a weekly column by Robert Westbrook
Book or Movie?
In her first novel, "A Severed Head," Iris Murdoch wrote that to succeed in the movies, you need to be a ship with a strong bow. Bursting through the waves, that is. Pushing aside all opposition. Relentless and determined.
I found this true when MGM turned my own first novel into a movie in 1969 -- a thing called "The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart" that starred nineteen-year-old Don Johnson. I wrote the screenplay and it was such a miserable experience (and eventually a terrible movie) that I have pretty much avoided Hollywood ever since. I figured it just wasn't for me. Movies are a team effort requiring as much salesmanship as creative talent; personally, I prefer to go it alone, just me and my computer screen.
Since the start of the Talkies, writers -- book writers, that is -- have always had a love/hate relationship with the movies. F. Scott Fitzgerald failed miserably in Hollywood and died there. Faulkner was brought out to the Coast once, had a look around, and said no thank you. Dorothy Parker made a fortune in California and hated every minute of it. And on and on. The problem is complicated. Movies can be wonderful, after all, sheer magic -- an art form that incorporates traditional elements of drama, but also music and photography, resulting in a very big bang. And let's be honest, the money is nice too, a whole lot more money than one is apt to receive from a New York publisher unless one is Stephen King. But it's painful to dream up characters and a story, and watch some fast-talking, phone-wielding producer turn it all to mush.
In short, for us writers, Hollywood runs hot, and it runs cold, and some writers like me just run from it all. Fortunately, when it comes to cinema, Hollywood is no longer the only game in town. Last week I spent four days watching independent movies at the Taos Talking Pictures Film Festival in Taos, New Mexico, a small country town nestled against the Sangre de Christo Mountains. A few big names were there -- Susan Sarandon, Goldie Hawn made a brief appearance, and director John Sayles showed up with restored prints of his masterpiece, "Matewan," and his 1984 comedy, "The Brother From Another Planet." But most of the many directors and producers wandering through town were young and unknown, in transit from festival to festival, hoping to find an audience for their work -- and perhaps, with luck, a distributor too.
Taos has a small annual film festival, a far cry from the more famous Sundance, yet it received over 1200 entries -- features, documentaries, and shorts -- which were winnowed down to just over 100 films shown over the four day period. I had a bit of time this year so I gorged myself on the offerings, movie after movie, a real treat. I can't begin to tell you how many wonderful films I saw that will probably never make it to your local shopping mall cineplex or chain video store. There is a lot of talent out there, ambitious ships with a strong bow who are undeterred by the difficulties of the medium.
My favorite film of the festival was a French offering, "Time Out," from the young director Laurent Cantet -- and perhaps you may hear about this film because it just received a rave review in "The New Yorker." But the movie that will stay with me the longest from these four days was a more modest first effort from director Chip Hourihan, "Glissando," shot in digital video for a grand total of $35,000 -- a powerful story about a father and son drifting through the Arizona desert in the 1970s. It took Hourihan six years to make the movie, but he had a great script, good actors, and lack of money did not stop him from making something a dozen times more interesting than your average big-budget Hollywood bore.
new digital video technology has freed a young generation of film
makers to chase their dreams, far from the confining commercial formulas
of Hollywood. For me, books remain first place in my heart; reading
a book is a very personal experience in this increasingly impersonal
world, something that is brought alive inside one's own imagination.
But independent movies are currently having a full Renaissance, and
we should support the effort in every way we can.
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