Monday, August 29, 2016

Tales from the Old New Land: Tale 4 - The First 45%

And having a playback memory, Carmen remembered something he said about copying down everything he said that sounded vaguely like a reference to Isaiah 8:1, and recorded every word of what he said for fear that he'd demand of her why she did not comply with the order he gave mid-binge/tirade to record these pearls of wisdom. In fact, she did it immediately after he let her go from the ledge. She kept a copy of it on her person every day of her life, in case the Producer ever returned and demanded to see it.

The Producer and Carmen slugged on after that night for another sixteen months. When Carmen finally became Steve's, she was more radiantly beautiful than ever before for two whole decades, and considering the dangers she'd passed, one could argue that she was still more beautiful inside than out. Nevertheless, her ribs had the consistency of crushed ice, her joints bent in manners no human being should, the simple act of arising from her bed was pain itself. Among those who'd experienced repetitive trauma, it is not uncommon to deal with the constant rebreaking of bones, degenerative disc disease and an eventual lumbar spinal fusion; bone spurs, torn ligaments, degenerative arthritis, staff infections from corrective surgeries. And that's only from the effects from before he started to hit her face.

This is mercifully not a book in which to discuss the particulars of tyrannical behavior which cause such internal horror. This narrator has neither the patience nor nothing like the fortitude to speak in any more than generalities about the abominations perpetrated upon Carmen and he beseeches your forgiveness for his need to speak any further of these depravities. But if this fictional rendering of a single Hollywood player getting off on the scent of blood has anything like the ring of veracity to you, then he asks you to at least consider how many thousands there may have been over the past century of powerful Hollywood men who've acted precisely like this.

This particular apparition of a Producer knew on the night of this "window dressing" (his charming term for what transpired that dawn) that his days as a respected Hollywood player could be counted with two digits. Don't mind us the circumstances of his ignominy, there were any number of risible cinematic bombs in the late 70's and early 80's which wiped out Hollywood producers, production companies, and whole studios:

There was At Long Last Love, Peter Bogdanovich's trivial homage to 30's movie-musicals, Cole Porter songs, and Ernst Lubitsch romantic comedies - because nothing oozes Golden Age Hollywood class quite like Burt Reynolds, who became a superstar a few years previously when Deliverance allowed us to watch him kill a Georgia hillbilly with a crossbow while the hillbilly sodomized a 300 pound Ned Beatty as Ned's ordered to squeal like a pig. There was The Exorcist II: The Heretic, a shameless money grab of a sequel starring a miserable looking Richard Burton during a period when he looked like he was taking parts in horrible movies just so he could pay his astronomical bar tab. There was The Swarm, a horror movie about killer bees that starred Michael Caine, Henry Fonda, Richard Widmark, and Olivia de Havilland - because what everybody wanted to see in the late 70's was the biggest stars of 1945 in a horror movie with a plot too absurd for Roger Corman to film. There was I Spit On Your Grave - a film that couldn't even find distribution for two years because of its quarter-hour depictions (notice the plural) of gang rape. There was X-rated Caligula, a movie made through the combined talents of literary lion Gore Vidal and Bob Guccione - publisher of Penthouse Magazine, who simply wanted to record a literal rendering of the depraved events within the Roman Emperor Caligula's palace in Tacitus's Annals. Every imaginable degradation seemed to find its way into the script; raping a bride on her wedding day - and her groom, sex shows involving children and the deformed (if you don't believe me, watch it), gladiatorial public execution, and a confusing scene for which poor Helen Mirren has to use what is hopefully a prosthetic vaginal cavity to depict herself giving birth as part of a (literally) execrable performance within all these execrable performances. After seeing the original cut, Guccione decided that audiences weren't getting their money's worth, and insisted on inserting a forty-five minute bisexual orgy near the end which the Roman Senators and their wives are coerced into having.

There was, of course, Heaven's Gate, which lost 30 million dollars, ran to nearly four hours in original cut, deliberately killed a horse with explosives, was yanked from movie theaters after less than a week, and bankrupted United Artists - according to most experts the greatest of all movie studios - forever. Some swear it's a misunderstood masterpiece, this narrator doesn't want to find out... Of course, it has a ten minute rape scene...

There was Inchon, the B-Movie hagiography for America's Five-Star General in Asia, and for a moment in 1952 America's would-be dictator, Douglas MacArthur. Financed with no expense spared by a combination of the United States Military and world's most infamous cult leader, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, with MacArthur played by the world's greatest actor - the ailing Lord Lawrence Olivier - for a cool million bucks, and directed by Terrance Young, who made the first few James Bond movies. MacArthur's closest confidante was played by Richard Roundtree, the original Shaft. Who'd have conceived that a movie of such disparate parts would come unglued?

There was Tarzan, the Ape Man - in which a mythical White Ape turns out to be a white man raised by apes and therefore must be brought back to civilisation in England where he can be taught proper discourse. Nevertheless, he retains the animal sexual magnetism of Africa, which overwhelms poor proper and prim Jane. Tarzan's character was found offensive by some in the 1910's when he first appeared, imagine the reception by 1981. Yet somehow, there've since been another six Tarzan movies.

