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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, September 04, 2007


Paul's 80s Festival rolls on. Since summer 2006 we've been watching one movie from the 1980s each Saturday. This week, due to rare social engagements, we pushed movie night back two days and last night watched the 1987 romantic comedy Moonstruck starring Cher and Nicolas Cage. It was the third, maybe the fourth time we'd seen it, and, as always with the very best movies, Kimmie and I enjoyed it more this time than on any previous viewing.

The movie, excellent in every detail, stands the test of time admirably. As ever, I played close attention to the script, written by Bronx-born John Patrick Shanley. Here and there as I watched and laughed, I had that experience which I seldom feel while watching a movie: that the writing was at a higher level than what I could achieve myself--at least in that genre. I experienced the anxiety of the artist looking on superior work.

Shanley delivered the whole package: idea, story, characterization, and dialogue. The director, Canada's Norman Jewison, realized the script supremely well, showing his prowess through skillful use of the two main image systems: the moon and opera. The full moon hanging over Manhattan casts its spell over all the characters and knits together their stories. The main plot, about Loretta, a 37-year-old Italian widow played by Cher, becoming engaged to her boyfriend Johnny (Danny Aiello), whom she likes but does not love, is itself operatic. For Johnny, scurrying away to attend to his dying mother in Palermo, charges Loretta with the task of inviting Johnny's brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage) to their wedding, hoping thereby to end a years-long period of "bad blood" between the brothers. It turns out that Ronny, a baker, lost his left hand in a slicing machine when distracted by Johnny, and Ronny consequently also lost his then-girlfriend. Now, bitter and lonely, he shovels fuel into the hellish oven with his wooden hand, and carries an immense grudge.

Where another writer might have found dark drama--or an opera libretto--Shanley saw comedy. I'm reminded of something I said to Michael Conway Baker, who composed the soundtrack music for a little half-hour TV comedy that Warren and I wrote back in 1988 called "What's Wrong with Neil?", the writing of which Baker took the trouble to compliment me on at the wrap party: "A good comedy must first of all be a good drama." Baker agreed emphatically.

Moonstruck is a good drama. Hence, it's a good comedy. Loretta, shocked by the vehemence of Ronny's resentment of his brother and of his life, starts arguing with him and soon they're entwined passionately in his room above the bakery. Shanley places dazzling, even profound, insights into the mouths of his chippy blue-collar characters. Loretta, sharing some steak and whisky with Ronny in his room, observes that he, like a trapped wolf, had chewed off his own paw to escape the trap of a love that was not really for him. Many writers might have saved such gold for a big revealing moment near the climax of the movie; Shanley tosses it away while traveling through the story toward other things, a mark of great confidence and quality. He doesn't have to hoard his gold, he's got lots more. As a result, his characters quickly show great dignity and depth, even as they are peculiar and flawed people. Loretta here is revealed not only as sassy, unflappable and down-to-earth, but also insightful, concerned, and poetic.

It's very difficult to achieve writing of this quality. Indeed, I doubt that I can--a hard admission for me. Don't worry: I know I'm good. My excellence will just have to shine in other arenas.

The good news is that I get to enjoy the product of others' work, and my own background in writing lets me enjoy it at a deep level.

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