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Perfect pieces.

Perfect Pieces

As a journalist, Aaron Latham is hardlya household name. Yet rare is the pop-culture consumer unfamiliar with his work--not as it appears on the page, but as it flickers across the screen. Latham, you see, has a knack for writing magazine articles so inherently marketable that Hollywood executives envision cameras rolling and hear cash registers ringing at the mere mention of his byline.

If you loved John Travolta in "UrbanCowboy'--or hated the same actor in "Perfect'--Latham deserves both the credit and the blame. "The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy,' which appeared in Esquire in 1978 and leads off Perfect Pieces*--a collection of Latham's stories from the past 15 years--was responsible for both a box-office bonanza and the early eighties obsession with mechanical bulls and a four-acre Houston saloon named Gilley's. "Perfect,' which appeared in Rolling Stone in 1983 and bats second in this volume, didn't score quite so big when it played at a theater near you (maybe that's because it unleashed upon an unsuspecting public the acting stylings of Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner, who portrayed himself). But no contemporary time capsule could be complete without reference to the film and the world it depicts: coed health clubs and the sanitized courting rituals conducted around Nautilus machines.

* Perfect Pieces. Aaron Latham. Arbor House, $17.95.

For most reporters--especially those whobelieve in their words enough to rescue them from perishable periodicals by collecting them between hard covers--a discussion of the movies those words inspired would be not only irrelevant but an insult. Yet such is not the case with Latham. If anything, he seems proud of the fact that his articles are easily converted into film. This happens because Latham has consciously perfected a style of writing meant to trigger Pavlovian "We've got to make this a picture' responses among producers. Call it "treatmentese.'

In an age when even murderers employtheatrical agents, and somewhere, someone is surely already trying to tie up the movie rights to the stories of Iranamok figures like Oliver North, the best get-rich-quick scheme going involves prospecting in the Klondike of true-life tales. As a consequence, journalists--who deal with such material every day--are in the perfect position to become the new '49ers. In other words, if a reporter can stake out a drama from the front pages, sign up the participants, and then dash off a piece that will serve as a compelling synopsis--A.K.A. treatment--when it crosses the desk of Mr. or Ms. Make-A-Deal, he's likely to hit a motherlode in movieland.

Of course, it's not so easy. The rub is that lastitem--writing it up so that it sells. This is where Latham excels, and this is why Perfect Pieces is, quite unintentionally, a primer on a generally unaddressed ethical dilemma for journalists: how far can a reporter go in shaping his articles to elicit interest from Hollywood before he abandons his integrity as a newsman? Considering journalism's relatively low salaries and freelance fees--especially compared to the high wages of screenwriters--any reporter with an eye on the main chance is likely to face this question sooner or later. And magazine journalists aren't the only ones confronting the issue. Newspaper writers, especially those with a talent for human interest stories, can also find themselves traversing this suspect terrain.

On the face of it, there's nothing wrong witha piece of journalism that reads like a movie. Good reporting--like a good picture--is often built around characters in conflict. If in the course of doing his job, a journalist just happens to produce a story featuring so many compelling elements that a call from the Coast comes the very day the article hits the newsstands, more power to him. The problems arise when a journalist willfully manipulates his material to cater to the Hollywood marketplace, a marketplace that puts a premium on titillation, outrageous complications, and plots that can be summarized in just one sentence. There is a fine line between journalism and treatmentese, but nearly every reporter who makes the effort to become savvy to the ways of the movie industry eventually discovers exactly where it is. By crossing it, he may score big at the bank, but he will also betray his readers by producing work that while high in concept, is noticeably low in such noncinematic values as facts and interpretation.

Calculated design

Anyone who thinks treatmentese is a minorproblem in American journalism these days obviously hasn't been reading many general-interest magazines. Lately, it seems that just about every other life-style, crime, or love story appearing in such publications as Esquire, GQ, New York, and Rolling Stone contains at least one passage that fairly screams: "Make me a movie, please.' (A superb recent example is a 1984 Los Angeles Herald-Examiner series on mistresses by their columnist and ex-Nixon speechwriter Ben Stein. These articles--written in a prose pumped up by Stein's conception of Hollywood's idea of male fantasy--were almost immediately optioned by a producer who saw in their glib characterizations and pop psychologizing exactly what Stein intended him to see: a TV mini-series.) But all these pieces about office romances or heroic cops or troubled adolescents are really cheap imitations when put up against the genuine items bearing the imprimatur of Aaron Latham Productions.

Perfect Pieces' imperfect title piece, "Perfect!',is the perfect extant example of treatmentese. Written five years after Latham had had his first taste of Hollywood money and was hungry for another bite, it was immediately recognizable as a sales tool, a pitch aimed at a very small group of men and women who live west of Doheny and north of Sunset in Beverly Hills. Now, stripped of any news value by the passage of time, the story has the literary worth of an in-house memo, of interest only to film historians researching why Paramount Pictures made "Perfect.'

Yet "Perfect!' deserves deeper exegesis.Readers--and editors--need to recognize the early warning signs of treatmentese when they see them. The first and most important thing treatmentese tries to do is what movie makers' interest in a subject by reducing it to terms that even a moron could comprehend. (This is not because producers are morons, incidentally, but because they believe their audiences are.) Hence, by the second paragraph of "Perfect!', Latham declares: "Coed health clubs, the new singles bars of the eighties . . . are the new places where couples meet for one night or for many.' Next, treatmentese must provide some quick jiggle right up top. Early in "Perfect!' Latham quotes a character named "black leotard' who purrs: "There's something kind of sexy about doing all that sweating and grunting.' Then, treatmentese almost always cites a psychologist or consultant to suggest to any moguls in the audience that the piece is on the cutting edge of a trend that's going to produce lines around theater blocks all across America. In "Perfect!' Latham calls upon John Megatrends Naisbitt to weigh in with a few profundities that hint at a wave of coed health clubs a-coming. Skillfully crafted treatmentese must also offer some wild and unpredictable element. In "Perfect!' this feature is visual, stupid, and hence inspired: One of Latham's main characters--the boss stud of the health club-- just happens to be a dancer at a nude male review, and he woos his weight-lifting honey by inviting her to a cabaret to watch him strip.

Finally, the sine qua non of successfultreatmentese--the aspect of "Perfect!' that reduced Hollywood powerbrokers to drooling hostages anxious to hand over the combination to the office safe--has less to do with a piece's constituent parts than with their presentation. From "Perfect!' 's opening sentence ("The jumps and kicks and sensuous contortions performed are the new dances') to its last (""Roger and Lori, do you take each other for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, in shape, but never out of shape, 'till death do you part?''), Latham is doing by calculated design what screenwriters who regularly take meetings do by second nature: schtick. And no wonder. Producers--a breed notoriously easy to bore--are less interested in such old-hat stand-bys as rising and falling action than in immediate gratification. Thus "Perfect!' 's hurried, harried style, its "Ya-da-da-da-da-da . . . Ya-da-da-da-da . . . Ya-da-da-da-da-da . . . da!' approach to, well, narrative. Obviously, this tactic works in a Hollywood boardroom, but on the printed page in an article of approximately 7,000 words, it comes across like dozens of premature literary ejaculations.

In the most of the post-"Perfect!' pieces collectedin Perfect Pieces, the frantic elements of treatmentese triumph over the often more sober staples usually found in good journalism ("Life Is a Hamburger,' Rolling Stone, December 1983--the story of two Texas kids who get married at a Burger King--has TV movie written all over it; "The New Speakeasies,' Rolling Stone, December 1985--a look at the L.A. underground club scene--feels more like a feature).

What makes this sad is that in most of the pre-"Perfect!'pieces rounded up in this volume, Latham shows himself to have exceptional talent as a reporter. Among them is a fine article about author Gay Talese reported while Talese was busy researching his bestselling tome on sex in America, Thy Neighbor's Wife. Latham folowed Talese through the libidinous New York sexual underground, coming back with a detailed account of the writer's alley-catting, which originally appeared in New York.

When he puts his mind to it, Latham can alsobe quite an inspired stylist. This skill comes through best in this collection in a wonderful piece on Warren Beatty, written for Rolling Stone at the time the actor was making "Reds.' When Beatty wouldn't allow Latham to interview him, Latham turned the tables on the star by interviewing his closest friends in order to construct a profile told by witnesses--a clever aping of the witness technique Beatty used in "Reds' to reveal protagonist John Reed through the words of his associates.

Unfortunately though, Latham's forays intoconscientious reporting and creative writing are the exceptions, not the rule, in Perfect Pieces. Sadder still, his best work seems to have been done early in his career. This collection, then, is less a record of a journalist's progress than a chronology of his selling out. While reading Perfect Pieces, it's ironic to think back to Latham's excellent first book, Crazy Sundays: F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood. In careful and well-informed prose, the Fitzgerald study chronicles the decline of a writer whose poetic style and psyche were too delicate to flourish in the movieland jungle. Latham's career has been the flip side of the Fitzgerald experience, for, since completing Crazy Sundays, he has succeeded in the movie business only too well. Yet in the process Latham has abandoned in his own writing most of what he once so much admired in Fitzgerald's. There's a moral here somewhere.
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Copyright 1987, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Oney, Steve
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1987
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