I never knew what a film director contributed to a movie. Not even when I was a high school student working weekends as an usher at the Astoria Theatre. I walked up and down the aisles of that movie house with my flashlight dressed in an oversize blue uniform whose sleeves reached down below my fingertips, the shoulders decorated with elaborate gold epaulets that I was convinced bestowed on my persona the appearance of a performing mascot. My sense of personal dignity in that job was maintained only by virtue of the much appreciated concealment provided by a shadowy environment. The management didn´t think it economically practical to have the uniforms made to measure, so those who were given the job had a choice of a previously used too small, small, a faulty approximation of medium, and a large that was indeed large, large.
Having decided on a writing career, the opening credits of the movies I watched over and over again only served to irritate me. There, on the giant screen (this was much before the advent of multi-plex theatres with their attendant diminutive seating capacity), would appear an enormous title: “Directed by,” with a name in massive capital letters. Why did the director merit such consideration, while the writer shared the screen with a miscellany of the less important? After all, I reasoned logically, without the writer´s story, there would be no movie!
It wasn´t until college, at New York University, that I accidentally discovered what comprised the director´s craft, and although I still consider the writer to be at least as important to the realization of a film, I have accepted as irremediable the flawed, perceived self-worth (particularly considering remuneration), of the film director. Although I insist, make no mistake about it, that without a story the director is merely a flamboyant ornament on the set, not unlike the epaulets on my usher’s uniform. We all know what an actor’s responsibility is, we can see the labor of the cameraman, it’s possible to appreciate the skill of the editor, but what does a director really do, precisely?
I´m fairly certain that NYU accepted me in order to fulfill some misguided quota system, because I was not a particularly good student. School, except for several classes, failed to arouse an undeveloped eagerness for knowledge. I was definitely lower class, with no curiosity about the world beyond taking what pleasure was available at the moment. A proletarian; although I was ignorant of the word and its implication at the time. In later years (the result of a mercifully far less violent sans-culottes Jacobinist political and social revolution), belonging to this underclass became a privileged imprimatur of distinction. I was a proud resident of the blue collar, working class borough of Queens, a graduate of William Cullen Bryant High School, where after school we would gather on the adjacent handball court to observe a fistfight. It remains an unsolved mystery for me to this day as to who cleaned the blood from the concrete when the students dispersed after one of the two crimson stained gladiators proved victorious.
A particularly memorable fight comes to mind: a loutish thug brawling with what would today be considered a nerd; a nice boy with a part in his hair, soft spoken, well dressed, his books carefully protected in a leather briefcase, a darling of his teachers. The clash was motivated by a disputed acquisition of an attractive blonde female, and they were attacking each other like untamed, ruttish beasts. One of the spectators attempted to intervene and stop the fight which his nerdy friend was obviously losing, only to be aggressively hauled aside by the angry blonde screaming: “Let them fight!”
In those days I had a great deal more hair, and styled it in the popular greasy pompadour of a DA (duck´s ass). I rubbed shoulders with gang members who flaunted wide Garrison belts around their waist that could quickly be wrapped around a fist and swung to rip open an opponent’s face with the sharply filed edges of the buckle, and heavy engineer boots with which to stomp him when he fell to the sidewalk. They also invented guns: a piece of short pipe attached to a wood frame with a rubber band and short nail serving as an improvised hammer.
I applied to NYU for no better reason than that it was an easy commute from my parent´s apartment. I also applied to Hofstra and Saint John´s University, unaware that it was a Catholic college, although had I known, it would have made no difference; I mention this only to emphasize my in retrospect appalling scholastic ignorance. On the application to all three schools I indicated as answer to the obligatory query that my goal was to be a writer of fiction. Hofstra rejected me outright, however, St. John´s saw fit to respond with a particularly nasty rebuke, belittling what the writer considered my obvious fantasy. To a less vigorous spirit, that unfortunate reply could have produced destructive consequences. That letter is the only memorabilia that I made an effort to preserve to this day; I have not accumulated autographed photos posing with celebrities, letters of affected gratitude from dignitaries, nor any of many awards with which to carefully paper the walls. Strictly in reprisal, and for his embarrassment, I would note here the name of the dolt who composed my rejection letter, but even that hard copy testament to my existence seems to have been misplaced. Given the years that have elapsed, however, it´s more than certain he´s long deceased, and my vindictive, unforgotten resentment futile.
