“A fact is not a truth until you love it.”
A while back, I wrote a piece for a Festschrift in honor of Walter Sullivan—Place in American Fiction: Excursions and Explorations. My piece, “Places We Have Come From, Places We Have Been,” argued that my own fiction and poetry, like that of so many other Southern writers of my generation, inevitably included more places than only home bases and home places. I said that, to be honest, we must at least acknowledge the other places, foreign and domestic, that we had lived in and written about, using myself as an example: the academic world I had lived in to earn my keep, places such as Middletown, Connecticut; Rome, Italy; Houston, Texas; Miami, Florida; Columbia, South Carolina; Charleston, West Virginia; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Lexington and Charlottesville, Virginia. Not to mention other places where I lived for a time—York Harbor, Maine, and my days in Trieste (Free Territory of Trieste) and Linz, Austria, courtesy of the U.S. Army. I must also openly confess to having lived some time in New York City. I argued that, for a writer of my time and age, the Armed Services were a deeply rooted place, much the same in Trieste or Linz or anywhere, as well as an institution that we shared and a common memory. It now seems to me that my original piece is still unfinished, that there are other public places that have strongly influenced us, especially the Southern writers who are so often reputed to be (and maybe really are) especially sensitive to the nuances of place.
To begin, it seemed to me that I had inadvertently ignored one place that has had an overwhelming impact not only on a recent generation of writers but on that of the great masters (Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, etc.) who came before us. I am thinking of Hollywood. One cannot escape the impact and influence, the power and the glory, then, of Hollywood just by never having been there. And even if one freely elected to go there, one would inevitably find truth in the often quoted and misattributed remarks about the whole of Los Angeles, of which Hollywood was and is the mythic heart: “There is no there there.” Hollywood was never there. It came to us, wherever we were, in Kissimmee, Florida, or Arab, Alabama, or Outer Mongolia. It came in those days cheaply—a nickel for me until I was 12 years old, when it suddenly doubled to an expensive dime.
Hollywood was, as it remains, a metaphor without a portfolio.
Southerners were often much involved in it, at least the art and craft of it, anyway, never really the corporate-studio business and money side, which was mostly barred to them, from the beginning. Southerner D.W. Griffith codified or invented the vocabulary, the language, the grammar, and the idiom of film. Behind the hoopla and dazzle, that basic grammar has not changed much since that time. Same old hand of cards to be played out. Cut and deal.
Southerners, including our greatest writer, William Faulkner, spent a lot of time and energy working as screenwriters. Southerners have continued to write for the movies; some people, such as James Lee Barrett, Horton Foote, and the late Calder Willingham and Terry Southern, with great success. Their experience has now become part of our experience, a part of our personal mythology. And some of the films based on the experience (history) of the South have been among the most successful of all time—Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind, among others.
Still, they (imaginary inhabitants and managers of this metaphorical home place called Hollywood) have never really understood or been much interested in the South, as we know it. They impose their own vision on our place, and we can take it or leave it. Because the movies are half magic, anyway, any particular place can be summoned up from almost anywhere else, far from the original. With a few little tricks of the trade, Southern California locations can serve just as well for the Mississippi Delta or ancient Rome. With the newest tools and toys such as digitalization, any place can be anywhere else at any time. Authenticity is, in the movies, what it has been from the beginning—a matter of smoke and mirrors, sleight of hand. Now you see it, now you don’t.
As it happens, though—and, thus, appropriately becomes a part of this piece—I have been there myself, even lived there (months, though, not years) among them. I have worked as a screenwriter on several movies for several people and saw three of them turn from “property” into “product,” which was then shown in theaters and for which people seem to have paid money to witness.
I went there, lived and worked among them for a while, in response to a number of vague impulses that I thought of at the time as good reasons: first, that I wanted to find out as much as I would be able to, to learn whatever could be learned from the practical experience of making a movie or two; second, the pay was good, not as extravagant as it is these days, but nevertheless more than generous by literary standards; third, because it was also a family matter. An uncle of mine, Oliver H.P. Garrett, my father’s younger brother and my own godfather, had lived and worked out there for more than 30 years. The best information I can come up with—and solid information about Hollywood’s earlier years, up to the middle of the 20th century, is hard to come by—indicates that he is to be credited with at least 45 screenplays that were produced. Some of them are pretty good—Dead Reckoning, A Farewell to Arms (Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes), The Hurricane, The Man I Married (a.k.a. I Married A Nazi), Manhattan Melodrama, for which he shared an Oscar. That one is the gangster movie that aroused John Dil-linger to come out of hiding to see it, whereupon he was gunned down by the FBI while leaving the theater with the infamous lady in red. There were a fair share of classic turkeys, too. Consider the John Barrymore (1930) version of Moby Dick, the one with a happy ending where they kill the bad white whale and then sail back to Nantucket to live happily ever after. Don’t forget Duel in the Sun (a.k.a. Lust in the Dust) and the improbable adaptation of Sanctuary as The Story of Temple Drake. But don’t fail to mention that his script, written in close coordination with production designer Cameron Menzies, was the final shooting script for Gone With the Wind. Uncle Oliver always interested me. He was a colorful and mysterious family presence. He had died almost a decade before I joined the ranks in Hollywood; but when I was out there, many people remembered him warmly and well and treated me kindly because of him.
When I worked there, I lived as simply and cheaply as I was able to, sometimes with friends, but more often in a cheap motel near the studio with the general aim of bringing home enough ill-gotten loot to justify the effort and my absence.
I went to see Oliver Garrett’s old house, between owners at that time, a very large, rambling, eclectic mansion, an easy-going place, on a hill with tall old trees; and it was fully early Hollywood—a fine swimming pool, a tennis court, places where (I was told) people such as Chaplin and Garbo and a lot of the European contingent came regularly to relax. Oliver was away in the service during most of World War II, as he had been during World War I; otherwise, he made his home there. I could imagine him, a tall, handsome, and athletic man, on the courts or in the pool, and his glamorous, sometimes famous friends at play; but I did not feel any deep connection with the place. No sense of roots, either—not physically. To be and to feel rootless are part of the essential character of the place. Best I can make of it, many others who came and went to and from Hollywood felt pretty much the same way.
In some ways, Faulkner seems to have understood the place and the life better than most of the others, certainly better than most of us who came along afterward. He once told a younger writer (Shelby Foote), who was headed to Hollywood for gainful employment, “Don’t take the work too seriously. Take those people very seriously.” Best advice I can imagine.
I always wanted to write my very own “Hollywood novel,” but I never quite got around to it. What became of the Hollywood experience (so far) has been a few fairly light and slight short stories; a poem or two, not really about Hollywood but about the movies; and a couple or three critical essays. I cannot recall working on or writing anything more, other than the screenplays I had been hired to do; but I must have brought along with me some early drafts of a novel set in a mountain town (roughly Spruce Pines and Burnsville conflated) in western Northern Carolina—Do Lord, Remember Me. I worked on that many evenings in my motel room, in my blessed spare time.
I was out there once during the brief days of what we have come to call the Cuban Missile Crisis—which, at the time and in that place, struck me as an elaborate publicity stunt perhaps scripted by somebody like Nathaniel West. I have not changed my mind. We were in production, shooting a movie at the moment. We had to stop everything, because our star vanished, fled into the desert to a secret cave he had prepared against the day of what was still called Atomic Warfare, before we established the cheery euphemism Nuclear Exchange. It took us a few days to find his lair.
Meantime, across the street from my motel was a large supermarket where crowds of agitated people of all kinds in all kinds of costumes and funny clothes came swarming to pick the place clean. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, not a single solitary thing—a pack of gum, or roll of toilet paper, a Scotch-tape dispenser, a can of sardines—left on the shelves by the end of the first day. A few days later, to be sure, the same folks came swarming back to life to try to return all their impulse purchases for refunds.
A word of advice: Try not to be in Hollywood or the greater Los Angeles area if and when there is a Nuclear Exchange.
From those days, that time in the early 1960’s, I keep only some stories in memory, unwritten stories, untold tales and anecdotes. I sometimes imagine my experience of Hollywood as one of those penny gum-ball machines, a multicolored cargo of little anecdotes . . .
Here are a couple of Carl Sandburg stories. Why not? The aforementioned James Lee Barrett, Southern screenwriter at large in Brentwood, young and gifted and lucky, was under contract, together with a cowriter, Carl Sandburg (yes), to write the script for the biblical epic, the grandiose and hugely expensive film The Greatest Story Ever Told. Truth is, until very late in the process, Barrett never met Sandburg or read a word the poet had written on or about the script. Then, one fine day, Barrett was in his office at the studio typing up some additional dialogue for Jesus and the Disciples when he felt a presence behind him—somebody standing very close by, just over his right shoulder. He paused. A throat, not Barrett’s, cleared itself. He slowly turned his swivel chair around. Found himself looking directly at the white-haired famous head and red face of Carl Sandburg. Sandburg raised his right arm, reached past Barrett, and pointed, with an emphatic tapping index finger, at the typed lines of dialogue on the paper.
“Son,” Sandburg said. “That ain’t the way the Lord talks.”
Barrett glanced quickly at the page, ready to learn from the master how the Lord really does talk. Looked back to Carl Sandburg only to discover that the old poet had (done) gone, vanished into thin air.
Later, with his script behind him and with production in process, Barrett had a party in honor of his mysterious (and fabulously well-paid) collaborator, to which half the “hot” names of Hollywood were cordially invited. They came early and stayed late. So did the old poet. Came early and partied until around two in the morning. Sandburg was then about to leave. Barrett, thinking it would be a nice and easy way to end the whole affair and send them on their merry ways, asked Sandburg if he would be so kind as to favor them with a reading of one of his poems.
“Certainly, with pleasure,” Sandburg said, producing a book from somewhere. The book was his celebrated book-length poem The People, Yes. He began with line one and read slowly and steadily and with feeling to the very last line, by which time dawn was breaking over Brentwood, and half the “hot” names of Hollywood were sound asleep, some snoring, on James Lee Barrett’s living-room floor.
The subtext of the Hollywood story for American writers (and everybody else, as it happens) is somewhat less amusing. It tells us how this place, which is in truth no place like home, no “real” place at all, came to haunt our consciousness, meanwhile infecting our culture with the dread (venereal?) disease of celebrity and by plaguing us with doubts and skepticism concerning not just the validity but the reality of our own simple mundane experiences—one of which is, of course, a sense of place. We are invited to believe in the image and to doubt the reality of everything else.
What once was “real” is now, more and more, a movie (or TV) set with actors performing there. It becomes somehow acceptable, anyway not obviously shameful, for our public figures to play assigned roles, to speak their scripted lines (sound bytes) and to “act out” their apparent concerns.
The culture of grand illusions, sparked and sponsored by the global powers of Hollywood, is everywhere around us. Anyone familiar with the Commonwealth of Virginia is well aware of the “edge cities” all around the dripping honeypot of our nation’s capital, huge agglomerations of high-rise steel and concrete and glass where more and more people contrive to live. Places such as Tyson’s Corner, itself (in my lifetime) with only a gas station or two then and, as I remember, a large general store. Traveling north or south on US-29, with our young children, we used to stop there for a Coke and to look at the shelves of junk in the store. These are now imaginary cities—movie sets.
I look at Faulkner’s work, as I also look back at the last things by Fitzgerald, with an awareness that, in many ways, working for the movies and movie people served to free them up from many inherited inhibitions of the 19th-century novel as it was evolving. They learned new things that they could do with prose, things taken directly from the craft of making movies. Just so, they learned how to distinguish and define ways by which prose (or poetry), printed words on a page, can also do things well beyond the grace of cinematic art. And just so, all the writers that I know of, who have trailed the puissant pike among Hollywood’s rabble of foot soldiers, have been changed and influenced, and not always for the ill, by the practical Hollywood experience.
Could we say, then, that the triumph of Hollywood has been so complete that there is now an entertainment market for “reality” shows on television (in which, to be sure, the shows have a cast of characters and are “scripted” and then carefully photographed and edited)? One is told (though one need not believe it) that a significant percentage of the viewing public believe that The West Wing was, in fact, our real federal government. Laugh tracks have all but replaced human laughter. Meanwhile, documentary films, acting on the honor system and given a pass for accuracy, create propaganda.
Since our ostensible subject is the influence of all this show business (“Hollywood”) on American writers and writing, what can we say to that point? First, that the powerful and simplistic narratives of film and the routine way that, during the collaborative process of production, the basic elements of narrative are exploded (or imploded), then elaborately rearranged into new forms and structures, have radically changed our way of thinking about the creation of narratives in general. Writers of my generation have seen more movies than they have read the books that they ought to be reading. We, and the youngsters barking behind us, may or may not be more “visual” than earlier generations, but our way of telling a story in print is most often cinematic; or, by the same token, deliberately anticinematic.
It remains to be said that that same experience has, for better and worse, inspired maybe as many as a thousand “Hollywood novels” since the early days of Tom Swift and His Wizard Camera (1912). This, in turn, has morphed into a great many movies about movie making, some few of them—Fellini’s 8 1/2, The Last Tycoon, Adaptation, etc.—quite worthy and wonderful. But that is another story for another day.