Sunday, February 5, 2012

Hollywood is Suicide

In his Paris Review interview, John Cheever has a few pithy words to say about writing and films. And an evocation of D.W. Griffith's "Detroit of the mind": Hollywood.

Interviewer: Do you think that your inner screen of imagination, the way you project characters, is in any way influenced by film?

Cheever: Writers of my generation and those who were raised with films have become sophisticated about these vastly different mediums and know what is best for the camera and best for the writer. One learns to skip the crowd scene, the portentous door, the banal irony of zooming into the beauty’s crow’s-feet. The difference in these crafts is, I think, clearly understood, and as a result no good film comes from an adaptation of a good novel. I would love to write an original screenplay if I found a sympathetic director. Years ago René Clair was going to film some of my stories, but as soon as the front office heard about this, they took away all the money.

Interviewer: What do you think of working in Hollywood?

Cheever: Southern California always smells very much like a summer night . . . which to me means the end of sailing, the end of games, but it isn’t that at all. It simply doesn’t correspond to my experience. I’m very much concerned with trees . . . with the nativity of trees, and when you find yourself in a place where all the trees are transplanted and have no history, I find it disconcerting.

I went to Hollywood to make money. It’s very simple. The people are friendly and the food is good, but I’ve never been happy there, perhaps because I only went there to pick up a check. I do have the deepest respect for a dozen or so directors whose affairs are centered there and who, in spite of the overwhelming problems of financing films, continue to turn out brilliant and original films. But my principal feeling about Hollywood is suicide. If I could get out of bed and into the shower, I was all right. Since I never paid the bills, I’d reach for the phone and order the most elaborate breakfast I could think of, and then I’d try to make it to the shower before I hanged myself. This is no reflection on Hollywood, but it’s just that I seemed to have a suicide complex there. I don’t like the freeways, for one thing. Also, the pools are too hot . . . 85 degrees.

Cheever also mentioned writing novel synopses for MGM in the early 1930s: "I had a job at MGM with Paul Goodman, doing synopses. Jim Farrell, too. We had to boil down just about every book published into either a three-, five-, or twelve-page précis for which you got something like five dollars. You did your own typing. And, oh, carbons." Evidently no one in Hollywood could read. His mention of René Clair's interest in a project, which amounted to nothing, is revealing of the process of moviemaking.

But his mention of a "dozen or so directors" puzzles me. He doesn't name them, and it isn't at all easy to figure out to whom he's referring. He said this in 1969 or shortly thereafter, and the directors who were working at that time, with two or three exceptions, weren't exactly capable of what I would characterize as "brilliant and original films". Cheever's tastes in movies would have to be known, whether or not he was aware of films from Europe and elsewhere at the time, and what he thought of them.

One should remember what Cheever said about writing "for a living": "I earned barely enough money to feed the family and buy a new suit every other year." Success, in monetary terms, came very late, after the publication of the novel Falconer (which I gave to my older sister on her birthday in - I think - 1977), and his indispensable Collected Stories. But his life as a writer had its rewards, even if he had to find a day job:

"I worked four days a week on 'The [Wapshot] Chronicle', with intense happiness. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I had a course in advanced composition at Barnard College. My weekends went roughly like this. On Saturday mornings, I played touch football until the noon whistle blew, when I drank Martinis for an hour or so with friends. On Saturday afternoons, I played Baroque music on the piano or recorder with an ensemble group. On Saturday nights, my wife and I either entertained or were entertained by friends. Eight o'clock Sunday morning found me at the Communion rail, and the Sunday passed pleasantly, according to the season, in skiing, scrub hockey, swimming, football, or backgammon. This sport was occasionally interrupted by the fact that I drove the old Mack engine for the volunteer fire department and also bred black Labrador retrievers. As I approached the close of the novel, there were, in my workroom, eight Labrador puppies, and on my desk the Barnard themes, the fire-department correspondence, [and] 'The Wapshot Chronicle'....

"My happiness was immense, and I trust that the book will, in some ways, be a reminder of this."

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