Some of my work on Updike was discussed on The Dish with Andrew Sullivan.
Some of my work on Ross Macdonald was discussed on Pretty Sinister Books.
Here is my interview with superstar music impresario Wendy Starland.
Here is my interview with Pulitzer Prize nominee Olympia Vernon.
Here is my interview with the editor of Best American Short Stories, Heidi Pitlor.
Here is my interview with acclaimed artist Emil Kazaz.
My musing on John D. Macdonald, Travis McGee, and the chicks was picked up on The Rap Sheet.

Remarks On Don DeLillo at ALA Conference in Boston, May, 2013





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DeLillo, Cinema, and "The Movie" in Players

Peter Quinones

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: "Fame…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 man…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 motion…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, tumbling…"
End Zone: "In slow motion the game's violence became almost tender, a series of lovely and sensual assaults…"

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 hand…In time he begins making the sound either or both of them make when troubled by anxiety, critical choices, nameless dread…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 Segal…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.

NOTES

(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:

Americana:
" "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.

THE NAKED KISS, Samuel Fuller




THE NAKED KISS

So! Whatever we might think of the improbable plot, all the shmaltz with the young children, the depravity of Grant's actions, the sleaze of "Candy's Bon Bons", the hokey intellectualizing (Goethe, Lord Byron and Beethoven all have their moments), and on and on and on - in spite of all this, this work is a veritable essay on how to achieve a sensational opening.

The film opens with cheesy, stereotypically melodramatic trumpets behind the credit A LEON FRAMKESS SAM FIRKS PRODUCTION. Yawn!

But then there is an immediate switch. The soundtrack crosses over to wild, out of control hard bop as we see Kelly beating a drunken man senseless with her pocketbook. The jagged cutting isn't wholly professional but it's enormously effective - what the hell is going on here? is what we wonder as she beats him mercilessly. The shock of seeing her bald head revealed is somewhat lessened because it's done so unprofessionally - we can clearly see a third person rip the wig off Kelly's head from behind when it's supposed to be the guy in front of her, the guy she's beating, who knocks it off with a swipe - but it's still a great hook.

After Kelly hits him so hard he stumbles and knocks himself out by hitting his head on the table leg - and she squirts him, there's a bit of exposition as she speaks. "Eight hundred dollars…you parasite…I'm only taking the seventy five dollars that's coming to me". Then as the main credits roll over images of Kelly putting her wig back on and putting her face together, we get some sentimental strings on the soundtrack…but as the credits come to an end the wild improve jazz returns and we're off!

The opening sequence of the film does all we can ask of it - it gets our attention immediately. This is great filmmaking although the rest of the picture may not quite live up to it. It is inspirational, especially for young filmmakers, in the sense that it shows what it is possible to achieve with a little imagination and determination.

THE LAST PICTURE SHOW Peter Bogdanovich






The Last Picture Show

This film has always been very highly regarded - nothing else Bogdanovich has done in a very long career has come anywhere close to garnering this level of acclaim. Why?

1. The main theme of the film is a meditation on what seems to be an almost universal feeling - nostalgia for times gone by, for a disappearing world and way of life (symbolized by the closing of the movie house). At the risk of seeming to come out of left field, let me provide quotes from three sources - quotes that reconcileexactly with the message of this picture.

This is from the dust jacket of a collection of photographs by the great novelist Wright Morris:

The author tacitly admits that this volume is an effort to hold fast to what he knows is passing, to salvage, in words and pictures, the nature of an experience already historic. Is there something of value in this effort for those who now attempt to shape the future? GOD'S COUNTRY AND MY PEOPLE is one man's travels in a vanishing America, among those objects and places that still have a mystic meaning to give out.

In Jerome Loving's biography of Theodore Dreiser we come across an anecdote about Dreiser, at age 44, returning home to the Indiana of his boyhood:

In Bloomington, he discovered his old college so grown, not only in size, but in "architectural pretentiousness as to have obliterated most of the rural inadequacy and backwoods charm" he had once enjoyed. He could find only a few buildings he remembered, and he wondered to himself where all the young women he had know (or had wished to know) and the professors who had taught him had gone. "What is life," he asked himself, "that it can thus obliterate itself?...If a whole realm of interests and emotions can thus definitively pass, what is anything?"

