Archive for August, 2009

Bums At A Grave

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

The first movie I remember seeing at a movie theatre was The Court Jester starring Danny Kaye, Basil Rathbone, and the very young Angela Lansbury. 1955. I was six years old. As we left the Park Theatre in Menlo Park, California, I distinctly recall turning to my mother and announcing that I was going to be a movie star like Danny Kaye. To which she replied, “Don’t be silly.”

Three years later, 1958, my parents took me to see Alec Guinness in The Horse’s Mouth, after which I proclaimed, “That’s what I’m going to be. An artist and live on a boat.” To which my father, a psychiatrist, replied, “Just what we need, another narcissistic sociopath.”

Both The Court Jester and The Horse’s Mouth have stood the test of time for me. I’ve seen them several times in the intervening fifty years, and I still consider The Horse’s Mouth to be one of the very best depictions of a person who cares more for his art than for anyone or anything else.

When I was nine, Willy Mays supplanted Danny and Alec as my supreme mentor and hero, and led me off my artist’s path into the glory of baseball and eventually basketball, my twin obsessions until late high school when I was felled by what the western medical doctors called a hot case of ankyllosing spondilitis, which ailment cut short my dreams of athletic glory, returned me full steam to writing and music and drama, and shortly thereafter saved me from going to fight in Vietnam.

When I dropped out of college at nineteen, I knew what I wanted to be: a professional writer, actor, and musician—Danny Kaye and Alec Guinness rolled into one.

Despite a thousand setbacks and highly annoying poverty, I held to this vision of myself, worked day and night at my writing and music, and at twenty-eight was rewarded by having my first novel published and made into a major motion picture. A year after that, I published my second novel, and Warner Brother paid me to write the screenplay for Laura Ziskin, famous most recently as the producer of the Spiderman franchise.

And though by the age of thirty I hadn’t made buckets of money, I had made a goodly chunk of change, so I decided to make a little film of my own to prove to myself and others that I had the chops to offer myself as a director of my own movies. This, of course, was in the days before digital anything, when making a good-looking movie, even in sixteen-millimeter film, was extremely expensive; and so was born my truly minimalist fifteen-minute fictive film entitled Bums At A Grave.

Within a year of completing the film, my career, so bright and promising (in commercial terms) had collapsed. Bums At A Grave became but a reel of celluloid in a canister that lay on my dusty shelf for nearly thirty years. And then a few weeks ago, at the urging of several old friends who remembered the movie and wanted to see it again, I had the film transferred to DVD in a good lab in San Francisco.

Seeing Bums At A Grave for the first time in twenty-eight years was a fascinating walk down memory lane for me. I wrote the script in 1979 when I was living in Santa Cruz, California. The film is set in 1933 during the Great Depression, and seems remarkably predictive of Now. We filmed it in the summer of 1980 shortly after I moved to Sacramento—a two-day shoot in 105-degree heat near Grass Valley. Richard Simpson was the cinematographer and editor, Doug Peckham handled sound, Bob Smith produced, Patty Nolan was continuity person and assistant-to-everyone, my brother Steve starred as Willy, and I co-starred as Trevor.

For years prior to the Bums shoot, I studied movies in search of filming techniques that particularly pleased me. This meant I had to go to movies multiple times, since VHS technology had barely been born and DVDs were not yet a glimmering in the eye of the future. I did not and do not like quick cutting from one scene to another. I very much enjoy action within a still frame, slow tracking shots, and a slowly pivoting camera on a tripod. No handheld shots, please!

Thus when I wrote the script for Bums At A Grave, I intentionally minimized the need for edits while creating setups for active and changing points of view. This not only made for more pleasing cinema, it saved money in those days when even 16 mm shooting and editing was expensive.

For instance: characters at a distance can move (in the course of a scene) to the forefront of the frame where a slow zoom to a close-up can add up to three or four “scenelets” in a single take without the need for an edit.

Bums At A Grave screened at the 1980 Filmex film festival in Los Angeles for an audience of 1200 hardcore film buffs and movie biz folks. They loved the film, laughed uproariously at the Republican joke (Reagan our brand new president in 1980), and gave us a rousing ovation at the end. While we were in LA, we screened the film for Laura Ziskin, and to my everlasting delight Laura pronounced, “Your agents are missing the boat with you. They should be pushing you as a director.”

But life, as the poets say, intervened and I took another road in the opposite direction of Hollywood. Today, at last, you can see scenes from Bums At A Grave on Youtube. Turn up the volume and have some fun. Or view the entire fifteen minutes of Bums At A Grave, Admission Free, at Underthetablebooks.com.

Writing the Sequel to Under the Table Books

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

I’ve been madly writing the sequel to my just-published novel Under the Table Books. Given that only a handful of people have read Under the Table Books, and confronted by barely discernible sales of the mighty tome, my rational mind warns me that my current literary labor is folly, that years spent on a sequel to an unknown novel will amount to yet another wasted effort, and we’ve already got piles of those gathering dust.

