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Sunday, 11 November 2012

ASSET-STRIPPING CINEMA FOR LESSONS IN NARRATIVE by John A. A. Logan


Having recently watched Roman Polanski’s 1976 psychological thriller, The Tenant, for the first time, I was struck once again by the degree to which films have influenced me when it comes to narrative structure. Which isn’t to say that I haven’t been influenced far more by the past 400-years’ worth of novels we’ve been gifted to read…but somehow, as Tanita Tikaram put it back in the 80s, cinema has been the Twist in My Sobriety where narrative is concerned.


I’d loved The Fearless Vampire Killers and Rosemary’s Baby, re-watched them many times since initial encounters with them during childhood(!)...
And it seems my response to Polanski duplicates my response to Tarkofsky, or to Knut Hamsun, or to Mikhail Bulgakov, where I seem to fall in love early with one piece of work (Tarkofsky’s Solaris, Hamsun’s Hunger, Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita)…this one piece of work then mesmerises me as I watch and re-watch, or read and re-read, through decades, attempting to simultaneously fathom, imbibe, assimilate, ruminate, meditate, on whatever message in the scenes/text has transfixed me.
I feel no need to go on and view/read the other work by the particular artist, in fact I feel protective of the initial encountered masterpiece, not needing any more or wishing to be exposed to risk of disappointment in other work.
It doesn’t always go that way, though…when I encountered D H Lawrence, Philip Roth, Stephen King, Robert Pirsig, Dostoyevsky, Milan Kundera…the desire was to instantly branch out from the first text found and go on to hoover up all the other books available, mainlining the author’s essence…
Kubrick, Powell and Pressburger, Sidney Lumet, same thing…I had to know all and see all of their work once I’d been contacted by it.


Tarkofsky’s Solaris stunned and overwhelmed me on first contact with it.
Aged about 10, viewing it on an old black and white portable TV in the 1970s, my mind slipped off that film’s Teflon surface, but the outer membranes of the subconscious had been penetrated, the film was in there somewhere ever since.
I next tried at 21 to take the film in as a whole, but still my mind could only accommodate its fragments…I watched it in the darkness, in colour this time, while a friend less sympathetic to unlocking the mysteries of 1970s Russian cinema, snored on the floor nearby.
It was only after I’d completed my fifth novel, The Survival of Thomas Ford, aged 42, that something had shifted internally, so that when I “re-watched” Solaris for the first time in about twenty years, I was really seeing it all for the first time, I felt the whole film go in, mainlined straight to some mental lobe or nodule that was now ready, I felt it lock into the hard disc permanently, lodged like Polanski’s tenant now is, into the fabric of my being.

Tenant indeed.

Solaris filled me right to the fingertips, or nail-tips…invisible tendrils of tenticular power surging back and forth, pulsing electrically…this could not be contained and wasn’t.
The influence caused a short story to pop out, Napoleon’s Child, the third story in my collection, Storm Damage.
An influence only I could ever see I think…an old man in a desert, visited by apparitions perhaps, or are they real? The wind speaks in that place, the mind a chamber for its own echoes.
But Solaris was still in my system.
Another short story popped out, Unicorn One, the first story in Storm Damage, a hairdresser from a remote Scottish town is selected to be the astronaut for Scotland’s first Independent Space Mission to Mars. Can her mind cope with it?
I could feel the influence of Solaris in the DNA of both stories as I typed…an influence beyond conscious interference…the desert in one story, space in the other…but each set in a zone of seething, black emptiness which turns out not to be empty at all…

Sometimes it is the spirit of the film which possesses.


Werner Herzog’s 1972 cornucopia, Aguirre: Wrath of God, did the same deep-penetration job on my brain, again after a three-decade puzzled flirtatious courtship with peripheral synapses only…one day Aguirre simply shafted my brain to the depths with images I can’t speak of here for fear of spoiling a surprise for somebody.
To be fair, though, this was a double-pronged attack on the poor brain, abetted by my long-delayed first reading of Heart of Darkness in 2006.
It was Aguirre’s spell, along with the trance caused by what is only a passing thematic reference in just the first 7 or so pages of Heart of Darkness, that caused me to spend a year on my third novel, Starnegin’s Camp, set in a forest on the world’s far side two thousand years ago.

