I just finished re-formatting my work from 20 years ago, a project that wore on me both from the tedium and the malaise of reading torturous prose, all of it mine. The worst was in the painfully obvious themes in my first novel, The Sacred Whore, glaring derivative elements from 1984, Do the Right Thing, Dog Day Afternoon and Logan’s Run at every turn. On the upside was one dream sequence, a decent rock amongst gravel, depicting a nightmare I remember well: She sat alone in the clammy interior, amusing herself by pressing and peeling her skin from the plastic seats. Her skin glowed red and she climbed out of the car and stood in what seemed to be an old riverbed. She turned to face the demon of her nightmares. Its black body, swollen and hard, oozed of molten marble. Its nostril slits slapped open and shut in grotesque harmony with its gasps of air. Its massive jaws ravenously clacked open and shut, exposing rows of green-caked teeth and its purple, veiny tongue slopping from side to side. Amazingly, its cement-slab feet, each rising and falling alternately in excited agitation, did not sink into the thick mud. Its head leaned back toward the bleeding sky and, for a moment, seemed to have lost consciousness until it launched itself, jaws first, into her chest.
Rarely do characters have just the one name. For example, in All In, the main character is called Michael by most, but also Mikey by a colleague and Mike by a niece. Why the difference? What makes him more of a Michael than a Mike? Is it the formality? Is he more of a two-syllable guy? What makes him a ‘Michael’?This is a key issue in my bad side. Everyone – family, friends and colleagues – call the main character “Dee”, until she arrives in Newfoundland, where all the people she meets call her “Deirdre”. She actually tries to correct them, but they won’t listen. It is a moment of transference that she has no control over. Many of the characters in The Life and Home of Gerbi Norberg are Ojibwa and therefore have names which are hard for the Western ear: Bezhinee, Pamequonaishcung, Zawanimkee and Asawasanay. It is nonsensical to shorten the names to Bez, Pam, Zaw and Ass. As much as that may help the reader move through the text, the lyrical nature – and hence integrity – of the characters is gone.
Does that come with a paper bag and straw?
Will Win Should Win
Picture Argo Amour
Director Steven Spielberg Michael Haneke
Actor Daniel Day Lewis Joaquin Phoenix
Actress Jessica Chastain Emmanuelle Riva
S. Actor Tommy Lee Jones Phillip Seymour Hoffman
Sup. Actress Sally Field None of those nominated
Cinema Claudio Miranda (Pi) Mihai Mailimari (Master)
Script Django Unchained Moonrise Kingdom
Most ridiculous nomination: Argo for editing. This film had no less than six cliff-hangers at the end, all of which were blundering and predictable. For this film to be nominated in this category, the final 20 minutes would have to be removed.
Hollywood’s Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is occasionally on the mark with their annual Best Picture – Casablanca (Curtiz, 1943), Midnight Cowboy (Schlesinger, 1969), Annie Hall (Allen, 1977) & No Country for Old Men (Coen Brothers, 2007). However these awards have more to do with Hollywood politics and marketing campaigns – such as Harvey Weinstein bullying on behalf of the dreadfully mediocre Shakespeare in Love (1998) – and much less to do with the art of film-making. As a consequence, the Best Pictures ends up consistently falling short. This isn’t just an issue with which film wins, but which are nominated and has been a problem right from the start of the Awards in 1927. The most apparent has been in the exclusion of most of the great foreign films in ages past, failing to nominate Passion of Joan of Arc (Dryer, 1928), M (Fritz Lang, 1931), La Regle de Jeu (Renoir, 1939), Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, 1954), Wild Strawberries (Bergman, 1957), Breathless (Godard, 1960), Aguirre, Wrath of God (Herzog, 1973) and The Sacrifice (Tarkovsky, 1986) and City of God (Meirelles, 2003)…to mention only a fraction. The Academy is flawed at its core, responding to the topicality of the film – social movements above all – and less to the work itself. “Best Pictures” are often predicable and dull, lacking in both vision and inspiration…and this year is no different. Here’s my list of the Academy’s most glaring mistakes.
Not even nominated Winner (Soon to be Forgotten)
1946 Gilda (Vidor) Best Years of Their Lives (Wyler)
1952 Singin’ in the Rain (Kelly) Greatest Show on Earth (DeMille)
1958 Vertigo (Hitchcock) Gigi (Minnelli)
1979 Manhattan (Allen) Kramer vs. Kramer (Benton)
1982 Blade Runner (Scott) Gandhi (Attenborough)
2003 Elephant (Van Sant) The Lord of the Rings (Jackson)
That’s Show Biz.
Sporting moments can make for effective points in the narrative arc – both the highs and lows – and draw the audience in.
But most often they don’t. The team scores. Everybody cheers. So what?
These moments are too grounded in winning; the immediacy is all that matters. Indeed, one of the weakest moments in my script, Sister Prometheus, is a game of badminton between the Adamantine sisters. Virginia and Willow are the younger siblings and have something to prove.
WILLOW serves the shuttlecock. VIRGINIA slams it back for a winner. WILLOW lobs to LOUISE who serves. DIANE volleys back. LOUISE volleys. WILLOW volleys. DIANE drops. WILLOW volleys. VIRGINIA volleys. WILLOW drops. DIANE volleys. LOUISE slams it for the winner.
Yes, it’s badminton; there’s lots of volleying. I’ve inserted the glares, exclamations, even a bit of profanity, but it’s still flat. And so I took them out again. It was too stuffed and pointless.
The key in these sporting moments is in the stakes, as the script gurus say, making the winning proposition more than a game. Something real.
It’s not the game that matters, but why they’re playing it.
VIRGINIA (Slumping over the shuttlecock): Fucking birdie.
As a teenager, I happened upon a trashy novel called Tidal Wave, the only part of which I remember was a sex scene which went something like this: His fingers explored the tangle of her pubic hair. “Is this a search and destroy mission, captain?” “I don’t have to search for it and I sure don’t want to destroy it.” Over the years, I realized that writing about sex was almost always like this. Trite and ridiculous, it just shone a spotlight on the naked stuff – Oh my goodness! Look at that! – destroying the essence of what makes sex rapturous. Whatever the erotic opus – Miller’s Tropic of Cancer or Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being – the writing of the sexual self just fell short. The problem is that sex is about another self, a naked self, a self that the clothed self looks at in confusion. What the hell are you doing? Are you really going to do that? You’re completely naked! The clothed self tends to stare and judge, incapable of reflecting on the intimacies of the naked self with any sense or sophistication. And yet, it is there, in all of us, the fingers tightening, everything stretching out, the head tilting back, peering into the chasm, ready to fall. Perhaps it is Xaviera Hollander who came closest (haha) to writing of this sexual self in her Penthouse Magazine column only because she wrote about sex and nothing else.
Whatever the genesis, naming a character can be a challenge. Here are three common methods:
1. The name is symbolic of an attribute. Jason Quati (from The Sacred Whore) is a derivation of the word quat, meaning small pustule. (Yes, he’s a bad person.) The Adamantine sisters (from Sister Prometheus) get their surname from the hardest of substances, the rock to which Prometheus was affixed according to Greek mythology.
2. The name is a random discovery. I found a picture of a man named “Gerbi” (from The Life and Home of Gerbi Norberg) in my father’s old files, who was a banker with whom my father worked in the 1950s. 3. The name evolves as the book is written. The main character in my bad side was originally named Sunshine (ugh) and then Francesca, Elle, Ellen, and finally Dee which actually changed ro Deirdre halfway through the book…because that was her name.