The Unknown Variable, the ‘X’ in Fiction

“Rough business this movie business. I may have to go back to loan sharking for a rest.”
– Chili Palmer, Get Shorty

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It’s probably similar for most bloggers – you plan your next post, you sit down to begin writing that idea you have in your head and . . .  up pops some unknown variable. Your idea takes on a life of it’s own; it leads you in a direction you never really expected.

A couple of months ago I read a novel by Harold Robbins that was published in 1949. The Dream Merchants, a story set in the early 20th century, is in a way historical fiction I guess, that dealt with one of my favorite subjects – Movies.

And because Woody Allen’s new film, Cafe Society, set in 1930’s Hollywood, was recently released, I was so looking forward to seeing it, and posting a comparison/reflection on the two.

Then, as I said, the unknown variable, raised it’s . . . well, not it’s ugly head, but it’s disenchanting head. Somehow I had come to expect Allen’s film was about 1930’s Hollywood. But it’s not really, that’s just a loose backdrop to the story.

I’m a big fan of Annie Hall (1977) and Woody’s films in the 1980s, Zelig (1983), Broadway Danny Rose (1984), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), and Radio Days (1987).



A few years back I really liked Allen’s movie Midnight in Paris (2011), a wonderful romantic/comedy/fantasy starring  Owen Wilson as a Hollywood screenwriter in Paris. Then one evening, Gil (Wilson’s character), is walking the city streets alone at midnight, and he is magically transported back to the 1920’s Art Scene.

Characters in that film included Picasso, Hemingway, Salvador Dali, Henri Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gertrude Stein, Josephine Baker, T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Cole Porter.

Midnight in Paris is a fun bit of fiction incorporating those characters. I was expecting a little more of that in this new movie.

Cafe Society is a nice film, good cast, fine acting, and Woody Allen’s trademark humor, but…it’s just not really what I expected.


Now, the Harold Robbins novel, The Dream Merchants, was a complete delight. The setting is 1938 New York and Hollywood. Then in the second chapter it goes back to 1908 and the story of ‘moving pictures’ is told through the lives of Johnny Edge and Peter Kessler and the fictional Hollywood studio, Magnum Pictures.

“Peter looked at him. A peculiarly fanatical light had come into Johnny’s eyes as he spoke. Moving pictures had captured Johnny’s mind. He ate, slept, and dreamed moving pictures.”

This is an enjoyable look at early Hollywood. It’s not about the stars, it’s about the growth of the film industry. The book presents the ‘birth’ of the movies, as it tells the story of it’s main protagonist Johnny Edge, along with a wonderful set of characters, mainly Peter Kessler a small town hardware store owner. Kessler, through the circumstances of meeting a young Johnny, goes from opening up ‘Kessler’s Nickelodeon’ to becoming a studio owner. And then there’s some great supporting characters –  friends, lovers, and enemies that include Rocco & Jane, Doris & Dulcie. It’s set in 1938, but jumps back and forth between the ‘present’ and the past, giving Johnny’s back story from 1908 up to 1938.


Since I was a kid movies have always been wonderful entertainment to me. And as I got older I became a fan of history in general. So enjoyment of the history of the movies would be natural for me.

I’ve read a few Hollywood biographies, a great book on the history of Pixar (The Pixar Touch), and one or two other books of fiction set in Hollywood and the film industry like Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty.

Lately, over the last year or two, I’ve guess I’ve been setting my expectations too high. I hope this book or that movie is going to be better than they turn out to be. Or, as in the case of Cafe Society, I’m disappointed, not because it wasn’t a good movie, but because I was expecting something else.

Most every book I choose to read is the result of research. Films also, but not as much as books. Part of it is because I realize how precious time spent on anything, is time ‘spent,’ and then it’s gone.

I’ve shared this quote a few times from a post on Victoria Dougherty’s “Cold” blog speaking about men reading fiction, “The novel has been an unfailing aid in [a man’s] evolution – in learning to love, becoming a husband and a father, being a friend. Doing what is right and understanding the consequences of shirking his morals and ethics.”

All I’m saying is fiction (and non-fiction) in the form of books and movies is more than just entertainment. Sure, everything I see and read is not going to be some great life changing classic. But I can find insight and maybe a bit of inspiration and encouragement in a lot of them.

I love the stories. And if the story is about the movies and film making, that can be an extra treat. The unknown variable, the ‘X’ that I’m now searching for is, where will I find that next story, the delightful, fun filled book or film that deals with “the movies.”

– – – – – – – –

“A good movie can take you out of your dull funk and the hopelessness that so often goes with slipping into a theatre; a good movie can make you feel alive again, in contact, not just lost in another city. Good movies make you care, make you believe in possibilities again. If somewhere in the Hollywood-entertainment world someone has managed to break through with something that speaks to you, then it isn’t all corruption. The movie doesn’t have to be great; it can be stupid and empty and you can still have the joy of a good performance, or the joy in just a good line.”

– Pauline Kael



About VocareMentor

Walk with the wise and become wise - Prov. 13:20 A lot of my blog comes out of the way I grew up. My parents divorced when I was 6 years old and I didn’t see much of my father. I had no understanding of how the lack of his presence in my life affected every choice I made as I grew up. Much of my adult life has been attempting to sort things out and catch up. Thus, what you’ll find on my blog are musings, thoughts, wisdom and ideas from history and pop culture. Themes: mentors, father/son, male/female, self-discovery, courage, stepping up, friendship and more.
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4 Responses to The Unknown Variable, the ‘X’ in Fiction

  1. filmsCine says:

    This is very interesting. It’s really an experience when a movie feels like more than just a movie, and the classic Woody films really seemed to do that. I haven’t seen Cafe Society yet. What did you think of Blue Jasmine?

  2. EnglishLitGeek says:

    Big film lover here! I also enjoy Hollywood History and was disappointed in the Cafe Society. I watched a few good films that I would like to recommend – Mary Pickford: Muse of the Movies (2008) and the following American Experience biography on Mary Pickford gives a good History of Hollywood –

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