Failure is a pattern of mind, but it is also, when we are close to it, delicious.– Matthew Spector
Matthew Specktor calls his latest book, Always Crashing the Same Car: On Art, Crisis & Los Angeles, California a “memoir-in-criticism”, as the book is both a personal memoir and a cultural study, written with poetic charm. The son of a talent agent father and occasional-screenwriter mother, Specktor grew up in Los Angeles, where the film industry was an ever-present part of his life. In the moment of writing this book, at which Specktor goes in reverse to consider dozens of Hollywood pasts and possible alternative outcomes, he finds himself living in West Hollywood in a tiny apartment, divorced, without a writing contract, trying to pull himself out of a seeming professional and personal failure.
Specktor reflects on the mythos of Hollywood and the storied elements and landmarks of its built environment. He paints a portrait of Los Angeles as the home of the US film industry and all of the dreams and disasters it spawns. But Specktor is particularly dedicated to failure here, as he traces stories of writers, actors, musicians, and directors whose careers were sidelined for a variety of reasons.
The process of making sense of the careers of artists as varied as Warren Zevon, Michael Cimino, and Renata Adler is, for Specktor, a means of trying to sort out his own shortcomings. From his apartment, the physical proximity to former homes of people he writes about makes clear that those individuals haunt his neighborhood as well as his dreams.
Specktor has an intimate relationship with failure: much of his argument that his mother is a failure is woven into his profiles of Eleanor Perry or Carole Eastman, who scripted one of his mother’s favorite films, Five Easy Pieces. He notes that Mom was a talented writer, but talent is merely a promise, not a metric of success. He also notes that failure is subjective and in some instances, a choice. Tuesday Weld, for example, made a series of choices that moved her from the “celebrated child actress” list to the “what ever happened to…” column, as a result of rejecting film offers and deciding to live a life away from the cameras and red carpets.
All of Specktor’s subjects have some connection to him: even the thread of considerations about F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was a failure in the film industry, is resonant because Specktor can see Fitzgerald’s final residence from his own tiny Hollywood apartment. Another example is the chapter devoted to Tuesday Weld, which is also an elegy to an old, dear friend Specktor refers to simply as D, who reenters his life via phone calls and email.
D has also experienced these cresting waves of both success and failure, part of what perpetuates the bond between the two men. Specktor describes D as being subject to manic enthusiasms, and his fascination with Tuesday Weld inspired him to reach out to Specktor, encouraging him to take a close look at her performances. The story of Weld’s career is intertwined with the stories of D and Specktor’s friendship.
Specktor has a skill for jarring integration: at the end of his chapter on Eleanor Perry, he moves from wondering about precisely who Perry was, to wondering if his own wife was already having sex with her lover before she announced her desire to end their marriage. The link between the two ideas is not just contending with drifting, intrusive thoughts but also contemplating marriage and infidelity, both of which were rife in Perry’s life. That her late years post-marriage were, Specktor reports, quite splendid, may provide some consolation.
As a critic of both films and literature, Specktor has a balanced touch, lauding actors and writers deservedly but finding those accomplishments often to be in the context of lesser achievements. He does not seem to disagree, for example, with Eleanor Perry’s assessment that films featuring Paul Newman and Robert Redford were infuriating because they refused to acknowledge the homoeroticism that was obviously present. Specktor’s skill also shines as a writer who is writing about other writers – surely a challenge, yet one that Specktor takes on with an understanding of heartfelt yearning for success, appreciation, even stardom.
As each chapter is a slice of biography from a particular perspective – what we aim for, what we achieve, how we fail, how we define failure – the stories feel somewhat incomplete. In the specificity of his detail, and his discussions of how his attention, in a state of grief, edged into obsession, which inspired research, Specktor makes clear the thoroughness of his study.
Specktor would not be wrong in hoping that those narrative gaps create curiosity. To draw the reader in, then inspire the reader to search online, to watch the films, to listen to the albums, indicates a quality book.