Posts Tagged ‘Simon & Schuster’

Playing for Capra Redux

Monday, June 26th, 2017

Cat & Jammer

Cat & Jammer photo by Marcia

My new book of essays and memories Sources of Wonder has garnered some wonderful feedback from readers, with two correspondents saying they were especially taken with my memoir Playing For Capra. So here for your enjoyment is the true story of my meeting Frank Capra, this memory first published nine years ago.

Marcia and I recently watched the Israeli movie The Band’s Visit about an Egyptian police band spending the night in a godforsaken Israeli settlement. Seeing this remarkable film coincided with my struggle to write about the time I played piano for Frank Capra, the famous movie director.

Why the struggle? Because the story of playing piano for Capra is entwined with my dramatic rise and fall as a professional writer nearly thirty years ago. By the time I played piano for Capra in 1982, I had gone from living on pennies in the slums of Seattle to being the toast of New York and Hollywood, and back to barely scraping by in Sacramento, all in the course of a few dizzying years.

Capra, despite his many triumphs, was a Hollywood outsider. Having succeeded brilliantly under the protection of movie mogul Harry Cohn, Capra made movies he wanted to make, which were rarely what his overlords desired. In that regard, Capra was my hero. I had failed to build relationships with the powerful producers of American movies and books despite the many opportunities my early success provided me. I was young and naïve, and I believed that great stories and great screenplays would sell themselves. To my dismay, I experienced over and over again that quality and originality meant less than nothing to those who control our cultural highways. But I didn’t want to believe that, so I burned a thousand bridges.

Capra knew all about what I was going through, for he and his movies, despite their popularity with moviegoers, often received muted support from the power brokers. Why? Because he was unwilling to compromise the integrity of his visions. Indeed, he made movies about those very conflicts: integrity versus corruption, kindness versus cruelty, generosity versus greed, and originality versus imitation.

Capra’s autobiography, an incomparable history of Hollywood from the days of silent movies until the 1960s, was one of my bibles. In recent years, a confederacy of academic dunces has tried to discredit Capra’s recollections, but their pathetic efforts only amplify Capra’s importance.

So there I was in 1982, hoping to resuscitate my collapsing career, when we heard that Capra was going to speak at a showing of his classic It’s A Wonderful Life in an old movie house in Nevada City.

In 1980 a movie had been made of my novel, Inside Moves. Directed by Richard Donner with a screenplay by Barry Levinson, the movie—a Capraesque dramatic comedy if there ever was one—Inside Moves starred John Savage and launched the careers of David Morse and Diana Scarwid, who received an Oscar nomination for her performance in the film. Sadly, just as Inside Moves was being released, the distribution company went broke and the film was never widely seen. I was then hired by Warner Brothers to write a screenplay for Laura Ziskin (Pretty Woman, Spiderman) based on my second novel Forgotten Impulses, which was hailed by The New York Times as one of the best novels of 1980, but then Simon & Schuster inexplicably withdrew all support for the book and the movie was never made.

Indeed, as I drove from Sacramento to Nevada City with my pals Bob and Patty, I was in a state of shock. My previously doting movie agents had just dropped me, Simon & Schuster had terminated the contract for my next novel Louie & Women, and I had no idea why any of this was happening. Yet I still believed (and believe to this day) that my stories would eventually transcend the various obstructions and be read with joy by thousands of people—a quintessential Capraesque vision of reality. And I was sure Capra would say something in Nevada City that would help me and give me hope.

We arrived in the quiet hamlet in time to have supper before the show. We chose a handsome restaurant that was empty save for a single diner. On a small dais in the center of the room was a shiny black grand piano. The owner of the restaurant greeted us gallantly, and to our query, “Where is everybody?” replied, “You got me. We were expecting a big crowd for Capra, but…” He shrugged. “That’s show biz.”

Our table gave us a view of the piano and our elderly fellow diner, who we soon realized was Capra himself. Waiting for no one, eating slowly, sipping his red wine, the old man seemed to lack only one thing to complete the perfection of his moment: someone to play a sweet and melancholy tune on that fabulous piano. And I was just the person to do it if only the owner would allow me the honor.

