Saturday, July 18, 2020

Whispers in the Background: I Read Djuana Barnes and Remember Seymour Cassel

Listen to this chain of thought clank: I picked up an anthology of cinema essays and read Djuana Barnes interview with John Bunny on the contrast of acting in live theater to acting in movies. I choose the interview because of an off-hand line about Barnes' dancing in Midnight in Paris. I become interested in John Bunny, a silent-movie actor I've never seen. Notice how all those sentences start with “I” and links me to the deceased (The anthology was edited by Roger Ebert).

I was an extra in a movie called Cosmic Radio. I did a party scene with Irene Bedard and Seymour Cassel. Bedard’s character was having an argument with her love-interest in the foreground while Cassel’s character mingled with guests in the background. I played one of the guests along with my mom.

A four of us were given blocking to move on a tracking shot, but on the fourth take the director called cut. “That’s the wrong blocking.”

The extras looked at each other as if asking each other how did all of us miss the blocking.

“That’s the wrong blocking,” the assistant director echoed. “We cut it after the last take.” Whether the director had told the A.D. to cut the move and he forgot to tell us or whether the director had just made that decision and the A.D. was covering for him, we would never know, we just moved to our second mark and prepared to emote casual cocktails.

Once the shot started, Seymour Cassel came up to where we were mouthing conversation and he asked soto voces, “Isn’t this the worst movie you’ve ever been in?”

“It’s the only movie I’ve ever been in,” my mother murmured.

“You’re in luck,” Cassel whispered back, “your career can’t anywhere but up from here,” and as he made one of the extras snort a laugh, he moved off to liven up another cluster of human scenery.

At first I thought Cassel was upset about being used as part of the scenery. While the drinks in our hands were fake, he was pulling real beers from an ice bucket. “Don’t you wish you had one of these?” he asked me on the next take, lifting his bottle to mine. But looking back on it, his joking made the party more like a party.

I don’t know if Bedard felt the same way. Her character was frustrated, and between takes she stayed in character. Although Wes Studi wasn't in the scene, he was in the movie. He stood outside the shot, observing something, maybe Cassel’s clowning. Maybe something was going wrong on the movie. Somewhere around the seventh or eighth take, Cassel disappeared. Maybe his six-pack ran out.
Gena Rowlands and Seymour Cassel in Minnie and Moskowitz.

But I still remember him from Minnie and Moskowitz, a movie that shocked me when I was a teenage boy. Having been raised on “wholesome” movies, I was amazed I felt compassion for such a transgressive character. I would come to associate Cassel with director John Cassavetes whose aesthetic had no pretense to glamour. I’d spend decades trying to figure out such characters.

But I’ve never seen Cosmic Radio. The scene lives in my memory; I used words to incept it into yours, which is what Barnes did with John Bunny, an actor I’d never seen, and who had no dialog to incept himself into my mind.
John Bunny had the clown's rubber face that worked in medium-shot.

I'd never really seen Barnes, either, although I'd seen an actor playing her in Midnight in Paris. The real Barnes had watched Bunny, spent an afternoon listening to the silent film star, transcribed his words and embedded them in hers. Through her writing he breaks his silence. It's a great profile.

Then, Woody Allen wrote her into Midnight in Paris' dialog, so I picked her essay out of Ebert's massive collection. It was such a random process, but it defied death. Barnes listened to the funny man be serious. Bunny was going to die a month later. Writing and photography are part of the resistance. The camera loved Bunny. Not everyone could flow from the music hall stage, through the lens and onto the celluloid, but Bunny could.

"Wait," Gil exclaims in Midnight in Paris. "That was Djuna Barnes?"

And Barnes had the gumption to write down his words.

So while reading her essay, I thought of Cassel whispering in the background of the shot. I thought of all the whispers that ended up more memorable than the movie's dialog and remembered the late Seymour Cassel.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

I Read a Blog Recommended by a Colleague

I just read a heavily foot-noted blog post on theory, and have the strong urge to bill the author. Or maybe I should bill my colleague who recommended the blog. Yes, a lot of human beings experience ambiguity, which seems to be the post’s point, but I knew life could be ambiguous before I read the recommended post. Some ambiguity comes from shifting cultural barriers, some of it from changing vantage points. Yup. Got it.

Some of it comes from writing something so opaque that when people got to a quote like the following, they didn't notice the typo: 
What distinguishes images (including motion pictures) from language and from other modes of communication is the fact that images reproduce many of the informational cues that people make us of in their perception of physical and social reality.
Or maybe I'm the first person to ever read that far (I don’t want to be a dick here and out the author who made the typo; I’m really more pissed at the colleague who recommended the post but shows no mercy in classrooms, committees or at wine & cheese receptions.

My point here is that with spellchecker not differentiating between "make us" and "make use," I grow weary of theory that not only does little to illuminate, but almost seems regressive.

I think it's great that Christian Metz theorized about a gaze beyond a particular character's, but John Gradner's modulation of psychic distance already had writers on notice. Gardner's writings on fiction technique are the smoking gun. But "the author's dead," and ballistics can't match the bullet in his brain to the semi-auto fire on screen or in reality.

But who am I to dis a colleague who landed on the wrong side of auto-correct's double-edged tech? If you've read my blog, you know syntax will be lucky to get to the final punctuation in complete clauses.

So I wanted to say three things, not because there are only three to say, but because three is an easy number to start with after melting one's brains in a vat of semiotics:

1) Although people are more important than movies, people can use movies to give a sense of their lives; nevertheless, curve back around in person whenever possible to check out the verisimilitude of a movie, book, radio report, corrido, etc.

2) Beside noticing the gaze and asking whom it belongs to, be honest when it approximates your perspective and be just as honest when you have to resist it.

3) Keep track of the diegetic shifts. sometimes they will bring you far from yourself; when that happens, make a note to circle around and listen to the other person confirm & reject a movie's details. Rinse & repeat.

In short: distinguish cues that make people us for those not us.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

A Poem from minerva for Day 24 of Poetry Month 2019

Gail "minerva" Hawkins 4/12/19
For Day 24 of Poetry Month, we have a new poem from Gail "minerva" Hawkins.

minerva read "Friendly Fire Forgiving Spirits" at the San Diego Art Institute earlier this poetry-month. The first Patsy mentioned in the poem was the wife of Joe Milosch with whom minerva taught in California Poets in the Schools (CPITS). The second Patsy was minerva's sister.

After long careers as a researcher and then as a poet teacher, minerva has turned to television writing. Her series is called "Those Ebony Girls," and is a comedy about a black family in 1970s Philadelphia, the matriarch being a member of the 30's intelligentsia and her granddaughter being a new post-graduate who has come to the edges of answers that don't match the new questions.

The story also includes the post-grad's sister, not unlike the one mentioned in the poem below. "Friendly Fire Forgiving Spirits" is the voice of a woman writing her way through life's Act III, paying attention and respect.

Gail "minerva" Hawkins will perform at The Victory Theater on May 19 as part of Backstory's "The Kids Are Alright" reading at 7 p.m. The Victory Theater is located at 3326 Victory Boulevard in Burbank, California.

Friendly Fire Forgiving Spirits
--for Patsy's husband Joe and for my late sister Patricia

Burning bright years after their friendly fires
Were said to have gone out forever
Patsy and Patsy passed away from a same-named illness.
Cancer separated them from their loved ones.

Spirits times two. Linked bright eternal.
Both help me fight fire with fire each God-given day
Like the outdoor California nature job of a wife named Patsy
And the cold indoor bookkeeper’s bed-for-a-desk of my sister Patricia.

The Patsys worked for years and retired with accumulated ER visits and sick days.
Laughter-laced warm conversations roamed their sick rooms from time to time
Answered by friends’ slips of tongues and lips outside hospital doors, metal and shivering
Conversations after ablaze, thundering with thoughts of what likely comes next.

I’m alone again and again; gone are a friend, my mother-sister and yet another sibling-sister!
California husband Joe, me and the rest of us went down a few pegs when they all passed.
Poet Joe was back, I know, when he translated the alphabet, letter by letter
Each page a poetic matrix of poems by himself, on his own with his wife for life.

Our Patsys were Frida Kahlo spirits of female forests.
They climbed Mount Everest like broken-bodied super hikers
Crossing a summit of earthly chasms between fullness of life and wholeness of pain
Morphed into a crescent moon of death, a cradle for a comfortable departure.

Thank you Patsy and Patsy for allowing me to be human, right, and wrong.
To be one’s sister and the other’s friend, and forgiving me when I was neither.
My sister Patricia leaves off. The other Patsy remains in her husband’s care.
Friendly fires extinguished. Bright smoke wafting.  

Monday, April 22, 2019

Lori Davis "The Same Story Without the Weapon" from White Dime

For Day 23 of Poetry Month, here's a poem from Lori Davis' book White Dime. 

When it came out, White Dime was one of my hard-edged favorites for a hard-edged year.  The poem "Caring for Your Spider Plant" was a classic about the toxic romanticism of parenting. The epigraph about Andrea Yates, who drowned her five children, sets the context for a culture with policies that burdens future generations with environmental disaster, a huge national debt and multilateral destruction as a cultural values. Well worth the read if you can find a copy.

Davis has a dark sense of humor in some of her best poems like "How To Relax While Making Love" or  "The Same Story Without the Weapon" from White Dime

Pretend for the moment there is no knife in his hand.
This way you won't worry when he compliments
her necklace or suggests they go walking together, 
down a stairway, into an alcove she can't see into.
Even if without the knife, he gets right to the point.
Holds out his fist, as if to appropriate something. 
He tells her to take off her pants. Is he kidding?
She never learned alleys are like rickety bridges.
She giggles and says no. but senses something 
mandatory about this man. He takes his words
and pushes them up against the pale of her neck.
From a distance, they look like two old friends, 
reuniting, but if you stood closer you'd hear him
hiss quiet bitch in her ear. No, she says. Period.
That she has her period. And like so many men, 
he believes her, immediately. She wonders why
he hasn't leaned how to hug without crushing
a girl's toes or how to look a woman in the eye 
without liquefying her insides. Ok, let's pretend
for a moment, the knife has been here all along.
Unforgiving and lethal. This time it's in her hand.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Good Reads Review of The Princess Bride 25th Anniversary Edition

The Princess BrideThe Princess Bride by William Goldman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I look forward to the day when education has at last established good manners and literary studies can truly become inclusive.

Take my own university, for example. Every Thursday, we get together for lunch to discuss books on the balcony of the faculty club on the 5th floor of Flitzshtien Hall. One of our faculty had the good fortune to study under Professor Shog Bongiorno at Columbia. So last week when the movie adaptation of S. Morgenstern’s book was named to the U.S. National Film Registry, I asked my colleague Dr. Annette Oleander what her fellow Florin literature professors thought.

“No big deal,” she said. She was having the vegetarian pita plate, so there was plenty of time to chat while spreading the squash baba ghanoush and hummus. “Florin inducted Princess Bride into its film registry two years ago.”

“I didn’t even know they had a Florin Film Registry,” said Dr. Nicola MacMuster, not even bothering to look up from his chicken shawarma. “I mean, isn’t the whole Florin thing a put on?” Dr. MacMuster specialized in cyborg literature. Most of his work was with the robotics department, but the university president insisted he be kept in the literature department for funding purposes. He had a huge pedagogical grant for silicon chip implants designed to trigger meta-cognitive ruptures during lectures. Basically, he kept students from falling asleep. It was the opposite of a screensaver.

Dr. Oleander paused mid pita. “Why would you think Florin was a put on?”

Dr. MacMuster shrugged. “I’ve never met anyone who’s been there.”

“Well now you have,” Dr. Oleander said and took a bite. “Why would you say something so demeaning?”

“When I read it years ago, I took the book to be a satirical-reflexive-memoir, all very Tomas Borges in a Florin mensch sort of way,” Dr. MacMuster said, still not looking up from his food.

“I assure you the book is all too real.” Dr. Oleander paused here for a sip of wine. “The sexism, for example, makes it difficult to teach Morgenstern today.” She lifted her hands to point to an imaginary PowerPoint and quoted, “‘Not that her best thinking ever expanded horizons….so long as she kept her thoughts to herself, well, where was the harm.’ That’s a direct translation. Classic silencing.”

Dr. MacMuster nodded and chewed.

“I suppose you could see the Buttercup’s Baby sequel as a satire on Goldman’s own Adventures in the Screen Trade,” Dr. Oleander said, diplomatically giving Dr. MacMuster a way out. “I mean all that stuff about securing the rights from Stephen King. The battling patriarchy. And don’t even get me started on Fezzik’s latent pediatric instincts.”

“Isn’t Fezzik twice de-privileged, first by a hyper-pituitary and second by being a migrant laborer from Greenland?” Dr. MacMuster asked.

At this point, Dr. Hortense Sriracha-Smith broke in because she had chaired enough department meetings to know that Dr. Oleander’s don’t-even-get-me-started comment was not hyperbole but a legitimate cry for help.

“I have to say that despite the sexism,” Dr. Sriracha-Smith began, “I too appreciated the reflexivity of the storytelling and how it goes on and on.” Here she lifted her coffee cup, a cue for the rest of us to pick up that point. “Satirical or not.”

“It’s not so much reflexivity, but a pilfering of Morgenstern,” Dr. Oleander said through a bite of ginger and hummus. “It’s very telling that Westley and Inigo’s verbal sparring while literally fighting was something Goldman had Butch Cassidy do with Logan decades before.” Dr. Oleander was having that moment every academic has when we get passionately on the topic that made us pursue our degrees. “One could effectively argue that S. Morgenstern deserves screen credit for Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.” On the word “Butch,” a purple shred ginger arced so gently that it didn’t land in Dr. MacMuster’s shawarma until the word “Kid.” Dr. Oleander continued, “I mean Fezzik and Inigo are clearly the source for Butch and Sundance.”

“So are you fond of Goldman’s work or not?” Dr. Sriracha-Smith asked.

“Oh”—Dr. Oleander took a sip to purge any stray ginger—“his transgressions have given me my job security. In the next academic year my sabbatical project will be to have Morgenstern’s work on Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid recognized and inducted into the Florin Film Registry, and next semester Humperdinck University Press is bringing out my translation of Morgenstern’s work without Goldman’s omissions. It’s going to be required reading for all my courses.”

View all my reviews

Friday, November 16, 2018

City of Gold Changes How I Read "A Hunger"

As I get ready to host the documentary City of Gold in the Cinema Series, I find myself hungry.

City of Gold is a documentary about the Los Angeles Times restaurant critic, the late Jonathan Gold. The movie by Laura Gabbert shows Gold driving all over L.A. in his green pick-up, looking for places people make good food: an Iranian sandwich shop in Westwood, a Chinese restaurant in Alhambra, a Oaxacan restaurant in Koreatown. 

I, too, spent a good deal of time driving around L.A. looking for something to eat, but as a delivery driver, I was always in hurry. I envy Jonathan Gold's investment of time, eating at one restaurant dozens of times before filing his restaurant review.

So today, I'm going to take some time to retype a poem that was in the anthology Poetry 180: A Turning Back To Poetry but is not on the current web page. The poem--"A Hunger" by Benjamin Saltman--wants to get beyond food, much as Gold himself seems to want to do in his reviews. In the spirit of Billy Collins anthology, I'm not going to say more than "A Hunger" makes me several ways.

Do you seriously want peace or a good meal
in a restaurant opening onto a garden?
A garden with lights strung in a tree
and raccoons visiting every night,
cleverness in little hands? The raccoons
ignore the lights and people watching.
The light gleaming along wet telephone
wires and collecting on the white
stone bench.
              Inside the restaurant I think
of reading my book or tarring my roof,
knowing I can still do one but not the other.
For five years I've been waiting to die
and trying to think of something significant.
I wait for a key to slam into a door,
and I sit straight with folded hands.
At least I know how to imitate peace.
Earlier when I saw a man in a black coat
standing in the cold with his children
it was as if they had been standing forever
on a little island. How could they not be
significant? The man would touch his children
on the shoulders at times as if to say
that people would not be this way forever,
that he would forget peace for a meal.

The pre-screening discussion for City of Gold begins at 1:30 p.m. on November 10 in The Schulman Auditorium at The Dove Library.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

A three-fer for the last Thursday of Poetry Month: Kayla Krut

In the best Robert Frost tradition, here's two poets trespassing on Palomar Mountain, 2009: "Whose woods these are, I think I know./His house is in the village though;/he will not see [us] stopping here to watch his woods...." 
One of my assumptions is that writing poems is a process of discovery, so if I link to three poems by a poet, it will show a range of that process. Here are three from Kayla Krut, a poet I've known since she was in Mary Ann Loes 5th grade class at Del Mar Heights Elementary School. Kayla later earned a B.A. in comparative literature from U.C. Berkeley and an MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan. She's currently teaching in Vienna, Austria on a Fulbright. Here's one of her recent poems anthologized in the San Diego Poetry Annual:

He Laid Down 
Our group of friends floated 
back home, dancing into the kitchen. 
I leapt up on the counter. 

My lover, who was not yet, then, 
lost his arm elbow-deep in 
a produce box, feeling for limes. 

He brought a handful up, 
a long stray lemon. 
They rolled all over the island. 

Not-yet-lover slid a silver knife 
from its block; brutally sheared 
the green fruit into rondelles. 

I was not watching, he had 
his back to me when I heard another 
friend cry out for him. 

Neon blood hugged the knife, which 
he laid down. His full hand quarantined 
what lime was clean; 

and he turned to offer me 
his injury—surely an accident, although 
he sure turned fast. 

I remember a December afternoon when I got the feeling Kayla didn't want to write. She was a busy kid and had a lot going on. It was near the end of the semester. Her mom, Mary Ellen, had got us together for a writing session at The Pannikin in Del Mar, which was a classic melange of caffeine and print. Hot chocolate can do a lot, but it has its limits. 

Simon Ortiz once told said that poetry is telling a story only the way you can tell it, so I told Kayla about the poet Jim Milner surviving the Cedar Fire a couple of months earlier. His wife Galen Blacklidge didn't make it out. Kayla listened, wrote and later read her poem at a fundraiser for Jim. 

Jim’s Song  
The worst thing in the world
Is stolen love
A sleepless night where you are
Overwhelmed with grief and gratitude
They sink you into the dark

Grief is desolate beauty
A crimson fire screaming itself hoarse
Its beauty is blinding
Its destruction is great

Charred skins of long oaks
Tended to for decades
Flutter past as you slouch down, sobbing

No leaves, the remaining are off the tree and toasted
They are still warm to the touch  
Kayla picks up the mic to read "Jim's Song" at a fundraiser for Jim Milner, 2003.

Kayla wrote "Jim's Song" in the 7th grade. 

This three-fer of Kayla is like watching a time-elapse movie of a flower reverse-bloom into a bud. The sprouting, planting and tilling had already been done by everyone who had ever read to Kayla, especially Mary Ellen. But if there was a moment when I thought Kayla was going to become a poet, it was during a conference when she was in 5th grade. She had written several poems that semester, and as I recall, she liked all of them better than "The Rock." It was an assignment. She didn't like the chant of "the rock," but I was drawn in to how she emerged from the rock again and again with idea after idea. Ordinarily, I would have suggested revising for sensory detail, but Kayla seemed past that. I think I advised her to cut some words and try some different line-breaks but retain the arc.

The Rock 
The rock
like a still locomotive,
dead on its rails
The rock
smooth and silent.
The rock
under shady trees like
squid ink covering a mass of ocean.
yet air.
A boy
blond, blue-eyed
The boy
by himself, bored.
The boy
picks up the rock.
The rock
picked up and skipped
across water by
the boy.
The boy
could not throw without
the rock.
The rock
could not skip without
the boy.
Unknown strengths of
tossing trains under
squid shadows.  

The poem was later published in a county-wide anthology of student poems. At the time I thought it was an excellent example of the process from invention through publication, the moment in conference when she revised being the essential step of making a piece of writing more of what it already was.
Kayla gives me a copy of her first chapbook, 2002.