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 tenth.
Made in Hoboken
Douglas, Wyoming, 1914—three states away from where our old friend Gordon MacRae is still only a radical freshman or a freethinking sophomore at the University of Indiana—Bo is operating his very first movie theater, at the age of twenty-seven. Think of it: when Jonathan’s the same age, in 1970, he’s working fitfully on his second yet-to-be unpublished novel, completing his first yet-to-be unpublished book as an editor (a collection of film criticism he was commissioned to do), still living on the dregs of Bo’s inheritance, and dividing the first three months of the year among three countries: pursuing a heavy love affair in New York, having his appendix removed in London (and smoking hash with his brother Michael’s friends in a room called the Box), and taking acid all alone one beautiful spring afternoon in Paris, where he moved last fall, acid that suddenly prompts him to buy red paint, a roller, and brushes, and to go to work on his bedroom closets—a conversation with the wood, red saying one thing, grain saying another—and later sends him out the door and up rue Mazarine to the Odéon métro stop, a little after 6:30, to take the Porte de Clignancourt train as far as Châtelet and then the Mairie des Lilas train to République. He’s on his way to see his favorite movie, Playtime , for the fourth or fifth time, if only he can make it there before it starts.
Back in Douglas, by way of contrast—around the same time that Griffith, over in southern California, is shooting The Birth Of A Nation (then known as The Clansman )—Jonathan’s grandfather Louis, a Jew from Lublin, is leasing a theater called the Princess (you heard it right) with the money he made the previous year, in 1913, working as a pawnbroker in nearby Casper. (This brief career—Stanley recalls playing with a broken clock on a table in the shop at the age of three—so embarrasses Bo in the years to come that he never mentions it once, to any of his friends or family.) He’s only getting started in the motion picture trade, and he even cranks the projector in the back of the theater himself.
No one in the audience can ever be aware of this, but in order to keep the crank turning at a steady pace, Louis tries to keep his own movements in time with the piano music—just a mental attitude, nothing else, but it sometimes gives him the odd sensation that he’s an actor rather than (or in addition to) a theater operator. A funny process: the movie keeps the music going, the music keeps Louis Rosenbaum going, and Louis in turn turns the crank that keeps the movie going. So which comes first, the chicken or the egg? And which is Louis, and which is the movie?
Just as Jonathan is getting off the train at République—consulting his Pariscope for the name and address of the theater, remembering once again in his acid-lined confusion that he has forgotten to bring along his little red book (his Plan-Guide de Paris ), and noticing via his watch that Playtime is due to commence in less than ten minutes—Louie is cranking out the last part of an Annette Kellerman opus that he has been featuring at the Douglas Princess all week, winding it to a close, so to speak, his hand tired and heavy. And he notices a young hayseed sitting toward the back—a teenager, almost, skinny as a beanpole—who’s been turning up, it seems, for practically every performance.
This fellow makes Louie curious, and as soon as the photoplay is over, after the piano player has ended with a flourish and the audience is getting up to leave, Louie sidles over to the kid with the straw-colored hair—let’s call him Hubert, after the piano-playing hayseed in On Moonlight Bay —and says, “Hey, you sure must like that picture somethin’ special, hunh? Idn’t it somethin’?”
“Nah,” says Hubert, blasé as you please. “Tell the truth, I seen plenty better.”
Jonathan, meanwhile, has climbed the métro station steps to discover to his horror that a noisy, full-size carnival has lodged itself this Saturday afternoon smack-dab in the middle of the square—merry-go-round, Ferris wheel, shooting gallery, the works—and is thronged by a teeming, screaming mob of kids and parents. Jonathan doesn’t know which way to proceed toward Place de la République—or is it Avenue de la République?—and when he tries to ask directions of the man who sells tickets to the carousel (let’s call him André, after the hero of Bird of Paradise ), André amid the din hears only “République ” and finally throws up his right arm in disgust and despair, indicating in that single gesture the whole wide sweep of the square around them and all the people there. “République, c’est partout! ” André shouts desperately, pain glowing in his tired eyes like silvery café spigots, an accepting, almost philosophical cast to his grief, as though to say, the Republic is everywhere, all around us—inevitable, unavoidable, inescapable. And you want to know where it is?
And all this time Hubert is shaking his head slowly and sluggishly, like a skinny fish on dope, at Louie, who can’t quite believe him, and who laughs in his disbelief. “But this is tree, four—how many times is it now you come to this picture?”
“Oh, I reckon this makes it about five. Mebbe six.”
“And you say you seen better? ” Louie laughs really loudly now—a rasping, joyful, even frightening howl that one might imagine escaping from Louis Calhern (who is eight years younger) or Charles Coburn (who is ten years older)—and then looks around nervously at the emptying theater, still smiling at Hubert. “Me and the piano player have seen it a dozen times awready ’cause we both have to. But how come you keep comin’ back?”
“Aw, it’s just a notion of mine, in point of ak-shull fact,” Hubert says. “I can’t prove it none yet.” He smiles, blushes, and clears his throat with just a touch of false modesty. “You memba that part where the leadin’ lady starts to take off aller clothes to go swimmin’ ?”
“Do I!” says Bo, laughing again.
“Way-ul, just before she’s all nekkid, this train comes along, shoots straight on by, and blocks off our view of her—you memba that? Okay, now, I been figgerin’ it’s strictly the law-a averages, nothin’ else. If I keep on comin’ back, sooner or later that dadgum train is gonna be late . I mean, it’s unavoidable!”
Jonathan’s late for Playtime all right; it started promptly at 7, no ads or shorts first. And by the time he finds his way into the theater proper—having bought a full-price ticket (his fake student card works for discounts only on weekends), whispered “Près de l’écran, s’il vous plaît ” to the usherette in the lobby, tipped her half a franc as she waves her flashlight wanly down the dark aisle ahead of them (and directly into the faces of a few startled spectators), stumbled into and then stepped back from and around a thick, square column to discover that the screen was actually behind it (toward the lobby, not in the other direction), and then staggered across most of the front row to settle himself into a broken seat—the movie has been on for a good five minutes, and on the screen the female American tourists have only just turned up at Orly airport.
But such is the uncharacteristically cheerful thrust of this acid trip that Jonathan decides in his confusion that his late arrival is in fact appropriate. Behind him, he hears the sounds of other awkward late arrivals, while the sight and sound of so many misplaced and bemused tourists on screen at Orly persuades him that the precise boundary line between this movie and this audience, himself included, is impossible to draw. (Mutatis mutandis, the same thing happens to him in October nine and a half years later, at a sound and music workshop in Athens, Ohio, while watching a 16mm print of Playtime and taping the soundtrack—which he plays back twelve days later in his apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey, while typing this sentence—when a door closes outside the classroom, in the hall, and it doesn ‘t interrupt the soundtrack .) Which helps to explain why he can see this movie so many times and never get bored. Like Heracitus and that traveling river, he and it never have the same encounter twice, for they both keep undergoing mysterious changes. And even though Jonathan as spectator/actor and Tati as director/actor seem to be sculpting their own patterns to the same music, these two patterns form a complementary dance of gestures, not a duplicating mirror.
Nearly eighteen years earlier, in Florence, December 1952, Jonny sees several movies at the Princess, including Wild Bill Elliott in Fargo (with the last chapter of Mysterious Island and the first episode of Captain Video , his and David Darby’s two favorite serials), The Snows Of Kilimanjaro , Estelita In The Fabulous Senorita (with Mighty Mouse in Hansel and Gretel , and Metro News), and Alastair Sim in The Christmas Carol . He doesn’t see a movie called Marihuana (Weed with Roots in Hell ) that is shown there on a Monday and Tuesday in the middle of the month, along with Lili (“Did She Show Too Much Lili?”) St. Cyr in Love Moods—an “adults only!” show that cost the customers fifty cents. But he does ask Daddy how to pronounce Marihuana when he sees the (surrealist) ad in the paper, which also says:
LOOK—Now you can see it!
Sensational, unbelievable, but the truth!
An expose of America’s newest narcotic menace!
Not recommended for children!
Wierd [sic ] orgies, wild parties, unleashed passions
Smoke that gets in youths [sic l eyes
Lust, crime, hate
Shame, honor, despair
And "misery" is written over a giant syringe that stands, plunger to needle-point (and with all the authority of a Planter's peanut-headed man on Times Square), beside the box that headlines the "Wierd orgies" and directly opposite a woman in a gaping bathrobe who's exactly the same height.
Perhaps as a consequence of this omission in his education, you could almost say that Jon is ripe for the picking during his first spring away from home—at The Putney School in Vermont, in 1960—when he and a couple of classmates order twenty-five medium-size peyote buttons for a modest sum from a cactus ranch in Laredo, Texas (a legal purchase at the time), and they each consume a couple of buttons late one lovely afternoon in early June: an adventure that permanently enhances Jon's (and Jonathan's) enjoyment of colors by evoking some of the nonsymbolic intensity that they once had for Jonny—red, for instance, meaning red and not "stop," and a hilarious, beatific red at that.
At first, there is only the wretched taste, choked with the bitter bark and sickly white fluff that can't quite be peeled or scraped away from the juicy, pulpy, light green vomity essence of the plant; then there is an upset stomach, and a peculiar glaring brightness to the lights at dinner. Sitting in one of the comfortable library chairs afterward, continuing to read Dos Passos's U.S.A. with dutiful, monotonous perseverance (not at all like reading Light in August back in February, his first taste of Faulkner), Jon begins to drum his fingers lightly on one of the armrests, and before long something strange and wonderful starts to happen. The jazz rhythms in his fingers overpower those of the marching prose, encouraging him to shut his eyes, where luminous and vibrant colors begin to pulsate, dance, melt, clash, and blend, a bit like the squiggles of Norman McLaren, or those in Fantasia —seen in Hollywood on a family trip to California four years ago, during which they also see Forbidden Planet in San Francisco late one night, racing from Fisherman's Wharf to make the last show, arriving just after the credits start, when the box office is closed and they can all troop in for free, just like at home, the electronic beeps chirping like little fish on the bubbly soundtrack as the heroes hurtle through outer space —defining an electric pattern that eventually sends him out the door in search of the other two guys who ate the stuff.
He finds them in the art studio, in the same building. C. keeps producing one miraculous linoleum cut after another, S. wildly cheering him on, until C. cuts his finger on the cutting tool and they all decide to trek over to the infirmary so that he can get it bandaged. Stepping outside into the darkening, deepening blue-green dusk, Jon feels eternally grateful—no other phrase will do—for the enamel perfection of sky and sunset behind the majestic Putney elm, over the billowing, pillowy hills. Half an hour later, when it is fully dark, Jon and S. are rolling around in the rippling grass in paroxysms of joyful laughter while waiting for C. to get out of the infirmary. Laughter seems the only reasonable response that either could have to the bare lightbulb that they both see burning, glistening, and laughing itself, a few yards away in the hallway of Old Girls' Dorm. A moment not easy to fathom, yet one that Kalua in Bird of Paradise or any of her tribal people could grasp in a flash, and might even take for granted—living in a land of plenty where ecstasy is as common as Coke floats and seltzer water, and the Hebrew lessons that Jonny takes from Rabbi Mantinband in Florence, that same spring in 1951, are like difficult initiations cooked up by a jealous and spiteful god to compensate for such blissful overloads of pleasure in His chosen people.
It was only an extension, really, of the sort of things that movies could do to life—nothing more. Like going into the 8th Street Bookshop just after stepping out of Bergman's The Magician at the 5th Avenue Cinema (on spring vacation from Putney, en route to Florence) and somehow being under the distinct, erroneous impression that the 5th Avenue Cinema and the 8th Street Bookshop, each defunct in any form as I type this sentence, were both south and east of the Washington Square arch (not north and west), thereby constructing an imaginary Greenwich Village that persists to this day, like those in Rear Window , The Seventh Victim , and My Sister Eileen .
