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Friday
Sep102010

In Which James Tiptree Jr. Is His Own Auxiliary Corps

Alice in Jungleland

by ALEX CARNEVALE

I may be an actress, I may be a writer, I may be most probably some man's grief.

- Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr.

1921. Former taxidermist and self-appointed naturalist Carl Akeley planned a new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History. His brainstorm was to slaughter a gorilla from one of the most remote regions of Africa, an animal first seen by Europeans in 1902. Who better to accompany him than a family with a six-year old daughter? That girl was Alice Bradley, and she would become more famous than them all, even the mountain gorilla, as the literary giant James Tiptree Jr.

There you see Alice's domineering mother Mary Hastings Bradley. This was not a garden variety safari. The destination was the Congo, and the journey was difficult, although not for Alice, who was carried most of the way by porters. Later she wrote that "If I dropped something I was quite accustomed to clap my hands and have six large, naked cannibals spring to attention and pick it up for me." Her mother penned a children's book about the trip called Alice in Jungleland and a book for adult audiences called On the Gorilla Trail. Alice's mother Mary Hastings Bradley would tour and lecture about this trip and others for the rest of her life.

one of the four gorillas killed during the trip

The impact it had on her only daughter was more profound. The horror of Africa's extremes affected the young Alice deeply. After slaughtering five gorillas, they kept one of the babies under Alice's cot, causing the smell of formaldehyde to pervade everything. Her mother killed a lion and posed next to it until it came back to life, not fully dead until she shot it in the heart.

The sort of parents who would expose a six-year to such things can barely be imagined, but the resultant fifteen minutes of fame her mother enjoyed constituted a shadow that Alice would fight to step out from under for the rest of her life. In Julie Phillips' magnificent biography of Alice Sheldon, James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice Sheldon, Alice, much later tells her mother that "You taught me, without meaning to, that love is the prelude to appalling pain."

When they returned to Africa in 1924, nine-year old Alice asked her parents for a rifle. This was refused, but the vision of her gun-toting mother in the brush created an indelible image — a persona she could never live up to. In other ways, Mary Hastings Bradley was an inspiration and a talented author in her own right. She did things few women of the period could boast; one of her stories won an O. Henry award. Though she loved young Alice, her daughter evolved into a depressed teen, even attempting suicide by cutting her wrist with razorblades.

Eventually they packed her off to college, where her mother expected Alice to follow in her footsteps and attend Smith. She declined and went to Sarah Lawrence, where the beautiful, precocious painter was immediately a star. It was at this age that Alice began to notice she was as interested in women as men. She struck a debonair figure as a busty, 5'8" sixteen year old, and later she reflected on her ambivalence about how she appeared: "I do not 'fit' my body. Never really have. When I was an 'attractive girl,' a 'beauty', I didn't want to be a pretty girl. I didn't fit the interactions forced on me." Too vain to wear glasses, Sheldon's time at Sarah Lawrence was invariably wild. (The president of the school wrote her parents a letter describing Alice's unusual sleeping and eating habits.) In some ways, her behavior was reactionary: she had discerned, beneath the pretense of her education, that most Sarah Lawrence girls were preparing themselves for their wedding day.

Phillips describes a typical Alice vignette:

One night at two in the morning, Alice was in the art department trying to master photography under artificial light. She had on black velvet overalls and spike-heeled lizard pumps, and she was taking pictures of the department's anatomy skeleton, which she had arranged so that it was reclining on the floor, reading the Sunday comics, and drinking a can of tomato juice through a straw. As she adjusted the lights she was interrupted by a "plump little girl in a pink wool skirt, Braemar sweater and pearls" who looked at the photo session, looked at Alice, and said, "You don't live right."

As a form of rebellion against her controlling parents, Alice eloped with a boy, William Davey, who sat next to her at her debutante ball. Since neither Sarah Lawrence or his school, Princeton, allowed married students, they both transferred to Berkeley and drove to California.

Their six year marriage was a complete disaster, highlighted by Alice going to jail for kicking a policeman in the penis and extensive drug experiments, which she described to Philip K. Dick in later life as "early opiates, wine, and — ugh — thyroid extract." As for her marriage to the hard-drinking Davey, she wrote, "Anyone who shoots a real gun at you when drunk and angry is simply not husband material, regardless of his taste in literature." Although Alice's husband expected her to cook and clean (neither of which she did, Bill's mother eventually paying for a housekeeper), he was further disappointed with her other wifely duties.

Bill and Alice's sex was terrible, aggravated by the fact that Alice was unable to have an orgasm through intercourse. Her continuing interest in women didn't exactly help matters, and they both drank enough that they should have been able to get it right. Instead they took solace in affairs, where Alice could express her desire to penetrate and be penetrated without being a simple object of affection. Though she desired women, she rarely acted on those desires outside of unrequited love, or whenever she was hammered. Instead, she sublimated those feelings, a choice that would later find expression in her male alter ego.

Alice's nude self-portrait hanging in a gallery

After some legal troubles in San Francisco (Bill had thrown a woman Alice was performing cunnilingus on out a plate glass window), the couple moved back to New York, and spent the following summer in New Mexico. She sold a nude self-portrait, and spent the money on a shotgun, killing ducks in the marshes around Santa Fe. Bill also gave her a .38. They moved to Carmel, California, but Bill broke his jaw when a car backfired while he was operating a hand crank. Alice never visited him in the hospital, and by 1940 the marriage was over.

Newly a divorcee, Alice settled in Chicago. American involvement in World War II was on the horizon. After a brief start as the art critic for The Chicago Sun (a job for which she cut her hair), something drove her to sign up for the army. Which she, incredibly, did. At the end of September 1942, she dressed up in a classy suit and presented herself at the recruiting station. She gave her parrot to the Brooklyn Zoo, her science fiction magazines to the library, and reported to Des Moines.

in her uniform

As a member of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), Alice was known by Davey, her ex-husband's last name. Her dominant and aggressive style was a hit in the military, and she quickly became a sergeant, applying to Officer Candidate School. Though the WAAC was occupied chiefly by tasks like making Army Christmas cards, she was still able to earn the ire of a commanding officer. Sent to Newport News and made a supply officer, she fucked one of her fellow officers and wrote in her journal, "Jesus it was good to get my legs around a young man again!" What a woman.

After the WAAC was shut down and most women returned to civilian life, Alice reenlisted. She eventually reported to air force intelligence school in Pennsylvania, but not before dating a variety of staid military men. Of one particular dud she wrote, "I like him thoroughly — and he appeals to me. But he keeps making me feel like a lady tigress, and that is not promising." Alice studied photointerpretation, and once she graduated, her group was moved to the basement of the Pentagon. Looking at photographs of Japan and occupied China, she listed military targets for the commanders.

In her spare time, she wrote her first novel — the Washington war jaunt The Victories of Light. As would become her custom in both art and life, the dumb male narrated the novel while the female was the one who really knew what was going on.

