So here I am, sitting in front of my laptop, thinking I’ve got to get something written for Dr Fulminare, and weighing out my options. I could work on that review of Maurice Riordan, but I already have another one ready and lined up for publication, so that can wait. I could write a feature article, but on what subject? I’ve recently finished that monstrous series on tragedy, so I guess I could go for another similarly megalomaniac topic (“A Brief History of Pessimism”, in twelve parts). Or I could crack open a beer, throw some blues in the background and just let my brain go in whichever direction it pleases.
What the hell. Pour that Heineken.
On the subject of letting my brain go – I’ve already managed to piss off the fans of Glyn Maxwell and those of Anthony Anaxagorou, so I want to do my best this time to shoot on a target that won’t infuriate anyone. I’m gonna write about the representation of literature (poetry inclusive, but not exclusive) in film.
The reason I know this shouldn’t get on anyone’s nerves is that, a few months ago, I was thinking I could do a serious article on the misrepresentations of literature (and its practitioners) in film; but once I started thinking about it a little more closely, I saw there was just too much meat on the roast for me to start chopping and be called a master chef of some kind. It’s just too easy to claim that, hey look, poets aren’t really like that!! HOLLYWOOD LIED!!
Instead, I’m just going to look at literature in film in a casual manner, making a disordered list of all the films on the topic that I can remember (and not bothering to watch the ones I haven’t seen). As I said, don’t expect insights to blow your worldview away, but those of you who don’t have a girlfriend might find this article a passable way of spending this rainy Wednesday evening.
(Notes at this point. 1. I don’t have a girlfriend. 2. At the time of writing, a couple of weeks before this thing goes online, I’m gambling on next Wednesday being rainy. The way this spring has been going so far, the odds shouldn’t be too high, but if it turns out to be the only rainy Wednesday since last August, I’m flipping!! 3. I’m more than 400 words in and I still haven’t even really started with the article. Yeah, A plus).
Ok! So, film and poetry… two apparently irreconcilable arts, yet somehow touching each other by the effortless inspiration of some BLAH BLAH BLAH platitudes to open the article. Done. Now, films about literature generally come in two varieties: we have fictional stories, and stories inspired by real literary figures. The former are, I think, the more entertaining (though often the more stupid), so I’ll concentrate this article on them and leave the various films like Bright Star, Shakespeare in Love, Sylvia & co. for another Wednesday.
What are these films like? The first one that comes to mind, of course, is Dead Poets Society. It’s so prominent in the landscape that it almost single-handedly convinced me a serious examination of clichés about literature wasn’t worth writing – no doubt every literature student has rolled their eyes a few times when seeing this film (there’ll be the oddball who objects here, but seriously – when the guy tries to appropriate the line “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”, you’ve got to love the Chinese box – the boy assumes the girls are stupid, the audience assumes the boy is stupid, the director assumes the audience is stupid, and I, from my ivory tower, assume the director is stupid). It’s actually not that bad as a popcorn flick, except the ending is so fucked up – spoilers ahoy, but seriously now… he dies? The *insert second-hand actor who goes on to work in Dr House* dies? I’m sorry, but then what on earth is the point? I mean, all those kids yack Captain my captain freedom individualism sincerity etc. but what is the use of all that if you are dead? (Oh, yeah. DEAD poets society. I get it. Clever, Pete).
(Notes at this point. 4. I couldn’t be arsed to see the film again just for this article, so the guy might have appropriated some other line than “Shall I compare…” Could have been Marlowe instead. Please tell me you don’t need to be reminded. 5. Time to crack open the second beer. 6. My nerd landlords have already gone to sleep. Time to switch the music to headphones… oh, and I shifted to Django Reinhardt, for what it’s worth. One of those names you learn through Woody Allen. I’ll bet there’s some other young intellectual out there who learnt Caruso thanks to WA).
Now Dead Poets Society came almost ten years before Good Will Hunting, which is kind of like the apotheosis for Robin Williams. I’m inclined to see it as the dress rehearsal: he tried out the lines, he discovered he looks more authoritative with a beard (though the role of the bearded mentor who dies was really perfected by Liam Neeson), and he found out that physics is much more amenable than poetry when it comes to making films that people will understand (perhaps because physics itself is actually harder to understand than poetry, so it’s easier to make up bullshit that people don’t recognise and pass it for brilliance – this is, of course, a principle that the screenwriters of Star Trek figured out many decades ago. ‘We are going towards a singularity! Quick! Enable the tachionic positron inverter!’ Enable the what the fuck did you just say?).
Now the thing about science – most notably, physics and maths – is that it’s quite easy to represent a ‘genius’ character. You show Matt Damon scribbling abstruse formulae on a chalkboard, and everybody knows he’s got to be a genius. Besides, such people really do exist – math wizards are real people (that must be so frustrating for their colleagues… boy am I glad I’m on the other side of the intellectual river). When it comes to literature, it’s really much harder to say what makes of someone a great writer. Writers don’t really agree on it either. There is a consensus, however, that it’s not just brainpower / raw talent. Other factors come into it, like life experience, literary models, historical contingency and even blind luck. These things are a bit harder to represent concisely, and – more importantly – they fly in the face of what people want to believe, that artists are actually special in their DNA, that they are ‘gifted’ or ‘destined’ for greatness (an especially popular prejudice with the younger, aspiring artists – anyone would rather believe that s/he’s inherently special rather than that you have to work for it).
