Tag Archives: movies

An open letter to Woody Allen

Dear Woody,

As regular readers of Thoughtcat (which I imagine you probably aren’t) will know, I rarely manage to discover something for myself less than about two years after everyone else has written the bible on it. In keeping with this, despite being intrigued by your movie Match Point from the time it came out two years ago (mostly because it was the first film you’d shot in London, my home city), I’ve only just managed to rent the DVD.

I’m very sorry to tell you that, far from being worth the wait, Match Point is pretty much the worst film I’ve ever seen. And that’s saying something, since I’ve seen Meet Joe Black. Match Point was the only Woody Allen film, and one of the very few films full stop, that I’ve felt had robbed me of two hours of my life. Here is a selection of my disappointments.

Firstly, London. You may as well have shot the film on the moon for all the use you made of this great and varied city. The Houses of Parliament and the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace are very nice, but you could hardly have picked more unimaginative, picture-postcard views of the place. The Saatchi Gallery was about as edgy as you got – and that’s just a bunch of pretentious, overrated arse of the sort that you used to debunk so hilariously in films like Manhattan. Even if you’d walked a few hundred yards to the South Bank Centre you would’ve found something more interesting, genuine and vital than any of that.

Secondly, the characters – the supposed tennis pro, directionless after retiring at the age of about 12; his boring pupil, dabbling in a sport about which he clearly gives not a shit in between earning a stupendous amount of money in some high-flying job about which we know nothing and knobbing a beautiful but hopeless actress; his sister, the pretty-but-dull filly, perfect wife material and a bit of posh totty to boot; the rich father-in-law with the Country House (someone actually says ‘come and stay in my Country House’ at one point, but we’ll get on to the excruciating dialogue in a moment) and the basement full of hunting rifles… these were either cyphers, insufferable idiots or English stereotypes unrecognisable from (modern) life. Some were all three. Woody, you’re a massively creative person – a writer, director, actor, musician, a career artist. What could possibly attract you to these antiseptic ‘people’ with not an original thought between them? And how many ‘Brits’ have you ever actually met? No wonder Kate Winslet pulled out of the film at the last minute. Johansson’s character only had any depth because she was American. Moral – one of the first things they tell you about writing: stick with what you know.

Thirdly, the acting. This was mostly terrible, due in large part to the characterisation. Talents like Johansson (the only really watchable figure in the movie, and then mostly for the wrong reasons) and Brian Cox were left flailing around, desperate to find something realistic to say or do, or at least say and do what the script demanded without looking utterly crap about it. I suppose Jonathan Rhys Meyers did have a fleeting moment of thespian credibility near the end, falling apart in the back of a cab, but that was only after he’d gone completely out of character and shot a couple of people, which might conceivably have that kind of effect. Apart from that he was practically unwatchable, and certainly unlistenable. I don’t know if that was his normal accent or if he put it on for the film, but two hours of it made my ears bleed.

Fourthly, the dialogue. One of the reasons Rhys Meyers finally managed to look halfway decent in the scene I just mentioned is that he didn’t have any lines in it. I mean, Jesus, don’t get me started on the script. I could have done better with one wordprocessor tied behind my back. Much of it sounded like a bad parody of a Noel Coward play (‘Darling, have you seen my Strindberg?’); a scene involving two policemen discussing the murders was the most unlikely ever written (‘I’m torn,’ says James Nesbitt, without feeling, to his sidekick Ewen Bremner, another couple of excellent actors woefully underused here); and people simply don’t say things to each other like ‘You do realise we haven’t made love for a week?’ and ‘I have to meet my wife at the Tate Modern in ten minutes.’ You’re telling me you’re a 70-year-old auteur, with such classics as Annie Hall, Broadway Danny Rose and Hannah and Her Sisters behind you, and those lines were the best you could muster? It all just sounded at best like a first draft you’d scribbled down over the course of a few evenings with one eye on the telly, and at worst like you simply don’t have a clue how to convey story without getting the characters to say things they’d never say in real life.

Fifthly, said ‘story’. I sat there for almost the whole film waiting for something to happen and when it finally did, it was so far-fetched I couldn’t believe it. We are supposed to believe that Rhys Meyers’s dull, anonymous tennis pro-turned-I’m-not-quite-sure-what-he-does-in-his-father-in-law’s-firm is so pissed off that his beautiful mistress has got herself knocked up that he borrows said father-in-law’s rifle and shoots her? (This is a man with access to pots of money – couldn’t he have just paid her to go away quietly somewhere?) And then, to insult us further, he gets away with it? And then, to completely take the piss, he claims some kind of philosophical disaffection with life because he’s got away with it, citing Sophocles and Dostoevsky? Those guys must be turning in their graves. It might not have been so bad if you’d made Rhys Meyers’s character even slightly sympathetic, or at least interesting, but he was neither. You can quote the greats all night, but it makes no difference if I couldn’t give a damn what happens to the protagonist.

Finally, the ‘message’. This was a film about a man literally getting away with murder. Astonished at how poor this film was coming from a film-maker as great as yourself, I could only charitably assume that you deliberately set out to make a terrible movie to demonstrate exactly that – that Woody Allen got away with murder on a whole other level, by taking someone’s millions and going through the whole palaver of writing, casting, directing, editing, distributing and, finally, charging people to watch a piece of utter tosh.

