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East of Eden

for East of Eden

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

“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” John Steinbeck, East of Eden

We recently watched the movie version of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Our main motivation for renting the movie was to see the village of Mendocino as she was captured on film in 1954. Mendocino exteriors were used to represent Monterey circa 1917, and if you’ve ever been to Monterey and Mendocino you’ll wonder why anyone, let alone an acclaimed filmmaker, would do such a thing; and if you’ve never been to Monterey and Mendocino you won’t give a hoot.

Directed by Elia Kazan from a putrid screenplay by Paul Osborn, the movie is a big mess, though the first half-hour of the film does feature some neato shots of the village in a time before many of the streets were paved and when there were still several buildings on the south side of Main Street. The space now occupied by Out Of This World was a bank in those days and a scene takes place therein, a scene in which, incredibly, two different women who own whorehouses are congratulated by the teller for their “nice deposits” and for being “in the right business.”

Wooden planks cover the stretch of sidewalk just west of Gallery Books that sixty years after the film was made still slopes steeply down to the street, several unmoving people with fishing nets occupy an alley near Crown Hall, and James Dean sits on the curb in front of where Dick’s bar is today, that hallowed curb unchanged since those famous buttocks lingered there.

Indeed, seeing James Dean traipsing along Main Street sporting a 1950’s hairdo and wearing 1950’s clothing (when the story is supposed to be taking place in 1917) is beyond surreal. Historical and geographical veracity meant nothing to these filmmakers, so if that sort of thing is important to you, avoid this movie. Nevertheless, we enjoyed seeing our village appearing so sunny and empty, vacant lots abounding—the population of Monterey in 1917 imagined by the filmmakers to be hovering somewhere around twenty-nine.

There’s more beauty in truth, even if it is dreadful beauty.” John Steinbeck from East of Eden

East of Eden, the movie, is very loosely based on the second half of John Steinbeck’s verbose allegorical novel that reimagines the myth of Cain and Abel, among other things. Steinbeck said of his novel East of Eden, “It has everything in it I have been able to learn about my craft or profession in all these years. I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this.”

As much as I love Steinbeck’s short stories and some of his earlier novels, I fear his writing powers were on the wane when he wrote East of Eden, an overblown, preachy, poorly edited work, brimming with moralistic platitudes Steinbeck previously spared his readers.

“Sometimes a man wants to be stupid if it lets him do a thing his cleverness forbids.” John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Much has been written about James Dean’s performance in East of Eden, largely because James Dean only made three movies before he died in a car crash at the age of twenty-four, after which he became a cultural icon, his name synonymous with disillusioned youth. The bad reviews that greeted his performances when he was alive were quickly forgotten and replaced with posthumous raves and a posthumous Academy Award for his role of Cal in East of Eden, an award that says much about our idolatry of the dead and little about Dean’s acting ability.

“When a man says he does not want to speak of something he usually means he can think of nothing else.” John Steinbeck, East of Eden

I am curious to know what James Dean was aiming for with his performance in East of Eden. At the beginning of the movie, he seems to be imitating a petulant five-year-old trapped in the body of a Hollywood heartthrob. A few scenes later, he exhibits symptoms of brain damage resulting from a severe blow to the head. And then he acts like a sullen idiot who, despite his mental deficiencies, knows more than anyone else in the movie. Did Dean and Kazan hope to portray Cal as emotionally damaged as a result of his father telling him his mother was dead when she was really alive and making nice deposits in Mendocino, er, Monterey? Was Dean forever falling silent and doing crazy violent things to show the effects of the father, played in monotone by Raymond Massey, never loving his son? Or was Dean just a cute guy with nothing much to say?

“A kind of light spread out from her. And everything changed color. And the world opened out. And a day was good to awaken to. And there were no limits to anything. And the people of the world were good and handsome. And I was not afraid any more.” John Steinbeck, East of Eden

The real star of the movie is the prototypical girl-next-door played by a relentlessly upbeat Julie Harris. Talking a mile-a-minute, bathed in golden light whether day or night, she strives valiantly to make up for the movie’s massive deficiencies with rivers of earnest blabber about good and bad, love and hate, truth and lies—and she does so in scene after scene with her face about four inches away from the adorable mug of James Dean. Indeed, so close are their faces in dozens of scenes, that when Julie and James finally kiss, I sighed with relief that the inevitable collision was a fait accompli.

“Perhaps the less we have, the more we are required to brag.” John Steinbeck, East of Eden

The movie East of Eden begins with something called Overture. We know this because overture is spelled out in huge letters that clog the center of the screen for several minutes and obliterate the lovely shot of the village of Mendocino (ostensibly Monterey) seen from the south side of the mouth of Big River Bay. Yes, while cloying pseudo-modern 1950’s orchestral music sets the scene for 1917, a giant graphic turd—OVERTURE—hangs in the sky and blocks our view of paradise. And so the stage is set, the style and pace of the movie established, the trouble about to begin.

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Choices

marcia playing

Marcia Practicing photo by Todd

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

“There are two sentences inscribed upon the Delphic Oracle… ‘Know thyself’ and ‘Nothing too much’—and upon these all other precepts depend.” Plutarch

The Mendocino Music Festival is upon us once again, and that means several things to me now that I’ve lived in Mendocino for eight years. The village will be cloaked in fog for many days of the festival, a majestic white tent will stand upon the headlands across the street from Dick’s, my darling wife Marcia, who has played in the festival orchestra for all the twenty-seven years the festival has been going, will practice her cello even more diligently than she usually does, the village population will be peppered with sophisticated classical musicians from urban areas who have come here to play in the festival orchestra, there will not be enough Mendelssohn on the program for my taste (I love Mendelssohn), and there will be so much fantastic music to hear, both classical and otherwise, that it will be impossible to attend but a small fraction of the musical delights on offer.

On the day of the festival’s opening night concert, I walk to town in fulgent sunshine and wonder if this brilliant clarity will attend the concert tonight or whether the fog, hearing the orchestral strains emanating from the majestic tent, will swiftly come hither and blanket the headlands.

At the corner of Highway One and Little Lake Road, my path converges with that of a young white man with long blond Rasta locks, a bulging knapsack on his back, and two enormous dogs on rope leashes. As we wait together for the light to turn green so we might be among the living when we reach the village side of the highway, I say to the young man, “How you doing?”

“Not good,” he says angrily. “This fucking place doesn’t have a laundromat, so poor people can’t wash their clothes. Fucking elitist enclave.”

“Well, the problem as I understand it is that the village has a chronic water shortage and laundromats use an enormous…”

“Bullshit,” he says, as we embark on our journey across the five lines. “I lived here twelve years ago. I know all about this place. They just don’t want any poor people around here. In Israel they have laundromats that use hardly any water. They could get some of those. But they won’t.”

“I’m sorry,” I say, feeling the need to apologize for having a washer and a dryer and a good well that, knock on wood, has yet to go dry this year.

“And try hitchhiking with two big dogs,” says the young man, scowling at me. “Not easy.”

We part ways and I think to myself that the absence of a laundromat in the village is certainly unfortunate but also understandable economically and environmentally, while hitchhiking with two enormous dogs seems to be this man’s choice and not something imposed upon him by a cruel and unjust society. Then again, maybe he needs those dogs in order to feel safe in this cruel and unjust society, and from his point of view he doesn’t really have a choice about hitchhiking with giant dogs or not. Indeed, when I lived in Berkeley, I knew several women who owned large dogs for the express purpose of feeling safe when they went walking anywhere, and not just at night: anywhere any time.

“If you arrive early, you’re neurotic; if you arrive on time, you’re compulsive; if you arrive late, you’re hostile.” Kay Hannah

After I shave away my three-day beard, I exchange paint-stained shirt and trousers for much cleaner clothing, load Marcia’s cello into the trunk of our car, and chauffer Marcia and our delightful neighbor Marion Crombie, viola, down to the festival tent for the long awaited opening night concert. Both gals look beautiful and full of equipoise in comfortable but elegant black attire, and they both express quiet optimism that the concert, despite the absence of anything by Mendelssohn, will be a good one. Verdi, Prokoffief, and Rachmaninoff are on the menu, and the sun, miraculously, is still shining brightly as I navigate the crowded lanes of the village, the air vibrating with the collective excitement that composes the prelude to the orchestral miracle we are about to witness.

