Posts Tagged ‘movies’

Alexandra’s Dream

Monday, September 2nd, 2019

inevitability

A few days before Christmas, Alexandra Windsor, a lovely young woman about to turn seventeen, comes to visit Herschel Steinberg in his old white house at the end of Climbing Rose Lane in Carmeline Creek, a small town on the far north coast of California.

Herschel is seventy-two, a dream interpreter with spiky gray hair, his accent that of a person raised in Los Angeles by Yiddish-speaking parents. He shares his house with a scruffy Golden Retriever named Lorenzo, a sleek gray cat named Zorba, and several dozen potted cacti.

Alexandra and her few-years-older brother Conor have a movie company specializing in short fictional dramas and music videos, with seven thousand subscribers to their Windsor Montoya Productions YouTube channel.

Herschel recently starred in one of Alexandra and Conor’s movies, an eleven-minute film called The Dream Interpreter, in which he played a character indistinguishable from the actual Herschel. The movie is by far the most successful Windsor Montoya movie to date (over 10,000 views) and Alexandra and Conor are eager to make another movie with Herschel.

Alexandra and Herschel sit in high-backed armchairs in Herschel’s cozy den, facing each other across a coffee table, a fire crackling in the hearth, scruffy Lorenzo sprawled on the floor at Alexandra’s feet and sleek Humphrey curled up in Herschel’s lap.

Sipping lemon verbena tea and brainstorming about possible plots for the next movie featuring Herschel, Alexandra says, “What if I play the part of someone who tells you her dream, which we dramatize, and then you interpret the dream.”

“I like that idea,” says Herschel, sipping his tea. “Now we just have to invent a compelling dream and an equally compelling interpretation.”

“Actually I had a dream last night that might work,” says Alexandra, frowning. “It was kind of a nightmare, but… shall I tell it to you?”

“Yes, please,” says Herschel, closing his eyes to listen.

I’m in a car on a highway with a bunch of people who are much older than I am, and we’re stuck in a traffic jam. We’re really crammed into the car, and I can barely breathe, so I decide to get out, which means I have to climb over a man and a woman to get to the door, and as I climb over them, the woman says, “We’re so sorry. By the time we realized what was happening, it was too late to change the way we did things.”

I get out of the car and see the traffic jam stretches out of sight in either direction. The trees on either side of the highway are dying and the air is full of smoke.

I wander away from the highway into a deserted city and come to an intersection where a few people are sitting around a small campfire. A young man looks at me and says, “It’s not safe here. We won’t be able to protect you. Sorry.”

“Where is it safe?” I ask, wondering what I need protection from.

“I don’t know,” he says, shaking his head. “Everything’s been destroyed.”

Now darkness is falling and I’m running through a neighborhood of old houses. I see a faint light in the window of one of the houses, and though I’m afraid of what might be in the house, I knock on the front door. The door opens and a woman gestures for me to come in.

I follow her down a hallway to a dimly lit room where a dozen women are packing backpacks with food and clothing and books. Two of the women are teenagers like me, the rest are in their twenties and thirties, except one woman who might be sixty and seems to be the leader.

She looks at me and asks, “Are you strong?”

“I am,” I say, meeting her gaze.

“Can you fight?” she asks, putting her hand on my shoulder.

“Yes,” I say, nodding. “If I have to.”

“The packs are heavy,” she says, pointing to the one she wants me to carry, “but we’ll need everything we’re bringing with us.”

Now we’re walking fast through the city with the packs on our backs.

The woman walking beside me says, “God I hope the boat’s there.”

We come around a corner and encounter four men blocking our way. One of them has a gun, but rather than run away, we overwhelm them and kill them. I don’t do the killing, but I’m standing beside a woman when she stabs one of the men in the heart.

We arrive at a pier guarded by two men and two women with guns. They recognize our leader and allow us onto the pier where we board a large sailing ship. When we are safely aboard, the two men and two women who were guarding the pier come onto the boat, too, and we sail away into the darkness.

A young woman approaches me and says, “Come with me. I’ll show you where you’ll be sleeping.”

I ask her, “Do you know where we’re going?”

“To northeastern Greenland,” she says, nodding solemnly. “God willing.”

Herschel opens his eyes and says, “I’m sorry, too, Alexandra, that I didn’t do more to try to change things before it was too late.”

“Do you think it is too late?” she asks, frowning. “To save the earth.”

“Oh the earth will be fine,” says Herschel, wistfully. “But human society may soon come crashing down as the climate wobbles further and further out of balance. And the saddest thing is that we knew better, yet refused to change. We opted for convenience and ruined everything. And I really am sorry, my dear.”

“So you think my dream is literal. Not symbolic?”

