Real Time Short Stories

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He seized a blanket from the nearest bed and, using it as a weapon, flung it to right and left about him in the air. He felt the thud of bodies, heard the fluttering of wings, but they were not yet defeated, for again and again they returned to the assault, jabbing his hands, his head, the little stabbing beaks sharp as pointed forks. The blanket became a weapon of defense; he wound it about his head, and then in greater darkness beat at the birds with his bare hands. He dared not stumble to the door and open it, lest in doing so the birds should follow him.

If there is one element – and it’s easy to argue that there is just the one – that remains constant in Daphne Du Maurier’s 1952 novella, The Birds, and the 1963 Alfred Hitchcock film adaptation, it’s the horror visited upon the human characters by the frenzied blitzkrieg of bird after bird after bird. The respective dates of release for the story and film give a clue as to what might have governed their many differences: Du Maurier’s backdrop of post-war austerity contrasts with the technicolour permissiveness depicted by Hitchcock and screenwriter Evan Hunter, embodied by Tippi Hedren’s Melanie Daniels. For all that, and to say nothing of the vast differences in setting, plot, characters, themes and even the explanation given for the birds’ attack, both works are merciless in the way they peck at our vulnerability.

In the Reel Time Short Stories series, the issue of adaptation – detecting what exists within the short story that lends it to visualisation and expansion – is accompanied by the question of whether and how we might identify generic short fiction traits in the story told on film. Du Maurier, whose Jamaica Inn and Rebecca had previously found their way into the cinema under Hitchcock’s direction, was said to have disliked Hitchcock’s reinvention of her story. She wasn’t, in fairness, known to be a fan of very many of the screen adaptations of her fiction (Hitch’s far more faithful Rebecca among the few exceptions) but it’s also reasonable to suggest that a pretty decent movie could have been made using far more ingredients from the story of farm worker Nat Hocken and his efforts to protect his family from the waves of bird attacks that have swept across Europe and the rest of Britain, as far as Nat’s home on the Cornish peninsula. It’s a taut, naturally horrific narrative of survival. It would have made perfect sense to the readership so soon after a war which had been experienced on the Home Front in terms of battening down the hatches against bombing raids, clinging to the wireless for scraps of information and guidance, and the privations, still partially active in 1952, of rationing. Each is present and correct in Du Maurier’s story; indeed, the film, which prioritises diegetic sound over Bernard Herrmann’s more familiarly Hitchcockian musical prompts, suggests a wartime air raid when we first see the birds attack en masse at Cathy’s birthday party, the wing beats like strafes of gunfire, mixed with explosive squawks and popping balloons. Through Nat Hocken, Du Maurier goes beyond the sensation of such wartime sieges to represent the constant mustering of new resolve to resist, protect and then cajole and organise and take action to go through it all again:

He decided they must sleep in the kitchen, keep up the fire, bring down the mattresses, and lay them out on the floor. He was afraid of the bedroom chimneys. The boards he had placed at the chimney bases might give way. In the kitchen they would be safe because of the fire. He would have to make a joke of it. Pretend to the children they were playing at camp. If the worst happened, and the birds forced an entry down the bedroom chimneys, it would be hours, days perhaps, before they could break down the doors. The birds would be imprisoned in the bedrooms. They could do no harm there. Crowded together, they would stifle and die.

Nat sets about bringing mattresses downstairs and maintaining a reassuring commentary for his family. We then hear his thoughts:

“We’re safe enough now,” he thought. “We’re snug and tight, like an air-raid shelter. We can hold out. It’s just the food that worries me. Food, and coal for the fire. We’ve enough for two or three days, not more. By that time . . .”

I see strong parallels with the unnamed father in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, steering his son towards whatever temporary, relative safety they can find, and also away from the worst kinds of barbarism they encounter, aware that there’s again a brutal relativity in those choices. In The Birds, the morning after his first battle in the dark with invading birds, Nat is sickened at the sight of the “little corpses [of]…robins, finches, sparrows, blue tits, larks, and bramblings”, erstwhile companions to his work out of doors, that he has been forced to kill. Later, having gone to the farm and discovered the dead bodies of his supervisor, Jim Trigg, and of Mrs Trigg, the priority of survival over sentiment is not exactly easier, but more immediate and instinctive. The manner in which this new knowledge of his capabilities is absorbed can be seen in this tiny, powerful detail as his wife serves him food:

She poured out a plateful of the Triggs’ soup, cut him a large slice of the Triggs’ bread, and spread their dripping upon it.

Du Maurier’s portrait of a man engaged in a struggle against nature, almost more than the horrifying images of the crazed flocks, is what makes The Birds utterly engrossing. Hitchcock and Hunter tend to allow brief glimpses of what Du Maurier contemplates at length in her text, though the sense of a man measuring his own masculinity by his ability to take control at a time of heightened danger, and to resist invaders, comes through when Rod Taylor’s Mitch barricades his mother’s house. Hitherto, his rugged exterior has belied a suspicion that he lacks the qualities to step into his recently deceased father’s shoes as the man of the house. In this, he shares a horror movie lineage with, among others, Duane Jones’ Ben Huss in The Night Of The Living Dead – whose masculinity is not in question but, as a black man, his right to address as an equal and even command other men in inherently challenged – and Simon Pegg’s Shaun in Shaun Of The Dead. John Hillcoat’s 2009 adaptation of The Road may also be said to link Viggo Mortensen’s father to these characters in a way the book didn’t, by presenting more images of the family life, hinting at the clean-shaven Mortensen’s intellectualism and ‘soft’ white collar credentials, before entering the narrative’s post-apocalyptic scenario. Nat Hocken doesn’t need to prove himself in those ways; nonetheless, there is a sense of pride in the way he regards the emergency measures he’s taking:

He went and examined all the windows. His work had been thorough. Every gap was closed.

