From Screen to Print: The Room/The Disaster Artist

The Room

On November 1, 2014, in Chicago, I saw The Room, a 2003 film that will make you cry with laughter, though it was not meant to be funny. It is a $6 million folly. Tommy Wiseau is the writer, director, producer, and star. He came from Eastern Europe (probably) and  fought against all odds to succeed in his adopted country.  He did. First he got rich. Then he made this movie because he loved movies and had something he wanted to say.

He didn’t know how to make a movie. He did everything wrong. He did not listen to advice.  He was miserable to work with. The Room reflects all of that. But it is his. It has a bizarre but unmistakable authenticity.

Authenticity is a hard quality to pin down. The best way I can describe it with respect to The Room is to say that if Tommy Wiseau knew more about film, tried harder to make a good movie, and listened to everyone who told him what was wrong and tried to fix it, The Room would have died without a trace. “So bad it’s good” was the way my friend Dave described it. He is right.

The Room has achieved Rocky Horror Picture Show cult status. People bring spoons to the midnight screenings. (Why spoons? You’ll have to watch the movie to find out.) They talk back to it. They love this movie for what it is.

Does it get any better for any filmmaker than that?

The Disaster Artist

The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside the Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made was written by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell. Greg Sestero was The Room’s line producer, an obscure job; one of the principal actors in the movie; and a friend of Tommy Wiseau. Tom Bissell is a writer of considerable gifts.

The Disaster Artist is a terrific book: compulsively readable, generous in Disaster Artistspirit, insightful, and as a portrait of Tommy Wiseau, fascinating.

The book is notable for its complete lack of snarkiness. Honest as it is about Wiseau being very weird and his movie being very bad, Sestero and Bissell never stoop to cheap shots or easy laughs. Why should they? Crossing paths with Tommy Wiseau was the biggest break of Greg Sestero’s professional life.

It isn’t absolutely needful that you see the movie before reading the book, but it is a good idea. If you don’t see it before, you will see it afterward. I promise.

I love stories about spinning gold from straw. This is one of the most unlikely,

Local heroes

“I know these woods.”

Robin Hood, in Robin and Marian

I know something of rural New York, which makes me biased toward regional writers who set their stories there. I know those woods.

Place matters. It is significant that something happens in one place and not another.  And if particular experiences in particular places don’t matter, what the heck does?

Here are three regional writers I like. They have different subjects and styles. What they have in common is an exquisite sense of place.

Beth Peyton

Beth Peyton’s memoir, Clear Skies, Deep Water, was the best book surprise of the summer.  It is about a lot of things: life in a lakeside village after the summer people have gone home, having the courage to love deeply and passionately, the hard work that comes on the heels of choosing to follow a dream, and finding the place just right, meaning home.

Clear Skies is a particular story—personal, individual, and rooted in a real place—but it also is bigger than the simply regional.

Mary Pat Hyland

Mary Pat Hyland is an Irish-American writer who lives in the Southern Tier area of upstate New York (generally, west of the Catskill Mountains and along the northern border of Pennsylvania, including the cities of Binghamton, Elmira, and Corning). She is the author of six novels and a new collection of stories, In the Shadow of the Onion Domes.

Her stories are fictional but feel real. They grow out of deep knowledge of the place where she lives.

Anne Sneller

Anne Sneller is the only writer I know of who published her first book at age eighty. As it happened, she didn’t publish a second one, but not because she couldn’t have. She lived well into her nineties, probably vigorous and observant to the end.

The book is a memoir titled A Vanished World. It goes WAY back; Anne Sneller was born in 1883 on a farm in Cicero, New York. A dust jacket photo on the first edition shows a good-looking woman; she must have been beautiful when she was younger.

In  A Vanished World, she says, “Look! This is how it was. This is what my mother’s house looked like; this is what my crazy uncle was like, and my hard-worked and underappreciated aunts. Here are some images of death. And here are some of life.”

In my first novel, I quoted a passage from A Vanished World. That makes me the only writer in the history of the universe to quote a rural New York memoir in a science fiction novel set in the 22nd century. I hope that makes me interesting; it certainly makes me unusual.

I’m working on a story cycle with the working title of The Green Town Stories. It, too, is set in the 22nd century. However, Green Town is very old. In its earliest incarnation it strongly resembled the real Chautauqua, New York. At that point in its history its name was New Albion. It was a long strange trip to Green Town.

Chautauqua science fiction? I think that is another first.

Good reads: A Vanished World

The way stories are true . . . and the way reality is

The fine New York writer Nancy Willard once described something fictional as “being true, the way stories are true.” That is a great observation. Fiction can take you on a trip that feels emotionally, intellectually, and physically real. It gives you heroes and villains.  It can help you live your life.

Unlike stories, reality is messy. Its messages are mixed. It is full of events that in fiction would be dismissed as impossible, and it rarely presents itself in black and white. Reality is notorious for ambiguity and not getting to the point, and Murphy’s Law operates freely.

The difference between truth in fiction and truth in nonfiction is on my mind because I just read Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case by journalist Debbie Nathan. This 2012 book is a masterpiece of persistent, dogged research. Nathan’s subject is a famous case of multiple personality: the young woman about whom the 1973 blockbuster best-seller Sybil was written. The real name of the psychiatrist who treated her for years, Connie Wilbur, was used.

However, Nathan discovered during her research that the book was fictionalized. Big time.

