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Lies the Movies Told Me

Films about writers are full of deceit, but films about underdogs offer writers a lesson that matters.

Crawford Kilian 7 Sep

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

He has published 22 books, both fiction and non-fiction, and has written hundreds of articles. He taught at Vancouver City College in 1967-68 and was an instructor at Capilano College from 1968 to 2008. He is interested in books, online media, public health and environmental and climate issues.

Kilian was born in New York City in 1941. He was raised in Los Angeles and Mexico City, and received a bachelor of arts from Columbia University in 1962 and a master's from Simon Fraser University in 1972. He served in the U.S. Army from 1963 to 1965, and became a naturalized Canadian in 1973 after moving to Vancouver in 1967. One of his favourite places is Sointula, a small town off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island.

He lives in North Vancouver. Find him on Twitter @Crof or visit his health blog at H5N1.

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As an apprentice writer 50 years ago, I had unfair advantages. Two of my friends had screenwriter parents, my grandfather was in the movies (you saw him as Mickey Rooney's evil Pap in the 1930s Huckleberry Finn, my uncle was a producer for Disney, and my father migrated from TV engineering to TV scriptwriting.

Writing wasn't some remote calling for superhumans. It was a way to make a living, and even if you were blacklisted, like Dalton Trumbo and Hugo and Jean Butler and my father and stepmother, you could do all right.

I learned several useful lessons:
• The money in writing is in the movies.
• Even if my friends' parents did OK, most movie writers starve.
• Successful movie writers pay too high a price for that success.
• TV writers pay even more.

So I stayed safely down market, writing science-fiction and fantasy novels, where a year's work might earn what a good screenwriter made in a week. What I lost in income, I made up in time not spent in 12-step meetings and divorce court.

But movies can teach fiction writers a lot, much of it at a subconscious level. We may not be able to say why Citizen Kane works the way it does, but our inner writer gets the point: such a story can be told, and should be told.

So it's worth considering what movies are good for writers, and what movies are bad. Let's start with the bad ones.

Lies and the lying writers who write them

Any movie with a writer for a hero is a non-starter. Writers writing about writers are involved in an abstract form of self-abuse; the technical term is wanking.

So forget about The Shining, no matter how much you admire Stephen King and Jack Nicholson. The same with Youngblood Hawke, whose hero's corny name ought to be warning enough. Barton Fink? I didn't need to see it, so I didn't.

Remember Julia, with Jane Fonda showing that to become a hot writer all you needed was to smoke four packs a day while screwing Dashiell Hammett in a beach cottage?

Or Shoot the Moon, where writer Albert Finney expresses his misery about his failed marriage to Diane Keaton by feeding pencils into an automatic sharpener in an office with a million-dollar view of the Pacific?

These phony writers are presented to us by real writers being paid a whacking fortune to lie about themselves and their profession. But aspiring writers watch these expensive fantasies, and they think that's what writing is all about: smoking and walks on the beach and pounding on a typewriter, only now computers are quieter.

(That reminds me of yet another lie: in Stand By Me, Richard Dreyfuss is writing the story of a bunch of stupid boys on a Stone Age 1980s computer with green letters on a black screen. We alternate between Dreyfuss writing the story and stupid boy Kiefer Sutherland knocking mailboxes off their posts. At the end of the movie, Dreyfuss writes some half-assed punch line, smirks in self-admiration at the whole story, and then turns the computer off. Without hitting "Save." From this, Stephen King has made millions.)

Well, what movies might actually do young writers some good, rather than deceiving them into thinking they can get rich without getting off their butts?

The wisdom of the ancients

In general, they won't be recent Hollywood movies. American films are now so bankrupt that they now turn to comic books for their inspiration, and they depend on an infantilized audience for their success. They also depend on highly educated writers and directors who are anxious to show how literate they are, even if their audiences aren't. So they're full of silly-clever homages to Orson Welles or one of their UCLA film-school classmates.