And who can, or should, forget George Lucas's Howard the Duck? A PG live-action movie in which a loveable alien duck gets transported through a wormhole to our world. In the course of the movie, he gets dumped by a club bouncer into a hot tub where a couple is having sex, a human that turns out to be an alien who has a tongue seems to extend like an erection in the presence of Lea Thompson, Howard's duckbill attempts to bite the ass of a sixty-something black woman whose onion-like posterior he finds quite stimulating, he excitedly opens Playduck Magazine in which we see a photo of a duck with curves and hair and feathered white nipples (later in the movie we see duck boobies with pink human nipples), the Cleveland Police Department sexually assaults Howard the Duck, and actor Jeffrey Jones (himself now a convicted sex offender) walks in on Lea Thompson seducing Howard the Duck.

And, of course, Ishtar. The only of these risible and bank-busting movies directed by a woman, and the only one whose director never directed a movie again. Perhaps Ishtar was, truly, the last movie of the Old-New Hollywood - directed by Mike Nichols's old comic partner Elaine May, Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty starring, Vittorio Storaro (Coppola and Bertolucci's cinematographer of choice) doing the photography, co-starring New Hollywood luminaries like Tess Harper (Tender Mercies) Charles Grodin (from an Orthodox family), Jack Weston (Weinstein), Carol Kane (Woody's first wife in Annie Hall and an Oscar nominee for a part in Hester Street that she acted in Yiddish), Aharon Ipale (Israeli), Fred Melamed (Sy Ableman in A Serious Man), David Margulies (Hollywood's character actor of choice when you needed a Jew). Is it any wonder that a film bombed that had so many Jews involved whose scenario was in an Arab country? 

Something rotted in that air of freedom which made the New Hollywood Golden Age possible. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. It was inevitable that the freedom which allowed for realistic depictions of ordinary people with their ugliness intact, with sex, and violence, and emotional turmoil unshielded by a production code, would curdle into freedom's betrayal by making its depictions into something sickeningly exploitative - sometimes freedom's very liberators betrayed it. In the case of Hollywood, what appeared to be a glorious liberation turned out to be merely another swing of the pendulum that landed on equilibrium for a moment before swinging into decadence. Today's Hollywood has a new production code, a code that allows for rivers of blood so long as the violence is confined to an unrealistic genre and its human consequences softpedaled, a code that allows for the naive innocence of children to continue unabated into adulthood with bro comedies about manchildren, a code which only allows romantic comedies in which love's ugly moments are airbrushed out of existence, a code dominated by action movies for which the stars are the special effects. Just as in the old production code, today's Hollywood movies can still be damn good, but in the opinion of this clearly not humble enough narrator, almost none of them show us ourselves. There are ways around the problem - movies like The Social Network and Her and WALL-E and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which only show us a complex image of the human spirit by showing us how technology may have completely reshaped it; or movies like Boyhood or the Before movies or (believe it or not) Borat, in all of which the experimental gimmick that makes them possible is so radically extreme that they can only be done once and never be copied. There are some very fine and human directors working in Hollywood's orbit if not actually 'in' Hollywood: there are at least two American treasures: Alexander Payne and Richard Linklater, both of whom manage in every movie to say something new and elusive about America. Among the 'tribe', there's Jason Reitman, or at least was, who made three of the great American movies at the beginning of his career with Thank You For Smoking, Juno, and Up In The Air, all three of which manage to say something new and elusive about America, and there's John Sayles, whom nobody remembers anymore, but twenty years ago was the God of Independent American Film. There's Ang Lee, who isn't even American, but easily beats Americans at their own game. Errol Morris, the documentarian who makes movies so utterly different from everyone else's that you shouldn't even call them movies by the accepted definition. 

Other than them, there are, as Woody once called them, the Academy of the Overrated: Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, David Lynch, PT Anderson, Wes Anderson (whom in all fairness seems to be improving), Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufmann, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Steven Soderbergh (who at least tries to be more ambitious), Sofia Coppola, Peter Jackson, Ken Burns (it takes a rare talent to make the subjects of his documentaries boring), David O Russell, the Wachowskis, Gus Van Sant, Tim Burton, James Cameron... 

