Sunday, April 24, 2011
While riding on a train goin’ west
I fell asleep for to take my rest
I dreamed a dream that made me sad
Concerning myself and the first few friends I had
Today, April 25th, 2011, is my birthday. I still feel the same way inside as I did in my twenties. Unfortunately, each morning that face in the mirror chases that notion away every morning.
With half-damp eyes I stared to the room
Where my friends and I spent many an afternoon
Where we together weathered many a storm
Laughin’ and singin’ till the early hours of the morn
On Saturday, my wife assembled some of my friends for a brunch. Not everybody could come. Many people wanted to, but couldn’t come because of Easter or other prior engagements. But it sure was nice to see everybody.
By the old wooden stove where our hats was hung
Our words were told, our songs were sung
Where we longed for nothin’ and were quite satisfied
Talkin’ and a-jokin’ about the world outside
It made me think about how you lose people that were once a central part of your life, like your friends from high school and college. You see those people almost every day for years, until graduation happens … and that’s about it. At the time, you’d never imagine that you’d lose some or even all of those people forever, but you do.
It made me think about how you lose people that were once a central part of your life, like high school. College, work, etc. You see those people almost every day for years, until the thing that united you ends… and that’s about it. At the time, you’d never imagine that you’d lose some or even all of those people forever, but you do.
With haunted hearts through the heat and cold
We never thought we could ever get old
We thought we could sit forever in fun
But our chances really was a million to one
I quarreled with some of my friends so much that we reached a point where there was no point in continuing. Others slipped out of my life without me noticing it. Some became famous and forgot they knew me. Some moved to other cities. Some got married and had children. Some simply changed. One died.
As easy it was to tell black from white
It was all that easy to tell wrong from right
And our choices were few and the thought never hit
That the one road we traveled would ever shatter and split
I’m not blaming anyone. It’s the natural order of things. As I’ve gotten older, the constant hunger to connect with more and more people has eroded. At this stage in my life I’m not really looking to make too many new friends. It’s hard enough to find time for the old ones.
How many a year has passed and gone
And many a gamble has been lost and won
And many a road taken by many a friend
And each one I’ve never seen again
After all the thousands of people I’ve encountered in my life, it comes down to my family, the people I saw on Saturday, and a few precious others. Some relationships have endured, and some have fallen away. Is it passing the test of time or is it just dumb luck?
I wish, I wish, I wish in vain
That we could sit simply in that room again
Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat
I’d give it all gladly if our lives could be like that
The words in italics are the lyrics to the song “Bob Dylan’s Dream”
Copyright © 1963, 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991, 1992 by Special Rider Music
Monday, April 18, 2011
People often tell me that I should collect some of my best blog posts and publish them in book form. Sometimes I get this advice from friends; sometimes I get it in comments. In the last month there have been three people I respect who have strongly urged me to do it. A friend of mine who teaches a class at NYU even said that if my book existed he’d assign it to his class.
The fact is, I have one of the least-read blogs from as long as the record-keeping of bloggery as been chronicled. PhDers have noted that it is less read than cave paintings and Sumerian cuneiforms were at the time of their publication. I am not a modest man, but I am a realist and I must accept that this is not the kind of raw material that is displayed at Starbucks, praised by Oprah, lands on the NY Times best-seller list, is downloaded on iTunes, narrated by Robert Evans on an audiobook, or download on torrent sites.
Still, I’m frequently told that there are not many things written about the film industry that are exactly like this blog. If that is true, perhaps it is because people who are currently in the middle of working in the industry, as I am, don’t think they should write about it. They think it would be career suicide. Some people go from a career in the industry to because hard-nosed journalists, as Anne Thompson has done. As a former publicist, she has special insight and knows better than most journalists how to suss out the bullshit publicists try to feed her. But that doesn’t mean that she’s telling tales from her past, as these former colleagues are now sources.
