Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It isn't just a fine short novel. It is a magical piece of writing. It is one of two books I've read that I always recommend.
But controversy has surrounded River from the start and, apparently, it isn't over yet.
At first editors turned the book down for publication because, as one wrote, "These stories have trees in them."
Nevertheless, it has survived, and more than 300,000 copies have been sold. It has become a cult favorite and has been compared to Ernest Hemingway's early Michigan stories. I don't buy the comparison. The two writing styles are totally different.
A River Runs Through It is a story with a haunting quality. In it Maclean recalls his youth in the Big Sky country of Montana and the long days of fly-fishing with his father and younger brother, Paul.
His father was a Scottish Presbyterian minister. His brother, the member of the family with the most natural charm, became a gambler, journalist and street fighter. Paul met death at an early age when he was beaten to death by a blunt instrument in a Chicago alley. The police report stated that Paul's right hand was badly bruised, indicating he had fought for his life to the end.
Maclean's opening line tells of the love these three men had for fishing: "In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing."
A River Runs Through It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in a year the committee decided that no prize should be awarded in that category.
I know about that because I worked with Herman Kogan, who was in charge of the fiction category that year. He personally nominated Maclean's book and voted for it for the prize, but he couldn't get enough of the other panel members to agree with him.
Instead, the judges decided to create a special category and give the award to Alex Haley's Roots.
Moviemakers have thought for years that Maclean's book would make a great film. The problem was that Maclean would not sell the rights to anyone he didn't trust. The memory of his father and brother was something he would not allow to be desecrated.
John Hurt, the actor, wanted to buy the rights. Apparently, Hurt is an accomplished fly-fisherman and thought that would win Maclean's support for his project. He set up a meeting with Maclean to go fishing.
Hurt made the mistake of showing up two hours late and without a fishing license. He attempted to make amends by getting the license and going through with their fishing date.
"Well," Hurt asked at the end of the day, "am I a good enough fly-fisherman to play your brother?"
"You're a fine fisherman, but you're not as good as my brother," Maclean said.
"Then maybe I could play you," Hurt said.
"Okay, you could play me the way I am now, but I wasn't 80 years old in the book."
The next Hollywood figure to set his eye on the project was Robert Redford, who had been turned on to the book by novelist Tom McGuane.
Maclean did not succumb to Redford easily. It took time to create a bond of trust. Redford made several visits to Chicago just for the purpose of getting acquainted. Finally, Redford gave Maclean the right to approve the initial script. Only then did Maclean, who died several years ago, give Redford the right to make the film.
Redford produced and directed the film, made without big-name stars. It opens this weekend in major cities around the country, and in Phoenix October 23. This past month, there has been a carefully distributed mix of stories about Redford's making of the film. Glowing portraits of Redford as the brooding artist, wildlife enthusiast and general mensch have been served up to the unsuspecting public in Esquire magazine, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. Frankly, they all have the putrid odor of puffery. It is as though each writer agreed before being allowed to interview Redford that the finished essay would contain sufficient praise and reverence for the great man to make his day.
Each writer in turn seemed to be vying with his competitors to make a deeper bow to Redford's eminence. Please bear one thing in mind before you attack these rich and florid excerpts. Redford is not a great actor or a great director. He is merely an exceedingly pampered, wealthy and famous one. Redford has succeeded over the years in creating just one screen persona, that of the handsome, winsome, single-dimensional Robert Redford, who--thanks to camera work--always appears to be half a foot taller than his five feet six inches. There is Robert Redford the downhill racer, the cowboy, the youthful reporter of Watergate and the con man, but they all come within a millimeter of being exactly the same character.
Nevertheless, as a quid pro quo for being allowed into the great thespian's presence on the set of A River Runs Through It, Esquire's Philip Caputo demeaned himself by carving Redford's nose on Mount Rushmore. It was celebrity journalism at its rankest.
Caputo begins by congratulating Redford for the fact that even though his fame is as great as that of James Dean, Marlon Brando and John Belushi, he has not met their sorry fates. Caputo writes:
"He retains a reputation for maintaining his integrity, for not bowing to the craven demands of the Industry. This rectitude is not without price, however, and the price is a life apart."
And then we meet the great man:
"I found him in a buff-colored abandoned armory on the outskirts of town. . . . He was dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt pulled over a torso kept free of middle-age bulges by a regimen of skiing, tennis, riding and mountain climbing. He was sitting on a crate, elbows on his knees. . . ."
My God, let's get on with it, I say.
The account by Leonard Reed of the Los Angeles Times drips with equal reverence for the great auteur:
"He [Redford] gets up and sits in a folding chair, alone in the center aisle of the trailer, away from the table but trapped by words: vexing, slippery, on-the-point, off-the-point words."
If you can read that sentence and tell me what it means, please send me a self-addressed envelope and stamp and I will arrange to send you back an autographed photograph of Joe Bugel. "The book is a tone poem," Reed quotes Redford as saying. "Norman's language is a map of the soul, of the place, of the time--where he was raised. And it contains universal themes--I like to think it deals with families, on how we connect and do not connect."