In Jon McGregor‘s 2012 story, If It Keeps On Raining, we can detect a similar satisfaction in the handiwork of another man building a defence against nature, in this case a tree house to evade the floods he expects to surge across the fenland of Eastern England:

It might not be the finest treehouse ever built but it does what it needs to. It’s difficult to get the details right when you’re fifty foot up in the air. It’s hard enough getting all the wood up there in the first place. It would be easier with two people. But it’s just him, now, so it takes careful planning. Some forethought. And hard work.

Daphne Du Maurier’s focus is on one man, and his family, engaged in a struggle for survival, and she chooses to leave the Hockens in that state. Short fiction, even in the somewhat longer form employed here, does tend to leave suggestive gaps which several film adaptations tend to want to fill. What’s interesting about the wholesale changes made to Du Maurier’s story by Hitchcock – for which he engaged Hunter, whom we’ve come to know better as the crime writer Ed McBain, preferring an imaginative re-working by an established storyteller to the technical workmanship of a hack screenwriter – is the amount of short story tropes inserted as the story re-locates to California. Whereas Du Maurier’s birds were terrorising a whole country and possibly a continent, Hitchcock’s terror is localised, allowing a familiar small town narrative to play out. After the San Francisco opening in which Hedren’s Melanie and Taylor’s Mitch play off one another like Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant in a romantic comedy, the film offers a luxurious prototype of the Simpsons Plot Detour as Melanie brings her couture and her sense of entitlement to Bodega Bay in an initially straightforward pursuit of Mitch. Then a bird swoops to peck her forehead and she is sealed up inside this world in which she is seen as more of a malevolent outsider than the vindictive birds.

Du Maurier pits man against nature, though not, I suspect, in an especially gendered way: it’s just difficult to envisage, in her story’s social context, the main character being other than a man like Nat. Although the exact reason for the bird attacks in the story is a cause for speculation rather than firm knowledge – consistent with the first hours of any disaster – there is at least a gesture towards logic in the wintry climate and bitter winds which seem to be demolishing territorial distinctions between different types of birds and whipping them all up to a desperate feeding frenzy. The calm which returns whenever they’ve eaten their fill is echoed at the end of the film but the Bodega Bay birds seem motivated by a range of moral considerations. Melanie’s arrival in the Bay, carrying two caged love birds, might explain the first injury she receives, solidarity among the avian classes, but this repugnance doesn’t explain the demonic energy that continues to be unleashed. The suggestion – and this will not be news to anyone who has read Camille Paglia’s 1998 BFI Classics critical analysis of the film – is that Melanie’s most damaging import is her female glamour and sexuality. The birds are therefore akin to a feathered militia of Daily Mail columnists – and this can, of course, only make sense on a symbolic level. Paglia’s rich depiction of Hedren’s screen presence and remarkable performance (in her feature film debut) present such a compelling case that it’s hard to imagine her reading of the film not to have been the common perception throughout its lifetime. And there are moments when it seems impossible to believe that any other reading is possible. When Melanie, lodging with Mitch’s old flame Annie – whose black hair and smoky voice suggest she’s more the one who’s been flamed, cauterised for having dared in the past to do what Melanie is attempting now – notes that there’s a full moon, the two women exchange a look of knowing trepidation. They might not understand the reasoning of birds but they need no reminder of the mythical power of the female menstrual cycle. When a delirious woman blames Melanie’s presence in their town for the bird attacks, screaming “Evil!” in her face, it’s an experience with which other types of outsider would relate but the particulars of Melanie’s evil, once again, are possession of a loaded sexuality, with intent to use.

Hitchcock’s The Birds is a horror and it does sample riffs from Du Maurier’s war allegory but its short story credentials are that it’s a small town chamber piece concerning the presence within a tight community of a vibrant outsider. In particular, the narrative resolves itself around Melanie’s effect on the other women: the tragic Annie, a walking ghost of spent sexuality, who allows Melanie to step around while she clings to a nurturing role in Mitch’s life; Jessica Tandy’s Lydia, Mitch’s mum and an elective crone; and young Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), for whom Melanie is an immediately aspirational figure. As with Nat’s heroic struggles against his fate, we don’t know by the end if Melanie has succumbed to the forces against her. As with much short fiction, we don’t seek to take away certainties, just a measure more of understanding. And, perhaps, a catapult, just in case it gets crowded on the jungle gym outside the school.

