The Media Zone

How the media make sense and nonsense of the world.

Writer's Block and Suicide in Film

"Stuart, that book is the devil's work."

 

woman thinking of suicide

So here was this book I had agreed to review for a psychology journal (both the book and journal titles will remain nameless). Sexy subject: a comparison of how and why people commit suicide, in real life and in the movies-you know, reel life vs. real life. Well, sexy to me, a media psychologist, major movie maven and former screenwriter.  I couldn't wait to jump in. 

 Thirty-day deadline to read and write.  Not that long, but certainly doable.  Then I started reading the book...

 Big mistake.  Actually reading it, I mean.  If I could, I would have tried a Vulcan mind probe, try to "absorb" the book's essences, whip off a 500-word review, and send it on its way. 

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

 The problem was I could not find the book's essence.  Maybe it was hiding beneath the avalanche of words, definitions, typologies, lame "scientific" hypotheses, and endless sub- and supra-categories of suicide motives.  I quickly realized I was waist-deep in a quagmire of misdirected science. A psychology book with an anal personality.   

 Good-bye fun, hello work. 

 The book's scientismic dross was underscored by the author's complete absence of understanding of how movies are made, which is a bit of a sticky wicket when you're assessing how film and real life suicides do and don't coincide in terms of the motives people have for committing suicide, as in: She

The Hurt Locker
died for love.  He died disarming a bomb.  She was depressed.  He was heroic.

 After reading, highlighting, underlining and  inserting margin notes, I started to question whether I just didn't understand what the author was saying. My problem, not his.  I gave the book to my wife, Rachel, a script doctor, to test my reality.  We'd both read fatuous books written by serious but naive scholars for whom intellectualization is the royal road to tenure-but not to the creative unconscious of the art of either screenwriting or filmmaking.  Was this another?

A day later, she plopped her reactions and suggestions on my desk: "It's not you, dearie. This book doth suck.  It's pretentious, overly detailed, constipated writing that betrays glaring ignorance of the sausage factory approach that is Hollywood movie making," she declared, then added acidly, "what film producers like to call " 'Hey you, bend over,' collaboration."

Holding the book in her hand as if it reeked of plague, she issued a directive: "Write up that review now. Get that piece of academic garbage out of this house before it drives you nuts and me nutsier."  At which point she dropkicked the book across the room.

I then read her comments. They were equally brutal.  Her tone would pass muster as feedback in a Hollywood script conference but not in an academic review.

 I waited several days before returning to reading what was becoming my bête noire.  But I had mislaid the book.  The search (and miscellaneous distractions) took me another few days (you see where this is going, don't you, Sigmund?).

I again set myself to the task: three days of skimming, rereading passages, chapters and the culminating SUMMARY chapter.  It was crazy-making; and I still couldn't find the schema that captured the constellation of academic bleats that is the treatise on suicide in film and in real life.

 Frustrated, I tried bottom feeding.  I Googled the title to see if it had been reviewed elsewhere, other than the excerpted raves on the book jacket, which often come from other authors in the stable of the same publisher; usually guaranteed to praise rather than bury.  I came up with zip, nada, nothing.  I was on my own. 

Days go by.  I struggle, rant, bitch, have trouble sleeping.  My mind flashes on ironic newspaper headlines and TV crawls:  Media Psychologist Commits Suicide, Unable to Write Review of Book on Suicide.

 Daily, Rachel watches me.  Smiles with sympathetic eyes.  Says nothing.  Quiet support.

 Weirdly, oddly, things keep coming up, demanding my immediate attention.  (No, not pencil sharpening.  Really, I'm better than that).  A Utah high school student wants to interview me about media psychology, for her senior project.  A journalism student from Northwestern asks about America's obsession with celebrity.  Then, of course I had to take the interview with the lady from Parade Magazine about fanatic Superbowl fans and what drives them to keg guzzling, wearing cheese heads, and sporting bi-colored painted faces.

All clearly righteous interruptions.

It's now a week before deadline.  I make a pit stop to scan my computer for viruses, malware and defragmentation needs, to speed up processing.  Then I simply have to help the workmen installing the new cork flooring in the media room.  Follow that by hurriedly taking some pictures of a flock of harem-forming turkeys grazing on the frosted hills behind the house.  Never know when you'll need that exact touch of nature for a Picassa evening.

 Two days before the deadline, I am not anywhere near finished.  As I walk the dog around the lake for the third time that morning. I harrass myself: "You procrastinating, running-on-empty, useless-piece-of-crap-writer."

 I slump back into the house. Rachel sees my face and motions me over to the kitchen sink where she's washing the dishes (her quiet time). With wet hands, she cups my face, looks me in the eye.

"Stuart, that book is the devil's work. What did the research reveal?  That women commit suicide more often than men because of relationship strains? That art speaks more eloquently than science?  Really?  I'll alert the press.  What a handful of banal suicide baubles!"

 Pointing at me, she delivered the decisive blow.  "The book doesn't deserve the respect you're giving it."

And suddenly it all made sense.  I was trying to put respectful lipstick on a crazy-making, academic pig, trying to fit a silk purse over a sow's ear.   (And why are there so many pig metaphors for incongruities and mismatches?) My review needn't match the book's absurdist complexity, silly sobriety and naïve analysis.  The hell with silk purses.  I decided to give the review the burlap treatment it deserved.

 Three hours later the homely, disrespecting little bugger of a review was birthed, cleaned up a little, then dutifully emailed off to the journal.  I made deadline and with a politically risky review (the journal editor's work was cited several times in the book).  As for me and Rachel, well, we lit a fire, drank some

k.d.lang
wine and listened to k. d. lang sing Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah.

 

 

Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., is Senior Editor of the Journal of Media Psychology and Emeritus Professor of Media Psychology at Cal State, Los Angeles.

more...

Subscribe to The Media Zone

Current Issue

Dreams of Glory

Daydreaming: How the best ideas emerge from the ether.