Thought you couldn’t get enough of Joe Gould. Here’s a good piece by Jill Lepore in the week’s New Yorker.
[Photo Credit: Culver Pictures]
Thought you couldn’t get enough of Joe Gould. Here’s a good piece by Jill Lepore in the week’s New Yorker.
[Photo Credit: Culver Pictures]
The latest reprint over at the Beast is a rich piece of ’60′s pop culture criticism from the inimitable Seymour Krim. All about Jack Kerouac:
As an Outsider, then, French Canadian, Catholic (“I am a Canuck, I could not speak English till I was 5 or 6, at 16 I spoke with a halting accent and was a big blue baby in school though varsity basketball later and if not for that no one would have noticed I could cope in any way with the world and would have been put in the madhouse for some kind of inadequacy…”), but with the features and build of an all-American prototype growing up in a solid New England manufacturing town, much of Kerouac’s early life seems to have gone into fantasy and daydreams which he acted out. (“At the age of 11 I wrote whole little novels in nickel notebooks, also magazines in imitation of Liberty Magazine and kept extensive horse racing newspapers going.”) He invented complicated games for himself, using the Outsider’s solitude to create a world—many worlds, actually—modeled on the “real” one but extending it far beyond the dull-normal capacities of the other Lowell boys his own age. Games, daydreams, dreams themselves—his Book of Dreams (1961) is unique in our generation’s written expression—fantasies and imaginative speculations are rife throughout all of Kerouac’s grownup works; and the references all hearken back to his Lowell boyhood, to the characteristically American small-city details (Lowell had a population of 100,000 or less during Kerouac’s childhood), and to what we can unblushingly call the American Idea, which the young Jack cultivated as only a yearning and physically vigorous dreamer can.
That is, as a Stranger, a first-generation American who couldn’t speak the tongue until he was in knee pants, the history and raw beauty of the U.S. legend was more crucially important to his imagination than it was to the comparatively well-adjusted runny-noses who took their cokes and movies for granted and fatly basked in the taken-for-granted American customs and consumer goods that young Kerouac made into interior theatricals. It is impossible to forget that behind the 43-year-old Kerouac of today lies a wild total involvement in this country’s folkways, history, small talk, visual delights, music and literature—especially the latter; Twain, Emily Dickinson, Melville, Sherwood Anderson, Whitman, Emerson, Hemingway, Saroyan, Thomas Wolfe, they were all gobbled up or at least tasted by him before his teens were over (along with a biography of Jack London that made him want to be an “adventurer”); he identified with his newfound literary fathers and grandfathers and apparently read omnivorously. As you’ll see, this kind of immersion in the literature of his kinsmen—plunged into with the grateful passion that only the children of immigrants understand—was a necessity before he broke loose stylistically; he had to have sure knowledge and control of his medium after a long apprenticeship in order to chuck so much extraneous tradition in the basket when he finally found his own voice and risked its total rhythm and sound.
Langdon Hammer, the chairman of the English Department at Yale, is the author of a new biography on the poet James Merrill. It looks like a formidable book and in the Times, Dwight Garner calls it “nearly flawless.”
I’m sure the book is an achievement and I’m not interested in minimizing that but I really like what Garner says here:
Mr. Hammer’s book is something close to brilliant, but it would have benefitted from committed liposuction. Its “Shoah”-like length will repel many casual readers, and likely even noncasual ones. While this book is not stuffed with sawdust, 800 pages is a lot of James Merrill, and its girth is admission of a certain kind of failure. Knowing what to omit is as important as knowing what to add.
Little Boy Blues is Malcolm Jones’ beautiful memoir about growing up with his mother (and sometimes, his father) in North Carolina in the late Fifties and early Sixties. It’s my favorite kind of memoir–understated, succinct, honed. The prose is precise without being delicate: “My father was a quiet man. If he put more than two sentences together, that was a speech. There was nothing forbidding or taciturn about his silence, though. On the contrary, it was somehow companionable, almost comforting. He wore his quietness lightly, like a windbreaker.”
The book’s also funny: “On the one hand, I was an incorrigible optimism. I had no reasons for this, never figured out where this notion that things were bound to get better came from, but nothing could extinguish it. At the same time, I spent a good part of every day being terrified of something–anything from mayonnaise in sandwiches to batting against the older kids in backyard baseball games. I was like the boy who confronts a roomful of manure and becomes convinced that somewhere in that room is a pony. It was just that I was equally convinced the pony would eat me.”
I think you guys would dig it. Here’s a taste for you, reprinted with the author’s permission.
From Little Boy Blues
By Malcolm Jones
It was still hot outside when we left the movie theater. I had expected that. It was the darkness that took me by surprise. We had gone in while it was still broad daylight, and now it was full dark, an impenetrable darkness made even thicker and blacker by the humid heat of a late-summer night and the myriad tiny white-hot lights burning in the ceiling that projected well past the ticket booth, all the way out over the sidewalk, where the lights mapped a bright island on the concrete sidewalk. The ceiling supported an electric sign that spelled out, in a foursquare block-letter style, the word WINSTON, blazing in the night. Time had gotten away while I wasn’t looking.
“What are you waiting for, honey?” my mother said. “Let’s go.”
I was stuck in that island of light. We had crossed the thickly carpeted lobby lined with wall sconces generating just enough illumination to make the small room resemble a cave. We had pushed through the lobby’s heavy metal doors draped in lush velvet curtains, passing out of the twilit dimness of the lobby into the abrupt brilliance of the outside foyer. And there, between the theater and the real world, with my mother marching ahead, already almost to the sidewalk, I stopped to let my eyes adjust to the hot light that seemed to set the night on fire. The first things I saw when my vision returned were the heavy chrome and glass cases set into the walls flanking the foyer. Each case contained half a dozen stills from the film we had just seen, and every image shimmered like a tiny mirage. And there I stopped.
Mother was still speaking, but I barely heard her. I was too busy concentrating on the scenes depicted in those glass cases. My eye moved from one image to the next, dawdling the longest on Peter O’Toole as T. E. Lawrence striding down a sand dune toward a dynamited train lying on its side in the desert. Beside it was one of Lawrence smeared with blood after butchering Turkish soldiers on his way to Damascus. The movie ate up all the space in my head, addling me so thoroughly that I could not find words to express what I felt. I was not the same person who went into that movie theater, and I was having trouble catching up with myself.
Lawrence of Arabia was by far the most complex film I had ever seen, starting with an early scene in British headquarters in Cairo where Lawrence was a mapmaker. A soldier pulls out a cigarette. Lawrence lights it for him and then lets the match burn all the way down to his fingers. When another soldier tries the same thing with a lit match, he drops it, exclaiming, “Ow, it ’urts! What’s the trick?” Lawrence calmly replies, “The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.” A few minutes later, a black-clad Arab guns down Lawrence’s guide in the desert and then threatens to take his compass. “Nice English compass,” the killer says. “How about I take it?” Lawrence says, “Then that would make you a thief.” Impervious to pain, brave, resourceful—Lawrence’s exploits looked like the stuff of Boy Scout training manuals. Then, a bit at a time, it all came undone. He lost his Arab army and then his confidence. The capture of Damascus from the Turks felt hollow, even to me, although I wasn’t ready to give up on Lawrence. I walked out at the end not knowing what to think. Part of me was still mentally charging toward that wrecked train. But another part of me grappled with Lawrence’s uneasiness in his role as hero. I didn’t know quite what to make of him—it would be years before I understood that I wasn’t supposed to—and this disturbed me, had been disturbing me, in fact, since the movie started.
No sooner had the opening credits disappeared off the screen than Lawrence got killed in a motorcycle accident. The death of the hero in the first five minutes of a movie was not something I was used to, and for a while I nursed the hope that perhaps he would come back to life, injured but alive. But no: the rest of the movie, all three hours plus, was a flashback. And in case you forgot how it all started, the filmmakers had inserted a scene at the very end where Lawrence, on his way home to England from Arabia, sees a motorcycle—the very instrument of his death—coming toward the car in which he’s riding.
“Honey, hurry up!” I looked up out of my reverie to see my mother standing fifty feet down the sidewalk, waiting for me to catch up. Reluctantly, I followed her, and as soon as I passed from that pool of light—that enchanted territory—the spell was broken. The vividness—so intense that almost fifty years later I can still remember almost every detail of that movie and every detail of what I felt while watching it, even what I ate and drank while I watched—all that vanished in the split second in which I passed from light to dark and hurried to catch up with my mother.
Now, if that’s not the best book title of the year I don’t know what is.
[Photo Credit: George Clinton]
This is what I love about Geoff Dyer’s work: His feet are never on the ground. But where his younger narrators fight the feeling that they don’t belong, the grown-up Dyer embraces it. He makes his home in the unstable elements of air and water. When at the end of “Another Great Day at Sea” he finds himself in the desert of Bahrain, he tries to find some romance in it — but even the beer he’s been desperately desiring, all the time he was on board, is dull: “I looked at it, all golden and cold and sweating before I tasted it. It tasted like . . . well, like beer. It was O.K. It wasn’t the beer of my dreams, the ‘Ice Cold in Alex’beer I’d been longing for.” And his thoughts turn to the sailors on the aircraft carrier he’s just left. When he arrived he couldn’t bear the thought of the two weeks to come; by the time he departed he “had become thoroughly habituated to life on the boat,” recognizing that his time on board was simply more stimulating, more interesting than the life to which he was returning. Being “at sea” — being awkward, off-balance, confused, trying once more to fit in when you know you can never fit in — is where Geoff Dyer is most . . . well, if not most comfortable, most himself, most alive.
[Photo Via: R2-D2]
Aside from his enormous talents and Protestant work ethic, Updike’s defining characteristic is his signature style, which he owes to his desire to be a graphic artist, and to his stunningly visual memory. Like Proust, like Nabokov and like Henry Green, all of whom influenced him, Updike wrote sentences that work through the precise meeting of visual detail and verbal accuracy. Updike was fully aware that this precision required a wide verbal range and ingenuity; indeed, when he criticized Tom Wolfe’s failure to be “exquisite,” Updike’s point of comparison was his own style.
Updike wanted to do with the world of mid-century middle-class American Wasps what Proust had done with Belle Époque Paris and Joyce had done with a single day in 1904 Dublin—and, for that matter, Jane Austen had done with the landed gentry in the Home Counties at the time of the Napoleonic Wars and James had done with idle Americans living abroad at the turn of the nineteenth century. He wanted to biopsy a minute sample of the social tissue and reproduce the results in the form of a permanent verbal artifact.
Updike believed that people in that world sought happiness, and that, contrary to the representations of novelists like Cheever and Kerouac, they often found it. But he thought that the happiness was always edged with dread, because acquiring it often meant ignoring, hurting, and damaging other people. In a lot of Updike’s fiction, those other people are children. Adultery was for him the perfect example of the moral condition of the suburban middle class: the source of a wickedly exciting kind of pleasure and a terrible kind of guilt.
It’s easy to understand why people identify Stephen Dedalus with Joyce, and why they identify the narrator of “In Search of Lost Time” with Proust. But it’s strange that people persist in identifying the protagonists of the Olinger stories and the Maples stories and the Rabbit books with Updike. Those characters are Updikean in certain limited ways—unusually sensitive, unusually death-haunted, unusually horny. But they are not unusually smart or unusually gifted. They could never have created John Updike. And only Updike could have created them.
[Photo Via: The. Buried. Talent.]
Ava Gardner and Barbara Stanwyck were separated by fifteen years in age, and arrived in Hollywood more than a decade apart. Although both were famous stars, neither ever won a competitive Academy Award. (Gardner was nominated once for Mogambo and Stanwyck four times, for Stella Dallas, Ball of Fire, Double Indemnity, and Sorry, Wrong Number. She received an honorary Oscar in 1982 for her “unique contribution to the art of screen acting.”) Both were at the top during the golden age of the Hollywood studio system, but one difference between them is fundamental: Ava Gardner was a product of the “star machine” and Barbara Stanwyck was not.
Gardner, from a not very well off but stable North Carolina family, arrived in town with a minimum of security and no acting experience, but was fed into a system that might be expected to take care of her if she behaved. Stanwyck, coming from a hardscrabble background in New York, arrived from Broadway with the security of a contract and solid experience, but took up her career independently and never let anyone own her.
Gardner’s security came with a price. Unable to pick and choose, she was assigned pedestrian films she had to carry (The Great Sinner in 1949, My Forbidden Past in 1951). She wasn’t given many opportunities to grow as an actress. The studio didn’t need that from her, and because of her spectacular looks, she presented something of a casting problem. Who would believe Ava Gardner as a nun, or a rocket scientist, or a neglected working girl in a tuna cannery? She was born to grab the spotlight, and having shaped her image as “a magnificent animal” (her billing for The Barefoot Contessa, 1954), Hollywood was content to present her that way.
Gardner became resentful and restless, and began to carouse, have affairs, and create problems. She didn’t care if she caused a scandal, particularly when she took up with the married Frank Sinatra and became the most famous “other woman” of her time. Ironically, it was easy for her studio to fuse this off-screen behavior to her on-screen persona, and the role of “Ava Gardner,” bad-girl-good-time-gal-sex-symbol, became an unbreakable image.
Stanwyck’s independence meant that she could negotiate her films and salaries, but she had to accept that she had no priority in any studio’s plans for casting. She lost significant roles as a result, such as the lead in Dark Victory (1939), which went to Bette Davis. Wilson points out that a studio “would have steadily built her up picture after picture,” as MGM did with Gardner, but Stanwyck didn’t want that: “She found it a constraint.” Stanwyck had to fight to get good films, but she had her own supporters, including her first husband, Frank Fay (an established born-in-a-trunk performer), a shrewd agent, Zeppo Marx (the fifth Marx brother), and particularly director Frank Capra, who saw what she was capable of and who guided her in four of her earliest films. As curator of the Frank Capra Archives, I spent many hours talking to Capra about his career, and Stanwyck was a subject he loved. A great admirer of her talent, discipline, and professionalism, he always stressed that since Stanwyck was never owned by a single studio for any length of time, no specific image was created for her. She had to create her own.
“If the Beatles meant a lot in England, they meant very much more in America,” wrote Nik Cohn in his brisk, entertaining history of Rock n Roll, Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: Pop from the Beginning. “They changed everything. They happened at a time when American pop was bossed by trash, by dance crazes and slop ballads, and they let all of that bad air out. They were foreign, they talked strange. They played harsh, unsickly, and they weren’t phoney. Just as they’d done in England, they brought back reality.”
Cohn spent 7 weeks in the spring of 1968 writing his tour de force of pop music. He had just turned 22. “My purpose was simple,” he remembered years later, “to catch the feel, the pulse of rock, as I had lived through it. Nobody, to my knowledge, had ever written a serious book on the subject, so I had no exemplars to inhibit me. Nor did I have any reference books or research to hand. I simply wrote off the top of my head, whatever and however the spirit moved me. Accuracy didn’t seem of prime importance (and the book, as a result, is rife with factual errors). What I was after was guts, and flash, and energy, and speed. Those were the things I’d treasured in the rock I’d loved.”
Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the Beatles appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. What better time to revisit Cohn’s chapter on the Fab Four? (Keep in mind that it was written before the band broke up.)
Cohn is a ton of fun even when–or especially when–you don’t agree with him.
By Nik Cohn
Next came the Fab Four, the Moptop Mersey Marvels, and this is the bit I’ve been dreading. I mean what is there possibly left to say on them?
In the beginning, I should say, the Beatles were the Quarrymen, and then they were the Silver Beatles, and there were five of them—John Lennon, Stuart Sutcliffe, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best. All of them came from working-class or lower-middle-class backgrounds in Liverpool and the only ones with any pretensions to anything were Paul McCartney, who had racked up five ‘O’-levels,.and Stuart Sutcliffe, who painted.
The heavies at this time were Sutcliffe and John Lennon, who were at art school together.
Sutcliffe was something like an embryo James Dean, very beautiful-looking, and he wore shades even in the dark, he was natural image. Of all the Beatles, at this stage, he was the most sophisticated and the most articulate and Eduardo Paolozzi, the painter, who taught him for a time, says that he was very talented indeed.
As for Lennon, he was a roughneck. His father, who was a seaman, had left home when Lennon was still a small child, his mother had died, and he’d been brought up by his Aunt Mimi. And by the time he got to art school, he’d grown into a professional hard-nut, big-mouthed and flash, and he rampaged through Liverpool like some wounded buffalo, smashing everything that got in his way. He wrote songs with Paul McCartney. He had hefty intellectual discussions with Sutcliffe. He was rude to almost everyone, he was loud and brutally funny, his putdowns could kill. A lot of people noticed him.
The Beatles, at this time, were still total Teds: they wore greasy hair and leather jackets and winkle pickers, they jeered and got into fights and were barred from pubs.
The music they played then was souped-up rock, much influenced by Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly, not notably original, and they were less than an explosion. In 1960, they managed a tour of Scotland with Johnny Gentle, one of the lesser figures in the Larry Parnes stable, but mostly they alternated between random gigs in Liverpool and seasons at the Star Club in Hamburg, where they played murderous hours each night and halfway starved to death.
At this point, Stuart Sutcliffe left the group to concentrate on his painting and, soon afterwards, died of a brain tumour. He was twenty-one. Meanwhile, the Beatles had begun to move up a bit—they’d made some records in Germany, bad records but records just the same, and they’d built themselves a solid following, both in Germany and at home. And musically, they’d become competent and they had their own sound, a crossbreed between classic rock and commercial R&B, and they were raw, deafening, a bit crude but they were really exciting. At least, unlike any other British act ever, they didn’t ape America but sounded what they were, working-class Liverpool, unfake, and that’s what gave them their strength, that’s what made Brian Epstein want to manage them.
Epstein was the eldest son in a successful Jewish business family and he ran a Liverpool record store. In his early twenties, he’d wanted to be an actor and he’d gone to RADA [The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art] but now, approaching thirty, he’d resigned himself to being a businessman. Intelligent and loyal and neurotic, painfully sensitive, he was nobody’s identikit picture of a hustler but he was civilized, basically honest, and he had capital. So he asked the Beatles to let him be manager and they agreed.
Soon after this, Pete Best, the drummer, got flung out and was replaced by Ringo Starr. Best had laid down a loud and clumsy beat, quite effective, but he’d been less sharp, less clever, less flexible than the other Beatles and they’d got bored with him, they wanted him out.
Ringo Starr’s real name was Richard Starkey and he’d been playing with Rory Storme and the Hurricanes, Liverpool’s top group of that time. Actually, he wasn’t too much of a drummer and he had rough times at the hands of vengeful Pete Best fans; he was given a fierce baptism. But he had his own defences, a great off-hand resilience and a deadpan humour, and he survived.
Meanwhile, Epstein acted like a manager. Privately, he had huge inhibitions about hustling, but he fought them down and sweated. So he had demos made and touted them round the record companies; he pleaded and spieled and harangued. And having been first turned down by Dick Rowe at Decca, the King Dagobert of pop, he finally got a contract with E.M.I. and everything began.
From there on in, it was fast and straight-ahead: the first single, Love Me Do, made the thirty and the second, Please Please Me, made number one and the third, From Me To You also made number one (louder) and the fourth, She Loves You, made the biggest hit that any British artist had ever cut. All of them were written by Lennon and McCartney.
By spring of 1963, they had taken over from Cliff Richard here and, by autumn, they were a national obsession. At the beginning of 1964, given the most frantic hype ever, they broke out in America and stole the first five places solid on the chart. Summer, they released their first movie, Hard Day’s Night, and it smashed and that just about rounded things out. Altogether, it had taken two years from first big push to last.
At the end of all this, they had become unarguably the largest phenomenon that pop had ever coughed up and, even more remarkably, they’ve hardly slid since. To the time of writing they have sold upwards of two hundred million records and they’re coming up for their twentieth straight number one.
Beyond that, they had made millions of pounds for themselves and many more millions of pounds for the Government and, in reward, they were all given the MBE [Member of the Order of the British Empire] for their contributions to the export drive. This was a clincher—assorted worthies sent their own medals back in protest but everyone else was delighted. That’s how respectable pop had become and it was all the Beatles who’d made it like that.
Beyond their music itself, their greatest strengths were clarity of image and the way they balanced. It’s a truism that no pop format is any good unless it can be expressed in one sentence, but the Beatles went beyond that, they could each be said in one word: Lennon was the brutal one, McCartney was the pretty one, Ringo Starr was the lovable one, Harrison was the balancer. And if Lennon was tactless, McCartney was a natural diplomat. And if Harrison seemed dim, Lennon was very clever. And if Starr was clownish, Harrison was almost sombre. And if McCartney was arty, Starr was basic. Round and round in circles, no loose ends left over, and it all made for a comforting sense of completeness.
Completeness, in fact, was what the Beatles were all about. They were always perfectly self-contained, independent, as if the world was split cleanly into two races, the Beatles and everyone else, and they seemed to live off nobody but themselves.
There is a film of their first American press conference that expresses this perfectly. Hundreds of newsmen question them, close in and batter and hassle them but the Beatles aren’t reached. They answer politely, they make jokes, they’re most charming, but they’re never remotely involved, they’re private. They have their own club going and, really, they aren’t reachable. They are, after all, the Beatles.
Throughout this, they are very subtly playing image both ways—they are anti-stars and they’re superstars both. They use Liverpool accents, they’re being consciously working class and non-showbiz and anti-pretension but, in their own way, they’re distancing themselves, building up mystique for all they are worth. With every question that gets thrown at them, they spell it out more clearly: we are ordinary, modest, no-nonsense, unsentimental and entirely superhuman.
For some reason, such built-in arrogance hardly ever misses—it’s the same equation that the inherited rich sometimes have, the way that they can be charming, gentle, humble as hell and still you know you can’t ever get to them, they’re protected and finally, they only function among themselves. They’re in their own league and you’re insulted, you sneer but you’re hooked and, kid, would you ever like in.
This is the superstar format, the only one that really works, and the Beatles had it exactly, they were a whole new aristocracy in themselves. And, of course, they’d have been huge anyway, they’d have come through on their music and their prettiness alone, but it was this self-sufficiency, this calm acceptance of their own superiority, that made them so special.
Between them, the four of them being so complementary, they managed to appeal to almost everyone.
Lennon, for instance, trapped the intellectuals. He started writing books and he knocked out two regulation slim volumes, In His Own Write and Spaniard In The Works, stories, poems, doodled drawings and assorted oddments.. Mostly, they were exercises in sick, sadistic little sagas of deformity and death, written in a style halfway between Lewis Carroll and Spike Milligan.
Predictably, the critics took it all with great solemnity and, straightaway, Lennon was set up as cultural cocktail food, he got tagged as an instinctive poet of the proletariat, twisted voice of the underdog. He himself said that he only wrote for fun, to pass time, but no matter, he was turned into a heavy Hampstead cult.
Meanwhile, he sat around in discotheques and tore everyone to pieces. He was married and had a son. He lived in a big suburban mansion in Weybridge and he was sharp as a scythe. He wrote songs as if he was suffocating. Still, he was powerful and he generated a real sense of claustrophobia, he had great command of irony and he owned one of the best pop voices ever, rasped and smashed and brooding, always fierce. Painful and obsessive, his best songs have been no fun whatever but they’ve been strong: I Am The Walrus, A Day In The Life, Happiness Is A Warm Gun and, most racked of all, Strawberry Fields Forever.
On stage, he played monster and made small girls wet their knickers. He hunched up over the mike, very tight because he couldn’t see an inch without his glasses on, and he’d make faces, stick his tongue out, be offensive in every way possible. On Twist and Shout, he’d rant his way into total incoherence, half rupture himself. He’d grind like a cement mixer and micro-bops loved every last dirty word of him. No doubt, the boy had talent.
Paul McCartney played Dick Diver. He was stylish, charming, always elegant and, whenever he looked at you, he had this strange way of making you feel as if you were genuinely the only person in the world that mattered. Of course, he’d then turn away and do exactly the same thing with the next in line but, just that flash while it lasted, you were warmed and seduced and won over for always.
He was a bit hooked on culture: he went to all the right plays, read the right books, covered the right exhibitions and he even had a stage when he started diluting his accent. No chance—Lennon brought him down off that very fast indeed. Still, he educated himself in trends of all kinds and, when he was done, he emerged as a full-blown romantic, vastly sentimental, and he wrote many sad songs about many sad things, songs that were so soft and melodic that grannies everywhere bought them in millions.
In their different styles, then, both Lennon and McCartney had gotten arty and their music changed. In the first place, their work had been brash, raucous, and the lyrics very basic—She Loves You, Thank You Girl, I Saw Her Standing There. Good stuff, strong and aggressive, but limited. From about 1964 on though, they got hooked on the words of Bob Dylan and their lyrics, which had always been strictly literal, now became odder, quirkier, more surreal. Message and meaning: suddenly it was creative artist time.
My own feeling is that Lennon has heavy talent and that McCartney really hasn’t. He’s melodic, pleasant, inventive but he’s too much syrup.
Still, they do make a partnership: Lennon’s toughness plays off well against McCartney’s romanticism, Lennon’s verbal flair is complemented by McCartney’s knack of knocking out instantly attractive melody lines. They add up.
