writing

From the Archives: A Mamet Discovery Prompts Unearthing This Piece About Hemingway and TV Writing

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           While researching another project recently at the Harry Ransom Center, on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin, I followed a digression into Hemingway territory and learned something I’d never encountered before. The playwright David Mamet (right) had once set out to write a screenplay based on Across the River and Into the Trees, one of Hemingway’s most problematic novels. Problematic because most critics hold it up as one of Hemingway’s worst. That may or may not be true, but despite its flaws, the book, like several of Hemingway’s lesser works, does serve up some elegant writing here and there. So, Across the River, published in 1950, is at least approachable on a prose, or sentence-by-sentence, level.

            Mamet recognized the novel’s reputation but once noted in an interview that great plays often lead to lousy movies and perhaps the reverse may have been true for a bad book. I’m not sure his logic on paper was quite that clear, but I think that was what he was trying to say.

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            Mamet has often been creatively compared to Hemingway, which, in that same interview (with Playboy, in 1995) he deflected: It would be a “heavy, impossible burden. You know, you can’t play Stanley Kowalski without being compared to Marlon Brando – even by people who never saw Marlon Brando in the movie, let alone on stage. He revolutionized that role and the American notion of what it meant to act. The same is true of Hemingway and writing.”

            That said, the discovery of these Mamet notes sent me back to a newspaper piece I wrote – yikes, sixteen years ago -- that connected some dots between Mamet and Hemingway through the craft of television writing. That piece also made a nod to the likes of Aaron Sorkin and Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator of a TV series of the day called “Gilmore Girls” and now the creative spirit behind one of the most popular and lauded new streaming series, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (on Amazon Prime). Again, Hemingway. I watched a few more episodes of “Mrs. Maisel” the other day, which gave me further impetus to repost this piece.

 

The following article first appeared in The Kansas City Star in November 2002.

 

Motor mouths: Smart and savvy TV writers figure it out: Papa knew best

 

“Wall Street Journal says people are talking really fast on

television.”

  “You don't say.”

  “No, really. Especially on `West Wing.' “

  “Smart show.”

  “That's right. Mostly written by a guy named Aaron Sorkin.”

  “All that politics _”

  “Ripped from the headlines!”

  “And real-life drama.”

  “It's nice that Bartlet and his wife are getting closer.”

  “Illness will do that.”

  “I suppose. But it's about -- “

  “Power and powerlessness.”

  ”Good way to put it, but I've been thinking about this TV thing for a

long time. And one thing the Journal didn't mention -- “

  “Only one?”

  “Well, a few things, but one important one was the real source of that

dialogue.”

  “Yeah?”

  “Straight out of Hemingway.”

  “Howzat?”

  “Sun.”

  “Sun?

  “The Sun Also Rises. All that Paris banter. All those young hipsters.”

  “All that drinking -- “

  “That, too, but I first noticed this a few years ago on another show

Sorkin did -- `Sports Night.' “

  “That ESPN thing.”

  “Something like that. But it was great. Behind the scenes at a sports

talk show that had virtually nothing to do with --”

  “Sports.”

  “Yeah. It was all about the people. And they talked fast, and they

talked on top of each other and they completed one another's --”

  “Sentences.”

  “You've got it. And for some reason that's why I put two and two

together.”

  “And came up with Hemingway.”

  “Listen to this. It's when Jake Barnes invites a passing woman to sit

down and have a drink. He's the narrator:

 

  “What's the matter?” she asked. “Going on a party?”

  “Sure. Aren't you?”

  “I don't know. You never know in this town.”

  “Don't you like Paris?”

  “No.”

  “Why don't you go somewhere else?”

  “Isn't anywhere else.”

  “You're happy, all right.”

  “Happy, hell!”

 

  “I see what you're talking about.”

 “Things happen fast on TV comedies, and even some dramas, and this

article I read said it had to do with cramming lots of scenes in a show to

keep people laughing. Wears some people out. ‘Lucy’ was funny. But

‘Seinfeld’ was faster. Just like those old screwball comedies from way back

when.”

  “Yeh, yeh, yeh.”

  “I might add that ‘Frasier’ is just as clever, more urbane, but

slower.”

  “It takes time to make a latte.”

  “And you know `Seinfeld,' that show about nothing.”