24 year old Alice at a Georges Braque show

In 1944 the army set up an "exploitation division." Its mission was to recover and evaluate the extent of German science recovered by the Allies after the war. Its leader was Huntington Sheldon. Alice didn't think much of her assignment, as most of her study had been of the Far East, and she was even less optimistic about her commanding officer. She confronted Colonel Sheldon, known to his intimates as Ting, and she challenged him to a game of chess and won. Blindfolded.

They married quickly after meeting, Ting being twelve years her senior. The sex was horrific; in Alice's words "masturbatory." He was better when he was drunk — and he was usually drunk — but he couldn't stay erect. This early sexual problem threatened to end the marriage before it had really begun. Alice concluded that she loved Ting more as a friend than as a passion.

Eventually they bought an egg hatchery in Toms River, New Jersey and planned to live off the income. This plan was slow in developing even near the end. Though she wanted children, complications from her abortion of Bill Davey's child had blocked her fallopian tubes. By 1952 they had sold the hatchery and they both took jobs in the CIA.

Alice was still Alice — in the context of her open marriage she had little qualms about sleeping with other Pentagon analysts. This was complicated by her continued use of mind-altering drugs. At some point, the CIA issued everyone on Alice's project Dexedrine. Speed was back in her life, an old friend from her unhappy days with her first husband. Later Alice told Philip K. Dick that she "fell repeatedly in the clutches of Dex — and did the insane bit of trying to come down with barbs. All, all by myself, and keeping up work in the world."

After entering academia and pursuing her interest in psychological research, Alice felt confident enough to send out her work in the genre of science fiction. Many critics later assumed it by order of the CIA that forced her to create her nom de plume of James Tiptree Jr., but really, she wanted to protect her academic career. Still, there must have been a part of her that was more than amused by the idea of being a man. Another identity fit her aggressive, multitasking personality, and with the suggestion of Ting that Tiptree should be a Jr, she was off and running.

Within a year legendary editors like John W. Campbell and Frederik Pohl were buying her stories. At first it was the deftness and the hurtling speed of her plots that garnered attention, but her CIA background added a technical element that was irresistible to journals like Galaxy and Astonishing Stories. Though she never imagined she'd keep up the pen name for long, she soon opened a bank account under Tiptree's name after convincing the manager that it was both legal and necessary.

Her first artistic triumph was "The Last Flight of Dr. Ain," a story about a scientist in love with female Earth who spreads a strain of influenza that will kill off its most destructive inhabitants. It was nominated for a Nebula, and opened the community of science fiction writers to her. An incestuous and eccentric crew, Tiptree could never see them in person, but that was no matter. Most weren't social butterflies, and she was alive in letters, even writing to authors like Tom Wolfe and Italo Calvino as Tiptree. (They wrote back, Calvino asking to see her work.) In the same year, 1969, she made first contact with Philip K. Dick.

At first the forty-year old Dick related to Tiptree when she wrote him in a nice way, as a fan, and she kept things on that level. But once he read "Dr. Ain", he wrote to ask her to collaborate on a novel with him. To say she was overwhelmed would be an understatement. The correspondence sputtered for a time, but others thrived. Of the many callings Alice had in her life, letter-writing was chief among them.

David Gerrold, a science fiction writer who would later create "The Trouble With Tribbles" episode of Star Trek, even tried the pop-in on his friend Tiptree. Alice opened the door and when he and a friend asked for Tiptree, she stared at him in shock. A few lies made Gerrold none the wiser, and forever afterwards Alice kept her change of address cards flying. In her will she included an apology to Gerrold: "It killed me not to be able to speak."

An acceptance from the flamboyant Harlan Ellison was also a particular source of pride for Alice during this period. Ellison wrote, "You are the single most important new writer in science fiction today. Not me, not Delany, not Blish, not Budrys, not Disch, not Dick...none of us...I am so fucking destructed by what you've allowed me to read. I don't know how to say thank you."

Though Ting never read her writing, and their marriage was sexless, they were close despite these handicaps. The editor David Hartwell commented that "They were always calling each other 'my sweet, my heart, my dear.' If he were in the room she had to touch him." More comfortable with each other than ever, Alice was fifty-five to her husband's sixty-seven. As she began to feel more safe in her life, her work improved.

Tiptree first wrote to Ursula K. Le Guin in 1971 after admiring her classic The Lathe of Heaven. Le Guin lived in Portland and was married to a history professor with three children. It would be marvelous to see Ursula's letters released in her lifetime, because what is public of them shows the exertion of a magnificent mind. Of Philip K. Dick's religious conversion and his lack of willingness to discuss it with her, she wrote to Alice, "Oh hell I don't blame him, I suppose anyone who gets within a letter's length of me scents the Voltaire lying in wait."

Philips interviewed Le Guin for her biography of Alice, and Ursula described the experience of communicating with the writer who she knew only as James Tiptree Jr.:

He was an extremely charming persona, and I think aware of his charm. The flirting was certainly mutual. The charm consisted partly in vivid intelligence, interestedness, epistolary wit and elegance and humor and good humor - really good letter-writers aren't common, after all and partly, like all charm, was mysterious, irrational, irresistible. It is flattering to be written wonderfully clever, admiring letters to. Tiptree's letters combined lavish praise with personal reticence, also a rare combination. He courted, flirted, joked, charmed, and evaded. Masterfully. The praise did get in the way of open friendship. He refused equality, in that he was always writing as the admirer. This is perhaps why I always felt a certain element of play-acting, of performance in my side of the correspondence. I had to play up to Tiptree, and it was fun to do so; but a plain frank friendship would have been even lovelier. But that, of course, is denied to a persona.

When Tiptree won his first Nebula for "Love is the Plan The Plan Is Death" in 1973 Ursula half-suspected what might be up from "his" reaction to the prize: "This was just too improbable, a man who didn't think he deserved a prize." In truth, it was only the hard-boiled nature of Alice's stories that prevented her from being IDed earlier — if the internet had been around, she would not have been able to hide in plain sight.

As the feminist movement began its charge, Alice fell into correspondence with one of its finer representatives in her world: the brilliant novelist and academic Joanna Russ. Though she had yet to come out as a lesbian when she began her correspondence with Tiptree, Russ couldn't have been prouder of who she was, and her mindbending novel The Female Man remains an immortal classic. Though she and Alice never met in person, Russ felt no compunction about lecturing her older "male" friend on the inequities faced by women writers. Unbeknownst to her, the receiving party was all too aware of these differences.

Russ also went after Le Guin, who, she was convinced, chose too many male protagonists. Le Guin was considerably less sure of the feminist movement — though she wrote from an undeniably feminist perspective, she disdained Russ' embrace of the oppressive patriarchal power structure as a skin that women could also inhabit. As a happy wife and mother, she also resented some of Russ' ideas on those subjects.

Split between her two friends, neither of whom knew she was an incredible synthesis of both ideals, Alice couldn't help but be ambivalent. She shared the ideals of the feminist movement without question, but was unsure of what it meant for her work. Alice's second pen name, Racoona Sheldon, sent out stories under separate cover (sometimes with a recommendation from Tiptree) and explored these ideas more closely.

