Saturday, October 30, 2010

Every Night Is Halloween, Part III

Here's another poem for Halloween. "Vermont Street" comes from the early part of "Light in All Directions." Stories haunt us, which makes them like ghosts or people who won't go away.

Vermont Street

Our home on Vermont Street—
named after a state I’ve never visited—
my memory of that house belongs to my mother.
Once every two or three years, she asks if I remember
the intruder or the police, have I recovered the memory
of the darkened hallway with a gas heater at one end?

Then the flames go out. On the wooden floor the weight of
someone’s foot, and when the heater lights again,
the silhouette of a man.
From her place on the bed, she almost calls out,
“What are you doing home” because the shadow is
the height and build of her husband in Vegas on business.
She pretends to sleep and prays until it walks toward my room.

I don’t remember the intruder or the policeman
whose gun I asked to see.
I don’t remember that night.
She reminds me the doors were locked from the inside,
reminds me so often that I believe I remember the keyhole.
Only a poltergeist could seep in, she knows.

One July afternoon, lying in the shade between the fence & hedge,
I watched the back door on Vermont Street.
I hid from my parents.
Who else would look for me?
They want to bring me indoors
where they believe I will be safe.
I remember the fence on Vermont Street
and learning to climb it,
what some neighbors call, “trespass.”

Monday, October 25, 2010

Every Night Is Halloween, Part II

In the finest Salem tradition, you know someone's a witch when she denies it.

Trick. No treats on me right now.

My step-brother once had a job colorizing movies. Although he was glad to have the work, he also had qualms about what he was doing. The more he researched It's a Wonderful Life or The Maltese Falcon, the more he wondered if he were doing the right thing. Things that worry us rise in nightmares. On Halloween we share nightmares; usually they're about the monsters within.

In my poem "My Brother's Nightmare" from Light in All Directions, I wrote about our shared fear of colorized movies. It scares me to think some people think John Huston, Frank Capra and Orson Welles didn't know what they were doing. Some directors have theorized that movie audiences lost interest in early hand-painted color movies because they recognized black & white movies from their dreams. A debate continues about what came first: black & white movies or black & white dreams.

One theory says that because color is the interaction of light with pigmentation, and because there is no pigmentation or real light rays in dreams, all but the most personal images appear in gray scale. Even at that, some people never dream in color. Another theory says that people never dreamed in black & white until the movies showed it to them.

Whatever the case, during the 1980s, Ted Turner believed that younger generations wouldn't go for classic movies unless they were in color.

But what about classic movies that were intended to be in black & white? In 1939, The Wizard of Oz used black & white in sepia tones for the Kansas scenes and Technicolor for the Oz sequence. MGM intended the movie to be partially in black & white and the rest in color. In 1995, director Tom DiCillo mixed up dreams, color and black & white in the cult classic Living in Oblivion.

Still, some didn't believe. In 1998, Gus Van Sant made a shot-by-shot color remake of Hitchcock's 1960 classic, Psycho; regardless of the fact that Hitchcock had already made many movies in color such as the classics Rear Window, North by Northwest and Vertigo. The Van Sant's Psycho '98 cost $25 million and grossed less than $22 million. The very next year, The Blair Witch Project, shot largely in black & white for $60,000, grossed more than $140 million during its first year of release, making it dollar-for-dollar one of the most--if not the most--successful cinema investment of all time. There were many contributing factors to the financial success of The Blair Witch Project including a brilliant internet advertising campaign. Another plus was the total misunderstanding of how much deeply black & white cinematography of horror movies resonated with the nightmares of young audiences.

I'll take a nightmare over a daydream because nightmares in all their irrepressible horror are more honest.

I have to say, as much as I liked The Wizard of Oz as a kid, in recent screenings I began to get impatient with Dorothy's decision to go home despite her aunt & uncle's willingness to let Mrs. Gulch destroy Toto. Wasn't the safety of Toto the reason she ran away to begin with? Since nothing has changed at home, isn't going back there unsafe for her dog? Dorothy returns to the scene of the crime not only before the villain is caught but while Mrs. Gulch has the law on her side evil side. Home, the scene of many crimes.

My Brother’s Nightmare

Of old the world on dreaming fed;
gray truth is now her painted toy.

--W.B. Yeats

After Ted Turner laid off my little brother who
color-keyed black & white films,
I consoled him by buying the beers while
silently and with ecstatic guilt I rejoiced for the classic
flashes in the dark that would haunt new generations.

As soon as my brother stopped lamenting, I planned to preach that
Turner’s dream of Charles Foster Kane in Christmas red & green
cost a fortune in imagination, more than any tycoon could truly afford.

The psychological fact that most dreams play in black & white with
no source of light haunts my brother:
from steel and glass, gray sparkles,
and what makes all those shadows?

He, however, tied a rainbow around my eyes,
insisting Bedford Falls was more wonderful with
Mary and George Bailey jitterbugging into a pool of blue
and with Zuzu’s petals in pink extreme close-up.
These colors awakened me not to Pottersville’s squalor but
to Pleasantville’s nightmare of technological firepower and
the smug pigmented engineering of contemporary enlightenment,
present-tense delusion being more dangerous than nostalgia.

“Black is not the only evil color,” my brother said with a wink.
In The Maltese Falcon, I made Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s eyes
the same green as yours for all those pranks you pulled on me.”

I didn’t speak but poured us more amber glasses to see through:
on the bar TV, a general’s khakis had the same tint as my $20 bill.
I closed my evil green eyes while listening to horrifying tales of
the Frankenstein creature tortured with real orange flame
and taking Dorothy home forever to a Kansas
with fields of emerald in spring but still
no escape for Toto when he finally faces Mrs. Gulch and the Sheriff.
Let’s assume the little dog’s blood is red.

Every Night Is Halloween

It’s a scary season. Halloween’s coming. The March to Keep Fear Alive will be Saturday in D.C. and the Tea Party takes its best shot on Election Day.

As I thumbed through Light in All Directions, I realized, this season belongs to me. I have lots of poems about vampires, ghosts and nightmares. Here’s one inspired by several shakedowns while working the late shift in LA during the 1980s:

After Dusk

Oh-no, my mistaken identity.
Police believe they’ve profiled me
but don’t know my vampiric mind.

I rationalized my belief in flesh,
blood and love. Just because
I wear sunglasses and keep to the shade,

left my home one August night
to split open hearts with mine, doesn’t mean
the other creature will break free of my skin.

I never needed a mirror as a mask;
nevertheless, last night I gazed into the police
as they shoved me around the checkpoint.

The jangley cop securely said,
“We know your thirsty kind.”
His constipated sidekick punctuated

with an accident-flare to my sternum.
They so longed for my purple of bruises,
but I fanned my lips and yawned;

they flinched politely when
I said, “Sorry, no spare crimes on me.
I just need a nap and some Novocain.”

With me packing the blood so deep,
they told me to carry on,
but we all knew it was an escape

after dusk. From their dungeons
of reason they let me go
because they could,

and I glided away, above the dusty sidewalk,
both my shoulders brushing the invisible
corridors inside our national castle. (79)

In some ways I got over it after a probe busted 70 LAPD for large scale corruption in the Rampart Scandal. It just so happened that during that time my favorite hamburger stand happened to be at the corner of Beverly & Rampart. In those days, I was often hungry in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I've gotten over my bad attitude somewhat. In my hometown, the deputies have always been fair to me. In the huge beat that Valley Center covers, they have enough real trouble. But sometimes people send the police looking for trouble and they find it. For example, last week as I was driving home from work through Escondido, I saw some people along the road holding signs that said, "Checkpoint Ahead."

Escondido is notorious for a couple of council members riding the popularity of blaming illegal immigration for the state of all things. The council passed laws outlawing the parking of cars on lawns and setting up checkpoints for driver's licenses and insurance because it's believed undocumented immigrants don't have such things. The problem is that while such checkpoints are in operation, they cost more than your average patrol and they net fewer drunk drivers. In other words, police patrolling the entire city costs less and catches more dangerous DUIs than a checkpoint.

I turned off Lincoln onto Ivy and approached the checkpoint from the other direction. The police had set up command in front of the shopping center at Lincoln & Fig. The parking lot was full of tow trucks, generators for the floodlights and trailers.

I noticed a young Euro-American couple standing in the grass beside two car seats and a half-dozen sacks of groceries. They were watching an SUV be pulled onto a tow-truck. I asked if they'd had their car confiscated.

"No," said the man. "It was my brother's."

"They said he wasn't on his brother's insurance," the woman said.

As it turns out, the couple is unemployed and living with the brother's family. No car. No house. And now the impound fee to get their brother's SUV back. But at least they were legal citizens.

When you go looking for trouble, it isn't hard to find.