Raymond Chandler: On Writing

A friend just sent me this incredible quote from Raymond Chandler, one of my favorite writers ever ever. Some writers simply let their work speak for them, but I really appreciate when the most gifted humans among us can articulate that elusive THING that lights heavenfire in their bellies.

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This is a wonderful grouping of thoughts about the experience of creating, and reading, and how the most banal of experiences can throw open the doors to your heart if it’s written just right:

A long time ago when I was writing for pulps, I put into a story a line like “he got out of the car and walked across the sun-drenched sidewalk until the shadow of the awning over the entrance fell across his face like the touch of cool water.” They took it out when they published the story. Their readers didn’t appreciate this sort of thing; just held up the action. And I set out to prove them wrong.

My theory was they just thought they cared nothing about anything but the action; that really, although they didn’t know it, they cared very little about the action. The things that they really cared about, and that I cared about, were the creation of emotion through dialogue and description; the things they remembered, that haunted them, were not for example that a man got killed, but that in the moment of death he was trying to pick a paper clip up off the polished surface of a desk, and it kept slipping away from him, so that there was a look of strain of his face and his mouth was half opened in a kind of tormented grin, and the last thing in the world he thought about was death.

He didn’t even hear death knock at the door. That damn paper clip kept slipping away from his fingers and he just couldn’t push it to the edge of the desk and catch it as it fell.

If you have not read Chandler before, The High Window is a perfect place to start. It’s a novel I’d take with me to the proverbial desert island, because I’ve read it maybe fifteen times and it’s like cracking open a brand-new book every time. Chandler comes from the sexiest era of Americana, a time of gangsters and molls and Cadillacs, and long white gams emerging from parted sequin seams. His books, especially The High Window, remind me of a time when the classy and the trashy bled together, and aggressive Post-WWII “normalcy” forced pleasure into the darkest nooks and crannies of culture.

The High Window, Raymond Chandler

There have been very few writers since Chandler that take the time to savor the background, the moments between the plot points. He describes even the boring, especially the boring, with such artistry that every swathe of words totally ignites the senses. His prose sparkles, it smells good, it tastes like steak and velvet cake. It makes you pause for breath, and sometimes laugh: “From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.” That wit! Incredible.

Raymond Chandler knew what it was to read, to scour the creative output of another person searching for divine connection and meaning. He voraciously consumed every man and woman with whom he ever shared a word, or a look, and created stories of human experience with the contrast turned up high. He made everyday lives something mysterious and sexy. Which, if you just take a minute to look around, and inhale, they really are.

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Tolstoy Lite

Anna Karenina
directed by Joe Wright
Release date: 11/9/12

Has everyone taken in the succulent splendor of this trailer for the latest Anna Karenina update? When I saw it float by in the ether of my Facebook feed, I pounced because Keira Knightley in period garb is like fucking crack to me. I will watch anything where she is required to wear a bonnet, petticoat, jewels, metallic armored nipple-straps, whatever. For some reason, this girl’s got a gift for timeless waifery. She can slice clean through any era with her emaciated tendons and dark bottomless eyes like Pensieves.

Though I love Mz. Skellington, historical epics are not usually my bag. To be honest, I don’t read a lot of “good” literature or know actual facts about monarchies and political histories aside from what I numbly absorb from 5 AM Wikipedia adventures. I wish I could expound on Tolstoy’s novel and relate it to this juicy glittery thing. But honestly, all I know of the story is this trailer, and they suckered me. I’m gonna see it.

First of all, the look of this film is so beautiful. I could have done without the actual editing of the trailer (I could die happy without seeing another schizophrenic series of ballroom dancing shots), but the color palette and lighting seems to set this production apart from its peers. I like how inky and ethereal and golden everything looks – it reminds me of a BBC miniseries, but drawn in lustier strokes.

I also love the casting. Actually, I hate the casting, but that’s only because it reveals the painful passage of time. Jude Law as the older balding husband?! What has this world COME to? But I’ve always thought he was a lovely actor, with a wounded cockiness and sensitivity that seems always to be the purview of popular prettyboys. It will be interesting to see what he does with a more muted role like this. And Aaron Taylor-Johnson is wonderful as well – he’s often miscast, but he’s a consistent performer and I could see him handling turbulent emotion beneath classical Russian stoicism. Can’t abandon this paragraph without mentioning Keira, either – everyone needs to shut up, because although she has a creepy mantis body and has no range as an actress, she plays one thing well. And that’s gorgeous borderline-psychotic damsel. She gonna kill this.

