in a sanitorium. During this period he experienced an epiphany: he projected himself forward to his deathbed and imagined the horror he would feel if he hadn’t accomplished anything, if he hadn’t done anything important with his life. It was there and then that he decided to become a writer. He experienced early success with the seminal work Last Exit to Brooklyn which caused a storm of controversy on its publication in 1964, but he then descended into alcoholism and heroin addiction, publishing nothing and frittering away the money he had earned.
Cubby eventually got sober in 1968 and remained so for the rest of his life. Through recurrent bouts of illness he was productive and published seven books plus a number of screenplays. He comes across as a man who had seen the worst of the world and, having survived it, was on a spiritual journey. It’s a remarkable film and one definitely worth watching.
Anyway now that I’m on a roll I’m asking for recommendations for any other documentaries or movies about writers. Anybody got any suggestions for stuff I just can’t miss? There don’t seem to be many but I guess writers, by and large, lead solitary boring lives which don’t translate all that well to film. The one documentary I’d love to see would be on the Lost Generation who lived in Paris at the end of the First World War, which included such writers James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Dos Passos. Does such a thing exist?