Or maybe it was like the recurring dream that Bo had, around the same time as Bird of Paradise , that Twentieth Century-Fox discovered oil on its property. This dream led him to buy Fox stock, shares that eventually paid off, thanks in part to the development of CinemaScope, whose broad shape, like that of Bo himself and of the Frank Lloyd Wright house (the down payment on it was his wedding present to Stanley and Mimi, a token of his relief and gratitude that his only son, at twenty-eight, had finally fallen in love with and married a Jewish girl, twenty-one), became one of the purest expressions of complacent fifties prosperity and girth. Much later, long after he had sold most of the shares, by God, Fox did strike oil on its lot-confounding everyone, including Stanley with all his talk of superstition.
A related desire to "follow that dream" and experiment is more or less what gets Jon started on hallucinogens (as they later come to be called). But the truth of the matter is, aside from a minimally effectual buzz in early October 1962—a month after Bo dies (and three months after Faulkner dies), when Jon, a sophomore at NYU, turns on with Bruce (the son of a Hollywood producer, who appears to know Jerry Lewis personally and admires Sartre 's position on Cuba), then accompanies him to see (1) Ivan the Terrible, Parts I and II, at the Bleecker Street Cinema, and (2) a ninety-minute uptempo piano solo by Cecil Taylor, right across the street at the Take 3 (not necessarily in that order) —Jonathan doesn't really get into the possibilities of grass until spring 1965, two years after he transfers to Bard, two hours up the Hudson from Manhattan. There he is taught with expertise by another classmate named Bruce, a good friend who is also the projectionist for his Friday night film series most of that spring. And he doesn't get around to trying LSD until October 1968, back in Manhattan.
The acid trip is launched jointly with his youngest brother Michael, who is sailing for England on the Bremen the following midnight, and who phones him from Queens so that they can drop their matching tabs at the same time, 3:41 P.M., before he takes the subway to Jonathan's one-room, groundfloor apartment at 16 Christopher Street (reputedly the "original" address of the two heroines of My Sister Eileen ). However, Michael gets lost on the subway and doesn't arrive until the following day, and Jonathan has to content himself over the next dozen hours with R. Crumb's Head Comix and a subway ride of his own, to the Times Square area, feeling pretty paranoid the whole way, to witness the sad aluminum-foil look of Barbarella and listen to the thin, wiry warbles that go with the "angel of love" song over the final credits and taste the sour, coppery smell of the buttered popcorn he munches—the three sensations becoming slightly tangled via synesthesia so that the fundamental tawdriness of all three become interchangeable facets of his tawdry isolation and self-pity.
Two distinct variations on this particular bad trip are run over the next fourteen months. When Jonathan and Mike drop acid together in The Box in London, around midnight on August 31, everything goes nicely until they return to Mike's rented house on Rendle Street off Portobello Road, where as usual more than a dozen freaks are crashing. (Jonathan tried to watch Godard's Bande à Part on Mike's rented TV with a noisy bunch of them only two nights ago.) Mike discovers that his girlfriend Marie-France has just returned from Scotland, and he promptly disappears with her for the rest of the night. Then, on December 16, in Paris, not long after M. and M.-F. are married in Gibraltar, but before Jonathan accompanies them to Oselle, near Besancon, for Christmas, all three of them drop together, and take a cab to the Cinémathèque at Palais de Chaillot to see an 8:30 show of Nicholas Ray's Bitter Victory —which, Godard has written, is like the sun: it makes you close your eyes because the truth is blinding. Stepping out onto the gravel of the Jardin du Trocadéro afterward, still stunned by the last scene, between Ruth Roman and Curt Jurgens, when the cowardice of the latter and the bravery of Richard Burton (who has just died in agony) suddenly become morally and cosmically equivalent, the two brothers, twenty-two and twenty-six, are busy weaving their own webs of profundity when M.-F., disgusted with both, starts freaking out, crying about the enormity of the Eiffel Tower nearby—necessitating another taxi ride home to Jonathan's cramped rue Mazarine fiat, and then a banishment of Jonathan from living room to bedroom so that M.-E can be alone with her husband.
It isn't always like this with Mike. Jonathan was the first to turn him on, during a Bard vacation in Florence in the mid-sixties, and in late June 1967 they take peyote there together one afternoon, and both have wonderful trips. They mix the vile stuff in a blender with orange juice (which only makes it taste worse) and gulp it down; later they go off to see Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C. at the Norwood with a couple of nontripping local friends, Marshall and Phil (both students of Stanley at Florence State), a movie which Jonathan almost instantly finds totally unbearable. (Why sit in front of those shrieking pterodactyls, he figures after ten minutes, when he can be sitting outside in the car, breathing the quiet, gorgeously luminous night air? Which is what he happily does, for the duration, until the others come out.
And, on acid, some thirty-eight months later—Sunday, September 13, 1970, 4 P.M.—he experiences a comparable epiphany after buying a ticket and sitting down to nothing less than a Mizoguchi film, Chikamatsu Monogatari , at the New York Film Festival—a film he has been dying to see for years, yet he leaves Alice Tally Hall even before the credits are over, in a moment of exhilaration, to spend the rest of the afternoon outdoors, with friends. This is quite the reverse of watching Faces at the festival two years before, on DMT, when the drug seems to condense and compress the movie for him, almost to frame it under a misty, hypnotic halo. Toutes proportions gardées, it is much closer to the ordeal of attempting to watch Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell on mescaline with a friend one July weekend on Martha's Vineyard, before giving up the struggle in abject horror.)
The truth of the matter is that Jonathan's most formative movie experience on a drug—not counting his bad trip on mescaline cut with speed, in an isolated houseful of heads in Stony Brook, Long Island, fall 1966 (his first semester in graduate school), when his vision begins to flicker like an old-fashioned silent movie, his awareness of not seeing and nothing alternating diabolically with separate frames of sight and motion, to the degree that it becomes difficult to cross a room, to walk downstairs, to be with other people ("Those are only what the Buddhists call the spaces in between," says one of his temporary housemates, conceivably the same one who later asks rhetorically, in response to his freaked-out distress, "How can you be alone in a house full of people?"—a funny question to put to a movie freak) —is on grass, while watching Alphaville on TV with Pepe, the Cuban manager of the Bleecker Street Cinema, late one Saturday night (April 6, 1969) after he closes the theater and turns up at Jonathan's room on Christopher Street, clutching an enormous jumble of keys on a jangling chain, which he leaves behind when he departs at dawn.
Now here's the funny part: Jonathan has already seen Alphaville on grass, three and a half years before, while still at Bard, when he came down to New York one weekend to visit his friend Amy and to see the Godard movie at the film festival. He remembers the disturbing sense of continuity that he felt then, passing from the escalator of Philharmonic Hall to the icy Paris skyscrapers of Alphaville and back again. But the film's abrupt shifts in tone between parody and poetic pretension—two of the things he loves most in movies—confounded his expectations; they confused him, like the film's use of superhighways around Paris to represent outer space, and he left Philharmonic Hall ready to conclude, notwithstanding Susan Sontag's sensual! intellectual enthusiasm for Godard's work, that the movie wasn't a lot more than a James Bond takeoff in black and white, mixed with literary quotes and warmed-over sci-fi notions from Huxley and Orwell, all stirred together with grating sounds and images to no great or lasting purpose.
Many things have happened to his appreciation of Godard in the interim, however; so that by the time Jonathan gets into a rap about Godard with Pepe, the Bleecker Street manager, two years later, you can't really say he is hostile to the idea of giving Alphaville a second chance, even if it is dubbed and on TV. And Pepe, who was already reading Cahiers du Cinéma when he was just a kid in Cuba, who wrote about Godard's Bande à Part in 1966 for Cinema Work Sheet ("It would be worthless to say that Godard is very profound in his utter romanticism, and that his concern with trivia and his humor are as thin as Immanuel Kant's"), who was reportedly the only living soul on the planet who saw practically all twenty-four hours and forty minutes of Andy Warhol's Four Stars the only time the complete film was shown last December, and who said he loved Alphaville , had agreed to come over after work and watch it with him on TV.
Which he did, after the two of them got very stoned on dope. And what startled Jonathan when Pepe slumped to the floor in front of the set, groaning and sighing with intense, untrammeled pleasure at the pure visceral kicks of the movie—above all, the camera movements following Lemmy Caution into and through diverse parts of the hotel, aided and abetted by the distancing effects of TV, which reduced the more painful registers of the high-contrast photography, and the dubbed-in American voices, which likewise gave the sound of Alpha-60 a much softer edge—was the graphic, Latin illustration that the cinema was a sensual pleasure, not just a cerebral one. More than that, it was a sensual pleasure that was also cerebral, a fact that had already been suggested only three days before, at the Museum of Modem Art, where/when Jonathan (and Pepe, it turned out) had watched all seven hours of Louis Feuillade's magnificent 1918 serial Tih Minh .
A simple truth; yet the whole experience of life and cinema could somehow be contained within it. It suggested that, contrary to everything that a mythical construct known as "America" had taught him, mind and body were not necessarily at odds with one another, and that the diverse movements in a film—whether it was the physical movement of a camera, an actor, or an object or the abstract movement of a thought, a narrative, or a procedure—could correspond, theoretically and kinetically, to the movements (seizures, acts, and transports) of one's own body. It was only a variation, really, of what Annette Michelson, a new friend who had just introduced him to Feuillade, meant when she wrote that "Kubrick does make Keatons of us all" (which made him think of Playtime ) in "Bodies in Space: Film as 'Carnal Knowledge,'" an essay about 2001: A Space Odyssey (and Alphaville, Barbarella, Ivan the Terrible , and Sunrise ) in the February 1969 Artforum .
Preoccupied as he was then with German expressionism (especially F. W. Murnau's Sunrise , his favorite movie, about which he was writing an article for the anthology he was editing), Jonathan could combine Pepe's swooning excitement with the film history and criticism that he was discovering behind the pastiches. As he wound up putting it in his first article for Sight and Sound three years later, Godard
comments on the implicit thematic values of light and darkness in German expressionism by making them explicit, even self-conscious, in the film's symbology. "Light that goes . . . light that returns," chants Natasha in the central love scene, as the light modulates back and forth from blinding intensity to darkness—as it does throughout much of the film, usually at a faster, blinking tempo. "From needing to know, I watched the night create the day . . . " "What transforms the night into day?" Alpha-60 asks Lemmy, who replies: "Poetry." Even the abrupt shifts to negative express the same dialectic. Quite apart from the specific homages (figures clinging to the wall like Cesare sleepwalking in Caligari, the track through the hotel's revolving door from The Last Laugh, Professor Nosferatu, etc.), Alphaville has more to say about the silent German cinema than any of the passing references in Godard's essays. Criticism composed in the language of the medium, it brings social and aesthetic insight equally into focus, and certainly deserves a place next to Kracauer and Eisner.[*]
A Black and White Lap Dissolve
There is a darkness in the balcony of a theater in a small Southern town [I wrote eleven years earlier, fall 1960, my senior year at Putney, a month or so before the theaters were sold. Dad phoned me long distance, and I had no one to talk to afterward, knew no one at Putney who could be more than polite, who cared at all ]. A darkness that is usually silent, but occasionally laughs.
Downstairs, the people watch only the white warm incubator screen and never think of looking back. Over their heads are the beams of light coming from the movie projector that mix with the smoke of a hundred cigarettes [the image was a romantic one for me at the time, like jacket photos of James Agee and Albert Camus, because I'd started to smoke earlier that year; today in Hoboken—November 6, 1979, where Sandy and I moved a little over seven weeks ago, after discovering in September that we couldn't afford Manhattan rents; and a little over thirty-six weeks after smoking my last cigarette, in SoHo—I find it singularly repulsive, and decidedly inferior to the sudsy blue sky on Washington Street that I can see from my desk ] to form a river of intertwining mist that quietly drifts toward the screen; behind them is the soft drone of the projector, occasional quiet laughter, yet they look neither up nor back, but only straight ahead.
The movie is over; the audience spills out of the lobby like a rush of pebbles from an overturned aquarium. [I was reading Anaïs Nin that year, along with Agee, Camus, Joyce, Updike, and Warren .] They chatter about many things in voices that grow louder as they reach the sidewalk, they laugh, but they do not think about the darkness.
