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Remember Imagine Choose: A Conversation with Peter Davis

The following is a single side of a conversation The Straddler conducted with writer and filmmaker Peter Davis, perhaps best known for his Academy Award-winning 1974 documentary film Hearts and Minds, which examined the Vietnam War. 

His most recent book, If You Came This Way, is a chronicle of the American underclass.  The focus of our own dialogue with him was inspired by previous conversations on the broad topic of editing.]

In making a film—in making a documentary film—you may shoot a hundred hours of film, or in the case of Hearts and Minds, 200 hours of film.  Well, you can take notes on that and transcribe it to some extent, but there’s a lot of stuff that’s hard to transcribe because it’s seen and not heard.  So your own memory comes into play; and, as a matter of fact, something else besides memory is going on: this is what you know about a given subject that you did not shoot. But you know it. You know it is there. You either weren’t able to shoot it, or weren’t interested in shooting it. Three levels of reality exist in any documentary film, and the first one is what you know or learn but do not shoot. The second is everything contained in [the] shooting itself. The third and most important level of reality is what you actually include in the finished film.  When you do your job right, the final film has echoes and suggestions of the first two levels of reality.

I felt by the end of my time making Hearts and Minds—which had a 100:1 ratio of what we shot to what was in the finished film—that I was trying to suggest in the film, without being either didactic or explanatory, the entire experience of the war.  The war for Americans, and also the war for the Vietnamese.  And what it was like to be us, knowing what we did to Vietnam.  And also what it was like to be a Vietnamese. Whether the Vietnamese were on our side or fighting against us, they nonetheless had this very strong sense, no matter what side they were on, of a lot of things being done to their country.  Their land and forests and jungles and cities being laid waste by this war.  Their people and customs being changed by migration to cities or displacement into refugee camps or exile. I didn’t show all that.  We showed some of it, but I tried in what we showed to suggest the rest of what was going on in the war—the history of the war, the fact that the Chinese had been aggressors in Vietnam, the French had been colonialists in Vietnam, and we Americans became the occupiers of Vietnam. There are Vietnamese who talk about this a little, but I don’t really show much of it. Thomas Mann—and I would never assert this because I think it’s arrogant to say this about one’s own work—once described Death in Venice as “a little work of inexhaustible allusiveness.”  I think that anyone who works at creating something that didn’t exist before is going to try to put more between the lines than actually appears in the lines.  Or underneath the scenes than actually appears within the scenes, since we’re talking both about filmmaking and writing.

I certainly don’t think that I’m the first person who ever said these three words, but they resonate for me any time I’m trying to write anything: Remember, Imagine, Choose.  Possibly you are remembering something you once thought, or dreamt, or saw and heard.  But then you have to imagine it, so that it becomes the thing that you can really make communicable to a reader.  And, well, in the novel that I’ve been writing I have more than 2,400 pages of notes. [1]  So obviously that involved choosing; of course I made up new material, plot lines, scenes that were not in that 2,400 pages.  I just stopped transcribing when I got to 2,400; there were actually hundreds more pages of notes I didn’t bother transcribing. These notes involved a certain kind of creativity—for me anyway—[they] involved getting everything out there.  The notes obviously shouldn’t be dignified by the word draft.  And yet they were a little bit more than notes. Scenes for instance, are very different from research.  My novel takes place in the 1930s.  Now, I wasn’t even born when my novel takes place, so I had to create a time and place I’d never been to, which involved doing a lot of research before I could begin.  Certainly I imagined a good deal before I did any research, but then I realized that I needed to do research not only to incite my imagination but to impart that aura of authenticity that can help people to suspend disbelief.  I mean, if you made up stories about the 1930s and inserted jet planes and computers just because you imagined them, I suppose you’d be a science fiction writer; but you wouldn’t be writing authentically about the reality of the 1930s themselves.

For me, authenticity consists of getting the smell of things right. Even if readers don’t consciously know the specifics of car designs or hair styles or clothing of an era, there is in most of us a residual sense, from what we’ve read or photographs we’ve seen or stories our grandparents have told us, of details that accurately convey the period. I wanted to get those details right without, of course, obsessing on them to the detriment of the story and characters themselves. The story takes place in the 1930’s and I wanted to be authentic, and at the same time I wanted to say goodbye to my research and all concepts of authenticity and let my imagination do its play, and its work.

It’s very different for me with film because I made the kinds of films that you don’t make up.  Of course imagination comes into play, and people who don’t like my films would say I use too much imagination and not enough fact. When you edit—arrange—the elements in your film, that itself consists of a sort of making up.

