If Looks Could Kill (I)

I am reprinting the entirety of my first and most ambitious book (Moving Places: A Life at the Movies, New York: Harper & Row, 1980) in its second edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) on this site in eleven installments. This is the sixth.

Note: The book can be purchased on Amazon here, and accessed online in its entirety here. — J.R.

3—


If Looks Could Kill

. . . Can it be that everybody is looking for a way to fit in? If so, doesn’t that imply that nobody fits? Perhaps it is not possible to fit into American Life. American Life is a billboard; individual life in the U.S. includes something nameless that takes place in the weeds behind it.
—Harold Rosenberg

 

I

Mommy was away at Payne Whitney, a hospital in New York City, for the better part of a year, from the fall of 1953 through the summer of 1954. She went there after she had a nervous breakdown toward the end of summer, sometime after we drove back to Alabama from Indian and Forest Acres; she said she needed to get away from the house and four boys and Stanley for a while, and Bo offered to pay for Payne Whitney, where she hoped to get better.

None of us can recall with any clarity her leaving, only being told that she was gone, although Alvin today remembers an argument he had with Daddy at Bo and Grandma’s one Friday night shortly afterward. Alvin wanted to know how he could be sure that anything was true when all he had to go on was what grownups told him. For instance, if he was passing by the City Drug (on the corner of Seminary and Tennessee, where Daddy took us all for lunch on Saturdays), how did he know it was called the City Drug, apart from grownups telling him that? And what about Mommy—how did he know she wasn’t dead, that she really was away in New York like Daddy and Bo said she was?

Mommy felt well enough to come back in late November for her fifteenth wedding anniversary. A few weeks after that Daddy flew up to New York to discuss an adjustment of rates with Payne Whitney so that he could take over the expenses from Bo. The doctors wanted her to stay there longer and longer, but they let her come home for more visits: in April and May, for David’s bar mitzvah, and then again in September.

We fixed up an elaborate party for her when she arrived in September, both at the house and over at Bo and Grandma’s on North Wood Avenue, with dozens of posters and crepe paper streamers and little pieces of paper that said “Welcome Home Mommy” positioned everywhere from the front carport to the master bedroom; Jonny even slipped an extra one inside the refrigerator. We were all hoping to convince her to stay home this time, despite what her doctors said, and our plan worked: she called the hospital and told them she wasn’t coming back. (The following year, on her doctors’ advice, she went to see a psychotherapist once a week in Birmingham.)

We all carried on long-distance love affairs with her when she was away. Each was carried on in a different manner, in a different language.

Every day, in his office, Stanley typed her a letter on Muscle Shoals Theatres stationery.

Alvin was learning to play the violin. Mimi loved music; she had studied at Greenwich House Music School in the thirties and sometimes played Brahms, Chopin, and Beethoven on the grand piano in our living room. When Alvin saw Rhapsody at the Shoals with Mommy and Daddy on the last Sunday in April (“Three-cornered romance among rich [Elizabeth] Taylor, violinist [Vittorio] Gassman, and pianist [John] Ericson: melodic interludes bolster soaper,” notes Leonard Maltin in TV Movies, assigning it two and a half stars), he resolved to become a violinist by the time she came home again, and he eventually convinced Daddy to let him start taking private lessons.

David, in seventh grade at Florence Junior High (a rougher, lower-class place than Kilby Training School), wrote Mommy about winning first place in the magazine subscription sales contest sponsored by Curtis Publications.

Jonny drew comics and family newspapers with crayons and colored pencils (including a couple in 3-D, requiring cardboard glasses with cellophane lenses) and wrote poems, stories, letters, and postcards, all of which he sent to Mommy.

When Michael learned to write out his whole name on a piece of paper—his first name without even copying it—Jonny sent that along, too.

On Tuesday, January 12, 1 p.M., during his free period in school, Jonny wrote Mommy about the marionette he was making, his plans for the afternoon (a haircut, then Easy to Love at the Shoals), the snow that had fallen the day before, a book of mysteries he’d checked out of the Kilby library, and other diverse matters:

Last night, on surprize night, David Darby spent the night with us. Daddy read to us: [John Collier's] “another American Tragady,” “Lamb’s version of ‘A Winter’s Tale,’” and a couple of chapters from “Miss Minerva’s Baby.

