Friday, June 15, 2012

My British Bicentennial

I went off to college at age 17 in order to get out of the house. Living quasi independently was an improvement but it was years before I had a viable blue print for building relationships. My mother used her looks to reel people in. My dad, even though what he did in essence was no more glamorous than selling schmatas, relied on his position in the film industry as social currency. Neither of these enticements were viable for me. I didn't recognize or value my own unique attributes until much later in life.

I was thrilled when my eldest was admitted to my Alma Mater. I think it's a great program that nurtures intellectual development in a brainy/quirky kid better than a traditional institution. I never made the most of the offerings there but what I absorbed inadvertently or by osmosis at least planted a seed. What I wanted more than to build the foundation for a lifetime of learning was a boyfriend. I had a few miserable connections but it seemed like everyone else was blissed out and paired up. My anecdote to this was to arrange independent off campus study. I spent a semester in Mexico, one in London and another in L.A. working for a film distributor.

My nineteen year old is exactly the same age as I was when I arrived in London 36 years ago. I managed to master foreign currency, weird phones, the subway and bus system. I rented housing and was able to keep fed and healthy. I am pleased this week when my own 19 year old is able to make a medical appointment by himself. I decided to major in film studies although there was no formal film program at my college. There was a visiting professor who helped a bit but I was pretty much on my own and there was no one really in a position to evaluate the integrity of my work or the meaningfulness of my choices. I was drawn to silent Russian films. Eisenstein. Dovzhenko. Podovkin. This was probably inspired by some sort of commie is cool thing but I was truly captivated by the extreme closeups, painterly framing and powerful montages that were the hallmark of early Russian film.

I happened upon a listing for the London School of Film Arts in directory of film studies programs. The school offered courses in Film History and Aesthetics and specialized in Eastern European and Russian Cinema Studies. I applied and was accepted. The tuition was reasonable and I took out a student loan. I found a room in a shared flat on Bishops Road in Fulham and reported for my first class. The school was on the third floor of a ramshackle building in a woebegone section of Earl's Court. There was a tiny office and a closet sized classroom with a set of rewinds, a projector and a small shelf of books. I was introduced to Max Benedict, my instructor for Intro to European Film. There was only one other student, a guy about my age from Hungary who barely spoke English. Max showed us British documentaries. My dad had Night Mail in his library but it never occurred to me that British wartime propaganda glorifying the postal system would be of interest. The film is actually a little masterpiece, directed by Harry Watt and Basil Wright, with music by Benjamin Britten and framed around a poem by W.H. Auden.

I expected that the rest of the students would show up for the next class but even the Hungarian kid was absent so it was just me and Max. I figured out that the school, with its purported emphasis on Soviet film, existed to facilitate student visas for kids from Eastern Europe. Tuition was paid. Visas were granted and students disappeared into London, never attending a single class. Max, and a couple other down on their luck film professionals were employed merely for the sake of appearance. Nevertheless, I really was eager to learn. Max was a successful editor with a long filmography including The Magus and Whistle Down the Wind. He had a dry spell in the late 70s and the fake school gig helped pay the bills and required very little of him. I'd helped at my dad's and seen a lot of movies. I professed to prefer a lot of pretentious crap I didn't really understand but I was at least conversant and I guess he enjoyed my company.

Max was shocked at the huge gaps of my knowledge of American film history and took me to screenings at the National Film Theater just about every day. We saw retrospectives of Val Lewton and John Ford. We ate at the theatre cafe, on the banks of the Thames, at the foot of the Hungerford Bridge. He drank lager but never permitted me anything stronger than Shandy, a vile mixture of lemonade and beer. When Max was excited about something he'd bang his fists together and get a twinkle in his eyes like a kid on Christmas morning. Sometimes he's make me dinner at his Earl's Court apartment. His 19th century flat was filled with books and oil paintings. Even the stained, chipped china enchanted me. Max was born in Vienna in 1921 and exuded old world courtliness. He alluded once to being part Jewish, perhaps because I gasped when he noted that, “of course the Jews killed Christ.” Otherwise, he steered conversation away from this subject and never accounted for how he spent the war.

I brought Max once a hostess gift of a bottle of Mateus RosĂ© which I thought was incredibly swanky. When he didn't serve it I assumed he was going to stash it away for a special occasion. He was long divorced and had an amicable relation with his ex-wife. In fact, Debbie, Max's ex-wife's daughter by her subsequent husband, lived with Max sporadically and he was incredibly fatherly toward her, referring to her as his “backwards stepdaughter.” I visited Max in London just about every year after our semester together. Twice he had work in Los Angeles. He didn't drive and I felt wonderfully grown up chauffeuring him around. We exchanged letters regularly, commenting about all the films we had seen.

There are a number of adults who befriended me when I was young and even a handful who are still alive and remain important to me. The thing, in London, and everywhere else, was I never quite knew how to form relationships with kids my own age. I had friends but never felt part of a group and romantic liaisons were pathetically scant and awkward. My friendship with Max was life changing. How magical to have essentially a full time private tutor. I think I was aware at the time of my good fortune and flattered that such a sophisticated, erudite person actually chose to spend time with me. But I was also terribly lonely. I answered a personal ad in Time Out and made a date with a guy who wore a leather jacket and had short hair. He said he'd been recently been made redundant and it took me a long time to figure out what that meant. He asked me if I liked punk and as my only association was short hair and leather jackets, I said I liked Jackson Browne. He took off and never called me again. The Sex Pistols played every Tuesday at the 100 Club but I sought our long haired folky bands who played treacly sentimental sets on acoustic guitars with embroidered straps.

