Posts Tagged ‘Forgotten Impulses’

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.

Solar Postage Socialist

Monday, November 21st, 2016

goldens

Goldens photo by Todd

“At a time when the Post Office is losing substantial revenue from the instantaneous flow of information by email and on the Internet, slowing mail service is a recipe for disaster.” Bernie Sanders

I recently sent a little book, not much more than a glorified pamphlet, to Switzerland. The least expensive way to send the little thing was via the Post Office for twenty-three dollars.  Not very many years ago, the postal service offered inexpensive international mail service, but that was eliminated because…

No one seems to know or remember why the slow boat option was eliminated, but I suspect the cessation went hand-in-hand with all the other things Congress, in service to the Evil Ones, did to wreck our once great postal service.

As a cottage industry artist who sells my books and CDs via my web site, and then ships those goodies to lucky buyers, I am grateful for the wonderful and inexpensive Media Mail option offered by our postal service, with free tracking, but I lose several international sales every year because the cost of shipping books and CDs abroad is more than the value of my products. International postage turns a twenty-dollar book into a forty-five dollar book, and a five-dollar CD becomes a fifteen-dollar CD.

Well, Todd, if you’d make your books available as e-books…no, I don’t want to. I understand why large publishers make e-book versions of books, but the books I sell are limited edition, signed and numbered, actual three-dimensional coil-bound books. Original intriguing well-written fiction. What a concept. I rarely sell more than fifty copies of each book, and I rarely make a profit. And with international postal rates being what they are, I rarely sell to people abroad who express interest in my work. Such is modern life.

Speaking of modern life, I’ve been reading about Morocco, specifically the Moroccan government, turning to solar and wind power to free the country from a dependency on imported energy. In just a few more years, Morocco will go from importing 97% of their fuel and electricity to importing less than 50% of their fuel and electricity. This government subsidized conversion is not only creating thousands of jobs and boosting the economy, but eliminating pollution, saving billions of dollars a year and…sounds like socialism to me.

Why can’t we have a massive conversion to solar and wind and tidal power in the United States? And why can’t we have affordable international postage? And why can’t we have Single Payer Healthcare? Well, we can. But we won’t.

Many people I know are still reeling from the election of Donald Trump. I find it fascinating that most of these folks see the election of Trump as some sort of wholly unexpected and surprising event, rather than the inevitable conclusion to a long-developing process, the effect of a cause. This has been coming for a long time, and I think it behooves us to look beyond the person who got elected and remember (know) his election is the end result of a long-developing process of privatization and the decimation of our foundational socialist institutions.

Next in line for demolition are Social Security and Medicare. The Evil Ones encountered little resistance to wrecking the postal service, and they are having no trouble stalling the conversion to solar, wind, and tidal power. And now that they control Congress and the Presidency and will soon control the Supreme Court, we will watch them attempt to privatize/destroy Social Security and Medicare. Will we stand by and let them do it? I think we probably will, in the same way we stood by and let them do all the other rotten things they’ve done since 1980.

So now millions of Americans are looking into migrating to Canada to escape the corporate takeover of the United States. Canada, however, does not want Americans moving there and taking advantage of Single Payer Healthcare and other groovy socialist programs that benefit everyone. Create your own socialism, they say, but we won’t.

Ten years ago, I was contacted by a Canadian movie director who wanted to make a movie of my novel Forgotten Impulses, from a screenplay by an American writer, the movie to be set in Canada. The Canadian government was considering funding the project, but after much preliminary excitement, they decided there were too many Americans involved to qualify for Canadian government funding. Darn.

However, a few weeks ago, I was contacted by that same Canadian director, and he said he was interested in making a movie from an original screenplay of mine. He thought if the film was set in Canada and I was the only American involved in the project, perhaps the Canadian film board would this time be open to funding the project. Turned out not to be the case, but for a few days the possibility got me interested in the script again.

And while I worked on the script, I kept wanting to feel excited by the possibility of a movie being made from my screenplay, but after so many near misses with movie producers and publishers over the last thirty years, I found I was far more interested in my latest coil-bound creation that will actually come out into the world and be read by actual people. What a concept.

However, the fact that I was dealing with socialists, as opposed capitalists, gave me a nice tingling feeling—so I let my imagination run wild. I saw myself taking a train to Montreal to watch the filming of my script, the movie became an international sensation (with a cult following in America), and the Canadian government invited me and Marcia to become Canadian citizens so long as I promised that all my future books and screenplays would be set in Canada.

In reality, Trump really did win the election and I’m sending out my annual holiday shopping reminder to my few avid fans, reminding them that no matter how many books and CDs or art cards they purchase, shipping to anywhere in the greater United States will only cost them five bucks. Socialism strikes again.

Hollywood Salads

Monday, May 16th, 2016

sunny days tw

Sunny Days painting by Nolan Winkler

From 1978 until 1985 I was entangled in the movie business as a novelist and screenwriter hoping to get my creations made into movies. I was not greatly successful, but I made a few chunks of money and had many strange adventures with the habitués of Hollywood.

Now and then something will happen in the very non-Hollywood life I now lead, and I will be reminded of one or another of those odd adventures. For instance, Marcia and I recently dined at our neighbor’s house, loved her salad dressing, and inquired of the ingredients. Our neighbor’s enumeration of those ingredients reminded me of a supping experience I had in 1981 at a trendy Hollywood eatery.

One of my three supper companions was Laura Ziskin, who would shortly thereafter produce Pretty Woman and other big hits and eventually settle into making Spiderman movies until her recent death. In 1981, she and her producing partner Ian Sanders had optioned my novel Forgotten Impulses and cajoled Warner Brothers into hiring me to adapt the novel to the screen.

Ian was at the table with us, and so was Leslie Morgan, then a vice-president at Warner Brothers facilitating the Forgotten Impulses project. Leslie was an attractive woman in her early thirties, as was Laura. Ian was a fast-talking guy who said he had no doubt whatsoever that I would soon be taking home an Oscar for my screenplay of Ef Eye, as he referred to my novel.

So…our waiter, a lovely young woman, almost surely an aspiring thespian, came to our table to take our orders, and Leslie ordered first.

“I will have the broiled halibut,” she said, squinting at our waiter, “but please have the chef douse the fish with olive oil a minute before he thinks it’s done. And I’ll have a green salad with dressing on the side. Now for the dressing, I want two parts olive oil, one part seasoned rice vinegar, a good amount of grey poupon mustard, finely-minced onion, fresh parsley, no salt, and a dash of pepper.”

Laura was next. “I’ll have the broiled salmon, but I want the pesto on the side, and instead of mashed potatoes I’d like basmati rice, carrots, al dente, and asparagus, well-cooked. I’ll also have a green salad with dressing on the side and for my dressing I want balsamic vinegar, olive oil, a splash of a good cabernet, a large clove of garlic, minced, and I’d like that slightly chilled. Oh, and no big leaves of lettuce.”

Chagrined by the behavior of my companions, I was determined to make no such fuss when it was my turn to order. But first Ian had a go at our beleaguered waiter.

“Yes, I’ll have the sirloin steak, on the rare side of medium rare, but not absolutely rare. I do want the mashed potatoes but no gravy just lots of butter, and give me a bowl of pineapple chunks instead of vegetables. I want the Caesar salad, small leaves, and extra croutons. Those are fresh, I assume.”

“Yes,” said the waiter, writing as if possessed.

