#300. Written on the Wind (1956)

In the years since I saw a conversation on YouTube between Quentin Tarantino and film historian Elvis Mitchell about melodrama, how they’re both fans of melodrama and feel that its earnestness and histrionics aren’t to be derided with irony but appreciated as a type of art—ever since then I’ve been kinda wondering what exactly they’re talking about when they use the word “melodrama”. Cuz they were addressing it as like a genre but, as I understood it, melodrama seemed like a characteristic of a different genre’s story; something that an actor maybe brings to a piece of science-fiction or romance.

            Like Stella Dallas, for instance: that movie, if I had to categorize it, I’d say is a tragedy, or a love story, or a family drama. I coming-of-age story, in a strange way. And I’d say that Barbara Stanwyck’s performance is melodramatic, but that the rest of it is just…one of those other genres.

            It’s only now, though, with director Douglas Sirk’s movies that I’m realizing what melodrama is a genre: it’s about people at emotional extremes; tormented love, longing, betraya. It’s about people in situations where their lives, existentially or internally, are hinging on one emotional situation.

            I’ve also realized I don’t quite like it.

            I dug All That Heaven Allows, his previous movie on the List, because it’s focused on the complexities of a relationship between two people, but here, with Written on the Wind, my mind was wandering, and despite the presence of Lauren Bacall, who normally hypnotizes me, I felt basically zero emotional investment. Kinda just wanted it to end. And now, so many days later, I can hardly remember a detail except for the violence by which the main action is sandwiched, at the very beginning and very end.

            I read the Wikipedia summary to hopefully trigger my memory, but it was like gibberish, like that scene at the end of Love and Death where a tormented young woman is recounting a parodically complicated nexus of love and sexus that concludes with, “The firm of Mishkin and Mishkin is sleeping with the firm of Reikov and Reikov.” I thought of watching some clips on YouTube to see if it would jar any memories but, fuck it, I know I won’t enjoy or find them interesting, I know I don’t wanna write about them, and I know that the prospective drudgery of doing so is exactly what’s kept me from writing this fucking essay for weeks now, and holding up the Project.

            So here I am, writing it this way, off scant memories, consoling myself with the fact that, influential though they might be, I can’t be expected to engage and grapple with every single filmmaker. Part of the drive I feel with the Project, and what I guess is even the underlying motive of the personal blogs, is that I’ve got this desire to, yes, engage with everything, find meaning and substance in everything, to be an absorbant pad rubbed willy-nilly over culture. As I get older I’m feeling a kinship with Harriet the Spy, the movie version from the ‘90s, where she and her two friends are shouting their ambitions while taking swigs from a bottle of seltzer, and she shouts that she wants to see everything, know everything, and write it down.

            Strange that I watched that movie so often as a kid (it had one of those orange cassettes from Nickolodeon Studios) but never realized that Harriet is essentially becoming a novelist. Or maybe a journalist. She’s in that nascent stage of observing without synthesizing or interpreting. She jots down details, things she notices, but doesn’t yet forge a whole picture out fo the parts.

            If, that is, I’m remembering it correctly.

            Y’know, while I have you here, and we’re talking about things that aren’t Written on the Wind, let me just say that I am interested in Douglas Sirk. I’m interested in any auteur, frankly—lately I’m even getting interested in Jean-Luc Godard, whose movies I haven’t covered on the blog just yet but with whom I’ve had a conflicted relationship. Mainly my issue is that he’s definitely very much an artist, and maybe even a kind of genius, but that after a certain point he appears to’ve lost interest in entertaining an audience, holding them, and he started to focus instead on just expressing himself, and exploring the capacities of his medium. Which is a valuable thing in itself, I guess. There’s a place for it.

Director Douglas Sirk

            That place just isn’t my living room.

            Anyway, what interests me with Godard is that he’s a serious artist who’s been extremely prolific and who also appears to’ve gone through different and distinct creative periods. He reinvented himself. He embraces, I think, something I heard Alan Moore, the author of Watchmen, say in an interview: he was talking about art and artists and he said that one of the signs of a true artist is that, having found a technique that works very well for them, something they’ve mastered—they abandon that technique. They think critically about their work and they push it in a certain direction. They’re focused on growth.

            Godard appears to do this and has even done that romantic and fabled great-artist thing of sequestering himself in a small provincial town where, like John berger or E.I. lonoff, he can just focus on his work, uninterrupted.

            So I’m interested in that kind of self-motivated artistic development and I’ve bought Richard Brody’s biography of the guy, which appears to be written with disciple-like appreciation and study, and I’ve also bought this thousand-page bio-history of The Beatles, the first of a projected three-volume series, and I’m not even really that interested in The Beatles in terms of their music. But I know that they were constantly evolving as a group and as individuals and that’s what I want to read about.

Jean-Luc Godard: ill-tempered and self-absorbed and misogynistic and anti-Semitic, but interesting.

            I feel this same generalized interest toward Picasso, toward Orson Welles—the two of whom are brought together beautifully in Welles’s final completed movie, a documentary called F is for Fake, which I just watched with Bob the other day and, holy shit, there’s a vignette about Picasso in the last twenty minutes that absolutely blew my fucking mind with its beauty.

            And anyway, yeah, I’m presently working on what I think is a novel, I’m not sure it’ll shape up into something, but I like it so far and I’m feeling, with every page, like I’m actively applying lessons I’ve picked up from the four previous novels I’ve written, three of which died ont eh doorstep of agents and are perhaps (I see it in a clear way now) not very good books. Certainly they’d all be very difficult to market.

            I feel like I’m developing artistically, is my point, and it feels almost as if this feverish observing and reporting that I do here on the blog is this conveyor belt that carries me, every eight or ten months, to a new novel, where those months of growth manfiest in the shape of a story.

            I ask myself now and then, pointlessly, what I’ll do if this novel that I’m working on also fails.

            Write another one, is the answer.

            So yeah. I didn’t like Written on the Wind.

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