Sunday, September 9, 2012

Lost Luggage & Found Ideas

Many an engineer or physicist has dreamed of stumbling across a perfect re-creation of the the contents of Nikola Tesla's lab as it appeared before the fire that destroyed half a lifetime's work. For religion students, it's the idea of finding the mysterious "Q Document." For lit students, the dream involves taking the top off a dusty box in some dim library to find a copy of Shakespeare's Love's Labours Won.

Maybe not quite in that league, but certainly close by, would be running across the contents of a suitcase carried by Ernest Hemingway's first wife, Hadley, in 1922. Going to visit her husband in Switzerland for the holidays, Hadley thoughtfully packed every single thing he had written up to that point, including the carbon copies. She left the train to get a bottle of water and when she returned, the suitcase was gone.  Gone.  Every word he had written about his World War 1 experiences, his first novel, well over a dozen short stories - all gone, never to surface again.* Hemingway sometimes shrugged off the loss, claiming that the work was juvenile and not at all good, but sometimes he also claimed this was the main reason he divorced Hadley. (Actually, the truth is that he divorced Hadley because he was Hemingway, but no matter.)

The Words runs with this idea.  In fact, Hemingway's landmark novel of the "Lost Generation" of the 1920s, The Sun Also Rises is featured prominently in several shots, no doubt as a nod to the suitcase story. In The Words, a hack writer comes across a manuscript tucked into an old attache case his wife buys him in Paris on their honeymoon. He claims the novel as his own work and fame and glory come his way. As does the actual author of the work in question.

Only that's not really the story. The actual story is told by the now Old Man (no sea was apparent, but I suspect another Hemingway nod there) about his experiences in Paris at the end of World War 2 and the family he tried to build there and the wife who lost - you guessed it - the manuscript he'd been working on. Lost on a train.

Only that's not really the story. The actual story is told by the author of a book about the Old Man and his life and the manuscript that was lost and recovered by the young writer's wife, who then lies to everyone and publishes it.

Only that's not really the story. The actual story is told in between all of these paths and hinges on what we what, Life or Fiction, and how one word changes everything.

Actually, that might not really be the story, either, but by then I couldn't tell.  The Words is a film that desperately wants to be Serious Cinema, and it's not bad cinema, but it topples under its own weight and cleverness at some point.  You have strong actors here (I found Jeremy Irons to be especially captivating as the Old Man), but the plot is twisted to the point that you expect to meet yourself coming the other way.  In and of itself, that's not a bad thing, but I'm not convinced it was truly worth the journey.  The Words says some important things about theft of ideas, why that's a bad, yet tempting, thing, and the cost of honesty in righting a wrong action, but as it works through its layers to the center truth it wants to convey, it's easy to lose interest.

* OK, it's a slight exaggeration.  One story was out with an editor and another was buried in a drawer.

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