Writers writing on-screen 

In movies this year, writers (as onscreen characters) have developed a conscience just as America settles into the information age, where the mass media is not just powerful but increasingly ubiquitous.

Take the relationship between a writer and his/her subject. Journalistic guidelines dictate a strictly professional give-and-take, but this meeting of the minds can quickly become uncomfortably symbiotic. In Joe Gould’s Secret, New Yorker magazine staffer Joseph Mitchell profiles an eccentric who has devoted his life and meager resources to writing an oral history of America. The piece transforms this crank into a bohemian celebrity, but after Joe Gould achieves minor fame, the sheen of intellectualism he’s created to cloak himself like a shabby overcoat begins to unravel. Mitchell begins to question his complicity. What does he owe Gould? Should he function as his champion or help him come to terms with the fact that his magnum opus is a sham?

The musicians William Miller interviews call him "the enemy," and that designation isn’t far from the truth. In Almost Famous, young William truly loves the music he covers, yet his assignment for Rolling Stone (the source for sordid underbelly-of-rock stories prior to Behind the Music) means revealing more than the musicians want shown. William may want to document the spark of creativity which turns random words and sounds into song, but he’s in the distinct position to humanize these rock gods by revealing their feet of clay. To whom is he ultimately responsible and should he have to choose sides? And what happens when a writer becomes part of his story?

These are dilemmas of representation, of the messengers feeling responsible for the message. Bamboozled takes that a step further when a television writer creates a modern-day minstrel show and then is cursed with success. What Pierre Delacroix unleashes on an audience eager to be shocked is a legacy of shame repackaged as the reclamation of cultural history. Delacroix (the name is one aspect of his invented continental persona) simultaneously strikes a chord and hits a nerve, and the zeitgeist takes over. He becomes the poster boy for those eager to sell out their subject as well as themselves and, like a classic tragic figure, he pays the price for his hubris.

That’s not the case in Croupier, a coolly cynical look at a writer mining his experience for subject matter. On a technical level, it’s a rare example of voiceover narration which runs counter to the action and actually illustrates the process of writing: The audience sees the innocuous surface while scathing observations are made based on this writer’s particular agenda. Among the many pleasures of this sharp, unflinching film is that the egoist central character publishes his roman à clef about gambling anonymously, which means he can remain the eternal observer, undisturbed by the recognition of fame.

The public adoration from a first novel is what paralyzes Grady Tripp in this year’s best film about the writing life, Wonder Boys. (It’s an apt title: Women writers were rarely portrayed this year, and when they were it was in movies such as the disastrous Isn’t She Great, a shamefully shallow biography of Jacqueline Susann, the ’60s cultural icon whose trashy bestsellers made her more famous than even her infamous detractor, Truman Capote.) Grady is trapped in his own head and stuck in an insular environment which rewards the regurgitation of fixed truths and literary conventions. His long-delayed second novel has grown into a weighty albatross mooring him to a stifling life. He’s saved by letting go of his writer’s ego: By finally releasing his grip on past fame and his competitive pride, Grady can finally commence his future.

That’s what all these writers must eventually learn as they wrestle with the compromise and frustrations of their profession. For people accustomed to creating their own worlds, writers have to learn that they can’t control everything.

Serena Donadoni writes about film and visual culture for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com

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