In writing this for public consumption I did try not to give away too much of the plot in case any readers still hadn’t seen the film; as a personal standard, I always recommend people make up their own minds about something rather than take someone else’s word for it. But such is the crassness of Match Point, I feel it would be a dereliction of whatever duty a blogger has not to discourage anyone who may be reading this from wasting two hours of their life watching this film. Really, I beg you, dear reader – find some long-overlooked corner of the house and clean it with a toothbrush instead, as that would be both a more enjoyable and more constructive way of spending an evening.

Unbelievably, Woody, this was your first movie since Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) to make a profit in your home country. If this is what you have to do to make money then I beg you, go back to making a loss – that’s what you’re good at. I won’t make any cheap jibes about how that statistic illustrates the cultural and geographical bankruptcy of American audiences, but I will close by saying this: although it’
s long been the case that your films fare better in Europe than the US, if the UK-set Match Point was the best thing you could come up with to honour the loyalty and enthusiasm of audiences on this side of the pond, then can I please request that you stay at home next time?

Lots of love,


Great movie quotes

A very enjoyable article in today’s Independent about classic opening lines and other great quotes from films also has a few paragraphs on some of the worst lines ever, which are predictably almost as enjoyable as the good ones. For instance, Sean Connery in Goldfinger, having cracked a crime ring: “At least they won’t be using heroin-flavoured bananas to finance revolutions.” Charles Webb fans meanwhile will be happy to see “Benjamin, I’m not trying to seduce you” from The Graduate also included (among the good quotes, I mean).

Thoughtcat exclusive – An interview with Charles Webb

Charles Webb (courtesy BBC)Following is a feature I wrote recently. I have spent the past few weeks submitting a shorter version to a number of newspapers and magazines but none have expressed an interest, so I thought I’d just blog it instead. I hope you enjoy this Thoughtcat exclusive.

* * *

In April the Guardian reported that a panel of experts had drawn up a list of the “50 best film adaptations of all time”. Inevitably, any such list will have glaring omissions – no Lord of the Rings, no Gone With the Wind – but it’s doubtful that many except the most die-hard of film fans would have wondered why The Graduate didn’t make it. Not because it’s not a great story, but because Charles Webb’s original novel isn’t, for whatever reason, as famous in its own right as other book/film classics of the era such as A Clockwork Orange and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Instead, in another list published the same month, the screenplay for Mike Nichols’s film by Buck Henry and Calder Willingham ranked 13th in the “top 101 of all time” as voted by the Writers’ Guild of America.

Think of The Graduate and you’ll probably think of Anne Bancroft as Mrs Robinson attempting to seduce Dustin Hoffman’s hapless Benjamin Braddock. (In the popular imagination, the two stars are permanently linked with the roles – the film launched Hoffman’s career, and when Bancroft died last year just about every obituary headline referred to “the Graduate star”, despite her dozens of other films and her Oscar for The Miracle Worker.) The jaunty Simon & Garfunkel hit Mrs Robinson will probably also come to mind, as might the recent Broadway and West End stage version with its celebrated “nude” appearances by latterday Mrs Robinsons Kathleen Turner and Jerry Hall.

Whatever you connect with The Graduate, chances are it won’t be Webb’s name, although his authorship of the original 1963 novel should by rights have earned him a place in modern culture as permanent as that of Mrs Robinson herself. When as part of my research for this article I asked two modern film specialists from the universities of Sheffield and Hull why they thought Webb’s novel hadn’t achieved the same classic status as the movie, both, while talking at some length about the latter’s cultural impact, candidly admitted they had never read the book. Film critic Andrew Sarris observed as far back as 1970 that Webb “seems to be the forgotten man in all the publicity, even though 80 percent or more of the dialogue comes right out of the book. I recently listened to some knowledgeable people parcelling out writing credit to Nichols, Henry, and Willingham as if Webb had never existed, as if the quality of the film were predetermined by the quality of its script, and as if the mystique of the director counted for nought. These knowledgeable people should read the Webb novel, which reads more like a screenplay than any novel since John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.”

Then again, maybe you do think of Webb’s name these days when you hear yet another mention of the movie – but very likely for the wrong reasons. Webb hit the headlines in April when it was reported that he and his wife Fred were overdue with their rent, defaulting on their bank loans of £30,000 and about to be evicted from their home in East Sussex. Moreover, Webb had written a sequel to The Graduate called Home School but couldn’t publish it because due to a legal loophole a French media company owned the film rights to the characters, and could knock out an almost certainly inferior sequel without his permission. On top of all this, Fred suffered a nervous breakdown a few years ago and has been clinically depressed and dependent on Webb’s care ever since.

Thanks to the press attention, Webb and his wife have of course since been offered temporary accommodation by a well-wisher in Suffolk, and the author has just signed a contract with Random House to publish Home School in 2007. Mrs Robinson makes a repeat appearance in the story, putting the skills for which she is best known to good use to persuade a senior school official to allow her grandchildren to continue their home education of the title.

However, the weeks before the good news was announced were tense for Charles Webb.

I was minding my own business surfing the web when I first heard about all this, and my heart went out to the guy. To be honest, at that point I’d never heard of him myself, even though The Graduate is one of my all-time favourite films – probably, again, for the wrong reasons. The symbolism, stylishness and social iconoclasm all escaped me when I first saw it at the tender age of thirteen: all that hit me about it then was Anne Bancroft. (I even felt let down when Hoffman fell in love with Mrs Robinson’s daughter Elaine: it seemed a cop-out. Mrs Robinson was the story, as far as I was concerned anyway.)

