At first glance, Geoff Dyer’s approach to literary nonfiction appears nothing if not perverse. He’s that rare prolific writer who is most prolific when he’s least predictable. With four novels and loads of excellent, award-winning art criticism to his credit, it’s still the books that reject known categories that have become his calling cards. The latest of these oddball jeu d’esprit is a petite morsel of a little over 100 pages titled ‘Broadsword Calling Danny Boy’: Watching Where Eagles Dare.
Novella-length companion essays to great films are not a new genre for either the book world — see the British Film Institute’s excellent series of volumes on “Film Classics” — or for Dyer, who published Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room in tribute to Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker back in 2012, but this one treads a road less taken. Whatever else one might say about the 1968 thriller Where Eagles Dare, starring Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood, hordes of Nazis, and the Alps, it’s not the kind of underappreciated work of art that would seem to call for Dyer’s notoriously obsessive/digressive approach.
And yet, after an evening lost in the wonder and frequent laughter of reading, I can testify that however one feels about the film Where Eagles Dare, learning what Dyer thinks about it, or rather what Dyer thinks during it, is unquestionably worth the time. Speculations about the relative state of Richard Burton’s liver and the future of Clint Eastwood’s grimace rub shoulders with delightful excursions through such Dyer-esque territory as the photographer Piotr Uklański’s epic 1998 photomontage The Nazis, which features 164 tightly cropped pictures of famous actors playing Nazis, including several of the cast members from Where Eagles Dare. Darting back and forth between his eclectic contemporary consciousness and the early-adolescent state of mind in which he formed his initial attachment to the film, Dyer invents a fascinating intermediate fantasy space in which both of these personal worlds — and all the life experience in between them — exist simultaneously.
Dyer will be in Santa Barbara on Thursday, May 30, to present clips from Where Eagles Dare and read along to them as part of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s Parallel Stories series. In a recent phone conversation, he promised both new, post-publication insights and moments of Reichian (as in Steve) phase-shifting as his account of the film falls in and out of synchronization with the moving image. Dyer’s restless eye and perky, uninhibited zeal for deflationary irony make him an intimidating interview subject, but in point of fact he’s warm and generous with his observations. Among his particular concerns at this time are the photographer Garry Winogrand, about whom he has recently published a book-length essay, and the maintenance of his position at the top of the book-introduction writing game.
Perhaps the most revealing thing that came out of our conversation was Dyer’s interest in the problem of writerly urgency. I brought this up inadvertently by praising his writing for this quality, while at the same time admitting that urgency was easily felt but difficult to locate or prove. Dyer responded by saying that he fears losing the ability to write, and that he has recently become a student of careers like that of the 19th-century poet William Wordsworth, who struck literary gold as a young writer and then lived another 40 years during which he failed to write anything as good again. Acknowledging that there have been times when he was “convinced [he] was finished” as a writer, Dyer went on to say that he still worries about waking up some day and no longer having anything to say. Well, this certainly hasn’t happened yet, and that’s a good thing all around.
4•1•1 | Geoff Dyer will present clips from Where Eagles Dare and read along to them as part of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s Parallel Stories series on Thursday, May 30, at 5:30 p.m. See sbma.net.