When Alice's mother died in 1976, Alice's life exploded. Her mother had been in many ways the center of her world; by her death she had published in most major American journals of the period including The New Yorker and the Saturday Evening Post. Mary Hastings Bradley merited an obituary in local papers, and Alice thought only of her grief.

In letters she let slip that her mother died, and many of her correspondents, including Harlan Ellison, were aware that her mother was a Chicago naturalist. Confronted by Jeff Smith (the editor who would become her literary executor) she was forced to confess. She came out to many of her closest friends, and even wrote a letter to Robert Silverberg apologizing for allowing him to praise her for her excess of maleness in an introduction to one of her stories in his New Dimensions anthology. She appears to have been extremely uneasy with how correspondents would now view her. Here is her letter to Le Guin:

I want you, alone, to know first from me because of our special relation. I write this feeling a great and true friendship is wavering on the balance, about to slide away forever to the dark.

Ursula, Ursula, I am petrified. All the friends, the sf world
will they take it as "deception"? Will I have any friends left? Will the women who mean so much to me see it all as an evil put-on?

Well dear Starbear an old age is dead and time to begin a new. But I think I'm finished.


Tip says goodbye to a very dear friend and all that is hers.


Let me know what you think if you're still speaking to


Tip/Alli

Le Guin wrote back, reassuring her friend:

Dearest TREE,

oh strange, most strange, most wonderful, beautiful, improbable - Wie geht's, Schwesterlein? sorella mia, sistersoul! ... Do you know what? I don't think I have ever been surprised before. Things have happened but when they happen one thinks Oh, of course, this had to Be, etc, deep in my prophetic soul I Knew, etc but not this time, by God! And it is absolutely flatfoodedly surprised it's like a Christmas present! I want to laugh, also slightly to cry, because the whole thing now is on this huge and unexpected scale of real and total reversal only what does reversal mean? Explain to me, my Gethenian friend. ... I don't know about people's reactions, I suppose there are some who resent being put on, but it would take an extraordinarily small soul to resent so immense, so funny, so effective and fantastic and ETHICAL a put-on.

Not surprisingly, Alice plunged into depression. She had shed one of her selves, and there was bound to be a toll. She was a person far from inured to criticism, and this was her most exposed moment. Some of Tiptree's critics believed her work lost some authority when Tiptree "died", but it only changed into something just as compelling, if less flashy. Her collection of horror stories Tales of the Quintana Roo even won a World Fantasy Award.

Ting's failing heath had also changed Alice's life. She was using so much Numorphan that she had to check into a hospital to break its hold over her. More and more frequently she spoke of suicide. She had planned it for years. When the time came in May of 1987 she killed her husband by shooting him in the head while he was asleep (friends speculated that he was not exactly ready to go), making a few goodbye phone calls and offing herself. The police found them in bed together — after observing how messy Ting's exploding brain was, she wisely wrapped her own in a towel.

It is sometimes asked whether Alice would have achieved the same level of acclaim if she had written as Racoona Sheldon from the beginning. It is at least a possibility that some of material seemed fresher coming from a man, who rarely attacked the same themes at this time. Le Guin and Russ both thought Tiptree an excessively enlightened male; e.g. "you're one of the good ones." Really, there weren't any good ones, and most of the friends who abandoned Alice once she was only Alice were males like Frederik Pohl and Harlan Ellison, though it seems reductionist to ascribe this merely to her sex. They perhaps understandably felt betrayal at a person who pretended to be one of their own.

The taking of a pen name is in many ways a frightening process. It is easier than we believe to become something other than ourselves. Yes, Alice was every bit as incredible a man as she was a woman. It worked because she was only herself, a devastatingly iconoclastic figure whose brilliance in carrying off the deception at all is underappreciated. That she was also one of sf's signature talents is difficult to believe, and that was the problem for both the world, and Alice. We forgive liars, but only when we understand their reasons for their untruth. This was the block that many of her friends stumbled over, perhaps because it wasn't entirely clear to woman herself.

If she was Tiptree, and he was undeniably a part of her, then who was Alice? And if she was Alice, then she was no longer Tiptree, and that particular voice was what first distinguished her and must have been a source of enormous comfort and confidence. She was capable of so many voices in her writing, which hurt her more than it helped — one powerful voice is preferred by many to a single strong one. Her most powerful voice had been compromised. A close look at the stories of Racoona Sheldon reveals them to be near identical to Tiptree's quality, and yet they did not meet with the same measure of success. Her friends continued to urge her to write as Tiptree, even after her public identity was widely known. Perhaps she subconsciously (or even consciously) shaped certain material through Tiptree. When her Boswell comes along we'll know, but for now, what a fascinating experiment she made. There is power in names, and keeping Tiptree around instead of making a clean break with her identity may have ended her — and Ting's — life more quickly than it did.

Real lives reach a tender and appropriate resolution even when they are filled with the kind of tragedy we usually only read about. Fake lives have no such honor: they are doomed from the first, created from air to avoid a reality that is too shameful or prescient to bear. It is easy to say that Alice Sheldon stepped outside of her time. She did things most women of her generation could only dream of. The toll of two other people, plus the sex-starved wife, plus the repressed lesbian, was unimaginable.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He tumbls here and twitters here. He last wrote in these pages about the AMC series Mad Men and Fairfield Porter and the New York school of poetry. Thanks to Julie Phillips' magical biography of Alice, James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice Sheldon, which you can purchase here.

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Consider how odd it would be if all we knew about elephants had been written by elephants. Would we recognise one? What elephant author would describe — or perhaps even perceive — the features which are common to all elephants? We would find ourselves detecting these from indirect clues; for instance, elephant-naturalists would surely tell us that all other animals suffer from noselessness, which obliges them to use their paws in an unnatural way. So when the human male describes his world he maps its distances from his unspoken natural center of reference, himself. He calls a swamp "impenetrable," a dog "loyal" and a woman "short."

nine year old alice flanked by a dead elephantThe only animal who can observe man from the outside is of course the human female: we women who live in his house, in his shadow, on his planet. And it is important that we do this. This incompletely known animal conditions every aspect of our individual lives and holds the destruction of Earth in his hands. ...

I don't identify with "normality," not in this world. I don't hold, nor do you, illusions about the great dazzling sanity of sf, no, it's more a matter of looking for the direction in which the darkness gives way to something that may be, someday, sunrise.

- Alice Sheldon

Thursday
Sep092010

In Which The Basic Reason Was William Faulkner Needed Money

Nothing Ever Happens

One of the saddest things is that the only thing that a man can do for eight hours a day, day after day, is work. You can’t eat eight hours a day nor drink for eight hours a day nor make love for eight hours — all you can do for eight hours is work. Which is the reason why man makes himself and everybody else so miserable and unhappy.

In spring of 1947, the English department of the University of Mississippi had William Faulkner address one class a day for a week. The teacher of each class was barred from attending the sessions. Faulkner spent the entire time answering questions from students.

