Jerome Charyn on Finding Literary Inspiration in Film ‹ Literary Hub

I wasn’t born at Loew’s Paradise Theater in the Bronx, but it became my birthplace. My parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe and spoke a dialect that was incomprehensible to me – a mixture of Polish, Russian, Yiddish and Ukrainian. There were no kindergarten classes during World War II in my part of the Bronx, so I had my first English lessons at Paradise. It was Jimmy Cagney who taught me to speak.

And I learned to use a knife and fork with Greer Garson and Loretta Young, as I often ate with my hands at home or stabbed the food on my plate. My mother went with me to Heaven, the only movie palace on the planet that had a night sky right above your head, an orchestrated sky, with clouds sailing through a swollen field of stars.

We had no books at home except for a blank edition by Felix Salten Bambi, given to my mother during the first session of a naturalization evening course which she could not afford to attend. But she was not a total delinquent. She became my teacher in a time without a teacher. We both discovered words on the page by addressing the language of forest animals who spoke much better than us. We stumbled, word for word. When Bambi’s mother passed away, we cried for a month. It was 1942 – and it turns out that Walt Disney’s animated version Bambi came out the same year.

Bambi did not play at Paradise; we had to watch it at the RKO on Fordham Road.

What appealed to me the most was where the narrative went and where it got lost, how the puzzle of the story was solved.

What interested us was the deluge of epiphanies on screen: the birth of the little prince, his learning to walk and dance in the forest, his shyness towards the little princess Faline, his distrust of the prairie open, where hunters could arrive with their dogs, guns and tents. “The man was in the forest,” said Bambi’s mother, as all the animals in the forest ran away from the dogs. Bambi’s mother is killed by the hunters, but we don’t see her death onscreen, and since we were sitting there at RKO, we barely had time to cry.

Disney was way ahead of its time in its portrayal of man’s desire to destroy the world around him, but the film, unlike the book, was also full of sentimental sop, with the refrain – “Love is a song that never ends” – repeated over and over again.

And yet, I became a novelist that afternoon, at the age of five. I was able to grasp the film’s narrative line, its melody, its poetic atmosphere. I didn’t have to stumble with words on a page. The images on the screen have become my vocabulary.

As my film education continued at Paradise, I never really cared about directors. I liked some actors, like Gary Cooper, with his leanness and slow drawl. But what appealed to me the most was where the narrative went and where it got lost, how the puzzle of the story was solved. Soon I became so adept that I could walk into heaven in the middle of almost any movie and be able to reconstruct the first half of the story in my imagination. I have almost never been wrong.

Then, in 1948, when I was just eleven years old, I was sabotaged by The Lady from Shanghai. Seasoned as I was, I still couldn’t follow the outlines of the film and had to see it twice before I had any idea what was going on. Directed by Orson Welles, the film stars Orson himself as Irish sailor Michael O’Hara and Rita Hayworth as Elsa, a former luxury courtesan now married to criminal lawyer Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane). At the time, Rita was actually married to Orson and going through a divorce. She was also the biggest box office attraction in the world.

I couldn’t believe it was the same woman I saw in Gilda (1946), where she plays a mermaid who does a striptease by removing a single glove, while shaking her long red hair. Orson had her red mane shaved for the role of Elsa and transformed into a murderous blonde. She seems mute The Lady from Shanghai, a damaged femme fatale, who plans to murder Arthur and blame it on Michael whether she likes him or not. The film ends dramatically, inside a hall of mirrors in an abandoned entertainment house. Elsa and Arthur shoot each other as their images multiply in the maze of mirrors, and their characters disappear with each shot. Arthur falls first, then Elsa, and the shards of glass shattering around them seem to rip the screen like stabs. It was as if the cinematic machine itself was dangerous and could harm me and other viewers, as well as Elsa.

I have the funny feeling that the music of my language—my own word whipping—comes as much from the images on the screen.

After The Lady of Shanghai, I encountered very few surprises. And then in 1961, after I finished college and started hanging out at art houses, I saw a movie that utterly mesmerized me and defied any definition of a narrative I’ve ever had.

It was Michelangelo Antonioni The Adventure (1960), about a tribe of wealthy Italians who are completely bored with their lives. Yet the heroine, Claudia (Lea Massari), has a hypnotic, half-mad intensity in her dark eyes, despite her unease. I kept thinking about Claudia while watching the movie, wondering what was going to happen to her.

Halfway through the film, Claudia disappears and never appears again. I was furious. And then I understood the audacity of the film. Our heroine disappears, and the story continues, almost as if she never existed. For Antonioni, the characters are just figures in a landscape, puppets at the edge of the frame, puppets who manage to breathe and move. It’s almost as if the cinematographic machine, and not Antonioni, had decided to “kill” Claudia, and as The Lady from Shanghai, there were daggers hidden in the “mirrors” of the screen. It was then that I realized that the screen itself is “alive” and as porous as human skin.

I published my first novel in 1964 and have been writing novels ever since. I’ve read most of the masters, but I have the funny feeling that the music of my tongue – my own word-whip – comes as much from the images on the screen as from the narrative thrust and melodies of Ulysses, Towards the LighthouseWhere Moby-Dick. I learned the art of telling stories in the cinema. I remain captivated by these images on the screen. They haunt my own novels, as if each of my books were its own labyrinth of mirrors. I’m still here with Bambi, with Elsa Bannister and with Claudia’s hypnotic black eyes, just as I had always been there when I was a little boy at Loew’s Paradise.


Big Red: A Novel with Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles by Jerome Charyn is available from Liveright Publishing, an imprint of WW Norton & Company.

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