Wrapped Up In Books is The A.V. Club's monthly book club. We'll be talking about this month’s book among ourselves for a few days leading up to a live chat, which you can join this Thursday at 5 p.m. ET/4 p.m. CT.
First off, Keith, thanks for selecting this book. It was a really fun ride. Second… I’m appalled that you’d even suggest “the quality of the movie doesn’t matter.” To my mind, the quality of The Man Who Got Away, the film that Richard Hudson expends his life on in The Woman Chaser, is the central question of the book. Is it any good? Does it say anything true, relevant, or important about modern life, or does it just reflect Richard’s prejudices and twisted sensibilities, which are well-established in the book by the time he decides to make a film? Are Leo and THE MAN really betraying his vision, or are they finding a perfectly acceptable venue for the weird, bitter little hybrid he’s produced?
All of these things are critical in telling us whether Richard’s anger by the end of the book is justified. His actions aren’t, without a doubt—he crosses the line when he decides to wreck other people’s art and property as well as his own, to say nothing of what he does to Laura. But is his anger the righteous wrath of a great artist quashed by a selfish, compromising partner and a money-hungry number-cruncher, or is he just so puffed up with his own self-importance that he sees perfection where it doesn’t exist?
Granted, I think Willeford sets up enough contradictory evidence that it can be read either way. Scott seems pretty confident that The Man Who Got Away must be a great movie, and the relative respect Richard gets from THE MAN after it’s finished argues in its favor. Here’s someone so powerful that he’s only referred to with that ridiculous all-caps title. His touchiness is proven; previously, he was mortally offended by Richard’s rudeness in wanting to actually talk about his film during a meeting about his film. But by the end of the book, he’s politely attempting to reason with Richard and reassure him that his art is being respected and will not be ruined. He’s putting up with Richard’s obnoxiousness as though he had cause to. That alone argues that there’s something to The Man Who Got Away.
But I don’t have Scott’s confidence in Richard as director. Not because he’s untried, or arrogant, or single-minded, but because of who the book has proven him to be at that point. To my mind, the best parts of The Woman Chaser come before the movie plot even comes to light, when Willeford (and Richard-as-narrator, telling his story as if it were a film) establishes what kind of man Richard is by telling you what he’s thinking as he goes through his paces. The segments where Richard tells the reader what’s what—why you should never hire a 10-year military serviceman, or a retired military officer, and why you should never pass up the chance to hire a 20-year military serviceman—were my favorite parts of the book, solely for the freshness and specificity of Richard’s views.
I particularly liked this bit: “I knew how to spend money and I spent it. But I didn’t know how to get rid of money. There’s a difference. When I first began to get a few wads of the folding stuff I spent a lot of it on girls in San Francisco. I soon found out, however, that it was much cheaper and healthier to pay out twenty or fifty bucks for a call girl than it was to invest in a so-called decent girl who didn’t always pan out after a considerable expenditure. Emotional entanglements are avoided, and one experienced call girl is worth ten amateurs looking for a husband.”
With that one concise paragraph, Willeford says everything he needs to say about Richard’s impatience, his earthiness, his emotional unavailability, his selfishness, his pragmatism, his cynicism, and why he really shouldn’t be called “the woman chaser.” (I’m glad Keith cleared up the issue of the title, which is about as inappropriate and ridiculous as that book cover, with the woman showing off the freakish third boob that’s sprouted on the side of her body, just underneath her ribcage.) It’s not that assholes can’t create fantastic art—some of the greatest artists I’ve met are assholes. But many of the things Richard “knows” about the world—from its arbitrary bright line between Insiders and Feebs to his great, weepy Toastmasters-meeting revelation that life sucks and then you die—strike me not so much as important things that need to be communicated to the masses, as the bitter fruits of a life poorly spent. Which makes me question everything about his film, from its intentions to its execution.
All in all, The Man Who Got Away sounded to me like a narcissistic little poison pill, a muddled, immature, spiteful project from a muddled, immature, spiteful man. The plot is negligible—it’s no wonder that it can be condensed down to those three blunt sentences Richard uses as a plot synopsis—and the theme is a hateful rejection of family, society, and human relationships. Even the title is a pitch-black, ironic joke. So ultimately, the quality of the final project would crop up in the film’s other aspects, like the writing and editing, which again, Richard controls completely, and in the key performances, at least one of which comes from a diffident, flustered non-actor whom Richard chose seemingly out of further spite and hatred of all woman who aren’t his marvelous, magical mother. (But I’ll get to that in a bit.)
