The time is noon, July, 1939. And it’s hot.
The screenwriter lies stretched on the studio lawns, hungry, with heavy limbs, tanked full of a pending cold from a three-day gin bender in the office. As usual, the episode has rendered him exhausted, with nothing to say or see. Facing down, he sweats steadily into shirt sleeves and out of season trousers, ignoring the itchy grass in his face. His left nostril is blocked. The right one is doing fine and the imbalance is disturbing his peace. Rolling over, he allows the blockage to spread evenly across his foggy, compounded brain.
Straining to look up, he sees the scene is busy. An assortment of studio staff move in and out of the complex gates. Runners, make-up girls, tea ladies – pushing trollies of damp cheese sandwiches, and a young man, overdressed into all-garment, no-person oblivion, loitering at the studio gates, waiting to be found, claimed and plugged into Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s rota of salaried actors.
The screenwriter drops his head back into the grass, jealous of the out-of-work actor. Without a job anything is possible. Without a job, you can’t lose the one you’ve got or, worse still, keep the one you have, which presently means nothing but stasis. Sustained by the studio on $250 per week salaries (3k ten years ago) the screenwriters operate on call; living in their offices, waiting to be put to use in a Hollywood dreamscape of film-sets, trailers and communal canteens and he wonders, again, when this will end; when scripts after scripts of shoddy, pointless re-writes, work-ups, re-dos and adaptations will finally give way to greatness.
For a decade he’d been called for the same thing, always, then less often. ‘Work up the structure’, they’d say, ‘give us some structure’. The call had transformed him from a literary mastermind to a shambolic snatch-and-grab veteran, tweaking other mens’ labour in an industry approved act of ‘co-writing’. Now, it had been a decade since he’d written anything at all, let alone anything new and suddenly he became overwhelmed, hating everything, everywhere, all at once; Mayer, Schenck, even Thalberg, the only producer who knew the value of good writers, good work and saw that when content was content, the crowd pleaser would follow. But Thalberg was gone. And the loss was manifest. The heat is increasing and a flowering acacia might provide some shade. It’s out of focus and he reminds himself, for the hundredth time, in as many days, that he really must buy some glasses. He rolls his head to the left, taking in the studios signage, squinting then reading by rote; Arts Gratia Artis, bullshit. He coughs, horribly, then worries he’s losing his voice from too much smoking. This, he decides, would be the end of everything. In a world where work is talked up in a board room coup, then spat into existence by Friday, it is no longer enough to mutely, privately write. Feeling the loss, straining his neck, he surveys his mess on the lawn; two books (unread), three stainednotebooks, one pen (no ink), a piece of litter, his shoes, and loose change. The impoverished evidence makes him guilty. He pulls himself up, opens a notebook and tries to find a fresh idea, but the first page is nearly illegible. The second is better. Then, deciphering his handwriting, he unearths a potential gem:
The Theory of the Leisure Class – A Romance.
This seems extremely promising, then quite weird. Fortunately it’s backed up with further near- illegible jottings on page three.
‘The pervading principle and abiding test of good breeding is the requirement of a substantial and patent waste of time’.
Feeling more at ease with his lethargy, accepting he has been here before, he enthusiastically flicks to the next page, revealing a long list of debtors and debts in two columns and red ink, climaxing in a coffee stain and an affirmative note to self:
He shuts the book.
“Why did you stop!?”
Because, I tell the copyeditor, it’s not working. I just don’t think it is.
“No actually, I really think it is.”
You’re just saying that because it’s not typed-up yet and you can’t actually read it, and so long as you can’t actually read it there’s a very real sense that this, possibly, could be good. But I’m telling you – as soon as I type this fucking thing up, it’s going to be shit.
“Don’t swear. This isn’t a crisis.” He says.
It is actually, because I’m really not sure I can keep the life in this writing and there’s just so much I want it to do. SO much. I’m just going to have to explain my aims. There’s no way around it. I tell him. See?
“I wouldn’t do that.” He says.
“No, I don’t think you need to. I just think you should keep going. BUT you really do need to use your structure, because right now, you’re neglecting her.”
I am using her!
“Not in this part. Not so far. And I’m telling you now, you can’t just churn out all this alleged research content without some structure, especially when the content isn’t yours, and you’ve stolen the screenwriter.”
He is not stolen, I tell him. He’s, I pause, adapted.
“Ok.” The copyeditor drinks tea noisily. ” But if I were you I’d return to the structure, stop defaulting and start.” He pauses. “Also, come to think of it, the screenwriter’s a bit… you know…flat. Can’t you work him up a bit? I mean, I’d like to know more about him… tell his story. Why not?”
I can’t. I tell him. I’m terrible with detail.
“Well, get better. Because right now, he just sounds like an especially male version of you,” he switches on the telly, “and that is extremely boring.”
Cally Spooner, 2012.
Excerpt from Chapter 1 of Collapsing in Parts – an eight -month performance.