Real Time Short Stories

Posts Tagged ‘Carver

Morecambe’s restored art deco hotel, The Midland, offers its white screen to capture your projections. You sit in the tea room, below the vast whorls of the spiral staircase, and amidst the livery, potted palms, friezes and curved walls, and the pianist is playing These Foolish Things, you smell the “gardenia perfume lingering on a pillow”, dab the corner of your eye with a lace handkerchief or clench a pipe in your jaw and let the contents of the telegram held in your other hand wash over you…

David Constantine, fresh from a reading the previous night at Lancaster’s Litfest, checked out of his hotel and, before hitting the motorway, took a detour to Lancaster’s coastal neighbour. He ordered a pot of tea and sat by the plate glass windows overlooking the epic wilds of Morecambe Bay, notorious since 2004 and the tragic deaths of eighteen Chinese migrant workers picking cockles in the “furrows and ridges” of the tide. The tea took an age to come and he might have given up in order to get back on the road to his home in Oxford but, from his little corner table, he was able to eavesdrop a couple whose romantic afternoon tea was being soured by their contrasting reactions to the relief in the entrance lounge, “Odysseus welcomed from the sea by Nausicaa” by the artist Eric Gill.Constantine was reminded of the tea room meeting between a man and a woman, no doubt in brand new art deco surroundings, observed by Katherine Mansfield and reproduced as A Dill Pickle, and he carried the incident away with him in his notebook. The result was Tea at the Midland, published by Comma Press, and it made him the predecessor to D.W. Wilson when he won the 2010 BBC National Short Story Award.

Much of this is a lie, a fiction I’ve projected onto Constantine’s and indeed Mansfield’s processes – about either of which I know precisely nothing – based on elements of my own experience of taking tea at the Midland, where the order did indeed take an age to arrive and the water was indeed furrowed and ridged in the bay. There were no surfers, though, such as those watched by the woman in the story, behind the plate glass, projecting her ideals of grace and freedom onto their bobbing shapes:

In the din of waves and wind under that ripped-open sky they were enjoying themselves, they felt the life in them to be entirely theirs, to deploy how they liked best. To the woman watching they looked like grace itself, the
heart and soul of which is freedom. It pleased her particularly that they were attached by invisible strings to colourful curves of rapidly moving air.
How clean and clever that was!

Janet Malcolm, in her sublime study, Reading Chekhov – A Critical Journey [Granta, 2003], puts together a fascinating account of how the author’s death scene, in a German hotel room, has been re-created by a number of his biographers. To elements drawn from the eyewitness accounts, chiefly that of his widow Olga, of Chekhov’s final hours, other ‘facts’ have been added, most notably a sleepy young porter summoned in the middle of the night to bring champagne, a death-bed treat, to the room. The champagne was real, Malcolm tells us, but the porter was an invention by Raymond Carver in a story, Errand, written towards the end of his own life and published in 1988, which spun a fictional web around the events leading to Chekhov’s death. The manner in which the porter has come to be projected onto the ‘real’ story (albeit one easily disproved by less lazy researchers) suggests that Carver’s story has been read less as a fiction than as a preferred truth.

The woman, watching the surfers and constructing a fictional version of what she would like to be true about their moods and motivations, has been dealing in a preferred truth about the man with whom she is having tea, while his wife is at home, but projected, presumably in the act of cooking his dinner, onto the Midland’s curved white walls. She prefers, too, the truth she finds in the beauty of Gill’s frieze, in the gracious, graceful act of welcome he depicts, to the truth about Gill, whose diary accounts of his incest, paedophilia and bestiality were detailed in his biography, half a century after his death. The man can’t see other than with the hindsight these crimes have provided. He prefers his truth to come with moral certainties. When this isn’t the case – as when the woman asks whether “I should even have to learn to hate the sea because just out there, where that beautiful golden light is, those poor cockle-pickers drowned when the tide came in on them faster than they could run” – he wants no truck with it.

