June, 2014

Hollywood Nobody

June 24th, 2014 11 Comments

P1020549 (Small)

Oh, are you going to have fun!

My friend Dan Bronson (that’s him up above, pressing down hard on the old mental accelerator) is a semi-retired screenwriter. That’s a little bit like saying, “Spike is a semi-retired pit-bull.” Spike may not be actively engaged in killing anything and everything on four legs just at the moment, but it doesn’t mean the bloodthirsty impulse, the longing for the taste of blood, the murderous instincts, the essential desire for violence and mayhem (all of which are traits writers share with pit-bulls) have all been retired; it just means Spike isn’t killing anyone as I write this.

Dan, who—to be honest—perhaps isn’t quite as bloodthirsty as a pit-bull named Spike, has written a memoir of his time cringing under the lash in the salt mines of Hollywood. It is entitled Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody (available on Amazon), and it qualifies as a wild, irreverent, raucous, and howlingly funny account of the ups and downs, the hits and misses, the mendacity and arrogance, the back-stabbing and phony friendships, the eccentricity and frequently self-destructive behavior, and the occasional true friendship and loyalty that epitomize the golden glamour of the show biz racket in the city of angels and dreams and demons. I recommend it wholeheartedly. It is as refreshing a memoir as I have read in a long time. Perhaps only David Niven’s great autobiography, The Moon’s a Balloon comes close to the same delicate balance between honesty and humor, but Dan’s writing is a wild and unique style worth reading for itself alone.

So I recommend the book, but you will notice that I have added a link to his website (Hollywood Nobody) in my “Links” column. (Duh. Where else would you add it, Jameson?) He has started a website in part to publicize the book, but primarily because he is starting an online screen-writing class. Since I have known Dan for a longish while now, and have had a small taste of his abilities as teacher, I can wholeheartedly recommend his class to anyone with any interest in learning how to write screenplays professionally. (Actually, if anyone really wants to learn how to write screenplays, I would recommend taking his class in conjunction with psychotherapy, but perhaps I’m a trifle cynical.) But even if you have absolutely zero interest in ever having anything to do with Hollywood beyond reading the headlines of the National Intruder while unloading your grocery cart, I also strongly suggest you visit his site for sheer entertainment value. Dan has the kind of loopy sense of humor that really appeals to me, but more than that, the site itself is fun, full of pages and tabs and links and connections that amuse and delight, including a tab where you can listen to him read chapters from his book. To quote a famous old character actor I worked with once long ago: If you don’t like this, you don’t like chocolate cake!

Under Milk Wood

June 20th, 2014 15 Comments

250px-Dylan_Thomas_photo

 

Many years ago (never mind precisely how many; suffice it to say it was back in the days when the 33&1/3 LP was king) I was browsing through a record store (Yes, children, there used to be stores, just like bookstores—remember those?—where one could browse through vinyl records and… What? You don’t know what a vinyl record is?) and I stumbled across a Caedmon recording of Under Milk Wood, with Dylan Thomas reading the parts of the First Voice and the Reverend Eli Jenkins. The fact that there is a recording at all is something of a miracle: it was recorded at the last moment, as an afterthought, when an unknown someone, who deserves a front-row seat in Heaven, placed a single microphone on the stage at the 92nd Street Y in New York during the first reading of the play, the only reading ever that included Dylan Thomas.

I was—and still am—a big Dylan Thomas freak. Miserably unhappy at my first boarding school (in Switzerland) I turned to poetry as an escape. Literally. Or, more accurately, as part of an escape: I would take a book of poems and walk away from the classes, away from the shabby building, the sadistic students jockeying brutally for dominance, teachers who thought their students were despicable and who expressed that thought regularly by slapping faces and boxing ears and kicking backsides, from the food that put at least one student into the hospital, from the ridiculously and artificially structured and meaningless discipline, from all of it, up into the vineyards that lined the hills above the school, and looking out at Lac Leman (Lake Geneva, in English) I would read poetry out loud to myself and for the edification of the grapes. Those vineyards that year probably produced the worst wine ever to come out of Switzerland, and that’s saying something. I called this keeping my sanity; the school called it running away, and I was eventually thrown out for it. But one of the poems I had recently discovered, and that I read out loud to sour the grapes, was Fern Hill:

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs

About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green…

Oh, yes; I can still do much of it from memory. But in that record store so many years ago (I was in college at the time, Beloit College, or perhaps on suspension) I was thrilled to see the LP, with Dylan Thomas’ fleshy, pug-nosed face on it, looking as if he were trying unsuccessfully to hide pain with a veneer of arrogance. I had never even heard of Under Milk Wood, but I snapped it up. And I was transfixed, transported, mesmerized by those lyrical, lilting, rambunctious, randy, rollicking words; by Dylan Thomas’ extraordinary voice—vintage-port-in-a-seaside-pub made audible—by the performances, all of them (only Sada Thompson might be still remembered today, for her work on the TV series Family), by the sly humor and pathos of it, and most of all by the naked love expressed in those words.

It is described as a play for voices, but it is by any standards an odd play. Structured loosely—and much more briefly—along the lines of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, which Thomas almost certainly had never heard of, it is a portrait of small Welsh fishing village seen through the dreams of its inhabitants, and through the words of the dead and the dead past brought to life by those dreams. It takes place in a single day in the village of Llareggub (and if you read that name backwards, you will get a hint of Thomas’ sometimes schoolboy humor) as the inhabitants gradually wake and go about their business, until night, “bible-black,” gradually closes down once more around the town.

It is, as all the best of Dylan Thomas is, rich, evocative, incomparable in its playful use of language, moving, funny, bawdy, and—like all good art—it lingers with you long after you’re done.

I hadn’t read it in forty years, but something Darleen said prompted a memory and I pulled my copy down the other night. I had planned to just dip into it, a passage here, a fondly remembered speech there; at one-thirty, the whole thing savored slowly, I staggered happily off to bed.

Many people don’t read plays. I think this is, in part, an unconscious realization of the truth of Stanislavski’s famous epigram: “People don’t go to the theater to see what the playwright has written. People go to the theater to see what the playwright has not written.” I suspect most people do want a director and actors to flesh out the bones strewn upon the page, that most people don’t have an imagination that is geared to that particular process. This is not, and is not intended to be, a pejorative statement; it just takes a certain way of reading, one that actors must, of necessity, develop. And even then, a good director can transcend anything even the best imagination can come up with. I had read Romeo and Juliet half a dozen times in an ecstasy of passionate adolescent delight when I first saw Franco Zeffirelli’s movie and realized I hadn’t even scratched the surface of what was there.

But Under Milk Wood is, as Thomas described it, a play for words (it was intended originally for radio broadcast only) and so it qualifies as a very short epic poem. Or perhaps as just a long narrative poem. Or perhaps just as a damn good poem of any category or description. And as such, it can be very effectively read all by itself. Like any poem, it should be read out loud, and like all of Dylan Thomas’ work it should be read out loud with great relish and uninhibited enthusiasm. Don’t worry about “understanding” it; poetry isn’t intended to be understood in an intellectual way any more than a painting is intended to be understood. It is intended to evoke an emotional response, and if there are occasional words you don’t know (a “courter” is either an archaic variation of courtier, or one who courts, but I had to look it up) don’t worry about it. Get the overall emotional ebb and flow of the piece, let the words wash over you like music, and worry about understanding later.

But get your hands on a copy and read it. Get to know blind Captain Cat, and affectionate, erotic, kindly Polly Garter, the feckless and would-be-murderous Mr. Pugh, Rosie Probert, Gossamer Beynon, Sinbad Sailors, get to know all of them. Get to know a Wales that may never have been, but that will never cease to exist.

Dry Times

June 11th, 2014 20 Comments

Button buck

It’s hard to know to what extent the rest of the country, or the world, is aware of the drought affecting much of the West, but it’s bad. It’s bad throughout all the Southwest, but especially in California. Like an old vaudeville routine, it begs the question: How bad is it?

Objectively, it is severe enough that there is something about it on the news practically every day. These reports feature colored maps with most of the Southwest in some shade of yellow or red, but with almost all of California shown in a dark and dirty shade of brown, a sort of über-red. A few days ago I drove down to the Central Valley, the salad, fruit, and nut bowl of the world, and the giant electronic billboards normally used to warn drivers to “Click It or Ticket,” or occasionally to post an Amber alert, were all lit up with warnings to conserve water. Some of the farmers down there are actually pulling out their citrus orchards: there isn’t enough water to keep the trees alive. The water in the Sacramento Delta that would normally grow oranges is being withheld for a tiny fish, called a smelt, that may or may not be endangered, depending on who you talk to, a decision made by environmentalists with swimming pools who play golf with politicians on manicured courses in Palm Springs.

Anecdotally, there are almost no cattle no speak of left in the mountains in this part of the state; the herds have all been sold off or shipped north. When I go out to clean the pastures, abnormally short and stunted grasses crack beneath my feet, and little puffs of dust rise up around my boots. Even the hardy, obnoxious, and ubiquitous mustard weed is dry and brittle.

But what really brought it home was something that happened the other day when Darleen and I were trimming branches on some of the trees around the house. I was taking advantage of being forced at wife-point to do chores, and I had turned the hose on very low to water two cottonwoods we planted many years ago as shade trees for the horses. Cottonwoods are tough, double-tough, capable of driving their roots deep into the ground for any kind of moisture, but even they need some help in times like these.

I was doing the heavy lifting, piling up the branches into the bed of my truck, tying them down, then off to the local dump. On the way back, after about the third or fourth trip, as I drove up my driveway, I saw one of those steel-cuts of a deer silhouetted in the shade under one of the cottonwoods. You know the kind of thing: yard art cut out of large sheets of metal in the form of deer or elk or horses or perhaps a cowboy leaning up against a wall, charming or tacky, depending on your point of view and on the skill of the artist doing the cutting.

But this one surprised the hell out of me, because I had never seen it before, and I wondered when Darleen had bought it, how she had gotten it home and hidden it without my seeing it, and how she had managed to get it set up under the trees. The damn things are heavy.

I kept driving closer, my brain addled by heat and work, staring at it, until, when I was only about twenty yards away, it raised its head. It was a very live button-buck (a fawn that is old enough to grow its first set of antlers) drinking out of the well around the base of the cottonwood.

I want to delineate the magnitude of this: It was at the height of the afternoon heat, a time when deer normally stay bedded down in the shade to avoid heat stress; the cottonwoods are at least a hundred yards from the edge of the hill behind the house, where the trees and boulders provide shade and shelter; the hill behind the house is south-facing, and in these mountains, only north-facing slopes have any springs or rivulets. Yet this little buck was so desperate for water that he had come a long way down a dry hill and crossed all that open space in bright sunlight just to get a drink. Not only that, but he was so desperately thirsty that when I stopped my truck only twenty yards away, he only looked at me briefly and then went right back to drinking. He drank steadily for about five minutes, occasionally changing his position relative to the water, but never again lifting his head, resolutely ignoring an idling pickup.

The late Roger Ott, a part Cherokee horse trainer, once told me that the plains Indians used to capture wild horses by the simple expedient of posting squaws at every known water hole. Then the young braves would start to chase the horses in relays. The wild horses of course would run away easily at first, but as the day went on the heat began to build they would need water. The squaws would chase them off the waterholes, and this would go on and on until finally the desperate and exhausted horses would stand in a nervous group, uncertain what to do. One of the braves would walk up with a water bag and give the dominant mare a sip, just a taste, of water from his hand, then turn and walk away. And that mare and rest of the band would all follow.

It’s a sign of how bad things are when animals become desperate enough to ignore their own survival instincts in order to follow an even greater imperative. I suspect we have many nocturnal visitors to the horse troughs down by the barn. And I pray our well holds up.

A Glorious Quote

June 7th, 2014 14 Comments

Just for fun, I post this marvelous quote by Auberon Waugh (eldest son of Evelyn, nephew of Alec) sent to Steve Bodio by another wonderful writer, Tom McIntyre:

“There are countless horrible things happening all over the country, and horrible people prospering, but we must never allow them to disturb our equanimity or deflect us from our sacred duty to sabotage and annoy them whenever possible.”

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