Monthly Archives: September 2014


September 27th, 2014 2 Comments

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An adult, character-driven comedy-drama without special effects, action scenes or raw adolescent humor?


From Warner Bros?


The studio that practically invented the tent pole picture?


How did this happen?


We can only guess.


All I can say is that occasionally the system breaks down, and a terrific film with something on its mind manages to slip through.


Heads will certainly roll over a screw-up of this magnitude.


The film in question is This Is Where I Leave You.


Even the title breaks the studio rules, inviting cheap shots from critics like “This is where I leave this film.”


I’d advise you to stay with it…to the very end.


What’s it about?


Well, there’s another problem. The story can’t be reduced to a single sentence or phrase—a “logline” as the studios like to call them. It has no “high concept” for the marketing team to build a campaign around.


It focuses on Judd Altman (Jason Bateman), a play-it-safe sort of guy whose comfortable world falls apart when he comes home early to surprise his wife on her birthday and discovers her in bed with his boss.


That’s shattering blow number one.


Number two comes not long after when his father dies.


Number three is a summons home from his widowed mother, who insists that he and his siblings hold a week-long shiva to mourn the departed.


Jason, with neither wife nor job, dreads the idea of being locked up in the same house with the other members of his completely dysfunctional family, all of them as messed up as he is, none of them capable of getting along with the others.


But Mother’s will be done.


She is played by Jane Fonda, who gives by far her best performance since her return to acting. An oversexed celebrity analyst, she is the author of a best-selling guide to raising children, a guide that focuses on her own family and reveals such humiliating secrets as the adolescent promiscuity of her daughter Wendy (Tina Fey) and the fact that her youngest son (Adam Driver) used to treat his penis like “a Tootsie-Roll.”


And so it goes.


One colorful, outrageous, eccentric character after another.


I can almost hear you saying, “Great. Another dysfunctional family reunion story. How many times have I seen that?”


Trust me.


You’ve never seen this story before.


It will constantly surprise you.


You will expect, of course, to have the movie end with multiple reconciliations and the resolution of its many conflicts, with the reassurance that they all lived happily ever after.


But in This Is Where I Leave You, they don’t.


They’ve grown, they have hope, they’ve called an uneasy truce with each other, but for every problem solved, a new one has arisen, and they leave their hometown with almost as many challenges as they brought to it when they arrived.


Outrageous, hilarious, and often very moving, This Is Where I Leave You is not a perfect film, but it is a thoughtful meditation on love—how hard it is to find, how hard it is to sustain, how impossible it is to understand.


My hat is off to director Shawn Levy, who’s come a long way from the Night at the Museum series, to writer Jonathan Tropper who so brilliantly adapted his own novel to the screen, and to the amazing cast.


And my condolences to the Warner executive who shepherded this film through the system to the screen. He or she is probably already looking for another job. There is simply no excuse for good taste in today’s corporate studio world.


An Afterword


I had the privilege of working with Jason Bateman years ago on a cable film that was supposed to be called Blood Brothers but somehow ended up A Taste for Killing. It starred Jason, Jim Cameron favorite Michael Biehn, and E.T.’s Henry Thomas. Michael had the flashiest role, but Jason was the stand-out…and a total pro–warm, friendly to everyone on the set, always prepared, ready to jump from reading Grisham’s The Firm between set-ups to complete immersion in his character the instant he was called for a shot. He was terrific then and he’s better now. Those of you who’d like the full story of the making of the film might want to check out the chapter I devote to it in Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody. Both the book and the film are available on Amazon.


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September 24th, 2014 2 Comments

Ernest Hemingway is the Neil Simon of literary novelists.




I’ve said it, and I’m glad.


Well, I may be overstating my case a bit.


I have to admit that he did, in fact, change the face of American literature.


Taking his cue from Chekhov and Sherwood Anderson, he tossed plot out the window and gave the readers of his stories slices of life in place of conventional narrative.