But I digress. Determined to help him out in some way, I tracked down Webb’s literary agents online and sent him an email. I had no idea what I could actually do to help – I was certainly not the well-wisher that the North Korea Times (of all papers) reported he was hoping would come to his aid with the offer of free accommodation. Nonetheless, I found myself offering to help set him up one of those websites you hear of every so often where people tell their miserable life stories and request donations via PayPal, only to find a few weeks later that they’re practically millionaires. Failing that, I offered to send him some hard cash myself – not that I have any, but all the same. I should point out that, to his credit, after what has now been an email correspondence of several weeks, I still have no idea where I could send him a cheque even if he wanted my money. Which, despite everything, he doesn’t.

* * *

Charles Webb was born in 1939 in San Francisco. By all accounts he had a good upbringing: his father was a wealthy doctor, and The Graduate reflected the monied environment of his youth. He attended Midland School in Los Olivos, California, and Williams College in Massachusetts, from which he graduated in 1961, having majored in American history and literature. The proverbial brilliant career beckoned, and certainly he got off to a good start, publishing The Graduate, his first novel, when he was just 24. So how could his current predicament have come about, when the film of The Graduate made over $100m and Webb has published a number of other novels – two of which have also been filmed – in the years since?

Well, for a start, Webb received a one-off payment of just $20,000 for the film rights to The Graduate. Of course, that was worth a fair bit more in the late Sixties than it is now, and must have seemed a good deal for a writer not yet 30. Even so, it wasn’t the most prescient of business decisions. Webb’s story recently prompted the Mirror to make a list of WORLD’S BIGGEST MUGS – AND BLUNDERS THAT COST THEM A FORTUNE, in which he found himself named alongside Decca supremo Dick Rowe – The Man Who Turned Down The Beatles – and someone called Kane Kramer, who invented the precursor to the iPod in 1979 and then let the patent lapse.

To be fair, Webb didn’t deserve a place in that list, crass as it in any case was: the key to his situation seems to lay in a low opinion of wealth for its own sake nurtured since his youth. The Graduate itself drew heavily on his own experience of growing up with – and ultimately rejecting – materialism, Webb turning down a valuable inheritance from his father. He gave away his Graduate royalties to the Anti-Defamation League, an organisation which has been “combatting anti-Semitism and bigotry of all kinds” since 1913, and he has also given away other earnings to charity.

Some of the causes he has supported seem less worthy than others, however. When he sold the film rights to his 2001 novel New Cardiff (later released as Hope Springs starring Colin Firth and Minnie Driver) for £60,000, Webb – who by then had moved from the States to Hove, near Brighton – gave away £10,000 of it to fund a local artist called Daniel Shelton, who achieved brief notoriety in 2003 by mailing himself to the Tate Britain in a crate. “The idea came from the technique used by inventors,” reported The Times, “who sealed their plans in a postmarked envelope to prove when they came up with their concept. He had turned himself into living art to explore the way that artists are seen as objects, he added.” The article was headlined “The artist who sent himself up”. Some readers might have wondered whether Shelton was actually sending his benefactor up.

* * *
I received the first email from Charles Webb within hours of sending my initial one. “Dear Mr. Cat,” he wrote, “Your email was forwarded to me and I was deeply touched by your concern. I haven’t read the press coverage, so I don’t know how clear it’s been made that the development of a new method of mental health treatment has been what’s kept me from ‘the world of commerce’.”
I replied that I’d heard about his wife’s breakdown and subsequent clinical depression from one or two of the news reports, but hadn’t seen anything about this intriguing “new treatment”. I also wrote with more details, as he requested, about my website idea, and at that point also offered to write a feature on him and his situation which might highlight not just his financial predicament but also his wife’s illness.
This thought-balloon popped when Webb replied to my email saying he’d recently given an interview to a freelancer in which he spoke at some length about the topic that most interested him, “the artist class as an unrecognised minority”. He was disappointed that the piece had never materialised, and seemed unaware of its somewhat limited appeal. Slightly more promisingly, he spoke enthusiastically about his discovery of Skype, the internet telephony service which allows users to make free “phone calls” over the internet. Conducting meetings and interviews using Skype’s videoconferencing facility seemed a cheap and useful way for him to keep up with the “world of commerce” from home, thus enabling him to maintain his responsibilities to Fred. “It could spell the beginning of the end of my financial isolation,” he wrote.
* * *

Researching Charles Webb wasn’t particularly easy. He didn’t have a website or an entry in Encyclopaedia Britannica, Who’s Who, the Cambridge Biographical Encyclopedia, the Cambridge Guide to Literature in English or the Oxford Companion to English Literature. There was an entry on Wikipedia which gave a little information, such as that his wife changed her name from Eve to Fred “as a gesture of solidarity with men named Fred who have low self-esteem” (although in true Wikipedia fashion this turned out to be half-true; the group itself was called Fred, while its members didn’t have to be called the same) and claimed the couple divorced “not out of personal differences, but in protest at the institution of marriage”. Some of Webb’s other novels were mentioned, including The Abolitionist of Clark Gable Place, Love, Roger and The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker, which was made into a film in 1971 and had a cameo from ex-Batman star Adam West. The rest of the article was given over to The Graduate, lamenting the lack of credit given to Webb by the hit film.