These are directors so enamored of movies that they jam pack their movies with references to other movies and forget to put references to life in them. Perhaps that statement is unfair, there are exceptions in every one of their outputs, but the exceptions are very few compared to the misfires. There is a kind of ersatz profundity to their movies - movies like The Matrix and Inception and Avatar and I Heart Huckabees (a movie I used to love) with philosophical messages that can fit inside a fortune cookie; a ponderousness which PT Anderson mistakes for profundity, an incomprehensibility which Charlie Kaufmann mistakes for intellectual challenge, a cynical darkness which David Fincher and the Coen Brothers mistake for gravity, an arrested development which Tim Burton and Wes Anderson mistaken for whimsy, a reliance on CGI which Christopher Nolan and the Wachowskis and James Cameron mistake for visual artistry (it's the technicians who are the artists), a reliance on other movies which Tarantino and David Lynch mistake for ironic commentary. In each of these cases, the problem is that they're weighted down by the baggage of movie history. The movies before them were simply too good, so rather than try to compete with them catharsis for catharsis, they dodge the challenge and instead create homages to what older masters did better than they did, and many critics call these postmodern homages 'original' when the only thing that's original about them is their lack of emotional demand on the audience. These are movies about other movies, and t<3 -="" a="" able="" about="" and="" anderson="" are="" arrested="" brothers="" burton="" challenge="" charlie="" coen="" contain="" cookie.="" cynical="" darkness="" david="" development="" fincher="" fit="" font="" for="" fortune="" gravity="" huckabees="" i="" incomprehensibility="" kaufmann="" last="" like="" love="" lynch="" meaning="" messages="" mistake="" movies="" nbsp="" of="" other="" philosophical="" pt="" s="" tarantino="" tedium="" that="" the="" tim="" to="" used="" wes="" which="" whimsy="" within="">herefore perhaps they're movies against movies. Most alarmingly, and prevalent to nearly all of them, are the movies that mistake technology for humanity. Even among the directors unaddicted to CGI, there are more breathtaking shots in today's American movies than ever before. If nature doesn't give you the background you want, if the lighting on some actress's face is not quite what you want, if her jawline is not quite the way you'd like it, you can digitally alter it to any specification you like; but to what end? Today's auteurs have utterly mastered the technical end of filmmaking, and perhaps because we've mastered technique, we've forgotten what the technique is for.  

Meanwhile, people who've devoted their whole lives to film tell us that the world is experiencing a cinematic Golden Age of which the United States is the only first world country who remains excluded. As with so many things about Contemporary America - soccer, news, public transit, languages, condoms, history, black humor, cheap health care, gun laws, and vegetables - we have in America have only the dimmest awareness of the feast that often seems to happen in every corner of the globe but ours because we're too busy playing with our toys. 

Special effects are the new stars of Hollywood. The highest grossing movies are no longer character based movies like The Godfather or Bonnie and Clyde or Midnight Cowboy or Easy Rider or American Graffiti or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or The Sting or One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest or MASH or Fiddler on the Roof or Patton. There were plenty of smaller, character driven films during these years that did well, but it was between 1975 and 1990 that technology become the undisputed box office king, and after that came the systematic gutting of movies that portrayed Americans in their natural state in anywhere but independent film and the Miramax ghetto. Just over the other side of 1975 lay the Star Wars Trilogy and Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Indiana Jones and ET and Back to the Future and Roger Rabbit - and how human and full of personality do those early Spielberg and Lucas and Zemeckis movies seem next to the high-grossing movies of our time! Would it surprise anyone that Tom Cruise or Chris Hemsworth or Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson were actually computer programs or robots that only exist on a screen? There was even an Al Pacino movie about that exact notion fifteen years ago called Simone. Maybe Jennifer Lawrence is just an updated Simone, an indication that these computer avatars have improved to the point that seem so like us humans that perhaps humans are indistinguishable now from robots!

This New New Hollywood came into existence because the knowledge that movies like Caligula and I Spit On Your Grave and Heaven's Gate and Howard the Duck gave us of what we were capable of was too terrible. The freedom to create greater and more uplifting spectacles can also give us things too vile and revolting for contemplation. All it took was less than a dozen movies in which the human animal was presented to us undeniably in all its stinking shit, and the movie world's been running away from its truth ever since.

Our dearly beloved Producer could have been working on any of these movies, it doesn't matter which, but by the same time the next year, The Producer hadn't worked on a movie for nine months; nine months during which his fists literally performed an abortion on Carmen. Perhaps it became his sole source of satisfaction and relief, because for six months, no glamorous friend returned a call, relieving him not only of his own glamor but the sycophants who glommed onto it. Friendship is fleeting, love mere folly, but how much more true would that be when living in a place known as the 'Dream Factory?' But five minutes after every time he went off, he begged her not to leave, just you wait, he'll make you happy again, Hollywood can be something better than its ever been, and you'll be its leading lady!

Then there was the time the Producer bruised her father up after her father asked about Carmen's bruises. Two minutes later, he gave her Dad a $10,000 wad of cash, then drove him to the emergency room personally in his 1977 Lamborghini Countach. The moment he got through the door, he took out more wads of cash for the doctor and nurses and the other patients - they saw nothing. And while they were in the ER, Carmen's sister practically kidnapped her to a courthouse to make her get a restraining order. Carmen was unwilling, worried she was about to get killed. If not by her producer, then by the guys he'd pay to keep her quiet. The judge listened very patiently and carefully and evinced great compassion for her suffering, he then excused himself to his chamber for five minutes, came back and refused the restraining order. Twelve minutes later, the Producer was at the courthouse, gave Carmen a huge hug and kiss as she sobbed her tears upon him, took her home and told her over and over again how much he loved her. Two days later, they were engaged, and she was the one who wanted to go to the courthouse right away; but he promised her a wedding the whole world would know about, the wedding she deserved.

