By Daniel Garrett
Writers are masters and servants; participants, observes, and judges
Writing is the manifestation of thought and feeling, the most invisible and intimate aspects of human experience made visible, known; and writing, as the organization of experience into order and meaning, is interpretation and creativity: it is nature and the transformation of nature into something other. The film The Words, about a young writer’s frustrated and gratified ambitions, a film conceived, written and directed by Lee Sternthal and Brian Klugman, and the published scholarly study Body Double, focused on the presence on the writer in cinema, point attention to the significant and vulnerable place of the writer in society. The film is a cool melodrama of love, theft, and responsibility (it has been called a romantic thriller too—it has energy, pace, and sweetness). The book is a historical thematic examination of the discipline, and passion and pain, as well as social positions, of writers, drawing attention to how writers and their works are presented in cinema. Why are writers, usually the observers of their fellows, worthy subjects? Everyone thinks and feels but everyone does not think with beauty, logic, and truth, nor does everyone feel deeply. Everyone is capable of mediocrity and mistakes, but not everyone is capable of great work or even of creative work. Distinguished work requires commitment and cultivation. The vulgarizing impulse of popular culture, like that of the popular press, puts before us people who know and do things that most of us do not—and we can forget the awe that should attend the fundamental mystery of unique gifts and earned accomplishments, and betray those dedicated and gifted people and our ordinary selves by assuming a false intimacy and a false understanding of the complex and the excellent. Of course, sometimes, many times, writers are not as distinguished as they would like to be.
The Words is a beautiful film of several parts, a story within a story within a story, each a story featuring attractive characters. The Words was made by a group of childhood friends, Lee Sternthal and Brian Klugman as writers and directors, and Bradley Cooper as its starring actor, the three of them having met in Philadelphia when they were boys. The Words opens with a book on a table, also called The Words, a book picked up by its author, Clayton Hammond, played by Dennis Quaid. Clayton gives a well-attended reading in a modern space, full of glass, full of books; and his words describe an old man in the rain, a man whom we see (Jeremy Irons as the Old Man), as the Old Man watches a young couple, Rory and Dora Jansen (Bradley Cooper and Zoe Saldana), get into a limousine for a special event, a celebration of a literary fellowship Rory has won. The wife Dora is excited about the event and proud, but her husband Rory, the writer, seems anxious. The telling of the story flashes back to their days of hope and struggle, when the couple first moved into their Brooklyn apartment, five years before. Rory is a struggling artist and she is affectionate, intelligent, stylish, sexy. He goes to his father’s supply company to borrow money; and his father (J.K. Simmons) interrogates him about his career. Rory says he has to pay his dues; and his father says, “I gotta pay your dues.” Each has a different view of responsibility: Rory feels responsible to his talent and his father identifies the practical responsibilities of shelter and food. “Part of being a man is accepting your own limitations,” his father says. The father’s reality is much more mundane than that of the son. Does the father recognize that art is both frivolous and profound, with created figures and constructed situations drawing the force of belief and genuine emotions; allowing those attendant to art to participate in a ritual of evocation, crisis, contemplation, and resolve?
Writers are like servants who perpetually observe and like masters who perpetually judge: their principal acts are to cross the borders that society attempts to build and fortify in every age, crossing those borders with nothing more than intellect and imagination. Rory the writer, the pale boy married to a beautiful brown girl, gets literary rejection and silence. He acquires a day job, a mail room job with a literary agency. Yet, he and Dora marry, taking a honeymoon in Paris, where he finds a leather satchel in a little shop and she buys the find for him. Subsequently, back in the city, Rory gets a call from an agent who thinks the novel Rory has written is good; but when they meet the agent tells Rory that while the book is a work of art and truth, an intricate book, a book intimating an inner life, the agent does not think that he can sell it in the current market. (There is something perceptively genuine, complex, and volatile about Bradley Cooper as Rory. He is able to convey a vivid anguish.) When Rory prepares to use his gift satchel, he finds an old great manuscript in it, typed pages smudged with ink but not signed. The quality of feeling and talent in the written pages humbles Rory. “I’m not who I thought I was, and I’m terrified that I never will be,” Rory tells Dora; and he is frustrated, pained, angry at his lack of success. Is his work truly wrong for the time; and will it be always? The description by the agent of Rory’s work suggests that it is a thoughtful work, the kind of thing an intelligent man but not necessarily an adventurous man or a vital man would write. It may express his sensibility, but does it speak to a large audience? In a world in which there are basically about six major book publishers in America—Random House, Penguin Putnam, HarperCollins, Holtzbrinck Publishing, Time Warner, and Simon & Schuster (most of them no longer owned by Americans) —with all of them feeding off the same colleges and journals and social cliques, mirroring each other’s narrow tastes, what hope is there for a solitary vision?
