Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Greatest Film I've Never Made

Some time ago, I was reading an article -- well, I skimmed it, really, but the gist could not have been clearer -- about the writer Raymond Carver and the stormy relationship he had with his editor, Gordon Lish. Apparently, Carver had a particular vision about his stories: what they should be about, which words should be in them, and so on. In that sense, I suppose, he was a real ball-breaker, but what my cursory perusal of the article made abundantly clear was that Carver was a true artist who cared about his work, and "put in the hours", much as I do with my monologues. The problem was that his editor, Gordon Lish, believed that he knew better than Raymond Carver what the final stories should look like, and Lish, in fact, forced his own aesthetic viewpoint into Carver's work. So Carver would turn in a story -- let's do this hypothetically, and say that the story is about a fat drunk guy who gets fired from the meat factory, and on his way home from getting fired he sees a pelican eating some garbage -- and Lish would look at it and say, "No, Raymond, this story doesn't work. The guy shouldn't be fat, and instead of a pelican eating garbage, it should be a crocodile in a baby pool." And then he'd say, "Also, what's with all the words? You use way too many." So it was like that movie about the composer, where the child molester tells the guy from Animal House that he plays the piano too much. As a result, many critics and scholars now wonder who really wrote these stories that have Carver's name on them.
I got so mad reading this article, because the artist is the one who calls the shots about his own art. You don't go up to a painter and say, "Don't paint a dragon, paint a tree. And lose the blue." If you came into my artist's studio spouting that noise, I'd tell you where you could go and stick it, Chester. The fact that Carver didn't, and lived a life of torment as a result, indicated to me that a really good movie could probably be made from this story. The film would be a biopic, which means you're halfway there, and it would give me the opportunity to explore the creative process in a creative piece. Buddy, did that get my juices flowing. So I wrote a script, which I called One More Thing, which is the title of one of the most disputed stories to come out of the Carver/Lish partnership. I even lined up my cast, at least mentally. I wanted Jeff Bridges to play Carver (or "Ray", as I've come to think of him -- I lived inside his heart for so long, after all); Laura Linney to play Tess, Ray's wife; John Malkovich to play Tobias Wolff, fellow writer and friend to Ray; and Frank Langella to play the diabolical Gordon Lish.

I shopped the script around, along with the cast list, and after a few weeks I started hearing things like "This is slander" and "Much of what you wrote here didn't happen" and "Gordon Lish is going to sue you until you die, and you'll have it coming" blah blah blah. Whatever, Status Quo! Keep making your status quo movies with your status quo budgets and your status quo actors and your status quo test screenings! I don't give a shit that Gordon Lish doesn't want me to tell the truth (the metaphorical nature of my take on the truth is irrelevant). So I decided I was going to make the movie myself, guerrilla-style, and I started off by trying to get Jeff Bridges' phone number. He wasn't listed, so I gave up.

What I'm left with is a script, a brilliant script, that explores the nature of art, addiction, love, and evil. It may go forever unfilmed, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be enjoyed and loved by the discerning public. It turns out that a blog is not the ideal place to publish an entire 180-page script, but I can publish certain excerpts, carefully chosen to give you a sense of the story's rich texture. So, Dear Reader, take my hand, and let me lead you, once again, into the House of My Art...

We begin, as all such stories must begin, with Faust falling to the wiles of Mephistopheles...

(RAYMOND CARVER, TESS GALLAGHER, TOBIAS WOLFF, and GORDON LISH are at a cocktail party. CARVER and WOLFF are against a wall, away from the rest of party. CARVER is drinking seltzer.)

CARVER: I really hate these things.

WOLFF: It's as if all the posers within a hundred miles all congregate in one room to get blasted and act like they're the next Ernest Hemingway. Why do we let ourselves get roped into coming to these all the time?

CARVER: I don't know.

WOLFF: Okay, how did we end up at this one?

CARVER: Tonight is Gordon's night. He says it's for me, to sort of, I don't know, present me to the local literary community.

WOLFF: Let me tell you something, Ray: Gordon doesn't do anything for anybody other than Gordon.

CARVER: That's what Tess always tells me.

WOLFF: You should listen to Tess. Hey, how's the new story coming?

CARVER: Oh, I'm stuck. I don't know, you know, I have the husband just about to walk out on the wife, but I know that I have so much more to say beyond that, but I'm having trouble saying it. I'm having trouble...paring it down.

WOLFF: That's where you were last time I looked at it. Ray, you have to move forward with this. This could be your best story yet. You can't let it go!