Q: Which of your books do you consider best?

WILLIAM FAULKNER: As I Lay Dying was easier and more interesting. The Sound and The Fury still continues to move me. Go Down, Moses - I started it as a collection of short stories. After I reworked it, it became seven different facets of one field. It is simply a collection of short stories.

Q: In what form does the initial idea of a story come to you?

WF: It depends. The Sound and The Fury began with the impression of a little girl playing in a branch and getting her panties wet. This idea was attractive to me, and from it grew the novel.

Q: How do you go about choosing your words?

WF: In the heat of putting it down you might put down some extra words. If you rework it, and the words still ring true, leave them in.

Q: What reason did you have for arranging the chapters of The Wild Palms as you did?

WF: It was merely a mechanical device to bring out the story I was telling, which was one of two types of love. I did send both stories to the publisher separately, but they were rejected because they were too short. So I alternated the chapters of them.

Q: How much do you know about how a book will turn out before you start writing it?

WF: Very little. The character develops with the book, and the book with the writing of it.

Q: Why do you present the picture you do of our area?

WF: I have seen no other. I try to tell the truth of man. I use imagination when I have to and cruelty as a last resort. The area is incidental. That's just all I know.

Q: Since you do represent this picture, don't you think it gives a wrong impression?

WF: Yes, and I'm sorry. I feel I'm written out. I don't think I'll write much more. You only have so much steam and if you don't use it up in writing it'll get off by itself.

Q: Did you write Sanctuary at the boilers just to draw attention to yourself?

WF: The basic reason was that I needed money. Two or three books that had already been published were not selling and I was broke. I wrote Sanctuary to sell. After I sent it to the publisher, he informed me, "Good God, we can't print this. We'd both be put in jail." The blood and guts period hadn't arrived yet. My other books began selling, so I got the galleys of Sanctuary back from the publisher for correction. I knew that I would either have to rework the whole thing or throw it away. I was obligated to the publisher financially and morally and upon continued insistence I agreed to have it published. I reworked the whole thing and had to pay for having the new galleys made. For these reasons, I didn't like it then and I don't like it now.

Q: Should one re-write?

WF: No. If you are going to write, write something new.

Q: How do you find time to write?

WF: You can always find time to write. Anybody who says he can't is living under false pretenses. To that extent depend on inspiration. Don't wait. When you have an inspiration put it down. Don't wait until later and when you have more time and then try to recapture the mood and add flourishes. You can never recapture the mood with the vividness of its first impression.

Q: How long does it take you to write a book?

WF: A hack writer can tell. As I Lay Dying took six weeks. The Sound and The Fury took three years.

Q: I understand you can keep two stories going at one time. If that is true, is it advisable?

WF: It's all right to keep two stories going at the samet ime. But don't write for deadlines. Write just as long as you have something to say.

Q: What is the best training for writing? Courses in writing? Or what?

WF: Read, read, read! Read everything - trash, classics, good and bad; see how they do it. When a carpenter learns his trade, he does so by observing. Read! You'll absorb it. Write. If it is good you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out the window.

Q: Is it good to copy a style?

WF: If you have something to say, use your own style: it will choose its own type of telling, its own style. What you have liked will show through in your style.

Q: Do you realize your standing in England?

WF: I know that I am better thought of abroad than here. I don't read any reviews. The only people with time to read are women and rich people. More Europeans read than do Americans.

Q: Why do so many people prefer Sanctuary to As I Lay Dying?

WF: That's another phase of our American nature. The former just has more commercial color.

with Eudora Welty

Q: Are we degenerating?

WF: No. Reading is something that is in a way necessary like heaven or a clean collar, but not important. We want culture but don't want to go to any trouble to get it. We prefer reading condensations.

Q: That sounds like a slam on our way of living.

WF: Our way of living needs slamming. Everybody's aim is to help people, turn them to heaven. You write to help people. The existence of this class in creative writing is good in that you take time off to learn to write and you are in a period where time is your most valuable possession.

Q: What is the best age for writing?

WF: For fiction the best age is from 35-45. Your fire is not all used up and you know more. Fiction is slower. For poetry the best age is from 17 to 26. Poetry writing is more like a skyrocket with all your fire condensed in one rocket.

Q: How about Shakespeare?

WF: There are exceptions.

Q: Why did you quit writing poetry?

WF: When I found poetry not suited to what I had to say, I changed my medium. At 21 I thought my poetry very good. At 22 I began to change my mind. At 23 I quit. I use a poetic quality in my writing. After all, prose is poetry.

Q: Do you read a good bit?

WF: Up until 15 years ago I read everything I could get a hold of. I don't even know fiction writers' names much now. I have a few favorites I read over and over again.

Q: Has "The Great American Novel" been written yet?

WF: People will read Huck Finn for a long time. However, Twain has never written a novel. His work is too loose. We'll assume that a novel has set rules. His is a mass of stuff - just a series of events.

Q: I understand you use a minimum of restrictions.

WF: I let the novel write itself - no length or style compunctions.

Q: What do you think of movie scriptwriting?

WF: A person is rehired the next year on the basis of how many times his name appeared on the screen the previous year. Much bribery ensues. In the old days they could give a producer three hundred pounds of sugar and be reasonable sure of getting their names on the screen. They really fight about it and for it.

Q: To what extent did you write the script for Slave Ship?

WF: I'm a motion picture doctor. When they find a section of a script they don't like I rewrite it and continue to rewrite it until they are satisfied. I reworked sections in this picture. I don't write scripts. I don't know enough about it.

Q: It is rumored that once you asked your boss in Hollywood if it would be permissible for you to go home to work. He gave his approval. Thinking you meant Beverly Hills, he called you at that address and found that by home you had meant Oxford, Mississippi. Is there anything to this story?

WF: That story's better than mine. I had been doing some patching for Howard Hawks on my first job. When the job was over, Howard suggested that I stay and pick up some of that easy money. I had got $6,000 for my work. That was more money than I had ever seen, and I thought it was more than was in Mississippi. I told him I would telegraph him when I was ready to go to work again. I stayed in Oxford a year, and sure enough the money was gone. I wired him and within a week I got a letter from William B. Hawks, his brother and my agent. Enclosed was a check for a week's work less agent's commission. These continued for a year with them thinking I was in Hollywood. Once a friend of mine came back from England after two years stay and found 104 checks enclosed in letters that had been pushed under his door. They are showing a little more efficiency now, so those things don't happen much anymore.

Q: How do you like Hollywood?

WF: I don't like the climate, the people, their way of life. Nothing ever happens and then one morning you wake up and find that you are 65. I prefer Florida.

Q: On your walking trip through Europe how did you find everything?

WF: At that time the French were impoverished, the Germans naturally servile, I didn't find too much.

Q: Did your perspective change after travel to Europe and to other places?

WF: No. When you are young you are sensitive but don't know it. Later you seem to know it. A wider view is not caused by what you have seen but by war itself. Some can survive anything and get something good out of it, but the masses get no good from war. War is a dreadful price to pay for experience. About the only good coming from war is that it does allow men to be freer with womenfolks without being blacklisted for it.