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Paris is old enough not to be fooled by the same old lines. For every lovestruck idiot who washes up at a café table and sees a city built for romance – and romantic fiction – there’s a clear-eyed realist on the Metro who recognises the city of La Haine, of the Engrenages (Spiral) series, which are the spiritual descendants of Gerard Depardieu’s hard-boiled Police, of the bourgeois paranoia in Michael Haneke’s Caché (Hidden). It may not be all about Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron walking in step along the banks of the Seine; Audrey Hepburn rhyming ‘Montmartre’ with ‘Sartre’ courtesy of Ira Gershwin in Funny Face; or about dishevelled intellectuals chatting through the night in films by Erich Rohmer or Richard Linklater; or even Michelin-starred rats…

Nonetheless, the enchanting, captivating, romantic Paris is an eternal verity of fiction, and Woody Allen is a film-maker who is comfortable with eternal verities. He used a Greek chorus in one of his films, Mighty Aphrodite, which is about as eternal you can get in the dramatic arts. Allen’s name comes with its own Greek chorus these days, whether commenting on the publicity that flared around his private life for a period in the 1990s, the truth/fiction blur associated with the younger women he may marry, kiss on screen or simply cast for others to kiss, or adopting a position on his film-making capabilities as he continues to release roughly a film a year, rarely (apart from 2009’s Whatever Works) returning to his comic heartland of New York. Against these debates, we risk losing sight of the work Allen has been building up for about 60 years. Including works in production, he has written 45 films, only ceding the director’s chair to somebody else for two of them. Since talking pictures arrived, has there been another great, or very good, film-maker who has made as many – often very good and sometimes great – films as that?

As unique a cinematic figure as Allen is, though, it’s important to recognise that film is a medium for which he had to adapt an already established voice as a stand-up performer. Unlike his fellow New Yorkers, Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, even though his work is self-evidently steeped in a love of cinema, his first instincts are driven by the pen, not the camera. Hence, instead of doing the film-maker thing and construct distinctive projects or franchises to encase his ideas, he’ll do the writer thing and explore, develop and often re-cycle tropes around which the individual films take shape. This is one reason why A Twenties Memory, an enjoyably daft short story idea published in the 1971 collection, Getting Even, gets to feed, forty years later, into Allen’s most successful film from his recent ‘European tour’ period: Midnight In Paris. More fundamentally, I think there is an argument to be made that the writer’s eye Allen brings to his film-making, and indeed his comedy, is specifically that of a short story writer.

Midnight In Paris can barely be called an adaptation of A Twenties Memory; the screenwriting Oscar it was awarded this year was in the Original Screenplay category. What it owes the story – which touches down in Chicago, the South of France, Italy and Kenya before passing through Paris en route to Spain – is the conceit of being a friend and companion to Modernism’s most celebrated artists and writers. The film achieves this through a deft insertion of a what if? sci-fi device into the familiar portrait of the protagonist, at odds with the here and now, and trapped within an unsatisfactory relationship. For Owen Wilson’s anxious screenwriter, whose holiday in Paris is courtesy of the conservative parents of his materialistic, WASP fiancée (Rachel McAdam), and whose hankering after the 1920s jazz age becomes a completely different proposition when he finds himself picked up in a cab by Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill’s Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, we have previously had, in 1985’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, Mia Farrow’s downtrodden movie-loving housewife, ill-treated by her brutal husband Danny Aiello, and shown a magical alternative when Jeff Daniels’ matinee idol character steps out of the cinema screen. It’s Mr Benn for grown-ups, engaged with the human story that emerges under these circumstances, less so with the technicalities that brought them about.

In A Twenties Memory, there is no time-travelling device. The narrative starts with the assumption that this is a memoir of time spent in the company of Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Picasso, Manolete, Dali, Matisse and the whole crazy gang. It’s a blancmange of a piece, stringing together one-liners that play on the personality cults and “I was there when…” name-dropping of the literary or showbiz memoir writer seeking immortality by association. The legend of Hemingway’s fondness for brawling forms a slender running joke, with the narrator having his nose broken at regular junctures, and the prose format allows the wordplay and more subtle gags room to stow themselves away in the text the way they couldn’t in performance:

That year I went to Paris a second time to talk with a thin, nervous European composer with aquiline profile and remarkably quick eyes who would someday be Igor Stravinsky and then, later, his best friend. I stayed at the home of Man and Sting Ray and Salvador Dali joined us for dinner several tunes and Dali decided to have a one-man show which he did and it was a huge success, as one man showed up and it was a gay and fine French winter.

The film is at least a zabaglione – as light as the story but with more of an intoxicating effect. Wilson’s Gil finds the romance lacking in his modern life when he meets Picasso and Hemingway’s sometime mistress, the alluring Adriana (Marion Cotillard). This sets up an interesting little essay as Gil’s obsession with the jazz age dislocates him from his own time, whereas Adriana, whom Gil believes to be living through the most monumental period in artistic history, surrounded by the greatest minds, is herself caught in an unrequited nostalgia for the Paris of La Belle Époque when the Post-Impressionists held sway. That the film’s resolution is located in this intellectual hall of mirrors, and doesn’t rely upon Gil performing some Herculanean mission to transcend the boundaries of time in order to be with Adriana forever, tells me that Allen’s storytelling revolves around the beguiling notion – the comic idea that may be laced with tragedy; the dramatic idea that can ultimately be shrugged off as just another of life’s episodes. The latter is definitely the case in Vicky Christina Barcelona, which also offers an over-thinking American tourist (Rebecca Hall) a surprising confrontation with old Europe, though this time with no magic portals. Broadway Danny Rose, Melinda and Melinda and Sweet and Lowdown, meanwhile, showcase the yarn-spinning aspect of Allen’s writing. The joy is in the telling, even if that goes nowhere, as in the short story The Whore of Mensa, in which the brilliant comic idea of a call girl racket whereby men pay for intellectual stimulation from widely-read professionals is played out as standard pulp hardboiled fiction. Reading Woody Allen, in print, stand-up or film, as a composer of short stories gives us a new muscle with which to respond to his work.

