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Tell, Don’t Show

Walter Winchell: A Novel

by Michael Herr
Knopf, 158 pp., $18.95

Wildlife

by Richard Ford
Atlantic Monthly Press, 177 pp., $18.95

I remember once seeing a friend’s father, an elderly musician, sitting on the front porch reading the Trout Quintet, nodding and smiling over certain passages like someone rereading Persuasion, or like mathemeticians who read beautiful theorems for aesthetic pleasure. Most of us sometimes read, with the same active imaginative enjoyment, recipes or the bridge column—two short, short dramatic forms. Sometimes these short works are in a different or compressed language, like the Trout, or like the passage in front of me: “w. m. p.1, up 1 p.3 = k.6, p.6, rpt. from *,” which allows my mind to run along to the finished sleeve. Michael Herr’s recent book Walter Winchell is, as he tells us in a preface, “unashamedly” a screenplay, that is, an abbreviation related to a film as the knitting instruction to the sleeve; while awaiting the realization, the mind can take pleasure in the short form, pregnant as it is with suggestion. The screenplay may even be the work at its best, perfection immanent, to be perfected by the reader’s imagination.

Herr tells us in a preface that Walter Winchell began life as a screenplay that did not get produced, but he does not tell us why he was drawn to the subject. Walter Winchell began as a vaudeville performer and became a famous newspaper columnist and radio personality from the 1930s to the 1950s. Of the 140 million Americans living during Winchell’s heyday, Herr says, 50 million, more than a third, read his daily newspaper column, and an even greater number listened to his weekly radio broadcast. Eventually he would also go on television, a medium to which his abrasive personality was entirely unsuited, and which contributed to his downfall. Like silent-screen actresses who went into the talkies, he didn’t survive the transition.

Much of the reason for his allure on radio and in his column was that he could reveal things that he learned from his string of informants—that you were out with someone not your husband, or were drinking too much—things that in those earlier, shame-ridden days people wanted to conceal; and his power lay in his manipulation of facts. He was a blackmailer. He did not particularly care if what he said was true or not, and he could make you famous, or, because he also had political views and a fanatical streak, he might ruin you by saying you were a Nazi or a Commie, even if you weren’t. It’s a little hard now to get back into the frame of mind of a period when people, however hypocritically, set a high value on conformity, but it must have been the reflex of the days when we thought we were collectively good, and Herr, with dialogue and a few stage directions, wonderfully catches the blend of innocence and thuggishness of the period.

He tells the story of Winchell as if it were an allegorical treatment of the American national character. It is an inverted Horatio Alger tale of a poor kid, the child of Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn, scorned in his chosen profession of stage comic, who gradually works into the gossip business, and by lively wisecracking, ruthlessness, and a network of dubious sources, makes himself into Winchell—morals cop and pundit, tyrannical and rich. Whereupon, perhaps like the country itself, he grows meaner as he grows older and disappointed in the works of his life. His wife drinks, his children hate him. He loses his grip and his power and finally his column, and at last takes his place meekly among senior citizens in Arizona.

His rise parallels events of American politics—the rise of the mobs and J. Edgar Hoover, FDR, and Hitler (“Of course I know who Adolf Hitler is! [He covers the mouthpiece and speaks to his secretary.] Dotty, who the hell is Adolf Hitler?”) With the German-American Bund and in the spotlight of the Hauptmann trial, Winchell himself rises, a self-appointed watchdog and whistleblower.

A group calling itself Nazi Jews supports Hitler in Germany, and gives the Nazi salute at all their meetings. What’s their slogan, “Down with us”?

Fritz Kuhn, who poses as a chemist for a motor magnate in Detroit, is Hitler’s number-one secret agent in the United States,…secret until now, that is.

Jews and being Jewish are mentioned on nearly every page. We see him through the war and the McCarthy period, when he prospered by fingering people for Roy Cohn and J. Edgar Hoover (off the air as well as on; items turn up in FBI files that must have come from Winchell), and there is a suggestion that these erstwhile companions eventually turn on him, the signal of his declining influence. The story is of an unpleasant, clever person who knew how to simulate most of the values and prejudices of his period. The character works on us by a kind of nostalgia of aversion, and his success tells us some-thing about the country that cherished him.

The wisecracking style is Winchell’s own. “My favorite couple,” he says. “His wrists are as loose as her morals.” Or when the Third PA (press agent) says, “That Walter’s got a heart of gold.”

Yeah,” Wolfie says, “Hard and yellow.”

