Late to the Movies
Since people make art to understand and to enhance human existence, it’s easy to conclude that literature, and especially fiction, is superior to cinema because of its ability to get inside people’s heads where the real action is, something film can’t do nearly as well. Movies deal with surfaces, while literature goes deeper. Or so the argument goes. Certainly many writers subscribe to this view, and wordsmiths’ allegiance to the art that can’t be separated from language is certainly understandable – understandable, but unfortunate. Film and literature needn’t be regarded as rival art forms. Indeed, thinking about them as vitally different allows for meaningful reactions to both.
In the United States, not a nation of great readers, literature reaches a relatively small audience. Only forty seven percent of U.S. adults read a work of literature in the previous year, according to the National Endowment for the Art’s 2007 To Read or Not To Read report. In 2009, the NEA trumpeted survey results suggesting that the proportion of literature readers, rather than shrinking as had happened for many years, inched above fifty percent. Its Reading on the Rise chronicles the first such increase in more than a quarter of a century. However, as the earlier report documents, many of these respondents reported simultaneously using other media, somehow playing video games or watching television while “reading.” The time spent reading could be measured in mere minutes (about twelve per weekday among those around my age and less for those younger), but book-free TV viewing regularly consumed hours each day. While the NEA attempted to measure the reading of literature (defined rather laxly as “any novels, short stories, poems or plays in print or online”), another poll demonstrated Americans’ aversion to books generally. Only thirty seven percent of participants in a 2008 Harris Interactive study said they read ten or more books annually. Almost one in ten lived entirely without books. One-fifth of the population purchased no books. The most common explanation for not reading was lack of time, what with that demanding TV-watching schedule and all.
As participants in a niche market, those who make literature may look suspiciously at what’s hugely popular, and movies are hugely popular. Domestic movie tickets sales reached an historical high of nearly $10 billion in 2008. The trade group representing the major movie studios asserts that instances of theater entrance “stayed relatively flat” from the late 1990s until 2008, “with the exception of 2002’s high of 1.6 billion admission” [sic]. Although admissions hovered around 1.4 billion in most of these years, this steadiness conceals a gradual decrease in per-person trips to theaters, since the population continued to grow but the number of tickets sold did not. In 1999, 1.4 billion admissions worked out to more than five movies per U.S. resident, according calculations made using MPAA and Census Bureau figures. By 2008, the per-capita moviegoing rate had fallen to less than 4.5 films. Rather than trying to figure out how many movies the typical American goes to see in a year, the MPAA simply declares that going to the movies is one of the “most popular forms of entertainment.” To back up its claim, it offers numbers indicating that “theaters continue to draw more people than all theme parks and major U.S. sports combined.” Besides, so many technological alternatives to movie theaters emerged that fewer visits to such buildings doesn’t point to diminished affection for film. Instead, the widespread use of gadgetry making it possible for people to watch movies not only at home but virtually anywhere suggests an appetite for movies that can’t be confined to specific venues or limited by set schedules.
For a long time, I didn’t share this movie love. As a product of the twentieth century, I went to the movies, just like everyone else, but they never seemed special. Probably like most viewers, I didn’t think of movies as art. Movie-related memories from childhood have more to do with things surrounding trips to the movies than with the films themselves. “Two hours,” my father’s answer when someone asked what Star Wars was about, amused me more than the movie itself. I saw The World According to Garp with my grandfather, who afterwards would only say he was made uncomfortable by the theater’s air conditioner blowing on his bald head. A friend’s mother yelling at the ticket seller through the box-office’s glass partition until the prepubescent boys she wanted to drop off were allowed unaccompanied into the adults-only film created more of an impression than whatever Cheech and Chong vehicle I saw that afternoon. Later on, during the early part of my adulthood, I went to movies only occasionally. In 2004, when nationwide attendance was the equivalent of five trips per person, I went to see four. In a departure from the norm, I went to a greater number of sporting events, though admittedly this included boxing, which the MPAA doesn’t regard as “major” (even though pugilism and cinema make excellent partners).
