Thursday, November 5, 2009

Something other than you

I arrived on the Thursday before Halloween, which in New York is the point of no return during what really should be called Halloweek. People were already wearing costumes on the subway, three days before the actual e’en. It got worse on Friday, and worse still on Saturday. Anyone who has ever been to Mardi Gras has seen better costumes, but New Yorkers make up for it by their sheer numbers and by the fact that they’re from every country on Earth.

As my friend Erica and I headed out to see a show on Saturday evening – her husband Andrew is a musician, and was playing a gig – we were first dazzled, then overwhelmed by the massive outpouring of costumed people. In Brooklyn, where my place is, there were lots of kids out trick-or-treating, and they were certainly cute. Plus, I overheard one oversized trick-or-treater, a tall, hot-pink kitty cat, say to someone in a doorway, “You know the rule, bro, give it up, man.” In Manhattan, on the other hand, it was as if everyone in the city had resolved to either be something scary-but-more-importantly-kind-of-sexy or to be something simply and deeply scary, which is to say, not clearly in costume.

One of the best two costumes that night was so subtle as to be seriously disturbing. The woman had scratches in the vicinity of her collarbone and one on her cheek – they were not horror-movie scratches; they looked real. The husband had his shirt buttoned wrong. They looked like they’d recently engaged in either rough sex or a domestic dispute, possibly both. I’m pretty sure they were dressed up, though after a while the tiny, old Puerto Rican man beside them started to look like he was dressed up, too. There began to be a lot of gray area. The other best costume, which I never actually saw but which Danny’s brother Devin did, was a woman who was dressed normally but had a tiny trickle of blood coming from one nostril. She was walking alone down the street.

Owing to the crowds, it took Erica and me a half-hour to get through the station at West 4th Street, taking baby steps across the platform while a Maniacal Mary Poppins breathed down my neck and I struggled to not push against the axe-murdering, pre-pubsescent boy in front of me, the entire, overly costumed crowd lurching slowly, slowly, slowly toward the long, inclined corridor that led up from the bowels of the subway, as if we were emerging from Hell. I’ve never taken such small steps for so long in my life. I began to think I’d be sore the next day from using such tiny muscles so deliberately. Next we all had to pass through the turnstiles, which was no small feat under the circumstances, after which there was a stunning visual as the costumed crowd slowly, a half-step at a time, ascended the stairs, which subsequently turned, then NARROWED before depositing the leading edge of our zombie column onto the street, where the larger crowd outside, plus rain, impeded our general distribution. By this point we had lost all control of our direction. We could not cross the street. There was a parade, with men guarding the barricades who, it seemed to me, were costumed as surly New York City cops. The result being we never made it to the show. We couldn’t get there.

Trust me, we tried. But we eventually gave up and headed to the bar where our friend Danny worked, where several of our friends work, in fact (including Cara, who’s in the picture with Erica and me). Danny was dressed as a boxer, which was a nice touch because he is a boxer. Cara was a World War II pinup girl, though she looked suspiciously like a French maid. I was dressed as me with a skin graft on my forehead, which was cleverly concealed by my father’s caddie hat. Erica was a sailor girl and wore my mother’s shoes. When people asked what I was I said I was an STD. Erica said most adults see Halloween as an opportunity to dress up in order to get laid; it’s like breeding plumage. In that sense, I was going against the grain.

I’ve never been one to dress up, aside from my most disastrously successful effort, a decade ago, when I decided that what you were supposed to be on Halloween was, in essence: Something other than yourself that’s scary. Subtlety is key. I mussed my hair, rubbed circles around my eyes using dark, grayish makeup that was not identifiable as makeup, stuck the biggest band-aid in the box on the side of my neck and put on wrinkled khakis and a worn-out button-down shirt that I normally wear to weed-eat, so that it was flecked with a constellation of inexplicable, tiny grass stains. I got arrested that night. And even before that, people avoided me. At parties, people wouldn’t talk to me. I considered my costume a complete success. I had the crowd under my spell.

As a writer, you’re always looking for ways to keep the crowd under your spell. This fact came up during breakfast a few days after Halloween with a group of friends, most of whom are writers. At the table was one who’s working on both a book and a film; another who’s working on a novel; another who’s writing a memoir; and another with a new baby. In short, there was a lot of reproduction going on, and everyone, including the new mother, was mindful of the need for pacing and for keeping the subject under their spell.

