In the HBO series Boardwalk Empire (2010-2014), Nucky Thompson’s Atlantic City is a world made of words. Advertising and signage are the building blocks of the boardwalk as well as key themes on the level of plot. Advertising masks things, provides them with an aura, attracts customers, and builds the American Dream. In business, organised crime, and organised politics, language is king: above boutiques and clubs, on bottles of bootleg booze, in slogans of political protest, and in the pamphlets handed out by the members of the Women’s Temperance League. One character re-appropriates these ubiquitous signs, images, ciphers, and sentences and begins to assemble them into more personal fictions. Richard Harrow the masked veteran – who, paradoxically, is the only man in Atlantic City who does not always wear his mask – is also the series’ diarist, a prohibition Pepys. In season two, episode one, we first see him writing. He cuts out newspaper advertisements and images from magazines and constructs a scrapbook for himself, a fictional family album. The book he chooses to paper over is an anonymous work by an anonymous author. It is a work re-written: between its pages Richard’s secret world writes itself. Here he fulfils his desire for love, friendship, innocence, and family. In his diary he builds his own reality, an individual dream. He pulls apart adverts (collective social fictions) and rewrites them, creating his own images. By using the signs he sees to build his own imaginary sentences, he blurs the line between reading and writing. While the very format of his imaginings belies their fictionality (they are, after all, saccharine images of an idealised world in a picture-book), in the very best fairy-tale tradition, Richard’s dreams really do come true. When he meets Julia, in season three, his wildest hopes materialise. He is granted his wish. Perhaps it is in deference to his position as creator of fictions that the series’ writers treat Richard differently. Although he dies a violent death shortly after his marriage, the diarist is, metaphorically at least, afforded that ultimate dignity of fiction: a happy ending. His dreams of a perfect family life do not spoil in the hot sun of a banal reality; his fictions are never proven false. He is never forced to wake up from his dreams – instead they continue to play, in all their rose-tinted perfection, between the pages of his scrapbooks.
As might be expected from a film about one of the greatest authors of the last century, Soderbergh’s Kafka (1991) is full of visual references to the act of writing. Life, death, and writing perform a waltz on screen, a kind of Danse macabre. Many people don’t like the film – Roger Ebert certainly didn’t. While its merits are debatable, the film is notable at least for its presentation of writers and writing. The nightmarish, sci-fi vision, combining Kafka’s life and literary work in a kind of phantasmagorical magic lantern show of free association, presents the viewer with an interesting analogy: individual as typewriter and consciousness as the production of text. As the dynamic opening sequences in a Czech insurance company suggest, a typewriter that functions is a metonymy for a thinking, working, productive individual – a consciousness, recording. Death, on the other hand, is the cessation of writing. A covered typewriter stands in for a murdered colleague; a life ends, clogging a printing press. If you are written about, or writing, you exist. If your life is missing from the archive (like that of the illusive Dr Murnau, in the world of the film) you do not; and if you write the wrong sentences, like the political dissenters Kafka falls in with, you will surely not exist for long. The shots of paper-filled archives, the endless production of text and documentation, anticipate the world of social media networks, where tweets and status updates confirm our existence as individuals, where Facebook accounts can be tended like grave plots when we pass away, and where we keep our own files and activity logs in a bottomless digital archive. When the writing stops, life ceases to be – just as, at the end of the film, when Kafka finally finishes a letter to his father he has been labouring over for the duration of the movie, he is already suffering from the Tuberculosis that we know will kill him. In a curious inversion of De Certau’s reader-consumer as producer, the world of Soderbergh’s Kafka is full of stenographers, printers, and writers. When the noise of the typewriter stops, the eyes close, the film ends, the world ceases to be.
This is where I blog about representations of writing in visual media.