Some of it is funny because we know what we know now: “J. Edgar Hoover, America’s Top Cop, has been looking at a family-sized house in Georgetown…. A bride?”

In making a novel out of a screenplay, Herr has made a few concessions to formal novelistic conventions. A “real” screenplay is expressed more or less in the same form Herr uses in this passage:

Lindy’s, late night. The PAs.

First PA (Reading from the column, in cruel imitation of Winchell): “The editor of this paper wants to know what it’s like to be the daddy of a son….”

Wolfie: “Sure, sure….”

First PA: “Well, it feels just wonderful…. He has his father’s blue eyes and his mother’s sweet disposition….”

Thank God it isn’t vicey-versy!” one of them says.

(Over this we see Walter and Walter Jr., an infant. Walter, like almost any Jewish father, picks the baby up and plants a fervent kiss on the tush.)

Most passages have been rewritten in a slightly different form, with paragraphs, quotation marks, and “he saids,” like a novel.

Driving, late at night, with Runyon.

I just don’t believe in biting the hand that feeds me,” Runyon is saying. “Hearst always wins. Always has, always will.”

Why, that fat cold-blooded goy bastard. He’s a bigger Hitler than Hitler.” He’s becoming hysterical. “My fangs have been removed! Jesus Damon,…what if I lose my column! I’d be just another shtunk, just another loudmouth in a nightclub!” He’s on the verge of tears.

Damon Runyon appears as perhaps Winchell’s only friend. We also see Hedy Lamarr and Ernest Hemingway, and there are other names, like Ed Sullivan’s, that still have resonance, but they are flat film characters; the book is essentially a monologue by Walter.

One finds oneself wondering what is true and what isn’t, a question one rarely asks of film. In a film, the visual style, the music, or just sitting in the dark in the theater, signals fantasy, enjoying a “festival of affects,” in Roland Barthes’s phrase. On the page, the question of truth insists more strongly. It’s mildly interesting if Hemingway really wore no socks to the Stork Club, as Herr writes in one scene, but did J. Edgar Hoover really accept racing tips from Frank Costello? Congressman Rankin really did call Walter Winchell, on the floor of the US Congress, “a little slime-mongering kike.” But is it true, as Herr has Walter say, that “not one man stood up to object”? Since that is a startling charge to make, one somehow wants Herr to clarify whether or not this is just a Winchellism.

Is it fair to ask whether Walter Winchell would have been a good movie? It has many of the ingredients screenplays are supposed to have—there are the traditional three acts still required by such screenwriting manuals as Margaret Mehring’s The Screenplay: A Blend of Film Form and Content. (Some manuals advocate a Shakespearean five, which also have the advantage of better accommodating commercials.) The three acts cover Winchell’s rise, career, and fall. There’s not much conflict, but the story has the inevitability of Renaissance tragedy. The main character’s flaws (arrogance, cruelty) lead him to overreach and alienate his publishers, William Randolph Hearst and Cissie Patterson, setting the stage for his fall, and the story moves with a stately inevitability to its somewhat hastily arranged ending, as if when Herr discovered he had taken up too much of the allotted 120 pages to the diverting details of Winchell’s career itself, he still couldn’t bear to sacrifice all those good lines, and so had only fifteen pages to bring him low.

It is not hard to see why the work didn’t get made into a film. Walter Winchell is the only character, and he is too unpleasant to spend one hundred minutes with; the tone is unchanging, and the portrayal of America as a country that loves a cruel, lowlife bigot is too negative to promise much at the box office. It lacks all staples of contemporary American film—there’s no sex, no car chase, only an understated violence, and no flashy visual effects. In fact, there is little that is visual at all. Since words are its substance, it would make a good radio play, succeeding, appropriately enough, in Winchell’s own medium.

Michael Herr tells us that although he thought of Walter Winchell as “more than a screenplay,” the studio execs thought of it as less than a screenplay. Herr says:

You could call it a screenplay that’s typed like a novel, that reads like a novel but plays like a movie. Maybe it’s a completely new form, or a wrinkle on an old form, or a mongrel. Maybe it’s just a novel with a camera in it.

What does this mean? When we read it, do we follow the directions that are given for the camera to see and the actor to do? When Herr says, “a novel with a camera in it,” who is the camera? The words of the screenplay tell us that Walter

is terribly animated, charged with physical energy, as though this very activity has galvanized him. We realize that he is more truly alive doing this [working in his office] than at any other time.