The movies that have influenced me as a writer haven't been about writers, but about people who get a chance to change the world. They argue that even in a world of fools and scoundrels, a good person, even a reluctantly good person, can prevail -- at a high price.

So as a teenager and twenty-something, I watched Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim, and marvelled at how fatally beautiful his men and women found one another. From Christian-Jaque's Fanfan La Tulipe, a 1952 send-up of costume swashbucklers, I learned not to take adventure stories too seriously.

In a 1960s movie theatre on La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles, I watched a Kurosawa festival in which compromised heroes somehow redeemed themselves: the noble general in Hidden Fortress, the dying bureaucrat in Ikiru, and the deadly masterless samurai in Yojimbo.

The theatre is now a Korean church, an ironic comment in itself: the Koreans endured 35 years as a colony run by very nasty Japanese samurai, generals, and bureaucrats.

Korea has recently produced a remarkable version of a popular tale, Chunhyang. An evil provincial governor is overthrown by a determined young woman and her aristocratic husband, whose top exam scores qualify him to oust the governor. As a writer I loved the way it was told by a traditional storyteller, chanting in a modern theatre and bringing history to life. As a teacher, I loved the message: You beat the bad guy and save the gorgeous girl if you do your homework.

A novel in two seconds

Spartacus, written by my mentor Dalton Trumbo, came out in 1960, and I loved it for its epic scale, the wit in both dialogue and violence, and its high-left-wing viewpoint.

But when I saw it again a few years ago, Trumbo's greatest lesson came in one shattering moment. Rebellious Roman slaves have taken over some jerkwater town in southern Italy. Unnoticed in the midst of a mob, a woman turns like a panther on the potbellied man who has owned and used her. It is a whole furious novel in two seconds, driven into the heart like an ice pick into the eye.

A few other Hollywood movies influenced me, but they have usually been adaptations of foreign films or offbeat independent productions. Toshiru Mifune's bare ass in Seven Samurai was too bizarre for American viewers, so they got Yul Brynner's bare scalp in The Magnificent Seven. Again I saw anti-heroes thrust into heroic roles, and accepting the opportunity to do some good at the price of their lives.

Fred Zinneman's High Noon, written by blacklisted screenwriter Carl Foreman, has been read as an allegory of America against a hostile world; it's really about the need to stick to your convictions when your friends are deserting you. That was the same message in John Sturges's Bad Day at Black Rock, in which Spencer Tracy as a crippled war veteran takes on a whole racist town; like Foreman, the film's blacklisted writers were really portraying Hollywood itself.

Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch portrayed the bad guys in Pershing-style cavalry uniforms, while the good guys were a bunch of dope-crazed long-haired killers. As an apprentice writer I drew the moral: a well-tailored bastard is still a bastard, and so is a long-haired bastard. Robert Downey Sr.'s Putney Swope taught me that the media and the politicians they glorified were simply grotesques. John Sayles's Lone Star told me that the past is never over. Blink, and it's the present again.

Karl Marx meets Horatio Alger

I grew up amid left-wing writers who deeply disbelieved in capitalist American values, and tried to propagandize against them in the films they wrote. Yet they prospered mightily from those values: the movies made a lot of money while speaking to beliefs shared by audiences. Even when those writers went to jail, or spent years on the blacklist, they overcame adversity through pluck and luck like any Horatio Alger American hero. But they, and their overseas contemporaries, had sensed a deep public alienation from conventional virtues. They offered the subtly subversive argument that the quest for freedom is its own reward.

The lesson I drew from such movies was that a good person can win in an evil world, but only if he is ready to accept losing. Even if his values are as compromised as those of the Hollywood Reds, or of a Kurosawa samurai or a Truffaut intellectual, he can subvert the powerful and give the powerless a chance for justice. If it costs him his own life, or love, he is ready to pay it. His weapon can be a sword, a pistol, a ballpoint pen, and he can't afford to wait until victory is assured; he must act now.

That is a lesson every writer should learn from the movies.

Crawford Kilian's blog Writing Fiction describes his very slow progress on his latest SF novel.

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