I logged on to Amazon.co.uk and tried to buy a copy of Webb’s original 1963 novel. Entering “The Graduate” into its search engine turned up 4,329 results, of which the first several pages consisted of titles like The Top 100 Graduate Employers, Academic Writing for Graduate Students and The Graduate Psychometric Test Workbook. The Graduate was nowhere to be found. Next I tried searching under “Charles Webb”. This was almost as confusing, as Webb has a namesake, Charles Harper Webb, a prolific American poet, many of whose titles preceded Webb’s in the search results. Finally I found a paperback of The Graduate, but was astonished to find the only copies available seemed to be second-hand; I couldn’t find a new one anywhere. The book couldn’t be out of print, surely? There were any number of editions, starting at the princely sum of 1p. Instinctively I didn’t trust such a price – surely the binding must be falling to pieces? – but one of the 1p copies was described as in excellent condition, so with only a penny to lose – plus £2.75 for postage and packing – I decided to try it out and see what turned up.

What turned up a few days later was a very recent Penguin paperback edition with a retro cover design in such good condition that I would have paid the full marked price of £5.99 for it without a second thought. As web etiquette demanded, I left positive feedback for the seller on the Amazon site. But something about the whole transaction disturbed me: was Webb’s classic really so tough to shift that sellers were reduced to flogging copies for a penny? I emailed the seller. “The reason most of the books I and other VERY small booksellers price the majority of their stock at 1p is simply we make our profit on the postage!!” she replied. “There is no point in pricing higher as Amazon customers seem to go for 2 things… the price and the sellers’ feedback… therefore I rely on customers like you who take the time to rate my business highly.”

Fair enough, but it still seemed ridiculous that the novel, especially a recent imprint, was now out of print. I tried searching for the title on Waterstone’s own website, but as this uses the same search engine as Amazon’s, I got exactly the same results. I emailed Waterstone’s in London’s Piccadilly and asked why all this should be the case, only to be told that, paradoxically, The Graduate is in fact still going strong. “Penguin publish and distribute this title in paperback and Constable & Robinson also publish it in hardback,” came the reply, “and there are US editions on the market as well.” I wrote back, pointing out that anyone using the internet to try to buy the book would likely come to a different conclusion. “Yes that is odd,” replied the assistant. “I’m sorry I can’t offer you an explanation for this error, I will endeavour to inform our Head Office.”

As helpful as the Waterstone’s assistant was, I’m not sure whether the message actually got through, as three weeks later the second-hand 1p versions still came to the top of the search results and the in-print versions were buried somewhere underneath. It seemed that Webb – to rub salt into the wound – has become a victim of the vicissitudes of internet technology, so that not only can all but the most intrepid of online book-buyers read his most famous book for next to nothing, but in doing so they also rob him of any royalties he might have earnt if they’d bought the new copy instead. Then again, maybe I’m just naieve – of course the cheaper edition is going to be the most popular. Why bother paying the full price for a new copy when you can buy a nearly-new one for a penny?

It might not be such a bad thing though that Webb’s latest novel New Cardiff, which is definitely not out of print, is the top “Charles Webb” search result in Amazon’s books section. Ironically, type his name into the main search engine and the first thing that comes up is a Graduate DVD; the book (in penny paperback) comes in fifth. Meanwhile, searching on Penguin’s own website initially turned up no results when keying in either Webb’s name or the book title; somehow, the ISBN given by Waterstone’s worked, but the result was for a 1973 edition and the catalogue listing didn’t even say who wrote it. That was a few weeks ago; now, searching under the title or author works fine, but the ISBN doesn’t…

* * *

I received another email from Charles Webb. “We have two plots in the ‘natural’ cemetery in Brighton,” he wrote, “and I’m thinking of putting them up for auction on eBay for some quick cash. Any tips?”

I’d both bought and sold items on eBay but my first thoughts were of the technicalities: could you sell a graveyard plot in the UK without getting into miles of red tape? It certainly had the makings of a newsworthy story, although there was something sad about it as well – doubly sad in fact, as not only did the thought of a couple in their sixties selling their own graves tug at the heartstrings, but I secretly doubted they’d get very much for them – certainly not enough to make a meaningful dent in their debts, anyway.
Their domestic situation seemed to be looking up, however. “Because of our decrepitude, the Hove Council is legally obliged to put us up in a B&B; if we’re evicted rather than let us live on the street,” he wrote. “If it turns out that happens before a book deal can be put together, it might be a good handle for your article.” He added that someone who had read about his predicament in the papers had come forward to offer them accommodation in Woodbridge, and did I know the area at all? I didn’t, and wasn’t actually sure where it was. I went back to Wikipedia and found several Woodbridges around the world, one of which was in Tasmania. Was he seriously considering another international upheaval? “Tasmania would have been nice,” he replied, “but alas, we are only talking Suffolk.”
* * *

Finally, Webb and I agree a time to talk. We have arranged to speak using Skype Video on the morning of the recent spring bank holiday. Webb calls me, rather than the other way round, as I’m the one who tends to be online more often. At precisely 11 o’clock my Skype “phone” rings and when I answer it Webb pops up in the centre of my laptop screen, looking healthy and relaxed in a dark shirt, a large pair of wire-framed glasses and an earphone-and-mic headset that gives a slight impression of an air traffic controller. I’m not wearing a headset myself, using speakers and the laptop’s built-in microphone instead, a setup he refers to admiringly as “hands-free”. “This is interesting to me,” he says. “I’ve tried so many people to get to talk on this video conferencing, just to get a feeling of it, just to get a practice of it, and nobody – well, I guess some people will, but you’re the first one who’s thought nothing about it…”

We start off talking about his idea to sell the graveyard plots. “It actually has a serious purpose,” he says, “and your points were well taken about legal issues but I’m going to disregard them. If it doesn’t work out it’s really not all that crucial. When these graves were purchased, which was, I don’t know, a couple of years ago, it really did look like the end of the line for Fred, and at that time I was listening to all the advice from the doctors and experts and shrinks and the rest of it, and it had reached the point of total hopelessness, and I finally decided to do this which I’ve had at the back of my mind all along.”
How is Fred’s depression now? “She’s now coming out of it,” he says. “But the graves were bought at sort of the low point of everything, so I was hoping through the attention of the graves sale to sort of call attention to that. It would be really nice to get some money out of it too, but who knows if that’s going to work out. I’ll throw it up on eBay and see what happens… We sold a grave site before in Hastings, New York – we had a family plot worked out but then we decided we weren’t going to do that.”

