Monday, January 25, 2010

Heaven's Gate

Anyone who hasn't seen Michael Cimino's film Heaven's Gate is missing something. It's a rarity because not many directors get unlimited fund and then make a film about community and honor and love. The version I saw was 4 hours long and there is another hour out there somewhere. This scene at a Wyoming skate hall in 1890 is as unusual as it is mesmerizing. It's gratuitous and almost completely visual but there is a point. I don't think this is the best scene in cinema history. (That might go to the ending of Citizen Kane.) but it's still a huge production and until Donald Trump decides to fund, film and edit a movie then you aren't going to see something like it (although the waltz at the start of the film is completely insane). The budget was like $3 million and Cimino spent $30 million. So what you are really watching is his career and United Artists Studio going up in smoke.

Some writing analysis...

Since I've been thinking that the real model of my Santa Cruz story is kind of a cross between Uncle Tom's Cabin and Crime and Punishment here is a comparison of both.

Crime and Punishment...

This evening, however, on coming out into the street, he became
acutely aware of his fears.
"I want to attempt a thing like that and am frightened by these
trifles," he thought, with an odd smile. "Hm... yes, all is in a man's
hands and he lets it all slip from cowardice, that's an axiom. It
would be interesting to know what it is men are most afraid of. Taking
a new step, uttering a new word is what they fear most.... But I am
talking too much. It's because I chatter that I do nothing. Or perhaps
it is that I chatter because I do nothing. I've learned to chatter
this last month, lying for days together in my den thinking... of Jack
the Giant-killer. Why am I going there now? Am I capable of that? Is
that serious? It is not serious at all. It's simply a fantasy to amuse
myself; a plaything! Yes, maybe it is a plaything."
The heat in the street was terrible: and the airlessness, the bustle
and the plaster, scaffolding, bricks, and dust all about him, and that
special Petersburg stench, so familiar to all who are unable to get
out of town in summer- all worked painfully upon the young man's
already overwrought nerves.

I love this execution. The internal dialogue is priceless. He's fixating.
And the narrative adds to the dialogue without interjecting the author's opinion. That is the hardest part in my opinion. Third person narratives are so hard because it is so easy to slip into a commentary of the events...which is subjective. But if you are writing subjectively then your opinions will overwhelm the writing. You can do it but it becomes commentary and the reader begins to feel he is being led to a conclusion. That's why this is the crowned achievement in writing. You have to pull off a triple fraud of creating characters who don't exist, allowing those multiple characters to voice their own opinions, and narrating as though you were just describing events and had no opinion of your own. That's not easy. I'll tell you why it's not easy. Listen. To accurately find the voice of this manic, fixating young man, our hero Dostoyevsky had to visit that crazy land himself. See, that's the part they don't tell you in English 101. Unless you want to write like a chump from New England then you have to get out of yourself. And if you are lucky enough to buy a round trip ticket then you will get to write about what you saw. There is no way Dostoyevsky spent 5 years in a Siberian prison without having a lot of time on his hands to fixate on revenge. He knows the sound of an internal monologue that eats itself. You aren't reading a guy's own speech to himself as he prepares to kill a pawn broker. No. You are hearing Dostoyevsky give himself a pep talk to get through another frozen winter night in a gulag. But it doesn't sound like that because D. has found a voice that isn't his own.

Let's see if Harriet Stowe gets the same results...

Tom spoke in a mild voice, but with a decision that could not be mistaken. Legree shook with anger; his greenish eyes glared fiercely, and his very whiskers seemed to curl with passion; but, like some ferocious beast, that plays with its victim before he devours it, he kept back his strong impulse to proceed to immediate violence, and broke out into bitter raillery.

"Well, here's a pious dog, at last, let down among us sinners!—a saint, a gentleman, and no less, to talk to us sinners about our sins! Powerful holy critter, he must be! Here, you rascal, you make believe to be so pious,—didn't you never hear, out of yer Bible, 'Servants, obey yer masters'? An't I yer master? Didn't I pay down twelve hundred dollars, cash, for all there is inside yer old cussed black shell? An't yer mine, now, body and soul?" he said, giving Tom a violent kick with his heavy boot; "tell me!"

In the very depth of physical suffering, bowed by brutal oppression, this question shot a gleam of joy and triumph through Tom's soul. He suddenly stretched himself up, and, looking earnestly to heaven, while the tears and blood that flowed down his face mingled, he exclaimed,

"No! no! no! my soul an't yours, Mas'r! You haven't bought it,—ye can't buy it! It's been bought and paid for, by one that is able to keep it;—no matter, no matter, you can't harm me!"