I have lost some friendships with because of this blog. They thought it was a kind of betrayal. How dare I write about things that were supposed to be private? I was on the payroll and keeping my mouth shut was something, while never overtly stated, was tacitly understood. That’s how they could feel comfortable to be their unguarded selves in my company. My question is: if there is an earthquake and it happens that a well-known actor is standing next to me at that moment, do I cede the experience to the actor? Does that moment no longer belong to me? Should I go through my life with a memory pen and scratch out all the interesting bits where a celebrity was in the vicinity? This is not a hypothetical question, as I have been instructed to use such a pen, and I have complied. And sometimes I choose to use an eraser on my own. There are people I wouldn’t even think of writing about. If I am worried, I sometimes ask people for permission. But it would be impossible to do that all the time; this blog might be unwritable.
On the other hand, it is understood that celebrities can write about their careers without getting release forms from everyone they collaborated with. Well-known writers can do the same. Nora Ephron famously said, “everything is material.” I cling to the naïve belief that the worth and justification for my writing will stand for itself. If I write well enough, if my opinions are well considered, then the enterprise of “My Life as a Blog” is legitimate.
The truth is that sometimes I write something that strikes a chord with people and sometimes I write something that falls flat. Sometimes the personal stories I tell display the wisdom of my actions; sometimes they prove that I am an idiot. But that is an excellent description of me: a smart guy who often is an ignoramus. To be clear, I’m not saying I have acted like a jackass; I’m saying I am often am a certifiable jackass. And those moments are my favorites. For example, my instructing Jim Jarmusch that he should leave an excellent short film he made as a short—in other words, that he should not make Stranger Than Paradise. I absolutely love that story and have dined out on it for decades.
I remember I was working on a project with Lily Tomlin and I was saying something and she looked at me quizzically—and she’s a super nice person and liked me--but she said, “Isn’t that… stupid?” She had no intention of being insulting, she was just confused, as I normally had the ability to forge intelligible thought. And she was right on the money about that moment—dumb as a plank I was.
Every Sunday night when I have to push the “enter” button and put my latest post up on my site I tense up and wonder: Will this be a Lily Tomlin week? Or will it mean something to people? Even if it’s a few people.
One of my favorite books is “Joe Gould’s Secret,” written by the great Joseph Mitchell (and made into a movie by Stanley Tucci.) For a New Yorker story, Mitchell writes a portrait of a guy who tells everybody in his circle that he’s writing the Great American Novel. SPOILER ALERT! Gould’s secret is he isn’t writing anything at all, just intriguing scraps that fool people into thinking he is up to something that will send the literary world in to a new orbit. When Mitchell finds out, he is of course dismayed that his article seems to be in disarray, but after some reflection, he gets a vision of the mind-numbing amounts of books: bookstores, libraries, archives, remainder bins, etc.---rivers, oceans, galaxies of books, books, and more books. Thank heavens, he thought, that there is one less book littering the world’s mental landscape.
Jean-Luc Godard said that a story should have a beginning, a middle and an end--just not in that order—and without me consciously being aware of it, both a narrative and themes have been emerging in this blog. Some of these stories have been written already; some have yet to be written, but I know they are coming. It’s the story of a Midwestern kid who given an extremely stern moral education by his Rabbi when he was growing up. And also in culture—he memorized all of Bob Dylan’s songs, and they were Biblically judgmental of hypocrisy and other moral foul play. He loved movies, so he set out for Manhattan, or as it is also known, Sodom. His moral background proved a grievous disadvantage as he tried to fit into the film industry. It confused people who lacked these deficiencies. They correctly understood that the purpose of life was to screw over as many people as possible in as gratuitously nasty a way as they possibly could. I remember having a conversation with an independent film producer (I think it was Ted Hope) and we both agreed that the people in the specialty film world were much meaner than those in the Hollywood world. (My guess is that it is like an academic environment—when there are less riches to be had, people rabidly chew each other like the dogs at Michael Vicks’ house.)
But he discovered that there was a miracle in the midst of all this. Some of the people he encountered were so spellbindingly talented and beautiful and kind and funny that his eyes misted over every time they entered the room. In fact, as I write this description of my story I am literally weeping thinking about some of these people. I’m getting pictures in my head and they are vivid.
