Sight, Sound and Sex

Adam Mars-Jones

  • Innocents and Others by Dana Spiotta
    Scribner, 278 pp, £17.95, March 2016, ISBN 978 1 5011 2272 9

Long before electronic media came up with the phrase, literature had been relegated to the status of preferred ‘content provider’ for films. Bestsellers achieve special ontological status on the screen, and the classics get retrospective plastic surgery, so that Jay Gatsby receives the looks first of Robert Redford then Leonardo DiCaprio. Anne Hathaway’s blandly pretty mask is tied with cinematic ribbon over Jane Austen’s blurry features – a criminal defacement however photogenic the impostor.

Traffic the other way, taking cinema as the basis for fiction, tends to focus on headline-grabbing aspects of the industry: narcissistic stars, autocratic directors, clashes of ego. Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others is very different, an examination of a filmmaker whose sensibility is open to any number of influences and has only a minimal interest in a marketplace. The central figure of the book is Meadow Mori, who is introduced to the reader by way of an internet essay, part of a series entitled ‘How I Began’ on a site devoted to Women and Film. After graduating in film studies Mori supposedly wrote to an obese ex-wunderkind of the screen, now reduced to voiceovers and chat show appearances (someone who can only be Orson Welles), before going on to interview him and eventually becoming his companion and lover, while telling her parents she was joining a filmmaking collective in upstate New York.

It’s left to the reader to decide whether this tall tale is simply a hoax (Welles’s last serious film was F for Fake) or some sort of allegory of influence. Learning that you have a self-proclaimed unreliable narrator on your hands – ‘I have always liked stunts (and also, as you may have guessed, pranks, hoaxes, games)’ – is the literary equivalent of discovering that you have invited a kleptomaniac into your home. In fact the ‘lie’ about filmmaking in upstate New York is close to what really happened, though there wasn’t a collective, just Meadow inviting her old friend Carrie Wexler on a visit to see the footage of trains she had shot with equipment paid for by her father. This was the mid-1980s, early days for the sort of on-the-fly filmmaking, done solo, that can now be taken for granted, but was then still far from cheap.

Before any account of the formative period in Gloversville, when with Carrie’s help Meadow experimented with fantasy reconstructions of lost films, there is an unconnected section in which a woman establishes intimacy with an influential man over the phone. ‘[Jelly] rarely used “uh”, but it was an important wordish sound that introduced a powerful unconscious transaction. Used correctly, not as a habit or a rhythmic tic, it invited another to complete the sentence. An intricate conjoining, it was an opening without content, just the pull of syntax and the human need to complete.’ This seems to be a stunt of a different order, a confidence trick.

Then the narrative skips back in time, following this new strand, though the effect is more of an avalanche of backstory than a deepening of context: ‘Many years before Jelly called Jack, before she had begun phoning men for love (not work), and before she had recovered her sight, she had fallen in love with Oz. She met him in the summer of 1970 at the Center for the Blind.’

When the elements of the novel begin to settle down, the material isn’t so very far from standard-issue female friendship, in all its glory and limitation, though the storytelling never loses a residual perversity, so that the ‘Jelly’ episodes don’t reveal their connection with Meadow or Carrie until almost two-thirds of the way through the book. Of the two friends, it turns out that Carrie is the one with the worldly success; not only that, she comes close to the mirage of ‘having it all’, with a husband and the prospect of family as well as a career. She works inside the studio system and within genre conventions, delivering audience-friendly comedies with a faint (possibly even illusory) feminist spin. Growing up in the 1970s on a diet of television programmes that she realised even at the time were terrible, she didn’t rebel against pap but learned to treasure the times when it created a recognisable human moment or spontaneous laugh (‘the shitty stuff made you really appreciate the good things’).

Meadow’s way of working is more analytical. Documentary wasn’t a conscious choice on her part but the way her practice developed. For her, the camera is a subtly inquisitorial instrument, capable of applying enormous psychological pressure, though it can sometimes be an even more effective technique to hold back, asking no questions, until buried secrets force their way to the surface. There’s not even a pretence of equality between the friends in the way the narrative is parcelled out. The sections about Meadow are about Meadow, and so are the sections about Carrie – even Carrie’s pregnancy is introduced in the context of the friends’ relationship (‘Hey, I need to see you soon. Did I mention I am pregnant? Call me back’). Carrie’s role is that of the sidekick and indicator of the road not taken, not taken because it’s an unsatisfactory road to take – very much what it would be in a Hollywood film. The irony here is not well controlled: Carrie is used, safely and conventionally, to represent an undesirably safe and conventional approach to art and life.