  “Yada yada yada.”

  “Exactly. Know where that comes from?”

  “I'm getting a feeling --”

  “Yep. ‘A Clean Well-Lighted Place.’ Seinfeld did yada yada. Hemingway

did nada nada. Read it and weep.”

  “Will do.”

  “These really good TV guys -- Sorkin, David Chase --”

  “ ‘Sopranos.’ “

  “Yup. And Matt Groening _”

  “ ‘Simpsons.’ “

  “Roger.”

  “Homer?"

  “No. Roger. As in `Roger that.' You're right. ‘Simpsons.’ But what I was

trying to say -- “

  “Before I interrupted --"

  “Was that the best of this stuff seems to be so aware of things. Aware

of the world. Aware of pop culture.”

  ”Uh huh.”

  “I mean, some of these guys even love books.”

  “I'll never forget that Jack London episode of ‘Northern Exposure.’ “

  “Brilliant. That's what I mean. Or Amy Sherman-Palladino.”

  “Who?”

  “She writes `Gilmore Girls.' There's some media-savvy dialogue, for you,

even though it feels a little forced.”

  “She's no Hemingway, you mean.”

  ”Well, I don't think I'm too far out on a literary limb with that

theory. Surely Sorkin read `Hills Like White Elephants.' “

  “Who hasn't?”

  “One thing you hear a lot is wordplay. Repetition. You accent something

by repeating it two or three or more times.”

  “Repetition.”

  “It's like ping-pong words. Not sing-song to put you to sleep. Ping-pong to

keep you alert.”

  “Back and forth you mean?”

  “Words ping-ponging, or pinballing. Like one time on `Gilmore Girls'

Rory and a friend were riffing on the word ‘wing-it.’ They didn't know they

were riffing, they were just saying what the writers wrote. But ‘wing-it’ as

a compound verb and an adjective, meaning just the opposite of ‘Zagat,’

meaning you'd look it up in the restaurant guide rather than wing-it. The

friend was having a date and she was worried about not looking

at Zagat and they'd be forced to wing-it. Zagat. Wing-it.”

  “Wow.”

  “It's like action poetry.”

  “Poetry? On television?”

  “TV is literature, you know. I mean look at ‘Sports Night.’ “

  “It's a shame they killed it.”

  “Yeah, that really torqued my chili.”

  “Peter Krause was great.

  “Just like he is on `Six Feet Under.' And now one of those `Sports

Night' guys is on ‘West Wing.’ “

  “The guy with glasses.”

  “But Felicity What's-Her-Name -- she played the lead character, the

talk-show producer -- was married to William H. Macy and they were great,

too.”

  “Great character -- Macy. The ratings consultant.”

  “Huffman. Felicity Huffman. And they're theater people.”

  “Really?”

  “They do Mamet. I mean they're friends with Mamet.”

  “Mamet?”

  “The F-word guy. Plays. Movies.”

  “Yeah, I know, I know. But did you just say, ‘It really torqued my

chili’?”

  “Did.”

  “Where'd that come from?”

  ”People talk that way.”

  “C'mon --”

  “No, they do. The beauty of language. I love it. ‘Torqued my chili.’

Some guy from Oklahoma says it. I heard it at a diner.”

  “A diner?”

  “You know, like in `The Killers.' “

  “Ernie again?”

  “Short story.”

  “Kind of like television.”

  “Except without the ads.”

  “Another reason they talk fast, right?”

  “Yeah. To squeeze in more -- “

  “Commercials."

Flash Fiction: My First Noir

Fiction — writing fiction, that is — has never worked very well for me. This year I’ve been making another run at it. In the crevices around the larger project and a few smaller ones I’ve managed to turn out one story still in progress, one story that felt done enough to submit just recently, and a piece of flash fiction that editors at Akashic Books were kind enough to include the other day in their online series Mondays Are Murder. Akashic is the house that published Kansas City Noir, the fiction collection I edited featuring 14 writers, in 2012. My story here (follow the link) is in Akashic’s Noir anthology style, set in a specific place (Midtown Kansas City). Locals may well recognize the opening setting, daytime in Milton’s Tap Room. And squeamish readers might be aware there’s a NSFW moment near the, uh, climax.

http://www.akashicbooks.com/blue-is-the-color-of-night-by-steve-paul/