Posts Tagged ‘Eva Waltzing’

Going Out Into The World

Monday, September 30th, 2019

Winter roses

Going Out Into the World: a screenplay for a short movie

The film begins with a slow fade to a close-up of a foggy mirror transected by runaway drops of water.

Now we see Margot’s blurred form behind a steamy translucent shower curtain hanging down into a claw-foot bathtub.

A woman in her forties, Margot turns off the water and reaches out from behind the shower curtain to fetch a large white towel hanging from a hook on the wall. She wraps the towel around her so she is covered from her armpits down to a few inches above her knees. She opens the shower curtain, steps out of the tub, and stands before the foggy mirror.

Using a small hand towel, she clears a patch of the mirror, her expression revealing a subtle disquiet.

“We can do this, Margot,” she says, longingly. “We can go out. With Sara’s help. We can. Please?”

The camera lingers on her reflection as she takes a deep breath and the scene dissolves to her bedroom where muted morning sunlight slants through a south-facing window.

A large framed print of Picasso’s Three Musicians is centered on the wall opposite her queen-sized bed, the linens gray, the comforter white.

Wearing a white blouse and black underwear, Margot stands at the foot of her bed and looks down at a trio of long skirts assembled there: black, brown, and red. She picks up the black skirt, muses for a moment, puts the black skirt down and takes up the red skirt as the scene dissolves to her standing in her tidy kitchen wearing the white blouse tucked into black trousers.

Margot’s two cats, a calico and a black, swirl around her bare feet.

Margot fills two small bowls with dry cat food, sets the bowls on the floor by the back door, and as her cats rush to eat, she smiles for the first time.

“Bon appetite, my darlings,” she says softly.

With slow deliberate movements, Margot fills a kettle with water and puts the kettle on the stove, opens a cupboard, and gets out a dark green teapot. She measures loose black tea into the teapot and the scene dissolves to her sitting at a small table in the dining nook of the kitchen. She sips her cup of tea and pets the black cat on her lap, the calico sitting on a nearby chair.

“Sara is coming today,” she says, speaking to her cats. “We might go to a café.” She sets her cup down and clasps her hands to suppress her panic. “But maybe not. Next week might be better because… because by then…” She frowns and shakes her head. “No. I need to go out today. I… I… it’s time. I need to.”

The doorbell sounds and Margot freezes for a moment before she picks up the black cat and sets him on the floor. Now she rises as the doorbell sounds again and the scene dissolves to Margot standing a few feet from her front door, waiting for the doorbell to sound again.

Someone knocks. “Margot? It’s Sara. Are you there?”

“I’m not feeling well,” says Margot, fighting panic. “I have a terrible headache. I think I’m coming down with something. I wouldn’t want you to catch this, Sara. I think it might have gotten into my lungs.”

Sara’s Voice: Open up, dear. I won’t catch anything.

Margot: No, I… I think it would be better if we waited another week before we go out. I’m still… I’m still… I’m not sure I can do this.

Sara’s Voice: Well whether we go out or not, you can let me in, can’t you?

Margot: You won’t be angry with me if we don’t go out?

Sara’s Voice: I will not be angry with you. I promise.

Margot opens the door and here is Sara, a woman in her thirties, her hair tied back in a ponytail. She is wearing a black jacket over a blue shirt, a black skirt that comes to her knees, and running shoes.

Margot: Come in. I’ll make a fresh pot of tea.

Sara: (entering) What about going out for tea? Like we planned?

Margot: I don’t think I’m ready, Sara. I’m sorry, I just… I’m still too afraid.

Sara: But that’s why we want to go out. So you can get over your fear.

Margot: I know, but… I’m not ready.

Sara follows Margot into the kitchen. “How about this? How about you get your shoes on and we walk to the end of the block, and if you don’t want to go any further, we’ll come back.”

Margot considers this. “We would just go to the end of the block?”

“If that’s as far as you want to go, yeah.” Sara nods pleasantly. “Just a little going out into the world, that’s all.”