Reading this, do we form a mental picture of Walter Winchell, and then imagine his slight smile turning to a savage glare? We don’t ordinarily go to this trouble when reading. When the poem says “rose,” we don’t see a rose, we just know a rose without bothering to picture it. What happened when we listened to the old radio plays?

The studio execs probably said the people wouldn’t “identify” with Walter. Or does he seem hard and vulgar because we only observe him and never share his thoughts? The most disagreeable of characters inevitably gains a measure of sympathy when we are let in on his feelings: think of Beryl Bainbridge’s Young Adolf. No matter how it is written, with “he saids” and “she saids,” as Herr has done, and with or without quotation marks, a screenplay can’t go inside Walter’s mind. When we read the following passage, we are asked simply to watch Walter’s emotional response:

The change in Walter from amused forbearance to cold insane rage is instantaneous and dramatic. He pulls his hand back, bares his teeth and yells, “Get him out of here! Get him away! Don’t you ever let him in here again!”

On the screen, we would see facial contortions, but would have no way of knowing that it is “cold, insane rage,” not just plain anger that the actor is expressing, unless actor or director can introduce some subtle distinction into the grimace or glare. The novelist can explain more intimately the thoughts or suffering of a character whose emotions must be symbolized on the screen by the tear or the grimace, or inferred from a groan.

Richard Ford’s impressive new novella Wildlife (also published as a “novel”) avails itself of this power of fiction to tell, not just show. The subject is the mysteriousness of our parents and our first experiences of them as separate from us. It is a first-person narrative; the narrator’s is a voice of someone in middle age looking back on what happened to him when he was sixteen and moves smoothly back and forth between the point of view of the uncomprehending youth and the more mature person who is writing later. The story is a simple one. In the days after his father loses his job as a golf pro at a country club, his parents seem to be under a strain. When his father goes off for a few days of forest-fire fighting, the mother has a fling with a local businessman, Warren Miller. The boy is awakened to an understanding of the separateness of his parents, to the mysteriousness of other people in general, and to the isolation of the self.

The first-person narrator can tell us directly what he was thinking or what his motives were:

How old are you,” I asked because I realized I did not know how old she or my father was.

Or,

The truth was I wanted to know what she though about my father leaving, and I hoped this would get around to that subject. Though it didn’t, and I didn’t know how to make it.

In works of about the same length, we are much closer to the boy than we are to Walter Winchell, and the novelist also has the power to investigate such abstractions as truth, thought, and hope.

In Richard Ford’s story, the narrator’s father learns that his wife has slept with Mr. Miller. After a couple of morose drinks, he sets fire to Mr. Miller’s front porch. We know Miller has a gun in his bedside table: What will he do? There is much to admire in Ford’s poignant realism and his restraint in ignoring the Chekhovian dictum that the gun in the first act must go off by the last. All that happens is that the father’s boots catch fire, and Mr. Miller calls the fire department.

In this wonderful scene, Ford’s technique is not so far from Herr’s. Because of the naiveté of the narrator, who sees many things he apparently doesn’t understand, he is content simply to recount them, the way a camera does. Novelists have availed themselves of this cinematic technique since Robbe-Grillet (since Dickens, in fact), and it often seems exactly right to render the opacity of modern life. As in a film, the scene is rendered in considerable visual detail, and the dialogue, cinematically brief, is still enough to make us feel the powerlessness of people to express their emotions, and the inadequacy of events to dramatize them. The symbols are cinematic too—the fire and the raging of the mild father’s heart, the extinguishing of the fire for the relative indifference of Warren Miller, who despite being old and having a gimpy leg has plenty of other girlfriends, the bewilderment of the narrator as he puts out the flames in his father’s boots. One can hardly overpraise the quietly assured, balanced tone, its perfect appropriateness to the subject, the tact and taste with which the author eschews any temptation to violent, flashy (filmic) denouement. (In a film, one fears, Mr. Miller would go get the gun, and the flames would engulf the house.)

