FILM FLAM

Essays on Hollywood By Larry McMurtry

Simon and Schuster. 159 pp. $16.95

EVERYONE WORRIES when a writer goes to Hollywood. His friends, happy that he will at last be able to put bread on the table, smile and wish him well, then say "I guess the next time I see you you'll be wearing gold chains around your neck." Fellow writers remind him that his art is his first duty and that while a short season or two among the philistines is okay, to stay much longer is to risk losing his soul. The writer himself is apt to worry about being magically transformed because however brave, however noble, he is up against a force more powerful than himself.

The cautionary tales, myths themselves, are powerful: William Faulkner went to Hollywood and had to write Biblical epics, and no one appreciated his genius. Scott Fitzgerald wasted his last few years in the movie palace. Nathanael West died in that gilded corrupt hole. And if you don't die there you will surely be compromised -- like John Steinbeck, who could have been a great writer if he hadn't spent so much time hanging around with Bogart and Gable. That these stories are all false hardly matters at all. We believe that the artist is childlike, and we know that art is sacred and that the artist must not dirty his hands in the swinish commercial world.

It is instructional, then, to have books that demystify Hollywood, books that can serve as a kind of counter myth to the prevailing romantic ones under which all writers are forced to operate. Two of the best of these in recent years are Tom Dardis' Some Time in the Sun, which goes a long way toward dispelling the myth that the town was a pit that sucked up our greatest talents, and David Freeman's A Hollywood Education, which was distinguished by brilliant comic writing and a knowing eye for everyday life in Hollywood.

Now comes Larry McMurtry's Film Flam, a welcome addition to the small shelf of counter-myth books. Eschewing the usual writer's stance of unearned moral superiority, McMurtry is able to see through the fog. In several essays, he delights the reader with fresh observations. Everyone knows, for example, that screenwriters are a miserable lot. In the prevailing mythology this is thought to be true because writers are too good for the cheap second-rate producers who boss them around. But McMurtry offers another reason. It's because nobody teaches anyone how to write a screenplay.

"Screenwriting, so far, has no rationale, no theory, and is, at best, an indifferent, pedestrian craft-literature. Worse, it offers young craftsmen no easily accessible means of apprenticeship; instead of training an indigenous body of skilled craftsmen to write its screenplays, the movie industry has traditionally preferred to look outside itself, usually to novelists, for whatever writing it needs done.

"The dubious assumption this procedure rests upon is that screenwriting is an art, which therefore needs to employ imaginative artists, rather than a craft, which could be expected to rely upon the discipline and the trained skill of gifted artisans. Unfortunately (it seems to me) novelists have lent themselves readily, even eagerly to this quite possibly fallacious assumption."

Why this should be the case is itself interesting. Producers hire novelists because they want to get "artistic" screenplays. They don't tell the novelists anything about how to write a screenplay because the producers themselves believe the prevailing myths. You can't tell a novelist anything, or he'll turn into a hack. No producer worth his Gucci loafers wants to be known as the guy who turned a potential Proust into a hack, so he trusts the novelist's artistic intuition. But the novelist has a novelist's intuition. He is used to sitting by himself for months, years even, working and reworking his book. At that rate no movie would ever make a production schedule. So McMurtry suggests that the studios ought to have schools where "trained artisans" learn the craft of screenwriting.

HE CAN BE very funny, refreshingly so, when writing about the sensitive artist alone in the big, corrupt city:

"It's a pity . . . so many writers go to Hollywood wearing their genius like a new blue suit, ever watchful that some dandruffy mogul will drop a few flakes on them. From what I've seen of genius, it's a tedious thing; it involves a lot of sitting home alone, staring at blank pages. It also not infrequently involves considerable childishness, which makes it more a puzzle to me that literary geniuses don't recognize Hollywood for the big playpen it is, filled with some of the most expensive toys in the world. It also contains one of the heaviest concentrations of ego anywhere. Actually, it is like a kind of ego-zoo, in which the egos are allowed to stroll around in their natural habitats. Any writer with his wits about him should find the ego zoo alone worth all the trouble Hollywood might involve; it is a fascinating, endlessly amusing spectacle."

This strikes me as absolutely correct. Writers worry about their souls as if they were rapidly dwindling bank accounts. Academia, on the other hand, is far less interesting, and puts the writer in a state of permanent debt. Not to mention a kind of prolonged false state of childishness.

McMurtry is also witty and dead-on about television. Television is, of course, a subject on which literary intellectuals often become hysterical. No one reads anymore because of television. Movies are being ruined by television, because people won't leave their homes. And the reason they won't leave their homes is because they're being turned into zombies by television.

McMurtry takes a rather more interesting view. Movies, he writes, are being killed by television because television has picked up a staple of the novel -- the 19th-century novel -- real characters with whom the audience can identify week after week -- the kind of thing Dickens and others did in serial form. Television has also come up with the mini-series format for complex narratives taking place over a long span of time, while the average motion picture is stuck with a 90- to 120-minute format.

Worse, McMurtry believes, film makers have lost their courage. He writes: "Now, it seems to me, that despite the towering box office of the last few years, the movie industry has lost all conviction. It has reached a kind of nadir of unconfidence, in which production heads cower timorously amid heaps of scripts and treatments, afraid to make anything out of a fear that if they do they may lose what little ground they still hold." The essay was written a few years ago, and since then the spate of dumb teen-age sex comedies seem to have run its course.

What has taken their place isn't a whole lot more appetizing. Now is the era of the new yuppie movie, vehicles like Blind Date and The Secret of My Success. (At a recent story meeting I was told by a very bright person that Robert De Niro didn't mean anything at the box office anymore. I should "think younger" -- someone, say, like Judd Nelson.)

So Film Flam is not only valuable as a corrective vision of Hollywood. McMurtry is quite often a witty critic of the town, but a sympathetic critic, one who knows the ropes, who clearly loves movies and the goofy ego zoo that is Southern California. There are excellent critical essays in the book as well, including a very amusing appraisal of All the President's Men, which McMurtry says "has the resonance of a doorbell -- at best it manages five or six tones, and it is indifferent to ambiguity."

IN AN AMUSING introduction, the author offers a disclaimer of sorts. He says his book is really a collection of columns, the offspring of opportunity rather than passion. This is true to a degree. Some of the columns, obviously written against a deadline, are repetitious. There is rather too much made over The Last Picture Show, a good but not great film. And the book's final piece, a profile of Diane Keaton is uncharacteristically smarmy in tone.

Despite these failings, Film Flam is a valuable book. It is smart in the way few books about the motion picture capital ever are. McMurtry knows what is going on in Hollywood, and he tells it honestly. This seems like a simple thing, but if that's so, why have so few writers and commentators been able to penetrate the myths?

Robert Ward, who writes for television in Hollywood, is the author of "Red Baker."