Friday, November 12, 2010

Hollywood Kids



Each morning I drive past the Jewish Community Center preschool, attended by both of my sons over a decade ago. Tiny tots dwarfed by lunch boxes and stuffed animals are marched in by weary parents. As a toddler my young adult son preferred being barefoot. I am reminded how difficult it is to get a child and attenuate child related accoutrements in and out of the car, always complicated for me by having to struggle to stuff his tiny feet into his tiny shoes. He is over 6 feet now and his feet are larger than his dad’s. I have commandeered a nice pair of black loafers he wore in elementary school. Apparently they’d even been used for children’s theatre productions because the insoles bear his name on masking tape. The shoes are very comfortable and even though it’s so sappy it would make him puke, wearing them makes me feel close to him, as sometimes I barely see him for days.

The weekend is all movies, all the time. Spuds and some boys from school are completing a project for their physics class. I’m not sure what the premise is but one scene involves Spuds, face smeared with my schmancy artisanal cocoa to resemble dirt- although living like we do on Tobacco Road, he certainly could have found a lot of the genuine article in the yard-swinging by a rope from our rickety deck. I offer to cook dinner for his crew and am refused and firmly admonished to do nothing an iota more momlike than buying frozen pizzas. I hope the boys don’t tell their mothers what they ate.

Another filmmaking extravaganza is also taking place at the home of my colleague John Cannizzaro. John lives at one of the last vestiges of ranchero that conjures the rural valley, Fulton Avenue in Van Nuys, of faint early memory. John’s Tarzana home has a large garden, stables and an apiary. John is a filmmaker, animator and archivist and I have enjoyed a number of screenings of films he’s made and others he’s collected. He used to come and hang out with and sometimes buy a few films from my dad. A check John gave us for a film purchase was misplaced and he mentioned to my dad that it had not been cashed. My dad often remembered John’s honesty with regard to this check in a hushed, reverent tone, like he was talking about Rosa Parks. John endured long coffee shop lunches with my father and his cronies and kept his cool dispite being the frequent object of impolitic remarks. My dad was harmless but on certain topics, particularly race and gender, he could be wildly embarrassing. But Dad was also the last of the last movie oldtimers and John is one of very few repositories of his sort of, now nearly arcane, film knowledge.

John’s films are subversive but never inaccessible. I am uncertain after seeing a lot of artsy films whether the filmmaker really is smarter than I am or just a poser but there is a charming vivacity about John’s oeuvre of handmade films. He participates annually in The Attack of the 50 Foot Reels, a Super 8 filmmaking event. Filmmakers shoot a single reel (2 1/2 minutes) of film, edited only by stopping the camera, although John elects to shoot his in a single take. The unprocessed film is sent in, processed and shown to the festival audience exactly as shot.

This year’s event is dedicated to Kodachrome, known for its rich color and its resistance to fading. Kodak doesn’t manufacture it anymore and after the new year will no longer process it either. John scrounges up two rolls of Kodachrome from Ebay and despite the complications of shooting a film in a single take he plans an ambitious project inspired by St. Anthony, sometimes spelled sans “h,” and not to be confused with the other saint of the same name whose parvenu is finding stuff that’s lost. John’s Anthony is the one who sequestered himself in a cave and experienced horrific visions. He emerged invigorated and went on to promulgate monastic life. John builds the sets himself and recruits a cast of fifty. John’s partner Anne, her mother and a number of volunteers make amazing costumes out of scraps and found objects. The monkey falls through but John manages to snag a snake and a miniature donkey for the shoot.

Fifty people volunteer a day of their time to help make a 2 ½ minute film. Shot on Super8. There are nursing babies and elderly folks and an actor’s wheelchair is disguised as a liter. Without even having seen the final project I am blown away by John’s ambition and particularly that there are so many people who like him enough to actually change into a costume. We are manacled to children’s theatre and unable to participate. I would have even surrendered creative control on the costume but I would have done my own makeup. John, with a few drinks in him, admits to being sort of post partum and also apprehensive about seeing the film for the first time. John’s extraordinarily accomplishment, more significant than whatever’s on one of the last reels of Kodachrome ever to be processed, is that he is able to assemble a large and diverse cast of friends, all happy to indulge his crazy vision . We look forward to seeing the opus for the first time, at the Egyptian theatre on Dec. 9 with John and fifty other close friends.

I have lizard paws after compulsively using hand sanitizer between every transaction of cupcake and cash at the Children’s Theatre. Two plays are being presented in repertory. Spuds, per usual, plays a cop in the play Nature of My Game, which his brother co-wrote. I have pointed out to the director, despite the moniker of Murphy, Spuds is genetically half Jewish and therefore should also be considered for a part as a physician or attorney. Nevertheless Spuds gets to fire a gun and pound a bit on some of the other characters. He started in children’s theatre as a tiny mascot but now is the tallest kid on the stage and completely convincing as an adult.

Inspiration for what was to become The Nature of My Game, came from my young adult son and his co-writer/mentor watching The Devil and Daniel Webster, The Seventh Seal, and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Adventure. This led to the creation of a drama set in purgatory. Himself is a real purgatorian, having done a doctoral dissertation on the subject and often sporting a countenance that would make you think he’s doing time there. The play really riffs on a lot of the afterlife territory the old man is drawn to. In a nod to mom, who writes articles about prison reform and drags him to Tehachapi to spend a day visiting an inmate, a prison warden is really God and I am surprised at the agility my boy shows, at age eighteen, at sustaining this metaphor.

