Wednesday, September 25, 2013
Remarks On Don DeLillo at ALA Conference in Boston, May, 2013
DeLillo, Cinema, and "The Movie" in Players
Note - these are more or less the remarks I made at the American Literature Association conference in Boston in May, 2013 with the exception of some improvisation I injected concerning Bosley Crowther, Manny Farber, and Sam Peckinpah and what I believe their works can contribute to understanding DeLillo. I also used graphic examples from the films of Tarnatino and Kubrick to illustrate how auteurs repeat images from film to film.
I'd like to try to unpack the idea of DeLillo's relationship to cinema just a little bit with two main points. The first point concerns DeLillo's desire to establish himself as an auteur - not as an author, not as the producer of literary works; instead what I have in mind is the concept of auteur in the way it was written about in French film magazines in the 1950s by authors and directors such as Eric Rohmer, Godard, Truffaut and others, In discussing this I'm going to cite examples from the pre-White Noise novels - Americana through The Names. Beyond that point I'm not sure that the idea I want to examine is so readily applicable. (1) Also, it seems to me that beginning with his eighth novel and moving forward DeLillo's writing starts to go in a different direction. His work after The Names turns some other corners.
The second point narrows the focus to the chapter called "The Movie" that kicks off Players. There, DeLillo is obviously using the technique of cinematic narrative known as foreshadowing. I would like to suggest, however, that in this case it does nothing to advance the narrative at all, nor does it enhance the plot, any sense of suspense, our understanding of the characters or the themes, or anything else. I believe it exists in the novel purely for purposes of style, only to heighten our sense of aesthetic appreciation; it stands as a testament to the degree of care, planning, preparation, and levels of concentration and attention that went into the writing of this novel.
1, DeLillo as "auteur" - When we look at the work of strong film directors one of the things we notice right away is that they repeat images in film after film - they line up shots that are almost identical to each other, even if the given mise-en-scene, story or situation may be quite different between the films. Our handout contains a few examples chosen from Stanley Kubrick and Quentin Tarantino, just two of many we could study. As we see, Kubrick and Tarantino almost seem to be trying to work out in concrete terms some sort of Platonic Form or Jungian Archetype of images that exist in their minds. It's an interesting question - why exactly would a director repeat the same image, the same shot, over and over again in picture after picture? I don't have an answer, but I would like to suggest that DeLillo writes in this manner. He repeats what I'll call 'motif-images' in the same way that film directors do. Let's explore this with examples. (2)
Players: "He went to the smoking area, where he saw Frank McKechnie standing at the edge of a noisy group, biting skin from his thumb."
The Names (about Frank Volterra): "He wore dark glasses and kept biting skin from the edge of his thumb."
Players: "Color is roloc."
"Roof is foor."
"Neerg," she said. "They're all neerg. These people here are neerg."
Great Jones Street: "Fameâ€¦Amef. Efam. Mefa."
Players: "Yes, she said. You are well informed, he exclaimed. Where is the check, they inquired."
"Do I like cantaloupe, he asked." Americana: "Can I come in and watch? No, she said."
The Names: "Where have you been? Said she accusingly."
Allow me a brief comment on the examples just above. DeLillo is concerned with language and words with an obsession that borders on insanity. Obviously it matters very greatly where the quotation marks go. In all his work DeLillo tries as hard as any writer can to put the ineffable into words. In paragraph 4.1212 of theTractatus Logico Philosophicus Ludwig Wittegenstein wrote "What can be shown, cannot be said." DeLillo is manifestly concerned with this idea in all his work; the most lighthearted, obvious treatment of it occurs in End Zone where Billy Mast is actually taking a course in "the untellable."
Players: "Lyle called Dial-a-Steak."
Running Dog: "Remember Gary Penner? The demolitions expert who ran around all over the country blowing up things? Dial-a-Bomb."
Amricana: "I am not the research department. I am not dial-a-prayer."
Players: "Someone says: "Motels. I like motels. I wish I owned a chain, worldwide. I'd like to go from one to another to another. There's something self-realizing about that."
Players: "He wonders about the tendency of motels to turn things inward. They're a peculiar invention, powerfully abstract. They seem the idea of something, still waiting to be expressed fully in concrete form."
Americana: "There is a motel in the heart of every manâ€¦Repeated endlessly on the way to your room, you can easily forget who you are here; you can sit on your bed and become man sitting on bed, an abstraction to compete with infinity itself."
Great Jones Street: "We were in motels between flights or performances, or between a flight and a performance, or the other way around. The motel was never quite the same but motel time was identical everywhere we stayed." (3)
Players: "Most of what happens next takes place in slow motionâ€¦The first runner starts firing as he approaches the group. A man in a sweater falls, golf balls rolling out of his pockets. The terrorists, trying to isolate their victims singly or in twos, have three men dead almost immediately. Bodies tumble in slow motion."