Even if none of it is still as funny as the guy slipping on the giant banana skin in Sleeper.

There’s no let-up here from the tinittus jangle of sleighbells and Chris Rea: our series on the short story in cinema continues with a Christmas special. As with Graham Greene in an earlier post, this is a case of the story’s author, Paul Auster, adapting his own work for the screen. Whereas Greene’s screenplay for The Fallen Idol was reasonably faithful to the structure, if not the ending, of his source, The Basement Room, Auster’s little Christmas fable from 1990 snowballed into plots and characters big enough for two movies, both of which were directed by Wayne Wang and released in 1995.

As long as there’s one person to believe it, there’s no story that can’t be true.

Auster wrote Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story as a short story commission for the New York Times. As a novelist who doesn’t particularly deal in the regulation sentiments of Christmas, he was finding the commission something of a poisoned chalice. We know this because, in the course of telling the story, Auster tells us about his difficulties. The story he ended up with, and the means by which he came about it, forms the conclusion of Smoke, which stars William Hurt as “Paul”, a writer living and working in Brooklyn. Knowing his friend and loyal customer is stuck for a good idea for his commission, the proprietor of Paul’s neighbourhood cigar store, Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel), offers to tell him “the best Christmas story you ever heard” which concerns an episode from Auggie’s own past. He takes Paul for lunch and tells him the story and then we see Paul’s typewriter set to work.

The layering of stories upon stories, the act of writing commenting on the act of writing, is a common feature in Auster’s work. Influenced as a young writer by hardboiled detective fiction, Samuel Becket and existentialism, and passionate about his home borough of Brooklyn, Auster spins out narratives that revolve around mystery, mortality and the simple, social act of telling a story. This is the meaning of life and death as chewed over with a guy in a bar. Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story is possibly a true story given to Auster by his friend, to whom he’s given the name Auggie to protect his identity; it’s possibly a complete fabrication by Auggie; and it’s possibly Auster’s invention from start to finish. Like the story itself, it’s all about which story you want to believe.

In Smoke, and its companion piece, Blue In The Face – a largely ad hoc sequel made because everyone was having such a great time making the initial feature (or is that another story we’d like to believe?) – Auggie is given that name for keeps, and also given a life, a set of regulars at the cigar store, and a past, all of which meanders into view to be observed by Paul, the writer. Both films, whether through Auster’s facility with character or Wang and his cast’s unapologetically loving treatment of the script, deal with the idea of story as a thing experienced. We learn about the characters by spending time with them, just as Auggie learns about the characters who pass his storefront by taking a photograph of the same view every morning at the same time. This way, the short story’s mannerism of being a narrative stumbled upon or picked up from somewhere or someone is maintained. While some of Auster’s tales – Leviathan, The Brooklyn Follies, Mr Vertigo – are driven by compulsive page-turning narratives, others are more entwined in the storytelling act. It’s this latter Auster that’s in charge here.

Auggie’s story is told twice in Smoke. There’s the straight re-telling in the diner that replicates the exchange in the original story, down to Auggie’s enigmatic smile at the end to sow doubt in Paul’s mind as to the veracity of what he’s just been told. Then, after we see the first moments of the typescript that will end up in the New York Times, we are taken back to a silent, monochrome 1972, where Keitel’s Auggie (wearing a hairpiece that conjures up more 70s memories of Dick Emery’s idiot bovver boy character, Gaylord), is shown in montage chasing a young shoplifter and finding the boy’s wallet containing the address of his blind Granny Ethel. Tom Waits’ Innocent When You Dream rumbles, rasps and soars over the images of Ethel feeling Auggie’s face and choosing to recognise him as her wayward grandson; Auggie playing along with the role and sharing Christmas dinner with the old lady in a soft-hearted deception similar to that of the narrator’s mother in Frode Grytten’s Sing Me To Sleep; and then stealing one of the stolen cameras that the grandson has stashed in Ethel’s apartment.

Although handled with love, Auster’s original short story is not treated with excessive care in its expansion and adaptation for the cinema. It works on the basis that to read is to re-tell and to hear a story is to steal that story and pass it off, in some dimension, as your own – so it’s natural than an adaptation will embellish, and improvise upon, the original material. It also understands that even the truest story is a adaptation of memory and that, in the stories we tell ourselves and each other, ‘true’ is rarely the prime consideration: this Christmas will be different; next year’s going to be our year; this smoke is definitely going to be my last…

‘…Every time she asked me a question about how I was, I would lie to her, I told her I’d found a good job working in a cigar store. I told her I was about to get married. I told her a hundred pretty stories, and she made like she believed every one of them. “That’s fine, Robert,” she would say, nodding her head and smiling, “I always knew things would work out for you.”…’

It’s a short story blog. We were going to get here at some point. And after this we’ll move on some place else. But this will be there wherever we go. That man will be there. The one with the cigarette covering his face.