Q: What effect did the R.C.A.F. have on you?

WF: I like to believe I was tough enough that it didn't hurt me too much. It didn't help much. I hope I have lived down the harm it did me.

Q: Which World War do you think was tougher?

WF: Last war we lived in constant fear of the thing catching on fire. We didn't have to watch all those instruments and dials. All we did was pray the place didn't burn up. We didn't have parachutes. Not much choice. World War II must have been tougher.

Q: Is association (such as a boarding house) good or bad as a background for writing?

WF: Neither good nor bad. You might store the facts in mind for future reference in case you ever want to write about a boarding house.

Q: How much should one notice printed criticism?

WF: It is best not to pay too much attention to a printed criticism. It is a trade tool for making money. A few critics are sound and worth reading, but not many.

Q: Whom do you consider the five most important contemporary writers?

WF: 1. Thomas Wolfe. 2. Dos Passos. 3. Ernest Hemingway. 4. Willa Cather. 5. John Steinbeck.

Q: If you don't think it too personal, how do you rank yourself with contemporary writers?

WF: 1. Thomas Wolfe: he had much courage and wrote as if he didn't have long to live; 2. William Faulkner; 3. Dos Passos; 4. Ernest Hemingway: he has no courage, has never crawled out on a limb. He has never been known to use a word that might cause a reader to check with a dictionary to see if it is properly used. 5. John Steinbeck: at one time I had great hopes for him - now I don't know.

Q: What one obstacle do you consider greatest in writing?

WF: I'm not sure I understand what you mean. What do you want to do? Write something that will sell?

Q: I mean whether the obstacle is internal conflict or external conflict.

WF: Internal conflict is the first obstacle to pass. Satisfy yourself with what you are writing. First be sure you have something to say. Then say it and say it right.

Q: Mr. Faulkner, do you mind our repeating anything we have heard outside of class?

WF: No. It was true yesterday, is true today, and will be true tomorrow.

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If I were reincarnated, I’d want to come back a buzzard. Nothing hates him or envies him or wants him or needs him. He is never bothered or in danger, and he can eat anything.


Wednesday
Sep082010

In Which For Martin Scorsese It Was The Subculture

Making It Up As You Go Along

Martin Scorsese is a revolutionary figure in American cinema and not just for the unblinking originality of his films. As much a calculated auteur than a regular guy putting forth his vision of the world, Scorsese prefigured the democratization of the cinema by bringing his violent and disgusting adolescence to life. He is also a talented critic and historian, infusing his films with a network of tributes to the legends of the movies he loved as a child. In this far ranging chat with critic Anthony DeCurtis that appeared in the South Atlantic Quarterly in spring of 1992, he touches on the making of his most important projects and what's it like to be Marty.  - A.C.

ANTHONY DECURTIS: I want to start with Goodfellas. Obviously you have returned to some familiar terrain. What brought you to that specific project?

MARTIN SCORSESE: I read a review of Wiseguy back when I was directing The Color of Money in Chicago, and it said something about this character, Henry Hill, having access to many different levels of organized crime because he was somewhat of an outsider. He looked a little nicer. He was able to be a better front man and speak a little better. I thought that was interesting. You could move in and get a cross section of the layers of organized crime — from his point of view of course. Which could be true — maybe, who knows? It's what he says. You get into two different areas there. What he says the truth is — you have to take his word for it, which is .... I don't say it's doubtful, but it's like...

AD: It's a version.

MS: The second element is really the most important one: his perception of the truth. Where, you know, if somebody gets shot in a room and there's five people who witnessed it, you'll probably have five different stories as to how it happened. You know what I'm saying? So you have to take that all into consideration. But that's what fascinated me about the book. So I got the book and I started reading it and I was fascinated by the narrative ability of it, the narrative approach.

AD: Henry has a real voice.

MS: He's got a wonderful voice and he has a wonderful way of expressing the lifestyle. He reminds me a lot of the people that I grew up around. It had a great sense of humor, too. So I said, "This will make a wonderful film." I figured to do it as if it was one long trailer, where you just propel the action and  you get an exhilaration, a rush of the lifestyle.

AD: That acceleration at the end of the film is amazing, when Henry is driving around a madman, blasted on cocaine, trying to deal for guns and drugs while the police helicopter is following him, and, through it all, he keeps calling home to make sure his brother is stirring the sauce properly for dinner that night.

MS: Yeah. The sauce is as important as the helicopter. That's a whole comment about drugs, too. When I read about that last day in the book, I said I'd like to just take that and make it the climax of the film. Actually, the real climax is him and Jimmy in the diner. A very quiet moment.

AD: When you talk about the world you grew up in, as it happens, it is virtually the same world I grew up in. I went to Our Lady of Pompeii in Greenwich Village.

MS: Great!

AD: On Bleecker Street.

MS: It was the West Side, though. You were on the West Side. That's a funny thing, on the East Side, we didn't have the influx of other cultures, that very important bohemian culture.

AD: My family was Italian and working-class — I wasn't part of that. I grew up in a world as enclosed as the one that you describe. But there was always this sense that there was something else. I mean, when I was a kid, the Village Voice office was around the corner. So when it got to the point where like, as kids, everybody was getting in trouble with the police, I had a very clear vision that there was some way out.

MS: There was another world. We didn't know that.

AD: It's a very clear distinction. The bohemian world of the Village was like another world, even though you only lived a few blocks from the Village.

MS: I never went to the Village until I enrolled at NYU in 1960. I grew up on the East Side. From 1950 to 1960, for ten years, I never ventured past Houston Street, past Broadway and Houston. I think my father took me on a bus when I was five years old or something, I remember Washington Square. I was on a double-decker bus. And I remember a friend of mine, I was about nine years old, his mother took us to the Village on a little tour to see the little houses and flowers. It was like a wonderland, because they had flowers. It was a very different culture.

I was used to, you know, wonderful stuff too, on Elizabeth Street, which was five grocery stores, three butcher shops all on one block. Two barbershops. And it was barrels of olives — which was great. Growing up down there was like being in a Sicilian village culture. It was great. But you come from there so you know. It's complicated to explain to people who didn't grow up in it.

AD: It is. When I'm trying to tell people about it, I refer to your movies. I don't know any other representations of it.

MS: A good friend of mine I grew up with just sent me a letter. He just saw GoodFellas and he said he had just spent a sleepless night remembering what a great and incredible escape we both made from that area, from that whole lifestyle.

AD: I first saw Mean Streets after I had left New York to go to graduate school in Indiana. I had never been west of New Jersey, and I saw Mean Streets...

MS: In Indiana!

AD: And it was like, "Wow, somebody got it. There it is."