End Zone: "I shot at Terry Madden from a distance of forty yards as he appeared over the crest of a small hill and came towards me. He held his stomach and fell, in slow motion, and then rolled down the grassy slope, tumblingâ€¦"
End Zone: "In slow motion the game's violence became almost tender, a series of lovely and sensual assaultsâ€¦"
And so hopefully these few examples help bolster the point which, to recap, is that DeLillo repeats motif-images in his various novels in much the way that film directors repeat visual images throughout their films. I leave it as an open question as to whether or not a writer can be an auteur in the same sense as a director can, but it is my belief that DeLillo is trying at the very least to establish some similarity. Keeping that in mind, we may now move on to our second point, foreshadowing in "The Movie" in Players.
2. As I stated earlier, DeLillo uses the cinematic storytelling tactic of foreshadowing in "The Movie" I believe this is done wholly for purposes of stylistic elegance - DeLillo is being experimental in the way, say, Eugene O'Neill was being experimental in having characters wear masks in The Great God Brown. A quote from Theodore Dreiser's novel The "Genius" is very apt here: "He had no great talent for interpretation at this time, only an intense sense of beauty." I'm saying that we can appreciate "The Movie" in the same way we might appreciate a beautiful sunset.
There are six instances of foreshadowing in the chapter. I will sort them out by first quoting the lines from "The Movie" and then those from deeper into the text.
1."The man alongside studies the fingernails of his right handâ€¦In time he begins making the sound either or both of them make when troubled by anxiety, critical choices, nameless dreadâ€¦It's a prolonged hum, the speech sound m."
"Lyle stood at the door of a restaurant, cleaning his fingernails with the toothpick he'd lifted from the little bowl when he'd paid the check."
"He makes the speech sound m, prolonging it, adding a hint of vibrato after a while."
2. "The woman near the piano begins to yawn, almost compulsively, a mild attack of something. She yawns on planes just as she used to yawn (adolescence) seconds before getting on a roller coaster, or (young womanhood) when she was dialing her father's phone number."
"Flying made her yawn."
"Her father made her yawn."
3. "Golf. That anal round of scrupulous caution and petty griefs."
"She worked for a firm called the Grief Management Council. Grief was not the founder's name; it referred to intense mental suffering, deep remorse, extreme anguish, acute sorrow and the like."
4. "She's in her forties, indifferently dressed. We know nothing else about her."
"Shedding capabilities and traits by the second, he can still be described (but quickly) as well formed, sentient, and fair. We know nothing else about him."
5. "Another obvious couple sits there, men in this case."
"Pammy shared a partitioned area with Ethan Segalâ€¦With him lived Jack Laws, a would-be drifter."
6. "Standing nearby is a woman, shy of thirty, light haired and unhappy about flying."
"If she had to fly, she would do it at less than total consciousness."
"She decided not to fly back. It was an eleven hour bus ride."
The somewhat reflexive nature of "The Movie" is a little bit puzzling - in it, characters from the main body of the novel - a novel that is partially about a terrorist group - watch a movie that depicts that same terrorist group committing a murderous attack on some golfers. The narrative logic of this is a little unclear to me, but be that as it may, I would still maintain that the chapter - preface, prologue - is not really meant to contribute to the narrative at all.
(1) In his oft-cited interview with Anthony DeCurtis in Lentricchia's Introducing Don DeLillo DeLillo refers to directors typically thought of as auteurs - Bergman, Antonioni, Kubrick, Hawks, etc.
(2) The examples of repeating motif-images in DeLillo's first seven novels are numerous and extraordinary. Perhaps the most arresting is the following:
" "It's on the way," he shouted. "They just announced it. It's heading this way. We should get it any minute. Three inches by midnight. All motorists are warned to keep off emergency routes. The mayor says don't drive unless it's absolutely necessary. It'll be here any minute. Three to four inches. Snow! Snow! Snow!" "
Great Jones Street:
"Late in the day it snowed. The men on the radio went wild with news of heavy snow. They seemed unable to stop talking, station after station, into the night, bulletins, announcements, news specials. Every station was on alert for more news of the snow. Programs were interrupted. Announcers sounded close to insanity, their voice levels soaring. Snow watch. Snowplows. Heavy snow. Snowstorm. Deep snow. Big white snow."
It's important to differentiate between repeating motif-images and DeLillo's themes. As I interpret these seven novels, DeLillo's pattern of themes in them is as follows:
1. New York -ness - Here we borrow a term from Roland Barthes. DeLillo is just as concerned with presenting a specific vision of New York as are, say, Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese.
2. Gay men - If I'm not mistaken, gay male couples appear in all seven novels but gay women do not - why?
3. Films, cinema.
4. Language - As I mentioned earlier, one of DeLillo's primary focuses. He is variously interested in semantics, philology, linguistics, and both Analytic and Continental styles of philosophy of language.
5. Politics, history, conspiracies - In my opinion this is by far the weakest aspect of DeLillo's fiction.
6. Repeating motif-images
7. Sexuality - DeLillo writes very painstakingly and carefully about entanglements of the human body, but always between a man and a woman.
(3) Daniel Aaron's "How To Read Don DeLillo", again in Lentricchia's anthology, picks up on DeLillo's fascination with motels.