Friday, September 23, 2016

Tales from the Old New Land Tale 4: Just Steve (82%) (somewhat rewritten)

And having a playback memory, Carmen remembered something he said about copying down everything he said that, having such a perfect and erudite memory, 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, and remained so for two whole decades. 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 should, and the simple act of arising from 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 the Producer 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 registers to you with anything like the ring of veracity, then he asks you to at least consider what reasons and precedents there might be for it.

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 he ordered Ned 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 of gang rape - notice the plural. There was X-rated Caligula, a movie made through the combined talents of Gore Vidal - the patrician literary lion, and Bob Guccione - publisher of Penthouse Magazine. They simply wanted to record a literal rendering of the depraved events within the Roman Emperor Caligula's palace recorded 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, gladiatorial public execution, sex shows involving children and the deformed (if you don't believe me, watch it), 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 have much desire 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. Olivier's most memorable costar was 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, so imagine the reception by 1981. Yet somehow, there've still been another six Tarzan movies.

Who can, or should, forget George Lucas's Howard the Duck? A PG live-action movie in which an allegedly loveable alien duck gets transported through a wormhole to the world of sentient humans and ducks who eat pieces of bread in ponds. 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 turns out to be an alien who has a tongue that 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 more human-like pink 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 (formerly 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 (an Israeli), Fred Melamed (Sy Ableman in A Serious Man), David Margulies (probably Hollywood's single character actor of choice when you needed a generic Jew to play the part). 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. If every action has an equal and opposite reaction, then 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 of humanity into something sickeningly exploitative. Sometimes freedom's very liberators betray 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 soft-pedaled, 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 Sunrise series or (believe it or not) Borat; all of which an experimental gimmick that makes possible that 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 is the redeeming glories of Jason Reitman, or at least there was. Reitman made three of the Great American Movies at the beginning of his career with Thank You For Smoking, Juno, and Up In The Air, American classics all, which manage to say something original and tenebrous about this country. There's John Sayles, whom nobody remembers anymore, but twenty years ago was the very human God of Independent American Film. There's Ang Lee, who isn't even American, but easily beats Americans at their own game. And speaking of the Tribe, there's Errol Morris, the documentarian from Long Island who makes movies so utterly different from anyone else's that pI wonder if you should even call them movies by any accepted definition.

Other than these exceptions, 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 Ken Burns 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 (if anybody's an artist in today's Hollywood, it's the technicians),and a reliance on other movies for material which Tarantino and David Lynch mistake for ironic commentary. In each of these cases, the problem is that they're simply too weighted down by the baggage of movie history. The movies before them were just 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 can do, 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 therefore perhaps they're movies against movies. Most alarmingly, and prevalent to nearly all of these directors, 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 the way you like it, if her jawline is not quite in ideal aesthetic proportions, you can digitally alter them to any specification you like; but to what end? Today's auteurs have utterly mastered the technical end of filmmaking, and perhaps because they've mastered technique, they'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 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 the 80's that did quite well at the box office, even as ET and Raiders and Batman were the kinds of movies that made bank, but since it was between 1975 and 1990 that technology become the undisputed box office king, it was only a matter of time before movies that portrayed Americans in their natural state were systematically gutted; to be found nowhere in production American film but in the independent sphere 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? Fifteen years ago, there was even an Al Pacino movie, called Simone, about that exact notion. Perhaps 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 did as all abusers do, and 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 him 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 the 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 und 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 kids in the seats...). God knows how many hundreds of millions Polygram had to pay to acquire the rights for Beatles songs 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 Deutschen 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 her 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. Carmen knew that this was obviously a tallis, but it was much longer than any she'd ever seen before. He was standing in the corner of his living room, his back to the wall, his torso bent up and down at the speed of sound as he read from a black book while his lips moved with barely any sound at all emanated at the very 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 the 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 particular violence against women in what will hopefully become a mega/meta-novel that takes decades to write for many, many, many hundreds of pages, if ever complete. 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 something between a pretentious statement about nature and a pickup line, but Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, the 1927 masterpiece co-awarded the first ever Best Picture Oscar (because even in the first year of the Oscars they couldn't award the best movie without a quid pro quo...) 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 for the world 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 the first they did it was 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 (represented with long blond hair wrapped in a tight bun) so he can take up full time with his wanton urban strumpet of a mistress (represented by black hair with a flapper haircut...), but he 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 (since it takes place over 24 hours) saves her life by forming a search party for her after a shipwreck - thereby 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're all supposed to root for the murder to happen!

Sunrise is exactly as melodramatic a movie as it sounds, 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. It merely tells us, conjures for us, invokes in us, uplifts in us, the tantalizing, agonzing longing for virtue to be rewarded and redemption to be possible.

