Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Casablanca

Our favorite restaurant this year has been Café Chez Marie. It seems to have fallen to earth from the south of France along with a few other provincial houses nuzzled next to an office building just west of Century City. From the courtyard alone we can imagine being in Aix en Provence, without the jet lag. The French-Moroccan cuisine is presided over by Marie Saltzman, born in Casablanca.

Great chefs work intuitively in Casablanca though Bogey and Bergman cooked up their romance and intrigue on the screen making due with the back lot of Warner Brothers. The Epstein twins, Julius and Phillip, wrote the script by the seat of their pants handing the ensemble players their lines each morning. Round up the usual suspects, is said to have come to both brothers, simultaneously, at a traffic light on Wilshire and La Cienega on their way to the Burbank studio.

You have to love the way Hollywood studios each had their stable of actors at the ready to fit in almost anywhere, many of whom were refugees from Europe, Who could beat the team of Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet along with S.Z. Sakall? Only three of the speaking parts belonged to American born actors. One of the minor roles was played by Leon Belasco, his 13th movie done that year. The scene at Rick’s place where everyone, except the German soldiers, breaks out singing La Marseillaise, is all the more poignant given that most of the voices came from a cast in exile including those playing Gestapo agents, many of whom were Jewish performers who fled Europe.

The film is a miraculous coming together of clichés, the sum of which exceeds the separate phrases. The result is a serendipitous work of art, the way chef Marie knows instinctively what herbs and spices to add to her couscous or coq au vin. It is a collaborative triumph of producer Hal Wallis, director Michael Curtiz, screenwriters and cast. Some of the best lines were either never said or not in the script. Play it again, Sam, is an improvement over, Play it Sam or Play it once Sam, for old times sake. Dooley Wilson, Sam, was actually a drummer who couldn’t play the piano. Here’s looking at you, kid, was a throw-in by Bogart from a poker game he was playing with Ingrid Bergman between takes. The final line, Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship, was written by Wallis a month after and added in post-production.

The grandson of Phillip Epstein is Theo Epstein who revitalized the Boston Red Sox. Whether it was that old Epstein intuition or some unique vision that managed to break the Curse of the Bambino (the trading of Babe Ruth), we may never know. Today Epstein is saddled with the task of exhuming the Chicago Cubs from the crypt. They last won the World Series in 1908. Stayed tuned.

In the meantime the Dodgers are the recipients of one of Theo’s boldest and baddest moves in Boston. He acquired Carl Crawford in 2010 with a 7 year-142 million dollar contract. If he returns to form next year after recovering from season-ending surgery, I will thank Marie’s Café and Rick’s Café and all those Epsteins who have brought me a semblance of order in an otherwise random world. Now if only Obama can remain in the White House, Casablanca, another four years I’ll be looking at you, as time goes by.

Could it be that the choice of Casablanca as the name of the 1942 film had a subtext? Aside from sizzle of the stars and comic turns, the arc of the story was of a self-absorbed, cynical man who is grudgingly transformed to sacrifice his personal desire for the greater good. The final foggy scene, shot at Van Nuys airport, with midgets and a cardboard plane, has Bogart walking off with Claude Rains having saved each other and found their moral compass. It might also have been directed at the American people and the man in the White House leading up to our involvement, to move us from our private cafés into the Good War with our own letters of transit.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Life As A Movie


They’re making a movie about my life. Spielberg refused to direct because it is too dull. Ingmar Bergman turned it down saying it is too exciting. It’s not enough of a madcap-zany romp for Preston Sturgis and it is too real for Fellini. Woody Allen said he needs someone more nebbish. Stallone wanted me less nebbish.

Casting should be no problem. Peggy says I look just like Sam Waterston. And I always thought of myself as Cary Grant. I’ll settle for anyone except Danny De Vito.

It’s one of those movies in which the audience knows what’s going on before I do. In fact I’m the last one to see what is obvious. It must be hard to watch all my wrong turns and missed signals. I wouldn’t bother if I had just a cameo part or even second banana but in this one I’m the star.

What was he thinking when he did that?
No, no don’t fall for that!
If not now, when?
It’s about time.


There are no car chases though I did get ticketed once for almost coming to a full stop. Now I get out and look for trains at every intersection. No near-death experiences unless you count the time I hung on the line waiting for customer service at Verizon while the person I wanted was away from her desk. There are some exciting moments such as the time a woman at Costco let me in line in front of her with my one item or less. For those who insist upon a little violence their Adrenaline may get moving when I use excessive force separating two shopping carts in a parking lot. This was managed in one take without a stuntman.

Cineastes have learned the language of movie maladies; how a headache is never less than a brain tumor and a cough means certain death from T.B. within twenty minutes unless a Viennese doctor is sent for with an experimental treatment. The other scene that never happens in my film is the plan to leave (for anywhere) first thing in the morning, shorthand for an untimely demise. My getaway gets me away.

After I scale the wall, dodging searchlights and the hounds, I make my way out of the Valley past the last row of repeatable homes. Just in time, I was almost too over the hill to go over the hill. At this point I'm hearing background music, a cross between Hi Ho Silver and Swing Low Sweet Chariot.

There are also scenes of the No Problemo Bordello in Pocatello in which I lost my shirt but not my pants. And two hold-ups at gun point for Dilaudid between globes of colored water, followed by the ignominy of picking the wrong man from a police line-up.

The rest is arguably the Second Greatest Story Ever Told, which answers the question: Can a mild-mannered pharmacist from suburbia find happiness with a bohemian poet, living in a rent-controlled garret, who hung with Orson Welles, Krishnamurti, the Modernaires and Carl Jung? The answer is, Yes, ever after and the camera is still rolling.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Blanks

I’m trying hard not to write about the election but the blank page keeps bringing me back to the Republican ticket, white as Mitt’s shirt, blank as his tax returns and vacuous as he often appears when unscripted.

Most of us have made up our minds by now but there remain about a million probable voters who have a mind that can’t make itself up, lots of blank space between the ears. One wonders on which planet they live.

A recent survey focused on the 35% of Americans who either probably will not vote or who never vote. Reasons given were, It won’t matter or I’m too busy or They’re all the same. 40% didn’t know the difference between the two parties. When pressed with the hypothetical that their vote will decide the election, almost 70% said they favor Obama. It’s safe to say that Obama has the vote of those who won’t vote. Imagine the uproar if we made voting mndatory as in Australia (of all places).

The cynics among the non-voters are disappointed idealists who cannot get over their dream deferred or punctured. They are the lovers scorned. No half-loaves for them. The real world is too messy, too grey, too squiggly. It won’t behave. The vicissitudes of life deny them the tidy society they insist upon. They would rather gripe like spectators than join the fray.

If Mitt should win it will be because he persuaded millions of Americans that they can be mini-Mitts. If you wish hard enough…. fill in the blank. These must be the folks who buy magazines from Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes. It reminds me of the story of two guys at a racetrack. One of them notices that the group sitting in front of them had won every race. He told his friend to follow them, get in line right behind and buy whatever they buy. Half an hour later he came back with four hot dogs, three beers and a coke.

How else do the Repugnants appeal to a general population? Only by presenting a shell of man to whose business success the average guy aspires, that is to say, shameless greed.

Not for several decades has the blank space between candidates been so stark. A Romney /Ryan victory would not only be seen as an endorsement to set our clocks back a century it could also sweep into power a parade of misogynists, Neo-Cons and evangelicals as well as a Supreme Court at the ready to secure a new American oligarchy. Given this scenario the blank page will look more like a Canadian winter.

On the other hand we could also be looking at a new chapter in our nation’s history in which the forces of nescience are repudiated, the shrill noise from the new confederacy hushed, a Congress that mirrors our diversity and the essential role of government restored.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Wind And The Road

There are some movies so popular, so iconic and revered in the public imagination that I avoid seeing them. Gone with the Wind is one. Of course I was only six when it was released in 1939. Maybe I had mumps or measles when it came to a theater near me. In fact I did contract scarlet fever sometime around then and that may have been all of Scarlett I wanted to see.

I recall it being on marquees for years later. Over time I saw enough clips to know that missing a bogus history of the Civil War, however lavish the production, is not a deprivation. Like Clark Gable I didn’t give a damn. The abomination of slavery was distorted enough to receive ovations in Georgia. The movie seemed more concerned about Scarlett’s comeuppance than the reason for the war itself.

The same holds for certain books. As a card-carrying snob, I rarely read bestsellers. I missed On The Road until 55 years after its publication. The reception a book like this receives depends whether a boy is 17, bursting to live with Dionysian abandon or 79 and knowing better.

Jack Kerouac was not a guy you’d want your sister to hang with, nor was his fallen-angel hero, Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarity) who did the driving. They couldn’t stay put, couldn’t stay sober and couldn’t keep their peckers in their pants for 2 pages at a time. Kerouac was a Libertine turned Libertarian. He took a wrong turn on his road and drifted over to embrace William F. Buckley and Joe McCarthy. Yet I enjoyed the book for its prose, more poetic than most poetry. The road was life itself. Place became an interior landscape, a centrifugal propulsion to elsewhere, anywhere and finally to nowhere. His character’s name in the novel is Sal Paradise. He is searching for his name, the illusive unattainable with mad Ahab at the wheel.

For teenagers in 1957 the book provided no map but his words must have tapped into that inarticulate void, the sense that America was existentially impoverished, that conformity and consumption were not enough, behavior too narrowly prescribed and imagination crushed. Tidy suburbia was soon to be fractured and Kerouac’s Beats set the pendulum in motion for the counterculture movement and social upheaval to follow.

If I had read it at the time I might have left my mortar and pestle behind and become a different version of myself, a shoeless troubadour, Merry Prankster, half of Bonnie & Clyde; I coulda been Brando on a Harley. I also could have died in my 40s as both Kerouac and Cassady did, dissolutely spent. I’m glad they lived it out for me. It’s enough to know it’s there as the road not taken.

Roger Ebert, the film critic, suggests that Scarlett was a contemporary woman, fiercely independent, and a product of the jazz age not the antebellum South. As for old Dixie, not enough has gone with the winds of change except that now all the Hattie McDaniels and Butterfly McQueens of our time know plenty about birthin a new day.

When mass culture buys into a movie or book etc… the public often speaks in an incoherent voice. It may well be that the unprecedented embrace of Margaret Mitchell’s book and David Selznick’s film had less to do with the Confederacy than the emergent model of a powerful female archetype, even if Gable/Rhett felt the need to famously put Leigh/Scarlett in her place.

The consequences of a creative act may not necessarily be the intention of the artist. But authors live in an historical context receiving the Zeitgeist and transforming it into whatever form it may take.

Two widely different works of art, the Wind and the Road, convulsed the nation in their separate ways as if they overheard the inaudible stirrings of the country’s unconscious.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Climbing The Family Tree

So now I know. 45,000 years ago, give or take a week, my ancestors left Africa walking upright, shed some fur, and made their way to the Eastern Mediterranean. They knew good real estate when they came to the Fertile Crescent. 10,000 years later they were still looking for a good night’s sleep free of growls and snarls. Contrary to family lore their first words were likely, Your cave or mine? or maybe, How’d you light that fire, again? We’ve always been slow-learners.

All this comes from the scrapings inside my cheek which my daughters arranged to be sent to Family Tree DNA. They traced my double-helix back from whence we came. The footprint of our beginnings is mapped by my haplo group. It doesn’t reveal much of anything I didn’t know before but after staring at the genome for a while it begins to speak.

Given my propensity for staying out of fights I overheard my forefathers saying how they survived as the ones hiding under rocks or high up in trees. My R1A1 group knew enough not to hang a left to Spain 20,000 years later though if they’d been there during the Inquisition I’d have been raised as a Roman Catholic altar boy. Faced with the multiple choice: conversion or expulsion or… worse, I expect my forefathers would have said, What have you got? I’ll be anything you want… except chopped liver.

As it is, they headed north by northeast. The Levites were the scribes and they scribbled like scriveners, writing blogs in Yiddish whether in Lithuania, Ukraine or Slovakia. One day during a particularly nasty pogrom, my father’s father huddled in the root cellar while the Cossacks were busy doing the only thing they were good at, pillaging and looting. He escaped on the shoots of potato wings and their ferment.

Without enough frequent flyer points for an upgrade he took the cruise in steerage. Grandfather Lior slept in the hold with potatoes; they became his skin and his misshapen dreams. Did he scramble above deck to wave at the famous torch lifting its lamp, seeing himself as the wretched refuse…, tempest-tost? It’s a good bet he did. A taste for drink combined with gout had its way with him. He named his first two sons Shmuel; Sammy meet Sammy.

Had we arrived in Los Angeles earlier we would have been the ones racing down Wilshire Blvd toward the ocean hoping the mastodon got caught at La Brea in the tar pits. We knew enough not to do combat with saber-tooth tigers or any other creatures in need of orthodontic work. The DNA inside my cheek has gotten me and my daughters this far. Embedded in there is a winning combination of cowardice, luck and pluck.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Unqualified Thoughts On The Olympic Games

11,000 athletes came marching in from 205 countries; a great geography lesson. How sweet the sight. Everyone looks to be in fine fettle. Why not let these deserving people resolve the world’s woes while their fettle is still fine. This could be a planetary council, not just a pageant. The opening ceremony can be followed, a day or two later, by the closing ceremony, with a variety of exhibitions in between. Why break the spell of camaraderie with nit-picking competition?

This one wobbles, that one bobbles. They’re all great. Gymnasts go up against one another not to test their agility and strength but to measure their nerves, grace under pressure. They can all do what they do but some can’t with millions of eyes on them.

Many go home in disgrace because a Bulgarian or Indonesian judge detects a wiggle. Their eyes see only flaws. Gold and bronze are separated by the length of a grimace when one fails to nail the landing. I’m sorry, rooting for a Chinese or Russian to not stick a landing, is not my idea of time well-spent.

Why should synchronicity be celebrated? I have trouble getting both legs into my pants without holding on to something. How can anyone lose a race by one-hundredth-of-a-second? Humans don’t live with this sort of clock. The next time I cut a melon shall I worry about the perfection of the quadrants? How fast can I tie my shoes? If I travel at the speed of light will I answer the door before the knock?

On the other hand…………. without ratcheting up my jingoism it seems unnatural not to root for us against them, whoever them, might be. Tribal as it is, we are persuaded that not only our athletes but our back-stories are better than their back-stories. Aren’t we adorable and humble while they’re so mean-spirited and arrogant.

Competition is hard-wired, to an extent, especially if it is sublimated into sport. Let them go at it with all their zeal. We can only be in awe at their effort. They sacrificed their best years to get here and now they are an attenuated form of gladiators. It beats fighting a war.


And if they want to sacrifice their livers with performance-enhancing-substances, it is all part of new technology. Why not let the next best thing just happen? Today we have a meta-Olympic competition between the Cheat labs versus the Detection labs. Every athlete at today’s Olympics could probably beat their counter-part of sixty years ago. State-of-the-art equipment, better training, advanced surgical procedure, enlightened nutrition. Why not faster, higher, longer through chemistry?

We want to see ourselves extended, with broken records beyond what we ever thought possible. In Baseball, the elbow injury that ended Koufax’ career is now routinely repaired surgically and the pitchers throw even faster as a result. We deny the edge some technology offers but embrace other means.

Like most practices in society the Olympics are a trade-off. Yes, they are about branding and endorsements, about nationalism and squabbles. But also a spectacle to behold, a gathering of nations planting flags on one soil, offering a glimpse of universality. Imagine the possibilities if countries could extend their reach and move beyond their previous best like the athletes do.... even with a wobble or two.