“Why’s this so good?” No. 5: Raymond Chandler sticks it to Hollywood
We tend now to think of Hollywood’s hackneyed, would-be blockbusters as a new phenomenon, one borne of desperation, unprecedented cynicism and the rise of narrative television. But Raymond Chandler’s wonderful 1945 essay-screed “Writers in Hollywood” reminds us that the motion picture industry was, by and large, as uninspired and ridiculous 65 years ago as it is today.
Writing for The Atlantic Monthly, Chandler brought to bear on his subject all the fury and surprising insights of the novelist who wrote “The Big Sleep,” the gimlet-eyed practicality of the storyteller whose first publications were for pulp magazines, and the staggering self-absorption of the depressive alcoholic.
There is, Chandler says, “no such thing as an art of the screenplay, and there never will be as long as the system lasts, for it is the essence of this system that it seeks to exploit a talent without permitting it the right to be a talent. It cannot be done; you can only destroy the talent, which is exactly what happens – when there is any to destroy. Granted that there isn’t much.”
As in the essays of Twain, Mencken and Vonnegut, the language doesn’t date. Chandler is straightforward, he is disgusted, and he is hilarious, and his rapid-fire insults are unmistakably his own. Even the most talented screenwriters, he says,
devote their entire time to work which has no more possibility of distinction than a Pekinese has of becoming a Great Dane: to asinine musicals about technicolor legs and the yowling of night-club singers; to “psychological” dramas with wooden plots, stock characters, and that persistent note of fuzzy earnestness which suggests the conversation of schoolgirls in puberty; to sprightly and sophisticated comedies (we hope) in which the gags are as stale as the attitudes, in which there is always a drink in every hand, a butler in every doorway, and a telephone on the edge of every bathtub; to historical epics in which the male actors look like female impersonators, and the lovely feminine star looks just a little too starry-eyed for a babe who has spent half her life swapping husbands; and last but not least, to those pictures of deep social import in which everybody is thoughtful and grown-up and sincere and the more difficult problems of life are wordily resolved into a unanimous vote of confidence in the inviolability of the Constitution, the sanctity of the home, and the paramount importance of the streamlined kitchen.
More than a dozen shots in a single mammoth sentence: who else could fuse so many complex condemnations so elegantly and vividly – so, dare I say, cinematically? The semicolon here does the work of the quick cut.
Yes, the argument wanders in places; sometimes he contradicts himself. (As Marilynne Robinson once said of a book by Richard Dawkins, truly this screed is a sword that turneth every way.) But the energy is remarkable. I enjoy every below-the-belt jab and noiresque condemnation. “Let me not imply that there are no writers of authentic ability in Hollywood. There are not many, but there are not many anywhere. The creative gift is a scarce commodity, and patience and imitation have always done most of its work.” It’s not hard to imagine this last bit issuing from a partly-shadowed Humphrey Bogart in one of Chandler’s own films just before he leaves the villain to stride down some dark hallway.
In the heyday of the Hollywood novelist-screenwriter, a slew of literary talents – Chandler, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker and Aldous Huxley, to name just a few – did time writing film scripts because they were easy money. Now, in the new narrative TV landscape, it’s cable companies that are signing novelists and memoirists in droves. Jonathan Ames, Jennifer Egan, Sam Lipsyte, Sloane Crosley, Salman Rushdie, Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman are just a few recent hires. Given that fiction writers like Richard Price and George Pelacanos helped shape “The Wire,” arguably the most interesting story of our time, the focus on novelists makes a certain amount of sense. But how much creative control will they have? And will cable TV, too, eventually become too rigid to allow innovation?
Chandler was born well over a century ago, on July 23, 1888. But we still think of him as a contemporary writer because so few since have managed to ridicule the absurdities of modernity with such precision and wit.
His complaints offer a fascinating snapshot of what it was like to write for pictures at the end of the Second World War. Yet his concerns about the way storytelling by committee tends to impede creativity and destroy narrative are timeless. “The volatile essences which make literature cannot survive the clichés of a long series of story conferences,” he writes.
And ultimately this Hollywood essay derives its power from Chandler’s language itself: its intensity and humor and its withering metaphor. The “egocentric geniuses” who depart Tinseltown in a huff, we’re told, “leave behind them nothing but the exquisite aroma of their personalities.”
Maud Newton is an editor and writer for Thomson Reuters whose criticism, essays, and prize-winning fiction have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Narrative Magazine, The Paris Review Daily, Granta, The Awl, and many other publications.