Thursday, June 18, 2020

Research, Writing and Memories

James Coburn in costume- Hell is for Heroes (1962)
I’m currently working with my publisher, Potomac Books, to finalize the content and design of Dervish Dust: The Life and Words of James Coburn. I’m so glad that my employer, the James and Paula Coburn Foundation who commissioned the book, had a good lawyer who was able to give guidance on legal issues.

One of these is that of interviewee clearances. When you are working on a nonfiction book and plan to cite interviewed sources, it's a good idea to have a clearance form available at the time. This is a simple legal document that people sign giving you permission to use their words. It means that later on you don't have to scramble when the publisher asks you about it.

I was writing a fact-based book, that included research that was backed up by documents such as dates stamped in passports and published newspaper articles, as well as paperwork from movie productions, such as call sheets and the daily production report. This meant that it was easy to fact-check and cross reference the recollections of individuals. I was fortunate in one aspect, which is that director Sam Peckinpah was notorious for keeping every scrap of paper that he ever made a mark on or crossed his desk, all of which can be found in his files at the Margaret Herrick Library. I'm told that his section is 75 linear feet of papers. I think I already mentioned, but it bears repeating, write down ALL the details of any published source you use for your footnotes/endnotes. 

However, sometimes fact-checking is impossible, when there are no actual written sources referring to events that happened 50 years ago. Does this mean that opinions or recollections cannot be included? No, but it means that you should say that it is a person’s memory or belief, or otherwise express that this is a rumor, or “reportedly”, or “generally believed”. 

If two people have different recollections, it's okay to say so. That the other person recalls an event differently, may even make the story more interesting. Sometimes it was a case of another family member saying that's not how that happened. It is up to you to determine whether you are going to dispute the storyteller in the main text, or add it as a footnote that another person has a different recollection of the event. In my case I was writing a biography that was based on James Coburn's memoirs. I was reiterating what he recalled about events, so if another family member had a different recollection, in the absence of written sources, the dispute usually tended to go into the notes.

Sometimes a person's recollection was just completely wacky compared to what other people knew to have occurred, or the differences were of tiny and minor details between two individuals who had been there. If the details were unimportant to the story, I just left them out altogether rather than have a bone of contention. For example, this was the case with the color of one particular car belonging to Paula, unlike Jim’s cars, the colors of which were mentioned often in various sources.

The most important thing I learned was about memory. Memory is very malleable. We know this from researchers examining how memories are formed, how they are held, and how they can change over time. In this case I was writing a book that was founded upon a man's memories sometimes going back over 65 years of his life. What I realized in going over Jim's memoirs, that he had recorded in response to conversational prompts from an interviewer, was that people often forget factual details, such as dates. What they remember are their emotions - how they felt, what they focused on that made an emotional connection with them. They will remember events, but not necessarily the exact sequence.

For example , Jim had very strong recollections of his first trip from Laurel to Compton, when his family moved. His memories were a series of vignettes of moments that made an impression on him, made him laugh, things that he specifically noticed in the context of the people that he was traveling with - his father, his aunt, and his mother. However, what he couldn't remember accurately was how old he was. His age went variously from being 4, 5, or 6. He just had a vague recollection that it was early in his life. Thanks to research and the prominence of the Coburn family in Laurel, so that their doings were mentioned in the local newspaper, I was able to pinpoint the exact date that they left because it was written down.

Dervish Dust: The Life and Words of James Coburn is scheduled to be published in Fall 2021.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

A High Wind in Jamaica (1965) - a Personal Response

Well known publicity still from the film, in the JPCF archive
A High Wind in Jamaica was released in 1965, but I know that I didn’t see it in the cinema since I would have been only four at the time. I must have seen it when it turned up on television a few years later. I'm not even sure what country I was living in at the time. But I know it made a strong impression on me as a child.

I always loved seeing movies about children, with child actors.  Since I was a little girl, I nursed an ambition to be an actress myself. For my entire childhood, I never wavered in that idea and even went to acting school as a young adult. I ended up discovering the technical and design side of Performing Arts, but that's another story. The point was I wanted to be acting myself as a child, but never had the opportunity.

I always loved seeing films about children behaving with autonomy. When I saw A High Wind In Jamaica, I was disappointed that the children ended up back with their parents in the end. When Deborah Baxter's Emily stared at the toy sailboat in the pond in London at the end of the movie, I saw a longing in her eyes. I always imagined that the character would, as soon as she was old enough, run away to return to the Sea, or return to island life at least. She would grow up to be a strange girl with odd ideas, hard to marry off.

The intent of the original book, which Alexandra Mackendrick described as a “strange little Masterpiece”, and of the movie, was to posit the idea that children were inherent savages that would revert to barbarism without the guiding hand of paternalistic adults. Pirates represented the ever-so-thin demarcation line between civilized and uncivilized grownups. For me, the idea of children being free to be whatever they wanted, pursue their own interests, and be taken care of by people who regarded them as interesting in themselves, was fascinating. I didn't see this movie as a cautionary tale at all.

To me the pirates were nice, and mostly kindly. They protected the children most of the time. And while it was based in superstition, many of the Pirates seem to regard the children as powerful. James Coburn portrayed what might be considered the villain of the piece, other than maybe the authorities. His character, first mate Zac, never warmed to the children in the way the Captain did. Zac was not amused at having a bunch of kids underfoot in the workplace, which was hardly a stretch for the actor, and felt their presence was dangerous. His foreboding unfortunately was justified. 

As a child watching the film, I didn’t care that the pirates were actually trying to return the children to safety, and missed that the children had been presumed killed. Their parents were representatives of the authoritarian culture the kids were escaping. It took becoming an adult to realize that some people don’t care if they kill children, and to feel some sympathy for those poor frantic parents.

I remember as a child being infuriated that Emily was so stupid and tongue-tied on the stand in the trial. I was baffled as to why someone who I saw as being my age at the time was so incapable of speaking coherently. I remember thinking along the lines of, “Why don't you just tell them you were afraid of the Dutch Captain? Why don't you admit you did it? They won’t put you in jail - you are a kid. Why don't you tell the story more clearly?” I felt like she could have saved them, but in the end, she was just a foolish little girl. In my mind, she had squandered the opportunity to be free. 

The movie did not do well in theaters, because it was poorly marketed leading to mistaken expectations from the audience. The reviews reflected the confusion about what kind of movie it was supposed to be. Perhaps it could have gone darker, to be closer to the original material. Alexander Mackendrick later opined that great books shouldn't be made into movies, but mediocre books could become great ones.

James Coburn admired his directing style tremendously, and had a very good time on that shoot. He enjoyed being in Jamaica with his entire family, enjoyed working with Anthony Quinn even though they had very different approaches, and knew that the film was yet another important turning point in his career and march towards leading man status. There are some behind-the-scenes stories about this film shoot collected in the book.

I still enjoy watching it when I see it. I love the color palette, the mis-en-scene, the ragged interpretation of clothing from the 1870s. I still feel a tug of yearning longing to go back in time and magically be a little girl who could run away from the responsibility to be well-behaved.