Sunday, May 09, 2010


The relationship between co-writers is one of intimacy but not one between two enmeshed personalities so much as a shared regard for an intimate (that is, heart-felt, emotionally meaningful) task: how to explore their work, construct it, express it, where to put emphasis, where to leave room for the viewers’ ideas and what references to the larger culture should be included. So when I brought up the famous Truffault film, “The 400 Blows,” Tim not only knew at once what I meant, but also posted that long pan at the end of the film that ends with the freeze frame of the boy’s face. We both know that for us much that happens among the boys of Cinematheque echoes a half-century old autobiographical film about boys in Paris.

The film came out in 1959 when Tim was in third grade and I was a junior at Northwestern University where I was supposed to be obediently developing the skills of a high school English teacher but in fact was running off to acting and religion classes and -- often far off campus -- to foreign films with my best friend, who was male. “The 400 Blows” was actually far more “his” film. I helped with the shooting of his short film, an homage about the destruction of Greek Town in Chicago, centering around a boy slightly younger than Truffault’s character. I was the pigeon wrangler (for the scenes where a running boy sends a flock into the air) and the turner of the playground merry-go-ground that echoed in a small way the big whirling carnival ride in the larger movie.

No one in our Northwestern circle was starving, no one was victimized by parents, no one went to reform school or ran away, and the war was the Cold War, but we, like Truffault, also lived to watch films. My friend could find strange film showings in grade school auditoriums, Catholic school cafeterias, and raked lecture halls of small colleges. He needed someone to go along, so I did. Like Truffault, we even stole a few stills from lobbies. We were like two boys -- these were not dates. We talked film as art. Or rather he explained everything and I tried to keep up.

“The 400 Blows” was his personal film, but “Hiroshima Mon Amour” was the one that went straight to my gut -- or a little lower. It didn’t touch him. Maybe it was because I grew up on the Pacific Coast where Hiroshima seemed very close or maybe it was because I took the Paris occupation very seriously. WWII is in the emotional background of “The 400 Blows” (the lives of Truffault and his friends) but never developed as present in the lives of the boys onscreen. There’s plenty of echo. Maybe “Hiroshima Mon Amour” was just a woman’s film. But likewise “Ballad of a Soldier” made my friend weep, even sob, and it was “The Cranes Are Flying” that struck me hard.

He had promised his high school sweetheart he would marry her and he did, with huge success. We stayed friends. Some of the deeper parts of my marriage to Bob Scriver, things like the Native American holocaust, tied back to “Hiroshima Mon Amour.” My friend never did have the existential despair and yearning for meaning that I shared with Bob and now with Tim which makes our relationship not just possible but also respectful. As much more willing than my contemporaries as I have been in confronting violence, hardship and poverty, Tim has far exceeded me.

When we work on a project like “Orpheus Pressed Up Against the Windows of the Catacombs,” we are in reciprocity -- mostly -- like a handball game where we take turns bouncing ideas off the wall in a common understanding but occasionally hit each other hard with a mis-bounced ball, producing a bruise or two. Still, it is -- for me -- a return to a youthful side-by-side friendship rooted in a flow of images exploring a psychological landscape both strange and familiar.

For me these “places” go even deeper than movies, to books. “Two Little Savages” by Ernest Thompson Seton was one of my most engaging books and, of course, the opening scene of the book in which Yan gazes into the taxidermist’s window turned out to be the opening scene of my marriage. Against the contemporary tide of repulsion about such things, I was drawn in. The taxi/toxi element of Cinematheque might seem at first to be the HIV virus that haunts and stalks everyone in the group but me, safely removed. But that’s not the real oppressor: HIV is only a molecule but culture makes it a stigma and a reason to deny and even obliterate. This is the echo of Hiroshima: not the explosion, but the deadly lingering consequences. This is why the work is about the boys, not Tim and I.

“The 400 Blows” with its unsettled injustice, its adults oppressing kids, its preoccupation with food, its baffled pre-adolescent fascination with sex, its attempt of two boys to parent each other and replace the family with friendship, are all present at Cinematheque as well as here on the rez. The difference is technology. Film becomes video, theatres become personal screens, accusations of crime and incorrigibility become pandemic virus, and Tim’s double life, not the one that’s labeled a “hoax” but the one that shepherds boys while antagonizing publishers, becomes part of the daily life of a tubby old lady in a village near the Blackfeet reservation. And the boys both places are cinematographers as much as the grownups.

I have no idea what it all means but it is exhilarating fun that protects me from two things: the feeling that I’m going nowhere since publishing has collapsed and the fear that it’s all over now that I’m old. My youth is back through new media. “Orbitlogs” will be seen in the future as a New Wave quite comparable to the revolution mounted by Truffault. I really think so.

When I watched “The 400 Blows” last night it was a different experience than the first time. The title means something like “sowing wild oats” -- getting it out of your system. Some people never do. I still have a few blows left.


Mary said...

re: relationship between cowriters.

I am reading a book by Linda K Karell, MSU prof, "Writing Together/Writing Apart - Collaboration in Western American Literature." She suggests collaboration is a process and a product.

I have just begun the 2nd chapter, which she addresses the working/works of Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris.

The introductory chapter cited how writers are influenced by many other writers and their environments.
And she poses the issue: are any writers really singular in their work.

prairie mary said...

Why do I not know Linda K. Karell's work? I'm angry at myself!

For Tim's take on this post see He doesn't know Karell's work either, but that's easier to understand.

I think I know which Mary this is. I thank you very much.

I read the chapter about Mourning Dove online which reminded me of the difficulty some online Indian women had in convincing me I did NOT understand their internal worlds, no matter how many years I taught English. Barrus makes the same point about his boys.

Would truly understanding Michael Dorris have saved him? If Louise Erdrich couldn't do it, who could?

Prairie Mary