Posts Tagged ‘The Horse’s Mouth’

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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 A few men I touted on the book enjoyed the tale, but I was repeatedly cautioned that Kim was out of date, racist, misogynist, and juvenile.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.

Roots & Eggs

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

eggs & roots

Photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“Lemon tree very pretty and the lemon flower is sweet.” Will Holt

Lemon trees growing near the kitchen. What a wonderful idea. So we chose the perfect spots on the south side of the house for two goodly Meyers, the warmest and sunniest place on our property, only to discover that one of those perfect spots was home to the root mass, still very much alive, of a gargantuan shrub I removed nine months ago. Thus a Herculean task awaited me, one I would postpone until I brought the lemon trees home and their presence inspired me to extricate the massive tangle.

And so on a sunny Saturday, homeward bound after pruning a gorgeous green-leafed Japanese maple, a crab apple, and a plum, I stopped at the admirable Hare Creek Nursery on the south side of Fort Bragg and bought two little Meyer lemon trees. The friendly folks there cautioned me not to plant the lemon trees in the ground, but to grow them in tubs. However, Marcia and I are not after bonsais; we’re aiming for large trees festooned with hundreds of delectable yellow orbs, and I figure with global warming proceeding apace, the Mendocino climate should henceforth be perfect for growing citrus in the ground.

With the little beauties sitting nearby and crying for release from their plastic pots, I began digging around the root mass and confirmed that my nemesis was gigantic, well connected, tenacious, and uncooperative. To borrow from Bogart, I have met a lot of root masses in my time, but this one was really something special. After an hour of heavy labor using shovel, mattock, pick, trowel, axe and crowbar, the mass remained unmoving, as if I had done nothing. This depressed me, so I took a break, had some water and a handful of almonds and tried not to take the root mass’s indifference personally.

“The sensitivity of men to small matters, and their indifference to great ones, indicates a strange inversion.” Blaise Pascal

When I lived in Berkeley, and before I discovered a secret post office where I never had to wait, I frequently stood in long lines to mail packages and buy stamps. And on many such occasions, people in line with me would take it personally that they had to wait more than a few minutes to do their postal business, and they would say things like, “This is an outrage,” or “No wonder they’re going out of business,” as if the postal clerks were intentionally taking as long as they possibly could with each transaction.

Having made a careful multi-year study of the service in Berkeley, Albany, Oakland, and El Cerrito post offices, I have no doubt that the real cause of the slowness of service was the alarming number of befuddled and dimwitted customers who would, upon their arrival at the counter, act as if they had no idea how they came to be there or where on their persons they had secreted their wallets or how they wanted to mail whatever it was they wished to mail. The postal clerks would patiently explain the various shipping choices and how much each choice would cost, and the befuddled dimwits would stand in frozen dismay for minutes on end pondering such deep philosophical questions as “Priority or Media?”, “Would you like to insure that?” and “For how much?”

One day at the Albany post office, a man several places behind me in line shouted at the two harried postal clerks, “Has today’s mail been delivered into the boxes yet?”

The clerks had their hands full helping befuddled dimwits, so neither replied to the shouting man.

Their indifference enraged the man and he screamed, “Has today’s mail been put in the boxes? Don’t pretend you can’t hear me!”

One of the clerks said wearily, “Yes, the mail has been put in the boxes today.”

“Bullshit!” screamed the man. “I know a letter arrived for me today and you are intentionally keeping it from me. I demand that you give me my letter or I’ll call the police!”

The two clerks exchanged glances and one of them said, “Go right ahead, sir. Call the police.”

“Fascists!” screamed the man. “Thieves!”

Then the poor fellow ran out of the post office and the woman behind me murmured, “Thank God he didn’t have a gun.”

“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Returning to the root mass, I resumed my digging and picking and chopping and clawing, and soon enough the mass began to move when prodded, which lifted my spirits and gave me hope of eventual success. After another hour of digging and chopping, there remained but one fat root connecting the root mass to the earth. I rose from my knees, took hold of my axe, positioned myself above my target, and was about to swing the axe high, when I felt a pang of empathy for the root mass and decided to wait a moment before severing that last life-giving tendril.