“I think you saw the possible future,” says Herschel, his eyes full of tears. “And if you did, I hope with all my heart there is a place for you on that boat.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EtldtL7PJXY&list=PL7A2gJzg9TABWCexjtnwCuCksuLuxI6ma

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

The Tuner

Monday, May 20th, 2019

the tuner

My daughter Alexandra, who is fourteen, recently announced she is launching a movie company, Windsor Montoya Productions, and would like me to work for her. She has already hired her mother Elisha, her brother Conor, and Sylvia Espinosa, her best friend. Pay will be deferred until our movies become popular on YouTube and someone gives us the money to make a big-budget movie. I do not question her visions of the future, but before I make my decision about joining the movie company, I have asked her to clarify what she imagines my role in her movie-making process will be, and she is currently composing my job description.

In the meantime, I continue to arrive at Mona’s—the one and only bakery/café in Carmeline Creek—every day circa 10 AM, greet my wife Elisha (she who works at the counter) with a suggestive wink, claim my customary window table, go to the counter and flirt with Elisha, return to my table with muffin and tea, write, socialize, and depart Mona’s for home and walking the dogs circa 1 PM.

Today in Mona’s, while awaiting Alexandra’s elucidation of her vision of my niche in her movie company, I am joined by my good friend Zorro Blackbird, who also happens to be our piano tuner and the accordion player in the jazzy folk trio Romantic Twaddle. I am the guitarist in that trio, Elisha our ukulele player, and we all sing. We play every Friday evening at Mona’s from eight to ten when Zorro is in town. Alexandra says she intends to use Romantic Twaddle’s music in some of her movies and may even make a few movies about Romantic Twaddle.

Zorro, fifty-three, is a burly five-foot-eight with olive skin and long black hair. He has been out of town for the last two months touring with Bailey Jones, and because I’m on a kick these days of interviewing my favorite people, I take this opportunity to interview Zorro and record our conversation in my Notebook #4: Drawings and Overheard Dialogue.

Paul: Were you born with the name Zorro Blackbird?

Zorro: I was. My mother is Wailaki, my father Pomo. My father loved the Zorro television show from the 1950s, so they named me Zorro. My three sisters are named after the goddesses Athena, Aphrodite, and Venus.

Paul: What inspired you to become an accordion player?

Zorro: I started playing ukulele when I was five and took up the guitar when I was seven. When I was ten, I heard a man playing the accordion at the county fair and thought it was the most beautiful music I’d ever heard. On the way home from the fair, my mother told me she played the accordion before she had kids and she still had her accordion. When we got home, she got the beautiful old thing out of her closet and said if I promised to practice every day, she would give me lessons.

Paul: Do you play accordion with Bailey when you tour with her?

Zorro: No. She’s a solo act all the way. She doesn’t even have other people play on her albums. My job is to keep her two guitars perfectly tuned throughout her performances.

Paul: Are you onstage with her?

Zorro: I’m on and off. After her first song, I come on and she gives me her guitar and I give her the second one. Then while she’s playing her second tune, I’m offstage tuning the first guitar, and so on. I wear black clothes and come and go like a shadow.

Paul: Why doesn’t she tune her own guitars?

Zorro: She’s not good at tuning when she’s performing and she gets extremely frustrated when she can’t get the tuning exactly right. So rather than drive herself and her audiences crazy, she has me tune for her.

Paul: How did she find you?

Zorro: Her previous tuner is an old friend of mine, Rufus Strunk, the fiddle player, and he recommended me. I went down to Berkeley and met with her, she tried me out at a gig in San Francisco, and I’ve been tuning for her ever since. Five years now. She tours twice a year and each tour lasts two months. I’ve been to England and Europe with her three times and all over America and Canada many times.

Paul: Any end in sight?

Zorro: Well… the guy she’s currently involved with thinks he can do the tuning, so she might give him a try. We’ll see.

Paul: You sound doubtful.

Zorro: I don’t think he can do it. But love is blind and time will tell.

Paul: What will she do if he hands her a guitar that’s not perfectly tuned?

Zorro: She’ll fire him and then call me and beg me to come finish the tour. (laughs) Probably offer me a big raise.

Paul: Will you go?

Zorro: Oh yeah, if she asks me. Her next tour starts in four months, and unless I find a gig I like better, you bet I’ll go. She pays me two thousand dollars per show, and we do about forty-five shows each tour.

Paul: Will it ruin her relationship with this guy if he can’t tune her guitars properly?

Zorro: I’ll be very surprised if she hasn’t dumped him before the next tour. But if not, she’ll dump him the first show he screws up, which will very likely be the first show. I know it seems like tuning guitars should be easy, but to tune those guitars exactly as she wants them, twenty times each concert, you have to have an impeccable ear and a delicate touch and not be intimidated by the magnitude of the situation. 2800 people in Carnegie Hall? That kinda thing. Every night.

Paul: Is she difficult to work with?

Zorro: Not for me. But she’s a perfectionist, and when people don’t give her what she needs, she can be… difficult.

Paul: Does Ellen [Zorro’s wife] go on tour with you?

Zorro: No. She’s happy to stay home making her art and taking care of the grandkids, and… it’s good for us to be apart now and then. We’ve been married for thirty years and we have a tendency to get very ingrown. And we’re always happy to see each other when I get home, so…

Paul: What do you do during all the hours between shows on a tour?

Zorro: We’re travelling, we’re checking into hotels, we’re setting up, we’re doing sound checks, eating, sleeping, and I accompany Bailey when she does television and radio interviews, which she does a lot. There’s not much down time. It’s a very intense two months. She’s not just famous. She’s a cultural icon.

Paul: I hope you won’t be offended, but I’ve never really understood her appeal. What do you think it is about her that makes so many people love her?

Zorro: I’m not offended. Taste is subjective. I’ve actually thought quite a lot about why so many people love her.

Paul: What have you come up with?

Zorro: Well… her voice is not powerful, but it’s warm and appealing and nobody else sounds like her. She’s very down to earth, and I think lots of people prefer singers they can identify with, you know, singers with voices that aren’t spectacular. She doesn’t intimidate anyone, yet she sings beautifully. And when she performs she seems vulnerable and very honest and very funny, too. People laugh their heads off at her shows. She’s a wisp of a woman singing songs full of longing. A sweet voice and a well-played guitar. One reviewer called her the queen of quiet angst, but I don’t think angst is the right word. I think the word is melancholy, the good kind. She makes people cry, and people like to cry.

Paul: So what are you gonna do between now and the next tour?

Zorro: Tune pianos. Play music with you and Elisha. Work in the garden, babysit the grandkids, go on some adventures with Ellen, come here for coffee, talk to you, go to the beach. See what comes my way.

Paul: Have you written any new songs of late?

Zorro: Not for a long time, and that’s an interesting thing about touring with Bailey. My songwriting stops, though I take along notebooks and a guitar and I think I’ll write poems and new songs, but nothing ever comes when I’m on tour with her. And then I get home and after a couple months the melodies start to come again and then I’m on tour again and the flow stops.

Paul: Why do you think that happens?

Zorro: I know why it happens.

Paul: Why?

Zorro: Because being her tuner uses the same creative energy that would otherwise go into my own work. I know that sounds crazy. After all, I’m just tuning her guitars during her concerts. But when I’m on tour with her, my entire focus is on facilitating her creative expression. And to do my job well, I have to give her everything I’ve got or the guitars won’t sound right. They just won’t. I can’t tell you why, but it’s true.

Paul: And you’re okay with all your creative energy going to help her? At the expense of your own creativity?

Zorro: You know, Paul, helping her is creative, and I love helping her. I love hearing her play those guitars for thousands of enraptured people. I love coming and going on the stage like a shadow. I love bringing those strings into perfect tune with each other. I love hearing how well they sound with her voice, and I love knowing she is empowered by what I do for her.

 fin

So It Turns Out…Part One

Monday, November 6th, 2017

Goddy and Casey and Howard

Winton & Waltons

“I was curious by nature. I observed the grownups, their behavior. I listened attentively to their talk, which I sometimes understood and sometimes did not.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

I’m in therapy again at the age of sixty-eight after a twenty-seven-year hiatus. And very much to my surprise, something has come to light that I got an inkling of when I was twelve and came to understand was a huge emotional component of my life when I was forty, but it was not something I fully opened to, delved into, and accepted as a fundamental aspect of my being until now.

I’m Jewish.

I don’t simply mean I am descended on my mother’s side from Jewish people who came to America from Poland and Ukraine in the late 1800s and settled in and around Detroit. I mean I carry in my psyche, in my neural pathways, and in my DNA, the experiences of an entire society as represented by unique individuals: my Jewish ancestors.

My non-Jewish father was a powerful influence in my life, but the deep emotional lake I swam in from the moment I was conceived and throughout my childhood was largely fed by the psycho-spiritual torrent flowing from my mother and her parents and her parents’ parents. I should also mention that my father’s parents disowned him when he married my mother, for they felt marrying a Jew was the worst thing their son could do. And though my father’s parents relented somewhat along the way, my connection to my father’s people never amounted to much.

By contrast, we, my siblings and I, adored my mother’s parents, and they, Goody and Casey, adored us. Nevertheless, I did not know my mother and her parents were Jewish until I was twelve-years-old. However, that didn’t stop me from becoming best friends with Colin, one of the only (other) Jewish boys at my elementary school—a friendship that has lasted sixty-two years and counting.

And I now realize that my friendship with Colin saved me from a childhood of denying my authentic self; for when I was with Colin, which was frequently until I was twelve, I was free to be who I really was, a Jewish kid who didn’t know he was Jewish.

How did I get to be twelve without knowing my mother was Jewish? Well, my mother’s parents, Goody and Casey, changed their last name from Weinstein to Winton during the Great Depression—the 1930s—so they could rent places to live in Los Angeles and find work there during a time of ferocious anti-Semitism in America. Thus they raised their two children, my mother Avis and her younger brother Howard, with the dictum: tell no one you are Jewish and exhibit no behavior that will reveal you are Jewish.

This imperative was re-enforced in my mother when kids at two different elementary schools she attended discovered she was Jewish, followed her home after school, shouted Jew and Kike, and threw rocks at her.

Which is no doubt part of why my mother rebuffed her Jewish suitors while attending Beverly Hills High and chose instead to marry my non-Jewish father. Raising her four children in the cultureless anonymity of the San Francisco suburbs, my mother gave no clues to her friends or her children that her parents were Yiddish-speaking Jews and her grandparents were immigrants from Poland who came to America to escape poverty and murderous prejudice.

Goody and Casey, however, continuing to reside in Los Angeles, eventually became wealthy from Casey’s real estate investments and “came out”, so to speak, in that city full of Jews. In the post-World War II boom times, they hobnobbed with other Jewish folks in the intertwined entertainment and real estate industries, and one summer when I was twelve, during our family’s annual visit to Los Angeles, Goody and Casey threw a big party, and at this party…

Picture a skinny twelve-year-old Todd wearing black slacks and a short-sleeved white shirt, reveling in the delicious food and the company of his cousins and siblings. Picture Goody, Todd’s effervescent grandmother, five-feet-tall in heels, leading him to a group of four Jewish matrons, introducing Todd as her grandson, and hurrying away to greet a newly arriving guest.

I stand before the four matrons. One of them pinches my cheek and says, “Oh what a cute Jewish boy you are. You’re gonna break lots of hearts, honey.”

To which I reply, “I’m not Jewish. I’m Unitarian.”

The matrons laugh and the cheek pincher says, “Of course you’re Jewish, sweetie-pie. You’re Avis’s child. What else could you be?”

“What do you mean?” I ask, feeling confused and a little frightened.

And another of the matrons frowns at me and says, “They would have burned you. The Nazis.”

I seek an explanation not from my mother but from my father who tells me in his I-Know-Everything way, “According to Jewish law, if your mother is Jewish, you are Jewish, but that’s religious nonsense. You’re just a person. And you’re too intelligent to get tangled up in primitive religious stupidity.”

Thereafter, the few times in my life when the subject came up, I would tell friends and girlfriends that my mother’s folks were the children of Jewish immigrants, but my mother didn’t consider herself Jewish, so…

In 1979 a movie was being made of my novel Inside Moves. For the first time in my life I had more than enough money to cover rent and groceries. With some of my surplus cash I decided to make a fifteen-minute movie from a script I’d written: Bums At A Grave. I was twenty-nine. This was in the days before digital everything so I hired a cameraperson, sound engineer, producer, and continuity person to make the 16-millimeter movie starring my brother and me.

During our two days of filming on forested land near Grass Valley, I felt I was doing what I was born to do—write and direct movies. Bums At A Grave turned out well and we had a premiere party at my house in Sacramento—a house purchased with more of that movie money.

A hundred people came to the lavish affair, many of the guests dressed as their favorite movie stars. My parents attended, and my mother came as Gloria Swanson, the famous Jewish actress and producer.

Bums At A Grave was subsequently screened at Filmex in Los Angeles to thunderous applause from a huge audience and was shown several times on an arty television station in the early days of cable TV. I never for a conscious moment thought Bums At A Grave had anything to do with me being Jewish or denying my Jewishness or being a self-sabotaging emotionally derailed human being. But this morning, opening and delving as never before, I realized that if there was ever a movie about a Jewish man unconscious of his Jewishness trying desperately to connect with his hidden identity, Bums At A Grave is that movie.

The movie is set in 1933, the year my grandparents changed their name from Weinstein to Winton. Willy, played by my brother, a handsome fellow who certainly sounds Jewish, is a homeless bum. He comes upon another itinerant, played by yours truly, completing the burial of someone.

Who am I burying? An old guy who happens to be…wait for it…a Jew. As we stand by the grave, I ask my brother if he knows anything appropriate to say, and he innocently asks, “Do you know any Jewish songs?” And I say, “He taught me one.”

I then proceed to sing “Hine Ma Tov”, a song I learned as a counselor at a Quaker summer camp when I was nineteen. The lyrics are the first verse of Psalm 133. “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.”

When I finish singing my heart out over the buried Jew, my brother invites me to join forces with him to sing for our breakfast at a nearby farm, and on the way to the farm we talk about the buried Jew who I reveal was a great joke teller. I then tell my brother a joke about Democrats and Republicans that could just as easily be a joke about Jews and non-Jews. Then we sing an Irish folk song together. Fade Out.

You can watch Bums At A Grave on my web site, Under the Table Books.

Captain Fantastic

Monday, January 9th, 2017

Vito & Todd

Vito & Todd photo by Marcia

“We may divide thinkers into those who think for themselves, and those who think through others. The latter are the rule, and the former the exception.” Arthur Schopenhauer

As the inauguration of Trump fast approaches, many frightened Americans talk of moving to Canada, in much the same way frightened Americans spoke of moving abroad when George Bush became President. But Canada and other safe haven countries only want us these days if we are wealthy or possessed of highly desirable technological skills. Thus we common folk must consider other responses to the new regime.

One vision of a response to the madness currently gripping and deforming American life is the 2016 movie Captain Fantastic, written and directed by Matt Ross, a California writer, director, and actor who lives in Berkeley. I mention where he lives because I seriously doubt that a writer/director living in Los Angeles could have written a screenplay as far outside the Hollywood box as Captain Fantastic. That Ross also raised millions of dollars to make this fairly outrageous movie and was able to land a distribution deal resulting in the film turning a profit is nothing short of miraculous.

I will not spoil the film by recounting the plot, but I will say that Captain Fantastic bears some resemblance to the excellent 2003 American film Off the Map, and the dreamy Swiss/Italian 2014 film The Wonders. All three films involve adult couples seeking to live independently of the dominant capitalist paradigm, and each of these movies focuses on the children of those seekers as they collide with the outside world.

I found Captain Fantastic by turns funny and sad and disturbing and uplifting and maddening and deeply moving; and twice during the movie I had to get up and go outside to catch my breath and calm down, but not because the film is violent; it is not, thankfully. Marcia and I have been talking about the movie for several days now, and that alone makes Captain Fantastic a rare American film for us.

Meanwhile, here in the so-called real world, we are facing a Congress, a President, and a Supreme Court poised to wreak havoc on our already inadequate healthcare system, dismantle Social Security, remove constraints on industrial pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and enact laws to benefit the wealthy and further punish the beleaguered lower and middle classes as defined by income and assets. These same dangerous people are anti-women, anti-minority, anti-peace, and anti-anybody other than white Christians. And that is why so many people are afraid, and why so many people wish they could leave the country.

“There are three kinds of economist. Those who can count and those who can’t.” Eddie George

I am currently writing a new screenplay, having recently rewritten an old one for a director in Canada. I had not immersed myself in the screenplay form for more than a decade, and the rewrite got those juices flowing again. And though the odds of getting a movie made of anything I write are not quite as good as the odds of winning the national lottery, should I ever buy a ticket, I do enjoy the screenplay form and love imagining the scenes I write coming to life.

Yesterday, under the influence of Captain Fantastic, I read what I’ve written so far of my new screenplay and thought: I wonder if I’m writing this story in lieu of trying to flee the country.

Speaking of fleeing the country, it was recently reported in various mass media outlets that Ford Motor Company was about to spend a couple billion dollars opening a new plant in Mexico. Then President-elect Trump bellowed at Ford for being un-American, Ford cancelled the Mexico plant, and instead says they would invest 700 million dollars in upgrading a Michigan assembly plant. This would reportedly save at least 700 American jobs and give a much-needed boost to the Michigan economy.

Was any of this true? Maybe some of it was sort of true, but probably none of it was true. Ford Motors now says they are proceeding with plans to increase production in Mexico by enlarging their existing facilities there and not opening a new plant. Does this give us more reason to doubt Trump’s credibility? Yes. Ford Motors stated they prefer doing business in Mexico because they feel oppressed by so many federal and state regulations in America having to do with decreasing pollution and increasing safety and requiring the payment of taxes, and they are hopeful that under Trump they won’t have to worry so much about those annoying things.

So what are we common folk to make of all this? I think that henceforth we must assume anything we hear or see or read in the news (not counting really good fiction and neighborhood gossip) is probably not the whole truth, or even part of the truth. Did Donald Trump save 700 jobs in Michigan? Unlikely. Why did Obama expel dozens of Russian diplomats for something that may not have happened? We don’t know. Why are automobile manufacturers still allowed to make cars that run on gasoline? Because unregulated capitalism cares nothing about the environment.

The most popular American movies nowadays are animated films featuring animals behaving like goofy people and speaking English, live-action films set in other galaxies featuring humans with British accents, films about wizards and vampires rife with astonishingly bad dialogue, and films about impossibly strong and violent people who say very little as they run amok. Oh, yes, and films about morons and bimbos are popular, too.

Captain Fantastic is entirely about Now and full of real people dealing with the many and complicated challenges of being human. In this way, the movie reminded me of my favorite movies from the 60s and 70s, movies exploring contemporary society from the perspectives of people for whom the dominant cultural paradigms do not serve—movies about eccentrics and rebels and artists and innovators who are questing, as many of us were in those days, for ways to live healthy and meaningful lives on spaceship earth.

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.

Favorites

Monday, April 4th, 2016

sunstruck tw

Sunstruck painting by Nolan Winkler

“The diamond-bright dawn woke men and crows and bullocks together. Kim sat up and yawned, shook himself, and thrilled with delight. This was seeing the world in real truth; this was life as he would have it—bustling and shouting, the buckling of belts, and beating of bullocks and creaking of wheels, lighting of fires and cooking of food, and new sights at every turn of the approving eye. The morning mist swept off in a whorl of silver, the parrots shot away to some distant river in shrieking green hosts: all the well-wheels within earshot went to work.” Rudyard Kipling

Reading Kim by Rudyard Kipling for the tenth time in the last twenty-five years, I’ve been thinking about why this novel and no other of the thousands I’ve read calls to me again and again, and why, again and again, I am enthralled from first word to last.

There are books I loved in my teens and twenties I revisited in middle age—Zorba the Greek, The Last Temptation of Christ, Parnassus On Wheels—and a handful of other novels I’ve read a second or third time over the years; but Kim is the only novel I am eager to read again every few years.

This is not a recommendation, however. There was a time when I urged my friends to read Kim and quickly learned that women, for the most part, do not like this book, and some women loathe it. A few men I touted on the book enjoyed the tale, but I was repeatedly cautioned that Kim was out of date, racist, misogynist, and juvenile. Never mind that the writing is exquisite, those charges against the book—none of which I agree with—are prevalent today, so I do not recommend Kim.

One friend suggested I love the book because the character of Kim resonates with some vision of who I imagine I am in relation to the larger world. Perhaps. But I think the greater draw for me is the relationship between Kim and the lama with whom he travels, and through whom he discovers the spiritual side of life. Also, Kim is beloved and revered by not one but four fascinating older men, something I did not experience with my own father or any older man, and I longed for that in my life.

The words in Kim sing to me—glorious prose poetry—else I would not return so often to those pages.

Kim got me thinking about movies I have watched multiple times, as in more than three times, and one movie jumps out before any other: The Horse’s Mouth starring Alec Guinness. I saw the movie when I was eight, eighteen, twenty-five, thirty-seven, thirty-nine, forty-eight, fifty-three, and sixty. And I was enthralled from first frame to last, moved to tears, and greatly inspired each time.

Again, not a recommendation. Having touted this film to many people, I know The Horse’s Mouth is not to everyone’s taste and many women find the movie sexist. Be that as it may, The Horse’s Mouth is still the best film I’ve ever seen about what it is to be an artist of the kind Guinness portrays—a person for whom making art takes precedence over everything else in life. Everything. And the movie is screamingly funny in parts, as well as profoundly moving.

Another film I have seen four times and would gladly watch again tomorrow is Mostly Martha, the German film about a hyper-controlling German chef who is melted out of her emotional isolation by unexpectedly becoming mother to her sister’s young daughter, while having to share her high-end restaurant kitchen with her emotional opposite, a sensual funny guy chef from Italy.

The other food-related film I love and have watched multiple times is The Big Night.

Then there is Danny Kaye in The Court Jester. I have seen this movie at least ten times, from when I was a boy until a couple years ago when I couldn’t resist renting it again. I love everything about this movie. Never gets old for me.

In that same vein: Young Frankenstein.

I once knew a man named Jack who used a particular film as a preliminary test for establishing friendships and relationships. If the man or woman being tested did not like the French film Toto le Hero, Jack would have nothing more to do with the person. If the person being tested had not seen the film, which was usually the case, Jack would screen it for them and judge them according to their reaction.

As it happened, I loved Toto le Hero, but made the mistake of raving about it to many of my friends, and with few exceptions they hated the movie. I did not hold this against them, so some of them remained my friends, whereas Jack had almost no friends. But I understood why he felt as he did. When a movie or book or work of art is precious to us, there is undoubtedly something in the work representative of our feelings and spirit, and so another’s rejection of our favorite can feel like a rejection of us.

I’ve been struggling with this very thing regarding Bernie Sanders. I love Bernie Sanders. Yes, I know. He has this flaw and that flaw and he voted wrong on this and that, and he should be better than he is, but I love him. I have never in my life liked a candidate for President of the United States remotely as much as I like Bernie, and I have a hard time feeling friendly toward people who do not share my love for him. For me, Bernie is the reincarnation of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, his opponent the female embodiment of the plutocracy.

Yet some of my favorite people do not love Kim, do not love The Horse’s Mouth, would rather do anything than watch The Court Jester, and do not think Bernie has a chance in hell of unseating the reigning overlords.

But one of the important things I’ve learned from reading Kim ten times is that it is far better to rejoice with others who share our enthusiasms than to waste our precious time feeling bitterly toward those who do not.

Two Good Movies

Tuesday, February 9th, 2016

Meeting the Muse (Diabolo Ballet)

Meeting the Muse (Diablo Ballet) © 2015 David Jouris/Motion Pictures

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2016)

“You must trust and believe in people or life becomes impossible.” Anton Chekhov

Twenty years ago at a party in San Francisco, the host introduced me to a man named Jack and said, “You are both serious film buffs. Have at it.”

A silence fell and I realized Jack was waiting for me to begin, so I said, “I just saw Basquiat. Didn’t believe it or like it, and I thought the paintings of his they chose to show were ill-chosen.”

“Haven’t seen it,” said Jack. “Probably won’t. So what have you liked recently?”

“Nothing much,” I said. “You?”

He reeled off the names of several hyper-violent movies, to which I replied, “You know, I avoid violent movies. My nervous system can’t take it. I have nightmares for weeks after, so…”

“Then you’ve missed all the best films of the last twenty years,” he said, cutting me off.

“I entirely disagree,” I said. “I think hyper-violent movies are a form of pornographic entrapment and entrainment.”

And that was the last I saw of Jack.

Thus the two movies I am about to recommend are not only two of my three favorite films of 2015—the third being Seymour: An Introduction, a documentary I reviewed in a recent article—they are not violent, nor will they be nominated for Academy Awards or play in a multiplex near you. But they are available in DVD and unless your taste runs more along the lines of Jack’s, you will like them and may love them.

Meet The Patels is a movie conceived, written, and directed by Ravi and Geeta Patel, brother and sister Indian-Americans in their early thirties. Advertised as a romantic comedy, the film is really about what it is to be the American children of traditional parents from India for whom successfully marrying off their children to beget grandchildren is far more important than anything else, and what it is to be those traditional parents living in the United States as part of the enormous East Indian community of North America.

The main characters in the movie are Ravi and Geeta and their real-life parents, and though the film purports to be about Ravi and his quest to find a mate who will please his parents, the real stars of the film are the father and mother. Their efforts and struggles and transformations supply the richest moments in the film, the funniest, the saddest, and the most transformative.

Among the many things I love about this movie are the constantly surprising turns of events and changes of heart. Ravi, an actor living with his filmmaker sister in Los Angeles, has many non-Indian friends and is a pan-racial everyman, an ideal foil for his parents and the people he meets in his quest for love, his affect one of aimless good nature. His sister Geeta is shooting the entire film as Ravi’s largely unseen but often heard companion in the quest to find an Indian woman Ravi would like to marry and his parents will approve of.

If you are curious to know more about Indian-American culture, and you enjoy thought-provoking non-idiotic comedies, Meet The Patels is for you.

The other movie I wish to tout is The Second Mother, a Brazilian film with the Portuguese title Que Horas Ela Volta? (What Time Will She Return?) This film is subtle, funny, sad, and masterful, every scene a visual gem—an extremely personal story involving a few exquisitely portrayed characters that reveals much about contemporary Brazilian culture.

I don’t want to tell too much because the unveiling of the mysteries is what makes the movie so compelling. American movies of such subtlety and veracity are almost inconceivable today, which is a pity, but so it goes. It is not that such films can’t be made; they simply would never be distributed for anyone to see.

I’m sure Meet The Patels was deemed fundable because the producers knew millions of East Indians would want to see the film, and thank goodness for that. Thank goodness, too, for The Second Mother and those countries where cinematic art need not always pander to the lowest common denominator.

Written and directed by Anna Muylaert, The Second Mother stars Regina Casé as Val, the housemaid of a wealthy family in Sao Paulo. Val lives in a small room in the large house of her employees, a middle-aged couple and their teenaged son for whom Val has been surrogate mother from the time the boy was little. Having left her own daughter Jessica in the care of relatives so she, Val, could come to the city to earn money to support Jessica, Val has not seen her daughter for ten years when Jessica, now a headstrong young woman, arrives in Sao Paulo to live with Val while studying for a college entrance exam.

As with Meet The Patels, The Second Mother continuously surprised me, not because of plot twists, but because of the unexpected yet wholly plausible transformations of the uncannily real characters. Meet the Patels is rightly called a docudrama, whereas The Second Mother is a brilliant play, brilliantly acted and filmed—Regina Casé a marvel.

As with all my favorite films, the stories and images and performances in Meet The Patels and The Second Mother continued to resonate for days after, and in thinking about why I like these two movies so much, I realize they illuminate many of the same things I explore in my fiction, particularly the individual’s struggle to find meaning and love in a society ferociously intent on fitting everyone into a few unnatural compartments or crushing them beneath the wheel of absurd and outmoded traditions.

Humor, love, generosity, kindness, honesty, acceptance, forgiveness; all of these are modeled so organically in these movies, it wasn’t until the films were over that I became aware of how powerfully these qualities, or lack of them, shaped the lives of the characters. Marcia and I both laughed out loud many times during each of these films, and we cried, too.

Just Old

Wednesday, June 17th, 2015

if my head sinks beneath the sea site

If My Heads Sinks Beneath The Sea painting by Nolan Winkler

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

“Youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind; it is not a matter of rosy cheeks, red lips and supple knees; it is a matter of the will, quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions; it is the freshness of the deep springs of life.” Samuel Ullman

A friend suggested that the reason I find contemporary American movies and books and plays and music to be largely junk is that I am just old.

Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, David Crosby, and many other older musicians aver that contemporary popular music today is inferior to the popular music of their day, but that’s just because those guys are old.

Every writer I know over fifty decries the deplorable state of writing and editing today, but that’s just because we’re old. And when older poets recoil at the poetry of younger poets whose verses are rife with clichés, void of subtlety, and might be lyrics to rap songs, they are recoiling because they are just old.

If you ask young people about the movies of today, they will name dozens of films they think are light years better than movies we thought were great when we were younger. Young people are certain I cannot see and hear and understand what they are seeing and hearing and understanding because my eyes and ears and mind are just old, and they might be right about that, though I don’t like to think so.

My mother plugged her ears and shouted, “Turn that off!” when she caught nine-year-old me listening to Ray Charles. Maybe Mom was just old. She liked The Mills Brothers and Artie Shaw, and so did I, but she didn’t like Sam and Dave and The Beatles and Buffalo Springfield because she was stuck in the musical aesthetics of Tommy Dorsey and Jack Little.

“Every age has its storytelling form, and video gaming is a huge part of our culture. You can ignore or embrace video games and imbue them with the best artistic quality. People are enthralled with video games in the same way as other people love the cinema or theatre.” Andy Serkis

I am sixty-five-years-old at last count. Depending on your view of things, I am middle-aged, old, or real old. Yes, contemporary cultural aesthetics are in constant flux, and yes, I am not enamored of most of the latest fluctuations. However, my estrangement from American culture did not begin when I qualified for Medicare and Social Security. No, my disaffection began when I was in the prime of my life, otherwise known as my twenties and thirties, and coincided with the lightning-fast conquest of America’s publishing industry by a few massive, politically conservative, morally bankrupt multi-national corporations.

To echo Allen Ginsberg, I saw the best minds in the publishing business fired by soulless corporate operatives and replaced by Yes people who only follow orders from the unimaginative number-crunchers above them, those orders being: publish books exactly like the books we already know sell lots of copies. Do not buy anything that might be too sophisticated for a poorly educated ten-year-old. Buy nothing remotely original. And only consider things sent to you by literary agents who agree to follow these same orders.

That merciless corporate blitzkrieg of America’s publishers began circa 1972 and the conquest was complete by 1980. Call me a conspiracy nut, but I think this takeover was part of a conscious effort by the ruling elite to snuff out the fires started in the counter-culture renaissance known as The Sixties, with the election of Ronald Reagan a direct result of their coup d’état.

Publishing was not the only branch of our cultural tree thoroughly infected by the corporate fungus during that same decade. Record companies, movie studios, magazines, newspapers, radio stations, and television networks were also conquered and gutted by the same multinational consortium, and we have lived in a culture shaped and controlled by this mind-numbing corporatocracy ever since.

I don’t hold this view of history because I am just old, but because I experienced this cultural takeover firsthand when I was a young and successful writer and screenwriter. When I refused to acquiesce to the new cultural guidelines imposed by the recently installed corporate managers, my career was effectively ended.

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” Alan Watts

Before I was just old, I founded the Creative Writing Department for the California State Summer School for the Arts. Every summer for five years, my faculty and I would greet the fifty young writers we had selected from many hundreds of applicants, and we would invariably discover that all these bright young people were starving for something to read other than Anne Rice or Stephen King or To Kill A (expletive deleted) Mockingbird. I use the word starving because the nincompoops running our schools in collusion with the corporate overlords intentionally deprived those young people of varied, original, challenging and nourishing literature.

One of our first acts of compassion for these bright young people was to give them long reading lists of our favorite novels, short story collections, plays, and non-fiction works, as well as the names of hundreds of excellent writers and poets, most of those authors dead or just old. And for this simple gift of sharing the names of books and writers we admired, we were looked upon by our young peers as angels descended from heaven to end the vapidity of their cultural experiences.

Now that I am just old, I sometimes delude myself, just for fun, by imagining another totally neato renaissance happening in my lifetime. Or maybe, as a friend who is also just old opined, “The renaissance is always here, but like a whale, she dives deep for food and we can’t see her most of the time unless we happen to be watching when she comes up for air.”

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.