I was visited in London by a couple friends and relatives and was proud to be a knowledgeable, efficient London tour guide. My friend Kris from college stayed a couple of weeks. We took the ferry from Dover to Calais and stayed in Paris in a dirty little hotel with deep scratch marks on the wall over the bed. I was amused by the turnover of housemates at the Fulham flat. There were some jocular New Zealanders, a serious but pleasant grad student named Jane and after she moved out a fragile, loose cannon of a girl by the same name who we called, “New Jane.” A distinctly fishy odor exuded from her pores and the smell lingered in the flat long after she'd mysteriously moved out.

There was a freakish heatwave and air conditioning was found only in movie theaters. I decided to attend a double feature in the West End, selected based on the longest running time. I got through Easy Rider just fine but five minutes into Ken Russell's The Devils, I was driven out into the street. I slept one night in an ancient bathtub filled with tepid water, the glaze peeling off in sharp little shards. I secretly watched the tall ships on the Hudson commemorating the 1976 U.S. Bi-Centennial on an ancient TV in the parlor and felt homesick, even though I was probably still spelling America with a “K” in those days. When I heard the New Zealanders come in I switched channels real fast.

When I slog down Memory Lane I am usually able to remember my motivation for embarking on even the stupidest of endeavors but I remain completely clueless as to why I enrolled in courses to become a licensed massage therapist. The license was only valid in the UK and I planned to return home in a few months. Plus, I've never been crazy about touching people. The practical part of the course was taught by a hippie named his mom's council house in West Kilburn. There were two other students, Asta, a gorgeous German girl and her Lebanese boyfriend who called himself Chakra, although I noticed his certificate of completion for the course that his real name was Habib.

Jerry taught us the basics of massage in a bedroom that was empty except for a dirty Indian rug, a Woodstock poster and two massage tables. He said that usually the class was taught in the nude but we could do whatever we were comfortable with. He and the other two students removed their clothes and I went with the flow. Somehow though in the course of the first session I noticed Chakra had put his underpants back on and then that Jerry had too. Asta remained in the buff so for the sake of parity, despite being miserably embarrassed, so did I . Asta and I practiced on each other and she found that the way my stomach jiggled was hilarious and had Chakra check it out and he laughed hysterically too. Chakra said he could read auras. He said that my aura showed him I had gastrointestinal and sexual dysfunction.Jerry said it was sexist not to massage a woman's breasts and he demonstrated on Asta and then let Chakra practice on her. Jerry's mom walked in, unperturbed by our lack of clothing and announced that she had made us lunch. We got dressed and dined with her on beans on toast and Orangina. There was a tiny TV on the kitchen counter and I got my first look at Black and White Minstrels a popular British variety show that paid tribute to traditional American minstrel shows, authentic right down to the blackface.

The second part of the massage certification was an anatomy course and exam. This was held in a classroom off Shaftsbury Avenue. There were tons of charts and a huge shelf with aromatic preparations. The instructor was Dr. Sedgewick. He wore old fashioned wire glasses and a white lab coat. He taught us the names of the bones and muscles but he also espoused his theories about healing massage oils and told us which oils would work for different ailments. He pointed at me and said, “You shouldn't ever apply any sort of oil to your skin. It will just make you fatter.” He recommended a concoction of pure mint to slim me down and pushed aggressively other oils and tinctures in blue and green glass bottles to the rest of the students. I passed the written exam and was given a sheepskin diploma which conferred on me the title of AF Phys which as I recall meant Associate Fellow of Physiognomy. After returning home I received catalogues of curative herbal products for many years, addressed to Layne Drebin AF Phys.

I never got a boyfriend in London. I did have a crush on a guy named Nick I met through a friend who knew his family. I think his parents instructed him to be nice to me. He had long curly hair and was a teacher in Brixton. We went to a couple of movies and for a walk in Richmond Park that was so brisk I was unable to conceal my sweaty exhaustion. The romantic chemistry existed only in my head. Nick came to L.A.a year later. He'd quit his teaching gig and was en route to a spiritual community outside of Taos. I arranged to take him to Disneyland with a group of friends from college, to whom I had implied Nick was my boyfriend. We picked him up and he fumbled in his backpack. “I have a drum!” he announced, pulling out an African instrument. He banged it and chanted for an hour in traffic on the Santa Ana Freeway. I could see my friends in the backseat through the rear view mirror snickering. I was notified in 1986 in a letter written by Debbie, that Max had passed away. Once in a while I give Himself a back rub.


FionnchĂș said...

Chakra (singular), shandy (which I used to find at Trader Joe's way back before I met you), and sheep and other forms of skin--I never knew you were so qualified to expound on the other side of London, beyond that film school (sic). You evoke un-mad Max wonderfully and you always speak of him with affection and admiration. I never had a similar mentor, but I do hope our children find a guide for whatever forays they forge, into their own bohemia (as mainstream now, as punk itself replaced Jackson B as the outcast and then, as J. Rotten lives in the Marina with his German heiress wife). Out of such desperate efforts to stand out, we fit in, eventually. "I have a drum!" xxx me

Mike Maginot said...

Life can be so strange. Lessons learned in school are seldom what is taught. A massage class can turn into a naked lunch. When all is said and done, I prefer Jackson Browne to the Sex Pistols. The song that came to my mind while I was reading this is "London Calling" by The Clash who were just getting started in 1976.

Anonymous said...

Of course we killed Him.