Laura Dern is so dazzlingly right as “my” Connie that I may come to think I modeled the fictitious girl on her, in the way that writers frequently delude themselves about motions of causality.
By Joyce Carol Oates
Originally published in the New York Times, March 23, 1986; reprinted in (Woman) Writer.
Some years ago in the American Southwest there surfaced a tabloid psychopath known as “The Pied Piper of Tucson.” I have forgotten his name, but his specialty was the seduction and occasional murder of teen-aged girls. He may or may not have had actual accomplices, but his bizarre activities were known among a circle of teenagers in the Tucson area, for some reason they kept his secret, deliberately did not inform parents or police. It was this fact, not the fact of the mass murderer himself, that struck me at the time. And this was a pre-Manson time, early or mid-1960s.
The Pied Piper mimicked teenagers in talk, dress, and behavior, but he was not a teenager—he was a man in his early thirties. Rather short, he stuffed rags in his leather boots to give himself height. (And sometimes walked unsteadily as a consequence: did none among his admiring constituency notice?) He charmed his victims as charismatic psychopaths have always charmed their victims, to the bewilderment of others who fancy themselves free of all lunatic attractions. The Pied Piper of Tucson: a trashy dream, a tabloid archetype, sheer artifice, comedy, cartoon—surrounded, however improbably, and finally tragically, by real people. You think that, if you look twice, he won’t be there. But there he is.
I don’t remember any longer where I first read about this Pied Piper—very likely in Life Magazine. I do recall deliberately not reading the full article because I didn’t want to be distracted by too much detail. It was not after all the mass murderer himself who intrigued me, but the disturbing fact that a number of teenagers—from “good” families—aided and abetted his crimes. This is the sort of thing authorities and responsible citizens invariably call “inexplicable” because they can’t find explanations for it. They would not have fallen under this maniac’s spell, after all.
An early draft of my short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?“—from which the film Smooth Talk was adapted by Joyce Chopra and Tom Cole—had the rather too explicit title “Death and the Maiden.” It was cast in a mode of fiction to which I am still partial—indeed, every third or fourth story of mine is probably in this mode—”realistic allegory,” it might be called. It is Hawthornean, romantic, shading into parable. Like the medieval German engraving from which my title was taken, the story was minutely detailed yet clearly an allegory of the fatal attractions of death (or the devil). An innocent young girl is seduced by way of her own vanity; she mistakes death for erotic romance of a particularly American/trashy sort.
In subsequent drafts the story changed its tone, its focus, its language, its title. It became “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Written at a time when the author was intrigued by the music of Bob Dylan, particularly the hauntingly elegiac song “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” it was dedicated to Bob Dylan. The charismatic mass murderer drops into the background and his innocent victim, a fifteen-year-old, moves into the foreground. She becomes the true protagonist of the tale, courting and being courted by her fate, a self-styled 1950s pop figure, alternately absurd and winning. There is no suggestion in the published story that “Arnold Friend” has seduced and murdered other young girls, or even that he necessarily intends to murder Connie. Is his interest “merely” sexual? (Nor is there anything about the complicity of other teenagers. I saved that yet more provocative note for a current story, “Testimony.”) Connie is shallow, vain, silly, hopeful, doomed—but capable nonetheless of an unexpected gesture of heroism at the story’s end. Her smooth-talking seducer, who cannot lie, promises her that her family will be unharmed if she gives herself to him; and so she does. The story ends abruptly at the point of her “crossing over.” We don’t know the nature of her sacrifice, only that she is generous enough to make it.
In adapting a narrative so spare and thematically foreshortened as “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” film director Joyce Chopra and screenwriter Tom Cole were required to do a good deal of filling in, expanding, inventing. Connie’s story becomes lavishly, and lovingly, textured; she is not an allegorical figure so much as a “typical” teenaged girl (if Laura Dern, spectacularly good-looking, can be so defined). Joyce Chopra, who has done documentary films on contemporary teenage culture and, yet more authoritatively, has an adolescent daughter of her own, creates in Smooth Talk a vivid and absolutely believable world for Connie to inhabit. Or worlds: as in the original story there is Connie-at-home, and there is Connie-with-her-friends. Two fifteen-year-old girls, two finely honed styles, two voices, sometimes but not often overlapping. It is one of the marvelous visual features of the film that we see Connie and her friends transform themselves, once they are safely free of parental observation. The girls claim their true identities in the neighborhood shopping mall. What freedom, what joy!
