On Movies and How to Write About Them

Lili Anolik and Geoff Dyer in Conversation

Lili Anolik and Geoff Dyer got together to discuss old movies and new books (their own, Hollywood’s Eve and Broadsword Calling Danny Boy respectively).

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Lili Anolik: In 1941, Preston Sturges made Sullivan’s Travels, about John L. Sullivan, a wildly successful director of comedies, the most successful being Ants in Your Pants of 1939. Then Sullivan decides he wants dignity, respect, so he decides his next project is going to be O Brother Where Art Thou?, one of those socially conscious pictures. On his adventures, he meets this great-looking, sulky girl played by Veronica Lake. He tells her his plan and she looks even sulkier and says, “There’s nothing like a deep-dish movie to drag you out in the open.” Tarkovsky’s Stalker, a film you wrote a book about in 2012’s Zona, is nothing if not deep-dish. But your new book, Broadsword Calling Danny Boy, is about a movie that’s the opposite of Stalker, a popcorn movie, a movie you loved as a kid, the 1968 World War II action thriller Where Eagles Dare. My question to you is: is this book your Ants in Your Pants of 1939? Meaning, is it your way of keeping yourself in high-brow/low-brow balance?

Geoff Dyer: That’s a disturbingly well thought-out opening move. I’m conscious, of course, of the change from the cultural high ground of Tarkovsky to this knockabout thing. Two things, though: one, they both seem to contain some essence of cinema for me, and we can come back to what that essence is later. But secondly, I think it’s appropriate that we go from serious to knockabout because really, so often in my stuff, we’ll have a serious point made, and it’ll be immediately undercut with a gag, and then we’ll go up to serious again. Ideally it’ll get to the point where the serious and the joking merge together and you’re making a serious point and a joke at the same time. So that’s what’s going on in this book, I think. It’s also worth saying that some people’s noses were put out of joint by the Tarkovsky book because they felt I wasn’t treating him with sufficient reverence. With Eagles, it would be wildly inappropriate to write about it in a way that was at all reverential.

LA: I agree. That would be insane. Now, Geoff, I’d like to talk to you about the structure of this book. I’m a huge fan of yours, have read many of your books. And I’ve noticed how restless you are with form—and how inventive. You often come up with these alternative forms, forms I’ve never seen before, forms that seem dictated by the subject you’re writing about. For example, in But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz (1991), it’s almost like you’ve written a book of Chekhovian short stories that are also miniature jazz solos, these inspired riffs. And when I was reading Broadsword, I felt like I was listening to a super erudite director’s commentary. I’m curious to know how you described to your editor, to your publishing house, to yourself, the form this book was taking.

GD: I see how David Thomson would have fallen in love with you after you’d done that in conversation with him! We can talk about David later on . . .

LA: David’s name-checked in Broadsword!

GD: So yes, hopefully I find a way of writing about each subject in a way that is uniquely appropriate to that subject—the jazz book is written in a jazzy way, and so on. Also, I’ve always liked the idea of doing versions of things. Paris Trance was a version of Tender Is the Night; Jeff in Venice is obviously a version of Death in Venice. And then with criticism, I was always conscious of the gap between the fun of reading Dickens or George Eliot, and then the dreary boring criticism about them. I’ve always been keen on shrinking that gap, and creating something that is both, to put it pompously, a work of art in its own right, and a commentary on the thing that’s inspired it. With these film books, I found a form that was a way of getting as close as possible: a sort of love letter in which the process of judging, which is part of criticism might seem in a way to have been foregone: you only write a love letter to someone you love.

It’s painful for me when someone comes up and says, “I love L.A. Woman,” thinking I’ll be pleased. It’s a bad book!

LA: That’s one of the great pleasures of this book, which gets me to my next question. The tone of the book is striking because you semi-share Richard Burton’s assessment of the movie. You quote this passage from his Diaries: “I prefer for instance that Elizabeth Taylor and I won Oscars, than that a film should gross like Eagles should have no importance at all.” Part of you thinks the movie is unworthy or low-IQ or goofy, but another part of you doesn’t care that you think the movie is unworthy or low-IQ or goofy, that you’re a goner for it anyway. Which is to say, you love the movie in spite of itself. That’s often how it is with movies, I find. Can you talk about your paradoxical reaction?

