Posted by: zhiv | September 24, 2008

Is “Disturbing the Peace” a classic ‘Hollywood novel’?

When I wrote about Disturbing the Peace last week I crammed discussion of the “movie stuff” in the book into a single paragraph that really just scratches the surface, and then over the last few days the Revolutionary Road trailer and Mad Men considerations have kicked in.  I’m not going to be able to cover all of the different strands, and I’m proably even more scattered than usual, but I thought that I might try to dig a little more deeply into the topic of Yates and the movies.

Disturbing the Peace is undoubtedly about many different things, including Yates’s familiar examinations of marriage and infidelity, and advertising and buying and selling the American dream.  But more than any of that, it’s about two things, which eventually become closely related:  going crazy, and the business of making movies.  The book is an amazing rendition of instability and mental illness.  It also manages to connect insanity and the phenomenon of the nervous breakdown to movie making, fictionalization, and self-representation in all sorts of interesting ways.  But for the moment let’s leave crazy out of it, for the most part, and try to focus solely on the second big part of the novel’s concerns, movies and the movie business.

John Wilder and his girlfriend Pamela Hendricks bond over their love of movies, as I mentioned in the previous post.  I should probably take the time to look more closely at the passages that discuss how Wilder wanted to work in the movie business, and his discovery that Pamela shares the same dream.  There’s very good stuff in that, and it’s something I could probably consider in some depth, seeing as how it’s kind of my own actual nebulous job description and so-called career path.  But I don’t think I’m quite ready to go there, at least not yet. Instead I’ll stop to mention that the novel is filled with writers and directors and producers.  The very first one–and I believe this is the scene that leads to Wilder’s original mention that he wanted to be in the movie business–is Bill Costello, his first sponsor in AA.  And I will note that I think I said somewhere that while Easter Parade has a few elements that might be superior to Revolutionary Road, the latter’s universality and prescience clearly give it the nod, for me at least.  The shocking prescience in RevRoad is the computer business and marketing model, astonishing for 1961, but Yates did work at Remington Rand and he was no dummy, after all.  The prescience in DtP is of a more qualified sort, just that little bit about an AA sponsor triggering a quixotic journey into the movie business.  The simplest version of the prescience issue is that it might well be found in the role of AA in the novel, and Brink’s drug therapy might be thrown in there as well.  The fact is that Yates, writing in the early and mid-70s about the early and mid-60s, gets these things exactly right, and they ring absolutely true not just to the way we live today, but to the daily round of meetings and medication in Hollywood.  But again, just as he was no dummy when he worked at Remington Rand, he was an incredibly sophisticated drunk and manic-depressive as well.

But that’s all a brief aside.  Writers, directors, and producers:  first there’s Bill Costello, who makes a very quirky meta-appearance as Chester Pratt’s sponsor at the very end of the book:  not sure what to make of that.  Then there are Pamela’s friends, specifically the writer and director of the first, indie version of the Bellevue film.  Then, just to move down the list, there are of course a number of characters who appear when Wilder and Pamela move out to LA.  The memorable ones–without the book in front of me–are the low-budget producer (based on Roger Corman, who Yates worked with) who is their only contact on arrival, and then they meet the “Real Producer” in Malibu, who actually gets development going on the movie.  The Malibu experience is evidently based on Yates’s work with John Frankenheimer on Lie Down in Darkness.  Frankenheimer lived in Malibu, and one of the more evocative details in Bailey’s biography is when he mentions how Yates somehow managed to find one of his accustomed dank, unhealthy studio aprtments even when he was living a few hundred yards way from the beach in California.  Then there’s the writer who pitches the bad version of the movie.  Chester Pratt comes in just after this.  And I’m forgetting a couple of others I think.

These are notes to guide my further exploration, but the big thing is that Yates gets it right.  The tone and feel of the Hollywood process, meetings where a range of characters discuss how to make a story work for a film, the compromises and transient artistic goals, the analysis of characters and episodes, and the discussion od the relative merits of different writers and their ability to compose a viable script, it’s all completely authentic and accurate.  Yates captures it all with an inerring facility, making it seem breezy and insubstantial, when hitting the mark in this case is shockingly difficult.  It’s all too easy to lapse into parody, and all of the Hollywood characters could become a worthless joke in an instant.  But they’re all carefully motivated and just real enough, and the comedy is dark and bitter, playful with the concept of self-parody and Hollywood absurdity in an extremely sophisticated way.  Part of the key to it and perhaps the secret of Yates’s approach is the way he captures the underbelly of the process, sustaining the slender hope of making a viable contact, the disappointment, the endless empty waiting and slow drip of ‘development” or progress.  The portrayal of Wilder and Pamela in a cheap room with empty hours, days, and weeks to fill creates the realistic backdrop for the fleeting, decisive, and chaotic meetings that determine their fate.  Yates didn’t merely use his own Hollywood sojourn to recreate the absurdity and futility of the vast beehive of hopeful fimmakers in Los Angeles, he managed to convey the precarious despair and isolation that goes along with it, which he must have experienced.  The joke is on all of us, and it isn’t particularly funny.

