Reading Shelly Lowenkopf’s blog – which he should consider titling Opium for Fiction Writers – one does not need to look too closely to see he likes the TV program The Wire; he often references the show to demonstrate whatever aspect of story-crafting he has chosen as his subject that day. I’ve never watched The Wire, but I’m sure some day I will, if only because it seems to genuinely merit the attention.
Being more of a film person, it got me thinking what films have influenced me as a writer, or which – should I ever find myself in a situation to dispense wisdom – I would choose, if only because they demonstrate some part or element of writing very well. What follows are a few films which, for lack of a better term, have writerly aesthetics. Coincidentally, most of what I’ve picked ended up being based on novels.
Off the top of my head, I would begin with Cutter’s Way (1981), a little-known/little-shown film with Jeff Bridges and John Heard. On the one hand, it’s about a drifter in San Francisco who thinks he witnessed a murder one night, who’s suspicions are heightened by his best friend, a self-destructive Vietnam veteran. Yet, the more ornate (and by the ending, spectacular) elements of its drama serve as a background, a nuisance to the drifter protagonist, and it ultimately becomes a story about someone who discovers they’ve spent their life dodging the responsibility of making tough choices. Based on Newton Thornburg’s novel Cutter and Bone.
I would then travel back in time to The Third Man (1949), with Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles, a film-noir set in post-WWII Vienna (then occupied, as wonderfully described in the film’s opening narration, by the American, British, and Russian armies, and of course, the black market). An American novelist discovers on his arrival to the city that the only person there he knows – his old friend, Harvey Lime – was recently killed in an accident. Yet, the longer he stays, the more splintered are of the accounts of Lime’s passing, and the more strange are the cast of characters who claim to be his deceased friend’s associates. Add love interest and stir. Strangely, though written by Graham Greene, it wasn’t based on one of his published stories; he wrote a novella as a means of creating a template on which to base the screenplay, later published in book form after the film’s release.
Fast-forward to 1980 and The Ninth Configuration, with Stacy Keach and Scott Wilson. It is the story of a shadowy military psychologist assigned to a remote castle in the Pacific Northwest, used as an asylum for those temporarily discharged from service in the Vietnam War. However, as the colonel is inspired by his discussions with the asylum’s star patient, an astronaut who abruptly terminated his mission to the Moon just prior to take-off, the staff discover the colonel’s methodry is more unorthodox than expected. This is the one film I knew was based on a novel, seeing as I read both the first incarnation (Twinkle, Twinkle “Killer” Kane) and its subsequently re-titled revision prior to the film being released. Written, produced, and directed by none other than William Peter Blatty (author of “The Exorcist”, and a damn good director in his own right).
So, what is it? What is it about these random picks which touch upon fiction writing, aside from their literary pedigrees? Well, they all instill in the viewer a wider, more long-range idea of the story being told – much in the way that a good novel is capable, with the inclusion of just a few words inserted into the right spot, of suggesting dimensions which exist beyond the edge of the book pages. All three films include characters who stand out; characters who you can imagine living beyond the breadth of the films’ respective duration times, if not from the beginning then surely afterwards. In all three films, we have protagonists who are thrust into a gnawing responsibility they did not request to be part of, a responsibility which in The Ninth Configuration is karmic, in The Third Man is seductive, and in Cutter’s Way a question of conscience over desire. However, like all good stories, these responsibilities are seminal for the characters, and for the viewer with literary influences, perhaps inspirational.
[Post-script: it is not lost on me that all three of these stories are essentially mysteries, influenced by the remnants of armed conflict, namely WWII and Vietnam. I’m tempted to delve into why this is, but again, this is a blog and not a doctoral thesis. Perhaps another day. In the meantime, I’ve got a film mix to supervise…]