The Land That Never Was is a story about Sir Gregor MacGregor, a Scottish soldier of variable allegiance who returned in 1821 from the various South American wars of independence with the grant of a considerable amount of territory, and plans to allow the citizenry of Europe invest in the land of Poyais, which eventually turned out to be just that: land only, none of the roads or administration or cities, a complete lack of a country.
The picture painted is of someone with a compulsive desire for self-creation (never actually knighted, he just started calling himself 'Sir' after a certain point), which always outstripped his actual circumstances. It's not for all that an unsympathetic picture, to the point that you have to keep stopping yourself every once in a while to be reminded that he was a monster: not content with the traditional share/loan swindle on the promise of South America's horn of plenty, he also sent two shiploads of settlers down, with a 80% fatality rate.
The story starts with the second load of settlers waiting to depart, in a general mood of "What do you mean we can't sail while it's raining? This is fvcking Leith! It's always fvcking raining! It won't be like this in Poyais, mark my words!"
Another layer of tragedy is added by the fact that, having been given this (apparently genuine, though later rescinded) grant of land by the local chief, actual development of this land by proper settlers rather than sending in the middle-class for the slaughter would quite likely have promoted him genuinely to the position that he spent so much time pretending to.*
Though his military career had a lot of "Hurrah we have won the first skirmish, I'm off for a snooze", it also had enough genuine victories to make him a boon companion of Simon Bolivar, and provide him a nice quiet military pension to see off his days.
One of his bizarre victories being the emancipation of Florida from the Spanish, which never got past the bloodless capture of tinchy Amelia Island off the coast, but did provide him the opportunity for a pre-invasion speech, containing the immortal line "I shall sleep tonight in either Hell or Amelia!"
The other book that I have read is Which Lie Did I Tell?, which is the second volume of William Goldman's memoirs about writing for the movies. Like the earlier Adventures in the Screen Trade, it's fairly warts and all, and has a lot of advice for upcoming writers (admittedly mostly of the "don't do this" type). This covers a dozen or so movies from the second half of his career, some in more detail than others, and finishes with a very large chunk of a screenplay written just for this book, and for a half-dozen other screen writers to react to. The screen play is actually really really good, to the point where I want to see the other 40%!
The theme as before is that nobody knows anything about how things work. As an example, when Goldman was reading Misery with an eye for adapting it, one scene leapt out at him, and became the touchstone for the story. The problem was, everyone else hated it, including all the main actors they auditioned for it. He fought for it tooth and nail, but was off sick when the final shooting script was finished, which heavily changed the moment. After he saw the film, he realised audiences would never have gone for the original scene.
The Ghost and the Darkness is one of the two great true stories that he's read and said "This has to be a film!", Butch Cassidy being the other. This chapter is particularly interesting to read because he goes through all the things that have to be cut out of the simple newspaper-like retelling, because they just don't make good cinema. Michael Douglas is one of the producers, and is a gent to work with - sits down and goes through the screen play, always suggesting, never commanding, and completely gets it. They sign Val Kilmer for the main role, and spend ages casting around for some one to play the slightly older grizzled hunter, as people's availability comes and goes, before Micheal Douglas himself steps in. And because he is now approaching this as a star, and because nobody has any idea what makes people a star, stupid changes start to happen to the character and the film slips away from everyone, and... well, have you seen it?
Actually a lot of the book has the side-effect of making me nostalgic for the old studio system, when there was someone in charge of saying "These actors are free then, and also this director and this soundstage, take one of the scripts from the hopper and get to it!". I don't know if it's intentional or not - Goldman is generally too practical to pose what-if's.
And then there's a section on The Princess Bride, which is just glorious because he's never been happier with a book or a screen play and it would have been terrible if this had gone off the rails like some of the other films. You get the impression that although it's Butch and Sundance that keep getting him the work, this is the one he knows he's going to be remembered for, and he is completely fine with that.
The section on script doctors points out that it's an easier job than the other forms of screen writing, as the heavy lifting as regards finding something interesting and making people interested in it has been done, and your job is just to see the thing from some distance, which the original writer will not have been able to do (see Misery). There's a great apocryphal story about a doctorer on Rodney Dangerfield's Back To School getting a five-figure sum for three words ("Make Rodney rich").
It also has a story about a book written back in 1993 about an ex-Vietbam sniper living alone out in the woods, and how he's brought back in to help the CIA prevent an attack on the president - an attack he's then framed for. Injured, hunted - this came out the same time as the movie of The Fugitive, so it's easy to see why it was snapped up. But they couldn't get a star. Goldman was hired to write a version for Eastwood, then Gere, and so on and so on, but it just didn't hit them right. It fell away, as things do, and he ends the story by saying that now, in 2000, he's just heard that it's been picked up by Keanu Reeves, and that this was the jump he could never see clearly enough to make, to strip away the Vietnam background and make the character younger.
Except, that story sounds familiar to me, and after a bit of checking, it turns out that it has been released as 'Shooter', starring Mark Wahlberg, earlier this year. 7 years after that crucial detail had finally been ironed out.
Phew! Also I have been watching films a bit this week. On Monday myself and kiss_me_quick went out to see nearly three hours of piratical shenanigans in the Prince Charles Cinema, whose seats were very nice to sit in, but appear to have shredded my back. I actually enjoyed it more than I thought: I saw Curse of the Black Pearl and Dead Man's Chest several times, but after the only other time that I saw At World's End, I wasn't really certain I'd return. I'm glad I did, It makes a lot more sense and there jokes are still funny. There's still a bunch of structural problems (such as the entire engine of 2/3 of the movie being ignored for the final bit) but all the character stuff works and there's Keith! Richards!.
And on Tuesday I had a, hem hem, home cinema viewing of Surf's Up, which is great! It's basically not at all about being a frozen emperor penguin in Antartica and instead is a pastiche of I guess Dogtown and the Z-Boys and particularly Riding Giants (which I never saw - any good?) IE it's a surfing documentary. The actual documentary bits float in and out in accordance with the Roger Rabbit Principle, and the entire thing is well made and affectionate and quite funny. There's a trailer with basically the first few minutes available (though they cut a very good joke!).
Also it has Jeff Bridges, who looks like this now:
You know, I don't have a lot of time for Vice Magazine, what with them being a shower of cvnts, but one thing that they have probably left as their legacy is the Dos vs Don'ts. A lot of the individual judgements are posturing or hypocritical or just sneery, but I like the addition to the language, of having a phrase for being able to see someone and see that you don't know why whatever they're doing works, but it does. So, Jeff Bridges: DO.
*To forestall a punch in the nose from khalinche when she returns home, this is the book's view, I'm less than convinced that proper colonization is a better result than a bunch of whiteys kicking the bucket.