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5— Made in Hoboken
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Chance and His Functions

Cinematic material is especially refractory to any preconceived ideas we may have about it.

—Noël Burch[**]

Passing sentence (Is that what this is? is that what I'm doing? Is that what critics are supposed to do? ), refusing to stop long enough for any dialectical


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or critical thought to assume full shape, short-circuiting analysis with a boringly relentless pugnacity common enough to any ordinary night at the movies (however much this may be cloaked with a velvet glove ); a passing sentence, that is, a collection of consecutive words that keeps crossing the borders of perception, like the train passing behind the upward drift of credits in the fourth sequence of Michael Snow's Rameau's Nephew By Diderot (Thanx To Dennis Young ) By Wilma Schoen , endlessly traversing the screen or the page (calculating rhythm, oh won't you stop clicking on me? ), not allowing the mind any sort of concentration except a hypnotic one in order to keep the movie moving (and you and me, too ), asking the brain to go fishing, turning right (or is it left? ) at the top of the stairs of Le Peletier métro stop on rue La Fayette, and crossing rue du Faubourg Montmartre, on the way to a western at Studio Action La Fayette on rue Buffault (rhymes with Truffaut ), before changing my mind and turning back into Dean Street instead, on my way to lunch after we get the copy off to the printer for the March 1976 issue (with four reviews of films by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, and a detailed bibliography), heading south past Royalty House and the Crown and Chairman Pub (and the editing studio from which Otto Preminger emerged one chilly day in the fall of 1974 when my union at the British Film Institute was on strike and I got him to sign our petition, not long after Vanessa Redgrave tried unsuccessfully to radicalize us ) toward Shaftesbury Avenue, before taking a quick detour across Romilly to Christopher Street from Waverly Place, after seeing a double bill of Lang's House by the River and Ford's The Sun Shines Bright with John Bragin at the Huff Society (May 27, 1969), on my way to that mythical corner of the West Village where either Bleecker or 11th Street crosses itself, I forget which, en route to the spring of 1962, my formative period as a film buff (of sorts) becoming a critic (of sorts), spent in New York and Alabama, and following a winter (the last in Bo's life ) that was probably no less formative for me—all together now, don't fall back, keep on truckin', easy does it, hold that line: just imagine that each stride forward, taken as "a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork" (William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch ), functions like an individual film frame, and that all these frames running together continuously, like a team—let's say twenty-four of 'em per second—become fluid and warm and thoughtless and universal (not to say Pavlovian and dictatorial ), with a staccato, rippling noise like a lawn mower, a rattling film projector, or Bo benching his Yiddish prayer after every meal (a blubbering, bubbling, flickering, pulsing drone he made with his voice that no one understood), going a mile a minute, like the floes of ice melting at the end of Pudovkin's Mother , shown at sound speed at the Bleecker Street Cinema in January 1962, during Jon's freshman year at NYU. That same winter, January through March, he also sees (among other films)


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Eisenstein's Strike ,
Dovzhenko's Arsenal and Eisenstein's Ten Days That Shook the World ,
Kurosawa's The Lower Depths , and
Vigo's Zero de Conduite and L'Atalante , all at the Bleecker Street Cinema;
Resnais and Robbe Grillet's L'Année Dernière à Marienbad , again and again, at the Carnegie Hall Cinema;
Antonioni's Le Amiche (without subtitles),
Jonas Mekas's Guns of the Trees,
Tati's Mon Oncle and Clement's Forbidden Games , and
Bresson's A Man Escaped , all at the Charles Theater on Avenue A;
The Mark , at the Fifth Avenue Cinema;
Antonioni's La Notte , twice, at the Little Carnegie;
Rossellini's Paisan , at the Museum of Modern Art;

and buys his first film magazine, the Winter 1961/1962 issue of Sight and Sound, at the Waverly Smoke Shop (eighteen years later, in 1980, Jonathan will teach the second semester of Aesthetic Principles of Film in the NYU Waverly Building, directly across the street)—an issue containing (among other treats)

Pauline Kael's "Fantasies of the Art House Audience"

an article by Denis Marion revealing that Erich von Stroheim came from a Jewish family

reviews of Marienbad, La Notte , and Rivette's Paris Belongs to Us by Penelope Houston, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, and Robert Vas, respectively

an interview with Truffaut

a feature called "The Top Ten" listing the results of a poll of 70 international critics about their favorite movies (used by Jon as a guide in his own viewing over the next few years ), including 45 individual lists.