Things were once different. Writers had transforming experiences and wrote transcendent texts, work that was recognized by readers both elite and common. In The Words, that is the found story, hidden in a beautiful antique satchel. The old story that Rory has read haunts him; and he types the manuscript into his computer, wanting to feel what it is like to write such words. However, when Rory is not home and Dora comes across the typed work, she thinks it is his creation. Dora moved, welcomes Rory home, with solemn kisses: she thinks she sees the hidden parts of him in the book. She suggests that Rory show the work to an agent; and he gives the manuscript to an agent at the place where he works—and the agent likes it, wants to represent it. And, the long fiction is published, under Rory’s name, with success: it is a professional success that represents a moral failure.
The film’s central idea, its use of a lost-and-found manuscript, began with remembrance of Ernest Hemingway and the loss of his early work by his wife Hadley, and a conversation between the film’s writers: “It actually started with us stuck in the middle of a traffic jam and telling stories of writers who had lost their work, from Hemingway to T.E. Lawrence. It became kind of a ‘what if?’ game. What if you found a work by Hemingway that was lost?” Brian Klugman told Jenelle Riley of Backstage magazine (September 6, 2012). His friend and collaborator Lee Sternthal added, “This was in 1999 and from that conversation, we came home and wrote the first 40 pages of the movie, which largely remains unchanged. The plagiarism became a really good metaphor to talk about these questions of being an artist, being a person in this world, and loss, and romance.” The two men relished the honesty that Bradley Cooper brought to Rory and the passion that Zoe Saldana brought to Dora. Klugman said, “When Zoe came on board, she had such passion and gusto and such a connection with Bradley, we actually changed things. It became even more romantic. She really became the heart of the movie.” Zoe Saldana had been presented the role of Dora during a time when she did not feel much like working, wanting a break from the demands of the action films she had done; but, as she said to Alex Ben Block of The Hollywood Reporter (September 6, 2012), “I wasn’t looking for a role like Dora, but then I saw what she really was about. She was a very strong woman. She was very unconditional. She was very supportive.” Saldana appreciated the professionalism of Cooper and the respect and trust she was able to establish with him, making it possible to create a believable image of love for the screen.
The Rory/Dora story is one thread in the film. The Clayton/Daniella story is another. And the Old Man/Young Soldier with the French wife story is another. Clayton (Dennis Quaid) is the celebrated author, the writer of the Rory/Dora story, the man that the gifted graduate student Daniella (Olivia Wilde) admires; and, following the first part of his reading, Clayton and Daniella go to a reception area for a drink and talk. Clayton says that he and his wife are separated. The literary reading continues: the Old Man is at Rory’s hotel and follows him, from the bus to the park; engaging Rory in compliments and conversation; and the Old Man, wizened and smiling, tells his story of the lost book—the book that Rory has found and published as his own. Rory realizes that his secret of theft is known. The Old Man reveals what led to the writing of the book: his own youth, the tale of a young ignorant but charming American in Paris (actor Ben Barnes) who, through a soldier friend, discovers the love of reading, and then becomes a writer. After the Young Soldier’s intellectual friend gives him books, the novice meets Celia (Nora Arnezeder), a beautiful French girl, a sensitive but spirited waitress, and they fall in love. He goes back home to America, but misses her and returns to Paris and the two get married and he becomes a journalist. They have a baby but the baby becomes ill and dies. Celia is depressed, despondent, and goes home to her mother in the country. The young man writes a novel of his travails, of love and loss; and in a short time it is done—and he goes to find his wife Celia, bringing the book with him. She returns, later, on the train, but forgets the manuscript there and they search the train station but cannot find it. The losses are too great—first the baby, now the book—and the couple separate. Rory, hearing the Old Man’s truth, tries to claim his theft was a mistake; but the old man says, “You can’t get out of it that way.”
