Monday, November 29, 2010
In my post on “The Naked Gun,” I wrote about Leslie Nielsen’s adventures with a rubber toy that made fart noises. It was called “Le Tooter,” and he always had it in his pocket, at the ready. He said it changed his life. It made people see him as a silly guy, not some kind of imposing dramatic actor. I never found out whether it predated his transition to comedic roles, but certainly the fact that he was deadpan funny was something that the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker trio revealed to the world, not something they created.
What can you say about someone who enjoyed standing straight-faced while making rude noises in elevators?
That he loved making people laugh, and he will be very, very much missed.
Sunday, November 28, 2010
Built in the twenties, the building had been the lavish home of the owners of a posh downtown hotel, until bad times turned it into a boarding house. Luckily, or unluckily, even worse times made its real estate value plummet to the level that filmmakers Jim Klein and Julia Reichert could buy it, and fill every inch of it with young people hungry to do grass roots political media work.
They called it Media House.
It was enormous. The main floor had a huge living room, a dining room, a kitchen, a bedroom, and an enclosed porch that Julia and Jim used for the office of New Day Films, the feminist distribution company they founded to release their movies, as well as those of some of their filmmaker friends. The second floor had five bedrooms, and a sleeping enclosed porch, which is where my buddy Andy Garrison lived. The third floor was an attic with two maid’s rooms: one was a sound studio and the second was Cathy Cartwright’s room. (In lieu of a fire escape, Cathy had a trusty axe and a rope ladder for safety.) The basement had a toilet the Media Housers converted into a darkroom, and Tony remodeled a lot of the rest of the basement into a lavish bedroom for himself. That’s probably why Tony was the first one to hear me when I arrived in the middle of the night.
In general seven or eight people lived at Media House, but when I got to Dayton they were gearing up for a big project they called “Summer Lights,” and there were even more people who came in just for that. It was kind of one of those little cars at the Circus where the door opens and more and more clowns come out, but in this case you could sit on the couch in the living room listening to NPR and be engulfed by an endless cascade of youthful political types. In addition to Tony, Andy and Cathy, I’m told that some of the other people that lived there around them were Sherry Novick, Eric Johnson, Tricia Hart (married to Eric), and Barbara Tuss.
Everybody put in all their earnings except Julia and Jim who put in part and left the rest for New Day Films. There was only one house checking account. Everybody was responsible for certain chores like cleaning the bathroom, shopping, doing the books, paying bills, etc., and most assisted in various ways with Julia and Jim’s filmmaking. They each got a weekly allowance of around $12 a week to do something fun like get a beer or see a movie. As alien as all this share-the-wealth mishegas was to me, the atmosphere didn’t scream POLITICAL COLLECTIVE! It wasn’t a super serious place, more like “Friends,” with a dollop of Marxism thrown in to spice up some episodes. It was a relaxed place to hang out and they were kind enough to let me do that all the time. I do remember a fight I had with Jim when the Time/Newsweek covers came out on Bruce Springsteen. He said Springsteen was all hype, and I—who had been listening to the first album for a long time—maintained that he more than deserved all the praise he was getting. Jim was mainly expressing his suspicion of media flim-flammery (soon to be my profession), but I played him the record and he just didn’t get it, and that really puzzled me. (Of course, if you remember Holly Near, then you know who was Number One on the Hit Parade at Media House.) Jim himself was a wonderful musician, and some of my happiest memories of those days involve listening to him play the piano.
I must admit I thought it was a pretty sweet deal for Julia and Jim. Everybody paid, and I assumed they owned the place. They got the mortgage paid, cooking, cleaning, and assistance on their films, etc. Their new film, “Union Maids,” was going to come out and it was going to have their names on it, and they would derive the most benefit. But since then I’ve reflected and I see that it took great vision, commitment and risk for them to put the whole thing together, and every single person, myself included, got a tremendous amount out of being a part of it. Many of the people who lived at Media House have gone on to great success as filmmakers in their own right.
The boogeyman for Media House’s “Summer Lights” project was the evil Dayton Power & Light company, and its nefarious utility-related crimes and ecological misdemeanors. I believe that DP&L had recently instituted a policy of flushing the toilets when poor people were taking showers, and they had drawn up plans for a mini-nuclear power plant in the PermaFilm room at Twyman’s. Honestly, I didn’t care much about DP&L—as I would soon be on a different power grid--I just wanted to be friends with the Media Housers, meet girls, and have something to do, so I passionately signed on to the anti-DP&L cause. Viva la Revolucion!
“Summer Lights” was a series of shows put on local parks in “working class” areas. Before the shows, members of the Media House contingent would pick a poor neighborhood, and go door-to-door, like left-wing Jehovah’s Witnesses. They spent time with people, got to know them, listening to their concerns, taking their photos, while, not so incidentally, peppering them with their anti-DP&L shpiel. The Media Housers treated these people with real respect. I doubt many young people came by, listened to them, and asked to take their pictures. It was good for everyone, as the young people received training in photography, among other media skills, and got valuable life experience.
When it came time for the “Summer Lights” show, the Media Housers leafleted the whole neighborhood, and put up a huge screen in the park so that all the locals who agreed to be photographed became “stars,” their giant faces gleaming down at their friends. It was the kind of thing that could make you feel really good.
Unfortunately there was a live component to the “Summer Lights” events, and I’m embarrassed to say, it was “Guerrilla Theatre,” featuring me. (Does anybody use the term “Guerrilla Theatre” anymore? Nowadays, all you hear is “Guerilla Marketing.”) I played a character called “Reddy Kilowatt,” after the cartoon corporate mascot for the electrical industry. The real Reddy was just shoes, gloves and a head, connected by bolts of electricity. He was always smiling, and I could never figure out why, because with that much juice shooting through him, Reddy was a goner. My Reddy was just me in a t-shirt with a star on it and a top hat who held an electric light bulb. I don’t remember if the bulb lit up, but I do know that when I was a kid I had an Uncle Fester toy light bulb from the Addams Family that did, so I understood the underlying technology for this kind of prop. (Julia and Andy claim to still have pictures of me in this getup, so they know.) I don’t remember, but it’s likely that I represented big bad DP&L. Cathy Cartwright’s 12-year-old sister, Nancy, who would later become the voice of Bart Simpson, played Margaret from “Dennis the Menace.” Maybe somebody from Media House can explain what Margaret from “Dennis the Menace” had to do with Dayton utility issues? If we could have seen the future, maybe Nancy should have played Mr. Burns at “Summer Lights,” and I should have played Margaret, or even better, Ralph Wiggum.
And then there was—I’m sad to report--a song about solar energy. Come on! Everybody join in!
It took a little while for me to figure out who was involved with who in the community that centered around Media House. What fine young lady was already in a relationship or gay? Who might possibly be interested in me? It wasn’t like it was that big a group. It was more like a bar at closing time: choose or lose. I’m sure that thoughts like these never once occurred to high-minded guys like Tony and Andy, but they consumed me during my hours of toil at Twyman’s. There were two attractive feministas I had crushes on who were willing to make a pilgrimage to the Rosefelt bachelor lair. The first one came over on a Saturday afternoon. My memory is that we had tea and talked about how swell it was in Mao’s China. The second one came for an evening movie. For some reason, I brought home “Casino Royale,” which I hadn’t seen and still haven’t because we didn’t get past the credits. So the second one, whose name was Judy, was now my girlfriend, and the other one was really hurt. I think it meant something totally different to her to be invited over for tea and Mao than it did to me, and I betrayed that. The truth is that there was a part of me that was sensitive and responded to her sweetness, and another part that was selfish and only thought about myself, and Judy was by far the hottest of the two, and therefore there was no contest.
Not that Judy was any intellectual slouch. She had just come back to Dayton (where she grew up) to be near her mother after her father died. A friend of hers had joked that some filmmakers from Antioch had moved to Dayton to organize the masses, and she decided to check it out. But Judy’s involvement in “Summer Lights” came from a perspective that was the complete opposite of mine--for her, it wasn’t political enough. She had issues with, in her words, “Alinsky-style organizing.” She talked like that.