This view of the book, and following this line after considering it for awhile now, makes me think that DtP is actually something of a small, accessible classic in the genre of novels about the movies.  It’s easy to miss this–I know I did–because the novel is so easily branded as a study of mental breakdowns and mental illness, and the actual Los Angeles experience is tidily contained in the third act.   And it’s not even so easy to conceive of the genre of the “Hollywood novel” apparently–a little research shows that it was first explored thoroughly in novelist Carolyn See’s unpublished PhD dissertation at UCLA in 1963.

One doesn’t think at first that DtP is a “Hollywood novel,” and it’s necessary to read it backwards to discover this intention.  A handy wikipedia list–

–shows no sign of Yates, and DtP doesn’t turn up in any other light google digging.  I can’t say that I’ve read any of these standards, but I have read the one that would have mattered to Yates:  Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon.  It’s interesting to note the contrast between Fitzgerald’s hero, a brilliant young studio head based on Irving Thalberg, and John Wilder.  When Yates came to write TtP, he was no doubt mindful of Fitzgerald’s experience in Hollywood as well as his own.  It’s another safe assumption that Yates was thinking of Fitzgerald’s failure to thrive in the film business when he was working on the Styron script with Frankenheimer.  All of that was fodder for his creation of Wilder, and his decision to start his Hollywood novel with having his main character suffer a breakdown and get checked into Bellevue:  it’s an oddly appropriate, gritty beginning to a Hollywood novel.  It’s even funny, and part of the joke I suppose, that the novel has to be unpacked this diligently in order to expose this level of Yates’s intention.  Much like the way Chester Pratt is working on John Wilder’s story so that he can rekindle his talent and earn the money to write a novel, Richard Yates is writing a late career Hollywood novel in the tradition of his literary hero Fitzgerald, only it somehow seems he doesn’t want anybody to figure out that that’s what he’s doing.  Or at least he’s not going to make it easy, but that’s Yates.

I guess this is all part of the fun of blogging and the year of Yates.  I really didn’t see The Last Tycoon coming into play here, and I’ll have to look at Bailey’s analysis again and more carefully.  Anybody who wants to do the academic heavy lifting of carefully studying the genre, covering the backgrounds and making all of the connections between The Last Tycoon and DtP, feel free–and don’t forget Fitzgerald’s Pat Hobby Stories, while you’re at it–, but I’m only good for the zhiv version.  At any rate, once Leo and Kate and husband Sam have run their race, perhaps Disturbing the Peace might even slip onto a syllabus or two.

And I had also wanted to write about the first film version of Wilder’s story, the independent movie made at Pamela’s college.  It’s an intriguing thought that, in the world of the novel, a version of Wilder’s Bellevue story was actually made but never finished.  The footage is out there.  This sequence of events shows, amongst so many other things, Yates’s sophistication and understanding of the movie business.  The novel contains a completely accurate depiction of the different worlds of amateur, semi-pro, and minor- and major league filmmaking, and it’s a perfect rendition of the complex process of how movies don’t get made.  Yates performs all sorts of felicitous narrative tricks in the section where Pamela and her friends are making an independent, microbudget, verite version of Wilder’s story.  Its purity and honesty is ultimately merely quaint, a stepping stone for the ambitious writer and director.  But Yates also manages to show the extreme effects of genuine authority in cinematic storytelling on a narcissistic borderline personality:  it’s all much too much, the delusion is too real and brought too close, and Wilder cracks.  And then it finishes with another strange thing about movie production:  you can shoot the whole thing, and it’s still not a film.  The fact that the director never finishes the editing and the music, that he gets busy and moves on with his career, is a brilliant stroke by Yates.  We think that it’s improbable that the film is being shot at all, but the fact that it is left as forgotten, meaningless footage is a bit of masterful storytelling, especially when his involvement in the production of the film has been so powerful that it had driven Wilder over the edge.  And then, even better, with the independent version unfinished, the delusion of telling the story on a bigger, more professional canvas is able to come to life and plausibly tighten its grip a hundredfold.

