[The late movie reviewers, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, back in their heyday, looking up at the big silver screen. They were the best.]
Truth be told, I’m not really the literary type. So it might seem a little strange that, as I slouch towards geezerdom, I decided to start writing novels.
The thing that is most fun for me about writing is not so much language or literary nuance, but the love of the story. In that sense, I like to think of myself as more of a storyteller than a writer. For that same reason, when it comes to genre, I’ve always enjoyed reading plays. In plays, stories are forced to keep moving and not allowed to wander down the dark corridors of introspection – even the heady stuff like Chekhov and O’Neil. They’re concrete. And when you see them acted, the characters are always doing something, even when they’re not. Even the actors standing upstage, the good ones anyway, are always doing SOMETHING … raising their eyebrows or fumbling with their cigarettes.
Likewise, I love the movies. In fact, it’s from movies, not books, that I’ve taken a great deal of the inspiration for my stories.
When I was in college, I loved going to see independent films. I liked seeing how creative directors were able to get the most out of their low budgets. This sentiment is reflected in the lines of one of my characters, Colonel Alves, when he says…
“I love old science fiction, horror, and fantasy films. Anything made before 1950 … before giant radioactive insects and men from Mars … before special effects and computers came along … when people had to use ingenuity and talent to make the illusions seem real.”
[John Sayles and David Strathairn – the original “men in black” from the 1984 independent film, The Brother from Another Planet. It’s one of my favorite examples of ingenious cheap special effects when the two alien bounty hunters, upon discovering a crucial clue, hold flashlights to their faces and begin screeching.]
When I graduated from college in the late 80s, I wanted to be a screenwriter. The idea of being able to create imaginary worlds and populate them with characters, and then have people – the audience – go along with me for the ride, seemed like the best of all possible ways to spend ones working life. Alas, it did not happen. I was not destined to be the next Kubrick or Altman. So it goes. But the imagery from the movies never left me. And I often borrow ideas from movies when I’m writing fiction.
What follows are some movie-inspired ideas that have shown up on my books…
La Belle et la Bête
In one scene in The Prophet of Shattuck Avenue (also with Colonel Alves) I mention the French Director Jean Cocteau and his 1946 masterpiece La Belle et la Bête (The Beauty and the Beast)…
Hellmann slowly turned his face towards Alves. The movement of his head and eyes suddenly reminded Alves of one of the movie posters on his office wall — the French version of Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête). Hellmann’s motions were eerily slow and surreal, like the enchanted statues in the beast’s château.
[Cocteau’s beast being watched by one of the château statues.]
Granted, it’s just someone in a costume. But the way Cocteau was able to create those preternatural movements – the eyes and the heads turning – with the technology of the 1940s is still quite amazing. When I think of the angels and demons in my stories moving, I always think of them that way. Not quite at ease in human form, their motions are different, not mechanical – much more elegant than that – just different.
Wings of Desire
Continuing with the subject of angels – a centerpiece in both of my books – there’s Wim Wenders 1987 film about the angel Damiel losing his wings for the love of a woman. I refer to this movie directly in Our Lady of West 74th Street in a conversation between the main character Emily and the angel Cassiel who, in this scene, is posing as a graduate student doing research…
“So we meet again,” said Cassiel, rising to greet her.
“Yes,” answered Emily with a cautious smile. “When you introduced yourself, I couldn’t help but take notice of your last name. I recognize it from the Kabbalah, am I right?”
“Very good. Yes, it appears there,” answered Cassiel, as they both sat.
“The watching angel,” added Emily.
Cassiel smiled. “Yes. He also appears in the German movie, ‘Wings of Desire.’ Ever see it?”
“Als das Kind Kind war,
wußte es nicht, daß es Kind war,
alles war ihm beseelt,
und alle Seelen waren eins”
Then in English:
When the child was a child,
it didn’t know that it was a child,
everything was soulful,
and all souls were one
Emily raised her eyebrows. “Very good. I’m impressed. You know your foreign films.”
“It’s one of my favorites.”
“Yes, I’ve seen it. It’s very good,” said Emily. “Then there was that terrible American remake with Nicolas Cage. ‘City of Angels.'”
“Yes,” agreed Cassiel. “… except for the beach scene. The beach scene was somewhat accurate.”
“Accurate?” asked Emily.
“I mean believable,” said Cassiel.
The “beach scene” referred to by Cassiel is an interesting one. In the 1998 American remake of Wings of Desire (City of Angels) the angels gather each day at sunrise on the beach in Santa Monica. Here they listen to the song of the heavens. (Here’s a link to the scene, if you’re curious.)
In the German original, the gathering place is the main library in Berlin.
[The angels Cassiel (Otto Sander) and Damiel (Bruno Ganz) strolling through the library in Berlin in Wim Wenders’ 1987 Wings of Desire.]
My takeaway from the two scenes is the idea of angels having a gathering place. In Our Lady, the gathering place is the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park…
Kevin nodded but didn’t speak. Greta then asked, “So he just went on an afternoon walk to the park, and died?”
“According to the timing of things, that’s what it looks like,” answered Kevin. “He died right in front of Bethesda Fountain.”
Greta gave her brother a questioning look.
“It’s the one with the big angel in the middle,” said Kevin. “He once told me that he thought that fountain was a power center where angels gathered. That’s the place where he keeled over. By the time someone got to him, he was gone.”
Indiana Jones only gets mentioned once, in passing, in The Prophet of Shattuck Avenue. In the following passage, Victoria has just returned from the Middle East and has a bad case of jet lag…
Victoria looked down at her empty cup. Despite the heavy dose of caffeine, she could feel herself starting to fade. She looked up at Maia, took a deep breath and let out a long breathy sigh. “Thanks for letting me share all this. I needed to talk to someone. Honestly, I don’t know what’s next. I’m supposed to meet with Senator Stamps later. As I said, archaeological discoveries notwithstanding, the place also has some strategic military importance that I’m not privy to. I think she wants to gather my impressions of it all.
“I don’t know. After all the subterfuge, I’m just looking forward to getting back to work and into the rhythm of things. I wasn’t cut out for the Indiana Jones crap.”
Even though the mention is brief, the “Indiana Jones crap” played an important part in both of my stories. I love the way, in both Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade, religious history is at the center of the plot. Each story focuses on an object – the lost ark and the holy grail. And each of those objects has the power to change both individuals and societies. That, to me, is quite intriguing.
Where I think I try to depart from Indiana Jones is to downgrade the swash buckler dynamic (neither of my main characters wield a whip) and focus more on how the two women in my stories are changed by what they encounter. Harrison Ford’s character is pretty much the same snarky fellow from beginning to end in each of his movies. I’d like to think that my characters progress and expand a bit more.
So there’s a scratch at how certain movies have whipped up my imagination. Like I said, it’s the story and the imagery of the movies that spark those moments of, “Yes! That’s it!” in ways that prose doesn’t do. At least for me. As Chauncey Gardiner (Peter Sellers’ character in Being There) puts it, “I like to watch.”
So … Until next week, the balcony is closed 🙂