A Gossip on Romance

“In anything fit to be called by the name of reading, the process itself should be absorbing and voluptuous; we should gloat over a book, be rapt clean out of ourselves, and rise from the perusal, our mind filled with the busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images,incapable of sleep or of continuous thought. The words, if the book be eloquent, should run thenceforward in our ears like the noise of breakers, and the story, if it be a story, repeat itself in a thousand coloured pictures to the eye. It was this last pleasure that we read so closely, and loved our books so dearly, in the bright, troubled period of boyhood.”

From A Gossip on Romance, by Robert Louis Stevenson (collected in The Lantern-Bearers).

During a period when I was loosely involved in a project to adapt several of Robert Louis Stevenson’s tales of the supernatural for television (which came to naught because BBC Scotland didn’t see any need to celebrate Stevenson’s centenary in such a fashion), I stumbled upon the above passage and felt that Stevenson had invented cinema.

I imagined using this passage at the start of the show, as a voice-over as we look down at Stevenson’s writing-desk from above. We descend as his quill moves across the page, inscribing the words we hear spoken, and then we HIT THE PAGE in a blinding flash of light and pass THROUGH it —

One the other side, all is darkness, except for the page, which appears as a transparent panel allowing us to see up into our world, where Stevenson leans forward, inking the words which now appear as mirror-script. We continue our movement, now backing away so that the glowing window of the page diminishes, but we can see a beam of light admitted by it, glowing in the void. As we move further, other pages can be seen, each shining a beam of strong illumination into the void, motes of silver dust glowing in the rays. Each beam flickers as the hand writing on the page moves. And then we spin around and we see a screen on which the beams project a fiery kaleidoscopic image, from which forms the title of the show.

A bit much, perhaps? But perhaps my youthful response was triggered by the compact, fervid power of phrases like “the bright, troubled period of boyhood”. Although yes, it’s odd that Stevenson imagines all his readers are male, but then all the characters in Jekyll and Hyde are male, and Stevenson’s wife, Fanny, apparently looked like a man, so draw your own inferences.

Image from Raul Ruiz’s TREASURE ISLAND.


36 Responses to “A Gossip on Romance”

  1. I’d see it more as assuming masculine nouns and pronouns for universality, the privilege of the pre-feminist world.

    That sounds like the greatest title scene never made…It’s a brilliant idea, someone might just steal it. It could even be someone you know or think you know.

    One of the few movies to attempt visualizing the writing process is Wenders’ HAMMETT which has shots from inside a typewriter, its one of Wenders’ least characteristic films, in terms of story, visually its his finest cinematic rendering of his relationship with Edward Hopper. Of course the best film about a writer is Alain Resnais’ PROVIDENCE.

  2. Thanks! Fortunately, anyone stealing the idea would need a Stevenson-based subject matter, so I have a measure of protection there.

    I rather liked Hammett. Anything with Roy Kinnear gets more or less a free pass from me, anyhow. And I recall the snazzy typing scene.

    For all it’s more debatable qualities, I find Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch pretty good on the writing process…

  3. But I find it pretty bad on Burroughs. What in hell is Jane Bowles doing in there? She and Burroughs couldn’t STAND one another.

    Cronenberg is much more at home with J.G. Ballard.

  4. Speaking of Ruiz and his Treasure Island here’s an interview I did with him not long after it was shot. He was in L.A. confabbing with Cannon Films (remember them) who backed the project but hadn’t clue about what to do with the result which besides Anna Karina featured Jean-Pierre Leaud, Lou Castel, Martin Landau, Melville Popuad (as Jim of course) and as Long John Silver, Vic Tayback.

  5. RR’s Treasure Island is wildly idiosyncratic and a deeply personal take on the book, which at times barely gets a look-in. I can understand any producers feeling confused, although by this late stage you would think they would have some idea what to expect from the man. But no, the same thing all over again with Klimt.

