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Summer Reading Part 2: Fatty Speaks

Posted: 06/08/2012 1:12 pm

There are many departments on a movie set, and they each have a time to work and a time to rest. For actors, time is something you trade with the lighting department. The cinematographer lights while the actors wait, then the actors perform while the lighting crew waits. During the downtime, actors can do a number of things. We can gossip, play "Fruit Ninja" or, if there is a long break, go back to our trailers and watch The Sopranos on DVD. Or we can read.

I like reading. And because I have taken her from her home (London), I feel responsible for entertaining Nana -- I am her closest friend in the States -- so I often read aloud to her during the lighting setups. In the same way that not all books make good audio books, not all books succeed when read aloud to Nana. Tom Sawyer would be better than Tristram Shandy, simply because the narrative is clear and the characters are active. When a book becomes too abstract or complex, it starts to lose its power as an audible piece.

Because she works in the film business, Nana loves books about movie types, and I, Fatty by Jerry Stahl was an immediate hit with her. But before I delve into that book, I want to mention another I've enjoyed recently: Joe Brainard's classic, I Remember.

I Remember is a poetic memoir told in small pieces. It's basically a series of memories, each beginning with the words "I remember." I remember when one of my favorite teachers ever, Amy Hempel of Brooklyn College, introduced my class to the book as a model for how to generate stories based on memory. But Brainard's book, besides being a great starter device for aspiring writers, is an example of how the personal and the universal can mix to miraculous effect. Individually, Brainard's memories are poignant confections; taken together, they pack an emotional wallop. His subjects are often extremely specific to him, but the reader can't help but think, "Oh, shit. Yeah, I remember that too!" By tapping into those vivid moments that we thought we had experienced in private, Brainard shows us how connected all of us growing up in this land called America really are.

I, Fatty by Jerry Stahl tells the life of the silent film actor Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle in the first person, which means that, even though Arbuckle was a real person, Stahl has given him a fictional voice. Stahl is best known for his memoir Permanent Midnight, which chronicles his heroin addiction and his work as a writer for the television show Alf. (That book was turned into a film starring Ben Stiller.) Because Stahl has been writing for Hollywood films and television shows for decades, his connection to the entertainment industry is contemporary and vital. And that connection energizes this book about a film figure from a past era. Unless you're an aficionado, books about bygone performers can feel as dated and boring as old silent films, but Stahl keeps things lively by implicitly comparing Arbuckle's life to the lives of stars today.

Arbuckle was one of the most successful comic actors of his day -- until he was accused of raping and inadvertently killing a lesser-known actress named Virginia Rappe. Stahl dabbles in biography, but this is no scholarly account; his goal is to create voice and character, not to establish the historical record. Like the experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger, Stahl uses the myths, facts and the most sordid details to access a specific side of Fatty. He is as interested in the rumors as he is in the facts, because the rumors contribute at least as strongly to our collective memory of Fatty. Being acquitted in three manslaughter trials wasn't enough to salvage Fatty's popularity or his career, proving, perhaps, that our memories are affected by what didn't happen as much as by what actually did.

Because Stahl isn't writing a biography, he is neither committed to revealing every detail of Arbuckle's life nor worried about cutting corners. What he is concerned with is telling an interesting story. Stahl has written the book as if it were a performance by Fatty. Think about some of the reality shows and documentaries made nowadays about stars who have fallen or faded but are still relevant as cultural figures: Marley (the new documentary about Bob Marley), The Osbournes, Nick Nolte: No Exit, JCVD (a documentary about Jean Claude Van Damme). The filmmakers are constantly looking for ways to put their subjects front and center. And though this is a book and not a film -- the traditional form to preserve performance -- Stahl, by writing in the first-person, has found a way to have Fatty tell the story.

Ostensibly, the book takes the form of a transcript of interviews that Fatty's lifelong Japanese manservant recorded when the star was fading from drug addiction. Mind you, this framing device is never treated all that seriously. I haven't done tons of research to confirm this, but it seems that Fatty made a post-scandal comeback as a director under the alias William Goodrich, and was married a couple more times. So it's hard to imagine him in an old house on Adams Street dictating his life story to a servant who doles out drugs in exchange for sections of the story he hopes to make some money from. Maybe it did happen, maybe he was addicted at the end, but the recordings do not exist -- they are Stahl's literary invention. The device makes us feel privy to Fatty's secrets, which he is telling in hopes of clearing his name. It's an illusion, but it works.

Because Fatty died 80 years ago, and most people who ever met or knew him have passed on, he is closer to a character than to a real person. He is now an icon, and a faded one at that -- I doubt many people today know who he is or have seen any of his films, even though they are available on YouTube. So his image and public profile are ripe for fictional adaptations. Add the fact that his trials were among the highest-profile cases of Hollywood's Golden Age and Fatty amounts to something more than a man who lived -- he is raw material that Stahl can use to write about Hollywood itself.

Like Joe Brainard's memories, then, Jerry Stahl's Fatty Arbuckle is at once specific and universal. He can tell us about ourselves. And for those of us who work in Hollywood today, the message he has is pretty sobering. Everything we loved him for when he was popular -- being a loveable clown -- became odious after he was accused of rape and manslaughter. Whatever really happened in that room, the sad truth is that we'll always remember Arbuckle in connection with a death in the St. Francis hotel. Almost a century later, the rumors have as much power as the facts.

 
 
 
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