“For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.” Kahlil Gibran

Speaking of roots, I was thinking about homegrown carrots the other day as I was making pancake batter using eggs we got from our neighbors Elias and Emily, who also provide us with exceptionally yummy goat cheese. Emily and Elias’s eggs come from their herd of happy-go-lucky free-ranging chickens whose eggs are so delicious they make the best organic mass produced eggs seem tasteless and tawdry in comparison. Indeed, these Emily and Elias chicken eggs make my gluten-free pancake batter so rich and tasty I dread the day when I have to resort to store bought eggs again. But why did Emily and Elias’s grandiloquent eggs make me think about homegrown carrots?

Because there are few things in the world as delicious as a well-grown carrot in its prime just pulled from the friable earth of a wholly natural garden. Indeed, so sweet and delicious is a just-pulled homegrown carrot, that the very best organic carrots money can buy are but pale imitations of the homegrown variety. Just-pulled is a large part of the answer to why homegrown carrots are so superior to even the best store or farmers’ market-bought carrots; the delectable sugar in just-pulled carrots has yet to turn to starch. Ergo, Emily and Elias’s eggs are to eggs what just-pulled homegrown carrots are to carrots.

“If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.” John F. Kennedy

The roots of our culture nourished by art. Society setting artists free to follow their visions wherever those visions may take them. Can you imagine such a society?  Kennedy spoke those words on October 26, 1963, less than a month before he was assassinated, and I’ve often thought his words were prophetic of what was to come and ever after be called The Sixties, a brief era when more artists freely followed their visions than ever before. And it took the overlords of our society a good decade to get control of the situation and put a stop to most of that status-quo-threatening socialistic vision following.

“My ancestors wandered lost in the wilderness for forty years because even in biblical times, men would not stop to ask for directions.” Elayne Boosler

Who are your chosen ancestors? What are the roots of the decisions you make that direct the course of your life? The root mass got me thinking about roots, the ones we spring from and the ones we create for ourselves. Some root masses are inescapable, some allow for the intrusion of new roots, and sometimes we have to excise the present root mass to make room for the new.

I know I was emboldened by the poets Philip Whalen and David Meltzer and Lew Welch, the example of my uncle David, the movies The Horse’s Mouth and Zorba the Greek, and the powerful societal ferment roiling northern California in the 1960’s to drop out of college and follow my visions, much to the chagrin of my parents, speaking of root masses. My father and mother strove mightily to convince me to change my mind and return to the straight and narrow and safe, but I would not change my mind.

After two exciting, challenging and exhausting years of vagabonding, I found myself with a terrible cold, a worse cough, and barely surviving on rice and lentils in a badly insulated room in Ashland, Oregon. I was in the throes of writing my first novel and loving the work, but I was so lonely and sad and tired of being poor that I was sorely tempted to throw in the towel and return to the ease and comfort of college. And then at the absolute nadir of my despair, I received a letter from my father, the gist of which so surprised me I had to read the letter three times before I could even begin to believe what he had written.

My father wrote in black ink on light orange stationery that he was both jealous and proud of me for doing what he had always longed to do but never had the courage to attempt—to leave the straight and narrow and go a’ wandering with pack on his back, following only the whims of his heart and intuition—those words from my greatest critic providing the inspiration I needed to continue my uncharted course.

Some years later, I mentioned this remarkable letter to my father, and he snorted and said, “Don’t be ridiculous. I would never have written such a thing to you because I have never for a minute been jealous of you and I am not proud of you pissing your life away on your delusional infantile fantasies.”

“Oh, but you did write that, Dad,” I said, not at all surprised he didn’t remember writing such words to me. “And you sent the letter, too, along with a twenty-dollar bill that bought me chicken and eggs and almonds and cheese and cookies and a wonderfully warm jacket from the Salvation Army.”

“There you go again,” he said, rolling his eyes and shaking his head and filling his wine glass yet again, “making shit up to fit your fantasies.”

“Great talents are the most lovely and often the most dangerous fruits on the tree of humanity. They hang upon the most slender twigs that are easily snapped off.” Carl Jung

Now the little lemon trees are planted in the good earth and sending forth their new roots—the gargantuan root mass gone. Emily and Elias’s chickens are foraging in the meadow, their just-laid eggs awaiting discovery in the coop. Carrot seedlings are emerging in my carrot patch, and soon I will thin the rows of promising babies, only one in a dozen to be spared to grow beyond the first culling.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com

Robbery

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

Photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2011)

Someone broke into our car last week while we were in Cotton Auditorium for another marvelous Symphony of the Redwoods concert, Marcia in the orchestra, I in the audience. I left our car unlocked, having lost the habit of locking up since I moved to Mendocino from Berkeley six years ago. The thief or thieves took a water bottle, a pair of dark glasses, and several CDs. They did not steal the stereo or wreck anything, but the invasion left us feeling sad and cranky. Marcia always locks her car, and I will do so henceforth, though it pains me to feel I must.

I’ve been robbed several times in the course of my life, each robbery ushering in a time of self-review. I’ve had six bicycles stolen, each theft necessitating the purchase of my subsequent mount, along with new and improved locks and chains. And because riding my bicycle was, until quite recently, my primary mode of transport, I understand very well why we used to hang horse thieves.

The grandest material theft of my life befell me two days after Christmas in 1979. I had just moved to Sacramento and was renting a house in a demilitarized zone—poverty to the south of me, wealth to the north. For the first time since childhood, and after more than a decade of living a monk’s life, materialistically speaking, I was relatively affluent. In quick order I had acquired an excellent stereo with fabulous speakers, a fancy camera, a state-of-the-art electric typewriter, and several items of new clothing, having theretofore shopped exclusively at the Salvation Army. Friends were visiting, one of whom was a professional French horn player, another a professional guitarist. We went to the movies and were gone from the house a little more than two hours.

Upon our return from Going In Style, an appropriately bittersweet comedy starring Art Carney and George Burns as elderly bank robbers, we found my front door wide open, lights blazing, the house thoroughly sacked. Gone were my friend’s one-of-a-kind French horn, my other friend’s one-of-a-kind guitar, and most of my possessions, new and old. The thieves had driven a van up onto the front lawn and backed it up to the front door. They took the beer from the refrigerator, the sheets and blankets from my bed, every last one of my newly acquired gadgets and articles of clothing, as well as my entire record collection (seventy albums or so) including nine Ray Charles albums, my favorite jazz, Ravel, Debussy, Stevie Wonder, the Sons of Champlin double album, Leon Bibb, Buffalo Springfield…everything except a Laura Nyro album left to me by a long lost girlfriend.

I immediately called the police and was informed by an extremely irritable woman that unless the thieves were still on the premises and actively stealing things, it would be two or three days before they could send anyone out to take a report. She said they were currently experiencing a tsunami of crime and the non-violent nature of what had happened to me combined with my unimpressive address made me a low priority for the overworked gendarmes. I thanked her profusely for being so compassionate and understanding, but my tone must have betrayed my dismay, because her last words to me were, “Hey, it could have been worse.”

“True,” I replied, though she had already hung up. “They might have taken my piano, too, if only it wasn’t so heavy.”

In my life review that followed such a thorough erasure of my physical assets, my first thought was that the robbery was a clear sign I should not have moved to Sacramento and that I should quickly change course and move to Mendocino, which is where I really wanted to live. But I did not love myself well enough to heed that intuitive wisdom, and so I stayed in Sacramento for fifteen years, bought a house, married, divorced, gave up the house, and finally fled to Berkeley where more bikes were stolen and more self-reviews pointed me to Mendocino, though I would wait another eleven years before finally trusting the wisdom of that recurrent impulse.

Not that I regret the twenty-six-year delay. What is done is done. Regret is a venomous leech, so rip that sucker off and get on with things. Right? We rob ourselves by dwelling in self-pity, just as we rob ourselves by not expressing our feelings—happy or sad or angry. We rob ourselves by staying in rotten relationships and rotten jobs. And that, I think, has always been the greatest gift of being robbed—a wake up call, a reminder to discover and expel those parts of our lives that are self-robberies, self-swindles, self-sabotage.

