Saturday, 7 February 2009

THE SECOND DRAFT (John Loose, 1999)

I wanted to introduce this entry with a spine-tingling suggestion... but its gone.

So: Based on the elemental short story written by Puppy Smith1 (the authoress whose fledgling career was cut short by death at the age of nine), The Second Draft is a shifting thought-dribble regarding creativity, celebrity, and identity. John Loose vowed to never make a movie again after the post-modern afterburn of the project left him in hospital for weeks. His idea, of taking the frustration of the protagonist in the short story (who is bemoaning his lost first draft, which contains, he tells us, an incredible tale, beautifully told) and turning it back on the viewer by causing a similar second-hand psychosis, was always a tricky sell. He erased from view all plausible drama, making all situations roll with suggestion and suggestion only. The movie thus appears as a series of unfinished vignettes, with all of the major action happening off-screen, and this non-storytelling twisted the director in complicated knots. His execution took it far beyond what even he expected, leaving whole conversations muffled behind doors, and lengthy post-flashpoint silences. It was, Barry Norman told us, 'a cryptogram dressed up in a jigsaw hidden in a coming-of-age drama'2

Kieran Culkin plays the young American who moves to the sleepy seaside coast of Sussex, England with his grandparents. They spend their time watching classic Hollywood movies, and are excited when a woman who moves into a vacant flat in their streeet bears a startling resemblance to Marlene Dietrich. So far, so regulation. We wait for the unlikely friendship between the old dame and the mute boy; but this promise is withheld. No climax that is suggested is given. We are left to wonder, with the boy, along sunny, silent, coasts.
'Who the hell is the old lady?'3 cried critic Paul Hallus, and spent paragraphs describing himself throwing his hands in the air in frustration (itself a daring homage to the sensibilities of the film) But the old lady is not really the point. The story is subsumed below worries of how to tell it, just as young Joe (Culkin) is concerned that his small detective tale is a narrative with its bottom falling through. His life seems supernaturally tinged, but even he is aware that his grandparents (played zestfully by Albert Finney and Maggie Smith) play a huge part in the contrivance: Is the family's fantastic capability for suggestibility (as displayed in various scenes where they mistake incidents in classic Hollywood for intrigue in their personal lives) as cute as it first appears? Or are we party to a collective mental illness? Many events outside the house happen without the camera as witness, and we are only told about them by a grandparent. In turn, when young Joe begins to write a diary, we begin to see gaps between his words and the truth.

Loose slackens his grip; Smith disappears from view. Invisible lies smoke out the Dietrich lady, who is the cast-iron MacGuffin. Young Joe, innocently, is a flawed narrator. The English Channel is filled with sharks pushing teeth-holes through scrunched white pages.

An interesting phenomenon has plagued critics of both the short story and the film, Second Draft Syndrome, which is now worthy of its own Wikipedia entry. Many writers have seen their own first drafts of criticism of The Second Draft disappear: be it house-fires, computer problems, or authorial tantrum, many perfect pieces have been lost to fate. Both the LA Weekly and New York Times film critics failed to file a review on time, citing writer's block, and both produced apologetic synopses a week late; Paul Hallus himself lost a hard-drive when writing his, Roger Ebert lost a kidney, and a class in Iowa studying differences between the story and the film forged a suicide pact before turning in their papers, and although none of them went through with it, one of them, Marie Staedler, nearly did herself in with a stapler the following Spring (her own, if you will, second-time-around failure. This is the root of the phrase 'Doing a Staedler' which means to perform a task badly, especially one that involves harming oneself.4).

The Second Draft Directed by John Loose Prduced by Smith Brown Written by John Loose and Curt Dugless, based on a story by Puppy Smith Starring Kieran Culkin, Albert Finney, Maggie Smith Film Four Pictures Release Date UK: Jan 1999 US: May 1999 Running Time: 122 mins Tagline: 'I'm Sure I Said It All So Much Better Before'

1. The Second Draft won the Chehkov Prize for Short Fiction in 1999, ten years after Smith's death. Her collected stories, Unstories won the National Book Award in 2000. John Barth declared the end of the short, short story in an essay entitled 'Who, Where, Shorts, Shorts?' following the announcement of the prize. He later softened his claim in a follow-up argument in 2004, 'Aye, Where Short Shorts.'

