Monday, September 26, 2005

How Smart Was Nero?

So I have returned from the protest march in Washington. It was truly inspiring, in the right sense of the word: breathing in. So much of the past few years has been spent holding our breaths, or breathing fire, it was joyful to just take in how many like-minded spirits there were, almost all of them benign. The carpers and screamers who stood on the sidelines and told us we were going to go to Hell if we didn't accept Jesus were few in number and ineffective, as there was such general good will, and sense of-- Get this: Love of Country. It has been easy to forget, or at least be numbed into a wounded kind of amnesia, what a great country this is, was, and can be again. But there were fourteen busloads in from Wisconsin,and twelve in from Arizona, and people who had flown in on their own from all over the United States of America which it showed signs of becoming.
There were posters being carried by children:"Get rid of Mad Cowboy Disease", "I want my Country Back."and T-shirts(I was wearing mine, bought at the Roe v. Wade march: "Stop Bitching, Start a Revolution," connecting me with two others I spotted wearing the same, so we 'Yo'd' to each other,and a younger one "Hey!"d,revealing several steel balls in her tongue(I'm glad I'm not that young)and Peace banners waving, some drummers, a brass band surrounding Iraq vets in wheelchairs, an Uncle Sam on stilts with a Pinocchio nose, several "Nobody died when Clinton lied"signs, a blow-up of the doctored photo making its way around the Internet, of George the 1st and W grinning as they hauled a big fish out of the floodwaters of New Orleans. And I could not help thinking that as Nero fiddled while Rome burned, that W biked while the Gulf flooded,and I wondered if Nero had a father he emulated. Sometimes I cannnot help wishing I were Gore Vidal, who would have known.
The march was long and routed past the White House("Our House!" people shouted.) I told somebody Bush wasn't home, and she said "He isn't home when he is home." Starbucks (there were several along the way) must have made a fortune( the coffee-house Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired,") and in one of them, when we could wa;lk no further(I'd connected with three wonderful women,Unitarians I met on the Metro, spirited and kind, distressed at how far right Christianity had veered in this country, saying Jesus wouldn't approve of how he was being used) I met up with Joy, a downsized journalist who went back to school and now teaches English as a second language(in Wisconsin! -- who would have known there were Hmongs.)
All in all a wonderful voyage which I invite you all to join in in some sympathetic fashion, finding out when the next march is(check Moveon.Org or and think about maybe making Cindy Sheehan our candidate. We don't know how smart she may be, but she certainly is charismatic, something the available Democrats show no sign of being;It is not just enough our being against, we have to have someone we're for. And she did do something, which is more than most of us did before Saturday. And how smart do you have to be to be smarter than W?
I remember when I was in the earthquake in '89 in San Francisco,and a bunch of women were picked up fromHuntington Park where we were huddled on what is the solidest part of Nob Hill, and taken back to a sort-of friend's house,and among those gathered was Ann Richards, who was in town for a fundraiser that, sadly, must not have raised enough or maybe George W.wouldn't have beaten her as Governor, and then we wouldn't be in the pickle we are now. And as we spent that earthquakey night watching the marina explode through a picture window, I asked her what would happen if Dan Quayle were to become president. She said "Then the country will find out what the Founders always knew: that it can run without a president." Well, I guess we've found that out, but the Founders weren't counting on Karl Rove.

Monday, September 19, 2005

You Can't Fool Mother Nature, but you can Piss her Off

The best part about cellphones is that the insane among us can now talk comfortably to themselves without anyone's being the wiser. I spent Sunday morning, a glorious one, resplendent you might actually call it, sitting on a park bench next to the mucked-up pond in Central Park, still eerily viridescent on its surface, reading the paper and listening to a pleasant lunatic railing and commentating a few benches away. I say pleasant because he bore some resemblance to Brando in his later years, not yet the full-blown grotesque, but only moderately bloated, in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts, and a Panama hat. His voice was well- modulated and interesting, more so because my last few outdoor ventures have been marred by people on their fucking mobiles nattering away loudly, at sidewalk cafes, walking on the street,n'importe ou(the French are here, plugged in, too.) So as there is no peace left anywhere, it is comparatively charming to hear someone intelligent who has lost it, and so has an excuse.
"Cole slaw," he noted, as he took out the contents of his lunch bag. "My grandmother made excellent cole slaw. I remember the hurricane when I was ten, it was 1938, November 28th it was. There were three more days till the end of the hurricane season, but it came anyway. The streets of New York were flooded,and she went into shock over it. They put her in a mental ward and she didn't speak for five years. I wonder why they never talk about that hurricane. on the news She was sixty six, the same age I am now." I didn't try to correct him on his math, because the conversation he was conducting with himself was quite amicable, and infinitely more interesting than the ones you tune into without wanting to, just because you are seated near some klunkhead who is planning a party and talking loudly to a Maitre d', or at least insisting she is well known to the Maitre d', so the message should be passed along, "a table for fifteen."
"Funny," the man on the bench was saying "how you remember things from so long ago but you can't remember what happened yesterday. That's probably good for this administration."
Well said. It put me in mind of 'The Snake Pit' where Olivia de Havilland speaks of the lunatics being allowed to run the asylum. It would be nice to think that the catastrophic events of these past weeks would have some effect for the good. Frank Rich in his brilliant op-ed piece Sunday wrote that once the curtain was pulled aside the Wizard of Oz could never seem to be a wizard again, revealed once and for all as a blustering snake-oil salesman, as the true Bush has been revealed, never to be believed at the level he was by the American people. Oh, God,I hope not. The idiocy has been so blatant, the media so far ahead in its reporting that even Fox News has had to acknowledge the embarrassment. I got an e-mail today from a friend in Malaysia who sent me the Roe v. Wade joke/query, 'What does Bush think of Roe v.Wade? Answer: He doesn't care HOW the people get out of New Orleans.' From Kuala Lumpur, for God's sake. The rest of the world catches on while here there is joy among bright people that his approval rating is down to 46%. How can 46% still approve of him?
You can fool 46% of the people some of the time,and a lot of the people at a time when it really mattered, but you can't fool Mother Nature. I felt sure she had expressed her feelings as a response to the spit in her face about Global Warming, her fury at the blatant ignorance, after all she had done to give us a clue. Ignorance is no longer bliss, it's policy. I remember when I was making my first foray into the realms of spiritual questing, I asked Jack if there was evil in the world. (I had asked the same question of Richard Kleindienst, one of Nixon's fallen Attorney Generals, my dinner party partner in Georgetown,and he said "You better believe it." Still I was in the first throes of attempted deep discovery, so I welcomed Jack's answer: "No. There is ignorance and greed." I'll say. I wasn'tsure where to send my donation for New Otleans,and wondered if it wasn't best to send it directly to Halliburton.
So now Hurricane Rita(that'smy Aunt), or maybe it will be downgraded to a Tropical Storm, is almost upon us. Everyone is preparing this time. Bush says the levees might give if the storm hit New Orleans. It's nice that he understands that by now. After Katrina he said 'Who knew that the levees would give?' Well,only everybody who paid any attention for the past few years,or listened at all, ever. Live in the moment, George. Who ever thought that someone who never watches TV could be stupider than someone who did?
After he departed, the man who was talking to himself, I saw that he had left a wax paper-wrapped sandwich: he had forgotten to eat his lunch. It was a bologna on white with American cheese, and I wondered if that was symbolic of what we had become. I fed it to the mallards.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Love's Uneaten Bread

My Jewru Jack, in one of his talks, quotes some mystic or spiritual maven, who says "The trouble is, we think that we have Time." Patience has always been my short suit, and as I was early in the creative game, I was in a great hurry to have my musical open on Broadway, my great novel published and recognized, my movie made, my song sung, my poem published in The New Yorker, whatever. When I was little more than twenty, I met Stanley Kubrick, and because of his obvious dark brilliance and the desperate shadows in his eyes, he became my closest friend.

Billy Wilder was already referring to him, somewhat ironically, as “twenty-nine-year-old” Stanley Kubrick, so the appellation of boy genius was in the air. He had not yet become famous, though anyone who’d seen his 1958 film, The Killing, was dazzled by his work. He was at the party where I met him in Hollywood with his wife, Christiane, who was wearing a white dress, slightly glamorized with beads and crystal, and a splendidly distended belly. I told him she was the most beautiful pregnant woman I had ever seen, and he said “What did you expect?” as though we were very old friends, and I should have known he would come up with nothing less.

We became friends, very quickly. I was part of a small band who often ate dinner at their house, where Christiane cooked wonderful meals, and the conversation was heady and intense. I was on my way to Stanford for a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing. Others at the table were John Gavin, who was later to become our ambassador to Mexico, and had just finished acting (rather stiffly) in ‘Spartacus,’ which Stanley was editing at the time, John’s wife Cecily, Jimmy Hill, partner with Stanley on his early films, and various people who were technically innovative. It was Stanley’s intention to change the way movies were made, along with becoming rich and beating taxes.

He had met Christiane while making ‘Paths of Glory.’ She played the singer, the quietly disconsolate young woman so moving in the cabaret scene. In life Christiane was the daughter of a former German army officer, very high in the ranks of Hitler’s elite, and Stanley was a Jew. For their first date, while making ‘Glory’ in Germany, he made her take him on a tour of Dachau. That should have told me everything I needed to know about him.

But I was truly an innocent, infatuated with all that was the movie industry, captivated by talent and beauty, bulldozed by brilliance and bright eccentricity. He and Christiane came to visit me in Northern California where I was at school. I took them on a tour of San Francisco, and the boat that went around Alcatraz. I figured that in spite of the sunlit day and the dazzle on the water, the nature of the excursion would make it dark enough for him. He was sneak-previewing ‘Spartacus’ at a theater in Oakland, where he let me go over the audience reaction sheets with him. ‘Get rid of the dwarf,’ a number of them said. ‘Cut the dwarf.’

“People are very threatened by dwarfs,” he told me, “because they have enormous genitals.” I didn’t ask if that were true. I assumed if he said so, it was.

I was by then in the midst of my second novel, which I was dedicating to him and Christiane, so they were reading it as I went along. “You’re the best writer of dialogue in America,” he said to me on that ride around the bay, flattery so inflating I was almost parasailing. “I’m in big trouble,” he went on after a moment. “I just bought ‘Lolita,’ and Dwight McDonald (movie reviewer at Esquire at the time) is going to give me a good review because Nabokov is a literary genius. But he can’t write a line of dialogue. Would you do me an enormous favor?”

So I played hooky from Stanford, and went down to L.A. Ensconced in the Park Sunset, a semi-seedy hotel in West Hollywood, I proceeded to go to work on the screenplay of ‘Lolita.’ I was not to let anyone know I was in town, or contact my friends, as Stanley was sure if they knew I was there, they would know what I was doing. The paranoia that was to characterize many of his films did not come out of nowhere.

Every day I wrote reams of pages, every night I delivered them to him, rewarded like an eager puppy with a fine meal from Christiane. I did not ask what else was in it for me at the time. I loved them both, considered it a privilege just to be in their company. I understood I was involved in the Hollywood version of espionage. But he assured me I would write his next picture in the open, where he could give me credit.

Then a day came when he asked for a scene where Lolita makes a face when Humbert speaks of another eleven-year-old. Humbert had been supposed to be employed by her family, but it hadn’t panned out. “Oh, you’re so lucky you didn’t have to work with her,” Lolita says. “She’s a creep. She had polio.”

“Stanley,” I argued. “You can’t have Lolita putting down another little girl for having polio. The audience will hate her.”

“No, don’t you get it?” he said, grinning. “Humbert is thinking he’s never fucked a kid with polio before.”

Dismayed, I asked him “How do you see this movie?”

“It’s a love story,” he said.

Huh? I’d thought it was a comedy. As little as I knew about sex—I was young and inexperienced, and, I confess, a bit prudish—I knew enough, or thought I did, not to take pleasure from what was clearly perversion. Stanley’s finding delight in a man’s humping a crippled child was repellent to me. I quit.

He gave me $1600 to cover expenses, and I slunk back to Stanford. He stopped speaking to me after that for a few years.

Then the time came when I was about to be married, and I heard Stanley was in New York. I told Don,my about-to-be husband, “I’d really like Stanley Kubrick to be at our wedding.”

Don said, “How do you expect to find him?”

“We’ll go to the first showing of ‘Dr. Strangelove,’ and he’ll be there counting the house.

“Stop being a writer,” Don said.

But we went to the four o’clock screening. As we came down from the loge, I heard ‘Click, click, click, click, click.’ And standing at the rear of the orchestra, with a busman’s counter, was Stanley.

“We just broke the house record for the Criterion,” he said.

So he came to the wedding. At the time Don was producing the first of the Jets games for WOR-TV. Stanley cornered him, and held him hostage with his heavy-lidded charisma for most of the reception, telling him how to shoot the game. “Keep the camera on the line,” he instructed him. “Don’t follow the ball. Hold the camera on the line. That’s the most interesting part of football.”