What made him move to England in the first place? “I wanted to see if I could write a British character. I couldn’t seem to get it right in the States so I thought if I came over here it would infuse, which it did. I couldn’t get the feel of it over there.”

What does he make of his recent appearance in the media? “I guess the interesting thing to me is that every so often the public seems to want some kind of ‘Graduate author hits skids’ story… now, the press thing, as far as what the press says, I don’t know if I can assist you there with something, but Marshall McLuhan, his whole thing was ‘the medium is the message’, and I never read anything of his but just that concept appealed to me. So when you’re reading the paper I think it’s not necessarily as important as just the experience of the person reading it that day – they might have read about a bomb in Iraq and might also be reading about the author of The Graduate being evicted. In each case you might be drawn to one and someone else might have been drawn to the other, but in each case – that person has a feeling of being lucky if they’re not that that way, so I just think the newspapers and the TV, for the most part, serve a purpose for the reader that helps them get along through their day.” He smiles, appearing happy to perform this “service” to readers.

Further to his thoughts about moving to Suffolk, I wonder if his life has been itinerant. “Yes it has,” he says, a little sadly. Home School picks up the story of Ben Braddock and Elaine Robinson a decade after they ran away together, now living in New York and – as the Webbs themselves did in the seventies – teaching their children at home. This was illegal in those days and they had to move around a lot to evade the authorities, who wanted to put their children back into formal education. Was that a stressful time? “Well that was itinerant, we went to camp grounds, things like that. Yes, it was very stressed.” Was it worth it? “I think so, our sons turned out well. They went to university, so it wasn’t like they never saw the inside of a school.” One of their sons works for a research company that advises companies on petroleum; he’s just gone to Moscow for a few months. Their other lives and works in Los Angeles.
The original Times report on their current circumstances gave the impression that Webb and his family hid in nudist camps to escape the educational establishment, but it wasn’t quite that way – it was just one camp rather than several. “This place in New Jersey needed a manager, and we took the job.” Was it good fun? “It was an interesting experience.” You wouldn’t do it again? “No, I don’t think so.”

Inevitably the conversation moves to The Graduate. Was his $20,000 flat fee a better deal in some ways than it might seem now? “I have no idea,” he says. “I don’t know about the comparative movie sale deals [at the time].” But could you, for instance, buy a house with that sort of figure in those days? “I don’t remember if we bought a house at that point… we got a house or two along the way, but I don’t know if it was with that money, or… I don’t remember exactly where every penny of it went.”

Did The Graduate launch him? “Everybody talks about these subjects in these sort of frames of reference, but it’s very difficult for me to relate to. I think that ‘launching’ is something that PR people think about – I don’t know what you mean.” Well, did it help at all, did he feel as if he’d been ‘launched’ and now there was an expectation for him to perform? “No… someone else maybe would’ve felt ‘launched’, I don’t know. But it was very useful, people’s reaction to the success of the film was a very useful thing for me… over the years people would react to me in a certain way. So that was interesting.”

The old Mrs Robinson fan in me is intrigued to know whether the story was based heavily on his own experience. “The Graduate was about going to college,” he says, “and then, well actually it was a lot of things – I got interested in the wife of a good friend of my parents and realising it might be better to write about it than to do it.” He breaks off. “It’s interesting – it seems like you’re operating from this sort of big databank of stereotypes with these questions, which is interesting in itself. Which is fine, I mean I don’t know what else you’d have in your mind but those. You have those, and you base what you think on that, and what else would anyone expect?”

I could say I haven’t exactly found it easy to turn up much information about him other than what I’ve read in the papers in recent weeks, but instead I take this as a prompt to move on to subjects other than The Graduate – after all, even though his novel is the thing that got us talking in the first place, I can understand how boring it must be when the only thing people want to talk about is something you did over 40 years ago. Going back (or coming forward) to New Cardiff, his 2001 novel, I ask how £10,000 of his advance for the book ended up funding Daniel Shelton to post himself to the Tate. “Fred gave that,” he says. “We thought it would help the fella, this fella that was here in Brighton.” Is sponsoring other artists something he’s interested in? “I’m interested in other artists, not in sponsoring them so much. I thought it would suit the fella. It was an interesting thing to do but I wouldn’t want to do it more than once.”

The Shelton connection did indeed come through Fred, an artist in her own right, her work including some superb pencil illustrations for New Cardiff. Has she exhibited anywhere or have work for sale? “She has a lot of back drawings,” says Webb. Brighton surely has a lively art market – wouldn’t it make sense to try and raise some money by selling her work locally, or even online? Webb seems hesitant, but reveals there are other artistic plans in the works. “There’s a gallery in California to open up, called The Talking Parrot. That would represent the ‘cure’ for Fred if we had our own gallery, and we have a woman out there, Pamela, who never seems to get mentioned in these articles, but when we open the gallery I think Fred’s drawings will be the basis of a lot of her show. Maybe you could come out for the opening? It won’t be right away, but…” I’d be delighted, I say, but why is this happening in the States when they’re now living in the UK? “Well, because of Pamela,” says Webb. “She’s there, she can advise on the purchase – she has a lot of practical ability and can organise the place and a lot of business stuff. I don’t know. We’re not very good at that, so she’ll be in charge of that.”