What incredible claptrap.
It reminds me of the line Dorothy Parker wrote in her New Yorker book review column called "Constant Reader."
Reviewing A.A. Milne's children's book The House at Pooh Corner, she became revolted and ended her piece with this by-now-famous quote:
"Pom,' said Pooh, 'I put that in to make it more hummy.' And it is that word 'hummy,' my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner where Tonstant Weader fwowed up."
But I am not through. The "On Your Knees, Overwriting of the Year" award goes to Michael Kilian of the Chicago Tribune, who managed to include at least 120 lines of fulsome praise in his piece. Kilian genuflects not only to Redford but to Maclean's son, now an editor at the Tribune.
"The work is a labor of great love for Redford," Kilian tells us. "Movies like this aren't made anymore . . . and he needs not merely to please critics but to fulfill his vows to author Maclean, who died two years ago, before filming had begun."
Then Kilian hits us with this memorable passage. It is so redolent of obsequiousness as to be reminiscent of James Fenimore Cooper in his prime:
"The response that Redford has cared about most came from author Maclean's son, John, an editor at the Chicago Tribune.
"Bob Redford,' John Maclean said, 'has kept the promise to my father in thought, word and deed.'"
And here's the kicker. How about this for the poignant and memorable portrait of the star of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid?
"When told of this in the course of an interview, a few days ago," Kilian writes, "Redford paused to gather up his emotions, then said, 'I can't tell you how much it means to me to hear that.'"
My God! Gadzooks! Ned Buntline has been reincarnated as Michael Kilian!
@body:Here's another, far less adulatory view of Redford from a man with his own Academy Award and lots of money in his bank account.
Elmer Bernstein was honored last month at the Telluride Film Festival for his lifetime contribution to films.
Minutes after being introduced, Bernstein was talking about the terrible experience he had while writing the musical score for Redford's film.
"The thing that has been a disaster for music in films has been the emergence of the auteur directors like Robert Redford," Bernstein said.
"The experience I had with Redford while working on A River Runs Through It is very typical of what happens to music in film.
"This could possibly have been a very nice film. I say possibly, because I have long been off it and it's been cut and butchered to a great extent since."
Bernstein said that he suggested to Redford that he saw the picture as a sort of poem about fishing and family relationships.
"So I went off and recorded some stuff that Redford didn't like. Redford's problem is that he doesn't know what he likes. This is because he doesn't know what he wants. "He told me he wanted more sort of down-home music. I told him I thought that would denigrate the poetical part of the film."
Next Bernstein was ordered to write a set of themes for the film. "By the way," Bernstein said, "Redford was also congenitally late for any appointment he made. One time he was 27 hours late. The earliest he showed up was two and one half hours late."
The audience broke into laughter. Bernstein shrugged as he described what happened next to a film set in Montana.
"In any case, all the themes were finally approved," Bernstein said, "and then we went to Ireland to record them with Redford in attendance.
"The next thing I heard was that Mark Isham had been hired to replace me."
"I don't want to sound bitter. This is patently ridiculous. I have made 200 films and Redford has now made three. On top of that, he has no idea what music's supposed to be doing in a film."
Bernstein added that the emergence of ill-equipped people like Redford as directors inhibits creativity throughout the entire project of making a film.
"If one really analyzes what makes a film," Bernstein said, "it's the script. After the script comes the actors who bring the script to life and then it's the director. Any great director will tell you that 80 percent of the success of a film depends on the actors who play the roles."
Bernstein's take on Redford as a director is that he will not allow anyone the freedom to do anything he doesn't put his own stamp of approval on.
"Redford's presence inhibits creativity. The same thing happens with cinematography, the script, the actors, everyone all down the line."
Bernstein has worked in films for more than 40 years. Some of his better-known film scores are for The Man With the Golden Arm, The Magnificent Seven, True Grit, Airplane, The Shootist, To Kill a Mockingbird and, most recently, My Left Foot and Rambling Rose.
Redford has a reputation as "a control freak" who allows no room for spontaneity when shooting a scene. His rigid sense of pacing was held responsible by insiders for turning his second film, The Milagro Beanfield War, into a sleepwalk.
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And yet, there is no getting around the fact that he did win an Academy Award for Ordinary People, his first directorial assignment. And in order to do that, Redford had to beat out Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull. @rule:
@body:Norman Maclean said in his introduction to A River Runs Through It that "writing makes everything bigger and longer."
I haven't seen the film. I don't know what Redford has done to it, but I fear the worst at this point. Redford doesn't seem to have a sense of humor. I fear Redford would have a hard time understanding a man like Maclean. Asked by a secretary to supply a title for a paper he was to read for a scholarly club called The Thinkers, Maclean answered:
"Put down 'Logging and Pimping,'" Maclean told the secretary, "and where it says 'Speaker,' put down, 'Norman Maclean, noted authority.'"
Just in case you were waiting, the other book is Fred Exley's A Fan's Notes.