Friday, November 20, 2009

Riding West With Cormac McCarthy


ONE of the least likely success stories in recent years is the rise of Cormac McCarthy -- the reclusive, thesaurus-clutching author of unfashionable, hyper-violent Southern Gothic, who became the equally reclusive author of unfashionable Western novels of cowboy-myth.

But with "All the Pretty Horses," McCarthy became a literary superstar, with the critical and cinematic success of "No Country For Old Men" he became canonized in the academy, and with "The Road" he becomes one of the hottest properties in Hollywood.

Here is my LATimes story, which runs Sunday. I spoke to a UCLA scholar, the screenwriter and producer of "The Road," and Billy Bob Thornton, who directed the first McCarthy adaptation and wishes the world could see the film the way he shot it.

Screenwriter Joe Penhall, a playwright and former music journalist, was especially eloquent, talking about the novel's similarities to "Waiting for Godot," his interest in expanding the role of the wife/mother character, and the resonance between McCarthy's vision of the wilderness with the Australian tradition. (Both he and director John Hillcoat grew up there.)

"It's all about the elements, the landscape and pioneering endeavors," Penhall told me of McCarthy's work. "And man's endless struggle with the landscape, what it does to his psyche and his corporal existence. It's part of both nation's [Australia, U.S] mythologies. The countryside in Britain is the bosom, where you run in times of danger." In the American and Aussie tradition, "it's a place of tremendous, danger, despair and challenge."

For an experience of danger, despair and challenge, check out what they did with "The Road," which opens next Wednesday and which I found powerful and harrowing.

11 comments:

Dave Carner said...

I think your article too conveniently creates the conceit of a 'derivative Southern author' vs 'unique American treasure' in Cormac McCarthy seeing as it doesn’t make a single mention of Suttree.

It is, arguably, his transition piece, and is harder to quantify than anything he'd written before. But to suggest that it took McCarthy leaving a Southern setting to write deeper, more accessible fiction does a disservice to an incredible book.

I've always thought it stands up as his best, cover to cover, against any of the Western books (not that I dislike them). But I'm in the Deep South and you're in the Far West, so perhaps this is just run of the mill counter-regionalism.

Regardless, I'm looking forward to the film. If you want to see this circle coming back around start looking into the film 'Province's of Night', now in post production, based on the novel by William Gay. The title is a line from McCarthy and Gay, significant in his own right as far as contemporary Southern authors go, owes a lot to him.

Scott Timberg said...

I don't disagree re Suttree -- that novel, which i've not read, one of his best-regarded. wanted to get it in. but as with any piece, i had a word count and because it's not been adapted (or optioned as far as i know) it was very hard to.
In a piece like this, mostly focused on film, I'm afraid such subtleties very hard to render. But we can say that whatever the virtues of his southern novels -- which again, real southern writers like warren respected -- he did not hit a broader critical or popular following until he moved west. I like both traditions, but CMcC struck gold out here.

friday said...

great piece in the Times this morning.

jpillow said...

Damn good article Scott. Just read it on the LA Times' website. If The Road is even 1/4 as good as the book, it'll be awesome--though I must say it blows my mind a book such as this (or No Country for Old Men) was ever picked up by Hollywood.

I'll be interested to see how Blood Meridian turns out as well once that hits the screen. That book is hellaviolent from start to finish.

Jeffrey Pillow

Scott Timberg said...

Thanks for your kind words folks, and yes, still a bit baffled by fact that McCarthy has become such a hot property... The Road film is about as good as can be imagined... Blood Meridian strike me as harder to make, as McCarthy and others have pointed out.

dan said...

scott,
read your LAT piece today here in Taiwan at the local email cafe print out machine, since the LA TIMES snailpaper does not arrive here at all. Great story, well done. You said the movie of the Road is "as good as can be imagined". what does that mean? I read the boook last year sitting outside at a sidewalk noodle shop in south Taiwan and i could not put book down, read all the way through several bowls of lamen, that's ramen to you. I loved the book. powerful. I am a climate activist, planning POLAR CITIES for future survivors of AGW in 2500 or so, so ROAD hit me hard. How does the movie stand up to the book? Does it make you want to go out and fight global warming or give up? Does in inspire you or grieve you? The book made me want to fight global warming future. Will the movie do the same? email me off line or here at danbloom in the gmail office

Scott Timberg said...

Dan, I find comparisons between books and movies difficult since the mediums are so entirely different. I think it's fair to say the film has its share of depression as well as inspiration -- it's certainly not explicitly political, tho neither, I don't think, was the novel.
My praise of the film comes largely because I did not think the book was an obvious movie, and certainly not a natural good movie. But this one moved me, and was full of great performances, especially by Mortensen. I'll be eager to hear what kind of responses people have to it, because in some ways it's a kind of "open text" which people can read in many different terms.

Scott Timberg said...

And to rephrase the above, I mean the novel did not seem like it wasn't obviously gonna work as a movie, so I'm really impressed it did. Would not have been easy.

dan said...

thanks, scott, for quick reply in Internet Time, across a vast ocean! Yes, true, the book was NOT about climate change, in interviews he says he wrote for his son 8 years old after dreaming of a comet strike and what that might do to Earth in future......so you are right, readers and moviegoers can interpret the book and movie any way they wish. it is NOT about global warming per se, but i see the future as exactly like this, not now, but in 500 years, and he really inspired me to keep going with my polar cities project, you can see images here: safe for work: http://pcillu101.blgospot.com

I sent the images to CM at his apt in SF, via the institute there. of course, he did not reply. SmILE, but his secretary did.

i really hope the movie will inspire people to fight global warming, but like you said, everyone has their own POV. SIGH. great book, powerful prose, can't wait to see movie. any idea when it comes to Taiwan?

dan said...

as a book it worked. well. as a movie, i want to see it, but reviews so far have been very mixed. most reax has been negative. the pre-release PR of the movie in NYTimes and LA times was great pR, about the filming of the scenes on location, but i know they had to hold movie for a year due to depressing ending and negative screening posts, but am glad it's out now. again, your article in the LAT was a very good summary of his life and work, well done, sir. I admire a man like CM very much. not concerned with money or fame. good for him, that is the way to live.

dan said...

http://pcillu101.blogspot.com

blogspot, sorry

danny, Tufts 1971, 60 years +, heart attack last week, 6 days in ICU, stent in my heart now. mending well. really want to see THE ROAD before I died.