2006 also saw a double-viewing of two colossally different masterpieces from what seem opposing ends of the cinematic spectrum.
And, in both cases, on first viewing of the film, I was absolutely confused by what I had seen…I wasn’t sure that I had not just been ripped off or conned or manipulated…
I re-watched each three hour, or three hour plus, film carefully on another day…separate days for each film of course…fully prepared for disappointment or anger at manipulation.
One of the films had seemed to be just too slow for the first two hours, only to detonate at the two-hour point and explode into something heartbreakingly and astonishingly powerful.
This was Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon.


The other film I had never intended to watch, only to record on VHS…I’d missed the first two minutes, pressed record, had never heard of this 1970s French film before…I couldn’t stop watching though, watched an hour of it which seemed to be enough.
The next day I watched the next hour on tape, and again this seemed to be all my mind could take in.
On the third day I watched the last hour-and-a-half.
Synchronicity entered in then: I had an email from a friend who told me it was sacrilege to watch a film unless it was watched all in one go, as in the cinema. Simultaneously, an Iranian director was on TV saying in an interview that he only ever watched a film in 30 or 60 minute sections, so as to fully assimilate…
This second film watched in three sections was Jacques Rivette’s 1974 classic “story about story-telling”, Celine and Julie Go Boating.


Having been absolutely puzzled by and suspicious of both Barry Lyndon and Celine and Julie Go Boating on first viewing, I re-watched both and on second viewing let myself fall in love.
There was a third viewing of each. A fourth.
Then I showed both films to a friend. Then another friend. And another.
They loved the films too.
Then I started to watch these two films every few months, simply to let it sink in, whatever magic of narrative pace and structure had caused such confusion at first, only to deliver such disproportionate rewards and riches for continued attention.
I know those narrative lessons got into the fabric of the three novels I produced in the following 30-month period, Agency Woman, Starnegin’s Camp, The Survival of Thomas Ford.

It may be that the narrative lessons imbibed from cinema (or TV, like the 1970s TV adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles which still haunts me) enter the mind at a different strata or zone than the lessons assimilated from beloved novels (in my case, I constantly feel the workings of decades-ago-read texts as I explore a new narrative’s possibilities…and I know which texts: The Master and Margarita, Hunger, The Idiot, Crime and Punishment, Notes From Underground, Steppenwolf, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Cain’s Book, A Confederacy of Dunces, The Leopard…earlier than that, Stephen King’s The Stand, It, Thinner, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption…Peter Straub’s Ghost Story…Watership Down…

The books that blow your mind.
The films that blow your mind.
The ones you love, that tap into some deep and secret well-spring of dream and hope which probably/certainly go back beyond Cervantes’s Don Quixote, into the different religious books, or pagan books, or mythical books, that first breathed the inspiros of life into brains drifting between the strata of painting the cave walls…first with beasts real…and then with beasts imaginary…brains hovering between the marks that make images direct…and the marks that signify the logos that can mainline into the brain itself and detonate the fireworks of unforeseeable magic on the great Walls of that Darkest of Caverns.

And today it is Polanski’s Tenant, re-arranging his furniture in the sanctity of my frontal lobes, making noise at night, sitting afraid and strangely clothed in his chair, finding things buried in the walls of that room, screaming his discontent into the black depths and influencing me, terrifyingly, beyond my miniscule power to fathom. 





11 comments:

Dan Holloway said...

Wonderful post, John and I always love reading about your influences because I can relate to almost all of them (Polanski has never quite done it for me for some reason, Repulsion aside) and the way you describe them fixing onto and altering your creative DNA. For me the film I saw and came back to at intervals a decade apart was Kieslowski's (you must be a Kieslowski devotee - if you're not do look him out because he's made for you) A Short Film About Love. I first saw the short version when Kieslowski's Dekalog was screened in the 80s. It made an indelible mark but I wasn't sure what it was. I came back to it in the 90s having been knocked sideways by The Double Life of Veronique, and then the Three Colours trilogy. And I came back to it again in its own right a year or so ago. Kieslowski's career is also an interesting mirror of Kundera's - an Eastern European artist self-exiled to France whose harshly satirical yet emotive works under Communism gave way to a deeply reflective sentimentalism.

Kathleen Jones said...

I too loved Celine and Julie. I'm always fascinated by the fact that books get made into films and TV, but the techniques of imaging narratives gets reflected back into books. The best book on editing I've ever read was given to me by a writer on Emmerdale and it was about editing film scripts, but it was so relevant to prose!
The films that have influenced me most have been European - particularly the long black and white epics of Bela Tarr, played out in real time, particulary Satantango and the Werkmeister Harmonies.
Thanks for a fascinating post John.

madwippitt said...