The critical division over the short story prompts me to print it entirely here:

The Second Draft by Puppy Smith

'The elements stole my first draft. And you should know that that is something of a crying shame, for it was a kingly piece of work. Every word slid and locked into place, held by some magic. The tools of fiction were at their quickest in there. It not only told my story in an entertaining and enlightening fashion, it might have had something for someone other than myself too.
It not only told the story, but in interlocking haikus it managed to convey some power of everything I’d ever known. But a wind blew up and carried it off.
But what a draft; within it were codes and schemes. Surveillance systems were debunked, governments toppled; assassins evaded, crucial answers found.
But now they’re just mapcap theories, scribbled in invisible ink and lost; the pages are still disappearing across the beach in the wind. A whole bible of noise lost, chased across the stones, rediscovered page by page; a Hansel and Gretel trail to a big haunted house of an idea.
It started with the following; this much I remember.

Steven liked to break into houses on the Sussex Coast. His mother had died when he was small, hit by a bus, and his father had died some two years later, drunk with a broken heart. He’d walked into the sea, and washed up three miles along the coast. Steven was five. He went to live with his grandparents, who watched old movies all the time. These films filled Steven’s brain, haunted his sleep, and this fact may or may not have contributed to the present tale.

A wonderful part of my first draft dealt with the anecdote whereby a younger version of myself attempting to write an early version of my memoirs, aged seven or so, described the feeling of being an orphan as akin to ‘waiting for a wonderer to return.’
Grandad corrected me on my mistake. ‘It’s wanderer, Steven. Wanderer. Someone who wanders off.’
But Grandma saw the dramatic possibility of my word, and cut Grandad short. ‘Or did you mean wonderer, Steven, like someone who wonders why?’
They looked at me expectantly. ‘I think I mean both,’ I said.

Aah. That’s how it went. Or something. Ask the sea next time you’re on the Sussex coast. The sea ate the first version, the truest version of the story. This draft is inferior, it’s akin to development sketches of female parts I’d never seen. But it must suffice.
So the films; this is the important thing with my Grandparents. Let’s try:

Granddad had a penchant for gentlemen. Humphrey Bogart was enjoyable, but greasy. Cary Grant had it. Grandmother had a taste for the nice faces- James Stewart, Fred MacMurray; but father though them a touch soft.
There was Dietrich, who possessed some of the beauty of his mother. In Blonde Venus, she was barely plausible as a mother, and Steven supposed his own mother was like this; too beautiful, too stellar, to be plausible as a mother. That was why she’d died, he supposed. God’s will.
Oh, and Joan Fontaine in Rebecca, with Grandad’s Larry.

And then there was the woman who lived on our street, that aged, frail German, who Grandad thought was Marlene Dietrich.

'She doesn't live in Sussex' Gran said.

'I'm sure it is her,' Grandad said.

He was the straightest of die; Religion? A fearful hotch potch. Enigmas were never cultivated. But Marlene on the coast? True as true.

A convoluted interlude saw my boredom turning to crime, breaking into large flats on the seafront, watching their videos, drinking their tea. And then, inevitably, I was caught by the old lady, the cranky, would be Marlene; and the ensuing unlikely friendship was dreamt in a plausible and pretty way. I didn't evade the cliche, I embraced it, and these passages were some of the most rewarding on those papers.
And then, of course, we hear that Dietrich is dead in Paris; and of course, the flat is on the market; and we never see our Marlene again, except in our sleepy fantasies.

'Good, proud lady, that Marlene' Grandad said.

'You never met her, silly,' Gran said.

'Perhaps not. But she kept her garden tidy and was kind to the boy,' Grandad said.

I've been through my notes to find a scent of the magic; this outline does not suffice. All I find in my extensive perusals are plundered wordlists and defected lexicons. Now I’m gutting books, ripping their spines, to find suggestions of all that I had. I need a skin draft.'

2. BBC Film 99, Jan 26th, 1999.
3. Sunday Times magazine, Jan 30th, 1999
4. Eg:'I wanted to wax my legs this morning, but I completely did a Staedler and missed with the waxing strips and gave myself an inside-out mohawk.'

1 comment:

  1. 'Postmodern afterburn...left him in hospital for weeks'
    'The English Channel is filled with sharks pushing teeth-holes through scrunched white pages.'
    'A whole bible of noise lost, chased across the stones'
    'A Hansel and Gretel trail to a big haunted house of an idea.'
    'Wonderer or wanderer?'
    The Second Draft Syndrome, etc.

    There are so many elements and lines I like in this entry. Most of all, though, I really like the story. Even though it is supposed to be suggested, it is a strong enough film idea to stand alone, and be really viable. As always, when can I see it???