“I’ll have the halibut, too,” I said with a sigh. “And a green salad with blue cheese dressing.”

She waited for me to say more, but I had nothing to add.

When she departed, Ian said, “She’s cute. Great dimples. Walks well. We should audition her. I have a good feeling about her.”

A few minutes later our salads arrived. Laura and Leslie tasted their dressings, doused their salads, and ate ravenously, as did Ian. My salad was so thoroughly inundated with heavy blue cheese dressing, a single bite sufficed to quell what little appetite I had.

Two months later—I was living in Sacramento—Laura called to tell me Warner Brothers had offered the director Tony Bill a half-million dollars to direct Forgotten Impulses. He was thinking about taking the gig, but wanted to talk to me. Could I fly down pronto and have lunch with him?

The next morning I flew to Los Angeles and took a taxi to Tony Bill’s suite of offices in Venice. He was famed for producing The Sting and directing a quirky little film called My Bodyguard. A handsome boyish man with long hair, he greeted me warmly and said, “You like sushi? Sashimi? Good. You’re in for a treat.”

Tony and I walked a couple blocks to a Japanese restaurant overlooking the beach. We sat in a booth by the window, Tony had a beer, I had green tea, and Tony said to our waiter, “Whatever Inaba wants to make for us, I’m sure we’ll love it.”

Then we talked about my novel and screenplay and Tony said, “This is a dangerous movie. I can see why so many people want to make it, but on my third reading of your script, I realized the hero is actually the villain. In fact, all the characters are tremendously appealing, but then…no one is bad, no one is good. Who do we root for? We need at least one main character to root for?”

“I think we root for all of them,” I said, rooting for him to accept the offer from Warner Brothers so I could get paid to write two more drafts of the screenplay and have another movie made. “Their appeal is that they are believably complicated and we identify with them when they give into their passions.”

The sushi began to arrive—spectacular. Tony said he’d been to Japan several times, eaten at hundreds of sushi places, and never had sushi this good. I certainly had never had anything as good or in such quantity. Tony left a hundred-dollar tip.

Walking back to his office, Tony said, “I think we need to make Mackie more heroic and less of a bad guy. Maybe make his mother the villain.”

Two hours later, I was on a jet flying back to Sacramento.

Two days later, Laura called to say Tony decided not to make the film. “We’ll find somebody,” she said in her tough confident way. “Somebody who isn’t afraid of complexity.”

Cover Stories

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015

idas2-cover-sm

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

“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” Groucho Marx

I recently got a letter from my editor at Counterpoint Press, the daring publishing company bringing out a paperback edition of my book Buddha In A Teacup in early 2016, saying he would soon be sending me samples of their cover ideas. So I held my breath for a few days and recalled my book cover adventures with publishers of my previous books. This helped temper fantasies of a superb cover for Buddha In A Teacup. Indeed, after reviewing my history of book covers, I decided to hope for legible.

Inside Moves. Published in 1978 by Doubleday, my first novel had a basketball subplot and the cover sample featured a small airborne man holding what might have been a basketball, but also might have been a bowling ball. This ambiguous athlete, wearing slacks and a sweater, was floating through the air surrounded by gothic-like letters with enormous serifs. At a glance, the letters seemed to spell INSIDE MOVIES. I expressed my concerns and the ball problem was addressed, but the confusing lettering remained and the book was often shelved in the Hobby section of bookstores.

Forgotten Impulses. Published in 1980 by Simon & Schuster, my second novel was originally entitled Mackie, which remained the title until a month before the book was to be printed. The cover for Mackie featured a spectacular oil painting of a woman wearing a sunhat and kneeling in her vegetable garden, the roots of the plants growing down through layers of soil to entangle the name Mackie. Alas, my editor called at the proverbial last minute to say Sales felt Mackie lacked punch. Could I come up with a meaty sub-title? My brother Steve, who came up with Inside Moves, helped me come up with Forgotten Impulses, and Sales dropped Mackie entirely and went with Forgotten Impulses. The hastily assembled new cover was composed of garish yellow gothic-like letters on a red and blue background.

Not that it mattered much. Simon & Schuster took the book out of print a few days after it was published.

Louie & Women. My third novel was published by Dutton in 1983 and featured a poorly rendered painting of a short buxom naked woman standing at a window. Filling most of the window frame was a painting of a wave—a painting within the painting. On the bed in the foreground of the room lies a pair of large white men’s jockey-style underwear. I strenuously objected and my editor said, “Well, the thing is…Sales has decided to kill the book before it comes out anyway, so…”

“But why?”

“They don’t think it will sell. Sorry.”

Ruby & Spear. My fifth novel was published by Bantam in 1996 and the cover shows a black man going up to dunk a basketball into a hoop with a half-ripped net. This cover was so antithetical to the spirit of the story, I called my editor to express my disappointment and she said, “Well, the thing is…Sales has decided to take the book out of print.”

“But the book hasn’t been published yet?”

“I know,” she said sadly. “Sorry.”

The Writer’s Path, published by 10-Speed in 2000, is a large collection of my original writing exercises. The proposed cover design was hideous and featured misleading subtitles that made the book sound like a touchy feely book for people trying to access their inner artist. The cover was changed from hideous to blah shortly before publication, but the misleading subtitles remained. Sadly, the hideous proposed cover was put up on all the online bookselling sites and remains there to this day. Nevertheless, the book sold ten thousand copies entirely by word-of-mouth. 10-Speed did absolutely nothing to promote the book, and then, in their great wisdom, Sales decided not to do a third printing because, after all, the book was selling itself.

“Everything in life matters and ultimately has a place, an impact and a meaning.” Laurens Van Der Post

Shortly before the cover designs for Buddha In A Teacup arrived from Counterpoint, my editor wrote to say he had presented the book at a sales meeting and the response was positive. However, the consensus was that my original subtitle—tales of enlightenment—was inadequate because it did not say the short stories are contemporary. So I came up with Contemporary Dharma Tales, which he liked.

Ere long, five cover designs for Buddha In A Teacup arrived via email, and just as I was about to unzip the big file to peruse them, another email came from my editor saying they had selected two finalists from the five and I should ignore those five and look at the two. But I looked at the five, loved one of them and disliked the other four, and then with trembling mouse opened the file containing the finalists. And lo, the one cover I loved was one of the two finalists. My wife and several friends agreed with my choice, I sent in our votes, and…

Will the final cover be the one we want? Will the book have a long and eventful life in print? Time will tell.

In the meantime, I am about to finish writing Ida’s Place Book Four: Renegade, the fourth volume of a fictional epic set in a mythical Here and Now, the covers for the Ida books exactly how I want them because I create them myself with the help of Garth the graphics wizard and Ian the master of the color copier at Zo, the finest (and only) copy shop in Mendocino. Coil bound copies of the Ida books, lavishly numbered and signed by the author, are available from my web site until that glorious (mythical) day when some prescient publisher presents them to that great big world on the other side of the tracks.

The Ida’s Place books and the original self-published hardback of Buddha In A Teacup are available at Underthetablebooks.com

Goody’s Song

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015

Goody jpeg

Goody photo by Todd

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

The truth is not ashamed of appearing contrived.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

As recently reported, Marcia and I are getting more airplay for our music on KVRF, a radio station in Palmer Alaska, than we’ve had anywhere else in these United States, and our song getting the most play recently is “Goody’s Song” with lyrics based on a poem by my grandmother.