My reading routine also makes me an oddball, and my perennially frustrated wish to read more than I do makes me stranger still. In a single year, George Orwell managed to review more than 100 books. Ever since coming across that bit of trivia I’ve regretted not being able to come close to reading that many (let alone getting paid to write about them all). Still, I usually average between 50 and 60 books annually. I don’t count individual short stories or poems (as the NEA does). Nor do I keep track of portions of books read or reread or magazines, newspapers and journal readings (online and in print). Still, it’s probably safe to say I read more than most people, even if I never matched Orwell’s admirable level of bookishness.
While others eagerly went to movies, I held on to the literature snob’s disdain. Movies can show how people look and what they do, but must resort to intrusive and artificial methods (such as voiceovers) to relay anything of characters’ internal states. Maddeningly, filmmakers regularly display movies’ Achilles’ heel by having an individual’s dreams or memories appear on screen with the person seen from the outside – not at all the way he or she would really experience them. (When movies like the 1947 Humphrey Bogart/Lauren Bacall vehicle Dark Passage attempt a first-person perspective it feels like a gimmick. Because it is one.) “Moviegoing is an act of inference,” E.L. Doctorow writes. As Ian McEwan puts it, movies “can’t give you that marvelous interior quality of the novel” since with film “you are down to just what people say and do.” It can be no coincidence that some of the greatest novelistic expressions of mental activity, like Ulysses and Moby-Dick, were made into dreadful movies. A filmmaker, unable to transmogrify Stephen Dedalus’s and the Blooms’ thoughts and memories into visual images – because those thoughts and memories have no non-linguistic equivalents – can only diminish Joyce’s novel. In movies, “you cannot convey that sense of the onward rush of thought and feeling that you can in a novel” says McEwan. Depicting only the actions of the men on board the Pequod reduces Melville’s story to an account of a failed fishing expedition.
Several of the standard complaints about film apply to other literary forms. Doctorow declares movies to be derivative. “Films work off previous films,” he writes in the New York Times. Robert Altman’s movies supply countless examples of this. His best film, The Long Goodbye, plays off earlier depictions of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe character and ends with visual allusions to The Third Man, for example. The Player is even more explicitly a film about film. But such referentiality hardly makes movies unusual. Books also engage with other books, as Doctorow acknowledges elsewhere. (“We can’t ignore the conversation that goes on among works of art, every book, however original, replying to an earlier book – the artists of every genre responding not only to the life around them but to the work that has gone on before,” he says in Reporting the Universe.) In Why Poetry Matters, Jay Parini explains what poetry, and art generally, does: “Poetry is always, in a sense, a translation of earlier poetry, as all art modifies and extends the art that precedes it.” Other arts also share film’s purported superficiality. Representative paintings and sculptures merely show what things look like; they don’t provide the “the fine print of consciousness” that McEwan says books offer readers.
Doctorow calls movies “essentially nonliterate” because they convey a great amount of what could be called information – such as characters’ “age, economic class, social status, education and even degree of virtue” – without using any words. “In some of today’s film dramas, 95 percent of a scene’s meaning is conveyed before a word is uttered; 98 percent if you add music.” The same could be said of plays. Indeed, this could be the reason for Martin Amis’s contention that “the drama is handily inferior to the novel and the poem.” (Amis continues: “Dramatists who have lasted more than a century include Shakespeare and – who else? One is soon reaching for a sepulchral Norwegian. Compare that to English poetry and its great waves of immortality. I agree that it is very funny that Shakespeare was a playwright. I scream with laughter about it all the time. This is one of God’s very best jokes.”) What anguished writers strain to transmit in words movies (and staged plays) can impart wordlessly.