GD: The Tarkovsky book has this all-important epigraph from Camus, who says “the best way to talk about what you love is to speak of it lightly.”

LA: And Camus ought to know.

GD: And two further things: the Tarkovsky book really made me very conscious of the fact that I had no capacity for reverence at all, and also made me rather despise the idea of revering things. When you revere something, all you can do is revere it and treat it reverentially. When you love something, and we all notice this in our relationships, then you always think, oh, why do I love this? Think of Shakespeare’s Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” And he goes on to itemize all the things he loves. But of course loving somebody in all those different ways doesn’t mean you’re not also capable of being irritated by them. It doesn’t stop you from being conscious of the fact that they leave their socks lying around or something like that. One of the pleasures of your Eve Babitz book is that you make this considered, well-supported critical assessment of her work and her importance. You can’t quite come out and say it as bluntly as I do now, but really you’re saying there’s only one great Eve Babitz book.

LA: Oh, it’s painful for me when someone comes up and says, “I love L.A. Woman,” thinking I’ll be pleased. It’s a bad book! But then, Slow Days, Fast Company is a masterpiece, so there you go. Anyway, I noticed that you referred to the writer Alistair MacLean throughout the book, but talked about him in an extended way only at the end. MacLean wrote the screenplay for Broadsword and he also wrote the book that was the novelization of the screenplay. He was another boyhood enthusiasm of yours. You reread him in preparation for writing this book, and you thought that maybe you’d discover that he should be discovered, or, I guess, rediscovered. Those hopes were dashed quite quickly. His books were terrible. Why does the movie hold up when the writer of the movie does not?

GD: I think because one of the things MacLean is so great at is exactly the thing I can’t do, which is think up these amazing plots. The plot is pretty far-fetched, and some of his novels, I remember, before I had any sense of style or literary merit or whatever, well, the plot, the twists and turns, were amazing. And even now, when I see a film with an ingenious plot, I’m always struck—how do they come up with these twists and turns? So that part is really impressive, and lends itself very well to movie adaptation. If the director is sufficiently talented, all those syntactical shortcomings are unimportant.

LA: By the way, were you as dismayed as I was to find out Richard Burton took the Oscars seriously?

GD: Not really, because obviously the Oscars are and always have been a complete joke, but occasionally the right film does get to win. So for someone like him, who is so conscious that he had this great talent and knew that he had squandered it for all sorts of reasons, that would’ve given him—it would have really vindicated the whole trajectory of his life to say I did it in the end. It would be like Andre Agassi coming back after those years 

in the wilderness. Burton is an actor who embodies that English theatrical school of acting. He’s got that amazing voice. But he has not got the skill all these American movie actors had, like Steve McQueen, of doing almost nothing.

Can you be a great actor while being kind of half-stupid? And you sort of can! But it’s so mysterious.

LA: I was going to ask you, too: who did you think was a better screen actor, Elizabeth Taylor or Richard Burton?

GD: For me it would have to be Burton. I mean, that voice of his is so mesmerizing. He makes everything sound like Shakespeare. Relatedely, did Laurence Olivier ever do anything better than the voiceover for The World at War? Other times he often seems to be over-egging the pudding.

LA: If you grow up going to the movies rather than going to the theater—which I did, and assume you did—theater actors often seem embarrassingly, well, theatrical.

GD: Exactly. There’s a great bit on a chat show where Richard Burton does a brilliant impression of Laurence Olivier doing the opening soliloquy from Richard III. He goes along and he goes: “in the deep bosom of the o-ce-án—buried!”

LA: Yeah, I’m sure he wanted to give Olivier a hard time. I’m sure he was competitive with Olivier. So, your writing on actors and their performances is really great, and you offer this exegesis of Clint Eastwood’s squint. Is it okay if I read it to you?

GD: Sure. Slightly masturbatory from my point of view, but…

LA: Masturbatory? But you’re not the one reading it, I am! Here we go: “There was a slight redundancy in the preceding sentence when I said that Clint squints at Burton. Squinting is pretty much the limit of Eastwood’s facial range as an actor. Eastwood has basically squinted his way through five decades of superstardom, squinting in a variety of outfits, poncho and tweed jacket most famously, and in response to a variety of stimuli—guns, chicks, danger, gags, love, humor—in a way that renders him, in facial terms, monosyllabic. Or duosyllabic, since the squint cocks up with such regularity as to become the default setting of the Eastwood face, so that not squinting, expressing nothing, becomes expressive of the entire range of human emotion that exists beyond the limits of the squint.