Of course, I have known writers who were full of ideas for art and passion for doing the right thing, and writers who were amoral, competitive, hostile, and raging: it is easy to be either, given the circumstance, given inspiration. It is important to celebrate the work more than the maker of the work: the perfection lies only in the work. The Words does not experiment with film form in ways that contemporary audiences would find strange, nor do its characters articulate particularly bohemian ideas. Yet, I must admit that I have a special fondness for films that feature writers and take their struggles for art and survival seriously, as this one does. I was pleased to see that some other people liked the film but not really surprised that some people did not like it as much or at all. “The Words is decidedly middlebrow,” wrote Kevin Lally of Film Journal International (September 6, 2012), though finding it “a polished, good-looking production” with Zoe Saldana and Bradley Cooper attractive together, with “some steamy chemistry.” Stephen Holder in The New York Times (September 6, 2012) called The Words clever and entertaining and yet made criticisms that attempted to suggest the film’s flaws, but instead revealed a certain lack of attention or sympathy: Stephen Holden finds the references to Hemingway pretentious (as if writers, especially young and struggling ones, do not discuss the writers they admire); and the Times writer notes Dennis Quaid’s “slow, droning line readings,” though many writers avoid false theatricality in their public presentations, wanting the work to have its own drama; and Holden finds that the scenes in France “although well acted, make up a compendium of clichés about Americans abroad after the war,” though he does not specify what those clichés are—expanding one’s view of the world; making friends; falling in love; not being a battle hero?—and Holden, rather bizarrely, insists on denigrating a central conflict in the film, between truth and deception: “On the subject of plagiarism, the movie portentously beats its chest and tears out its hair in overblown speeches about theft, identity, fiction and reality that ring with self-congratulatory piety.” Certainly, such an elemental choice—truth or deception—is important. Yet, what piety is the critic seeing? Rory does feel guilt and remorse, but only after his theft is noted; and, Rory’s agent does not want him to announce to the public what he is done; and even the disappointed Dora wants them to accept the fact of a mistake and move on. Rory, again and finally, accepts what he has done; and he continues to be the public face for the book, the acknowledged author.
In the world of Clayton in The Words, the teller of Rory’s story, Clayton tells an admirer, “Artists get to ask the questions, even though they may never know the answers.” Dennis Quaid as Clayton is aware, loose, fey, with a vulnerable quality. Clayton’s flirtation with the beautiful and willful Daniella (Olivia Wilde) continues—at his apartment, where he has been for eight months, though he has not unpacked many of his boxes. He has separated from his own wife. Daniella wants to hear more of the story, so Clayton tells it: Drunk, Rory confesses his theft to Dora, who has been cooking and thinking about their getting a new apartment. Rory tries to implicate her in his deception, suggesting that Dora knew that it was not his work, but she insists that she believed him. Dora asks him if he stopped to think of what the deception would do to them; and his face crumbles. Rory tells his agent that he wants his name off the book, but his agent says that it is a stupid mistake but Rory cannot go back on it now. Rory, if he likes, can share the financial profits with the original author. Rory tells Dora that he feels as if he is going to break in half; and she suggests they try to put the matter behind them. Rory goes upstate to visit the Old Man, who works in a greenhouse, tending plants: Rory wants to fix things. “There’s nothing to fix,” the old man says. The Old Man just wanted Rory to know what went into the book, the real life: about his wife, his child, the experience. The Old Man earned that book: he could write it only because of his experience of joy and pain, and how his intellect and imagination handled that experience: Rory did not earn or write that book.
The Old Man continues the story: the glimpse of his former wife, the young French woman, Celia, with her second husband and family on a train platform in America (she seems happy). He says his tragedy was loving words more than the woman who inspired them. One must live with one’s choices. The original draft of the celebrated book, the stolen book, the book of loss, is buried with the Old Man by Rory, following the man’s death. Daniella hears all this from Clayton and thinks the Rory story is based on Clayton’s experience—and she wants to know the truth. “He’s fucked,” she says. “Maybe the Old Man is just a story that is made up,” says Clayton. “You have to choose between life and fiction,” says Clayton: the two are very different things. Clayton and Daniella kiss but he breaks away, suggesting she leave. “What do you really want?” she asks. He does not answer.
Variety’s Rob Nelson dismissed the film The Words as superficial entertainment, saying “Klugman and Sternthal’s dialogue—or, if one wishes to be charitable, Hammond’s—is simply atrocious, leaning heavily on clichés and stilted platitudes.” (January 27, 2012). It was a review full of disdain. Wesley Morris (The Boston Glove, September 6, 2012) impatiently asserted that “the first-time writer-directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal have made a drama of spinelessness, passivity, and mild pretentiousness. The names of John Fante and Ernest Hemingway are dropped, but the movie has none of the terse punch of either writer.” It is noteworthy that writers such as Fante and Hemingway had lives that were more adventurous than the one Rory is living. Could he have written any book but one rooted in contemplation and ambition? Of the film featuring Bradley Cooper’s Rory and Zoe Saldana’s Dora, the ever generous Roger Ebert (The Chicago Sun-Times, September 5, 2012) surmised, “Watching the movie, I enjoyed the settings, the periods and the acting. I can’t go so far as to say I cared about the story, particularly after it became clear that its structure was too clever by half.”
There are many writers in many films. In Body Double, a book of eight chapters, with acknowledgements, afterword, notes, filmography, bibliography, and index, University of Pittsburgh English and Film Studies professor Lucy Fischer gathers together for examination a great bunch of films in which writers appear—Naked Lunch, Smoke, Deconstructing Harry, Paris When It Sizzles, Barton Fink, Adaptation, How Is Your Fish Today?, Swimming Pool, The Singing Detective, and Providence, among others. (The printed book is only 273 pages, although its publicity material and several online references give the page count as 288 pages.) Scholar Lucy Fischer observes the happenings in the bizarre Naked Lunch (1991), David Cronenberg’s biographical interpretation of William Burroughs’ novel, and finds there that writing is connected with addiction, homosexuality, parasitism, and murder (pages 29-36). In Smoke (1995), the cinema collaboration between writer Paul Auster and film director Wayne Wang, the arts—photography and drawing as well as writing—contain aspects of theft, as well as of craft, discipline, and sensitivity (pages 43-47). Yet, in those and other sometimes entertaining, often thoughtful, descriptions and analyses of various films, there can be an imprecision that draws a second look, a question. When describing David Mamet’s film Homicide (1991) and an alienated Jewish policeman’s disinterest in the death of a Jewish businesswoman and his subsequent involvement in a radical Jewish group and participation in a bombing, a criminal act, followed by a blackmail attempt by the group that provoked him to pursue violence, Lucy Fischer describes the attempted blackmail of the policeman as the first sign of trouble (page 51). I would think that a criminal act by a policeman would be the first sign of trouble. Lucy Fischer talks about Barthes’s assertion that a text is a tissue of quotations, then cites that assertion when a distinction is made in Homicide by a group of Jewish wartime fighters between an original list of group members and a copy of that list (pages 48-52): does a list of names qualify as a text, as literature; and does a photocopy of a list qualify as a quotation? Fischer relays the interesting situation of a writer with a scandalous personal life and changing reputation in Deconstructing Harry (1997), a life that could be said to mirror that of its director Woody Allen, and Fischer objects to the film’s conclusion in which the author figure, after a life crisis, is left with nothing more than his career, its celebration, and the characters he has created (59). It is an odd objection—as this ending seems brutally true.
Lucy Fischer provides a detailed account of the 1964 William Holden-Audrey Hepburn film Paris When It Sizzles, directed by Richard Quine. The film replicates the self-consciousness of a cinephile, using the technical language of writing and filmmaking with a sense of glee, but received damning reviews—reviews that Fischer corroborates after pages of her own enthusiastic film description (67-71). Fischer declares the film inadequately imaginative in form. Is she misrepresenting her own response to the film? One suspects that many academics pay attention to how films are made because the what and the why of them are not significant enough to justify or satisfy serious intellectual attention despite their seductive allure—or because the academics are out of their depth when trying to decipher or interpret human nature. Lucy Fischer prefers the more recent Barton Fink to the long ago Paris When It Sizzles: Barton Fink (1991), about a self-absorbed New York Jewish political playwright who is belittled in his Hollywood environment and inadvertently befriends a mocking serial killer. Barton Fink is a film Fischer calls original but a film with a meaning she finds ultimately inexplicable (70). (Do academics prefer what they do not understand? Does that difficulty alone justify their efforts?) The remembrance by Fischer of Adaptation (2002), a film focused on an experimental writer with a conformist twin, a writer hired to adapt an unusual text about nature and evolution, is very engaging; and though it is about a work that is also deemed original, that work is not hard to understand: it has its own discernible logic, a logic of questions and answers, of character and situation, of emotion and expression, of plan and execution (76-81)—however while reading the Fischer description of Adaptation I realized that the great appeal of middlebrow work is that it is not stupid enough to bore, nor smart enough to challenge. In analyzing a very interesting Chinese art film, How Is Your Fish Today? (director Guo Xiaolu, 2006), a fiction and a documentary revolving around an almost mythic Northern Chinese town, Mohe, and the character of a male writer who imagines his double traveling there, a film by a director who resists both traditional narrative and the insistence on identifying meaning, the scholar Fischer, at one point, writes that “we see dead fish flopping around, gasping for air” (84), and I had to read that phrase a few times to confirm that my eyes were not playing a trick on my mind or vice versa: do dead fish gasp for air? Of course, too, on page 81 the director’s name had been spelled Xialou Gou and on page 82 it had been spelled Guo Xiaolu (it is Guo Xiaolu). The scholarly study Body Double has an intriguing subject, but as I read it I was not sure that its writer-narrator was always reliable.
The rarity of female authorship in film dramas in comparison to the plentiful supportive social roles of women, with the usual requirement of personal sacrifice, is a subject for one chapter (that rarity is true of the historical presentation of other writers and artists and thinkers who are ethnic or social minorities); and cited is the surprising lack of active female authorship even in the Gillian Armstrong film about a woman who chooses writing, My Brilliant Career (1979), and the conventional frilly treatment of women in Romancing the Stone (1984), and 2007’s I Could Never Be Your Woman ((88-92). A presentation of a more serious writer is given in Francois Ozon’s Swimming Pool (2003), a film with a few shocks: focusing on a rather ascetic middle-aged woman crime fiction writer who goes away to try to write something new and meets a sensual young woman who claims to be her publisher’s daughter (but who may be one of his conquests), the story involves voyeurism, female conflict, vicarious sex, and murder. The Fischer recounting of Swimming Pool is extensive: “This film has required an elaborate and lengthy description because it is a highly complex work.” (98). Actually, the film is not highly complex—however, it is enjoyable and Fischer cannot say that, but as with her detailed view of Paris When It Sizzles, her writing betrays her pleasure—and much else. Writers think, feel, imagine, read, and research; they plan, write, review, and revise—and what, with honesty and thought and sympathy, are we to make of them and their work? Each work has its own challenges. Body Double, a book I had been looking forward to reading, has been a difficult book for me to finish.
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics.