One of the main reasons I shy away from calling my book-related posts “reviews” is that, often, I prefer to take one or two aspects of a book to riff on rather than analyze its entire contents, style, and merits. Today’s notes actually riff on two books as you will read below, but one more so than the other.
A while ago, I read Syd Field’s classic book, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, for his ideas on visual storytelling, nonlinear storytelling, story structure, and other cinematic techniques — all of which can, of course, work effectively in the textual medium also. And, although this is not a recent book, I found much to learn from Field’s suggestions on how to view and appreciate movie scenes.
On the topic of scene-creation, Field offers a piece of advice that, while we see it often enough on screen, we don’t always register consciously as a character, scene, or plot mechanism. Here it is (and yes, I have an older edition, as you might tell from the movie examples, but that does not take away from the “lesson”):
Actors often play “against the grain” of a scene; that is, they approach the scene not from the obvious approach but the unobvious approach. For example, they’ll play an “angry” scene smiling softly, hiding their rage or anger beneath a facade of niceness. Brando is a master at this.
In Silver Streak, Colin Higgins writes a love scene between Jill Clayburgh and Gene Wilder in which they talk about flowers! It’s beautiful. Orson Welles, in the Lady from Shanghai, had a love scene with Rita Hayworth in an aquarium, in front of the sharks and barracudas.
When you’re writing a scene, look for a way that dramatizes the scene “against the grain.”
[Source: Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, 1994 edition, Syd Field]
My book notes today are related specifically to this technique of going “against the grain” using Peter Carey’s 1988 Booker-winning ‘Oscar and Lucinda‘ as an example. I have loved this novel since I first read it and still dip into my favorite bits from time to time.
First off, given their 19th-century upbringing, both the main characters — the gambling Anglican minister and a teenage gambling heiress — are misfits and, therefore, fairly “against the grain” anyway. They meet on a boat to Australia under odd circumstances and eventually decide to build a glass church together and take it across the Outback.
There are many scenes where Carey goes against the grain and delivers surprising twists and angles to draw us to his wonderfully wicked world and richly-interesting characters. When I searched out and listened to him read this particular scene in a September 2003 BBC World Book Club podcast, it immediately made me think of Syd Field’s advice above.
The scene is set in Lucinda’s glassworks factory, where she has taken Oscar to show him how she runs it, something women did not do then. The men, her employees, show him automatic deference and even share with him a camaraderie they have withheld from her.
Overcome by this observation, she rushes to her office. Oscar follows her, finds her in tears, and tries to awkwardly comfort her. He also tells her that he has found the glass-making process very beautiful.
With her vulnerability and this new private moment between them, she shows him her secret plan to build a glass house. When he sees the prototype, it is a near-religious moment for him — he sees a glass church filled with light and symbolizing the soul or eternal spirit.
The dialogue next is the beautiful clincher. Of all the ways that Carey could have shown his characters falling in love, this is different, unexpected and yet, feels so right.
“Oh dear,” he said, “oh dearie me.”
When he turned towards her, Lucinda saw his face had gone pink. His mouth had become quite small, as if the thing which made him smile was a sherbet sweetmeat that must be sucked in secret.
He said: “I am most extraordinarily happy.”
This statement made him appear straighter, taller. His hair was on fire around the edges.
She felt a pleasant prickling along the back of her neck. She thought: This is dangerous territory you are in.
He was light, not substantial. He stood before her scratching his head and grinning and she was grinning back.
“You have made a kennel for God’s angels.”
Whoa, she thought.
She thought: this is how the Devil looks, with a sweet heart-shaped face and violinist’s hands.
“I know God’s angels do not inhabit kennels.” He stepped into the room (she followed him) and crouched beside the tiny glass-house. It was six foot long with all its walls and roof of glass, the floor alone in timber. “But if they did, this surely is the kennel they would demand.”
“Please,” she said.
“But there is nothing irreligious,” he said, “How could we have a sense of humor if our Lord did not?”
She smiled. She thought: Oh dear.
“Do you not imagine,” he said, “that our Lord laughs together with his angels?”
She thought: I am in love. How extraordinary.
[Source: Oscar and Lucinda, Peter Carey]
This is but a snippet of the entire scene, which has several complex layers. It is also a pivotal scene in more than one way, as the main point is not so much that these two are in love and she is just realizing it, but that they are both also in love with the strange glass building, which later does become a church.
Likely, Carey had many choices regarding how to dramatize the meeting of their minds, finally, over this single mission of building a glass church. He also had many opportunities, through their many interactions in the story, to show them falling in love. That he put all these aspects together into a single, key scene is, to me, breathtakingly beautiful.
Also, letting us into Lucinda’s thoughts here shows how conflicted she is about Oscar — seeing him, despite his religious vocation, as evil yet falling in love. There is much more about this scene — the subtext, the foreshadowing, etc., and I might write more about it another time.
There is a 1997 movie version directed by Gillian Armstrong and starring Cate Blanchett, Ralph Fiennes, Ciarán Hinds and Tom Wilkinson. And, though it has won several nominations and awards, I highly recommend reading Carey’s book first for his beautiful prose and complex, layered scenes like the one above.
Let me end with yet another terrific bit from the book:
She kept her glass dreams from him, even whilst she appeared to talk about them. He was an admiring listener, but she only showed him the opaque skin of her dreams–window glass, the price of transporting it, the difficulties with builders who would not pay their bills inside six months. He imagined this was her business, and of course it was, but all the things she spoke of were a fog across its landscape which was filled with such soaring mountains she would be embarrassed to lay claim to them. Her true ambition, the one she would not confess to him, was to build something Extraordinary and Fine from glass and cast iron. A conservatory, but not a conservatory. Glass laced with steel, spun like a spider web–the idea danced around the periphery of her vision, never long enough to be clear. When she attempted to make a sketch, it became diminished, wooden, inelegant. Sometimes, in her dreams, she felt she had discovered its form, but if she had, it was like an improperly fixed photograph which fades when exposed to daylight. She was wise enough, or foolish enough, to believe this did not matter, that the form would present itself to her in the end.”