The Books of My Numberless Dreams

At the movies

Posted on: February 25, 2007


Can you read fiction while you’re working on a novel?



Not much. At least, not much contemporary fiction. I read less contemporary fiction than I used to and more of the classics. It seems they’ve hung around for a reason. When I wrote Fury, for instance, I read Balzac, in particular Eugenie Grandet. If you look at the opening of Eugenie Grandet, it uses a technique like a slow cinematic zoom. It starts with a very wide focus–here is this town, these are its buildings, this is its economic situation–and gradually it focuses in on this neighbourhood, and inside the neighbourhood on this rather grand house, and inside this house a room, and inside this room, a woman sitting on a chair. By the time you find out her name, she’s already imprisoned in her class and her social situation and her community and her city. By the time her own story begins to unfold, you realize it’s going to smash into all these things. She is like a bird in this cage. I thought, That’s good. That’s such a clear way of doing it.



Do you go to the movies a lot?



A lot, yes. Much of my thinking about writing was shaped by a youth spent watching the extraordinary outbursts of world cinema in the sixties and seventies. I think I learned as much from Bunuel and Bergman and Godard and Fellini as I learned from books. It’s hard now to explain what it feels like when the week’s new movie is Fellini’s 8 1/2, when the week after that it’s the new Godard movie, and the week after that it’s the new Bergman, then it’s the new Satyajit Ray movie, then Kurosawa. Those filmmakers were consciously building oeuvres that had a coherence, and in which themes were explored until they were exhausted. There was a serious artistic project going on. Now, whether it’s films or books, we’ve become a much lazier culture. Filmmakers get bought out just like that. You make one interesting film and off you go into moneyland. The idea of building a body of work that has intellectual and artistic coherence is gone. Nobody’s interested.



What did you learn from watching movies?



Some technical things–for instance from the New Wave’s freedom of technique, a freeing up the language. The classic form of film montage is long shot, medium shot, close-up, medium shot, long shot, medium shot, close-up, medium shot, long shot–like a kind of dance. In two steps, out two steps, in two steps, out two steps. It can be unbelievably tedious. If you look at the films of the fifties being cut like that, it’s sort of like editing by numbers. So Godard’s heavy use of the jump cut made you jump. To go from the wide scene–bang–into the face of Belmondo or Anna Karina. One of the reasons why, in the films of Godard, a character will sometimes address the camera directly–



–is because they didn’t have the money to film the full scene.



That’s right. But I liked the idea, the breaking of the frame, the fact that many of these films were funny and serious at the same time. In Alphaville, which is a very dark film, there’s this wonderful scene where Lemmy Caution, the down-at-the-heels private eye, arrives at the flop house where he discovers that all the superheroes are dead. “Et Batman?” “Il es mort.” “Superman?” “Mort.” “Flash Gordon?” “Mort.” It’s hilarious. And I love Bunuel’s use of surrealism, which doesn’t stop the film from being real. In The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, people sit around a table on toilet seats but go quietly to a little room to eat. And I like both Bergmans–the mystical Bergman of The Seventh Seal and the close-up, psychological Bergman. And Kurosawa taking us into a completely closed culture, the world of the samurai. I don’t think like the samurai thought, yet you’ve gotta love Toshiro Mifune scratching himself–you’re immediately on his side. It’s one of the things you want a work of art to do, to take you into a world you haven’t been in, and to make it part of your world. That great period of filmmaking has a lot to teach novelists. I always thought I got my education in the cinema.


From “The Art of Fiction” No. 186 interview with Salman Rushdie, The Paris Review, Summer 2005


7 Responses to "At the movies"

Thanks for this. I’m still working my way through Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown, about 3/4 of the way through the audiobook. I put it down for a few weeks, but I really should finish it! :blush:

He talks a bit about that novel in the interview. And no need to blush, I’ve yet to read any of his novels. I’ve tried reading Midnight’s Children twice, but could never get past the first page.

This is very interesting. I’m disappointed by Rushdie’s conclusion that “Nobody’s interested” in making good movies any more — that’s an old man yearning for the days of his youth. I’d agree that most contemporary films suffer from a comparison to the age he’s describing, but there’s no reason to blanket.

I had a similar experience with Midnight’s Children, but then I found it in me to keep going — and I’m glad I did. It’s a great novel, although I prefer The Satanic Verses.

I don’t think he was saying that no one made good films any more, but that no one’s interested, as he put it, in creating a coherent art “project” centred around themes important to the film-maker. A certain kind of approach that, I guess he feels, holds more merit. I’d cite Wong Kar Wai as an example of a director who still does that kind of thing.

Still, I’m tempted to think that he’s wrong even on that score, I just don’t know enough about film to confidently rebut. (David Lynch? Terrence Malick? Quentin Tarrantino?)

Thanks so much for posting this – very interesting. And I can’t help being very intrigued by his assertion that there are very few film makers these days interested in making a coherent body of work. I’m going to have to think more about that and why that might be so.
I’m embarassed to admit I’ve never read Rushdie – I’d definitely like to explore his work.

I haven’t read Midnight’s Children yet, but what keeps you from getting past page one?

verbivore yes, I *do* plan to try one of his books eventually. I started Satanic Verses when I was a very wee thing and of course did not finish it, although the opening scenes have stayed with me to this day.

Julio it was the narrator’s voice. I found it abrasive and annoying and…it just rubbed me the wrong way. A personal dealie and no reflection on the book. You should at least try it if you’re interested.

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