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« So who do you sound like? | Main | Time to get at it... »

Obsession, Altman, and the Art of Story

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about a certain Robert Altman film -- there was a time when all I thought of was Altman films. Well, maybe not all, but let's just say things got a bit obsessive -- just as they did with Sam Peckinpah, Don DeLillo, and the music of a certain Chicago band, which will remain nameless (WILCO).

What can I say, I'm a bit of an obsessive guy. One of my guilty pleasures is reading film criticism. I can disappear quite deeply into the minutia of what a certain scene in an underrated Peckinpah classic means in philosophical, sociological, and all the "cals." So there was a time when Altman was "it."

The film I've been thinking about (because geeky folk like me don't say "movie"), is McCabe & Mrs. Miller. The death of Leonard Cohen sprang the memory, since that was the first time I was really struck by his music. Sure, I knew Bird on the Wire, Suzanne, and the one K.D. Lang sings the most -- but it was the music of the Altman film that nailed me. I found out recently that Cohen didn't write the songs for the film, but in a way, Altman wrote the film based on the songs. If you dig around on the net, you will see what I mean. But whichever way it was, the film is a masterpiece. Not when it came out though. It was mostly panned except for frequent Altman cheerleader, the New Yorker's Pauline Kael. And Kael was right (and as usual, she was brilliant, so fricken' brilliant.)

I haven't seen the film in a few years because I have to be in the right mood -- that mood being super melancholy, or willing to become that way. It's a very sad film, Roger Ebert says it is one of the saddest in his glowing review. I actually tried to find Kael's review, but it is seemingly impossible. If someone knows where I can find it, please send me a link.

But what I know and remember of the film, is that when McCabe wanders into the town (like some Joseph looking for a manger... as Cohen sings) the people living there are not just some people that are sitting around on a film set, waiting for their chance to say their scripted lines. Rather, these people have been there for a very long time, just waiting for a story to happen, or maybe just for life to continue in its damp, muddy, dirty, underlit way. Other reviewers, Ebert or Kael, I forget which one, have also noted this.

This opening scene of McCabe & Mrs. Miller relates to how a story is formed... in the best of ways. My favourite blurb of my favourite book also relates here. Don DeLillo's Underworld is a beast of a book (900+ pages) and also happens to be my favourite book. I don't say that to be some sort of pretentious literary sort, this novel brought together everything that I loved (okay, obsessed) about DeLillo, and the rewards of that challenging read were huge. Michael Ondaatje blurbed the book, which went something like: a great novel teaches you how to read it. But in my memory Ondaatje, also said something about trusting an author to take you into town, and explain what you see, and what you will learn and feel. This is paramount in a DeLillo book, where the reader might be somewhat fearful to tread (or just damn confused).

Walking into an Altman film, or a DeLillo book, is like that. You need to trust, that if you just go awhile, you will be okay, things will become clear... or clear enough. This is the sort of trust I need as a writer when I begin a story. I need to trust that the story will talk to me, take me by the hand and tell me what it is about. 

When I began as a writer this kind of trust was hard. Ok, it was fucking impossible. I had so much to say, and to impart, and to teach, and, and, and... It took me a long time to learn that writing this way was akin to driving up my truckload of manure and dumping my shit onto poor reader's head. There. Got it now? Aren't I clever? Next.

I stole the manure metaphor from George Saunders (current obsession). And it nailed it for me.

I digress. Often.

The art, and craft, of the story is to be able to trust where it will take you as a writer. It's actually something that is very hard to do, and it takes a long time to learn it. Ask any writer, and I think you will get a version of this process.

So while I think about John McCabe (Pudgy McCabe!) wandering into that barely built, greasy, wet town, full of people who have inhabited the place for so long... I think of my own work-in-progress, and how I need to trust that it will eventually speak to me about where it's going. Um, please... just a hint, a nudge, would really help.

Here's some more Saunders on the relationship between the writer and the reader.




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