Thursday, September 17, 2015

Elmore & George

Elmore Leonard & George V. Higgins, Toronto, Oct. 1990

IT USED TO BE SO MUCH EASIER TO PHOTOGRAPH PEOPLE. The film festival is on here, and a journalist at one of the dailies has written a story complaining that the big studios and their publicists have made access to stars and celebrities harder than ever, leaving writers covering the event to churn out "regurgitated wire copy and 'hot take' write-arounds."

"Readers," he despairs, "are left with one big echo chamber."

This is old news to me, frankly, and one of the reasons why I stopped covering the film festival years ago, after twenty-five years of almost non-stop accreditation. It reminded me, however, that it used to be a lot easier in general to show up with a camera and take pictures of people, if you didn't mind working in somewhat ad hoc circumstances and could summon up just enough charm to get a friendly publicist on your side.

These photos are a quarter century old, and were taken at the International Festival of Authors here in Toronto, back when it was still the more humbly-named Festival of Authors. I'd had some success there the previous year just showing up with a camera and some tenuous affiliation with Nerve magazine, then on its last legs.

I had the backing of NOW magazine this time, and ended up walking away with portraits of writers like Fay Weldon, Marianne Wiggins (then still married to fatwa-cursed and in-hiding Salman Rushdie,) Edmund Wilson, Carolyn Cassady (more on her next week) and Richard Ford. The big catch for me, though, was Elmore Leonard, whose very popular mystery novels I'd been reading in the midst of a years-long hard-boiled pulp binge.

Elmore Leonard, Toronto, Oct. 1990

Leonard was already famous thanks to movie adaptations of his books like Mr. Majestyk, 52 Pick-Up and Stick, and would continue to enjoy most-favored status in Hollywood with Out of Sight, Be Cool, Jackie Brown and Get Shorty. He wrote screenplays for many of these, and his books and short stories are a well to which producers continue to return.

When I arrived at Leonard's hotel room, the publicist took me aside and offered me a "two-fer;" Leonard was a big fan of writer George V. Higgins, also appearing at the festival, and they'd met for the first time that day. They were planning on heading out to a bar to deepen their acquaintance, but if I wanted I could shoot the two of them together. Why would I say no?

I didn't now much about Higgins. He was considered a "writer's writer," whose only movie adaptation so far was the incredibly bleak The Friends of Eddie Coyle starring Robert Mitchum. He had been a lawyer, newspaper columnist and U.S. attorney in his home state of Massachusetts. His books were a reflection of this - hard, cynical, often grimy depictions of life among crooks, hacks and politicians in and around Boston. I figured I could bluff my way through a photo shoot, however, and after all who really cares what a photographer thinks?

George V. Higgins, Toronto, Oct. 1990

The whole shoot was done in "Anton light," with the 35mm lens on my Nikon F3 fully open and the film pushed at least a stop. This was fine for the individual portraits but I was never able to get both men in perfect focus in the same frame. The individual portrait of Leonard ran in NOW and ended up in my portfolio for a while, but this is probably the first time anyone has seen the shots I took of Higgins, with or without his new friend.

Both Leonard and Higgins were known as great writers of realistic dialogue; both men let their characters' words advance the action and define their personalities and motivations more than omniscient third-person description, and Leonard's talent for it was probably one of the reasons why he was such a favorite of moviemakers. It was the kind of critical note that people used to share with each other back in what looks today like the waning years of mass middlebrow literary culture.

Elmore Leonard & George V. Higgins, Toronto, Oct. 1990

If you've ever had to transcribe dialogue or interview tapes you'll know, of course, that it was a ridiculous statement. Except for rare exceptions, not a lot of people speak in complete sentences or coherent paragraphs, and most everyday speech is full of wasted syllables and verbal tics that don't conform to meter or indicate much beyond unformed thoughts fighting to take shape.

Which is why dialogue written by "masters" like Leonard or Higgins is really as composed as a sonnet, where the little details that seem realistic are more like a wall painted to look distressed or a trompe l'oeil crack. Like this, taken (almost) at random from A Choice of Enemies, Higgins' 1984 novel about political corruption in the Massachusetts state legislature:
 "Never mind the bullshit, Bernie," Costello said. "Never mind trying to blow smoke at me like you had some rookie on your hands that you could just intimidate. We go back a long way, my friend, and I know most of your tricks by now. Don't surprise me any more when the little car stops in the circus and the forty clowns pile out of it. I know about the trapdoor in the floor." 
"Okay," Morgan said, resting his chin on his hands, "make your speech."
This sort of dialogue sounds right coming from the men you imagine in Higgins' story - with their wide-lapeled suit jackets and neat sideburns and the collar-length hair they're still not used to and will be grateful to trim back when styles change again. Today, of course, we'd have to make a powerful henchman like Francis X. Costello choose his words more carefully, out of habit and with the knowledge that even a political bullyboy needs to sound like a sensitive bureaucrat attuned to the many bruised sensitivities of constituents and the inquisitional ears of the media.

Let's not even talk about all the "likes" and "you knows" and other tentative weasel words and verbal flotsam that an author would even have to insert judiciously into the dialogue of characters in their thirties and forties to give some sense of verisimilitude with the contemporary. For books that will likely sell a fraction of what the average name writer at the Festival of Authors would have expected twenty-five years ago. It was a different time.

George V. Higgins died in Milton, Massachusetts on November 6, 1999.

Elmore Leonard died in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan on August 20, 2013.

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