"I can't!" said Legree, with a sneer; "we'll see,—we'll see! Here, Sambo, Quimbo, give this dog such a breakin' in as he won't get over, this month!"

The two gigantic negroes that now laid hold of Tom, with fiendish exultation in their faces, might have formed no unapt personification of powers of darkness. The poor woman screamed with apprehension, and all rose, as by a general impulse, while they dragged him unresisting from the place.

Even though the moral framing of Stowe's two characters benefits Uncle Tom more than Legree, her voice never breaks into commentary from the slanted narrative. The author doesn't really dig deep here. Certainly, this is a broad rendering of two metaphors, good and evil. She understood that and aims mostly to get the dialect correct. She's dealing with a story of ideas and it isn't so important to create deeply dimensional characters like Raskolnikov above. I would bet no slave was so easily defined as Uncle Tom in real life but Raskolnikov rings completely true to me.

Let's see how old Oggy Bleacher measures up...

Mary appeared shoving her wire frame shopping cart, her chin jutting forward from her taut neck like the prow of H.M.S. Cranktastic. The plastic cart wheels rattled and banged along the rocks and sand until they came to rest near Oggy’s broken bicycle.

“Oggy, you seen Izzy? Eh?”

“Isabelle? She’s around here,” said Oggy. "She was planting flowers." Mary’s teeth rattled in her jaw and her head twitched to a nonexistent rhythm. She scratched her arms, especially the delicate sores that had developed near her juicy injection sites.

“You see her tell her I’m looking for her. Ok, baby?”

Oggy said OK. "You look pretty today," he added as Mary lunged in the direction of the food table.

Oggy held the derailleur spring in one hand and a pair of rusty pliers in the other. The spring had broken in half but Oggy believed he could stretch the spring back into the original length and then add a hook at one end and thus put it back into action. The problem he was experiencing was the pliers themselves were rusty and the gripping surfaces did not meet so it was with great patience that he used the hole for the bolt to bend the spring around. When the spring broke again he scoured the area surrounding the food table until he found a wire twist tie. After ten minutes he managed to construct another spring from the twist tie and adjoined that spring to the original spring. He hooked it back onto the derailleur nub. Oggy delicately turned the bicycle onto its seat so he could turn the pedals freely.

A skinny man who looked to be around 50 years old sat down on the curb and adjusted a thick aluminum foil hat on his hat. He looked up into the sky, formed a pistol with his fingers and shot several simulated bullets into the air, at an invisible target. Scowling, he adjusted the aluminum hat again and mumbled, “Transmitting frequency changes. Changes in time and in method. Transmitting frequency. They’re listening!” He spoke directly to Oggy although Oggy was concentrating on turning the pedals of his bicycle.

“I put pepper in my ears. Cayenne pepper is the best for getting the bugs. Organic cayenne pepper in the ears kills all the bugs they put. I tried water. Water. Water. I tried to kill them with water. But the pepper works best.

The wire broke from the derailleur but Oggy did not curse. He turned to the aluminum foil man and noted that the man’s face was tortured by red blotches. Terrible psoriasis flaked from his ears and cheeks. The man rocked back and forth.

“Pepper.” He repeated.

At first reading, I think what doesn't work is the writing itself. The language still is forced. But then what impresses me about the poetry of D. and Stowe wouldn't work today anyway (as though I could ever mimic that verbosity). But, it worked for their era because it defined their era. That's the difference. I think what's missing from the Santa Cruz story is a new language style. It feels like this is still boring English. I don't know. I'll tell you the only thing I like about this passage is the attempt to fix the spring that goes on the bike. I think if I can communicate that kind of detail over and over then I'll be happy. It should, if I do it right, irritate and annoy every civilized person. It even annoys me now just to read it. Fixing a ten cent spring...with a wire twist tie? But they can't be annoyed with the author. That's the difference. If they are annoyed with the author then something has gone wrong. If they are annoyed with Oggy then that's character. That is character on a par with Raskonikov mumbling about his murder plan. Maybe even on a par with Holden Caufield's love for his crazy hunting hat...

"When I was all set to go, when I had my bags and all, I stood for a while next to the stairs and took a last look down the goddam corridor. I was sort of crying. I don't know why. I put my red hunting hat on, and turned the peak around to the back, the way I liked it, and then I yelled at the top of my goddam voice, 'Sleep tight, ya morons!'"

You get an idea for what Holden is like but J.D. Salinger is innocent. That's writing.
Creative Commons License
Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.