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Posts Tagged ‘e-mail’

Confidences

October 12, 2011 | by

Photograph by Aftab Uzzaman.

If you are a writer with any presence on the Internet, even a very obscure one, you often get e-mails from strangers. Sometimes these strangers are quite eccentric, like the guy who once sent me a short story about men who were enslaved for breeding purposes and fed dog food. So I didn’t give much thought to a cryptic e-mail I got in the summer of 2009 from a person named Innocente Fontana.

The e-mail contained a few terse words of praise for my first novel. I wrote back, “Innocente Fontana can’t possibly be your real name … can it?” He didn’t respond; three months passed. During that time, I was living off of unemployment benefits and savings from a job I’d recently lost, and I was feeling exhausted. To make a living as a writer, as I was trying to do, seemed impossible.

In the fall, presumably because he’d read a blog post I wrote about traveling in Morocco, Fontana e-mailed again. This e-mail was longer and mentioned that, decades back, he’d spent time in Tangier. He said he’d known Paul Bowles during that time, that Bowles had become his literary mentor. Skeptical, I probed for more detail. Who was he, really? Read More »

30 COMMENTS

On ‘Barney’s Version’: Barney’s Voice

February 25, 2011 | by

A Confession
David Bezmozgis | February 23, 2011

Rosamund Pike as Miriam, Barney's third wife.

Dear David,

There is a bias in Hollywood against voice-over narration. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve sat in a meeting and heard producers and development people go on and on about how they hate voice-over, calling it a “device.” I feel differently, however. My thinking is that if it can embellish the material, it should be used. The problem is that far too often it is used as a crutch. It’s redundant (we hear what we see) and therefore, downright boring. This has given voice-over narration a bad name. Yet we have seen it used effectively in films from the past, such as Little Big Man and My Life as a Dog, or more recent films, such as Easy A and Juno.

Even if I agree with you about the flow of the movie being better without the use of Barney’s particularly idiosyncratic voice, which is ultimately the main artery into Richler’s voice, I still have this nagging sense that something is missing in the film. To be honest, I am not sure I will ever be totally happy with the film but this opens up a whole other can of worms. Most artists, in general, are never really satisfied with the final product. We are always the Monday-morning quarterback, wishing we had done it like this and not like that. Don’t get me wrong, there are many things I like about Barney. The wedding sequence, for example, always gives me a kick. But in retrospect, I do miss Barney’s voice, because without it I feel that we are missing the notion of his actual “version.” His voice would have given the title more resonance and, in doing so, perhaps given more cogency to the piece as a whole. Also, for the audience, the concept of unreliable narrator would have been far easier to grasp.

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2 COMMENTS

On ‘Barney’s Version’: The Great Taboo

February 25, 2011 | by

A Confession
David Bezmozgis | February 23, 2011

Mordecai Richler.

Hi Richard,

It’s interesting to hear you say that you still miss Barney’s voice. The book is driven to a great extent by Barney’s strong, idiosyncratic voice. (I, too, remember very well his riff about the colander.) That’s a tough thing to transfer to the screen. How to do that without weighing the film down and without making the audience too conscious of some kind of device—that is, the technical justification for how we are able to hear him? (One example from a relatively recent American film is Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt, in which we hear Schmidt’s voice through the inappropriate letters he writes to the child he is sponsoring in Africa.) What did you have in mind for Barney in that nursing home?

For what it’s worth—and not knowing what solution you had in mind—I was glad not to have Barney’s voice. I appreciated how fluidly the action unfolded and didn’t feel like I missed anything about Barney’s character. He still seemed to me like the Barney I remembered. I admired how, even without the voice-over, you managed to create a film that seemed very faithful to the book. I suspect Richler would have approved. (In my mind, when I tried to conceive of how I might adapt it, it became a road movie.)

On the subject of Richler and his voice, there’s something I’ve often found curious about him. Or if not curious, let’s say surprising. For a man who was a renowned curmudgeon, contrarian, and even cynic, he was also an extraordinary romantic. In his public life and in his books, Richler skewered seemingly every institution except the institution of marriage. The guy really believed in true love and in marital fidelity. You see it in the novel, and you were consistent about it in the movie. Cheating on your spouse, in Richler's moral universe, brings ruin. For Barney, and for Miriam, his beloved third wife, infidelity is unforgivable, irredeemable. In our hip, irreverent world this seems a very uncool position to take.

I’ve rarely heard this aspect of Richler’s work spoken about, and yet I think it’s present in all of his novels. In all of his “mature novels,” the hero—who is increasingly an alter-ego for Richler—behaves badly in any number of ways (he may profane God and country), but he never cheats on his wife. That is the great taboo. Not that I disapprove, mind you, but it seems a much stricter article of his faith than it is of mine. Was this something you thought about when making the film? It factors so heavily into the plot that I wonder what you made of it.

Faithfully yours,

db

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On ‘Barney’s Version’: Paul Giamatti Is Barney Panofsky

February 24, 2011 | by

A Confession
David Bezmozgis | February 23, 2011

Paul Giamatti.

Dear David,

Well apparently I am also not a Talmudist. I believe I was thinking of the practice of posing questions in order to merit religious and philosophical debate. I don’t know what that’s called. As far as I remember, I was either thrown out of or skipped almost everyone of my Hebrew school classes. I vehemently protested the idea of having to sit in another classroom after I had already endured a full day of real school. I may have acted out a bit. So what do I know?

