Thursday, January 26, 2012

I Never Did Alexander Hamilton For My Father

There was a young bohemian who whimsically decided to skip out on his last quarter of college to see Europe, joined the Navy, met and married a woman overseas, and made a valiant attempt to become a writer, settling down in New York City for a spell. Around that same time another young bohemian who was already living in NYC made a small reputation from cartoons and novelty toys, then against all odds wrote a smash Broadway play, and spent an unsual amount of time trying to craft it into a feature film. Meanwhile back in Europe, yet another young bohemian, a rabid movie lover, was quickly turning out a string of hit movies, which, as one sage observed, were slashing film loose from decades of convention like a modern Alexander. In 1965, one of these people influenced a second of these three who created something that had a deep impact on the remaining party.

Herb Gardner's 1962 play A THOUSAND CLOWNS is now a familiar part of our cultural canon, so I don't think I need to explain much of the plot; its trope of a cheerfully unemployed wit forced to choose between his untethered life versus assuming more responsibility in order to hold the people he loves has popped up constantly in other works that have followed in its wake. While Wikipedia claims the character of Murray Burns was based in part on radio satirist (and A CHRISTMAS STORY source author) Jean Shepherd, it is just as likely a large amount was based on Gardner himself, since before he invented the glum and egotistical kids show host Chuckles the Chipmunk for the play, he himself served as foil and cartoonist for TV legend Shari Lewis on NYC's "KARTOON KLUB" in the '50's. It clearly continues to resonate with anyone who has ever fought valiantly to rebuke the status quo, or eaten multiple silver bowls of shit to keep a home for your kid...or been the kid who had to watch your parent eat all of that shit every day.

For as much as people write about the flawed morality of Burns' rebellion, that he is often selfish and impractical in his worldview, today it seems hard to believe that his lifestyle could ever be an issue. Plenty of people today have been spending months living off of unemployment, albeit not by choice as Burns does, and nobody outside of bloviating political media pundits would call them out as bums as Nick fears Murray will be by Childrens' Services. Murray to his credit has much more of a parental impulse than his unseen sister who dumps "Chubby" on him, and while he may not have full-time employment, he's definitely not a layabout sitting at home watching TV and eating Chuckle Chips while Nick goes to school; he's constantly soliciting Nick and anyone else within the range of his voice to visit the city, various landmarks, movie houses. He's taking advantage of free time and frugal living to enjoy the cultural opportunities of New York. It stands to reason one of his objections with 9-to-5 employment is that it leaves people too tired to do anything but come home, shlumpf in front of Chuckles the Chipmunk, and never go on any adventures. If anything, Murray is the prototype for Free-Range Parenting.

Also, I've always been struck by the lesser-acknowledged element of sexual rebellion present in the feature film of CLOWNS. While much action is still phrased in neutral words to appease what's left of the Production Code, we are presented with a story where a child is openly acknowledged to have been conceived by a promiscuous mother ("[Nick's father] is not a where question, that's a who question.") and is well aware his guardian is prone to having booty calls ("Your 'work' left her gloves."). When Murray and failed social worker Sandra Markowitz fall in love, there may be a partition around the bed when she spends the night, but sure as there's mustard on pastrami there ain't no wall of Jericho separating the two of them in that bed. For a movie that was being pitched to large family audiences, this was a pretty daring acknowledgement of the fact that "family" was beginning to be redefinied in society.

As a play, A THOUSAND CLOWNS ran for two years and like plenty of other successful shows, was optioned for a feature film by United Artists. Its director Fred Coe had produced film and television but never made a feature before, and as originally shot, was a mostly straightforward adaptation, with a little bit of outdoor action to open it up from its one-room setting. But after an initial edit, audiences and Gardner agreed that something just didn't work - all the laugh lines were there, but it just felt rote instead of dynamic. With the blessings of director Coe and the indulgence of editor Ralph Rosenblum, an unprecedented ten months was spent literally rebuilding the movie into the form that it is now known and loved. And for that, inspiration came from an unusual source...

By 1965, enfant terrible Jean-Luc Godard was electrifying critics and audiences with films that would tip their influences from Hollywood while presenting unconventional methods of telling their stories. BREATHLESS was startling with its use of jump cuts and fat-free dialogue scenes where, like the movie crooks Jean-Paul Belmondo's character idolizes, they get in and get out. A WOMAN IS A WOMAN confounded viewers just like its character confounded her men, by talking of being inspired by musicals but always stopping short of actually delivering a big production number, the only full music scene a static shot of listening to a Charles Azanvour record. BAND OF OUTSIDERS stopped its rival robbers-in-love narrative for a Madison dance that would be given homage in both PULP FICTION and THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW. At that time more than anyone, Godard was the playful smartass who understood that films were not THEATER!, thus should they not be bound by arbitrary rules of storytelling.

As such, Godard's sense of nonconformity was the solution to Gardner's problem. Rosenblum, already a fan of Godard's editing technique from having used the style for a crucial sequence when he cut Sidney Lumet's THE PAWNBROKER, began to apply some Godardian touches again with Gardner's input. The author on his own shot footage of morning commuters and synchronized them to incongruous jazz and march music to satirize workaday drudgery. A long introductory sequence with Murray and Nick was not only shaved down, but cut up jaggedly to suggest that instead of a single morning's conversation, we were watching an ongoing argument they'd had for weeks. An exchange of florid endearments between Murray and Sandra was replaced by a tandem bike ride underscored with a sweet and crackly ukulele song. The bulk of the movie still stayed focused on dialogue exchanges in stationary settings, but now there was a sense that this movie was going to stay grounded when it needed to be grounded, and expand like the circus car metaphor that its title suggested when it needed to expand. To be sure, there would have been too much sentimentality in this story for the aloof Godard to really enjoy it as tribute, and in turn your average New York Nebbish would likely look at one of Godard's films and say, "This is cute. This is nice. WHAT THE HELL IS IT?" But these two disparate parties in the common ground allowed for a fine, timeless movie to emerge.

Which brings us to that third wannabeatnik from my opening. Yep, it's January 26th, and that's my father's birthday. And for about as long as I've been Grave as Peter about loving the movies, I've known that Roger Heuck has been a big fan of A THOUSAND CLOWNS. When MGM finally released it to burn-on-demand DVD in 2011, I asked for it as a Christmas gift, and I think he was not only quite pleased to buy it for me, he was probably a little jealous that he couldn't hold onto it for a wee bit longer after I left home with my copy. I don't know for certain if he saw it when the film emerged from that near-year's worth of editing by Gardner and Rosenblum to an triumphant reception in December 1965, or maybe a little bit later on, but between conversations about the film in particular and his youth in general, I can well fathom that this one has stuck with him because it had a resonance with that young man who hadn't yet fathomed my existence.

Long after taking that unexpected break from college, my father had finished school and his Navy service, married a French-Italian NATO secretary in Naples in April of 1964, and stayed there for a spell with her parents. He had been writing since high school, and once in Italy made his first serious attempt at living the romantic notion of the American expat writer. It didn't pan out to a lot of success, but it did lead to a short friendship with silent film star Ramon Novarro, who had briefly decamped to Naples as well. By late 1965, he and his wife moved to New York, where he continued writing and selling short stories. He paid bills by selling encyclopedias in shady neighborhoods, dressed so nattily he was often mistaken for the local numbers runner. I don't know precisely when this sojourn ended, but ultimately, his father summoned him back to Cincinnati to run the family business, and his artistic aspirations essentially went into mothballs until the late '80's, when he took up the painting for which he has been so richly lauded for in the present.

It's not hard to play drugstore psychiatrist as to what my father must have gravitated to in this movie. I'm sure he always felt a little frustrated at not being able to make his artistic ambitions pay the rent, and envied Murray's flights of fancy and his gift for countering drab authoritarianism with impish wit. Later on, the identification with Murray's sober acceptance of his fate must have been easily mirrored when he too had to knuckle down and take on a more utilitarian job. And once I was in the picture and started expressing my own esoteric self, we never officially celebrated Irving R. Feldman's birthday, but he knew where to find a good delicatessen, when and how to holler and put up an argument, and made sure I knew the subtle, sneaky, important reason why I was born a human being and not a chair.

If I may throw in a sidebar, another enormous fan of A THOUSAND CLOWNS was the beloved proprietor of L.A.'s New Beverly Cinema, Sherman Torgan. It was one of the first movies he screened when he began his repertory programming in May 1978. Sherman too probably saw a little of Murray and of Arnold Burns in himself as he took on what became the daunting task of keeping the lights on and the projectors fed over the decades. He also did a terrific if culturally unconventional job raising his son Michael, who now runs the show with the same endearing mixture of patience and exhaustion as his dad. When Sherman died the day after my birthday in 2007, it naturally devastated film lovers all over the city, but it wounded me especially, because Sherman was a bit of a surrogate father, getting me into shows and telling stories of the '70's, and because I looked up to him as an example of handling the world on your own terms, as opposed to what I was experiencing in my employment situation, where, to quote big brother Arnold, I was exercising my talent for surrender far too often. Truth be told, in the wake of that loss and other drama, I flat out quit that job for 24 hours, I was so emotional...but then I backtracked on that too and returned. When I had the floor at his memorial service, all I could do was quote those final lines of Murray's:

"I'm sure I speak for all of us here when I say that I...Now, I'd like to say right now that...that...Campers, I can't think of anything to say."

To this day, I'm sad that my dad and Sherman never got to meet.

In the years after that 1965 convergence, Jean-Luc Godard's playfulness sadly metamorphosed into cranky pseudo-polemical misanthropy, and Herb Gardner's plays and film adaptations met with varying degrees of success but never quite matched what he unleashed in that first youthful barbaric yawp. Roger Heuck, meanwhile, did a damned fine job adapting to his adulthood: while the marriage to my mother didn't work out, and after years of nobly keeping a sizable workforce employed and well-paid he saw the writing on the Wal-Mart and sold the company, but he also found the woman he wanted to spend all his days with, and found another venue to express his love of all that was beautiful and true in the world. Like Martin Balsam expressed in the monologue that won him an Best Supporting Actor Oscar, he got up, he went, he lied a little, he peddled a little, he watched the rules, he talked the talk...he was the best possible Roger Heuck.

So today may not be Irving R. Feldman's birthday, but it is my father's. At last check his plans are to go out to a nice Italian restaurant. With any luck, he won't have to order a flashlight with his carpaccio. Happy Birthday, Dad.