Sunday, March 01, 2009

When Big Ideas Waltz In

I’ve been trying to think -- I’ve been trying to remember -- when the book that has become Death Was in the Picture first walked into my head. It actually distresses me a bit, but I can’t. Sometimes it’s like that for me. So many pieces have to come together -- so many little bits have to coalesce -- before I realize that this and this and this idea together will make a book; will have enough power to be a book. That makes it occasionally difficult to isolate the first thought: the single idea that led me down that garden path.

It might have been when I was first reading about the Hays Code -- the Production Code -- and this part waltzed into my brain and took hold:
Motion pictures are very important as ART.

Though a new art, possibly a combination art, it has the same object as the other arts, the presentation of human thought, emotion, and experience, in terms of an appeal to the soul through the senses.


Here, as in entertainment,
Art enters intimately into the lives of human beings.

Art can be morally good, lifting men to higher levels. This has been done through good music, great painting, authentic fiction, poetry, drama.


Art can be morally evil in its effects. This is the case clearly enough with unclean art, indecent books, suggestive drama. The effect on the lives of men and women are obvious.
When I read that, it just struck me that there was more going on here than met the eye. There’s a poetry in these lines, in a way. Though, viewed from a certain angle, it’s an evil, potentially destructive poetry. It occurred to me then that though the document had an anonymous quality, it had clearly been created by a single, passionate and somewhat talented hand.

It didn’t take much digging to discover I was right: the first draft of the Production Code was written by Daniel A. Lord, a charismatic priest who -- probably not at all coincidentally -- had worked as a consultant with Cecille B. DeMille in 1927 on King of Kings.

And Hollywood at the time was crazy. Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan? That’s baby style celebrity high jinks compared to some of the stuff that was going on in the 1920s. Here was this relatively new art form that was being pushed to its limits (as, arguably, new art forms should be). More: it was the very end of the jazz age. There were whole segments of the culture that had been deeply touched -- financially and emotionally -- by the excesses of the 1920s. In an emotional and financial culture of anything goes, the studios were untouchable. Had been untouchable. In the 1920s, there had been some studio scandals -- morality scandals -- and various church organizations were struggling to make the studios tow the line. The studios didn’t have to, though. They were making so much money, they could just buy enough people to make it all go away. And no one had a big enough stick.

But then the crash of 1929 and everything changes -- begins to change -- practically overnight. And one of the things that people cut back on? You guessed it: going to movies. So now the churches have their stick. They tell the studios: change or we’re going to have our ministers tell their flocks in small towns all over the country not to go to the movies. And the studios? They begin to listen. It takes them a while, but they come around.

And nothing is ever the same.

So, OK: here’s how my brain works. All of this I’ve just told you? All of this is fact. Well, fact and a few extrapolations based on extensive research. (Mine.) But while I’m doing that research -- and almost as soon as I start doing it? A story starts to dance. I can see Daniel Lord’s face. I can see the what-might-have-beens. The thugs that might have been hired. The accidents -- and “accidents” -- that might have happened. The tears that would have then been shed. And suddenly I’m sitting here two or whatever years after I began and I’d have a hard time telling you what came from research and what just danced into my head, because it’s all just as real to me.

Here’s the thing though: the facts as written down are what we know. The victor writes history, right? And that’s not just true in wars. Even when you read history -- read it with a certain eye and heart -- things become apparent. You start to see the places where cracks have broken open and stuff has fallen through. Or maybe it has. Or maybe is has not. And that, I guess, is the place stories begin.

Is Death Was in the Picture a true representation of things as they happened? Well, trueish, okay? Some of the things are historically accurate. And some are not, but are representations of what I either believe happened or could have happened. The book is not meant to be taken precisely at face value. Rather it’s meant to be fuel to the fire. I’d be happiest if you told me it made you ask “What if?”

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