Posts Tagged ‘COmedians’

Thought Control

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2015

26. Unity of TimePlaceAction

Unity of Time/Place/Action photo montage by Ellen Jantzen

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2015)

“The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.” Alfred Hitchcock

In 1976 I was in New York when the play Comedians by the British playwright Trevor Griffiths opened on Broadway. I was so inspired by the play—I saw it twice—that when I returned to Oregon, I quit my job as a landscaper and moved to Seattle to concentrate on writing plays and trying to get them produced.

Alas, I found no takers for my plays anywhere in America, though I sent them to scores of theatre companies, large and small, and personally delivered them to theatre companies in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Palo Alto, Ashland, Portland, and Seattle. The dozen or so theatre people who were kind enough to respond to my plays all made the same comment: no theatre company in America produces three-act plays anymore.

Well, Comedians is a three-act play and I’d just seen it on Broadway. But the play was an anomaly in America, a throwback, and very British. And I should have known better because in the same week I saw Comedians, I attended the play that was the talk of the American theatre world at the time, Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, a play of many little disconnected scenes in one fairly short act.

Had I only seen For Colored Girls, I would not have changed the course of my life to write plays, and certainly not three-act plays. But Comedians touched me deeply and so greatly expanded my notion of what a modern play might be, that I ignored the mores of my culture and wrote a trio of three-act plays I was certain would take the American theatre world by storm.

Self-delusions aside, the changes in the American cultural landscape that took place in the first forty years of my life are nothing compared to what has overtaken us since the advent of personal computers and the internet, which might also be described as the coming of universal Attention Deficit Disorder and the attendant SCB: sit-com brain.

“Within the reigning social order, the general public must remain an object of manipulation, not a participant in thought, debate, and decision.” Noam Chomsky

Marcia and I recently went on the first journey I have made away from Mendocino in seven years, not counting a few overnights to Santa Rosa. Marcia has gone on a number of far treks in those seven years, but not I, so our eight-day trip to Oregon was a big deal for me.

Our big splurge was spending two nights at the Crater Lake Lodge, and though the big old lodge was filled to capacity, we pretty much had the place to ourselves. How can that be?

The first night there, we dined in our little room on cold cuts and hummus and other goodies from our cooler, but for hot water for tea we had to make the trek down to the vast lounge on the first floor where two enormous fireplaces ablaze with gas-fueled flames shone on seventy guests arrayed on comfortable sofas and armchairs, some of the guests waiting to go to supper in the dining hall, some drinking wine or beer or cocoa in the commodious surround.

And I felt I was stepping onto the set of the latest remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers because every person in the room, save for the waiters, was staring into either a smart phone or a tablet. Every single person. These were not teenagers or college kids or even thirty-somethings. No, these were people in their fifties, sixties, and seventies, staring zombie-like at little screens. They might have been in a bus station or inmates of a sanitarium for the demented, though I did not see anyone drooling.

The big terrace outside the lounge features several dozen large rocking chairs facing the spectacular crater, and during daylight hours lodgers can eat and drink and rock out there with a fabulous view of the incredibly blue lake and the spectacular rock formations surrounding that blue. Except that all the people in those rocking chairs were looking into screens, too, which is why I say we practically had the place to ourselves.

Why, I wonder, did all those people spend so much time and money to go to Crater Lake and not be there?

“Intolerance is evidence of impotence.” Aleister Crowley

In 1989 the movie Sex, Lies, and Videotape came out and caused a sensation that reached beyond the art houses. I was living in Sacramento at the time and loved the movie for its subtlety and complexity, and because it was so French, yet the actors spoke English. I was writing screenplays at the time, and Sex, Lies and Videotape was the first American film I’d seen in many years with a sensibility kin to my own.

The winter of 1989 was a very wet one, and when I went to see Sex, Lies, and Videotape a second time, the old Tower Theatre where I saw the film the first time was closed due to leaks. So my friends and I ventured far into the suburbs to a multiplex where the kiosk sported the shortened title Sex Videotapes—a foreshadowing of the experience awaiting us in the theatre.

In Sex, Lies and Videotape, you may recall, James Spader plays a reticent man who frequently pauses to think before speaking. Well, the audience of suburbanites at the showing we attended responded to these pauses with nervous giggling and catcalls such as, “What’s his problem?” and “He is so lame,” and the oft repeated, “Weirdo!”