I was going to bring along my little silver transistor radio so I could listen to the Giants game before the concert and during the lengthy intermission, but I chose to leave the tiny thing behind so as not to appear gauche and insensitive and possibly more interested in baseball than in my wife’s life work. Tim Lincecum is pitching tonight, and the dramatic arc of Monsieur Lincecum’s career especially intrigues me. After a stellar first few years, the wunderkind has fallen on hard times and is now in the throes of trying to reinvent himself as someone with a fastball in the low nineties instead of a fastball in the high nineties.

Finding every parking place within three blocks of the festival tent taken, I commandeer a space near the post office and traipse from there through the lovely flower-infested grounds of the MacCallum House and down the walkway that begins behind the Mendocino Hotel and pops out on Main Street across from the fabulous festival tent. Seeing I have nearly a half-hour before the music begins, I wander down to the trail across the street from Out of This World and traverse the headlands to the cliff’s edge from where I look down on the shining water, the surface of the sea as calm as a lake on a windless day. Intoxicated by the glorious scene, I fall into a reverie about Felix Mendelssohn and Tim Lincecum and Sergei Prokofiev and Madison Bumgarner and Jimi Hendrix and Sergei Rachmaninoff, geniuses all.

Fortunately my reverie concludes in time for me to join the tail end of the pre-concert melee outside the grandiloquent tent where I bump into Sam Edwards who kindly invites me to join him in a glass of wine, his treat, but I demur because of my deathly allergy to alcohol. We discover we both have complimentary tickets for seats in the nosebleed section courtesy of our partners who play in the festival orchestra, and upon comparing our tickets we find that my seat is directly in front of Sam’s.

“See you in there,” I say, as the bell clangs to summon the masses to find their seats.

With a few minutes remaining before the trouble begins, as Mark Twain liked to say about his public appearances, I wander down the aisle to the epicenter of the tent to say hello to Peter Temple, our local sonic master manning the bridge of his audio Enterprise, so to speak, riding the soundboard controlling the microphones suspended above the stage where a hundred and twenty-some musicians are vigorously sawing and tooting and banging away on their instruments to ready themselves for the exciting adventure they are about to embark upon.

When I inform Peter that I have been assigned a seat way in the back, he taps the chair beside him and says, “Sit here,” and so I do—best seat in the house. Am I lucky or what? I have a clear view of Marcia in her seat next to Stephen Harrison, our superb Principal cellist, and I have plenty of room to stretch my legs and wiggle in my seat as much as I want while the music plays. Yes, I’m lucky, but I suppose I made choices along the way that made such luck possible. Do we make our own luck? Is luck really luck or the manifestation of karma?

The lights dim. Allan Pollack enters from the wings. The crowd erupts in applause. Allan steps up onto the podium, faces the audience, smiles radiantly, and bows. I’ve seen Allan conduct the Music Festival orchestra and the Symphony of the Redwoods orchestra dozens of times, and I always have the same three thoughts whenever I watch him conduct: 1. What a cool guy 2. He reminds me of Groucho Marx in the best sort of way 3. How does he manage to get all those people with their separate egos and divergent inclinations to perform so harmoniously and with such unanimity of feeling?

“A man has only one way of being immortal on this earth: he has to forget he is a mortal.” Jean Giraudoux

The concert a smashing success, the pianist James D’Leon triumphant over the monumental Rachmaninoff, Marcia and Marion in a celebratory mood, we arrive home to the news that Tim Lincecum just pitched the first no-hitter of his illustrious career, and I unashamedly burst into tears, having been cracked wide open by the metaphysical music and feeling Tim’s historic victory as a resurrection, both his and mine, however inexplicable that feeling is—proof of the interconnectedness of all things, the orchestra in that tent on the headlands supplying the quantum physical musical soundtrack to Tim’s remarkable achievement.

I find a video on the interweb that shows the final pitches of all twenty-seven outs recorded in Tim’s phenomenal game, including thirteen strikeouts and three great plays at Third Base by Pablo Sandoval and a truly miraculous diving catch by Hunter Pence in Right Field. I watch the twenty-seven outs twice and cry each time Buster Posey grabs Tim in a bear hug the split second after the last fly ball settles into Gregor Blanco’s glove, the ever stoic Lincecum breaking into the fabulous grin of a man who has finally conquered his greatest enemy—self-doubt.