Inspired by his work as journalist, he stripped language bare, cutting away adjectives, adverbs and other modifiers, leaving his readers only the bare bones, or as he himself put it, “the thing itself.”


Following the wise advice of that old fool Polonius, he used “indirection to find direction out,” suggesting or implying meanings that he never stated, his words nothing more than the tip of an iceberg with four-fifths of its substance lying beneath the surface.


Without Hemingway, there would have been no such thing as a New Yorker story, no Raymond Carver, no. . .well, you get the picture.

Consider “Hill like White Elephants.”


No more than four or five pages in length, it is an objective account of an American couple having a beer at a train stop in Spain.   A slice of life without any plot.


The style is as bare and unadorned as the hills that give the story its title: “The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white.”


The unnamed man and woman are having a conversation that begins with her observation that hills look like white elephants, but it quickly descends into conflict, bitterness, and irony. And although Hemingway never explains their situation, never uses the word “abortion,” it’s clear that she is pregnant and wants to have the baby growing inside her, while he finds the idea of a child and the responsibility it entails abhorrent, as abhorrent as she finds the notion of aborting it.


They have gotten off one train and are about to board another. The romance of their relationship is ending. Ahead…nothing but pain and recrimination.


And there is, of course, that wonderful dialogue in which the characters appear to be saying one thing but are, in fact, saying quite another. When the man tells the woman he’s never seen a white elephant, she replies, “No, you wouldn’t have.” And in those words, you have a capsule characterization of the man, and you know exactly where their relationship stands at this moment.


Then there’s the moment when she decides she’d like to try Anis del Toro, a drink she’s never had before. After a sip, she observes that it tastes of licorice: “Everything tastes of licorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.”   She, of course, is talking not about drinks but about their relationship and what it’s come to.


That is the glory of Hemingway dialogue: its indirection.


Why, then, is his dialogue so often and so easily subject to parody?


Why are there so many “Bad Hemingway” contests around the world even today, more than half a century after his death?


Because it is so mannered.


And because every Hemingway character sounds like every other Hemingway character.


I discovered, during my story analyst and story editor days when I read literally thousands of screenplays, that the best screenwriters, like Hemingway, make their dialogue indirect…but that they, unlike Hemingway, give each character a distinctive voice.


No two characters should sound alike. Each should have a voice that reflects their background, their experience, their values. With the best dialogue, a reader needs no character labels to know who is talking: he can hear the character’s identity in his speech.


This is where Hemingway’s dialogue comes up short. All of his characters sound the same. In A Moveable Feast, even Scott Fitzgerald ends up sounding like a Hemingway character when he consults his friend Ernest about the size of his penis. Hemingway tells him he could have consulted a doctor, and Fitzgerald supposedly says, “I didn’t want to. I wanted you to tell me truly.”


And that is why I see Hemingway as the Neil Simon of literary novelists. Yes, Neil Simon’s plays are fun and funny. Every character is witty. Every character makes us laugh. And every line of their dialogue is interchangeable. With perhaps the single exception of The Odd Couple, his plays are filled with characters who sound exactly like one other.


And so are the stories and novels of Ernest Hemingway.














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September 16th, 2014 6 Comments

At the age of seventeen, I—not unlike the patients in the brilliant Robin Williams/Robert De Niro film—experienced an awakening.  It was an awakening to the wonders of literary fiction, an awakening brought about by my reading of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms.


I read it, and then I read about it…in a book by someone named Carlos Baker, a book called Hemingway:  The Writer as Artist.  This led to more Hemingway, to Steinbeck, to Fitzgerald, to Faulkner, and eventually to graduate work at Princeton University, where one of my teachers was none other than…Carlos Baker!


Charlie Scribner, one of Baker’s classmates when he himself had been a student at Princeton, had recently invited Carlos to write the official biography of Hemingway, and Carlos, in his turn, had invited me and three or four other graduate students to join him in his researches—in a course called “Hemingway Biography.”


I couldn’t believe my great good luck.  First hand contact with the raw materials of the life of America’s great sportsman/adventurer/writer—the man, perhaps more than any other, I’d liked to have been!


