Downtown Screwball: A Conversation Between Farran Smith Nehme and Molly Haskell

This week marks the publication of  Missing Reels,the first novel by Farran Smith Nehme, full of a wit, style, and romance—and, of course, movie love—that will be immediately recognizable to readers of her blog (Self-Styled Siren), along with her essays for the Criterion Collection and elsewhere. On the occasion, we asked film critic Molly Haskell, like Nehme a great friend of Criterion, to have an e-mail chat with her Old Hollywood–loving soul mate and fellow southern transplant, about her leap into fiction and what inspired it.

Molly Haskell: First of all, congratulations on a terrific novel. It’s wonderfully fresh and original, a combination of screwball comedy and mystery story. And like you, and your heroine, Ceinwen—who also happens to be a southern transplant!—it’s in love with silent cinema. Tell me how the idea came to you and how it evolved.

Farran Smith Nehme: Thank you so much. I hadn’t intended to write a novel, but some friends—perhaps in a spirit of mischief, considering the work involved—had been telling me I should try. There was one problem, though: I didn’t have a plot. I stumbled across an idea by accident, and here I get to name-drop Kevin Brownlow, one of my heroes. I was fortunate enough to be invited to a dinner with him in New York, during which we heard many stories about the world of collectors and the strange ways Brownlow has tracked down the elements of the films he’s restored. I said to him something like “I guess collecting attracts some strange characters.” He leaned in and said, with a big grin and a twinkle, “You have no idea.” I liked that line so much it wound up in the novel.

I immediately thought of a book that would involve latter-day movie buffs discovering the existence of a long-lost, forgotten silent movie and then trying to track it down. I needed a time period when silent-movie makers could still plausibly be alive and well, so I chose the 1980s. Gradually, I worked out the idea of a young woman on the Lower East Side who was church-mouse-poor, working a dead-end job, and spending her time at revival houses and recording old movies off the TV. And yes, that was me in the ’80s, although Ceinwen’s personality differs from mine in many important respects. Also, I’m sorry to say I never met anyone who made a silent film.

MH: I love the Brownlow story. I remember traipsing down to the East Village, and the Theatre 80 St. Marks, with Andrew [Sarris] in the ’80s. Although I thought they had mostly talkies, from the early ’30s. Also, Bill Everson used to show movies fairly regularly at the New School. He comes into your novel, as do other real people, along with the buffs and geeks. Ceinwen is so poor and disenfranchised, she doesn’t have a license or a passport, and presumably no membership to MoMA, where she really could feast on silent films. She has a kind of tunnel vision; she’s hooked on the past, which allows you to ignore a lot of cinematic activity that was going on around that time—the critical spats, Cahiers du cinéma in English, foreign films.

FSN: Yes, I don’t think Theatre 80 ever screened silent movies, although they certainly showed some rare talkies. Literary license is one of the perks of novel writing, as opposed to my blogging, where I labor to check every fact. Ceinwen sees her old-movie habit as a hobby and an escape, but she isn’t plugged into the scene, as you say. One thing that Raquel Stecher mentioned in her review of this book is how old-movie lovers crave the company of like-minded people, and how difficult finding such company could be in the days beforethe Internet. Ceinwen eventually solves the problem by meeting some folks, and just plain drafting some others as foot soldiers for her obsessions. By the end, as she’s matured, you can see that her movie taste has expanded, too.

MH: Yes, buffs sought each other out. I wrote in my Andrew memoir [Love and Other Infectious Diseases] about the Huff Society, an informal group that met to see this or that utterly obscure film in odd, makeshift places, NYU classrooms . . . There would be people like your novel’s NYU professors Andy Evans and Harry (though the latter is a little too normal). Andrew used to joke that they would rather see a film that nobody had ever seen than a truly good film—indeed, the criterion for “goodness” would be unknownness. And Bill Everson’s living room was also a place for such viewings. You capture this superbly. For instance, in the glorious Bangville Police Society, who love to watch Mack Sennett two-reelers for obvious reasons. How did you get that delicious idea?

FSN: I remember the Huff Society from your book, and I did think about it when I was writing Missing Reels. But the Bangville Police Society mostly arose from something Hooman Mehran, another film scholar, told me about: the Sons of the Desert, a wonderful group founded fifty years ago to celebrate Laurel and Hardy. I never went to one of their meetings, because I wanted to freely imagine my own silent-film society, and populate it with screwballs who I could honestly describe as figments of my imagination. But when I went to their website, I did notice that, rather delightfully in an age when every day is casual Friday, they still have a dress code. So I used that, too. Now that the novel is finished, I really want to go to one of their meetings. Properly attired, of course.

Unfortunately, there’s no real-life counterpart to the Brody Institute, but you never know when a rich person might take it into their head to fund a film archive. This is what I tell myself, anyway.

