Making changes – at sea and in Hollywood

My Summer reading: Moby-Dick and F.Scott Fitzgerald.
age-of-america-egypt-sarcaphagus-and-coffin-for-ishmaelI’ve finally read Moby-Dick. Yes for the first time. My English schools were not big on American Lit. It’s rep was intimidating – especially the part about how people skip over big chunks where Ishmael/Melville expounds on whale species and whaling tools and techniques. But I hadn’t expected all the chuckles, the innuendos, the gentle ironies and the plays on words. It was fun. All of it. (I recommend the Norton Critical – 2nd edition)

To the point: the carpenter on the ill-fated Pequod has been asked to repurpose a coffin, one that he himself had recently made, and to change it now into a life-buoy. He is not a happy camper. He much prefers to design and build from scratch rather than work with a pre-existing condition. But like most of us – he does what he has to do.

“Are all my pains to go for nothing with that coffin? And now I’m to make a life-buoy of it. I don’t like this cobbling sort of business – I don’t like it at all; it’s undignified; it’s not my place. Let tinkers’ brats do tinkerings: we are their betters. I like to take in hand none but clean, virgin, fair-and-square mathematical jobs, something that regularly begins at the beginning, and is at the middle when midway, and comes to an end at the conclusion; not a cobbler’s job, that’s an end in the middle, and at the beginning at the end,…

But never mind…We workers in woods make bridal-bedsteads and card-tables, as well as coffins and hearses. We work by the month, by the job, or by the profit; not for us to ask the why and wherefore of our work, unless it be too confounded cobbling and then we stash it if we can.”

Screenplay rewrites, and rewrites and rewrites.  


And now for something completely different. Stewart O’Nan’s West of Sunset is a delicious gossipy jazz age novel about an older F Scott Fitzgerald’s return to Hollywood. Broke and mostly off the booze, he’s a lowly rewrite guy at MGM who doesn’t even get a parking space on the lot. You know the drill, notes and changes, notes and changes.

“A Yank at Oxford was a patch job. A simple fish out of water conceit with high-toned scenery, the original novel had been improved upon by a succession of writers responding to producer notes, adding larger and larger climaxes to satisfy some crude concept of drama, It was all fistfights and mistaken identities, an insult to the most casual movie-goer, let alone the dons of Oxford. Beyond the problem of Robert Taylor trying to play twenty years younger, who would buy, for instance, that any student, no matter how drunk, would be fool enough to sucker punch the dean of students at a party, then accuse his rival and, merely because he was English, be believed? Or that our hero’s girl, who knew he was innocent, would break off with him, only to return, cheering him to victory during the big finale of the track meet? It made no sense, yet because it was his first assignment, he threw himself at these absurd scenes, trying to find a hidden inner logic that might knit them together.

“You can’t spin gold out of shit,” Dottie said….”  (BTW that’s F.Scott’s former fling, Dorothy Parker)

According to the story Fitzgerald worked on it for a month and then the studio brought in someone else. No screen credit, but at least he was being paid.