Today, I am unsure as to the precise reason for my clandestine interest in becoming a writer of fiction; clandestine because I didn´t dare mention this literary concern to my friends, timidly fearful of their resultant mockery. Actually, rather than the reveling in the sheer delight produced by using the written word, that euphoria experienced in finding the precise adjective, it was probably reading that provided my enjoyment and subsequent interest in the profession. In those days I would surreptitiously slink as a secretive, solitary figure, anxious that someone would bear witness, into the public library on Thirtieth Avenue to read adventure stories. Adventure has been an imperative in my life, having always considered it the most significant and essential element of my being. Neither raising a family nor acquiring financial success was ever of any interest. There was a popular song at the time that so served to terrify me I haven´t forgotten it, notwithstanding it was a favorite of all of my friends. The song was Three Bells:
There’s a village hidden deep in the valley
Among the pine trees half forlorn
And there on a sunny morning
Little Jimmy Brown was born.
All the chapel bells were ringing in the little valley town
And the song that they were singing was for baby Jimmy Brown
Then the little congregation prayed for guidance from above
"Lead us not into temptation, bless this hour of meditation
Guide him with eternal love."
There’s a village hidden deep in the valley
Beneath the mountains high above
And there, twenty years thereafter
Jimmy was to meet his love.
All the chapel bells were ringing, ’twas a great day in his life
’cause the song that they were singing was for Jimmy and his wife
Then the little congregation prayed for guidance from above
"Lead us not into temptation, bless, oh lord this celebration
May their lives be filled with love."
From the village hidden deep in the valley
One rainy morning dark and gray
A soul winged its way to heaven
Jimmy Brown had passed away.
Just a lonely bell was ringing in the little valley town
’Twas farewell that it was singing to our little Jimmy Brown
And the little congregation prayed for guidance from above
"Lead us not into temptation, may his soul find the salvation
Of thy great eternal love."
Is that all there is? Working nine to five. Two weeks of vacation a year. A watch and a lukewarm chicken with peas dinner as a reward, if you were fortunate enough, after thirty years of servitude? There just had to be more to life than that. Adventure. Yes, adventure. Cram into this one fleeting, ephemeral, brief existence as many different experiences, as many lives as possible. If you can´t realistically do that physically, then invent them, imagine them in your head. Writing can do that. So can making movies.
I was originally enrolled as an English Literature major at New York University, mistakenly assuming I would receive instruction in the necessary basics of the craft; English Lit didn´t do that, however the graduates who befriended me (decidedly famished inhabitants of sixth floor walk up, cold water only apartment, two cents per word professional scribes), providentially served to alert me to the depressing reality that writer´s could not be assured of any sensible remunerable employment. I was the son of immigrant parents from the eastern Mediterranean who had abandoned their relatives and their culture seeking a better future for their children. My mother used to say that she had promised herself that I wasn´t going to graze sheep in the mountains; I couldn´t allow this sacrifice to go unrewarded. It´s also entirely possible that some of my ancestors were rug merchants; likewise, I couldn´t disrespect that heritage of pecuniary shrewdness. Browsing through the NYU catalogue, I found an intriguing entry: “Writing for Television, Motion Pictures and Radio.” I enrolled in a writing course with Professor Irving Falk (who would later employ me as his personal assistant), in the unexpectedly discovered TMR Department, as it was called in those days; now identified in more sophisticated fashion as the “School of the Arts.” My intention was to prostitute myself by writing for that intellectually bereft (today we would use the word challenged), motion-picture business while I completed my great American novel. That decision changed the course of my life, and I learned the obscure function of a film director.
My classmates included a tall, very intense young man by the name of Brian De Palma, and a squat, nervous, almost frightened, asthmatic fellow who gave me the impression he was a loser, Martin Scorsese. One day Brian showed me on the Moviola a 16mm black & white short he had just finished, it was only several minutes in length and this was its final cut version. He asked me how I liked it; I thought it was a pretentious, surrealistic piece of shit, so I said “It´s nice, Brian.” I don´t think we ever engaged in conversation again. However, Marty and I became friends, actually, for a time we roomed together. Perhaps it had something to do with our similar backgrounds, he growing up on Elizabeth Street in Little Italy and I on Steinway Street in Astoria.
On one occasion Marty was invited by the young hoodlums in his neighborhood to spend a weekend at some mobster´s retreat in upstate New York; he asked me to come along and I agreed, being perfectly comfortable in the company of these individuals. Small wood cabins were scattered in a clearing by the edge of a lake, surrounded by acres of unspoiled forest. Shortly after arriving, our hosts pulled pistols and revolvers from their luggage to play a friendly game of cowboys and Indians, taking refuge behind cabin doors, trees and shrubbery, while shooting at each other with live ammunition. The bullets thumped dully into the wood structures, and noisily shattered the glass windows, splinters flying. “Holy shit, Marty, these guys are nuts, somebody´s gonna get hurt!” I said as we lay prone on the floor inside one of the cabins. Some time later, now outraged at being obliged to squander this uncommon opportunity to leave behind the city streets, compelled to hug a dusty floor by the crisp crackle of unceasing gunshots, I told Marty: “Listen, I´m going to the doorway and stand up, when a shot rings out, I´m gonna grab my chest and fall to the ground. You start yelling “He´s hit! He´s hit! You got him!” That should stop the shooting and bring them over to see my body. You got that?”
Subsequent to my possibly award winning performance, having resurrected, I shouted at everyone in their habitual argot: ”Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! What the fuck are you doing? You dumb fucks! Cut the fucking shit, somebody´s gonna fucking get killed!” it was decided to take the rowboats tied to the dock out into the water. No sooner had we gotten to the middle of the lake when these wannabe mobsters invented a contemporary game of jousting by standing in the rowboats and using the paddles as lances to strike at each other. Obviously the rowboats weren´t designed for knightly combat and some overturned; Marty and I fell into the lake and clung to the bottom of the inverted rowboat. I looked toward shore and decided I wasn´t able to swim that far, largely because I was fully dressed. There was a small boat a short distance away with an elderly man fishing; he was observing us. We used our hands to paddle the rowboat towards him. When we got within hearing distance, he held up a machete and said “You come near my boat and I´ll chop your hands off!” These were the characters that populated Marty´s later film, “Mean Streets.”
I also made the required short in the film department, and it won an award at a screening of all the student films produced that semester. The day after the ceremony, I sauntered into class, late as usual, with the film can under my arm. “You!” a voice bellowed. It was Haig Manoogian, our very gifted, albeit voluble and quarrelsome film professor. He was of Armenian heritage. Mine was Greek. We never really managed the close relationship I experienced with my other professors in the department. “Channel 13 wants to put your movie on TV,” he continued, “but I won´t let that happen until you make the cuts I want.” I bristled at his unrestrained, blatant extortion that attempted to humiliate me with a public capitulation in front of the entire class. My favorite quote from Melville´s Moby Dick came to mind: “I would smite the face of God were He to insult me!” My normal response would have been equally as violent; however having my film shown on television was an opportunity not to be dismissed lightly, so I allowed my duplicitous Odyssean personality to surface. “Well, o.k. Prof, I can agree to some changes, but…” “No!” he interrupted, “I´m through arguing with you. You either make all the changes I´ve been asking for, or the film won´t go to Channel 13.” That tore it. Odysseus scampered out the window. I pulled the film from under my arm and held it out towards Manoogian. “This may be the first film I ever made, but it won´t be my last. So you can take it and shove it up your ass. Sideways!” I turned and ambled leisurely out of the room to the raucous applause, whistles and foot stomping hoots of my classmates. The film never went to Channel 13. Manoogian and I never mentioned the incident.
There was a continuing emphasis verbalized by the professors in the TMR Department that we were not being taught a trade, that NYU wasn´t a commonplace vocational school; it was an accredited university that taught appreciation of the motion picture as an art form. I considered that if this were honestly the raison d’être of the department, it would prove to be a most expensive and ultimately useless career choice indeed. It wasn´t only I who was incredulous, no one else believed a word of it either; the Brians and Martys were there to learn how to make movies, I was there because it was the most academically undemanding way to get a degree and please my mother who in actual fact wanted her son to be a doctor or an attorney, or as last resort a dentist, in order that she could refer to him in conversations with friends as “my son the doctor,” or “my son the attorney.” Having only completed the third grade of primary school in the Old Country, she was never able to quite appreciate what this movie thing was all about. For me, it was the closest I could get to majoring in basket weaving without attending a distant Miami U., at the time considered the most notoriously lax educational institution in the country.
I considered, and still maintain, that the concept of film as art is ludicrous; how can a medium that is dependent on the approval of the lowest common denominator in society be considered art? Directors rely on box office results in order to continue working; motion-pictures are a dictatorship of the proletariat. That doesn´t make a promising argument for art. There have been some films that could, indeed, be considered artistic, but they were realized under the most singular of circumstances; I am obviously referring here to the magnificent Swedish films of Ingmar Bergman, the splendid work of the Japanese film maker, Akiro Kurosowa, and the early material of Federico Fellini, before he succumbed (for commercial considerations I would imagine), to repeating the same movie over and over again.
After graduation, I was the first one to get a job as a director, making more money than I was worth, or anyone is worth for that matter, and I was living in a floor through apartment with a terrace on Fifth Avenue. In those early years I was persistently embarrassed on receiving a check for “services rendered as director,” and it would take several days for me to find the essential audacity to deposit it into my bank account. Making money just wasn´t my interest; it never failed to astonish me that someone would actually pay me so much money to do what came so easily and which I thoroughly enjoyed. I have met and worked with a lot of film directors over the years. Some of them really do suffer agonizing insecurity. Where should we put the camera? Here? There? No. Maybe up high? How about a low angle? What do you think of a dolly shot? I never experienced such esoteric complications; Peter Skolnick, a producer friend remarked, “you´re the only director I´ve ever worked with that isn´t a Prima Dona. You approach filmmaking as a craftsman.” And he´s right. Let´s not make a big deal of it, it’s only a movie! Just do it.
When Film Fair, an international production company hired me as a staff director with a complimentary apartment and my own office to be decorated as I chose, at an outrageous salary and with all the perquisites the title demanded, another friend and graduate of the NYU film department, Eli Bleich, who went on to make a name for himself in political campaign films said: “Wow. You really made it!” No. I really hadn´t. There is no such thing as having “made it,” whatever the eternally elusive Chimera of “it” happens to be at the moment.
At Film Fair, a professional still cameraman arrived to photograph me with the employees of the company; the resulting picture was to be used as a vehicle to introduce me to the advertising community as the company’s new acquisition. For this event, I had ordered a very expensive tailor made sharkskin suit with wide, hand stitched lapels, double twenty-four inch vents in the back of the jacket that was additionally pegged at the waistline. I also bought a silk shirt and power tie, plus a pack of plastic tipped, vanilla flavored cigars that I used as a prop in the picture. I was convinced that the cigar would provide me with the necessarily appropriate cachet. I knew nothing of Cohibas, or Te Amos for that matter. The ad was placed in Backstage. It´s a ridiculous photograph of an arrogant young man in a shiny suit pretentiously smoking a skinny, cheap cigar.
It was a ghastly mistake. To my embarrassment, I discovered that the appropriate uniform for a director shooting commercials, in order to be accepted as a serious player in the genre by the advertising agencies, was a faded denim shirt and jacket, with boot cut jeans. It was the counter culture fashion statement of the period, so I had the sharkskin suit duplicated in blue denim.
The Film Fair office that employed me was located in Chicago. I had gone to that city for the interview on a balmy September afternoon; the job was scheduled to begin in January. Having been advised that Chicago was chilly in the winter, I bought a Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca trench coat for a small fortune because it was tailored in delightfully supple leather. The company had rented for my use an attractively furnished apartment on the Gold Coast, with windows overlooking Lake Michigan. I never saw the lake from that apartment because from January to April, which is how long I lived there, the windows were covered with a two inch thick layer of ice. The infrequent occasions I was able to go to my office, given the fierce winter ice storms and gale force winds (for which my attractive trench coat was foolishly inadequate), I had to maneuver along Michigan Avenue holding ropes that were provided by the municipality in order that pedestrians not be blown away. In April the weather improved sufficiently for me to consider a trip to the airport feasible. I packed my bags and quit my job.
Several weeks later, comfortably ensconced in a chaise longue under a palm tree on the beach, a large Margarita cocktail at my side, I laughed out loud on reading Backstage to discover the very same advertisement Film Fair had designed for me now being used to promote their current director. In a tactic reminiscent of the socialist Evil Empire, my cigar chomping face had been removed, and the new director’s features inserted over my elegantly suited torso.
I was delighting in balmy weather because Scorsese was right; he had confided to David Lerner, shortly before receiving his much coveted Academy Award: “Ares, yeah, he was a very talented guy.” For that reason, I modestly submit, I was able to imitate the Midnight Cowboy and go to “where the sun keeps shining, through the falling rain…where the weather suits my clothes.” I had been hired by another film company located in a more civilized climate.
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