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Authors: Salman Rushdie

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Step Across This Line

BOOK: Step Across This Line
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Contents

Title Page

Dedication

I. ESSAYS

Out of Kansas

The Best of Young British Novelists

Angela Carter

Beirut Blues

Arthur Miller at Eighty

In Defense of the Novel, Yet Again

Notes on Writing and the Nation

Influence

Adapting
Midnight’s Children

Reservoir Frogs

Heavy Threads

In the Voodoo Lounge

Rock Music—A Sleeve Note

U2

An Alternative Career

On Leavened Bread

On Being Photographed

Crash

The People’s Game

Farming Ostriches

A Commencement Address

"Imagine There’s No Heaven"

"Damme, This Is the Oriental Scene for You!”

India’s Fiftieth Anniversary

Gandhi, Now

The Taj Mahal

The Baburnama

A Dream of Glorious Return

II. MESSAGES FROM THE PLAGUE YEARS

III. COLUMNS

December 1998: Three Leaders

January 1999: The Millennium

February 1999: Ten Years of the Fatwa

March 1999: Globalization

April 1999: Rock Music

May 1999: Moron of the Year

June 1999: Kashmir

July 1999: Northern Ireland

August 1999: Kosovo

September 1999: Darwin in Kansas

October 1999: Edward Said

November 1999: Pakistan

December 1999: Islam and the West

January 2000: Terror Versus Security

February 2000: Jörg Haider

March 2000: Amadou Diallo

April 2000: Elián González

May 2000: J. M. Coetzee

June 2000: Fiji

July 2000: Sport

August 2000: Two Crashes

September 2000: Senator Lieberman

October 2000: The Human Rights Act

November 2000: Going to Electoral College

December 2000: A Grand Coalition?

January 2001: How the Grinch Stole America

February 2001: Sleaze Is Back

March 2001: Crouching Striker, Hidden Danger

April 2001: It Wasn’t Me

May 2001: Abortion in India

June 2001: Reality TV

July 2001: The Release of the Bulger Killers

August 2001: Arundhati Roy

September 2001: Telluride

October 2001: The Attacks on America

November 2001: Not About Islam?

February 2002: Anti-Americanism

March 2002: God in Gujarat

IV. STEP ACROSS THIS LINE

Endnotes

Bibliography

Acknowledgments

About the Author

Also by Salman Rushdie

Copyright Page

TO CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS

PART I

Essays

Out of Kansas

I wrote my first short story in Bombay at the age of ten. Its title was “Over the Rainbow.” It amounted to a dozen or so pages, was dutifully typed up by my father’s secretary on flimsy paper, and was eventually lost somewhere along my family’s mazy journeyings between India, England, and Pakistan. Shortly before my father’s death in 1987, he claimed to have found a copy moldering in an old file, but despite my pleadings he never produced it. I’ve often wondered about this incident. Maybe he never really found the story, in which case he had succumbed to the lure of fantasy, and this was the last of the many fairy tales he told me. Or else he did find it, and hugged it to himself as a talisman and a reminder of simpler times, thinking of it as his treasure, not mine—his pot of nostalgic, parental gold.

I don’t remember much about the story. It was about a ten-year-old Bombay boy who one day happens upon the beginning of a rainbow, a place as elusive as any pot-of-gold end zone, and as rich in promise. The rainbow is broad, as wide as the sidewalk, and constructed like a grand staircase. Naturally, the boy begins to climb. I have forgotten almost everything about his adventures, except for an encounter with a talking pianola whose personality is an improbable hybrid of Judy Garland, Elvis Presley, and the “playback singers” of the Hindi movies, many of which made
The Wizard of Oz
look like kitchen-sink realism.

My bad memory—what my mother would call a “forgettery”—is probably a blessing. Anyway, I remember what matters. I remember that
The Wizard of Oz
(the film, not the book, which I didn’t read as a child) was my very first literary influence. More than that: I remember that when the possibility of my going to school in England was mentioned, it felt as exciting as any voyage over rainbows. England felt as wonderful a prospect as Oz.

The wizard, however, was right there in Bombay. My father, Anis Ahmed Rushdie, was a magical parent of young children, but he was also prone to explosions, thunderous rages, bolts of emotional lightning, puffs of dragon smoke, and other menaces of the type also practiced by Oz, the great and terrible, the first Wizard Deluxe. And when the curtain fell away and we, his growing offspring, discovered (like Dorothy) the truth about adult humbug, it was easy for us to think, as she did, that our wizard must be a very bad man indeed. It took me half a lifetime to discover that the Great Oz’s
apologia pro vita sua
fitted my father equally well; that he too was a good man but a very bad wizard.