But with all this rampant activity, with the excitement and stress of knowing that publishers are currently reading the proposal for my next book, I fell under one of New York City’s own spells, which involves overstimulation. I felt, for the moment, as if I were stuck in that incrementally lurching, costumed crowd, with the result that I was mostly inclined to retreat to the confines of the apartment Danny and I share in Brooklyn, to stare at my computer screen and deliberate the many ways I might channel all this stimulation toward an appropriate climax, all with the understanding that for now I must be content with subtle foreplay. On the surface I was in the middle of the most stimulating city I can imagine, wanting to basically do nothing, which is strangely similar to being no place and wanting to do everything. The World Series was being played in town, but I didn’t go. The New York City Marathon came right past my door and I didn’t see it. Instead, I sat at my computer and waited for it, waited for the desire to well up again, waited for that moment when the crowd is freed from its constraints but not from my spell, which I’m fairly sure will happen soon.

Along the way, late one night, Danny and I set about devising a concept for a movie based on Sultana. It wasn’t just an exercise – we’re serious about doing it. Danny’s idea was that the movie would open with this very interesting scene during the disaster, which he had concocted, which would stun the viewer, would crash onto the screen, after which there would be the inevitable fade-to-black and then the fade-in of the comparatively prosaic scene at the outset of the war – to, you know, BEFORE. Then you’d slowly build the story back to that disaster scene, etc.

It sounded good until I realized that crashing onto the screen necessarily meant that the actual climax of the movie, which of necessity comes later, would have to be something other than the disaster itself, and I was unsure what that might be. With this unexpectedly early climax it appeared that we’d be shooting our wad too soon, and it would go downhill from there. You’d just have a lot of conversation and flirting and light touching from that point on, and you’d end up going to sleep.
I thought it wouldn’t be satisfying if the money shot came before the foreplay, until I realized that I was precisely wrong, that it would actually be satisfying too soon.

So we got rid of that idea, and moved on. We created an outline. We paced ourselves. We moved deliberately toward the climax, at the head of our imaginary column of viewers. We’re planning to write this screenplay because my agent has admitted defeat in her effort to sell the film rights to the book, having run into the same log jam that I ran into when I had the good fortune to receive an email from a descendant of one of the main characters in the book, J. Walter Elliott, who (the descendant) is himself a successful screenwriter and, therefore, logically, should have been an easy sell.

What the screenwriter told me was that a movie about the Sultana would be a very hard sell to a studio, particularly in the current economic environment, when no one wants to invest in anything that doesn’t offer the guarantee of a huge return. He said, essentially, that we’re talking about a movie that involves a cast of thousands, in period costumes, and as if that weren’t enough, includes battles and two prisons a would require a great deal of location shooting, including aboard a life-sized replica of a Mississippi River steamboat that BURNS on a FLOODED RIVER, at night. OK, I thought. OK. Yes, it does sound expensive. And it’s not as if you could simply shoot a lot of closeups to hide the fact that you were using only 12 actors augmented by thousands of computer-generated extras. Which is when he, the screenwriter, added: “Plus, there’s no love interest,” by which I took him to mean: No role for, I don’t know, Hillary Swank, or is she already washed up? Anyway, he added, “The studios are superstitious about water.” Apparently from the studio perspective water is not simply a place where someone can drown, though there is that. Turns out water has also played a notoriously bewitching role in one too many films. Movie studios equate water with their own disasters, he said.

But, still. Was there ever a better idea for a movie? Could the story of the Sultana possibly be more cinematic, with a more compelling plot? In the end, my emails with the screenwriter trailed off. So I began to badger my agent, who handles literary sales, not film sales, and so had to work through a film agent herself. I had encountered a similar situation with Mississippi in Africa, which, admittedly, was its own sticky wicket in the movie-making sense, in that it spanned two continents and two centuries without a single protagonist, much less a love interest. Another friend and I had tried to work through that one, fictionalizing and compressing the story, but then he got married and I lost my momentum. So when my literary agent reported back that the film guy at Creative Artists had said basically the same thing the screenwriter had said about Sultana, and another guy, to whom a friend in the movie business had referred me, and who had expressed great initial enthusiasm for the Sultana idea, quit returning my calls, well… after that Danny and I decided to have a go at it ourselves. Danny has done one film of his own and I wrote the book, so we decided we could write it. Did I mention that I was also momentarily sequestered in Brooklyn? Then, theoretically, someone would feel compelled to buy our script.

The point, though, in book writing, movie-making and, if you’re me, in just about any endeavor including romance and scaring strangers on the street, is not to be too obvious or to plunge into the action too quickly. If you go over the top or plunge into the action too quickly, it’s hard to keep the crowd under your spell for long. I am speaking purely from observation, as I have rarely toured the top or plunged into the action too quickly -- not yet, anyway.

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