You would think that a film about writing would be as visually interesting as a dream about dust-mopping. There is the lonely writer, sitting beseechingly at the typewriter or computer, hoping for inspiration to strike, staring into space, sipping a cup of coffee gone cold or a scotch on the rocks gone warm. But in fact, you could put together a spectacular film festival concerned with the act of writers writing. Think of it: American Splendor `Swimming Pool,The Hours, Adaptation, The Shining, Blue Car, Deconstructing Harry, Sex and Lucia, and 8 1/2 (there it’s a director/writer). And then to top it off, the greatest television miniseries ever, The Singing Detective, now out in a film version starring the mercurial Robert Downey Jr. In most cases, these are films about writers not writing. To one extent or another, they deal with the two words that strike terror into anyone who has put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard: writer’s block. Talk about staring into space. Or paint drying. And yet each of these movies is a dazzler. Why? It’s as if the process of thinking about writing has unleashed something both playful and primal, allowing the authors to go deeper into both their art and their craft. As many of the films also deal with how writers make art out of their lives, it’s as if the movies’ writers and directors are able to create imaginative new vistas out of that process. Think of how both the book and the movie of The Hours take off from Virginia Woolf’s struggling to get started on Mrs. Dalloway. And take two of the best recent films — Swimming Pool and American Splendor. In both, a writer leads a lonely and isolated life. One, a mystery writer, plugs into her subconscious. The other, an ordinary file clerk named Harvey Pekar, plugs into his very ordinariness to create an underground comic that becomes a statement on the failings of the American dream. In both movies, form follows function to perfection. American Splendor directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini juggle Pekar’s multiple identities in the film – comic-book figure as drawn by different artists, the central character being played by Paul Giamatti, and Pekar himself — for a madcap portrayal of someone who always seems to have a black cloud hanging over him. In Francois Ozon’s Swimming Pool, one of the hottest films of last year in both senses of the word, Charlotte Rampling plays a mystery writer who retreats to the south of France to unblock herself. There, she finds her publisher’s highly sexed daughter parading her nudity around the house, along with a stud waiter at the local cafe, and murder. Ozon is clearly having fun with any number of issues. There is the middle-age, repressed Englishwoman versus the young, promiscuous French teenager. And there is the key question: How does a writer make art out of life? As the camera shifts between the writer struggling for words and the young hedonist lusting for fulfillment, the movie gives credence to Norman Mailer’s dictum in The Spooky Art, his recent book about writing, that “those who meet experience, learn to live; those who don’t, write.’’ And Ozon tacks on an ending worthy of Ruth Rendell (one of the inspirations for the Rampling character) to underline the point. Another thriller, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, must have been disappointing to Stephen King fans looking for the same kind of chills his novel delivers; it was certainly disappointing to King. Nevertheless, the film is loaded with a psychological tension far deeper than anything in the novel. The most terrifying scene is the famous “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’’ scene, in which Shelley Duvall finds out that this was the only sentence her husband (Jack Nicholson) had written during the entire winter — over and over again, in different arrangements. Why is the scene so powerful? First, the look on Duvall’s face is priceless as her hopes of Nicholson’s writing the great American novel, or even something that might pay a bill or two, are dashed and she discovers that he is definitely bonkers. Also, the thought of Nicholson typing away at this stuff as he’s going slowly mad sends a shiver up the spine. Then there’s the duality that all but the most monomaniacal writers share: on the one hand, the feeling that everything they write is terrific, no matter how bad; on the other, the feeling that everything they write is drivel, no matter how good. If Nicholson embodies the former, then Adaptation has fun with the latter. The two brothers played by Nicolas Cage represent a similar dichotomy, although here the film’s screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, represents it by letting the hack writer have all the confidence and pleasure in life while the talented writer has all the doubt and depression. One suspects that Kaufman knows whereof he speaks. In an interview about Swimming Pool, Rampling noted how many of the mystery writers she based her character on have led lonely and isolated lives. At the heart of Adaptation is Kaufman’s own inability to write a screen adaptation of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, an excellent piece of nonfiction that is all but untranslatable for the screen. Cage makes Kaufman into a wonderfully depressive character. The back-and-forthness between the character’s own life and his imaginings for the screenplay of The Orchid Thief are Kaufman’s own way of writing himself out of a corner. Unfortunately, turning the movie into a satire of what a Hollywood film of The Orchid Thief would be falls flat. You wish director Spike Jonze had made Kaufman wrestle with his demons a little more. Still, like all these films, the movie is bristling with imagination. Jonze didn’t collaborate on the screenplay, but he follows Kaufman’s twists and turns like a conductor accompanying a great soloist. Director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare are equally brilliant enablers when it comes to turning Michael Cunningham’s The Hours into a movie. Mrs. Dalloway is the jumping-off point for both versions of The Hours, but the way Dalloway haunts the three generations of women and the choices they make in life is even more affecting on screen than it is in Cunningham’s novel (except for Daldry’s use of Philip Glass’s mind-numbing music). One life segues into another in the film with a gracefulness and fluidity that’s broken up by chapter headings on the page. In the other films, it’s the directors who use their or the characters’ retreats into their own imaginations to unleash a cinematic language of their own. 8 1/2 is Fellini’s leap from neorealism to surrealism, made possible by the inability of his stand-in, a film director played by Marcello Mastroianni, to write a movie. Instead he retreats into his own self-reflective fantasies. Fellini’s failures thereby turn into his greatest success. The dividing line between fiction and reality is paramount to all these films, which gives them all a delectably surreal flavor to one degree or another. Finding that dividing line is also what makes The Singing Detective a miniseries masterpiece. In this dizzying story within a story within — you give up counting after a while — scriptwriter Dennis Potter takes his own horrible skin disease and gives it to a misogynistic mystery writer named Philip Marlow, who, lying in a hospital bed, imagines a story based on his own troubled life. That isn’t terribly different from what the writer does in Swimming Pool but what gives The Singing Detective its juice is how Potter, with help from director Jon Amiel, layers on a more personal and artistic stamp, from Potter’s predilection for World War II-era music to his terrifying and increasingly accurate view of health care. Out of Potter’s crippling inability to write — in his case, a physical inability — comes one of the most imaginative series in the history of television. Potter, like Pekar and other artists, took a life bordering on despair and made it into something universal and ultimately hopeful. Writing may be lonely and isolating, but the result of that writing, as these movies show, can be communal and even transcendent.
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