My love affair with movies may have begun with, though not necessarily at, the Paramount Theater in my hometown in Virginia. It’s no accident that the Paramount shared its name with a Hollywood studio; in the early days of the movies, studios owned theaters throughout the country, a practice eventually stopped because of antitrust laws. The Paramount in my hometown was built in 1931, when theaters were palaces, or anyway designed to resemble palaces, so as to treat the little people, then in the grips of the Great Depression, to a fleeting sense of grandeur. The grandeur of the Paramount had dimmed by the time I first saw a movie there forty years later, though the marquee alone, with its hundreds of blinking bulbs, thrilled me as a child whenever I glimpsed it from the backseat of my parents’ car. It made me think of the nightclub marquees I’d seen in Elvis Presley movies on T.V., quick establishing shots that cut to Elvis performing onstage for girls who, driven wild by the music, spontaneously danced on tabletops and spent the night in jail after the inevitable brawl. There were no such clubs where I grew up, as far as I knew; the Paramount was as close as I could get. From the ticket booth, just below the marquee, a long, wide corridor with a slight incline led to the concession stand and, just beyond that, the theater, and to walk the length of the corridor, ascending step by step, was to have a growing sense of anticipation. The carpeting was dark red, almost burgundy. The only light came from tiered chandeliers with dangling glass beads, and, on either wall, there were gilded-framed murals of powdered-wigged, eighteenth-century aristocrats, shades of Gainsborough. In later years, before the Paramount went out of business (it’s since been restored and reopened), tickets were sold inside at the concession stand, where, when I was child, posters of movie stars were sold: Brigitte Bardot in black leather on a chopper, Raquel Welch in the fur bikini she wore as a cavewoman in One Million Years BC. Victoria Vetri, a Playboy Playmate of the Year, likewise appeared in a fur bikini as a cavewoman in When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, the first movie I remember seeing at the Paramount; and Vetri, as well as Welch, stirred things in me that, as a Christian child, I wasn’t sure were right with God.
Then, when I was in middle school, I decided that God was a myth. I had cousins who were missionaries. My grandfather was a deacon at his church. My great-grandfather had been a preacher. A declaration of atheism in a family like mine was unthinkable, and that was only the beginning of a period in which I was routinely picked up by the police for stealing, vandalizing, truancy. My parents were perplexed. What had happened to the promising boy who’d once spoken on the radio about history, who’d won ribbons at art shows for his paintings, who’d written and performed a play that received notice in the local newspaper? He was lonely, for one thing. Around the time he hit puberty, his classmates decided he was “weird” and largely shunned him. Meanwhile, he was bored by school, bored by his town, and bored by pop culture, which allegedly catered to people his age. The bold, groundbreaking bands of the sixties had long since ceded to the flaccid Top Forty of the seventies, including numerous covers of fifties hits (Chuck Berry’s “Back in the USA” as performed by Linda Ronstadt is a particularly egregious example), and T.V. was dominated by puerile sitcoms like Happy Days, which, despite being set in the fifties, featured feather-haired actors in bellbottoms.
In fact, there was widespread nostalgia for the fifties at the time, and it began, if memory serves, with American Graffiti, the brainchild of George Lucas, who would soon direct another exercise in pre-sixties nostalgia, Star Wars. Even punk rock, which broke out in 1977, the year Star Wars was released, longed, in a sense, for the fifties, but in a very different way than Happy Days or American Graffiti (which was technically set in 1962). Rather, punk palpated the danger of the fifties, as embodied by rock & roll, the scourge of respectable citizens in the days of Ike and Mamie. Punk blamed the decline of rock & roll on the youth of the sixties, the hippies in particular, and the philosophy of punk picked up where the hippies left off and added what the hippies left out. Only the most sentimental child could ever have imagined that “love” and “peace” could amount to the basis for a revolution, or, once such notions had proved ineffectual, take up arms against the state. Punk’s protest was of the aesthetic, not the literal, sort. No marching in the streets, thank you very much. Aggression, from the start, was frankly admitted but confined to cabaret.
