Sunday, February 20, 2005

Novelisation

A Fragment of a B-Grade, Dino De Laurentis-produced Dream

"You're a loose cannon! By rights I oughta kick your no good ass out of here but lucky for you I gotta look out for the interests of the paper! The paper, ya hear me?"

The speaker is Bill O'Brien, veteran editor at the Daily Star. Bill is yellowed and crumpled, with a good line in apoplectic ranting and a hard-earned smoker's cough. Where does Bill come from? Bill is a figment of Danny Mettle's imagination. Danny Mettle put Bill on a page, and Ralph Black (in association with hundreds of people, millions of dollars) put Bill on the screen, and now I am putting Bill back on the page. I am novelising Bill.

Bill's interlocutor, a scowling young man, sits opposite, doodling genitalia on a notepad. This biro Dali sketches his deformed privates with studied insouciance: he has heard this speech before. Bill rattles on. We pick up the occasional word - "ethical...responsible...trustworthy" - and we sense that Bill is compiling an antonymous description of the young man. Whoever he is, he certainly isn't ethical, responsible, trustworthy.

Suddenly Bill is leaning across the desk, his wrinkled mouth inches from the young man's face. The latter looks up in time to see Bill drag his pale pink slug of a tongue across his thin, nicotine-stained lips.

"Are you listening to me, Davage?" says Bill, flecks of spittle launching from his palette as he speaks.

"Sorry, sir," replies the young man - Davage? - his stalwart eyes never wavering from those of the older man. "My mind was elsewhere." He holds up the notepad to reveal his juvenile markings. Bill's face turns a shade of red bordering on puce. He knocks the pad to the floor and Davage springs to his feet, apparently ready to take a swing at the old coot, when the door opens and an attractive brunette enters.

"Bill," she says, "I wonder if I might borrow Jack for a moment."

Bill reluctantly assents, and, with a final heated glance at the editor, Davage leaves the room in the company of the young woman.

"Jack," she says as they wander through the chaotic newspaper offices, "You gotta stop getting on O'Brien's bad side. He could end your career like that." That being the verbal accompaniment to an emphatic snapping of fingers.

Jack isn't so sure. "And lose his best investigative journalist? I don't think so."

"Well, be careful." She touches his arm; he smiles.

"Don't worry, Susan," he says. "Let's go get some lunch, huh?"

Cut. End of scene one.

***

Of course they are having sex now. Jack kisses Susan's shoulder, she his chest; we see a hand caressing a thigh, half a buttock, a nipple - no, two nipples. He raises himself on both hands and, apparently, enters her without manual guidance. She grimaces blissfully, and he kisses her face as a chorus of syncopated moaning begins. A silk sheet remains tastefully draped over the healthily tanned couple's nether regions, but we are recompensed by ample shots of Jack pinching Susan's breasts, Susan biting Jack's pectorals. The length and detail of the sex scene indicates that this is an adult film, not in the pornographic sense, but in the sense of being sophisticated entertainment for adults. No kids allowed: film may contain nipple-biting and fake orgasms. Adult themes.

We assume that this is a regular thing for Jack and Susan. They look the type to indulge in a heated office romance. And why not? They are young, good-looking, unfettered. The sex is great. Look at the way Jack turns Susan over, the camera focusing on her pendulum breasts as he thrusts from behind (the silk figleaf remaining miraculously in place, as if physically pinned there). Finally, glistening with a fine layer of sweat, the young lovers collapse onto the bed, into one another's arms.

"Oh, Jack," Susan says, rather predictably.

"That was better than going one-on-one with O'Brien," Jack says, panting. They both laugh. Next moment, Jack has climbed out of bed (stopping only to gently peck his lover's bare shoulder) and - what's this? - he is wearing underpants. How is this possible? Is our Jack such a virile stallion between the sheets that he need not even remove his jockeys? Such mysteries go unexplained, though, as Jack takes himself off to the bathroom for a shower.

Susan is satisfied with Jack's performance. We can tell because whenever a movie woman is sexually satisfied she begins to groom herself. Some like to sit at the mirror, combing their hair; others enjoy painting their nails. Susan's preferred post-coital distraction is to pick up an emery board from the bedside table and set it to work on her fingernails. They are ragged, no doubt, from all the recent digging into Jack Davage's back.

It is hard to know whether Danny Mettle's original script specified Susan file her nails with both breasts exposed. Nevertheless, this is what she does, setting off little tremors in those glands, tremors which fail, however, to distract our attention from what is happening elsewhere in the bedroom. For there is a third party present, lurking in the shadows. As Susan files and Jack showers, this sinister figure - dressed in black, face obscured by a balaclava - moves with stealth towards the bed. A blade glints in the dim light.

Susan notices this presence too late. She opens her mouth to scream - is that the word "Jack" on her lips? - but the figure beats her to it. There is blood; there is a lot of blood.

By the time Jack emerges from the bathroom, the killer has gone, leaving the knife protruding artfully from Susan's chest. Jack is drying his hair. He says something flippant. Wonders why she doesn't respond. Sees her body, draped over the bed, cut and bleeding. Rushes to her side, searches vainly for a pulse. Tears smart at the corners of his eyes as he covers the indecent decedent with the sheet. He sits on the bed, in shock, in his underpants.

Only then does he notice the writing on the ceiling above the bed. In strangely neat letters - some kind of serif font? - is written: TWO DOWN. The final N is pale, streaky. There was, it seems, barely enough blood in Susan's body to finish the job.