Who could turn down the life he promised? This was a man who knew how to turn curvature of the Earth to the precise angle he wanted. He was the best actor in Hollywood. For more than a decade, he dealt with creative geniuses every day of his life, but he was a genius of life itself. Every event, the most glamorous, the most spiritual, the most transcendent, the most intangible, could be picked apart and reduced to a transaction. Nothing in life was a mystery to him, and all he demanded in return was that she be no more complicated to understand than the concierge in Oviedo.

Even so, no matter how much of a genius he was, in order to have that wedding, he had to be back in the good graces of Hollywood, and in order to return to Hollywood's graces, he had to be in the graces of multinationals who bought Hollywood up.

It was just at this moment that our dear Producer, whose tastes in cuisine had always seemed tending to the upscale LA specialties of shellfish, steak, and sushi, seemed to develop a yen for rouladen, kasespatzle, saurbraten, kartoffelknodel, bretzels and wurst. Carmen had no idea why the Producer wanted them to go for German every night, and of course he wouldn't explain except to say that there was a different dish he wanted them to try. One night at Old World German Restaurant, the next at Van Nuys German Deli (a standup counter place for which he still insisted that Carmen wear heels), the next at Alpine Village, and the same every night for five or six weeks. Within a month, the Producer was a good twenty pounds heavier, but the moment Carmen's dress seemed a bit tighter, the Producer did what he could to make her not finish what he ordered for them. She would wrap the remains up and take home what remained in a doggie bag, then find them missing from the fridge the next morning.

About five to six weeks in, the Producer pointed to a table across the restaurant. "That's Karlheinz von Huntze, Executive Vice-President of Polygram Entertainment." Until the 60's, Polygram was a third-German, third-Dutch, third-British corporation responsible for no less than seven of the world's major classical music labels and another ten of the world's major Popular Music labels. A number of these labels were all too happy to collaborate with Hitler's culture ministers in times gone by, but Polygram controlled a vast swath of the great musical glories of the gramophone - glories set down before, during, and after the Second World War: Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Earl Hines, Dizzy Gillespe, Woody Herman, Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Oscar Petersen, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Eartha Kitt, untold numbers of Broadway Musicals, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, George Jones, the Rolling Stones and Elvis during some of their best periods, Eric Clapton, Talking Heads, the Ramones, KISS, Billy Joel, Donna Summer, the Village People, the Bee Gees, ABBA, The Osmonds, Yves Montand, Jacques Brel, Edith Piaff, and hundreds of other pop music acts; nearly every major mid-century orchestral conductor, untold numbers of great classical soloists and opera singers and chamber ensembles, the premiere recordings of every postwar work by Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams, untold numbers of moderately obscure and young and unproven composers whom no major label today would take a chance on, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra... In 1963, it was Polygram's by then long since subsidiary, the Dutch Phillips Electronics (founded by Karl Marx's uncle), that invented the tape cassette.

By 1980, Polygram was surely too big to fail, and yet... its catalogue was simply too large, and it had to either expand significantly to make up for its losses, or shed an enormous part of its product. Since there was very little in music of which they didn't own a significant portion, it was time to move into Movies. What better way to do that than Movie Musicals? Polygram had a 50% share in RSO Records, which gave them a huge profit in the Disco market because RSO Records had the music distribution rights to Grease and Saturday Night Fever. This was in addition to the money made from their contracts with the Bee Gees and the Village People and Donna Summer. Unfortunately, this was nowhere near enough to cover their bill. They needed a movie musical of their own.

Enter Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band... THE MUSICAL! Yes, all the Beatles hits are here, sung as you've always wanted to hear them sung by Peter Frampton, the Bee Gees, and Steve Martin. With cameos from Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, Earth Wind & Fire, Dr. John, Etta James, Curtis Mayfield, Bonnie Raitt, Frankie Valli, and a hundred other musicians - none of which sing their original music, and narrated by George fucking Burns (now there's a name that'll put the young bums in the seats...). God knows how many hundreds of millions Polygram had to pay to acquire the rights for them from EMI, but it was just another couple hundred million pulled down the drain of this spectacular musical black hole. Ever the artistes, John and George refused to even attend the premiere, no doubt they took the money though; while ever the workhorses, Paul and Ringo went to the premiere, then refused to have anything more to do with the movie, or with Polygram.

And there sits Karlheinz von Huntze, all sixty-seven years and 350 pounds of him squeezed into a fecally brown suit that probably fit him when he was fifty-five with a badly tied thin tie that didn't reach his naval, unashamed of his brown teeth and double chin that went past his neck, all of which bit with great begeisterung into the giant plate of braten and sauerkraut in front of him, yet vain enough about his hair to wear a spectacularly bad salt and pepper toupee whose base seemed to levitate an inch and a half over his boneless skull and continue six inches up. On his left hand, a wedding ring seems as though it might at any moment pop off his brat-like finger.

So this was it... The perfect movie musical star - a gorgeously unique looking petite girl with a large head, already well known and liked by everybody in Hollywood, packed to the gills with brains and lungs; no singing lessons necessary, no acting lessons necessary, minimal dancing, can play piano, knows every jazz standard in the Real Book. All it takes is one movie, then she has her choice - greatest living singer or greatest living actress? It's needless to say who's on her arm and advising her every decision.

