I grew up in the bookselling industry and watched our little hamlets of civil sanctuaries grow into unrecognizable behemoths and eventually explode into, literally, digital bits. But one constant remains. No matter how many tons of books are loaded onto our shelves, no matter how many new ebooks flood our devices, there is only a small percentage of books worth reading each year. As George Orwell noted in 1946 (he was trying to make ends meet by reviewing books), “Until one has some kind of professional relationship with books one does not discover how bad the majority of them are. In much more than nine cases out of 10 the only objectively truthful criticism would be, ‘This book is worthless.’”
Thus witness my last film review, in league with Pauline Kael, quoted shortly before her death and rather late to the game: “When we championed trash culture we had no idea it would become the only culture.”
Behold “Zack And Miri Make A Porno.” Really, that’s the title. It’s a film told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing … but first a word from the author:
“Through the fence I could see them hitting” I said. I knew the quote wasn’t right, but it was close. My buddy on the other side of the green didn’t quite hear. “Faulkner!” I yelled. “The Sound and the Fury! The opening scene of the book. Right here!” He shrugged.
My Faulkner moment hit on a country golf course not more than a morning’s drive north of Oxford, Mississippi. Groping for a lost ball in the thick stuff behind the seventh green I noticed the ground sloped away to the edge of the property and ended at a tarred one-lane road. Separating me from this seldom-used rural route was a three-strand barbed wire fence supported by twisted boughs. A pasture lay beyond the fence and then more woods. I actually gasped. “Through the fence I could see them hitting.” William Faulkner thinks of a phrase to start a novel and over eighty years later a man recalls the words with a peaceful joy. If I remember correctly, he was advanced around two hundred dollars for the novel.
I was thinking of that moment on the seventh green, and what Faulkner meant to me, let alone the world, as the new Kevin Smith film, “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” played out on the screen. It took over 150 people to make the film, and they spent 24 million dollars to do so. Will a single person a single year from now recall the plot, or even the film?
Apples and oranges, of course, and I’ll guess that Kevin Smith would be the last person on earth to compare himself to Faulkner. Truly, I have nothing against Smith; if someone wants to give him 24 million to make a forgettable film for quick profits, so be it. I’d probably have a hard time turning it down too. But there’s the rub, you take personal responsibility for getting yourself in a position to make those choices. Yes, no one is going to give me 24 million to make a movie centered on pornography and poop jokes, and boy am I glad.
I guess the main difference between Kevin Smith and William Faulkner (did you think you’d ever see those two names in the same sentence?) is that William Faulkner, who also grabbed for the brass ring of Hollywood, was unable to play the game and went back to writing novels, and thus eventually win the Nobel Prize. Kevin Smith, on the other hand, is one who has done everything in his power to stay in the game and seems to enjoy wallowing in the sludge; his constant “who me?” facial expression seems to always have that look of childlike dismay that anyone would flock to his films. Kevin Smith knows he makes trash and celebrates it. As for Faulkner, Hollywood almost killed his soul.
I humbly disagree with Pauline Kael when she said, “When we championed trash culture…” That gives us a lot of credit. Too much credit. A quick look at the bestseller lists of Faulkner’s day, or a look at the top box office films of any year, proves no one group or age championed anything any different than anyone else. We Americans have always championed the sappy dramas, the cheap horrors, the unbelievable serials, the same old same old same old.
Maybe that’s why standing on a country golf course eighty years after Bill took pen to paper gives a grown man goosebumps. Because the chain of events that enabled his words to find an audience is such an absolute miracle.