In 1979 I turned thirty, moved to Sacramento, bought a fixer upper, my novel Inside Moves was being made into a motion picture, and my second novel Forgotten Impulses was about to be published. In the midst of this hoopla, my grandmother Gertrude, known to friends and family as Goody, sent me a poem she hoped I would turn into a song. I loved Goody, and she had just lost her husband, my grandfather Casey, so I said Yes.

Her verses rhymed, sort of, but were syllabically inconsistent from one line to the next, and she used several gigantic words that simply would not sing. Nevertheless, I made a few feeble attempts to set her poem to piano music, and then gave up.

“I’d rather regret the things I’ve done than regret the things I haven’t done.” Lucille Ball

Two months later, I got a call from my brother Steve who lived near Goody in Menlo Park. “So,” he began in his no-nonsense way, “how’s Goody’s song coming?”

“Er, uh, oh, yeah. Goody’s song. I’ve been so busy that…”

“She doesn’t have long to live,” said Steve, not buying my excuses. “It’s all she talks about. Write something. Soon.”

So I dug up Goody’s poem and spent an hour at the piano searching for chords and a melody to carry her heartfelt lines, gave up again, went for a walk, and had a revelation. The song was not a piano song, but a guitar song, a lament worthy of Tammy Wynette. The words would need to be simplified and the rhythm of the lines made consistent, but the gist of the poem would remain.

I returned home, got out my guitar, and taking liberties with the original poem came up with:

I made a terrible mistake when I left you.

But what can I do about it today?

Ran at the first sign of trouble,

Now you’re telling me to stay far away.

I was so lucky when I met you,

Now I just can’t seem to forget you.

Please take me back, help me find that loving track.

What was I thinking of

When I made so little of such a great love?

I was a terrible fool to have left you.

What can I do about it today?

I ran at the first sign of trouble,

Now you’re telling me to stay far away.

But I’ve learned my lessons,

Won’t you help me out of this mess I’m in?

Please take me back, help me find that loving track.

What was I thinking of

When I made so little of such a great love?

I ran and ran and ran and ran,

Now I want to run back to you.

A month later, after five takes in a recording studio with a drummer, guitarist and bass player, Steve and I went to Goody’s apartment to play her the song. But before we rolled the tape, Goody made a speech. Picture a diminutive eighty-year-old woman, four-foot-ten in high heels, with curly silver hair and a twinkle in her eyes. Born to orthodox Jews in Detroit in 1900, her father a cantor, her mother the breadwinner selling groceries from a little shop, Goody had always wanted a career in show business and never stopped believing that one day, somehow, she would be discovered and become a star.

“I have a premonition about this song,” she said solemnly. “Even before I hear it, I know it will be great.”

Because Goody was a fantastic joke teller, my brother and I thought she might be setting us up for a punch line, but not this time.

“This song is the fulfillment of my dream. The spirit of my father lives in this song. It will be a beacon of hope for generations to come.”

We played the recording and Goody wept as she listened, and we hoped she was crying because she liked it.

When the song ended, Goody proclaimed, “Now if we can just get this to Johnny Mathis, all our troubles will be over.”

“You know, Goody,” I said, glancing at my brother, “this is not really the kind of song Johnny Mathis tends to record.”

And without missing a beat, Goody said, “Well, then that other guy who’s always on Merv Griffin. Mac somebody.”

“Mac Davis?” prompted my brother.

“Yes,” said Goody. “Get it to him and all our troubles will be over.”

“My one regret in life is that I am not someone else.” Woody Allen

Goody died six months later, having outlived Casey by a year. We tried and failed to get the song to Mac Davis and Bonnie Raitt and several other famous recording artists, but “Goody’s Song” became a staple in my repertoire and an audience favorite. And every time I sang the song and told the story of how it came to be written, someone would ask if I knew who it was Goody wanted to run back to, since she wrote the poem when she was in her late seventies.

I didn’t know the answer until thirty years later when Marcia and I recorded “Goody’s Song” for our album So Not Jazz, the version currently getting airplay in Palmer Alaska—Todd playing guitar and singing, Marcia enriching the song with her fabulous cello playing.

Goody wanted to run back to Goody—the Goody she was before she surrendered to the cultural imperatives of her generation, married, had kids, and suppressed her desire to be an actor and a singer.

“Goody’s Song” is downloadable from iTunes and Amazon and CD Baby. You can purchase So Not Jazz from Todd’s web site UnderTheTableBooks.com or from Marcia’s web site NavarroRiverMusic.com

Earth Of Foxes

Wednesday, July 31st, 2013

earth of foxes

Fox Kit photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“‘Men have forgotten this truth,’ said the fox. ‘But you must not forget it. You become responsible forever for what you have tamed.’” Antoine de Saint-Exupery

“The baby foxes are here again,” says Marcia calling to me from her studio across the hallway from my office.

We have a large old plum tree growing on the north side of our house, and in this first year of our residency the tree has gifted us with several hundred sweet red plums, which are ambrosia to deer, appealing to squirrels, and irresistible to a trio of baby foxes who visit the tree daily, scampering around in the branches like monkeys and going way out on the spindly limbs to get at the fruit. There is nothing I would rather do than stand in our living room and watch these tiny foxes, aptly called kits, climbing around in our plum tree doing their utmost to reach the sugary orbs.

Speaking of aptly named, the little canids have inspired me to read a bit about foxes, and among the many things I’ve learned about these delightful creatures is that one of the names for a group of foxes is an earth of foxes. Other expressions for gangs of foxes are a skulk of foxes, a leash of foxes, and a troop of foxes, but I much prefer an earth of foxes for the implication of what the earth once was and might be again if only humans would stop fracking and over-populating and despoiling everything.

Where did the expression an earth of foxes come from? According to my trusty Oxford English Dictionary, one of the definitions of earth is the underground lair of an animal. Since a fox den can also be called an earth, and since almost all groups of foxes are composed of family members, it would follow that a group of foxes emerging from the same earth within the earth might poetically be called an earth of foxes.

“All the intelligence and talent in the world can’t make a singer. The voice is a wild thing. It can’t be bred in captivity. It is a sport, like the silver fox. It happens.” Willa Cather

Curious about Willa Cather’s use of the word sport in the above quote, I looked up the word and found she used sport to mean a surprising mutation, an animal that deviates markedly from its parent stock.

We have been trying to think of a good name for our two-acre homestead ever since we moved here nine months ago, but nothing struck a loud and unanimous chord until the baby foxes arrived and we realized there is an earth nearby where the little cuties were born. Given that our house and land sit in something of a hollow, we have settled on the name Fox Hollow, which, if not particularly original, sounds just right to us.

Speaking of foxes in the plum tree, Marcia has now produced twenty jars of delectable plum jam from plums that the foxes, squirrels, and deer were unable to reach before I picked them. The labels on the jars read Fox Hollow Plum Jam, July 2013, Marcia & Todd. What a tree! Who knew? Well, the deer and the squirrels and the foxes knew, and now we know, too.

