Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Big Sleep and Reasons Why William Faulkner Might Not Have Been the Best Screenwriter of All Time

Books I Bought Last Week:
None. Can you believe it? 

Books I’ve Finished This Year:
-East of Eden by John Steinbeck
-Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
-Silk by Alessandro Barico
-Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores
-The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
-Animal Farm by George Orwell
-The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
-The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald 
-Grimm's Fairytales by the Brothers Grimm
-Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Currently Reading:
-The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific by J. Maarten Troost

I bought another typewriter.

On Sundays, teachers, students, and military get a 25% off of their total purchase, so what on Thursday had been $12.99 for a typewriter I wasn't sure I wanted, today turned into a casually frantic search for a $9.75 typewriter. I found it tucked above scales and under food processors in a case that on second glace wasn't broken after all. It was only cosmetically dirty (nothing that rubbing alcohol can't fix) and the keys worked fine, though a younger and less experienced generation of buyers thought it didn't work due to needing a new ribbon. Okay, where does one find typwriter ribbon anymore? After two office supply stores and a total of five quizzical glances from men who didn't quite know how to handle the nerdy anomaly excited to find typewriter ribbon, I victoriously drove down the highway with my window down, listening to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros play my favorite summer song, "Kisses Over Babylon." (http://youtu.be/CR8xbCPvr-o)

What stuck with me was much less contemporary than my song, or even my car (though it is nearly 20 years old. Yikes.) -I love old things. Old, old things. I use my recently acquired typewriter as a segue into what I had intended to blog about today: Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep, Musso&Franks, and noir. (If I were a radio host, I would change the theme music from Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros to something more fitting, say Woody Herman, http://youtu.be/hK_9otl3sZ0)

I grew up watching old movies and The Big Sleep with Humphrey Bogart was one of my favorites.It captured everything I loved about noir films, and the plot was so intense that I used to use it as a litmus test for adulthood: if I could figure out the murderer, then and just then I'd be a
grown-up. What I didn't realize is that not even the director knew who the murderer was -but I'm getting ahead of myself. In the meantime, I was growing up, starting college, getting curious in literature, and The Big Sleep was one of the first few books I ever bought.

But I never read it.

That doesn't surprise you, does it, reader? The blogger who struggles with reading books as fast as she buys them? Nah. So it mustn't surprise you, then, that I didn't read it until this year, until over ten years after I bought it. I probably wouldn't have, to be honest, if I hadn't had a conversation with a colleague at the college about noir 
films. Reminded by how confusing the plot was and realizing I'd never read a Raymond Chandler book before, I decided that now would be the time. Coincidentally, only a week or so after I'd begun reading, a writer's conference I attended mentioned noir films and directly quoted from The Big Sleep. Omitted from the film (as most of the real plot is), Chandler describes Phillip Marlowe as a kind of cynical warrior, and as he steps into the Sternwood mansion, he sees a huge stained glass window of a knight rescuing the damsel in distress. What's interesting about noir, though, is that the damsel in distress is almost always a femme fatal, and she certainly is in this book. Marlowe is compelled to save her via the knight-in-shining-armor motif, though he knows in saving her, how exactly dangerous she is. But even more interestingly is the idea that noir is so purely American. While Swedish noir (like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is becoming popular now, previously it was very American, very cowboy-ish in the sense that the renegade independent comes out of the wilderness to rescue someone and to restore justice, and then he recedes back to his solitary lifestyle. If noir is cowboy-ish, then it's no wonder that noir hit it's silver screen popularity in California, America's last frontier.

By Chandler's cynical voice through the first person Phillip Marlowe is the charm of the book. While he's bitter and makes comments about society, his eye for detail is both thoughtfully introspective and sometimes funny. I was pulled in almost immediately, especially with phrases like "Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead." Later when he references the dead man, he says, "His glass eye shone brightly up at me and was by far the most life-like thing about him." Later as he notices that someone has moved the body, he says, "Dead men are heavier than broken hearts." Who is this detective? He wants to come off as street-smart, savvy, too cool for school -and he is- but he's also a beautiful thinker, a philosopher. The end -no, I won't ruin it for you- is so beautifully worded that I couldn't help but to sigh with the last turned page. Read it. You have to.