Constantine’s portrait of the man’s furious, controlling bluster, ostensibly intended for Gill but very much trained on his lover, skewers the hypocrisy of the hawkers of moral outrage. The undercurrent of menace is allowed to drift into the reader’s line of vision, never waved in front of our faces. We listen more closely to the woman, as she tries to contextualise her feelings about the Gill frieze by talking about the questionable moral character of Odysseus:

Odysseus was a horrible man. He didn’t deserve the courtesy he received from Nausikaa and her mother and father. I don’t forget that when I see
him coming out of hiding with the olive branch. I know what he has done already in the twenty years away. And I know the foul things he will do when he gets home. But at that moment, the one that Gill chose for his frieze, he is naked and helpless and the young woman is courteous to him and she knows for certain that her mother and father will welcome him at their hearth. Aren’t we allowed to contemplate such moments? – I haven’t read it, he said.

Those four words he speaks could be a backhand crashing into the side of her face, so brutal and disdainful is his attempt to sweep aside her point of view. That he doesn’t is a recognition of how the café environment allows a writer to construct surface and submerged narratives. Confined by the fact that “they were sitting at a table over afternoon tea in a place that had pretensions to style and decorum” only their wilting verbal communication is able to reflect the submerged frustration and rage. Outside, on the other side of the plate glass, the wind is ferocious, the waters wild, and there is beauty and uncomplicated joy in the surf. Inside, even the beauty comes with an overbearing moral shadow. The confined space generates the discord in the first place: the moral division over Gill’s artwork, represented in the couple’s views, is likely to be waged within any viewer who knows the back-story; anyone looking out from this swanky outpost cannot avoid projecting the fate of the cockle-pickers – their conditions of labour in the first place – onto the view of the tides. As with A Dill Pickle, the matter of the bill signals the end of the narrative. The restricted narrative space afforded by the Midland’s tea rooms allows the writer to project his fiction onto it, and re-align the truths held therein.

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.

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.

If you caught my appraisal of the Ernest Hemingway story, A Clean Well-Lighted Place in the Cafe Shorts series last month, you may be interested to know that the story is mentioned in the the latest instalment of Chris Power’s Guardian Books column, A brief survey of the short story.

Power’s piece describes Ernest Hemingway’s blend of James Joyce’s “form as content” approach, “Hemingway’s [own] journalism training and the tenets of Pound’s Imagism, [resulting in] short, simple sentences mostly comprised of nouns and verbs. Adjectives and adverbs are used sparingly…” This is extremely useful in helping us to understand the evolution of the short story within modernism. What Hemingway did with his prose had, in Power’s words, “a measurable and profound” impact on short fiction (most tellingly, on Raymond Carver) that has followed ever since. The “cup of tea exercise” I brought you recently and my earlier strictures against writing “rowlingly” stem from attitudes entwined with Hemingway’s approach.

CLIVE: I'll tell you another thing gives me the horn. DEREK: What's that? CLIVE: The word "and". DEREK: Oh, "and". CLIVE: Whenever I see the word "and" in a book ..... DEREK: You-, you've picked a favourite of mine there. CLIVE: ..... I get so fucking horny, I- DEREK: Oh, fucking "and", mate. Ohh, Jesus, .....

In acknowledging this, are we, as 21st century short story writers, indulging in some kind of auto-erotic asphyxiation of our prose styles? The debt owed to Hemingway, Carver, and other architects of the space around the words, underwrites much that is good in the prose of contemporary short story writers, but we have also an obligation to elude our influences, to make new with language. Such is the push-me, pull-me progress of this form, adhering to classic formalism and contemporary relevance within its own concise package.

Gina Rowlands (passenger) and Winona Ryder (driver) in Jim Jarmusch's "Night On Earth" (1991)

I don’t like it when somebody comes up to me the next day and says, “I really dug your message, man; I really dug your play. I cried.” I like it when people come up to me the next day, or a week later and they say, “Hey, man, I saw your play… what happened?”

In Tootsie, Bill Murray, as Jeff Slater, takes it upon himself to speak for playwrights and the relationship they wish to have with their audiences. Short story writers are also addressing “people who are alive on the planet” and we don’t mind the “what happened?” response either. Cinema resides far more squarely within the mass market where an ambiguous resolution can be a kiss of death to a work. Indeed, it’s a medium that seems much happier to have, as a resolution, a kiss. So what happens when the redemptive arcs and neat denouements of cinema collide with the unremarked-upon epiphanies and asymmetrical narrative patterns of short fiction?

Lyle Lovett in Robert Altman's "Short Cuts" (1993). Lovett's character comes from Raymond Carver's "A Small Good Thing"


Of course, this is a false dichotomy. Short stories have always found a role in the development of cinema. When the journey is from page to screen, it’s not difficult to see the value in adapting from a short story: you will generally find a strong story dynamic in the presence of a distinctive central character, relationship or setting; the plot will invariably condense narratives that may be opened up with the virtue of screen time; and the chances are you won’t be dealing with a work fixed in the canon of Great Literature and/or in the wider popular consciousness whereby liberties taken, chunks taken out and necessary compressions are guaranteed to provoke debate.

Short stories are safer ground for adaptation but they’re also instructive to film-makers. When I floated a question about the traffic between short story and film on Facebook this week, the terrific, erudite discussion (thanks to all!) threw up examples spanning the globe and the history of the medium, of films and film-makers drawing from specific short stories. This included films which expanded and substantially re-worked a short fiction original – for example, Hanif Kureishi’s melancholic father-son study, My Son The Fanatic,

Om Puri and Rachel Griffiths in Hanif Kureishi and Udayan Prasad's "My Son The Fanatic" (1997)

which he adapted for the 1997 Udayan Prasad-directed film of the same name but with greater jeopardy and more transgressive romance at the centre of the drama – and films like the Altman/Carver compendium, Short Cuts. A good proportion of the films cited came from longer works – novellas, short novels and frame narratives (by Chaucer and Boccaccio, for example, not to mention the Arabian nights tales) – and some of the stories (Angela Carter the shining example) were themselves adaptations of traditional folk tales.

This isn’t, though, a one-way street. It’s possible to find films which, in varying ways, seek to use cinematic language to compose the equivalent of short stories (if we regard the full-length feature as the equivalent of a novel). The idea is given free air miles by the steadily growing franchise of producer Emmanuel Benbihy‘s so far very patchy “I Love You” films. With Paris Je T’Aime and New York I Love You already completed and Jerusalem and Shanghai versions in production, this is cinema with the short story as the high concept, with several teams of international directors, writers and actors composing moody vignettes relating to love in the city. Comparison may be drawn with the Comma Press Cities in Short Fiction series, with titles such as the one to which I contributed, The Book Of Liverpool (which includes Clive Barker’s short story that provided the basis for the Candyman horror series). Other Comma titles like Re-Berth, Decapolis and Elsewhere, taking stories from towns and cities in different countries, could provide parallels to Night On Earth, the Jim Jarmusch quintet of vignettes taking us on a series of taxi journeys in LA, New York, Paris, Rome and Helsinki. In the cases of these films – as well as the Scorsese/Coppola/Allen triptych New York Stories, Ealing’s 1945 Dead Of Night collection of ghost stories, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Abbas Kiorastami’s Ten and Woody Allen’s Radio Days – the device of the shorter narrative is the foundation on which the film is written and directed.

What techniques can we detect in the transition between short story and film adaptation? How does the language of the short story translate into that of the cinema? And to what extent does what is suggested or left to the imagination on the page find exposure on the screen? In the other direction, how successful is cinema when it aspires to the concentration and ambiguity common to short stories? Reel Time Short Stories joins the other occasional series, Cafe Shorts and Real Time Reads, as a platform for discussing the interface between short fiction and cinema, as we look for new ways to understand the mechanisms and mysteries that come with reading and writing short stories. If you have a particular interest in film, keep your eye out for alerts with the Reel Time Short Stories label. Your input is welcome at any time: how successfully do you think these two form interconnect and what are your favourite / least favourite examples of short stories in the cinema?

Harryhausen meets Sheherazade in Nathan Juran's "7th Voyage of Sinbad" (1958)


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