A quiet summer night: the darkness leaves the theater by a side exit and walks slowly down the neon-tinted sidewalk, moving steadily from color to color, proceeding through the town that whirrs and sighs like an enormous mechanical toy left running by a negligent child. A member of the downstairs audience passes by the darkness, and for a split second sees one of the faces in a red blink of neon, and sees the eyes—but this he forgets until an hour later, when the last light of night is turned out and he, himself, is trapped in darkness.
Sometimes I think that I know this darkness [I wrote at Bard my senior year, in 1965, adding the first four words to the sentence I wrote at Putney ]. I know him by the quiet click of his steps and the orange end of his cigarette as he passes by on the sidewalk in front of my house. [There was no sidewalk in front of my house .] In the stillness he whispers a soft tune.
But this is all I can ever know about him [I wrote at both places ]—for who can bear to turn on a light, late at night, and look into his eyes? Who can see more of him than the angry orange eye of his cigarette as he walks to the dark side of town?
I see the darkness stop at a street corner and pause to look up at the stars. I wonder how he must feel, looking at the white dots sprinkled in a sea of black, knowing the black is only empty space.
“Not ‘A darkness that, ‘” said Phil Petrie, creative writing instructor at Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, who hailed from Harlem, the following summer, when Jon submitted some version of the above to the mimeographed Highlander Journal . “‘A darkness who .’” Another sensible editorial change that Phil made was to cut “can ever” from the first sentence in the next-to-last paragraph.
The Highlander Folk School Youth Camp was “an interracial experience in the creative arts of high school students” that Jon had asked (and received) Stanley’s permission to attend, the summer after he graduated from Putney, despite some seriously felt (yet scrupulously unvoiced) misgivings on the part of Bo and some more-than-mild warnings about subversives and blacklists from the likes of Dr. Brown and David Darby. It was where Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mrs. Rosa Parks had hatched their strategy for the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the mid-fifties (in the thirties, when Highlander was getting started, there was more concentration on organizing labor) and where Guy Carawan, music appreciation instructor and leader of the folksinging, had recently decided to refurbish an old church hymn called “We Shall Overcome” as a civil rights anthem. Now he was using us as guinea pigs and future disseminators (three dozen campers, more than half of us Negroes, and a dozen more staff members), making sure that we sang it two, three, even four times a day. And it was here that I first encountered films by Buñuel, Dreyer, and Fellini.
Here is the complete list of movies shown at Highlander, July 1 to August 12, 1961, which I copied into a ledger:
Highlander film made by Elia Kazan in the 30′s [The People of the Cumberlands, 1937]
The Nashville Story (TV program)
Death of a Salesman
Grapes of Wrath
Night of the Hunter
The 39 Steps (battered print)Ordet
Lust for Life
The Young and the Damned
On the Waterfront
(Please note, Dr. Brown: No Potemkin.)
Two or three of these titles had been suggested by Jon—Citizen Kane (his favorite film, which he’d first encountered the previous year, at Putney), The Night of the Hunter , perhaps The 39 Steps —suggestions made to Blanchard, a Sewanee student who ordered the films, and who let him borrow the current Esquires from the Highlander office to read Dwight Macdonald’s movie columns on Breathless and Elmer Gantry . So Jon was tickled pink (you might say) when, upon asking Harry Wood from Atlanta, perhaps the blackest member of his tent, which movie he had liked best that Summer, Harry replied, the one with the white preacher, Robert Mitchum—because he liked to go to movies that had adventure, and that one probably had the most.
I saw every one of these movies with the rest of the camp—except for the last one, which was shown when I was laid up with a bad cold, reading Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet . Then word got around that Rosenbaum was “in” Shoeshine. (Or “Rosie,” as Elmo G. called me, another loser named Elmo, my bête noire that summer in more ways than one—a very big and very black crony of Harry’s from Atlanta who seemed annoyed by the attention being shown me by Ruth Israel from Cincinnati [who had written a poem for Phil's class about the day Hemingway died]; Big Elmo, a football player with a chipped front tooth who thought I was hilarious, like some character he had seen in Shoeshine, shortsheeted my bed on a regular nightly basis, and on the last day of camp emptied a plastic waste basket full of water on my head, which finally led me to retaliate, with the help of Edgar, a light-brown counselor enrolled at Swarthmore, by propping up his entire bed next to the campsite on the lake and writing “Hi, Elmo!” in shaving cream across the top blanket—which led in turn to his public apology that night at the same site, in front of the entire camp, for having given me a hard time all summer . . . just a few months before I ran into a white Highlander staff member named Ann one night in a New York subway, and she told me just before she got offal the next stop that Elmo had been killed by a cop in Atlanta, while trying to hold up a grocery store.) So I knew I had to see Shoeshine . And as soon as the projectionist (and who was that? a nameless spear carrier I no longer remember whom the Conquistador blithely squishes under his boots as he proudly treks forward, totally unfazed, clearly aiming for the finer things in life) offered to run it through for me one afternoon before the print was sent back, we set a date.
How then could I possibly give a dispassionate account of De Sica and Zavattini’s Sciuscia , when I was ostensibly looking for my own reflection there, mon semblable, monfràre? (And what were you looking for, by the way, if you saw the flick?) There was no mistaking him when he finally appeared, a Jewish-looking kid with curly hair and glasses (except that my hair isn’t/wasn’t curly; the glasses were more like my brother David’s than mine; and some people say I don’t look very Jewish) who is always reading and who looks a bit like Huntz Hall in the Bowery Boy movies.
But I’m not really playing along with the Conquistador or even paying him the “protection” that he usually demands and exacts. Most of you haven’t seen the film, and I’ll bet that a good many of you who have will not remember this apparently nameless character (nameless at least to readers of subtitles) who gets only slightly more play in Shoeshine than, say, Cora Claypool does in On Moonlight Bay . So let’s backtrack: The movie is about two little boys in war-torn Italy who buy a horse named Bersagliere, are arrested for selling black market American blankets, and land in a lice-ridden prison where one of the kids is coerced by the authorities into betraying and squealing on the other one. Jonathan’s distinct impression, when he sees Sciuscia again at the Bleecker Street Cinema (late afternoon, March 15, 1979), is that this post-Fascist movie may conceivably be as obsessed with informing (tattling) as On the Waterfront is.
The kid who Elmo G. said was exactly like Rosie turns up in the prison, where he says things like, “Because they’re illiterate, you ignoramus” and “At least he had the guts to shoot his father” (whatever that means). Once he is seen reading a comic book in the yard; on another occasion a hidden file is found by the authorities, this kid asks an official a question about it, and the official takes off his glasses and slaps him hard.
Yet all this is small potatoes next to the education in images, image making, and spectators that Highlander was giving me outside of movies almost daily. On a trip (the entire camp traveled in eight cars) to attend a meeting at a black church, I had my first direct experience of racist hate stares, the looks that could kill, the expressions of sweet lady shoppers with their kids and kindly-looking men in downtown Chattanooga, who called us “dirty fucking Commie nigger pigs” simply because we were sitting together in a convertible on that particular summer day (in the year of the Freedom Rides), Negro and white, male and female. I had the sensation that these strange pedestrians were looking not at us, or at me, but at some loathsome monster, like Gregor Samsa as an insect, who happened to be occupying precisely the same space as I (or as we). Later that night, on the ride home, we experienced real danger, fear, and panic when we stopped at a Dairy Cone and some hood asked Darrell, the camp director, “Whadaya doin’ wid all them niggers?” Darrell, who was from Illinois, said something like, “They’re human beings, what are you?” This led to the hood’s rounding up more hoods, and before long they were ahead of us, at the side of the road, throwing bricks and bottles at us as we passed. (Another night, at camp, Darrell lectured us on the advantages of nonviolence while we waited to be raided and beaten by some irate segregationist citizens of Monteagle, who apparently changed their minds at the last minute only because it started to rain.)
The lesson of becoming part of a we that included members of an endangered species (not only Negroes, but civil rights demonstrators, unlike the comfortable liberals, myself included, who had formed a chapter of CORE at Putney and decided last May, one night after Friday Night Singing, to picket the Woolworth store in nearby Brattleboro on Saturday morning—a demonstration that I was not allowed to participate in, despite my pleading, because I was a white Southerner, a decision that my Southern Negro friend Helen Quigless, who was allowed to participate, agreed was pretty unfair ) was not truly learned until the day after camp ended—a hot, clammy Saturday afternoon in mid-August when Dad and Alvin drove to Monteagle to pick me up (along with Malcolm, a white camper in my tent who was spending the night with us in Florence before taking a bus for Florida) and drive us home.
Malcolm and I hadn’t slept much, if at all, the night before; there was still too much emotional shock to overcome. Early that morning we had seen off Oscar, a Negro friend from Mississippi, at the Monteagle bus station. When Ruth Israel began to cry and hug Oscar, I saw an elderly white woman who was waiting to board the bus look at both of them—and at me, too—with so much loathing that I thought I would vomit, knowing that Oscar was stepping perhaps forever out of one world and into another the moment he boarded that bus, that he would have to go to the back of it and stay there, all the way back to Mississippi. (it was Oscar who at seven every morning had wakened the camp by ringing a metal gong that hung between two trees near the badminton court; a habitual early riser, Oscar had volunteered to take the job on the second day and then executed it faithfully and enthusiastically all summer. For the rest of each day he was a walking cipher, shy, silent, and moody, speaking only when spoken to and then with a soft-edged lilt, self-effacing and embarrassed. But come five of seven he was a thundering extrovert: he would leap out of bed like a healthy warrior, take the shovel from under his bed and charge across the baseball field in his bare feet, and then with seven or eight vigorous strokes beat holy hell out of that gong—exuding a euphoric bliss that expressed itself each time he returned from the gong with his shovel and began to stalk each of the three boys’ tents like a restless panther, pounding the base of each wooden platform as hard as he could, and calling out in a voice too clamorous for any sleeper to survive, “Seben-a-Clock People, Break-Fas-Tahm—Tahm to Git Up You Lazy People, You Silly Muhvas, I Said It’s Break-Fas! Break-Fas, Man—Hot Griddle-Cakes an Frahd Eggs, Toast, Grits”—pounding the platform—”Onj Juice, Milk an Coffee-Mmm Mm Mm . . . ” “Hey man,” would groan Gerry, the youngest Negro in our tent, from Louisville, “doancha ‘predate the rights-a others?” “The rahtsa othas,” Oscar would insist, “is that it’s tahm fo you to git up this mornin’.” ) The six-week movie that was Highlander still burned too brightly in our brains.
But if memory serves, Malcolm did finally manage to doze off a bit during the ride back to Florence; and perhaps he was still asleep when Dad stopped downtown briefly, probably to run some errand at the Shoals, and Alvin and I got out and went around the corner to see what was new at Anderson’s Newsstand. It was Saturday afternoon, and the streets were full of shoppers. But why were there so many Negroes shopping downtown, so many more than I had ever seen there before? I must have pondered the possible causes of such a sudden influx for several minutes before I realized with dismay that there were no more Negroes in downtown Florence today than there were on any other Saturday, that the difference was entirely one of vision (mine) and what informed it. Before I went to Highlander there had been no reason, practically speaking, for me to have looked at Negroes on the sidewalk in the same way that I might have kept my eyes open for white friends and acquaintances. And now that in theory there was a reason, it was little more than theoretical. In less than one month, I would be starting college at NYU (just as Dad would be starting to teach at Florence State), and whatever happened to me at Highlander would soon become irrelevant.
In any case, it was something unresolved, as unresolved for me as the South, a place I’ve never understood. Seriously; I have never been able to comprehend more than a fraction of what Stepin Fetchit says in The Sun Shines Bright , all three or four times I’ve seen it, at home and abroad, just as I could never understand why the colored soldier in Home Of The Brave (at the Princess on August 22, 1949, its first showing in Alabama—when “colored” was still the usual term, not Negro or black ) was called “yellow-bellied” by a white soldier when that wasn’t his color at all; or why the all-white audience at the Norwood in mid-December 1958 for The Defiant Ones laughed uproariously, hysterically, as though the film were a Three Stooges comedy.
It was much easier to grasp the ambience of, say, Jazz On a Summer’s Day at the 5th Avenue Cinema or a play called The Connection at the Living Theatre, both seen on the same Saturday in succession on the way back to Putney from Florence, April 1960, only two weeks after seeing The Magician on the way down (both topheavy exciting trips—not unlike the visiting relationship with Manhattan that I have today, a tourist from Hoboken ), where the relative acceptance of colored Negro blacks seemed like typically sophisticated New York. (At the avant-garde drinking fountain in the upstairs lobby of the Living Theatre, one of the Negro actors, John McCurry, actually begged money from the audience during intermission, still playing his role of a junkie.) Traces of city smarts may have even registered at a 16mm screening of The Quiet One , held one night in the living room at home in Florence, for a meeting of the integrated Council on Human Relations, circa 1949 or 1950, a year or two after Bo donated $35,000 (the same amount that it cost to remodel the Princess for its silver anniversary in August 1944) toward the building of the Florence Public Library, which Dad integrated. Most of all, there was the sentimental, pulsing, humanist New York warmth of a movie called Shadows , with music by Charlie Mingus, in which words like “colored,” “Negro,” “Caucasian,” “black,” “white,” and even “racist” were never used—a movie I saw again and again during an entire spring vacation spent in New York in 1961, my senior year at Putney.
I suppose it was the same New York sophistication that led me, in an unconscious but unmistakable fit of one-upmanship and sadism, to take David Darby to see The Connection when I was a freshman at NYU, during the fall term, after Highlander. (The resulting shock was so great that he fixated on a musical comedy actress he thought he recognized a few rows away; it was all he could talk about afterwards.) When Claude Winfield—a Negro friend from Harlem by way of Putney—and I saw Shirley Clarke’s film of the play the following October, after the New York censor had finally passed it, it was at a theater called the D. W. Griffith, located right next to several legitimate theaters off Times Square. So Claude and I laughed when we heard an out-of-towner behind us, some hayseed, ask at the box office if it was Mars Mary he was buying a ticket for—only to discover much later, at the climax of The Connection , when Leach overdoses on heroin, that the same out-of-towner was causing an unusual commotion in the balcony by having a heart attack.
“This man’s just had a heart attack!” some woman screamed, to be answered by, “Will you please shut up and let us watch the picture?”—a classic New York exchange. It reminds me of the loud, plaintive query, aimed at no one in particular, that Calvin Green said he once heard in the balcony of the 42nd Street Apollo, during a pregnant pause in an art film like The Seventh Seal : “He’s sahry? He just vomits all over my wife’s brand new coat and he says he’s sahry? “—one more measly item in a long chain of cinéphiliac legends stretching from here to doomsday. (I used to hear of a man in Paris, a critic on one of the French film monthlies and a Cinémathèque habitué who, it was said, had recently returned from Switzerland, where an unspeakable operation had been performed on him so that whatever it was that had been distracting him from cinema had been swiftly, efficiently, and permanently removed. Then there was the more modest legend about one of the regulars at Howard and Roger’s [a former ciné-club in Manhattan], who, according to Carlos Clarens, took a shower and smoked a joint before every film. A fabled figure of my personal acquaintance went AWOL from his army base one night in the early sixties in order to see a double feature of The Big Sleep and To Have And Have Not , and was subsequently reported as dead to his parents. Meredith Brody, a Californian whom I met at the Cinémathèque, thought nothing of going to four or five movies in one day, hopping from one Left Bank cinema to the next like someone delivering the mail. Finally, another friend reports that when Jonas Mekas was informed in 1970 that Nasser had just died, his initial response was to wonder aloud: Is this a good or bad thing for cinema?)
I digress? Very well then, I digress. And hold your breath even longer, if you possibly can, as I explain that it wasn’t until the fall of 1963, the year after I saw The Connection with Claude, when I wrote a paper on race prejudice in the South for Heinrich Bluecher’s seminar at Bard, on Metaphysical Concepts of History and Their Manifestations in Political Reality, only a short time before John F. Kennedy was shot (and a week more before Thanksgiving vacation, when I took the train to New York and went to see Miles Davis at the Village Vanguard, an electric night; the place was packed, it was one of Miles’s big comebacks after a long absence; even Charlie Mingus was there, at a table, and he got so carried away by the beginning of one of the ballads that he did a phrase just like Miles’s opening phrase with his voice—”DEEDOPA DOODA DOOPEE DAY”—so loud, sudden, and brilliant that it stopped Miles dead in his tracks, then stopped the band when Miles motioned to Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams to quit. Then in his sinister foghorn voice, Miles whispered, right next to the mike, real testy-like, “Do it again, Mingus.” “NO, MILES,” Mingus bellowed, “YOU DO IT AGAIN!” And Miles started the ballad a second time, this time did it even better, played his solo, and then left the stage, crossing most of the club’s perimeter on his way to Mingus ‘s table. Every eye in the Vanguard seemed to be trained on his tense, angry body, and a crowd quickly surrounded them, making it impossible to see what was happening until a moment later, when some people moved away and the two men could be seen hugging each other; and later that night the three wonderful New York strangers I was sharing a table with, three older guys and a gal, one of the guys black invited me to their place on Sullivan Street—oh nostalgia, dirty, rotten, reactionary nostalgia—and we all smoked dope until nearly dawn, even if the president was dead ) that I was able to formulate what so much of the problem had been for me, a matter of metaphysics: that “white” people weren’t actually colored white any more than “colored,” “Negro,” or “black” people were colored black. The abstraction was a verbal one that effectively replaced and overwhelmed the colors that people actually saw—because there was so much psychic and social energy (time, effort, money) invested in that absurd so-called dialectic whereby black was chaos, the unknown, and dirty evil, while white was familiar, virginal soap—a myth that became even more questionable once it was imposed on people whose colors were indeterminate varieties of pink and tan. Furthermore, I concluded, “It is impossible to realize that one is part of a pattern without first breaking away from the pattern in order to view it as an outsider.”
Among all of my liberal friends in Alabama, I cannot think of a single one (and I would include myself) who has developed any real conviction about the reality of Negro persecution without having first become dissatisfied with some other aspect of the South. Perhaps it is impossible for one to recognize selfishness in others unless he has selfish reasons for doing so; but since this fact appears to be a universal one, there is hardly any reason for finding it more distasteful in the South than anywhere else. It would hardly advance a liberal argument to assume that Southern whites are basically inferior to other people.
Was there a contradiction between the attempt to reject such a cosmology of black and white as politics, and the impulse to embrace a comparable kind of metaphysics, in Sunrise and Alphaville , as poetics? (When Alpha-60 asks Lemmy, “What transforms the night into day?” the answer might also have been “politics.” Or perhaps even “cinema.”) Not really, for one person’s poetics are bound to be another person’s politics (and vice versa, no doubt). And what is politics, really, but the application of art to a nonabstract realm?
That was what it felt like, more or less, on the last laps of the Historic March from Selma to Montgomery a year and a half later, March 17 and 18, 1965, the same spring I was learning about grass from Bruce II and having my first nonproblematical affair at Bard (with a drama major whose classmates and cronies included Chevy Chase, Blythe Danner, and Kenny Shapiro, three jazz performers—drums, vocals, and piano and vocals, respectively—with whom I loved to jam on piano). But the fact that it felt so Historic while it was happening also helped to make it seem like it wasn’t really happening at all. Alvin and I and three other Bard students got special permission to miss three days of classes, flew from New York to Atlanta, rented a car from Avis (the Hertz people, overhearing what we were up to, said they had no car available, but, being hospitable Southern folk, they drove us to their competitor a few blocks away), and headed straight for St. Jude on Highway 80, a Catholic school and hospital complex on the outskirts of Montgomery, where the marchers from Selma were arriving and camping out, before the triumphant march to the state capitol the following day.
We arrived in early afternoon, when the rain that had persisted for most of the day was beginning to slacken. While Alvin went to park our rented car, the rest of us were carried in an overcrowded staff car to the end of a procession of about two thousand people who were still marching toward St. Jude, where we joined a burgeoning and boisterous cross-section of the nation, a veritable Norman Rockwell portrait of all-American diversity that was practically the reverse of the group from Highlander which drove through downtown Chattanooga three and a half years before. Unlike those crackers who hated us, we were a euphorically self-satisfied and fulfilled bunch of stand-ins for Everyone, the American People, who were incidentally flanked and protected by federalized state troopers as we sang our triumphant songs. (The troopers were there at the express order of President Johnson, who had actually said “We shall overcome” before a joint session of Congress on Monday, thereby making the Selma March Historic, like a movie on dope, which made us only that much more eager to freeload happily on a grand celebration that belonged first of all to those who had started from Selma on Monday—and those among them, like King, who were reaping the fruit of some of the seeds planted years ago by the Montgomery Bus Boycott.) The troopers looked like inhabitants of another planet as they stood stiffly and stolidly, determined to suppress all signs of emotion. (And how many killing looks were directed at them, from us, the conquering crowd? )
Marching with all those Negro schoolkids, Michigan lawyers, Brooklyn housewives, New England teachers, West Coast college kids, white Southern ministers, Midwestern businessmen, and all the other middle-class Everyones was a giddy kick all right. And the monster outdoor entertainment rally that night in St. Jude’s muddy field, which we watched from our sleeping bags and blankets, offered a better lineup than you could get any night of the year in front of George Wallace’s state headquarters—a Biblical (or at any rate De Mille) spectacular that featured Joan Baez, James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte (as emcee), Leonard Bernstein, Mai Britt, Sammy Davis, Jr., George Kirby, Peter Lawford, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Tony Perkins, Nipsey Russell, Nina Simone (singing “Mississippi Goddam”), Frank Sinatra, Shelley Winters, and many others.
Was it the collective high of the event that made the experience so oddly unreal to Jonathan? Apparently not, because the experience of unreality started only after the March had left the Negro ghetto (where Jonathan and the others had tried to sleep that morning, after the rain had started again at 3 or 3:30 A.M., and they had been taken in a truck down a dirt road to a Negro church where a rooster in the adjacent yard was already crowing, and where the pews and aisles were already filled with sleeping marchers, bodies who seemed to have been dropped there in diverse postures like so many handkerchiefs ). The March’s route toward the state capitol had been shrewdly plotted not via Highway 80 but through the Negro section instead, which gradually became working-class and then middle-class white, before reaching the main street downtown; and each step forward seemed a little more abstract.
Could this have been because the media took over at the very moment the March entered White Territory? It wasn’t so much the TV cameras as it was the painfully contracted stalemates between hostility and approval that was apparent in so many of the faces of the white spectators, observers who seemed so aware of the national media coverage that their features, like those of the troopers, twisted into deliberately noncommittal masks that translated themselves into media blandness. It was as though Jonathan and the other marchers were looking directly into the TV cameras while the troopers and the spectators were all looking away, neither side daring for an instant to look too closely at the other, or even to establish eye contact. Whatever it was, it took all the placeness out of Montgomery, made the city into a prop, an abstraction, a soundstage remodeled (like a political candidate) for instant transmission. Thus Jonathan began to entertain the fantasy that if he stepped off the street, crossed the line of state troopers, and walked around to the backs of those middle-class clapboard houses—subjected himself to a reverse angle, as it were—he would find Hollywood scaffolding and supports behind all those façades, perhaps even discover that the real Montgomery was located somewhere else (certainly not here, in front of those cameras, in front of company).
This was my second march in Montgomery; Jonny made the first as a clarinet player in the Coffee High School Band, at the gubernatorial inauguration of John Patterson. (January 1959, if you have to know, another wretched band trip in those silly gold and black uniforms, marching to nonsense songs in the cold; more fun perhaps than doing Busby Berkeley formations to the same Sousa marches at halftime during Coffee’s football season, but not one hell of a lot.) John Patterson’s father Albert had said he was going to clean up all the crime in Phenix City, had been elected attorney general of Alabama on that platform, and had been shot dead by gangsters on the night of Friday, June 18, 1954, when I was spending the night at Bo and Grandma’s. Bo and I were drinking grape soda floats when an announcement of the murder interrupted the program we were all watching—Our Miss Brooks or The Life of Riley or Ozzie and Harriet —frightening and upsetting Bo for the rest of the evening. (The murder was immortalized the following year in Phil Karlson’s The Phenix City Story , a neorealist film noir thriller in the tradition of On The Waterfront that turns up at the Shoals in October, and which I show at Bard almost exactly nine years later—the most authentic-looking and authentic-sounding seedy movie shot in Alabama that I know, even though I don’t know Phenix City.)
Although my second march in Montgomery is a lot more satisfying than the first one was six years before, the placelessness of both events seems strangely equivalent. Like the Advent screen in a spacious living room in Hidden Hills, an L.A. suburb, where Sandy and I sat watching the evening news just after the last New Year, it was something bigger than we were, automatically more important than who or what or even where we were—History, no less (“And that’s the way it is,” said Walter Cronkite, the Big Brother who was watching us, with the comforting finality of a Walt Disney or a March Of Time or a Charlie Chaplin, all twiddling the globe beneath their smooth thumbs, speaking grandly of apocalypse)—which made us belong to the image, rather than ensure that the image belonged to us. So, like illicit sex, it didn’t much matter where it happened or who we were: places and faces were equally expendable in the serious pursuit of abstract, eternal truths.
Which is also to suggest, as I approach the end of this abbreviated survey, that it mattered whom I saw movies with—which was always a part of the places where I saw them. And the race of my companions affected this too: Cabin In The Sky with Mickey Schuler (black) at the Palais de Chaillot Cinémathèque, October 1970; Slaughter with John Thompson (white) at the Shoals, November 1972; the last show of Super Fly with Jill Forbes (white) at the Cinéma Bonaparte on Place Saint-Sulpice, March 1973; Car Wash with Maryanne Conheim (white) in a mainly black audience in downtown Philadelphia, Christmas 1976; Richard Pryor Live In Concert , alone amid a mainly black audience at the National in midtown Manhattan, March 1979, where Pryor’s
intuitions about my own insecurities were so acute that I was immediately won over. In point of fact, his impersonations of whites are probably more hilarious and accurate than any “equivalents” offered in white minstrel shows. It was refreshing to learn, contrary to the incessantly hammered-in xenophobia of so many recent Hollywood packages—from Sorcerer and Star Wars to Midnight Deer Hunter Express —that political ties can still be found, renewed and/or tested among diverse groups inside an auditorium, not broken up and subdivided on the way in by diverse forms of racism and class distinction.
The political issue is basic: Are commercial movies today public forums and community meeting-places, or private sites of narcissistic pleasure, figurative or literal porn images to masturbate to? (A tasty bit of aggressive agit-prop like The China Syndrome falls neatly between these categories.) There’s no question that Pryor belongs to the first camp, because his comedy is a matter of recognition, not confirmation. He lets it all hang out, including how he works. When he falls to the floor in his heart-attack routine, or impersonates his grandmother beating himself as a child—one word per stroke as he sculpts a staccato, crablike chain of blows given and received across the stage, oppressor and victim maniacally encased inside the same voice and body—it seems to be his body thinking, remembering, and speaking as much as his mind. But of course, as Yvonne Rainer reminds us, the mind is a muscle—a lesson demonstrated constantly by Pryor, along with Jacques Tati and Jerry Lewis (in contrast to, say, Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen).[*]
“Contributing to the credibility of ‘On the Waterfront,’” wrote critic John McCarten (see page 102)—who wrote the following week in The New Yorker (August 7, 1954) that Hitchcock’s studio-shot Rear Window was “claptrap,” and “another example of his footless ambition to make a movie that stands absolutely still”—”is the fact that it was actually made in Hoboken.” On a scale of 0 to 10, leading from absolute truth (0) to total falsity (10) and encountering most of life (and death) en route, rate each of the following variants of this statement:
1. “Contributing to the credibility of the Montgomery March is the fact that it actually took place in Montgomery.”
2. “Contributing to the credibility of The Phenix City Story is the fact that it was actually made in Phenix City.”
3. “Contributing to the credibility of the two park scenes in On The Waterfront (a film that Sandy and I see again, in 35mm, on November 5, 1979, at the Museum of Modern Art’s Film Study Center)—both of which feature Marlon Brando in a checkered lumber jacket and burning leaves in trashcans—is the fact that, as far as we can make out, they were actually shot in three (or four) different parks and intercut in such a way that they appear to be one. Two of the parks are a couple of blocks away, in opposite directions, from where we live now: Hudson Square Park (or Stevens Park, as some call it), where you see Karl Malden’s church in the background, and Elysian Park in the reverse angles, where you see an iron fence and the Manhattan skyline in the background. The playground swings where Brando and Eva Marie Saint talk and he plays with her glove are in the part of the film that Patricia Patterson recently told us she watched being shot in Jersey City Heights, on Palisades Avenue and Bower Street, where you can see the Hoboken skyline. And Alice Genese, a neighbor, recalls part of the movie being shot in Church Square Park in Hoboken, four blocks west of Hudson Square.”
4. “Contributing to the credibility of The Birth of a Nation is the fact that it was actually made in California.”
5. “Contributing to the credibility of Intolerance is the fact that it was actually made in 1916.”
6. “Contributing to the credibility of Moving Places is the fact that it was actually made in Alabama, California, the District of Columbia, England, France, Italy, New Jersey, and New York.”
7. “Contributing to the credibility of Made in Hoboken is the fact that it was actually made in a hurry (the entire manuscript of the book being due, in final draft, by January 1, 1980).”
8. “Contributing to the credibility of Rear Window and Playtime is the fact that they were both actually made in studios.”
9. “Contributing to the credibility of Avalanche Express is the fact that it was actually seen by me at the Hoboken Cinema 1 on a Saturday afternoon, November 10, when I was sharing the space with about a dozen male kids, most of them noisy and restless. There’s a fake scream and then a cry, ‘I’m scared to be in the dark! ‘ as the lights dim in deference to the start of the last movie directed by Mark Robson, who started out with The Seventh Victim in 1943, the year I was born. Later on, a kid with a Hispanic accent reads aloud the English subtitles when Russian is spoken; the usher, who looks no older than twelve himself, periodically comes around with a flashlight and tells other kids either to stop smoking or to put their feet down; at least two kids make loud smooching sounds when Lee Marvin and Linda Evans kiss.
Still later, when Robert Shaw, in his last performance, begins to whistle, there are brief whistles, too. Contributing to the credibility of these public nuisances, who don’t bother to stick around for the final credits (with the house lights on), is the fact that they’re only trying to do the same as the rest of us, to imitate what they see and hear on the screen. But is it the movie that they’re testing out, or themselves? As I get up to leave, the manager steps up to me—rather like the way that Bo approaches Hubert at the Douglas Princess—and, gesturing at my notebook, asks me if I’m a film critic. Oddly, I feel that some aspect of my privacy has been invaded, my anonymity as a spectator violated—which, to tell the truth, contributes to one’s credibility.”
10. “Contributing to the credibility of Elia Kazan’s Wild River is the fact that it was actually shot in the Tennessee Valley, and seen there, too, at the Colbert in Sheffield, the last show on Wednesday night, June 15—right after coming home from my first year at Putney, and only a week or two after consuming peyote in Vermont.”
When You’re in Drag, the Whole World’s Southern Baptist
Now that criticism and advertising are becoming harder and harder to separate in American film culture—each practice striving to mask or rationalize the gradual deterioration of a social contract between an audience and an industry, an effacement which has left a gaping, blinding absence that only hyperbole and star-fucking can fill—the notion of any genuinely spontaneous movie cult becomes automatically suspect. It implies something quite counter to the mega-cinema of Cimino, Coppola and Spielberg—a cinema that can confidently write its own reviews (and reviewers) if it wants to, working with the foreknowledge of a guaranteed media-saturation coverage that will automatically recruit and program most of its audience, and which dictates a central part of its meaning in advance . (An imposed consensus is perhaps needed now in order to enlist passive audiences into ambitious myths.)
For a long time in the U.S. (as elsewhere), certain specialized audience interests that get shoved off the streets by the box-office bullies have been taking refuge in midnight screenings, most of them traditionally held on weekends. . . . It might be possible to argue that one of these interests—the midnight audience for The Rocky Horror Picture Show —rather than allow itself to be used as an empty vessel to be filled with a filmmaker’s grand mythic meanings, has been learning how to use a film chiefly as a means of communicating with itself.
. . . In certain respects, this ritual can be seen as a specifically Barthesian act of criticism and commentary on a Text, which is “that space where no language has a hold over any other, where languages circulate (keeping the circular sense of the term)” (Roland Barthes, Image-Music-Text, translated by Stephen Heath, Hill & Wang, 1978). This is surely not too grand a description of the circulation of meanings that passes between such antinomies as male and female, England and America, nostalgia and science fiction, sex and violence, heterosexual and homosexual, involvement and distance, worship and contempt, at every Rocky Horror cult performance, in the audience’s own set of participatory and self-defining, “make believe” responses—responses which contextualize the film in the most material way possible, through their own voices, bodies and chosen props.
. . . Their Text, moreover, is perpetually changing. It is a complex of layers at any given performance, consisting of both a traditional catechism and a series of fresher contributions, each of which earns a different reputation and lifespan existentially, like a jazz solo, at the moment of delivery (and “democratically,” in competition with all the others) . . .
It seems important to make these distinctions at a time when so little community feeling is evident or even possible at cinemas in the U.S., given the steady rise in cable television and video equipment, and new cinemas built in privately owned shopping centers on the outskirts of towns (along with the rapid decline and disappearance of cinemas in public squares, in the centers of towns). In this respect, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Rocky Horror Picture Show cult is the extent to which it evokes and weirdly resurrects, as if in a haunted house, a form of community cinema, of cinema as community, that once flourished in the U.S., when Hollywood was still in its heyday . . . [*]
A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes
Who in movies would you most like to have sex with? E. asked us one night, as a sort of parlor game, in a Right Bank restaurant, during a weekend in 1974 or 1975 when I was visiting Paris from London, and started off with his own choice, D. W. Griffith. G., who was next, selected Freddie Bartholomew; M. said Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper at the same time; L. demurred; and I finally settled on Bambi.
Conquistador Hops Express Train, Cinema Left Behind
Truthfully, no one who is still alive can be all that certain about what actually happened. There is only a handful of dates in books and documents, some of them approximate, and a few vague collective memories of stories Bo used to tell. Only one of the stories is set in Poland, around 1891, the year that Louis’s father Samuel, a harness maker, left Lublin for the United States, four years after Louis was born. As Bo told it, always laughing at the end of the anecdote, the only toy he ever had as a kid was a hoop and stick, and his father took that away from him, saying that a hoop and stick never made anyone any money.
The other stories all take place in the United States and are on the whole more cheerful. In Salem, Massachusetts, around the turn of the century—sometime after Louis arrived with his mother Ida and his kid brother Harry in 1896, and before the whole family (including the baby, Charlie) moved to Denver on account of Samuel’s TB—Louis memorized a spiel in English about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables, which he would deliver for a modest fee to any interested visitor to this landmark. It was apparently during this same period that he completed his only three years of schooling.
But the story that most concerns us here is one about a dream, and a missed train connection in 1915 that landed Louis in Little Rock. (Another story was about traveling by himself at seventeen, not long after Samuel died, from Denver to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis—the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, where the ice cream cone was invented—and hearing William Jennings Bryan speak at a bandstand pavilion about Opportunity in America, the Chance Everyone Has To Become Whatever He Wants To Be, a speech that excites Louis so much that he goes back every night, seven nights running, to hear Bryan deliver it, and then decides to go into business for himself. Back in Denver, he starts out in dry goods.) But if we want to get this show on the road and make sure that it has legs (the better to follow the Conquistador with), let’s conceive his train journey from Douglas in wide-screen format—even if this means a certain loss of image when it turns up on TV—and start with a humorous scene set in 1915 between Louie from Lublin (we’ll call him Chance Rosenbaum) and the ticket agent at the Douglas train station (we’ll call him Abner Claypool, for he might as well be Cora’s dad, a year before he and his family move east to Milburn, Indiana, where he will enroll Cora for accordion lessons with a hayseed named Hubert, who hails from Douglas himself). Basically, Chance will try in broken English to explain his route from Douglas to Texarkana and back to Abner, who will scratch his head and try to make out the ticket correctly. The broken English will be hard for Abner to understand, but easy as pie for us, and this will afford us plenty of opportunity to interpose exposition about Chance’s past, immediate as well as distant, particularly because Chance at twenty-eight is a cheerful and gregarious sort who likes to talk about himself.