In this regard, he faces, so to speak, stiff competition from numerous American actors from the 1970s, all vying with each other to see who can do the most with the least—or at least with less.” A lot of writers say they started off wanting to be actors—Joan Didion, J.D. Salinger, Bret Easton Ellis. Did you ever want to be an actor? And if no, why do you think it’s such an attractive alternative for writers?

GD: No, no, I never wanted to be an actor, but I’m so interested by acting and I’ve become even more interested in it in the last 15 years when I’ve been so deeply addicted to David Thomson’s Dictionary, in which I think he conveys the unfathomable mystery of acting. And one of the things I’m conscious of is how much actors must notice so much. Their ability to perceive and recreate gesture brings them very close to this Henry James-like way of noticing every little tell and—

LA: It’s performative.

GD: Yes, it’s performative, and there’s always this question of how intelligent do you have to be to be an actor? Can you be a great actor while being kind of half-stupid? And you sort of can! But it’s so mysterious.

LA: It’s sort of like being a great athlete—it takes a kind of intelligence, right?

GD: Mmm. But the observational skills—which I don’t have, incidentally; it’s another way I’m hampered as a novelist. If I were writing some sort of scene now about us sitting here, I realize I haven’t noticed the key things that a Henry James-type novelist would.

LA: What does he say?

GD: Observe perpetually?

The person, sexually, who comes out best in your book is Harrison “Seven Times a Night” Ford.

LA: Where Eagles Dare’s director, Brian G. Hutton, was a very important guy to Eve Babitz. They got together on her 18th birthday. He was still an actor then, and married. She was also seeing another guy when she was with him—so I guess she got her revenge. Anyway, Brian loomed large in Eve’s imagination, and she refers to him a lot even now—repeats his opinions, his jokes. I remember in one of the very first conversations I had with Eve, she talked about Brian, and she told me that he quit directing to become a plumber, and that his wife drove a solid gold Rolls Royce. A pretty colorful character.

Yet in the book, you describe him thusly: “Eastwood, Burton, and the rest of the team have been praised as stealthy and secretive, but the two stars are constantly drawing attention to themselves, even when they are trying to pass unnoticed. They are paid vast sums to do so in such a way as to draw attention to the fact that they are passing unnoticed. Hutton’s stylistic signature as a director relies on the absence of anything that might permit us to recognize him as an auteur. Apart from the stunt-men and -women, no one connected with the film is more undercover than its director.” You seem to find him colorless, and that, for you, is one of his best qualities as a director.

GD: I’ve seen this film so many times, and I find it so difficult to jump ship halfway through, and I think one of the reasons for that is he has the most essential quality in a director, which is a sense of rhythm. That rhythm is established within the first 30 seconds, and it’s accompanied by the audible rhythm of the soundtrack. And from that sequence, the whole film just flows, and you’re just caught up in it. So often I see films, and they plod along, and you can see the director making a dutiful transition from script to celluloid, like “This scene: done… This scene: done…” And even in the editing, they can’t put it together to get away from that clunk, clunk, clunk.

Whereas Eagles is a fully achieved piece of cinema, as opposed to a script transcribed to celluloid. It’s a characteristic that was very valued in the studio system, that you are never more impressive than when you are most invisible. And he gets great performances out of the actors, too. You know more about this than I do, but I heard Hutton stopped filmmaking to move into real estate.

LA: Yeah, I heard that, too. He made a lot of money in real estate, Eve said.

GD: But he must have had so much money from the films as well.

LA: I’m sure. The plumber thing must’ve been a joke. He probably took care of the properties he owned, and that maybe involved some toilet maintenance or something. But yeah, Eve was wild about him.

GD: What happened to him to make him abandon films? He must have been—if you make films that gross a lot of money, everyone wants you to make more.

LA: Can you imagine just getting bored?

GD: Of all the many boyfriends Eve Babitz had, he had a special place in her affections.

LA: He did! He was her favorite to fuck, and she just quotes him all the time. He must’ve been a charmer.

GD: That’s an endorsement, isn’t it?

