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The Fingerprints of Film

Barry Gifford's Do the Blind Dream?

Bay Area writer Barry Gifford has long straddled the line between literature and cinema, writing screenplays as well as fiction that others have turned into film. He's perhaps best known for his association with filmmaker David Lynch. Lynch turned Gifford's characters Sailor and Lulu into the 1990 Palme D'Or winner Wild at Heart. Seven years later the two co-wrote the heavily underrated Lost Highway.

It's hard to approach Gifford's new collection of short fiction Do The Blind Dream? without his cinematic track record shaping the sentences on the page. Perhaps it gives short shrift to his craft, but I couldn't help keep thinking that the pieces in Do the Blind Dream? -- two tight little novellas and several quick vignettes that flash past the eye like fish in a fast-running stream -- were preludes to film, sketches of aborted screenplays. In the end, the material does nothing to dispel this notion. So why fight it?

Like Lynch's work, Gifford uses familiar tropes to frame his stories, then he subverts them with wicked details and delicious absurdities. No wonder they're drawn to each other; they represent two artistic sides of the same coin of sensibility.

In the title piece of Do the Blind Dream?, an Italian family gathers to mourn the passing of its matriarch. Almost immediately, we're confronted with a set piece of familial reunion and grief: sobbing over the open coffin, cries of "Mamma, Mamma!" and sibling squabbles, all silhouetted by a thunderstorm crackling outside.

Soon, a mischievous weirdness soaks into the cracks of the dark-and-stormy-night melodrama. As the children's squabbles turn vicious, the dead mother Beatrice rises up from her coffin to have a smoke and comment bemusedly on her situation: "So many tears wasted on the dead. But who am I to criticize?"

Later at the funeral, sordid family details tumble forth and threaten to bloat the story into a post-Bastard-Out-of-Carolina talk show confessional. Suddenly the priest makes an unpriestly suggestion to the children. "To them, I say, better to go to your homes after apologizing to your sainted mother, and kill yourselves."

But Gifford doesn't let the disquiet resonate. The dead woman's son stands up like an Italian John Wayne and shouts at the priest, "I'll punch your god damn lights out!"

The pattern repeats across the collection. Gifford loads up on stock characters and dialogue then counter-punches with oddities. In "Ball Lightning," Gifford again opens with what feels like a film set that we've all seen before: the lonely two-pump filling station on a rural road, the late afternoon lull broken by an impatient blond woman at the wheel of a shiny convertible. The attendant has the straight-outta-wardrobe gray coveralls and red baseball cap and has the requisite "Fill 'er up?" conversation with the blond, until the story begins its odd twists (which I won't reveal here).

The other novella of the collection is "Havana Moon," a trippy little noir number whose moody protagonist is sleeping with one twin sister but flirting with the other. Or perhaps it's vice versa. Businessmen of vague European pedigree shadow him; strangers address him in an Esparantan tongue: "Yo dispansen sloat Riparzel. Gant er Portovero. Foos?" It's long but chopped into chapters of a page or two in length, like jumpcuts that indicate the narrator's increasing confusion.

Am I superimposing all this cinematic synergy, lugging my own expectations to Gifford's book? Unlikely. The fingerprints of film are all over this collection. There's even a story called "The Ciné." I wouldn't be surprised if Gifford, casting about for something to send to his agent, had tidied up his notebook of screenplay ideas and sent it in. Right in the heart of the book lies a sketch entitled "Rosa Blanca" that is indeed a screenplay idea. The narrator is on airplane flying from Los Angeles to London. He's a screenwriter, and the passenger next to him is curious.

"Tell me, where do you get your stories?"

"From everywhere," I said. "The news, books -- sometimes I just make them up."

"I've got a story," he said.

"Most people do."

"Do you mind if I tell it to you? I think it would make a great movie."

Don't take my word for it. To hear more about the intersection of Gifford's fiction and film work, check out his live appearance Monday August 16 at the Magic Theatre. He'll be in conversation with the Magic's Amy Glazer. Gifford will read from Do the Blind Dream? and Glazer will show her short film Ball Lightning based on Gifford's story.