Betrayal is another kind of robbery. I was lifted out of my first long stint of poverty by the sale of the movie rights to my novel Inside Moves. I had long aspired to write and direct movies, and to that end I had been writing screenplays for several years, as well as writing novels and short stories and plays. The agent handling the movie sale of my novel informed me there were two offers, one from Robert Evans who had recently produced The Godfather and Chinatown and Love Story, and one from Stephen Friedman who had recently produced The Last Picture Show. I was told that Friedman was offering twenty-five thousand dollars more, but the agents advised me to take the offer from Evans because they said he had a much better chance of getting the movie produced.

And I said to the charming agent handling the deal, “I just want to remind you that I very much want to write the screenplay of my novel. Is that a possibility?”

“No,” she said, laughing delightfully. “Bob has some big names in mind for that. Let’s get the movie made and then we’ll see about getting you some screenwriting gigs.”

Since I had yet to learn anything about the true nature of the movie business, I agreed to the deal with Bob Evans, and he did, indeed, hire the now-famous Barry Levinson and Barry’s then-wife Valerie Curtin to write the screenplay for Inside Moves. But then Evans dropped the project and it was relegated to limbo for a couple years. I subsequently published a second novel, Forgotten Impulses, and one of my suitors for the movie rights to that tome was the same Stephen Friedman. I flew to Los Angeles to meet with him, and the first thing he said to me was, “I’m still angry that you didn’t go with us on Inside Moves, especially since we offered you more money and the screenwriting gig.”

“But (name of agent) never told me you offered me the screenwriting gig.”

“Fuckin’ agents,” he said, scowling. “I told her you were born to write that screenplay.”

Hilariously naïve, I went directly from my meeting with Friedman to the agency representing me wherein dwelt the beautiful woman who was my official representative in Hollywood, and when I informed her of what Friedman had told me, she smiled sweetly and said, “Yes, that’s true. He did want you to write the screenplay, but we thought it would be better for the project to go with Evans.”

“But…so…you lied to me.”

“Oh, honey,” she said, her voice dropping to a husky whisper. “Don’t say that. Don’t ever say that in this town. Things are far more complicated than you realize. This business is all about relationships and the balance of power.”

A few weeks later, I was informed that I had been assigned to another agent in the esteemed agency representing me, another charming woman who “totally got” my yen to establish myself as a screenwriter; and to that end she encouraged me to write treatments for the movies I wanted to write. A treatment is a thorough synopsis of a movie’s plot accompanied by detailed descriptions of the characters, with snippets of scenes and samples of dialogue. I wrote a dozen of these cinematic treatises for her over the next few years, virtual novellas, and at least one of them caught the eye of a powerful producer at Tri-Star. My enthusiastic agent called me from a celebratory lunch with that producer at the Beverly Hills Hotel to let me know a lucrative deal was imminent, after which I never heard from her again. However, a few weeks after her exuberant phone call, I was informed I was being shifted to yet another agent at the esteemed agency representing me.

Then a year or so after that, I went to see a new comedy from Tri-Star with my friend Bob, and about five minutes into the film, I realized we were watching a movie based entirely on my treatment, down to the minute details of the characters I’d invented, the content and order of the scenes, and much of the dialogue. There were, of course, things in the film I had not imagined, but for the most part the movie stayed remarkably faithful to my treatment. I knew well enough by then there was no way I could prove the theft and win any sort of settlement, though the story and characters were entirely mine, which knowledge simply added to myriad other sad and discouraging things I had learned and was learning about the big money end of American culture. I felt robbed, yes, but this time I also felt stupid for having trusted Lucy yet again to not pull the football away, so to speak, right before I was about to kick a winning field goal.

I am currently reading The Horse’s Mouth, a wonderful novel about an artist, a painter, a truly gone cat, his art more important to him than anything else, even friendship. And he is forever coming to the conclusion that everything that happens to him—everything that has ever happened to him—is not only the result of his own actions, but precisely what he requires to continue evolving as an artist.