There is no steering around Raymond Carver. A collision with his short fiction will have a lasting impact and, if you write short stories, your relationship with the form will share at least a postcode with your relationship with Carver. Whether the “brevity and intensity” (his description of his own writing inclinations) of Carver’s stories have acted like stabilisers on the child’s bicycle of your own fiction or you make a dash towards rococo palaces of the imagination whenever faced with one of his realist portraits of quiet, incremental disappointment, he is a major short fiction landmark. Consequently, I can approach one of his stories, A Small Good Thing, knowing any other one would do perfectly well as a primer to that cold-pressed technique. On the other hand, with this particular theme of short fiction and cinema, Carver’s significance works against easy choices: which of the Carver stories spliced together by Robert Altman for his 1993 portmanteau, Short Cuts, deserves special attention?
Altman was a cinematic figure every bit as singular and towering among directors as Carver was to short fiction writers. From a classic Hollywood generation, he was a senior figure among the group of US independent writers and directors who channelled the personal approach and styles of the French nouvelle vague. Altman’s films in the 1970s most embodied that bridge between naturalistic European sensibilities and the new counterculture-influenced Hollywood and, after the routine fallow period of the 1980s (Popeye being his own take on the Stevie Wonder I Just Called To Say I Love You parable about the creative drain that was the Reagan/Thatcher era), his 1992 ensemble piece, The Player, reaffirmed his artistry and renewed his relevance. When he mobilised a large, impressive and eclectic cast to bring a cluster of Carver’s stories to the screen, it was an intoxicating opportunity to catch two great American storytellers of the ordinary and everyday, working in harmony.

Looking back on what was undoubtedly a cultural highlight at the time – and fulfilling viewing for a writer whose short story universe was then almost entirely Carver-shaped – I wonder what time and a deeper grounding in the form will reveal about how one of the key stories fared in adaptation. A Small Good Thing is pivotal to the way the film works, providing the one element of truly high drama (other than the resolution of the Lori Singer/Annie Ross strand, written for the screen by Altman’s collaborator, Frank Barhydt, to link the Carver pieces, and not a direct adaptation) in over three hours of slow-moving, finely-tuned character study. The movie’s length – I remember it being presented with an intermission on its cinema release – wasn’t wholly out of keeping with current trends in film drama; two hour running times were routinely exceeded and that year’s Oscar went to Schindler’s List, a film even longer than Short Cuts. However, it would seem to act against the “brevity” part of Carver’s watchword. Then again, A Small Good Thing is on the long side for a Carver story and its very pronounced three-act structure means it can more readily be stretched as opposed to sketched.

She gave the baker her name, Ann Weiss, and her telephone number. The cake would be ready on Monday morning, just out of the oven, in plenty of time for the child’s party that afternoon. The baker was not jolly. There were no pleasantries between them, just the minimum exchange of words, the necessary information. He made her feel uncomfortable, and she didn’t like that. While he was bent over the counter with the pencil in his hand, she studied his coarse features and wondered if he’d ever done anything else with his life besides be a baker. She was a mother and thirty-three years old, and it seemed to her that everyone, especially someone the baker’s age-a man old enough to be her father-must have children who’d gone through this special time of cakes and birthday parties. There must be that between them, she thought. But he was abrupt with her-not rude, just abrupt. She gave up trying to make friends with him. She looked into the back of the bakery and could see a long, heavy wooden table with aluminum pie pans stacked at one end; and beside the table a metal container filled with empty racks. There was an enormous oven. A radio was playing country-western music.

The baker finished printing the information on the special order card and closed up the binder. He looked at her and said, “Monday morning.” She thanked him and drove home.

The early attempts by Ann Weiss to engage with the taciturn baker, to have some of her excitement about her son’s birthday reflected back to her and simply for her to be liked in any given situation, are important signals to the reader within the opening scene of the story. The baker matters. His grim trudge through the labour of meeting Ann’s requirements for her son Scotty’s cake, and the cake itself, are to play a part. Contrast this with the depiction of the driver who, later, hits Scotty with his car:

The car had gone a hundred feet or so and stopped in the middle of the road. The man in the driver’s seat looked back over his shoulder. He waited until the boy got unsteadily to his feet. The boy wobbled a little. He looked dazed, but okay. The driver put the car into gear and drove away.

It’s horrific in its casual nature but the hit-and-run on the driver’s part is mirrored by Carver’s own treatment of the incident. We do not meet the driver again, yet his actions trigger everything else that happens in the story. Even though an extremely delayed shock to Scotty’s system will put him in hospital in an unconscious state, it’s the randomness of the collision, not the collision itself, that matters to the story. The film is obliged to deal with this essential dynamic in a different way. Other than a brief scene early on to establish Andie MacDowell’s Ann, and Bruce Davison as her husband, Howard, the first moment Altman shows from A Small Good Thing is the car hitting the boy, who is now named Casey. The brutal blank space that was Carver’s driver is now Lily Tomlin’s downtrodden waitress, Doreen. Each of the stories used for the film are adapted so that the plots and characters overlap; Doreen appears in They’re Not Your Husband, in which she has enough to worry about with her sullen, controlling husband (Tom Waits in the film) without also nearly running over an 8-year-old boy.

Jack Lemmon as Paul; Andie MacDowell as Ann; Bruce Davison as Howard

The scene in the bakery, with which Carver begins the story, takes place in the film immediately after we’ve seen Tomlin hit Casey, and have her offer to take him home refused. Although we’re yet to absorb the full tragic implications of the accident, it’s a more heavy-handed use of dramatic irony as Ann and the baker discuss the cake. The terse exchange of the story is missing but a lot of this is necessary compression: we don’t need to be told the baker is going to feature again in the story – he’s Lyle Lovett and they’re not going to employ him just to tell someone that the cake will be ready by tomorrow.

The overlap between stories – when Casey ends up in hospital, Howard’s estranged father, played by Jack Lemmon, makes an appearance, while the compassionate veteran doctor from the story is turned into Matthew Modine’s younger and breezier Ralph, both characters drafted in from other Carver texts – is a game Altman regularly played with narrative and it’s also his comment on Carver’s stories.