“Okay,” says Margot, both excited and anxious. “I’ll get my shoes on.”

Now we have a view of the front of Margot’s house, a bungalow with a walkway leading from the front door through a garden to the sidewalk, the neighborhood composed of other small houses, the yards neatly kept.

The front door opens and Sara emerges followed by Margot wearing a long black coat over her white blouse and black trousers. She hesitates for a moment before following Sara.

Sara reaches the sidewalk when Margot is only halfway there.

Margot stops, looks around, and says, “It’s warmer than I expected. I think I might be a bit overdressed.”

“You look fine, dear,” says Sara, smiling warmly.

“I wonder if it might rain,” says Margot, looking back at the house. “Shall we wait a bit? Have a cup of tea?”

“Doesn’t look like rain to me,” says Sara, gazing up at the sky. “Seems like a fine day for a walk. Might even sit outside at the café.”

“Oh,” says Margot, anxiously. “Outside? I was thinking of a booth inside, near the back.”

“That would be fine, too,” says Sara, nodding encouragingly. “Shall we?”

Margot hesitates, takes a deep breath, and joins Sara on the sidewalk. They walk side-by-side for a few steps before Margot stops again.

Margot: You know, Sara, I so appreciate your encouraging me, but I honestly don’t think I can do this. I think I might have a fever. Feeling a bit woozy.

Sara: Of course you can do this. You’re strong, Margot. You’re a thousand times better than you were when I first started coming to see you. We’re only just going to the café and maybe the grocery store and then we’ll come home. We’ll be back before you know it and you’ll be saying you wish we’d stayed out longer.”

Margot: I doubt that. I can’t wait to get home, and we’ve only just left.

Sara: Let’s just go to the corner and see what we want to do from there.”

Now we are on that corner watching them approach. They are small in the distance, Sara forever getting ahead of Margot and slowing down to wait for her.

Twenty feet from the corner, Margot stops again.

Margot: I can’t do this, Sara. I’m so sorry, but I have to go home.

Sara: (waits a moment before replying) Why can’t you do this?

Margot: I’m too afraid.

Sara: Of what?

Margot: Of something bad happening.

Sara: Like what?

Margot: You know.

Sara: No, I don’t.

Margot: (angrily) Yes, you do. You know very well why I’m afraid… what happened to me.

Sara: I’ve forgotten. Tell me again.

Margot: You haven’t forgotten. You’re just… baiting me.

Sara: Why would I do that?

Margot: I don’t know, but you are.

Sara: (after a moment’s silence) You know what I think? I think you’re afraid to not be afraid.

Margot: What do you mean?

Sara: I mean you’ve got a nice hermetic life, don’t you? Everything under control. Every day the same. No ups, no downs, no surprises. And no joy, because joy comes from this… what we’re doing… going out into the world, mixing it up, talking to other people, experiencing things outside of what we’re used to. You’re just afraid of losing control, not of some bogeyman.

Margot: (bitterly) There was a bogeyman, and once you’ve met him, you can’t forget him.

Sara: Speak for yourself, dear. I’ve forgotten mine, and he was every bit the brute yours was, and then some.

Margot: (stunned) You never told me.

Sara: You never asked. And why should you? I’m paid to listen to you, to encourage you, not the other way around. But I’ve reached my limit. We’re stuck, you and I. There’s nothing more I can do for you. So if you won’t walk to the corner with me, I’ll walk you home, say goodbye, and you can call your therapist and get somebody else to come around once a week. I’ve had it.

“Oh Sara,” says Margot, falling to her knees and sobbing. “I’m so sorry. Please… I don’t want anybody else. Please stay with me.”

Sara understands this is a cathartic moment for Margot, so she does not immediately go to Margot and comfort her, but rather watches Margot weep for a time before she comes close and offers her hand. “I’m here, dear. I won’t leave you.”

Margot takes the proffered hand and rises.