And of course, she's brilliant when she talks to Huntze. Within ninety seconds, the Producer excuses himself to the bathroom and seems to stay in there for forty minutes. She speaks to him in the fluent German she picked up from her opera training, they compare the Schubert and Goethe they love best, they sing the Papageno and Pamina duet from Mozart's Die Zauberflote at the table (the restaurant bursts into applause, more for Carmen...). He orders four different deserts, and insists on splitting each of them with her and that she eat up her half to the every mouthful. He gives her a standing invitation to visit him and his wife in Hamburg so she can see the Kunsthalle and the Dichterhallen and walk through the taverns where the young Brahms played, and tells her that he'd love to hear her play piano before he leaves town. He writes down an address of a private residence of a freund at who's place he's staying.

Of course, very little piano was played. Someone already as thoroughly demoralized as Carmen has no illusions left of the necessities expected of her. If anything, she was thankful for Herr Huntze's patronizing kindness. The cutesy/schatzi German nicknames he gave her, the grandfatherly forcefeeding of Stroh and Obstwasser before geschlechtich verkehren and makronen afterward (which of course came to her mouth via his boneless hand). He told her she was a shoo-in, all she had to do was meet with a few more people at Polygram and they'd make a musical as a vehicle for her!

It is, of course, needless to tell you that something similar was expected at every new meeting with every member of the Polygram team: Germans, Austrians, Swiss, Dutch, Danish... Old world gentlemen all of them, their courtly manners justifying their sense of entitlement to the world. A few of them were quite attractive - tall, silver-haired gentlemen with immaculately tailored three-piece suits surrounding dark paisley ties or ascots tucked into perfectly pressed shirts; sculpted hair and pencil-thin mustaches above the thin and constantly pursed lips that smoked long thin cigarettes; they wore scarves in the summer and walked with ornate canes - even the young ones seemed old. The bald ones generally had combovers with more mousse than hair, the fat ones always had watch chains on their vests. Never would she leave without an extremely expensive gift - a Channel perfume, a Swarovski Chocolate Box, a De Beer diamond ring, a dress from Christian Dior (and of course, the measurements were perfect). When meeting her at the door they would bend down and kiss her on the hand, or kiss her on each cheek, sometimes three times rather than two. Conversation was always quite pleasant, the meals were always the height of gourmet and gourmand, the wines they picked were amazing (at least when they weren't German...), and occasionally they even flew her to Germany. Karlheinz even got her to the Dichterhallen.

The Producer seemed strangely OK with all this. He never asked her where she was going, gave her free use of whatever car she wanted, and he seemed happier than he'd ever been in their relationship. He was on the phone 18 hours a day, his old friends were his friends again, and during that month when she was in meetings and gaining nearly thirty pounds from all the decadent dishes she'd eaten - which made outfits much tighter and her curves still more alluring - his life was back to a whirlwind of tennis, power lunches, movie pitches from him, and movie pitches to him.

Early in the evening of September 19th, Carmen returned to the house to find every light in the house on, the mirrors covered, the unshaven Producer wearing what looked like a white bathrobe and a fisherman's cap on his head, but all of the cap but the bill was covered by a blindingly white shawl with blue stripes over his head. He was standing in the corner of his living room, his back to the wall, bending his torso up and down at the speed of sound as he read from a book while his lips moved with barely any sound at all at the speed of light. He didn't even seem to notice her, and as she walked in his line of vision, she saw that not only was he wearing his favorite tie, but the tie was cut in the middle, almost the entire way through.

Before she could even ask what was wrong, he looked at her and emphatically intoned:

"Vahyigah hadawvawr el meylekh nineveh mikis'aw va'yo'aw'ver ahdahrtaw meyawlawv."

And then he began to walk directly towards her, staring her deadly cold in the eye and taking a step a few inches forward with every seven words:

"For the word came unto the King of Nineveh and he arose from his throne and he laid his throne from him and covered him with sackcloth and sat in ashes and he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the King and his nobles saying let neither man nor beast nor herd nor flock taste any thing let them not feed nor drink water but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth and cry mightily unto Adonai yea let them turn every one from his evil way and from the violence that is in their hands."

He then stared at his hand for a moment that seemed like fifteen, as unaware as she was about what he was about to do.

"You didn't get the part."

And then he dislodged her cornea.


This is the last we will ever say of the particulars of physical abuses perpetrated upon Carmen, and while he can make no promises, the narrator very much hopes that this is the last time he feels the need to elucidate any details of gendered violence in what will hopefully become a mega/meta-novel that takes decades to write for many, many hundreds of pages, if ever. We do, however, have to speak rather lengthily about the repercussions of what was perpetrated upon Carmen, but fortunately, the details of that will proceed organically from the story - with some digressions of course...

"Of course you can stay at my place. However long you need to. I hope you don't mind though, my housemate has a friend staying on our sofa but my room has a foldout couch."

Steve lets Carmen in, they walk into his room, she sees the 250 books on his shelves, she sees the violin case on the fold-out couch, she sees the projector screen covering the window and the projector at the far end of the room with a pile of classic movie canisters as tall as she is; the proverbial cat is out of the bag and she breaks down weeping. Steve holds Carmen to console her, but he has no idea what he's consoling, and while he asks, he's not about to push the matter.

When Carmen finally feels better, she walks over to the canisters, picks out Casablanca, and for two hours they lie down and decide that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world... It's a Monday night. On Tuesday, they watch The Best Years of Our Lives. On Wednesday, It's A Wonderful Life. Thursday, City Lights. Friday, It Happened One Night. Saturday, The Philadelphia Story. Sunday, Steve finally shows her his favorite movie: Sunrise; meaning not that his favorite movie is somewhere between a pretentious statement about nature and a pickup line, but Sunrise, the 1927 masterpiece co-awarded the first ever Best Picture Oscar (even in the first year of the Oscars they could award it all to the best movie...) and a movie that should reduce every living being to a puddle of feelings by its end. It was directed by F.W. Murnau, a young German moviemaker recently immigrated to the United States, who might have proven greater than either Hitchcock or Welles had a car accident not claimed him four years later.

On this, Steve and I completely agree, Sunrise is more than a simply great film. To me it is, next to Citizen Kane, nothing less than the cornerstone of all movies ever made in this country. The dawn at the end of Sunrise is not simply a metaphor for the dawn of a reinvigorated rural marriage, it is a metaphor for the American dawn, for the dawn of movies themselves, for the dawn of witnessing art on a durable screen rather than on a flimsy piece of paper; for the dawn of a modern era when the hope of the New World emerges from the despair of the Old - for the passing of the torch from a world that once coveted Northern European ideals like civilization, education, and culture, to a world that coveted American ideals like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Perhaps these new ideals will prove equally unfulfillable to the old ones, but not yet at least, and while there's no doubt that it's hokey to say that the Sun rose on a new day with this movie, it's no less true for being hokey.

It's probably worth mentioning that some night after one of these movies, they have sex for the first time, and perhaps nearly as importantly, Steve has sex for the first time; this era was a few years before it became a given that 95% of students would lose their virginity by the end of college. I'd like to say that they first did it after they watched "It Happened One Night," but that is much too on the nose...

Steve, like most men, particularly most young men who've never had sex before, has no idea what might cause women discomfort, even if it might seem obvious to them in distant retrospect. It somehow never occurred to him that even a woman as intelligent as Carmen might dislike a movie in which a man nearly murders his virginal wife (long blond hair wrapped in a tight bun) so he can take up full time with his knowing city tramp of a mistress (black hair with a flapper haircut...), but stops himself and promises to redeem himself because of the purity of her forgiving love. And if that's not enough to make the Carmens of this world cringe, later in the movie, the errant husband who nearly drowned her that morning (it takes place over 24 hours) saves her life by forming a search party for her after a shipwreck - therefore proving himself a great husband 12 hours after he almost became a wife-murderer, and therefore utterly deserving of happiness and forgiveness, never mind that had he remained a good husband, the life of his wife would never have been in danger, let alone twice, let alone that the first of the two times, he was the direct cause of the danger! Still more insulting to women, by the time his mistress comes to claim her newly liberated future spouse after he supposedly did that dirty deed, his wife appears to be lost at sea forever. The husband is so enraged that he attempts to murder his mistress instead, and yet, at that moment, we all supposed to root for the murder to happen!

Sunrise is exactly as melodramatic a movie as it sounds like, and yet it shouldn't matter whatsoever. Its melodrama is just a symptom of the metaphysical drama taking place onscreen. The metaphorical stakes are nothing less than a human soul, will the soul embrace good, or will it embrace evil? Will evil be rewarded and virtue punished? Is a redeemed soul that once strayed deserving of any reward? As melodramatic as Sunrise is, these are not questions easy to answer, and as any silent movie must, Sunrise does not answer them definitively.

Sunrise speaks to us from another world where cynicism has yet to be invented, like the music of Bach; and just as with Bach, Murnau arrived on world history at a very specific moment. 1927 was the final full year of film's Silent Era, and the very moment when visual storytelling blossomed in a manner never seen before and perhaps never since. In this final twilight of Silent Film, everything about the visual components of movies become as fluid and poetic as ballet - sets, lighting, costumes, exposures: Sunrise, Metropolis, Faust, Flesh and the Devil, Mare Nostrum, The Son of the Sheik, Sparrows, The Temptress, What Price Glory?, The Winning of Barbara Worth, It, The Italian Straw Hat, London After Midnight, The General, Pandora's Box, The Crowd, The Wind, Flesh and the Devil, Underworld, The Unknown, Steamboat Bill Jr., An Andalusian Dog, Lonesome, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Queen Kelly, Sadie Thompson, Show People, The Wind, Diary of a Lost Girl, The Lodger, Man With a Movie Camera, The Last Command, The Docks of New York, The Circus, 7th Heaven. Just as it was forty-five years later, there was something magic in the cellophane - but the magic dissipated far more quickly. The Golden Age our parents may currently reminisce upon took sixteen years between Bonnie and Clyde on one side and The Right Stuff on the other. The Golden Age which their grandparents remembered began around 1926 and was all over by 1929, but for those threeish years, all a director seemingly had to do was be competent at his job, and he'd create something eternal.

There were flashier directors after Murnau who had much more trenchant insights into human nature, but insight into humans would dilute everything which makes Murnau so special. Just as with Bach, I doubt there is a single artist in his medium who can make you believe again in everything about life about which you've abandoned all hope. You may have thought yourself a cynic before you saw Sunrise, but all cynicism melts in the presence of its beauty - it is the beauty of dawn, of hope, of the idea that not a single person in the entire world is beyond redemption or undeserving of it. It tells the sinner in us all that no matter how badly we oppress others, we are not beyond mercy. It is the kind of hope that those of us privileged enough to feel will use as resolve to take our instinct toward sin and use it for virtue without stopping to question what is virtuous: to move mountains, to overthrow governments, to build societies, to make a girl who was nearly a movie star into the love of your life.

And all this is precisely everything that Carmen least wanted to hear or see at this moment. Carmen was probably much too close to her agonies to experience anything like a trigger for reliving them, but the idea that a man who is so clearly evil can achieve redemption so quickly was everything that contradicted the last eighteen months. When a man has murder in his heart, there is no redemption for him, and even if there is perhaps an infinitesimal possibility of redemption, it's certainly not something the man discovers over the course of a single fucking day.

Steve did not see her rolling her eyes and grinding her teeth and tensing up her hands in the darkness of his room. He often looked over at her to gauge her reaction, but never caught her at any particularly expressive moment. As we men do 95% of the time, he saw what we wished to see in this particular woman, and if men much more experienced and confident around women than young Steve have no idea what they're thinking, then how was Steve to know? So it came as quite a shock to him when Carmen let out an enormous guffaw toward the end when this prodigally murderous husband kneels at the bedside of his utterly saintly wife who lies in a state between life and death.

The second after Carmen let out her roaring cackle, she apologized profusely, as anyone in a new relationship would after guffawing at a potential significant other's favorite movie. When Steve immediately turned the movie off and light on, she went somewhat limp, as though the dread coursing through her heart dissociating herself from the room before she had to experience the inevitable melodrama that would ensue. But, to her astonishment, Steve was extremely interested in knowing what she thought.

And for one of the first times in her life, the inkwell of her verbal acuity had dried, and she was at a loss to explain precisely what she found so offensive about the movie.

Why did she weep when she saw his books? Because for the last few weeks, she'd found herself unable to recall what she'd read. Books were, to her, something to access with instant neurological availability. One glance at a piece of paper, and it was committed by heart for life. Whole tractates of the King James Bible, whole acts by Shakespeare, whole chapters of the Quixote and whole stories by Kafka she could recite in the original Castillian Spanish and Prague German with the exact pronunciation of its location and period, whole piano concertos by Mozart - both the solo piano part and the orchestral score, whole albums of Edith Piaf and whole operas by Verdi which she was able to sing and play on the piano as though it were second nature, not only able to sing any jazz standard or song by Dylan or The Beach Boys or trash song by Herman's Hermits or Tiny Tim, but able to improvise half-hour piano solos around them with countermelodies and modulations and thematic interpolations of a dozen other songs by the same artist and a dozen more by the artists they influenced and the artists who influenced them. Any one of which she could summon to mind and memory as though by animal instinct, as naturally as the rest of us take a breath or eat a meal after a day's fasting; any one of which were available to call to mind for an audition.

Her parents had no idea where she came from. They were rural immigrants like any rural immigrants, perhaps a bit better at what they did than most, and perhaps assimilated a bit more easily into American life than some did. Music was not something they made themselves, but at they were aware of music and loved it, and surely all four their own parents were musical - folk musicians to whom a career in music, or any career at all, was an utterly alien concept. When they weren't fishing or farming or selling their goods, they played the quena and the bandolina and banduryia and the bukhot; national instruments of the Philippines and Colombia, where their days were spent as farmers and fishermen, and nights around campfires and oil lamps with Tinkling and Muisca dancing - a life that could just as easily take place in either 1600 AD or BC as in 1940. You got up in the morning, you served your particular God, you did your best to avoid other spirits, and you went to sleep until one unsuspecting night when sleep claimed you. Legendary family stories developed around particular members of the family, but you didn't know if these family members died a few years before you were born, or a few hundred years; maybe even a few thousand. Perhaps variations on these particular stories were common to every family, every town, every region of the world, and perhaps all these folk tunes are just as similar from place to place. But because these stories and this music have no historical record, they seem infinitely more authentic - coming to us from that ether generated by the long darkness of pre-history, when the world was only explicable through magic. Life itself was magic, any day when a person was shielded from death was its own miracle that required a supernatural explanation. Every respite from death was a beautiful gift, every object of order that endowed life with ever so slightly more convenience was wrested from the chaos of nature, and therefore an object of indescribable beauty that could not be conceived had it not already existed. For a moment in these people's lives of whom we have no record, these artful objects did not imitate nature as so much humdrum art does, but rewrites nature's very laws, and therefore every folk tune was beautiful and perfect, every folk tale was beautiful and perfect, every pot and plate was beautiful and perfect, every meal was beautiful and perfect, all of them gifts handed down from above and below by forces well beyond their understanding, because they were all wrested from a nature that would never guarantee a life with the presence of any of them, and the presence of any of these gifts from the spiritual realm was a gift to be savored until the spiritual realm claimed them back. A pot, a plate, an instrument, could so easily break. A musician or a storyteller could die. The fish could disappear from the water, the crops not grow, the animals disappear from the forest. And where there was light, darkness would descend upon the face of the deep.