I agree with you. Film is elastic. And even though the screen is two-dimensional, the illusion is that we travel down the Z-axis and into the world beyond the screen’s proscenium. I’m thinking about the new technologies that amplify this experience like CGI and 3-D. I’m also thinking about gamers who put on those geeky glasses and sit in a simulated car seat in order to increase their visceral enjoyment of their pseudo adventure. Is that what we are after? A more intense experience? Perhaps this is why we take a book from a flat page and then send it through our mind’s processor in order to set up a blueprint of what the experience would be like? Movies can be like your imagination on steroids. Who doesn’t like that? But beyond this, if we are to move from style to substance, it could be that at the heart of any great book is a character with whom we fall in love. And when it comes to fictional characters we love, people just don’t want to buy into the old adage "It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all." Instead, they opt to take their relationship to the next level. I loved Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but in the end I lost her to the executioner. Imagine my delight when she showed up as a young Natassia Kinski in Polanski’s movie.

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3 COMMENTS

On ‘Barney’s Version’: The Elasticity of Cinema

February 24, 2011 | by

A Confession
David Bezmozgis | February 23, 2011

Paul Giamatti and Minnie Driver.

Richard,

I’m not a Talmudist, but in my recollection of the Talmud—which I was exposed to only as an adolescent in a Toronto Hebrew school—there were many rabbis engaging in debates, often across generations. Sometimes they agreed, sometimes they disagreed, and sometimes they agreed to disagree—the latter was my favorite, as it was personified by my Hebrew teacher holding both hands palms up and speaking the philosophical word Teiku. (I think the literal translation is tie. No overtime. No shootout.) Maybe some of the debates ended with “Why not?” but I don’t remember those. Although I feel like I know a half dozen Jewish jokes that end that way.

Certainly from an industrial, practical perspective, I get what you mean about the film business needing good stories to feed through the story mill. Good stories are hard to find. It’s true, too, that the film industry has traditionally turned to books and movies—now comic books—for material. Witness the two writing categories in the Academy Awards: Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay. You’ll get no argument from me about the practice being fundamental to the medium, but that still doesn’t quite explain why it is so. And I’ll grant you also that people love to tell and hear the same stories. Children particularly love to hear the same stories repeated. I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve read If You Give a Mouse a Cookie ... to my two-year-old daughter. But there’s still something different about the impulse to transmute a story from one form to another. Besides, if we just liked repetition, we would reread the same book over and over again. (Other than the Bible, does any other book get that kind of treatment? And besides, people don’t read the Bible the way they read The Great Gatsby.) And though there’s more of a tendency now to adapt movies into stage productions, that process seems to me to be artificial. I don’t think anyone—other than an opportunistic theater producer—comes out of a movie and says, That would make an awesome play! Yet people who comes out of plays, and close the covers of books, often say, That would make a great movie! My take—merely on the conceptual level: Movies are an elastic form. Depending on ingenuity and budget, they can stretch to match the proportions of a person’s imagination. For example, space travel in a play or an opera will always feel simulated, but that isn’t true of movies.

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2 COMMENTS

On ‘Barney’s Version’: The Canadian Jewish Experience

February 23, 2011 | by

A Confession
David Bezmozgis | February 23, 2011

Dear db,

I absolutely remember our conversation in or around 2000, and I may even recall that I felt a tinge of jealousy leaking through the phone line from you. But that was to be expected as I bragged about a project that any self-respecting Canadian Jewish filmmaker would give his left testicle to do—a project that I would not be formally contracted to do for another seven years, mind you. So yes, David, I may have been exaggerating slightly when I said I was in line to direct it, because at that time even though I had made Whale Music with producer Robert Lantos, who owned the rights, according to him, I was a far cry from the pedigree he was entertaining to direct this project. I’d sit down with Robert whenever he’d take a meeting with me and would look for the opportune moment to mention Barney, at which point he would condescendingly say in his thick Hungarian accent, “Richard, I am talking to Istvan or Sidney [Lumet or Pollack, I’m not sure which] about this one.” At which point I would dive into a prerehearsed diatribe about how I was the one to put this on film because I understood the nuance and character and I grew up in this world and my grandfather was Barney and blah, blah, blah. Cut to 2006: I slap my own adaptation of the novel, which I write on spec, moonlighting after finishing my current day job producing and directing CSI, on his desk. That was how badly I wanted to make this particular story. A story that you and I relate to mainly because it was the only thing that rang true to our Canadian Jewish ears. There was Davies, and Atwood, and for me, Quarrington, whose delicious and absurd sense of things always struck my cinema bone, but they didn’t speak to the Jewish experience. Richler was authentic and seemed to pull at me in the way that Philip Roth did when I was in college. Frankly, I may have told you I was in line to direct this book because of the sheer faith I had in my monstrous passion for it.

Why I had to make this particular story is a more difficult question. First, let’s tackle why people make books into movies in the first place. The most obvious answer to me is that original stories are very hard to come by. They are not a dime a dozen. A good story is a very hard thing to invent, as I am sure you, as a novelist, will attest to. So if books or plays aren’t getting made into movies then all movies are being written from scratch and then we have a veritable shortage of movies. And not very good ones at that. Simply put, good books contain good stories and good stories make good films. It’s very hard to make a good film from a bad story but it is entirely possible to fuck up a good story by making it into a bad film (e.g. The Prince of Tides!!!). But I digress. The other idea is that stories have a life, and that life is shared through transmission. People are shaped by story and myth and archetypes (as per Mr. Campbell) and we necessarily desire that a constant stream of anecdotal material be jettisoned into our psyches in order to stay satisfied. Stories have always been transmogrified—from hierolglyphics and cave drawings to sculpture and canvases; from campfires to proscenium stages; and from print to modern mediums such as film. And if you sit down with my mother for Shabbat dinner you will see that human beings have an innate need to tell the story OVER and OVER and OVER again.

Why this story? Perhaps I will answer in the Talmudic fashion—why not?

Warmly,

RJL

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