Of course, when McCartney runs loose with string quartets, some horribly mawkish things happen—Yesterday, She’s Leaving Home—but he has a certain saving humour and he’s usually just about walked the line.
At any rate, he looks sweet and more than anyone, he made the Beatles respectable at the start and he’s kept them that way, no matter what routines they’ve got involved in. Even when he confesses to taking acid or bangs on about meditation, he invariably looks so innocent, acts so cutely that he gets indulged, he’s always forgiven. Regardless, he is still a nice boy. Also, not to be overlooked, he is pretty and girls scream at him.
More than any of the others, though, it was Ringo Starr who came to sum the Beatles up.
America made him. In England, he was always a bit peripheral, he always sat at the back and kept his mouth shut but, when the Beatles hit New York, they were treated very much like some new line in cuddly toys, long-haired and hilarious, and Ringo stole it.
Big-nosed and dogeyed, he had a look of perpetual bewilderment and said hardly anything: “I haven’t got a smiling mouth or a talking face.” He only bumbled, came on like some pop Harry Langdon and women in millions ached to mother him. In fairness, it has to be said that this was not his fault—he looked that way by nature and couldn’t change.
Every now and then, out of deep silence, he’d emerge with some really classic line. No verbal gymnastics like Lennon, not even a joke—just one flat line, so mumbled and understated as to be almost non-existent.
My own favourite was his summing-up of life as a Beatle: “I go down to John’s place to play with his toys, and sometimes he comes down here to play with mine.”
He’s solid. When he got married, he chose no model, no starlet, but a girl from Liverpool, a hairdresser’s assistant. He’d known and gone steady with her for years. And when all the Beatles went meditating in India with the Maharishi, he said that it reminded him of Butlins and came home early.
Really, he summarizes everything that’s best in the English character—stability, tolerance, lack of pretension, humour, a certain built-in cool. He knows he’s not a great drummer and it doesn’t upset him. Not very much upsets him in fact: he only sits at home and plays records, watches television, shoots pool. Simply, he passes time.
He is hooked on Westerns and he loves new gadgets and he spends a lot of his time just playing. He sits with his wife and his children. Well, he may be slightly bored at times because he has nothing much to do any more but he isn’t too bothered and, quite genuinely, he would make out all right if the Beatles went broke on him and he had to get a nothing job again. No matter what, he ticks over.
George Harrison is more problematic.
To begin with, he wasn’t much more than a catcher, a trampoline for the others to bounce off. On stage, he’d set himself a little way back from the mike and play along without smiling. He hardly moved and he’d look cut off, vaguely bored.
His big moment used to be when he and Paul McCartney would suddenly bear down hard on the mike together and, cheeks almost touching, they’d shake their heads like mad. This gesture used to provoke more screams than almost anything else. But when it was over, Harrison never followed it up, he only dropped back and looked bored again.
In interviews, too, he was less than impressive. He was slower than the rest, less imaginative, and he tended to plod a bit. In every way, he was overshadowed by Lennon/McCartney.
At this stage, his most publicized interest was money and he got very tight with Epstein, who used to explain the complexities of Beatle finance to him. Epstein, who worshipped the Beatles and was greatly afraid of losing touch with them, loved this and used to speak of Harrison as his most favourite son.
Still, as Lennon/McCartney got increasingly arty, Harrison was stung and he began chasing. He went on a heavy intellectual streak himself.
First up, he got interested in Indian music and took lessons on sitar from Ravi Shankar. Second, he was to be seen flitting in and out of London Airport wearing beads and baggy white trousers. Third, he started writing Indian-style songs, all curry powder and souvenirs from the Taj Mahal, very solemn. And finally, he went up a mountain with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, guru to the stars, and came down again a convinced mystic. From here on, he was a philosopher, a sage, and his interviews were stuffed full of dicta, parables and eternal paradoxes. Sitting crosslegged in Virginia Water, he hid his face behind a beard, a moustache, two Rasputin eyes and he was almost unrecognizable as George Harrison, guitar-picker.
Ringo apart then, all of the Beatles had gone through heavy changes. In 1963, they’d epitomized everything that was anti-pretension: they’d been tough and funny and cool, merciless to outsiders, and they’d had the most murderous eyes for pomposity of any kind. That was one of their greatest attractions, their total lack of crapola and, even after they’d made it so huge, they didn’t lose out. Well, maybe they read more books, went to more theatres and so forth but, basically, they stayed as hard as ever. Paul McCartney wrote a few sentimental ballads, Harrison learned sitar. Lennon put smoked windows on his Rolls but the wit was still dry, the put-downs fierce, the lack of sell-out total.
It wasn’t until the release of Rubber Soul, Christmas 1965, that the cool first began to crack. Musically, this was the subtlest and most complex thing they’d done and lots of it was excellent, Drive My Car and Girl and You Won’t See Me, but there were also danger signals, the beat had softened and the lyrics showed traces of fake significance. One song at least, The Word, was utter foolishness and hardly anything had the raw energy of their earlier work, there was nothing as good as I Saw Her Standing There or I’m A Loser. Simply, the Beatles were softening up.
The next album, Revolver, was further on down the same line. Again, there was a big step forward in ingenuity and, again, there was a big step back in guts. Eleanor Rigby was clever but essentially sloppy. Harrison’s Love You To wasn’t even clever. And then there was Tomorrow Never Knows.
What had happened? In general, it was probably the inevitable effect of having so much guff written about them—they got told they were geniuses so often, they finally believed it, and began to act as such. In particular, it was acid.
In the context of this book, it doesn’t matter much whether acid was good or bad for them. All that counts is that it greatly changed them. Right then, they quit being just a rock group, Liverpool roughnecks with long hair and guitars and fast mouths, and they turned into mystics, would-be saints.
Soon after he’d owned up to using acid, early summer 1967, I did an interview with Paul McCartney and he was into a whole different level from anything I’d ever read by him before. No putdowns, no jokes, no frivolity whatever—he was most solemn and his eyes focused somewhere far beyond the back of my head. “God is in everything,” he said. “People who are hungry, who are sick and dying, should try to show love.”
Having gone through acid, the next inevitable step was that the Beatles went into meditation: George Harrison climbed his mountain with the Maharishi and soon the others had swung behind him, they’d renounced acid and devoted themselves to lives of total spirituality.
Undoubtedly, all of this was a major triumph for Harrison: it must have been sweet indeed to have Lennon and McCartney follow his lead, he made the most of it, he came out on TV and looked beatific and scattered dicta like chaff. “This is going to last all our lives,” he said, and he sat crosslegged on the floor.
Meanwhile, during the first weekend that the Beatles spent with the Maharishi, September 1967, Brian Epstein had died, aged thirty-two.
Inevitably, being so successful, he’d been the butt of much schnidery within the industry and, generally, he’d been rated pretty low. Paraphrased, the party line was that he was really a less-than-averagely shrewd businessman but he’d gotten lucky one time, very lucky, and he’d happened to be hanging round as the Beatles came by.
Also, beyond incompetence, he was meant to be weak, vain and maudlin. Most of this was true. Just the same, I liked him.
The main thing about him was that he wasn’t moronic, he wasn’t even entirely fascist. He wasn’t much criminal and he didn’t have people beaten up and he didn’t automatically scrabble on his knees each time someone dropped sixpence in a darkened discotheque. More, he read books and went to theatres and understood long words. No use denying it: he was intelligent.
By the conventions of British management, this was all eccentric to the edge of insanity and it changed things, it set new standards. After Epstein, managers became greatly humanized: they weren’t necessarily any more honest but they were less thuggish, altogether less primitive and, sometimes, they even liked pop itself.
Beyond the Beatles, of course, Epstein had handled whole Liverpudlian armies—Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer, Cilla Black, the Fourmost, Tommy Quickly. In the beginning, around 1963–4, these were all hugely successful but, mostly, they were light on talent and, Cilla excepted, they didn’t sustain. Still, Epstein always stayed remarkably loyal to them, never kicked them out. Partly this was due to injured pride, but partly it was conscience, principle, integrity—the whole bit.
Just how much did the Beatles really owe him? Well, he was no Svengali, no alchemist and, obviously, they would have happened without him. He wasn’t greatly imaginative, he pulled no outrageous strokes for them but he was steady, painstaking, and he didn’t flag. Occasionally, his inexperience betrayed him into raw deals but, taken overall, he worked well for them.
Most important, he was a mother figure—he cared for them, reassured them, agonized on them, nagged them, even wept for them. He needed them. Even towards the end, when they’d outgrown management and would no longer take orders from anyone, he was always there, always available, devoted and doggy as ever. He could always be fallen back upon. And, most of the time, his advice was good and they took it rightly. After all, in all the time he managed them, they never once made fools of themselves.
His major problem was anti-climax.
Having managed the Beatles, having helped make maybe the biggest entertainment phenomena of this century, he still had to manage the rest of his stable and he’d been a lonely, neurotic man at the best of times but, in his last two years, he got quite frantic—he financed bad plays that flopped and promoted tours, sponsored a bullfighter called Henry Higgins, turned the Saville Theatre into a would-be pop shrine, and he kept thrashing about for new diversions to keep himself amused. Nothing worked. Everything bored him.
Already, in the last days of Epstein’s life, the Maharishi had been taking his place as resident mother, as adviser and comforter in chief (a development that must have struck him as a betrayal), and now, with Epstein dead, the guru had the field all to himself. Like I said earlier on, meditation was a logical progression from acid, just because it did the exact same things for you as acid did, except that acid-love was artificially-induced and nirvana was natural. And so, when the Beatles jumped, half the hip end of pop followed dutifully behind them. Donovan and the Beach Boys and Mick Jagger, Eric Burdon and the Doors, and the Maharishi’s Indian headquarters got all clogged up with hair and hippie beads.
As for the guru himself, he was less than impressive and, by spring 1968, the Beatles had left him.
Meanwhile, Christmas 1967, they’d shown Magical Mystery Tour, their first self-produced film, and it was bad; it was a total artistic disaster. It was the first real failure they’d ever had but still it made profits and hardly weakened them at all. That’s just how secure they’d become—they were establishment, institutionalised, and nothing could touch them.
More important, they launched Apple. In the beginning, this was conceived as a huge artistic and business complex, covering records and films, merchandising and electronics and music publishing, TV and literature, plus any other assorted media that might arise, and it was going to straddle the world in one vast benevolent network, handing out alms to anyone and everyone that deserved them. Young poets that couldn’t get published, musicians and designers and inventors, unrecognized talents, everyone, they were to come straight to Apple and the Beatles would review their case in person, the Beatles would help.
Inevitably, such saintliness was short-lived: the Beatles promptly found themselves besieged by massed no-talents and maniacs and charlatans, bummers of all descriptions, and they began to cut back fast. Within a year, the whole Utopian structure had boiled down to not much more than one indie record label, no better and no worse than any other.
Undeterred, the Beatles plunged on headlong into project after abortive project—there was a full-length cartoon film, Yellow Submarine, which did nothing much in England and cleaned up in the States, and there was a stage adaptation of John Lennon’s In His Own Write, which was successful, and there was also a John Lennon art exhibition, which wasn’t, and there was an excursion into boutique-management, which was a mistake, and, finally, there was a mammoth double-album ninety minutes and thirty tracks long, which was mostly just boring. And John Lennon got divorced from his wife and took up with Yoko Ono, a Japanese lady, and, between them, they came up with an album full of squeaks and squawks, Two Virgins, with nude pictures of themselves all over its cover. And Paul McCartney called Lennon a saint. And George Harrison wrote further mock-Orientalisms on the soundtrack of a film called Wonderwall. And Ringo Starr, of course, went right on shooting snooker.
In America and in England, they have become two entirely separate things: in the States, where pop is followed with great solemnity by almost everyone intelligent under the age of thirty, there are still many people who take them seriously, who see them as divinities and hang upon their every utterance, while in England, where pop remains mostly entertainment, they’re seen as cranks, millionaire eccentrics in the grand manner, vaguely regrettable, maybe, but quite harmless.
Either way, they continue to sell records in millions, they’re still flying, they’re up so high by now that nothing can bring them back down again. Simply, they’ve gone beyond.
The thing that fascinates me most in all this is that it’s happened so fast, that it’s taken only five years for ultimate hardheadedness to get changed into ultimate inanity, and I’m puzzled. There are, of course, lots of easy explanations—too much acid, too many ego-trips, too much money and success and wasteable time—and maybe the easiest answers are the right ones after all but, myself, I’m not so sure, I sense that there’s something here that I don’t yet understand, that’s only going to become clear in retrospect.
In any case, they’re still young, they have time to return inside their skulls and then, just possibly, they’ll do what they promised in the first place, they’ll purge pop of pretension. Meanwhile, though, they’ve only killed off one style in bullshit to replace it with another.
From here on in, I have only one or two final evaluations to make and then I’m through. First, their music.
What do I say? They’re good. They have talent and Lennon/McCartney are the most inventive, wide-ranging and melodically ingenious writers pop has produced. They’ve added whole new dimensions to pop, they have introduced unthought-of sophistications, complexities and subtleties. And Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, their best album, really was quite an impressive achievement.
For all this, I don’t enjoy them much and I’m not at all convinced that they’ve been good for pop. So all right, the Beatles make good music, they really do, but since when was pop anything to do with good music?
Sergeant Pepper was genuinely a breakthrough—it was the first ever try at making a pop album into something more than just twelve songs bundled together at random. It was an overall concept, an attitude: we are the Lonely Hearts Club Band, everyone is, and these are our songs. It was ideas, allusions, pastiches, ironies. In other words, it was more than noise. Some of the songs were dire (Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, She’s Leaving Home, Within You Without You) and others were pretty but nothing (When I’m 64, With A Little Help From My Friends) and a few really worked out (Lovely Rita, A Day In The Life, I’m Fixing A Hole and Sergeant Pepper itself). In any case, the individual tracks didn’t matter much—what counted was that it all hung together, that it made sense as a whole. Added up, it came to something quite ambitious, it made strange images of isolation, and it sustained. It was flawed but, finally, it worked.
So, if Sergeant Pepper passes, what am I grousing for? Well, it did work in itself, it was cool and clever and controlled. Only, it wasn’t much like pop. It wasn’t fast, flash, sexual, loud, vulgar, monstrous or violent. It made no myths.
And why should the Beatles limit themselves to pop? Why can’t they just expand and progress as they want, not thinking about categories? No reason—they’re responsible only to themselves and they can work whichever way they like.
The only thing is that, without pop, without its image and its flash and its myths, they don’t add up to much. They lose their magic boots and then they’re human like anyone else, they become updated Cole Porters, smooth and sophisticated, boring as hell. Admittedly, the posh Sundays say they’re Art and that’s true but, after all, what’s so great about Art? What does it have on Superpop?
The way I like it, pop is all teenage property and it mirrors everything that happens to teenagers in this time, in this American twentieth century. It is about clothes and cars and dancing, it’s about parents and high school and being tied and breaking loose, it is about getting sex and getting rich and getting old, it’s about America, it’s about cities and noise. Get right down to it, it’s all about Coca Cola.
And, in the beginning, that’s what the Beatles were about, too, and they had gimmick haircuts, gimmick uniforms, gimmick accents to prove it. They were, at last, the great British pop explosion and, even when their songs were trash, you could hear them and know it was mid-twentieth century, Liverpool U.S.A., and these boys were coke drinkers from way back.
They’ve changed. They don’t belong to their own time or place any more, they’ve flown away into limbo. And there are maybe a million acid-heads, pseudo-intellectuals, muddled schoolchildren and generalized freaks who have followed them there but the mass teen public has been lumbered.
What’s more, because the Beatles are so greatly worshipped by the rest of pop, most every group in the world pursues them and apes them and kneels at their feet, and that’s why there’s no more good fierce rock ‘n’ roll music now, no more honest trash.
And at least, with the Beatles, there has always been a certain talent and wit at work but, with their successors, there’s been little but pretensions. Groups like Family and the Nice in England, the Grateful Dead and Iron Butterfly in America, they’re crambos by nature and that’s fine, they could be knocking out three-chord rock and everyone would be happy. But, after the Beatles and Bob Dylan, they’ve got into Art and so they’ve wallowed in third-form poetries, fifth-hand philosophies, ninth-rate perceptions. And, who’ve lost out? Teenagers have.
In America, admittedly, kids have tended to take anything they’ve been given and like it, they’ve come to talk in the same crapola terms as their groups. But in England, they’ve mostly shrugged and walked away, record sales have crashed and everything’s gone stale.
It’s bad: originally, in the fifties, the whole point about rock was its honesty, the way it talked so straight after all those years of showbiz blag, and now it’s become just as fake as Tin Pan Alley ever was.
So it isn’t really their fault, you could hardly blame them, but, indirectly, the Beatles have brought pop to its knees. It’ll get back up again, it must do because somehow it’s needed, but I don’t think it’ll be the Beatles who’ll revive it, I think it’s already too late for that.
In some sense, they have opted out and they can hardly come back in again. They’ll keep progressing, they’ll make better music yet and they won’t ever fall. Only, in thirty years, I don’t think they’ll have meant so much as Elvis Presley.
In the end, Bert Berns may still have summed them up better than anyone.
As I mentioned in an earlier chapter, Berns was a most shrewd man and he understood pop perfectly. And one afternoon, about three years ago, he sat in some decaying West Hampstead café and looked gloomy over a picture of the Beatles. Then he shook his head in infinite sage sadness. “Those boys have genius,” he said. “They may be the ruin of us all.”
Start with the voice, which seems to have been around since the world began: lush, weary, tender, worldly, skeptical, ranging nimbly between hard and soft. It could be metallic, mannish and brittle or gentle as a down pillow, sometimes within the same film, as befits an actress who was at ease in every genre, from woman’s melodrama to the western, with noir and screwball comedy in between. Though film buffs have treasured her for years, Barbara Stanwyck has burned less brightly among general moviegoers for whom a higher voltage is synonymous with stardom.
She was neither a great beauty nor a glamour puss, and the importance of this — her refusal or inability to be simplified into a single image — has to be seen as a major factor in her longevity. More iconoclast than icon, more a character star on the order of Bogie or Cagney, she was often the second or third choice after Claudette Colbert, Jean Arthur, Bette Davis and Irene Dunne. Yet she has worn especially well. And if she was underappreciated in her time, her minimalist gifts — the fluid movement, the stillness in repose, the sense of interiority — have come to seem ultramodern.
If ever there was an actress who was ready for prime time, it is Stanwyck, and this enormously informative tribute — juicy yet dignified, admiring yet detached — is the book to bring her to center stage. Or books, I should say, for this full-dress treatment is not for the fainthearted: “A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940,” at 860 pages of text (notes, index and appendices bring it to 1,044), is only the first volume, beginning with Stanwyck’s birth and ending with the films preceding World War II. Wilson stays resolutely and sometimes frustratingly within this time frame, resisting even an anticipatory peek at those glorious ’40s films. I confess to having felt a certain alarm when I heard that Wilson, a vice president and longtime editor at Knopf whose first book this is, was writing two volumes on Stanwyck. In general, only someone of global consequence merits such exhaustive and demanding length. It seemed — and still seems — especially disproportionate in the case of Stanwyck, whose talent for passing under the radar was one of her charms. But Wilson’s aims are far more ambitious than documenting the minutiae of a movie star’s life.
What she does is provide context of extraordinary breadth, taking in not only Stanwyck’s life, her beginnings in poverty and tragedy and her emergence as an emblem of self-sufficiency, but also the world through which she moved: the cultural and political forces that shaped her years in show business as she went from burlesque and theater in New York to the turbulent Hollywood of the 1930s. Each film from this period is recounted in detail — indeed not just the films she made, but the ones she almost made and the parts she didn’t get. These descriptions are interspersed with mini-biographies of the various participants, forays into Stanwyck’s social life (or antisocial life, as the case often was), along with politics, both local and national.
There is a massive new biography out on Barbara Stanwyck. And it’s only Volume One. Still, it looks appealing.
Here’s a collection of the first lines of Dutch Leonard’s novels.
“Dave Flynn stretched his boots over the footrest and his body eased lower into the barber chair.”—The Bounty Hunters (1953)
“At times during the morning, he would think of the man named Kirby Frye.”—The Law At Randado (1954)
“Karla hesitated in the doorway of the adobe, then pushed open the screen door and came out into the sunlight as she heard again the faint, faraway sound of the wagon; and now she looked of toward the stand of willows that formed a windbreak along the north side of the yard, her eyes half closed in the sun glare and not moving from the motionless line of trees.”—Escape From Five Shadows (1956)
“Paul Cable sat hunched forward at the edge of the pine shade, his boots crossed and his elbows supported on his knees.”—Last Stand At Saber River (1959)
“At first I wasn’t sure at all where to begin.”—Hombre (1961)
“They were watching Ryan beat up the Mexican crew leader on 16mm Commercial Ektachrome.”—The Big Bounce (1969)
“The war began the first Saturday in June 1931, when Mr. Baylor sent a boy up to Son Martin’s place to tell him they were coming to raid his still.”—The Moonshine War (1969)
“Picture the ground rising on the east side of the pasture with scrub trees thick on the slope and pines higher up.”—Valdez Is Coming (1970)
“The train was late and didn’t get into Yuma until after dark.”—Forty Lashes Less One (1972)
“This morning they were here for the melons: about sixty of them waiting patiently by the two stake trucks and the old blue-painted school bus.”—Mr. Majestyk (1974)
“He could not get used to going to the girl’s apartment.”—52 Pick-Up (1974)
“There was a photograph of Frank in an ad that ran in the Detroit Free Press and showed all the friendly salesmen at Red Bowers Chevrolet.”—Swag (1976)
“A friend of Ryan’s said to him one time, “Yeah, but at least you don’t take any shit from anybody.”—Unknown Man No. 89 (1977)
“This is the news story that appeared the next day, in the Sunday edition of the Detroit Free Press, page one: FOUR TOURISTS DIE IN ISRAELI HOTEL FIRE Tel Aviv, March 20 (AP) – A predawn fire gutted an eight story resort hotel Saturday, killing four tourists and injuring 46 others, including guests who leaped from upper-story windows to escape the flames.”—The Hunted (1977)
“Mickey said, ‘I’ll drive. I really like to.’”—The Switch (1978)
“The gentleman from Harper’s Weekly, who didn’t know mesquite beans from goat shit, looked up from his reference collection of back issues and said, ‘I’ve got it!’—Gunsights (1979)
“In the matter of Alvin B. Guy, Judge of Recorder’s Court, City of Detroit: The investigation of the Judicial Tenure Commission found the respondent guilty of misconduct in office and conduct clearly prejudicial to the administration of justice.”—City Primeval (1980)
“One day Karen DiCilia put a few observations together and realized her husband Frank was sleeping with a real estate woman in Boca.”—Gold Coast (1980)
“In the winter of 1981 a multimillionaire by the name of Robinson Daniels shot a Haitian refugee who had broken into his home in Palm Beach.”—Split Images (1981)
“Moran’s first impression of Nolen Tyler: He looked like a high risk, the kind of guy who falls asleep smoking in bed.”—Cat Chaser (1982)
“Stick said he wasn’t going if they had to pick up anything.”—Stick (1983)
“‘He’s been taking pictures three years, look at the work,’ Maurice said.”—LaBrava (1983)
“The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming.”—Glitz (1985)
“Every time they got a call from the leper hospital to pick up a body Jack Delaney would feel himself coming down with the flu or something.”—Bandits (1987)
“Frank Sinatra, Jr., was saying, “I don’t have to take this,” getting up out of the guest chair, walking out.”—Touch (1987)
“Chris Mankowski’s last day on the job, two in the afternoon, two hours to go, he got a call to dispose of a bomb.”—Freaky Deaky (1988)
“The Blackbird told himself he was drinking too much because he lived in this hotel and the Silver Dollar was close by, right downstairs.”—Killshot (1989)
“When Chili first came to Miami Beach twelve years ago they were having one of their off-and-on cold winters: thirty-four degrees the day he met Tommy Carlo for lunch at Vesuvio’s on South Collins and had his leather jacket ripped off.”—Get Shorty (1990)
“Dale Crowe Junior told Kathy Baker, his probation officer, he didn’t see where he had done anything wrong.”—Maximum Bob (1991)
“Sunday morning, Ordell took Louis to watch the white-power demonstration in downtown Palm Beach.”—Rum Punch (1992)
“One evening, it was toward the end of October, Harry Arno said to the woman he’d been seeing on and off the past few years, ‘I’ve made a decision. I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone before in my life.’”—Pronto (1993)
“Ocala Police picked up Dale Crowe Junior for weaving, two o’clock in the morning, crossing the center line and having a busted taillight.”—Riding the Rap (1995)
“Foley had never seen a prison where you could walk right up to the fence without getting shot.”—Out of Sight (1996)
“Tyler arrived with the horses, February eighteenth, three days after the battlship Maine blew up in Havana harbor.”—Cuba Libre (1998)
“They sat at one of the sidewalk tables at Swingers, on the side of the coffee shop along Beverly Boulevard: Chili Palmer with the Cobb salad and iced tea, Tommy Athens the grilled pesto chicken and a bottle of Evian.”—Be Cool (1999)
“The church had become a tomb where forty-seven bodies turned to leather and stains had been lying on the concrete floor the past five years, though not lying where they had been shot with Kalashnikovs or hacked to death with machetes.”—Pagan Babies (2000)
“Dennis Lenahan the high diver would tell people that if you put a fifty-cent piece on the floor and looked down at it, that’s what the tank looked like from the top of that eighty-foot steel ladder.”—Tishomingo Blues (2002)
“Here was Antwan, living the life of a young coyote up in the Hollywood Hills, loving it, but careful to keep out of the way of humans.”—A Coyote’s in the House (2004)
“Late afternoon Chloe and Kelly were having cocktails at the Rattlesnake Club, the two seated on the far side of the dining room by themselves: Chloe talking, Kelly listening, Chloe trying to get Kelly to help entertain Anthony Paradiso, an eighty-four-year-old guy who was paying her five thousand a week to be his girlfriend.”—Mr. Paradise (2004)
“Carlos Webster was fifteen the day he witnessed the robbery and killing at Deering’s drugstore.”—The Hot Kid (2005)
“Honey phoned her sister-in-law Muriel, still living in Harlan County, Kentucky, to tell her she’d left Walter Schoen, calling him Valter, and was on her way to being Honey Deal again.”—Up In Honey’s Room (2007)
“They put Foley and the Cuban together in the backseat of the van and took them from the Palm Beach County jail on Gun Club to Glades Correctional, the old redbrick prison at the south end of Lake Okeechobee.”—Road Dogs (2009)
“Xavier watched two Legionnaires stroll out form the terminal to wait for the flight: dude soldiers in round white kepis straight on their heads, red epaulets on their shoulders, a wide blue sash around their waist, looking like they from some old-time regiment except for the short pants and assault rifles.”—Djibouti (2010)
“Raylan Givens was holding a federal warrant to serve on a man in the marijuana trade known as Angel Arenas, forty-seven, born in the U.S. but 100 percent of him Hispanic.”—Raylan (2011)
“A time would come, within a few years, when Ruben Vega would go to the church in Benson, kneel in the confessional, and say to the priest, ‘Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been thirty-seven years since my last confession…. Since then I have fornicated with many women, maybe eight hundred. No, not that many, considering my work. Maybe six hundred only.’”—”The Tonto Woman,” a short story that appeared in Roundup: An Anthology of Great Stories By The Western Writers of America (1982)
(In this case I think you need all of the above to truly capture Leonard’s touch. By the way, “The Tonto Woman” was made into a tasty short film that was nominated for an Oscar.)
“Joe Sereno caught the Odyssey night clerk as he was going off: prissy guy, had his lunch box under his arm.”—Naked Came the Manatee, a novel written serially by Dutch and 13 other mostly Florida-based writers including Carl Hiaasen, Dave Barry, James W. Hall and Paul Levine. (1996)
“They had dug coal together as young men and then lost touch over the years.”—Fire in the Hole, a short story published as an e-book (2001)
“A German prisoner of war at the camp called Deep Fork had taken his own life, hanged himself two nights ago in the compound’s washroom.”—Comfort to the Enemy, a serial published in the New York Times (2005)
[Photo Credit: David Guralnick / the Detroit News]
This looks cool, a documentary about Larry McMurty’s book auction last summer.
[Photo Credit: Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Associated Press]
From Hollywood: Stars and starlets, tycoons and flesh-peddlers, moviemakers and moneymakers, frauds and geniuses, hopefuls and has-been, great lover and sex symbols, Garson Kanin’s appealing, gossipy memoir:
The power of the dream is largely generated by the fact that every now and then it comes true.
It came true for a slightly chubby, preppy blonde from Indiana named Jane Peters, later known as Carol Lombard, and later still as Carole Lombad.
“I think that ‘e’ made the whole fucking difference,” she said to me one day, during the time I was directing her in They Knew What They Wanted. (It should be noted that this was Carole’s normal style of speech. She used the fully, juicy Anglo-Saxon vocabulary; yet it never shocked, never offended because she was clearly using the language to express herself and not to shock or offend).
She was the only star I have ever known who did not want a dressing room on the set. What little make-up she used, she put on herself. She preferred to look after her own hair. All she asked for was a chair and a small table. There she would be, twenty minutes or half an hour before she was due, ready and able. I never knew her to fluff a line. She liked everyone and everyone adored her. She was happy.
On days when she was not required, she would drive in anyway, all the way from the Valley. The first time she turned up on one of those days, I panicked, certain there had been a mistake.
“What’re you doing here?” I asked. “You’re not called today.”
“Piss off!” she said. “I’m in this picture.”
She wanted to be around, to stay with the feel of things. She did not want to lose the momentum of work. On these days, she would hang around the set, watching; come along and look at the rushes; talk to various members of the cast. She was valuable.
I thought her a fine actress, one of the finest I have ever encountered. She was completely untrained, had never appeared on the legitimate stage. She came to Hollywood from Fort Wayne, Indiana, became a child actress, and later went to work for Mack Sennett as one of his bathing beauties. But the movies were growing, the business was burgeoning, and there was room at the top for a beautiful, talented girl.
Tremendously versatile, one of her successes was My Man Godfrey, the so-called screwball comedy, in which she struck new and original comic notes. But she was equally comfortable in serious drama. I remember an early talkie called Ned McCobb’s Daughter, from the play by Sidney Howard, who also wrote They Knew What They Wanted. Her performance in Twentieth Century, opposite John Barrymore, is one of the best ever seen on the American screen. I once complimented her on her admirable range.
“It’s the guys. It’s all those goddamn different studs I’ve knocked around with. You know how it is. You always try to get in solid with the son of a bitch by playing his game. So when I was around with Bob Riskin—the prick never wanted to marry me, can you feature it?—I started in reading books. I don’t mean just bullshit. I mean book books. Aldous Huxley and Jane Austen. Charles Dickens. William Faulkner. Because Bob, he was in intellectual. My first. Brainy as a bastard. And I felt I had to keep up. You know how it is. And then with Russ Colombo, he—Jesus Christ, he was a handsome hunk—with him, I got to know all about music and songs and songwriting and publishers. And about records and recordings and which was the best key and big bands and sidemen and drummers. I even started in writing songs. Sometimes with him. We’d be in the hay and in between we’d make up songs. Can you imagine it? Listen, there were a few times there we got so interested in the songs we forgot to get our ashes hauled!” She laughed.
Has there ever been such a laugh? It had the joyous sound of pealing bells. She would bend over, slap her perfect calf, or the floor, or a piece of furniture. She would sink into a chair or to the ground. She would throw her head back. And you would be riveted by that neck. That throat.
“And not only music. With Russ, I became just about the best goddamn Italian cook there is. I can do anything in that line because I used to do it for him. Learned it. Chicken Cacciatora. Eggplant Parmigiano. Veal Marsala. Squid. Anything. You name it. Now, with Philo it was different. Because, after all Philo. It was legitimate. We were married.” (Philo was her name for William Powell because he had once played the detective Philo Vance.) “With him, it was wife stuff. That’s when I learned how to put a house together, and have everything supplied. And how to take care of his clothes. And what had to be dry cleaned and what not. I mean, I was the best fuckin’ wife you ever saw. I mean a ladylike wife. Because that’s how Philo wanted it.
“And now with Clark it’s the ranch and the horses and the fishing and shooting. The only trouble is—about the shooting I mean—I’ve gotten to be so much better than he is that I’ve got to hold back. I can shoot like a sonofabitch, y’know. Anything. So when you say ‘versatile’—well, I owe it all the boys. They made me what I am today.”
Stephen Rodrick is one of our finest magazine writers and this spring he published a compelling memoir about this father, The Magical Stranger. Check out book excerpts in the New York Times; Slate, and a nice long one in Men’s Journal. And visit The Magical Stranger website.
I had the chance to talk with Stephen about the book recently. Here’s our conversation:
Q: As a magazine writer you are used to dropping in on a subject and then you’re out. What was it like having to live with this material for a long period of time?
SR: Well, for my sanity and finances I kept my hand in the magazine game writing three or four pieces a year while reporting the book. That gave me some much-needed distance from all the heaviness that permeates the book. I remember I was writing the chapter on re-creating my dad’s accident and was sinking into the pit of despair, and next thing I knew I was in Malibu with Rick Rubin as he dodged the pot smoke from the guitarist of System of the Down and brought his own eggs to a restaurant before going to work out with the cranky doctor guy from Scrubs. The same thing with the Lindsay Lohan/Canyons story, I just returned from the Gulf where Tupper was struggling through his last cruise and we watched Iranian ‘fishing’ boats shadow the USS Lincoln’s moves through the Gulf. I flew off back through the protests in Bahrain and a few weeks later I’m in the back of Lohan’s Porsche as she flips off the paparazzi in Santa Monica. They were nice Fellini moments to break up trying to decipher the precise speed that my dad’s plane hit the water before disintegrating.
Q: Were there any memoirs that you read, and particularly liked, before writing yours?
SR: I was drawn to James Salter’s Burning the Days because he was a combat pilot back in the 1950s and wrote beautifully about the flying life. On the flip side, Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia is a novel that reads like a memoir and I’ve read that a half-dozen times. The two couldn’t be more different, but they both share a certain simplicity in the language that I loved.
Q: Have you always felt that this was the story one day you were destined to tell?
SR: I don’t know if I felt I was destined to write it, but it had been gnawing at me for years and i just didn’t feel I had the emotional strength to write it in the way I knew I wanted to do it. The final kick in the ass, was VAQ-135, my Dad’s old squadron, was phasing out the Prowler, his old plane, and I knew it was now or never if I wanted to follow his old squadron flying his old plane. They even got me up in a flight, which was one of the most frightening and meaningful moments of my life even if I did boot a spectacular yellow fluid into my barf bag.
Q: How did you arrive at the narrative structure for the story, shifting between your story from childhood through the present, with that of Tupper and the current Navy?
SR: It just sort of happened naturally, I’m not a big outliner, but I knew the chapters I wanted to write and they somehow clicked into place. I know I wanted to start at both of our points of entry: For me, the day my father was killed marked an obvious demarcation in my life. For Tupper, it was the day that he took command. From there, things sort of tumbled out naturally going back and forth between my journey and Tupper’s. I was hoping the reader would be able to see what life was like from the two perspectives: The son left behind and the father trying to do his job.
Q: Early in the story you talk about being described as “the magical stranger” by a friend who says that you have this remarkable ability to adapt to social situations and put people at ease.
SR: Yeah, as a magazine writer, you’re always the new kid, you don’t know where the bathrooms are etc. I don’t put on a persona when I go and talk with people; I’m just me, just a paying more attention me. With very few exceptions, I’ve been blessed to write about men and women I find fascinating so I don’t have to fake it.
Q: As a military kid you moved around a lot, always being the new kid. Is that charm, for lack of a better word, the ability to get people to feel comfortable, something that’s conscious?
A: That’s a really good question. Is it a nature or nurture thing? I was always the smartass from the start, but I don’t know if it was just the nature of my personality or part of always being the new kid and realizing that the best way to ingratiate yourself is to get people either laughing with you or laughing at you, whichever one doesn’t really matter.
Q: Has it ever gotten in the way of you forming intimate relationships–not with subjects so much, as friends, family?
SR: I’m not sure. There’s a restless nature in me that doesn’t always mesh with every-day life. I think the key is finding like-minded people who understand that and still love you anyway. I think one of the great things about doing the book was finding out that my purportedly straight-arrow dad was a troublemaker in his younger days. I’d always felt with my personality that I was an alien in my own family and a massive disappointment. I found a diary he kept when he was thirteen, the age I was when he was killed. And sure, he’s serving mass and getting scholarships, but he’s also getting called a punk by the nuns and hitchhiking throughout New England as an eighth grader. I went to his 50th high school reunion and a friend of his told me: The stuff Pete cared about, he was the best and smartest kid I ever knew, the stuff Pete didn’t care about he didn’t give a damn about and he’d stare out the window for the entire class. And that was gratifying to me because I’m sort of the same way. I found a precious connection that I never knew was there and eased my burden of never feeling like I could measure up to him. It’s like he was a statue on a pedestal that magically walked off it and put his arm around me and said, “Son don’t sweat it, I’ve done some dubious things. It’s ok.” There’s never been a man more excited that his dad was a teen fuck-up than me.
Q: You also say that it was your father who was really the magical stranger. How did you fantasize how things would have turned out had he not been killed?
SR: Well, there’s the fantasy and the reality. The fantasy is he would of came home and we would have probably moved to DC and he would have kicked me into shape and I would have ended up at Georgetown or one of the Ivies and gone on to be president of the United States. The reality is he was a devout Catholic while I was distancing myself from Catholicism quickly before I hit twenty. We probably would have fought over that. So, you just never know how it could have been. But I’d pay any price to have the chance to find out.
Q: You’re tough on yourself when you describe yourself as a kid. Now that the book is finished, have you let go of any of the harsh judgment?
SR: Ha! I wish. I think it’s hard to shake a childhood where everyone is constantly disappointed in you. Whether it’s a priest—later busted for pedophilia—telling you that “you’re the man of the house,” and then not stepping up or entering high school with one of the highest board scores and the vice principal telling your Mom at graduation that “Steve was the student with the most potential who did the least with it.” (Thanks Ms. King!). It’s hard to shake that even after having success as an adult. I still see myself as inherently lazy while my wife sees me as a workaholic. But I’m trying to give myself more of a break. Sometimes, I tell myself, Hey, you lost your Dad at thirteen when you needed him most and you might have stumbled, but you didn’t fall. You still turned out ok. You’re a man your father would be proud of. (Well, he wouldn’t be proud that I hate the Red Sox, but most things). I try to own that as much as I can.
Q: Did you emphasize your difficulties in the book for the sake of a dramatic arc?
SR: Nope. The one thing I wanted to do with my story and my family story and Tupper’s story was to keep it simple: This how this happened. This is how we dealt with it. One thing I can say is I lived this life, not just my own but Tupper’s life for three years. You can criticize my approach as artless, but I’ve never had much time for grandiose set-ups, faux Faulkner hand wringing, or 2000 words of throat clearing before you get down to the task at hand. To me, this is what my life and the life of the others I wrote about really were like, good and bad, dangerous and idiotic.
Q: I was compelled by how your family dealt with things by not dealing with them—the Rodrick way. When you approached your mom to talk about your father you discovered that you’d both avoided it in order to spare the other person’s feelings. Yet your mom seemed willing, appreciative even, to share her memories. Has your relationship for the better?
SR: It has. We sort of had this standoff for decades where she thought I didn’t want to talk about my father and she thought I didn’t want to talk about him. It really took me writing the book for us to breakthrough that wall. So thank you to the publishing world.
Q: How did she like the book?
SR: Funny story. My mom is the only person in the book that I let read it in galleys. I went to see visit her in Michigan and stayed with my sister about 20 miles away. After she had the book for a few days, she told me she had read it and told me to come over for lunch and we could talk about it. I arrived, very nervous and sweaty. But she told me she liked it and that she was very proud. I was so relieved; we watched the Lions lose, had lunch and took her dog for a walk. It was perfect. I drove back to my sister’s and spent about 24 hours in a state of euphoria, blasting their stereo and dancing around in my boxers. But then my sister came up for work and just shook her head at me and said, “You’ve got to go and talk to mom again, she’s bitching about the book all over town.” (Mind you, all over town would be maybe five people).
I drove back over to her house with a single Xanax in my jean pocket not sure if it was for her or me. She let me in and said, “I don’t want to rain on your parade, but I come across as a bit of a bitch in the book.” I told that wasn’t other people’s take, but she said “It’s not anything you say isn’t true, but there’s no mention that even in the worst of the times, I kept you fed, washed your clothes, and car-pooled us all over town.” And she was absolutely right; I’d fallen into a somewhat myopic well on that subject. I was happy to add a few lines to the book to make it clear, it was the least I could do. My mom is a sweetheart who was left with three kids at 36, one who was a constant pain in the ass—that would be me. She did the best she could and none of her children were lost. We’re all doing pretty well and that’s a testament to her.
Q: I think you’re fair to your mom. What I found moving was that she apologized to you for being so hard on you back when you were a kid. To me that’s the real takeaway—parents do the best that they can.
SR: That’s it exactly. The Go-Betweens have a song called “Devil’s Eye” that has a line that goes “Sometimes, we don’t come through, sometimes we just get by,” and that. I think, is pretty true of the human condition. Saying you’re sorry and forgiving make the world go round. And Chipotle.
Q: You don’t really mention it in the book but did you seek out father figures, mentors, or just older men to hang out with as you’ve grown up?
SR: No, not really, probably to my own detriment. I know this sounds like something out of a cheddar voiceover in a Western, but I’ve always found more comfort in the company of women than men. Maybe it’s not surprising since I grew up with my mom and two sisters, but there it is. Not having a mentor professionally probably has hurt me at different points, but it’s also saved me from idol worship, which might be an even tradeoff.
Loudon Wainwright has a great song “One Man Guy,” that his own children, Rufus and Martha, sing probably to taunt him a bit. (My ex-wife hated that I loved it.)
The solo life that Loudon’s raves about as a young man comes across as sad in middle-age so I’ve made an effort to reach out and make more dude friends. But they’re all equals–Fed Ex delivery guys, Navy pilots, book editors–no one that I put on a pedestal as a mentor. I think part of that is because I always had my father on that pedestal, there wasn’t room for anyone else.
Q: It makes sense about being more comfortable around women, and not having room for mentors with your father looming so large. Have there been other magazine writers that, if you haven’t worshipped, then admired? Both in creatively and just how they conduct themselves?
SR: I fell in love with magazines as a kid reading Sports Illustrated, all those bonus pieces week-after-week. Frank Deford’s byline is the first one I distinctly remember. That’s not a bad one. His pieces are not-flashy, but funny and human. That’s something to shoot for.
Someone gave me Pat Jordan’s first memoir, A False Spring, and I’ve read it many times. I finally met him a few years back when I was in Florida on a spring training story and a friend suggested I meet Pat so he could finally tell me the difference between a curve and a slider.
I went to his house in Fort Lauderdale. We had a drink and either he or his wife was packing heat. There were dogs and birds screeching and Jordan kept telling me, “Get out of New York, move to Florida, you can live on 65 grand here, make 65, you’ve made your nut.” I was like “What is this nut you so speaketh about?” We went out for dinner and I think New York Magazine ended up buying a take-out steak for their dogs. And I thought, Now, here is a guy I can look up to.
Q: That’s great. In the book, you talk about sports and politics being a big deal for you as a kid but only touch on how music impacted your life. When did it become a major part of who you were?
SR: I’ve got a big weakness for the line of tart, clever British songwriters from Ray Davies to Paul Weller, to Damon Albarn, to Pete Doherty. Oh The Beatles aren’t so bad. My love of music started as a kid listening to transistor radio on my back delivering newspapers. I remember hearing Supertramp’s “Take the Long Way Home” at 12 or 13 and going ‘oh wow, this song isn’t a happy one. Guy’s talking about being the joke of the neighborhood, what he could have done with a little more time, and that his wife thinks he’s gone insane. And that was a Top 40 song! I loved that you could tell a story in three to five minutes. I love the economy of language you need to write a great pop song.
The older I get the more I listen to it as I write to set a mood, if I need little anger/outrage I go with The Stones’ “Monkey Man” because of the great marimbas at the beginning, the swaggering guitars, and the bad/sublime lyrics: “I’m a flea bit peanut monkey, all my friends are junkies. That’s not really true. I’m a cold Italian pizza I could use a lemon squeezer.” He’s an animal an unreliable narrator, and then pens worst line ever. Genius!
Q: “Monkey Man” is one of my all-time favorites. What were you listening to while you wrote the book?
SR: Half the World Away by Oasis. ‘So here I go, still scratching around in the same old hole, my body feels young, but my mind is very old,’ was sort of my personal motto for the book along with another line, “I’ve been lost, I’ve been found, but I don’t feel down.” ITunes says I listened to the song 397 times. Perhaps that is too much.
Q: What was the reaction from the military guys you hung with after the book came out?
SR: I’d say 99% of them loved it and loved the Catch-22 tales I tell of squadron life. Of course, they’re human and they all wish I’d left the story about the time they buzzed Midway Island causing an ecological furor or sprinted across an Army base in Japan just in a kimono hoping to thank the base CO for his hospitality at 4am in the morning out of the book. But they’ve been so supportive, I consider myself lucky to have these nuts in my life.
Q: Beyond that, what has been the response from military families that you don’t know to the book?
SR: I’ve got some great notes on my website and people coming up to me at readings and saying, ‘I lost my dad in a helo crash when I was twelve and your book said all the things I couldn’t say.’ That means more to me than I can say.
Q: How do you feel—exhilaration, relief, let down?—now that it’s done?
SR: Well, like most of life it has been alternately spectacular and heartbreaking. The friends and family that have come up to me at readings and written to be about my Dad makes me feel closer to him than I ever felt possible. But there is a bit of postpartum depression that sets in when your book is done. Should I have spent another year on it? Should I have spent a year less on it? They’re no greater second guessers than authors. Well, except for Stephen A. Smith. I love that guy.
Q: What does it say about the world that you can spend three years on a book but one quote of Serena Williams saying something dumb and that’s what people focus on?
SR: There’s not a lot you can do about it: She said it, it exploded, and the rest of the story has sort of have been forgotten. That happens, but it’s frustrating because I think there’s a lot of stuff in the story that paints her as a real, live human trying to figure life out. But that’s the nature of the business. It’s all the nature of modern life if you search my name on Nexis—not that I would do such a narcissistic thing!—you’ll find eighty or ninety mentions of the Serena and Lohan pieces, and maybe five or six on my book. But hey, THAT’S SHOW BUSINESS.
Q: You do a lot of magazine stories on jocks and entertainers. Access is so difficult to come by these days. How do you work around the restrictions?
SR: That’s a simple one: unless I can get enough to spend enough time to write about anyone—navy pilot, tennis player, independent film festival guy– where I feel like I have a sense of who they are, then I’ll pass on the story. I’ve only done two or three profiles based on a single sit-down interview and I hated it. I know there’s a whole genre of magazine profile writing where the guy–and it’s always a guy–tap dances for 2000 words before you get a snippet of the guy he’s writing about. It’s like a 30-second commercial where you don’t know what the hell they’re selling until the tag line at the end. I’ll tell my editor to cut the story from 4,500 to 2,500 words just so I don’t have to play Three Card Monte for half the piece. I want to write ‘this is what the person was like from observing him and watching him in action not ‘this is what the person is like in my fantasy relating to my childhood in the coalfields of West Virginia.
Q: Last one. I wonder, do you still feel the same restlessness now that you did when you were a kid or even in your 20s?
SR: I do, but in a different way. Now I just want to have two residences, down from the four or five of a decade ago. I’d love someday to own a summer place up in Anacortes, Washington where the book is largely set. It is so goddamned beautiful and it’s 58 degrees and misty which is my kind of weather. It’s strange, I only lived there from seven to thirteen, but I feel that place is home deep down in my bones. I remember being in Dublin once and I heard some teen buskers playing this beautiful song “Learn to Be Still” and I was struck: That’s exactly what I need to do: Learn to be still. I gave them money and had them play it again. A little later, I found out it was an Eagles song. I took that as an ominous sign and kept moving.
Q: Ha. So, what’s next?
Here’s my Introduction to Southwest Passage: The Yanks in the Pacific, available now.
When he went off to cover the war in the Pacific in January 1943, John Lardner was twenty-nine years old and, thanks to his weekly column in Newsweek, already a major figure in sportswriting. Nothing at Madison Square Garden or Yankee Stadium, however, could match the lure of what awaited him overseas. “The war was everything,” he said. “I was glad to be in it, speeding along with it.”
Lardner’s first stops were Australia and New Guinea, and what he wrote there became the backbone of the book you hold in your hands, Southwest Passage: The Yanks in the Pacific. Originally published seventy years ago, this was a buried treasure in Lardner’s considerable body of work as a reporter during World War II. It’s blessed with Lardner’s unmistakable humor, and it captures the immediacy of what was then, to Americans, a new theater of war.
“There was more to be seen, heard, and felt in this war, of course, than the fighting of it,” he wrote. “It took Americans to a strange world, with a strange flavor, and gave many of them a long time to look around between bullets.”
Lardner crisscrossed Australia for four months, piling up ten thousand miles as he filed dispatches for the North American Newspaper Alliance and Newsweek. A lesser writer may have sought to dramatize what he saw, but Lardner pared away the extraneous with impeccable reporting. In the opening chapter, Lardner writes, “I want to tell the story with as few profundities and earth-shaking conclusions as possible.” It’s this unpretentious approach to reportage that keeps Southwest Passage fresh for us today.
Shortly after he arrived, Lardner observed an American soldier opening diplomatic relations with an Australian in a bar in Sydney.
“Well, boy,” said the American, “you can relax now. We’re here to save you.”
“Ow is that? I thought you were a fugitive from Pearl Harbor.”
About the locals, he wrote: “There can hardly be people in the world more fiercely and fanatically independent than Australians. The notion that the Yanks had come to ‘save Australia’—well, some of us had it, sure enough, and there was no quicker way of tasting the quick mettle and genial scorn of the fellow we came to save.”
No wonder Orville Prescott of the New York Times called Southwest Passage “as personal, informal and chatty a book of war correspondence as has yet come along. Mr. Lardner has the happy faculty of taking the war seriously without taking himself seriously.”
Lardner’s equanimity came naturally. He was, after all, the son of Ring Lardner, who was America’s most famous sportswriter before he became its most famous literary wit. Like his father, the son was serious about writing. As he said in a letter home: “It seems pretty plain that the best thing to do during the war is to work hard at whatever work you have to do, wherever it may be. Working is the only way I’ve ever found of being happy in a bad time.”
Lardner had been witness to the pitfalls of being labeled a sportswriter. His father never fully escaped being typecast as just a sportswriter. But John wasn’t just a sportswriter; he was one of the best. His reputation was cemented when he began a True magazine piece about a hell-bent prizefighter with these words: “Stanley Ketchel was twenty-four when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.” Lardner’s fellow sportswriting legend Red Smith called it the “greatest novel ever written in one sentence.”
Like his contemporaries W. C. Heinz and A.J. Liebling, Lardner was a war correspondent, and if he didn’t enjoy their longevity or the lasting renown of Smith or Jimmy Cannon, he was every bit their equal. Heinz, in fact, is on record as calling Lardner “the best.”
“Time has a way of dimming the memory and achievements of writers who wrote, essentially, for the moment, as writers writing for journals must do,” Ira Berkow, a longtime columnist of the New York Times, told me. “But the best shouldn’t be lost in the haze of history and John Lardner was a brilliant writer—which means, in my view, that he was insightful, irreverent, wry and a master of English prose.”
John was born in 1912, the first of Ring and Ellis Lardner’s four boys. Their father was a study in reserve, a poker-faced observer of human folly who ushered his sons into the family business, although not by design. When his third son, Ring Jr., sold his first magazine piece, the father said, “Good God, isn’t any one of you going to turn out to be anything but a writer?”
The Lardners moved to the East Coast from Chicago in the fall of 1919. Early on, they lived in Great Neck, Long Island, the model for the fictional West Egg in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (for a time, Fitzgerald was one of Ring’s closest friends). Another friend was Grantland Rice, who succeeded Lardner as the most celebrated sportswriter in the country. Whenever Ring took his sons to Yankee Stadium, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig always came by to pay their respects.
In his memoir, The Lardners: My Family Remembered, Ring Jr. wrote about the striking similarities he and his brothers shared with their father: “Intellectual curiosity with a distinctly verbal orientation, taciturnity, a lack of emotional display, an appreciation of the ridiculous. It was a matter of course that you mastered the fundamentals of reading and writing at the age of four, and by six reading books was practically a full-time occupation.”
John was all of ten when he broke into print with this ditty for the New York World:
Babe Ruth and old Jack Dempsey,
Both sultans of the swat One hits where other people are,
The other where they’re not.
Ring Jr. claimed that John, more than any of his brothers, patterned his life on his father’s. John was bright and restless, and perhaps he pushed himself because he didn’t want to be known only as Ring’s son. He wasn’t given to talking about his motivations, but it is no stretch to assume that his father’s considerable talent gave him something to shoot for.
“John grew up in the shadow of a father who was a great writer,” Liebling wrote. “This is a handicap shared by only an infinitesimal portion of any given generation, but it did not intimidate him.”
As for himself, John wrote, “In the interests of learning to read and cipher, I made the rounds at a number of schools, my tour culminating in Phillips Academy, Andover, and Harvard University (one year), where I picked up the word ‘culminating.”‘
He went to Paris for another year to study at the Sorbonne, worked for a few months in Paris on the International Herald Tribune, then returned to New York in 1931 and landed a job with the New York Herald Tribune. He covered local news and quickly earned bylines—no small achievement at what was considered the city’s best-written paper. “We are all swollen up like my ankles,” his father boasted.
At twenty-one, John left the Herald Tribune to write a column for the North American Newspaper Alliance. It was the Depression, and he was pulling down an impressive $100 a week, but his father would not live long enough to see him cash any paychecks. Ring died in 1933 after suffering for years from tuberculosis and alcoholism. He was forty-eight.
In the late ’30s, John began his transition to magazine writing. He published a story for the Saturday Evening Post on the Black Sox scandal and launched the Newsweek sports column that would run for eighteen years and establish his reputation. And yet, for all of that, the rumblings of the coming war were impossible to ignore.
Finally, in 1940, he wrote a letter to John Wheeler, his boss at NANA:
A year or so ago you suggested—not at all in a definitive way, but simply as something to think about—that in case of real action abroad, perhaps involving this country, you might consider sending me to do some work there instead of, or in addition to, the people that usually do the stuff of that kind for you and the Times. The idea stuck in my mind, naturally, but I haven’t given it any serious thought until recently. I think I can do other work as well as or better than most newspaper men and writers, and that a time may be coming shortly when that work will be more important and valuable to both you and me. This sounds swellheaded—but if I didn’t feel the way I do about writing, I wouldn’t give a damn about being a writer.
John got his wish not long after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. During his voyage to Australia he wrote to his wife, Hazel: “I have now stated for the 143rd time that I don’t think Billy Conn can beat Joe Louis. This opinion is not censorable, and I will pass it along to you, too, for what it is worth, though you probably knew it all the time.”
Lardner traveled with four other American reporters during his twelve weeks in Australia. All proved more than happy to break up their considerable downtime by arguing about the following: “Food; Russia; women; the Louis-Schemling fights; the art of Michelangelo; the Civil War; religion; the Newspaper Guild; Cornelia Otis Skinner; tattooing; the best place to live in New England; William Randolph Hearst; war production; venereal disease; the Pyramids; walking-sticks; dining out as opposed to dining home; the private life of Hedy Lamarr; marriage; For Whom the Bell Tolls; prizefight managers; education for children; Enzo Fiermonte; Paris; this war and all others; Leopold and Loeb; San Francisco restaurants; Greek and Roman architecture; Seabiscuit; the comparative merits of Cleopatra and Mary Queen of Scots. And several hundred others.”
As consistently amusing as Lardner is in Southwest Passage, he strives for more than comic effect in his dispatches. Take his description of Darwin, the ghost town “at the topmost pole of the dusty road across Australia, brooding over its scars”; or his account of the nurses who survived brutal air raids in the Philippines with “their hard-bought shell of resistance.” Nothing showy, nothing fancy—just a world-class observer at work, as Lardner was when he encountered a swing band performing for a U.S. Army outfit near Darwin a few days after Easter. “The night, following a day without bombs, was moonlit, and the Southern Cross blazed above. The musicians brought their guns as well as their instruments.”
Lardner downplayed any personal jeopardy he faced, but as Liebling said, “John was naturally brave. When he saw blinding bomb flashes by night, he used to move toward them to see better.” Lardner himself might have chalked that up to poor eyesight, but his courage is evidenced by his trip through hostile waters to Port Moresby on a freighter dubbed the “Floating Firecracker,” whose cargo consisted of bombs and drums of gasoline. On another occasion, after successfully bombing their target off the north coast of New Guinea, the plane Lardner was aboard stopped to refuel at a barren little base. The men ate bread and marmalade in the mess shack while Lardner talked to one of the soldiers about the ice hockey playoffs for the Stanley Cup.
We got our last thrill of the day then, thrown in for good measure and absolutely unsolicited. Doggedly the Zeros [Japanese fighter planes] had trailed us south, and with them carne bombers. The alarm sounded, and the crews on the ground beelined for their planes, for there is nothing more humiliating, useless, and downright impractical than to be caught on the ground, in the open, with your aeronautical pants down.
There is nothing more scary, I should add, because something always goes a little wrong when you try to take off under the condition known as “or else.” One of the engines missed. Then the door failed to shut tight . . . but we did get off, after sitting there for what seemed like a couple of minutes longer than forever.
Given his natural reticence, there is little to be found in Lardner’s papers revealing his feelings about Southwest Passage. In letters home he didn’t much talk about himself or the content of his work, just the conditions under which he produced it. “As far as I know the stories I’ve been writing have not been done by others,” he wrote to his wife. “The main trouble with being frontward and one of the reasons I’ll have to spend more time here is communications and censorship. You can’t be sure how fast your stuff is getting to headquarters and clearing from there, and you have no way of knowing what’s being taken out of stories. It’s like writing in a void.”
Lardner came home to resume his sports column in the summer of 1942, but by the end of the year he was a war correspondent again. His first stops were North Africa and Italy, then it was back to the Pacific, where he went ashore at Iwo Jima only a few hours after the first wave of marines. By the time he covered the invasion of Okinawa, now also writing for the New Yorker, he was haunted by the deaths of two of his brothers: Jim was the last American volunteer to die in the Spanish Civil War, in 1938, and David was killed in 1944 by a landmine in France. You can practically feel the shadow of mortality on him in the letter he wrote to his wife after filing his dispatch from Okinawa: “That was the last one, baby. During the last few days I was there, I got one or two small and gentle hints, much more gentle than the one at Iwo Jima, that my luck was beginning to run out and I had better quit while I was still in one handsome, symmetrical piece. By the time I get home it will be practically three and a half years since I started covering the war which I guess will be enough.”
Like his father, John had considerable health problems for much of his adult life: TB, heart disease, and multiple sclerosis. Undeterred, he worked hard and steadily as he gave up his syndicated newspaper column to write long magazine pieces for True and Sport as well as the New Yorker. Along the way he published two collections of his columns, It Beats Working and Strong Cigars and Lovely Women, and a history of the golden age of boxing called White Hopes and Other Tigers.
A certain mystique rose up around Lardner. He was forever described as someone who could stay at the bar all evening, nursing a Scotch, smoking, and scarcely saying a word. “He was as easy to like as he was hard to know,” said Liebling. And yet he was far from morose. “I’d like to fend off at least a few tragic overtones in the account of John Lardner,” his daughter Susan once wrote. “Those of us who knew my father . . . remember him as a song-singing, piano-playing, butter pecan ice cream-eating cat rancher and driver of Buick convertibles, who drank more milk than whisky and who often and rightly referred to himself as Handsome Jack.”
John had always told friends he wouldn’t outlive his old man, and he was right. He died of a heart attack in 1960 six weeks before his forty-eighth birthday. That day, he was writing an obituary for an old family friend, Franklin P. Adams. “F.P.A. was always a poor poker player and often a bore,” he wrote before collapsing with chest pains. When the family doctor arrived, he took Lardner in his arms and said, “John, you can’t die. John, you’re a noble human being.” Lardner looked at him and said, “Oh Lou, that sounds like a quotation.”
In September of 1943, Lardner sat down in a stone house in southern Italy to compose his latest dispatch from the war. He had written in less commodious surroundings as he bounced from Australia to New Guinea to North Africa, but he neither complained about them nor reveled in this rare taste of comfort. Usually he was glad for mail call, too, even if it came in midsentence. But not this day.
Lardner was hoping for a letter from his wife and instead received a legal notice from the midwestern law firm of Duffy, Claffy, Igoe & McCorkindale. The letter concerned a column he had written about a former outfielder from St. Louis named Bohnsack, who seemed not to have been memorable except that he once threw an umpire off a moving train. Lardner, who knew something worth writing about when he saw it, happily included the incident in his column. Now Bohnsack’s lawyers were claiming the anecdote was “false and misleading,” and they urged Lardner to settle out of court. Then as now, there was nothing like a little moola to ease a fellow’s “grievous social and mental damage.”
Lardner seethed: “Bohnsack annoyed me because he showed me that his world, which had also been my world, had great vitality, and that it took considerably more than a global battle to kill its self-preoccupation,” he wrote. It wasn’t just that Bohnsack had told Lardner personally that he’d thrown the umpire off a train, or that the first piece of mail he had received in the battle zone was not from his wife. “It was most of all that now, in the midst of the great and bloody planetary adventure of war, these barristers chose callously to call me back to the world of petulant outfielders and remind me that I was a sports writer.”
In fact, Lardner wrote about a variety of topics: lexicography, jury service, and New York history; for the New Yorker he contributed occasional film, theater, and book reviews and in the last three and a half years of his life wrote a column for the magazine on TV and radio. “Sportswriter” was a label that he, like his father, would never escape. This slim volume of his war reportage proves that Lardner was a quick-witted and assured writer no matter the subject. As Stanley Walker, the Herald Tribune’s city editor, said, Lardner “came close to being the perfect all-around journalist.” Never were those skills put to a stiffer test than on the battlefields in Europe and the Pacific. In the thickest drama, the unflappable man remained unflappable, at his best writing what Red Smith called novels in a single sentence.