    I guess, at a push, I can justify DC giving Jane Bowles a role in Burroughs life she never had because of the casting of Judy Davis, who also plays his wife, so arguably represents his continuing conflicted feelings about her. In fact, structurally and thematically the movie is almost like Cronenberg’s Vertigo.

    Plus I guess by calling the character William Lee, and including the mugwumps et al, Cronenberg is relieved of the strictures of the biopic. But it does seem sad that he felt the need to tiptoe around the homosexuality quite so much. I guess if he’d made the film earlier, Burroughs would have been straight! Maybe now, post Eastern Promises, he’d be prepared to go a bit further.

  6. I’m now imaging an alternate universe where MGM, instead of adapting The Subterraneans, made The Naked Lunch.

  7. MGM’s Naked Lunch…well at one point Irving Thalberg greenlit FREAKS by Tod Browning so it is in their lineage, after all.

  8. I think they all felt very sorry about Freaks, even while they were making it (if the Scott Fitzgerald freakout in the canteen story is to be believed), so maybe not part of their lineage they preferred to recall… although they didn’t feel the need to distance themselves so much from Kongo, which is FAR more unpleasant and problematic…

  9. Thank you so much for this, Stevenson is my favourite author, and I wish your tv project had come to fruition! Did you know that Alan Sharp and Toa Fraser (Dean Spanley) were reportedly working on a screenplay for The Beach at Falesa?

  10. That sounds wonderful!

    The TV project had Peter Capaldi doing Olalla and a bunch of other good writers at work on The Body Snatcher, The House of Eld, Markheim, and Thrawn Janet I think. In the end, I made a short based on The Isle of Voices, with the great Graham Crowden playing the evil wizard (setting transposed to Scotland). It’s one of my films where I can’t decide if it’s any good or not. I’d like to have another go at Stevenson.

  11. Sounds wonderful…
    I hope you do have another crack, the man was a genius and it’s about time he was known for more than Jeckyll and Hyde and Treasure Island.

  12. GK Chesterton demonstrated Stevenson’s genius by citing the sentence, “His sword flashed like quicksilver,” noting that it sounded perfectly ordinary until you tried to write something as good. Stevenson realised there was a word which contained both “quick” and “silver” and he used it… It’s a brilliant illustration of the concept of “le mot juste”.

  13. HOW he managed to be as brilliant as he was whilst being as ill as he was always astonishes me…
    Currently, my favourite Stevenson-ism is: ‘Our business in life is not to succeed, but to continue to fail in good spirits’. It works for me!

  14. david wingrove Says:

    Never really liked the book of TREASURE ISLAND even as a lad. Way too much yo-ho-ho-ing for my taste! Jim’s relationship with Long John Silver reminded me of creepy middle-aged men trying to chat me up at the swimming pool. In other words, YUCK!

    Still, I’d be madly curious to see what Ruiz would do with it. Dare I confess to soft spot for the Ken Russell musical version for TV? His ex-wife Hetty Baynes (remember her?) done up in drag as ‘Long Jane Silver’…she was a hell of a lot more alluring than Wallace Beery.

  15. It’s true. MGM would have “solved” Naked Lunch by making all the men Burroughs was having sex with Leslie Caron.

  16. With Donald O’Connor as a friendly Mugwump. Oscar Levant excels as Dr Benway.

  17. “The same thing all over again with KLIMT” – and yet again on A CLOSED BOOK. Just what is the point of hiring RR to direct a film if you need to seek his assurance that he’ll shoot it with “limited oddity”?

  18. Maybe he’s very good at reassuring them that he’ll behave this time?

  19. Why not ask Hitchcock to tone down that tired old suspense-black-humour-and-MacGuffins shtick?

  20. Judy Dean Says:

    Off-topic, but great news. Kevin Brownlow is getting an Oscar!


  21. That’s quite a quartet. Hopefully Brownlow has forgiven Coppola for trimming Napoleon and then claiming it was the complete version at the US premiere!

  22. Christopher Says:

    an enema of great literature is what the public needs…yes indeed..

