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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: The Words


THE WORDS (Three Stars)

U.S.: Directed & written by Brian Klugman & Lee Sternthal, 2012 (Sony)

I have a confession to make. I didn’t write this review.

I tried, God knows, but after several hours of pecking away at the keyboard of my Toshiba Satellite computer, and then reading back only dull, empty  words on a white screen, I realized that I couldn’t make it. I would never be the writer I once dreamed of becoming. I would never nail a review with the certainty, perfection and grace under pressure with which Ernest Hemingway,  in “A Movable Feast,”  wrote his description of reading the manuscript of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”  for the first time, one night in Paris — or craft a joke with the wit with which Woody Allen joshed about Owen Wilson bumping into both Hemingway and Fitzgerald one night in Midnight in Paris. Instead I was doomed to a life of staring at blank white Toshiba Satellite screens while hooked up to a WIFI in Starbucks, trying to write. dreaming of Hemingway, dreaming of Fitzgerald, dreaming of Woody. Dreaming of James Agee, when suddenly….

As a youngster, I adored books and the words that made them up, loved the very feel of the pages on my fingers. Some of that old passion of mine seems to course  through the new movie, The Words: a literature-intoxicated  film about writing and writers, and how people love and betray them both.

There’s a very good idea here: the notion that, in literature as elsewhere, fame and achievement aren’t necessarily wed together, but that art and life should always or mostly always be. Though the filmmakers — writer-directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, a team of newcomers who also act in The Words in small parts — don’t entirely realize that notion, they have some fun with it, as do we. Maybe.

This good looking, likable movie about the literary life is full of good-looking likable (but not necessarily literary-looking) actors like Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana, Dennis Quaid, Olivia Wilde and Ben Barnes. It‘s well designed (by Michele Laliberte) and beautifully photographed (by Antonio Calvache), and it shows an engaging feel for books and authors, brushed with a cynicism about the ways books are written and how reputations are made. Those were qualities I was happy to see in this age when books are beginning to disappear and our “writers” are often celebrity phonies employing ghost writers..

The story of The Words is interesting, if not entirely satisfying. A very successful, almost offensively arrogant writer named Clay Hammond (played by Dennis Quaid, in full smirk) reads to  a small, select audience,  passages from his latest novel, also called “The Words,” while a pretty Columbia journalism student, Daniela (Olivia Wilde) eyes him from the crowd. Hammond’s “Words“ is about  a young good-looking writer named Rory Jansen (Cooper), who wants to be a serious novelist and is scraping by , with his attractive wife Dora (Zoe Saldana), in a nice-looking New York apartment, mostly it seems  on his wife’s salary and handouts from his businessman father (J. K. Simmons) — and later from his salary as a mailboy in a publishing house.

Rory writes several novels in the early part of Clay’s story, and one of them even wins some sincere but apologetic plaudits from an editor , who nevertheless, like everybody else, declines to publish them. We get a sense of what these books are like from what we see that Rory is like: HE’S ambitious, pretentious, self-absorbed, unimaginative, somewhat humorless.

Rory and Dora go to Paris. (His life is not too hard, you see — not as hard as, for a while, that of  John Fante, another writer referenced here.) They roam. Rory stares at the plaque outside Hemingway’s famous old apartment. Later, in a shop, Dora buys him an old  leather briefcase, and in it he finds an old yellowing manuscript that somebody obviously forgot, and that remained unnoticed all these decades — and that has no author’s byline or address. Intrigued, he reads it. It has no title. Not even “The Words.”

The mysterious book tells the story of a young WWI veteran and would-be writer (Ben Barnes), nameless in the manuscript, and of his marriage to a French waitress Celia (Nora  Arnezeder), who bears him a child who dies. The mood of these scenes suggests something momentous, like Hemingway reading Scott’s Gatsby. (Or perhaps more aptly, given the quality and style of the writing we glimpse over Rory’s shoulder, like Robert Waller marveling at Sparks’ “Message in a Bottle“). He is deeply moved. This is writing. This is art. These are what Chekhov described in “The Sea Gull” as  “words flow(ing) freely from the heart,”

Inspired, Rory types out the novel into his computer.  (A Toshiba? I couldn’t see.) He says he’s doing this because he wants to feel the story streaming through him, but I find that hard to believe. Does anyone want Marcel Proust or “Moby Dick” streaming through them? Suggestion: Rory really types it out, because he says (to himself) that he wants to show it to other people, maybe get it published somewhere. (He’s kidding himself.) Back in the movie, Dora, without asking, reads it, believing it to be Rory’s work. She is deeply moved. She embraces him, insists that he give it to the world — and his agent. He keeps mum about its origins. But, interest piqued, he shows the novel to his brusque publishing guy, Joseph Cutler (Veljko Ivanek), who is deeply moved, looks at Rory almost with tears in his brusque eyes, and insists the book be published. Rory, in a weak moment, agrees.

The novel, now called “A Window Tear,” comes out and becomes a literary sensation. Audiences everywhere are deeply moved. Rory, his prayers answered, is now a famous and much-loved author. But then, suddenly….

Sitting on a city park bench one day, staring into space (or Calvache‘s camera), musing on the ways of fate and fame, Rory is gently but firmly  addressed by what seems to be an old, sad-eyed semi-bum (played, superbly, by Jeremy Irons). The Man says he is a fan of “A Window Tear” (the book, not the title), which deeply moved him. Rory, polite, nods, smiles, tries to leave, but then is more fervently accosted and even insulted. He is called a “pissant“ (that’s pissant, not puissant) and accused of thievery. Uh-oh. This is not, it seems,  just any old sad-eyed semi-bum who reminds you of TV’s “Brideshead Revisited.” This is the man who wrote the book that Rory stole, and what is more, who actually lived the book, lived all its beauty and sadness and pain, and then, with grace under pressure and phrases out of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, put it all down on paper that would eventually yellow. This is A Man, whose wife Celia lost the briefcase on a train (as Hemingway‘s Hadley once lost his manuscripts on another train.) The Man and Celia split up, and he never wrote again, saw her only once. He stayed a nobody and tried to forget his sad stillborn literary career, until one day he saw….

You see, while I was sitting at Starbucks, this happened, I swear. A sad-eyed old man, who looked something like Jeremy Irons, had been sitting next to me while I struggled with my review, scribbling in an old black Penway notebook, with  an old green  ball-point pen . Suddenly, he got up hastily to leave, as if he‘d just remembered something, walking out and dropping the little notebook. I picked it up and tried to call him but he disappeared into a   churning crowd of bicycle riders in helmets and black, red and white spandex-looking shirts and shorts, who were all racking up their bikes and walking into Starbucks, yakking away. Somebody ordered a café latte. I sat down. I read the review. I was deeply moved…..

I liked this movie more than others have. It looks good. It holds your interest. It‘s about something, even if it could have been much, much better about it. Most of  all, I liked it because there are books on the room shelves in the movie, instead of ceramics and little plants and such. In The Man’s Paris apartment, where he lives as a young writer and tragic figure, there are even books on the floor and on the steps of the staircase. And Jeremy Irons is tremendous, really tremendous. Even if you don’t like the script, Irons deserves a nomination for something. Maybe for Best Exposer of Pissants in the Public Park.  Or Best Reminder of Our Once More Literate Cinema.

The Words is the story of a writer who is a phony and a thief (Rory, who has very few books in his place). And of a  writer who is a famous New York social lion and acts like a phony and a thief. (Clay, who has almost no books, if any, in his expensively barren place, which seems to have been designed for a man who never reads and never thinks of reading , or perhaps does it all on the Internet). And of a writer who lives and writes and loves deeply and loses almost everything, (The Young Man in Paris, who has books all over the place.)

It’s a story about plagiarism, written (and filmed) for a society where a lot of  the books on our bestseller lists, are signed by people who never wrote them: all those literary shams who outsourced the job of writing their books to ghost writers. But if there are no books, and if the books left are counterfeits, is it still possible to need and love them as we used to? I was unhappy when they closed our neighborhood Borders — only two blocks from my building, which I visited almost evry day — and when they emptied all the shelves and sold all the books at huge discounts. This was only a decade and a half or so after Borders had seemed to drive out all the other bookstores in the neighborhood. There’s still a Barnes & Noble up the street. But will we ever actually have a world without books, a “Fahrenheit 451“ world without a Ray Bradbury? And will young writers still want to be Hemingway, or outdo Hemingway, or outdo Fitzgerald, or Virginia Woolf or Willa Cather?

The old man who looked like Jeremy Irons never reappeared. Just a lot of Café Lattes and bicycle riders. But suddenly, after I came home, I opened up the black notebook from which I copied all this, and found a name and address: Rafael-Tennyson-Sanchez & Anne Bradbury Jones, 666 Yucca, Los Angeles —  two names, but no telephone number or e-mail.

A hallucination? Maybe. I walked over to my bookshelves, still filled, though some with DVDs and CDs rather than books, and I looked at them, long. “War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy. “David Copperfield” by Charles Dickens. “Death on the Installment Plan” by Louis-Ferdinand Celine. “Don Quixote“ by Miguel de Cervantes. “The Maltese Falcon” by Dashiell Hammett.  “The Age of Innocence” by Edith Wharton. The Complete Plays of William Shakespeare. “The Thurber Carnival” by James Thurber. “More Than Human“ by Theodore Sturgeon. “The Man Who Was Thursday“ by G. K. Chesterton.  “This Gun for Hire” by Graham Greene.   “The Trial” by Franz Kafka. The Collected Stories of Chester Himes. “A Scanner Darkly“ by Philip K. Dick. “Silas Marner” by George Elliot.  Anton Chekhov’s Plays. “Ask the Dust” by John Fante. “The Sun Also Rises.” “The Great Gatsby.”

All…The little notebook almost slipped from my fingers. I put it away, on top of  Later Novels and Other Writings by Raymond Chandler…

Then I pulled down some volumes from the packed bookshelves, hefted the bindings, felt the grain of the covers on my fingertips. Opened the pages. Read. “Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not think that I am very much impressed by that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn.“ “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”  “Call me Ishmael.” ” Whether I shall turn out ot be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”  “Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K,  for, without doing anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.” “Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth.”

They were all still there: the friends of a lifetime. My books. People made of words, palaces built of sentences. “Words, words, words…” as someone, maybe Hamlet, once said.  I turned the pages.  I was deeply moved.

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One Response to “Wilmington on Movies: The Words”

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Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon