Posts Tagged ‘Kafka’

The Movie Biz

Monday, May 27th, 2019

firewood wall

My fourteen-year-old daughter Alexandra has launched a movie company, Windsor Montoya Productions, and I have agreed to work for her as an idea person, writer, actor, and caterer’s assistant. Elisha, Alexandra’s mother, has also joined the company as an idea person, actor, continuity maven, and caterer. Conor, Alexandra’s older brother, will be an idea person, writer, actor, art director, cinematographer, sound tech, and editor. Sylvia Espinosa, Alexandra’s best friend, who is fifteen, will be an idea person, actor, writer, and co-director of the movies. Alexandra will be the producer, co-director, and head of operations.

I thought interviewing Delia Krantz, who is ninety-six with lots of show biz experience, would be a fun way to help launch the new movie company. To that end, Alexandra and Conor and Sylvia and I meet with Delia at Mona’s—the one and only bakery/café in Carmeline Creek. Elisha is working the counter during the interview and is able to hear most of what Delia says. Conor is also recording the interview with a brand new super duper Balzini microphone plugged into his laptop so we can access the interview in the future.

Delia was born in Chicago in the 1920s and worked as the personal assistant to seven different movie producers in Hollywood in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s before moving to Carmeline Creek twenty-eight years ago. She lives in a cottage a block from the beach at the north end of town with her dachshunds Greta and Harpo.

Alexandra: Did you know Marilyn Monroe?

Delia: I did not know her, but I met her a few times when I was working for Mel Katz. Mel wanted Marilyn for the femme fatale in a cowboy remake of The Three Musketeers. If she’d said Yes the movie would have gotten made, but because the original part for Marilyn wasn’t big enough for her, Mel had his writers expand her role, and when they did, the script fell apart.

Alexandra: What’s a femme fatale?

Delia: A dangerously attractive woman.

Sylvia: What did you do for your job when you were assisting those movie producers?

Delia: I made all their appointments, attended most of their meetings, took notes during the meetings, typed up the notes, called people and gave them good news and bad news and no news. Things like that. I was on the phone constantly, juggling appointments and dealing with a thousand details. As Jerome Purcell said, I was his adjunct brain. I took dictation, wrote letters, made lunch and dinner reservations, arranged for transportation, and a million other things.

Conor: Who was Jerome Purcell?

Delia: He was one of the biggest movie producers in the world in the early seventies. He made Totally Goofing Around, Crazy Insane Killers, and You Gotta Be Kidding, to name a few.

Alexandra: I’ve never heard of those movies. Should we watch them to get ideas?

Delia: No. Watch Frank Capra movies. Watch Kate Hepburn. Watch Neil Simon. Watch Truffaut and Alec Guinness and Jimmy Stewart and the Marx Brothers.

Sylvia: Do you ever watch YouTube videos?

Delia: Sometimes. People send me links to videos of dogs and cats, but why would I watch videos of dogs when I have dogs? I mostly watch detective shows and old movies and British game shows. I’m addicted to Would I Lie To You, and truth be told, I’m still in love with Humphrey Bogart.

Alexandra: We watched The Maltese Falcon a few weeks ago.

Delia: Did you like it?

Alexandra: Kind of, but I didn’t really understand what was happening and it was kind of scary, though it wasn’t violent or anything, just creepy, especially that one guy.

Delia: Peter Lorre. It’s a confusing story. Verges on Kafka by today’s standards. You’d like the movies Bogie made with Lauren Bacall. Talk about chemistry.

Alexandra: Would you like to hear the idea for our first movie?

Delia: Love to. And by the way, Alexandra, I think it’s marvelous you’re getting into the movie business. You remind me so much of Mary Martin.

Conor: Who was she?

Delia: Who was Mary Martin? She was Peter Pan on television. In the 50s. Live. Every year. With Cyril Ritchard as Captain Hook. Rogers and Hammerstein wrote The Sound of Music for her. She was the original Maria. A genius.

Alexandra: And I remind you of her?

Delia: In so many ways. Now tell me about your movie.

Alexandra: Okay. So… it’s about a man who goes on a walk, and he’s just walking along. Maybe he has a little dog on a leash. We’re not sure about the dog yet. Anyway, he keeps going by weird things and the things keep getting weirder and weirder, only he doesn’t seem to notice them. He’s just going along and maybe whistling.

Delia: Like what kind of weird things?

Alexandra: Well… we haven’t thought of them all yet, but the first thing will be a person holding a little balloon and hovering a few feet off the ground.

Sylvia: The second thing will be a cat sitting at the bottom of a tree and there will be dog up in the tree. You know, like a reversal of the usual dog on the ground, cat in the tree scenario.

Delia: And the man doesn’t notice these things?

Alexandra: No, he’s just walking along whistling.

Delia: Speaking of Kafka.

Alexandra: Who was Kafka?

Delia: He wrote a story about a man who turns into a cockroach. Dark depressing unsolvable emotional conundrums.

Alexandra: Oh. Well our movie won’t be dark and depressing. It will be funny because the man never notices these strange things no matter how weird they are.

Delia: Why do we care about this man?

Alexandra: What do you mean?

Delia: As Boris Zverev used to say, if we don’t care about the main characters, why should anybody care about the movie? And so he always tried to give us reasons to care about a person? To like them.

Conor: To identify with them.

Delia: (touches her nose) Exactly.

Conor: So maybe if we saw this man for a minute or two before he goes on his walk, and he talks to his cat or sings along to the radio while he makes breakfast or…

Delia: Yes. Humanize him, as Boris used to say.

Sylvia: Who was Boris?

Delia: Boris Zverev was the go-to script doctor in the 1960s. He saved a hundred movies from certain failure.

Alexandra: Do you have any other advice to help us with our movies?

Delia: You need a good story, to quote Frank Capra.

Conor: What makes a story good?

Delia: As Bernard Fuchs used to say… Bernard was a brilliant writer way back when… a good story involves interesting people trying to overcome an external challenge or challenges that also represent inner dilemmas. The only way the character or characters can successfully solve the mystery or win the battle or transcend the challenge is to go through some sort of internal transformation that can then be expressed on the outside. People love stories of transformation.

Alexandra: So once you have a good story, then what?

Delia: Then you have to write a good script, which means you have to have interesting, believable characters saying and doing interesting and endearing things, overcoming difficulties, falling in love, and keeping the audience wondering what’s going to happen next, all the way to the surprising and satisfying ending.

Alexandra: Do people always have to fall in love for a script to be good?’

Delia: In one way or another. The falling in love doesn’t have to be romantic, but who doesn’t like a good romance? It all goes back to creating a story and characters the audience can identify with, so we root for them to succeed. They, in a sense, are versions of us.

Conor: I think movies have changed since you were in the business. Not that what you’re telling us isn’t helpful, but movies now are more about imagery and sound and action. The story isn’t so important anymore.

Delia: (shrugs) If that’s what you like, but people will always love a good story. That will never change. It’s in our genes to love stories. (muses) May I give you a little history lesson about movies?

Conor: Yes. Please.

Alexandra: (excited) You know what we could do? We could make a movie about Delia teaching us how to make movies.

Sylvia: Yeah, and we would try to do what she tells us and fail hilariously.

Conor: A tragic comedy.

Delia: Who would play me? Don’t tell me. Me?

Alexandra: Of course! Who else?

Conor: So… the history lesson.

Delia: Okay, so in the beginning there was no sound in movies. Everything had to be conveyed with the setting and very obvious situations in which characters, archetypal characters, acted with their bodies and their faces and the occasional dialogue card. So just from looking at them you knew who was the villain, who was the victim, who was nice, who was bad. Their actions and facial expressions told the story. Then in the 1930s when sound arrived and actors could talk, most of the first screenwriters were recruited from among playwrights, people writing for the stage. And so most of the first movies were, by and large, plays or vaudeville acts turned into movies. Hence the term screenplay. A play for the screen. Now the thing about a play is, you’re limited to action taking place on a stage with one or two sets. That’s it. So those writers were very good at writing interesting dialogue because that’s what made for a good play. Movies don’t depend so much on dialogue, but dialogue is still extremely important. As is good acting. But there is a fundamental truth about plays and movies that has never changed. Which is… we learn the most about the people in the movie or the play by what they do, not by what they say. If a person walks by a person floating in the air and doesn’t notice them, we learn that the person walking by is not very observant and this influences how we think about him. In other words, actions speak louder than words. So I would say when you write your scripts, be aware of the non-verbal messages being conveyed by what people do.

Conor: Maybe the guy doesn’t notice anything because he’s lost in his own thoughts and he’s trained himself not to notice things because everything in his world is so weird.

Alexandra: Or maybe he does notice the person floating and the dog and cat reversal, but he doesn’t think it’s weird because everything in his reality is weird.

Delia: What happens at the end?

Conor: He goes by one last weird thing and we fade out.

Delia: No transformation?

Conor: We don’t know.

Delia: I don’t see the point.

Alexandra: It’s about how weirdness is normal now. What used to seem crazy is just how things are now and the man just accepts it.

Delia: Oh. So there’s no story. It’s what we used to call an experimental film. You’re trying out ideas to learn how to use the medium.

Conor: No, there’s a story. It’s about how life is now. People being oblivious to how weird everything is.

Delia: I guess that’s kind of a story. In an abstract way. Speaking of Kafka.

Alexandra: You’ve given us a lot to think about, Delia. Thank you so much.

Delia: You’re welcome, sweetheart. I’m very happy you asked me. I enjoyed remembering some of the people I knew so long ago, hearing their voices again.

fin

Taylor Stoehr

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

Taylor Stoehr

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

“In life, one must show character and kindness.” Pablo Casals

My good buddy Taylor Stoehr just died and I’ve been leafing through the bulging file of his letters to me, reading passages at random and marveling at the clarity of his prose and the generosity of his spirit. He was eighty-two when he died, and we only knew each other for four years, yet he was immensely important to me—a thoughtful person who took the time to read my books and plays and articles, and then write lengthy responses that made me glad I wrote them.

I never met Taylor in-person or spoke to him, our friendship based entirely upon handwritten letters sent between California and Massachusetts, our knowing each other the result of my sending him a letter of praise about his book I Hear My Gate Slam, a collection of excellent translations of ancient Chinese poetry.

Late Spring

In the evening swallows

appear at the window;

on my doorstep sparrows

flutter in the dust.

At sundown a breeze stirs

and I hear my gate slam;

a few petals fall silently

but no one has come.

—Yüan Chen

I sent my adulatory letter to Taylor in care of the University of Massachusetts, having learned from his biography at the back of I Hear My Gate Slam that he was a professor in the English department there. In addition to his translations of Chinese poets, he was a translator of the poetry of François Villon and Bertolt Brecht. He received my letter just a few weeks after he retired from professing and in the midst of moving with his new wife Teri from Boston to Otis, a small town in western Massachusetts. Much to my surprise and delight, he replied to my missive and our correspondence took off like a shot.

Because he enjoyed my essays, Taylor subscribed to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, but the small print was hard on his eyes, so when his subscription lapsed I began making large print, double-spaced copies of my articles for him and came to feel that my weekly essay was not quite finished until I had slipped the fat envelope bound for Otis Massachusetts through the Out Of Town mail slot.

Here is a favorite passage from one of Taylor’s letters.

“Dear Todd—I won’t be able to get all I want to say on this card, but here I am in Boston to see doctors and friends and do a few errands. I brought this card with me so that I could write to you, not knowing until I stopped at the post office on the way out of Otis how much I would have to say. I did know that I wanted to respond to your letter which seems to me to inaugurate a new era in our friendship—as perhaps my last letter to you also evidenced. However it may be, I’m grateful to the spirits, or the great atman, for the good fortune of our meeting. I am ever more convinced that it was meant to be.

“Learning of your Huge Transitions—your move to the North, meeting and marrying Marcia, your confrontation with mortality—all these have their correspondence, though not precisely in the same order, to my moving to the West, only just effected, meeting and marrying Teri, in the last four years, my own still unresolved encounter with mortality in the form of atrial fibrillation and perhaps other heart problems as yet not understood. In short, though I’m almost twenty years older than you, we seem to have arrived at the same moment in our development (I was always a slow learner). But I would say that you’ve apparently come a good deal farther in some respects.

“I’m currently struggling to let go of fears and desires and self-delusions that have been making life a roller coaster these last months, as Teri and I endeavor to live in the same space for the first time, away from our usual respites and rituals, without blaming each other for the difficulties we bring on ourselves, trying instead to learn from suffering and confusion. I speak for myself, of course. Teri has her own demons, but I can testify to mine. To accept them and not cling to them has proved more than I’m capable of, especially in a climate of inevitable physical decline that comes with being seventy-nine years old.

“I was still playing basketball at 64, when my knee failed to respond to surgery and I had to give it up. Before that, like you, I loved to play at the local Y, or on the beach court in Manhattan Beach (LA), or at the gym at UC Santa Cruz, or anywhere there was someone with a ball ready for one-on-one. I think we share all the same feelings about the game—my passion.”

When I learned that Taylor was the literary executor of Paul Goodman, the writer most famous for his treatise Growing Up Absurd, a daring critique of American education first published in 1960, I wrote to Taylor that my one personal connection to Paul Goodman was that I started a commune in Santa Cruz in 1972 with the widow of Paul Goodman’s son, a woman named Epi. Here is part of Taylor’s reply.

“I don’t know which is the greater marvel, to find your new book Under the Table Books on my doorstep just when I was beginning to pine for it (having read Buddha In A Teacup more than once), or to find that you knew Epi! Indeed, it’s possible that you and I have met, not in a past life but in this one, back in 1971, for I was teaching at UC Santa Cruz from 1969 to 1971. When I rode my 450 Honda back to Buffalo in 1970 (June) I carried one provision for the road, a big bag I made of Epi’s granola recipe.”

As it happened, I was absent from Santa Cruz from 1969 to 1971, so Taylor and I did not tangle on the basketball court or eat vegetables and tofu with Epi or embark on our friendship forty years sooner.

“Three things in life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” Henry James

Taylor began many of his letters to me with a response to my latest article or story, and I will sorely miss his insights and encouragement, as well as his matter-of-fact comparison of my stories and novels to the works of literary giants.

“I have to write again to tell you how much your story Balance affected me, and Teri, to whom I read it aloud. As you are well aware, it’s a kind of answer to Kafka—or, perhaps even more, to Camus, whose work I’ve gone back to recently. Of course Camus was not so despairing as Kafka, but I find him sometimes even more grim. Well, that’s neither here nor there, except to say that your story touches very deep themes of our times. What you add that Kafka and Camus seem never to have found is the way out of the maze. For all your hero’s abject acceptance off his meaningless life, he trusts the universe, and he surrenders to it. We see that happening—for his suffering and his discovery of meaning when all his anodynes are stripped away, activate what has been buried in him, call it his soul.”

“There are three ingredients in the good life: learning, earning, and yearning.” Christopher Morley

It was Taylor’s practice for many years to begin each day by writing an eight-line poem. Then at the end of the year he would select a handful of these morning musings to make into a volume of Morning Prayers to give as gifts to his many friends and family, including his five children and many grandchildren, each a joy to Taylor.

Some of my friends are sane

as a hammer, but they’re like me

and choose for their lovers someone

wild, solitary, plain crazy.

Why do we love these tortoises

and mountain deer bound to leave

us mad with grief sooner or later?

They’re the only ones still alive.

—Taylor Stoehr from Morning Prayers 2009

That poem proved prophetic, for Teri left Taylor when life in Otis proved too difficult for her, after which Taylor entered a time of profound grief and ill health that continued until his death. Yet despite his sorrow and anger about Teri leaving him when he most needed a loving helpmate, he continued to write letters full of insight and hope. Here is the end of one of the last letters I received from him.

“I continue to use my morning poems as lifeboat, and I got a boost from watching Groundhog Day on your recommendation. It was surprisingly inspiriting—I don’t quite know why. I think something about the rhythmic repetition rather than either plot or theme. Interesting how a form can get under one’s skin. I think that’s part of the power of your own writing—both Buddha and Under the Table. If I were going to write anything but poems the rest of my life, I’d imitate you in form. And maybe if I move to Maine I will do that. I wish I were already there!

“Meanwhile, I’ve returned to Joseph Campbell (Pathways to Bliss) and thinking about his effort to bring Eastern thought into some kind of alignment with both Christian thought and modern cultural eclecticism—our cultureless steam table. Here’s one result, today:

Despair is the other face of hope;

the loss of what might be

races ahead of what I want,

snatches it away from me.

Shall I therefore renounce desire

and settle for what is?

No! Let my heart burn in the fire,

I and hot be the ashes!

Love Taylor”