Wildlife and Walter Winchell may both be too well written to be films. The existence of the old debate about who is more important, the writer or director, implies some sort of controversy about whether dialogue or image is more important to a film. Margaret Mehring (“Director, Filmic Writing Program, School of Cinema-Television, University of Southern California”) in her manual for screenwriters seems to accept that writers will no longer be ruled by words, and in fact she begins by recommending that the writer cut a hole in a piece of paper the size of a film frame, and learn to see the world through it. Up to a point, she has a point. Walter Winchell the “novel” relies on dialogue almost the way Winchell the radio figure did. We’d just as soon hear it as see it. But dialogue, in a film, is in one sense the easiest of the writer’s tasks. Though it usually could be better (and how one longs for the old wordy movies, with articulate characters and witty remarks), even brilliant dialogue in a film is not enough. The highest-priced screenplay in film history (Basic Instincts by Joe Eszterhas, for which $3 million is said to have been paid) has dialogue of an almost mannered banality:

NICK: Ms. Trammell, we’d like you to come downtown and answer some questions for us. / She looks at him a beat, smiles.

CATHERINE: Are you arresting me?

NICK: If that’s the way you want to play it. / They look at each other a beat.

CATHERINE: (smiles) Can I change into something more appropriate? It’ll just take a minute.

Mr. Eszterhas has exacted his huge fee for the invention and arrangement of a series of episodes.

Gore Vidal has written about the days when films were the work of talented writers, before these were supplanted by directors “not interested in philosophy or history or literature [who] want only to acquire for the cinema the prestige of ancient forms without having first to crack, as it were, the code.” He goes on to comment about contemporary film that

violence seems rooted in a notion about what ought to happen next on the screen to help the images move rather than in any human situation anterior to those images. In fact, the human situation has been eliminated not through any intentional philosophic design but because those who have spent too much time with cameras and machines seldom have much apprehension of that living world without whose presence there is no art.*

Margaret Mehring in The Screenplay does not give future moviegoers much reason to hope for the influence of the living world, insofar as Western culture can be said to transmit a sense of it, though she does admonish the student to read Aristotle, to learn dramaturgy,

the basis for understanding all structures of storytelling. Then, if you wish, it can become a structure to consciously deviate from as you create your own “principles.” Like painters learn basic methods of drawing and pianists learn scales and chords, writers learn classical—Aristotelian—dramatic structure [sic].

It is interesting that among the books the USC cinema students are advised to read there are books by Jung, Karen Horney, Ruth Benedict, Suzanne Langer, Marshall McLuhan, even Klee. It is the syllabus for Psych-1, but there is not a single work of fiction or poetry, which would bear out Mr. Vidal’s point about the absence of general culture in films.

From time to time, someone proposes to bring out a series of unrealized screenplays. A lot of writers would be in favor of it. I know in my drawer are a version of a novel of my own, with an entirely different ending; a rewrite of Grand Hotel, done with Mike Nichols, envisaging Dolly Parton in the Garbo role; a drama about a Mormon martyr, written with Volker Schlöndorff; and a movie about Dashiel Hammett and Lillian Hellman, never made, for Sydney Pollack, who at the time got the much better idea of making Tootsie. I know that Leonard Michaels has a salsa version of Orpheus, to be set in Cesar’s Latin Palace, and one hears of other tantalizing works in other people’s desks. Every unperformed screenplay has a saga of disappointment, so it’s nice to think that these and countless other unrealizable screenplays, awkward works stuck between the word and the image, could have respectable new life between hard covers as members of a new genre, an audience-participation form in which the screenplay reader, like the director or studio exec who reads it, will be at liberty to supply the images that a more fully “written” work would control. It would leave people with the version they can make up in their own heads, where the image can’t spoil it (the way a child’s pleasure in a favorite book can be spoiled by a photo on the cover of Ronald Colman pretending to be Beau Geste or Shirley Temple as Sara Crewe).

One noticeable development in contemporary fiction is certainly its mutation into a quasi-visual form, purged of interior monologue and authorial incursion. Among the recent striking changes in the evolution of literary forms is the rise in popularity of the minimalist story that takes fifteen minutes to read, is mannered and descriptive, and rarely “psychological,” except as psychology can be inferred from action. Is the screenplay a form the modern reader has learned to read, the way he has learned to listen to twelve-tone music or look at abstract painting?

The filmic story and the screenplay novel—these are the logical end of the venerable dictum “show, don’t tell,” that most misunderstood of creative writing class axioms. There is a kind of impatience with exposition and reflection that on the face of it would seem to contradict the preoccupation of many people with the uncovering of their inner lives. It may all reflect the pace of modern life, the attention span of modern readers, a new internal rhythm based on the television segment, or perhaps the economics of periodical publication. Whatever the explanation, people often seem to prefer the undemanding image to the demanding confidence.

Letters

Grand Hotel’ December 20, 1990

  1. *

    Who Makes the Movies?” The New York Review, November 25, 1976.

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