The imbalance between Meadow Mori and Carrie Wexler has another aspect, deriving from their different backgrounds. Aesthetics and class may not always be linked, but here they are. Meadow’s parents are wealthy – she benefits from a trust fund. Carrie is far less privileged in financial and human terms, having lived with her working mother since she was eight, when her parents divorced. Their attitudes to filmmaking are shaped by early experience, in a way that only confirms Meadow’s pre-existing advantage. Having always enjoyed the benefits of a safety net, she has no need of one in her life as a filmmaker and can strike out confidently on her own. Carrie, meanwhile, having spent so much time watching episodes of One Day at a Time and M*A*S*H on her own, so as to have something to talk about at school the next day, will always need to broker a connection using the tools of the familiar. Her eagerness to communicate marks her down, while Meadow’s insulated imperviousness is coded as admirable.

Not all of this seems intended but, consciously or otherwise, Dana Spiotta has reproduced in her leading characters the conflicts (more destructive in the ranks of the Nouvelle Vague, to be sure) between Jean-Luc Godard, preaching the dogma of continuous revolution, and François Truffaut, the ingratiating humanist. Godard’s background was close to plutocratic, while Truffaut’s early life was almost caricaturally insecure. In Innocents and Others, Carrie Wexler is allowed to allude to Godard as well as Monty Python, but she has been allotted the Truffaut role of compromised charmer. In certain contexts the desire to be liked is a fatal error of style.

In the workings of the book Jelly’s role seems to be counter-cinematic, in the sense that she functions most fully in the absence of sight, first when she is blind and later when she chooses the world of sound as her domain, and the telephone as her ‘weapon of intimacy’, counterpart of Meadow’s half-intrusive, half-seductive camera. The single most powerful piece of writing in the book, both explicit and slightly blurred, is the description of Jelly’s sexual experience with Oz, a man who was born blind and therefore doesn’t even have access to the category of things seen. (Jelly lost her sight as a result of meningitis, though her condition improved over time – at this point, with her peripheral vision severely impaired, she inhabits a tunnel of shape and colour.) Unsighted sex is a continuum rather than a set of charged points, ‘private things liked and repeated with tiny variations, the precision of pleasure eventually overcoming the hunger for the novel’.

Even after the end of that relationship, Jelly wanted to keep intimacy free from contamination by the visual. Her phone relationships with men relied on the mutual stimulation of voice and ear that annihilates distance. As the men she spoke to became more fascinated, they would want to see a photograph of her. She would hold out as long as she could, and then send someone else’s picture. It wasn’t that she was ugly, just ordinary and older than she sounded, and when she belatedly entered a frame of comparison only the superlative would do. Then there would be an interval of reprieve before the man insisted on meeting her, and that would be their last conversation. With Jack, though, Jack Cusano the record producer, there was a deeper affinity. They were both the victims of the fantasy they had created between them, even if Jelly was the only one to know it was a fantasy. When she gave herself an orgasm on the phone with Jack, it was profound – but she was imagining herself in the body she had allowed him to imagine, not her own. At this point, disconcertingly, the apparent countersubject of the novel, balancing the dominance of film in the other strands, resolves into the first subject after all: the power, even the tyranny, of the visual. We’re back in the world that cinema has made. (There seems to be no escape: Jelly turns out to be a compulsive filmgoer, resuming the habit after her vision improves.)