Wrong Thinking

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Mr. Magician painting by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2011)

“Taken out of context I must seem so strange.” Ani DiFranco

One of my Anthropology professors was Nigerian, his people Yoruba. An exceptional student as a child, he was sent to school in England and eventually got his PhD from a prestigious American university. My professor married an African American woman, with whom he had two children, and when those children were five and three-years-old, he and his wife took the kids to Nigeria so they could get to know their paternal grandparents and the huge extended family that was my professor’s clan. After a few days in Nigeria, my professor was summoned to a meeting of the male elders of his clan who severely chastised him for not taking a second and third wife to produce more sons.

“You are a very rich man,” said his father, with twenty other men nodding in agreement. “You are richer than any of us, yet you shame your parents and your clan by not taking more wives. Why are you doing this?”

The professor explained to his outraged father and uncles and cousins that in America it was the law that a man may only have one wife. The Yoruba men were disgusted to hear this and shouted many insults at my professor, the gist of their insults being that wealthy American men who take only one wife are weak and impotent and effeminate and crazy.

“Fortunately this is not the law among our people,” said my professor’s father, “so we will find two more wives for you and you will keep them here and get children with them. You will send money from America and your wives will make a fine household for you here. You will come home for a time each year and get many children. And when you have finished your work in America you will live here with your wives and their children as you should.”

My professor said that he and his wife decided to cut their visit short in order to avoid the marriages being arranged for him. “You see,” he explained, chuckling, “my wife is liberated and will not share me with other women.”

“Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one’s life.” Anthony Bourdain

If you have never, or not in a long time, read the forty-eight-page novella Babette’s Feast by Isak Dinesen, I highly recommend the tale as a thought provoking inquiry into context, memory, and truly great meals. An excellent film version of Babette’s Feast was made in Denmark in 1987 and is remarkably faithful to the original story, so whether you spend an hour and a half watching the movie or an hour reading the story, or both, you will see what I mean about thought provoking. Along with Dinesen’s exquisite prose, what I love most about Babette’s Feast are the myriad ways in which concepts of right and wrong are revealed to be little more than the passing fancies of context, memory, and truly great meals.

“SCORN FOR JOBLESS ON RISE: unemployed face compassion fatigue as economy remains flat” front page headline and sub-headline, Santa Rosa Press Democrat September 4, 2011

The article that follows those scurrilous sentence fragments is a lengthy piece of cruel propaganda quoting various wealthy politicos from around the country who are growing impatient and angry with tens of millions of unemployed people who lost their jobs and houses and savings due to the criminal activities of banks and investment firms expedited by wealthy politicos from around the country. Published with no indication it was intended as satire, the article emphatically suggests that people receiving unemployment benefits are “leeching off the system.”

“I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.” John Wayne

I thought it would be wrong to attribute that quote to John Wayne until I checked multiple reliable sources to make sure he really did say such a thing.

“She’s the kind of girl who climbed the ladder of success wrong by wrong.” Mae West

When I was eight-years-old I saw the movie The Horse’s Mouth, starring Alec Guinness, after which I knew what I wanted to be: a writer, director, and star of movies about strange and marvelous people. I have subsequently seen The Horse’s Mouth many times, and the movie remains a marvel to me.

My mother grew up in close proximity to Hollywood and her mother’s best friend was the wife of a famous movie director. My mother was a Drama major at UCLA before giving up her theatrical ambitions to attend law school, pass the bar, and postpone practicing law for twenty-five years while she raised four children. For reasons I never fully understood, my mother felt it necessary to try to burst my movie career bubble every chance she got, and her primary means of doing so was to cast terrible aspersions on anyone in the movie business I dared reveal my admiration for.

According to my mother, all successful female stars of stage and screen, without exception, succeeded not through their talents as thespians, but through sexual escapades with people of wealth and power; and all successful male stars were either promiscuous homosexuals or unscrupulous bisexuals. According to my mother, all but a very few successful actors of both sexes were alcoholics, and many were drug addicts. She never revealed where she got her information about the stars of stage and screen, and since she did not read gossip magazines or watch television, the implication of her fierce certainty was that she had firsthand knowledge of these immoral people. But how, I wondered, did she come by such knowledge unless, while I was at school, she spent hours on the phone with operatives in Hollywood and Manhattan?