“I’ve been trying to keep my hair the style you showed me before you left. David R. has been playing basket ball every day for the last week or two.

Mommy/Mimi wrote back to all of us, individually and collectively. When Alvin and Michael went with Bo and Grandma to Miami—thereby entitling David and Jonny to go along with Daddy on his trips to New Orleans and Atlanta, respectively—she sent a giant-size postcard of the United Nations to David, Jonny, and Stanley (“ . . . Forgot to tell you I saw ‘From Here to Eternity’ several wks. ago too—but not one of my first choices as you say. Hope you 3 men are holding down the fort. Waiting to hear from Florida. Love, Mommy & Mimi”). A few weeks earlier she had sent Jonny a postcard showing a clump of big buildings, with labels, arrows, and a little circle added in her blue fountain pen ink to indicate Cornell Medical College, New York Hospital, Payne Whitney, and her room in the latter. (Her P.S. on the other side: “Just got the ‘Rosenbaum Times.’ It’s a wonderful issue. You get better all the time. Did you give away the puppies yet?”)

Sometime in August she sent this letter:

Tuesday

Jonny darling,

I loved reading your last 2 publications & so did my friends. I even gave it to Mr. Hodgins to read. He’s the man who wrote “Mr. Blandings builds his dream house.” He enjoyed them very much. I’d love to have more whenever you feel like it—

You’d better brush up on your scrabble because when I come home, I’m going to play with you. I’m a fairly good player—I’m warning you!

I guess daddy told you I’m just starting to go out again—I’ve been doing it gradually. Since I started I saw 2 movies: “On the Waterfront” with Marlon Brando—It was a very intense & forceful picture all about the Stevedores’ union—It was actually filmed in Hoboken, N.J. & was very realistic. There’s a Catholic priest in it who does as good a job of acting as Marlon Brando, I think. I don’t think it’s your style—but whenever you/we get it at home—don’t fail to see it—you’ll learn a lot about what goes on—for real . The other picture was “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”—at Radio City—in Cinemascope. It was very gay & entertaining—full of spirit—the dancing and singing—very good. Somehow, it reminded me of “Oklahoma”—the outdoorishness of it—the freshness. I don’t think you saw “Oklahoma” in N.Y. though, did you? I’d like to see “Rear Window” now—an Alfred Hitchcock production—which I hear is wonderful. I guess I will, when I go out this week. “Dial M for Murder,” another Hitchcock picture is one I don’t want to miss either. Daddy writes we’re having that at home, too.

I hear also that you gained 3 lbs. Wonderful! What are your favorite foods these days? Have you seen Alan Stein again recently? I know he’s lots of fun to be with. Daddy writes me that you see Lannes occasionally too. David D. is in California I hear. Do you hear from him?

I guess you heard that I Am Coming Home For A Visit In September! I can hardly wait myself. The doctors can’t tell me yet just when in September it will be—but I do have an idea it will be for about a week or 10 days—thereabouts. It can’t come soon enough for me!

Be sweet Jonny darling & write me—Big—big hugs & kisses—

Love—
Mommy

 

Saturday, December 2, 1978

Dear Mimi,

I realize that it’s strange to be writing you this way, within the context of a book, and I’m trying to explain to myself, first, why this method of addressing you allows me more freedom than an ordinary letter or conversation would. I think it has a lot to do with the degree to which both our lives and our communications with each other are so firmly bound up in habits that sometimes it’s hard to reach beyond them. I guess that’s what I’m trying to do here, and if I’m choosing to do this in a relatively public place, I can assure you that it isn’t intended to embarrass you. You will read this letter before any stranger does, and I’m offering you “exclusive” cutting rights; that is, nothing will go into this book that you seriously object to. On the other hand, assuming that you don’t object, I can’t guarantee that this letter will appear in the book. That will be for the book to decide, in terms of how it develops; and at this point I can’t even be certain how this letter is going to develop. (Nor can I be sure that the book will be published—I’m still awaiting word from Cynthia Merman, the editor I know at Harper & Row.) Whatever happens, I hope to resolve at least one question that deeply concerns me: whether or not it is humanly and ethically possible to address one’s mother and one’s reading public at the same time without betraying or alienating either. I’d like to think that it is, but I can’t be sure because I’ve never tried it.

What triggered this letter was another letter, written to me nearly twenty-five years ago. Do you remember my few minutes of rummaging through the closet in the back bedroom, my old room that you use now for weaving, before you drove me to the bus station on Wednesday? I grabbed some letters from one of the boxes of my things—I can’t imagine how I missed them on my two previous trips—and slipped them into my briefcase, to read on the bus to Nashville. Now that I think of it, I can imagine why I hadn’t taken those letters back in August 1977 or March 1978: I hadn’t yet begun to focus on this part of the book, dealing with the period you spent at Payne Whitney. I was working on my first two chapters then, both of them fundamentally tied up with the patriarchal axis of God, Dad, Bo, and Rosenbaum Theatres—not to mention the Conquistador—which prevented me from broaching the realm of you and the house, and the relevance that had to those same experiences.

After our rushed trip to the bus station, when both of us were too nervous to express a proper goodbye, I had a wonderful stroke of luck: your letter of 1954 was the first letter I pulled out of my briefcase, the first one I read on the bus. As soon as I started it, I felt an intense desire to copy it out word for word, and a few minutes later I did precisely that, in the process becoming you composing the letter and at the same time myself, at eleven, receiving it. Today, when our geographical positions are reversed—I’m in New York and you are in Florence—and I’m about the same age now that you were then, I feel that I must write you back in gratitude a second time. If Michael and I didn’t get up to speak at your and Stanley’s fortieth anniversary get-together last week, as Alvin and David did, I’m sure you realize that it was because we need different styles, moods, and climates in order to express these things. Michael, taking after Grandma, did it largely through his cooking, which he managed to combine with his own philosophy of continuity by calling his specialty “Dead Grandma’s Strudel.” My way, I hope, is evident in the pages of this book.

It’s now early February. Eleven days after I began this letter I flew to Berkeley for three weeks. Eight days after I arrived Sandy woke me on her way to work to hand me the phone, and Cynthia at Harper & Row told me they had just agreed to publish this book. I hope to be signing the contract in two days. Tomorrow my “Rivette in Context” season starts at the Bleecker Street Cinema; it has already had two lengthy write-ups (by Andrew Sarris and Roger Greenspun) that will certainly help it to do well, even though both critics are dubious about Rivette.

Four days ago, I made a pilgrimage of sorts to Payne Whitney on East 68th Street, where I had never been before. I stood opposite the building complex with your old postcard and traced the windows with my eyes until I found the circled one, the room that had been yours; then I tried to imagine what a reverse angle from that room would be like—the view you had of the park and the surrounding buildings in the winter of 1953–1954 (was it as cold as this one?). I realize that it’s folly to attempt such an exercise, futile even to imagine that it could lead to something meaningful. For a reverse angle now wouldn’t be the same as a reverse angle then; and if it were, what could such an image possibly give me other than the assertion of a kind of knowledge that I couldn’t possibly have—the same sort of cover-up to our general ignorance about things that movies habitually trade on? But I have to start somewhere, even if that somewhere is false.

Anyway, it’s the movies that remain, not the places; not the time you spent at Payne Whitney, which I’ll never know much about, but the movies that pass like air ducts between me and parts of that experience—passed to me through your letters, giving them an identity even before I saw them. When I actually breathed them later (Dial M For Murder in August, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers in October, On The Waterfront in January, Rear Window in February), you were the leading character for me in each one. You were not only Grace Kelly (whom you resembled) in the two Hitchcocks, but also Jane Powell in Seven Brides , and Eva Marie Saint in Waterfront . My glamorous view of you, which already made you a movie star, was largely what these movies were about.

Two hours past my thirty-sixth birthday and five days after I stopped smoking (which tends to make me more impatient than usual about a lot of things) I’m remembering our phone conversation around Christmas. You and Stanley had read the preceding chapter; he compared it to three-dimensional chess, and you described it as a form of psychoanalysis that I don’t get charged for. You’re both right, and it occurs to me now that both of you named activities that can be made to drag on indefinitely, if necessary. Yesterday your newsy letter arrived (with the $20 birthday check from you and Stanley—many thanks), reminding me, to my embarrassment, that I started this letter nearly three months ago!

Jane Powell in Seven Brides and Eva Marie Saint in Waterfront were like you and me at the same time, frail vessels bearing morality and sensitivity in a brutal macho world—even if other bits of me went to Brando, Keel, and Russ Tamblyn in those movies. Like Eva Marie, you were a New Yorker from a working-class family and neighborhood; like Jane, you were a gal from the city who married a country boy and eventually found yourself planted in a family of male despots (six in all, including Bo, against Jane’s seven). “Bless your beautiful hide,” sang Howard Keel robustly, before he even met you.

Grace Kelly, however, was you and you alone in the two Hitchcocks, hence more mysterious. In Dial M for Murder this wasn’t merely a matter of my linking her sewing basket and scissors with yours (Freudians, please note); it also involved the “convenient” way in which she was whisked offstage for a long stretch of the action so that the male characters could take charge of all the important business (the planning of her murder and the subsequent crime detection) without unnecessary kibbitzing on her part. Which is another way of saying that, as you were the most silent member of the family in those days, your victimization was a lot like hers.

Yet Rear Window was your apotheosis, for Grace was a sophisticated New York model in that movie, just as you were a Powers model when this picture was taken. When Grace modeled a Mark Cross travel bag—a plug for a product slyly integrated into the plot; the modeling performed for her immobilized boyfriend, James Stewart, when she comes to spend the night—seeing her was like seeing you in that Chesterfield ad on the back cover of Life . The image of suave, practical-minded but stylish Grace showing James what a shrewd consumer she is seems as crystal-clear in my mind’s eye as Vista Vision itself, the deep-focus process in which the movie was made. (Lucky me, I’d seen an advance demonstration of it with Stanley, at an exhibitors’ convention in Atlanta the previous spring.) Crystal-cool, too, unlike the more frigid remoteness of 3-D or the warm, indiscriminate expanses of CinemaScope; as crystal-cool-clear as my first pair of glasses, so that when either you or Stanley drove me home from the clinic, past the suddenly crisp snow-covered visage of downtown Florence, along the darkening dips and curves of Riverview Drive at dusk (the houses, lawns, and fences more firmly outlined now, more set apart), and into the snug glow of our house’s radiant heating (which promptly fogged up my lenses), all I could think was, Vista-Vision, my God—wearing glasses was just like Vista Vision.

Description: mage

Mildred Bookholtz, 1935

3-D was a lot less real than that. It was generally agreed—by David Darby, Lannes Foy, and me, among others—that Fort Ti had the best effects: burning arrows and squirts of tobacco juice, both projected straight at the audience. A more typical specimen would be some godforsaken nullity like Second Chance —seen successively at the Princess in Florence on October 18, 1953, and at the Thalia in New York on February 23, 1979, the day I stopped smoking—a movie whose principal (unwitting) achievement was and is to flaunt its own artifices rather than to enhance any illusion of reality. Thanks to 3-D, the painted backdrops and grainy rear projections looked even flatter and the reverse angles tended to look phonier by denying the spaces that had been occupied, in the previous shots, by the camera itself. The renegotiation and redistribution of pockets of deep and shallow space that occurred with each cut, each change of camera position, made the question of point of view seem arbitrary and contrived and each camera angle as isolated from the preceding one as a separate View Master square. With the illusion of depth ready to collapse the moment you tilted your head, how long could anyone suspend disbelief?

Because of this lunacy, the Technicolor comic-strip bodies and physiognomies of the stars, projected into a freakish depth, became as shapeless as dialogue balloons: Robert Mitchum, a Joe Palooka languishing like a sea slug inside a zoot suit; Linda Darnell, whose breasts, boldly cantilevered in the usual Howard Hughes/RKO manner, tended to dwarf all her other human attributes; Jack Palance, whose craggy, elegant profile seemed to belong on the head of a penny. Maybe, in the final analysis, it was all a matter of budgets and production values. 3-D failed because it didn’t become identified with money, religion, or culture—unlike CinemaScope and stereophonic sound, which started off with the The Robe and How to Marry a Millionaire , the latter introduced by nothing less than curtains parting and Alfred Newman’s symphonic orchestra playing a dull “Street Scene” overture for more than half a reel from inside an amphitheater in the clouds.

It was certainly easy for me to identify with James Stewart in Rear Window . As many critics have noted, his position in the movie is like that of a film spectator—immobilized by a broken leg and watching through the window the real or potential couples in the apartments across the court, meanwhile evading the countless appeals and demands of Grace. So when he suspects that the neighbor opposite him has murdered his wife, sends Grace to search for evidence, and then watches helplessly as the guy returns and catches her, the guilt-ridden suspense of that moment—compounded by the spatial simultaneity and God’s-eye view afforded by the depth of Vista Vision, the creepy neighbor approaching in the hallway while Grace lingers unknowingly inside the apartment—was almost unbearable. (“It’s Perry Mason!” declared Connie Greenbaum in a thrilled whisper, and giggled, at the Paris Cinémathèque, August 21, 1972, recognizing the neighbor-villain as Raymond Burr, and thereby imbuing the whole dark intrigue with a somewhat different color. Or could this have been at The Blue Gardenia ?)

What do I know about myself during this period? The only artifact I have from fall 1953, apart from the scant information in my diary, is a newspaper headline that I had made up in a Times Square arcade on our way back from Maine: Jonny Rosenbaum Captures Red Spies! So the same Jonny who wept for the Rosenberg boys on the way up to camp must have fantasized capturing their parents single-handedly on the way back. Does this suggest that I wanted to be a hero? Probably; but it was Stanley who proposed the headline while I was trying to think one up—another example, I guess, of the degree to which both of you collaborated on my creativity.

It’s only recently that I’ve come to realize how closely connected my formation as a writer was with your stay at Payne Whitney. Before you left I was already drawing comic books, but my forays into pure writing had been few. My diary, discontinued around the time that you left for New York, was a failed experiment as far as feelings went, merely a list of movies and other activities, provoked by Bo’s offer of ten cents per entry and set down with a sense of duty and commitment, with little apparent pleasure or interest. Those things began to develop after you left, when the distance between Florence and New York had to be crossed and I suddenly discovered that words could do it. It became exciting to write poems, parodies of ads (in imitation of Mad ), and newspapers and letters that I knew you would like and would show to your friends. (As I recall, you only played badminton with Robert Lowell while you were at Payne Whitney, but in the sixties I used to imagine that you showed both him and Hodgins some of my first poems.)

The more I wrote, the closer I felt to you. Even my long sentences nowadays sometimes seem motivated by a desire to cross similar distances. And an intriguing aspect of this impulse is that I don’t think the Conquistador was the main force behind it. Not at first, anyway; later, perhaps, when the all-male ambience and audience of Surprise Night may have made plots seem more important than words in crossing distances and carrying feelings, but not when I was trying to court you through the mail.

It wasn’t the stories of Waterfront and Seven Brides that your letter alerted me to, but the styles and the décors of the movies: the real Hoboken locations of the former, the sets and painted backdrops of the latter. You assumed correctly that the outdoorishness possible on an MGM soundstage (or in a Broadway theater, even if I didn’t see that production of Oklahoma! ) was more my style than the outdoorishness one could find on the Hoboken docks, yet you were careful to give each style its due. (This was hardly the case with John McCarten in The New Yorker, who may have influenced your ideas on Waterfront —”Contributing to the credibility of ‘On the Waterfront’  . . .  is the fact that it was actually made in Hoboken”—but declared himself a cultural cripple when it came to Seven Brides : “ . . . a furiously arch movie about the marital problems of a furiously hillbilly family. It’s possible that I’m just insensitive to the charm of back-country types, but the insanitary customs of the group assembled here got on my nerves.”)

It was years before I became aware of the artifice in each case. I literally didn’t see the painted backdrops of Seven Brides in 1954 any more than I could see the relations between the Christ-like martyrdom of the stool pigeon (Brando) in Waterfront in 1955 and the real-life roles of Elia Kazan, Budd Schulberg, and Lee J. Cobb as friendly witnesses in the HUAC purges. But your sense of style began to show me the way. It suggested that stories alone were not what one came away from movies with, that atmosphere and impressions were more enduring. When we saw Julie together at the Shoals near the beginning of spring 1957, I remember that we both felt the same relief when Doris Day finally succeeded in landing the airplane single-handedly: Thank God it was over. Suspense like that was an unpleasant ordeal, a forced march imposed by the Conquistador, not a pleasure, because pleasure required the sort of relaxation that let you observe things and linger. Hitchcock’s suspense was different; at least it gave you more to look at.

Rear Window and Waterfront also offered me two ways of regarding New York. As my image of you then was closer to Grace than to Eva Marie, the stylized set that the former moved through seemed more real. Even today, as a seasoned New Yorker, I still believe more in Hitchcock’s Greenwich Village—a quiet, elliptical sonata of suggestions—than in Kazan’s overwrought Hoboken. Rear Window gave me something that I already knew and recognized: little lighted rectangles of theatrical space, each window across the courtyard from James Stewart framing a separate drama. This was precisely my perception of what our house looked like at night, from the backyard, across the stagelike terrace, when all the lights in the living room, dining room, and bedrooms were on. Just as the two long hallways in the house provided me with an entire childhood of narrative tracking shots (the moving camera writes; and, having writ, moves on), my views of the house from the backyard at night, especially when you and Stanley had guests, were like theater performances, CinemaScope tableaux that held the whole universe in a snugly fixed order, everything securely in its place.

The effect that growing up in that house had on my aesthetic biases must be incalculable, although I certainly wasn’t aware of it at the time. In retrospect I’m sure it had a lot to do with my sense of a horizontal line’s being both dynamic and restful, which led to my love of CinemaScope as well as the films of Ozu. And the flowing, often subtle transitions between certain rooms might conceivably have helped to prime me for the dovetailing rhythms and continuities of Orson Welles and Alain Resnais. It’s an endless game that could be played—culminating, I suppose, in the column of windows in the brick wall at a right angle to the front door reminding me of film frames. Now that I think of it, so do the brick patterns themselves, and the Wright motif in the ceiling light fixture, and Stanley’s books on the shelves, and maybe even the umbrellas too. Your three plants on the shelves are the only wild element in this cove of replication and regularity.

Description: mage

 

Description: mage

Stanley Rosenbaumhouse, Florence, Alabama:  front, playroom (where I saw Bird of Paradise), back, front hallway

 

I recall a fight we once had within this very space, as I was getting ready to leave for one of the local girls’ club dances at the Naval Reserve in Sheffield. It was one of our many fights about the sloppy way in which I dressed and groomed myself. It must have been around 1955, perhaps during the summer-fall period in which Dr. Brown at the Florence Clinic was giving me hormone shots for my undescended testicle. I realize now that James Dean, discovered via East of Eden at the Shoals in late June, three days after my first shot, must have influenced my defiant gesture of twisting my torso in a contorted rage until my ill-fitting white shirt began to tear. Projecting myself back into this rectangular space, I wonder whether those even lines intersected with your anger in such a way that I wanted rebelliously to bend that cumulative line of force, and flexed my body into an expressionist agony of angularity out of, say, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Ivan the Terrible (or East of Eden , the only example of expressionism I’d seen by then), in order to try, however solipsistically, to snap that line of force in two—ripping instead only the fabric of my frustration.

A comparable fury had driven me, several years earlier, to rebel against those braces with rubber bands in the back that converted my mouth into a dank, Sadean dungeon of pulleys and weights where my tongue would sometimes wander like a fugitive destroyer, slashing loose all the overhead stage machinery that its thrusts could reach—severing rubber bands, dislodging bits of wire. It was a struggle fought in vain, alas, for both of us; damaged braces were always replaced, and no brace could eliminate my slight case of buck teeth. So when I went away to school in Vermont in 1959—a “solution” to my isolation that we reached together the previous year, on one of our Saturday afternoon drives home from Birmingham after seeing our separate psychotherapists (which for you was always a release, but for me another enforced activity, like braces)—I was quickly assigned the nickname Gopher, an appellation that seemed to go with the Northern responses to my Southern accent, both of which kept burrowing to the surface, unexpected and gopher-like, to mock my attempts to escape their baneful implications.

If looks could kill, I reasoned, then so could words. Consequently, during my first two years away from home, in Putney, Vermont, I (1) lost my Southern accent—a cultural delousing process that was a much quicker adjustment for me than acquiring a Southern accent has been for you (over the past forty years!), but only because the social pressures were greater in my case (Putney in this respect—and many others—being a lot more furiously hillbilly than Florence), and (2) wrote my first novel, which is drenched in Southern accents. In Poe’s “The Oval Portrait” the artist destroys his model by painting her; but if all he could paint were self-portraits, wouldn’t his work be a kind of suicide? Maybe that’s why this book is gradually detoxifying and curing me of movies by providing some sort of methadone of the mind, and by becoming a cemetery for the memories it records, each title a separate tombstone.

