"Art is not a mirror with which to reflect the world; it is a hammer with which to shape it"

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

The Facts Of Life

Today you’ll just have to put up with a random unfocused musing. My leg went numb in my sleep and this morning when I was got up I tried to put some weight on it, fell ass-over-tip and, of course, my hand went out to break the fall. Minor wrist sprain, no great shakes... I'm more concerned about the landing on my ribs, given that I broke three of them many years ago since when they've never stopped hurting, particularly when I do that whole breathing in thing... So, what you’re getting is spell-checked but not especially brain-checked! (The bulk of this post was actually written yesterday though- so not much of an excuse really!)

So, on Sunday those good people at the BBC showed the enjoyable comedy How To Murder Your Wife (1965, Richard Quine*)^ starring the ever dependable Jack Lemmon and, surprisingly, Terry-Thomas. The basic story is of Stanley Ford (Jack Lemmon), a newspaper cartoon strip writer-artist who lives a happy well-ordered playboy bachelor life aided by his British manservant and general factotum, Charles (Terry-Thomas). The cartoon strip chronicles the travails of a super-spy named Bash Brannigan. Stanley tests out the basics of his stories for the character in real life before inking them up. Then, after a drunken party Stanley wakes to discover he’s married to the Italian Miss Galaxy contestant who wants to change pretty much everything about his well-ordered life and Charles quits his employ. So, Stanley writes this marriage development into the Brannigan strip (and doubles his audience) but as he vents his (humorous) frustrations through the strip his thoughts turn to murder: he rehearses Brannigan’s wife-killing murder plot in reality (though without wifely participation) then inks it up and publishes. Of course, his wife leaves him and he’s promptly arrested for her murder… the evidence is damning and his confession witnessed by 80 million readers of his syndicated cartoon strip…

Right, so what’s actually happened is a bloke researches and rehearses a plot for a fiction which is then mistaken for reality. A slightly more obscure film, the comedy Please Turn Over (1959, Gerald Thomas), from the writer that brought us the early more gentle black and white Carry On films, Norman Hudis, tells of a small 50’s English village that gets fired up over the publication of steamy novel written by the Headmaster’s over-imaginative teenage daughter who has clearly drawn all the characters from life but precisely none of the situations that she puts them in. Reputations are all in this village and so, for example, the imaginary revelations of womanizing by the local doctor are damaging. But what is so wrong, all this young woman has done is draw her characters from life and that’s what writers are meant to do, isn’t it?

So, here’s where I’m going. Where does fiction end and life begin or, alternatively, where does life end and fiction begin. In doing the research for a project these days you run the risk of breaking the law without knowing it: if you research methods of poisoning or bomb-making you could be unwittingly breaching one of the myriad recent Terrorism Acts. (Fight Club and Spooks both require- and give- information that could be material in the 'preparation of an act of terrorism'.) If you write your murder plot story in the wrong way it may end up looking like you’ve been plotting to kill your nearest and dearest.

For veracity’s sake you should research things but if you draw too shady a character from life you could end up indicting them and end up with both criminal and police on your back. (And how are you really meant to get in touch with these various nefarious characters in the first place?) If you delve too effectively into the underworld you may end up looking like you have been enjoying a bit of a double-life yourself! And if you just ground your characters too closely in people you know you may end up losing all your research subjects!

I’ve realised that the artist, writers in particular, is effectively committing themselves to a lifelong public Rorschach test, exposing their inner self on a regular basis for little remuneration. So, you’re meant to do the research without getting arrested, draw some characters from life without getting a ‘contract’ taken out on you or losing your friends then weld these to some original ideas and characters and situations. No matter how many times I’m told to the contrary I have never believed anything other than that the writer’s personality and stance seep in: they’re cutting their cloth from their imagination they can’t help but add some of themselves. A diamond may no longer be coal but its raw stuff is still carbon; such is the case with the writer. So now, the writer’s trying to avoid arrest, being the subject of a hit and worrying about giving too much away… such as their dark desires to invade Antarctica or ride off into the sunset with Skippy the Bush Kangaroo…

Now, if a writer puts the same characters, themes and situations in repeatedly there must be some reason, from trauma to obsession to deeply held belief, even if this doesn’t manifest itself in the most obvious of manners it will still be there. If you continually show shots of bare feet there may just be something going on; if there’s always a character plummeting from the heights the author may just have vertigo… There was an anecdote on The Culture Show the other week while Cronenberg was discussing his new film Eastern Promises. Cronenberg said that in the early 80’s he was at some event and saw Scorsese across the way. The two men finally spoke to each other and Scorsese confided that he’d been nervous about meeting someone he’d assumed to be disturbing given the nature of his films. Cronenberg thought this was amusing coming from the man who brought us Taxi Driver! But if a Scorsese can make such an assumption what hope for the rest of us…

I’d love to think I can keep myself covered and make sure I give nothing away but I’m sure as my body of specs are (when completed and) read in concentration they’ll give me away with every word on the page!

So to my conclusion… er, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t! So, I suppose you just have to get on with it and be damnd... or do nothing! I don't know... why you looking at me?

*Script by George Axelrod who also wrote the wonderful Breakfast At Tiffany’s.
^apologies for my continued use of the pro-director, anti-writer format but it’s how I was taught on my aborted Ba. and is the usual way these things are done.


Tom said...

I've just been thinking about this recently with regards to a short script that involves a poisoning. I got it into my head that I needed to research types of poison to make sure that it was realistic and also to start working out why this person might keep poison around. Then I figured that I might just go the Repo Man root and have a bottle with a plain label with the word posion on it and a skull and crossbones.

As far as associating with criminals goes, the library is probably a good place to start as there are so many "real life criminal" autobiographies and factual books that you can get most of the information you need from there.

I think Chris Langham tried to use the "it's all for research, honest m'lud" argument didn't he?

(Sorry for the lack of cohesion in this comment - I believe that it's mind-of-a-small-orange-swimmy-thing day today.)

Jon Peacey said...

Apologies for the delay in reply, wrist still being difficult.

I've done some thinking about using poisons in the past as well. I did consider having what I suppose could be considered a 'generic' poison but I started to realise that in a thriller the type of poison would have to be specified for various different dramatic reasons (why the killer might have it, why any other suspect might have it, how they got hold of it, etc.) and also for realism there is the issues of symptoms and antidotes... one poisonous mushroom doesn't manifest symptoms for 48 hours (sometimes up to 3 weeks), has no antidote and, if it isn't flushed out immediately, will kill. Unfortunately, there's always someone in the audience who will know! A poison bottle with skull and crossbones is fine depending on tone but there's weedkiller (as seen in Poirot), cleaners, table salt, plants (in the excellent unreleased Mother Love), pharmaceuticals, fungi (a great Midsomer Murders features these), narcotics and metals: all with different symptoms and effects. (Now you can see why I worry: I spend way too much time thinking about ways to kill people!)

Either Ruth Rendell or PD James has a big book of poisons that they swear by but I can't recall the name unfortunately. I hear that once you're working for a company proper it becomes much easier as there are official police/ forensic/ pathology/ medical advisors to whom you gain access.

The thing about criminals themselves, that hit home to me maybe 15 years ago, came when I saw some bloke running from the police using a payphone opposite the doorstep I was sitting on at about 3am. It was around the time of Pulp Fiction and everyone was writing crime dialogue in that overly stylized manner: this bloke I saw was terse, precise and didn't swear once. I've rarely seen this sort of thing genuinely portrayed on screen, most notably in the films of Jean-Pierre Melville.

I thought about mentioning CL but realised I really didn't want to sully my blog! ;-) He's really queered the pitch for genuine research!