The following is the first paragraph of George Jessel's foreword to a book entitled A Pictorial History of Vaudeville by Bernard Sobel:

People like myself - and there aren't many left - who have been before the public for a half-century, are all inclined to favor the yesterdays, and unless they are doing exceedingly well, they live in a capsule of the past, seeing beauty only in that which cannot return, believing to the full that everything old is sacred.

2. Consider this passage from Harold Hayes' introduction to Bogdanovich's book Pieces of Time:

Possessing this value he has learned to work with it, and it is his mastery of sentiment - hovering dangerously on the edge of sentimentality but never quite going over - that so brilliantly in these hard assed seventies informs his work.

Really? I guess the truth or falsity of this assessment is somewhat subjective but I'm skeptical.

3. There are numerous great individual shots and scenes, particularly close ups. The camera certainly loves Cybill Shepherd in this film, though not in a stupid or unskillful way.

Cloris Leachman owns the screen in a way we will see few actresses ever do; Bogdanovich plays to Hollywood convention in setting up the death of Billy a little too obviously yet it still pulls at our heart strings; there are about seven or eight very, very strong individual scenes.

About The Film: I haven't read McMurtry's novel, although I did read Texasville and found it to be excellent. Clearly for comparison purposes on the theme enunciated in paragraph 1 above we should be checking out films like Save The Tiger and Wild Strawberries. Bogdanovich has a huge body of work and, also, several excellent books on cinema.

THE KILLERS Robert Siodmak, 1946





The Killers

1. All promo material screams ERNEST HEMINGWAY'S THE KILLERS - but that story only provides enough meat for about ten minutes worth of movie (it is rendered very faithfully here). Here's the problem: The Killers is one of Hemingway's Nick Adams stories. It is meant to be a chapter in the overall development of Nick Adams into a mature adult. In the film you no way, no how get this impression at all. Nick Adams is there, he serves a function (he runs to the Swede to warn him about the killers, thus giving us the opportunity to see the depth of the Swede's apathy), but, like the rest of the original source, he's gone almost instantly. The screenwriters are therefore forced to take the picture into areas that Hemingway never had any desire to investigate. As Gary Fishgall wrote in his biography of Burt Lancaster: "Screenwriter Anthony Veiller and his unbilled collaborator, director-screenwriter John Huston (who was still in the Army and technically unable to take film assignments), effectively turned "The Killers" into the basis for a film noir classic." Hemingway was one of the few authors who has ever had movie star type name recognition - everyone else connected with the picture was essentially a no name with the general public from Lancaster to Gardner to Siodmak to Hellinger. Thus it was absolutely necessary to have his name there in a big way.

2. It can be argued that Edmond O'Brien is really the star of the picture. At the very least, in a perfect world, he would get equal top billing. And doesn't the opening scene make you want to run out and buy some DVDs of a certain Quinn Martin production?

3. The Prentiss Hat Company robbery scene is absolute knockout bravura filmmaking - it alone is worth the price of admission.

The long, unedited tracking shot of the Prentiss Hat Company robbery scene is awesome filmmaking. The serious student will want to analyze and compare it with the long shot that opens Robert Altman's The Player and the one in the middle of David Fincher's Panic Room.

About The Film: Fishgall's bio of Burt Lancaster; Server's bio of Ava Gardner; The Mark Hellinger Story; bios, and the autobio, of John Huston; and, obviously, Hemingway's story. For Comparison: check out another film by Siodmak, The Rough and the Smooth, for some perspective.

The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges)




THE LADY EVE

I’ve been spending quite a bit of time lately viewing the films Stanley Cavell calls “comedies of remarriage” and his essays on them in Pursuits of Happiness.  We can leave aside the question of whether or not this type of film truly constitutes a genre in itself – there seems to be some debate about it – but repeated viewing of these films, coupled with careful study of Cavell’s essays on them, is certainly a most profitable exercise. 