I remember one evening in particular when I was fifteen and had recently won a small part in a school play—my first step, I hoped, on the road to fame and fortune, and my mother, fortified with several martinis, was excoriating yet another of my favorite stars with a history of sexual depravity and opportunistic backstabbing.

“Oh, come on,” I protested. “Are you saying that no movie star has ever succeeded because they were talented? They’re all whores and crooks? What about Fred Astaire? Ginger Rogers? Jimmy Stewart? Claudette Colbert. Alec Guinness? The Marx Brothers?”

“Ha!” she said bitterly. “Little do you know.”

“We made too many wrong mistakes.” Yogi Berra

On September 4, 2011, our beloved San Francisco Giants lost most ignobly to the Snakes, otherwise known as the Arizona Diamondbacks, and fell seven games out of first place with only twenty-two games left to play. We were poised to win that game, but then lost, and as we lost I felt in my bones, as opposed to in my brain, that we no longer had any hope of making the playoffs and returning to the World Series. I think we had good enough players to catch the Snakes, but not the right managers. I won’t say our managers are bad, for they are the same fellows who skippered our team to the World Series and won it all last year. But I do think they were the wrong managers this year because they were not creative or prescient, nor did they win the close games through guile and daring, all of which they were and did last year. Or so it seems. I could be wrong, but I don’t think so.

“Things are as they are. Looking out into it the universe at night, we make no comparisons between right and wrong stars, nor between well and badly arranged constellations.” Alan Watts

In 1970, in the hour before dawn, I climbed to the top of the monumental Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacán (near Mexico City) and made the acquaintance of four French travelers who had spent the night atop the pyramid. Our shared ambition was to watch the sun appear to rise out of the Pyramid of the Sun across the great plaza from us.

I write “appear to rise” in deference to Buckminster Fuller who cautioned us not to use expressions such as “the sun rising” or “the sun going down” because he felt such usage reinforced a wrong view of how our earth, in relation to our sun, actually operates. The earth spins us into light and spins us into darkness in relation to the sun; the sun does not rise or fall in relation to us. Bucky also pointed out that when humans first began to fly in airplanes, they spontaneously and accurately coined the expression “coming in for a landing,” rather than “coming down for a landing” because there is no up or down in space. Bucky fervently believed that the more truthfully we describe reality, the more successful we will be in developing a regenerative relationship with the earth and Universe.

So the sun appeared to rise out of the massive Pyramid of the Sun, the third largest human-made pyramid on earth, and the appearance was a stirring sight, indeed. Then, not long after the earth had spun us into sunlight, a tour bus arrived and shattered the quietude we had so enjoyed. The bus door opened and several dozen American tourists disembarked, their voices so loud and the acoustics of that amazing place such that we could hear the words they spoke a mile away. And the loudest voice came from a man reacting to the majestic Pyramid of the Sun. “That’s it?” he bellowed. “That one right there? What a let down. The ones in Egypt are so much bigger.”

“The pendulum of the mind alternates between sense and nonsense, not between right and wrong.” Carl Jung

There is a wonderful story about the current Dalai Lama visiting America for the first time several decades ago, before he was better acquainted with the American psyche. His Holiness was taking questions from a group of meditation teachers and their students when a man asked the Dalai Lama for advice about how to overcome low self-esteem because this man’s struggle with low self-esteem was seriously impeding his meditation practice.

The Dalai Lama had never heard of low self-esteem and was perplexed by the question. After someone explained to him what low self-esteem was, the Dalai Lama went around the room asking person after person, “Do you have this?” And when all the Americans admitted that to one degree or another they suffered from low self-esteem, the Dalai Lama proclaimed, “But this is wrong thinking. You must stop thinking this way.”

Bums At A Grave

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

The first movie I remember seeing at a movie theatre was The Court Jester starring Danny Kaye, Basil Rathbone, and the very young Angela Lansbury. 1955. I was six years old. As we left the Park Theatre in Menlo Park, California, I distinctly recall turning to my mother and announcing that I was going to be a movie star like Danny Kaye. To which she replied, “Don’t be silly.”