Altman’s view of Carver’s stories is that they work as individual parts of one mosaic. He’s right but it’s also true that each fragment within this mosaic is a beautifully constructed piece with its own coherence and unity. A Small Good Thing is extraordinary in that it takes a scenario worthy of Greek tragedy, almost horror, and resolves it within the context of life going on and humans finding a way to cope.

The boy looked at them, but without any sign of recognition. Then his mouth opened, his eyes scrunched closed, and he howled until he had no more air in his lungs. His face seemed to relax and soften then. His lips parted as his last breath was puffed through his throat and exhaled gently through the clenched teeth.

Scotty’s death provides unbearable reading, that howl very much the stuff of horror, whereas Ann’s transmutation of this grief into rage at the baker, who has been making abusive phonecalls about the uncollected cake, could be that of Althaea, throwing the logs onto the fire that will end the lives of her brothers who killed her son.

Altman does justice to the sudden, shocking nature of the boy’s death and, in perhaps the one moment in her acting career when you could use “powerful” about her performance, Andie MacDowell’s confrontation with Lovett is every bit as powerful as in the text. Yet, by continuing to whisk this storyline up with the rest and by wrapping up the denouement of each narrative within a suitably random but nonetheless jarring LA earthquake, the stunningly human ending to A Small Good Thing falls away, the intensity going the same way as the brevity. With time to counsel us, we might wonder whether the meandering, multi-star vehicles Altman began piloting with The Player and this, might not have been indicative of an increasingly frothy and superficial sensibility, to contrast with the robust likes of Nashville or M*A*S*H.

Perhaps the match with Carver was not quite so perfect. It’s brilliant, at times, when Altman and actors as compelling as Lemmon, Tomlin, Waits, Frances McDormand, Robert Downey Jr, Chris Penn, Tim Robbins or Jennifer Jason Leigh manage to capture Carver’s way with suppressed emotion and unspoken anguish. And Altman used cinema to question cinematic storytelling so he was entitled to move beyond strict adaptation, even with a writer as fiercely cherished as Carver. It could be that a more jobbing, less distinctive film-maker might have presented the stories in more discrete, episodic segments and brought out more of the strengths of the writing. It’s difficult to think of a director of comparable stature who would have taken a more faithful approach to the stories – thinking about Terrence Malick’s ephemeral string of episodic memories in Tree Of Life or Woody Allen’s Woody-isation of Philip Roth in Deconstructing Harry – so Short Cuts remains a definitive moment in our appreciation of the cinematic incursions by the short story cabal.

Family and your favourite bands provide you with the love affairs you’ll have to make do with until it’s time to have love affairs with real people. They do not qualify as real people themselves, living in symbiosis with your sense of self, and your commitment to them is, accordingly, contingent on neither party changing, growing, maturing or ever really improving. There is a subtly chilling moment in Frode Grytten‘s Sing Me To Sleep in which the 40-year-old narrator remarks on the sartorial evolution of his idol, Morrissey, as a preamble to a description of himself getting ready to go out:

I can see from photographs that Morrissey has got older too. His hair is quite short now, but he still has sideburns, and he’s started to wear Cox loafers and Gucci coats.

Morrissey is so bloody stylish. He always has been. He has more style than the whole pop industry put together. Some people think that he lost it after The Smiths, but that’s just bullshit. He’s still got what it takes.

I put on my black suit, a black t-shirt and my NHS glasses. The same glasses that Morrissey is wearing on the gatefold of Hatful Of Hollow.

Even though Morrissey is allowed to grow up and reflect his affluence in his dress style, the obsessive Smiths fan remains locked within the mid-80s uniform for disconnected young men and women.

Grytten’s story provides a superb example of a first person narrative in which the narrator manages to be a three-dimensional character whom we can study from all angles, rather than an avatar of the author. An example of the avatar-narrator might be Rob, from Nick Hornby’s novel, High Fidelity, whose list-making attitude to music, first, and then other people, is an indoors version of the football-watching, psychological self-portrait Hornby painted in Fever Pitch. Autobiograpical details aren’t a factor: Grytten is a 40-something from the small Norwegian town of Odda, where the story is set, with a quiff and glasses (more Richard Hawley than Morrissey) and a taste for 1980s post-punk and indie music, but the maudlin, stilted, repetitive prose, that we see in Kari Dickson’s translation, serves first to build the character and then throw him towards the definitive moment in his life: the death of his beloved mother.

In this way, the short story has much in common with the dramatic monologue and, although Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads are unlikely ever to quote from Please Please Let Me Get What I Want or the other Smiths lyrics peppering the text, we can recognise Grytten’s narrator as a Scandanavian cousin of the Bennett creations. The main difference, though, is that the Talking Heads talk to us, whereas Grytten’s character is largely talking to himself. He details the regimen of care for his mother and his accompanying feelings about her love for him, the devastation of her divorce from his belligerent father, the prospect of her death and how that will leave him bereft yet liberated – and we witness his affection, infuriation, shame and pride at the same time as he admits these feelings to himself. So, if you like, we are watching his soul in performance – very much in the vein of a solo work of drama – but the short story additionally has recourse to movement and action, the new dynamics that come with a change of scene; and Sing Me To Sleep makes the transition from character study to a classic, plot-driven Quest in less time than it takes Johnny Marr to take the tedious self-pity in a Morrissey lyric and transform it into something heroic.