Smooth Talk is, in a way, as much Connie’s mother’s story as it is Connie’s; its center of gravity, its emotional nexus, is frequently with the mother—warmly and convincingly played by Mary Kay Place. (Though the mother’s sexual jealousy of her daughter is slighted in the film.) Connie’s ambiguous relationship with her affable, somewhat mysterious father (well played by Levon Helm) is an excellent touch: I had thought, subsequent to the story’s publication, that I should have built up the father, suggesting, as subtly as I could, an attraction there paralleling the attraction Connie feels for her seducer, Arnold Friend. And Arnold Friend himself—”A. Friend” as he says—is played with appropriately overdone sexual swagger by Treat Williams, who is perfect for the part; and just the right age. We see that Arnold Friend isn’t a teenager even as Connie, mesmerized by his presumed charm, does not seem to see him at all. What is so difficult to accomplish in prose—nudging the reader to look over the protagonist’s shoulder, so to speak—is accomplished with enviable ease in film.
Treat Williams as Arnold Friend is supreme in his very awfulness, as, surely, the original Pied Piper of Tucson must have been. (Though no one involved in the film knew about the original source.) Mr. Williams flawlessly impersonates Arnold Friend as Arnold Friend impersonates—is it James Dean? James Dean regarding himself in mirrors, doing James Dean impersonations? That Connie’s fate is so trashy is in fact her fate.
What is outstanding in Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk is its visual freshness, its sense of motion and life; the attentive intelligence the director has brought to the semi-secret world of the American adolescent—shopping mall flirtations, drive-in restaurant romances, highway hitchhiking, the fascination of rock music played very, very loud. (James Taylor’s music for the film is wonderfully appropriate. We hear it as Connie hears it; it is the music of her spiritual being.) Also outstanding, as I have indicated, and numerous critics have noted, are the acting performances. Laura Dern is so dazzlingly right as “my” Connie that I may come to think I modeled the fictitious girl on her, in the way that writers frequently delude themselves about motions of causality.
My difficulties with Smooth Talk have primarily to do with my chronic hesitation—about seeing/hearing work of mine abstracted from its contexture of language. All writers know that Language is their subject; quirky word choices, patterns of rhythm, enigmatic pauses, punctuation marks. Where the quick scanner sees “quick” writing, the writer conceals nine tenths of the iceberg. Of course we all have “real” subjects, and we will fight to the death to defend those subjects, but beneath the tale-telling it is the tale-telling that grips us so very fiercely. The writer works in a single dimension, the director works in three. I assume they are professionals to their fingertips; authorities in their medium as I am an authority (if I am) in mine. I would fiercely defend the placement of a semicolon in one of my novels but I would probably have deferred in the end to Joyce Chopra’s decision to reverse the story’s conclusion, turn it upside down, in a sense, so that the film ends not with death, not with a sleepwalker’s crossing over to her fate, but upon a scene of reconciliation, rejuvenation.
A girl’s loss of virginity, bittersweet but not necessarily tragic. Not today. A girl’s coming-of-age that involves her succumbing to, but then rejecting, the “trashy dreams” of her pop teenage culture. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” defines itself as allegorical in its conclusion: Death and Death’s chariot (a funky souped-up convertible) have come for the Maiden. Awakening is, in the story’s final lines, moving out into the sunlight where Arnold Friend waits:
“My sweet little blue-eyed girl,” he said in a half-sung sigh that had nothing to do with [Connie’s] brown eyes but was taken up just the same by the vast sunlit reaches of the land behind him and on all sides of him—so much land that Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to know that she was going to it.
—a conclusion impossible to transfigure into film.