Real Time Short Stories

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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.


Each of us, it would seem, orbits one another across ever-widening tracts of space. Is it that society, community, is what takes place in the furthest hinterland of our consciousness, or is it each one of us who is at the periphery of the larger narrative? Can writing, that adventure in solipsism, cope with the understanding that none of us was ever the story?

Even fiction, which has long since ceased to be based purely on the mythologies of Gods, Rulers and Heroes, can’t cope with absolute democracy. In any piece of fiction, characters will be central, secondary or peripheral. This even applies to stories told over several years, with dozens of characters engaged in hundreds of storylines: for a quarter of a century, on BBC TV’s Eastenders, whenever a major character has been called away to attend to a plot development, Tracey [played by Jane Slaughter, above] has covered for them on their stall or in their shift behind the bar of the Queen Vic. In NBC’s The West Wing, in a belt-and-braces expression of periphery, Renée Estevez – a member of the Sheen acting dynasty who wasn’t sent to assassinate Marlon Brando, wasn’t in The Breakfast Club and isn’t the internet’s own Charlie Sheen – held down, as “Nancy”, a desk job in the Whitehouse during seven seasons of the drama about the Presidency of Jed Bartlet, played by her father. She greeted members of the staff and guests going in and out of the Oval Office and had not one moment of plot devoted to her life or work. This was in a series in which there were fully-fledged peripheral characters (economic advisers Ed and Larry; personal assistants Carol, Bonnie and Ginger) who also had no plots of their own but they at least got to engage in significant dialogue and do the occasional trademark walk’n’talk scene with the lead actors. Nancy said “Good morning, Mr President” and opened doors, and that was it. As viewers, we follow the lights that shine most brightly but, as writers, if we look to the shadows, to the lives of the Traceys and the Nancys, that’s where we can find our narratives.


Writing in The Guardian in May about Tracey Emin
, Ali Smith – one of the key voices in contemporary short fiction – referenced a 1935 quote from Gertrude Stein in which she discussed how centuries of use in poetry had gradually sapped the “excitingness of pure being” from words which had once held tremendous resonance: “they were just rather stale literary words.” Narratives, too, grow stale and we need to pay attention to the ways in which storytellers will circumvent the glaring and the obvious. I’ve discussed the Simpsons Plot Detour previously, in reference to the way a typical Simpsons episode might embark on a narrative and then veer into a different story altogether after about five minutes. We can identify this as a device by the storytellers but it could also be a recognition of how the audience responds to narrative.

On our right, we have the 1947 painting, La Naissance de Vénus by the Belgian surrealist, Paul Delvaux. It’s a depiction of an event, a happening, and therefore it’s a story. And, in keeping with the narratives that our ancestors used to define and order our societies, it’s a story about a Deity. We can recognise Venus from the positioning of her hands and the tilt of her head but even a quick glance to our left at Botticelli’s canonical Birth of Venus shows us that Delvaux is drawing our gaze elsewhere. Delvaux’s goddess is not centrally located and is foregrounded to such a degree, she almost acts like a pillar blocking our view of part of the action at a sports ground. Almost immediately, we start to look past her – to the expression of exquisite sorrow on the face of what seems to be the maid to the right, to the naked bathers, the figures in the middle distance, the ghosts of giant faces suggested in the rock in the far distance, the ship which appears to lack a crew but must be piloted by someone…I’m guessing it’s Tracey from Eastenders.

In this late age for storytelling, the most effective route to a story may be to look to the edge of the crowd. The sense of what makes the world has changed to such a degree in the past century, we now have no doubts that, in society as in literature, the margins can reinvigorate the main page. Evolution tells us we’re all part of one sequence of molecular oscillation so no one story carries a ‘better’ truth than any other. Short stories must recognise this, because they rise and fall with the momentary, the illusory, the peripheral and the incidental.

Here’s an exercise for you: the recent story about the legendary French actor, Gérard Depardieu, urinating onto a CityJet plane’s carpet when refused permission to use the toilets prior to takeoff, was never going to be struggling for narrative potential. Like the appearance of the legendary footballer, Paul Gascoigne, at the fatal seige of a serial killer last summer, the nexus of spectacular human drama and a particular category of larger-than-life celebrity figure, immediately appeals to the sense that this was exactly what we used to expect of the ‘silly season’ and exactly what we used to expect from celebrities. The initial act, and the subsequent manner in which the story has played out in the media, may titillate or outrage us as consumers but needn’t concern us as writers. A fellow passenger’s eyewitness account of Depardieu’s actions on being caught short, in which she explained that “it all happened with courtesy,” is far more encouraging to our peripheral vision…

Consider that mood of courtesy. Look past the embarrassed superstar, peeved cabin staff and bewildered passengers. Move down the aisle. Pause for a moment at the woman paying close attention to the scene, noting the levels of courtesy and preparing the statement she’ll make to reporters. Think about her spreading this observation back through the plane so that those, who were unable to see the kerfuffle or hear the splash into and out of an inadequately-sized Evian bottle, have acquired a sense of having been there, of having been privy to the courtesy, and part of the story. And then there’s one passenger for whom none of this has an impact. For this passenger, the famous man, his bladder, the plane’s carpet – that’s all the periphery. What is this passenger’s story?


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