*

It can’t be news to Dana Spiotta that film narrative works differently from the older form in prose. The camera can’t give the impression of looking inside a mind directly, and must find its own equivalents. David Lean declared that in The Passionate Friends (1949) he had succeeded in photographing thought, though he was referring not to the film as a whole but to one sequence, in which Claude Rains’s character jumps to the conclusion that his wife is having an affair. If it takes a perfectionist director (whose first skill was editing) and an actor of subtlety and experience to begin to match what can be taken for granted page after page in a novel, prose fiction has all the advantages. That word ‘editing’ is one that seems to be held in common between the two media, but it’s more like a false friend. Editing in film is the primary engine of meaning; the parallel process in literature rarely goes so deep. Even famous interventions in this not very collaborative area, such as Pound’s drastic spring-cleaning of The Waste Land, reveal a rhythm rather than imposing one. Perhaps only Gordon Lish’s transformations of Raymond Carver’s stories impose rhythm in that way.

Meadow’s first film, Portrait of Deke, made in 1987, didn’t really come together, didn’t acquire its tone or form until the editing stage. At high school, inspired by Andy Warhol’s screen tests, she had started filming her friends, knowing how easily people’s personas can implode when they’re filmed without a script in front of a director who gives no cues. Deke was a Gloversville local, a teenager, who acted as her filming assistant and also boyfriend (Meadow tended not to make clear distinctions in these matters). He didn’t seem to mind being filmed, and his persona didn’t crumble. So she decided to raise the stakes, to film him until some sort of crack appeared, applying pressure, if need be, to bring this about. Preparing for the long haul, she used two video cameras to ensure a primitive continuity, and filmed for 480 minutes – eight hours.

Her first idea was to show the material uncut. Real time has a powerful attraction. Meadow ‘wanted to experience time, and the discomfort of that duration would be the same for everyone’. Here again is a defining difference between the filmed and the written. In literature there is no clock time, no ‘real time’. When Nicholson Baker decides to set a whole novel in a lunch break (The Mezzanine) or Olaf Stapledon chooses a timescale of two billion years for Last and First Men, no technical innovation is necessary. They aren’t inventing a freedom but exercising one inherent in the form. Film can only process duration (that being where editing comes in), but in writing duration is a process in itself, and freedom can be exploited by consumer as well as producer. How long is a sentence? It depends on the reader, the dawdling, impatient, patient, rushed, savouring or skipping reader. Viewers of films vary just as much in temperament but are held to a uniform rate of consumption.

For Portrait of Deke, Meadow has a number of options in post-production, though that term seems altogether too formal in the context of such a cottage-industry approach to filmmaking:

She could do as she planned and cut the pieces together and make it an eight-hour installation piece of real time, a long day’s journey into night. She could cut off the beginning and just make a two-hour film of the meaty pay dirt towards the end. She could edit until it showed a ninety-minute highlight reel of his undoing. She could cut out all her questions, so it read like a monologue confession, which would make him seem even more unhinged. She could do many things. She could even record Deke on voiceover commenting on what he was doing.

In the end she did what the Maysles Brothers did with Mick Jagger in Gimme Shelter, filming a sober Deke looking at rushes of himself drunk and confessional. Deke said he loved it, and that she should edit the footage down to a manageable length so that people could see it. His giving permission became part of the film. This is a cogent and even exciting account of a set of moral and formal decisions, and corresponds to a description of the sort of no-budget film that might win a jury prize at a documentary festival and get glowing reviews in ‘small but significant places’.

There’s a poor formal decision to do with Portrait of Deke, though, that isn’t the filmmaker’s but Spiotta’s. By attempting to transcribe an imaginary film onto the page she misses the mark in both mediums, and what she produces isn’t so much ‘meaty pay dirt’ as the stuff of daytime television with odd touches of Tennessee Williams:

He looks so sweaty and ugly, which, I mean we all do when we are desperate and looked at with no feeling, I know that. Desire makes us ugly unless the other person is lost to it too … It is like watching a movie. But it is me, I feel this disgust, and then I feel like I want to hit him. I have never ever hit anyone.

If there is one thing that a pervasive visual culture has taught us it is how to break down in public, to give a performance of riven subjectivity to a camera greedy for spectacle. Letting the confession remain in paraphrase, or quoting a few phrases, wouldn’t let the scene down so badly. As it is, the damage isn’t superficial, or restricted to the moment. The whole theme of the novel is the mutual exploitation of damaged moral agents, as announced in the title, and so it’s important that Meadow’s credentials shouldn’t be tarnished at this (early) stage in the book.

