Posts Tagged ‘Frank Capra’

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.

Precious Dream

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

Marcia and Stella at the Mendocino Coast Hospital

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

Last night I had a precious dream,

dreamt I woke into the dawn,

walked out of my little cottage,

found a newspaper on the lawn

When I picked up that morning tribune,

and it opened to the very front page,

the headlines they told me

it was the dawning of a brand new age

Several years ago, I wrote the song Precious Dream, and three years ago when Marcia and I recorded So Not Jazz, our CD of cello/piano/guitar/vocal duets we included the song on the album. A few months after the CD was released, a DJ in Astoria, Oregon used Precious Dream as her theme song for several weeks, and that about sums up the commercial life of the song.

I wrote Precious Dream to elucidate my hopes for the world and human society, and I like to think of the tune as a campaign song in search of a candidate. I have yet to find such a candidate, though the Greens come closest to embodying the gist of my reverie; and since we are about to find out who our next President is and how far to the right of the mythic center our Congress and state houses will be, I thought this would be a good time to share the lyrics with you.

Yeah, the rich folks had all decided

to share their money with the poor

The movie that most influenced my thinking about the human world when I was a little boy was The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and Basil Rathbone. Marcia and I recently watched that old movie again and I loved it as much as I did when I was a child. The most powerful scene in the entire film for me was (and still is) when Robin takes Maid Marion to meet a group of poor people who have been savaged by the amoral rich. Robin is helping these people with money and food he steals from wealthy villains, feeding and sheltering and protecting these innocents who have nowhere else to turn for safety and sustenance. Meeting the victims of the rapacious overlords, Maid Marion has one of those great cinematic aha moments wherein she really gets that her life of privilege and luxury is built entirely on the backs of the poor.

I was an avid archer from age six to twelve, and many of the countless arrows I let fly in those years were loosed while imagining I was Robin Hood stealing from the rich so my band of merry men and I could give to the poor.

 and the leaders had disbanded all the armies,

not another dollar spent on war

Another hugely important movie in my life was King of Hearts, a gorgeous bittersweet movie that came out in 1966 when I was seventeen and the war in Vietnam was escalating. As my age peers and I lived in daily terror of being drafted to fight in that senseless war, along came this sexy, sad, funny movie about a soldier, played with comic innocence by Alan Bates, who ultimately chooses to hide away among the officially insane rather than spend another minute aiding and abetting the senseless slaughter of and by the so-called sane people of the world.

Let us never forget that the lion’s share of the income taxes we pay go to fund the creation and deployment of deadly armies and weaponry, money that might otherwise be used to make the world into a life-affirming utopia.

 and they’d stopped building prisons,

put that money in our schools and neighborhoods

Many comprehensive studies have proven conclusively that the healthier and safer and better-educated people are, the less likely they are to commit crimes. So why do we spend so little on vitalizing our communities and truly educating our children, while spending so many billions building prisons and locking people up for crimes committed out of economic necessity? Our justice and prison systems are nothing less than ongoing crimes against humanity.

and instead of making bombs and guns and things we do not need

we were all of us working for the greater good

Frank Capra was in love with the idea of people working for the greater good, an archaic-sounding concept involving people subsuming their selfish tendencies in order to help others—the greater community—and through helping others finding happiness and meaning. It’s A Wonderful Life, You Can’t Take It With You, and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington tug at our heartstrings, I believe, because they resonate with our inherent nature, which is to share what we have with others.

 Yes, they’d stopped clear-cutting the forests

and killing all the animals,

stopped dumping poison in the ground and the rivers and the sea,

When I was thirteen I went on a high Sierra backpack trip with two good friends and our three fathers to the Cathedral Lakes out of Tuolumne Meadows. On our second night at Upper Cathedral Lake, we shared that holy place with a big troop of Boy Scouts who made their camp on the opposite side of the lake from us. The scouts had a huge bonfire, though wood was scarce, and they even chopped down some small living trees (highly illegal) to fuel their fire. When we woke the next morning, we discovered that the scouts had festooned the trees and bushes and granite all around the lake with toilet paper; and when they hiked away they left garbage everywhere.

We spent that day and the next cleaning up the enormous mess as best we could and wondering what could possibly have inspired those young men to wreak such havoc on that pristine place. Fifty years later, I still sometimes think of that sickening mess as I read of manufacturers dumping poison into rivers to save a few dollars and when I study the latest reports on the ongoing meltdowns at Fukushima nuclear power plant and the resultant poisoning of the Pacific Ocean. What happened to these people to render them so drastically and ruinously disconnected from the very source of our lives? Such behavior is not natural. Someone or something is teaching human beings to poison our own nests.

the cars ran clean, trains ran smooth and fast, the air was clear,

food and shelter, health-care guaranteed

I have friends in Canada and Ireland and England and Denmark and Germany who have been emboldened to start interesting businesses and launch new careers and undertake exciting creative projects largely because they live in countries that provide free and excellent healthcare for their citizens. As long as we don’t have free and excellent healthcare in America, we are not a free people.

and the movies were about fascinating people

with real problems, you know, the real stuff

and our heroes were bright and generous,

pioneers of truth and love

My brother just sent me the last words of advice Kurt Vonnegut wrote for an audience: “And how should we behave during this Apocalypse? We should be unusually kind to one another, certainly. But we should also stop being so serious. Jokes help a lot. And get a dog, if you don’t already have one. I’m out of here.”

 When I woke up, my heart was pounding,

and I prayed my dream had all come true,

but I knew as well as you do

that that’s really up to me and you

Yes, we have it in our power to change the way we live

we have it in our power to take no more than we give

we have it in our power to love instead of hate

we have it in our power to make these changes

before it’s all too late

If you would like to hear Precious Dream in its entirety (absolutely gratis) with Marcia’s gorgeous cello and my guitar and mellifluous tenor, go to UnderTheTableBooks.com and click on Listen. If you enjoy the song, we hope you will share the link with your friends.

Playing for Capra

Sunday, August 10th, 2008

The following memory was first published in The Anderson Valley Advertiser. Many Thanks to Bruce Anderson for his continuing support of my writing.

 


 

Playing For Capra

Marcia and I recently watched a new Israeli movie entitled 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, a larger story with far too many unhappy chapters. 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, for all his many triumphs, was a Hollywood outsider. Having succeeded brilliantly under the protection of the powerful mogul Harry Cohn, Capra only made the movies he wanted to make, which were almost never 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 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, and so 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, too, was unwilling to compromise the integrity of his visions. Indeed, he made movies about these 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 1960’s, 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 Capra was going to speak at a showing of 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—starred John Savage and launched the careers of David Morse and Diana Scarwid, who received an Oscar nomination for her performance in the film. But just as Inside Moves was about to be 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 (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, 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 there, 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 now that digital technology has replaced film and the secrets of the black and white masters are largely 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 Speilberg?”

“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 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 couldn’t take it anymore. 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, 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, then 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 these characters and their crises, and though he never in a million years would have made such a movie, his influence is unmistakable.