Now they walk on together and we hear piano music as the scene dissolves to Margot and Sara sharing a table on a café terrace, the other tables occupied by men and women, some of them talking to each other, some of them gazing at their phones as they sip tea and coffee and nibble on pastries.

The camera moves closer for an intimate view of Margot and Sara as they share a pot of tea. Margot is having a piece of pie, Sara a cookie.

Margot: Would you like to try some of my pie? It’s quite good.

Sara: I’d love a bite.

Margot passes the pie to Sara and watches with pleasure as Sara carves off a piece and puts it in her mouth.

Sara: Mmm, that is good. Want to try my cookie?

Margot: Yes, please.

Sara hands Margot the cookie. Margot breaks off a small piece, pops the piece in her mouth, and has a sip of tea.

Margot: I wonder if we could come here tomorrow. I know you’re not scheduled to come see me again until next week, but…

Sara: But what, dear?

Margot: I’d love to meet you here tomorrow. Treat you to lunch.

Sara gazes at Margot for a long moment before replying, “Shall we say noon?”

“Noon,” says Margot, nodding.

Now our view of the café terrace grows wider and wider as the scene slowly fades to darkness.

fin

And speaking of movies, you may enjoy the very first and very short music video I’ve made all by myself. Eva Waltzing

Playing for Capra Redux

Monday, June 26th, 2017

Cat & Jammer

Cat & Jammer photo by Marcia

My new book of essays and memories Sources of Wonder has garnered some wonderful feedback from readers, with two correspondents saying they were especially taken with my memoir Playing For Capra. So here for your enjoyment is the true story of my meeting Frank Capra, this memory first published nine years ago.

Marcia and I recently watched the Israeli movie The Band’s Visit about an Egyptian police band spending the night in a godforsaken Israeli settlement. Seeing this remarkable film coincided with my struggle to write about the time I played piano for Frank Capra, the famous movie director.

Why the struggle? Because the story of playing piano for Capra is entwined with my dramatic rise and fall as a professional writer nearly thirty years ago. By the time I played piano for Capra in 1982, I had gone from living on pennies in the slums of Seattle to being the toast of New York and Hollywood, and back to barely scraping by in Sacramento, all in the course of a few dizzying years.

Capra, despite his many triumphs, was a Hollywood outsider. Having succeeded brilliantly under the protection of movie mogul Harry Cohn, Capra made movies he wanted to make, which were rarely what his overlords desired. In that regard, Capra was my hero. I had failed to build relationships with the powerful producers of American movies and books despite the many opportunities my early success provided me. I was young and naïve, and I believed that great stories and great screenplays would sell themselves. To my dismay, I experienced over and over again that quality and originality meant less than nothing to those who control our cultural highways. But I didn’t want to believe that, so I burned a thousand bridges.

Capra knew all about what I was going through, for he and his movies, despite their popularity with moviegoers, often received muted support from the power brokers. Why? Because he was unwilling to compromise the integrity of his visions. Indeed, he made movies about those very conflicts: integrity versus corruption, kindness versus cruelty, generosity versus greed, and originality versus imitation.

Capra’s autobiography, an incomparable history of Hollywood from the days of silent movies until the 1960s, was one of my bibles. In recent years, a confederacy of academic dunces has tried to discredit Capra’s recollections, but their pathetic efforts only amplify Capra’s importance.

So there I was in 1982, hoping to resuscitate my collapsing career, when we heard that Capra was going to speak at a showing of his classic It’s A Wonderful Life in an old movie house in Nevada City.

In 1980 a movie had been made of my novel, Inside Moves. Directed by Richard Donner with a screenplay by Barry Levinson, the movie—a Capraesque dramatic comedy if there ever was one—Inside Moves starred John Savage and launched the careers of David Morse and Diana Scarwid, who received an Oscar nomination for her performance in the film. Sadly, just as Inside Moves was being released, the distribution company went broke and the film was never widely seen. I was then hired by Warner Brothers to write a screenplay for Laura Ziskin (Pretty Woman, Spiderman) based on my second novel Forgotten Impulses, which was hailed by The New York Times as one of the best novels of 1980, but then Simon & Schuster inexplicably withdrew all support for the book and the movie was never made.

