Distressed Canvas

April 17th, 2012

First, thanks to all who participated in the 13/13 giveaway. It was very, very successful — at this point, we’ve had 22,000 downloads of THE FOUR LAST THINGS and all the other Simeons are selling much better.  Second, something I just read has captured my attention.

It’s Michael Ondaatje’s masterful series of interviews with film editor/director Walter Murch, who edited all three parts of “The Godfather,” “The English Patient,” “The Conversation,” “Apocalypse Now,” “American Graffiti,” and many more.

They met when Murch was editing “The English Patient,” which of course was based on Ondaatje’s novel.  One of the first things Ondaatje noticed about the edit when he saw the film after the soundtrack had been mixed was a moment when The Patient bit into a plum and there was the chime, barely audible, of a distant bell.  (This part of the film is set in Italy, where the landscape is especially rich in church bells.)  A moment later, The Patient begins to remember a bit of what has happened to him

When Ondaatje asked Murch about it, Murch was very pleased that the bell had registered.  The bell, he said, takes over from the taste of the plum as the catalyst for the memory; and also, in a film that up until now has been filled with the sounds of battle, it’s “the first positive sound of human civilization.”

Gee, I thought, that’s a lot like writing.

And the book turns out to be absolutely jammed with things that writers will respond to — even beyond the obvious ones, such as story structure, scene pacing, directing the viewer’s/reader’s eye, patterns of light and dark, and on and on and on.  Murch is a remarkable man, as is Ondaatje, and I love this book.

Walter Murch, “Violin,” 1952

One thing that especially appeals to me is one of Murch’s memories of his father, also named Walter, who was a well-known painter.  Before Murch Senior would put paint on a canvas, he would let life “distress” it:  he’d carpet the hallway of their New York apartment with blank canvases “for weeks at a time.  The life of the apartment, with cats and people and kids, would just continue.  People would be tramping back and forth on the canvases, accidents would happen, things would get spilled on them.”

Then Murch Senior would search the canvases for the most interesting section of “distress,” which is the word Ondaatje suggests, and “Then he’d put that canvas up on the easel and on top of that he’d paint these realistic still lifes.  But somehow the ghost of those random events would work their way into the objects.  He called those distress marks “hooks.”  A canvas for him, without that distress was a canvas with no hooks on it, and without them the image was in danger of simply sliding off the canvas.”

This made me literally sit up.

It seems to me to be analogous to a writer’s need to find an area of distress within him/herself, and make sure that distress works its way into whatever is being written.  Obviously, “distress” isn’t used in the emotional sense (although it could be), but more in the sense of something that’s been marred, faded, roughed up.  It seems to me that a book needs to have some personal distress, in that sense, woven into it, or the words will be in danger of sliding off the page.  It’s those hooks, often, that turn a narrative personal, that suggest to the reader that there’s something more at work than a facile intelligence.

Anyway, I suggest to any writer whose imagination is engaged by anything in this piece — take a look at this book.

10 Responses to “Distressed Canvas”

  1. M.M. Gornell Says:

    Thanks, Timothy, for bringing Walter Murch to me–would not have known about him otherwise, and this post and his ideas are very interesting. A book definitely on my list.


  2. Dana King Says:

    Interesting that a painter would come up with the idea of “distress” for his canvases. There are a lot of ways writers can interpret and incorporate this idea.


  3. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    I can’t imagine any writing that doesn’t engage the “distressed” part of of the writer’s imagination. It’s the messiness that gives the book emotional life which to me is necessary to make the book moving, and personal, and human.

  4. Sheri Says:

    Intriguing post, Tim. I loved both Ondaatjet’s book THE ENGLISH PATIENT and the movie. Very interested to check out this recommendation.

  5. EverettK Says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful (in the sense of YOU thinking, and then causing ME to think) column!

    Re: distress… It seems that in many aspects of human experience and nature in general, it’s the imperfections in otherwise perfect composition that makes things REALLY interesting.

  6. Suzanna Says:

    First of all, congratulations on the THE FOUR LAST THINGS downloads, and the boost in sales to your other Simeon books.

    I love the Murch, Sr. story about how he went about scruffing up his canvases to give him “hooks” to work with well before he loaded up his brush with paint.

    Makes me curious to learn what other artists have used to help them feel “hooked” in their work, or more involved with the materials they use.

    Sounds like a really cool book. Thanks for sharing what you liked about it.

  7. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, all — glad you like this. I’ve been devouring this book for weeks, and every time I open it I find something elss.

    Soozie, thanx for the congrats. I can’t answer for other artists, but the old metaphor of the grain of sand and the pearl still holds for me — there has to be something to rub against, something to wrap the story and characters around or it can get just clever and facile. Might be anger or love or pity or fear, but if you’re not building story around something you actually feel, it’s probably a technical exercise.

    Everett, thanks for the thanks — I know you’re not particularly loose with those. Agree that perfection can be stunning but is eventually boring, while imperfection is human. One of the problems with the French classical dramatists was that everything was overperfect.

    Sheri, thanks for dropping by. This is a fascinating book — both guys are really smart and also deeply engaged.

    Lil, I’m with you syllable by syllable. Messy (up to a point, of course, before it verges into carelessness and then sloppiness and then formlessness) is good.

    Dana, you manage very complex narratives, and one of the things that makes your books so interesting is the potential for them to spin out of control — for the distress to dominate rather than shape and influence. But it doesn’t happen.

    Thank, Madeline – great to have you come by. I’m sure you’re going to enjoy the book. Ir may actually be one of those that benefits from being opened at random about 50 times before being read straight through.

  8. Usman Says:

    Hello Evryone,

    Congratulations Tim on the downloads. I missed out, of course. And Tim thanks for giving me a call on FB.
    I guess part of perfection, for a writer, is to allow things to stand; not polish a script till he kills it; to be imperfect is not the opposite but a complement to perfection.
    I stop here. This is getting complicated.
    See y’all on a regular basis.

  9. Larissa Says:

    I will definitely take a look at this! And congrats on all the wonderful news/sales on the books! (c: Glad to hear things are goin’ well for you-now to go get caught up on all your posts! (c:

  10. Tom Hill Says:

    Think about learning and distress. Watch Slumdog Millionare and notice what is happening to our hero whenever he learns something critical to his later success.

    Thank you for the excellent books, discussion and the community of thought you have created.

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