Punk was a late, and badly needed, alternative to the bland pop culture of the seventies. Unfortunately, it didn’t last. The media dismissed it as a nihilistic British fad soon to implode, and when the media, seemingly proved right, declared punk dead, it went underground, submerged where no small-town kid in Virginia had a prayer of finding it—not without guidance. I lacked that guidance. I likewise lacked guidance when it came to books. There were writers, such as Kerouac, who undoubtedly would’ve appealed to me as a teenager, but I knew nothing about them. I read a lot as a child, but by the time I was in middle school I had the same complaints about books that many, if not most, kids have now: They’re so dull, so boring; I can’t concentrate. My attention span had been fried by T.V., which I watched constantly, even though I hated it.
But movies could hold my attention, and the seventies were a great time for American movies. I saw every new release I could, just because it was something to do, though I initially favored horror movies, as is fairly common with middle-school kids. The changes in the adolescent body, changes that involve streaming blood and goopy ejaculations and hair growing where it never grew before, are mirrored by bloody, goopy, hairy movie monsters. They’re freaks, just as many teens experience themselves as freaks, including the seemingly well-adjusted, who strictly adhere to the draconian codes of adolescent society, since to do otherwise is to risk being viewed as freaks. But horror movies hold special significance for kids who’ve been branded by others as freaks, as happened with me, and for boys there’s an element of establishing bravery by facing, without flinching, scenes of gore that would’ve caused nightmares a few years before. In a strange way, horror movies are a preparation for manhood, if manhood is still measured by fearlessness, as I believe remains the case. Boys innately recognize that they may one day be called upon to act in emergency situations in which timidity can cost time and lives, situations that require brute strength, and that can’t be willed away by the wishful thinking of the post-feminist enlightened. Gender parity has its limits.
This is not to say that women are timid or they lack brute strength or that men can’t be as complex emotionally as women. In fact, men onscreen in the seventies had never been more emotionally complex, following the precedent set by Marlon Brando in 1951, when he appeared as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. Brando, as Stanley, was crude, yet canny. He exploded in rages, yet he openly wept. He was domineering, yet childishly dependent on his wife, whom he swept off to bed after bellowing Hey, Stella! in Streetcar’s most indelible scene, and when Stella was seen to wake in the morning, it was blatantly clear that she and Stanley had rocked the bedsprings hard. Brando was carnal in a way that no man in movies had ever quite been, a pagan in a world of Christians, an animal and proud of it. He paved the road for the sixties more than any other male celebrity of his time, save for Elvis Presley and Jack Kerouac, and by the seventies his slice-of-life style of acting, derived from his study of the Method, flourished on the American screen, as practiced by such stars as Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, James Caan, and Warren Beatty. These were the actors, among others, who made going to the movies worthwhile, I decided, and not simply a way to pass the time. I had outgrown horror movies. They served a purpose at twelve that they couldn’t serve at fourteen. An oft-quoted passage from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthians strikes me as relevant: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, thought like a child, and reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up my childish ways.”
And so I gave up childish movies. I wasn’t yet a man, though manhood was imminent, and I wanted to see movies that reflected concerns that would soon be mine, and in some ways were already mine, with my sexual longings, precocious sense of alienation, and fears about the future as the grownup world pressed ever closer. I wanted role models. I didn’t lack them in life, but I didn’t admire the adults I knew in life the way I admired certain actors who showed me by example what it meant to be a complex man, as I figured I was fated to be. I started seeing older movies I couldn’t see on T.V., movies featuring my favorite actors, at the local repertory cinema (there was only one), sometimes seeing them over and over, night after night, the youngest person in the audience. Robert Altman’s adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye was one of those movies; I was so taken with Elliott Gould’s offbeat performance as Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s recurring gumshoe, that I wore a rumpled suit and tie for a week in homage. The Last Picture Show was another movie I saw again and again at the repertory cinema; I strongly identified with Jeff Bridges and Timothy Bottoms, backwater Texans both smitten with Cybill Shepherd, the beautiful blonde who spurns them, just as I’d been spurned by a beautiful blonde classmate. Shepherd went on to spurn Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver, a movie I saw when it was first released, asking an adult stranger to accompany me inside the theater, since Taxi Driver was rated R and my parents wouldn’t allow me to see R-rated movies. There was no carding at the repertory cinema, which was owned by progressive eccentrics; and so when, say, Shampoo played, I would, night after night, slip out of my bedroom window, run to the nearby theater, and walk home feeling brokenhearted for Warren Beatty, who’d been dumped by Julie Christie in the movie’s final scene as Paul Simon cooed sadly on the soundtrack. It never occurred to me that Beatty’s womanizing character was “shallow,” as my high-school guidance counselor once characterized him, surprised that I’d seen Shampoo in the first place. “He got what he deserved,” she told me. But nobody deserved to get dumped by Julie Christie, and I now think my guidance counselor was moralistic and so may have missed the point of the movie: much like America at the end of the sixties, Christie’s character pines for stability after a walk on the wild side, and she opts for a wealthy Republican businessman over Beatty’s character, who personifies the swinging sixties and realizes too late that the party is over. As if the point could be overlooked, most of Shampoo takes place on November 5, 1968, the day that Richard Nixon, Eisenhower’s erstwhile number-two man, was voted into the White House.
All of the movies I’ve cited as adolescent favorites were rooted in recent history. The Long Goodbye, an updating of film noir, sardonically commented on the changes in American culture since the heyday of tough-guy pulp. The Last Picture Show, set in the early fifties, dealt with the fraying of American communal ties, in part due to the arrival of television. Robert DeNiro’s character in Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle, was a disenfranchised Vietnam vet; and the Vietnam War was a marginal character in Shampoo, literally tuned out by its human characters until it became the catalyst for the movie’s conclusion. Clearly, I liked movies about history (though, as a kid, I didn’t believe recent history counted as history), just as I liked movies about sex (though the sexual content didn’t have to be overt to win me over).
Hence I was baffled by the phenomenal success of Star Wars, in which sex in no way figured, except perhaps for the chaste kiss given by Princess Leia to Luke Skywalker, who, though older than me at the time I saw Star Wars, seemed unburdened by lust. Pure at heart, Luke sought The Force—that is, God—and when he found it, he at last became effective in a holy war in which he served as a fighter pilot, blowing up other pilots of futuristic flying machines. Yet Star Wars was set a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, so that anything in it was only futuristic in the sense that, on Earth, it hadn’t yet been seen, except, less impressively, in comic books and Saturday-matinee serials from the thirties and forties. Apparently, the post-Hiroshima fifties were already too fraught for George Lucas, who correctly guessed that Americans longed for pre-sixties “innocence,” before the U.S. was divided by an unjust war, racial and generational conflict, unanswered questions regarding the assassinations of key leaders, and the challenges posed to traditional morality by the sexual revolution. Star Wars was presexual; where its source material, the comic books and Saturday-matinee serials of the postwar era and before, featured unwittingly kinky bondage scenarios and suggestively attired women, the body of Princess Leia was covered in loose-fitting white from neck to toe, while her breasts were bound and moved, symbolically, to the mounds of hair that framed her face—look here, not there! Meanwhile, among thousands upon thousands of young actresses who could’ve played Princess Leia—indeed, the majority of the Star Wars cast was, in 1977, unknown—Lucas settled on Carrie Fisher, a real-life Hollywood princess whose famous parents, celebrated for being squeaky clean, had undergone a very public divorce after her father took up with the slutty (in the minds of the Eisenhower-era bourgeoisie) Elizabeth Taylor, and Carrie Fisher’s biggest role, before Star Wars, was as the Beverly Hills teenager who nonchalantly propositioned Warren Beatty in Shampoo with: “You wanna fuck?” Did George Lucas take none of that into account when he cast Carrie Fisher? Possibly, though I find it hard to believe. Rather, I think it provided part of the reactionary Star Wars subtext. Behold, in white befitting a nun, a girl whose father slept with a slut, a girl who became an onscreen slut when she seduced, in another movie, that well-known slut Warren Beatty. There are no sluts in this movie, including Han Solo, who, as a pirate, should be a slut, but he isn’t. Everyone in this movie is innocent, except for the faceless bad guys and, especially, the main bad guy who’s covered in black and voiced by a Negro—and even he’s not a slut. He just wants to take over the universe, which isn’t your universe so don’t be too afraid; this all happened a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. But he doesn’t want to take over his universe because he covets choice females, as do power-hungry males on Earth; he just wants to take it over because he’s evil. Evil is bad, but you can defeat it if you believe in God and you’re innocent. You are innocent, even if you’re an adult. Weren’t you much happier when you were a child? Yes you were, and you can be a child again. It’s as easy as cheering for the good guys!
And adults did. Adults swarmed to see Star Wars, as I’m sure they didn’t swarm to see Saturday-matinee serials in the good old days. Nothing about Star Wars interested me—its mysticism, its sexlessness, its ahistoricism—though I could understand why kids younger than I was might enjoy it. But grownups? For me, it was a bit like being at a party thrown by a ten-year-old and watching the adult chaperones participate in games like Simon Says with as much, if not more, enthusiasm as any kid.
I didn’t see Star Wars at the Paramount, incidentally. It opened at the first multiplex in my hometown: a charmless, red-brick box built not long before the Paramount seemingly closed its doors for good. They were certainly closed when, at eighteen, I left Virginia to study acting, first in Washington, D.C., and then in New York City. It was no longer enough for me to simply watch movies; I wanted to make movies, to follow in the footsteps of Brando and his artistic progeny, to go from fan to fellow.
One of my teachers in New York, Mira Rostova, had coached Montgomery Clift, who was almost as revered in the fifties as Brando. Another of my teachers, Frank Corsaro, became the artistic director of the Actors Studio, the Method mecca, where, every Friday morning, I observed sessions. I did Shakespeare Off-Off Broadway, appeared in numerous short films directed by students at NYU and Columbia University, and shot my first professional movie role in Nova Scotia as one of the leads in a low-budget thriller. I’m afraid I drove the directors of that movie (there were two of them) crazy with my Method affectations. But I was constantly, even when I wasn’t performing, trying to improve as an actor, to build up a bank of knowledge and experience in order to better play the challenging parts I was sure were forthcoming. I started to read for the first time since I was a child, having been told that all actors should be familiar with books and literature, and of course I continued my film education, discovering the work of European masters like Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, and Godard at Manhattan repertory cinemas. The VHS player, which became a household staple shortly after I arrived in New York, caused most repertory houses to close, however, so that later, when I moved to Los Angeles, I was a constant presence at Jerry’s Reruns, an independent video store with an impressive stock of old and rare titles. It wasn’t uncommon for me to rent five or six movies at Jerry’s and head home to watch them all, back to back, in a single sitting, though some I watched for research purposes since I was now being paid to write screenplays. This began when I dashed off a screenplay for Roger Corman, the so-called King of the Bs, who was so pleased with the result that he asked me to write another script, and another, and another. Soon other producers were hiring me as a screenwriter, and every script I wrote included a role for me, though I was seldom permitted to play the role. My presence, as the screenwriter, was an irritant for many filmmakers, as if they were raising a child I’d fathered, which they wanted to believe they’d fathered, a fiction they could only maintain if I weren’t, literally, in the picture. Thanks, but no thanks, for the DNA. Here’s a little money. Now scram.
I expected a rough ride in the movie business, even before I left Virginia, so my growing disappointment with the business had nothing to do with personal hardship. Rather, the kind of movies I loved—smart, mature movies with complex characters—were, year by year, becoming rarer and rarer, so that finally they were all but extinct. The critical and financial success of sex, lies and videotape had kicked off an independent-film boom, but the new generation of “serious” filmmakers wasn’t up to the task of sustaining it. There were, naturally, exceptions—Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarrantino, Todd Solondz—but “independent film” quickly became a genre unto itself, with its uninspired and uninspiring mise-en-scène, self-consciously quirky characters, and an ironic stance on everything except, perhaps, politics, which were typically of the earnest progressive sort. This genre was a smash at Sundance, but it didn’t register, by and large, with mainstream audiences. I sympathized. I didn’t much like it, either.
But I equally disliked the new breed of blockbuster favored by mainstream audiences as well as by movie-industry professionals. I was always sure, as a teenager, that the industry was full of people like me, people who shared my taste in movies and much else, but what I met instead in L.A. were a great many people who loved fantasy and science fiction; who cared little or nothing about film history, or history, period; who read comic books, if they read anything at all; who preferred gadgets and all things technical to flesh-and-blood encounters. I met a great many nerds, in other words, people who hadn’t progressed emotionally far beyond middle school, as reflected in a sensibility that, to my expanding surprise, had been adopted by the population at large, regardless of age. Jocks and sorority queens, gangbangers and headbangers, worker bees and corporate warriors—maybe they weren’t nerds and never had been, but they adored their gadgets, comic-book heroes, and fantasy and science-fiction movies as much as any socially and sexually awkward twelve-year-old. Before Jerry’s video store closed, I would regularly, while driving to it, pass the Vista Theater at the junction of Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards, where I saw long lines of people in their twenties, thirties, forties, fifties and older waiting to buy tickets for moves like Spiderman, X-Men, Batman Begins, for movies based on the Harry Potter books or the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, for feature-length cartoons. The adults in those lines easily outnumbered the teens and tweens. Of course I knew that kids alone couldn’t account for the enormous success of movies made for kids, but it was one thing to read about box-office figures and another to see the grownups, unaccompanied by kids, who inflated them.
Still, criticism wasn’t permissible, as I learned firsthand one night at a party where people in their thirties and forties were discussing the just-released Iron Man. Those who hadn’t seen Iron Man queried those who had. Oh, it was great, they were told; it was fantastic. Someone asked if I was going to see it, and I said simply, testing the waters, “I don’t see movies made for children.” A silence of shock and palpable irritation followed. One or two people nervously laughed. Except for that laughter, it was a bit like declaring myself an atheist to my family all those years ago. I never overtly criticized anyone for wanting to see, or having seen, Iron Man, but the effect was the same, and it’s the same, I’ve observed, when technology is criticized. No one wants to be considered a dinosaur, a party pooper, so that any misgivings are usually voiced after a preamble that, as I’ll burlesque it here, goes something like: “Now, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. I think computers and cellphones and the iPod are all just wonderful! I couldn’t live without them! But don’t you think maybe, possibly, we’re all a little, well, alienated? Probably not, I know! But maybe, possibly, if I can go on for a minute without giving you the impression that I’m against those things, which I’m definitely not…!” Adults weren’t so timid in the past, but, then, the children of the past didn’t hold the cultural power they do now. I’m reminded of “It’s a Good Life,” a 1961 episode of The Twilight Zone, in which a despotic boy with godlike powers, including the ability to read minds, threatens to banish to “the cornfield” anyone who thinks of contradicting him. (Interestingly, the boy prefers the natural world to the world of machines—though he still watches television, which he telepathically programs to accommodate his whims—and the episode concludes with a man desperately trying to assert his forbidden manhood and spark an insurrection, only to have the boy turn him into a jack-in-the-box.)
The Twilight Zone is, of course, fantasy. I’m not unilaterally opposed to fantasy, or comic books or science fiction, though I can’t help but wish for equally popular alternatives. Latter-day T.V. shows like Mad Men and The Sopranos are often said to fill the cultural vacuum left by adult-minded movies, and for many that’s no doubt true, but it isn’t true for me. I’ve never seen a T.V. show as visually stunning as Days of Heaven, another movie I stole out of the house to watch, night after night, as a teenager. I’ve never been as devastated by a T.V. show as I was by Chinatown, The Deer Hunter, and Who’ll Stop the Rain, all of which I likewise saw again and again; and I’ve never identified with an actor on a T.V. show the way I identified with Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces, Al Pacino in Serpico, and Sam Bottoms in Apocalypse Now. (I loved that Bottoms’s character, on finally reaching the jungle enclave of the savage Colonel Kurtz, immediately adapted by going native.) I wanted to be those people, or at least the people they played, and I worked harder than I’d ever worked to make it happen, but I was too late; the Hollywood I sought was finished by the time I moved to New York, let alone L.A. That it ever existed at all was a freak occurrence, an effort to lure American youth away from T.V. and into movie theaters, and so Old Hollywood turned to young directors who, in theory, understood young audiences. Some of those directors produced blockbusters: Francis Ford Coppola with The Godfather, William Friedkin with The Exorcist, and Steven Spielberg with Jaws, which redefined the blockbuster, though it stopped short of redefining American—and, ultimately, world—culture as thoroughly as George Lucas did with Star Wars. Lucas understood not just young America but America itself, and he gave it the movie it had clearly craved since the death of Old Hollywood, a new kind of movie for the children of the seventies but an old one for the adults who’d seen it when they were children, before the sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll sixties went “too far,” as many Americans of Lucas’s generation, of Richard Nixon’s so-called silent majority, believed. Once, a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, most adults might have laughed off a movie like Star Wars as something their kids forced them to see, and you know, for what it was, it wasn’t bad. Star Wars removed the qualifiers. Not only did it make it acceptable for adults to enjoy juvenile entertainment, it made it practically mandatory, since to do otherwise was to be omitted from the unifying conversation of cultural life—“Wasn’t Heath Ledger great in The Dark Knight?” and so on—not just in the U.S. but around the globe. American pop culture has long had international legs, in part for its childlike—and therefore, across language barriers, easily apprehended—simplicity. Star Wars rescued and reinforced that simplicity at a moment when it was in danger of disappearing. It had certainly matured. Hollywood movies prior to the 1968 expiration of the Hays Code were prohibited from frankly addressing adult matters. George Lucas acted as his own Hays Code in directing Star Wars.
I admire the Lucas of American Graffiti, which finally allowed that the “innocence” of the fifties was hanging by a thread. Unlike its T.V. imitator, Happy Days, American Graffiti wasn’t disingenuous, and whatever else I may say about Star Wars, it wasn’t disingenuous either, insofar as it was the movie that Lucas himself wanted to see, as evidenced by the enormous effort he put into getting it made. Very few thought it would prove profitable. The joke was on them. The joke was on me, too; the triumph of Star Wars marked the beginning of the end of a personal childhood dream.
But countless others lost something as well, including those yet to be born when Star Wars premiered, and a telling example of what I mean can be found in a brief, almost throwaway, passage in The Armies of the Night, Norman Mailer’s account of the October 1967 march on the Pentagon. Like much of Mailer’s nonfiction, The Armies of the Night is written in the third person, so that “Norman Mailer” is the book’s protagonist: a forty-four-year-old Brooklyn-based author who, along with 100,000 people generally younger than Mailer by at least twenty years, advanced on the Pentagon in protest against the Vietnam War. Mailer was arrested by MPs and spent the night in jail, where he offered cash to his cellmates, “a dozen young men who were probably without money, who had hitched to Washington and slept on a floor” in order to make the march. One of Mailer’s unnamed cellmates, described as “small, lithe, with the body moves of a superb athlete and the small bright snubbed features of a cat,” had had “the most spectacular arrest”:
Breaking through the line of MPs near to where Mailer had been arrested, [the cellmate] had dodged back and forth among the Marshals for many minutes, outrunning them, crossing field on them, doubling back, stopping short, sprinting, loping, teasing them, then outrunning them again—they had been too fatigued to hurt him when finally, fox to their hounds, he was caught by the [Potomac] river. He spoke with a stammer, great intensity behind his words, much intelligence. He gave Mailer a critique of the staging of The Deer Park which was about as incisive as his own. A remarkable boy, Mailer had decided—just the sort to have in your army.
The Deer Park is a novel by Mailer—about Hollywood, incidentally—which Mailer had adapted for the New York stage. It wasn’t the sort of production that would’ve interested Broadway tourists, so Mailer’s cellmate was likely from the New York area and had indeed “hitched to Washington and slept on a floor.” That’s commendable, but people without means continue to find their way to Washington, and elsewhere, to protest this or that, just as they continue to be arrested after “spectacular” displays of resistance. The pluck of this “remarkable boy” doesn’t, by itself, make him as remarkable as Mailer has him.
But consider this: Mailer was perhaps the most important American writer of the late sixties. There were many at the time who saw him that way. He was a celebrity intellectual when there were celebrity intellectuals, and the leading magazines paid him top dollar, which they offered to no one else, for his insights into current events. His innovative style as a journalist was hugely influential, so that, without Mailer, there would be no Hunter S. Thompson, whose fame now eclipses Mailer’s by far. Mailer’s standing reputation, where he’s known at all, as an egotistical windbag was firmly in place by the sixties—he was, almost from the beginning of his career, controversial—but his ego is key to my point: here, in The Armies of the Night, he praises a critique that’s “about as incisive as his own” from a stranger of “much intelligence” and “great intensity” who’s probably in his late teens or early twenties.
That, to me, is remarkable, especially when I ask myself if someone that young could intellectually engage a writer on a par with Mailer now. But I don’t believe there are such writers, and I don’t believe there are such kids. I can imagine a kid engaging a fantasy writer (or, for that matter, George Lucas) with questions about, say, the necessity of introducing a magic sword at a particular narrative moment, and I can more easily imagine a kid requesting pointers on how to break into the business of writing fantasy, possibly for the screen. But a kid with a mind nuanced enough to critique an established man of letters so perceptively that it’s mentioned for posterity—no, I sadly can’t imagine such a kid now. Mailer’s “army,” long gone, has been replaced by a hive that occupies much of the world.
When I said that I don’t believe that there are any writers on a par with Mailer, I wasn’t trying to suggest that good writers are a thing of the past. I’m personally acquainted with good writers, but they lack the celebrity that Mailer once enjoyed, and even he didn’t draw comparisons to movie stars, as did his contemporary, Jack Kerouac, who remains a kind of literary Brando. For that reason, if no other, it was probably inevitable that I would one day read Kerouac, and On the Road, a book I don’t rate so highly now, ultimately changed my life, with its impetuous, casually rebellious characters, young guys who, in the midst of speeding around America in pursuit of “kicks,” eagerly discussed books and ideas. They were pagan intellectuals, a combination I’d never seen onscreen and certainly not in life, and I envied not just their devil-may-care coolness but their knowledge of literature and, more to the point, their excitement about it. From Kerouac I moved on to a long list of other novelists (including, of course, Mailer) as well as poets and philosophers, though it was always the novel as a form that most appealed to me, being the most closely related to my first love, movies. In the back of my mind, a Plan B began to form: if movies finally failed me, if I couldn’t play the kind of characters I’d set out to play because I wasn’t allowed to play them in the scripts I’d written and they didn’t exist in the scripts written by others, I could channel and, in a sense, play them as a novelist. Eventually, I acted on Plan B, but its roots go further back than Kerouac, to state the obvious; they begin with movies, which continue, in a way, to inspire me. I’ve spent most of my adult life working in the film business—a remark that would likely cause my teenage self, ignorant of its implications, to beam, were he able to hear my present self say it—so I naturally, as a novelist, tend to write about people with a similar background. If I were a soldier, I’m sure I would write fiction about soldiers or, anyway, have to fight the impulse. On the other hand, I never felt passionate about being a soldier, therefore I never became one. I can’t conceive of having a passion that I wouldn’t try to live out, and I don’t mean live it out in my head; I would have to somehow experience it firsthand, and that experience would somehow manifest in my fiction.
Most popular novels, I’ve found, and even many obscure ones, are screenplays in disguise: a little description to set the scene, followed by pages of dialogue. I loathe that kind of writing, in part because I think it’s lazy, but also, having worked professionally as a screenwriter, it represents a particular danger for me. My prose can be dense, with my fondness for longish paragraphs and sentences, so I’ll sometimes follow a dense sequence with a dialogue scene, which can amount to a rest for the reader. A “serious” reader may not require the rest, but I don’t want to limit the size of my potential audience, and I’m very conscious that I write at a moment when attention spans are, to say the least, short.
In fact, it’s an absurd moment to be a novelist, and particularly a novelist of the kind I am. I don’t write genre fiction, and the audience for “literary” fiction, always a small one, has been steadily dwindling since T.V. took off in the early fifties, with a dramatic reduction in recent years. It’s hard for the book to hold its own in a culture as wired as ours, and, to that end, the book has gone digital, which to me is—predictably, I’m sure—slightly horrifying, like seeing Frank Sinatra in love beads while he covers the latest groovy hit by—what’s their name again? You know, those kids from England—the ones with the long hair?
Of course, as a writer, I should applaud the so-called e-book. “Just as long as people are still reading,” I’ve said, dutifully but sincerely, when asked about it. But I’ve only said that after a timid preamble about the beauty of books as objects and my prayer that they never vanish.
I don’t think they will vanish—not completely—just as the kind of movies I loved as a child, and love still, haven’t vanished completely. Every few years, to my great surprise, I’ll catch one—the last time it was The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford—and for a moment I’m blissfully delivered from the pop culture of the twenty-first century, which I can never entirely escape for trying; it always shows up like a clown who insists on entertaining me with balloon animals and “knock, knock” jokes that endlessly amuse the people who surround me, people of every age, while I sit and wonder what the fuck they’re laughing about. Have they lost their minds? Is there a boy who’s threatened to send them to the cornfield if they don’t respond as he does?
But that boy is all of them, it seems to me, and nothing like the boy I was, even before he was asking adult strangers if they would buy him a ticket to an R-rated movie. I can picture him now, about to see a movie by himself for the first time. He walks up the long corridor, carpeted in red, of the Paramount Theater, pausing for a moment at the concession stand to gawk at thumbnail photos of the posters for sale, and a voice in his head says, Don’t look. God doesn’t want you to look. But the voice is relatively quiet in the darkness of the theater, where the boy watches a girl in a fur bikini cavort anachronistically with a dinosaur, and the boy thinks, Man, I would love to be that dinosaur, never dreaming that, when he’s a man, a dinosaur is just what he’ll be.
This piece is included in Writing Off Script: Writers on the Influence of Cinema, an e-anthology of essays that explore the relationship between movies and the work of contributing authors, among them Robin Antalek, Matthew Baldwin, Sean Beaudoin, Richard Cox, Elizabeth Eslami, Nathaniel Missildine, Greg Olear, and Neal Pollack. Edited by Cynthia B. Hawkins, Writing Off Script is set to be released on December 1, 2011, by Calavera Books.