By the way, the book is completely different from the movie. Raymond Chandler wrote it while sitting in the back booth of Musso&Franks on Hollywood Boulevard. It was established in 1919 and
among M&F's patronage includes not just Chandler who wrote his only four novels from the back corner booth, but also William Faulkner who rewrote The Big Sleep in script form, their contemporary Ernest Hemingway who drank at the bar (big surprise) with F. Scott Fitzgerald (big surprise). Tennessee Williams was there. Everyone was there: Charlie Chaplin had a favorite booth, Marilyn Monroe had a favorite booth, and all of the  directors and producers intermingled there. As someone who loves Old Hollywood, I would have loved to go there anyway, but I finished the book as we were already driving out to California. Dad mentioned that Chandler wrote the whole thing at Musso&Frank's, and that he (my dad) had driven there several
Brink's truck driver to pick up money. In fact, when Brink's was having a tough time, the manager even offered him a job, knowing that he loved the place and that he loved Old Hollywood. The job didn't work out, but he appreciated the thought and remembered her. "Dad, let's go. I'll pay. It's not like we're here every day." So we went. We valet parked in the back lot and came in through the back door, looking old and sketch. This place is that amazing? I thought. But then we came around the corner to see the glossy floor, the wood paneling, the shiny red booths... No one has restaurants like this anymore. The manager that had offered Dad a job was now the owner and she remembered him -almost 30 years later. Crazy. She knew exactly which booth was Chandler's so as a nod to Chandler, I sat in his booth, holding a copy of his book. So surreal. 
So here is the funny thing about The Big Sleep: Raymond Chandler wrote this beautiful, complex story that had a few things in it that the Censor Board wouldn't pass in 1946, so William Faulkner (then screenwriter, not major American novelist) changed them for the script. Then Howard Hawks wanted Faulkner to add a few scenes to beef up Lauren Bacall's role in the film (she was very popular at the time, and even more popular starring in a movie with her new husband). So the already diluted, confusing plot became even more fuzzy with new scenes and character motivations. When Hawks was halfway through shooting the film, he said to Chandler, "Say, who is the murderer, after all?" Chandler, nearly speechless, said, "Ask your screenwriter. You've changed so much of the story, I couldn't tell you." When Howard Hawks asked Faulkner, he shrugged. "Eddy Mars seems like a crook. Let's pin it all on him." And that, my friends, is why the end of the movie differs so much from the end of the book, which is really a shame because the end of the book is brilliant and contains in it the namesake for the story. Otherwise, you watch the movie and you wonder what this has to do with sleep.

The moral to this story is to always go to the restaurant where your favorite book is written, sit in your author's booth, and get a drink at the bar from where your other favorite author drank with his frenemy. Here's the other moral of the story: always buy cheap typewriters at Goodwill.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Eternal Summer

Yeah, um, I know it's been a long time.

I'm sure somewhere that's on the top ten list of things not to say to your blogging readership, but, meh, honesty is what it is and writing never is what it could be when you deliberately avoid saying the thing you want to say.

So here's how things are from where I sit: I'm eating strawberries and almonds from a teal Earthenware bowl, I'm drinking the last of the morning's coffee from a cup with the handle formed from an arched horse, Woody Herman's old big band orchestra is faintly playing on my computer, and I'm sitting under a large shade tree pretending not to hear the trash truck making its rounds in the neighborhood. This is summer, my friends. This is the time of the year when I can reside barefoot in gym shorts and a long-sleeved Jane Eyre t-shirt, planning what my summer is going to look like, while knowing it's not as infinitely long as it seems right now.

My pledge to myself this summer is to write. More. Really. I've just spent the last ten months frantically squeezing editing into every spare moment, and while there's something distinctly teacher-ish about it (something that I secretly love), I haven't yet negotiated that balance in scheduling that allows me to do that, plus reading, plus writing. If you've been reading my blog for any length of time you know this: I need to stop buying books faster than I read them (hah) and this summer involves more dedicated reading.

But additionally, I'll be working with more short stories (probably Steampunk stories), I'll probably play with some creative nonfiction (essay or novel, who knows), and I'll set to reworking the novel-ish idea that I had last touched in November. Yeah, I told you it's been a while.

To be fair to my craft, I haven't been completely non-productive; I've polished and submitted to quite a few contests. I know contests are a gamble and that sometimes they feel like throwing away money, but even then I like the idea that these contests go to literary publications. Even if I don't win (which would be nice), my money is going to a starving writer like myself who could use the cash, and the rest of the money is going to the overhead costs of supporting accessible literature for the masses. I can live with that. Here is where I've submitted said work:

Conium Review: sent April 1st, heard May 1st: Rejection (Boo)
Mixer Magazine: sent April 14th, should hear by June 26th
Bristol Short Story Prize: sent April 10th, should hear mid-July
Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition: sent April 10th, should hear end of July
Spoon River Poetry Review: sent April 14th, should hear in August
River Styx Poetry Magazine: sent April 10th, should hear in October

I suppose that's another rule I've just broken: thou shalt not ever reveal where thou've sent work on the chance that thou shalt be rejected by all of them and thus appear inferior. To this again I say, meh. I am who I am. If rejection means I need to write more and improve more, then I'm game. I'm game anyway, so I'll ride the tides of chance.

Hemingway said he would strive to write one true thing a day and here's my truth for today: my current plans for summer seem eternal because they're my plans for life. Uninhibited by scheduling, I aspire to soar above my circumstances, to write and read and enjoy, to dream that my writing right now could be accepted by every publication, that there is nothing stopping me. Maybe that's a little bit of Gatsby and contemporary relevance getting to me, but I don't care. Maybe success has eluded me so far, but that's no matter, because today I'm going to run faster, stretch my arms out farther, and then one fine morning-- (Thanks, F. Scott.)