This is a few weeks old but check out Nick Paumgarten’s long New Yorker profile of the piano man:
Billy Joel sat smoking a cigarillo on a patio overlooking Oyster Bay. He had chosen the seating area under a trellis in front of the house, his house, a brick Tudor colossus set on a rise on the southeastern tip of a peninsula called Centre Island, on Long Island’s North Shore. It was a brilliant cloudless September afternoon. Beethoven on Sonos, cicadas in the trees, pugs at his feet. Out on the water, an oyster dredge circled the seeding beds while baymen raked clams in the flats. Joel surveyed the rising tide. Sixty-five. Semi-retirement. Weeks of idleness, of puttering around his motorcycle shop and futzing with lobster boats, of books and dogs and meals, were about to give way to a microburst of work. His next concert, his first in more than a month, was scheduled to begin in five hours, at Madison Square Garden, and he appeared to be composing himself.
“Actually, I composed myself a long time ago,” he said. He told a joke that involved Mozart erasing something in a mausoleum; the punch line was “I’m decomposing.” He knocked off an ash. Whenever anyone asks him about his pre-show routine, he says, “I walk from the dressing room to the stage. That’s my routine.” Joel has a knack for delivering his own recycled quips and explanations as though they were fresh, a talent related, one would think, to that of singing well-worn hits with sincere-seeming gusto. He often says that the hardest part isn’t turning it on but turning it off: “One minute, I’m Mussolini, up onstage in front of twenty thousand screaming people. And then, a few minutes later, I’m just another schmuck stuck in traffic on the highway.” It’s true: the transition is abrupt, and it has bedevilled rock stars since the advent of the backbeat. But this schmuck is usually looking down on the highway from an altitude of a thousand feet. He commutes to and from his shows by helicopter.
Joel was wearing a black T-shirt tucked into black jeans, black Vans, and an Indian Motorcycle ball cap. The back of his head, where hair might be, was freshly shorn, and his features, which in dark or obscure moods can appear mottled and knotted, were at rest, projecting benevolent bemusement. To prepare for the flight, he’d put on a necklace of good-luck medallions—pendants of various saints. The atavism of Long Island is peculiar. Though Jewish, and an atheist, he had, as a boy in a predominantly Catholic part of Hicksville, attended Mass, and even tried confession. His mother took him and his sister to Protestant services at a local church; he was baptized there. Still, a girl across the street said he’d grow horns, and a neighborhood kid named Vinny told him, “Yo, Joel, you killed Jesus. I’m gonna beat your ass.” Vinny did, repeatedly. Joel took up boxing to defend himself. The nose still shows it.
There was a rumble in the distance. “That’s my guy,” Joel said. “He’s early.” A helicopter zipped in over the oystermen and landed down by the water, at the hem of a great sloping lawn, where Joel had converted the property’s tennis court to a helipad. He’d recently had to resurface it, after Hurricane Sandy. Joel often attempts to inoculate himself with self-mockery. “Oh, my helipad got flooded,” he says, with the lockjaw of Thurston Howell III.
I dig this from Lewis Lapham:
Now I am 79. I’ve written many hundreds of essays, 10 times that number of misbegotten drafts both early and late, and I begin to understand that failure is its own reward. It is in the effort to close the distance between the work imagined and the work achieved wherein it is to be found that the ceaseless labor is the freedom of play, that what’s at stake isn’t a reflection in the mirror of fame but the escape from the prison of the self.
[Photo Credit: Robert Capa]
Now, if that’s not the best book title of the year I don’t know what is.
[Photo Credit: George Clinton]
Donald E. Westlake (1933-2008) was one of our most prolific and entertaining writers. Now, we’ve got this posthumous treat: The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany, published by the University of Chicago Press and edited by Levi Stahl. The book is a ton of fun. I recently had the chance to catch up with Stahl. Hope you enjoy our chat.
Q: When did you start reading Donald Westlake?
Levi Stahl: I first encountered Westlake via Hard Case Crime: they published Lemons Never Lie, one of the novels he wrote under the name Richard Stark about the heister Parker’s associate Alan Grofield. I was impressed by it, but in that way that happens when you read a lot, I just kept moving and didn’t dig deeper.