Sunrise speaks to us from another world where cynicism has yet to be invented, just like the music of Bach; and just as with Bach, Murnau arrived on the stage of history at a very specific moment for his art. 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 the 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, Underworld, The Unknown, Steamboat Bill Jr., An Andalusian Dog, Lonesome, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Queen Kelly, Sadie Thompson, Show People, , 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 (fleshier insights too), 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 for 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 and its spiritual uplift - 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 the the women they like are 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 what she'd seen.

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 standards 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 were, perhaps a bit more intelligent; but music was not something they made themselves. They were aware of music and they 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 Carmen's grandparents 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; or 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 blessing at all, 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, the livestock and children claimed by plague. 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, her parents found ample reason to return to the flock. It was shortly after her fourth birthday that her parents had confirmation that something truly 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 Alma Redemptoris Mater. 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. A priest who doubled as the parish organist and tripled as a teacher in the school 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 Alma Redemptoris Mater, 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 house upkeep was consecrated to the Holy Mother Church, who bore them a changeling child that 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 (yes, Uncle Ray was Ray Charles, who had a studio down the street from their apartment, and why Ray Charles needed good lighting nobody knew...) and Carmen watched the keys which Uncle Ray could not see as he played. As Carmen progressed, Uncle Ray was always and 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 Alma Redemptoris Mater, 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 only a little interest in the details of the private piano teacher from Hungary, Mr. Nordau (Doctor Nordau), contracted directly from Universal Studios by Uncle Ray, who paid every cent of those lessons for twelve years, the methods and personal manner of Dr. Nordau turned her into an obedient girl savant until her fingertips bled. He would balance a coin upon her hands to teach her finger positioning, and when the coin fell off he would strike the hand with a ruler. By nine she'd already graduated from Beethoven Sonatas to Liszt Transcendental Etudes, so the red letter day was not when she mastered a new piece, it was when she graduated from a dime on her hand to a penny, from a penny to a nickel, from a nickel to a quarter. He also 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 of 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. But as I'm sure you've guessed by now, what unfortunately matters in Carmen's story is not the ascent, but the descent.

So you'll unfortunately have to permit me to fast forward to five years after where we left Steve and Carmen, sometime around 1984, when it came time to name their first daughter. Steve and Carmen already had two 'failed' pregnancies to their confution before Cleo came into the world, miscarried because of what the doctor so tactfully referred to as an 'incompetent uterus.' Due to a division in the uterine septum, the children could not derive nourishment from their mother. They therefore passed all too quickly into lavatorial oblivion. I don't remember whether it was the second or the third time that Carmen sprained her pelvis during which Steve asked an OBGYN to take a look and see if the uterine canal could be repaired during the same time that the orthopedist tried to mend the pelvic damage.

Luckily enough, six months after the surgery, Carmen had a green light to get pregnant again, and nine months later, they commemorated that joyous day by naming their first daughter Clarissa, in part after Virginia Woolf's most famous creation, but in part to commemorate the day when they first got together and Steve helped Carmen to understand what became their favorite book: Mrs. Dalloway, but mostly because Steve's mother insisted that the daughter be named after her own recently departed mother, Clara, who came to Los Angeles from Berlin in 1936 with a four-year-old daughter hidden in a large suitcase with some holes punched out for air while a husband and two pubescent boys were stranded in Germany.

It was all pretty hard until 1992. Carmen's capacity as a pianist became more and more reduced. By 1987, she could not play for more than an hour at a time without straining a muscle in her hand. By 1992, the strain became a sprain. By 1998, it was a half-hour before she'd break a finger. By 2001, it was the length of a Chopin Waltz played at pianissimo, and then she had to close the piano for the rest of the day. By 2004, she'd forgotten that she couldn't play; she would sight read whatever music was on the piano stand, and would negotiate around the two or three digits she'd already broken in the days and weeks preceding with a howling scream cutting off whatever once beloved Schumann character piece or Schubert Impromptu or Debussy Prelude caught her attention from the piano stand (their younger daughter made sure to put different music on the piano every day so there wouldn't be the same piece resounding around the house forever).