CARVER: I'm not letting it go, Toby. I'm just...I'm just trying to find the ending.

(LISH and TESS are at the buffet table, loading up their plates. TESS seems to wish she were somewhere else.)

LISH: Good evening, darling! I almost didn't see you there. I'm so pleased you could make it!

TESS: Good evening, Gordon. I couldn't let Raymond come here by himself. That wouldn't be very wifely of me, would it?

LISH: Oh, Tess! Always the protector! Raymond is so lucky to have you.

TESS: That's interesting. I think you're lucky to have Raymond.

LISH: Oh? Well, I would hardly disagree with that. He's an extraordinary writer, and I feel more than just lucky to be his editor, I feel privileged. Still, I can't help but wonder what would compel you to say so.

RAYMOND: Because it's true.

LISH: (pause) Then we agree. How marvelous.

TESS: Would you excuse me, Gordon?

LISH: Of course...

(CARVER and WOLFF are still standing against the wall.)

WOLFF: If you need help with the story, Ray, you know that all you have to do is ask me.

CARVER: I know, Toby, but you know I don't work that way. If my name's gonna be on it, it's gotta be my words.

WOLFF: (laughing) Ray, I think you misunderstand how much I'm willing to help you! (pause) Say, I think that's old Dick Ford over there, talking to Tess! I haven't seen him in ages! I'm gonna go say hello. Want to come along?

CARVER: Naw, I'm gonna stay here. I'll catch up with ol' Dick before we leave.

WOLFF: Suit yourself.

(WOLFF departs. LISH approaches, carrying two tumblers full of whiskey.)

LISH: Raymond, my dear boy! You're behaving like a shy young child! Come out and join the populace!

CARVER: Gordon, you know this isn't my kind of scene. I mean, I really appreciate it, but--

LISH: Of course, I understand, Raymond. I don't want to force you into anything you neither enjoy or approve of.

CARVER: I didn't say I didn't approve...

LISH: Never mind, never mind. Here, I've brought you a drink.

CARVER: Oh, uh, thanks, Gordon, but no. I really shouldn't. You know I have a bit of a problem.

LISH: Oh, not a bit of it, my lad! Tonight is your night, after all! You should be allowed a little indulgence!

CARVER: If Tess saw me --

LISH: Then we won't let her see you. Come to my study, and we can enjoy our drinks in peace. Besides, it will give us a chance to discuss how you're coming along with your new story...

* * * *

It's probably here that I should break in and say, okay, no, I'm not aware of the existence of any evidence that Gordon Lish fed Carver's alcoholism. I made it up! Happy now, you legal vultures!? God, if Shakespeare were alive to see what you people were doing to me, he'd throw up on your shoes. On all of your shoes!
* * * *

(LISH enters his home. His WIFE is sitting in an easy chair, reading a book.)

LISH: Hello, my love.

MRS. LISH: Hello, dear. How was your day?

LISH: Oh, it went well enough, I suppose. I must say, I feel awfully tired.

MRS. LISH: Would you like to nap before supper?

LISH: No. No, in fact, I think I shall work on my book.

MRS. LISH: Oh, wonderful, dear! I'll be sure to keep things quiet around here.

LISH: Thank you. Just knock when supper is ready.

(LISH goes upstairs to his study. He sits down in front of his typewriter. For a moment, he is motionless. Then he begins typing. After a while, however, he angrily rips the paper from the typewriter, crumples it up, and throws it against the wall. He sits staring out the window for several moments.)

* * * *
I'd like to point out that nobody who turned my script down, and who told me that what I was doing was morally and ethically wrong, gave me an ounce of credit for the above scene. Who among you didn't feel your heart break for Lish when you discovered that his monstrous wickedness was driven by his own thwarted desire to write? Monsters are never self-made, you know. I bet Stalin found high school to be pretty rough-sledding, for instance. And yet everyone who read this script only focused on the "slander". Paddy Chayefsky wouldn't cross the street to piss on those guys even if they wanted him to!
* * * *

(RAYMOND CARVER is getting ready to leave his house. He has a bunch of papers under one arm. It's morning. TESS GALLAGHER enters the room just before he can leave.)

TESS: Are you going out? It's so early!

CARVER: Yeah, I'm going to see Gordon.

TESS: Oh...are you going to talk to him about your stories? (Pause) Because that's what they are, Ray. They're your stories.

CARVER: I know that. Don't you think I know that? But Gordon thinks he knows how to make them better.

TESS: What does Gordon know about anything? He's an editor! He's a pencil-pusher and a corporate toady. He's not an artist! His job is to stand in your way.

