The Film


I got interested in Donald Barthelme after reading of him in Steven Soderbergh’s interview book with Richard Lester, Getting Away With It. Lester, encouraged by regular screenwriter Charles Wood, had contemplated a film of Barthelme’s The King (the legend of Arthur updated to WWII and expressed almost entirely in dialogue — not an obvious movie subject) and I was quietly gratified to notice a copy of the novel still adorning Lester’s bookshelf (I am an incurable bookshelf snoop) when I visited to conduct my own modest interview.

Lester had guessed that Barthelme might be up Soderbergh’s street, a shrewd supposition given that SCHIZOPOLIS, the most ludically Barthelmian of Soderbergh films, was still in post-production at the time. 40 Stories has an introduction by Dave Eggers, another artist up whose street Barthelme might be assumed to lie. In fact, one might uncharitably suggest that Barthelme is the writer Eggers would like to be — both share a taste for a certain kind of airy whimsy. But Barthelme is much more mysterious in his effects — one doesn’t know precisely what he is up to, and we will never explain or offer a hint — and he also has a gift for pastiche that allows him to layer his whimsy deeper below the surface. I was very taken with his piece The Film, which apart from being Grade-A nonsense, also captures precisely the mixture of pensive doubt and self-importance which always seem to be present in diary entries published by film directors at work on another masterpiece.

I think he may have been looking at Truffaut’s diary of FAHRENHEIT 451, which would account for the name Julie. But I think Godard’s diaries, published in Cahiers, are MUCH more pompous — only Woody Allen could do them justice in parody.

bone spinning

An extract —

Thinking of sequences for the film.

A frenzy of desire?

Sensible lovers taking precautions?

Swimming with horses?

Today we filmed fear, a distressing emotion aroused by danger, real or imagined. In fear you know what you’re afraid of, whereas in anxiety you do not. Correlation of children’s fears with those of their parents is .667 according to Hagman. We filmed the startle pattern–shrinking, blinking, all that. Ezra refused to do “inhibition of the higher nervous centers.” I don’t blame him. \\then we shot some stuff in which a primitive person (my bare arm standing in for the primitive person) kills an enemy by pointing a magic bone at him. “O.K., who’s got the magic bone?” The magic bone was brought. I pointed the magic bone and the actor playing the enemy fell to the ground. I had carefully explained to the actor that the magic bone would not really kill him, probably.

Next, the thrill of fear along the buttocks. We used Julie’s buttocks for this sequence. “Hope is the very sign of lack-of-happiness,” said Julie, face down on the divan. “Fame is a palliative for doubt,” I said. “Wealth-formation is a source of fear for both winners and losers,” Ezra said. “Civilization aims at making all good things accessible even to cowards,” said the actor who had played the enemy, quoting Nietzsche. Julie’s buttocks thrilled.

We wrapped, then. I took the magic bone home with me. I don’t believe in it, exactly, but you never know.

11 Responses to “The Film”

  1. My favorite Barthelme is Snow White — which tells the story from the dwarves (highly sexual) POV. it would make a great movie but the Disney lawyers would be sure to swoop down on anyone who tried to do it. Even if it were called Donald Barthelme’s Snow White.

    The filmmaker who captures his antic spirit best is Charlie Kaufman — particularly in Synecdoche New York.

    I saw Barthelme read his work several times back in the day. Very engaging fellow — remindful of a cheery Randy Newman.

  2. Doesn’t Barthelme even name one of his dwarves “Doc”?

    I’m moderately amazed that DC never swooped down to insist that the publishers remove “The Joker’s Greatest Triumph” from Come Back Dr. Caligari. Batman, Robin, The Joker, and Commissioner Gordon. (And Barthelme’s addition, Bruce Wayne’s best friend, Fredric, who accompanies Batman on his Tuesday night adventures and kibitzes). “By the way, Frederic, how are the <i<Grit sales coming along? Are you getting many subscriptions?” “Yes quite a few Bruce,” Fredric said. “I’ve been doing particularly well in wealthier sections of Gotham City, although the strength of Grit is usually found in rural areas…”

  3. Interesting, if that’s the word I want, that of his novels only The Dead Father gets its own Wikipedia page, and none of the original story collections, just the two big selections. I didn’t realize he’d fallen so far out of fashion.

  4. Beautifully done, David E!

    The raunchy Snow White is good, yes. Quite a bit of sex in Barthelme, all fairly de-eroticised into abstraction, but you get the impression he enjoyed thinking about it anyway.

    I never understood what Grit was, but I saw advertisements in the back of US comics — not for the product, but for volunteers to sell it, whatever it was.

  5. Is that Alan Bates up at the top?

  6. Yes, the killing with a bone thing made me think of The Shout, vaguely.

  7. “The Shout” was the very first movie in Dolby Sound.

  8. A good showcase!

  9. That’s a cool thing to know. Thanks, david e!

  10. You’re more than welcome.

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