Nick Flynn, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, W. W. Norton, 2004

Paul Weitz, dir., Being Flynn, Focus Features, 2012

Reviewed by P. R. Griffis

[Review Guidelines]

Prof. Dan Deever (MFA, Iowa '84): Who'd like to begin the discussion today?

Still-Mildly-Intoxicated-From-Night-Before Abbey-ite Male Non-Fictioneer: I feel like... I don't know. I feel like this movie is a... ahh... what's the word I'm looking for here?

Earnest Female Lyrical Essayist Non-Fictioneer: A beautiful and individual rendering? A multi-layered pastiche of the inextricable way children are bound to their parents, known or unknown, living or dead?

SMIFNBAMNF: No, not that. A lie. That's what I wanted to say. This movie is a lie before it even gets started. Because...

Broodish Cormac McCarthy-Devotee Male Fictioneer: (sotto voce) Ah, fuck. Here we go.

SMIFNBAMNFS: Because it's not called Being Flynn. It's called Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. I mean, put axetericks in it or whatever, but...

EFLENF: No, but it is called Being Flynn. The movie is.

Barth-Barthelme-Pynchon-DeLillo-Wallace-Po-Mo-ite Male Fictioneer (Who Also Always Reads Everything in the Author Up For Discussion's Oeuvre, Plus Interviews, Reviews, and Grainy Footage From Various Panels): I read a couple of things on that, with Paul Weitz, the director, talking about what a kick in the stones it was to have to accept that the MPAA wouldn't even—they wouldn't even let them use asterisks. Think, here, of Zack and Miri Make a Porno, which almost didn't get greenlighted—greenlit?—because of its title. Which, that's a whole 'nother discussion, why it is that—well, it's Kurtz's observation in Apocalypse Now that we "train young men to drop fire on people, but we don't let them write fuck on their airplanes, because it's obscene."

Usually-Stoned-To-Bejeebus-Belt-&-Queen-of-Nonsequitur-Female Poet: The feather wafting out of the elder Flynn's down coat when he turns after leaving Nick's apartment. That's the moment. That's what the movie is about.

Female Fictioneer Whose Stories Are Usually Written The Night Prior, and Who Never Reads/Watches The Material: I always think it's interesting to think about the degree to which the film meets the expectations we have from watching the trailer. Could we maybe discuss that?

BBPDeLWPMMF(WAAREAUFDOPIRaGFFVP): That's a good question. Sort of. But yes. We have an event, a happening, a series of overlapping happenings that is addressed multiformly. Some Ether, his book of poetry, and Another Bullshit Night, the memoir, and plus the film, Being Flynn. And these literary works are referenced in the film, and also form the basis for it. DeNiro, as Jonathan Flynn, frames the cover for Some Ether. Denise reads from a notebook that contains a passage from Another Bullshit Night...

BCMcDCMF: Cocaine turns people into scumbags. That was a great line.

BBPDeLWPMMF(WAAREAUFDOPIRaGFFVP): ...Which, all of this reinforces and interrogates the idea of creation, of genesis. How the elder Flynn speaks of being a great Novelist, and how he creates Nick Flynn, both figuratively and literally, it's a Wittgensteinian moment for a writer's father to ask him if he, the writer, exists—whether he has put into the world sufficient words to be. Until proven otherwise through objective acts—here we go back to the framing and hanging of Some Ether—Nick Flynn could very well be just one more of Jonathan's fictions. Like the forged checks, like the Pollock painting, like not showing up on the bus.

PDD(MFAI'84): I'm interested in what we make of the arc of the father-son relationship. From the first meeting, where the father is naked—deeply symbolic, no?—the way their trajectories mirror one another. Who was it that said, no matter how we try to stray from the path of our fathers, when we look back, we see that there was only ever one set of footprints.

BCMcCDMF: I think that was in the Dragonlance Twins series. Raistlin Majere says that regarding the black mage Fistandantilus, when he goes back in time to try and change the past and thereby stop the cataclysm.

EFLENF: My grandma had that up on her wall. It was on a piece of paper, scroll-like, shellacked to a ring of pine tree. It's about Jesus carrying you through the hard times, right?

PDD(MFAI'84): I was thinking maybe Cheever. Or Updike. Someone who understood that all fiction, all art, is a quest for one's father, a journey towards the blackened outline where a father should be; here, in Being Flynn, as in the best art, this is both a figurative and literal journey for Nick.

Weird-Cryptic-Male-Fictioneer-Who-Almost-Never-Talks: When the dad is wearing the dirty Uncle Sam suit on the sidewalk hawking for Tax Services, the broken promise of the United States. Your vaguely seedy shilling uncle is your reprobate father. That's the moment this movie is about.

PDD(MFAI'84): What did we think were the beats here? What are the points in the film on the graph of the Flynns' respective trajectories?

BBPDeLWPMMF(WAAREAUFDOPIRaGFFVP): Well, for Elder Flynn, there's loss of permanent-structure-type abode, loss of Hack License, the expulsion from the shelter, the transition from being the guy sitting at the counter watching the—shall we say?—seriously homeless guy get his coffee to go, to becoming the seriously homeless guy getting his coffee to go.