I made the request, and it was granted. Frank was done with his supper by then and having coffee. I sat down at the piano and looked his way. He smiled and nodded, directing me, as it were, to play. We were still the only people in the restaurant, the room awaiting my tune.

I played a waltz, a few minutes long, something I’d recently composed, a form upon which I improvised, hoping to capture the feeling of what was to me a sacred moment.

When I finished, Frank applauded.

I blushed. “Another?”

Frank nodded. “Can you play that one again?”

“Not exactly, but close.”

He winked. “Perfect.”

So I played the tune again, longer this time, and slower at the end. Frank smiled and tapped his coffee cup with his fork. I approached him and told him we’d come to watch his movie and hear him speak.

He said, “Thank you. I love your music.”

His anointment of my waltz would have been more than enough to fulfill my wish that he say something to help me and give me hope. But the best was yet to come.

Capra’s genius was comprehensive. His best films are not only beautifully written and acted, they are gorgeous to behold. It’s A Wonderful Life was made when the art of black and white cinematography was at its apex, and we may never again see such artistry—many of the secrets of the black and white masters lost to time.

We marveled and wept at Capra’s masterwork, and then a nervous moderator gave Capra a succinct introduction and the old man took the stage. He thanked the crowd for coming and took questions—questions that made me despair for humanity.

The worst of the many terrible queries was, “Do you think you’re a better director than Steven Spielberg?”

“Different,” said Capra, pointing to another raised hand.

And then came the one meaningful question of the evening. “Your humor seems so different than the humor of today. Why is that?”

“Humor today,” said Capra, “for the most part, is pretty mean-spirited. We used to call it put-down humor, and we consciously avoided that. With Wonderful Life, you’re laughing with the characters because you identify with them, which is very different than laughing at someone.”

The inane questions resumed, and finally Capra could take no more. He waved his hands and said, “Look, if you want to make good movies, and God knows we need them, you have to have a good story. That’s the first thing. That’s the foundation. And what makes a good story? Believable and compelling characters in crisis. That’s true of comedy or drama. And the highest form in my opinion is the dramatic comedy, which has become something of a lost art in America. Then you need to translate that story into a great script. And I’m sorry to tell you, but only great writers can write great scripts. So start practicing now. And when you think you have that story and that script, get somebody who knows how to shoot and edit film, and make your movie. And when you finish, make another one. And if you have talent, and you persist despite everybody telling you to quit, you might make a good movie some day. Thank you very much.”

Which brings us back to The Band’s Visit. Capra would have loved those characters and their crises, and though he never in a million years would have made such a movie, his influence is unmistakable.

Disappointment

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

Whilst discussing my hopes and expectations for the San Francisco Giants with Mark Scaramella, he suggested I try my hand at writing about disappointment. I just hope my attempt doesn’t disappoint him.

“Disappointment is a sort of bankruptcy—the bankruptcy of a soul that expends too much in hope and expectation.” Eric Hoffer

What is disappointment? The New Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines disappointment as: dejection or distress caused by the non-fulfillment of desire or expectation. Substitute the word suffering for distress and we land smack dab at the outset of Buddhist philosophy. The First Noble Truth (and I have yet to read a satisfactory explanation of why the Four Noble Truths are noble rather than big or unavoidable or groovy) is that life is suffering. I recently read an article in a Buddhist magazine suggesting that suffering might not be the most accurate translation of the Sanskrit word Buddha purportedly used. The article suggested that annoying might be a more accurate translation. And in some texts the First Noble Truth is stated as: Life is full of suffering (though not necessarily completely full, which would allow for the occasional pizza, chocolate bar, or delightful flirtation).

But seriously folks, the Second Noble Truth states that the cause (or origin) of suffering is attachment. If we can learn not to be attached to things and people and baseball teams winning the World Series, or even just to being alive, then our suffering will lessen and might even disappear entirely. And check this out: in the absence of suffering, we would still be alive, which is a blatant contradiction of the First Noble Truth and necessitates restating the First and Second Noble Truths as: Life is suffering (or disappointing) unless we aren’t attached to anything (very much), in which case life is…what? Joyful? Maybe. I don’t know.

Here is what I think Buddha said: “The First and Second Groovy Truths combine to say that we suffer disappointment if we are attached to any sort of outcome, such as owning an elephant or getting laid. Indeed, if we can learn to dispense with expectations, we will cease to be disappointed, and in the absence of disappointment our suffering will vanish.” Since no one knows precisely what Buddha said, that’s my guess.

“Rigid beliefs make disappointments seem unbearable, whereas realistic beliefs help us to accept disappointment and go on from there.” Eileen Kennedy-Moore

The root of disappointment is appointment, a word that joined the ranks of our ancestral vocabulary shortly after Olde English morphed into Middle English and our various vernaculars mingled shamelessly with French. The French word was appointement, and meant an agreement, a contract, a decree. “We hereby make an appointment, honey, to meet in the forest for some hanky panky.” From which it follows that a disappointment was the breaking of an agreement, the violation of a contract, or the ignoring of a decree.

Thus we might construe that an expectation is an agreement we make with ourselves, i.e. that the Giants are going to win the World Series, and the violation of this agreement would be a disappointment.

“Nobody succeeds beyond his or her wildest expectations unless he or she begins with some wild expectations.” Ralph Charell

I expected I would be an immensely successful writer and musician. That was my conscious expectation. My unconscious expectation was that I would be a colossal failure. The trajectory of my career as a writer and a musician is a perfect reflection of those dueling expectations, with the unconscious expectation always eventually trumping my conscious efforts. For many years I blamed others for the recurring disappointments of my life; but I understand now that the sabotage of my creative efforts was an inside job.

For instance, just as my second novel Forgotten Impulses was about to be published in 1980, I received an excited call from my editor at Simon & Schuster. Time magazine was going to run a big fat rave review of the novel, so fat and big that an additional fifteen thousand copies of Forgotten Impulses were being printed, and Sales, previously reluctant to support the book, had finally agreed to put some real money into promotion and distribution. The next day I got a call from a Time photographer arranging to take my picture for the review. The photo shoot was a dream come true, and the photographer’s last words to me were, “The buzz in New York says your book will be huge.”

Three days before the issue of Time containing the rave was to go to press, the review was inexplicably pulled. The Sales honchos cancelled all promotion and distribution of Forgotten Impulses, and cancelled the publication of my next novel, Louie & Women, for which Simon & Schuster had paid a large advance. And my mainstream writing career, for all intents and purposes, was destroyed. Why? I never discovered the outside why, but I have no doubt that in the ballroom of my psyche the demons gleefully celebrated the triumph of self-loathing.

Thinking back to that particular disappointment, and to many other similar experiences with my books and screenplays and music, I feel disappointed anew. And what I find most interesting about the sensations attendant to my disappointment is that they are indistinguishable from the telltale feelings of another emotional state I know a great deal about: depression.

Depression, one might say, is a state of constant disappointment. But why would someone be constantly disappointed? Well, according to the Second Groovy Truth, we suffer disappointment if we are attached to any sort of outcome. Thus constant disappointment must be the result of a constant attachment to things being a particular way. And wouldn’t constant attachment to feeling rotten have to be a deep and hardwired propensity, as in a propensity developed in childhood? I think so. I think it is only human to be disappointed about losing a game or not getting a job we wanted or getting dumped by our girlfriend. But staying disappointed, I contend, is a neurotic tendency engendered in us by those in charge of engendering our tendencies when we were infants and children.

“I am not in this world to live up to other people’s expectations, nor do I feel that the world must live up to mine.” Fritz Perls

So maybe the Giants won’t win the World Series this year, and maybe this article isn’t what Mark had in mind when he suggested I write about disappointment; but now that I have explored disappointment for the last two weeks, and exhumed some of those pesky demons still inhabiting my innards, I am confident that my disappointment about the Giants or anything else will not be as great as it might otherwise have been. Why? Because the demons of disappointment lose their power in the light of conscious scrutiny. And I am now prepared to proclaim, “So what if we didn’t win the World Series? The important thing is we gave it our best shot. We played the game with all our hearts, and that is victory enough.”

(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser, October 2010)