And yet, in spite of everything, a professional editor and a jaded studio head see something special in Richard’s movie, so it clearly isn’t the piece of trash I’d expect from a man this blinkered, much less a man who set out to make a film as much because he wanted to create something but didn’t want to waste his time on the “years of apprenticeship” that would supposedly be necessary if he wanted to generate a painting, a sculpture, a song, a book, or a building. I think there’s an argument to be made that his film shows some raw, significant potential. It just isn’t so fantastic as to bowl over everyone who comes in contact with it, such that they’re willing to drop their plans and send it to theaters as a 63-minute film. And therefore, in a way, it isn’t up to Richard’s standards. He wanted to break out of that middlebrow, middle-class, Feeb way of life, but he failed. In part it’s because Leo and THE MAN are holding him back, but surely if his film was the unanswerable masterpiece he thinks it is, they’d get out of his way, right?
Isn’t it possible that that’s one of the reasons he destroys it, and all the other films he can reach, and goes crawling back to his car lot? Like Laura’s baby, which he also attempts to destroy, he generated it, but he can’t deal with the repercussions, so his response is to lash out violently not just at the thing he created, but at everything around it. If that parallel seems weak, consider this: Having failed to create the unparalleled objet d’art that would ensure his immortality, he’s presented with the other, more conventional route to immortality: a child. And he immediately and forcibly rejects it. When he chose to make his film, he spurned the home-and-family route as a trap for Feebs; by punching Laura, he reaffirms that decision. Just because his one escape route has been cut off doesn’t mean that he’s willing to settle down into that wife-and-baby trap. No, he’d rather kill a kid and destroy himself, exactly like the subject of his movie.
In the end, I think it’s fairly clear that Richard is “the man who got away,” with the ironic reversal of the title intended, just as it is in his film: Like his protagonist, he sees the lack of value in conventional life, and attempts to escape it, but fails, and crashes, and burns. And like his protagonist, he takes down others with him.
In one sense, this book felt to me like a noir story where the femme fatale is Art. Richard is a classic noir chump, the hard-bitten, hard-hitting guy who nonetheless proves to be weak-willed and easily led to his doom once the right gal comes along. And that gal would have to be a principle rather than a person, since actual women just aren’t that big a deal for him. Why? Because his own mom is this strange fey creature that no woman could live up to. Simultaneously inaccessible and all-giving in her femininity—she un-self-consciously shows off her breasts to Richard, yet her life is entirely about herself, with little motherly concern left over for him—she’s like some pagan fertility goddess, sexual yet unapproachable. (But with an L.A. twist, given that her concern is all for her skin, her appearance of youth, and her own oddball art.) To answer Keith’s question, that’s what I made of Richard’s weird relationship with his mother: It’s a key to his contempt for all other women, and his casual-to-abusive treatment of them. He’s used to worshipping at the feet of a goddess; no flesh-and-blood woman comes close.
What I find more compelling and more confusing is the scene where Richard and his mom dance together. To some degree, I felt like that was Willeford showing us that Richard does have some art in him that doesn’t come from a pragmatic, agenda-driven place—his desire to tell the world how horrible it is, his desire to leave a part of himself behind. He is actually capable of losing himself in the act of creation, and of creating something worthy in the process. He isn’t entirely a monster. Which makes his self-destruction a little more poignant. Maybe something worthwhile is being lost as he goes down.
But either way, it’s worth contrasting “Mother”’s art—her private dances—with her son’s. She dances for herself alone, and if Richard and Leo’s reactions are any indication, given that it cuts through their cynicism, her dancing is phenomenal. And when Richard is with her, and is as un-self-conscious and agenda-free as she is, he’s apparently phenomenal too. (Though again, we have only Leo for a judge there.) Maybe Willeford is making a point here about art for art’s sake, made free of the compromise inherent in a studio system, and free of the “message” Richard attempts to impart in his poison-pen letter to society at large. Of course, it’s also safely free of outside judgments. If all that dancing was made public, who knows? It might fall prey to the same sneering contempt that Richard and his mom have for “Lumpy Grits.”
So here are my big questions coming out of the book, for those who haven’t commented yet. Whether you assume Richard’s film is genius or idiocy, should he have compromised his vision and cooperated with THE MAN and Leo, in hopes of recouping Leo’s investment, and the money stolen from Honest Hal, and in hopes of honing his craft and making a better, less problematic work someday? Or would that just make him yet another sellout? And assuming he had created a work of enduring genius, which of his actions might that have justified? His theft from Hal? His bullying Leo into selling his painting?
Because here’s one thing I came out of the book with: A lot of people will respect someone who sacrifices and compromises in order to create. No one loves the man who sacrifices and compromises in order to destroy.