 “It’s the movies that have really been running things in America ever since they were invented. They show you what to do, how to do it, when to do it, how to feel about it, and how to look how you feel about it.” Andy Warhol

When I was a little boy and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I usually answered cowboy or dump truck driver. I pronounced cowboy gowboy and dump truck drive dump twuck dwivoo. When I was twelve-years-old I saw Jacques Cousteau’s then-amazing movie The Silent World and became so enamored of Monsieur Cousteau and his oceanic adventuring that I decided to become a marine biologist. By sixteen I knew without a doubt that I wanted to be a writer musician actor movie director, but in order to appease my parents who disapproved of such frivolity I told them and their inquiring friends that I wanted to be an anthropologist. I then dutifully majored in Anthropology during my brief stay in college, though I spent most of my time at UC Santa Cruz playing basketball, throwing the Frisbee, and writing poetry and short stories.

When I left the womb of academia and parental support, I began to write novels and practice the art of screenwriting. I was an avid moviegoer and considered seeing movies on the big screen a fundamental part of my life, not only because I was an aspiring moviemaker, but because the great movies of the 1960’s and 70’s were exciting and inspiring myths that helped fuel the counter culture in that revolutionary time. A Thousand Clowns, If, King of Hearts, Coming Home and dozens of other popular motion pictures gave us fascinating stories and compelling visions of men and women stepping away from the suffocating conventions of the old world order into much less restricted lives, an ethos that rejected militarism and stifling sameness and sexism and racism, while promising…well, we would find out!

I was determined to carry on the great tradition of humanist film artists who used this most powerful medium to show us possible ways we might live and relate to each other more lovingly and creatively as we roamed the cosmos on spaceship earth. Movies, the ones I loved and the ones I aspired to make, were heart-opening visions of personal change and resurrection starring all kinds of different kinds of people shaking off the powerful controls of their selfish lizard brains to escape the clutches of our violent greedy lizard-brained society and become emotionally, psychically and sexually liberated lovers with great senses of humor who walked lightly and tenderly upon the blessed earth.

As you undoubtedly have noticed, the lizard-brained humanoids who now control mainstream media as well as most of the side streams, no longer allow movies modeling social revolution and sharing the wealth and living lightly on the earth and rejecting materialism and embracing gender and racial equality into your nearby multiplex or onto your television screen or computer screen or phone screen. No, the movies we are allowed to see today are the quantum opposite of those movies we went to in the 1960’s and 70’s and inspired many of us to break away from the deadly gray sameness and stultifying hierarchies that ruled America in the 1950’s.

When my first novel Inside Moves was published in 1978 and was subsequently made into a film, I made the erroneous assumption that more of my novels and screenplays would soon become movies, too. But while two other works of mine, Forgotten Impulses and Louie & Women came tantalizingly close to being filmed, nothing more of mine has ever (yet) reached the silver screen or any other sort of screen.

However, despite the twenty-year delay in selling my growing stack of novels and screenplays, I have continued to write scripts and books I think will make fabulous movies. Indeed, just last week, hungering as I often do for a good new movie, and finding nothing of the kind to eat, I put on a little film festival and read five of my screenplays in three days, watching those movies on my mind screen as I turned the pages. Wow! They were exactly the kinds of movies I long to see. No wonder I wrote them.

Having made a multi-year study of the current movie scene by watching movie trailers on my computer, while skipping hundreds of trailers for horror movies, I know perfectly well why none of my scripts and stories have yet to attract anyone with sufficient clout and cash to make them. My movies are not about super heroes, vampires, zombies, murderers, gangsters, morons, aliens, bimbos, or materialistic narcissists and amoral sociopaths and their hapless victims. They do not feature painfully shallow dialogue, car chases, massive gunfire and explosions, the constant objectification of women, gratuitous violence, or toilet jokes. Instead, they model challenging funny sad dangerous transits through and away from the emptiness of self-serving separateness into the emotional and spiritual fullness that manifests when we share our wealth, whatever our wealth may consist of.

Our plum tree would make a perfect recurring symbol in a movie I long to see. The leafless branches in winter giving way to the nascent buds of early spring leading to the fabulous eruption of blooms followed by the coming of the leaves, the fruit, the green orbs turning yellow and finally red, the myriad creatures sharing the fabulous bounty of the earth—a little fox balanced on the branches at the very top of the tree and dropping plums down to his runty sibling—thunder sounding in the distance on this fabulous earth of foxes.

Todd’s novel Inside Moves is now available in a beautiful new paperback edition at Gallery Books in Mendocino and at Mendocino Book Company in Ukiah and online from all the usual suspects.

Four Hundred Thousand

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

I Never Heard The Warning (mixed media on wood) by Nolan Winkler

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

“I’ve got all the money I’ll ever need, if I die by four o’clock.” Henny Youngman

Do you earn four hundred thousand dollars of taxable income in a year? Have you ever earned four hundred thousand dollars in a single year? Do you have friends who earn or have ever earned four hundred thousand dollars in a year? I thought not; nor do I have friends earning that kind of money, though I do know some certifiably wealthy people. Earning two hundred thousand dollars is a different matter. According to government statistics about 1.5% of American households make two hundred thousand a year, and I can think of three or four couples out of the hundreds of people I know who might earn as much as two hundred thousand dollars in a single year.

So…households earning more than two-hundred and fifty thousand dollars per year were the lowest income earners President Obama said he was going to tax at a wee bit higher tax rate if only we would re-elect him. So we re-elected him and now he has chosen to go along with the certifiably insane Republicans and only increase taxes a teeny little bit on households earning more than four hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year, while also allowing the current payroll tax cut to expire, an expiration that will immediately cause taxes to increase for 78 percent of U.S. households, with an average increase of 1,635 dollars. In other words, the lower middle-income folks got screwed again and the rich people, well…

Those three or four couples I know who might earn two hundred thousand dollars a year, and everyone earning more than that, all have accountants who are absolute wizards at manipulating the tax code so their clients pay little or no taxes at any rate—the tax code being essentially a compendium of loopholes to benefit wealthy people and their corporations. Thus, as far as you and I and 99% of the American population are concerned, the recent fiscal cliff circus might as well have been about raising taxes on unicorns for all the good the new law does you and me and the economy we struggle to survive in.

“It is money, money, money! Not ideas, not principles, but money that reigns supreme in American politics.” Robert Byrd

Meanwhile, as a sneaky side note to raising taxes on unicorns and 78% of the American people who already pay far more than their fair share, President Obama and his troops are now marching in lock step (goose step) with the Republicans to lower those damn Social Security cost-of-living increases that are the life blood of millions of certifiably poor Americans. Never mind that Social Security is an entirely solvent system that has never added a single dollar to the national deficit. “Such terrible awesome annual increases,” cry our insane overlords, “must be curtailed.”

I, for instance, under the current system of calculation, will see my massive Social Security payment of 663 dollars per month skyrocket to 674 a month in 2013. Katy bar the door! What is that sucking sound? Must be Todd and his deadbeat kind draining the treasury! Quick! Print trillions of more dollars to fund endless war and to pay the hundreds of billions of dollars interest on the national debt and to make unlimited funds available to banks and Wall Street crooks, interest free, so they can keep their toxic derivative bubbles bubbling. Whoopee!

 “Ben Franklin may have discovered electricity—but it is the man who invented the meter who made the money.” Earl Warren

When I think about the many vicious lunatics in Congress tirelessly stealing from the poor to benefit the rich, those duly elected crazy and vicious people with apparently no other agenda but accelerating the enrichment of the already incredibly wealthy, I can’t help but think that getting and hoarding huge quantities of money must be the cause of their insanity. And when I examine my own brief brushes with wealth, I am further convinced that the wealth/insanity connection is no figment of my imagination.

“Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.” Woody Allen

Twice in my life, I earned more than one hundred thousand dollars in a single year, fortunes resulting from moviemakers buying or optioning the rights to my novels Inside Moves and Forgotten Impulses. Inside Moves was made into a film in 1980 and Forgotten Impulses was optioned several times in the 1980’s for small amounts of money, with the largest option (one year for 100,000 dollars) coming in 1995, though a movie of that book was never (has yet to be) made.

The IRS audited me for each of those stellar years, though I had dutifully given the government more than half my earnings each time. My auditors in both cases were well-intentioned young people who told me I was being audited because the dramatic spike in my income (up from next to nothing) was a red flag, an indication of possibly illicit activity, as if people engaged in illicit activities would be so stupid as to report their illicit gains. In both audits I was found to be a good boy, much to the disappointment of those hapless revenuers assigned to gather loot from those of us unprotected by savvy accountants.

However, despite surrendering half of my windfalls to Uncle Sam, I still found myself possessed of much more money than I was accustomed to having, and so in the first instance I bought a house and made a short film and gave money to friends and embarked on a disastrous marriage and became a pauper again just a few short years after becoming sort of a success. In the second instance, I moved from low rent Sacramento to high rent Berkeley, gave away most of the money to friends, and in just a few short months was back to scraping together my minimalist monthly nut. Why did I give my money away so quickly? After much thought, and believe me I’ve thought plenty about how swiftly I got rid of that extra do-re-mi, I concluded that I was so psychically uncomfortable having lots of money when so many of my friends had so little money that it was either share my wealth or go insane.

“All I ask is the chance to prove that money can’t make me happy.” Spike Milligan

Imagine getting four hundred thousand dollars, giving a little bit to the government, and then…getting another four hundred thousand, and then another four hundred thousand, and so on for years and decades. Who are you? What have you been doing to get that money? And what have you done with all the money you’ve gotten? Have you helped your friends and your community? I hope so.

Whoever you are, the insane people running our government have decided you should give them a few thousand dollars more this year than you did last year so they can continue destroying the earth as fast as they can. How does that make you feel to be told you have to give a teeny bit more of your four hundred thousand to the government? Do you shrug and say, “No problem. I make that much in an hour from the bubbling hedge funds I own, and I make that in a day from the rents paid to me by my many tenants living in the houses and apartment buildings I bought with my wads of excess cash. And besides, my accountant will jiggle my numbers so I end up paying even less taxes than I did last year.”

Or do you say, “Why me? Why have I been singled out to pay more when everybody else (except 78% of the population) is paying the same amount they did last year? And what about people like Todd getting an eleven-dollar increase in his Social Security allotment? It’s an outrage, I tell you, and I’m going to make a large tax deductible donation to a fascist political action committee to get this usurious tax increase reversed and stop those deadbeats from draining the treasury dry!”

Sadly (or happily) we will probably never know what those rare and elusive four-hundred-thousandaires will do or say about the tax increase on their unimaginably vast (to me) influx of moolah, because we will probably never meet them, just as we will almost surely never meet a unicorn, except in our dreams and fantasies. What we do know is that the President of the United States and the Democrats and Republicans in Congress are united in their utter contempt for common Americans, and by common I mean households earning between thirty and seventy thousand dollars a year, which is the average income of most households in America, not counting the tens of millions of households mired in poverty.

Which reminds me of that old joke about Bill Gates walking into a jam-packed bar and suddenly the average person in the joint is worth more than a billion dollars.

Paradigms Shifting

Friday, November 30th, 2012

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2012)

“I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.” Henry David Thoreau

I am writing the first draft of this essay with pen on paper and using a big hardback copy of Buckminster Fuller’s Tetrascroll as my portable desk. I am sitting on a rug a few feet from our woodstove, the fire therein making our living room the most appealing room in our otherwise chilly house. Should I create an essay I want to keep, I will venture into my chilly office, ignite the electric space heater adjacent to my desk, and type these words into my computer to ready them for sending to Bruce and Mark at the Anderson Valley Advertiser. Marcia is in her office, a world apart just fifteen feet away, and I am thinking about several events and ideas and technological changes that have commandeered my consciousness and are asking me to write about them.

Yes, I believe that ideas and stories from sources outside our individual consciousnesses, perhaps propelled by unseen spirits or equally fantastic invisible forces of Universe, are constantly seeking willing portals (creative beings) for expression in our dimension. I know that sounds like hackneyed spiritual crap to some of you, but it rings true to me.

For the past week, Europe has been gripped by enormous simultaneous protests involving millions and millions of people in several countries, though the American media has barely covered these historic events, and we know why. Our overlords don’t want us getting any ideas about imitating our European brethren who are rising up against their governments to say: We will not allow you to keep punishing us in order to benefit the bankers and swindlers who created this economic mess.

Of course the economic mess is Europe is intrinsically connected to the economic mess in America, and messes made by the bankers and swindlers and governments here and abroad are now so huge that nothing short of near total (or total) collapse and reconstruction using new operating paradigms will improve the situation. And new operating paradigms will not be allowed to take hold until the crooks and swindlers are replaced by highly intelligent people working for the greater good.

Meanwhile, as a kind of case in point, the company that has for too long made Hostess Twinkies is going out of business, which means 20,000 American will lose their meaningless jobs along with their deeply meaningful salaries and retirement benefits, and some other company, very possibly a Chinese company, will become the new manufacturer of those nutritionally worthless and physically harmful gobs of refined white flour and refined sugar and refined chemicals. Hostess went bankrupt shortly after being bought by a group of hedge fund swindlers who ran the company into the ground in no time, crooks who will no doubt profit from their crimes and use a portion of those profits to enter politics or elect other crooks and swindlers. Is this a great economic system, or what?

Meanwhile, through a series of what I consider miracles and what those who don’t believe in miracles might call a series of astonishing coincidences, all of my long out-of-print novels are now available as e-books—kindles, nooks, apples, googles, etc.—and I may be on the verge of benefiting (we hope) from a technology I don’t use and am not attracted to but that will nevertheless bring my stories back to public life after decades of unavailability following their very brief lives in-print.

And at the very moment of the birth of the kindle nook apple versions of Forgotten Impulses, Louie & Women, Night Train, and Ruby & Spear (joining Buddha In A Teacup and Under the Table Books as e-books) not one but three well-meaning people sent me articles detailing the evils of e-books and how these downloadable digital editions not only deprive readers of the sensual delight and healing power of reading and fondling real live books, but e-books (these articles contend) are doing terrible damage to the market for real live books. To which I say: given a choice between people reading my books as e-books or not at all, I’ll go with the e-books and trust that the sensual healing power of my stories will get through to readers regardless of delivery mode.

Meanwhile yet again, there come more dire reports of the ongoing environmental holocaust underway on planet earth that will soon dwarf and exacerbate the current global economic turmoil and make the demise of Twinkies and the coming of e-books seem like nothing of much consequence, though all these things are related and intertwined. How so? Well, I would say that the gestalt of the events and ideas and technological changes engulfing us today suggests we are in the midst of several major turning points adding up to a global turning point that rivals the Industrial Revolution in scope and impact.

As I sit on this rug (made in India) writing longhand on 100% recycled paper (made in Canada) with a pen (made in China) by the light of a lamp (made in Indonesia) and lit by energy made from oil (pumped out of Alaska or Texas or Saudi Arabia) while keeping warm by a woodstove (made in Norway) burning wood (trucked from Boonville to Mendocino), I am keenly aware that the earth cannot sustain for much longer my level of material ease and affluence for billions of people unless everything manufactured henceforth on earth is entirely and efficiently recyclable and produces zero pollution before, during and after manufacture while employing 100% renewable energy sources in the manufacturing and shipping processes. Now there’s a paradigm shift that only a few nations have embraced and are beginning to implement, while the rest of us earthlings continue our suicidal coal burning gas burning nuclear power burning ways.

Add to this mix of ideas and events the amazing (to me) news that Nigeria is one of the largest markets in the world for mobile phones, especially the Blackberry mobile phone. Selling for two hundred dollars in Nigeria, a country where sixty per cent of the population lives in dire poverty, the demand for Blackberry phones even among Nigeria’s poor far outstrips supply and…

I suddenly had a vision of a future world wherein Americans and Europeans and people all over the world have voluntarily given up many of the creature comforts that are, through their manufacture and deployment, the causes of global warming and global pollution, in exchange for being able to have cell phones and computers and a fast and exciting global internet system. In this future world, most people walk and bicycle and take electric shuttle buses and drive groovy ultra-light electric vehicles for local travel rather than driving cars running on gasoline, and capitalism as we know it today is a thing of the past replaced by millions of worker-owned cooperatives and organic farms and splendiferous public transportation systems; and we have this vivacious absolutely free computer interweb global infrastructure. Most people live materially minimalist yet comfortable lives, jet travel is an extreme rarity, international trade happens on slow boats and solar electric gravity powered trains, superb healthcare is absolutely free, and we have a super cool internet and world wide web providing everyone with marvelous cross-cultural connectivity, information, and culture.

At present I don’t own a cell phone or any sort of portable computer pad thingy and I don’t plan to own them, but could it be possible (imaginable?) that billions of people would be willing to dramatically reduce their energy consumption and assume the carbon footprints of the average Nigerian of 2012 in exchange for an ever improving lightning fast, mind-expanding, earth-saving interweb accessible through phones and pads and computers? Might we not harness this powerful desire for wide-reaching interconnectivity as a bridge to the wholly regenerative and undeniably socialist (in the best sense of the word) future?

So there I’ll be sitting on my rug (woven by weavers of the village weaving cooperative) writing longhand by the light of a solar-powered lamp I brought back on my bicycle from the village solar power collective store. The solar electric heater and the fire in the woodstove keep me warm while the six trees I planted for every cord of wood we burn are growing fast in the nearby recovering woods. When I get a draft I like, I will type the words into my computer and send the essay forth to Bruce and Mark at the Anderson Valley Advertiser and to those dozens of folks who enjoy me on the worldwide interweb.

Better Be Good

Thursday, March 1st, 2012

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2012)

“In Hollywood they place you under contract instead of under observation.” Walter Winchell

I recently read a brief rave review of a new movie, not a remake, but the umpteenth “psychological thriller” about a psychopath keeping someone trapped in a closet for years on end. And this review, which sounded suspiciously like a press release, reminded me of one of the more bizarre and disturbing passages in my long ago Hollywood sojourn when I tried to succeed as a screenwriter. But first a little of the back-story, as they like to call the past in the movie business.

In 1981, following the success of my first novel, I was hired by Warner Brothers to write a screenplay based on my second novel Forgotten Impulses, with Laura Ziskin the producer. Laura would eventually produce the Spiderman movies and several other blockbusters, including the incredibly popular prostitute-to-riches movie Pretty Woman, but at the time of our collaboration she had yet to make it big. Laura was passionate about my book, had wonderful ideas about translating the story to film, and came very close to getting Forgotten Impulses made into a movie—quite the opposite of bizarre and disturbing.

As a side note to the back-story, Forgotten Impulses, an obscure novel by any measure, was almost filmed four times between 1981 and 2000, with four different screenplays written (after mine) including one by the now famous director Jay Roach; and these screenplays attracted several major directors including Sydney Pollack, Ulu Grosbard, Tony Bill, and Luis Mandoki. The why and how of Forgotten Impulses tempting and eluding production so many times would make a fascinating book about the movie business and the exigencies of fate, something I will jump right on as soon as I get that seven-figure offer from Random House. But I digress.

“A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet.” Orson Welles

Two years after I wrote that screenplay for Laura Ziskin, my Hollywood agent was contacted by a famous director of made-for-television movies who had read my Forgotten Impulses script and wanted me to write a screenplay for him based on a true story he owned the rights to. I was a newlywed, short on cash, and desperate to get my career on track, so I listened eagerly to this mogul, a man I will call Frank, though Frank is not his real name, and I mean no offense to anyone who is named Frank.

It seems that Frank read a newspaper article about a young white man, a senior in high school in a big city in the South, who died from injuries sustained when he drove his car into a telephone pole after swerving to miss a dog crossing the road. The young man’s heart and kidneys and other organs were then used to save the lives of several people in need of organ transplants. What made the story so appealing to Frank was that this dead young white man was a golden boy, a football, baseball, basketball star, a devout Christian, a straight A student with a greenhouse full of orchids: a charming, animal-loving sweetheart of a kid who dreamt of a career in politics as an advocate for the poor and downtrodden, his girlfriend a brilliant beauty bound for Harvard.

“I jumped on a plane,” said Frank, his accent unmistakably Brooklyn, “and got down there just in time for the funeral.”

“Wow,” I said, troubled by his gleeful tone. “The funeral.”

“What a scene! The cemetery was packed. Guys wearing baseball uniforms, football uniforms, basketball jerseys, pom-pom girls, a huge choir in white robes, everybody crying and hugging each other. White people, black people. You can’t make this stuff up.” Frank paused. “I got the film rights before they had the grave filled.”

“You what?” I asked, doubting my ears.

“The movie rights. His father signed in the cemetery office and a couple hours later I got his mom to sign. They’re divorced so I wanted them both on board before I sent you down there. Lisa, the mom, isn’t so hot on the deal, but Jeff, the dad, is totally onboard and can’t wait to talk to you.” Frank paused. “So…you in?”

“I…I…”

“Oh, right. Money.” Frank named a dizzying sum. “And expenses, of course, with a fat per diem.” He named a swank hotel where I’d be staying. “I figure you go down there for a week, talk to his folks, his girlfriend, the minister, guys on the team, teachers, then you rough something out, fax it to me, and by the time you get back I’ll have this set up as a movie of the week.”

The money was too much to turn down, so I agreed to take the job. My agent was ecstatic, my wife delirious. However, before I signed a contract, I called Jeff, the dead golden boy’s father, and we talked for an hour. And then I called my agent and said I had changed my mind and would not be taking the job.

“You can’t do this,” she said harshly. “You cannot say yes to Frank and then change your mind. You’ll never work in this town again. Is it the money? We’ll get you more. How much do you want?”

“It’s not the money,” I said, the room spinning. “It’s the whole thing. This is…immoral.”

“Oh, Jesus. Immoral? Gimme a break. What’s moral? This is my reputation you’re fucking with.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Sorry is not enough. You’re gonna have to talk to Frank and explain to him that this has nothing to do with me. Nothing. Do you understand? I love the project. I think Frank is a genius. You make it clear this is your problem, not mine. And don’t use the word immoral. Please.”

So I called Frank and told him I had changed my mind; and he offered me three times the original dizzying sum to take the job. And I told him that in my conversation with Jeff, the dead golden boy’s father, I learned that the golden boy had a serious drinking problem, that he almost certainly was the father of an illegitimate child with a very young woman, and that he may not have swerved to miss a dog but swerved to kill himself. I also told Frank that the golden boy had been terribly depressed about his beautiful girlfriend dumping him when she found out about the probable illegitimate child, and that the golden boy had been benched for an upcoming big game because he was flunking so many classes. But, the golden boy’s father assured me, these were just rumors I would hear when I came down to research the story, and none of these rumors had to be in the movie.

“And none of them will be,” said Frank, shouting. “Who gives a fuck what the real story is? The story we give a fuck about is that this golden boy’s heart saves a guy’s life and the guy changes from an asshole into a golden boy himself, and the golden boy’s kidney saves a girl’s life and she becomes, I don’t know, a great singer or something. See? You can make this anything you want so long as it’s beautiful and inspiring. See? With a wise old black man, or, no, a wise old black woman who teaches him right from wrong and…okay…here, listen! Scenes from his childhood, key moments that made him a golden boy, coming off the bench to score the winning touchdown, winning basket, winning home run, whatever. Defending a cripple from bullies. A black cripple. White bullies. He’s crying in church listening to the heavenly choir, a bi-racial choir, golden rays coming through stained glass windows as we dissolve to a hot kiss and not quite sex with his half-dressed Georgia peach of a girlfriend and vows of eternal love on her front porch before he drives away and swerves to miss the dog that looks exactly like the dog he grew up with, his best friend that got hit by a car when somebody didn’t swerve to miss the dog. You know what I’m talking about. Sacrifice. Redemption. Transformation. All that shit.”

“I’m sorry, Frank. I just can’t.”

“What? You think you’re too good to write for television? Fuck you!”

And I thought that would be the last I heard from Frank and possibly from Hollywood, but two years later my agent called to say that Frank was taking a break between mini-series and wanted me to write a Christmas movie for him pronto.

“I didn’t know you were still my agent,” I said to my agent. “Haven’t heard a peep in a couple years.”

“Don’t be bitter,” she said, laughing bitterly. “You’re not exactly a hot commodity.”

True. And my marriage was foundering, our house payment was due, and I had twenty-six dollars in my checking account, so I said I’d be glad to talk to Frank.

“Listen, Todderoo,” said Frank, having won boatloads of Emmys and made tens of millions since last we spoke, “I just read your Forgotten Impulses script again and I am absolutely convinced that we’re supposed to work together, and not just on this Christmas thing, but on lots of things. I think we have some sort of cosmic connection, I really do.”

He said he wanted a two-hour Christmas movie set in New England during World War II. “Think Norman Rockwell family saga 1944 snow and sleigh bells and chestnuts roasting and funny sad desperate people and hope and redemption and presents under the Christmas tree full of forgiveness. That kinda thing.”

“And the story?”

“That’s why I’m hiring you.” He laughed a high staccato laugh. “Come on. Say yes. I hear you’re hurting for cash.”

Thus ensued eight of the craziest weeks of my life. I flew down and back from Sacramento to Los Angeles twice a week for long meetings with Frank and his “assistant”—Frank’s gorgeous British mistress who never missed an opportunity to say, “Brilliant, Frank. Brilliant!” I was never sure why we had to meet in-person so often since Frank was on the phone to me three times a day telling me everything he then told me again in these face-to-face meetings. I also attended several perplexing meetings with three young network executives who kept glaring at me and saying, “This better be good.” And I wrote dozens of drafts of a World War II Norman Rockwell family saga 1944 snow and sleigh bells etcetera Christmas thing that Frank was forever handing over to his staff writers to rewrite per his brilliant suggestions and then handing the mess back to me so I would, as he put it, “make this sing.”

After eight weeks of sheer madness, and on what I thought would be my last day of working for Frank, I arrived by taxi at the Century City skyscraper wherein Frank had his humongous suite of opulent offices, and found the man himself waiting for me in front of the building, smiling beatifically. Dressed all in shiny black leather, Frank was standing beside his shiny black Lamborghini, the mighty engine idling. He held the passenger door open for me and I climbed into a car worth more than most houses. And then, with the Bee Gees singing How Deep Is Your Love on the surround sound stereo, we drove across the stinking metropolis to Frank’s mansion in Beverly Hills, a huge Roman villa Spanish hacienda hybrid with a gigantic abstract black brushed-steel fountain sculpture installation thing splish-splashing away in the center of a circular cobblestone driveway.

Frank led me into his gargantuan dining room and there upon the massive rosewood table was a magnum of champagne riding high in an ornate silver ice bucket towering over a fat contract announcing a breathtaking increase in my fee—with only my signature lacking.

“Our next project,” said Frank, slapping me on the back. “You didn’t think I would let you get away after just one, did you?”

“What is the next project?” I asked, every cell in my body yearning to never see him again.

He handed me a newspaper clipping. The headline read FORTY YEARS IN THE DARK. An old woman died. She was a recluse with no known relatives. When folks from the Salvation Army came to clean out her house they heard scratching sounds coming from a locked closet wherein they found the dead woman’s daughter who had been imprisoned by her mother in the closet for forty years, since she was six years old.

“You were born to write this movie,” said Frank, proffering a fountain pen. “I locked up the movie rights this morning. You can do the novelization, too, and we’ll bring out the book a few weeks before we’re movie-of-the week.” He winked at me. “We’re thinking Halloween.”

“You know, Frank,” I said, only mildly curious to know how he got the movie rights, “I hate to disappoint you, but I’ve decided to only write original material from now on. My own stuff. It’s either that or go insane.”

To his credit, Frank did not damn me to hell, but said I was making a huge mistake I would regret for the rest of my life. We never spoke again. Our Norman Rockwell 1944 Christmas movie was never filmed. My agent dropped me like a hot potato. My marriage evaporated. And I have never again seen a contract with my name on it that had so many zeros following the initial digit. Yet I have not once, not even for a fraction of a split second, regretted turning Frank down.

Over the intervening decades I have written many screenplays and novels, none yet filmed, and not one involving a psychopath who imprisons someone in a closet. That, as they say, has been done and does not need to be done again. Trust me.

Creative movie producers, brilliant movie directors, whimsical book publishers, and loquacious readers are invited to contact Todd through his web site UnderTheTableBooks.com

 

Creative Paradox

Saturday, December 31st, 2011
garth hagerman

Photo by Garth Hagerman

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2011)

“To study music, we must learn the rules. To create music, we must break them.” Nadia Boulanger

During the four years in the early 1990’s when I ran the Creative Writing program for the California State Summer School for the Arts, I oversaw the work of two hundred teenaged writers and worked intimately with fifty of those talented scribblers. Three of the two hundred were, in my estimation, brilliant and original and highly accomplished writers; yet these three were so deeply introverted I predicted they would never succeed as professional writers. Sadly, so far, my prediction has proved true. In the publishing world of today, ambition entirely trumps talent, and believe it or not, ambitious imitators rule the narrow roost of your favorite bookstore, independent or otherwise.

We recently watched the first two-thirds of Robert Altman’s excruciatingly painful film Vincent and Theo about Vincent Van Gogh and his brother Theo—two-thirds of the movie being all we could bear, and even at that I was an emotional wreck. Whether or not the film is an accurate portrayal of the real Van Gogh, the movie conveys the very real suffering that many visionary artists feel in the absence of lasting emotional connections to other people and society, emotional connections these artists desperately want to make through their art. Yet because society is largely a manifestation of well-established perceptions and carefully regulated protocols for the presentation of those perceptions, most creative introverts are doomed to commercial failure unless they are rescued through the intervention of a sympathetic agent (catalyst) in the body of a functional extrovert.

The few moderate successes of my own writing career occurred because of the divine efforts of an extraordinary literary agent named Dorothy Pittman, the likes of which no longer exist, for she was wholly concerned with quality and originality, while caring not a whit about commerciality or the emotional idiosyncrasies of her clients. When Dorothy died, I was left to my own devices, which, for the most part, proved unacceptable to corporate operatives who care not a whit for quality and originality, and care only about their bottom lines showing large profits.

We want to think those elegant hardbacks awaiting us on the New Arrivals table at our favorite bookstore are the cream of a diverse cultural crop, the work of artists and original thinkers, but this is rarely true, for the source of nearly all of these books is corporate fascism, the antithesis of everything we wish our culture to be. Thus the most original of our writers and musicians and artists survive on the fringes of our cultural mix and remain largely unknown to you or to me or to anyone, save for a few friends, if they are fortunate to have friends.

This systemic isolation of original artists has probably existed since the dawn of urban life, when for the first time in human evolution large numbers of people came to live together in relatively small geographical areas. Certainly without the untiring efforts of Theo, Vincent Van Gogh’s brother and agent and only friend, we never would have received the enduring gift of Van Gogh’s genius. And because in the course of my life I have been fortunate to read the unpublished work of a handful of contemporary geniuses that few others will ever read, I assume there are thousands of such writers and artists toiling away in anonymity; which assumption brings to mind the cultivation of carrots and how of the several hundred seedlings that sprout in the carrot patch only a lucky few will survive the seemingly random act of thinning so they may attain full carrotness, with only the rarest of carrots attaining carrot magnificence.

“Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.” Frederic Chopin

Having published ten books with nine different gargantuan publishing houses, eight works of fiction and two works of non-fiction, and having had essentially the same dreadful experience with each of these corporate behemoths, I, the former Executive Oddball of the International Order of Barely Functional Introverts, finally decided to embark on the path of a self-publisher. Succeed or not, I would at least have some small control over my creations (if only to be in charge of hiding them); and best of all I would never again have to watch as my years and years of toil were relegated to the trash heap with the wave of some moron’s hand, before or shortly after what should have been publication days of joy and celebration.

Though it may seem incredible, even unbelievable, to those unfamiliar with mainstream American publishing, the entire system has, for over forty years, been based on the buying and publishing of thousands of books every fiscal quarter with the foreknowledge that most of these books will be intentionally killed before or shortly after their official dates of publication. How could such a bizarre system have taken hold in a field that most people still think of as a creative part of our cultural framework? A thorough explanation of how this self-annihilating practice came to be would fill a fat volume, but I will use the brief tale of one of my own books as an example of how the system operates.

In 1995, having gone nearly a decade since publishing my fourth novel, I sold my fifth, Ruby & Spear, to Bantam for a 25,000 dollar advance. A rousing contemporary myth, Ruby & Spear is about an impetuous white sports writer, Vic, and his adventures with a fabulous black basketball player named Spear, a sexy feminist named Greta, and Spear’s tough old mystical grandmother Ruby. When they purchased Ruby & Spear, Bantam was owned by Random House, which in turn had been swallowed by a massive multinational corporation that now owns most of the previously freestanding publishing houses in America. In truth, there are only three gigantic publishers left in America, each masquerading as several publishing houses, each in reality a tiny division of a multinational behemoth.

Why did Bantam buy Ruby & Spear? I would like to say it was because their editors and sales people were eager to bring forth an entertaining literary gem; but that would be untrue. Bantam bought Ruby & Spear because they were guessing (gambling) that the movie rights to the book would be optioned for the movies before the book was published, which optioning would result in thousands of dollars of free publicity for the book; and if, indeed, a movie of Ruby & Spear was made there would be millions of dollars of free publicity. Bantam hoped the book might be sold to the movies because another of my novels, Forgotten Impulses, was on the verge of being made into a major motion movie, and because my first novel Inside Moves had been made into a film during the Pleistocene, which film caused many copies of that book to be sold.

But when Forgotten Impulses was ignominiously dropped by the movie people, and that dropping coincided with a few stupid studio execs complaining that Ruby & Spear was strangely void of violence and chock full of strong complex women and atypical men (and it wasn’t set in either New York or Los Angeles, but in Oakland, for godsake!) Bantam decided not to bring out a hardback version (ending hope of widespread reviews); and then they decided to kill the paperback edition on publication day.

To kill a book, a publisher declares the tome out-of-print and ceases distribution before that book has a chance to live. This is the fate of the vast majority of books published by large publishers, and is especially the fate of literary fiction, a rare kind of writing that does not fit into any obvious target genre such as murder mystery, sci-fi, teen vampire, adult vampire, teen wizard, or bodice-ripping historical romance. 25,000 dollars, to a corporation making most of its billions from strip mining and manufacturing cell phones and buying and selling governments, is not much of a gamble, so….

So here I am, an introverted self-publisher, my first two self-published books winners of multiple independent publishing awards, yet almost no bookstores in America carry my books, and that includes those revered independent bookstores. Why? Simple. Many people who buy books have seen and heard myriad advertisements for the latest bodice-ripping historical vampire fantasy, and many of these same people enjoyed the previous seven volumes in that marvelous series, so they very much want to read the latest regurgitation; and they have not heard of Buddha In A Teacup or Under the Table Books, nor have the bookstore people heard of my unclassifiable tomes, neither of which contains a single vampire, though both volumes are mysteriously sensual. Thus we live with the painful irony that independent bookstores generally carry only the most popular mainstream gunk because they don’t have the shelf space for (or the knowledge of) less popular books.

“It is important to practice at the speed of no mistakes.” Lucinda Mackworth-Young

Long ago I had supper with one of the most powerful publishers in America who happened to be married at the time (ever so briefly) to the editor of one of those novels I published in the Pleistocene. And when this famous publisher was nicely lit after downing a few goblets of breathtakingly expensive wine, she raised her glass and proclaimed, “Every book that really deserves to be published eventually does get published.”

And though from a career-building point of view I should have raised my glass and cried, “Hear, hear!” instead I retorted, “Methinks you are rationalizing the actions of unscrupulous corporations,” which only made her hostile. Oops. Silly me.

“Art is the only way to run away without leaving home.” Twyla Tharp

Gazing back thirty-five years through the telescope of hindsight, I realize that my editor’s wife, a great and powerful publisher (who was just a person, after all) was giving voice to what we all fervently want to believe, which is that great new creations will eventually find their ways into the lives of more than a few lucky people. And I think we harbor this belief in the inevitable ascendancy of excellent original art (which hasn’t been the case for thousands of years) because for most of human evolution, when our kind were much fewer and farther between, when we lived in bands and tribes and everyone knew everyone else, that when a good new creation came along, that song or story or painting or dance or myth or spear or drum or flute stood out like the only black horse in a herd of white horses, or vice-versa, so there was no way the glorious thing could be overlooked.