Was Fred’s condition related to their debt? “No,” he says. “It was related to her pressures over a lifetime, that I think had everything to do with her artistic temperament.” Has he ever experienced depression himself due to the ‘artistic temperament’? He seems astonishingly laid-back given what he’s gone through in recent years. “Some artists don’t figure it out as well as others,” he says. “I had it figured out a little better than, say, Fred, so…”

I ask him to tell me about this curious “new mental health treatment” he mentioned in his first email to me. “It’s called Sleep,” he says. Sleep? “Sleep.” What, sleep? “That’s right. That’s it.” Just sleep? “Sleep, yeah,” says Webb. “Fred slept for two years, and now she’s getting well. For two years [previously] they tried other things, and then I took over, and let her sleep for two years, and now she’s getting well.” I’d been under the impression he was talking about a major new treatment being developed with doctors in the States which involved an expensive “method” of some sort. But no. “The method is called ‘letting a person sleep’,” he says, “and this person [in the States] gave me a lot of support. All the doctors said I was crazy and it was wrong and the worst thing I could be doing, but this person gave me the support just to let Fred sleep. So she slept for two years even though everyone said that was wrong, and now she’s getting well.”

So the technique is – what? Whenever she wants to sleep, he just lets her sleep? “She did sleep for two years.” What, solid? “She got up to go to the bathroom every day and I would bring her food which she usually ate in bed, and after two years she started sleeping a little less, then a little less, and then she’d be up for a day and sleep for a day, and now she’s getting to the point where she’s up more than down, and she’s getting well.

“I think the main thing is, for those people in the medical profession that understand, you know, sleep isn’t bad. It was like I was being totally irresponsible – you know,” he says, imitating what some experts told hi
m, “‘This is bad! She’s chronically depressed, you don’t want to let her sleep! She just needs a different type of antidepressant, a different type of antipsychotic – here, we have a new kind of therapy, let’s try this! She needs to be kept up – prevent her from going to bed, prevent her from being in her bedroom every day…’ You know, this went on for two years and I didn’t know what else to do, so I let the experts take over and just went on trying [what they said] for two years and she got just slowly worse. And I finally said, ‘Well, look, if she’s going to die then, you know, let her die in peace. She wants to sleep, so let her sleep.’”

If it worked for Fred, why were all the experts saying it was a bad thing to do? “Because they don’t understand the healing powers of the body and the power of the mind itself. What happens to you and I overnight happened to her over two years. I often feel like I’m Christopher Columbus telling everybody the earth is round – everybody thinks I’m crazy. They don’t understand, they think you have to put chemicals in [the mind] and manipulate it, and all this stuff. They don’t understand that the mind can heal itself if it’s allowed to, at least in her case – in some cases it can’t, but certainly in hers. They can’t grapple with that concept of the mind healing itself.”

Webb is clearly passionate about the subject and is keen for other sufferers of chronic depression to know that there might be a non-medicinal alternative to their treatment. He’d like to set up a website giving more information, and to try to get some kind of endorsement from the mental health charity SANE which he has found supportive and helpful; however, he’s aware that “there may be some mildly controversial elements in what I have in mind and in the end these might be a factor in SANE’s decision to show the link on their site or not.”

Is ‘sleep’ a treatment he advocates for other sufferers? I know that’s not what he’s here to do, I say, but… “It is what I’m here to do,” he counters. “I noticed it; why shouldn’t other people benefit? Why should the doctors keep killing off the mental health patients?” Then again, he cautions, “I don’t know how you would do this without someone else [there], because you really have to have a sort of a supervising atmosphere, you can’t just leave the person on their own. You know, I would go off and shop every day and do the different things, but I couldn’t – I sort of always had to have my eye on the situation, so I don’t know – obviously a lot of people wouldn’t be in the situation to do it all, so I don’t know how it’s going to work out that other people could benefit.”

* * *

As the conversation draws to a close, ultimately we return to the subject of money – and, once more, The Graduate. Does he ever feel bitter about selling the film rights for a few thousand dollars, only to see the movie gross a hundred million? “Well, if I’d had a hundred million dollars it wouldn’t have taken me that much longer [to spend] than twenty thousand, and that would have been a whole lifetime’s work getting rid of that much. I think I would’ve been bitter to get that much money – I think,” he smiles, “I’d be a bitter old man at this point. I’m sure I’d still be shovelling it out the door.

“I know that without having money it becomes a preoccupation, obviously, and people think of it that way. I don’t know why people have to keep thinking about money. I know you don’t have enough,” he says diplomatically, “but people who, once they have enough and they keep thinking about it, what’s that all about? It’s a boring subject.”

Having lots of money is such a boring subject to Webb, it seems, that actually being in debt is something he describes as “fascinating”. “I’m in a fascinating relationship with the credit card company, and the way those people operate, which I would of course never be in a position to discern if I wasn’t, shall we say, prodded by them into paying them back – I would never have had any insight into the mechanics or mentality of a company like that.”

