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Some More Books: Part 1

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Dear D_____,

How are you? Busy? Have classes started? What are you teaching, and how? My new classes have started and they're good, more like continuations from last semester. I have an undergraduate creative writing class at UCLA that is not like a regular writing class; I have them do everything from writing, to making videos, to reading, to going on trips with me. This quarter we are planning an in-depth look at the way a studio promotes a multi-million dollar move (Oz: The Great and Powerful), I will take each of them on one leg of my press tour around the world (Japan, Berlin, London, Moscow, New York, etc.). I realize now that this is very similar to what Dunne did with his book The Studio. It is a way to give them access to the inner workings of something they normally wouldn't have access to. Our other focus is Disney and how Disney itself is an indelible presence in all our lives, for both good and bad. My other UCLA class is a graduate film class; these students have adapted Boswell's stories from Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards and are now casting and getting ready to shoot them. The third class is at USC, another graduate film class that will film their own versions of Borges-like stories.

I am also shooting a movie about Charles Bukowski's childhood. We just started, and it's going very well. One of my frequent collaborators, Tim Blake Nelson, said he loves working on my films because of the temerity my company has for making the kinds of movies we love. We choose difficult subjects and often authors who are difficult to adapt, either because their writing is so complicated (Faulkner) or their subjects are so dark (Cormac McCarthy), but we find a way to make them with a responsible budget so that we can a) just get them made and b) make them in the artistic ways that their sources demand. The Bukowski project has its own challenges, mainly tonal: how to find the mixed tone between humor, sorrow and depravity that Bukowski's own writing had, and how to do it with kids. When Bukowski wrote about his own childhood he was doing it decades removed, so he was infusing his childhood self with all the heft of the adult writer, the heft coming from the way he wrote about it; he doesn't necessarily give the young version of himself more insight than he would have -- although sometimes he does do that -- but by including specific things at specific times, and by inflecting the episodes in ways that the humor and terror of each situation is emphasized, the child's world is depicted for an adult audience.

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John Gregory Dunne's The Studio is the result of diligent observation he conducted after receiving permission to access any area of Twentieth Century Fox's wide production net in 1968; at the time their projects included everything from Dr. Doolittle (the original with Rex Harrison) to The Boston Strangler (still a fresh case at the time) to Planet of the Apes (the original) to science fiction pilots that carried all the marks of '60s ideas of the future (the project was called 25th Century Man) that seem so silly in hindsight. Dunne's approach was to observe, sit in meetings, take no notes, and then, after an episode, retreat to private quarters and jot down everything he remembered. This approach bears many similarities to camera-based observational documentary approaches, where the central material is gathered through uncritical capturing -- of course there are always choices about where to put the camera and certainly in the editing room critical choices are made, but in the "production" stage the documentarian doesn't play a part in the action. This comfort his subjects felt was a special thing Dunne had to achieve that video documentarians would also need to achieve, but something they would have a harder time doing because cameras can feel intrusive. Even Dunne was surprised by the access he was granted, and he smartly didn't take notes in the presence of the subjects so that they would feel more comfortable being themselves, so it's hard to imagine camera crews going everywhere that he went -- certainly in that day, before the full onslaught of reality television and everyone's new familiarity with being on camera and viewing life as a performance. A key aspect of Dunne's approach was the unobtrusive façade he presented while actually being as intrusive as possible, and because of that façade he was able to gather enough material to allow him the flexibility to create a diverse and dynamic portrait. Meaning, he used material based on life, and, knowing what to study and how to put it together, he could tell a compelling story.

As with documentary films, here the subject matter does half the work; because he has been granted unlimited access to such diversified and flashy subject matter, he has much to work with if he but observes and records. With some projects it is enough to be a camera, and maybe this is more generally true with non-fiction projects, but here Dunne didn't even need to do much prior research -- the research is part of the project. Yes, he was probably served by the fact that he had written screenplays and had movies produced because those projects would give him insight into what to look for, but ultimately he could have done the observing with very little prior knowledge about his subject. This was a subject, like many documentary subjects I've explored, that didn't need much help, if any from the observer; like the Maysels' brothers with their documentaries Salesman, Grey Gardens, and Gimme Shelter, all that needed to be done in the capturing stage was to point at the right thing. All Dunne had to do was be in the right room at the right time and listen to the right conversations. The book is presented as a series of dialogue scenes with marginal amounts of set up between to establish place and who the players are.

Because the book is now 44 years old, much of the primary material that would have been cutting edge upon the book's release, material that might have made featured characters uncomfortable or angry, is now sucked of its power. What remains is a well-crafted portrait of the way a studio worked in the late '60s, a particular beast that was transitioning from the old-fashioned oligarchic system to the newer, slightly more democratic system. But in particular the movies whose productions are recorded are interesting but, I think, dated, and they are not exactly the classics that at least I would want to know the details about. What this means is that the particular details are less important than the record of how the business operated, and to some extent still does. If, for example, the productions of The Godfather or Chinatown had been explored, then the minute facts of what went on would be of more interest for creative, biographical, and other reasons (which is why a book like Easy Riders/Raging Bulls was written and is more popular now than The Studio). But the studio is unique and important not because of the movies it explores but because of how it explores them. Easy Riders/ Raging Bulls was created entirely after all the events it recounts, decades after, while the material for The Studio was generated as it was happening. Not to say that one approach is better than the other, the different approaches are comparable to the Maysles's observational style versus Errol Morris's research/recreation/ interview style. Morris paints compelling pictures, but there is something indelible about the Maysles's capturing of real drama as it unfolds before their lens. We can't say that Dunne's pen has quite the same immediacy as a camera, but his on-the-scene reportage allows for more details and blow-by-blow accounting. And in the end he can still edit it to fit whatever structure he wants.