Some movies are harder to bury than others, though. I can easily write off Knock On Wood as a romantic digest of what I knew about psychoanalysis in 1954 (Danny Kaye as a schizophrenic ventriloquist who is afraid of women, a cuckoo who almost simultaneously meets and falls in love with—and is treated and cured by—sexy Mai Zetterling, meanwhile capturing a few Atomic spies of his own, in color and Vista Vision), if only because my last look at it—on TV three weeks ago—offered no other lasting revelation. But how can I put Bird of Paradise to rest before I show the reader the room in the house where I saw it almost a year ago; explain that the rich pantheism it stirred in me was a direct legacy from you (outdoorishness in another form); and note that the 1954 nightmare it influenced was dreamt during your second visit home from Payne Whitney? And what about On Moonlight Bay , a corpse I had occasion to revisit in the TV morgue over five weeks ago? This time I could only chide the movie for its unfaithful departures from my text: the mispronunciation of Hubert Winkley’s name as Wakeley, for instance, and Miss Stevens’s sending the rest of the class home directly after Wesley calls her an old crow (instead of waiting until after school or during recess to see him).

If looks can kill or create, I’m sure that words can, too. In precisely that light, where words and appearances become equally powerful in their claims to define reality, Freaks was surely the most formative and traumatic film of my youth. The dichotomy begins with the title, which gave me at the age of seven just as many creeps as some of the images. As I recall, the freaks are first glimpsed relaxing in a peaceful forest clearing in France. The game warden complains about them to his master, calling them “horrible, twisted things.” We see them crawling and wriggling about in an unsettling, indistinct long shot. But the normal French lady who runs the circus, their custodian Madame Tetrallini, passionately defends them in a warm, closer shot, drawing them into her arms’ maternal shelter as she cries, “These are children in my circus . . .  That’s what most of them are, children .” The alternative description and camera position transform the essence of what both we and the master see: they are sweet, helpless creatures, not monsters. Later other verbal and visual cues will turn them into monsters again, and still others will make them sympathetic and likable adults. (This was suggested to me in part by Jean-Claude Biette’s article on Freaks in Cahiers du Cinéma, no. 288, May 1978.)

You’ve never seen Freaks, Mimi, and I’m sure that you never will; as you said to me about Waterfront , it’s not your style, so you’ll have to take my word for it (or Stanley’s) that the movie is profound and humane about its subject and not at all complacent. Metaphorically, I think one could say that it shows a lot of what goes on for real . I’ve seen it three times: August 31, 1950, at the Majestic (in defiance of Stanley’s warning, along with David and Alvin); October 2, 1964, at Bard College (where I programmed it for the Friday night film series, on a double bill with The Phenix City Story ); and last summer, August 25, 1978, at Theatre 80 in lower Manhattan. On the basis of my last look at it, I’m prepared to consider it an aesthetic experience and a political statement that I was too young, rattled, and brainwashed to recognize as such at the ages of either seven or twenty-one—an assault on the ideology of beauty that rules us both, and all the everyday unthought cruelties that this ideology permits, authorizes, even encourages, in others and to others, in ourselves and to ourselves. Which is not to put down or to exonerate either of us; it merely acknowledges a system of beliefs and habits that is an intimate part of both our lives, for better and for worse. What you find in a mirror is pretty close to what I look for, in a page or on a screen. Our aesthetic biases become our objective realities because we like reality better that way, with the right appearances.

That’s why you once designed a house for our collie Diana which matched our own, and had a carpenter build it; and why Diana, pragmatic nonaesthetician and philistine non-Wrightian that she was, took one trip inside, emerged, and never reentered, preferring to sleep in the little alcove outside the playroom and leaving your creation to us, for use as a playhouse.

We both like to spend a lot of time at home, in our own rooms, creating our own sense of order. That’s why I’d like to think that, over the years, some of the same energy that flows through your looms passes through my typewriters. Astrologically, we’re a crab and a fish who swim in the same ocean. (The Conquistador wants us to march, but mainly we float instead.) . . . It’s taken us years, but you’ve taught me to hear the sound of your own voice, and both our lives are richer for it.

Love,
Jonathan

P.S. If a movie called Remember My Name gets down to Florence, be sure to see it—I think you and Stanley would both go for it. It stars Geraldine Chaplin, and she really gives a fantastic performance.

This entry was posted in Notes. Bookmark the permalink.