Connie Wilbur was an ambitious (and I couldn’t help thinking, none-too-sane) shrink who repeatedly drugged Mason and then asked manipulative questions. The horrific abuse described in Sybil probably never happened.

Reality: Shirley Mason willingly colluded with Connie Wilbur for years on the multiple personality diagnosis.

Reality: Connie Wilbur committed spectacular malpractice, while at the same time seeming to honestly care about Mason.

Reality: Flora Rheta Schreiber, the author of Sybil, had doubts about the accuracy of the story, but told it anyway. She ended up writing something that was true, as Nancy WIliard would have put it, in the way that stories are true.

Good as Nathan is, I think she misunderstood the power of fiction when she wrote in the Introduction:

Why . . . when Sybil was first published, had so many millions of people like myself, mostly young and female, so fervidly embraced as truth a story whose mythic qualities should have immediately made us skeptical? How had we been so naive?

The mythic qualities are the reason the book packs such a wallop. The story invented by Mason, Wilbur, and Schreiber—and they all played their parts in fictionalizing it—was about a heroine’s journey. The young woman in the book fought great battles  to become whole, meaning that the different roles she assumed in life were not masks hiding the real person.

By the end of Sybil, its heroine was  showing up for life 100%. In reality, Shirley Mason gave up her hard-won career to move near her shrink in Lexington, Kentucky. She died in poverty.

My review policy

Writing a book is hard. If anyone doubts this, try it.

Never mind questions of quality. It is enormously difficult to achieve even ugliness, especially at the beginning. The ones who persist in their failures, failing better each time, get to the high place where they can think with justification, “This is good.”

Never mind  reviews. Good reviews feel wonderful. Bad reviews feel awful. Both are the result of readers completing stories in their own way. These things are out of a writer’s control.

I don’t review books very often, but when I do, my reviews are positive. This is NOT because I am nice. It is because I don’t finish books I don’t like and if I don’t finish a book, I have no authority to review it.  No writer deserves to be dismissed that way.

Praise means that a story got to me in a good way. It is 100% sincere. I was a reader long before I was a writer.

 

 

 

 

Stranded cows

I read Eric Hodgins’s autobiography, Trolley to the Moon. That is because I liked his other two books and blogged about them:

Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House

Blandings Way

In Trolley to the Moon is a  passage that perfectly describes my first drafts.

Sentences are deleted, paragraphs wrenched from their place and stuck bodily in some incongruous section, where they perch like cows stranded on barn roofs by a passing tornado.

Books I like: Blandings’ Way

Recently, I did a Print-to-Screen blog on Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. The 1946 novel  by Eric Hodgins is a treat. I recommend it to anyone looking for a summer read. You can buy it for very little money and in some cases free shipping at:

Amazon

Abebooks

Lines from the book that never made it into the movie:

The building contractor, John Retch, presents a bill for this item:

“Extra Screws . . . $3.00.”

Mr. Blandings comments:

“A very modest sum, but wouldn’t it be more customary for you to pay me?”

The Sequel

When I found out there was a second novel about Mr. Blandings, published in 1950, I wanted to read it. Hodgins claimed it was better than Dream House. It is.

A reviewer at the time said:

Eric Hodgins is going to be a lonely and envied figure in the contemporary writing scene because of his ability to create light fiction which is hilariously funny for page after page, and yet at the same time has its peculiar content of serious significance.

Blandings’ Way is about Mr Blandings trying to come to terms with his life: his well-paid job as a New York advertising copywriter, his good-hearted, well-meaning liberal politics in conservative Lansdale during the McCarthy era (school hot lunches are considered Communistic), the great disconnect between city and  country life (he concludes that city life is far simpler), his feelings for his wife, and his two daughters growing up and going their own way.

Mr. Blandings dislikes the other liberals in Lansdale, an academic-intellectual crowd he calls the Poet and Peasant Party. He himself is disliked and snubbed by the stuck-in-the-mud conservatives who are eager to believe he is a Communist. He finds that he cannot win, maybe because he can see both sides of any question.

He makes this observation about winning:

Winning implied not only achieving an objective but holding it. Sometimes a man or a cause won some objective by a succession of crazy accidents, but holding what you won was done only by design. When you won something, you said to yourself this is for keeps; this is how things will be, and ought to be.

The Media in 1950

Mr. Blandings’ youngest daughter, Joanie, writes a national-award-winning essay in which she praises Marie Curie for her scientific work. Joanie, the Lansdale school system, and her parents are  smeared in the newspapers and radio for having Communistic leanings because:

  • From 1906 until her death in 1934, Marie Curie was a Socialist.
  • Her husband was French (“La Curie’s Frog husband”).
  • Her maiden name was Sklodowska.

The slander flies around, eagerly aided and abetted by the media. They didn’t have the Internet in 1950, but the taste for meanness and fantastic embroidery of the truth will sound familiar. Eric Hodgins was there to observe all of it.

Yet it is a funny book—a sparkling comedy of manners—because Hodgins was too smart and had too good a sense of humor to write any other kind.

He has a fine ear for voices; all his characters have individual ways of speaking and thinking. He writes the kind of easy-going prose that looks simple until you try to write it yourself. He has a splendid eye for detail, for example, the first sentence:

Outside the house it was so cold that the earth rang like slag.

Blandings’ Way is long out of print, but available in the secondary market. It is water from another time: cold, clear, refreshing.

Abebooks

Amazon