Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Book Notes — On Writing And Reading And Making Films

My morning ritual includes coffee with blogs – Bill Crider’s, Ed Gorman’s and The Rap Sheet. A couple of days ago each reported the news that the Coen Brothers (Fargo, Blood Simple, No Country For Old Men) might turn Ross Macdonald’s Black Money into a movie. The combination of MacDonald and the brothers makes both the book and the potential film irresistible. I’ll have to wait for the movie, but not the book.

Ross Macdonald
I’m embarrassed to say that despite the fact that nearly every crime fiction aficionado rates Macdonald right up there with Hammett and Chandler, I’ve never read him. It’s inexcusable, I know. The only thing I can say is that Macdonald died shortly before my interest in mystery writing seriously began.  And as is the fate of many great writers and artists, there is often a brief dip in their popularity or notoriety after they die and before they are “rediscovered.” To my discredit, I simply was not aware of this giant until midway through my own career.

The blessing is that there are likely enough of his novels to keep me pleasantly engaged during the rest of my existence. Actually, there are plenty of mysteries by great writers of the recent past, living legends like Crider and Gorman, not to mention books by those just coming into their own.  I will run out time before I run out of books.

Meanwhile, back to Black Money: There are novels that can be textbooks for people who want to understand the history of the genre, or who are beginning to write or looking for a refresher course.  This is one.  Here is an excerpt:

She looked around the room, at the worn carpet, the faded flowers in the wallpaper, the bedside lamp with the scorched paper shade, as I if she were considering her relationship to it.  Externally she didn’t belong here at all.   She had the kind of style that could be bought, but not suddenly at Bullocks or I. Magnin; the brown pouch on the bed with the gold tassels looked like Paris.  But she belonged internally to the room, the way a prisoner belongs to his cell.  She had done time in rooms like this and it was settling in again.

What Macdonald did here was create a vivid narrative that established the setting while simultaneously revealing character and mood.

Though I had not read Ross Macdonald before, I’m partial to writers who do what he does. I want things to move quickly but I also want to see the writer’s painting. I want my senses to be worked. I want to feel, even in my impatience, what there is to be felt.

When I stopped at the Bagshaw mailbox, I could see the ocean below, hung on the horizon like unevenly blued washing.  I had climbed a few hundred feet but I could feel the change in temperature, as if I had moved nearer to the noon sun.

Macdonald has verbal takes that are very much his own, personal and delightful quirks, as well as strange, offbeat humor that mingles with stark, straightforward prose and then poetry.

The question took him by surprise.  For a moment his face was trying on attitudes.  It settled on a kind of false boredom behind which his intelligence sat and watched me.


But she went on answering unspoken questions painfully, and obsessively as if the past had stirred and was talking through her in its sleep.

The movie, or proposed movie:  After the news broke, subsequent reports suggest the brothers have only signed on to write the screenplay. I have often been disappointed with what Hollywood does to perfectly fine books.  Here we have relatively short novel, about movie length.  The time period is clearly defined, as are the characters. The dialogue is very clearly in place. There is very little internal narrative.  It’s all on the page.  It is detailed and specific, deceptively so because Macdonald’s writing is so very simple and direct. Why waste the Coen brothers’ talents? It’s the overall direction, keeping the mood that’s needed not the dialogue or the plot.

The Coen Brothers are among my favorite directors.  I’d go see anything they make. I love movies. Perhaps more than books. When I read any book, it’s very much like a movie running through my brain. With most books, I can fathom the idea that there could be more than my own interpretation. But most books leave more to interpretation than Black Money. It is often necessary for a director or screenwriter to fill in or add nuance. Not here, I repeat.  This is a matter of casting and cinematography. The brothers should direct not rewrite.

If someone wants something other than the book, why bother with the book?  Write an original screenplay.

However getting back to what writers can gain from his work. To me, whether you like Macdonald type books or not, a writer should strive to be able write a book that could be filmed as is, a book that a smart director would not tamper with. That’s the art.

What do the brothers do here? Is it possible that Hollywood will see that most of the work is done? Are the brothers rebellious enough to simply put the book on film, bringing visual truth to the word?


Bill Crider said...

As a Living Legend, I thought I should weigh in here and repeat what I've said a zillion times, that Ross Macdonald is one of my all-time favorites. A lot of younger readers these days don't seem to like him much, but when I discovered him back in the early '60s, his books excited me as much as Hammett's and Chandler's. The two movies with Paul Newman were okay, and the TV series with Bryan Keith was okay but less so. Nobody's really gotten Macdonald right yet, though, but I hope the Coen brothers might be the ones to do it.

Ronald Tierney said...

Comments from living legends always welcome. Thank you.