MS: That's the whole story of Mean Streets. I mean, I put it on the screen. It took me years to get it going. I never thought the film would be released. It just wanted to make, like, an anthropological study; it was about myself and my friends. And I figured even if it was on a shelf, some years later people would take it and say that's what Italian-American on the everyday scale — not The Godfather, not big bosses, but the everyday scale, the everyday scale — this is what they really talked like and looked like and what they did in the early seventies and late sixties. Early sixties even. This was the lifestyle.

AD: Why was it important to do that? To document that?

MS: Oh, you know — myself. I mean why does anybody do anything? You know, you think you're important so you do a film about yourself. Or if you're a writer you write a novel about yourself or about your own experiences. I guess it's the old coming-of-age story. Actually there were two of them for me. Who's That Knocking On My Door? and Mean Streets. Who's That Knocking I never got right, except for the emotional aspects of it — I got that.

AD: I watched it recently and was struck by how strong it was. How do you feel about it at this point?

MS: I dislike it. Only because it took me three years to make. And, you know, we'd make the film and we'd work on a weekend and then for three weeks we wouldn't shoot and we'd work another weekend. So it wasn't really a professional film to make. It took three years to make. The first year, '65, I cast it. We did all the scenes with the young boys and we had a young lady playing the part of the girl. But later we came up to about an hour and ten minutes and there was no confrontation. The young girl was always seen in flashbacks and asides. It was all between the boys. So you never understood what was happening between the Harvey Keitel character and the girl. The conflict was, of course, being in love with a girl who is an outsider, loving her so much that you respect her and you won't make love to her. Then he finds out she's not a virgin and he can't accept that. it's that whole Italian-American way of thinking, of feeling.

Finally we got it released. We got it released by '69, when we were able to put a nude scene in it. In 1968, we shot a nude scene. In '68 there was a new tolerance about nude scenes. Very old, wonderful actors and actresses were playing scenes in the nude — it was very embarrassing. We had to get a nude scene. We shot it in Holland, because I was up in Amsterdam doing some commercials for a friend of mine. We flew Harvey over and we got the young ladies there and we did this nude scene. I came back, kind of smuggled it back into the country in my raincoat, put it in the middle of the film and then the film was released. But it was still a rough sketch to me. I wish... ah it's the old story: if I knew then what I know now it would be different.

AD: One of the most interesting parts of the movie is the sexual fantasy sequence while The Doors' "The End" is playing.

MS: Well, that was the scene done in Amsterdam. That was fun.

AD: The Oedipal drama in the song underscores the Oedipal struggle of the Keitel character. Using that song also captures the way that you were profoundly affected by what was going on culturally in the sixties. But for the characters in your movies, the sixties don't seem to exist. Their world is...

MS: Medieval! Medieval. Well, that's the thing. When I was about to release the film, we were having a problem getting a distributor and my agents at William Morris said to me, "Marty, what do you expect? You have a film here in which the guy loves a young woman so much that he respects her and he won't make love to her. Here we are in the age of sexual revolution, and you're making a film about repression! Total sexual repression. Who's going to see it? Nobody."

Yeah, I mean, that was my life. When I went to Woodstock in '69, I mean, it was the first time I started wearing jeans — afterwards, I took cufflinks; I lost one of the cufflinks. Certainly it was having come from that neighborhood and living there completely closed in, like in a ghetto area, not really leaving till the early sixties to go to the West Side. So I had one foot in the university and the other foot in Mean Streets, you know, that world, that lifestyle. i became aware of other people in the world and other lifestyles, other views, political and otherwise, much later. But I was quite closed off. It was like somebody coming out of the Middle Ages going to a university.

AD: In a documentary that was done about you, you said that you would see certain things when you were young and you would say, "Why don't you ever see this in a movie?" I was wondering what it was you were seeing, or what you felt was missing then in the movies?

MS: I think it is the way people behaved. I'd be sitting and watching something on television. My uncles would be in the room. My mother would be there. One of my uncles would say, "That wouldn't happen that way. It's a good picture and everything else, I really enjoyed it, but, you know, what would really happen is such an such. He would do this and she would leave him and the guy would kill the other guy." They would work up their own versions of the film noir that we were watching, and they were actually much better. My uncles' and my mother's and father's ideas were much better than what we were watching on TV. And it had to do with what was based in reality. What would really happen.

AD: That's an interesting aspect about your movies. Obviously you're completely soaked in film history and you've seen a million movies. But your movies never become just movies about movies. There's never anything cute or clever about them. Even when Henry in GoodFellas says, when the police are coming for him, that things don't happen the way they do "in the movies', it doesn't seem contrived. Of course, you got that from the book.

MS: I was going to take that out, but I left it in because I felt it had more of an honesty to it. I hope it had an honesty to it, if you understand. I always find that sort of thing too cute or too self-conscious or something — thought I don't mind being self-conscious at all. I like Joseph Losey's films. You see the camera moving, it's very self-conscious. But it took me years to get to understand the precision of it and the beauty of that, you know? And I don't mind the self-conscious aspect. What I do mind is pretending that you're not watching a movie. That's absurd. You are watching a movie and it is a movie.

But Henry, did say, "They don't come to you like you usually see in movies." So he's not talking about this movie. He's talking about other movies that you see. And I was even thinking of saying, "I know you're watching this as a movie now." I was even thinking of putting that in. Then I said, no, it get too — what's the world for that? — maybe academic to get into that. There's a falseness about that that I wanted to avoid here.

AD: It seems exactly like what he would say.

MS: It just sounded right to me, you know what I'm saying? It sounded right in the context of the way he was speaking and all, so I just let it go.

AD: That approach to things related well to the subterranean world you deal with in GoodFellas and some of your other movies. You depict a real world of consequences, in which people don't get a lot of chances to make mistakes. There is a clear sense that if you step out of line, if you do the wrong thing, you're going to pay for it.

MS: That's very important. These guys are in business to make money, not to kill people, not to create mayhem. They really want to make money. And if you make a big mistake, you bring down heat on them, you bring attention to them, you cause strife between two crime families, somebody has to be eliminated. It's very simple. Those are the rules. Very, very simple. I mean, you can't make that many big mistakes. You don't rise in the hierarchy if you do. It's very much like a Hollywood situation, where, you know, how many pictures could you make that cost $40 million that lose every dime. You can't. It's purely common sense. And so they work out their own little elaborate set of rules and codes.

AD: It's also a means of working out a certain version of the American dream. In GoodFellas Henry says he'd rather be a wise guy than be the president of the United States.

MS: It's better, because you can do anything you want. And you can take anything you want, because, like Henry says, if they complain, you hit them. It's very simple. it's more exciting, and the opportunity is endless. And this is the great country for it to happen to, because the opportunity here is endless, usually.

However, I always quote Joe Pesci, who pointed out that wise guys have a life cycle — or an enjoyment cycle — of maybe eight or nine years, ten years the most, before they either get killed or go to jail and start that long process of going in and out like a revolving door. I try to give the impression of that in the film when Henry gets to jail and says, "Paulie was there because he was serving time for contempt. Jimmy was in another place. Johnny Dio was there." I mean, this is like home for them. Then the life begins to wear you down. The first few years are the exuberance of youth. They have a great time — until they start to pay for it. Tommy starts doing things, just unnecessary outbursts. Look why Jimmy goes to jail — because he beats up some guy down in Florida. It's a long story in the book; in the film, it's totally unimportant as to why they're even there. We did so quickly to show you how, just as fast as it happened, that's as fast as he could go to jail for something he forgot he did.