Three years later, 1958, my parents took me to see Alec Guinness in The Horse’s Mouth, after which I proclaimed, “That’s what I’m going to be. An artist and live on a boat.” To which my father, a psychiatrist, replied, “Just what we need, another narcissistic sociopath.”

Both The Court Jester and The Horse’s Mouth have stood the test of time for me. I’ve seen them several times in the intervening fifty years, and I still consider The Horse’s Mouth to be one of the very best depictions of a person who cares more for his art than for anyone or anything else.

When I was nine, Willy Mays supplanted Danny and Alec as my supreme mentor and hero, and led me off my artist’s path into the glory of baseball and eventually basketball, my twin obsessions until late high school when I was felled by what the western medical doctors called a hot case of ankyllosing spondilitis, which ailment cut short my dreams of athletic glory, returned me full steam to writing and music and drama, and shortly thereafter saved me from going to fight in Vietnam.

When I dropped out of college at nineteen, I knew what I wanted to be: a professional writer, actor, and musician—Danny Kaye and Alec Guinness rolled into one.

Despite a thousand setbacks and highly annoying poverty, I held to this vision of myself, worked day and night at my writing and music, and at twenty-eight was rewarded by having my first novel published and made into a major motion picture. A year after that, I published my second novel, and Warner Brother paid me to write the screenplay for Laura Ziskin, famous most recently as the producer of the Spiderman franchise.

And though by the age of thirty I hadn’t made buckets of money, I had made a goodly chunk of change, so I decided to make a little film of my own to prove to myself and others that I had the chops to offer myself as a director of my own movies. This, of course, was in the days before digital anything, when making a good-looking movie, even in sixteen-millimeter film, was extremely expensive; and so was born my truly minimalist fifteen-minute fictive film entitled Bums At A Grave.

Within a year of completing the film, my career, so bright and promising (in commercial terms) had collapsed. Bums At A Grave became but a reel of celluloid in a canister that lay on my dusty shelf for nearly thirty years. And then a few weeks ago, at the urging of several old friends who remembered the movie and wanted to see it again, I had the film transferred to DVD in a good lab in San Francisco.

Seeing Bums At A Grave for the first time in twenty-eight years was a fascinating walk down memory lane for me. I wrote the script in 1979 when I was living in Santa Cruz, California. The film is set in 1933 during the Great Depression, and seems remarkably predictive of Now. We filmed it in the summer of 1980 shortly after I moved to Sacramento—a two-day shoot in 105-degree heat near Grass Valley. Richard Simpson was the cinematographer and editor, Doug Peckham handled sound, Bob Smith produced, Patty Nolan was continuity person and assistant-to-everyone, my brother Steve starred as Willy, and I co-starred as Trevor.

For years prior to the Bums shoot, I studied movies in search of filming techniques that particularly pleased me. This meant I had to go to movies multiple times, since VHS technology had barely been born and DVDs were not yet a glimmering in the eye of the future. I did not and do not like quick cutting from one scene to another. I very much enjoy action within a still frame, slow tracking shots, and a slowly pivoting camera on a tripod. No handheld shots, please!

Thus when I wrote the script for Bums At A Grave, I intentionally minimized the need for edits while creating setups for active and changing points of view. This not only made for more pleasing cinema, it saved money in those days when even 16 mm shooting and editing was expensive.

For instance: characters at a distance can move (in the course of a scene) to the forefront of the frame where a slow zoom to a close-up can add up to three or four “scenelets” in a single take without the need for an edit.

Bums At A Grave screened at the 1980 Filmex film festival in Los Angeles for an audience of 1200 hardcore film buffs and movie biz folks. They loved the film, laughed uproariously at the Republican joke (Reagan our brand new president in 1980), and gave us a rousing ovation at the end. While we were in LA, we screened the film for Laura Ziskin, and to my everlasting delight Laura pronounced, “Your agents are missing the boat with you. They should be pushing you as a director.”

But life, as the poets say, intervened and I took another road in the opposite direction of Hollywood. Today, at last, you can see scenes from Bums At A Grave on Youtube. Turn up the volume and have some fun. Or view the entire fifteen minutes of Bums At A Grave, Admission Free, at Underthetablebooks.com.