It began well.  Carlos handed each of us one of the scrapbooks that Ernest’s mother Grace Hemingway had prepared to chronicle the early life of her son—photos, letters, souvenirs.  Our assignment?  To write a chapter of the biography based upon the materials preserved in each scrapbook.


I was beyond excited…and nervous as could be.  I told no one, not my closest friend, that I had in my possession one of these priceless artifacts—in my mind, as precious as the Dead Sea Scrolls.


It was the first of many assignments and led to extensive work with letters to and from Hemingway, transcribed interviews, and much, much more.


It was also the beginning of the end of my infatuation with the man and the myth he had created about himself.


I learned that he was dreadful, destructive, a devil of a human being.


The first evidence turned up in a letter he’d written to a friend named Ernest Walsh.  Walsh was the editor one of those little magazines that flourished in Paris in the twenties and had been, as I recall, the first to publish anything Hemingway had written.


In other words, he’d made the mistake of trying to help Hemingway, and Hemingway was determined to punish him for it.  Why?  To show that he, hard-boiled, hairy-chested Ernest Hemingway had made it on his own.


Walsh was dying of tuberculosis and knew it.  Hemingway knew it too.


The letter in question begins this way:  “Dear Ernest…Isn’t life wonderful?  I want to live to be a hundred, don’t you?”


This became the pattern of the writer’s life.  He would go after anyone who helped him, anyone who befriended him, anyone whose literary reputation threatened to rival his own.


There was, of course, Scott Fitzgerald, who helped him edit The Sun Also Rises into the ground-breaking work it became, who recommended him to his own editor Max Perkins and thereby secured him a deal with Scribners, the deal that led to his meteoric career.


His public attacks on Fitzgerald began in the magazine version of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” where the dying writer/protagonist is meditating on the rich:  “He remembered poor Scott Fitzgerald and his romantic awe of them and how he had started a story once that began, ‘The rich are different from you and me.’  And how some one had said to Scott, Yes, they have more money.  But that was not humorous to Scott.  He thought they were a special glamorous race and when he found they weren’t it wrecked him just as much as any other things that wrecked him.”


Hemingway continued his attack on his former friend long after Fitzgerald’s death, in A Moveable Feast, his memoir of his days in Paris.  The chapter in question, “A Matter of Measurements,” purports to be a account of Fitzgerald’s sexual anxieties.  If true, it is beneath contempt—a shocking, inexcusable betrayal of a confidence.  If false, it is nothing short of libelous.


And so it went.  John Dos Passos, Archibald MacLeish, Gertrude Stein, and many, many others.


His destructive behavior was not, however, directed solely at other writers.  He was non-discriminatory.  In fact, he saved many of his best shots for members of his own family, inviting a teenaged prostitute whose services he enjoyed to meet his fourth wife Mary at the Finca in Cuba, bringing his African mistress into the tent he shared with Mary during one of his safaris to the then Dark Continent, or telling the youngest and most troubled of his three sons that the boy was responsible for the death of his own mother.


In Hemingway’s best work, the most important human value is emotional discipline—the ability to maintain a tight, if tiny, island of order in the midst of the meaningless chaos of life.


He called it “grace under pressure.”  But he himself was utterly incapable of it.


My point?


Never confuse the art and the artist.


For me, it’s been a lesson hard learned, for like Holden Caufield, if a book knocks me out, I wish its author were a terrific friend of mine and that I could call him up on the phone whenever I felt like it.


Don’t do it!



AN AFTERWARD:  Some of you may be wondering what this post about a literary figure is doing on a website devoted to movies.  My defense?  Art of all kinds and artists of every sort share many things in common.  Observations about literature or painting or music often apply to the other arts as well, especially in the case of film, which is an amalgam of all the arts. 


So…get used to these tangents.


And be prepared for another diatribe against Hemingway, this one to do with the dialogue for which he is famous, dialogue that has influenced not just subsequent writers of fiction but screenwriters as well. 

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