Sing Me To Sleep is a contender for future analysis in our Reel Time Short Stories series as it’s been adapted for the screen in a 2010 Polish/Norwegian co-production, the watchful, ruminative longeurs of Polish cinema a good partner for the breathing spaces inhabiting short fiction. Grytten’s narrator and his mother share a mutual frustration at the life each other has ended up with, and this results in a sad, tender paso doble in their dialogue which leads to him blurting out the lie that he has a girlfriend, and that he’ll bring her to meet his mother the next day. It’s the moment when drama replaces characterisation, and it draws comparison with Wolfgang Becker’s 2002 film, Goodbye Lenin, in which an East German son nurses his loyal Communist mother back to health while hoping to prevent the news of the Berlin Wall’s collapse from shocking her into a relapse; in the Grytten story, the narrator has to navigate the understanding that, were his mother to die overnight, this would save him from his lie, but that finding out the truth would kill her, and he’d be the murderer. Another connection can be made with Paul Auster’s short, Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story – which has also appeared on film, within Wayne Wang’s Smoke with Harvey Keitel as Auggie – a seasonal tale of a palliative white lie between people who understand that the fantasy provides all the truth that’s going to be needed in that situation.

As well as the plot, the settings in these comparable narratives shape what’s being told. The tumult of Berlin in 1989 and the enduring affection Auster repeatedly display for his Brooklyn neighbourhood are what makes those stories happen. This is no less the case with Sing Me To Sleep, which appeared in Comma’s 2007 Elsewhere anthology of stories from small town Europe. Odda is the source of conflict and it’s the relationship that will never change, the love affair that will never provide relief or escape. While his mother’s demise is inevitable and the changes Morrissey has made to his look and his music can be celebrated, when Odda changes to become the Anytown that all our towns and cities are marketing their way towards, it only provides more confinement:

I have an inner picture of Odda, and it’s a beautiful Odda, a dirty and rusty and old Odda, but a beautiful Odda all the same. I don’t want to see the other Odda, the new Odda that is trying to be not-Odda.

“The rain falls down on a humdrum town,” somebody once sang. Until the clouds break, if ever they will, or you find some rain in a town less humdrum, bringing a fake girlfriend home to fool your dying mother can be the action of a hero.

Julie Christie and Shia LaBoeuf in "New York I Love You"

When I floated the idea of examining the relationship between short fiction and cinema, most of the responses followed the path from page to screen. I’ve looked at one example of an adaptation, and will return to others in future, but this edition of Reel Time looks at a film franchise which faces out from the screen towards the short story.

Emmanuel Benhiby and Claudie Ossard’s productions under the Cities of Love banner first announced themselves in 2006 with the cinematic release of Paris, Je t’Aime, which was followed in 2009 by New York, I Love You. Rio, Shanghai and Jerusalem are each due to receive a similar declaration of love in the coming years. The films bring together a coruscating array of directors and actors, as cosmopolitan as the cities themselves, who create a series of loosely-linked vignettes. Paris… has as its organising structure the twenty arrondissements of the city, with a different short narrative in each (only eighteen made the final cut), stitched together with a cluster of transitory images. For New York…, there were fewer stories, more superficial crossover between characters from different stories, and a character depicted as the ‘eye’ seeing the transitional sequences.

Natalie Portman and Melchior Beslon in "Paris, je t'aime"

The smörgåsbord of international directorial visions and acting talent has been witnessed before by filmgoers. Each June during my childhood, I seem to have watched and been engrossed by The Longest Day, and its blend of Hollywood, Ealing and European film-making flavours telling the story of the D-Day landings from multiple points of view. Both the Cities of Love so far depicted have (in addition to their countless other cinematic interventions, appearing somewhere between the moon and before sunset) been backdrops to a small compendium of narratives. New York Stories presented a triptych from local masters, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. The result was hit and miss, or rather, respectively, hit, miss, and make it stop. A legend of French cinema, Eric Rohmer, made the beguiling Rendezvous In Paris in 1995, splicing together three contrasting love stories with the city in common. However, it is reasonable to suggest that, above all these, Cities of Love owes something to Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, which succeeded in translating the sensibility and distilled short story technique of Raymond Carver into a cinematic language. What Cities of Love owes Short Cuts, to be honest, is an apology.

The cities are more than appropriate crucibles for the multiple narratives, images and characterisations that should form a themed anthology. All of the locations are stylish; most of the cast is gorgeous; in each film, there are diverting passages and exquisite moments. What, however, is gained in a book of short stories – at the expense of a novel’s grander narrative sweep and deeper exploration of ideas and language – is the sense of taking the time to fall into step with the lives of complete strangers, of having that serial absorption in different currents of humanity. Short story pacing slows the reader down and, in adaptation, can slow the film-maker down. No-one is racing towards a resolution. With the NY and Parisian vignettes, on the other hand, each segment feels either abandoned mid-resolution or that it carries, all the way through, an overbearing sense of being about to pull a rabbit from a hat – or, more appropriately, a pack-shot of the product being advertised.

In attempting to pare back the expanse of film narrative into something resembling a series of short stories, the film-makers have ended up with a showreel of adverts and music videos. The contributors parade past and, as stylish as several are, the contributions end up resembling nothing so much as a charity auction selling celebrity-customised t-shirts. The appeal isn’t in the artwork but the fact that someone that famous made a donation.

I maintain that a cinematic language, away from that developed within adaptations, can be found that matches the qualities I ascribe to the short story. In Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life, for example, the non-linear narrative allows for a very long and seemingly impressionistic sequence in which Sean Penn’s character is haunted by, or seen to be grappling with, his childhood memories and specifically his and his parents’ unresolved grief over the death of his brother. The moments of childhood and family, particular to this story but fiercely familiar, are depicted with such intense honesty that it’s the viewer who projects a narrative text onto, say, the taut, wounded, burdened stance and facial expressions of Hunter McCracken [pictured here in the background, playing Penn’s character as a boy], the eldest of three children.

As ever, the short story connection is built upon a thirst for detail, not a coincidence of brevity.

You might believe that the couple – a man, older, upright but with a hint of the debonair; and a woman. elegant, reserved, much younger – with the nine-year-old blond boy, are on a family visit to London Zoo. In fact, we’re bearing witness to a growing dysfunction. The boy, Philippe, is the near-forgotten child of diplomats whose only friend is his parents’ butler, Baines. Yet the zoo trip is no expression of surrogate parenthood but a subterfuge so that Baines may spend time with his extramarital lover, Julie, as well as safeguard Philippe’s silence, after he interrupted a previous assignation between the two.

The London Zoo sequence in Carol Reed’s 1948 film, The Fallen Idol, is an embellishment of a passage in Graham Greene’s short story, The Basement Room, in which Baines takes “Philip” to attend his rendezvous with “Emmy”. As our first Reel Time Short Stories study – and thanks to Steenbeck for the comment that inspired the reading and, after many years, second viewing – we’re looking at a short story adapted for the screen by, in this case, the story’s creator.

Greene seems to have understood cinema and in Reed he had a collaborator adept at reflecting the poetics of the original. Much is retained: Ralph Richardson’s Baines is a slippery fantasist, breezy with a charm and confidence that evaporates by the end, leaving him with, in the words of the story, “his old soft stupid expression”; Philip’s mantra of “This is life”, as he ventures into the London streets and towards adult life, is made real for us in Reed’s choreography of the city, something of a mid-point between the Vienna of another collaboration with Greene, The Third Man [left], and the alternative London presented in his Oliver!

For two-thirds of the film, give or take the fleshing out of characters or scenes, we could be watching the straight, stylish rendering of the short story’s narrative. Gradually, though, Greene the screenwriter transforms his downbeat Greek tragedy into a black comedy of misunderstanding and romantic redemption. In adaptation, Greene can tug at the heartstrings but find room for acidic asides – Dora Bryan’s prostitute’s happy declaration to Phile that she knows his dad – whereas in the text, his curmudgeon bleeds through even the naive POV with withering observations on the flailing ambitions and alienations that make up a society:

Philip had never seen the girl, but he remembered Baines had a niece. She was thin and drawn, and she wore a white mackintosh; she meant nothing to Philip; she belonged to a world about which he knew nothing at all. He couldn’t make up stories about her, as he could make them up about withered Sir Hubert Reed, the Permanent Secretary, about Mrs. Wince-Dudley, who came once a year from Penstanley in Suffolk with a green umbrella and an enormous black handbag, as he could make them up about the upper servants in all the houses where he went to tea and games. She just didn’t belong. He thought of mermaids and Undine, but she didn’t belong there either, nor to the adventures of Emil, nor to the Bastables. She sat there looking at an iced pink cake in the detachment and mystery of the completely disinherited, looking at the half-used pots of powder which Baines had set out on the marble-topped table between them.

While Greene manages to alter the plot and some of the tone in order to engage the film audience’s sympathies – and it’s true that Baines and his lover are more passionate and appealing in the film, and Mrs Baines more malevolent – we can detect examples of the short story approach carrying through into the film. The resolution of the narrative within a self-contained or claustrophobic space is a short story characteristic, as we’ve discussed previously, and it’s worth noting that there are differences between the way London is used here and the way the action is played out against the city backdrops in the two celebrated Reed films I mentioned above. Here, we glimpse it in passing or look over it, like the Lady of Shallot, from a remote tower. Philip/Phile in his desolate principality, swallowed by the enormous staircase through whose banister teeth he views life; Baines and Mrs Baines in their loveless marriage; Emmy/Julie in her hopeless fixation on a man offering her no real future: these are familiar inhabitants of a short story and the film resists the temptation to let them taste a world beyond this captivity.

Finally, it comes down to the detail, as it must in short fiction. As Philip/Phile uncomprehendingly bursts in on Baines and Emmy/Julie in their erstwhile secret café, the lovers part in hurried and harrowing fashion. The film makes more of this, with an almost comically overlong 3rd person conversation about the plans of Julie’s “friend” to leave the country. That sequence, though, is rounded off by a visual detail that any short story writer would love to have depicted: Richardson, as Baines, disappears behind a clouded glass partition and we see his silhouette slump and the shadow of his hand reach to clasp his mouth. When he collects himself and returns to the table where Phile is still munching cake, the platitude he comes out with (“The cup that cheers”) is taken directly from the story, an ironic epitaph for a broken afternoon in lives where nothing certain will remain in one piece:

“Who is she?” Philip asked. “Is she your niece?”
“Oh, yes,” Baines said, “that’s who she is; she’s my niece,” and poured the last drops of water onto the coarse black leaves in the teapot.
“May as well have another cup,” Baines said.
“The cup that cheers,” he said hopelessly, watching the bitter black fluid drain out of the spout.


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