I have begun with these personal reminiscences because
The Wizard of Oz
is a film whose driving force is the inadequacy of adults, even of good adults. At its beginning, the weaknesses of grown-ups force a child to take control of her own destiny (and her dog’s). Thus, ironically, she begins the process of becoming a grown-up herself. The journey from Kansas to Oz is a rite of passage from a world in which Dorothy’s parent-substitutes, Auntie Em and Uncle Henry, are powerless to help her save her dog, Toto, from the marauding Miss Gulch, into a world where the people are her own size, and in which she is never treated as a child but always treated as a heroine. She gains this status by accident, it’s true, having played no part in her house’s decision to squash the Wicked Witch of the East; but by the end of her adventure she has certainly grown to fill those shoes—or, rather, those famous ruby slippers. “Who’d have thought a girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness?” laments the Wicked Witch of the West as she melts—an adult becoming smaller than, and giving way to, a child. As the Wicked Witch of the West “grows down,” so Dorothy is seen to have grown up. In my view, this is a much more satisfactory explanation for Dorothy’s newfound power over the ruby slippers than the sentimental reasons offered by the ineffably soppy Good Witch Glinda, and then by Dorothy herself, in a cloying ending that I find untrue to the film’s anarchic spirit. (More about this later.)

The helplessness of Auntie Em and Uncle Henry in the face of Miss Gulch’s desire to annihilate Toto the dog leads Dorothy to think, childishly, of running away from home—of escape. And that’s why, when the tornado hits, she isn’t with the others in the storm shelter, and as a result is whirled away to an escape beyond her wildest dreams. Later, however, when she is confronted by the weakness of the Wizard of Oz, she doesn’t run away but goes into battle—first against the Witch and then against the Wizard himself. The Wizard’s ineffectuality is one of the film’s many symmetries, rhyming with the feebleness of Dorothy’s folks; but the difference in the way Dorothy reacts is the point.

The ten-year-old boy who watched
The Wizard of Oz
in Bombay’s Metro cinema knew very little about foreign parts and even less about growing up. He did, however, know a great deal more about the cinema of the fantastic than any Western child of the same age. In the West,
The Wizard of Oz
was an oddball, an attempt to make a live-action version of a Disney cartoon feature despite the industry’s received wisdom (how times change!) that fantasy movies usually flopped. There’s little doubt that the excitement engendered by
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
accounts for MGM’s decision to give the full, all-stops-out treatment to a thirty-nine-year-old book. This was not, however, the first screen version. I haven’t seen the silent film of 1925, but its reputation is poor. It did, however, star Oliver Hardy as the Tin Man.

The Wizard of Oz
never really made money until it became a television standard years after its original theatrical release, though it should be said in mitigation that coming out two weeks before the start of World War II can’t have helped its chances. In India, however, it fitted into what was then, and remains today, one of the mainstreams of “Bollywood” film production.

It’s easy to satirize the Indian commercial cinema industry. In James Ivory’s film
Bombay Talkie,
a journalist (the touching Jennifer Kendal, who died in 1984) visits a studio soundstage and watches an amazing dance number featuring scantily clad nautch girls prancing on the keys of a giant typewriter. The director explains that this is no less than the Typewriter of Life, and we are all dancing out “the story of our Fate” upon that mighty machine. “It’s very symbolic,” the journalist suggests. The director, simpering, replies: “Thank you.”

Typewriters of Life, sex goddesses in wet saris (the Indian equivalent of wet T-shirts), gods descending from the heavens to meddle in human affairs, magic potions, superheroes, demonic villains, and so on have always been the staple diet of the Indian filmgoer. Blond Glinda arriving in Munchkinland in her magic bubble might cause Dorothy to comment on the high speed and oddity of local transport operating in Oz, but to an Indian audience Glinda was arriving exactly as a god should arrive:
ex machina,
out of her divine machine. The Wicked Witch of the West’s orange puffs of smoke were equally appropriate to her super-bad status. But in spite of all the similarities, there are important differences between the Bombay cinema and a film like
The Wizard of Oz.
Good fairies and bad witches might superficially resemble the deities and demons of the Hindu pantheon, but in reality one of the most striking aspects of the worldview of
The Wizard of Oz
is its joyful and almost complete secularism. Religion is mentioned only once in the film. Auntie Em, sputtering with anger at the gruesome Miss Gulch, reveals that she’s waited years to tell her what she thinks of her, “and now, because I’m a good Christian woman, I can’t do so.” Apart from this moment, in which Christian charity prevents some old-fashioned plain speaking, the film is breezily godless. There’s not a trace of religion in Oz itself. Bad witches are feared, good ones liked, but none are sanctified; and while the Wizard of Oz is thought to be something very close to all-powerful, nobody thinks to worship him. This absence of higher values greatly increases the film’s charm and is an important aspect of its success in creating a world in which nothing is deemed more important than the loves, cares, and needs of human beings (and, of course, tin beings, straw beings, lions, and dogs).

The other major difference is harder to define, because it is, finally, a matter of quality. Most Hindi movies were then and are now what can only be called trashy. The pleasure to be had from such films (and some of them are extremely enjoyable) is something like the fun of eating junk food. The classic Bombay talkie uses scripts of dreadful corniness, looks tawdry and garish, and relies on the mass appeal of its star performers and musical numbers to provide a little zing.
The Wizard of Oz
also has movie stars and musical numbers, but it is also very definitely a Good Film. It takes the fantasy of Bombay and adds high production values and something more. Call it imaginative truth. Call it (reach for your revolvers now) art.

