Thursday, June 26, 2008

Salad Days

The bookstore we ran throughout the Nineties in Seattle's tourist-driven public market (still known as Pike Place Market even though it meanders over portions of several streets) was a small example of what the 100-year-old site had evolved to--expanded from its earliest stands of fresh-picked vegetables and just-caught fish, to a mega-mart offering new and used books, records and CDs, fresh and dried flowers, Asian and European groceries, bakeries and cheese shops, handmade jewelry and crafts, knickknacks and antiques, teashops and second-hand clothing, old magazines and ephemera, myriad eats and much more. You could, for example, pick up walkabout snacks or finger food, stop at a cheap eatery, enjoy an expensive sit-down restaurant, or get happy in a bar or tavern.

But tourists and locals alike still think of the Market as fresh vegetables and flying (i.e., thrown) fish; and when I'd arrive most mornings back then, I'd see the "highstalls" being set up for the day--carefully arranged arrays of oranges and lemons, scallops and shrimp, asparagus and mushrooms, salmon and cod, peaches and peas and tomatoes and all... and I'd routinely remember my own single high-school summer spent working the produce line in a USAF commissary:

Produce Man

At seventeen I sprouted—
stringbean-like, lean—
thought I knew my onions, but my salad
days grew as mixed greens…

The air base commissary
hired me to stock
bare shelves, then straightaway transferred me
into the grip of Jack,

the old-hand produce man.
In his white cap
and lime smock, Jack was lord of his domain,
and made me suit up.

The green assistant, I
crowbarred orange crates,
polished apples, top-chopped old celery,
tried to keep the beets;

but racking those stacked tomatoes,
fondling ripe melons,
softened pear-shapes, I felt small potatoes.
Bananas lacked appeal. Un-

sold truck wilted my heart.
The art was missing—
no magic in mushrooms, and none per carrot—
till Jack gave me a dressing

down and one fruitful lesson:
“Life’s a food crop;
some grow, some shrivel. Some eat with passion;
others we coax to sup.”

He said, “You think we’re swindlers?
Skimming what’s best,
trimming the rest to sell? Wrong. We’re handlers;
edibles kept right fresh.

“Yer mug would sour grapes.
Juice up there, mate,
or make yer good buys.” I stopped with the mopes,
tried harder to fake—

selling old bargain jokes,
whistling out back,
coping with cauliflowers, artichokes,
using the hose like Jack,

keeping things slick, cool, quicker
wetting the lettuce—
till the day he winked and said, “We’ll make yer
right produce man yet.”

But I quit Jack soon after.
Gave no excuse,
but lacked his touch and tact, his true gift for
minding life’s peas and queues…

Likely I spoiled my chance.
I know at best
I’ve holed up, vegetating, ever since,
with nothing fresh produced.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Tennis, Anyone?

Never been much for tennis. I admire the skill and stamina of the major players, and watch matches on television once in a great while, but my own few attempts at learning the game were painfully ludicrous. I was and am more fascinated by the language associated: love, ace, fault, etc., not to forget game/set/match. (Those last words figure in the titles of Len Deighton's best trilogy of spy thrillers, by the way.)

And I did actually get to Wimbledon one year for the familiar late-June/early-July matches, as this brief excerpt from my 1986 travel journal attests:

July 4

Happy Birthday, Miss Liberty. My London fourth was considerably more subdued than the party going on back in New York (per clips shown on the BBC Late News). I read, started a new light poem in my present euphoric mood, and then went with some friendly collegiate hostellers ("Shall we invite the old fart along?" "Sure, why not...") out to Wimbledon, which lies just a few Underground stops southwest of Kensington.

For three pounds I got to watch Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver take on two young Brit upstarts who pushed them hard for a time, then knuckled under, 6-3, 6-4. And it was great fun to sit out in the sunshine with the tennis set, stroll among fancy tents and snooty socialites, savor the tha-wock, tha-wock of balls and the genteel greenery of Wimbledon.

But afterwards I was wishing I'd had some firecrackers to drop in amongst 'em all, a bit of Revolutionary rude-boy behaviour to rattle that stiff-upper-lip composure!

So: a journal entry as brief as my interest in tennis. But some years later, I did manage to find a way to express some possibly amusing thoughts, partly stemming from Robert Frost's famous remark (said of William Carlos Williams, maybe), "Writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net":

Poets Playing Tennis
(Frost vs. Roethke, Kenney vs. Kinnell)

The game requires a minimum of racket,
especially if one is tightly strung.
Play will be serious, yet play—
and as offhand as life.
Judgment of the court is all.

(As this twosome shows, however,
it is not always clear to what
or whom a player’s
service has been directed.)
The Linesperson does allow a certain latitude.

In fact, many of the best shots fall
beyond the line, revealing
a mastery of the graceful backhand
compliment. And a well-matched volley—
that sweet-spot mix of smash

and return, of ace and silence—
may come to seem some dazzling juggler’s
arc of many balls aloft at once.
After a time, you may distinguish styles.
One, inclined to rush

the net with a whelming yet elegant flurry,
always risks ending
tangled in waffling imagery and stretched circumlocution.
The other tends to lay back
along the baseline, taking the defensive;

still, that one sometimes can be caught flat-
footed, leaning the wrong way.
They play from love
to momentary advantage,
with neither ever managing to gain

control of this deuce of a game;
again and again the sense of it returns
to love and service. In the end, a foot
slips, or a trope; and the result?
A standard entry in the annals of the sport.

Whichever of them leaps the net
lands in territory both have known before
and will again. Theirs is the game
you are not set to match,
you novice of the

line, with your weak-
kneed lobs and stumbling
feet, insensitive
to a fault.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Rainier Beer Lookalike

The recent post devoted to movie-marketing adventures called up some other memories--of Hollywood films I watched in the making, and of some parodies I later wrote and helped produce...

Back in 1962, Seattle staged its hallowed-in-history World's Fair, called "Century 21" (look, Ma, we made it!). This extravaganza created the Space Needle, several theatrical venues--the entire urban-park Seattle Center in fact, including the Monorail connecting it to the city's downtown--and put Seattle successfully on the world map. I was going-on-20 that year and definitely jazzed by the sudden cultural opportunities; fondest recollections are for a brilliant staging of Beckett's Waiting for Godot (still relatively unknown back then), a rollicking concert by Erroll Garner, and the chance to watch Elvis Presley make a movie, It Happened at the World's Fair by name.

Not one of his best by any means, but the filmed-on-location viewing opportunities were excellent. I remember two scenes in particular, relatively simple stuff that took the crew hours to set up and then actually "get in the can," as the director would say. One had Presley going into the entrance to the Space Needle, but needing all extras coordinated and the light and camera angles just right. And the other was more important, Elvis and the movie's darling little Oriental girl (his unwelcome sidekick, sort-of, but a plot-crucial character in fact) getting on or off the Monorail at its downtown station, the extras even more important and visible. The girl was cute as a button, and he was lean and tan and fit as a fiddle, "The King" in all his splendor, even appearing in what turned out to be a so-so film.

Sadly the next time I saw Elvis almost-live was at a concert in the Seventies, when he'd successfully come back, conquered Vegas, and then gotten fat and druggy. That particular evening his joking with the back-up singers was strained, even verging on racial-stereotype humor, and his ever-perfect musical timing slightly off--his pathetic decline acted out right before our eyes.

But before that, in 1972 I was hired for a major freelance-writing gig that required me to move to Georgetown, that upscale part of D.C., for a month to research, partially write, and also edit, proofread and then publish a 24-page one-issue tabloid newspaper called Fresh Water Journal or some such, its layout and typefaces mimicking Rolling Stone, which was just then making a splash (er, so to speak).

Why? Well, the Potomac River was in disgraceful condition, and the three states involved (plus D.C.) had united to persuade the public to vote support for water treatment upgrades--possibly even going so far as what was then called "tertiary treatment," meaning basically giving the polluted river wastewater (including sewage) enough chemicals and sunlight and filtering to make it truly potable again. A radical idea back then, but one that has been gradually taking hold around the water-rationed world ever since.

The newspaper I saw to publication was distributed free and was actually fun to read, filled with news and views and editorial cartoons, convincing science and political analysis too, making the whole river-purifying idea as palatable as possible. But free paper or not, the citizens weren't buying; the measure failed at the ballot box. Clean-up of the Potomac had to wait several more years...

At any rate, while I was inventing a newspaper, that ghastly-green horror film The Exorcist (a different sort of pollution) was also in town, filming on location in Georgetown; and the crew and I happened to be staying at the same Marriott across in Arlington. Sitting at the hotel bar in the evenings, once in a while I'd get into conversation with crew guys. They had good Hollywood gossip stories, and a general disdain for the film's director, William Friedkin. The main complaint seemed to be that Friedkin was not focussed on the daily filming; instead, he'd spend hours on the phone (pre-cell days) working to line up his next directorial jobs, neglecting the current work that was costing a whole heap every day.

I was invited to drop by the location shoot and watch, so of course I found time to flee the typewriter. One cloudy day I tracked the crew to a scene of tree-shrouded concrete steps--shooting day-for-night, I think--and watched a couple of actors go through the motions; I was hoping to spot Max Von Sydow (admired from the great Ingmar Bergman films) but no such luck. Friedkin was there but didn't seem to have much to say; I couldn't tell if his bad rap was justified or not. Pretty boring day, actually, and I chose not to view the finished film.

But I couldn't escape the movies (or television). Back in Seattle, I was soon working for the Rainier Beer creative group, and in no time involved in, and then producing, commercials that parodied Casablanca, Cole Porter, The Twilight Zone, "Indian Love Call," Lawrence Welk, Garland-Rooney musicals, TV's Archie Bunker, Star Wars, and much more. But I want to mention two projects I'm especially fond of, company sales films the public basically never saw...

The first was a collection of brief movie parodies created for a firm selling tax-deferred annuities, using familiar movie scenes to tout different investment aspects; the length of each varied from 30-60 seconds up to 2-3 minutes, with the short ones meant to be lifted out and used as TV spots. So I got to write variations on a "Pearl Pureheart" silent (using title cards, our heroine tied to the railroad tracks); the murderous Hal computer in 2001; Gene Kelly dancing and Singin' in the Rain; Robert Preston delivering his "trouble in River City" fast-talking spiel in The Music Man; Bogart and Bacall in To Have and Have Not (the classic "just put your lips together and blow" scene); and more.

Moreover, since this was one of our typical shoestring-budget shoots, I got tapped to do more than observe and approve (or critique--the agency producer job). It was my voice picked to deliver, flatly, without emotion, the speech of our "Hal" computer; and later I got to wear a hat and raincoat--"rain" drenching the Pioneer Square set courtesy of firehoses--and be briefly accosted by our singing Gene replacement. (Unpaid and anonymous, as ever!)

Anyhow, my best sales-film script was a job for Rainier. Each year we'd create some meant-to-be-comical setting in which to embed or at least introduce the coming year's beer commercials. One year, for Rainier Light, the boss dreamed up a TV spot meant visually to "marry" a beer bottle filmed in close-up with the famous silhouette (and voiceover) of tubby director Alfred Hitchcock. I wrote the words, and the production company found an L.A actor who could "do" Hitchcock. And he was so convincing (visually rounded too) that we quickly decided to expand his role--that is, to write the whole sales film around Hitchcock's familiar droll, on-camera introductions, seen each week on his popular television series. I read a couple of books of Hitchcock interviews to get the gist of his longer speeches and stated ideas about film, and then translated these into sales pitches for Rainier spots, discussing taste, freshness, the element of surprise, and so on.

Our actor did a brilliant job mimicking Hitchcock, talking to the camera in the various set-ups introducing each beer commercial (making my script sound more clever than it was), and we had a good visual trick going throughout too: what appeared to be a bomb taped under a desk, the timer dial ticking down to zero as the sales film went on and on, Hitchcock talking about suspense and "McGuffins" and other matters while the movie-viewers were watching a bomb about to explode... At the last second, the actor reached down and pulled the wires or something, as he continued to talk about denying the audience's expectations, always keeping the surprises coming.

It was a banner year for Rainier spots and sales, maybe the peak year, somewhere around 1978-1980. After that, well... subsequent sales films have vanished from my mind. I do remember scripting a fun Archie Bunker spot for Heidelberg Beer (also owned by Rainier) involving a kilted Scotsman confronting the astonished Archie, but generally (as I believed then and now) Rainier's much-honored commercials started their slow decline around then. The writer-producer (me) was bored, anyway, and ready to abandon reel world for real World.

Which I did.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Nightmare Scenario

I made a first attempt at writing movie scripts in 1967. The Vietnam War and homefront resistance to it were both raging, Black people and some young whites seemed to be literally under fire; and I was an outspoken liberal fresh out of grad school--protesting publically some, arguing heatedly with my conservative parents, threatening to head for Canada if drafted, etc. (I was married and had a son, so that was unlikely.)

I tried to marshall some of those emotional issues in my first written-on-spec screenplay, titled The Wounded Man. In it, the protagonist, another war opponent who was earlier drafted, has already served a tour in Vietnam as a non-combatant medic. Now he is in pre-Med training at a university and very withdrawn and silent in general (reflecting his own traumatic experiences). At a campus rally for the Democratic candidate running for President, the lead guy meets and is attracted to a firebrand young woman, active supporter of a radical group (thinly disguised Black Panthers). The two of them argue politics, gradually become emotionally/sexually involved, and he is soon reluctantly embroiled in her (the group's) tribulations at the hands of authorities. This is all Act One lead-up to the major events of the story.

On the night of his election as President of the United States, the politically liberal winner is assassinated right on the steps of his New England home during his victory speech. The entire nation reacts first in horror and then violence, riots quickly spreading everywhere, even to Seattle. The unpopular lameduck President orders martial law measures. Various escalations occur, finally driving the woman and the hero and others into the group's headquarters, barricaded and about to be attacked full-scale by the police and whoever else is out there.

My "wounded man" has continually argued for Ghandi-styled peaceful resistance, and now from inside he tries to convince the armed Panthers to back away from this sure-to-be-disastrous confrontation. Working as go-between, he persuades the police to allow a peaceable surrender and then convinces the group's skeptical leader to give up. But when the Black man steps out into the lights, someone outside shouts that he has a gun! A fusillade of bullets strikes him down, and the woman rushes out to help him and is shot too.

Now what will the hero do? Continue espousing non-violence? Wait to be arrested or killed? Pick up the discarded gun and go to war? He chooses the last, runs out into the lights, and the screen goes to white. End of film.

Simplified in this telling, it doesn't sound like much, and probably wasn't. But the events of the last couple of weeks in the U.S. political race gradually brought this melodramatic story back into my mind. The parallels are just too bizarre to ignore... Unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; a despised President; references to assassination; Bobby Kennedy memorials in magazines; a too-violent nation that won't give up its guns; Obama the winning candidate but white voters, ostensible Democrats, refusing to back him, and Republicans even less likely to elect such a man.

I mentioned some of this to my son-in-law, who immediately wanted me to resurrect and update the screenplay. But I think not. I still remember the strange post-release saga of The Manchurian Candidate, and I've decided simply to mention my script in this blog.

As a disenfranchised citizen in the past, in despair of necessary change ever coming, at different times I voted for George McGovern, Eugene McCarthy, even Eldridge Cleaver. Now we have an inspiring and remarkable candidate promising Hope and Change once more. I'll warily vote for him.

"Barack the vote!" is the bumper-sticker slogan I suggested to his campaign months ago, which was (wisely) rejected or ignored. Now I say: Obama will have a tough time, both during the campaign and, if he's victorious, afterward.

I hope he succeeds... hell, I just pray he lives.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Go, Bo Diddley

Bo Diddley died two days ago.

Ellas McDaniel died too, but scarcely anyone knew Bo by his earlier name. "Bo Diddley, Bo Diddley, have you heard?, My pretty baby said she was a bird..."

I first heard his maracas-driven quasi-rhumba thing, that shave-and-a-haircut hambone beat, back in 1957 when some newcomer teen (a real j.d. character with white t-shirt sleeves rolled-up and sharp jeans shrunk tight) arrived in Izmir, Turkey, where I was living as a USAF dependent. This new guy, whose name I can't dredge up, brought along a 45 single on Checker by unknown-to-us Bo, which had what eventually became my all-time favorite Diddley cut on one side ("Mona"), and some other great rocker on the other.

Lines I still recall: "Tell you, Mona, what I wanna do, Build my house next door to you, Can I see you some time?, We could throw kisses thru the blinds, Can you come out on the front?, Listen to my heart go bumpity-bump, I need you, baby, that's no lie, Without your love I would surely die..."

I loved "Mona" and appreciated the flip--was it "Hey Bo Diddley"?--but mostly I was just totally blown away, age 13, by this powerhouse Black rock'n'roller, filled with attitude and style. Chuck Berry may have been the wordmaster, but Bo had the aural "I'm a Man" moves. Still, living in Turkey pretty well mitigated against a white teenager learning much more...

We moved on to pale-skin (or at least Northwest-isolated) Tacoma, Washington in 1958. Though I'd bought great albums by Fats Domino and Little Richard by then (plus Elvis and the Burnette Brothers Trio), I still didn't know much about, or hear much by, the mysterious Bo; I'd pretty much forgotten my fascination for "Mona." But my high school had its own local rockers, a group called The Wailers, and they soon had a national hit that I really craved, called "Tall Cool One."

I bought the debut Wailers album anchored by that title track, played it often, took it along when I went off to college in the fall of 1960, to Northwestern University... meaning Evanston, Illinois, just outside Chicago. Suddenly I could hear a lot more from and about Chess and Checker Records, Chicago blues and Black r&b, Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and... Bo. Another dorm guy had Bo's first album, which I immediately traded my Wailers album to get, even though "Mona" wasn't on it. I didn't care; finally I could see as well as hear the amazing Black guy with processed hair and snazzy clothes and flashy f-hole guitar (not yet one of his weird-shape models), who was truly too cool. And his name-check song (plain "Bo Diddley," sample lyrics quoted up top), "I'm a Man," "Pretty Thing," "Who Do You Love," and other great tunes were.

Flash forward a decade or so... through other hits "Say Man," "Road Runner," "Hush Your Mouth," "Crackin' Up." I played Bo's first album for years, then eventually sold it or swapped it or something. But around 1975, Fate being the trickster that it is, suddenly I got the chance to write and record a song with the career-revived, guitar gunslinger himself: Black Gladiator, bag-of-tricks Bo.

Okay, it was an advertising song; but given the performer, I refuse to say "jingle." Rainier Ale needed a performer/spokesman who could appeal to the (perceived) Black audience for beverages heftier than beer. Lo and behold, Bo Diddley was coming to Seattle for a few days for a club gig. (Yeah, "Bring It to Jerome"!) I persuaded the Rainier man that the one-and-only Diddley Daddy would be perfect; we got in touch with his management, negotiated a fee, and bingo.

Nearing 50 by then, Bo in person was about what one might expect--cautiously friendly, rock-star arrogant, protective of his rep, and more. But he had great stories to tell alongside his vociferous resentment of groups like the Stones and the Who. (Both were making money off his songs, or at least what had become known by then as the Diddley Beat.) He breezed through my Rainier Ale lyrics in two or three takes, Bo and his rectangle guitar only, no back-up rhythm section wanted (he'd have had to split the money!), collected his check, and left. Wham, bam, thank you ma'am.

It was a bit of a let-down, yes. But, faintly, I could still hear "Mona" singing in my head... and I still can.

Say, Man... rock in peace.