Monday, March 5, 2018

Birthday: Frank Norris, who cut a wide swathe in a short life

Benjamin Franklin Norris, Jr. (1870-1902)

Frank Norris was one of the five children of a Chicago jeweler and his former actress wife. Business thrived, and in the 1880s, the Norrises moved to San Francisco, where- like Gertrude Stein’s father- Frank’s dad did well in real estate.

Frank was sent to Paris at seventeen. He spent two years studying painting and reading the work of Emile Zola, whose pioneering work in modern, naturalist fiction formed Norris’ own later style. Once home, he studied at the University of California at Berkeley, leaving full of Darwinism and, as Justice Holmes later put it, “the Social Statics of Mr. Herbert Spencer.”

He spent a further year at Harvard, a special student in English lit and submitting, as a class paper, a draft of his 1899 novel, McTeague.

Norris spent time in New York, with the publishers Doubleday & Page, then as a war correspondent in South Africa, a newspaper subeditor, and a burgeoning writer. His time covering the Spanish-American War marked the end of his youthful wanderings; after marrying in 1900, he had a child in 1901, and the family returned to San Francisco, where he died of peritonitis in 1902.

Norris’s writing, which began in journalism and moved quickly into short stories and novels, was emblematic of the rapid changes in America at the zenith of the Gilded Age. His early work, though fairly conventional in style, nevertheless showed his interest in social and political issues. Industrialization was transforming the country; the reaction came in the founding of the Populist Party, the debates over bimetallism, and the nomination of William Jennings Bryan- barely old enough to hold the office- for president in 1896.

But his work matured fast, and he was soon denounced by critics for his appalling, Zola-esque frankness. As one reviewer of a Norris biography noted in the 1930s, in the fiction of Norris’ day, men and women never had sex, and they never vomited or urinated. Norris’ McTeague covered all that, and more.

The tale of a San Francisco dentist whose career implodes, it chronicles his- and his wife’s- descent into poverty, avarice and murder. Having grown up in the gold fields, McTeague reverts to the brutality he was raised around when he returns to them in hopes of a financial score. He ends up in the middle of Death Valley, out of water, and handcuffed to a man he has just killed.

The Octopus (1901) is another tale of how thin is the veneer of civilization in most people, using a railroad baron’s empire-building as the story’s scaffolding. By then, Norris had developed a telegraphic style, jumping from thought to unrelated thought, yet making one follow the other as logically as day and night. It was an idea, Henry Giardina wrote in The Open Source Review, Norris got from the new medium of motion pictures:
In his 1899 novel McTeague, a group of characters go to the theater and are treated to a short film as part of the program. Their responses vary from wonder to distrust as they are faced with the sheer impossibility of what appears before them. McTeague himself is “awe-struck”: 
“Look at that horse move his head,” he cried excitedly, quite carried away. “Look at that cable car coming — and the man going across the street. See here comes a truck. Well, I never in all my life!”
...McTeague’s depiction of an early commercial film audience is a scene that fits queerly into the rest of the story, as a strange foreboding of things to come. In McTeague’s incredulity, his mother-in-law’s distrust of the film apparatus as a kind of trick, and his wife Trina’s enchantment at the device, the reader gets an encapsulated view of the different responses to one of the most violently modern events of the time: a trip to the cinema, to see a past reality unfold as if in real time before people who were slightly unable to believe in this reality. This is part of Norris’ grand project, throughout the small but thematically consistent body of work he produced from the age of twenty-nine to his death three years later at thirty-two: a depiction of the everyday shock of new media and industrialization, the concept of capturing time and presenting its fictional form as the truth, through the film apparatus. Even if the story of audience members fainting at the arrival of the train on-screen is, as many suspect, a fiction, the reason for its existence as lore stems from a very real disjuncture, part of the premise of the industrial age. How can the present reality hold a living document of the past? How can a unit of lost time make such a realistic reappearance in the present? 
By the turn of the century, the complex relationship between the way life was being represented and the way representation was changing the structure of real, lived life, was becoming a study in itself. Bergson, lecturing in Paris in 1902, compared the “mechanism” of thought and the mechanism of the camera. In everyday life, he said, “we hardly do anything else than set going a kind of cinematograph inside us.” 
Norris’ The Octopus came out in 1901, a year before Bergson’s lecture. In it, one of the main characters has a filmic vision before falling asleep: 
…as his mind relaxed in that strange, hypnotic condition that comes just before sleep, a series of pictures of the day’s doings passed before his imagination like the roll of a kinetoscope.
Here’s an example, from The Octopus:

As Giardina rightly argues, Norris was inventing the jump cuts style of film-making on paper. Little wonder that his novels were seized upon by the silent film industry. Sweeping morality tales that ended, not with Miss Prism’s smug assurance that “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means, Cecily,” but with general disaster were the kind of splashy stories moviemakers adored. In Norris’ world, the good could end badly just as easily as the bad, and the bad escape all sanction to become rich and powerful.

The Pit (1903), part of a planned trilogy on the American industrial/commercial system based on the journey of wheat from field to table, focused on the commodities traders of Chicago, went to Broadway in 1904 and film in 1917. D.W. Griffith filmed a Norris story about a corner on the wheat market in 1909. Still another story was a Rudolph Valentino vehicle in 1922.

McTeague, however, was- and remains- Norris’s monument. Filmed once in 1915, it became the obsession of the German-American director Erich von Stroheim, who filmed it in 1923. He saw the story as a modern Greek tragedy, in which environment and human willfulness trapped the characters in a fore-ordained, slow-motion doom.

Stroheim produced a three-hundred-page shooting script and shot the entire film on location around San Francisco. He built no sets, using only period locations to replace buildings lost in the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. He spent two months in Death Valley, filming the novel’s climactic scenes, and ended up with 85 hours of film that took nearly a year to edit into a finished product of then-unheard-of length.

“Greed” was shown once in its entirety, at a studio screening in early 1924. All present agreed it was the best film they’d ever seen, perhaps the best ever made. But Stroheim’s studio completed a merger into what became Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and he found himself under the direction of production chief Irving Thalberg, who’d fired Stroheim at Universal Pictures in 1922 for cost overruns and general arrogance.

Thalberg demanded cuts, and lots of them. Stroheim's version, which featured gold-tint applied frame by frame, was reduced from ten hours to eight, to six, to four hours and finally to two and a half in an edit by MGM’s head scriptwriter, who got the writing credit for the script as well. Narrative cards were used to fill in the gaps the cuts left, and the result was a flop that lost a packet and severely wounded Stroheim's reputation.

MGM devoted little promotional effort to the movie, and its claims of huge losses were widely believed to have been generated by combining the ledgers of another, highly profitable Stroheim film, “The Merry Widow”, with “Greed”’s to reduce Stroheim’s royalty payment.

After being fired in 1929 by Joseph P. Kennedy over the making of “Queen Kelly”, a Gloria Swanson vehicle, Stroheim returned to acting but lived to have the last laugh. His career- and Swanson’s- was revived by Billy Wilder’s 1950 roman a clef, “Sunset Boulevard,” and critical acclaim for “Greed” swelled through the 1950s.

Publication of Stroheim’s script after his death in 1957 made it possible to reconstruct the cuts and launched a decades-long search for a complete version. The closest realization of the work has been Turner Classic Movies’ 1999 restoration, which used recovered bits and studio still photos to create a four-hour edition makes evident what a dazzling thing the original must have been.

Frank Norris was buried in Oakland, California, beneath an eight-foot, pedimented stone erected by his Berkeley fraternity brothers. His literary heirs have included Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, F.Scott Fitzgerald and John Updike, though over the last century his antisemitism and tendency to overwrite (one critic compared Norris’ style to “a wet dog”)- both common in his day- have dented his reputation. Doubleday published his collected works in ten volumes in 1928.

#LiteraryBirthdays #HenryBemisBooks #Charlotte #FrankNorris

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