When, for instance, Chance explains to Abner that he’s going to Texarkana because of a dream he’s recently had—a dream, a vision in which he achieves wealth and fame in a town known as Texarkana, located four or five states away, on the border between Texas and Arkansas—we can convey the basic purpose of his trip and at the same time exploit the comic effect by playing on Abner’s cool responses (e.g., nodding mechanically, perhaps interspersing a “yep” or a “yup” here and there, like Pa Kettle, meanwhile reflecting lazily to himself—and to the audience, via sly winks—that this sheeny Polack must be plumb stark crazy). Chance can also explain that he wants his trip routed through Denver so that he can visit his mother and his two brothers.
He can go onto explain (his voice becoming narration over a silent flashback) that Denver is where he married Anna Block in January 1910 and where his only son Stanley was born the following October. He might add something about being routed through St. Louis, too, because of a thrilling trip he made there eleven years ago (which could lead, via lap dissolve, into another narrated flashback, to the World’s Fair, if the budget will allow the extra sets). And Abner could nod lazily at that, too, meanwhile making up Chance’s ticket on the other side of the window counter, and then suddenly come up with a payoff line when he hands it over—something like, “If that’s the ticket you want, Mister, that’s the ticket you got, ’cause the customer’s always right in this green land of ours [note to rewrite people: make sure that any slang used fits the period ].—and then add, “Only watch out for Little Rock, bub, ’cause that’s a close connection you got there.”
And because dreams are a serious business with Chance Rosenbaum, a real matter for concern, where—as W. B. Yeats and Delmore Schwartz successively put it—responsibilities begin (and possibly where they end, too: in Florence during the fifties, for instance, Bo has no copy of Be Glad You’re Neurotic resting on any bookshelf in his house, like Stanley and Mimi do, maybe because he just doesn’t see how anyone could be glad that anyone was neurotic. Glad? ), it’s important that we get him to Little Rock as quickly as possible, without lingering too much over the intervening wide-screen scenery. Nothing so crude as a wipe here, mind you; a few slow lap dissolves of Chance’s train moving across these vast Panavision vistas should do just fine.
In Little Rock, we focus on Chance—full of beans and clenching a cigar—stepping off the train only to discover that (1) he has just missed the train for Texarkana and (2) the next one won’t be along for three days. Three days! Chance stands there in a panic, squeezing his hands together and inadvertently crushing his cigar into splinters, totally distraught, not knowing what to do. My God, my God, is it really possible that his dream could just take off without him like that, leaving him high and dry? A moment of reflection. No, it is not possible. Dreams are portents, clues and signs, not precise predictions. And maybe Little Rock is good enough. (Maybe it will have to be.) And, sure enough, he finds himself a couple of business partners in Little Rock right away and, after returning to Douglas for Anna and Stanley (an old-fashioned montage sequence à la Vorkapich would work fine here), builds a movie house across the Arkansas River, in North Little Rock, and calls it the Princess. Four years later, he takes a train to Florence, Alabama, where he does essentially the same thing all over again. So in a way, you can say that the Florence Princess is not the first but the last in a series—not the beginning but the end.
And the rest, as they say, is History. The Florence Princess, an $85,000 Opera House, opens triumphantly on Labor Day, September 1, 1919, with
Produced under the direction of
Harry D. Orr
A Melodic Pageant of Youth, Beauty, Laughter, Joy, Sunshine and Pretty Girls. 20 Wondrous Girls Under 20. Positively the Original New York Cast and Chorus Intact
An average of twenty-five stage shows a year follows. Will Rogers, the popular minstrels McIntyre and Heath, the Shakespearian tragedians Fritz Leiber and Robert Mantell, the romantic actor Lou Tellegen, the cowboys Gene Autry and Lash LaRue, the lovely Edna Goodrich, and other famous personages appear. The plays performed include The Green Hat, The Circle, Scandal, The Bat, The Cat and the Canary, Abie’s Irish Rose; there are grand operas such as Faust, light operas and musical comedies such as The Bohemian Girl, Robin Hood, Blossom Time, The Gingham Girl, No, No, Nanette, Listen Lester, and Irving Berlin’s Music Box Revue . Mischa Elman plays his magic violin, Gene Krupa plays his drums, W. C. Handy plays his cornet and talks about his childhood in Florence to an integrated audience (a one-shot), Fats Waller turns up during Prohibition and demands (and gets) a quart of vodka before he will sing and play piano, Carl Sandburg reads his poems, and William Howard Taft, former president of the United States, speaks on public affairs. Around 1926 Stanley, age sixteen, has a date with Lillian Roth (on tour with her mother), who during the evening offers him a joke about Life Savers: the man who invented them, she says, musta made a mint.
Cinema Hops Express Train, Conquistador Left Behind
Alone in Paris in the early seventies, high and dry, I didn’t know what to do next, so I turned to my friends. The oldest among them were beginning to show their ages. Citizen Kane —who had taken me by force from behind, with frightening abruptness and violence, during my senior year at Putney, when he was twenty and I was eighteen, and with whom I had consorted quite a few times thereafter—still retained most of his charisma, but the tricks up his sleeve were becoming increasingly familiar.
Sunrise, who had first unbuttoned my shirt and given me her gentle velvet touch while cushioning her chin in the hollow of my neck, toward the back of the downstairs section of the McMillan Theater at Columbia during my sophomore year at NYU, when she only cost a dollar, purred almost subliminally in my ear and tenderly carried me into and through her soft and shimmering 1927 lap dissolves, along her sultry and obsessive and unpredictably exciting and frightening camera movements (like the one superimposed over dozens of sleepless nights in Florence, when and where I imagined she lived only a block or so from my house, so that I could faintly hear her whistling for me, a sound that sighed across the field in the summer air that breathed into my room, sucked in by the attic fan, a reedy note of summons that told me to join her at our customary meeting-place near the marshes, toward the water; and I would rise from bed, steal into my clothes in the darkness, leave by the screen door, and make my way across the soft, damp field under the light of the moon, following the path that led me over a fence and through one turn after another while the thought of her waiting seemed to draw me to her faster, even ahead of my own footsteps—reeling me in like a fish, straight through the thicket instead of circumventing it, libido outrunning even the Conquistador and thus allowing me to arrive invisibly, like a voyeur, ahead of my own body, landing in the clearing where she twirls a flower under the moon, looking off to the left and awaiting my arrival on the path, waiting to tell me about the City ), into luscious pools of light and dark. She was in fact becoming a little cranky after our nine years of intermittent close contact (including two memorable visits she paid me at Bard, when most of the other students in Sottery Hall had jeered and hooted at her age and her affectations, which were no more silly to me than their own). Once, in London on a visit, I thought for sure I could overhear her behind me in the small auditorium at the National Film Theatre, NFT-2, March 26, 1973, as I watched the beginning of They Live by Night , the first film of Nicholas Ray, about whom I was writing an article for a book that Richard Roud was editing. The film begins, even before the credits, with a shot of
the two major characters, Bowie (Farley Granger) and Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), kissing, while a subtitle introduces them in consecutive phrases, parsed out like the lines in a folk ballad: “This boy . . . ” “and this girl . . . ” “were never properly introduced to the world we live in . . . ”
“Maybe,” I heard Sunrise titter, “that’s because this boy was never properly introduced to a decent barber. Y’know what I mean?” Her nasal voice sounded like Ruth Gordon’s. “And do you see that spot of grease on his neck?” Alas, what happened to Sunrise was happening to a lot of film criticism around the same time. (By the time Nick Ray died in 1979, the critical grease that had congealed around him had gotten so thick that no knife could cut through it all. I’ll try not to soil these pages with any of its traces. )
Eclipse—whom I met and later revisited the following winter at the Little Carnegie—started off by snoring in my ear with languid indifference, continued by rapping to me about economics and alienation, and then began to tell me a love story that he cut off abruptly in order to slam a powerful set of depopulated concrete city chunks at me, one shot at a time, culminating in the pitiless glare of a streetlamp, leaving me scared and stupefied.
Last Year at Marienbad—who was as spanking fresh as I was when we met in March at the Carnegie Hall Cinema, the same spring that I met Sunrise—whispered sweet nothings in my ear, pinched me, giggled, enveloped me in her perfumed arms, mockingly repeated the same silly jingles in my face, drew me down into her soft crevices and then, in one of those standard S&M reversals, ejected me from her grasp like a wheezing jack-in-the-box suddenly sprung loose from its container and left to rattle, dry and desperate, on the floor. She was such a graceful tease that for a while I kept coming back, despite the warning and disapproval of several Putney friends, who called her a pretentious bore. Eventually she shrieked for me to get out of her sight, which I did for several years, including those spent in Paris and London, until I looked her up at the Thalia last August, to find her as smooth, sweet, saucy, slick, sexy, and scary as ever.
Playtime was a different story entirely. After meeting him at an airport—a locus of transitions, like the railroad terminal to which Sunrise had transported me in her opening shot—I encountered him again in an ugly restaurant crawling with tourists and other plastic types, all of whom seemed to mesmerize him with delight. At first I couldn’t understand him at all. “What keeps you so occupied?” I demanded over the din and the undercooked fish. “Or should I say, preoccupied?” “Everything,” he said. “Whereas you go looking indiscriminately for something to catch your eye and quickly find that everything becomes tiresome, I take it all in at once and see a beautiful ballet of interlocking parts.” His special insight—which taught me, finally, how to live in cities (just as surely as Gertrud—the last great classic narrative film and the first great modern one, as David Ehrenstein recently pointed out to me, undistributed and unavailable and scarcely mentioned, discussed, or remembered in these enlightened United States in 1979—taught me what a refusal or an inability to compromise finally meant in long-range, lifelong terms )—was that you could be sitting or standing somewhere, anywhere, and suddenly, on the other side of a pane of glass from you, a bus could stop, and you and all the passengers on that bus, for just an instant, could enjoy a sacred togetherness in the frame of a spectator’s vantage point—or maybe it was an aesthetic congruity, made sacred only by worship—even though neither you nor the passengers (nor the bus driver, nor the Conquistador, who was sound asleep) was aware of that conjunction. And what if occasionally you were able to become that privileged spectator, that divine voyeur and secret play-master, while remaining yourself at the same time?
Finally, in the remaining months before a friend’s lawyer helped me to acquire a work permit for a job as assistant editor on Monthly Film Bulletin in London, I called on Céline Et Julie Vont En Bateau —first introduced to me by Eduardo de Gregorio, one of their playmates—who were taking turns projecting movies for one another in their split-level flat. “Come sit with me and watch the movie,” Céline squealed; “No, dammit, sit over here and help me project it,” Julie growled. When I left, they were still squabbling and had exchanged seats and duties several times. I knew exactly how they felt.
Moving across the Channel, a profound difference in the cinematic climate becomes immediately apparent. How could it be otherwise, considering that the life-styles that go with each city are so strikingly antithetical? Paris is all adrenaline and shiny surfaces, hard-edged and brittle and eternally abstract, the capital of paranoia (cf. Rivette) and street spectacle (cf. Tati), where café tables become orchestra seats as soon as the weather gets warm—the city where everyone loves to stare. London is just the reverse, a soft-centered cushion of comfort where trust and accommodation make for a slower, saner, and ostensibly less shrill mode of existence: relatively concrete and prosaic, more spit and less polish, a city more conducive to eccentricity than to lunacy.[*]
February 28, 1975. Heathrow Airport, London. As soon as I step on the plane, TWA’s Muzak system has seen to it that I’m already back in America. Listening on the plastic earphones to blatant hypes for Gold On two separate channels, the soundtrack of Thunderboltand Lightfoot on a third (where “fuck” is consistently bleeped out, but “fucker” and the sound of Jeff Bridges supposedly getting kicked in the face are dutifully preserved), it becomes evident once more that America starts and stops where its money reaches, and that “going there” means following the money trail. It’s over two years since my last visit—my longest sojourn abroad, during which I’ve had to miss the splendors of Watergate and depend on such things as Michael Arlen’s TV column in The New Yorker for accounts of shifts in the national psyche—but TWA tells me in its own quiet way that nothing essential has changed . . .
Later in the weekend, in Long Island, I try to tell my friends Bibi and Allan about Rivette’s Out 1: Spectre , which they’ll probably never be able to see—doing what I can to describe the overall structure, the scenes between Jean-Pierre Léaud and Bulle Ogier, the content and experience of the last two shots. No critic alive has yet begun to do justice to that film—not even John Ashbery in the SoHo Weekly News last October, when he started off by remarking that “it seems to mark a turning point in the evolution of the art of film,” and then never got around to explaining why; certainly not myself, when I was hasty enough to call it a “dead-end experiment” in Sight and Sound last fall. But how can it ever become the turning point (or the dead end) of anything when no more than a handful of people will ever have a chance to encounter it, much less return to it, live with it? Which is why I must keep speaking about it . . . In the room the women come and go, speaking of Airport 1975 . . .
March 10. Florence, Alabama. Lots of urban renewal has been going on in my home town over the past few years, and now that I’ve spent exactly half of my life—sixteen years—away from it, some of the streets are only semi-recognizable. The town’s first large movie theater, which my grandfather helped to build in 1919, was leveled long before my last visit to expand the parking lot behind the First Presbyterian Church, and the pawnshop a block away has become the House of Guns; but the plastic flowers and Muzak on the main street and Spry Funeral Home are still intact.
The Shoals Theatre—which my grandfather also built, and later sold—has been remodeled, and I go to see The Strongest Man in the World there mainly in order to take a look . . .
Despite the heroic and successful efforts of Eve Arden to remain herself in spite of everything, I leave after an hour and walk home, wondering how crazy it is to write about movies most people can’t see when I can’t last profitably through the movies that most people see. Is there a connection? As Out 1: Spectre suggests about a lot of things, I suppose there is a connection and there isn’t. And whatever people are seeing—now that America seems to be inching its way ever so slowly toward the experience of most of the rest of the world—I guess it means something that people are going to movies again, proceeding wherever the money trail takes them. My family’s theater business racked up during the last Depression, and maybe—with a lot of luck and forbearance—a few good filmmakers won’t starve to death during this one.[*]
What Fritz Lang’s Moonfleet (L.A. County Museum, 11/20/77) shows me today that I didn’t recognize as such in 1955 is the discontinuity of the separate décors, the isolated surreal landscapes stretching off at oblique angles to one another. Like the dark well in the movie that’s weirdly and improbably “lit” by a candle wedged into a recess halfway down, each of the characters seems to be isolated by the upholsteries of slightly different genres, no two viewpoints ever quite coinciding. They seem to inhabit a once-ordered universe whose father-god-director is drifting away from his children, lost in his own dreams, taking all the connective narrative tissue with him . . .
But most of this particular column is concerned with disintegration, and the sorts of clarity that it can make possible. Which leads me ineluctably to the subtitled 35mm prints I see of Lang’s Der Tiger Von Eschnapur and Das Indische Grabmal (British Film Institute, 1/3/78), his penultimate films [movies that have yet to be shown in their original form in the United States, twenty years after their initial release ] . . .
What are the signs of disintegration? (1) A conscious naivete that is sought and achieved, aimed at a child’s sensibility [close to the 1919 Die Spinnen, the earliest surviving film of Lang, seen at a Film Forum press show in New York, 10/30/79 ], and easily read as camp. (2) A naked artifice of props, actor-props, color schemes and schematic plots laid bare, so that even the wires holding up the fake snake in Debra Paget’s religious dance inside a cave temple are visible. (3) A displacement (or misplacement) of narrative interest shortly after the beginning of Das Indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb ), Part II of the story, when Berger (Paul Hubschmid) is placed in chains at the bottom of a pit a lot like the “dark” well in Moonfleet , while Seeta (Paget) is confined to her chambers in the same palace.
The hero and heroine are then replaced by another couple, more klutzy and ineffectual, who implicitly parody the roles of Hubschmid and Paget, meanwhile consuming eons of screen time. The effect of this is such that when at the conclusion Berger and Seeta are finally freed and united—and the villain Chandra (Walter Reyer) suddenly renounces his palace and villainy, without prior motivation or warning, to study with a holy man—the characters are still present on the screen, but they no longer exist . [The Conquistador dies a noble death at the conclusion of his long journey—all stories have an end—and after a short, wistful sigh, the cinema ceases to function. ] (4) A series of structural arrows drawn by one of the disintegrating couples (I forget which) on the wall of an underground labyrinth before they separate, to find their way back to each other, but which wind up confounding all sense of continuity and direction—like the architecture in Playtime , or the décors in Moonfleet —losing characters and spectators, readers and writers and filmmakers alike.
What are the signs of clarity? All of the above, and more. London probably hasn’t seen so much “baring the device” since copies of Viktor Shklovsky’s Third Factory turned up at Compendium Books. Straub’s point that Lang offered his producer a film instead of a golden calf is well taken. But it is, of course, a film about a golden calf that we call cinema—made by someone who knows more about the subject than most—and a game that is played honestly. Critics hung up on “craft” and intentionality [like little Johnny calling for his Uncle Remus ] will probably never be able to see it as a dazzling achievement . . . but there is nothing in cinema like it. I’ll go even further: it has the only cave in movies that’s worthy of Plato’s.[*]
Chance and His Functions
Cinematic material is especially refractory to any preconceived ideas we may have about it.
Passing sentence (Is that what this is? is that what I’m doing? Is that what critics are supposed to do? ), refusing to stop long enough for any dialectical or critical thought to assume full shape, short-circuiting analysis with a boringly relentless pugnacity common enough to any ordinary night at the movies (however much this may be cloaked with a velvet glove ); a passing sentence, that is, a collection of consecutive words that keeps crossing the borders of perception, like the train passing behind the upward drift of credits in the fourth sequence of Michael Snow’s Rameau’s Nephew By Diderot (Thanx To Dennis Young ) By Wilma Schoen , endlessly traversing the screen or the page (calculating rhythm, oh won’t you stop clicking on me? ), not allowing the mind any sort of concentration except a hypnotic one in order to keep the movie moving (and you and me, too ), asking the brain to go fishing, turning right (or is it left? ) at the top of the stairs of Le Peletier métro stop on rue La Fayette, and crossing rue du Faubourg Montmartre, on the way to a western at Studio Action La Fayette on rue Buffault (rhymes with Truffaut ), before changing my mind and turning back into Dean Street instead, on my way to lunch after we get the copy off to the printer for the March 1976 issue (with four reviews of films by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, and a detailed bibliography), heading south past Royalty House and the Crown and Chairman Pub (and the editing studio from which Otto Preminger emerged one chilly day in the fall of 1974 when my union at the British Film Institute was on strike and I got him to sign our petition, not long after Vanessa Redgrave tried unsuccessfully to radicalize us ) toward Shaftesbury Avenue, before taking a quick detour across Romilly to Christopher Street from Waverly Place, after seeing a double bill of Lang’s House by the River and Ford’s The Sun Shines Bright with John Bragin at the Huff Society (May 27, 1969), on my way to that mythical corner of the West Village where either Bleecker or 11th Street crosses itself, I forget which, en route to the spring of 1962, my formative period as a film buff (of sorts) becoming a critic (of sorts), spent in New York and Alabama, and following a winter (the last in Bo’s life ) that was probably no less formative for me—all together now, don’t fall back, keep on truckin’, easy does it, hold that line: just imagine that each stride forward, taken as “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork” (William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch ), functions like an individual film frame, and that all these frames running together continuously, like a team—let’s say twenty-four of ‘em per second—become fluid and warm and thoughtless and universal (not to say Pavlovian and dictatorial ), with a staccato, rippling noise like a lawn mower, a rattling film projector, or Bo benching his Yiddish prayer after every meal (a blubbering, bubbling, flickering, pulsing drone he made with his voice that no one understood), going a mile a minute, like the floes of ice melting at the end of Pudovkin’s Mother , shown at sound speed at the Bleecker Street Cinema in January 1962, during Jon’s freshman year at NYU. That same winter, January through March, he also sees (among other films)
Eisenstein’s Strike ,
Dovzhenko’s Arsenal and Eisenstein’s Ten Days That Shook the World ,
Kurosawa’s The Lower Depths, and
Vigo’s Zero de Conduite and L’Atalante , all at the Bleecker Street Cinema;
Resnais and Robbe Grillet’s L’Année Dernière à Marienbad , again and again, at the Carnegie Hall Cinema;
Antonioni’s Le Amiche (without subtitles),
Jonas Mekas’s Guns of the Trees,
Tati’s Mon Oncle and Clement’s Forbidden Games , and
Bresson’s A Man Escaped , all at the Charles Theater on Avenue A;
The Mark , at the Fifth Avenue Cinema;
Antonioni’s La Notte , twice, at the Little Carnegie;
Rossellini’s Paisan , at the Museum of Modern Art;
and buys his first film magazine, the Winter 1961/1962 issue of Sight and Sound, at the Waverly Smoke Shop (eighteen years later, in 1980, Jonathan will teach the second semester of Aesthetic Principles of Film in the NYU Waverly Building, directly across the street)—an issue containing (among other treats)
Pauline Kael’s “Fantasies of the Art House Audience”
an article by Denis Marion revealing that Erich von Stroheim came from a Jewish family
reviews of Marienbad, La Notte , and Rivette’s Paris Belongs to Us by Penelope Houston, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, and Robert Vas, respectively
an interview with Truffaut
a feature called “The Top Ten” listing the results of a poll of 70 international critics about their favorite movies (used by Jon as a guide in his own viewing over the next few years ), including 45 individual lists.
In mid-April, less than five months before he died, Bo went with me to see Richard Brooks’s Sweet Bird of Youth at the Shoals, the last movie we ever saw together. It was probably the day the film opened, or maybe the day after, shortly after I arrived home for spring vacation. We disagreed totally about the movie: he enjoyed it immensely, without qualm, while I found it loathsome, detestable (a bit like my experience of Alien early last summer: about as much fun as an exploding toilet in a Howard Johnson’s during a locust attack—a movie that tries to persuade an audience to get sexually excited by its own nausea ); yet my hatred was quite unlike the cool disdain expressed by, say, John McCarten toward hillbilly musicals (for example, on Li’l Abner in December 1959: “On Broadway the show was primitive; in the movies it is Neanderthal”). For at age nineteen, still a Southern virgin, I felt that something beautiful, poetic, and true was being violated and desecrated by the movie’s indifferent sleaziness.
Both Bo and I had seen and liked the Elia Kazan stage production of the Tennessee Williams play at the Martin Beck Theater in 1959, with the same leading actors, Paul Newman as Chance Wayne and Geraldine Page as the Princess Kosmonopolis. I had seen it in July (sitting in the first balcony), on the way home from a Jewish youth event in Great Barrington known as a Hagigah, when I had also seen J.B. and Raisin in the Sun with Sidney Poitier (which I described in a letter home as my favorite), as well as Anatomy of a Murder , Love is my Profession , and Porgy and Bess . Bo and Grandma (who sat in the front row) more likely went in mid-November, when they were staying at the Astor Hotel.
(I visited them and slept on a cot in their suite during that hyperbolically rushed weekend of the 13th, my first weekend away from Putney—a school that Bo was paying for, as he had paid for Payne Whitney—and he and I had lunch together in the Astor Grill on Saturday before we saw a matinee of Chéri, a play that neither of us liked. Our table was next to a plate glass window through which we could see the gigantic neon signs that had signified “New York” to both of us in a zillion corny movies, and Bo said, “You know somethin’, Jonny? I’d rather be right here than . . . ” His eyes drank in the gaudy spectacle greedily, the visual equivalent for him of a banana split, while he gestured with his hand and searched for the right alternative. “ . . . than Paris,” he finally said, and Jonny, who was fast becoming Jon and was already even beginning to insist on the fact, knew exactly what he meant.)
And it seemed that we had liked Sweet Bird of Youth for related reasons: the magic of the sketchy, suggestive sets and lighting by Jo Mielziner, particularly in the second scene of act two, the snazzy cocktail lounge and outside gallery of the Royal Palms Hotel in St. Cloud, somewhere on the Gulf Coast; and the “deathbed dignity and honesty” in Chance’s “self-recognition” (to quote Williams’s instructions) in Paul Newman’s curtain speech, as he lingers behind in the hotel, a broken gigolo, refusing to leave his hometown even after it becomes clear that if he remains, he will be castrated by Tom Finley, Jr. (Rip Torn), the fascist son of a Southern demagogue and the brother of Chance’s childhood sweetheart Heavenly. (“I don’t ask for your pity, but just for your understanding—not even that—no. Just for your recognition of me in you, and the enemy, time, in us all.”) Bo’s principal comment about Newman on the stage was how “realistic” his acting was (“From where we were sitting, you could actually see real tears in the man’s eyes—it was tremendous!”), while what had impressed me about Newman in that scene, from the balcony, was his stoicism and restraint.
I already had my doubts about the movie, having read somewhere that the castration business had been omitted and an improbable happy ending tacked on in its place. What I was less prepared for was the behavior of Bo after we climbed the stairs to the Shoals balcony that afternoon—the loudness of his voice as we looked together for a place to sit, having arrived late, during the credits. He insisted on going first, taking out his big pocket lighter awkwardly and flicking it on in front of us with an unsteady hand, as though we were creeping together through an unexplored cave, the wide sweep of his wavering flame nearly grazing the heads of several people in the aisle seats. It was about a month before his seventy-fifth birthday, almost a year and a half since Rosenbaum Theatres had been sold to the Martin Theater chain; Dad had already begun teaching at Florence State, at the north end of Court Street, the previous fall, and I would be auditing his sophomore English course there in July. And the upsetting thing to me that afternoon, at once embarrassing and distressing, was that Bo seemed to be acting as though he was still in charge of the Shoals—at least in the small disturbances he was making—without any apparent awareness that he was doing so. As honorary visitors to the Shoals with complementary passes, we had been treated deferentially downstairs at the box office and in the lobby; but now, as we fumbled down the right aisle to some seats on the left and Bo said, “It’s as cold as ice in this place,” a loud, sharp “Shhhhht! ” hissed behind us, and Bo called back, irritably, “You shush up yourself!”
And that was only the beginning of the ordeal. For me, virtually everything in the movie was wrong—the Southern mansion of Boss Finley, and the presiding Negro butler; Ed Begley’s grotesque overacting in the “Big Daddy” (Boss Finley) part; the cheap and vulgar lampoon of the South that was apparent everywhere, at once overstated and underspecified in its broad, unfelt flourishes; even Newman’s fake Southern accent. For Bo, on the other hand, the movie appeared to be something like a good burlesque show, in which some of Geraldine Page’s most leering lines (while Chance gives the Princess her “papaya cream rub”: “I don’t remember your face, but your hands are familiar”) was provoking his loudest and most abrasive laughter—lines which director-adaptor Richard Brooks, with his undying flair for sensationalism (from Blackboard Jungle to In Cold Blood to Looking for Mr. Goodbar , with ungainly and exciting globs of sadism, violence, and misogyny en route, as well as the exuberance of Elmer Gantry —seen during [or should I say instead of? ] my only afternoon in Chicago), had rendered as the brassiest kind of nightclub wisecracks, duly appreciated and applauded as such by my very vocal and philistine grandfather.
(It was one thing to have heard his roaring laughter emanate from the Shoals or the Princess balcony in the good old days, while I was sitting downstairs at a matinee, and this unexpected announcement of his heretofore unknown presence was reassuring, like the laughter of God; it told me that He—even He, most of all He!—was watching too. And it was quite another thing to be sitting beside him—an overweight, bossy, bullying, and sometimes irascible man, a control freak who never got as much love as he demanded and who had therefore always frightened me a little—while he hollered out his amusement, immoderately and shamelessly, in someone else ‘s theater—making a racket, a nuisance, rather like the noisy kids at the Hoboken Cinema 1: restlessly flicking on his lighter several times, either to investigate the activity of a teenage couple quietly necking a few seats away, or to light or relight his Muriel cigar’ obviously uneasy about being back in the Shoals again.)
Nor was this all of it. When Chance—the gigolo who is trying to blackmail the Princess into getting him a Hollywood contract, a frustrated success hound who will clearly stop at nothing—takes her pot out from under the mattress so they can smoke, and she insists that the stuff isn’t pot but Moroccan hashish, the stuff is too phony-looking to be convincing (to Jon) as either. This is an especially irritating sign of the film’s indifference to reality that he couldn’t/can’t convey to Bo. Like the mike on a boom that Sandy notices in On the Waterfront , near the top of the frame, in a shot inside Karl Malden’s church just after a brick has been thrown through a window, the effect is to make the rest of what he sees unbelievable, outlandish, as though the Conquistador were suddenly to find himself stark naked in a public square—and where would the dear old simp be without his shiny armor?
Watching Sweet Bird of Youth on TV, August 7, 1979, Jonathan can’t really check this fine point out. But when he catches another 16mm TV-scanned print (a sour CinemaScope/Metrocolor bird with its feathers plucked, its wings clipped, amputated, castrated: a castration of a castration of a castration) on November 13 at Theatre 80 on St. Mark’s Place—the only Manhattan movie theater he knows where the entire auditorium feels like a cramped balcony—the greenish hue of the dope in question looks more like bread mold or caterpillar guts, perhaps due to the “natural” deterioration of Metrocolor, which naturally turns Chance, the Princess, and Heavenly too, into different shades of corpselike pink, as the other colors irrevocably drain away, although it clearly is weed, not hash (vegetable, not mineral). So why does Brooks gratuitously make the Princess a liar when she says “Moroccan hashish”?
And apart from all the tired, world-weary wit being bandied about by Chance and the Princess, there was the strident spelling out and Hollywood upholstering of virtually everything that Williams had effectively kept offstage: the flashback meetings of Chance and Heavenly at their sumptuous lighthouse hideaway—each meeting accompanied by a soupy rendition of “Ebb Tide,” possibly the worst song of the fifties (and Shirley Knight appearing at one point in a red evening dress out of something like Athena ); and the revenge taken by Boss Finley against his mistress Miz Lucy after he hears about her writing “Boss Finley can’t cut the mustard” in lipstick on the mirror in the ladies room of the cocktail lounge of the Royal Arms (Bo finds the message hilarious)—a very mechanical scene in which he slams the lid of an egg-shaped gold jewel box on her fingers, slaps her when she screams, rips her nightie, smashes things on her dresser with his cane (dull shades of Citizen Kane ), and flicks her TV set back on, loud, with the remote control button, before stomping out (all of which Bo adores). Worst of all were the ridiculously literal “expositional” flashbacks, each one appearing hideously like a ragged hole left by a cigar burn on the screen (the silliest of them probably being the one in which Chance is suddenly conscripted into the Korean War by Boss Finley, who wants him away from his daughter Heavenly—an act performed magically and spontaneously in the midst of a rabble-rousing political speech, which causes one of those oh-my-gosh expressions to form in Newman’s blue-eyed features as he stands near the podium, oddly reminiscent of Doris Day’s amazement at Gordon MacRae’s unexpected enlistment in On Moonlight Bay , or Betty Beep’s saucer eyes).
Bo unaccountably liked the happy ending, too. After Chance’s nose is summarily broken by Tom Finley, Jr.—a symbolic castration, to be sure, capped by, “No woman will ever pay to love that, ” to give the violence junkies their quota of kicks—Chance and Heavenly suddenly drive off triumphantly, to their freedom (where?), and when Ole Boss Finley asks Ole Aunt Nonnie (Mildred Dunnock) in impotent fury what he can do about this, she comes right out and says to him, “You can go straight to hell!” And Louie Rosenbaum, good sport that he was, howled at that line, too.
And what if he did? I’m wondering now, a long time later—the night before I leave with Sandy for Washington, D.C., to visit my brothers Alvin and David and their families over Thanksgiving. If Bo’s identification of himself with Boss Finley was less rigid than my own clichéd notions about their rapport, this was largely because he had gone to this show for fun, not for truth or poetry. Wasn’t that the whole point of me coming over for lunch, Grandma fixing me one of my favorite dishes (was it chicken croquettes and gravy?), and Bo and I walking to the Shoals three blocks away, as soon as he finished his benching (a ritual like a campfire nonsense song, a routine so absolute you could check the order of the universe by it)?
And it was more fun, not less, if all references to castration in the play (explicitly linked there to the castration of Judge Edward Aaron, a Negro house painter’ in September 1957—an incident that had shaken Bo so badly at the time that he wasn’t able to sleep all night, after hearing about it ) were excised, along with the even rougher lines about the hysterectomy performed on Heavenly. It was fun because even the decimation of a flawed Williams play with a great performance by Geraldine Page was fun, because it was entertainment—like the Mickey Mouse and Pluto cartoon shown in the work-farm prison camp in Sullivan’s Travels , or the late show of Dr. Goldfoot and His Bikini Machine that Alvin and I went to at the Shoals, in desperation and relief, on the night of January 20, 1966, a month before my last semester at Bard, and only a few hours after the funeral at Morrison-Elkins Chapel of Isador Bookholtz, Mimi’s father Izzie, whom my brothers and I had called Bo B. Bo B. was from Warsaw, had worked as a die maker in New York until his wife Gussie (who died about three months before he did) convinced him to sell insurance instead, had moved to Florence with Gussie three and a half years ago, had spent most of his time smoking Lucky Strikes and looking out the window, and then had died at the age of eighty.
And I had attended his funeral, as I had not attended Louis Rosenbaum’s—Bo R. having died around midnight on September 8, 1962, six hours or so after I had said goodbye to him at the hospital and then boarded a train in Sheffield for a twenty-four-hour ride to New York, needing to find a place to live before starting my sophomore year at NYU. So unlike everyone else in the family, I learned about his death only when it was too late to return to Florence for the funeral; and I was the only member not present. Was this the price I had to pay for moving places? Later that same year, Bo’s favorite actor, Thomas Mitchell, died at seventy, only two days after Bo’s near lookalike, Charles Laughton, died at sixty-three. (After Grandma died in 1975, when I was still in London, David, Alvin, and Michael took possession of all the furniture on North Wood Avenue; I appropriated Bo’s sixteen-volume edition of The Arabian Nights and his globe of the world.)
And so what if my anger at Brooks’s Sweet Bird of Youth —coupled with my surprise at how much I liked Follow that Dream (a relaxed Elvis Presley movie with Arthur O’Connell, about an eccentric family of squatters, that also took place in Florida) at the Shoals a week later—led me to write my first conscious piece of film criticism, a polemic passing sentence (Is that what this is? Is that what I’m doing? Is that what Critics are supposed to do? ) on the “superiority” of the latter film (which Bo never saw) to the former, written while I was still in Florence, an unpublished article that I no longer have to read or to quote from? It’s probably just as well. Follow that Dream —which I haven’t seen again—opened two days before I saw George Wallace, campaigning for governor, holler about the “scallawaggin, carpet-baggin” Yankee bureaucrats in front of the Lauderdale County Court House on Court Street, 7:30 P.M., Saturday night—only four days before I went to see Sunrise at the McMillan Theater, safely back in New York.
Looking back at that absurd conjunction of facts in my notes, and searching for still another formula that might reconcile the irreconcilable, and perhaps clarify Bo’s strange and enduring legacy to me, I think of another Court Street: the cobblestone alley just behind the building where Sandy and I live in Hoboken, visible from our bedroom. It’s the same alley where Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront finds his brother Rod Steiger at night, crucified with a longshoreman’s hook, then flees with Eva Marie Saint from a killer truck—and, more than likely, the escape route taken by whoever burglarized us only three nights after we moved here, on the eve of Yom Kippur. When Hoboken’s Court Street was projected only a block away from Florence’s Court Street, at the Shoals in January 1955, it was possible for Bo to see both of them, back to back. And now that I can’t see him and he can’t see either, the only evidence left is a few movies that we both happened to pass through—moving in different directions on our way to separate places.