  23. Donald O’Connor as a Mugwump… Sorry I know the conversation’s moved on but I just can’t get beyond that brilliant image.

  24. Levant as Benway is just criminally perfect casting!

  25. So what’s to say about the great Academy Award winning film-maker Jean-Luc Godard?

  26. Christopher Says:

    Somewhat as two vultures may swoop upon a dying lamb, Fettes and Macfarlane were to be let loose upon a grave in that green and quiet resting-place. The wife of a farmer, a woman who had lived for sixty years, and been known for nothing but good butter and a godly conversation, was to be rooted from her grave at midnight and carried, dead and naked, to that far-away city that she had always honoured with her Sunday’s best; the place beside her family was to be empty till the crack of doom; her innocent and almost venerable members to be exposed to that last curiosity of the anatomist.-The Body Snatcher

  27. I finally got a crack at body-snatchers when I wrote Burke and Hare: The Musical, which incorporated a few ideas I’d had when pondering the Stevenson, described by it’s own author as “horrible”.

    Maurice Chevalier as the talking typewriter?

    I wonder if JLG will accept in person, and if so, what he’ll say/do? Seems like they must be hoping for a little controversy, otherwise why bother? It’s not like Godard and the Oscars have anything much in common…

  28. Well every now and then the Academy likes to extend an olive branch to the outsiders. Think of Chaplin getting the award. And of course they gave one to Welles(collected by Huston) who pointedly refused to come. They also belatedly awarded the likes of Buster Keaton, Jean Renoir, Satyajit Ray, Fellini and Antonioni, and most recently Robert Altman, all of them won lifetime achievement awards. After that generation ended(people who began making movies before the 60s) with Ingmar Bergman’s death, they’d have to go to the 60s period and where else would they start than with Godard. And Godard is very famous unlike say, Jean-Marie Straub. If they gave Straub an Oscar, hell would officially have frozen over.

    More likely I think is the fact that Godard’s profile has been more visible in the past few years. Visible despite his most recent films like Notre Musique and now Film Socialisme not getting wide distribution. I think its unlikely that he would accept it and I’m not sure they wanted controversy since the honorary awards is moved earlier and separated from the main awards show which is live(essentially taking the most important part out of the show, that and the obituaries), the honorary awards isn’t going to be broadcasted save for clips.

  29. I wonder if JLG’s apearance, if he appears, will be as moving? Actually, being humble and touched might be the most shocking thing he could do.

  30. He’s less likely to show up than Polanski was in 2003. But what’s even less likely is the tendency of any clip compilation to acknowledge – except perhaps in passing – anything he made after 1968. If they show a clip from KING LEAR I’ll give up drinking.

  31. (And I quite like KING LEAR!)

  32. KING LEAR has Molly Ringwald, Peter Sellars, Norman Mailer, his daughter and Woody Allen and it got funding from an American company, so if there’s any film that on paper should get mentioned its that…funny how these things work. Godard also associated with Coppola in the early 80s, Coppola distributed PASSION and SAUVE QUI PEUT(LA VIE) and with the hoped for(never arrived) success of ONE FROM THE HEART planned to produce such avant-garde blockbusters as Godard’s adaptation of ON THE ROAD and Powell’s THE TEMPEST. The only one that got made was Wenders’ HAMMETT.

  33. Doesn’t Coppola have enough Oscars already?

  34. God, I love Eli Wallach. Is this happening because The Ghost Writer reminded somebody important that EW was still alive? I look forward to his acceptance speech. “There are two kinds of people in this world my friend. The kind with Oscars and the kind who clap. You: clap!”

    I agree with Jaime: the Godard clips will be a nostalgia-fest, since that’s the only level on which the Academy could even begin to approach him.

  35. Christopher Says:

    Finally saw The Ghost Writer last weekend and really loved it..Come back Roman..come back to hollywood and make a picture!
    I can’t help thinking Wallachs performance in Baby Doll inspired Leone to cast him in The Good The Bad and the Ugly.,,Its Tuco all over.

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