In mid-April, less than five months before he died, Bo went with me to see Richard Brooks's Sweet Bird of Youth at the Shoals, the last movie we ever saw together. It was probably the day the film opened, or maybe the day after, shortly after I arrived home for spring vacation. We disagreed totally about the movie: he enjoyed it immensely, without qualm, while I found it loathsome, detestable (a bit like my experience of Alien early last summer: about as much fun as an exploding toilet in a Howard Johnson's during a locust attack—a movie that tries to persuade an audience to get sexually excited by its own nausea ); yet my hatred was quite unlike the cool disdain expressed by, say, John McCarten toward hillbilly musicals (for example, on Li'l Abner in December 1959: "On Broadway the show was primitive; in the movies it is Neanderthal"). For at age nineteen, still a Southern virgin, I felt that something beautiful, poetic, and true was being violated and desecrated by the movie's indifferent sleaziness.

Both Bo and I had seen and liked the Elia Kazan stage production of the


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Tennessee Williams play at the Martin Beck Theater in 1959, with the same leading actors, Paul Newman as Chance Wayne and Geraldine Page as the Princess Kosmonopolis. I had seen it in July (sitting in the first balcony), on the way home from a Jewish youth event in Great Barrington known as a Hagigah, when I had also seen J.B. and Raisin in the Sun with Sidney Poitier (which I described in a letter home as my favorite), as well as Anatomy of a Murder , Love is my Profession , and Porgy and Bess . Bo and Grandma (who sat in the front row) more likely went in mid-November, when they were staying at the Astor Hotel.

(I visited them and slept on a cot in their suite during that hyperbolically rushed weekend of the 13th, my first weekend away from Putney—a school that Bo was paying for, as he had paid for Payne Whitney—and he and I had lunch together in the Astor Grill on Saturday before we saw a matinee of Chéri, a play that neither of us liked. Our table was next to a plate glass window through which we could see the gigantic neon signs that had signified "New York" to both of us in a zillion corny movies, and Bo said, "You know somethin', Jonny? I'd rather be right here than  . . .  " His eyes drank in the gaudy spectacle greedily, the visual equivalent for him of a banana split, while he gestured with his hand and searched for the right alternative. " . . . than Paris," he finally said, and Jonny, who was fast becoming Jon and was already even beginning to insist on the fact, knew exactly what he meant.)

And it seemed that we had liked Sweet Bird of Youth for related reasons: the magic of the sketchy, suggestive sets and lighting by Jo Mielziner, particularly in the second scene of act two, the snazzy cocktail lounge and outside gallery of the Royal Palms Hotel in St. Cloud, somewhere on the Gulf Coast; and the "deathbed dignity and honesty" in Chance's "self-recognition" (to quote Williams's instructions) in Paul Newman's curtain speech, as he lingers behind in the hotel, a broken gigolo, refusing to leave his hometown even after it becomes clear that if he remains, he will be castrated by Tom Finley, Jr. (Rip Torn), the fascist son of a Southern demagogue and the brother of Chance's childhood sweetheart Heavenly. ("I don't ask for your pity, but just for your understanding—not even that—no. Just for your recognition of me in you, and the enemy, time, in us all.") Bo's principal comment about Newman on the stage was how "realistic" his acting was ("From where we were sitting, you could actually see real tears in the man's eyes—it was tremendous!"), while what had impressed me about Newman in that scene, from the balcony, was his stoicism and restraint.

I already had my doubts about the movie, having read somewhere that the castration business had been omitted and an improbable happy ending tacked on in its place. What I was less prepared for was the behavior of Bo after we climbed the stairs to the Shoals balcony that afternoon—the loudness of his voice as we looked together for a place to sit, having arrived late, during the credits. He insisted on going first, taking out his big pocket lighter awkwardly


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and flicking it on in front of us with an unsteady hand, as though we were creeping together through an unexplored cave, the wide sweep of his wavering flame nearly grazing the heads of several people in the aisle seats. It was about a month before his seventy-fifth birthday, almost a year and a half since Rosenbaum Theatres had been sold to the Martin Theater chain; Dad had already begun teaching at Florence State, at the north end of Court Street, the previous fall, and I would be auditing his sophomore English course there in July. And the upsetting thing to me that afternoon, at once embarrassing and distressing, was that Bo seemed to be acting as though he was still in charge of the Shoals—at least in the small disturbances he was making—without any apparent awareness that he was doing so. As honorary visitors to the Shoals with complementary passes, we had been treated deferentially downstairs at the box office and in the lobby; but now, as we fumbled down the right aisle to some seats on the left and Bo said, "It's as cold as ice in this place," a loud, sharp "Shhhhht! " hissed behind us, and Bo called back, irritably, "You shush up yourself!"

And that was only the beginning of the ordeal. For me, virtually everything in the movie was wrong—the Southern mansion of Boss Finley, and the presiding Negro butler; Ed Begley's grotesque overacting in the "Big Daddy" (Boss Finley) part; the cheap and vulgar lampoon of the South that was apparent everywhere, at once overstated and underspecified in its broad, unfelt flourishes; even Newman's fake Southern accent. For Bo, on the other hand, the movie appeared to be something like a good burlesque show, in which some of Geraldine Page's most leering lines (while Chance gives the Princess her "papaya cream rub": "I don't remember your face, but your hands are familiar") was provoking his loudest and most abrasive laughter—lines which director-adaptor Richard Brooks, with his undying flair for sensationalism (from Blackboard Jungle to In Cold Blood to Looking for Mr. Goodbar , with ungainly and exciting globs of sadism, violence, and misogyny en route, as well as the exuberance of Elmer Gantry —seen during [or should I say instead of? ] my only afternoon in Chicago), had rendered as the brassiest kind of nightclub wisecracks, duly appreciated and applauded as such by my very vocal and philistine grandfather.

(It was one thing to have heard his roaring laughter emanate from the Shoals or the Princess balcony in the good old days, while I was sitting downstairs at a matinee, and this unexpected announcement of his heretofore unknown presence was reassuring, like the laughter of God; it told me that He—even He, most of all He!—was watching too. And it was quite another thing to be sitting beside him—an overweight, bossy, bullying, and sometimes irascible man, a control freak who never got as much love as he demanded and who had therefore always frightened me a little—while he hollered out his amusement, immoderately and shamelessly, in someone else 's theater—making a racket, a nuisance, rather like the noisy kids at the Hoboken Cinema 1:


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restlessly flicking on his lighter several times, either to investigate the activity of a teenage couple quietly necking a few seats away, or to light or relight his Muriel cigar' obviously uneasy about being back in the Shoals again.)

Nor was this all of it. When Chance—the gigolo who is trying to blackmail the Princess into getting him a Hollywood contract, a frustrated success hound who will clearly stop at nothing—takes her pot out from under the mattress so they can smoke, and she insists that the stuff isn't pot but Moroccan hashish, the stuff is too phony-looking to be convincing (to Jon) as either. This is an especially irritating sign of the film's indifference to reality that he couldn't/can't convey to Bo. Like the mike on a boom that Sandy notices in On the Waterfront , near the top of the frame, in a shot inside Karl Malden's church just after a brick has been thrown through a window, the effect is to make the rest of what he sees unbelievable, outlandish, as though the Conquistador were suddenly to find himself stark naked in a public square—and where would the dear old simp be without his shiny armor?

Watching Sweet Bird of Youth on TV, August 7, 1979, Jonathan can't really check this fine point out. But when he catches another 16mm TV-scanned print (a sour CinemaScope/Metrocolor bird with its feathers plucked, its wings clipped, amputated, castrated: a castration of a castration of a castration) on November 13 at Theatre 80 on St. Mark's Place—the only Manhattan movie theater he knows where the entire auditorium feels like a cramped balcony—the greenish hue of the dope in question looks more like bread mold or caterpillar guts, perhaps due to the "natural" deterioration of Metrocolor, which naturally turns Chance, the Princess, and Heavenly too, into different shades of corpselike pink, as the other colors irrevocably drain away, although it clearly is weed, not hash (vegetable, not mineral). So why does Brooks gratuitously make the Princess a liar when she says "Moroccan hashish"?

And apart from all the tired, world-weary wit being bandied about by Chance and the Princess, there was the strident spelling out and Hollywood upholstering of virtually everything that Williams had effectively kept offstage: the flashback meetings of Chance and Heavenly at their sumptuous lighthouse hideaway—each meeting accompanied by a soupy rendition of "Ebb Tide," possibly the worst song of the fifties (and Shirley Knight appearing at one point in a red evening dress out of something like Athena ); and the revenge taken by Boss Finley against his mistress Miz Lucy after he hears about her writing "Boss Finley can't cut the mustard" in lipstick on the mirror in the ladies room of the cocktail lounge of the Royal Arms (Bo finds the message hilarious)—a very mechanical scene in which he slams the lid of an egg-shaped gold jewel box on her fingers, slaps her when she screams, rips her nightie, smashes things on her dresser with his cane (dull shades of Citizen Kane ), and flicks her TV set back on, loud, with the remote control button, before stomping out (all of which Bo adores). Worst of all were the ridiculously literal "expositional" flashbacks, each one appearing hideously


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like a ragged hole left by a cigar burn on the screen (the silliest of them probably being the one in which Chance is suddenly conscripted into the Korean War by Boss Finley, who wants him away from his daughter Heavenly—an act performed magically and spontaneously in the midst of a rabble-rousing political speech, which causes one of those oh-my-gosh expressions to form in Newman's blue-eyed features as he stands near the podium, oddly reminiscent of Doris Day's amazement at Gordon MacRae's unexpected enlistment in On Moonlight Bay , or Betty Beep's saucer eyes).

Bo unaccountably liked the happy ending, too. After Chance's nose is summarily broken by Tom Finley, Jr.—a symbolic castration, to be sure, capped by, "No woman will ever pay to love that, " to give the violence junkies their quota of kicks—Chance and Heavenly suddenly drive off triumphantly, to their freedom (where?), and when Ole Boss Finley asks Ole Aunt Nonnie (Mildred Dunnock) in impotent fury what he can do about this, she comes right out and says to him, "You can go straight to hell!" And Louie Rosenbaum, good sport that he was, howled at that line, too.

And what if he did? I'm wondering now, a long time later—the night before I leave with Sandy for Washington, D.C., to visit my brothers Alvin and David and their families over Thanksgiving. If Bo's identification of himself with Boss Finley was less rigid than my own clichéd notions about their rapport, this was largely because he had gone to this show for fun, not for truth or poetry. Wasn't that the whole point of me coming over for lunch, Grandma fixing me one of my favorite dishes (was it chicken croquettes and gravy?), and Bo and I walking to the Shoals three blocks away, as soon as he finished his benching (a ritual like a campfire nonsense song, a routine so absolute you could check the order of the universe by it)?

And it was more fun, not less, if all references to castration in the play (explicitly linked there to the castration of Judge Edward Aaron, a Negro house painter' in September 1957—an incident that had shaken Bo so badly at the time that he wasn't able to sleep all night, after hearing about it ) were excised, along with the even rougher lines about the hysterectomy performed on Heavenly. It was fun because even the decimation of a flawed Williams play with a great performance by Geraldine Page was fun, because it was entertainment—like the Mickey Mouse and Pluto cartoon shown in the work-farm prison camp in Sullivan's Travels , or the late show of Dr. Goldfoot and His Bikini Machine that Alvin and I went to at the Shoals, in desperation and relief, on the night of January 20, 1966, a month before my last semester at Bard, and only a few hours after the funeral at Morrison-Elkins Chapel of Isador Bookholtz, Mimi's father Izzie, whom my brothers and I had called Bo B. Bo B. was from Warsaw, had worked as a die maker in New York until his wife Gussie (who died about three months before he did) convinced him to sell insurance instead, had moved to Florence with Gussie three and a half years ago, had spent most of his time smoking Lucky Strikes and looking out the window, and then had died at the age of eighty.


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And I had attended his funeral, as I had not attended Louis Rosenbaum's—Bo R. having died around midnight on September 8, 1962, six hours or so after I had said goodbye to him at the hospital and then boarded a train in Sheffield for a twenty-four-hour ride to New York, needing to find a place to live before starting my sophomore year at NYU. So unlike everyone else in the family, I learned about his death only when it was too late to return to Florence for the funeral; and I was the only member not present. Was this the price I had to pay for moving places? Later that same year, Bo's favorite actor, Thomas Mitchell, died at seventy, only two days after Bo's near lookalike, Charles Laughton, died at sixty-three. (After Grandma died in 1975, when I was still in London, David, Alvin, and Michael took possession of all the furniture on North Wood Avenue; I appropriated Bo's sixteen-volume edition of The Arabian Nights and his globe of the world.)

And so what if my anger at Brooks's Sweet Bird of Youth —coupled with my surprise at how much I liked Follow that Dream (a relaxed Elvis Presley movie with Arthur O'Connell, about an eccentric family of squatters, that also took place in Florida) at the Shoals a week later—led me to write my first conscious piece of film criticism, a polemic passing sentence (Is that what this is? Is that what I'm doing? Is that what Critics are supposed to do? ) on the "superiority" of the latter film (which Bo never saw) to the former, written while I was still in Florence, an unpublished article that I no longer have to read or to quote from? It's probably just as well. Follow that Dream —which I haven't seen again—opened two days before I saw George Wallace, campaigning for governor, holler about the "scallawaggin, carpet-baggin" Yankee bureaucrats in front of the Lauderdale County Court House on Court Street, 7:30 P.M., Saturday night—only four days before I went to see Sunrise at the McMillan Theater, safely back in New York.

Looking back at that absurd conjunction of facts in my notes, and searching for still another formula that might reconcile the irreconcilable, and perhaps clarify Bo's strange and enduring legacy to me, I think of another Court Street: the cobblestone alley just behind the building where Sandy and I live in Hoboken, visible from our bedroom. It's the same alley where Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront finds his brother Rod Steiger at night, crucified with a longshoreman's hook, then flees with Eva Marie Saint from a killer truck—and, more than likely, the escape route taken by whoever burglarized us only three nights after we moved here, on the eve of Yom Kippur. When Hoboken's Court Street was projected only a block away from Florence's Court Street, at the Shoals in January 1955, it was possible for Bo to see both of them, back to back. And now that I can't see him and he can't see either, the only evidence left is a few movies that we both happened to pass through—moving in different directions on our way to separate places.


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