We left the theatre despairing for humanity and desperate to get out of the burbs. A week later I went to the movie again at the Tower Theatre, and the first few times James Spader paused before speaking, I braced myself for shouted insults from the audience. To my great relief, the downtown audience had no trouble with a person thinking before speaking.

LA Jewish Money

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015

Goody, Red, and William

My Grandmother Goody with Red Skelton and William Bendix

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2015)

“The argument that all Jews have a heartfelt investment in the state of Israel is untrue. Some have a heartfelt investment in corned beef sandwiches.” Judith Butler.

The Mendocino Film Festival took place these past two weekends and the little town was jumping with out-of-towners, some in the movie business, some wanting to be in the movie business, and some who enjoy watching movies on screens larger than postcards and wall calendars. Endemic rural funk collided with visiting urban slick, and being highly susceptible to ambivalent ambience, I avoided the commercial sector of town for most of the days the film festival was underway.

Didn’t I want to see the movies? Not really. The good documentaries are already, or soon will be, available to watch in the peaceful atmosphere of home, the fictional shorts shown at the festival are usually several years old and I’ve already seen the good ones, and listening to filmmakers pontificate about their creative processes makes my stomach gurgle, so no.

Which is not to say I don’t enjoy the film festival coming to town. I was involved in the movie business for several years in my salad days, and the vibe in the town when the film festival is underway brings back loads of good and bad memories from those tragi-comic years. For instance, on Saturday, in search of a good chicken to bake, I entered the Mendocino Market, a most excellent deli and sandwich shop across the street from the post office, and was greeted by an ambience I am deeply familiar with: LA Jewish Money.

I am Jewish, genetically speaking, and throughout my childhood I spent part of each summer with my Jewish grandparents, my mother’s parents, in Los Angeles. My grandparents were in the real estate business and many of their friends were in the real estate business and show business, those two enterprises conjoined since the birth of the film industry in Los Angeles in the early 1900’s. LA Jewish Money was the primary fuel of the American movie industry in the twentieth century, both in Los Angeles and New York. Indeed, LA (and New York) Jewish money has been the primary fuel for all of show business, with much of that money coming from the fantastic profits accrued from buying and selling and developing real estate in the greater Los Angeles area (and Manhattan and Miami.)

Thus long before I became professionally entangled with Hollywood, I had listened to and partaken of hundreds of conversations in which Jewish men and women discussed life and business with a vocabulary and style and energy that evolved over decades of first and second and third generation American Jews settling in Los Angeles to partake of the land and movie gold rush that made Los Angeles into the vast city state it is today. Jewish money financed most of the movie studios, record companies, Broadway plays, television networks, television shows, and magazine and book publishers in America from 1900 until today—Facebook and Google the inventions of smart Jewish boys.

“A story to me means a plot where there is some surprise. Because that is how life is—full of surprises.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

Which is to say, when I walked into the Mendocino Market and found myself in the midst of a dozen gregarious young Jewish men and women, the men overweight and excited and funny, the women stylish and clever and droll, the air rich with frying pastrami accompanying those Los Angeles movie peeps buying bushels of cookies and wine and beer and chips and potato salad and pickled herring to go with their sandwiches, everyone talking loud and fast and sarcastically, I not only understood everything they were saying to each other, I recognized these young Jewish movie people as the great grandchildren, figuratively speaking, of the cohorts of my Jewish grandparents.

“Jews have a tendency to become comedians.” Sacha Baron Cohen

So if Jewish movie people are so smart and funny, why are American movies today so uniformly stupid and unfunny and downright bad? I think the answer lies in the word business. Artists tend to have little or no interest in business. And most good artists who become big successes have a businessperson taking care of business for them. If you are of my generation, you will remember when Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro were major goddesses in the record business, but you may not know it was David Geffen who managed their careers and gave them the wherewithal to succeed. Business. LA Jewish Money.

Ergo: a good movie is a work of art, but the people in charge of financing and producing movies are concerned with profitability, not art. Thus a good movie is both a work of art and a miracle to emerge intact from the meat grinder of the ultra-commercial uncreative imitative movie business. This, I think, is the greatest irony about the movie industry and American culture in general. Smart people, very smart people, are responsible for the flood of dreck and mediocrity that is our culture today. Or maybe it isn’t so much ironic as tragic and pathetic and annoying.

