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His first at-bat

Don DeLillo's baseball-themed 'Game 6' at last puts a screenplay on the shelf next to his novels.

January 22, 2005|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — If anyone doubts that the novelist Don DeLillo is a wise and profound man, consider how he steered clear of the movie game his first 68 years, despite his obvious passion for that medium and the pleasure he takes in being, like so many of us, an armchair critic. Just get him going on Hollywood's version of "The Great Gatsby," specifically on how they had all those characters sweating, all except Redford.

"This is Long Island, it's not Alabama, but they're all sweating because somewhere along the way there was a meeting and someone said, 'We need to express anxiety or suspense in a certain way -- let's have them sweat!' " says DeLillo, though he's only guessing because he's kept his distance from real filmmaking, at least until now.

He did grow up at the movie house, like most Americans of the pre-TV generation, and you wouldn't want him across from you on a quiz show where the topic is "art films" -- he'd crush your sorry soul if the question had anything to do with Godard and existential sci-fi flicks from Taiwan.

Film references are all through his writing, from his first novel, in 1971, whose main character once wielded an 8-millimeter camera with a pistol grip. That book was called "Americana," signaling DeLillo's mission of trying to decipher all of our culture, from the assassins and the cults to the "white noise" of the media.

He even invented a movie in his novel "Underworld," a supposed "legendary lost film" of the great Sergei Eisenstein. DeLillo imagined it being shown at Radio City Music Hall, the live high-kicking of the Rockettes giving way to the film's flickering images of a mad scientist wielding a ray gun, and of giant leeches and scorpions, this made-up movie having no plot, "just loneliness, barrenness, men hunted and ray-gunned."

But there are good reasons DeLillo has never felt driven to do it for real, starting with his obsession with language. Reading Joyce's "Ulysses" changed his life, and his idea of a glorious visual is seeing how a well-crafted paragraph looks on a page after he's pounded it out with his portable Olympic.

Then there's his penchant for making pronouncements, for philosophizing. He may be describing something classically cinematic, such as a kid in "Underworld" cutting school to sneak into a baseball game, jumping over the turnstiles. But the book's first sentence tells us, "He speaks in your voice, America, and there's a shine in his eye that's halfway hopeful," typically DeLillian food for thought, the sort of morsel that a reader might need to chew over before going on, but that would be harder to digest in a fast-moving film.

"Blending the quotidian with the eternal" is how the author himself explains his MO, and imagine him springing that concept at a Hollywood pitch meeting, though he does know to elaborate for the common folk that he's talking of mixing "ordinary stuff of everyday life with an occasional cosmic meditation."

So here he is at 68, one of the most acclaimed of American writers, a philosopher of contemporary angst and a guru to many, a figure of considerable mystique who used to hand out business cards reading "I don't want to talk about it," and he's never had his name on a film. His agent has dutifully optioned virtually all his 13 novels, but DeLillo has never sought to adapt them himself, and none has made it to the screen. There's never been one up there that he wrote from scratch, either -- until this evening.

That's when an audience at Sundance will see "Game 6," his dark comedic tale of a writer and a baseball curse and a critic with a gun and a traffic reporter with a penchant for ... well, cosmic meditation.

Movie fanatic

The most prominent theater in the Bronx, where DeLillo grew up, was the Loews Paradise, a 3,800-seat palace that was always showing Randolph Scott westerns and later Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis comedies and where he and his pals once were kicked out for "saluting the head usher ... and annoying girls sitting in front."

While the son of Italian immigrants was a normal teenager in that regard, those movies left him cold. "My idea was to walk out," he says. A theater a few blocks away showed foreign films, but "they weren't necessarily arty movies," DeLillo notes. "You know, they were Alec Guinness comedies or French movies that had women with big breasts." Despite those attributes, he felt "ready for another level of film appreciation."

He found it in Manhattan's art houses, such as the Thalia, where he caught "stunning" films coming out of Europe and Japan during the '50s and '60s while he studied under the Jesuits at Fordham University then slogged along in an advertising job.

To this day, one buddy will call him up and throw out a name to test him, as happened just last week, DeLillo says. "He said, 'Keith Andes.' And then I said, 'Clash by Night,' " a 1952 Fritz Lang film in which Andes played Barbara Stanwyck's brother.

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