FADE TO ORANGE: Famous-on-Famous/Film Links Forever

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You know, you come home from, say, a happening launch party, it’s around midnight and you’re feeling excellent, you turn on the TV so as not to consume your prophylactic course of pretzels and water in anomic silence, and see that channel 44 is about three minutes into its late nite movie, Good Will Hunting, and like that you’re way back, you’re circa 1997, and you remember everything: thinking Matt Damon was a mouth-breathing, bra-snapping punk, and sitting alone in the Uptown Theatre like you did every Tuesday afternoon, and liking them apples, and that scene they shot in your Canadian Lit classroom at St. Mike’s, and what an eff-up you were in second year–how times have changed!–and then you remember a few months ago when, in a darker mood, you came upon a wonderful conversation between David Foster Wallace and Gus Van Sant, and how times really have changed.

Turns out Wallace was a big fan of Good Will Hunting, and turns out also that my revisiting the interview in question tore an epic wormhole in the glittering surface of the internet whose depths I am here to tell you are unfathomable and not for lack of trying. I did not know my browser could support this many tabs; if there’s an outer tab limit, a braver woman than I will have to reach it.

Anyway, for some reason DFW was auditing an advanced tax accounting class at the time of the interview, had just seen Van Sant’s film, and wanted to geek out with some math talk before getting to the heart of its (i.e. the film’s) appeal for him: “The thing that interested me about Will — and of course this is like a stroke movie for me — is you’ve got like a total nerd who is incredibly good looking, can beat people up and has Minnie Driver in love with him, so I’m, like I saw it twice voluntarily.”

Nerdom re-emerges, Sauron-like, as a theme:

“One of the great puzzles I work with is I’m basically a nerd and everybody I know are nerds and how do you make nerds interesting (Gus laughs). And I haven’t seen it done that compellingly for a while. We’ll stop talking about “Good Will Hunting” in just one second, but one thing is that I really like Skaarsgaard. I liked “Zero Kelvin” and “Breaking the Waves.” The conflict in him of discovering someone who in Whitman’s phrase ‘spreads the broader breast than his own.’”

I like Skaarsgaard too. And I really like reading DFW talk about film. Van Sant perks up when DFW suggests that Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree would make a great film, Wallace  groans when Van Sant mentions his intention to write a novel–what’s often striking about famous-on-famous interviews is not just the superior eavesdroppy stuff but the currents of artistic tension and the very subtle ego rutting that sometimes goes on. I thought of a more recent interview between Van Sant and James Franco; Van Sant was talking up Zac Efron, of all people, and Franco wouldn’t let it go. Eccentric directors get eccentric crushes: Wong Kar Wai fell for Norah Jones last year, Werner Herzog expressed his profound regret at never having worked with Anna Nicole Smith…

No no, wrong wormhole. DFW’s Will Hunting enthusiasm was to me further evidence that he was that breed of cinephile who also loved movies, if you know what I mean, that ideal kind of moviegoer: omnivorous, alert but unpretentious, willing to be entertained and take a film on its own terms. An author’s relationship to the cinema and cinematic narrative fascinates me–friendly rivalry, arch-nemesis, demon lover, mild acquaintance, unrequited crush, total obessesion–and in this interview and many others, as well as throughout his fiction, film culture’s influence on DFW is manifest. He once described his 1984 viewing of Blue Velvet as a catalytic experience, one that seemed to lay bare the path he was seeking as a young writer. When he eventually got to write a piece about Lynch for Premiere magazine, he made a point of not going the famous-on-famous route, and the absence of the subject somehow freed Wallace to puncture Lynch’s enigma.

In another interview, conducted it seems the day after he saw Damon and Co. (“It’s a bit of a fairy tale, but I enjoyed it a lot. Minnie Driver is really to fall sideways for.”), Wallace said that his favorite non-fiction writer, the one who most inspired him, was film critic Pauline Kael: “I think prosewise, Pauline Kael is unequaled.” This both broke and warmed my heart. Film critics are being fired every day; many are just giving up. That Kael simply had a forum, that she could operate within a functioning realm of respect and space and interest and paycheques, surely has much to do with the heights that she reached as an artist. How many opportunities for the development of new voices in criticism but also in Western letters are being lost?

Many writers had their start in or spent part of their career as film critics. James Agee and Graham Greene are the most common examples–Renata Adler is another. Greene’s film criticism suggests not a novelist slumming but a provocative, exacting, often brilliant writer at his work. Consider the extreme, acid cynicism of his review of the Shirley Temple movie Wee Willie Winkie, which review resulted in a libel case that sent Greene packing to Mexico in 1937, where he would ultimately gather the material for The Power and the Glory. Here’s part of the review:

“The owners of a child star are like leaseholders — their property diminishes in value every year. Time’s chariot is at their back; before them acres of anonymity. Miss Shirley Temple’s case, though, has a peculiar interest: infancy is her disguise, her appeal is more secret and more adult. Already two years ago she was a fancy little piece (real childhood, I think, went out after The Littlest Rebel). In Captain January she wore trousers with the mature suggestiveness of a Dietrich: her neat and well-developed rump twisted in the tap-dance: her eyes had a sidelong searching coquetry. Now in Wee Willie Winkie, wearing short kilts, she is completely totsy. Watch her swaggering stride across the Indian barrack-square: hear the gasp of excited expectation from her antique audience when the sergeant’s palm is raised: watch the way she measures a man with agile studio eyes, with dimpled depravity. Her admirers — middle-aged men and clergymen — respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire.”