***

At this point the opening credits begin, revealing the names of those responsible for Ralph Black's film of Danny Mettle's script of Susan Number Seven. It is a cast of unknowns: Jonny Ham, B.J. Boston, Iggy Stentish. They made this thing for next to nothing, and it made a fortune at the box office. Suddenly Ralph Black and Danny Mettle are next big things. The cast? They're still essentially unknown, but that could change. Jonny Ham is tipped for an Oscar nom for another film (Wheels of God) in which he plays a wheel-chair-bound missionary. He's also negotiating to return as Jack Davage in the sequel to Susan Number Seven, which Danny Mettle may or may not have started writing.

Credits don't belong in a novelisation. Credit fails to append itself, in any shape or form, to such an endeavor. It's all debit. I know I'm not doing myself any favours writing this. I'm doing Danny Mettle a favour. I'm doing Lion's Den Publishing a favour. I'm doing my creditors a favour.

Why do they even want this job done? Who wants a written description - a transcription - of a film whose sole merit is its visual flair? Answer: Plenty of people. Novelisations fly off the shelves. Seen the movie? Now read the book. I've gone even further: I've seen the movie, now I'm writing the book.

Obviously you're reading the book. Well, you'll just have to bear with me, I'm afraid. You'll have to tolerate the digressions, the asides, the off-the-cuff remarks. They told me to write it as I saw it. I see it like this. I am seeing it like this.

Unpause.

***

A police-station at dusk. Cop cars buzz around, stopping occasionally to disgorge a pair of uniforms, some with hand-cuffed criminals in their possession. Inside, hookers and pimps, users and dealers, line the walls of the waiting room, but Jack Davage has been taken deeper within the building, to the captain's office, for questioning.

There is a certain kind of actor American casting directors look for when they need a police captain. Middle-aged, black, with a neat crop of frizzy hair, an ostentatious moustache, and a drill-sergeant's gift for high-decibel oratory: these are the attributes they look for when flipping through the talent books. One such actor is seated on a desk, across from our man Jack Davage, whose dark good looks have, if anything, been improved by his recent ill fortune.

"Shit, Jack," begins the captain, "I haven't heard shit from you in the three years since you quit and now you're mixed up in a murder?"

Jack remains silent, staring at his shoes.

"Shit, Jack," reiterates the captain. "You were my best detective, then you go off and become a hack? Well, I'm not happy about it, never was, but I ain't about to accuse you of murder. Give me some credit, boy." We get the point, but the captain, bless him, is not done furnishing us with back-story. Listen:

"Remember in the Gulf, Jack? Shit, you were my right-hand-man, taking out towel-heads left and right, and when we came home, who was it gave you a job on the force, watched out for you, made you the detective you were?"

Jack looks up, meets the captain's hard, but not unkind, eyes.

"You let me down, sure. But I ain't about to suggest you done something like this. Not by a long shot." The captain, with some awkwardness, lays his hand on Jack's shoulder. "You're a good kid, Jack. That was some bad shit you saw today with your lady friend. I feel for you, son."

"Thanks, Cap" Jack says, and we sense that tears are again near. Lest this touching display of male bonding tip over into homo-eroticism, the spell is suddenly broken by the incursion of a group of people, three non-descript men and a woman. This last is young, good-looking, dressed to intimidate. Her eyes are an odd hazel-orange colour. She looks a lot like Rose. Back in the old days.

"Special Agent Raven," she says, drawing her badge like a pistol. "F.B.I."

The captain stands, looks indignant.

"Now look," he says, "I ain't having you people come in here taking over our case. This is under our jurisdiction and--"

And thus follows the standard Jurisdiction Argument, common to just about every policier ever produced in Hollywood. By this point you have no doubt figured out that Susan Number Seven is an assemblage of cliche. This realisation is authentic: it is about now the cinema audience would be thinking the same thing. So why is the film a hit? Because the visuals are slick; the performances are strong; the editing clever. The inadequacies of Danny Mettle's script are compensated for in the film; they are harder to obscure, however, in the novelisation.

For example, in this scene, Special Agent Raven asserts her right to investigate the murder case, giving Captain Jones - for that is his name - chapter and verse for some thirty-four seconds screen time, during which Ralph Black has his camera trained not on Special Agent Raven, but on Captain Jones. Extreme close-ups, in the Sergio Leone mould. His nostrils, his eyebrows, the beads of sweat forming at his temples. We are all face fetishists. It is a weakness that cinema panders to. The tension builds because we see it build on Captain Jones' face, and because we know that Captain Jones is a type, a type given to anger. A type who, when harangued by a young up-start from the Bureau is going to wait her out, before fixing her with a hard stare and saying:

"Honey, I spent the best years of my life fighting for this country, so that punks like you could go to college and join the Feds, and now you stand there and tell me, a man who put his life on the line in ninety-one, that my men are incapable of handling a murder case? Let me tell you something, sugar - you are wrong, dead wrong, and I suggest you leave before I get on the phone and start making things hot for you down at the Bureau." The captain is shaking with anger, and Ralph Black lets the camera linger, allowing us to see that his rage is not spent, that there is more where that came from. Which makes it all the worse when Special Agent Raven blithely ignores the captain and, looking at Jack Davage, says:

"Is this the witness? We'll question him here. Captain Jones, may we have the use of your office for an hour or two? Thanks." And with a professional nod, sees the seething, yet powerless, captain from the room.

"Now," says Special Agent Raven, as her sidekicks busy themselves securing them room for interrogation, "let's see what you know, Mister Davage."

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