Who wants to button up their bodice, take some Stoli shots, and see this with me? Then we can lay about afterwards in an aristocratic malaise and all pretend we totally read the novel.

Wiggin Out

Let’s talk about the upcoming film adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s timeless YA novel, Ender’s Game.

This project has been kicked around Hollywood for a long time, and I’ve seen at least 3 separate drafts of the script since development went into overdrive a couple years ago. On paper, the concept is ripe for film: in the near future, our planet is threatened by a sentient alien invasion, called the buggers. The genius children of the world are cultivated from birth to be humanity’s greatest military weapons. Our hero, Ender Wiggin, is a brilliant tactician handpicked for “Battle School” in space at six years old.

But on paper – the yellowed, fragrant paper of my 1991 copy – Ender’s Game goes way deeper than space adventure.

Above all, the story is dark. And complex. It consists of three threads, braided together uncomfortably tight: politics, military strategy, and the peculiar culture and society of children. Most of the book is quite painful to read, because we experience it through the eyes of a little boy – intelligent enough to understand that he is both the prisoner and savior of all Earth, but emotionally unequipped to deal with the consequences. And they number many: isolation, depression, self-destructive fury. He works his way up to leading hundreds of children and teenagers through elaborate battles while slowly losing all hope. That’s the real crux of this book: an innocent losing his own life force in order to save billions.

The passage below brilliantly illustrates EG‘s emotional core. Here Ender has already become a top leader, pitting him against his closest friend Alai. They are both nine years old.

He passed Alai in the corridor, and they greeted each other, touched hands, talked, but they both knew that there was a wall now. It might be breached, that wall, sometime in the future, but for now the only real conversation between them was the roots that had already grown low and deep, under the wall, where they could not be broken.
The most terrible thing, though, was the fear that the wall could never be breached, that in his heart Alai was glad of the separation, and was ready to be Ender’s enemy. For now that they could not be together, they must be infinitely apart, and what had been sure and unshakable was now fragile and insubstantial; from the moment we are not together, Alai is a stranger, for he has a life now that will be no part of mine, and that means that when I see him we will not know each other.

Beautiful and sad.

Getting back to the film adaptation – I’m having a hard time seeing exactly how this movie will honor its source. In case you didn’t read the article I linked to, this is a Lionsgate franchise that will star Asa Butterfield as Ender, Abigail Breslin as his beloved sister, and Harrison Ford as the commander who plucks Ender from his family and molds him into a military machine. It is clearly a big-budget, high-publicity whirlwind that Lionsgate will attempt to parlay into an empire a la Twilight and The Hunger Games.

It’s troubling. It feels like someone poured the novel into a sieve and is now rattling around CHILDREN, SPACE, WAR, ALIENS while all the nuance and atmopshere and political commentary lies in a sandy heap on the floor. The worst thing about all of this is the director at the helm: Gavin Hood. He has a clunky action-formula touch and his last credit was X-Men Origins: Wolverine. What’s interesting is that, there too, he made attempts to expose the psychology of a powerful outcast, but pretty much failed. Emotional payoff lost out in favor of dazzling displays of developing strength. That’s exactly what horrified Card. EG‘s action moments were big, but the lead-up, the down-time, the silences…they felt so much bigger.

I guess what I’m getting at is that while this looked like a blockbuster, it should in fact be an indie film. Small and intimate. Inky black shadows, tension, elegant little bodies hurtling through zero-gravity caverns, pained eyes. Conversations between precocious devils barely old enough to shave. I’m thinking Darren Aronofsky or Sofia Coppola (who’s always had a soft spot for ruined youth). And the majesty of a film set in space deserves Terence Malick respect. Even Ridley-freaking-Scott would have been better.

But this is the way film is made and marketed now. No longer can a huge movie rely solely on delicate storytelling and go to verboten places like having two kids attempt to murder each other in a shower. I mean, I can’t judge since the adaptation has still not even started production, but my expectations are low.

Maybe it’s better that way. The further away the film is from the book, the more special Ender’s Game will become. The unfilmable novel. The haunting story that read differently to me every year as I grew up. My 23-year-old fingers brush a page and I remember curling up next to it ten years ago, in my own black endless space under the covers. Learning about the worst places my little mind could go.

The reading experience was disturbing and confusing but so incredible. And if the film doesn’t take me there, the words in that ragged old book will pulse even brighter. The mystery and devastating tenderness of Ender’s Game will last beyond any Hollywood folly, long after the buggers come and annihilate us all.