Friday, September 07, 2012

"The Words": writers' lives, in three layers; but why would a writer really want to claim someone else's work? (Compare: "Shattered Glass")


The poster art for “The Words” shows a provocative image of Zoe Saldana starting to explore Bradley Cooper’s chest under his shirt, and that happens two or three times in the movie, in the “middle level” of a three-layer cake. 

The outermost story is that of older writer Clay Hammond (Dennis Hammond) telling a morality story to an audience, and also to his own younger girl friend (Olivia Wilde). 

That middle layer of reality concerns a young man, Rory Jansen (Cooper), having gotten married, trying to get published as a novelist and make a living off it.  He gets the usual rejections.  The movie never mentions the idea of self-publishing or print-on-demand; in any case, Rory has to take a job as a line supervisor at a publishing house after begging of his dad.

When he takes his wife on a honeymoon trip to Paris, she buys him an old satchel, and inside Rory finds an old novel manuscript, left by accident. Intrigued, he reads it, and then types it into his computer.  After a somewhat hard-to-believe conversation with his wife,  who believes this masterpiece is his, he shows it to his own boss, who wants to publish it.  “The Tear Window” becomes a best seller, and then all his own weaker novels get published. 

But one day the old man (Jeremy Irons) tracks him down, and tells him the full autobiographical story of his won post WWII life in France, his marriage, the death of his child, the estrangement of his wife, his own employment as a writer, and his own writing of the “autobiographical” novel.  When his wife loses the manuscript, the marriage fails for good.  But even the original writer (Ben Barnes) has to deal with the fact that his own “Words” were more important to his self-concept than his family.

The ending is perhaps logical – what wasn’t so logical for me is that someone who wants to “be a writer” – even commercially successful – doesn’t know what he has to say on his own. The older man did.

I certainly relate to some of the issues of the book.  I would be more like the old man – a lot of my writing is inspired autobiographically, and I tend to look at relationships with a certain amount of abstraction.  I once lost a manuscript of an old unpublished novel “The Proles” in the Trenton, NJ Amtrak station and rode a train back from Philadelphia to retrieve it back in 1970.  I still have it (shown). 

In my “Do Ask Do Tell” screenplay, I have the same layering setup.  At the highest level, on a colony on Titan (that are abducting people before the tribulation), angels prepare for a ritual to decide who among them will prevail, and will use the re-education of “Bill” (me) as their own benchmark case.  The middle layer is the history of a couple of Bill’s mysteries (and moral controversies, but about other issues than that in this film – I would never want to pass someone else’s work off as my own, because that would defeat my own ego!), and the lowest layer (in black and white) is a controversial screenplay that Bill himself wrote. 

The same structure occurs in the Kaufman Brothers’ film “Adaptation” in 2001, from Columbia.

It's important to note, however, that in "The Words", all three levels have some grounding in "reality", relative to the universe of the movie.  In my screenplay, the "inner screenplay," which causes controversy, did not "happen" in the universe of the movie even though it can influence the outcome.  

There’s a controversy, as to whether Bill’s screenplay (in a “barber chair scene”) could choose which “angel” should prevail.  I didn’t see that kind of recursion in “The Words”.


The official site (CBS Films) is here

The directors are Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, and the indoor scenes were filmed in Montreal.

As for author "culture", I remember an outdoor dinner in 1997 when another writer said "You don't send books to publishers".  You send them to agents.  Or now, you self-publish.

Ernest Hemingway is said to have given his wife a sole handwritten manuscript of a novel which she lost.

I saw the film in a small Regal Auditorium in Arlington VA, a small crowd for the early Friday evening show opening day, digital projection.

A good comparison could be made to the 2003 film "Shattered Glass", by Billy Ray, from Lionsgate, about a  journalist who fabricates some of his stories for the New Republic.  With Hayden Christiansen as Stephen Glass, the writer, and Peter Sarsgaard, his boss. 

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