CARVER: Tess, I have to listen to him! How else am I going to get these stories published? How else can I get them out there, where they need to be, where people can read them??

TESS: But why do you want people to read them if they're not your stories?

CARVER: They're still mine...they're still my ideas.

TESS: An idea isn't a story! I'm tired of seeing you crumble, Ray! That's not the man I married! The man I married fights for his work, and he fights for art, and he fights for himself!

(Long pause)

CARVER: Maybe, Tessy. I'll try. Maybe you're right. Gordon's ideas...they're just... some of them just don't make any sense.

TESS: Then you have to stop him.

CARVER: Yeah. Yeah, I guess I do.

(CARVER turns, opens the door, and turns back to TESS.)

CARVER: Hey, Tess? One more thing...

TESS: What is it, baby?

CARVER: I love you.

* * * *
My work is pretty much always about love, and our need to find it, and things like that.
* * * *

(CARVER and LISH are at LISH's kitchen table. Mugs of coffee sit in front of each of them. In front of LISH there is also a half-empty pint of whiskey. It is late...)

LISH: Now, Raymond, do you see here, where I'm pointing? This passage, right here.

CARVER: I see it, Gordon, but I don't understand...

LISH: Raymond, please. Just listen for a moment. (Reading) "It was all simply too painful for her. This person, this man, this wretched being had swept through her life like an angry, drunken hurricane and destroyed her youth and happiness. It was time for her to make him pack away his clothes and leave. And while he was at it, she would make him pack away his love."

CARVER: I know my own words, Gordon. What I don't understand is what you're getting at. Are you telling me you don't like my writing?

LISH: Of course not, my dear boy. I am simply trying to be your editor. And I believe there is a better way to say this.

CARVER: How can there be a better way to say it? What I wrote is what Maxine is feeling. There's only one way to write that, and that's what I've done. I've let Maxine speak for herself.

LISH: Ah. Oh, Raymond. You are a romantic, aren't you?

CARVER: No. I'm a writer.

LISH: Don't take offense, Raymond. I meant it as a compliment. I find it all terribly charming.

CARVER: Has anyone ever told you that you're incredibly patronizing?

LISH: (pause) Yes, Raymond. As a matter of fact, they have. It is one of my many character flaws, and the one I'd most like to change. Allow me to apologize. Do you accept?

CARVER: (pause) Why don't you just give me some idea of how you think that passage can be improved?

LISH: Very well. Would you like another drink first?

CARVER: (long pause) Just a little.

LISH: (after pouring a healthy dose of whiskey into CARVER's mug) Now, before I give you my suggestions, I feel that I should explain to you how I've arrived at this idea. In Maxine, I believe you have created one of the great heroines of American literature. I truly believe that, Raymond. She is a strong and simple person, someone whose life has repeatedly disappointed her, but who hasn't let that grind her down. She is a woman who stands up to life, if you will. She fights life. And, damn it, Raymond, she is determined to win!

CARVER: (taking a drink) I'm...I'm gratified to here you say that, Gordon. That's who Maxine is to me, as well. You said that you think she is one of American literature's greatest heroines...I'm not prepared to accept that compliment. But in a way, when I was writing this story, I thought of Maxine as America. She has hopes, you know? Dreams. She was optimistic, once, just like the rest of us. But she's seen one bad thing after another, and she doesn't know if she wants to be optimistic anymore. But she wants to dream about it...

LISH: Yes, Raymond, yes! I entirely agree. But there's something else about Maxine, something I've already mentioned. She's simple, Raymond. Like America, she's simple. And I believe her thoughts and feelings should be expressed in a like manner. As you've written her here, in this passage, she's...she's complex. I mean, she is terribly thoughtful, Raymond. Wonderfully thoughtful, even. But is that appropriate?

CARVER: Well...I don't know. What did you have in mind?

LISH: (producing a sheet of paper) Here. Last night, I rewrote the passage we've been discussing.

CARVER: (reading) "He made his way into the bedroom and took one of her suitcases from the closet." (Long pause) Is...is this it?

LISH: Yes. Simple, to the point. And, if I may allow myself a boastful moment, beautiful.

CARVER: But it's not even about Maxine anymore. This says "he". This is about LD.

LISH: Well, yes. I thought perhaps seeing events from his point of view might be an interesting perspective.

CARVER: But the story is about Maxine!

LISH: Raymond, just think about it for a moment...

CARVER: And my words! Where are my words!? They're all gone! You've taken them all, and you've, you've...you've raped them!