And Don said “Stanley, if you’ll let me run a credit at the end of the game, ‘Directed by Stanley Kubrick,’ I’ll put the camera anywhere you want me to.”

After that, I saw the Kubricks rarely. They moved to England, where they went by boat—Stanley wouldn’t fly. They came back for ‘2001, A Space Odyssey.’ Christiane called me and said the critical reaction was half idolization, half cries for crucifixion.

At one point I visited them in England, in the compound he was building for himself in Boreham Wood. He sat in his screening room with Christiane, her brother Jan Haarlan, with whom he worked, and me, studying the films of Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s propagandist, in preparation for making ‘A Clockwork Orange.’ That we were there in one room, Stanley, the Bronx Jew, with his beautiful wife, the daughter of a high-level Nazi, and her brother, against the grainy black and white specter of Riefenstahl’s brilliance on the screen, was beyond a fiction writer’s gift of invention. I remember particularly a shot of the ankle of a Hitler Jungen, straining so hard to see his Fuhrer, that you could see the calf muscles bulging, as he stood on tiptoe, edging out of his sock. “What a genius she was!” Stanley exclaimed. “You never even had to see Hitler to get how powerful he was.”

After that, I saw them hardly at all. He withdrew further and further into the private realm he’d created for himself, closing the world out, and his filmmaking in. Cutting himself off from the society that posed such a threat to him, much as it seemed to revere him, he appeared to have lost his sense of what the world really was, and with it, his timing. Feasting his bulging onyx eyes on what he saw as the center of the universe,-- the picture in each frame-- he didn’t notice how sloooowly they passed, how static and unmoving his movies became.

I remember best the last time I saw him, or almost saw him. My family and I went to Thanksgiving dinner at the home of American friends who lived next door to him at Elstree. My children were four and two, beautiful and bright, and I wanted so much for him to see them, to see how full my life had become, even absent his formidable presence. So I took them next door.

I knocked on the great wooden door, thick and heavy as Mel Brooks' Frankenstein take-off. Characteristically, it moaned and creaked, as slowly it opened. Two great, snarling Dobermans on the end of a chain growled and barked from inside the entryway, leapt into the darkness, snapping at the air.

“Stanley?” I said into the darkness. “Stanley?”

He recognized my voice. “Gwen?” he said.


“I’d let you in,” he said. “But the dogs will go for the children.”

He wrote me a letter of apology for his behavior some weeks later, a long, squiggly, handwritten thing, the script cramped and running up the page and sides and over the top. The handwriting seemed evidence of what had happened to him as much as his having the dogs. It upset me too much for me to have the sense to keep it, and sell it at Christie’s.

The last thing I saw of his, the last movie he was to make, was‘Eyes Wide Shut.’ I couldn’t believe how arduous it was, how boring. As saddened as I was by what had happened to the early indisputable filmic genius of Stanley, I was astounded at the non-flow of the words, by Frederic Raphael, whom I’d long considered the best screenwriter in the world.

The following winter, back in New York, I saw Elliott Kastner, once on top of the producer pile, a man who had made over seventy pictures. I asked him how Raphael could have written such lifeless, awful dialogue. “I’ll send you his book,” Elliott said. “’Eyes Wide Open.’ That’ll explain it.”

“Nothing can explain how bloated it was,” I said. “How turgid and overblown. It was like nobody knew what to do.”

“Stanley did,” said Elliott. “Stanley knew what to do. He died.”

Sad as that loss seemed, and was,today for me is even sadder. There's an editorial in The New York Times about this being the fiftieth anniversary of Lolita's being published,so without even having to drown, my life is passing in front of my eyes. I have never had the sensation of time passing. My energy was always fresh, and renewed. Even the loss of my husband at a very young age, his and mine, was bounceable-back from, because I went back to Bryn Mawr to write a play, so thought, once again, when it was finished, that I was just out of school.
But to add insult to obituary, I went today with a friend to a seminar of the American Theater Wing about musicals. Present on the panel were the writers of the coming musicals Dr. Zhivago and The Color Purple. Line me up and shoot me with bad ideas. And if that's not enough, the writer of Purple was a woman who looked like Bruce Valanch, only not as pretty. She had never known a Broadway musical before getting involved in this project, whereas I, as close friends know, have loved and aspired to the musical theater since I was a little girl, which I now realize, finally, was a reallllllllllllllllllly long time ago. My musical comedy has been ready and optioned and passed by for more years than there are UN officials in town. And, to make it worse, I have recently read The Motherland, my novel that came out at the same moment Richard Nixon fell, and all anyone wanted to read was All the President's Men. Lost lost. The time is out of synch. I was born too late, and bright too early.
The best sentence in Wuthering Heights, lamenting about Cathy and Heathcliffe's failure to get together is "Love's Uneaten Bread." What about Song's Unheard Melody? Word's Unread Insight?
Oh,God, I wish I had the energy to start all over. The trouble is, we think that we have time.

Friday, September 09, 2005


It is hard to know what charity to donate to in the wake of this tragedy, so horribly compounded by the fiasco of what our government failed to do. An accountant friend recommended something called the Presidential fund, but as there has been nothing presidential about anything this president has done, I passed on that one. The Red Cross sometimes has a questionmark around its bureaucratic costs, so in the end I thought of choosing some Jewish fund, well-researched to make sure all the money was going to victims, but as they are concerned with helping mostly the Jews of New Orleans, and I want to help everyone, including the pets, I decided to go with the Quakers, the American Friends Service Committee, which is always above reproach and doesn't spend money on itself. My main thought, though, is that we should have a separate humanitarian drive for Barbara Bush, who said, in essence, that so many of the people in New Orleans had no quality of life to begin with, they were better off being forced to move. At least I hope that's what she meant. It is my hope she didn't think they were better off dead. Perhaps we could arrange a sensitivity transplant. Not since Marie Antoinette. So now we can all be assured that not only does blood run thicker than water, the Bush skin runs thicker than anyone's.
I am, strangely, both reassured and helped by the presence of Mimi. Mimi, as you know, is a Bichon Frise, the same dog as Marie Antoinette;s. As a result of her admiration for her dog, Marie dressed her wig in the same style as her Bichons'. After her guillotining, the French didn't like to be reminded of her, and so hated the Bichons, and, lore has it ,started offing the dogs. The Italians rescued them, and made them their own, enhancing their innate gifts, teaching them to dance, as they did, quite easily, on their back legs. Once the French discovered the dogs were gifted, they of course took them back.
But let us now to George Bush. How long, oh my father, will it be before people wake up?
As I have lost and in a later, wiser moment, taken from my mailing list all Republicans, as they were incensed at my view of Bush and language I used with respect or disrespect to him they considered 'inflammatory,' I suppose I should of my own volition turn eye and mind to those things in this world that are still of wonder. It is good to be in New York, especially after the joyful realization that my Inner hippie she am dead and gone, which epiphany occured in Big Sur. There were glorious days here over Labor Day weekend, weather being something we had best be grateful for, it seems, when it is fine. Today I walked with Mimi around the Central Park lake which appears to be clearing of its neon green muck, the Duckweed that they had posted signs insisting was good for the habitat, so you can see the water again. I am hoping that is a metaphor for the consciousness of this country. Oops. There I go again.
Using the window of A La Vielle Russie, one of the highest priced antique shops in the city, on Fifth Avenue, as a mirror, a homeless man dry-shaved himself. Homeless does not necessarily mean tasteless, so I hope he noted the Faberge,
My best friend from the third grade,Joanne Greenberg, who wrote I Never Promised you a Rose Garden, was here over the holiday being exceptionally sane as she has more right than most people to be, having recovered from schizophrenia. We saw 'Doubt,' which is really a play, in a season and setting that has offered very few you can feel that about, in fact none if you don't count the magnificent performance of Marian Seldes in 'Dedication' which would hardly be theater if it weren't for her. But Doubt is worth seeing, as is also the way Joanne looks at things. She made me go see 'Grizzly Man,' because of its message, meant directly for me according to her thinking: How over-passion can obscure a long, calm appraisal of things. The documentary about Terry Treadwell, who lived with the grizzlies, considering them his friends, and thinking he was protecting them and was ultimately eaten, along with his poor girlfriend, is genuinely fascinating and curiously un-horrible. It was clear to me that he was crazy, but there was a beleagured sweetness in his conviction. Penguins, though, remain my favorite group of the summer, so touching in their march and steadfast loyalty to their purpose they restored my faith in humanity.
Restoring my faith in movies is 'The Constant Gardener', which I urge you all to rush and see. Now if only someone would restore my faith in this government.