What if what Doctorow identifies here is not a weakness of film but one of its greatest assets? Put another way, what God declared literature the supreme art form? “All art … appeals primarily to the senses, and the artistic aim when expressing itself through written words must also make its appeal through the senses, if its high desire is to reach the secret spring of responsive emotions,” Joseph Conrad posits. “It must aspire to the plasticity of sculpture, to the colour of painting, and the magic suggestiveness of music – which is the art of arts.” Writing at the end of the nineteenth century, before movies displaced books as the preferred medium for stories, Conrad effectively says novels should try to do what movies do. He saw his task as “to make you hear, to make you feel … [and], before all, to make you see!” Perhaps explaining his own artistry was not Conrad’s chief strength, or maybe, if he lived a few decades later, he would have wanted to direct movies. And those music-backed images can allude not only to earlier movies but other art forms as well, as in the evocations of René Magritte’s paintings of covered faces in POLA X, writer/director Leos Carax’s radical – and successful – re-imagining of a Melville novel (in this case Pierre; or, the Ambiguities).
Norman Mailer, a novelist who made movies, echoes Conrad’s belief in art’s emotional appeal. His “failed cinematic masterpiece” – Maidstone – exhibited a less dismissive attitude toward movies than many other authors’. Movies, he asserts, “are more likely than literature to reach deep feelings in people.” Unlike McEwan, he avers that film “delves into deeper states of consciousness.” While Doctorow distrusts film’s dependence on implication, Mailer believes it’s “best when ambiguous,” as Carax certainly knows.
Though certain novels resist successful adaptation, I don’t believe that movies can never be better than the books on which they’re based. As Mailer puts it: “great novels invariably make the most disappointing movies, and modest novels … sometimes make very good movies.” Both Harris and the NEA found that, among those Americans who do read, mysteries and thrillers are their preferred types of books. Exactly these kinds of stories often work better on screens than on pages. The Bourne Identity and its sequels, for instance, offer audiences much more than the Robert Ludlum novels from which they borrow some characters and ideas. Stripping away Ludlum’s gear-grinding prose improves the tales, and may even create greater complexity – and ambiguity. The Bourne movies depict a man grappling with the enigma of his identity, trying to determine the significance of his own past, or at least what he can piece together of it, and figure out how to cope with an uncertain future. If he does so in the extremely and even absurdly heightened circumstances of an amnesiac, government-engineered super assassin, well, then, that just creates opportunities for suitably hyperkinetic visual flourishes for this ultimately quite basic story of memory’s fallibility and other mysteries of existence. Some critics complain that films’ rapid cuts make them disorienting. Exactly: that’s what the struggle should feel like; that’s the point.
Admittedly, these movies don’t contribute much to understanding what Milan Kundera calls “that ineluctable defeat called life”; other movies, including many that rely little on words, do. Director Werner Herzog believes there are metaphors with inexpressible meanings that resonate even if they cannot be clearly articulated. Many of his films suggest otherwise incommunicable meanings through images whose evocative power isn’t achieved with language. Just as certain novels might be depleted by adaptation into film, segments of Herzog’s films – such as Klaus Kinski on a raft overrun by monkeys at the end of Aguirre, the Wrath of God, the same actor hauling a steamboat over a hill in Fitzcarraldo and Kinski fruitlessly straining to drag a boat into the water while a severely crippled man looks on from the beach at the end of Cobra Verde or even the dancing chicken at the conclusion of Stroszek – could be rendered in language, but the impact on the senses wouldn’t, and couldn’t, be the same. The first Herzog film I saw, The Enigma of Kasper Hauser, contemplates a man long deprived of language – another individual straining to determine who and what he is (albeit one lacking Bourne’s athleticism). Enigma didn’t spark an epiphany. It took more time for cinema’s magic to take effect on me. But the film infiltrated my mental space and stubbornly remained there just as certain works by novelists mentioned here have. Films by directors other than Herzog, such as Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) and Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull), did the same thing.
Despite writerly wariness of film, even authors of serious fiction feel its pull. Doctorow, for example, reworked some of his novels for the screen. Yet in the preface to a collection of his screenplays, Doctorow wonders “whether or not all adaptations inevitably simplify their source material” and whether films “can visually attain the complex realities of rendered language.” Precisely, this perception of movies as automatically inferior to books can interfere with an ability to appreciate film on its own, distinct terms.
Personal experience invariably colors responses to any art, and this is certainly the case for authors with film work on their résumés. In addition to novels, McEwan wrote original and adapted screenplays. The collaborative nature of moviemaking provides a pleasurable respite from the solitude of writing, he says. For John Irving, who liked the films made of his novels (including the one that set my mother’s father shivering) and won an Oscar for adapting Cider House Rules, movies offer relief from the rigors of writing. “When you are writing a novel,” he explains, “you are demonstrating to a reader exactly how something looks and sounds and smells and feels. The exactness of details is in your hands. In films that’s the job of the director, not the writer.” The remove from language is something Irving relishes rather than laments: “It’s the absolute attention to the language that’s essential for a novelist. That’s not the case for a screenwriter. As a screenwriter you’re simply erecting the scaffolding for a building that someone else is going to make, and that someone else is the director. When I feel like being a director, I’ll write a novel.”
Less willing than Irving to doff the novelist cap, Doctorow penned adaptations of his own work as defensive measures. When Altman agreed to direct Ragtime, Doctorow (understandably) worried that the filmmaker would stray too far from the source. “In order to protect his work,” scholar Paul Levine reports, “Doctorow set about writing an adaptation that would contain his entire novel.” Altman planned to make a six-hour film using Doctorow’s screenplay; the producer replaced him with another director. Mailer, in addition to writing and directing, appears in several films (including the 1981 Milos Forman-directed Ragtime, which is not based on Doctorow’s adaption of his novel). He came to believe that film “sets up shop at the juncture of art, technology and magic.”
I arrived late to the movies, but I did get there. Well before the end of the 2009, I realized an unplanned but fundamental shift in my habits had occurred. In mid-summer I knew that by the end of the year the number of movies I’d seen in theaters would be greater than the number of books I’d read. While this may not be unusual for most U.S. residents, it had never happened with me before. Even if a list of books read shorter than one of movies seen might look rather unremarkable, my behavior still could not be called typical: I went more frequently to the theater, but I did not read any less. It was not that 2009 was an especially great year for film. Instead, a steadily strengthening tendency toward more frequent moviegoing, motivated by a late-in-life appreciation for the art of cinema on its own terms rather than by literary standards, intensified until reaching a personal tipping point.
I have a more modest involvement with film making than the writers discussed here. I have not seen my novels transformed into well-received movies as Doctorow (Daniel), McEwan (Atonement) and Irving have; nor have I written and directed an infamously panned reworking of a widely disparaged novel (as Mailer did with Tough Guys Don’t Dance). Not being a novelist certainly has something to do with this. I haven’t even written uncredited and unused dialogue for any star-studded motion picture (as Amis did for director Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!). I have helped out in various capacities with films my wife has made, and several of what I’m counting as trips to the theater were to film festivals that screened her work, though venues included museums, auditoriums and hotel ballrooms in addition to regular movie houses.
Hands-on movie-making experience isn’t necessary for an intense aesthetic response to film, any more than one needs to be writer to read (although that does confer an acute awareness of just how difficult a time workers in prose can have). Being able to stop stubbornly thinking like a writer, for a couple hours at a time at least, might be what movies require from scribblers. Unlike novels, movies can’t show what goes on in individuals’ minds. They can show people, places and things without explaining action or inaction. They create ambiguity and leave viewers to infer what people are thinking and feeling and why they do what the do. Life can be like that. So can art.
John G. Rodwan, Jr., is the author of Fighters & Writers, a collection of essays about boxing and books. He lives in Portland, Oregon.