MH: Let’s talk about the mysterious Miriam, the actress who quite plausibly dates back to silent film and becomes an interesting counterpoint to Ceinwen, who’s desperately trying to find out more about her. The contrast between the fairly repressed Ceinwen and the worldly older woman is very funny, and is established in a juicy scene having to do with Jean Harlow.

FSN: Miriam is probably my favorite character in the book. When I read interviews with stars from the old days, I have a perverse affection for the ones who don’t want to cooperate. Who refuse to indulge the interviewer’s fantasies and snap back that a costar was a bottom-pinching lech or an insufferable diva, and that the scene you’ve always loved was a thumping bore to put on film. For her background, I wove together a number of silent-movie stars’ stories, although I’ll confess here that there is a lot of Mary Astor in Miriam, minus Astor’s real politics, which were pretty solidly right-wing, as I recall. I picked Jean Harlow as the star Ceinwen would be trying to mimic because a Harlow imitator is pretty easy to spot. Miriam might not recognize a girl who was dressing like Norma Shearer.

MH: I too like Miriam’s stubborn refusal to indulge any of Ceinwen’s fantasies, to the point of outright rudeness. (I think we’re having a rash of great ornery older women in fiction and film these days, as if feminism has liberated them from the need to please, maybe even activated a desire to displease!) There is Ceinwen, young and fresh and dressing in vintage—or what Miriam sees as simply drab old clothes. It’s quite funny. Ceinwen naturally thinks she’ll be thrilled at all this activity on her behalf, but the old lady—erstwhile actress and seamstress!—refuses to be drawn into the hunt for her lost film.

FSN: We hear so much about the tragic ends of forgotten stars, but plenty of people fail in Hollywood and move on, without becoming destitute or alcoholic. I wanted my forgotten actress to be one of those, someone who quietly took on another life.

MH: There’s plenty to satisfy arcane film buff tastes, but also a charming love story, full of witty repartee, between Matthew, a rather dashing British mathematician, and a suspicious and defensive Ceinwen. She’s living a kind of asocial life with two gay roommates, and in her back-and-forth with Matthew she evolves socially, develops a kind of aplomb she didn’t have in the beginning. Becomes a more graceful geek! Talk about that relationship, how it resembles and differs from the screwball comedies we love.

FSN: I love the idea of Ceinwen becoming a more graceful geek. I knew all along that I wanted my novel to be a romantic comedy, to suggest that the couples I love from the great era of screwball comedy can still exist in a modern setting. Often the woman character brings a man out of his shell, like in My Man Godfrey or The Lady Eve. I wanted to spin that out a little bit, to where it’s the heroine who’s most in need of an expanded worldview. Matthew has been sailing through what’s pretty much a charmed life. He’s baffled and intrigued by Ceinwen’s living arrangements, her seeming lack of ambition, the way she gets through her days by avoiding the present as much as possible. And when she drags this functioning adult into her obsessions, it begins to dawn on Ceinwen that certain trappings of modern life are worth acquiring. Like a driver’s license.

MH: Yes, Matthew is definitely the smoother one. Sometimes both members of the screwball couple are awkward, as in Bringing Up Baby. But both are always in need of some kind of education, to use Stanley Cavell’s term. Also I think you have to feel some growing common ground, for the conversations that will follow. And Matthew really does develop an interest in movies, and Ceinwen a feeling for math and its “elegant” metaphors. I like the obliqueness of the sex scenes, and the chaotic climax engineered by a now-intrepid Ceinwen.

Now, just one more question: Was there anyone in your southern childhood or growing up like Ceinwen’s grandmother—someone who got you interested in films and movies, or simply in the larger world? Someone to whom you feel your book might be dedicated, either actually or secretly?

FSN: When I was growing up in a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama, it was the early days of cable TV and there was an endless supply of old movies on television. My mother was very protective about my seeing violent or vulgar movies, but I figured out early that if the film was old, I could watch whatever I wanted. I don’t know what it is about my particular makeup that made me latch on to black and white, to the vivid personalities and the dialogue. It was probably escapism at least in part; I was a weird, bookish kid, and I didn’t have much of a social life. But both of my parents were happy to watch things with me on occasion, too. Dad’s favorite director was John Ford, he also loved Hawks, and he had me watching Citizen Kane at age ten. Mom loved screwball comedies and musicals and big sweeping melodramas, like the Douglas Sirk version of Imitation of Life. So between the two of them, I got a pretty good old-movie education.

Back in those days, nobody thought twice about watching a movie chopped up for commercials, pan-and-scan in an old, scuffed-up print. Well, nobody I knew, that is. (I remember your husband’s horrified anecdote about encountering a man at a party who edited movies for television. The man claimed he’d been vastly improving the Astaire-Rogers movies by editing out “those boring musical numbers.”) Of course, it’s much better to see things as close to the original as possible. But one aspect of Missing Reels is that you no more need ideal circumstances to fall in love with a movie than you do to fall for a person.

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