Dimpled depravity! Fancy little piece! What the! In a neat circularity John Ford, who actually directed Wee Willie Winkie (wt!x2), wound up directing The Fugitive, the film adaptation of The P&G. Greene was of course involved in the film world throughout his career–some even credit him with the birth of film noir–and as a screenwriter is perhaps best known for The Third Man, the novella he adapted himself.

Despite the seemingly obvious affinities shared by the work of Greene and Alfred Hitchcock, the two never colloborated. They met once, and Greene deemed him a “silly, harmless clown.” Warmer feelings, it can be assumed, were shared between Greene and François Truffaut; Greene cameoed as a British insurance agent in Truffaut’s Day For Night, an uncredited role that Pauline Kael had to confer with the director to confirm before writing her 1973 review. Here you see my dilemma.

No but wait. I was lately reproached by someone who could not believe that I call myself a film person and have not read Hitchcock/Truffaut, the apparently indispensable book compiled from 50-plus hours of conversation between the two directors. In fact I call myself nothing of the sort, but I saw his point. Truffaut revered Hitchcock, and the dynamic between them during the interviews–prickly, tentative, indulgent, impatient, fond–makes the tapes, despite the translation lag, the better delivery system. Film nerd drinking game: do a shot every time Hitch lights a cigar. Like film nerds can do shots.

The ne plus ultra of famous-on-famous interviews, director’s division, has got to be Jean-Luc Godard’s Meetin’ WA, his interview of Woody Allen. It was shot on video, there are crazy jump cuts, weird intertitles, bizarre irises, arty interstitials, and some seriously awkward chat. Godard’s like, “Errmm, Hann-ah, Eetch-cock, Stanislavski, intentionalité, oui, bien sûr” and Woody’s like, “Aaahhh, French Guy! French Guy in my living room!!” No, it’s only like that for a second; it’s a wonderful piece. When Allen quoted Renata Adler on television–”It’s an appliance rather than an art form”–I got the howling wormhole fantods. Here he is on the inevitable disappointment of the finished product:

“And as the process goes on when I’m making a film, casting to shooting to editing, it gets worse and worse for me, because I get further and further away from the idealized perfection of the first idea. Then when the film is finished, I look at it and always dislike it very much and think: Ugh, one year ago I was sitting in my bedroom and I had this idea for a film and it was so beautiful and everything was just great, and then little by little, I ruined it.”

Roman Polanski says something similar during his 1999 interview with Charlie Rose; he talks about the heartbreak of every rough cut and the impossibility of reconciling the singularity of inspiration with filmmaking’s mosaical process. Corruption inevitably ensues. Then Charlie (and I realize now that my problem with Rose is the suspicion that he considers all of his interviews to be famous-on-famous) asks him a feckless question about regret and high on derision Polanski manages to quote Democritus and The Rolling Stones in the same sentence.

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired came out on DVD last week and I watched it this weekend. It’s a strange but worthwhile documentary which leaves no doubt about the miscarriage of justice in the 1977 Polanski trial. What it doesn’t manage as successfully is an exploration of the tension that arises, in any examination of this situation (he was accused of drugging, raping, and sodomizing a 13-year-old girl), but particularly a legal one, between ethics and morals, right and wrong versus good and bad. For that you’ll want to cf. The Power and the Glory.

Polanski, who may use the film’s testimonials to leverage a return to the United States after 30 years in exile, is interviewed in this month’s Interview. And if you must know, he disdains Godard and admires Truffaut. Why, the interviewer wonders:

FV: Is it because at a certain stage of his career, he admitted a more relaxed and open relationship with American cinema and his passion for Hitchcock?

RP: It’s not because of that. It’s that his passion for Hitchcock and his interest in American cinema must have something to do with his idea of the movies. I think that he had a different basis and a real talent. I liked him as a person and I liked him as an artist. At that period, he was the only French member of the so-called nouvelle vague that I would appreciate. Some of the films of the nouvelle vague were excruciatingly boring. Most of them were completely amateurish. It was just one of those periods when suddenly people get ecstatic about something which may later prove to be completely worthless or fake. It was a little bit of the emperor’s new clothes.

And with that, I die. Save yourselves.

Miscellany alert: Fans of Senator Clay Davis on The Wire will note that the actor, Isiah Whitlock Jr., first put his signature topspin on the s-word in the role of the cop who busts Ed Norton in The 25th Hour. Spike Lee overheard him one day and suggested he do it in character.

Bonus quote alert:

RP: There is a Russian proverb: “You will never fuck all women of the world, but you should try.”

FV: Did you try?

RP: No, I didn’t. But you have to take it into consideration, nevertheless.


Michelle Orange's writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Village Voice, The Nation, The Virginia Quarterly Review, McSweeney's and other publications and has been collected in The Best Sex Writing 2006 and Mountain Man Dance Moves. She is the author of The Sicily Papers and the editor of From the Notebook: The Unwritten Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, a collection found in issue 22 of McSweeney's. Follow her on Twitter @michelleorange. More from this author →