Strange you should mention The Martian Chronicles - I just ordered it and having seen it first on an old black and white TV am looking forward to seeing it in colour. And hoping I will still enjoy it just as much.

John A. A. Logan said...

Thanks Dan, I know what you mean about Polanski. I only ever really "got" The Fearless Vampire Hunters and Rosemary's Baby...his other films didn't really connect with me...until recently.
A friend had always loved Polanski and gave me the dvd of The Tenant.
The ground had been prepared also by a long, powerful online essay about Polanski, found by accident one night, maybe last year (and I am not usually influenced by essays!), but there was so much in the essay I'd never known about Polanski...it must have prepared me somehow for The Tenant.
http://polanski-oddmanout.blogspot.co.uk/2010/11/introduction.html
That's the essay.
It doesn't come up on Google by searching for "Roman Polanski essay"
Instead, hundreds of essays come up in that search I would never want to read.
But I remembered at the last moment there that I had originally found it by entering "Roman Polanski fractured skull" into Google...
(Why I did that is another story altogether!)
But there is the essay: Roman Polanski: The Ballad of Contradictions
And Polanski is the only director I think I needed an essay to help me move closer towards.
Kieslowski...at first when you mentioned him I had no memory of that name...only when you mentioned the Three Colours Trilogy...
Now I remember his films were sort of "in the air" around 1995 or so...a friend loved them and showed me the Colours films...I wasn't ready...
So maybe now is the time for Kieslowski and me!
Interesting also that Kundera was originally a lecturer in world literature at the Film Academy where one of his students was Milos (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) Forman...
I forgot to mention Ingmar Bergman's films here too...or Kurosawa's...or that strange thing where they each have a film about a circus and I could never work out whose film influenced who...but they are so alike, the two circus films.

John A. A. Logan said...

Thanks Kathleen, yes, this feedback loop between books and films, and tv and films, is fascinating, and by now must be deep in the psyche of most people dealing with narrative. (Not to mention the feedback loop growing now between internet and narrative, as Dan has written about previously here.)
Emmerdale! That's funny...there was an Emmerdale storyline from maybe 5 years ago...one of the involved, extended ones...and I suddenly realised while watching it that the characterisation, editing, care for detail in shots/cuts...was superior to many many Hollywood efforts, or Brit cinema efforts...from the same year. This was a storyline involving those three brothers who have just been whittled down now to one brother, on Emmerdale.
Maybe that storyline was always reminding me of The Brothers Karamazov meets Crime and Punishment!
Bela Tarr...Satantango...thanks, I'm off now to find out more about this, the Bela Tarr name is half-familiar...

John A. A. Logan said...

Hi madwippit...I still remember watching The Martian Chronicles aged 12 on a black and white portable 14 inch tv, I think it was 1980, not the 70s like I first thought.
Those Martians in the sandships...
I have a copycat impulse to order it now too and watch in colour...but I will resist, as I might re-read the book first.
What I remember most is Rock Hudson's sort of reassuring, solid, decent presence in the TV adaptation...but even so, it still left me haunted a little ever since.

Dan Holloway said...

thank you - I'll have a proper read and see if I can approach the films with fresh eyes. And Kurosawa and Bergman are wonderful additions

Jean said...

John: thank you so much for what you said about my essay. Knowing that it helped you "move closer towards Polanski" is the highest praise a researcher can ever get.

As a Russian, I am very happy that you love Russian cinema and literature. From now on, I'll be looking for your books (hope they are available in electronic formats). Also, since you like Stephen King, I think you might be interested in this small community:

http://www.thedarktower.org

where people discuss many things related to literature, cinema (not only King!), philosophy, theology and every other aspect of human existence. You'll be very welcome!

Áine said...

RE: the "feedback loop between books and films" "...and I could never work out whose film influenced who...but they are so alike, the two circus films."

I watched Sawdust And Tinsel last year (Bergman)and am reminded that John's short story called "At The Edge of The Known World" is also about a strange circus reminiscent of Bergman, perhaps. You can read it for yourself in Storm Damage.

Margaret Tanner said...

Hi John,
Hope all is well with you. This is an interesting blog. A trip down memory lane. Rosemary's Baby with Mia Farrow, I loved that film. As for the black and white TV, I can remember those days.

Cheers

Margaret

Hunter said...

I love this, John! Cinema has informed and inspired my writing too. Another good one from the great John Logan. Many happy turns to you and your during this season!!!

Truly,

Hunter