In addition to his play writing responsibilities, my young adult son is cast as the lead in the other play in repertory, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? When the choice of play and casting decisions are announced I am nearly apoplectic. A children’s theatre production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with George in braces could be a scream for the likes of Saturday Night Live but this production is to be dead earnest. The kids go once in a while to see a film called The Room. The filmmaker has made a bundle but I still feel sort of sorry for him. This is really one of those transcendently awful films. After it developed a cult following for being hilariously bad, the filmmaker started showing up at the screenings and claiming to be in on the joke. I am mortified that my kid is being set up. I cannot think of any material less appropriate for a children’s theatre production. I panic too because the kid is in the middle of his senior year of high school and has college application deadlines and pressure to maintain a decent grade point average. The character of George is on stage for 90% of the play and has several long monologues. The director of the play wishes his leading man a happy birthday on Facebook but adds GET OFF BOOK!

My young adult son attends the opening night performance of the play The Nature of My Game, which he co-wrote. Virginia Woolf is to open the following Sunday. Two of the other Virginia Woolf cast members attend a performing arts high school. Our theatre opening weekend coincides with an annual filmmaking project. The students leave school on Friday and must return on Monday morning with a completed film. It turns out that the lead actor has dropped out at the last minute and my young adult son has been asked to replace him. For my boy, helping out on a friend’s (or friend of a friend’s) film is an inviolable obligation.

My young adult son leaves the theatre after the performance on Friday night to go help his friends and I do not see him again until he arrives at the theatre for his Sunday afternoon call. He and his castmates have been awake for most of the past 36 hours. They beg for concealer and Coca Cola. There is a not unrespectable audience for a children’s production of one of the most adult plays ever written. For this production we ascribe to the Jewish tradition that lacking a minyan, a torah will count as the 10th, and we count in the crew and cast. Liz and Dick chewed a lot of scenery and pretty much own Martha and George. My son could be stepping on to the stage to endure one of the great humiliations of his life. I hope that he has mastered the script and is able to pull off a passable aping of Sir Richard Burton to compensate for the lack of maturity he brings to the part. But he creates a different and perhaps more nuanced and fragile George. Himself and I are blown away. I still think the notion of a kid's theatre production of Woolf is a clear sign of insanity but the quality of the production drives home too the genius lurking in that disordered psyche.

I cut our George some slack during the week between performances but he takes advantage of our largesse. Some parental advice is ignored which leads to a bad outcome. Some instructions are forgotten which consequently result in the wasteful expenditure of MY time/money. The hours the young thespian spends reclining on the sofa watching films has long been a topic of contention. I did the same thing as a teen, keeping the living room dark and watching 16mm films on a rumbling projector. My mom didn’t like it very much either and in terms of how my life has panned out sometimes I think that the thousand of hours I’ve spent escaping in films and t.v have indeed had an underwhelming payback.


I would like my young adult son to find a way to balance his insatiable appetite for films with taking the measures necessary to insure that he won’t be spending the rest of his life on our couch watching them. But I will be a bit more circumspect about calling him lazy and useless now that his film obsession seems to have inspired a script and a performance we are all proud of. My dad fell in love with silent movies and an uncle in L.A. worked at Paramount and would send him film trims. He’d splice them together and show them for a nickel in his Seattle backyard. It wasn’t just the legendary uncashed check that made my dad love John Cannizzaro. He loved his passion for movies. I have put in my share of sofa time and also most of my twenties were spent in the dozen or so revival houses that thrived in L.A. before home video made them irrelevant. Even though my livelihood is dependent on my memory of films that I have seen, and I would choose watching a movie over just about anything, indulging in this passion still feels profligate.


I watch the children’s theatre production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and my young adult son achieves a remarkable otherness in his portrayal of George. He hasn’t seen a lot of theatre so I know his performance and approach to acting and writing is largely attributable to the many times he’s succumbed to a movie when his homework wasn’t finished. He arrives at the theater exhausted because there was a film to be made. The film ends up winning the first prize in the competition. I see the performance of a play he co-wrote and his take on the dissolute college professor George and realize how his compulsive watching has honed his sensibilities. I think it started almost ninety years ago in Seattle, with film ends and a sheet nailed to a fence.

2 comments:

FionnchĂș said...

Yes, we are proud of our Master Thespians, Messrs Leo & Spuds. As many say, they inherited the love of the biz that has sustained your family, or some of it, nearly as long as Hollywood itself as we know it and where you work it and how it celebrates it. xxx me

P.S. Speaking of family tradition, attenuated, I mention my great-aunt who lived through the '06 quake and all, supposedly a co-founder of Oakland's first movie palace! She was 93 when I met her as a boy about the age Leo was when he started first grade; Aunt Kate was in an old folks' home in Beautiful Downtown Burbank, also of tv lore. She is still the oldest person I ever knew.

harry said...

Palimpset love of cinema... I do believe that we often live out the dreams of our parents. Lovely, humble entry on Leo's really laudable success. Can you imagine how happy Al would have been to see it?