Miracles were not supposed to happen in America, and yet, here was the miracle that was Carmen Chavez - with all the advances in technique, here was a person who overcame technique and played with it as a baby does with a rattle. Perhaps she's a second Mozart, perhaps she's even a Shakespeare of performance - someone for whom a career as arm candy in a Burt Reynolds movie would be utterly wasted. She should be playing and singing Poulenc and Schubert at Carnegie Hall, she should be playing and singing Cleopatra and Sally Bowles on the West End.

Her parents, both of them, stopped going to church when they came to this country, but when Carmen sang lullabyes back to her mother when she was six months old, when she was speaking entire sentences at nine months in Spanish, English, and Tagalog, reading in all three languages by a little after her second birthday, and reading adult books by four years old. It was shortly after her fourth birthday that her parents had confirmation that something extraordinary was happening to their daughter - perhaps a literal confirmation. They flew back for a cousin's confirmation in Bagota when she was four, and during the celebration in the downstairs church rec room, somebody had broken into the organ loft and made the whole church resound with the note perfect melody of O Sanctissima. After the melody was complete, it was played a second time with harmonies, and the harmonies were completely different than the usual organist, perhaps simpler but they worked just as well, perhaps better. But this was no teenage amateur breaking in - both the door and the organ were simply unlocked, and little Carmen, four years old but barely looking three, sitting down on a bench upon which her legs were barely long enough to reach the end of, let alone reach the pedals, and played on a keyboard all by herself. The organist was eating bandeja paisa and drinking aguardiente just as everybody else was, so he stormed up to the organ loft with his ever-ready switch, expecting to find some teenager with a year of piano lessons who broke in and possibly damaged the door. But the moment he saw this girl barely larger than an infant play O Sanctissima, he dared not make his presence known until she was done. When she was, he picked her up, he kissed her on the forehead and told her she was a miracle from Heaven. He carried her downstairs to tell her parents, they wept as they knelt down in front of a statue of the Virgin. It was a miracle such as those of which their own parents always spoke. For twenty years, they never missed a Sunday, and every spare dollar not devoted to good works was devoted to music lessons for an extraordinary child who came from nowhere.

The only way she could have known about these keys was on those few times her father took her to see Uncle Ray (who couldn't see her of course), and Uncle Ray would play some songs on the piano for her while Carmen's father fixed some wiring in the lights (why Ray Charles needed lights nobody knew...) and Carmen watched the keys which Uncle Ray could not see as he played. As Carmen progressed, Uncle Ray was all too happy to give an occasional lesson in jazz whenever he was in town, and after the lesson was over, Carmen would be sent to play with a friend down the street with a couple dollars for candy while Uncle Ray gave Carmen's mother a lesson too.

When Carmen's Ina told Uncle Ray heard about what happened, he sat her at the piano, and instead of playing O Sanctissima, she harmonized a note perfect and slightly out of tempo What Would I Do Without You and sang the whole song, a few words were mispronounced as a four-year-old would without thinking of what she can't understand: "I get all closer to me," instead of "Aw, get all closer to me." Even a brilliant four-year-old plays like a brilliant four-year-old, but a four year old like this could astonish the world.

This narrator has little to no interest in the details of how she appeared on Ed Sullivan and Dick Clark's American Bandstand when she was seven. He has little to no interest in the details of a private piano teacher from Hungary contracted to Universal Studios whose lessons were paid for by Uncle Ray, the methods and personal manner of whom turned her into an obedient girl savant until her fingertips daily bled. He has little to no interest in the details of in the details of the other upper-middle-class immigrant teachers from Germany and Austria and Poland and Romania and Czechoslovakia and Italy and the Ukraine who taught her in the high school for science she insisted upon going to rather than a school for the performing arts, or who coached her in the various extracurriculars for which her abilities and work ethic could only be described, once again, as prodigious: drawing, dancing, German, French, Italian, English, creative writing, calculus, chemistry, biology, physics, philosophy, theology, history, current events... Still greater than her ability to assimilate information was how each teacher took it upon themselves, as though they were the only one to do so, to try to mentor Carmen and steer her in the direction of their field, as though netting such a prize achiever into their field would be the achievement that justified decades of surrendering some prestigious post-Hochshule career to put up with every worthless and verzogenes Gor und wildes Tier in the security of Southern California.

How did she imbibe so much information so quickly? Well, if one can reduce such ability to a practical application rather than divinely-mandated ability, her technique was to simply sing her facts. From the moment at five years old that she realized "Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally" could be sung to the famous tune from Eine Kleine Nachtmusik if you put an extra 'please' on that ending D, she realized that she could find the right piece of music to assimilate any degree of information she wished.

No comments:

Post a Comment