What my rational mind fails to comprehend (no matter how many times I explain this to her and because logic only takes us so far) is that I do not think these things up, these stories and plays and novels, and then decide to write them down. I do not plan what I create. Nor do I consider anything I’ve ever done wasted effort. What happens for me, and has been happening since I was a little boy, is that I hear a story being told to me and I see a movie unfurling as I hear the words, and my mission, if I choose to accept it, is to transcribe what I’m experiencing as vividly and musically as I can. I say musically because my taste runs to prose that swings to consistent and compelling rhythms.

I have written other sequels to other books I’ve published, though I have yet to publish a sequel, so I certainly understand the concern of the pragmatic sector of my brain as it worries about the aging corpus laboring over a saga that may never be published and may never bring us money or something we can trade for food and shelter. And if that’s the case, why bother? In all honesty, I bother because despite the latest data from my personal commerce department, I find the thickening plot and the seductive characters irresistible and I can’t wait to read what I write down next. I’m hooked.

When I lived in Berkeley some years ago I was in range of three or four radio stations that presented bestselling and/or academically anointed fiction writers talking about their latest books and their lives and how they went about writing. Some of these writers spoke at length about what their books meant, which always made me uneasy. Even more disturbing to me was that the vast majority of these writers claimed to know what they were going to write before they started writing. They actually thought things out ahead of time and got their ducks in a row in a barrel before they started shooting. They said things like, “I thought I’d like to write a book about…” Or “I knew I could sell this if I set it in Venice and opened with a scene in which…” Or “Gardening and cooking and infidelity are all the rage right now, so I decided…” All of which were ways of thinking I considered antithetical to originality and intuitive creativity.

But as depressing as all that intellectual hoo ha was to me, the thing almost all of them did that made me want to smack them with a bamboo pole, was to claim they were speaking for other writers. They would employ phrases such as “every serious writer eventually discovers…” or “of course any good writer will tell you…” or “the best writers always…” or “one should never…” and many other repulsive and stupid things; thus I surmised their books would be poo poo.

So what does that have to do with me writing a sequel to my virtually unknown novel? Everything! And should I ever be asked to speak about my writing process, I will say essentially what I’ve just written here, though I will do my best to let my characters speak for themselves.

A Brief Excerpt From the Sequel to Under the Table Books

Natasha—tall, brown, graceful, and vastly pregnant—stands behind the bookstore counter reciting the lyrics of the Under the Table Books anthem to Hansel and Gretel Hosenhoffer of Stuttgart, a middle-aged couple in heavy gray tweeds blowing through California on a whirlwind tour of esoteric bookstores of the western hemisphere—Hansel sporting an ebony monocle, Gretel wearing a necklace of tortoise shell reading glasses.

“All books are free,” intones Natasha, her voice deep and sonorous. “If you want to leave something you value as much as the book you’re taking, cool. Have a book you don’t want? Drop it on by. And don’t get us wrong. We enjoy receiving stacks of quarters and piles of dollar bills. We delight in all forms of currency, including tasty comestibles. Yes, and keep those potted plants coming. May all beings be well read.”

Hansel Hosenhoffer frowns quizzically. “From zis you make a living?”

“Amazing but true,” says Natasha, resting her hands on the drum of her belly, her soon-to-be-born baby kicking gently in 4/4 time. “The kindness of book lovers knows no bounds.”

Gretel Hosenhoffer smiles in mild horror at the foundational implications of the anarchist bookstore. “But how does anyone determine the worth of anything?”

“Your guess is as good as mine,” says Natasha, moving out from behind the counter to join Bobo in the Reading Circle where he has been waiting patiently for her to read to him from his current favorite book The Adventures of a Naughty Boy Named Knocker and His Trusty Sidekick Poo Poo Head.

The bell above the door jangles and Iris Spinelli dashes in out of the rain. A spry ninety-four, her curly white hair sprinkled with gold glitter, her leotard blue, her slender frame draped with seven purple scarves, Iris is wending her way home from the weekly gathering of the Society of Impersonators of Famous People (formerly the East Side Philatelists Association.) Iris is currently impersonating the interpretive dancer Isadora Duncan (1878-1927). Last week she was the movie star Claudette Colbert (1905-1996).

“Z around?” asks Iris, going up on her toes to kiss Natasha’s cheek. “How’s baby today?”

“She’s a busy girl,” says Natasha, smiling down at her swollen belly. “Z gets home tomorrow from the Frankfurt book fair. Having way too much fun, if you ask me.”

“All morning,” says Iris, gazing into Natasha’s eyes, “I’ve been hearing a fabulous three-part harmony for The Look of Love. You and me and Z.”

“Let’s do our parts now,” says Natasha, lowering herself into a big armchair. “So when Z gets home, we’ll have it down.”

Iris smiles sublimely and hums a warbling note to set the key. Natasha breathes deeply of the trembling tone and eases into harmony with Iris—every molecule of the old building vibrating in sympathy with Iris’s quavering alto and Natasha’s superlative soprano, the blend of their voices unspeakably sweet.

Hansel and Gretel look up from their respective books—he leafing through Goethe, she inhaling Rilke—each moved to tears by the unfettered magnificence of the choir of two.