As KCJ has pointed out, the unfinished first film and the subsequent Hollywood development process provide a rich commentary on Yates’s own vain hopes over the years that Revolutionary Road would be made into a film.  If the starting point of the composition of RevRoad was the climactic abortion, it’s not amiss to read DtP as the abortion of a creative idea, the failure of the business and the medium of cinema as a viable form of expression.  It makes Wilder insane, resigned, and institutionalized, while Chester Pratt hopes to get by and remain unaffected, a simple artisan.  Yates needed to lock away the part of himself that cared and was hopeful about the creative possibilities of film, the man who worked on the Styron screenplay that would never get made, who was replaced on Bridge at Remagen, whose brilliant, perfectly filmic novel could never get going.  The dream of a high profile film with movie stars and a brilliant director was too real, the stuff of madness, as Yates drove aimlessly through the streets of Los Angeles, stumbled in and out of bars, and suffered his own LA breakdown and UCLA hospital session.  It’s all proably better this way, the acclaim and the glitz and fame and Mary Hart all coming around in relatively short order after his death.  This is how it worked out for Fitzgerald, and Yates must have seen that this is how it would be.  The resignation allowed him to write this powerful book, perhaps a classic in its genre, and use it as a springboard to a productive later phase in his career.  Publishing Revolutionary Road had provided more fame and recognition than he could handle, and it ultimately prompted the real version of the rude Bellevue awakening in the first place.  For some of the more sensitive creative types, movies and their elaborate apparatus are just much too much.  Not everybody can handle the bright lights with the steady aplomb of Mary Hart


  1. In total agreement, as usual. I want to comment on so much of this but have got to do some work now. Just to say I have managed to weave the Pat Hobby stories and The Last Tycoon into my work but not quite as skilfully as you have here. I realise i am in danger of seeming like a real zhiv sycophant so I will say no more.

  2. KCJ–accepting no more apologies from you–just happy that you’re reading and enjoying the thoughts. That I make any sense at all to anybody is really quite a wonder. Great to hear that you had talked about the Fitzgerald books. I would be really curious to reread the Pat Hobby stories. It has been an extremely long time.

    The funny thing is that the “Hollywood novel” element is so obvious, but I completely missed it, and I was so surprised that it took me so much work to get there. First I read DtP as a story of mental illness, partly on your suggestion. Then I personalized all of the movie stuff, thinking in vague terms of its interest to me, and then I made the Yates-Fitzgerald connection… and then it was just so obvious, as I said, and I felt brilliant and idiotic both at once. But I do wonder if others have made the same mistake, and if this has been another reason to ignore Yates–one of many.

    I read the Dewitt Henry review of the novel (from 1976), off the old website link, and found it to be complex and deeply insightful, really remarkable for a contemporary review, and very suggestive of the novel’s depth and power. It discusses the novel on its own terms, and doesn’t mention the “Hollywood novel” genre. I think at the time, Yates might have liked to see some comparisons to The Last Tycoon, What Makes Sammy Run, or Play It As It Lays–and I believe he was friends with Didion, right? and thought her more talented than her husband. Wonder what she thought of the book.

  3. I’ve just re read this piece and enjoyed your thoughts, again, so much. I had thought Didion spoke at the memorail service but I was wrong about that. No mention in Bailey’s book about what she thought about DtP. which is a pity. I’ll ask BB myself!

    I hadn’t considered Yates being unable to cope with success – interesting idea and probably right.
    What you say about Hollywood, given your own work, is so interesting. Again, there are details in his work that, unless, like you, (what do you do) you share the environment and culture, you miss how utterly authentic they are. I was particularly struck by what you said about the film being made but never shown, again something I’d glossed over…..All that work over Lie Down in Darkness and all so close to realisation as a film. But of course it wasn’t just that; for Yates the difference wasn’t just about whether the film stayed on a shelf or got shown but was about money, recognition and status or near total obscurity continuing.

  4. […] one thing she shouldn’t write, a story about writing scripts. It’s interesting that the Hollywood Novel is a separate and seemingly acceptable pursuit, one form commenting on another. Literature and […]

  5. […] want to know more about the Hollywood Novel. I had an interest and read a few at one point, getting a sense of the main titles and developing a […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: