Posts Tagged ‘humor’

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.

Gene and Grandma

Monday, September 12th, 2016

andmischief

Mischief painting by Todd

“My blanket. My blue blanket. Gimme my blue blanket!” Gene Wilder’s line from The Producers

Gene Wilder died in August. He was eighty-three. Thinking about him took me back to the first time I saw the movie Young Frankenstein on the big screen in San Francisco in 1974. And I remember feeling as I watched the film that I was witnessing one of those extremely rare creations, a work of art that would never grow old and never be successfully imitated—the result of the unique chemistry of six superlative actors and a brilliant director, none of them duplicable: Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Cloris Leachman, Terry Garr, Peter Boyle, Madeline Kahn, and Mel Brooks.

To my surprise and dismay, many people did not agree with my assessment of Young Frankenstein. Indeed, the three people I attended the movie with enjoyed the film, but thought it silly and forgettable. I saw the movie three more times during the initial release and found everything about the film more inspiring with each viewing. Indeed, I was so inspired by Young Frankenstein, I wrote two screenplays and two plays imagining Gene Wilder and Madeline Kahn in leading roles.

Alas I was never able to get my creations to Gene or Madeline, but even now, four decades later, I still imagine them playing parts in my stories and novels and plays. As the neurobiologists say, I resonated profoundly with Gene Wilder. I enjoyed him in later films, but never again loved him as much as I did in Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, and The Producers, all directed by Mel Brooks.

In 2007 I attended a party in Berkeley rife with college professors, and in the heat of talking about movies, and perhaps having had a wee bit too much to drink, I suggested that Young Frankenstein, which I had recently seen again for the tenth time, was as magnificent and timeless as Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.

I was immediately set upon by a pack of indignant academics, one of them saying, “How can you compare a goofy spoof of a horror movie to one of the greatest plays ever written?” And I replied, “Many of Shakespeare’s plays, including The Taming of the Shrew, were variations on previously produced plays written by other writers. Romeo and Juliet is based on a classic Italian short story. Hamlet was Shakespeare’s takeoff on a popular play from Europe. Young Frankenstein is two hours of flawless and wholly original genius.”

“But Shakespeare’s writing,” said another of the professors, wringing her hands. “The poetry of his lines. His astonishing wit. How can you compare Young Frankenstein to that?”

To which I replied, “Where in Shakespeare is there wit to compare to Gene Wilder saying to Marty Feldman, ‘Are you telling me I just put an abnormal brain in the body of a seven-and-a-half-foot-tall…gorilla!?’ Or Gene saying to Marty, ‘You know, Igor, I’m an excellent surgeon. I could help you with that hump.’ And Marty replying, ‘Hump? What hump?’”

My other favorite Gene Wilder performance is as the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles. Never before or since has a movie of such supreme silliness featured a scene so long and slow-developing and entirely convincing as when Gene explains to Cleavon Little why he gave up gun-slinging and became an alcoholic.

I think what made Gene Wilder such a unique star was that he was one of those rare male actors who was neither a macho tough guy nor a one-trick pretty boy. He was thoughtful, funny, emotional, intelligent, moody, rebellious, graceful, constantly surprising, and he thoroughly inhabited the character he was playing. I have known several men and a few women who felt Gene was effeminate and possibly gay, and I could only pity them for having so little appreciation of nuance and subtlety and originality.

Sadly, like so many of America’s best actors and actresses, Gene Wilder was only in a handful of movies worthy of his talent—Hollywood the great debaser of genius. Thankfully, Gene made Willie Wonka and those three fabulous movies with Mel Brooks, so we can rejoice in that.

“Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor to console him for what he is.” Francis Bacon

Speaking of good movies and great actors, Marcia and I recently watched and deeply appreciated Grandma, written and directed by Paul Weitz and starring Lily Tomlin. The trailers for the movie emphasize the comedic aspects of the film and give no hint of what a thought-provoking gem this movie is.

Tomlin’s performance as an aging cantankerous lesbian academic, once an impassioned poet, is so consistent and truthful, what might have been a drab pseudo-comedy becomes a profound character study and a potent examination of what it is to be a formerly revered artist, a product of the wildly creative 1960s and 70s, growing old in America today—the intellectual vapidity of nearly everything in our post modern culture a source of vexation and dismay.

Grandma is a movie that would surely have devolved into tired cliché in the hands of a less talented writer/director working with less talented actors, but that never happens. Lily Tomlin’s relentless cynicism might have implausibly vanished now and then in service to formulaic sappy moments and a forced happy ending, but she remains true to her character to the last frame of the film. Her fellow actors are also unwaveringly consistent, and the director is impeccably dedicated to his vision of a single day in a woman’s life recapitulating her entire life.

In this way, Grandma reminded me of Young Frankenstein, both films far greater than the sums of their parts, neither creation impeded by notions of idiot studio executives aiming to make the movies more marketable and palatable to audiences disinterested in the emotional intricacies of what it is to be a human being. Both films are ensemble pieces, and both films are especial delights.

Todd’s new novel Magenta is now available at UnderTheTableBooks.com

Choosing Names

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

Mementos NolanWInkler

Mementos by Nolan Winkler

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2014)

“I only like two kinds of men: domestic and foreign.” Mae West

Our dear friends Nick and Clare Bokulich, Nick the noted fermentologist, Clare the renowned musicologist and daughter of local viola legend Marion Crombie, recently sent us this pregnancy update. “Had one of those crazy 3D ultrasounds and they were able to see all of the organs and blood pumping through the veins and everything! It was completely overwhelming and exciting all at the same time. And we found out it’s a boy!”

After digesting this exciting news, we wrote Clare a brief email with names for boys we think go well with Bokulich. I suggested Felix and Noah, Marcia was partial to Benjamin (Ben).

Clare replied, “I like all of those, too. Nick and I are pretty hopeless on agreeing on names, though, so we’ve decided to give ourselves a break and not worry about it until after he’s born (though suggestions still welcome!) because there’s just so much else going on right now and we figure that after the kid’s born we’ll have nothing better to do than stare at him and think of names.”

And that reminded me of a short story I wrote when I was twenty (now lost) that was my first story to garner handwritten rejection notes (as opposed to form rejection letters) from editors at two different prestigious magazines. Both editors said they loved the story but were sorry to say they only published well-known writers. The story was entitled The Name and was based on the true story of how my friend Grover got his name.

“Each one of us is in the midst of myriads of worlds. We are in the center of the world always, moment after moment.” Shunryu Suzuki

Grover was born in eastern Kansas in 1931. He was the seventh son and ninth child of hardworking Methodist wheat farmers. Grover’s father was over fifty when Grover was born, and several of Grover’s siblings were already married and had children of their own. Tractors were just displacing teams of horses for plowing the fields, and Grover’s father and brothers and mother worked from sunrise to sunset, six days a week, to make a go of farming—Sunday reserved for church and socializing and resting up for the coming week of toil.

Naming their last-born child was of no pressing importance to Grover’s parents, so he had no official name until he was six. He answered to Baby and Sluggo for the first five years of his life, and it was only when he was about to start school that his parents decided to give him an official name—Ernest favored by Mother, Grover favored by Father.

Inspired by Grover’s vague recollections of why he chose one name over the other, my short story imagined a scene in which Mother plied the boy with pumpkin pie while lobbying for the name Ernest, and another scene in which Father took the boy for a ride in his truck to get an ice cream cone—a great adventure! On the way to and from the soda fountain Father made the case for the name Grover, pointing out that Grover Cleveland had been President of the United States, twice, and Grover Cleveland Alexander was a great baseball player, whereas Ernest was a name better suited to a sissy than to a big strong farm boy.

“There are several kinds of stories, but only one difficult kind—the humorous.” Mark Twain

Recalling the story of how Grover got his name, I was reminded of another naming story told to me by a former prison psychiatrist whose first name was Edward. One of the men Edward ministered to, a mountain of a man who had spent many years in prison for manslaughter, came to see Edward shortly before his release.

“Doctor, you helped me so much,” he said reverently. “If I ever have a son, I’d like to name him after you.”

Edward replied, “I would be honored if you named your son after me,” and thought no more about it.

A few years later, Edward received a phone call from a frantic nurse calling from a hospital in San Francisco. The former inmate had begotten a son and the newborn’s birth certificate required a first name. However, the name chosen by the former inmate was deemed inappropriate by whoever was in charge of that sort of thing at the hospital, and now the very angry mountain of a man was threatening to destroy the maternity ward if the name he wanted for his child was disallowed.

“He says he wants to name the baby after you,” explained the nurse. “He said you told him you would be honored if he named the baby that.”

Edward collected his thoughts and replied, “Why would anyone object to naming a boy Edward? The name has served me and thousands of other Edwards, kings included, very well for hundreds of years.”

“He doesn’t want to name the boy Edward,” cried the exasperated nurse. “He wants to name him Doctor.”

“Well, if I were you,” said Edward, recalling the size and emotional disposition of the man in question, “I would grant him his wish and trouble him no further.”

“It is only in literature that coincidences seem unnatural.” Robert Lynd

I am currently in the throes of writing Book Three of a fictional saga called Ida’s Place. Set on the far north coast of California in the mythical town of Big River, the cast of artists and eccentrics grows larger with each new volume. Thus I have given names to a good many characters of late, with several more characters about to enter the fray. Fortunately, one of my great pleasures is choosing names for those who populate my fiction, though, in truth, they invariably choose their own names before I can consciously intervene.

Which is why I appreciated Clare writing, “…we figure that after the kid’s born we’ll have nothing better to do than stare at him and think of names.” I have no doubt the boy’s name will come to them from him.

Funny

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

groovity-poster

Incongroovity painting by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2014)

“While thou livest, keep a good tongue in thy head.” William Shakespeare

We were having supper with friends recently, and somehow the conversation came around to Shakespeare and the news that a number of American universities have dropped the Bard entirely from their lists of required courses for English majors. And the question was asked, “Why should Shakespeare be required reading for English majors in this age of tweeting and texting and unedited garbage topping the bestseller lists and the English language disintegrating faster than the earth is warming?

Then someone mentioned seeing Denzel Washington as Brutus in a horrendous Broadway production of Julius Caesar, a smash hit because Denzel was in the play, though his delivery of Shakespeare’s lines elicited snickers and giggles from his adoring audience throughout the hilarious (not) play—as if there was something kind of cute about a famous movie star butchering Shakespeare. Tee hee.

And that reminded me of a favorite joke about Hollywood: an enormously successful movie star, famed for his roles in bloody senseless car chase thriller detective sci-fi 3-D blockbusters in which he kills and has sex with ruthless efficiency and speaks his few lines with terse tough guy bravado, grows weary of pundits saying he can’t act his way out of a paper bag. So at the height of his wealth and fame, he spends a large part of his fortune and builds a fabulous state-of-the-art theatre in Los Angeles and announces to the world that he is going to play the role of Hamlet in Shakespeare’s Hamlet with a supporting cast of brilliant British actors and actresses.

The much anticipated opening night finally arrives, the audience composed of celebrities and critics and drooling fans, and our handsome hero takes the stage and surprises everyone by speaking more than ten words without shooting someone. But the surprise soon turns to horror as the Bard’s poetic lines are clearly too much for the superstar’s untrained tongue (not to mention his leaden ear) and when he launches into the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy, the giggles and snickers turn to booing and hissing, and finally the superstar stops mid-monologue, stalks to the front of the stage, and shouts at the belligerent crowd, “Hey, I didn’t write this shit.”

“Experts always know everything but the fine points. When I took my citizenship exams, no one there knew how the White House came to be called the White House.” Hedy Lamarr

One of my great pleasures is pruning fruit trees that have been properly cared for. Alas, that is not the sort of task I am most frequently asked to undertake. No, most homeowners for whom fruit trees are beautiful adornments to their gardens and the occasional providers of fruit, tend to let their trees grow untamed for years or decades before finally realizing something must be done if those trees are ever to be anything more than gigantic wild shrubs; and those are the jobs I enjoy the least and do the most.

For instance, a neighbor called a few days ago and said, “I’m having a guy come to take care of my old apple tree and my old plum tree, and I’m wondering if you could come over and give him some tips. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, but he’s a good worker and he has a chain saw.”

“Did you want me to prune…”

“No, I just want you to tell him how to do it.”

As a pruner of trees and an editor of manuscripts for forty-odd years (emphasis on odd) I have come to think of the two disciplines as closely related sciences, and my neighbor wanting to employ my pruning expertise gratis reminded me of myriad acquaintances who have called me over the years and said, “I’ve got this article (or poem or story or novel or memoir) I think you’ll enjoy and I’m wondering if you’d like to give it a quick look and tell me what you think.”

“Did you want to hire me to…”

“No, I just thought you might enjoy giving it a quick once over and telling me what you think. Shouldn’t take long.”

So, yes, I have grown a bit weary of people thinking the things I do for a living are not really forms of work, but rather semi-skillful kinds of goofing around. Imagine calling your plumber and saying, “Hey, Joe, I’ve got a busted pipe I think you’ll find unique in the annals of plumbing and thought you might enjoy fixing it, you know, for free. Just for the fun and novelty of it. Shouldn’t take more than a day or so.”

Nevertheless…picture a massive apple tree with a trunk three feet in diameter out of which are growing seven massive arms, each arm a foot in diameter and thirty-feet-long, out of which are growing dozens of huge branches out of which are growing hundreds of lesser branches growing so thickly there is almost no space between any of them resulting in many of the branches being dead and dying for lack of sun and air.

Now picture an equally massive plum tree, the central trunk of which stands twenty feet away from the central trunk of the apple tree, and imagine that many branches of both gargantuan trees have grown entangled with each other to such an extent that the two trees appear to be a single organism composed of ten thousand interconnected branches employing every ounce of their energy to strangle each other. And imagine that these two trees are standing in what thirty years ago was a meadow surrounded by fledgling redwoods and fir trees that have grown into towering sun-blocking behemoths causing the plum and apple to send up twenty-foot-long suckers in a desperate attempt to access the ever shrinking supply of sunlight.

My heart went out to those two sorely neglected trees, and though I wasn’t being paid for my labor, I decided to do the job and save the old beauties. So I began directing the good fellow with his dull chain saw to cut here and there as I wielded my razor sharp Japanese pole saw, and after a couple hours of excising masses of mostly dead wood we nearly had the two old giants separated. Then, with but one more massive arm of the apple tree left to remove in order to complete the separating of the trees, my neighbor said to me, “I can see you really are an expert at this.”

As a Buddhist teacher once told me, “Beware how easily the rocket ship of ego may be launched.”

Puffed up by my neighbor’s praise, I signaled for the chain saw man to make that last cut. He did so. And for a moment of brilliant clarity the two trees stood apart, and I saw just how I would sculpt each one into a state of arboreal perfection and…

A loud cracking sound gave us scant warning to Get Out of The Way as the massive apple tree came crashing to earth, the old girl having been held aloft for who knows how many years by the deep-rooted plum. In a state of shock and awe and suppressed hilarity, I went to view the root mass of the apple tree and discovered that this colossus, a tree as big as a house, had virtually no root mass at all.

“I’m so sorry,” I said to my neighbor.

“Lots of good firewood,” said the guy with the chainsaw. “Most of it already seasoned.”

My neighbor, clearly deranged by the unexpected denouement said, “Let’s just leave things the way they are and see what happens in the spring.”

“The secret to humor is surprise.” Aristotle

Long ago, I was a teacher’s aide at a Palo Alto day care center for children aged two to five. All but three of our thirty children were from single-mother families, thus the three fathers who occasionally came to pick up their kids were looked upon with awe and wonder by the twenty-seven fatherless children, and I was unique among the teachers (pronounced teachoos by most of the kids) for being male.

One of the three children with a father in the familial mix was Damien, an incredibly cute three-year-old who was not yet talking. Our highly analytical director informed us that Damien’s frustration about not being able to speak, and therefore not being understood, might manifest in a tendency to bite other children, and we should be vigilant about averting such outbursts of oral aggression. Damien may have been a child of no words, but he was a fantastic mime, and his imitations of the postures and movements and facial expressions of the teachoos were the source of daily hilarity among the children.

I suspected that Damien could talk but chose not to for whatever advantages he felt that gave him. In any case, he did not speak aloud within earshot of any of the teachers, and so I related to him as a child who, for the time being, did not talk.

Two of the many recurrent tasks of a parent or teacher of wee tykes are the tying of shoes and the connecting and zipping of zippers, skills most children don’t master until they reach their late threes or older. Thus when we would prepare the kids for going outside on cold days, many laces had to be tied and many zippers zipped. One winter morning, as I knelt before the diminutive Damien and struggled to properly engage the recalcitrant zipper of his jacket, Damien looked down at my fumbling fingers, and in pitch perfect imitation of his father said, “Jive ass turkey zippah.”