LISH: Raymond, please...!

CARVER: You've raped them, Gordon. You've raped them and sent them away. You gave them five bucks to be quiet, and you sent them home!!!

(CARVER jumps up from his seat, knocking over the whiskey, which spills all over LISH's rewrite. LISH quickly grabs the page and begins to dab at it with a handkerchief.)

LISH: Perhaps you've had too much to drink.

CARVER: Have I? It's your whiskey!

LISH: I don't know what you mean...

CARVER: Just forget it, Gordon. Forget the whiskey. Where are my words? I want my words back!!

LISH: Your words, Raymond, are right here on the table, and you're welcome to them. Take them home with you. I will be quite happy to be rid of them.

CARVER: And what about the story?

LISH: What about it?

CARVER: What gets published, Gordon?? Whose story gets published?? Maxine's, or LD's??

LISH: (long pause) The story that will be published will be the correct one.

CARVER (pause) I see. And whose name will be on this correct story, Gordon?

LISH: Why, my dear boy, your name, of course. You're the author.

CARVER: If I'm the author, then why do I feel so much like the victim?

LISH: (getting all his papers in order) Because you're dramatic, Raymond. And because you can't see past the end of your own nose. These are failings common to your type.

CARVER: My type??

LISH: Yes. Now I'm going to have to ask you to leave. You've upset me to the point where I wonder if shall be able to get any sleep at all tonight, and I have an early morning tomorrow. I trust you'll be able to drive yourself home, even in your condition. Lord knows you've done it before.

CARVER: (long pause) This isn't over, Gordon.

LISH: That's where you're wrong, my dear boy. This is over...

CARVER: No, Gordon. No. Tess was right.

LISH: Oh, of course...the wife makes her presence known at last.

CARVER: These are my stories, Gordon! This is my life, my work. How can you have a say in me, in who I am!?

LISH: My dear boy, I'm doing it for the good of these stories, and you know that as well as I. The text is what is important.

CARVER: For the good of the stories, or for the good of your reputation? What is this really about?

LISH: I've told you, Raymond. This is about art.

CARVER: But it's my art! I wrote these stories! They have my name on them! I am Raymond Carver!

LISH: ...Are you sure?

* * * *
And thus do both men walk together into Hell... Either that's from Dante, or I just made it up myself, but either way I think you'll agree that this script is plumming the kinds of depths that Ray and Gandhi only wished they'd had the stones to plum. But these are the kinds of scripts getting rejected, ladies and gentlemen, and all lovers of the Purity of Art. The middle-of-the-roaders and the go-alongers win again, and we're left to face the cold night...alone.


That Fuzzy Bastard said...

And yet... and yet... Lish's heavy-handed editorial intervention made Carver a literary star, as well as one of the most influential writers of his era. Carver's stories, in their pre-Lish form (the New Yorker ran some, with comparison) are good, but they're nowhere near as revolutionary as they became after Lish "edited" them, and it seems likely that Carver would've been just another solid short story writer, filling pages here and there with perfectly adequate prose, without Lish's recreations, which turned him into a genius.

If anything, it's a story about a strange collaboration, that neither man is happy with yet neither can survive without. There's a great historical irony in the upper-class Lish being so influential in creating Carver's "authentic working-class voice", certainly, and I often wonder how Lish felt about his uncredited collaboration. But to make it strictly a story about art being corrupted by a jealous editor seems to miss the point, which is that it was this corruption that brought about some of the greatest short stories of their time. The fact that Lish rewrote them so heavily raises Lish in my estimation, and yes, lowers Carver (who I now discover was a less original writer than I had thought).

bill r. said...

TFB - There's one thing I've learned about this post: I screwed it up.

The whole thing, you see, is a joke. The script portions aren't meant to be taken seriously. This was all a sort of bizarre lark on my part that I hoped some people, familiar with overblown and underthought Hollywood biopics, and the Carver/Lish relationship, would find funny. But apparently I played the script portions way too dry, because you're not the first person to think I was being serious.

I was just trying to...I don't know. Be funny, I know that much, but it seems clear I miscalculated.

Anyway, for what it's worth, I agree with you about Lish and Carver. That's partly why I thought the fake script in the post was funny.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Ooooohhhhhhhhh.... I admit, I had thought... Well, nevermind, then.

bill r. said...

I'm going to have to add a disclaimer to the post, or write a new post explaining the joke, or something. Ugh.

Rick Olson said...

Nothing wrong with this post.

bill r. said...

Thank you, Rick. I will remain patient...