There’s a terrific post on John Huston over at Cinephilia and Beyond, which has quickly become one of my favorite all-time sites. They give us a 1965 interview with Huston in Film Quarterly. Dig this:
Huston: Actually I don’t separate the elements of film-making in such an abstract manner. For example, the directing of a film, to me, is simply an extension of the process of writing. It’s the process of rendering the thing you have written. You’re still writing when you’re directing. Of course you’re not composing words, but a gesture, the way you make somebody raise his eyes or shake his head is also writing for films. Nor can I answer precisely what the relative importance, to me, of the various aspects of film-making is, I mean, whether I pay more attention to writing, directing, editing, or what-have-you. The most important element to me is always the idea that I’m trying to express, and everything technical is only a method to make the idea into clear form.
I’m always working on the idea: whether I am writing, directing, choosing music or cutting. Everything must revert back to the idea; when it gets away from the idea it becomes a labyrinth of rococo. Occasionally one tends to forget the idea, but I have always had reason to regret this whenever it happened. Sometimes you fall in love with a shot, for example. Maybe it is a tour de force as a shot. This is one of the great dangers of directing: to let the camera take over. Audiences very often do not understand this danger, and it is not unusual that camerawork is appreciated in cases where it really has no business in the film, simply because it is decorative or in itself exhibitionistic.
I would say that there are maybe half a dozen directors who really know their camera-how to move their camera. It’s a pity that critics often do not appreciate this. On the other hand I think it’s OK that audiences should not be aware of this. In fact, when the camera is in motion, in the best-directed scenes, the audiences should not be aware of what the camera is doing. They should be following the action and the road of the idea so closely, that they shouldn’t be aware of what’s going on technically.
Here’s more on Huston’s approach to storytelling from his autobiography: An Open Book:
I read without discipline, averaging three to four books a week, and have since I was a kid. Gram used to read aloud to me books by her favorite authors: Dickens, Tolstoy, Marie Carelli. She also read speeches from Shakespeare to me, and had me repeat them to her. When I was in my early teens, we’d talk about the “style” of an author. I puzzled over the meaning of the word. Was an author’s style his way of arranging words to set himself apart from other writers? An invention, so to speak? Surely there was more to style than that! One day it came to me like a revelation: people write differently because they think differently. An original idea demands a unique approach. So that style isn’t simply a concoction of the writer, but simply the expression of a central idea.
I’m not aware of myself as a director having a style. I’m told that I do, but I don’t recognize it. I see no remote similarity, for example, between The Red Badge of Courage and Moulin Rouge. However observant the critic, I don’t think he’d be able to tell that the same director made them both. Bergman has a style that’s unmistakably his. He is a prime example of the auteur approach to making pictures. I suppose it is the best approach: the director conceives the idea, writes it, puts it on film. Because he is creating out of himself, controlling all aspects of the work, his films assume a unity and a direction. I admire directors like Bergman, Fellini, Buñuel, whose every picture is in some way connected with their private lives, but that’s never been my approach. I’m eclectic. I like to draw on sources other than myself; further, I don’t think of myself as simply, uniquely and forever a director of motion pictures. It is something for which I have a certain talent, and a profession the disciplines of which I have mastered over the years, but I also have a certain talent for other things, and I have worked at those disciplines as well. The idea of devoting myself to a single pursuit in life is unthinkable to me. My interests in boxing, writing, painting, horses have at certain periods in my life been every bit as important as that in directing films.
I have been speaking of style, but before there can be style, there must be grammar. There is, in fact, a grammar to picture-making. The laws are as inexorable as they are in language, and are to be found in the shots themselves. When do we fade-in or fade-out with a camera? When do we dissolve, pan, dolly, cut? The rules governing these techniques are well grounded. They must, of course, be disavowed and disobeyed from time to time, but one must be aware of their existence, for motion pictures have a great deal in common with our own physiological and psychological processes—more so than any other medium. It is almost as if there were a reel of film behind our eyes . . . as though our very thoughts were projected onto the screen.
Motion pictures, however, are governed by a time sense different from that of real life; different from the theater, too. That rectangle of light up there with the shadows on it demands one’s whole attention. And what it furnishes must satisfy that demand. When we are sitting in a room in a house, there is no single claim on our awareness. Our attention jumps from object to object, drifts in and out of the room. We listen to sounds coming from various points; we may even smell something cooking. In a motion-picture theater, where our undivided attention is given to the screen, time actually moves more slowly, and action has to be speeded up. Furthermore, whatever action takes place on that screen must not violate our sense of the appropriate. We accomplish this by adhering to the proper grammar of film-making.
For example, a fade-in or a fade-out is akin to waking up or going to sleep. The dissolve indicates either a lapse of time or a change of place. Or it can, in certain circumstances, indicate that things in different places are happening at the same time. In any case, the images impinge . . . the way dreams proceed, or like the faces you can see when you close your eyes. When we pan, the camera turns from right to left, or vice versa, and serves one of two purposes: it follows an individual, or it informs the viewer of the geography of the scene. You pan from one object to another in order to establish their spatial relationship; thereafter you cut. We are forever cutting in real life. Look from one object to another across the room. Notice how you involuntarily blink. That’s a cut. You know what the spatial relationship is, there’s nothing to discover about the geography, so you cut with your eyelids. The dolly is when the camera doesn’t simply turn on its axis but moves horizontally or backward and forward. It may move closer to intensify interest and pull away to come to a tableau, thereby putting a finish—or a period—to a scene. A more common purpose is simply to include another figure in the frame.
The camera usually identifies itself with one of actors in a scene, and it sees the others through his eyes. The nature of the scene determines how close the actors are to each other. If it’s an intimate scene, obviously you don’t show the other individual as a full-length figure. The image on the screen should correspond to what we experience in real life. Seated a few feet apart, the upper body of one or the other would fill the scene. Inches apart would be a big-head close-up. The size of their images must be in accordance with the proper spatial relationship. Unless there’s a reason: when actors are some distance apart and the effect of what one is saying has a significant impact upon the person he’s talking to, you might go into a close-up of the listener. But still his distance, as he views the person who is speaking, must remain the same. Going into a big-head close-up with dialogue that is neither intimate nor significant serves only to over-emphasize the physiognomy of the actor.
Usually the camera is in one of two positions: “standing up” or “sitting down.” When we vary this, it should be to serve a purpose. Shooting up at an individual ennobles him. As children we looked up to our parents, or we look up at a monumental sculpture. On the other hand, when we look down, it’s at someone weaker than we are, someone to laugh at, pity or feel superior to. As the camera goes higher and higher looking downward, it becomes God-like.
The conventional film-maker usually shoots a scene in full shot—a master scene—followed by medium shots, close shots and close-ups . . . at various angles . . . then decides in the cutting room what to use. The opposite way is to find the one shot that serves as an introduction to a scene; the rest will follow naturally. Again there’s a grammar to it. Once you write your first declarative sentence, the narration flows. Understanding the syntax of a scene implies that you already know the way the scene will be cut together, so you shoot only what’s required. That’s called “cutting with the camera.”
I work closely with the cameraman and with the operator, the man who actually manipulates the camera. He looks through the lens, executing what you’ve specified. At the end of a shot you look to him to see if he’s brought it off. The camera is sometimes required to take part in a sort of a dance with the artists, and its movements timed as if they were to music, and I’ve noticed that most good operators have a natural sense of rhythm. They usually dance well, play drums, juggle or do something that requires good timing and balance.
Cameramen—most of them ex-operators—are really lighting experts. They like to be known not as cameramen but as directors of lighting. Young directors are, as a rule, somewhat frightened of their cameramen. This is understandable, for cameramen often proceed in an independent fashion to light each scene precisely as they please. Lighting is their first interest, since other cameramen will judge them by it.
As an actor, it’s been my opportunity to observe the working methods of other directors. For the most part, they go by the book. Inexperienced directors put great stock in the master scene—which is shot as though all the actors were on a stage; you see everybody at once, and all the action. Their idea is that if they’ve missed something in the closer work with the camera that they should see, they can always fall back to the master shot. They think of it as a way of protecting themselves. I’ve often heard cameramen advise such a procedure, but a cameraman is not a cutter. The fact that falling back to the master scene interrupts the flow of the whole scene and breaks whatever spell has been evoked through good close-up work is of no concern to him. Obviously I am not speaking about all cameramen. There are any number of outstanding professionals who are just as concerned with getting that ideal sequence of shots—whatever the cost—as any director.
So many things can go wrong while filming a scene. If only everything bad that’s going to happen would happen at once and be over with! You’re seldom that fortunate. Instead, it’s the camera, or an actor forgetting his lines, or the sound of an airplane, or a car backfiring, or an arc light that flickers. When things of this kind occur, you simply have to start again. It can drive a director up the wall. I recall an incident involving one especially volatile director who was making a film in Africa. During one take a native baby began crying, and that stopped the scene. He started over, and a lion began roaring when it wasn’t supposed to. The director shouted: “Cut! I can see there’s only one way to get this God-damned scene! Throw the fucking baby to the fucking lion!”
Now, if you can make use of two or even three set-ups—going from one balanced, framed picture to another without cutting-—a sense of richness, grace and fluency is evoked. For example, one set-up might be a long shot of a wagon train moving slowly across the screen. The camera moves with it and comes to two men standing together, talking. Then one of the men walks toward the camera, and the camera pulls back to the point where he encounters a third individual, who stands back to the camera until the other man has passed on out of the scene. Then he turns and looks after him, in close-up. Three complete set-ups—without cutting. Of course, the set-ups must be carefully laid out and perfectly framed, and this multiplies the chances of something going wrong. But I’ve discovered that, even with the increased possibility of error, the time spent is not much more than would be spent on three separate set-ups.
Such linked shots are the mark of a good director. The scenes I have put together in this fashion have scarcely—if ever—been remarked on by an audience or a critic. But the fact that they have gone unnoticed is, in a sense, the best praise they could receive. They are so natural that the audience is caught up in the flow. This is the exact opposite of the kind of thing people tend to think of as clever—somebody’s distorted reflection in a doorknob for instance, a stunt that distracts one’s attention from the scene. It is important to say things on the screen with ingenuity, but never to belabor the audience with images that say, “Look at this!” The work of the camera with the actors, as I mentioned before, often amounts to a dance-panning, dollying, following the movement of the actors with grace, not cutting. There’s a choreography to it. Not many picture-makers are up to this. I’d say a dozen or so.
It is best to shoot chronologically. In this way you can benefit by accidents, and you don’t paint yourself into corners. However. if the picture begins in India and ends in lndia, with other countries in between, it is economically impractical not to shoot the Indian material at one time. When you are on a distant location, you do everything that calls for that location. That is a compromise, but making a picture is a series of compromises. It is when you feel that the compromise will affect—or risks affecting—the overall quality of the picture that you must decide whether or not to go along with it.
Plain, ordinary judgment plays a big part. For instance, you may well get what seems to be the ideal scene on your first take. Then you must question whether you have been sufficiently critical. Is the scene truly as good as you first thought? inexperienced directors are inclined to shoot almost every scene at least twice, in the fear that something may have escaped them. They may be blessed and not realize it—and, in trying to improve upon something that doesn’t need improving may run into these technical problems that I mentioned earlier. If the action is right and the artists have been everything you desire, then a second take will do you no good. If something is wrong with film or the lighting, it will be wrong on the second or third take, too, so that’s no kind of insurance. A director has to learn to trust his judgment.
Each time you get a good scene is a kind of miracle. Usually there is something wrong, however slight, and you must consider the importance of the error. As you repeat a scene, your demands in terms of quality tend to increase proportionately. You’ve got to watch this, and not become a fanatic.
I’ve come onto sets where a director has prepared ail the lighting and designated all the action before bringing in any of the performers. In some cases it was an inexperienced director following the advice of bis cameraman—in others, a matter of such a tight schedule that every second counted. But simply to light a set and say, “Now you sit here. You stand there,” without any preliminaries, only to embalm the scene: The actors are put into straitjackets. The best way, the only way, is to search out that first shot—that first declarative sentence which I mentioned earlier—and the rest will follow naturally. It’s not easy to come by, especially when there are a number of people in the scene. But until you get that shot you’re at sea. The answer is not simply to pull back for a fill shot. Instead, look for something that has style and visual energy, something in keeping with your ideas for the picture as a whole. You have the actors go through their paces and you still don’t see it. Now, don’t panic. Don’t worry about what the actors and the crew may think (that the director doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing!). This anxiety may force you into something false. And if you get off to a false start, there’s no correcting it. Given time and freedom, the actors will fall naturally into their places, discover when and where to move, and you will have your shot. And given all those shots, cut together, you will have your microcosm: the past on the winding reel; the present on the screen; the future on the unwinding reel . . . inevitable . . . unless the power goes off.
These observations are seldom remarked upon by picture-makers., They are so true, I suppose, that they are simply accepted without question as conventions. But they are conventions that have meaning—even for mavericks.
For more on Huston, get Agee on Film and read the great essay, “Undirectable Director.”