Then on the day before Thanksgiving in 2007 I was at the office—and if you’ve ever been in the office the day before Thanksgiving (and don’t work for Butterball), you know that absolutely nothing happens. You’re there just in case something catches fire. That day, nothing was even smoldering, so at lunch I went browsing at my local bookshop, 57th Street Books, and plucked from the shelves what would end up being the penultimate Parker novel, Ask the Parrot. Back at my desk, I set to reading, and two hours later when my wife arrived for the long drive downstate to my parents’ house, I had to apologize: I had promised to do the driving, but now there was no way I could do any driving until I’d finished this book and found out what happened.
I was hooked. By Christmas I’d read ten or so Parker novels, all harvested from the used book market, and was making the case to colleagues at the University of Chicago Press that we should try to bring the series back into print. Now, almost seven years later, I’ve read all 100 of Westlake’s books—the Westlakes, the Starks, the Samuel Holts, the Tucker Coes, and the one-shots from Timothy Culver, Judson Jack Carmichael, Curt Clark, and even “The Vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham.” And almost all have been worth reading—even the couple that I would regard as truly weak offer some elements of interest.
Q: Damn, Westlake wrote 100 books? And you read them all? Man, that’s daunting. Okay, before we even get to the collection you’ve assembled, what Westlake titles would you recommend for someone who’s never read him before?
LS: The two series are an obvious starting point: trythe first Parker book, The Hunter, and the first Dortmunder, The Hot Rock. Neither is necessarily the best in the series, but they’re both quite good, and they give a clear sense of what these books are up to and whether you’ll like them.
From the standalones, I tend to recommend Somebody Owes Me Money, a hilarious first-person narrative from a put-upon cabby that opens, “I bet none of it would have happened if I wasn’t so eloquent”; Killing Time, an early, hardboiled work that is clearly in thrall to Hammett and Red Harvest but satisfying on its own terms; 361, a crime novel that was written deliberately with no explicit emotional signposts; God Save the Mark, a brilliantly funny collection of cons and nonsense; and The Ax, a 1997 hardboiled crime novel that is also a dissection of contemporary economic pain, as a laid-off print shop manager decides to kill the competition for the job he’d like to land. It’s so unrelenting it can be hard to read at times.
Q: Also, for the uninitiated, can you talk about the difference between Westlake’s two most famous protagonists?
LS: What may be more interesting about Parker and John Dortmunder is a relatively underappreciated quality that they have in common: they’re both extremely good at their jobs, yet their well-laid plans always go spectacularly wrong. The difference comes in how they respond to that. Parker, while remaining utterly emotionless, is bothered when a job goes sour, and he then takes whatever measures are necessary, up to and including extreme violence, to extricate himself from the problem, preferably with the loot. Dortmunder reacts to problems with an unsurprised shrug of his shoulders. Everything has always gone wrong for him, so why should this time be any different? Parker is an existentialist, Dortmunder is a fatalist.
Dortmunder actually emerged out of those very differences: Westlake started writing what he thought was another Parker novel, in which Parker and a gang have to try multiple times to steal a giant diamond. When he got to the third or fourth time the gang tried to steal the diamond, however, he realized he couldn’t keep going: Parker would have already cut his losses and moved on. But he liked the concept enough that he created a heister who would just keep plugging away at it, and with that, The Hot Rock started really rolling, and John Dortmunder was born.
The other big difference is that Dortmunder actually likes and cares about his gang. They’re almost as much friends as colleagues, and it shows in his willingness to continue to put up with their irritating, silly quirks. Parker, on the other hand, sees his colleagues as mere tools, useful yet, like all tools, prone to failure. So the one time he does truly extend himself for a fellow heister—risking his life, and the job, to save Alan Grofield in Butcher’s Moon, it astonishes not just the other guys on the string, but the reader, too. The Parker novels are popcorn, or shots of whiskey; the Dortmunders are chicken soup, or a PB&J. You go to them on different days, for different reasons, and they deliver what you’re looking for.
Q: Okay, to the collection that you’ve edited. How did this project come about?
LS: I discovered Westlake the nonfiction writer via Trent Reynolds’s excellent Violent World of Parker site. He had posted a scan of an Armchair Detective article from the early 1980s that reproduced a talk Westlake had delivered at the Smithsonian about the history of hardboiled private eyes in fiction. That piece revealed Westlake to be a serious thinker about and critic of the crime genre, and it made me wonder what else he might have written. Quick searching turned up enough to build a book proposal, deeper library research fleshed it out nicely, and—best of all—a trip to the Westlake house to go through his files, courtesy of the endlessly gracious Abby Westlake, turned up a bounty of little-known and never-before-published pieces.
Q: With a guy as prolific as Westlake, how did you decide what to choose from—not only single pieces—but categories?
LS: The categories actually came last, when I looked at my giant stack of papers and realized, belatedly, that I would need to put them in some sort of sensible order. But once I started doing that, making stacks of pieces on Westlake’s own work, of pieces on other writers, of letters, etc., the very act of sorting helped me figure out whether I wanted to include the couple of pieces that were on the bubble. For example: you could probably do a whole book of Westlake interviews, but once I gathered what I had, it became obvious that the two I should include were the ones that focused largely on his film writing career, as most of the other topics that come up in interviews (his life and his books) were covered elsewhere.
My early readers, Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime and Sarah Weinman, editor of Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, were also extremely helpful: seeing what pieces interested these two genre experts most, and which were less effective, helped to transform the early manuscript into something more compact and potent. The only piece that I knew from the very start had to be in the place it is was the final letter. The moment I read it, pulled from Westlake’s filing cabinet, I knew I had the last words of the book.
Q: Westlake’s generosity toward his peers—Rex Stout, Charles Willeford, even a review of a George Higgins novel come to mind—is admirable. He seemed not motivated by professional envy but professional admiration. I like the note he tacked up at his desk, NO MORE INTRODUCTIONS, but the truth is, he was very good at writing them, wasn’t he?
LS: He really was an astute and generous critic of other writers. His essay on Peter Rabe, whom he greatly admired and acknowledged was a huge influence, is the perfect example. In the book that section opens with a letter from Westlake to Rabe telling him he’s going to be writing about his work and asking some questions; the letter is appreciative, funny, and generous, and Rabe responded enthusiastically. However, knowing that Rabe would eventually read the essay clearly didn’t stop Westlake from offering strong criticism of his weaker books—but at the same time, the admiration for Rabe’s achievement is so strong, clear, and well grounded in detailed analysis that the overall effect is to make you come away wanting to read more of Rabe’s books. Ultimately, that’s the effect of all of Westlake’s introductions: it’s the job of the person writing the introduction to make you see what’s special about the writer being presented, and Westlake was spectacularly good at that.
Another example of his ability to analyze and offer criticism of crime fiction is the letter to David Ramus. Ramus had—I’m not sure through what channel—sent Westlake the manuscript of what would become his first novel, On Ice. I don’t know what he was expecting, but what he got was a detailed examination of what did and didn’t work in the book, with suggestions of how things could be done better—suggestions given, explicitly, not to say that Westlake’s way was right, but that another way was possible. The letter, and the investment of time it represents, is an act of stunning generosity. The most entertaining moment in that letter? “Finally, I have one absolute objection. We do not overhear plot points. No no no.”
Q: Can you describe how he used humor in his books? His wife said he wasn’t jolly in real life, but witty, loved to laugh and loved making people laugh.
LS: In his foreword to this book, Westlake’s friend Lawrence Block takes issue with my characterizing Westlake’s writing as being filled with jokes. It’s wit, rather than jokes, says Block, and I think he’s basically right. Perhaps the biggest thing I took away from my time researching this book was that Westlake hardly ever wrote a full page of anything—be it fiction or a business letter—without finding a way to get some humor into it. He just seems to have seen the world that way: everything is a tiny bit ridiculous, because, well, look at us? We’re not really very good at this living stuff, are we? Yet we have the audacity to make plans and think we’re in control. That illusion is the source of so much of Westlake’s humor. Everything is always going wrong, and that in and of itself is funny, if you look at it the right way. As he put it in his piece on Stephen Frears, “If we aren’t going to enjoy ourselves, why do it?” He really seems to have written, and lived, with that motto in mind.
Q: The most delightful surprise in the book is the chapter on the Goon Show, the British radio comedy hit that was the precursor to the Pythons and Beyond the Fringe.
LS: Wasn’t that unexpected? Westlake was a comic writer, obviously, but like you I was still surprised to find him writing about the show, and weaving his appreciation of it into a short autobiographical essay. I’d thought a lot about his genre forebears and influences, but I’d never given the same thought to the influences on his comedy.
Q: What did you find that surprised you?
LS: For me the biggest surprise was more structural: I knew that Westlake had written for Hollywood, but it wasn’t until I was going through his files that I realized what a big part of his work, and income, it was. Even as he was writing 100 books, he was also turning out screenplays, and treatments, and pilots, and rewrites, most of which never made it to the screen. That was a big reason why I wanted to include the two interviews that focused on film, and the piece on Stephen Frears: it’s a side of Westlake that I think even those of us who are big fans don’t necessarily know about. (My only regret with the book, meanwhile, is that I couldn’t find a way to work in even a single reference to Supertrain!)
Q: What were Westlake’s experiences with Hollywood like? Several of his books were made into movies, some of them good—The Hot Rock, Point Blank. I didn’t know it at the time but I first remember seeing his name in the credits for The Grifters and a very good, creepy movie, The Stepfather.
LS: He worked hard with Hollywood and drew a substantial part of his income from there throughout his life. But he always seems to have held it at arm’s length. You get the feeling that the loss of control and independence that working with Hollywood, even in the relatively isolated role of screenwriter, required sat awkwardly with Westlake’s lifelong iconoclastic, individualistic, rebellious streak. There’s a reason that he didn’t like, and didn’t stick in, the Air Force; that same reason seems likely to be why Hollywood never truly seduced him.
Q: In a letter, Westlake described the difference between an author and a writer. A writer was a hack, a professional. There’s something appealing and unpretentious about this but does it take on a romance of its own? I’m not saying he was being a phony but do you think that difference between a writer and an author is that great?
LS: I suspect that it’s not, and that to some extent even Westlake himself would have disagreed with his younger self by the end of his life. I think the key distinction for him, before which all others pale, was what your goal was: Were you sitting down every day to make a living with your pen? Or were you, as he put it ironically in a letter to a friend who was creating an MFA program, “enhanc[ing] your leisure hours by refining the uniqueness of your storytelling talents”? If the former, you’re a writer, full stop. If the latter, then you probably have different goals from Westlake and his fellow hacks.
But does a true hack veer off course regularly to try something new? Does a hack limit himself to only writing about his meal ticket (John Dortmunder) every three books, max, in order not to burn him out? Does a hack, as Westlake put it in a late letter to his friend and former agent Henry Morrison, “follow what interests [him],” to the likely detriment of his career? Westlake was always a commercial writer, but at the same time, he never let commerce define him. Craft defined him, and while craft can be employed in the service of something a writer doesn’t care about at all, it is much easier to call up and deploy effectively if the work it’s being applied to has also engaged something deeper in the writer. You don’t write a hundred books with almost no lousy sentences if you’re truly a hack.
Q: I loved the piece that Westlake’s wife wrote about his working habits.
LS: Isn’t it great? In her tongue-in-cheek, yet insightful essay “Living with a Mystery Writer,” Abby Adams Westlake talks about the differences she would see in her late husband depending on which of his many personas he was writing as. In discussing his Timothy J. Culver pen name, she describes his writing set-up:
“His desk is as organized as a professional carpenter’s workshop. No matter where it is, it must be set up according to the same unbending pattern. Two typewriters (Smith Corona Silent-Super manual) sit on the desk with a lamp and a telephone and a radio, and a number of black ball-point pens for corrections (seldom needed!). On a shelf just above the desk, five manuscript boxes hold three kinds of paper (white bond first sheets, white second sheets and yellow work sheets) plus originals and carbon of whatever he’s currently working on. (Frequently one of these boxes also holds a sleeping cat.) Also on this shelf are reference books (Thesaurus, Bartlett’s, 1000 Names for Baby, etc.) and cups containing small necessities such as tape, rubber bands (I don’t know what he uses them for) and paper clips. Above this shelf is a bulletin board displaying various things that Timothy Culver likes to look at when he’s trying to think of the next sentence. Currently, among others, there are: a newspaper photo showing Nelson Rockefeller giving someone the finger; two post cards from the Louvre, one obscene; a photo of me in our garden in Hope, New Jersey; a Christmas card from his Los Angeles divorce attorney showing himself and his wife in their Bicentennial costumes; and a small hand-lettered sign that says ‘weird villain.’ This last is an invariable part of his desk bulletin board: ‘weird’ and ‘villain’ are the two words he most frequently misspells. There used to be a third—’liaison’—but since I taught him how to pronounce it (not lay-ee-son but lee-ay-son) he no longer has trouble with it.”
In an interview conducted by Albert Nussbaum, Westlake went into a bit more detail about his approach:
“If I work every day from the beginning of a book till the end, my production rate is probably three to five thousand words a day–unless I hit a snag, which can throw me off for a week or two. But if I work every day I don’t do anything else, because everything else involves alcohol; and I don’t try to work with any drink in me, so in the last few years I’ve tended to work four or five days a week. But that louses up the production two ways; first in the days I don’t work, and second, because I do almost nothing the first day back on the job. This week, for instance, I did one or two pages monday, five pages Tuesday, five Wednesday, fourteen Thursday, and three so far today.” He went on to say that he used to complain to his second wife, “I’m sick of working one day in a row!”
Q: Craft was central for Westlake. In some ways, his Parker books are an appreciation of craftsmanship, aren’t they?
LS: When I first started reading the Parker books, what struck me was that they were essentially books about work. In the first one I read, Ask the Parrot, Parker sets up a hidey-hole in an empty house, carefully sawing off some screws in the wood that’s boarding it up so that he can get in and out easily without being detected. The activity is described in detail, and I’m pretty sure Parker doesn’t ever end up needing the hideout. But it was part of doing the job (in this case, the job of staying alive after a failed heist), so Westlake included it. (I wrote a bit about the Parker novels as books about work on my blog way back in December of 2007.)
“Westlake has said that he meant the books to be about ‘a workman at work,’ which they are, and that is why the have so few useful parallels, why they are virtually a genre unto themselves. Process and mechanics and troubleshooting dominate the books, determine their plots, underlie their aesthetics and their moral structure. . . . Parker abhors waste, sloth, frivolity, inconstancy, double-dealing, and reckless endangerment as much as any Puritan. He hates dishonesty with a passion, although you and he may differ on its terms. He is a craftsman who takes pride in his work.”
There’s a passing line in The Man with the Getaway Face that has stayed in my head for seven years now: “When the mechanic came in at seven o’clock, he looked at the truck in disgust. He got interested, though, being a professional, and worked on it till nine-thirty.” That’s what a professional, a craftsman, is: a person who actually cares about, and becomes deeply engaged with working his best at, the job at hand.
From the funtastic new book, The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany, check out this short essay Westlake wrote about working with Stephen Frears.×
Westlake wrote a screenplay based on Jim Thompson’s The Grifters for Stephen Frears’s acclaimed 1990 film adaptation, which ended up receiving four Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Screenplay. This essay was published in Writers on Directors in 1999.
Here are two things Stephen Frears said to me. The first was several months before The Grifters was made and, in fact, before either of us had signed on to do the project. We had just recently met, brought together by the production company that had sent us to California to look at the place. Driving back from La Jolla toward L.A., me at the wheel of the rented car, Stephen in the seat beside me musing on life, he broke a longish silence to say, “You know, there’s nothing more loathsome than actually making a film, and it’s beginning to look as though I’ll have to make this one.” The second was the night of the same film’s New York premiere, at the post-opening party, when he leaned close to me in the noisy room and murmured, “Well we got away with it.”
I think what attracted me to Stephen in the first place is that, in a world of manic enthusiasm, here at last I’d met a fellow pessimist. Someone who would surely agree with Damon Runyon’s assessment: “All of life is six to five against.”