Therein, then, the greatest problem when it comes to films about literature. They’re not sure how to represent the writer. And in an attempt to display (or just splay) their genius, they end up forgetting about their humanity. Quod erat demonstrandum, Finding Forrester (you can tell I’m drinking beer cause I’m starting to use Latin… look forward to the spelling mistakes, fellas).
FF (yeah yeah, in geek lingo that acronym’s been annexed by Final Fantasy – sad that I don’t give a crap, eh?) came out in 2000. By then Sean Connery must have figured out that the Bearded Mentor was a pretty lucrative role, cause he pretty much lifted the Robin Williams part from one of his movies and took it up for himself. (Apparently his Forrester character was based on JD Salinger… I haven’t read his book since I was a kid, but I don’t remember it making me all whoozy so I never investigated the author that much and I can’t talk of whether it’s accurate or not). The film is the story of a talented black kid who happens to grow up in the hood (*sigh*), who is tutored by Indiana Jones’ father and thus gets to go to college and shag the chick.
So what was I saying about the weakness of fictional films about literature? This one has the kid being something like a walking Wikipedia, able to provide accurate histories on the most random bullshit (apparently you’ve got to be a great poet if you know the date when Rolls Royce started making engines). I mean, it’s not like James Joyce has a scene in the Portrait in which Stephen starts saying ‘Molluscs are the largest marine phylum, comprising almost a quarter of the water invertebrates’ to show how goddamn smart he is, but I digress.
I think a much more human representation of what writers are like is given in Misery, Stephen King’s thriller about a writer who gets kidnapped by one of his fans. I actually loved this film for precisely that reason – that it’s the only film I’ve ever seen in which a writer seems like a human being, though King’s narrative techniques aren’t really my cup of tea. (As an aside, I’m deliberately excluding films in which the protagonist is a writer but the film really has very little to do with literature, i.e. The Basketball Diaries , The Shining, Dangerous Minds and the like. This article’s long enough as it is).
Ok, back to the myth! Albatross is a piece of crap. It’s the only non-American film I’m quoting because I know British readers may be familiar with it (and because if I start looking at European, South American or Asian films about writers this is going to take an age). But it’s really quite daft. Almost all of the characters are clichés, with the mother being especially intolerable… she’s presented as some sort of hysterical bitch, which is her ‘punishment’ for not allowing her husband’s concupiscent desires to whip out onto the sixteen-year-old friend of his daughter (dude… ew?). Naturally, this is the director’s little fantasy – which he tries to hide behind another, more commercially viable fantasy, that of the dualism between the Dionysian, wild girl who smokes cigarettes, dresses like an eighty-year-old’s idea of a junkie, and is the agent of chaos VERSUS the pristine, ordered, Apollonian, well-behaved girl who has to go to Oxford and probably to church every Sunday (this duality is even worse than the thing about the black kid in the hood… and it doesn’t help that the film doesn’t have the balls to condone anything past cigarettes: even the chaotic girl ***NOTE WELL KIDS*** makes no use of weed). Ruby Sparks is also a piece of shit, which a girl forced me to go see, and which I can only be bothered to resume: a clichéd writer dreams about a clichéd girlfriend who comes to life (gosh!) and they start this clichéd and kind of emo relationship. Somehow the script was described as one of the most ‘intelligent’ and ‘original’ of 2012. Beats me why – Pirandello did the same thing, but properly, about a century ago. And I’ve really had it with films that try to represent hippies as weirdos to be laughed at. Scrap.
Hmmm, what else is there? Ah, but of course! A Love Song for Bobby Long, to close on a positive note (pun not intended), is quite possibly my favourite film about literature. Scarlett Johansson’s in it, which is reason enough to love any movie really, along with John Travolta. The only major cliché is the (inevitable) one about the guy who writes a story about the film he just lived, and it becomes a bestseller. And the quotations are kind of abused, as the film again needs to find a way of showing us that the protagonists are really effing brilliant and it thinks the measure of a man’s literary abilities is found in the number of lines he can remember from famous poets. But all that aside, I thought the film did a wonderful job at capturing a certain atmosphere of fashionable ennui. It shows you a world of intellectuals who live in alcohol and cigarettes and seem to like it… and you sort of understand why they do. It’s certainly more appealing than the idea of spending all your life in a classroom. I guess the worst thing about this film is that it impelled me to smoke cigarettes like nothing I’ve ever seen since noir movies. Does it corrupt? Many good things do.
(Chill gents. I’m like the girl in Albatross. I act all big but really I’m politically correct deep down).
And that's our list done! If I've forgotten anything particularly important, feel free to title-drop it into our comments section.