Don't be seduced by the camera
Margaret Leclere on the new relationship between novelists and the cinema In a discussion on Channel 4, Martin Amis, Gore Vidal and Salman Rushdie appeared alarmingly in agreement on the subject of the pre-eminence of the cinema in modern culture. It is as if novelists, in millennium fever, are belatedly rushing to embrace the technological future: the Internet, the virtual world, the primacy of the visual as the communicator in a global Village. In the arts, film rules, and men of letters are running scared, scrabbling for something called `cineliteracy'. . It's a dispiriting sight. Since the birth of cinema it is literature that has inspired film-makers to ever greater technique and artistry in the search for a visible expres- siveness to rival the power of words. Film's strength has always been the expression of emotion but, as Orson Welles once said, and as Gore Vidal resignedly grumbled on television, the camera is still unable to pho- tograph thought and, as such, it remains a blunt instrument — like a sledge-hammer. Without words, the essence of cinema remains the Eisensteinian formula: the one image juxtaposed against another gives rise to a third in the viewer's mind (or, just to Prove its irrationality: one plus one equals three). This, as we know, makes film the greatest aid to propaganda that exists. Today, the cinema is an Orwellian tool of social engineering of terrifying power, so Perhaps novelists are right to be finally get- ting seriously involved. Or is it simply the old Hemingway complex — an idea that, these days, real men make movies, like real men used to go to war? Real men David Mamet, Sam Shepard, Paul Auster, writers Who have taken on the movie monster, writers who measure up to the legendary likes of Orson Welles, Oliver Stone, John Huston, Sam Peckinpah, Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola . . . . But what does it mean anyway, to be cmeliterate? Its simplest, crudest applica- tion is the one in which the author and/or his characters are so steeped in movie cul- ture that his/their language and thoughts cannot help but be coloured by it, as in a Tarantino movie. Then there is the cinelit- eracy which is more concerned with the grammar of film, which itself evolved from the forms of literature. Since the early days of cinema there has been a borrowing back and forth, resulting in an ever greater free- dom of form for both disciplines — where once a literary link like: 'As Johnnie stood gazing out across the bay, he remem- bered. ..' required the screen image to wave and dissolve into a recognised 'flash- back', now neither novelists nor film-mak- ers bother; they simply leave a line space or 'Cut To:'.
Lastly, there is the trend towards screen- plays-done-in-novel-form (Phillip Kerr, Michael Crichton), and also a creeping ten- dency on the part of novelists to include visual set-pieces (like the balloon sequence at the beginning of Ian McEwan's Enduring Love, a pre-title sequence if ever there was one — and apparently McEwan is acting as associate producer on the film).
But the until now largely benign, even beneficial, symbiosis of novels and films is changing its character. In a recent issue of the Literary Review, Nick James, praising the cineliteracy of Nicholas Royle's The Matter of the Heart, writes: `Royle seems to realise that for the new fiction to thrive at the speed of its readers' digitally fed imagi- nations, deep characters must be dispensed with early on.' He applauds the book's cli- max in a Sergio Leone-meets-Pasolini location ..' which 'anticipates the camera'. He then ends with: 'The new British fiction is marked by the camera as profoundly as Graham Greene's, and is all the better for it.' How bizarre this is when the book's very cineliterate characters refer to films only with reference to their directors. One would have thought that at the very least novelists, instead of displaying their knowl- edge of directors' names, could show a lit- tle solidarity with their fellow-writers, the screenwriters (which Graham Greene also was). Meanwhile screenwriters, especially in America where they are a fully evolved 'It's merely listed as erotic. I was hoping there might be a frisson of pornography.' breed, must be watching all this bemused. For decades they've had to eat humble pie, acknowledge that real writers write novels and plays, accept that they are hacks and strangle the possessive urge to describe (for example) their characters' clothes, or set out too exactly how a scene should be shot (they try, but rarely get away with it). And deep down, the screenwriter feels it's true — he is a hack. If he were a real writer, he'd finish that novel, the one that is prov- ing harder than any script, that is like wad- ing through quicksand compared to the hop, skip and jump of a story told in screenplay form. Yet now, browsing in bookshops, he finds that novelists appear increasingly to be using the movies as their source material. With the culture eating itself in this way, there is a danger we will all end up with intellectual spongiform encephalopathy. Today, younger novelists populate great sagas with predigested char- acters that they feel they know, because they have seen them on television or in the movies (after all, they grew up with them).
And ownership of these characters is a grey area. Screenwriters' copyright is undermined by the demands of the indus- try they work in. A 'standard' contract has him waive his `Droit Moral' (in perpetuity throughout the known universe), so that the necessary millions can be raised on the 'property'. This means that, in the end, his characters belong to the major financier, who, once the film is done with, doesn't care who uses them, so long as it's not for a sequel or remake. So all these characters can now be, and are, borrowed by the liter- ary world like clothes from a great commu- nal wardrobe.
All of this makes Martin Amis's Night Train very interesting reading. Because, while Amis could be accused of having dipped into this wardrobe for his detective Mike Hoolihan (who comes across as a composite made of both Cagney and Lacey, and perhaps also that female cop from the movie Fargo), his novel is almost an illustration of the trouble with cineliter- acy; perhaps it is even an aggressive reac- tion to it. At first it appears very much a novel-as-would-be-movie: slight plot, noirish in theme, with the right balance of dialogue to movement from place to place (one can see those police autopsy-room doors swing back and forth, hear those unmarked police car doors slam). It has a tackstory'. It also has the right ethnic and gender balance for a modern cop movie, as if Amis had capitulated to the movies' first requirement: that the rules of PC be adhered to (an easy halo used by film mak- ers, as by New Labour, simply as insur- ance). Most importantly, its central image is the one movie makers drool over: the beautiful, naked, dead, fantasy female, her mouth open for the phallus/gun-muzzle.
But perhaps this is just the worm on Amis's hook, because the book develops into something that remains beyond the reach of the movies — a novel of ideas. And, despite the book's many movie moments, including screenplay-like descriptions of visuals (which, unlike pure literary description, are also saying: 'Look! Look! This would look great on film: it says so much about the plot/character and it is purely visual'), it would take the wordiest- ever adaptation to explain to an audience what Mike Hoolihan is up to, and what it all means or why any of it matters. The audience would still be waiting for the mur- derer to be unmasked at the end, whatever had gone before. It's as if Amis is teasing, providing so much the movie-makers want (even autopsy as rape), but making it impossible for them to have it. Perhaps a battle was raging in Martin Amis, and the novelist won.
For which we should feel grateful, because, unless the literary world maintains its snooty sense of superiority to the movie world, we are lost. We need literature as much as ever, but we need it to be impervi- ous to the power of that fascinating and seductive but still essentially blunt instru- ment, cinema.
Margaret Leclere is a screenwriter.