AD: Tommy and Jimmy in GoodFellas are, like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, walking powder kegs. What interests you about characters like that?

MS: There are a thousand answers to that. It's interesting. It's good drama. I'm attracted to those kinds of characters. And you see part of yourself in that. I like to chart a character like that, see how far they go before they self-destruct. How it starts to turn against them after awhile — whether it's shooting people in the street or arguing in the home, in the kitchen and the bedroom. How soon the breaking point comes when everything just explodes and they're left alone.

AD: You once said that the La Motta character in Raging Bull never really has to face himself until he's alone in his prison cell, hitting his head against the wall.

MS: Totally. That's the one he's been paranoid about all along. I mean, it gets to be so crazy. If his brother, and if Tommy Como, and if Salvie and if Vicky did everything he thought they did — he can do one of two things; kill them all or let it go. If you let it go, I mean, it's not the end of the world. But, no, no, he's got to battle it out in the ring. He's got to battle it out at home. He's got to battle it everywhere until finally he's got to deal with that point where everybody else has disappeared from him and he's dealing with himself. He didn't let it go. And ultimately, ultimately it's you.

AD: Is that the source of all that violence, of all that paranoia and anger?

MS: Oh, I think it comes from yourself. I mean, obviously it comes from Jake. It comes from your feelings about yourself. And it comes from what you do for a living. In his case, he goes out in the morning and he beats up people. And then they beat him up and then he comes home. It's horrible. It's life on its most primitive level.

AD: But that doesn't account for the sexual paranoia.

MS: Well, yeah. I don't know if it does. But I am really not a psychiatrist. It just comes from the fact that the guy is in the ring and you feel a certain way about yourself. You could take anyone, you see; the ring becomes an allegory of whatever you do in life. you make movies, you're in the ring each time. Writing music — if you perform it, you're in the ring. Or people just living daily life, when they go to their work - they're in the ring. And, I think, it's about how you feel about yourself that colors your feelings about everything else around you. If you don't feel good about yourself, it takes in everything that you're doing — the way your work is, the people who supposedly love you, your performance with them, your performance in loving, your performance in lovemaking — everything. You begin to chip away at yourself and you become like a raw wound. And if a man spits across the street, you say he spit at you. And then you're finished. Because then nobody can make a move. You'll think, "Why did you look at me that way?" Who's going to be with you? Who can stay with you?

AD: At the end of Goodfellas, you leave Henry in a more problematic spot than the book itself does. Is there any reason for that?

MS: It's not about Henry, really; it's about the lifestyle. It's about all of them together. Henry's the one who gives us the in; he opens the door for us, but basically, it's about all these people. So it's more a comment on the lifestyle than it is on Henry. I mean, he's just left out in God knows where, annoyed because he's not a wise guy anymore. I was more interested in the irony of that. There wasn't a last paragraph in the book saying, "Now I know what I did. I was a bad guy, and I'm really sorry for it" - none of that. Just, "Gee, I can't get the right food here." It's right in line with when he says as a kid, "didn't have to wait in line for bread at the bakery." I mean, it's the American way — getting treated special. It's really a film about that. It's a film about getting to a position where you don't have to wait in line to get served in a store.

AD: A significant issue in the arts in recent years, and particularly, in your case, with The Last Temptation of Christ and Taxi Driver, has been various attempts at censorship. What are your feelings about that?

MS: Obviously, I'm for freedom of expression. I was very glad that The Last Temptation of Christ was able to be made by an American company, that I didn't have to go to Europe or some other country to get the money for it. That's what this country is about, to be able to do something you believe in. I'm for freedom of expression, but in each generation there are threats to it, and you have to keep battling and fighting. I'm concerned about the educational system because it seems to be at a low level at this point in our history and that means that a lot of kids are not learning about this, are not learning that they have to fight for this freedom in this country. I don't necessarily mean going to the Mideast. I'm talking about fighting for it at home, fighting for it in your school, fighting for it in your church. Because they have a low level of education, many people are not going to know that. They're going to take it for granted and it's going to become worse and worse of a problem and there's going to be fewer people to make sure that we secure these rights, to take the right stand.

That's all I'm concerned about. I personally don't like a lot of the stuff I see — it's offensive to me. But that's what it's about. You have to let it go. As far as my personal way of dealing with subject matter, I can't let anybody tell me, "Don't do that, it will offend people." I can't do that.

On one level, when I'm dealing with a Hollywood film, that means I have to do a certain kind of subject matter that will make a certain amount of money. If I decide to make less money, that means I  can take a risk on subject matter. So the only criterion on the films I'm willing to take risks on is that it be truthful, that it be honest about your own feelings and truthful to what you know to be the reality around you or the reality of the human condition of the characters. If it's something that's not honest, not truthful, then it's a problem. If you don't believe in it, why are you making it? You're going to offend people to make some money? What for? It doesn't mean anything. The money doesn't mean anything. All that matters is the work, just what's up on screen.

So that's it. I'm not like some great person who's out there undaunted, fighting off all these people. I didn't think any of this stuff would really cause trouble — let alone Taxi Driver. The Last Temptation, I knew there would be some problems, but that's a special area for me. I really demand that I get to speak out the way I feel about it, even within the Church, the Catholic Church. Some of my close friends are still priests and we talk about it. I just heard from one today, and they support me.

AD: But you must think about the potential impact of your movies. I remember your saying that you were shocked when audiences responded in an almost vigilante fashion to the end of Taxi Driver.

MS: To The Wild Bunch, too, they reacted that way. I was kind of shocked.

AD: It would suggest there's some kind of fissure between your moral and spiritual concerns and how the films are perceived.

MS: No, I went to see the film that night and they were reacting very strongly to the shout-out sequence in Taxi Driver. And I was disturbed by that. It wasn't done with intent. You can't stop people from taking it that way. What can you do? And you can't stop people from getting an exhilaration from the violence because that's human, very much the same way as you get an exhilaration of violence at the end of The Wild Bunch and the violence that's in Taxi Driver — because it's shot a certain way, and I know how it's shot, because I shot it and I designed it — is also in the creation of that scene in the editing, in the camera moves, in the use of music and the use of sound effects, and in the movement within the frame of the characters. So it's like...art — good art, bad art, or indifferent, whatever the hell you want to say it is, it's still art. And that's where the exhilaration comes in. The shoot-out at the end of The Wild Bunch is still one of the great exhilarating sequences in all movies, and it's also one of the great dance sequences in the movies. It's ballet.