“Jews don’t care about ancient rivalries. We worry about humidity in Miami.” Evan Sayet

When Dick Donner, born Richard Schwartzberg, was directing the movie of my novel Inside Moves, he kindly allowed me to hang out on the set in Echo Park in Los Angeles for a week during the shooting. While I was there they filmed several scenes lifted unchanged from my novel, and one of those scenes was an emotional tour de force performed by the gifted actors Amy Wright and David Morse.

At scene’s end, the spellbound crew and cast members and show biz visitors to the set burst into applause and the air was filled with shouts of Bravo, to which Donner responded by slowly shaking his head and saying, “Not if we want to get a distributor.”

Because the name of the game is show business, not show art.

My Big Trip, Part Three

Wednesday, February 6th, 2013

Le Moulin de la Gallete by Pablo Picasso

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2013)

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” William Shakespeare

My friend Scott made a good part of his living as a rehearsal pianist for musicals running on Broadway in the 1970’s and early 80’s, and he had all sorts of theater connections that gave him free admission to virtually any show on or off Broadway, a privilege he invited me to take advantage of multiple times on each of the ten trips I made to New York between 1976 and 1983.

In 1976, the reigning Broadway sensation was the play Equus with Anthony Perkins having just taken over the leading role from Richard Burton who had taken over the role from Anthony Hopkins. Scott knew the stage manager of the theater where the play was running and arranged for me to be among a few dozen audience members who sat on tiered benches onstage as a living backdrop to the play.

We were shown to our seats a few minutes before the curtain went up and told not to fidget, not to pick our noses, and not to make any noise. “You are,” said the man directing us, “a Greek chorus echoing the action with your silence, and you are also a jury listening carefully to the evidence being presented. And please remember that several hundred people can see you, people who have paid good money to watch this play and not to watch you scratching your butt. Have fun.”

I wish I could say that seeing and being in Equus on that Broadway stage was one of the great theatrical experiences of my life, but I found the play simplistic and boring and not in the least mysterious, the performances ho hum, and the vaunted nude love scene a brief and ugly tussle. However, I did not share my feelings about Equus with Scott because he was a devout Broadway loyalist, which meant he believed that if a play was a hit, the play was good, and if the play was a flop, the play was bad.

Now in the same week that I sat through Equus, Scott and I attended one of the early preview performances of Trevor Griffith’s play Comedians, recently transported from London and directed by Mike Nichols with the young Jonathan Pryce reprising his role from the London production. And seeing that production of Comedians truly was one of the greatest theatrical experiences of my life and would dramatically influence my plans for the future.

When the third and final act of Comedians came to an end, I leapt out of my seat shouting, “Bravo!” and applauding madly, though the audience reaction was otherwise tepid. Scott stayed sitting during my outburst and was obviously embarrassed by my behavior, but I didn’t care. I had just seen a superlative performance of a remarkable play and I wasn’t about to keep my feelings bottled up. Mediocre Equus had elicited a standing ovation and multiple curtain calls for its stars, so why shouldn’t I rave about this brilliant new masterwork?

Well…when we emerged from Comedians, Scott took me to a nearby bar filled with people who had also just seen Comedians and I eagerly asked several of them what they thought of the play; and they were all oddly coy and noncommittal, and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why.

“What the hell is going on?” I asked Scott. “That play was sheer genius. The writing, the acting, the direction, the levels of meaning, the…”

“Todd,” said Scott, sighing, “the play hasn’t been reviewed yet so…”

“So what?” I asked, flabbergasted. “You wait until the New York Times says it’s good before you think it’s good?”

“No,” said Scott, gulping his beer. “But…sort of. I mean…it’s subtle and very British. It was a hit in London, but that doesn’t mean it will translate that well over here.”

“Are you insane?” I gaped at him. “We just saw it. What did you think of it?”

“I…I don’t know,” he said, shrugging. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Jonathan Pryce would win a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in his role in Comedians, but the critics otherwise damned the production with faint praise and the show closed after 145 performances. I, however, was demolished in the best sort of way by Comedians and decided two things as a result of seeing that incomparable production: I was going to write plays again, and I was going to live in a city so I could get more involved in theater. By then I realized New York was not going to be that city, not yet anyway, for I lacked the psychic stamina to survive there—but I hoped Portland or Seattle might suffice to get me started.