LA: Plus, he was very good-looking when he was young, which never hurts.

GD: The person, sexually, who comes out best in your book is Harrison “Seven Times a Night” Ford.

LA: Not seven, nine.

GD: Oh, was it nine? I had to reduce that because it was so inconceivable to me.

LA: I just did a book signing, and a woman there told me that she teaches one of Harrison’s kids. She read parts of the book to the class, but she had to censor the nine times and Harrison’s pot-dealing. But the nines times makes me like him more. For me, he was always a bit of a stiff actor.

What I’d really like to be writing right now is some sort of memoir about my very, very ordinary childhood.

GD: And that worked really well in Blade Runner, where it adds to that suggestion he might be a Replicant.

LA: Yeah, but he’s not an automaton in every movie. 

GD: He doesn’t have that lovely feline grace of Clint Eastwood.

LA: Okay, will you hold it against me if I tell you that the footnotes were my favorite part of the book?

GD: Oh, thank you! I like that. I’m a great fan of footnotes, as in Foster Wallace and Nicholson Baker. Somebody said about the Stalker book that the footnotes sort of grew all over the page like ivy creeping over an abandoned building.

LA: That’s the inventiveness I mentioned before, the restlessness with conventional form. I’m not going to keep reading to you passages that you wrote because it’s getting embarrassing. But there’s a very funny and brilliant throwaway analysis of Michael Mann’s Heat (1995) in a footnote.

GD: Oh, I love that one. That’s one of my favorite footnotes.

LA: Do you like the movie?

GD: It’s great, I love it. Except that the climactic moment is so disappointing. The meeting of Pacino and De Niro—you could even believe they weren’t both there at the same time. They just found stand-ins, the back of whose heads looked like each of the actors. It never felt like this incredible meeting of the two great actors of their generation.

LA: I felt the same way! These powerhouse actors and yet somehow the scene falls flat.

GD: I do love it, though. The color scheme of the film—that blue that Mann introduces right at the beginning.

LA: The footnote that I’m going to read is one of the ones where you slip in a bit of autobiography. You’re talking about ski outfits. “One of the most prized items in my action man’s wardrobe is the ski patrol outfit. I remember it vividly, the green goggles, the oven-glove white mittens that rendered the white rifle unholdable because my parents got it for me on an inappropriately sunny day when I had a tooth pulled at the dentist. On the way home, my mum told me off for spitting blood onto the pavement and gave me a handkerchief to spit into. Later she took a picture of my dad and me in the garden, in the sun, with our shirts off, while action man toiled away conspicuously on the gray grass of the lawn in his white parka and skis like some totemic warning about the looming catastrophe of climate change. This was the nearest we ever got to a skiing holiday.” That’s just great. Okay, so how did you see the footnotes functioning in the book?

GD: In a very straightforward way. Footnotes can be irritating to read. When I couldn’t wedge something into the text, it would have to go down to the bottom of the page. But they’re more occasional in this book; there was sort of a whole parallel world of footnotes in the Tarkovsky book.

LA: You end the book with this wonderful meditation on MacLean, and it not mattering that he was a crummy prose stylist. You say that MacLean and his books and this movie of his are part of who you are as a man and as a writer. You end the second to last paragraph of the book with the following line: “This book, therefore, is a chapter from an autobiography.” That’s very sneaky of you, Geoff. Can you just not bear to write a traditional autobiography?

GD: What I’d really like to be writing right now is some sort of memoir about my very, very ordinary childhood. My wife is really urging me to do it, because she knew my parents. And my agent in London, because I wrote lots of short things about my childhood. I’m just having such trouble with it, and there’s something going on there.

LA: Maybe the bluntness is repulsive to you.

GD: Well, I’ve even got a form for it, because of a little book I did, this anthology where writers were asked to create maps. It was about 16 of us, I think. My map was a map of Cheltenham, the town I grew up in. Normally on a map, you’ve got a symbol for “church” or whatever, “post office.” In this, we used Google Map and I put on these little symbols—one was for “sex,” one for “trouble,” one for “schools,” one for “drinking” and in the legend I would say what happened at these particular places. That’s the form. But I don’t know. I really don’t know what the problem is.

I really believe that in years to come, when we’ve properly expanded our idea, our search for where literariness lies, that Dictionary will be considered one of the great works of literature in our time.

LA: One of my all-time favorite books is David Thomson’s The Biographical Dictionary of Film. I think it’s his greatest book. There’s something about that form—the confining nature of it, a thousand or so words per person—that actually frees him up. And sometimes when certain writers take things on in a straight-ahead way, or give themselves all the space in the world, it kills the book. Actually, you talk about this in Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence (1998).

GD: Yes, I talk about everything in that book.

LA: And that’s what you do in this book. Somehow being hampered a little bit—doing the autobiography in the footnotes, which some readers don’t even bother reading—allows you to be more freewheeling.

GD: Like a great therapist, you’ve really got to the issue. But I don’t know how to resolve that issue.

LA: If you resolved it, you’d probably stop writing books. So let’s drop the subject! You close by suggesting that Broadsword might be the second installment in a cinematic trilogy, Zona being the first. You mention that you’re also quite passionate about John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967). Would a book on that movie be your capper? Or were you being insincere?

GD: I was being totally sincere. I introduced the film at Film Forum on Sunday in New York. It’s because that was my first exposure to something like an art film, though it’s also a thriller, so it really bridges between Where Eagles Dare and the art cinema of Tarkovsky. The interesting thing to me about that is that the two books I’ve done so far on film, David hasn’t gotten anywhere near them. He doesn’t like Where Eagles Dare, and he’s quite contemptuous of Stalker. But of course he’s written so much around Point Blank—he loves Boorman, he loves Lee Marvin, and one of his early whacking-off moments in the Dictionary is when he talks about the fact that Angie is his favorite actress. I really believe that in years to come, when we’ve properly expanded our idea, our search for where literariness lies, that Dictionary will be considered one of the great works of literature in our time.

LA: I love it! It’s one of my Bibles. I’m always referring to it.

GD: Isn’t it? The only thing I would say is he keeps revising it, and all he does is update it. And each time he updates it, because he can’t really be bothered to write about Jennifer Lopez even though he’s obliged to, he slightly dilutes it. If he’d add an afterthought to his essays on Godard, or whatever, that would be very interesting, but not to keep updating it, especially after what he says so famously in the third edition, that amazing passage about his friend. Whenever I teach that book, I can’t read that passage because I’ll start crying. So you know, 

he can’t keep updating it when he’s already said that the movies have died for him on some level.

LA: Plus, movies have lost their cultural centrality. Okay, this is my last question. There’s a passage in Out of Sheer Rage: “It seemed an intolerable waste of a life, of a writer’s life especially, to sit at a desk in this nice, dull street in north London; it seemed curiously a betrayal of the idea of a writer. It made me think of a picture of Lawrence sitting by a tree on a blazing afternoon surrounded by the sizzle of cicadas, notebook on his knees, writing. An image of the ideal condition of a writer.” So that’s your image of a writer’s ideal condition. Now, when I imagine you writing this book, I picture you at your computer, hunched over with laughter, just doubled up with laughter. So tell me it was fun to write, tell me it wasn’t a slog.

GD: Oh, gosh, these two books were really such fun to write, this one particularly. I was never “writing a book,” you see, I was just doing this fun thing. Which at a certain point, I took to my wife and said “do you think I could possibly get away with publishing this 120 page book?” Yes, it was just a fun old time, that’s really what it was. I was chortling to myself—I love chortling to myself, having a good old chortle.

LA: Don’t we all? Thank you, Geoff. This was fun.

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Lili Anolik is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. Her work has also appeared in Harper’s, Esquire, and The Believer. She is the author of Hollywood’s Eve (Scribner, 2019) and lives in New York City with her husband and two small sons.

Geoff Dyer‘s many books include The Ongoing Moment (winner of the International Center of Photography’s prestigious Infinity Award for Writing/Criticism), But Beautiful (winner of the Somerset Maugham Prize), Out of Sheer Rage (shortlisted for a National Book Critics Circle Award), The Missing of the Somme, the novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, and the essay collection Otherwise Known as the Human Condition (winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award). His latest book is ‘Broadsword Calling Danny Boy’: Watching Where Eagles Dare (Pantheon, 2019). Dyer is currently writer-in-residence at the University of Southern California.

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Broadsword Calling Danny Boy is out now via Pantheon, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday.

Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A. is out now via Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.






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