Did these folks make up for everything else? There are those who have their lives elevated by religion or politics or art. For me it is those human beings; they were and continue to be my salvation. And for some reason I feel the need to spread the gospel. But this involves talking about all the bad stuff, as they only exist within that larger context.
And the question is: what is constructive information and what is merely gossip? Most blogs are filled with gossip. I love reading gossip; I just don’t want to write it myself, and will be very disappointed with myself if I do. If what I write is taken out of the electronic sphere, printed and bound, will they be cleansed somehow? As a publicist I know that context is all.
I have made this promise to myself that I will write an essay every week. I know that under the deadline I will make mistakes and there will be very bad ones that I will regret. Moreover they will make some people angry and may lose me work. And I need work to survive. On the other hand, many great opportunities have come out of it, like this past weekend when I was put up at a ritzy resort in Sarasota for a festival panel on the blacklist.
Do these stories have value or would it be better to toss them into the dustbin of film history? There are those who have told me I’m courageous for writing this blog the way I do, but as Lily Tomlin noted, maybe I’m just stupid.
So tell me, my tonstant weaders, all the vast dozens of you… assuming I could get it published, do you think I should I write a book?
Sunday, April 10, 2011
A few weeks ago I wrote a post about Elia Kazan and the blacklist and discovered I had hit a raw nerve. Some people felt that I had left Kazan off the hook for some terrible crimes; others were filled with rage that I would take it upon myself to judge Kazan. A long-time friend took her name off my mailing list. A respected critic wrote only three words “Who are you?” followed by a list of all the books he’d written, the festival juries he’d served on, etc. His point, as I understood it, was: where did I, a total nobody, get off making a judgment on Kazan, one of the greatest film artists in history?
After reading my post, Tom Hall, the Artistic Director of the Sarasota Film Festival, invited me to serve on a panel on the blacklist, along with Peter Askin (Trumbo), and Joshua Marston (Maria Full of Grace). (The panel will take place this coming Sunday, April 17th at 3pm at the Sarasota Opera House.) While Tom recognized I wasn’t an expert, based on my blog he felt I had something to contribute. As this is coming up a week from today, I’ve been thinking about what my contribution might be.
Rightly or wrongly, Kazan is the epic face of collaboration during the blacklist, in the same way as his counterpart, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, is the monolith of righteousness. As he was the most successful director in the theatre as well as movies, everyone felt Kazan had little to lose by defying the committee. He could keep working. As Kazan chose not to take that road, he was judged to be a greedy opportunist who sold out his friends for riches. While many were wracked with conflicts about their appearances before the committee, Kazan paid for a full page ad in the New York Times explaining why he did the right thing. There was a tone-deaf, Marie Antoinette quality to the way Kazan presented himself in the midst of all the broken lives, lost marriages and suicides wrought by the blacklist.
On the other hand, what was Kazan’s crime? Was he the only one who named names or behaved dishonorably? What about the grandstanding congressmen like J. Parnell Thomas who started the mess? What about the studio executives who actually created the blacklist? It wasn’t Kazan’s fault that he had to choose between losing his career or giving names of Communists to the committee. And as Richard Schickel wrote in his book on Kazan, there is a very solid argument that the 1950’s left could be strongly condemned for ignoring and/or defending the activities of Stalin, who had already killed almost a million people in his purges and cleansings, and sent fourteen million people to his Gulags by the time Kazan gave his testimony in 1952. Why stand up for people who were defending one of the worst butchers in history?
Things are never as simple as people would like to make them.
There are many things you can say in defense of Kazan’s actions, but there is no getting away from the fact that Kazan will always remain a very potent symbol. Those for whom the blacklist is still a living thing will never forgive him. Shortly before Kazan was presented with his honorary Oscar in 1999, blacklisted writer Abraham Polonsky told Entertainment Weekly that he was hoping someone would shoot Kazan, saying “it would no doubt be a thrill on an otherwise dull evening.” That kind of hateful talk is of course unacceptable.
On the other hand, there are people who aren’t curious about what Kazan did--they simply support him unconditionally because of his talent. I’m not at all comfortable with that. Should geniuses get a free pass? Do they live outside morality?
And this leads me to Roman Polanski. Is it okay to drug a 13-year-old girl and have anal sex with her against her will? And then leave her crying in your car, waiting for you to drive her home? And then say that the judge was just jealous—he would have liked to do the same thing? And never apologize?
Here are a few of the people who think that is fine and dandy: Martin Scorsese, Natalie Portman, Tilda Swinton, Jeanne Moreau, Jonathan Demme, Pedro Almodovar, Woody Allen, David Lynch, Paul Auster, the Dardennes Brothers, Wim Wenders, David Lynch, Guillermo del Toro, Wes Anderson, Mike Nichols, Darren Aronofsky, among many others.
Would these people want somebody to drug and anally rape their own 13-year-old child? Of course not, they simply feel that great artists must be defended at all times, no matter what they do. And it is this lazy, knee-jerk response that troubles me.
The blacklist was a nasty, cruel, ugly, disgusting, vicious, and appalling time. And just as Polanski should not get a free pass for what he did—neither should Kazan for the role he played in the blacklist. We need to think these things through, and not let extraordinary talent blind us to larger issues. I believe that how honorably we live means as much as the way we tell our stories. Which is not to suggest that I think “good” behavior bears any connection to better art—I far prefer Kazan’s movies to Dalton Trumbo’s scripts—just that these things matter.
Kazan’s films were always praised, but he was often denied awards, including the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award, and prizes from the San Francisco Film Festival, and LA Film Critics. There were too many people around who remembered the evils of the blacklist to get majority votes on these award-giving juries. It took nine years for Karl Malden to talk the Academy into giving Kazan an honorary Oscar and when he finally succeeded, it set off a firestorm. There was a movement to get people not to applaud, which at the end of the day proved unsuccessful. The 90-year-old Kazan got a standing ovation, with only a few, including Nick Nolte, sitting on their hands. If I had been there, I know I would have been with the people standing up and applauding.
But would I stand up and cheer for Roman Polanski? No, I would not.
Sunday, April 03, 2011
My Mom died on Tuesday morning, March 22nd, in Madison, Wisconsin. She was 90 years old.
After my Dad died a few years ago, Mom had moved three times: from her apartment to a small room in Assisted Living to a large and sumptuous one at Hospice. Each time she moved, she got rid of more of her belongings. Hospice doesn’t allow you to bring furniture, so all she had with her when she died was a few articles of clothing, some family photos, some posters, and a handful of knickknacks. There was so little in the room that my sister Bonnie was able to pick it all up in less than an hour and put it in her car.
“I’m running a race,” she told Bonnie. “And I don’t want to win.” That was why she was at Hospice. She was tired of all the drugs and tests and treatments that she had been putting up with for so many years. She was ready to go, and she wanted to have as much comfort as possible for her last days. My sister and brother made the arrangements. It costs a fortune to get into Hospice, but Mom had saved all her life. When it was cold—and it is very cold in Wisconsin—she didn’t turn on the heat; when it was hot, she didn’t turn on the air conditioning. When I phoned her from New York, within a minute or two she tried to wrap up the conversation, as long distance was expensive, and she continued to believe this long after I was paying flat rates for my phone service. Mom had lived through the Depression and that formed the way she would always see the world. But that lifetime of frugality meant that entering Hospice was no problem. My sister Bonnie, who is a saint, went to see her every day. My brother Harry also carried his end, dealing with taxes, legal and financial issues, down to the tiniest detail. I moved to New York and rarely called her. I called her so rarely that I am ashamed to say how rarely I called her, it’s so appalling.
Of course, I was her favorite.
Once she got into Hospice I tried to call her every day. I wondered if she thought it was weird that after all that time her errant son was suddenly becoming so dutiful. It was pretty obvious why. As the weeks went by she stopped talking during these phone calls. There was no interchange at all. I had to try to give a speech about all the things that were going on in my life and my wife Melissa’s life. It’s not an easy thing to do; it was really difficult to think of things to say. And I would ask her, “Are you still there, Mom? Do you want me to stop talking?” and she’d always say, “no, don’t stop, I enjoy listening.” It was unnerving having these one-sided conversations. Eventually she didn’t even say anything at all. But on one of my last silent phone calls with her, Bonnie tried to take the phone away from her but she wouldn’t let go.
Melissa and I had booked a trip to Madison for early April, but on Tuesday the 15th I got an email from a Hospice representative that ended with:
If you are expecting to have a meaningful visit in early April when you arrive, you may not fulfill that expectation. As she continues to not eat or drink, she will become weaker and less responsive. Her ability to survive until then is questionable.
I quickly made plans to fly to Madison on Saturday. My first sight of my Mom in the Hospice room will stick in my brain forever. She wasn’t wearing her wig. She had lost her hair years ago, and I had rarely seen her without it for more than a few moments. She was very proud and always wanted to make a dignified impression. But I guess she just didn’t care anymore. Bonnie said she had stopped wearing her wedding ring too.
Mom had been agitated recently and had tried to get out of bed. One night she fell out of bed and dislocated her hip. I couldn’t sleep for days after that happened. Harry set up a conference call with Hospice. They were nervous. Another family might have sued, but that’s not the way it goes with us. All we wanted was for her to be safe and comfortable. They got her a lower bed and put a pad on the floor. I told them I wanted more drugs for her, and they listened to me patiently, ignoring every word. They have a protocol and that’s what they follow.
It was pretty clear to me why my Mom had been trying to get up. She was trying to get out of there. If God wouldn’t hurry up and take her, she was going to take matters into her own hands.
Mom still had all her faculties right up to the last days before she became unresponsive. What was going on inside her head? Was she dreaming? Did she know I was there? I remembered how I had worked on Pedro Almodovar’s movie Talk to Her. The hero of the film spoke to a woman every day when she was in a coma. And eventually she woke up. Could Mom hear me? Could she understand?
I held her hand and talked to her. But there was no response at all.
After an hour or so, Harry came in. He had driven down from St. Paul. We sat there all day watching her. There was no response at all from her. She didn’t open her eyes, respond to my hand, or say anything.
Later that day, Bonnie and her husband David (who also had been making enormous sacrifices through this time) showed up. As often happened when the family got together, we were also happy to see each other that we didn’t address to many questions to Mom. My brother would talk about the various issues she needed to deal with and we would all have fun together. It was easy to not have much direct interaction with Mom. And so it was that night, We were having fun and our mother was just in the back of the room, breathing quietly.
As I was leaving, I went up to my mother and said goodnight. Her face twitched and she made a little sound. I asked my sister if that meant she had responded to me, and she told me the Hospice people said that that kind of thing didn’t necessarily mean anything. As I left with Harry, we both agreed that something had definitely happened. There was no doubt.
The next morning, Harry and I returned to our mother’s bedside. Harry started telling her how important she had been to him, the profound way she had changed his life. After Bonnie arrived, I decided to try a different approach. I started telling funny stories about our youth. One story led to another and soon the three of us were sharing our memories.
Suddenly Mom’s face twitched and she made a noise. It was like, “mmmm” or “ummmm.” It was an expression of sensual pleasure, like she had just eaten something delicious. This really shook us up. With this encouragement, we continued to tell stories and Mom continued to respond to us. If she really liked a story, she’d make a bigger noise.
During those hours, the three of got to say everything we always wanted to say to her. If she had been her usual self, she probably would have shushed us up, but we were able to go on and on without interruption.
One of the Hospice women had told us that people won’t die when there’s a family vigil around. They don’t want to disappoint everybody. So Bonnie took charge: she told Mom that we would miss her and we would be very sad without her, but if she wanted to go, she could go, and not worry about us.
I flew back to New York that night. Two days later, she was gone.