Webb reveals he’s currently working on a play about a character who’s in debt “and I’m sure it’ll wind up there. I don’t think it’ll be a writing project based on a person’s relationship with a credit card company, but the important thing – it’s just fascinating the way they operate. How could I learn that if I wasn’t in this position? I couldn’t. I would have died an uneducated person,” says the author of The Graduate and Home School, “if I hadn’t seen what happens if you don’t pay your credit card bill.” What are they doing, then? “Well they have very interesting techniques,” he says, cryptically. “It’s obvious that they read their training manuals. It’s just very, very bizarre they way they deal with one person and then deal with another and you find that the technique is the same… well, you can read all about it.”

I look forward to it. I’m pleasantly surprised, if not amazed, that he’s so philosophical about the subject, and that he’s found a positive way of using such a negative experience. “Well, that’s why you’re a writer,” he says. “Whatever happens to you, that’s what you write about. Doesn’t matter what it is. What else do you write about except your experience?”

© Thoughtcat 2006

Charles Webb and the sequel to The Graduate

Thoughtcat regulars may have read in The Times or other papers recently that Charles Webb, the author of The Graduate, the original novel on which the classic Dustin Hoffman film was based, is some £30,000 in debt, behind with his rent and in such financial dire straits that he and his wife have been threatened with eviction from their East Sussex home. Webb, who sold the rights to The Graduate for a one-off payment of $20,000 (the film went on to make over $100m), has been writing regularly, and has completed a sequel to The Graduate called Home School – but his wife had a nervous breakdown a few years ago and instead of devoting his spare time to finding a publisher he’s been looking after her instead. As if all this wasn’t sad enough, The Times also reported that Webb doesn’t own the rights to the characters in The Graduate for film adaptation purposes, so actually hasn’t wanted to publish Home School for fear of a vastly inferior movie being made by Canal+, the French network which now owns the rights. There is, however, a way out – but (you’ve guessed it!) it costs money. Under French law, it turns out, artists are not able to cede rights to sequels, so if Webb had the cash he could pay French lawyers to make the case to Canal+ and retrieve his film rights. In almost any other situation a publisher would help him negotiate the return of the rights as part of a book deal, in which everyone – not least fans of The Graduate – wins. Webb however seems stuck.

I’ve just received a Google news alert that The News and Star, rather than the Times itself, so annoyingly I missed the actual printed version.) There’s also a fascinating

Art failure

The Guardian reports on the release of a new package of six world cinema titles, called “Discoveries”, that distributor Optimum Releasing and BBC4 are launching this week in conjunction with the Edinburgh film festival in an attempt to revive the flagging market in foreign-language films. Elsewhere in the piece, a director of the ICA attributes the unpopularity of these movies to the total lack of those shown on TV these days. I couldn’t agree more – in the eighties and early nineties, Channel 4 and BBC2 used to show a great range of art-house and foreign films. True, some of them I couldn’t understand at all, but at least they exercised your brain, and movies like Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy (Blue was my favourite), which you never see anymore, were fantastic. The news is good in some ways but I can’t lie about my contempt for the BBC’s creation of a two-tier British Broadcasting Corporation, which (a) feeds us non-digital licence-fee-paying proles a load of old tosh every night and (b) is transparently only putting the good stuff on digital to make money.

From nuclear looting to Annie Hall via Maggie Gyllenhaal’s bum

Call me naive if you will (I suppose it’s at least better than being cynical), but I was astonished to read in the Guardian about the looting of radioactive material from nuclear facilities in Iraq as US troops stood aside. Given that it’s not quite as easy to do this as to nick a bag of rice from a food shop, isn’t this tantamount to just handing the stuff to the same terrorists the US is allegedly “at war” with? I suppose next we’ll be hearing that the Ministry of Oil was the only government department left intact after the bombing of Baghdad, or that Jack Straw and Donald Rumsfeld will say it doesn’t really matter if no weapons of mass destruction are discovered after all…

* * *

To the Odeon for the second time this week, this time to see Secretary. Both my wife and I used to be secretaries in previous lives but neither of us remembered it being quite like this. Maggie Gyllenhaal was magnificent – a really gripping, intense performance; she sort of became the part, without taking herself seriously for a moment. Apart from that I can’t say I enjoyed the film exactly, but after the dazzling spectacle of Matrix Reloaded the other day, it was refreshing to see that small, intimate films about offbeat people and curious relationships can still do well at the box office. Plus, it was great to hear Leonard Cohen sneaking onto the soundtrack with the exquisite I’m Your Man (“If you want a lover, I’ll do anything you ask me to / And if you want another kind of love, I’ll wear a mask for you…”) It was also good to see James Spader again, who doesn’t seem to have aged a day since he made White Palace, one of my all-time favourite films, in 1990.

* * *

Meanwhile, the Guardian reports on a new biography of Sylvia Plath by Anne Middleton, which will controversially claim that the poet was not “the downtrodden victim of feminist legend” after all. I’m glad to hear it; despite Ted Hughes’s reported philandering, which obviously didn’t help, it always seemed obvious to me from her writing that she was a very strong personality and character who was simply besieged by mental illness. There’s no rationalising with that, whether you’re a feminist or not.

Thinking about Plath put me in mind of this exchange in Annie Hall:

ALVY (picking up copy of “Ariel” in Annie’s flat): Ah, Sylvia Plath – the poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college-girl mentality.

ANNIE: Oh, I don’t know – I just think some of her poems are neat.

ALVY: Neat? I think “neat” went out sometime around the turn of the century…

From Larkin to Eurovision via The Matrix

The Guardian reports on some newly-discovered jazz blues lyrics written by Philip Larkin in the early forties. Among these was “Fuel Form Blues”, which the Bard of the Spectacles casually tossed off while “bored in his first job as a clerk collating wartime fuel rationing forms at a coal depot in Warwick”:

I’d rather be a commando, or drive a railway train,
I’d rather be a commando, Lord! drive a railway train,
Than sort them Fuel Form Blues into streets again…

Fuckin’ Fuel Forms, gonna carry me to my grave, carry me to my grave.