One of the things that strikes me is how little Cavell is interested in a film qua film; throughout most of his essay on Sturges’ glorious comedy starring Stanwyck and Fonda he could well be writing about a play, whether written, staged, or filmed.  True, early on he discusses a camera movement (which is misidentified as ‘wandering’ – the scene in question is achieved by a straight cut), the humorous opening credit sequence, and, later, he does address REFLEXITIVITY in terms of the photograph of the three card hustlers, as well as stating, in a discussion about the mirror Jean holds up to observe the other passengers on the ship, that “…we are informed that this film knows itself to have been written and directed and photographed and edited.”  Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t – but if it does, it does so in a way obvious only to a philosopher or a serious film scholar.  It doesn’t display this knowledge of itself in the way, say, the boom mike hanging over the actor’s head is plainly visible in a Godard film. 

But other than this, there is little in Cavell’s essay that tackles the movie as a member of a unique artistic medium.  For example it would be, I think, completely out of character for Cavell to comment on the transition cut from the “smokestack” of the little boat Fonda and Demarest use up the Amazon to the smokestack of the cruise ship (think of Kubrick cutting from the thrown bone to the spaceship) or on the use of stock footage of a cruise ship sailing on the ocean that Sturges uses here.  There are also outrageous Hollywood conventions that we have to put up with here – for instance, when Fonda and Demarest first come aboard the cruise ship, how does she just happen to have an apple handy to bop him on the head with?????  Or this – the little boat that they have been up the Amazon with just happens to be able to connect with the ocean liner in the middle of the sea????????   Of course, I understand that Cavell’s concerns lie in different areas – he says he is not pretending to be writing film criticism – yet sometimes as I read his essays I wonder if he isn’t giving the cinematic aspects of cinema just a little short shrift.

The great philosopher Stanley Cavell has tried, in his work, to carve out and baptize a genre of Hollywood film called “the comedy of remarriage”.  In this genre he includes seven films: The Lady Eve, It Happened One Night, The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, Adam’s Rib, The Awful Truth, and Bringing Up Baby.  His book of essays on the subject is called Pursuits of Happiness.


John Updike's MARRY ME




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"Subtexts, Dialogue and Names in John Updike's Marry Me."  
An abstract for a possible paper on Updike.

Subtexts - In the early pages of the novel we learn that Sally is reading Camus' novel The Stranger.  In literary scholarship and commentary volumes have been written about Camus' use of the powerful Algerian sunshine as a symbol in the novel; mirroring this, there are several passages in the opening sequences of Marry Me that invoke the sun's rays in a similar fashion.  What is Updike's intention here?  Perhaps an inside joke for fellow literati?  Perhaps a nod to Camus, sincere praise?  Maybe neither - maybe simply straightforward realism?  Maybe it is a device meant to show us Sally's shallow, pretentious nature - she can't recognize that she is experiencing the same phenomenon in nature that the main character in the book she is reading is experiencing?  What, exactly?
Similar investigation of subtext will be made concerning the novel's name checking of Alberto Moravia, Ray Charles, Picasso, Marlene Dietrich, etc.

Dialogue - As might be expected of people in a situation such as the novel depicts, people say things that don't cohere.  For instance, at one point Jerry says to Sally, "I don't want to fight with you.  I never fight with women.  I don't think we should take any risks until we know what we're going to do."  Yet barely ten pages later, with nothing of the kind decided, he says "I don't want you to take risks for me, I want to take them for you."  Sally immediately thinks *But you won't.* This kind of emotional confusion happens again and again in the language - and we can see it but the characters are oblivious.

Names - maybe "The Unnamed" would be better.  There are numerous instances where Updike is almost on the verge of German Impressionism, presenting certain secondary characters more as types than individuals.  We might say, So what? - except that there are other, also secondary, characters who appear for just flickering seconds yet have very carefully thought out names - why?