Now Taxi Driver may be something else, I don't know. It may be something else entirely. the intent was not necessarily the reception I saw. I know it can't be the reaction of most people who have seen the picture. I was in China in '84 and a young man from Mongolia talked to me at length about Taxi Driver, about the loneliness. That's why the film seems to be about something that people keep watching over and over. It's not the shoot-'em-out at the end. As much as I love the shoot-'em-out at the end of The Wild Bunch, I wouldn't put it on for fun. If you put it on for fun, that's something else. That's a whole other morbid area.

There's an interesting situation going on. There's lots of movies that have been cut and movies that appear on video with scenes put back in and you begin to get these esoteric groups in the country, people who become obsessed with getting the complete film. The films can range anywhere from Lawrence of Arabia to some very, very shlocky horror film that shows dismembering of bodies and disemboweling of people, so that you can see every frame of disemboweling. That's something else. I can't think about that. I don't know what that is.

AD: Living in New York, obviously violence is around you call the time.

MS: Oh come on. I just took a cab on 57th Street, we're about to make a turn on Eighth Avenue, and three Puerto Rican guys are beating each other up over the cab. Over it — from my side, onto the hood, onto the other side. now, this is just normal — to the point where the cabbie and myself, not a word. We don't say anything. He just makes his right turn and we move on. It's at least two, three, four times a year that happens. I'm not in the street that much, but it would happen much more if I were.

AD: But complaints about violence in your films don't bother you?

MS: It's never stopped me. You do the subject matter because you think it's going to make a lot of money — I don't do it. I just don't do it, you know? If I'm making a more commercial venture — I mean a more commercial venture like The Color of Money — it's something else. It becomes a different kind of movie and I think you can see the difference. My new film will be something else. It's a more mainstream commercial film for Universal Pictures.

AD: What are you doing?

MS: It's a remake of Cape Fear, the 1962 film directed by J. Lee Thompson, with Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck. Bob De Niro wants to do it. It's more of a commercial venture. You do have a certain kind of responsibility to the audience on a picture like that because, number one, you have certain expectations from the genre, the thriller genre. You work within that framework and it's like a chess game. You see if you can really be expressive within it. I don't know if you can, because I always have that problem: loving the old films, I don't know if I can make them. You become more revisionist. I mean New York, New York was obviously revisionist. but The Color of Money I went half and half, and it should have been one way, I think.

AD: New York, New York pitted its period style against completely unnerving contemporary emotions in the plot.

MS: The reality of the story. That was conscious. That was a love of the old stylization, you know, a love of those films, but then showing what it really is is like as close as possible in the foreground. That's, I guess, what they call revisionism and that's why the picture — besides being too damn long, it's sprawling — didn't catch on.

AD: Are there any new directions in which you'd like to move your work?

MS: I find I have a lot of things in mind and I want to be able to branch out and go into other areas, different types of films, and maybe some genre films. But there's no doubt, even if I find something that's dealing with New York society in the eighteenth century, I usually am attracted to characters that have similar attributes to characters in my other films. So I guess I keep going in the same direction. I'm fascinated by history and by anthropology. I'm fascinated by the idea of people in history, and history having been shown to us in such a way that people always come off as fake — not fake but one-dimensional. And I'm interested in exploring what they felt and making them three-dimensional. To show that they're very similar to us. I mean, they're human beings. So just because the society around them and the world around them is very different, it doesn't mean that they didn't have the same feelings and the same desires, the same goals and the same things that haunt us in modern society. And in going into the past, maybe we can feel something about ourselves in the process.

AD: It seems like that was a lot of the impetus behind The Last Temptation of Christ, too, a desire to portray Christ in more three dimensional terms.

MS: No doubt. To make him more like a person who would be in this room, who you could talk to.

AD: There's a genuine concern with spiritual issues in your movies, at the same time that there is also a brutal physicality. How do you square that?

MS: It's just the struggle, that's all. The struggle to stay alive to even want to stay alive. Just this corporal thing we're encased in and limitations of it and how your spirit tries to spring out of it, fly away from it. And you can't. You can try. people say you can do it through poetry, you can do it through the work you do, and things like that. Thought. But you still feel imprisoned. So the body is what you deal with, and it's a struggle to keep that body alive.

AD: You spend a great deal of time thinking about the world that you grew up in. But you are no longer part of that world. Does that create any complexities for you?

MS: Oh, because you left it behind doesn't mean you don't have it. It's what you come from. You have an affinity to it and very often you have a love of it, too. I can't exist there now. I don't belong there anymore. But I can damn well try to make sure that when I use it in a film like GoodFellas, I make it as truthfully as possible. What's wrong with that? It's part of your life, and if you try to deny that, what good is it? A lot of what I learned about life came from there. So you go back and you keep unraveling it. For some people it was the family, for other people it's the state. I don't know. Me, it was the subculture.

AD: What things do you learn there?

MS: People are usually the product of where they come from, whether you come from a small farm in Iowa and you had your best friend next door and you went swimming in an old swimming hole — in other words, whether you had an idyllic American childhood — or you were a child in Russia or you were a child on the Lower East Side. The bonds you made, the codes that were there, all have a certain influence on your later in your life. You can reject them. You can say, "Okay, those codes don't exist for me anymore because I'm not of that world anymore," but the reasons for those codes are very strong. The most important reason is survival. It's very simple. Food, safety, survival. It comes down to that. That struggle of the human form, the corporal, the flesh, to survive — anything to survive. And you learn in each society it's done a different way. In each subculture another way. And all these rules are set up and you learn them and they never really leave you. It's what everybody learns when you're all kids in the street or in the park. I think those things you carry with you the rest of your life.

And then, of course, it causes problems in that your response to certain stimuli at that time was one way, and when you get the same sort of stimuli now, you've got to be very careful you don't respond in the street fashion. Because they're different people. They don't really mean it. It's something else entirely. It's very funny because, you know, it's like I've seen people do things to other people that I said, "My God, if a guy did that, if that woman did  that to me or friend of mine back in 1960 or in that neighborhood, they wouldn't be alive." And you have to realize it's a different world.

You just learn your way in and out of it, how to get in and out of the moral inlets of this new world, whatever the hell it is. I don't know what it is. Basically, I'm here, in this building. I stay here. Here in this chair. That's it. I answer the phone. They let me out to make a movie. People come over to eat. That's it. I mean, I just do my work and see some very close friends. That's all. So that's what it comes down to. So in a funny way all the trauma of trying to find the new ways to react to the same stimuli in these new societies, it's kind of past me, I guess. I'm past that, which is good.

If you go to a cocktail patty, someone comes over to you...like I don't know, some strange insult occurs. You know, "How dare you!" You know, in the old days, in those neighborhoods, if you stepped on the guy's shoe, you could die, let alone come over and insult him. He'd kill you. It's so funny. Oh, you'd be surprised how the insults come — it's just wonderful what they do. And people wonder why you don't want to talk to anybody. But it's fascinating. One person in a university, in the academic world, was introduced to me. We were having a few drinks after the David Lean American Film Institute dinner, and the woman said, "I must say I'm an admirer of some of your films, because, after all, I am a woman." Who needs it? Who needs it? Who needs it?

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