Saturday, August 14, 2010

Day 128: Ernest nailed it.

This is a favourite writing anecdote of mine; can’t remember where I heard it or who to credit:

“Ernest Hemingway reportedly dashed this one off when his friends bet him ten bucks he couldn’t write a story in less than ten words:

‘For sale. Baby shoes. Never used.’”

I reckon that I could sit here (at my keyboard) from now until the dawn of the next millenia and I’m not going to better that. I’m not a Hemingway afficianado, however - I have read The Sun Also Rises (Fiesta) and The Old Man and the Sea, albeit many years ago - so I’m in no position to sit here and wax lyrical as to ‘why Hemingway this’ or ‘why Hemingway that’.

From the little that I know of this towering literary figure, I could not have been more dissimilar if I possibly tried to differentiate myself from him: a war veteran, Middle East war correspondent, game fisherman, safari hunter; seems like he courted death and danger if not always in the proximity of it and was never far from a gun.

The novella of The Old Man and the Sea, defies film adaptation, but that didn’t stop a movie version being made in 1958, the year I was born. The majority of the story features an “old man” (Spencer Tracy) alone in a small sailing boat, out at sea, trying to reel in an enormous marlin that he’s hooked. Facing sharks, fatigue, hunger, the sea, the weather and his flagging strength, he has to make it back to his native Cuban port with this giant of a fish.

Directed by John Sturges, witha screenplay adapted by writer Peter Viertel (chosen by Hemingway) there are only two speaking parts of note in the film - that of Spencer Tracy and a young boy. The boy is only really in Act 1 and at the end of Act 3, with the rest of the movie’s speech handed over to the old man either when he’s talking to himself at sea, or in his thinking, represented by Tracy’s voice-over. I would have said that such a script would fail on so many levels, so thank God they didn’t come to me for advice.

Despite this, does the film hold up 52 years on from it’s release and subsequent Academy Award nominations? If you get past the outrageously obvious studio sets of Spencer Tracy at sea in his skiff or whatever it is that he’s sailing, and if you suspend your disbelief (not your awe) at the library footage added in of the marlin segued in as being from the old man’s point-of-view, then, yes, the film still “works”. Putting aside the craft aspects of the film - cinematography, set design, editing - it’s the story that is timeless and would never fail, for Hemmingway knows how to write pithily. He’s as lean and mean a writer as you could get and yet he spins a phenomenal yarn.

I’m not an impoverished fisherman living in Cuba in the 1950’s, I’m a middle-class hungry screenwriter living in Sydney in the second decade of the twenty-first century, yet this film speaks to me across the years and the oceans of so much that is pertinent to me.

Day #128 Tip: The Testing Plot
“Hemingway became fascinated with the strength of character of the fishermen of Havana who braved the loneliness and dangers of the sea each day as they set out in search of the great fish. For Hemingway, this was a metaphor for the lifelong struggle feared by every man in the search for their defining moment.”

Robert McKee defines the Testing Plot as “stories of willpower versus temptation to surrender” and cites Cool Hand Luke, Fitzcarraldo and Forrest Gump as other movie examples.

Norman Friedman, who I’ve been citing over the last week or so, adds “...our sympathies here are curiously compounded, since he (the protagonist) places himself in danger of misfortune if he persists, and the temptation he withstands would, if yielded to, better his material welfare. Thus we feel he should give it up and save his neck, yet if he does he will pay the price of losing his own self-respect and our respect for him as well.”

A character dilemma of the lesser-of-two-evils if ever I heard of one and a character dilemma that seems, some days, all-too familiar.

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