Dan Barden is the author of The Next Right Thing, a kind of fresh spin on something like a West Coast mystery or suspense novel, coming in March from Dial Press. TNRT isn’t really genre fiction but uses elements of classic suspense and mystery narrative, like an updated Raymond Chandler, to tell the story of an engaging cast of hipster characters drenched in California’s cool coastal light.
Here’s Dan’s WWFIL, a love letter to Berkeley, his friend Juan, and the Hollywood renaissance of Howard Hawks. Read Dan’s guest post attentively and you’ll catch from it a hint DB’s soft touch for the winning character study, the kind of grasp of likable people that makes you willing to stand in line at the movie house. Thanks Dan!
When We Fell In Love by Dan Barden
Almost everything I know about watching films I learned from my college roommate Juan. We shared a wooden cottage a quarter-mile off campus in Berkeley and watched, each of us, at least three movies a week. This was before VCRs, but Berkeley had a great selection of repertory cinemas. The UC Theatre changed its marquee every couple of days, and The Pacific Film Archive, at the university art museum, was a temple for cinema. I enjoyed the UC Theatre the most because we got a long walk home to smoke and talk and duck into bars where we could smoke and talk. When I think back to the awesome education I got at Berkeley, at least half of it was going to the movies with Juan.
And our talk often continued the next day, over Grapenuts. We had this great dining room table beside a huge window and every surface in our entire house was unpainted and barely varnished wood. How we managed to find such an amazing rental is only one of the miracles of my undergraduate education. If Juan had seen a movie the night before without me, he would narrate over breakfast. These narrations were often as good as the movies themselves, and I’m still shocked — to this day — to encounter movies that I would have sworn I’d seen, but had only heard about from Juan.
A surfer and championship swimmer from San Clemente, Juan used his arms and hands to great effect in theses narrations: framing shots, orienting the characters to each other, describing the thrust of a story. He had a real knack for cinematic structure: The Wild Bunch, for example, was a movie about “some very bad guys who meet some very very bad guys.” I want to say that his narrations took about the same time as the movies themselves, but that can’t be possible. There was a certain kind of vividness that Juan valued above all things. He was very fond of action movies from the late sixties and early seventies like Bullitt and Dirty Harry. He was a big fan of unpretentious storytelling, and I pretty much always believed what Juan believed. I have never seenLast Year at Marienbad because I remember vividly the look on Juan’s face when he came home from seeing it. He was disordered and unhappy — the film had hurt him.
Juan’s education of my cinematic taste was achieved through books, too. He had a job at UC Press and later, after we both moved to New York, at Farrar Straus and Giroux and it always seemed to me like he was handing me some glossy film book that he’d gotten from his own publisher or someone else’s. Maybe the most important of these books he handed me was Hawks on Hawks by Joseph McBride.
I must have been somewhere in the middle of discovering the Western at that time — the UC Theatre had done this awesome retrospective on John Wayne somewhere near the middle of my junior year, and I’d seen a pristine silver nitrate print of Stagecoach at the Pacific Film Archive that completely rocked my world. I’d come to Cal hoping to become the kind of poet and scholar who would look down on American movies with big strong heroes in them, but something else happened: I fell in love with directors like John Ford and Howard Hawks. I’d grown up in Orange County, and my father had a professional relationship with John Wayne, a great star for both filmmakers. I’d come to Cal thinking that this actor, particularly, represented all that I had hated about my life up to that point — the ruthless maleness of it, the alcoholism, the reckless capitalism — but I came out of Berkeley as a young man who was in love with Hollywood, in love with a certain kind of industrially produced movie, in love with Westerns.
Hawks on Hawks was perfect for me. This book, crafted from interviews that McBride had done with an elderly Hawks at a moment in his life when he had time for a brilliant young man like McBride. Among other things, I was blown away by the idea that these two were just sitting around Hawks’ living room talking, that it was even possible to insert oneself into the active life of an American colossus and ask him all the questions that you’d ever wanted to ask him. The voice of this man, Howard Fucking Hawks, a master of several cinematic genres, talking about some of the greatest movies ever made as though they were, in the words of his friend John Ford, just a “job of work.”
Asking myself, from this distance, why this book still glows with such significance for me, I want to say that it gave me permission to do my own work. To hear the voice of the filmmaker who had directed Red River, Bringing Up Baby, Rio Bravo, Only Angels Have Wings — to name only the moves that changed my life — talk about these great works of art as though they were, well, his day job — that was a huge gift. I think it also must have given me a vocabulary for the work that I ended up doing: fiction. I have tried like hell to be unpretentious in a vocation where pretentious can be a default. I have asked myself a thousand times, “What would Howard Hawks do? What would he say?”