Through it all, Carmen still had her gorgeous voice, which thirty-five years of cigarettes could not wreck, even if it moved her voice down a half-dozen fachs. Unfortunately, she realized too accurately that any kind of performance, any at all, might put her straight into the public's black eye because of her past association with The Producer. Who knows to what she could yet again subject herself, or to what she could subject her family? To remind people that another paramour of this producer still stalked the streets of LA like a ghost could reopen all manner of old trauma, put the life of everyone she cared about at risk from people The Producer might pay to silence her before she talks, and might make a scandal of her life and her childrens' to the press. She and Steve both agreed that she had to stay away from the stage until The Producer was dead, not even so much as a dinner theater. The Producer was still around Hollywood, one of the many ghosts of Hollywood infamy, a low-level, stipended producer allowed to walk around the studio lots, absorbing the sun like a vegetable as he 'supervised' B-movie releases, which the New New Hollywood let him refer to as his 'comeback.' The comeback necessitated many tabloid magazine and TV stories which would still plaster his many sins and conquests and legends ten years after his trivial comeback seemed to anyone like any comeback at all. Even so, once every two months there was another scoop chasing journalist calling Carmen, not to talk about her story, but about the story of the woman Carmen was left for - Tamera Wittenberg. "No comment" of course.

Nobody could figure out of Tamera Wittenberg was European Royalty or white trash from Kansas, but she was tall, twig-like, leggy and blond in precisely that way which the charitable call statuesque and the uncharitable call a bimbo, but the 80's called perfect beauty. It's true, Tammy didn't seem like a great brain, but she was as quiet as a mouse and submissive as a dog with its belly up. She was never anything but polite to Carmen.

Carmen however, had nowhere else to go, and was, in fact, living in a room down the hall from the Producer for the first five months that Tammy and The Producer were involved. Carmen had no job, and even after The Producer took up with Tammy, she was understandably worried that The Producer would go ballistic if she showed any initiative outside his house, so for five months, she simply stayed in the house, she read, she went to school, she went back to her room, where the maid would leave a meal for her at her doorstep.

She would speak to The Producer when spoken to, and occasionally he would visit with her in her room - where discourse was at least a bit more civil than it used to be, and congress a bit more gentle. But the day inevitably came when Carmen heard the same shouts and shattering of glass and turning over furniture and whimpering tears that she knew oh so well from time past, emanating from the bedroom that once was hers. It was eight-thirty in the morning; she immediately walked out the room without a single possession. She walked from The Producer's Beverly Hills house to which she belonged for eighteen months to the USC campus to meet with Steve three hours later, and life resumed as well as it could.

Carmen wanted to teach voice, but unfortunately, there is never enough market for a voice teacher and far too much market for piano teachers. One would think that parents would go mad with the desire to teach their children most basic musical skill in the world, but singing is so basic that there is no mark of respectability to it. The piano, rather, is the ultimate mark of respectability. If one can carry a tune, one can sing. But to play a piano well is no less an achievement than building your own house or creating beautiful woodwork and clay pots. In Europe, America, or Asia, child who plays piano well is the ultimate mark of a family that wrested order from the existential chaos of living in a lower social class.

Back in the 80's, there was a full roster of piano students whom she taught while Steve watched the kids, but Carmen knew that there were many better piano teachers in the area, so she kept her prices much lower and hoped that volume would cover the expenses which her billing would certainly not. As so many music teachers are, she was in no way cut for a job of managing children; managing their anxious mothers who want to believe their child another Horowitz, managing their bored fathers - more interested in picking her up than his children. Even among her few intermediate-level students, she knew she could never impart any valuable musical ideas to indifferent children whose parents assured them that they would understand why they needed to play piano when they were older. She was becoming like so many of her teachers who wanted better for her, and she did not understand why this new generation of students were so much less obedient than she once was. Her frustration with her charges was continually palpable to them, and most of the kids who'd been with her longest would dread their lessons in a way that ensured any inclination toward practicing killed in its inception. A few times a year, another student would break down in tears mid-lesson, and a call would follow a few days later from the mother: "Jessica has too much on her plate."

All through this life-era, Steve lost as much money as he made. Even with health insurance, the surgeries Carmen needed ever more direly were a fortune each to each - and the more surgeries she needed, the higher her premiums went, until she was just plain uninsurable and their family policy was cancelled. Steve and the children had to each get an individual plan, but Carmen was on her own, corrective surgery after orthopedic surgery after cardiothoracic surgery, and eventually even neurological surgery.

Furthermore, no matter how long since she left The Producer for him, Steve feared that Carmen was accustomed to a luxury he couldn't possibly provide, and couldn't possibly admit he couldn't provide. If she hadn't bought a new dress or jewel in a month, Steve would buy her one (to the very end, Carmen was immaculately dressed). But not even Carmen's needs and wants, or the thought of a baby Steve thought Carmen couldn't possibly carry to term, were enough to keep Steve an accountant. When Steve told his mother he was about to go into business with a friend to operate a video store, his mother's screams woke baby Clarissa up.

Steve's father was more supportive and said to give it, and their son, a chance to do what he wants, but his mother was right. Even in 1980's Los Angeles, there wasn't enough demand for a local independent to carve out a share of the market from Blockbuster Video. Had they closed in 1986, Steve would still have possession over the money from his accounting days to pay off their loan. But Steve and his friend kept borrowing to keep it going until early '88, by which time the bank came to repo everything in his house while his four year old daughter absorbed her first vivid memories and his wife tried to calm their screaming six-month-old second daughter: Elizabeth. The furniture, the silverware, the fridge, the beds, the piano, the violin, the books - all 900 of them, the 3700 VHS tapes, even the film cannisters and the projector equipment from college. We were lucky they didn't take the house. For the next five years, Carmen had to teach piano from a four-and-a-half octave Yamaha keyboard which her stepfather bought for her.

Steve did the only thing a real man can do in that situation, he went to his parents for a loan. His mother gave him a big hug, and of course she told him that of course they would, but he knew the condition.

So Steve went back to managing managing books and accounts at the very same bank that repossessed everything he owned. At least they knew him... But when he applied for a job interview, the very last place he thought he'd get an interview of course, the place he applied to as a private joke, was the first to call him back. Nobody seemed to remember that they took his entire life away from him just a month ago. Perhaps they did, but they were too polite to mention it, or perhaps they were trying to make it up to him; or perhaps he was too generic to remember, or perhaps he was just another anonymously bad investment vehicle among thousands. Nobody checks your credit score when you're applying to be the man who checks the credit score. All they knew was that he had shining recommendations from the last bank at which he worked, high academic honors from the Marshall School of Business, and a mother who threatened to take her account elsewhere.

Steve stuck with his mother's agreement in good faith for three years. Again and again, he offered to repay the loan, but his parents wouldn't hear of it. Every day was miserable, this was the price he paid for doing nothing but watch movies and change diapers for three years, but Steve had a life again. He was making $35,000 a year, but after taxes it was all pocketable money thanks to his parents (really his mother's) loan and their agreement to pay and backpay for any surgeries Carmen requires. His beautiful wife learned to spend on a budget surprisingly well, his daughters were brilliant and the older one already showed some flashes of her mother's former brilliance.

In 1991, Steve returned to his mother with a check for the entirety of the loan. He couldn't of course pay for the surgeries, but he begged his mother to accept the backpayment as a token of his appreciation and love, because "I'm going into business again and I've quit my job."

"Oh no, Please tell me..."
"No no, it's not in video."

It wasn't even movie related. Of course his mother refused to accept the check, and she was actually slightly enthused when she heard his plan, though not as enthused as she might have been. It's LA, people need protection from crime, and he was going to become his friend's junior partner and manage the distribution of car alarms.

It wasn't a bad idea. His parents had been burgled twice in the last five years. Sure, Fairfax was not the neighborhood it once was, but you never used to expect anything like that kind of crime can happen to you. Why can't Steve go into home alarm?

The date Steve stood up to his mother was March 2nd, 1991. The next day, Rodney King would get the pulp beaten from him at the corner of Foothill Boulevard and Osborne Street. Business was slow for fourteen months thereafter. Steve was drawing a salary, but while home alarm was something every white person thought he needed, too few people seemed to think they needed a car alarm.

But on April 29th, 1992, Reginald Denny and Fidel Lopez were pulled from their cars and beaten on camera as a racial maelstrom deluged its way through the City of Angels, and car alarms become something that everyone thought they needed, not because their cars might be stolen, but because a car alarm can surely be what saves you when a pack of marauders attack you while still in a car you can lock, and all you have to defend yourself is a vehicle made of steel that can go up to 200 miles-per-hour.

By June, Steve, who'd never made a salary higher than $40,000, was pulling in $50,000 a month, and would continue to do so for the duration of the 90's - roughly $90,000 a month in the currency of a quarter-century later.

It was also in 1992 that Steve's father passed away quite suddenly; an apparent heart attack while behind the wheel of his SUV, but Steve's mother didn't want an autopsy to confirm it. No sooner than her husband passed did Steve's mother want to be all the more in the lives of her only child and granddaughters. But no longer had Steve to rely on his mother for loans, no longer had Steve to rely on his mother for advice, no longer had Steve to rely on his mother for support. In the 80's, when Steve and Carmen went out on the weekends, they would drop the kids off with Steve's parents, and his mother would keep a close eye on them, but in the 90's, they could hire a stunningly cheap Spanish-speaking nanny. In the 80's, when Carmen needed surgery and neither Steve nor either of her parents or step-parents could pay for it, Steve's mother would sign checks with no questions, except for many private words with her son about how disappointed she was that he married such a high-maintenance woman. But in the 90's, Steve probably made more money in a year than his parents made in ten. In the 80s, Steve's mother would call four days a week, full of advice and opinions, and her son would listen to them all patiently and with seeming cheer. In the 90's, Steve was sometimes too busy to even take his Mom's call once a week.

Steve's mother didn't exactly hold her tongue about her opinions of her son's ingratitude, but she at least held it by her own standards. Even if she complained constantly to relatives whom she knew Steve never had any time for, she never complained about Steve's newfound independence to Steve himself. Perhaps Steve was right to be uninterested in his extended family, they never really forgave Steve's mother for marrying outside the faith, but her relatives all lived in San Francisco and Los Angeles, but how many semites were there in Pismo Beach?

Steve's grandmother Clara, his Oma, wanted a future for a daughter with no father, no brothers, no money, and no English. These supercilious ersatz Yekke relatives were born in Frankfurt and came to America as children more than fifty years ago. They made millions in schmatteh factories in which worked lots of Jews who had the bad foresight to come over only later when there were many more of us and business was already tougher. Jewish immigrants from Russia rather than Germany who didn't have much money to bring with them.

Aside from the suits and dresses they wore on all occasions, no matter how warm the weather, these relatives might as well have been from another planet - Russia even... Jewel-encrusted rings on half their fingers, necklaces for every day of the week, cars for both the husband and the wife which chauffeurs usually drove, a dinner fit for Shabbos every night. And yet, it was the Great Depression, so apparently they had very little money they could lend a supposedly cherished relative with a kleines Madchen. Sympathy, sympathy, sympathie for their plight, a job in the factory, but not even enough additional money to pay the rent, and not a cent offered to try to bribe Clara's family out of Berlin.

Los Angeles was a big city, but Clara knew she wasn't wanted there. If her only remaining relatives wanted to keep her side of the family as small as possible, then she knew she had to go elsewhere to give her daughter a new family.

She meant to go up to San Francisco, but as so often happens in these immigrant stories, the only Auto she could afford to buy broke down in a much smaller city, Pismo Beach. Rather than get a new car, she renovated a derelict motel and turned it into a nice bed and breakfast with a restaurant on the downstairs floor. Pismo Beach is the Clam Capital of the World, or so they say, so Clara's signature dishes were clams fried in schmaltz and clams stewed in the Yemenite Zhug which Clara's aunt taught her to make. There was kugel and matzoh ball soup on the menu, a brisket sandwich, potato pancakes, a beef stew on Saturdays, home-cured pastrami, and corned beef around September, homebaked babka, chopped liver, blintzes around June, stuffed cabbage, beef sausages, a potato and spinach pastry which the migrant workers thought were empanadas, chocolate chip biscotti, honey cake in the fall, pickled herring, home fried doughnuts in the winter, a carrot yam stew with raisins and apricots around Thanksgiving. The Matzoh Ball soup was so popular that a number of people suggested that Clara should put some shellfish in it and turn it into a Boulliabaise, but Clara's personality was so forbidding that nobody would dare make the suggestion. Nevertheless, "Clara's" was a hit, and if it had nothing to do with the winningness of Clara's personality, it certainly had something to do with her daughter's.

Clara never married again, and her daughter never saw so much as a man in her mother's life. But Clara's daughter was the petite and cute and funny and exotic waitress who served with a smile after school and before homework, who always took the orders right and remembered the name of every second-time customer. She was not beautiful in the way all the other swell girls in Pismo Beach were; she was a half-foot shorter, she had skin with a perpetual tan and a bumpy nose, she wouldn't wait for the fella to pull out the chair or hold the door, and never waited for the guy to tell her what she thought before telling him first. But the swell fellas in Pismo were crazy for her. Every one of them was a faithful customer after school, and every one of them probably asked her on a date multiple times, but she'd never say yes to any of them, and because she never said yes, they'd come back to Clara's twice as often to try to change her mind.

One guy though never asked her out, so he, of course, became the one Clara's daughter asked out. In 1955, he became Clara's son-in-law. Frederick Johansen, six-foot-four, All-American football lineman, decorated Korean War veteran, electrical engineer, man of five-hundred words a day, and former Lutheran acolyte. Certainly not good enough for her daughter, but good enough for America.

The Los Angeles relations refused to come to the wedding, refused to send a gift, and refused to speak to Clara for more than fifteen years. Until '55, Clara would come down every year to Los Angeles for the High Holidays and the Seders; she went to every Bar Mitzvah, every wedding, every bris. Sometimes her daughter would be there, sometimes not. Who the hell knows if these relatives ever went to shul if there wasn't a high holiday or a simcha involved? But even if they didn't, to marry a shegetz among cultural Jews is tantamount to declaring allegiance to Hitler; it is and will always be an excomunnicable offense that breaks families apart forever because it's the argument leads down the rabbit hole of theology's most important and unresolvable question: Is faith motivated by love, or is love motivated by faith?

In our modern era when tolerance has finally won a few battles over faith, the question of intermarriage becomes still more vital. When the world shows signs of growing more tolerant, what need is there to uphold the groups and struggles of old? Every intermarriage, be it Jew to Gentile, Black to White, Liberal to Conservative, Lamb to Lion, is a rejection of old polarities - a declaration that all the great struggles which your ancestors underwent were absolutely unnecessary, irrelevant to the present, and deserve to be sucked into the black hole of forgetting. It's no secret that memory can be as much a curse as blessing, and surely many memories deserve to be flushed down the forgetful toilet. But in the modern era, when we so often seem on that precipice of the brave and finer new world in which a Messiah or a prince of peace reconciles fathers to sons and sons to fathers, perhaps all that stops us from bringing this next world to Earth is the fearful memory of the world as it once was, and whose threat to become again never ceases. Perhaps because we cannot erase these memories, they are precisely what doom us to never achieve this healed world of mercy, pity, peace and love.

It was within a month of the wedding that Clara unexpectedly took up Fred's parents invitation to visit their church. In her nearly twenty years in Pismo Beach, the local legend Claradonna Zweig was never seen to socialize with anyone, and Fred's parents only invited her out of politeness. Yet by the end of 1955, she was a regular attendee to St. John’s Lutheran Church in Pismo Beach who insisted upon catering the Sunday lunches free of charge. On Good Friday 1956, she took baptism and never missed a Sunday thereafter for her remaining twenty-eight years.

Clara’s was closed every Sunday thereafter, and after Church, Claradonna Helena Zweig would return home with a friend from her congregation, Naomi Schafer, a widow from Breslau whose husband, a promising Captain in Germany’s Eighth Army, was felled by a hail of bullets but two months after they were married in June 1914. Hauptmann Schulz was one of the 12,000 fallen Germans at the Battle of Tannenberg, whose legendary acts of bravery enabled the slaughter of 170,000 Russians. Naomi was roughly ten years older than Clara. She’d found her way to Pismo Beach with her father in roughly 1920, after the German riots against the Polish, who would eventually transform Breslau into Wroclaw, accidentally burned down her extremely German father’s medical offices. Who knows how they ended up in Pismo Beach, but Dr. Schafer died in his sleep in 1938, an eloquent and celebrated member of the Central Californian Bund whose funeral at St. John’s Lutheran was attended by hundreds of Bund members and dozens of Klansmen - some of whom paid their respects in regalia. He was eminent throughout the state, perhaps even the Western United States, for his many kind words and trenchant insights about the great strength of new German regime. Every Bund organization from Montana to New Mexico would engage him to speak as an expert on World Politics and the glories of the Northern European Empires.   

And so every Sunday in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, Clara and Naomi would go after church to Clara’s modest lodgings in the Bed and Breakfast over the restaurant. They’d sing all the songs of their gymnasium days, they’d play four-hand duets on Clara’s out of tune upright piano, they’d recite all the Goethe and Heine they once were forced to memorize, they’d talk disapprovingly of the other church members, and they’d recall friends and husbands long dead.

Clara’s daughter, whom I suppose fancied herself all American, found Naomi Schafer rather icky, and was certain Ms. Schafer was antisemite like her father, but she was happy that her mother finally made a friend when all she’d ever seen from her mother was work and sacrifice and testiness. Even so, her mother's turn toward a new religion proved too much for her.

St. John's installed a new Pastor right before Christmas 1965. A smiling blond from Montana who sported a flattop haircut and bolo ties every Sunday. On Good Friday '66, the tenth anniversary of Clara's baptism, he shocked the congregation by mounting the pulpit with a guitar in his hand. Younger members were overjoyed, they stood up and clapped excitedly while putting their arms in the air as though second nature. Clara and Naomi, on the other hand, were incensed and immediately petitioned the board for his firing. But no one on the board objected, they loved Pastor Lehmann, so that was the last which either Clara or Naomi made about the issue. For the next twenty years, they simply sat in the back pew and scowled.

Much less objectionable to Steve's grandmother was Pastor Lehmann's fundraisers for Reagan and Nixon, his preemptive encouragement of student deacons to volunteer for the Vietnam War, his public shaming of a lax daughter who asked a question about the War's justice. Clara had never been a political sort, instructing her daughter from the earliest age that political questions are what tear people apart from each other and can only interfere with people trying to go about their lives. But Clara's daughter began to notice the inveighs that Clara now seemed to be parroting from her Church about ungrateful students who protested against this great country of ours, and the ungrateful negroes who dare compare the way good Christians in the South treat their black people to the way godless Communists treat their billions of unfree citizens.

This last point was one that Clara's daughter found truly inconceivable. How could Clara call negroes ungrateful when she owed so much her triumph in America to a negro woman? Neither Clara nor her daughter were the sole progenitors of 'Clara's success. The third, and perhaps most consequential, in their trinity of unexpected prosperity was Mrs. Washington, the kindly lady from Clayton County in Georgia whose husband drove her to work every day from Grover Beach at four in the morning in their beat up Plymouth Valiant before he went back home to get their four children ready for school and then drive fifty miles east to his job as a farmhand and then return at ten to pick Mrs. Washington up. The kindly lady who went every Sunday to sing in the church choir at Bethel Baptist, and catered their after-service lunches every week with 'Clara's leftover provisions from the week's food supply. When Clara herself became a Christian, she immediately informed Mrs. Washington that she no longer had access to the leftovers to cater her church because Clara would now use them to cater lunches at her own church.

Mrs. Washington was the kind of woman who would always sneak Clara's daughter a cookie, sometimes two or three, whenever Clara was too busy manning the stove or the cash register to look up. Running a business takes all kinds of people, and you need a boss who can kill with kindness as much as you need a boss who delights in killing.

Mrs. Washington was, begrudgingly, one of Clara's first hires. Clara thought that colored help, even if they worked in the kitchen, would drive customers away, but she needed the help immediately. Nobody knew who Clara was, and Clara had no idea how to get more applicants attention. The men were in the theaters of war, and their wives were almost fully employed in the factories. If Clara's was going to be a success, they needed all the help they could get. But Mrs. Washington had been waiting tables since she was an eight-year-old kid in Georgia. Clara had no idea how to take inventory, how to fill staffing needs, how to quickly update menus, and how to advertise. It was certainly not Clara who came up with the phone book advertisement in 1945: "Clara's: Home Cooking from the Jewish Mom You Never Knew You Needed," Every time a waitress broke down in tears from the stress of dealing with a customer, or from dealing with Clara, Mrs. Washington was always there with a hug and tissue. Every time a health department inspector or a supplier needed to be supplicated, it was Mrs. Washington, not Clara, who'd handle the negotiation. Every time a customer was in the hospital, Mrs. Washington would visit with a dinner tray taken without Clara's knowledge and some good cheer. Clara was an institution in Pismo Beach, but Mrs. Washington was the reason every customer over the age of 30 came back. And yet for almost twenty-five years, she never took her meal anywhere but in the kitchen.

In 1966, an increasingly infirm Clara accidentally spilled a boiling pot of Matzoh Ball soup on Mrs. Washington while she was mopping the kitchen floor. The skin on Mrs. Washington's limbs was forever disfigured thereafter, and she never properly walked again. Clara claimed to her daughter that it was the wet floor from the mop that made her slip, but her daughter always suspected that Clara, in her sixties and showing every year of it on her once waif-like and now witch-like frame, was already nowhere near as strong or coordinated as she once was.

Perhaps Clara used the accident to explain an infirmity caused by the simple accumulation of years and cares. Clara was untouched by the scald of the soup, but she claimed that her arms and knees were bruised from the fall and was never the same thereafter. She also claimed to have a nagging pain in her right shoulder where the pot fell on her. She claimed that she sympathized with Mrs. Washington for how badly she was hurt by the fall, but perhaps she used her own pain to absolve herself of guilt.

Clara told Mr. Washington that his deserved whatever Clara could possibly give her, but that Clara couldn't give her much. Secretly, Clara always thought she'd paid Mrs. Washington far too much, and occasionally suspected Mrs. Washington of occasionally skimming from the cash register. She carefully explained to Mr. Washington that she couldn't possibly pay them anything more than something minimal when Mrs. Washington could no longer work? The hale and healthy Mr. Washington, perfectly slender, grey at the temples and the mustache, with eyes that bore into interlocutors with all too much understanding, nodded silently and sagely at Clara's explanation; and when she was finished, he walked out of the restaurant without saying so much as a goodbye. Clara promised the Washingtons a dollar twenty five a week for the rest of Mrs. Washington's life - a minimum wage for an employee who maximized Clara's life. She sent it in the mail every week until she died, but never got any confirmation that the Washingtons received it.

It was in 1967 that Clara casually mentioned to her daughter that Steve ought to get confirmed soon. A few days later, Clara’s daughter did something which surprised the hell out of everybody, particularly Fred. Steve was seven years old, and she decided Steve needed a Hebrew education. “But why?” Fred asked, not in frustration but in bewilderment. “Why does anybody need to go to a Hebrew school in Pismo Beach?”

“That’s the problem. We have to leave Pismo.”

And just like that, the Johansens moved to LA. Fred Johansen was the type that always got along. His entire family was in Pismo more than a hundred years earlier. Dozens of births and deaths and baptisms and confirmations, decades of toil and sacrifice and simmering family resentments that were worked through by the thousands upon thousands of little bonds of love that keep a family together through their worst periods to the moments that all families cherish - the holiday dinners, the birthday parties, the relaxed Sunday barbecues, the drunken nights out that occasionally ended in throwing a punch or two, but always made up for the next day or week or month. Yet it never occurred to Fred, or to any other Johansen, that such bonds had to work to be maintained, or could strain under the pressure of longer distance.

Whether or not those bonds strained, Fred kept his feelings to himself as he always did, and but for perhaps an extra whiskey before bed, he was the same quiet picture of smiling amiability in middle age that he was when his wife forcefed him matzoh ball soup for the first time. If he disliked it, he kept it to himself, and slowly sipped on that matzoh ball soup once a week at least for the rest of his life.

So in 1967, Steve found a new job as an electrical engineer at a generically small hardware company in a big city, and the Johansens never returned to Pismo for more than a weekend at a time. Steve went to public school in the Fairfax neighborhood, and his mother, in truly theatrical Hollywood fashion, got a Bas Mitzvah at the closest Reform Temple, and while she only knew a couple college acquaintances in LA, she made sure to turn the Bas Mitzvah into an event. She sent laminated invitations to every member of the Temple and to all her estranged relatives. Worried that these relatives might disapprove of a woman being called to the Torah, she kept calling their houses, talking their ears off for forty-five minutes at a time with whatever subject she could think up, boring her way into renewed ties of friendship with them until she was sure they’d relent and RSVP ‘Yes’ to this and any future event. The reception was not held at the synagogue, but at Nate n’Al’s Deli in Beverly Hills, near where her relatives lived.

Fred wasn’t the type who thought much about money. He didn’t spend much, and there wasn’t much on which he wanted to spend. As far as luxuries went, he had a small boat he built himself, the occasional Dodgers game, a couple rifles for hunting and a fishing pole, a wet bar in his basement, the 1952 Chevy 3100 pickup that he drove and repaired himself for forty years, and the zither his grandfather, son of Swedes, taught him to play. Any luxury more grandiose than their slightly larger than average 3 bedroom house would not have occurred to him to buy.

But from the moment they were married in 1955, Fred’s wife made sure that every cent not devoted to home or car maintenance was tied up in Treasury Bonds and stocks: GE, GM, Coke, Chrysler, the Seven Sister oil companies, Conoco Energy, Boeing, Campbell Soup, Kellogg, IBM, Whirlpool, Proctor and Gamble, Detroit Steel, Studebaker, Collins Radio, National Sugar Refining, Zenith Electronics… Some of these investments went bad, but of course, most of them paid off quite spectacularly. All you had to do was buy the stock, not touch it for forty years, and you’d have enough money to feed a hundred generations of hearty Johansen folk who wouldn’t have to ever work again.If Fred ever realized that he was a multi-millionaire, he never gave much indication. Steve didn’t realize it either until his mother died and her will left him 18 million dollars in liquid assets.

From the moment Steve turned seven in 1967, his mother watched his grades like a hawk; gave him extra math problems over meals, schlepped him across town for violin lessons, and bought him books with no subtle pressure that he should read, signed him up for every extra-curricular, occupied his empty moments with chores around the house.

Every Saturday until Steve was thirteen, the two of them would go every Saturday to whatever movies were playing at the Chinese Theater. Different movies played there every week, usually in double features, from cartoons to subtitled foreign films. No matter how adult or violent, no matter how risque, no matter how intellectually challenging or B-movie dumb, the ritual was inviolate. Steve and his Mom would sit through it together. It was their ‘thing’, a way that Steve’s Mom could show that she trusted him, and perhaps an unspoken apology for driving him so hard.

Steve eventually had to become a teenager like all teenagers, and became too old to regularly get caught with his Mom every Saturday. Sometimes they’d go, but Steve would usually try to get out of it. Pretty soon, their Saturday movies would became just another chore his mother pressured him to complete.