But if
The Wizard of Oz
is a work of art, it’s extremely difficult to say who the artist was. The birth of Oz itself has already passed into legend: the author, L. Frank Baum, named his magic world after the letters O–Z on the bottom drawer of his filing cabinet. Baum had an odd, roller-coaster life. Born rich, he inherited a string of little theaters from his father and lost them all through mismanagement. He wrote one successful play and several flops. The Oz books made him one of the leading children’s writers of his day, but all his other fantasy novels bombed.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,
and a musical adaptation of it for the stage, restored Baum’s finances, but a financially disastrous attempt to tour America promoting his books with a “fairylogue” of slides and films led him to file for bankruptcy in 1911. He became a slightly shabby, if still frock-coated, figure, living on his wife’s money at “Ozcot” in Hollywood, where he raised chickens and won prizes at flower shows. The small success of another musical,
The Tik-Tok Man of Oz,
improved his finances, but he ruined them again by setting up his own movie company, the Oz Film Company, and trying unsuccessfully to film and distribute the Oz books. After two bedridden years, and still, we are told, optimistic, he died in May 1919. However, as we shall see, his frock coat lived on into a strange immortality.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,
published in 1900, contains many of the ingredients of the magic potion—all the major characters and events are here, as well as the most important locations, the Yellow Brick Road, the Deadly Poppy Field, the Emerald City. But
The Wizard of Oz
is that great rarity, a film that improves on the good book from which it came. One of the changes is the expansion of the Kansas section, which in the novel takes up precisely two pages before the tornado arrives, and just nine lines at the end. The story line in the Oz section is also simplified, by jettisoning several sub-plots, such as the visits to the Fighting Trees, the Dainty China Country, and the Quadlings that come, in the novel, just after the dramatic high point of the Witch’s destruction and fritter away the story’s narrative drive. And there are two even more important alterations: to the colors of the Wizard’s city and of Dorothy’s shoes.

Frank Baum’s Emerald City was green only because everyone in it had to wear emerald-tinted glasses, whereas in the movie it really is a futuristic, chlorophyll green—except, that is, for the Horse of a Different Color You’ve Heard Tell Of. The Horse changes color in each successive shot, a change brought about by covering it in a variety of shades of powdered Jell-O.
*1

Frank Baum did not make up the ruby slippers. He called them Silver Shoes. Baum believed that America’s stability required a switch from the gold to the silver standard, and the Shoes were a metaphor of the magical advantages of Silver. Noel Langley, the first of the film’s three credited screenwriters, originally went along with Baum’s idea. But in his fourth script, the script of May 14, 1938, known as the DO NOT MAKE CHANGES script, the clunky, metallic, and non-mythic footwear is jettisoned and the immortal jewel shoes are introduced for the first time, probably in response to the demand for color. (In Shot 114, “the ruby shoes appear on Dorothy’s feet, glittering and sparkling in the sun.”)

Other writers contributed important details to the finished screenplay. Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf were probably responsible for “There’s no place like home,” which, to me, is the least convincing idea in the film (it’s one thing for Dorothy to want to get home, quite another that she can do so only by eulogizing the ideal state, which Kansas so obviously is not).
*2
But there’s some dispute about this, too. A studio memo implies that it could have been the associate producer Arthur Freed who came up with the cutesy slogan. And, after much quarreling between Langley and Ryerson–Woolf, it was the film’s lyricist, Yip Harburg, who pulled the final script together and added the crucial scene in which the Wizard, unable to give the companions what they demand, hands out emblems instead, and to our satisfaction these symbols do the job. The name of the rose turns out to be the rose, after all.

Who, then, was the auteur of
The Wizard of Oz
? No single writer can claim that honor, not even the author of the original book. The producers, Mervyn LeRoy and Arthur Freed, both have their champions. At least four directors worked on the picture, most notably Victor Fleming; but he left before shooting ended (King Vidor was his uncredited replacement) to make
Gone With the Wind,
ironically enough the movie that dominated the Oscars while
The Wizard of Oz
won just three: Best Song (“Over the Rainbow”), Best Musical Score, and a Special Award for Judy Garland. The truth is that this great movie, in which the quarrels, sackings, and bungles of all concerned produced what seems like pure, effortless, and somehow inevitable felicity, is as near as dammit to that will-o’-the-wisp of modern critical theory: the authorless text.

Kansas as described by L. Frank Baum is a depressing place, in which everything is gray as far as the eye can see—the prairie is gray and so is the house in which Dorothy lives. As for Auntie Em, “The sun and wind . . . had taken the sparkle from her eyes and left them a sober gray; they had taken the red from her cheeks and lips, and they were gray also. She was thin and gaunt, and never smiled now.” Whereas: “Uncle Henry never laughed. He was gray also, from his long beard to his rough boots.” And the sky? “It was even grayer than usual.” Toto, though, was spared grayness. He “saved Dorothy from growing as gray as her surroundings.” He was not exactly colorful, though his eyes twinkled and his hair was silky. Toto was black.

BOOK: Step Across This Line
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