There’s a surprising amount of plot in the home stretch, including a road accident, artistic crisis, terminal illness and mortification by poverty. But plot has never really been this novel’s business, and it finds its ending in a pair of scenes in which two very different women, having hit bottom, are illuminated by images suggesting a way up or a way back. Meadow, whose belated crisis of conscience has led to a long creative silence, finds herself imagining a kaleidoscope of images, thinking of ‘wide angles and deep focus, a posthuman or prehuman landscape, a film like a long lyric mist’. And a woman serving a long prison sentence prays:

She looked deep into the black of her closed eyes. Stared into the dark. When your sense of vision has very little stimulation, it invents images. Sarah doesn’t know that the name for this is Prisoner’s Cinema. It is a trick of the mind, blindness turned into glorious sight. Isolation turned into hallucination. After enough time, she saw a series of lights. The false images are called phosphenes, which means ‘show of lights’. But all Sarah knew was that it gave her vibrant colours of great depth, and patterns like a mosaic, like a tiled church floor or sometimes like the spiral of a shell.

Cinema is both imprisoning and liberating. In this intermittently successful novel there seems something masochistic about deferring so eagerly, page after literary page, to the virtues of another artform – above all when that artform is so dominant and so little contested. Awe at the near imperial status of the film industry replaces any assertion of the advantages of writing, its superior ability to represent subjective experience, though the point is proved every time a film relies on music to produce an expressive effect.

If there is resentment of the dominance of cinema in Spiotta’s book it is well disguised, but such impulses can spring up in surprising places. David Thomson of all people, author of successive editions of the legendary Biographical Dictionary of Film, took a sort of revenge in his 1985 novel, Suspects, where he imagines the characters in a single genre, film noir, as forming an actual, though inevitably incestuous, family. What if Laura Hunt – Gene Tierney from Laura – met George Bailey, James Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life? Thomson treats the film characters as real people with disorienting, almost vertigo-inducing results. So Sally, Susan Sarandon’s wholesome oyster-shucking waitress in Atlantic City, becomes the kid sister of Travis Bickle, Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. The effect is at its most extreme in Thomson’s rewriting of The Godfather through the character of Michael Corleone’s wife, Kay, played by Diane Keaton. As he describes her performance in the Dictionary,

Keaton’s Kay is a grim, hurt face forever being shut out of family conclaves. She comes to realise that she has been hired for breeding, and she goes through with separation from her children to maintain her sense of values. The movie might have abandoned Puzo’s original and given her the dignity of action: taking her own children and daring the ultimate revenge from her self-pitying fascist husband.

Here he took his own advice. In the parallel world of Thomson’s Suspects, Kay sues for custody of her children. Michael wins the case, but offers a compromise that will avoid a possible overturning of his victory on appeal – and will have the fringe benefit of inducing her not to testify against him. Each child, the boy and the girl, will live with her for six months. Financially she will be well taken care of:

And so, in the fall of 1964, Anthony [aged 15] came to live with Kay. She was surprised that he was friendly, so devoid of bitterness. In the last two years, he had grown more antagonistic, but now he was sweet, obliging and considerate. At Christmas, he had his bodyguard rape his mother, saying she was a disgrace, not fit for the family. Then he told the man to beat her.

She woke up the next day, sure Anthony would be gone. But he brought her breakfast, and chatted with her, until he had her raped once more. He would not do it himself, but saw the rarer disdain in watching it performed. Kay began to drink again and died in June 1965, at which time Anthony told the press he was indeed grateful for the belated opportunity to get to know his mother. Then he closed up the apartment and went back to Tahoe.

Here Thomson manages to write his dark fantasies directly onto the big screen, so that a supremely ugly incident somehow becomes part of his readers’ experience of The Godfather. This account of sexual violence, making good use of the briskness of prose narrative (pity the actress playing the scene represented by the few words, ‘She woke up the next day, sure Anthony would be gone’) has some of the character of an intertextual rape, the forcing of grotesque pain and indignity into the softest place in a famous film. This is revenge porn rather than a love letter to Hollywood, but perhaps that’s the way a simmering resentment of the grandeur and blindness of visual culture comes out when too long repressed.