It’s easy to see that the great poet was already laying the foundations for his later classics such as “Toads”, q.v.:

Why should I let the toad work

Squat on my life?

Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork

And drive the brute off?

…not to mention “This Be The Verse”.

* * *

To the Odeon to see the distinctly unLarkinesque Matrix Reloaded. I attempted to brush up on the Matrix phenomenon last night by watching an old video of the first film… and was lost within the first twenty minutes. Nevertheless, it was a nice lostness, and I approached the sequel with interest. Like the original, I found it a bit cold and soulless (although that’s the whole point, I guess), and there were some dreadfully slow bits in the first hour, but the special effects didn’t disappoint and the whole thing was good fun. The car chase was my favourite scene, and the point where Trinity was riding against the flow of traffic startlingly realistic. According to the iMDB, the epic chase was shot on a highway specially built for the movie. Weirdly enough, shortly after we got home from seeing the film, Fifth Gear was on and had a feature about the scene. Keanu Reeves praised Carrie-Anne Moss for doing it sans stunt double or crash helmet, but I had to take this with a slight pinch of salt when it was revealed that the traffic she was pictured weaving around was all digitally superimposed afterwards. Boo!

The only thing I can never work out about The Matrix, incidentally, is, if the “real” world as perceived by humans is actually a digital creation of the machines, why didn’t the machines make the “real” world a bit more exciting? If it’s all virtual anyway, why not make the world absolutely wonderful for people instead of humdrum and everyday? That way, surely everybody would be happy and there’d be no need to have Agents to track down all the Neos and Morpheuses (Morphei?) because they’d be so serene they wouldn’t want to escape…

* * *

I have to say that last Saturday was not spoilt for me at all by the UK receiving an unprecedented nul points in the Eurovision Song Contest. This piece in the Guardian today does a fair job of explaining why it happened.

Stuff in the news

Looks like we’re going to be in for a Dylan moviefest in the coming months. First it was Todd Haynes’s Bob Dylan biopic (see TC 21st February), and now Martin Scorsese announces he’s working on a film about Dylan. Haynes famously said he’s casting seven different actors to play Dylan over the various periods of his career, including a woman. Maybe Scorsese could get Leonardo DiCaprio to play the young Bob, Daniel Day-Lewis for the middle years, Robert “Bob” De Niro for the present “grizzly” version and Cameron Diaz for everything else.

* * *

As poor old Jean-Pierre Garnier sobs to the Telegraph that he’s “not Mother Teresa”, Richard Adams outlines in the Guardian’s City Diary the definitive reasons why the Glaxo Fat Cat is not the Angel of Calcutta.

Second Best is a winner

A lovely film on BBC2 last night called Second Best. Made in 1994, it starred William Hurt, improbably enough, in the role of a lonely, red-haired sub-postmaster of a tiny Welsh village who wants to adopt a troubled ten-year-old, played perfectly by Nathan Yapp (who, according to his IMDb entry, has done nothing since). Keith Allen also did a good turn as the boy’s vagrant father. Hurt’s accent oscillated wildly between Ireland and Somerset without touching Wales for more than a few syllables at a time, but otherwise he was utterly believable. Even though it was made nearly 10 years ago and shown on the channel’s graveyard shift, its simplicity, tenderness and quietness, as well as the excellence of the writing (by David Cook) and acting, reassured me a little that TV stations aren’t just obsessed with ratings and “dumbing down”. Things still ain’t what they used to be however – I remember in the eighties Channel 4 showing a great art-house movie every Thursday night. (Thanks must go to Metro Life‘s film critic Neil Norman for writing an enthusiastic review of Second Best, without which I might not have bothered staying up for it.)

Degrees of Bacon

Thoughtcat’s Vermont representative points me to the excellent Oracle of Bacon. Enter the name of any actor or actress and the program consults the IMDB and tells you how many degrees they are separated, filmically speaking, from the actor Kevin Bacon, who appears to have been in every film ever made. Most attempts return a factor of 1 (i.e. Bacon was in the same film as the actor in question) or 2 (Bacon wasn’t in the same film as said actor but they’ve both been in another film which featured a common third actor, thus linking the two). Apparently there are only 11 actors in the entire universe who have a maximum Bacon number of 8. But what’s even more fun is Star Links, another program on the same University of Virginia Computer Science site, which allows you to link any two actors to each other. This reports, for example, that Arnold Schwarzenegger has a Harold Pinter number of 2, since Schwarzenegger was in End of Days with Mark Margolis, while Margolis was in The Tailor of Panama with Harold Pinter.

* * *

A short interview with Don Delillo in The Times today, in which the author of the epic Underworld says that the Great American Novel is just so yesterday, and what we’re waiting for now is for someone to write the Great Global Novel. Well, it won’t be me – the novel I’m writing is set on the Isle of Skye… who says I set my sights too low?

* * *

Sad to read today of the demise of Noel Redding, the great bass player with the Jimi Hendrix Experience. This obituary quotes an interview he gave years ago (for, I believe, the excellent South Bank Show TV documentary on Hendrix) in which he recalled hearing about the great man’s death: “All these women came to my room and wanted to commit suicide, to throw themselves out of the window. I’m not religious but I went with all these women to church. Then we went to a cocktail bar and we got rotten.” Ah, the seventies, eh!