Not that he’s a defeatist, far from it. For instance, he refused to let me turn down the job of writing The Grifters, a thing that never happens. The normal sequence is, a writer is offered a job, thinks it over, says yea or nay, and that’s that. Having been offered this job, I read Jim Thompson’s novel—or reread, from years before—decided it was too grim, and said nay. That should have been the end of it, but the next thing I knew, Frears was on the phone from France, some Englishman I’d never met in my life, plaintively saying, “Why don’t you want to make my film?” I told him my reasons. He told me I was wrong, and proceeded to prove it—”It’s Lilly’s story, not Roy’s,” was his insight, not mine—and I finally agreed to a meeting in New York, which was the beginning of the most thoroughly enjoyable experience I’ve ever had in the world of movies.
Here’s another thing Stephen said to me: “I like the writer on the set.” This is not common among directors, and I wasn’t at all sure what it meant. Did he want a whipping boy? Someone to hide behind? Someone to blame? (You can see that I too am not a manic enthusiast.)
Anyway, no. As it turned out, what he wanted was a collaborator, and what we did was a collaboration. I didn’t direct and he didn’t write, and between us both we licked the platter clean.
I am not a proponent of the auteur theory. I think it comes out of a basic misunderstanding of the functions of creative versus interpretive arts. But I do believe that on the set and in the postproduction process the director is the captain of the ship. Authority has to reside in one person, and that should most sensibly be the director. So my rare disagreements with Stephen were in private, and we discussed them off-set as equals, and whichever of us prevailed—it was pretty even—the other one shrugged and got on with it.
The result has much of Jim Thompson in it, of course. It has much in it of the talents of its wonderful cast and designer. It has some of me in it. But the look of it, the feel of it, the smell of it, the three-inches-off-the-ground quality of it; that’s Stephen.
If we aren’t going to enjoy ourselves, why do it? Stephen’s right, much of the filmmaking is loathsome. Pleasure and satisfaction have to come from the work itself and from one’s companions on the journey. The Grifters was for me that rarity; everyone in the boat rowing in the same direction. I hadn’t had that much fun on the job since I was nineteen, in college, and had a part-time job on a beer truck with a guy named Luke.
The Getaway Car is on sale now.
[Copyright Donald E. Westlake. Reprinted with permission from The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany, published by the University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved.]
I’ve watched about seven or eight episodes of Girls and I just can’t get with it. But I dig it’s creator Lena Dunham, anyway. There was a nice profile of her by Meghan Daum in the Times magazine last weekend:
Of course, there’s a very good argument to be made that there are too many people, young women especially, writing about their personal experiences these days and not enough willing to report from the battle lines that exist outside their own heads. And Dunham’s alter ego on “Girls,” Hannah Horvath, a pathologically solipsistic aspiring personal essayist, is a prime example. In making her so, Dunham uses her work on the screen to wink at the conceits of her work on the page.
But even if she doesn’t tackle the Big Issues for a few more years, the fact is that she’s still just 28. When Ephron was 28, she was a reporter for The New York Post, “specializing in froth,” as she once noted. When Didion was 28, she was editing at Vogue; she had quietly published her first novel and was nowhere near the sensation she would become. When Parker was 28, she had finished a stint as a drama critic for Vanity Fair, and she and her compatriots were still working out seating arrangements for the Algonquin Round Table. None of them at that point had totally found their way to the issues that would come to define them. And despite the monumental platform Dunham has been given, that’s probably true of her too. She’s everywhere, but she’s still not there yet. That might have a lot to do with why people find her at once so exciting and so exasperating.
To Dunham, the most useful reaction to this endless onslaught of reactions is to just keep working. These days she is editing the fourth season of “Girls” and is in the early stages of writing a novel “about a professional woman entering her 30s and her relationship with several complex father figures.” She does, admittedly, thrill in the sight of her name in The New Yorker — or, more precisely, take thrill in her parents’ thrill at seeing her name there. She has also learned to cope with the cognitive dissonance that comes from receiving more good fortune than seems right for one person.
“I’ve had a lot of moments in my career where I’ve had to just say, ‘I’m picking my jaw up off the floor and carrying on,’ ” she said, stroking Lamby as his self-allergies sent him into another hacking fit. “Because you don’t get much work done with your jaw on the floor.”
[Photo Credit: Jojo Whilden/HBO]
Over the years, there have been rumblings about Pacino’s overacting. He can certainly roar; he can pound the furniture; he can go big with the facial expressions; he has made some dud movies. But the drama, for Pacino, is almost always inherent in the character he’s hoping to convey. His portrayal of the blind Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade in “Scent of a Woman” (1992), for instance, was considered hammy by some, but, in Pacino’s thinking, the character was a lunatic—a suicidal, narcissistic man who drew attention to himself through his affectation of swagger—and he played him that way. “I paint the way I see it, and some of the colors are a little broader and a little bolder than others,” he said, adding, “Sometimes you take it to the limit, sometimes you may go a little overboard, but that’s all part of a vision. I say, go with the glow. If an effort is being made to produce something that has appetite and passion and isn’t done just to get the golden cup, it isn’t a fucking waste. Yes, there are flaws, but in them are things you’ll remember.”
Pacino protects his talent by leaving it alone, which accounts for his vaunted moodiness. “There are various superstitions connected with reaching his center, and he doesn’t want to discuss them ever,” Mike Nichols, who directed Pacino in “Angels in America,” said. “He’s consulting somewhere else. And the somewhere else does not have to do with words.” Pacino almost never talks shop. When he was at the Actors Studio, in the late sixties, whenever Strasberg gave him notes, he said, “I would actually count numbers in my head not to hear what he was saying. I didn’t want to know. I thought it would fuck up what I was doing, where I was going with my own ideas.”
Even Pacino’s speech patterns, which forge a kind of evasive switchback trail up a mountain of thought, serve as a defense against too much parsing of his interior. “Al is dedicated, passionately, to inarticulateness,” Nichols said, pointing out that in conversation Pacino has no “chitchat.” Playing dead in social situations is his instinctive strategy.
At the end of the hall on the ground floor of a tenement on New York’s West 63rd Street, behind a rickety door, in three small rooms littered with cardboard cartons, catsup bottles, half-empty suitcases, Japanese dolls in glass boxes, soup dishes stacked on a piano, team irons, clothes hanging from nails in the fiberboard walls, shopping bags and children’s toys, lives Thelonious Sphere Monk.
There he has lived all but seven of the 43 years of his life, first with his mother, his brother and his sister, and then with his wife and two children, entangled in a domestic clutter wholly inappropriate to his reputation as the weird and enigmatic genius of modern jazz.
Among all the jazz musicians of his generation, none was reported “further out” than Monk. Tales of his strangeness drifted through the stale and noisy air of every jazz joint. The hipsters, taking his name for an obscure joke, called him “The Mad Monk” or “The High Priest of Bop.” They made much of his clumsy dances, his fondness for silly hats, hit gift for cryptic and whimsical statement. (In response to the question “Why do you play such strange chords, Mr. Monk?” he once told a disc jockey, “Those easy chords are hard to find nowadays.”) It was always assumed that he could be found in some dark back room, a remote, if not imaginary, figure, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
But all the while, oblivious to the smell of boiling cabbage in the corridor, he has remained on West 63rd Street, a sentimental man with kind eyes and a full beard, playing his blunt and angular jazz on the grand piano in his kitchen.
Now suddenly, after 20 years of neglect, the critics are beginning to suspect that Monk may be the dominant jazz musician of his time. His conception of rhythm and harmony has influenced the playing of such dissimilar musicians as Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. Several of his tunes, among them Around About Midnight, Off Minor, and Epistrophy, have become jazz standards. His use of dissonance is analyzed in composition courses at the Julliard School of Music. Recently published articles assign him a niche in the development of jazz comparable to those of Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington.
And yet, notwithstanding his new fame, the old rumors persist. Ask anybody who does not know him well, and he will say, “Yeah, man, that Monk, he’s a funny cat, man, he’s something else.”
[Picture by William Claxton]
From our pals at the ever-great site, Cinephilia and Beyond, comes Michael Chapman talking about the use of slow motion in Raging Bull:
We were pretty precise about what we wanted and we had all sorts of rules, you know, the actual boxing would all be at 24 frames, but other times it could be other… when it wasn’t just the boxing, or there’s some famous shots where it’s in 24 frames, and then you go to 48 frames while Jake walks away in the neutral corner and he’s breathing, and he comes back to 24 frames when he’s going to fight again, but it’s all in one shot, and we did… that was okay, because he wasn’t actually boxing when he went to 48 frames, and we did it with a… really just by hand, and now you can coordinate that and punch it in, but in those days you did it by listening to the sound of the camera changes — speed changing and then opening and closing the diaphragm in… in relation to the change of the speed. But guys just did it by hand; we did it two or three times and it worked out. If you don’t do it right, of course, it… you know, it gets all buggered up. We did it I think every time and it worked out all right, and then occasionally when he’s in the corner, and they’re pouring water over him, we would go to a really 96 or 120 frames and… and really be outrageous, but when they were boxing we made sure they were always 24, except I think like all rules we broke them a little bit in the end, but, anyway, we had very elaborate rules and very elaborate methodology that we worked on all the way through the movie.
I recently told a friend of my interest in telling stories with pictures and he recommended Cartooning, by Ivan Brunetti. This slim volume is a written version of a class Brunetti teaches on the cartoon format (he doesn’t care for the terms graphic novel and I don’t blame him). It is broken down into a 15-week course. There is no point in cheating or cutting corners. Brunetti insists that the reader, or student, follow each assignment. If they do, they’ll arrive at a place where they’ve acquired some fundamentals.
Dig this, from Brunetti’s introduction:
Most Italian dishes are made up of a few simple but robust ingredients, the integrity of which should never be compromised. It is a straightforward, earthy, spontaneous, unpretentious, improvisatory, and adaptable cuisine, where flavor is paramount: not novelty, not fashion, not cleverness, and not prettiness. If it tastes good, it will perforce also look good (note that the inverse is also true). It is a cuisine entirely based on a relative few, but solid and time-tested, principles. The techniques are not complicated, just hard; mastering them really takes only time, care, and practice. Originality, as Marcella Hazan instructs, is not something to strain for: “It ought never to be a goal, but it can be a consequence of your intuitions.” One plans a meal around what is available and what is most fresh, usually a vegetable, allowing this ingredient to suggest each course.
…Once you know the basic principles, what you are “going for,” you can add your own personal touch. The most important thing is the potential misstep at the beginning that can ruin the entire dish: don’t burn the garlic. If you do, it will not matter what fancy or expensive ingredient you add to try to cover it up; it will still taste bad. Thus, what I hope, in essence, is that by the end of the book you will learn not to “burn the garlic” and to create art based on sound principles.
[Picture by Will Eisner]
In the Times, John Le Carre remembers Phillip Seymour Hoffman:
There’s probably nobody more redundant in the film world than a writer of origin hanging around the set of his movie, as I’ve learned to my cost. Alec Guinness actually did me the favor of having me shown off the set of the BBC’s TV adaptation of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” All I was wanting to do was radiate my admiration, but Alec said my glare was too intense.
Come to think of it, Philip did the same favor for a woman friend of ours one afternoon on the shoot of “A Most Wanted Man” in Hamburg that winter of 2012. She was standing in a group 30-odd yards away from him, just watching and getting cold like everybody else. But something about her bothered him, and he had her removed. It was a little eerie, a little psychic, but he was bang on target because the woman in the case is a novelist, too, and she can do intensity with the best of us. Philip didn’t know that. He just sniffed it.
In retrospect, nothing of that kind surprised me about Philip, because his intuition was luminous from the instant you met him. So was his intelligence. A lot of actors act intelligent, but Philip was the real thing: a shining, artistic polymath with an intelligence that came at you like a pair of headlights and enveloped you from the moment he grabbed your hand, put a huge arm round your neck and shoved a cheek against yours; or if the mood took him, hugged you to him like a big, pudgy schoolboy, then stood and beamed at you while he took stock of the effect.
Philip took vivid stock of everything, all the time. It was painful and exhausting work, and probably in the end his undoing. The world was too bright for him to handle. He had to screw up his eyes or be dazzled to death. Like Chatterton, he went seven times round the moon to your one, and every time he set off, you were never sure he’d come back, which is what I believe somebody said about the German poet Hölderlin: Whenever he left the room, you were afraid you’d seen the last of him. And if that sounds like wisdom after the event, it isn’t. Philip was burning himself out before your eyes. Nobody could live at his pace and stay the course, and in bursts of startling intimacy he needed you to know it.
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]