It’s very difficult for me to look back on those days from the jaded perspective of today and figure out what I actually thought about Judy’s politics or those of anybody at the Media House. What ideas did I honestly share with them and to what extent was I bluffing to be liked and accepted? After all, I had been a true believer for a lot of my college years, definitely saw myself on the left and still basically do. It’s too facile, and actually wrong to say in retrospect that I completely rejected everything, just because I’m quite sure I didn’t swallow it whole. In essence I was on the same side of the fence as everybody, just a lot closer to the fence than they were. They were way out there. I think the following anecdote illustrates this very well:
When I left for New York, the Media House people kindly let me store my bigger stuff in their basement. A few months later, when I returned to Dayton to get everything, I found out that they had given away my TV, and had cut the lock on my beloved bicycle and had started using it, which would have been fine if they’d asked, or at least taken care of it. I discovered it buried in a snowdrift. I went everywhere on that bike all through college, kept it oiled, tuned, and gleaming, and now it was basically a junker, capable of transportation, nothing more. And my TV! Were they nuts? I never signed on to their stinkin’ Mickey Mao Club! In fairness, they did consent to drive me across town, so I could go into these strangers’ living room and cart the TV away like a repo man.
This was the essence of the difference. I would never in a billion years have even thought of actually living at Media House. Sharing? I was too selfish, and didn’t feel guilty about that at all. I could talk the left-wing talk, but ultimately I didn’t believe it enough in order to plunge in fully. So what was my politics at that age? What was my anything? If you cut through all the shiny surfaces of everything I was trying to project at 22 years old, you would find inside somebody who had no idea who he was, and was trying to keep the show moving fast enough so that nobody else could figure that out.
The Media House collective lasted, in various configurations, for eight years, from 1972 to 1980, and then, like so many things, it ended. People scattered, and the house was ultimately sold. Tony went to Philly, Andy went to Austin, and Sherry went to the Bay area. Julia and Jim divorced in 1986. Judy went all the way to France, had kids, changed her name to Judith, and wrote a book, Feminism in the Heartland, on the women’s movement in Dayton. The film that the people in the Media House were working on while I was there, “Union Maids,” which Tony and Sherry shot, ended up being nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary. I designed the ads at my drawing board at New Yorker Films. Julia and Jim would receive a second Academy Award nomination in 1984 for their last joint collaboration, “Seeing Red,” which my PR firm represented. Julia has continued to make award-winning films with her new partner, Steven Bognar, including the Emmy-winning “Lion in the House,” and the Academy Award-nominated “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant.” Jim has worked steadily as an editor and directed the features “Letter to the Next Generation” and “Taken for a Ride.” But for a lot of these people, the bonds that were forged at Media House have never faded, and they continue to collaborate. For example, Jim edited all three of Tony’s films, and Tony came to Ohio to help Jim edit his last two movies.
You can even hear Jim’s piano playing on the soundtrack of “The Last Truck.”
Sunday, November 21, 2010
His name was Tony Heriza. Like me, he was a very recent college grad, from Antioch College in Yellow Springs. Julia and Jim were teachers there, and now Tony and a lot of their students and others were living as a collective in this home. They called it “Media House.” They all worked straight jobs and contributed their salaries to the collective, and were mutually involved in political projects in their off-hours. And in a weird fluke, Tony was also starting a job at Twyman Films the next day, just as I was.
The next morning, I met Jim and Julia and a lot of the others. My immediate impression, was that everybody was very nice, and pretty similar to a lot of the people I had been acquainted with in Madison. The right politics, and sort of defined by having the right politics, in the same way that some people define themselves by their jobs or their artistic pursuits. These were people who appeared to think that if they did some good things, they could make the world better. My close friends back home had similar politics, but they were more the kind of people who didn’t think things were going to get better unless you burned the whole thing down. The Media House people were really smart, had admirable goals, and weren’t cynical. But by then, I‘d been through my Jewish period, my rock band period, my musical theatre period, my political action period, and now had moved on to the filmmaking and not terribly political period of my life. But there were some pretty girls in the circle of left-wing action around Media House, and I knew that I was going to be a very lonely guy during my sojourn in Dayton if I didn’t join in. Choosing whether to be a Media Houser was a non-question. It provided an instant circle of friends.
Twyman’s was an easy walk from Media House and Tony and I were there in minutes. I learned that Media House wasn’t in suburbia at all, in fact the neighborhood was kind of crummy. (To prove Media House’s street cred, Jim proudly told me there was a crack den next door.) Twyman’s was a modest two-story building in front of a slightly rundown street, next door to a McDonald’s.
I had always thought that Twyman’s was a pointless company, for me anyway. I never booked films for my film club from them once, and I didn’t know anybody in the sixteen film societies in Madison who did either. What was the point? They didn’t have a single film that wasn’t available somewhere else, often for less money. Their attempted marketing stratagem, which didn’t bowl me over, was that their prints were better. I didn’t find this terribly compelling.
Tony’s job was downstairs in their projector rental shop, as I would, during the half of the day I wasn’t designing the catalog. It was very hard for me to find my bearings and be there, in a new city, working my first real job. All these weirdos worked there. I never had to deal with people like Elva Mae the accountant with her huge magnifying glass always pressed in front of her face. She was this big eye. It was a huge comedown to realize how little money was left after they took the taxes out of my hefty $160 weekly check.
The film bookers sat around a circular table. The phones rang incessantly and they would spin the booking books back and forth like a lurching top. Left! Right! Right! Left! And the phone would be ringing and ringing. They’d have the phones in one hand as they spun this hoop of doom. If Dante had taken a gander at this instrument of torture there’s no way he would have been able to deal. “No! No! Take it away, please! Of course, what I didn’t know then, is that I would one day be toiling at this whirling dreidel of damnation.
You had to sit outside Alan Twyman’s office for awhile waiting for your meeting. He went to offices in New York and elsewhere and they would always make him wait, so he figured that was how it was done with important people. What he never figured out was that the people in those offices actually had jobs. All the time I worked there I couldn’t really see what he did. There was an office manager, Harold Bowman, who handled the staff. I suppose that he had to make the deals with the various companies that gave Twyman their movies. That couldn’t be more than a few days work a year. So he did some thumb-twiddling in there until he felt sufficient time had passed for you to be summoned into his office. And he didn’t mind if you looked in there and saw that he was virtually motionless. Perhaps he was pondering some new concepts in print enhancement.
Alan was very good-looking, carefully groomed, snappily dressed, sort of prissy, with a pronounced self-importance. He acted like he fancied himself a big-time film mogul, the lord of this third-tier sector of the motion picture industry. He was always distant, but sometimes he could have a dry wit. The firm was passed down from his Dad, also called Alan Twyman. I think one of them was called Alan P. Twyman, and the other one was Alan T. Twyman. The elder was referred to by the staff as “Mr. T.” Once there was absolute pandemonium when Twyman Senior turned up for a visit. Elva Mae would started bellowing, “Mr. T’s in the parking lot! “Mr. T’s in the parking lot!”
The younger Twyman had taken over recently, and was executing some big plans to take the company into the future. In addition to my redesign of the catalog, he’d hired this guy named John Geoghegan as a copywriter. Geoghegan was a slickster and had some kind of academic credentials, as he had been a professor somewhere. I was jealous of him because he was going to write all the time, while I was going to be a designer half the day, and spend the other half in the rental shop. My design room was upstairs in the room that housed The Permafilm Machine, the technology that gave Twyman its amazing prints . What was PermaFilm? I never found out, but at Twyman’s it was somewhere between the formula for Coca-Cola and the Holy Grail—and boy did it stink! All day long I breathed in PermaFilm vapors, which couldn’t have done me any good.
I rented a basement apartment in the shadow of a highway for $100 a month plus a $25 security deposit. The first night there, I had to get up to go to the bathroom and I turn on the lights. The entire floor was covered with huge roaches. They had scurried out in all directions from under my bed. There must have been over a hundred of them, and their pals kept coming out from under the bed. How was I going to live in this awful place?
The answer came the next day when I came back from work and found the back door to the apartment lying on the floor. Gone was my radio shack cassette player, and everything electronic. The worst loss was my electric shaver. That night I hiked to the local 7-11 and bought a cheap Bic disposable razor. I’d never used one of them before, and my first attempt wasn’t pretty. I went to work the next morning with four or five deep slices on my face.
When I came home the next day I saw there was an apartment available across the street. The landlady lived nearby and I signed a lease immediately. It was huge, on the second floor, and had a little balcony that overlooked this well-tended flower garden. Of course, this was pricey, $125 a month, and meant that I lost my $25 deposit to the Roach-and-Ripoff Hotel, but it was well worth it.
Around this time I took the bus back to Madison to pick up the stuff I couldn’t fit in the duffle bag. The plan was that my on-and-off girlfriend Barbara (referred to at the beginning of this blog) was going to drive down to Dayton with me, spend some time, and then drive the car back afterwards. Unfortunately she took this time to tell me that she was breaking up with me. It was traumatic, but in retrospect she picked the right time. Very soon I was going to be in New York City and she was going to be on the west coast. But it was tough to forego the romantic trip I had in mind, and drive back to Dayton with my mom instead.
Sometimes Twyman would come upstairs and talk to me while I was working. Once he pointed out that there was a guy downstairs getting a blowjob in his car. He went on to explain that Dayton was considered the prostitution capital of Ohio and men drove there from all over the state to sample its delights. As I said in last week’s post, the hookers would stand by the bridge and wave at the cars. So you know what the city did while I was there? They outlawed waving in Dayton. I am not making this up. I remember reading a newspaper editorial saying that this law might make people think that Dayton wasn’t a friendly town.
One day, I was hauled into Harold Bowman’s office. He looked me up and down and asked me a ton of tough questions. I had no idea what I had done wrong. It eventually came out that Elva Mae, probably jealous, told him she caught me sleeping up in the PermaFilm room. I proclaimed my innocence, but it was my word against hers and she’d been there a hundred years. And who knows? Maybe I did conk out after breathing too many PermaFilm fumes.
Anyway, after that I was taken out of the rental shop and put to work booking movies at the spinning round table. Whenever things get so bad I can’t take it, I think of those days, renting Chaplin shorts to high school teachers. Show business is so exciting.
Twyman was always talking about “exclusive product.” We had to get some films that nobody else had. Eventually he bought a Mexican film called “Chac.” It was a good film, but I didn’t really see how it was going to make a lot of difference for Twyman. Having “Chac” didn’t seem like much competition with, for example, the entire Paramount library.
I had planned to spend the summer of 1975 in Dayton, but ended up staying until Christmas, as I wanted to save up a nest egg. As I mentioned before, the Twyman Catalog helped me score a freelance job at UA Classics and my eventual career launch at New Yorker Films.
A few years ago I read that Alan Twyman had died. It brought back a lot of memories and made me really sad, as I knew that Alan was a bachelor and the Twyman line would end with him. What happened to Twyman’s? While writing this I did some Googling and I couldn’t find anything except my reference to the company’s name in last week’s blog, and some quotes from Alan in tributes to Raymond Rohauer. As far as the internet goes, that’s it. Twyman Films is gone, aside from my memories and the memories of all the other people who worked there. Maybe little companies like Twyman’s aren’t the biggest stories in film history, but it did last through two generations and that should mean something. It should mean a lot. Alan Twyman was a good guy who loved and knew a lot about classic films and deserves better.
I close my eyes and I am up on the second floor in front of my drafting table. Behind me the PermaFilm machine clicks and hums. Downstairs, the film booking carousel is spinning. 16mm reels are packed into heavy duty boxes and prepared for mailing. John Geoghegan is writing something that amuses him. Tony is showing a school teacher how to thread a 16mm projector. Elva Mae verifies that the accounts are all in order. Alan Twyman is thinking about the future, and Mr. T. is in the parking lot reminding us of the passage of time.
Sunday, November 14, 2010
Me during my summer in Dayton, Ohio . Was I ever that young?
Hitchhiking wasn’t supposed to be like this. In the movies you got out of one car, stuck out your thumb and before long the next car comes along, the driver says, “jump in!” and you’re Kerouac-ing your merry way. Yeah! That’s the glory of the open road! You weren’t supposed to be standing for three hours on some deserted highway at some unknown location outside Toledo.
I wasn’t supposed to be hitchhiking. Weeks before I had a ride set up that was going to take me right after my home in Madison, Wisconsin to New York City as soon as I graduated. Literally on Friday before the Sunday I was going, I got a call from a guy named Alan Twyman who I’d met at a Job Fair. He ran a film distribution company in Dayton and he was offering me a job designing his catalog. I knew his company but I had rarely rented from them. He didn’t stock anything I couldn’t get anywhere else. But he seemed like a nice guy and the company was reputable. I was really excited about going to New York, but I decided to be practical, take a few months and make a few bucks. And isn’t the mark of a middle class kid the ability to postpone pleasure?
My film grad student friend Serafina Bathrick knew some filmmakers in Dayton named Julia Reichert and Jim Klein. They had made a highly regarded documentary called “Growing Up Female,” thus hitting the jackpot feministically-wise by being one of the first films out of the gate on the topic. For some reason, they lived in Dayton, of all places. Anyway, Fina called them and they were nice enough to let me spend a few nights at their house until I found someplace to live. So I had an address and a phone number.
I asked my friend who was going to take me to New York to take me as far as Toledo. So there I was, standing in this Beckettian nowhere-land, it was all my idea, I was hungry, and it was going to be dark soon. I figured it was time to pick up my trusty duffel bag and start walking. Eventually I had to reach a town or a house, right?
Well, no. You can drive on a highway going 60 or 70 and sometimes you don’t see anything for a long time. I estimated I was going about 5 MPH. Every now and then a car would come by and I’d stick out my thumb, but nobody ever even slowed down. I was going to have to suck it up, be patient, and keep going.
It was then I saw the fire. Somewhere in the distance there was something on fire. Maybe a house burning down? That would be wonderful. There would be firemen and families crying. They could throw one of those big blankets around me like they do in the movies for some reason. Maybe the firemen bring them with them? I could sure use a blanket, because I was freezing. And maybe they would have something to eat? It wouldn’t have to be fancy, even a peanut-and-jelly sandwich would do. Maybe some hot cocoa or cider served up from a thermos? That would really hit the spot.
But you know the way it is when you’re walking on some highway in the middle of the night outside Toledo and you see a fire? It may look like that fire is right next to you, but if you really believe that, let me assure you: you are wrong. You can walk and walk and walk and you won’t get anywhere near it. If I didn’t get a move on, the fire could go out and the fireman could leave and the weeping families would head out to spend the night with friends or at a reasonably-priced hotel. They would definitely take the blankets, the sandwiches and the cider with them. It was time to start running. I was 22 and in good shape and this kind of thing was still possible, even while toting a duffel bag.
But it wasn’t a house that was burning; it was a bonfire. Three idiots were burning leaves and other crap in a huge pile. In the middle of the night.
They were two boys and a girl, younger than me, probably 18. Farm kids, for sure. “Who the hell are you?” one of the boys asked me, a very reasonable question under the circumstances. I dropped my duffel bag and sat down on the ground next to them. They offered me a beer and I told them my story. They were extremely impressed. By my stupidity. Apparently there was a lot more nowhere ahead of me on that highway than my pinheaded college-educated brain could ever imagine. What the hell did I think I was doing? I would definitely have spent the night in some ditch. Or worse. They were in a very isolated place and there was no way I would ever have seen them if they hadn’t been sitting out that night in that field burning trash. Just call me a lucky guy.
But they were nice, and one of the kids, the one who was with the girl, had a guitar. I played a few Dylan and Beatle songs and he decided I was okay. He and his girlfriend took me inside and got me something to eat. She was the nice one. She was the one who suggested that they drive me to the bus station in Toledo. Of course in the movies they let you stay the night, and then it either becomes a horror movie or a Sam Shepard play, or preferably, the girl (who was very cute, by the way) would sneak into my room in the middle of the night and tell me I had to save her and we must run away together immediately. But driving me to the bus station was still pretty cool. I could live with that.
They knew the schedule, so I got there not long before the bus left. And here was another movie: me bidding a fond farewell to my newfound friends who I would never see again, headin’ out on the lonesome road again—a ramblin’ guy.
It must have been about 3 am when I got into the bus station in downtown Dayton. I called a cab to Julia and Jim’s house. Before we drove across a bridge I saw a pack of prostitutes, waving at us (more about this next week). It was sort of like a Fellini movie, only in Dayton, not Rome, which made it less scintillating, and I’m sure, less worthy of subtitling.
Julia and Jim lived in this suburban house on this nondescript street. This is where left-wing filmmakers resided? This was the revolution? This wasn’t the kind of place a guy like me wanted to be. This was my parents’ house. This is the kind of place you wanted to leave as soon as you can and go to New York City. And it was a good-sized spread. Those two must have a houseful of kids. Yuck! I had to get my own apartment as soon as possible.
All the lights were off of course. I tap-tap-tapped on the door but nobody answered. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to wake them up, but I didn’t want to spend the night on the porch either. So I just kept tapping softly. This was exactly like the movie scenes where the guy throws pebbles at the upstairs window of his lady love. He wants her to hear him, but he doesn’t want her parents to find out he’s there. If you want to be a successful romantic guy in the movies you have to have the delicacy and aim of Mariano Rivera and know a little something about physics. Wind shear. Got to get it just right or you’ll be in an “Animal House” movie and break the window. Anyway, this was the kind of balance I was striving for, to get inside without being perceived as an asshole who thumps on the door like the Gestapo.
Finally the door opened and this guy welcomed me in. He was the kind of person you like the minute you lay eyes on him. “You must be Reid,” he said, extending his hand, smiling warmly. “I’m Tony.” He was fully dressed. I hadn’t woke him up at all. He had probably been up reading a book by some important woman writer like Kate Millett, or judging by the house, Betty Crocker.
“How long have you been sitting out here?” he asked. “Why didn’t you knock louder? ”
Sunday, November 07, 2010
As I mentioned in last week’s post, I got to New York in the winter of 1975 with a duffel bag, a hideous suit, $2000, a graphic design portfolio, and high hopes built on a bedrock of terror, as in “what the hell would I do if I didn’t make it in New York and had to go back home?”
But I realized it would take more than money to keep me here. A town is never your own until you fill it with friends. I had to do that somehow. The obvious thing was to start with people I knew from home that were living here.
The first person I called was Pam, a good friend of my ex-girlfriend Barbara. Over coffee at Reggio on MacDougal, she told me she could never get the two of us together. “She was so beautiful, so glowing with life and wonder,” she explained. “And you….weren’t.” Ouch.
I was a little dumbfounded by the offhand cruelty of Pam’s remark, but on the long subway ride back to Park Slope, I realized that Pam had taught me an important lesson. Now that I was here, I wasn’t going to be held back by the way people saw me back home—I could be anything I wanted to be. It was square one. New York was just like Jewish summer camp.
I remember when I got to Herzl Camp in northern Wisconsin at age 16 with my long hair and red Gibson SG, that it didn’t matter what the girls back at Monona Grove High School thought of me. When I got up on the stage of the auditorium and started playing The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Younger Girl,” I was shocked to discover that I could be sexy. Being good at sports didn’t matter at Jewish Camp. Crooning pop songs, knowing a few Mickey Katz jokes, and being an intellectual poseur did. And after the few week session ended, I went back to Monona with a lot more spring in my step.
New York was going to be my new Herzl, my Aliyah, as it were. Nobody knew me in the Big City and therefore I could pretend to be anything and then maybe I’d really become whatever I was making up. Or maybe New York’s alchemy would wash over me and I’d just become something I wasn’t clever enough to think up by myself. If I willed it, it would be no dream.
But where to start?
That question began to be answered when I got the job at New Yorker Films. Even though I wasn’t being paid squat, I still worked at one of the leading companies distributing foreign films in the USA. I got invited to parties at places like the French Consulate, and Goethe House, and the New York Film Festival. All I needed was to look presentable and there were endless opportunities to meet all kinds of people. And the more people I talked to, the more lists I got on. After a few years I had a game to get through the entire New York Film Festival without paying for a single evening meal. I would have done it too, if it weren’t for those cheapskates from Senegal.
Clothes, of course, were the essential part of the disguise. Put good clothes on, you can kind of fit in, even if you’re a clodhopper from the sticks with a tendency to spill the canapés on your tie. I spent as much time at Barney’s, Fiorucci, and Charivari as I did at movie theatres. I’d like to pretend that I always waited for sales, but the truth is the deficit spending practices that went into on my clothing expenditures would give John Boehner a heart attack.
I met cinematographer Ed Lachman at a party that Dan threw in his apartment for Werner Herzog. Ed had just come back from shooting “La Soufriere” for Werner. Ed was fascinating to me because he had one foot in the art film world and one foot in Hollywood. He worked often as a “Standby Cameraman” on films shooting in New York. When a celebrated director of photography would come over from Europe, they often weren’t members of the New York union locals, so the union would insist that one of their guys would “stand by” (i.e. get paid for doing nothing). I thought that was a pretty sweet deal. Ed went to the world’s greatest film school, apprenticing with some of the greatest cameramen in the world… and got paid a ton of money for it! At the same time, Ed shot some independent films like “The Lords of Flatbush,” “False Face,” and “Union City.” As Ed’s career proceeded after “La Soufriere,” I worked increasingly on the films he shot. As our lives interweaved, Ed and I became good friends.
I started bringing 16mm prints from New Yorker over to Ed’s huge loft on 19th Street every weekend. As the months went by, more and more friends began to turn up, and it became something like a salon. We’d watch the movie and talk about it for hours. Often the conversation would continue at Pete’s Tavern or some other local bar. There were regulars, but when filmmakers and actors came through town, they’d turn up, everyone from Fassbinder star Hanna Schygulla to Wim Wenders’ sound man Martin Muller, whose girlfriend, Fatima Igramhan (now Parsons), hosted a German TV show about New York City, that Ed sometimes shot for. Other frequent guests were photographer/filmmaker Elizabeth Lennard and her photographer sister, Erica, Philip “Philippo” Haas (later the director of “Angels and Insects”), the late Federico de Laurentiis (Dino’s son), the late writer Carlos Clarens, Werner Herzog hagiographer Alan Greenberg (“Land of Look Behind”), TV journalist/screenwriter Laurie Frank (“Making Mr. Right”), model/actress Audrey Matson, aspiring songwriter Tessa Marquis (now a successful businesswoman/political activist), Fassbinder editor Ila Von Hasperg, and as I mentioned in a previous post, Kathryn Bigelow. Sometimes it was a very relaxed affair, with ten or fifteen people, but on other occasions we would go all out, like a showing of Leone’s“Once Upon a Time in the West,” which was a huge party complete with rented scope lenses and pasta sauce served up for the crowd by “Philippo.”
A few months into our film club, I realized that I was surrounded by an exciting new community of friends, very similar to the one I had back in Wisconsin. I was doing well with my work and having a lot of fun. I wasn’t just faking sophistication any longer, I was legitimately gaining it. I didn’t have to worry anymore about making myself into someone good enough to survive in New York and not be sent home. These people knew me and liked me and it was time to relax. It was okay just to be me, because after all, like so many of my new friends who had come here from all over the world, I was now a New Yorker.