Indeed, as I drove from Sacramento to Nevada City with my pals Bob and Patty, I was in a state of shock. My previously doting movie agents had just dropped me, Simon & Schuster had terminated the contract for my next novel Louie & Women, and I had no idea why any of this was happening. Yet I still believed (and believe to this day) that my stories would eventually transcend the various obstructions and be read with joy by thousands of people—a quintessential Capraesque vision of reality. And I was sure Capra would say something in Nevada City that would help me and give me hope.

We arrived in the quiet hamlet in time to have supper before the show. We chose a handsome restaurant that was empty save for a single diner. On a small dais in the center of the room was a shiny black grand piano. The owner of the restaurant greeted us gallantly, and to our query, “Where is everybody?” replied, “You got me. We were expecting a big crowd for Capra, but…” He shrugged. “That’s show biz.”

Our table gave us a view of the piano and our elderly fellow diner, who we soon realized was Capra himself. Waiting for no one, eating slowly, sipping his red wine, the old man seemed to lack only one thing to complete the perfection of his moment: someone to play a sweet and melancholy tune on that fabulous piano. And I was just the person to do it if only the owner would allow me the honor.

I made the request, and it was granted. Frank was done with his supper by then and having coffee. I sat down at the piano and looked his way. He smiled and nodded, directing me, as it were, to play. We were still the only people in the restaurant, the room awaiting my tune.

I played a waltz, a few minutes long, something I’d recently composed, a form upon which I improvised, hoping to capture the feeling of what was to me a sacred moment.

When I finished, Frank applauded.

I blushed. “Another?”

Frank nodded. “Can you play that one again?”

“Not exactly, but close.”

He winked. “Perfect.”

So I played the tune again, longer this time, and slower at the end. Frank smiled and tapped his coffee cup with his fork. I approached him and told him we’d come to watch his movie and hear him speak.

He said, “Thank you. I love your music.”

His anointment of my waltz would have been more than enough to fulfill my wish that he say something to help me and give me hope. But the best was yet to come.

Capra’s genius was comprehensive. His best films are not only beautifully written and acted, they are gorgeous to behold. It’s A Wonderful Life was made when the art of black and white cinematography was at its apex, and we may never again see such artistry—many of the secrets of the black and white masters lost to time.

We marveled and wept at Capra’s masterwork, and then a nervous moderator gave Capra a succinct introduction and the old man took the stage. He thanked the crowd for coming and took questions—questions that made me despair for humanity.

The worst of the many terrible queries was, “Do you think you’re a better director than Steven Spielberg?”

“Different,” said Capra, pointing to another raised hand.

And then came the one meaningful question of the evening. “Your humor seems so different than the humor of today. Why is that?”

“Humor today,” said Capra, “for the most part, is pretty mean-spirited. We used to call it put-down humor, and we consciously avoided that. With Wonderful Life, you’re laughing with the characters because you identify with them, which is very different than laughing at someone.”

The inane questions resumed, and finally Capra could take no more. He waved his hands and said, “Look, if you want to make good movies, and God knows we need them, you have to have a good story. That’s the first thing. That’s the foundation. And what makes a good story? Believable and compelling characters in crisis. That’s true of comedy or drama. And the highest form in my opinion is the dramatic comedy, which has become something of a lost art in America. Then you need to translate that story into a great script. And I’m sorry to tell you, but only great writers can write great scripts. So start practicing now. And when you think you have that story and that script, get somebody who knows how to shoot and edit film, and make your movie. And when you finish, make another one. And if you have talent, and you persist despite everybody telling you to quit, you might make a good movie some day. Thank you very much.”

Which brings us back to The Band’s Visit. Capra would have loved those characters and their crises, and though he never in a million years would have made such a movie, his influence is unmistakable.