USTBB&QoNFP: I got wait-listed at Houston. James Franco took my spot.

BCMcCDMF: What the fuck does that have to do with anything?

USTBB&QoNFP: Umm... Lily Taylor? Nick Flynn's wife? She's in a movie that James Franco Directed? Like... do the math?

BCMcCDMF: Shouldn't you maybe write a confessional poem about it instead of telling us? It'd be a lot more credible and less pathetic that way.

PDD(MFAI'84): What do we make, I wonder, of the use of voiceover?

BBPDeLWPMMF(WAAREAUFDOPIRaGFFVP): I would go so far as to say that it's the best use of voice-over since Jesus' Son, which in turn was the best use of voice-over since Blade Runner, which, although the voice-over there was done at studio gunpoint, essentially, and though no one involved in the film wanted to do it, it makes sense from the standpoint of BR being a futuristic film noir, where the world-weary detective always narrates. And here, Nick Flynn is also putting together the pieces. A detective of the personal, of the emotional. And plus, all three are at heart textual in basis, Jesus' Son and Being Flynn closer parallels in that regard, of course. And plus, the voice-over in BF weaves in so many different aspects, which provides the filmmaker with another layer of interrogation technique—whose story is it? Who controls what is said, what is left out?

PDD(MFAI'84): I thought it was a dirty po-mo trick. It took away from the story of a man coming to terms with his father, and with manhood. Which are, of course, the same thing.

SMIFNBAMNF: Did anyone else think Robert DeNiro was way too ripped to play a rapidly dissipating drunk?

WCMFWANT: Narcissistic Personality Disorder. That's what he has.

EFLENF: I think something that comes across much better in the movie is the like bravery that Nick displays in reaching out to his father. Providing him a place to stay for the night. Putting himself out there, risking rejection.

FFWSAUWtNP, aWNR/WTM: This movie was really Freudian, right? Did anyone else think that the writer guy was going to kill his dad?

EFLENF: No. Because that's not what happened.

FFWSAUWtNP, aWNR/WTM: Well, in Inglorious Basterds, they kill Hitler. I'm pretty sure that didn't happen, either.

WCMFWANT: Narcissistic Personality Disorder. That's what it is. My dad's a shrink.

BBPDeLWPMMF(WAAREAUFDOPIRaGFFVP): One thing I wanted to mention was the always-wintry-any-major-East-Coast-City aspect. It's shot in New York, but it's supposed to be Boston. It could be Philadelphia. Gray, gritty, cold. The soundtrack, though, Badly Drawn Boy, who was friends with Elliot Smith, who of course did the soundtrack for Goodwill Hunting, which is also Boston, but which is also shot in Boston, that ties these together, tips the hat that it is, at least, a Boston of the Mind. In addition to their both being, of a sort, bildungsromans. And plus the Wallacian moment of the steam grates, combined with Nick hitting the rock pipe ala Joelle Van Dyne map-elimination in his moment of character arc bottom-out. At least, these last two seemed to me a nod to IJ.

BMcCMF: Does anything not seem like a nod to Infinite Jest to you?

USTBB&QoNFP: Books don't have music. Books don't have the same ability to wordlessly montage. Not prose, at least, maybe poetry, but still nowhere near as effectively. The movie has a lyrical quality to it that...

Male Fictioneer Who Always Manages To Find A Way to Bring Up "A Small, Good Thing" In Discussion: I thought there were some real parallels between the baker in "A Small, Good Thing" and Nick. The way you can lose yourself in your work, how you can become your work. And also, of course, both are meditations on the loss caused by an unexpected death.

BBPDeLWPMMF(WAAREAUFDOPIRaGFFVP): An invisible man in an invisible room in an invisible city. Because any of the homeless persons Nick approaches when he's working the van could be his father, they are all potentially his father, and thus are all symbologically his father. And, by extension, ours. Broken. Alone. But surviving, in a Zenonically paradoxical fashion. Ever-more-vanishingly closer to the bottom, to death, but never getting there. The film, right, film can—with music and with wordless montage—it has an easier job, done right, right? Of transmitting the Objective Correlative. It bypasses, the film, the critical voice, the critical mind. And is thus maybe a purer transmission device—this is, in part, Benjamin talking here—of the emotional quotient of the writer. We can appreciate it for how it's done, how it's put together, we can talk about it all day from a critical perspective and never get any closer to the real...

SMIFNBAMNF: I will say, despite my... you know, exceptions to the entire movie in principal, I feel like this movie did for homelessness what The Diary of Anne Frank did for Jewishness.

PDD(MFAI'84): I think we can probably leave the discussion with that. And remember, next week, continuing in the theme of non-fictive soul-search, and because certain of the class objected that there were no female writers included on the syllabus, we'll be discussing Eat, Pray, Love. Between now and then, I'd like you all to give some serious consideration to your lives, post-MFA, within the context of the elder Flynn. That is all.