Sunday, November 20, 2011

Why freelance writers prefer packet milk

From the “When movie dialogues coincide oddly with my own sad life” department:

In a scene in Nicholas Ray’s Bigger than Life, school teacher and middle-class family man Ed Avery (played by James Mason) reprimands the neighbourhood milkman Andy thus:

“This isn’t the first time you’ve gone out of your way to annoy me with your jingle-jangle in, jingle-jangle out. Why do you do it?”

“I can’t help it if the milk bottles make noise,” protests the surprised Andy, whereupon Ed produces a gem that all creative poseurs should keep in their kit-bag of ready-to-use lines:

“Don’t lie to me, it’s deliberate! You’re filled with envy and malice toward me because I work with my mind. So you make it impossible for me to concentrate.”

Actually the milkman isn’t at fault: Ed is paranoid, having become addicted to the cortisone that was prescribed to him as a pain-killer, and his behaviour is already verging on psychosis (soon he will be eyeing his little boy and recalling the story about God ordering Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac). But speaking as a freelance writer forever plagued by ringing doorbells and other unwelcome intrusions (and looking for ways to justify my current inability to get any worthwhile writing done), the words and the frustration behind them are easy to relate to.

So the next time an over-friendly grand-aunt pops her head into my room and marvels that I spend all my time at home doing nothing, I will channel Ed. (I can’t imitate James Mason’s menacingly silken purr, but I can snarl like an angry cat.)

All this is a complicated way of saying that I have new Criterion discs, and Bigger than Life is among them. (The others: Sansho the Bailiff and Au Hasard Balthazar.) Also that I hope to get back to doing some long pieces about old films soon – have plenty of unstructured notes lying about everywhere but haven’t yet found the time or the mental focus to turn them into something comprehensible. Cortisone might help.
P.S. Author Jonathan Lethem talks about Bigger than Life – one of his favourite films – in this excellent long interview at Cinema Scope. There’s also a fine video introduction by Lethem on the DVD.


  1. Jai, I've been waiting for the continuation of that freelancing post for many years now.

  2. I just snarled something along these lines at the husband for not keeping things quiet while I worked. Unfortunately, he, too, works from home and 'with his mind'. I suppose the only revenge is to make it impossible for him to concentrate -- which, in terms of income, would be along the lines of cutting my nose off to spite my face.

    Some days I just can't win.

  3. Paresh: many more things to say, but my mind is so organised around movies that I only come up with such posts when there's a cinematic reference point involved!

    Sue: good to see you here after a long time! I agree that income is vastly preferable to minds.

  4. lol can completely relate to the post...i feel the same way when my maid throws utensils while washing bombay, i used to clean them on my own :-)

  5. Mr Lethem is awe inspiring in his eloquence, and his deep and passionate love and knowledge of cinematic idioms is something that even a cinephile like me has rarely witnessed.
    I specially liked this-
    "LETHEM: Sure—no hint of escape from their lives, except that James Mason has this unexplained and faintly sinister accent. Consider what James Mason signified as a Hollywood actor in the postwar era, in everything from Lolita (1962) to the vaguely bisexual villain in North by Northwest (1959) to Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). He represents a sort of trans-Atlantic sophistication that’s threatening, that brings with it implications of the Old World and European fascism and all the aristocratic anti-American richness of his persona. So, to just throw him into this pure American milieu is troubling to begin with."


    In fact, this is another one of those movies that I have a lot to say about.It has been compared to American Beauty in chronicling the disintegration of a unit of, and as a commentary on, the Great American Middle Class.
    The source material that Ray had to go on with was an actual medical case study. In fact, it was the doctors who advised Mr. Avery to OD on cortisone, but due to pressure from the medical community Ray could not include that in the movie. I think, in retrospect, that it worked out well for the movie, in the sense that now it appears to be that cortisone was but a hint that enabled to bring forth the conflicts and neuroses that were already brewing in Avery's person.
    There are some subtle and some not so subtle hints throughout the movie that all was not so well in the household. I think it is a vital point here to understand that we are not only looking into the life of a different family but of the times of fifty odd years ago, and something that may appear abnormal to us about the family, may in fact be a commentary on that particular time, and that elevates the importance of the movie.
    An example is the fact that the husband is doing two jobs but the wife does not take up work - this may seem odd now but was par for the course at that time, and the seemingly unfair pressure from his point of view to conform to societal norms may have been one reason for his unraveling.
    Also, the doctors being evasive with the wife , and giving her no instructions about the dosage, only relying on the husband to take his meds-this kind of sexism was the norm in that time. Also notice how she is more particular with the doctor subsequently and he tries to evade her again and again.
    I also think that the friendship of the wife with the Walter Mathau character and Avery's jealousy is also a comment on the times. Since a housewife may not have the smarts and many avenues to seek help, she confides in the friend of the husband.To my mind, there was enough ambiguity that they may have had something more than a friendship, but in any case, the important point here is that the design of the nuclear family at that time had a delicate balance.Not only was there scope for that kind of friendship, but even a hint of it was enough to disturb the balance, because of the uneven nature of the roles of husband and wife.
    Finally, I think it must be fairly obvious to see how it is vital to contextualize a movie to appreciate the subtexts, sometimes in the backdrop of the author's persona as in auteur theory and sometimes with respect to the social and cultural milieu of the times.

