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Writer on film: That's me up there!

The Oscars | FIRST PERSON

'Adaptation' may be the closest studio-movie depiction of a scribe's life and insecurities.

March 23, 2003|David L. Ulin | Special to The Times

"For the very nicest thing Hollywood can possibly think of to say to a writer is that he is too good to be only a writer." -- Raymond Chandler

*

I saw "Adaptation" about three weeks before I turned in my most recent book. It was the middle of December, and I could feel the looming deadline as a constant pressure in my head. It had been a hard book, this book, an investigation into earthquakes, and like the character of Charlie Kaufman, I had struggled against my limitations -- the desire to make something beautiful out of science, the tendency to over-think, to over-research.

In fact, as the film unspooled before me, I was struck with an uneasy recognition, which slowly thickened into dread. That was me up there, I began to realize, all my false starts and procrastinations, my evasions, inadequacies, missed deadlines laid bare. When, halfway through the movie, Charlie's agent called to tell him that it was time to finish up a script he'd barely started, I exploded in a fit of laughter, a laughter so prolonged and visceral that when it finally subsided, I felt as if I'd been purged.

What made "Adaptation" resonate so profoundly was that it was the first time I'd seen the working existence of a writer portrayed accurately in a studio film. Sure, I had encountered flashes elsewhere; I'd always been a sucker for Jack Nicholson's performance in "The Shining" -- although that seemed to me more the story of what it was like to live with a writer than as one -- and, of course, there were "His Girl Friday" and "Sunset Boulevard," two of the snappiest movies to come out of Hollywood's Golden Age. Still, for all the charms of these motion pictures, they were less about writing, than a kind of back-lot archetype of the writing life.

Anyone who's ever hung around a newsroom can tell you that the repartee between Cary Grant's Walter and Rosalind Russell's Hildy doesn't happen at the average paper, just as the refusal of Joe Gillis' agent to lend him $300 ("Don't you know the finest things in the world have been written on an empty stomach? Once a talent like yours gets into that Mocambo-Romanoff rut, you're through") is basically just an industry in-joke, played for bitterly ironic effect.

Let Hollywood actually depict a writer writing, and the image was about as far removed from Charlie Kaufman as it could be. I'm thinking now of the scene in "The World According to Garp" in which Robin Williams, as Garp, sits down at the typewriter and effortlessly spins out his first short story, its perfect narrative flowing from his fingers with no hesitation, directly across the surface of the screen.

Of course, you can't really blame George Roy Hill, who directed "The World According to Garp," for not wanting to bog down his movie with endless scenes of writing; it's hard to watch someone sit at a desk, typing, pausing, erasing, thinking, getting up to check the refrigerator, over and over, 20 or 30 times a day. Take that away, however, and what you're left with is little more than a romantic image, an ideal of how a writer ought to be. In "Garp," this means that the bulk of the story takes place not when the character's working, but rather in his relationships with an array of oddly winning misfits, a cinematic milieu that is nothing if not larger than life.

Romantic sense of mission

The same is true in a different way of "Reds," a film that focuses on a pair of historical figures: John Reed and Louise Bryant, members of the early 20th century Greenwich Village bohemian circle that included Eugene O'Neill. Reed and Bryant may not have been much as writers, but they did fall in love against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution, and this invests them with a poignant sense of mission, framing their work as secondary to their experience.

Even "Wonder Boys," which opens as darkly as any writers' movie ever -- its central figure, Grady Tripp, is a broken-down pothead, lost in academia, in love with a married woman and struggling with a 2,000-page book he cannot finish -- ultimately expresses its own romantic impulse, albeit on somewhat quieter terms. How can a character like Grady embody the romantic? It's easier than it looks. Just clean him up, have him get the girl and write a publishable novel, then close the picture with a brand-new baby and a brand-new laptop, two unmistakable symbols of his brand-new life.

In many ways, films like "Reds" and "Wonder Boys" -- with their social purpose, their redemption -- represent a kind of aesthetic wish fulfillment, magical thinking on an epic scale. Hollywood, after all, has always treated writers poorly, which means they have no choice but to exalt themselves where they can.

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