My intention in Hearts and Minds took a long time to arrive at.  After several months I realized that my intention in the film was Inquiry.  Rather than preaching, or having a point of view that I poured everything else into.  And my Inquiry revolved around three questions: Why did we go to Vietnam? What was it that we did there, to the Vietnamese?  And what did the doing in turn do to us?  And so that became my intention.  Those three questions.  And every scene in the film, every sequence, addresses one or more of those three questions.  It doesn’t answer—the film doesn’t answer any of those questions.  But I hope it suggests further questions and lines of thinking and feeling, and suggests ways also for an individual viewer to think about those questions for herself or himself.  Now, with my novel I started with wanting to know.  Again it was kind of a question: What happened in the time before my time, but made my time what it is?  And I picked the year 1934, a choice that was kind of unconscious.  I had no idea about all the things that had gone on in 1934, but I just knew that there was turmoil, in Hollywood as elsewhere—the Depression was still on and yet Roosevelt was president and people had their hopes raised a little bit.  And I knew that a famous movie with Clark Gable called It Happened One Night, was made.   I don’t even know if I’d seen the movie by that time, and the movie is not any part of my novel.  I just had a sense about that year.  And, in fact, my mother published a novel in 1934. [2]  In a way, my novel takes up from hers. She was a young writer in New York, and her entire novel takes place in New York.  My entire novel takes place in California.  After she wrote her novel, and published a book of short stories the following year, [3] 1935, she left for Hollywood because a famous producer named Irving Thalberg was making a movie of The Good Earth, the novel by Pearl Buck.  And he called my mother—or, the way they talked about it in those days is he “sent for her.”  Or he “brought her out,” as many New York writers, or Eastern writers—Chicago, anyplace—were hired to come out to Hollywood.  My mother thought she’d stay for maybe a year and then have enough money to come back east and be serious about another novel. And then she met my father and they wrote screenplays together. But first she wrote the screenplay for The Good Earth.  In any case, I was really interested in what happened in 1934, and what happened in Hollywood in that year.  But then I started to find out other things that happened.  The Chancellor of Austria was assassinated by Hitler’s friends; Bonnie and Clyde ran wild, then were killed; and John Dillinger, the great, horrible, criminal of the early 1930’s, was finally trapped and killed outside a movie theatre in Chicago—again these things are mentioned but don’t figure in my novel.  There was [also] a big campaign for governor in California by the writer who wrote The Jungle, Upton Sinclair.  He had an idea that he was going to end the Depression in California, and his ideas about socializing things were going to spread out over the country.  None of this is in my novel though all of it informs what is there.  But then, something else happened in 1934 that is in my novel.  There was a strike—there were strikes all over the country, but there was a huge strike in San Francisco, and the strike in San Francisco was by the longshoremen, guys who load cargo onto ships, and unload it from ships—and they struck against the ship owners and the dock owners of San Francisco.  And their leader was a young Australian who had jumped ship after he had been a seaman himself.  And this little Australian guy, Harry Bridges, that year went from being unknown to being very famous. (He didn’t die until a few years ago.)  They were always trying to deport him as a Communist—you know, as he’d come into this country illegally—and he denied being a Communist, but the government tried to deport him for decades.  Decades.  Well this strike worked its way inside me the way the assassination of the Chancellor of Austria, and Bonnie and Clyde, and many other things did not; and I thought, this strike has to be in my book.  It’s so important.  And then my question became, for this book, What happens to this young screenwriter who comes of age in 1934 at the busy intersection of Hollywood, the Depression, and the Communist party?  So, all of my book addresses that question.

My films have personal aspects, too.  And this is something I’ve never talked about.  There are things in Hearts and Minds, and in my other films, that have to do with me: my sense of justice for whatever that’s worth, my emotional relation to power, both personal and political, my assorted social and political grumbles.  I feel that my best loyalty to my country is to criticize it.  Now, my favorite poet when I was growing up was William Blake, who I wrote my college thesis on.  He said a great thing that I’ve always tried to live by: Opposition is true friendship.  I’d have to look it up.  I mean I remember the quote, but I am hazy where it was he actually said that.  Possibly in a letter or something. [4]  He said opposition is true friendship.  And I think that in my case that’s really true.  I love America.  I keep thinking about not living here anymore, and sometimes I think, when I’m angriest at the way our politics are being run, I’m moving to Italy or France, or now Vietnam, because my wife made me go back there a few years ago and I loved it.  I hated it during the war, but I loved it when I went back.  Anyway, I guess I couldn’t be outside this country for long.  For one thing, aside from how much I love this country, anything I ever do, or have ever done is completely about America and American culture and sensibility.  If I went and lived in London, I could never write a book that was English.  I have no interest in writing about France. The American soil itself, the American scene, continually nourishes me.  American professors who take a year, take their families to Provence, then write a lovely book about—there’s a book called A Year in Provence, [5] or something close to that.  It’s a charming, wonderful book, but if I were going to live for a year in Provence, I would be writing about America.

I work on American themes: who we are in the world, how our power is projected, our generosity toward and tolerance of others versus our lust for world domination, finally that little voice in many of us that, thank goodness, won’t quite be silenced, the voice of conscience.  There are writers—Joseph Conrad, V.S. Naipaul—great writers, in other words, who are able to make themselves at home abroad.  I don’t think I could do that.  For both its aggravations and delights, I need my home ground.

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