  6. Finally, I think it must be fairly obvious to see how it is vital to contextualize a movie to appreciate the subtexts

    Rahul: coincidentally I was thinking of writing a post on just this subject, using as a starting point the often-expressed (and naive) view that a great film (or a great work of art) shouldn't have to be explained - that the things that make it great should be mostly evident on the surface. I have a lot to say about the subject, and Bigger than Life is the sort of movie that can be used as an illustration.

    That said, it isn't among my own favourite films by a long distance - it falls firmly in the "admire but don't love" category for me.

  7. Brilliant! Thanks for sharing this Jai. Now I've a fitting comeback for occasions when people question me: So, what do you do besides writing? I've entertained dark notions like wringing their necks but now I can snarl about their malice and my mind. Ah ha!

  8. Normally I give DVD extras a pass but looks like I have been missing something.Another brilliant article on this movie -

  9. Rahul: why would you want to give DVD extras a pass? Going by your earlier comment, you enjoy engaging deeply with films, examining contexts and so on - and Extras like the ones on Criterion DVDs can be just as valuable as any film school.

  10. Manreet: yes, well, the whole thing works on different levels doesn't it? There's the level where someone learns I'm a writer-cum-journalist and excitedly starts asking for my views on the latest political developments, upon which I have to sadly admit that I haven't read the paper in years. Then there's the level where I say I work on the books beat and the other person is mildly interested but looks down on fiction, sniffing that he only reads motivational books and biographies. And there's the level where I mention I'm a huge film buff but people give me strange looks when I say that most of the directors I'm most interested in died decades ago. I'm sure there are a few others.

  11. Jai, the only reason is the shortage of time.Today I was watching Pasolini's Teorema, and aside from the fact that I feel the movie itself needs at least one rewatch, there are at least five other DVDs with me which I cant wait to go on to.
    Now, I saw a magnificent documentary called "Pasolini and Death - A purely intellectual thriller." in the DVD extras, it was almost an hour long, and that amounts to about half a movie.But it was well worth my time and I agree with you that I should not be passing them over.

  12. I can't quite imagine you snarling like an angry cat. :)

  13. haha, yeah, I can totally relate to this. Since past two months I've been promising myself that I'd start work on my second novel from tomorrow. Still waiting for that tomorrow :P
    But it's not my fault. The world keeps on interfering with my plans.

  14. Bigger than Life is easily one of the great films of the 50s.
    A fascinating film which can be viewed as either a critique of the family or a defense of the family depending on whether you wear your liberal or conservative lenses.

    That's what makes these Hays code films so thought-provoking. In the absence of freedom, directors buried themes in the narrative instead of engaging in Aamir Khan like preaching. So, audiences were free to interpret films whichever way they liked.

    The key line in Bigger than Life is James Mason's manic assertion towards the end - "GOD WAS WRONG", in an attempt to justify his attempt to kill his son.

    It highlights the moral decay that sets in when people try to play GOD by defying conventional time-tested virtues.

  15. It has been compared to American Beauty in chronicling the disintegration of a unit of, and as a commentary on, the Great American Middle Class

    I think it is much richer and yet more compact and elegant than that turgid 90s flick.

  16. Jai, you might enjoy this short Donald Duck cartoon from 1948 about how little noises can be disturbing - I remember watching it on the Mickey Donald show on DD hundred years ago & amazingly it was out there in google land...

    have fun with the DVDs!

  17. It highlights the moral decay that sets in when people try to play GOD by defying conventional time-tested virtues.

    Shrikanth: what is the "conventional time-tested virtue" you're talking about in this case? That fine tradition of doing whatever "God" has asked you to? I'll pass, thanks!

    We've had discussions related to this subject before, but I don't think I'll ever understand your unmitigated fondness/nostalgia for the "traditional" way of doing things.

    Tipu: thanks for that - very therapeutic!

  18. Shrikanth: what is the "conventional time-tested virtue" you're talking about in this case? That fine tradition of doing whatever "God" has asked you to?

    Oh it's difficult to get one's point across in brief comments. Ofcourse, I wasn't talking about conforming to scriptures or anything as daft as that. In this context, "God" was a proxy for conventional morality, our conceptions of what constitutes right and wrong, the standards of propriety that we as a society have reached a consensus on. That's how I read it.

    By saying "God was wrong", Mason is taking himself too seriously. It is a culmination of numerous episodes in the course of the film which show how impatient he becomes with all the pressures of conformity that any civilized society naturally exerts on each one of us.

    Mason's mania is a result of a failure to handle these natural pressures in a sporting way. The Cortisone factor is just a rather inconsequential Mcguffin of sorts.

  19. Being the kind of person I am, I would like to read this whole film as a criticism of Mason as opposed to a criticism of the "50s society" as many people do.

    You may take an altogether different view and regard the film as a critique of the family, a critique of conformism and what not.

    That's what makes this film fascinating. The fact that two people can watch it and react to it very differently. Same is true for the Capra film - It's a Wonderful Life - a movie that Reagan, that arch conservative, regarded as the quientessential American film. Yet, the same film is also loved by a lot of liberals who regard it as a critique of family!

  20. On a lighter note, I am sure you'll enjoy this :

    Jimmy Stewart roast on the Dean Martin show filmed back in 1978. 11 parts. Great fun.

  21. How do you manage to get the Criterion Collection DVDs? Neither Amazon nor Criterion ships to India. :-(

  22. a proxy for conventional morality, our conceptions of what constitutes right and wrong, the standards of propriety that we as a society have reached a consensus on

    Shrikanth: it's the easy thing to agree-to-disagree of course, but I'm highly suspicious of any Golden Ageist ideas about "conventional morality" and "consensus in society". It wasn't all that long ago when even the most moral and well-meaning people in the US accepted that there was nothing wrong in subjugating a race of people based on their skin colour. Or giving women less-privileged status.

    This is just one example, of course - there are many other analogies from all over the world. In India, many of the most venerated "pillars" of society are extremely regressive in their attitudes towards gender relations, caste and freedom of speech (to name just a few of the more obvious things). I wouldn't much care for the "social consensus" that sanctified those attitudes.

  23. Indisch: my friend Tipu (who has commented above) has been very kindly buying them for me and sending them across with family when they visit India. Mentioned it in this post also.

  24. I'm highly suspicious of any Golden Ageist ideas about "conventional morality" and "consensus in society"

    Jai: I'm not indulging in any form of "Golden Ageism".

    I was in general referring to the prevailing mores of any given social milieu in a certain time-setting. Ofcourse, these mores are not for all time.

    The search for cosmic justice or cosmic morality will always prove elusive. I can't be a good 21st century citizen if I keep cribbing about 21st century mores not matching up to the mores of the 19th century or the mores of an imagined 24th century utopia.
    "When in Rome, be a Roman" still remains the most useful political advice I've received in my life.

    I wouldn't want to pass judgments on 50s America by using my 21st century lenses. It's all very well for artists and filmmakers to crib about the cultural repression in that decade, the hypocrisies of family life among other things. But all said and done, that system worked! The 50s remains one of America's most successful decades, with enormous economic growth and few law and order issues. A far more peaceful and tranquil decade than the unhappy, tumultuous decade that followed (which funnily hardly receives as much censure and criticism as the 50s)

  25. Shrikanth: understood. Coincidentally I'm right in the middle of Stephen King's latest opus 11.22.63, a very interesting time-travel tale with social commentary on the Eisenhower era. Will probably write about it sometime.

  26. The endless interruptions during the day made me decide to get up at 5:00 AM to write. Of course the problem with that is still the ambient noise. Bloody crows start cawing right around then. And there is an idiot workman who decides to start hammering around 6:00. How did Premchand, et al, get any work done?

  27. Well, for starters (and it's a very big "starters"), Premchand didn't have to contend with the Internet.