What's Your Problem?
Faulkner contacted Chandler who said he had no idea.
The screenwriting team for Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1946), writers William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman, as well as director Howard Hawks, had been busy parsing the plot of the novel and wired Chandler to find out who was responsible for chauffer Owen Taylor’s murder. “Dammit I didn’t know either!” Chandler responded.
One theory posits that it simply doesn’t matter because the resulting chemistry between the films’ stars, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, was so electrifying and their brilliant back-and-forth banter so satisfying that no one cared who murdered Owen Taylor. I disagree and so would Joe.
As an undergrad I had to take a class called Dramatic Structure, with Professor Joseph Stockdale. Joe, as he quickly became known to us, was not an easy man to study with. At the almost new SUNY Purchase (this was in the early 1980s) Joe was very old school. Tall and lean with close-cropped white hair, he often barked at us and peered (or perhaps leered) at us over his eagle eyeglasses. His was a large lecture class and in order to keep track of all his students that semester, Joe assigned a seating chart. In college. For one semester, we all sat in the same seats.
Joe was the king of dramatic structure theory, assigning us Aristotle’s Poetics so we could learn how plays were assembled, using exposition, rising action, conflict, climax and denouement, or the ancient and more sophisticated version of beginning, middle and end that every story essentially contains. Plays such as A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman were assigned weekly and our job was to practice breaking down the plot line of each play, using the aforementioned linear structure. Above all, Joe taught us that there is no piece of any story, no matter how large or small, that is unimportant. Every character has a motivation and every action or word of dialogue is there for a reason.
The problem, or conflict, was always the focus of each story, whether, it was the intrusion of Blanche into the home of her brother-in-law, Stanley (A Streetcar Named Desire), or the fact that Willie is old and unstable and cannot make a sale (Death of a Salesman). In the beginning I found Joe to be oddly refreshing at oh-so-groovy Purchase; there was something rather comforting about his firm, conservative ways. Joe provided a road map for our journeys through storytelling; each step like a guide giving us water and telling us which way to turn. As difficult as Joe was, after a month of class I knew exactly what this dedicated drill sergeant wanted.
In my own story line that semester I had an exposition (college student takes class with difficult professor) and rising action (said student learns how to accept unbending ways of professor). Before I knew it, though, I had a problem: I was diagnosed with Mononucleosis and assigned to bed rest for the remainder of the semester. By some stroke of 1980s permissive genius, I was allowed to stay on campus, my argument being that I would get sicker if I was sent home to become my mother’s patient. I sent word to all my professors; the fact that I did not hear back from Joe did not bode well.
While I recuperated in my room and barely had the energy to get up and make a cup of tea, I ruminated on my problem: with each passing day of the semester I was falling farther and farther behind and I had absolutely no idea how I was going to catch up. It should tell you a lot about my personality that I was much more concerned about passing Joe’s class than my own recovery. Finally, one day in later March, I managed to sit up and have enough energy to pick up a play and read it from cover to cover. Somehow, day after day, I got the rest of the reading done and finished the assignments for Joe.
One of Joe’s strategic tactics was to let his students decide what grade it was they deserved. You would go see him, review your semester and declare that you earned a grade of ___. On a chilly, late April afternoon, I crawled into Joe’s office, ready to face my maker (here was my climax). “Joe,” I said, “this was a really hard semester. I didn’t plan on getting sick but I also did not give up on your class and eventually managed to read all the plays and finish all the assignments. I know I would’ve done better if I had been healthy but, taking all of this into account, I think I’ve earned a B minus.”
“Anita,” Joe squawked at me, “I was very angry when I heard you were sick. I thought you should’ve dropped the class.” Here it comes, I thought. The D I’ve been waiting for (forget the luxury of a B minus). “However,” Joe continued “you did do all the work I asked you to. Therefore, I am giving you a B plus for the semester.” There it was: my denouement. As I turned, stunned, to walk out the door, Joe stopped me. “And another thing. When I was in graduate school, I, too, got sick but I handed in my thesis and THEN checked myself into the infirmary.”
Like Joe, I’ve always felt that everything, whether in drama or life (hell, lets just say both) happens for a reason and Joe definitely appeared in act two of my story for a specific purpose. Joe taught me how to be a professional; Joe taught me how to show up on time. And Joe taught me that every problem in storytelling, whether it be drama, comedy or mystery, happens for a reason. Perhaps, most of all, Joe taught me that there are no excuses, even medical ones, and that everyone is up to the task of doing their best. Even me.
To get back to The Big Sleep: No one can argue that the stunning pair, Bogey and Bacall, made you forget all your problems; Joe, however, would’ve railed at Chandler for sloppy storytelling and a plot that had become the runaway train from hell. In my movie version of this story, I would cast Joe in the part of Raymond Chandler. When the team of writers, Faulkner, Leigh and Furthman, contacted him about the murder of Owen Taylor, Joe would pick up the phone, listen to their absurd request and yell into the mouthpiece, in under one minute, that “obviously Taylor was killed by…”
On the other hand, this cinema story would never work out. No one would have called Joe Stockdale about a plot complication in one of his works; Joe knew exactly what his problem was.