“It is a mistake to look too far ahead. Only one link of the chain of destiny can be handled at a time.” Winston Churchill

Two weeks later, having recharged my batteries by taking the train to Boston and spending a few days goofing around with my pal Jerry and attending a few of his scarier classes at Harvard Law School, I returned to Manhattan and immediately went to see Comedians again. To my delight, I thought the play was even better the second time, the cast now well practiced and sure of their characters. I was in seventh heaven watching that play and felt more certain than ever that I wanted to try to write plays that might touch people as Comedians touched me.

I was in love again with mastery, with originality, with courage, with everything that had made me want to be a writer in the first place; and for the remainder of my time in New York I was in a state of enchantment. For though I knew very well I might never succeed as a playwright (or as a writer of fiction), the experience of seeing that masterful production of Comedians filled me with a desire to try. I knew if I lived frugally, I had enough money in the bank to grant me a year of freedom from working at anything besides writing, and I intended to dedicate a good chunk of that year to writing plays.

The sad truth about our culture, and perhaps most cultures, is that for every masterpiece that somehow manages to gain an audience, there are thousands of awful things filling our stages and bookstores and movie screens and galleries. Why this is so I do not know, I only know that it is so. Which is why those rare new masterpieces that somehow manage to sneak past the cultural gatekeepers are so important, for without them we only have the masterworks of the past to deeply nourish us—and we desperately need the blood of brilliant new work to keep our culture alive and vital.

“You are what your deep, driving desire is.

 As your desire is, so is your will.

As your will is, so is your deed.

As your deed is, so is your destiny.” Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

I was bored to tears by the new art on display at The Museum of Modern Art, but never mind, they had Picasso’s massive and marvelous Guernica to gaze upon and Van Gogh’s magnificent Starry Starry Night approachable to within a few inches, and Henri Rousseau’s supernatural Lion and the Gypsy lit to perfection, so I visited these and a handful of other favorite paintings in that collection several times and felt wonderfully empowered by them. And I went to the Guggenheim to marvel up close at Picasso’s Moulin de la Galette and Modigliani’s fabulous Nude, and I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art again and again to gawk at their five fabulous Vermeers.

I had lunch with my brave and eccentric agent Dorothy Pittman on two occasions and we had a stirring time imagining selling one of my novels and then another and another. She said she would hunt for a play agent for me when I had a play to show around; and dear Scott got me into seven or eight more shows to fuel my drama dreams, though none of those plays could hold a candle to Comedians; and at last I realized I was done with New York for the time being and ready to embark on the next leg of my big trip.

So I took the train to Philadelphia and spent three lazy days visiting friends in Bala Cynwyd and Narberth and sleeping for twelve hours a night, recuperating from the physical and emotional toll of Manhattan. Then I continued south by train to Virginia and stayed with my pal Rico who had recently moved out from California to work for the federal government.

One night Rico and I were reminiscing about high school and wondering about the fate of our fellow inmates, when I was reminded of Mark Russell, my great friend I hadn’t seen since the early days of high school when he and his family moved away to where I wasn’t sure. So I did a little telephone sleuthing and came up with a phone number for Mark’s parents in Connecticut. I called them and they gave me a phone number for Mark in South Carolina. Then I called Mark and a woman with a sultry South Carolina accent answered the phone.

“Hi,” I said, “my name is Todd Walton and I’m an old friend of Mark’s. Is he there?”

“Hold on a minute,” she said softly. “I’ll fetch him.”

A few moments later, Mark came on the line, his voice two octaves deeper than when we’d last spoken thirteen years before. “This is unbelievable,” he said, laughing. “I was just thinking about you. I was throwing the ball for my dog and wondering where Todd is now.”

“I’m in Virginia and I’d love to come see you, if that’s a possibility. I could get a motel room nearby or…”

“No, no, we’ve got lots of room for you,” he said, chuckling. “Come on down.”

So on a dark cold night in early November, I stepped off the train at the little station in Camden, South Carolina and looked around for an older version of the Mark I remembered from 1963—a clean shaven young man much shorter than I. But the only person waiting there was a tall man in a trench coat sporting a bushy brown beard.

“Todd,” he called to me. “I’d know you anywhere.”

“Mark,” I said, shaking his enormous hand. “I would never have guessed you were you.”

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