Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Flu Formerly Known As Swine Flu Virus

Dr. Erskine Palmer and R.E. Bates / Centers for Disease Control / Reuters

This guy looks like a tough little bastard.

I've been through flu pandemics in 1957 and 1968. If I got sick, I don't remember it. But in Germany, in 1964 I caught a flu I remember. For a couple of days I was dreaming or delirious. I seemed to be working in a Chinese laundry, boiling sheets in big tubs. The steam in the air made it so hard to breathe, I felt like I was drowning. I kept coughing up horrible gobs of dark green mucous and spitting them into the wash tubs.

In the 70's in Austin, Texas, I spent a couple of weeks in a poorly vented darkroom, making images for an art project, and ended up with a chemical pneumonia. Or maybe it was the legionnaires disease, or just the flu that put me in the hospital for a week. I was seriously ill, but inhalation therapy pulled me through. I remember hearing that when they cultured whatever the organism was that was trying to kill me, it was a cross between a plant and an animal. I'm sure it had a name, but I don't remember what it was.

Friday, April 24, 2009

For Levi

Another piccolo player.

Boris Artzybasheff
The Circus Of Dr. Lao
Charles G. Finney

Salsa Anyone?

It's Friday and I'm in the mood to dance. When I was a young girl, I'd go to parties on the weekends with my parents and watched all the adults dance like this. I'd memorize all the moves and then go home and practice them with my father. My father was a fabulous dancer and loved dancing with his little girl. So here's "my girl" doing her thing. Oh, and that move where she comes to a dead stop-- no one did that better than my father!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

More Stones From The River

I've been thinking about Stones From The River, and I have a couple of comments, intended more as practical suggestions than critical analysis. They won't make much sense if you haven't read the novel.

Stones From The River, it seems to me, is a romance, set in improbable times. It's the story of a German dwarf, and the men -- and women -- she's loved, set in Burgdorf, a small town near Dusseldorf, between the end of WWI and the end of WWII.

What strikes me about the novel is the amount of love Trudi Montag manages to generate in the 30 or so years we see of her life, even though she may not be aware of some of it. Just counting the men in her life, there are six stories. There's her father; Georg her first friend; Klaus the dentist; Konrad the Jewish boy she hides from the Nazis; Matthias the gay pianist; and, finally, her great love, Max the painter.

I'd consider structuring the film around Trudi's revelations of these relationships to a young American soldier who, at the beginning of the film, hates Germans. As he learns about Trudi's loves, he begins to understand that not all Germans were Nazis, and that some Germans -- those who, for one reason or another, couldn't be fed into the German war machine -- kept humanity alive during the Third Reich. This structure requires a slight change to the ending of the novel -- it puts an American soldier in Trudi's home -- but it lets Trudi tell her story from her own point of view.

It may be necessary to add an even more compelling narrative to the "present" of the post war years, something like a criminal trial or investigation, or a detective story of some kind.

I think the structure will support any filmic style, including edgy super-realism.

I'd begin the film with scenes of the American troops coming into Burgdorf. It's the end of the war. Trudi is in her 30's. You can feel the tanks before you hear them. In a bomb shelter. The room shaking. Faces mainly. The door is kicked in. The German civilians "surrender" to the American soldiers. The first time we see Trudi as a dwarf is either when an American is billeted in her house or the first time she's interrogated. Everything after that is scenes of the occupation mixed with her memories of her life and her loves.

The difficulty is getting from an essentially psychological book that's a journey of self-discovery to a film where a little more is at issue, i.e., the guilt of individual Germans, or, possibly, something more compelling. Trudi is the town gossip. A perfect source for anyone trying to get to the bottom of events in Burgdorf.

I'd avoid falling into some kind of pattern with the flashbacks. For example, I wouldn't start each segment of the film with the dwarf talking, flashing back, talking, flashing back. I think there should be many contemporary scenes mixed in, her father dying, a woman throwing her child off a bridge, Hanna,the little girl she falls in love with, and so on, and, also, long historical segments that cross episodes. The amount of time the dwarf spends setting up the historical material should be very minimal. A few historical moments that impressed me: the summary execution of the town's benefactor, Trudi's interrogation by the nihilist Gestapo, Trudi swimming, the old lady beating up the Hitler youth, Trudi and the circus dwarf.

The only problem I have with the novel is understanding the relationship between Trudi and Max. I think the film needs to be explicit about why Max picks Trudi for a lover. I don't think the reason matters, it just needs to be there and be believable. And I'd be tempted to portray Max with a little irony and cynicism. A painter who paints the colors of his orgasms? We can do better than that in the era of concentration camps and sadistic medical experiments. Or, we can use it to consign Max to the world of the dreamers.

I appreciate Tom's putting Stones on the table. It's an interesting book and an interesting exercise. It could be fun to circle the best scenes and dialogue Arnold Manoff style.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Annals Of The Waterboard (The Opera)

2:00 AM. Bush meets Cheney in the hallway of a cell block. Bush is carrying a surfboard. Marine guards snap to attention as Bush approaches.

Cheney: What the hell is that?

Bush: My surfboard.

Cheney: What an asshole. I said we were waterboarding tonight.

Bush: Whoa! You can't call POTUS an asshole. (To the Marines in the hall.) Grab hold of him. (Bush throws the surfboard on the floor.) Hold him down on that!

Cheney: Goddam it, George, stop fucking around.

Bush: I'll show you some fucking around. Somebody get me some water and a rag.

Tutti cantano insieme:

The Marines: Sir! Aye, Aye! Sir!

Cheney: Don't board me, George!

Bush: Tube City! Damn! Turn him over now!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Marilyn Monroe
Bert Stern Photograph, Acrylic Paint
Photo Copyright Bert Stern 1962
Marilyn The Classic by Norman Mailer
Galahad Books

Monday, April 13, 2009

Nuremberg Sounds Familiar

I went down to Chicago this weekend and, beginning to doze on the train, I recalled reading: "It was frightening to see how people felt justified to discriminate, how that attitude of superiority was drilled into ten-year-old children ... . More than once she'd overheard comments on streetcars or in restaurants about Jews smelling bad." And, suddenly, I couldn't remember if I had read that in Hegi's Stones from the River, or if it had been in the article about Kurt Epstein, the Czech Olympian, that Tom referred to when he was considering the contrast between pictures of health and beauty and images of concentration camps.

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Texas, I worked in the stacks at the university library. The section I worked in contained the transcripts of the Nuremberg war trials, complete with supporting documents. Over the course of the year, I read many of the transcripts and background documents. Out of all that horror, the medical experiments are what I remember best, especially the experiments that used Jewish prisoners to determine the probable effects on pilots of bailing out at high altitudes. What the German "scientists" were interested in were the effects of extreme cold and a sudden loss of atmospheric pressure on the human body. And, in my mind's eye at least, they weren't even testing protective gear, they were just watching people freeze to death or die slowly from lack of oxygen.

That was a long time ago. This morning, I'm trying to imagine Tom's canvassing attorney, sitting in my office, telling me: "You must have been one of those 19-year-olds who read the transcripts of the Nuremberg war trials. Nuremberg sounds familiar. I promise to look that up."

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Middle Way

Mainly, we're all McLuhans now. We take it for granted that the contents of each new medium, the world wide web for example, is the media that preceded it. In the case of the web, television, film, photography, books and magazines of all kinds make up a substantial part of its contents.

It seems to me the web has, up to now, functioned mainly as a mass distribution medium. The content of the web, a photograph for instance, may be transformed by being published in the context of the web, where it is available to so many people so fast and collides with so much other information, but it is not altered on purpose to make it "webic" in the way books and plays are altered to make them "filmic." On the way to becoming a film, a book is broken down, then put together again as a screenplay and a film.

There are several ways to use a book to produce a screenplay. The easiest way, probably, is to ignore the book's characters and plot and recreate the "essence" of the book in film. Warhol's Vinyl, for example, captures the essence of A Clockwork Orange, without burdening the film with Burgess's characters and plot. That's probably not the most commercially successful way to turn a book into a film.

The commercially successful way, the Hollywood way, is to respect the narrative and characters of the novel and to recreate those elements with acting, cinematography, sound and editing in a way that "brings the novel to life." The quality of the novel, of its characters and plot, matter. If necessary, the film may deviate from the novel, but changes to the original are made in the spirit of improvement. Kubrick was faithful to Burgess's plot in his film version of A Clockwork Orange. Ridley Scott, on the other hand, probably intended Blade Runner to be an improved version of Dick's Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep. His departures from Dick's narrative and characters were intended to produce a better, more successful story.

The third way, the auteur way, is to use the novel's characters and plot simply as a place to start. French New Wave directors bought the rights to dime store novels for their plots. Almost any plot would do, because the films they made weren't about the narrative. The story was beside the point. Just something to hang the film on. Art is synthesized experience. For film makers like Goddard, the story was just an occasion for that synthesis.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Why Mars Matters

America is not America without a frontier. We're the kind of people who need to be constantly pushing the outside of the envelope, creating a frontier, settling it, getting restless and moving on.

It's in our nature to move West. And the only West left is out in space. That-a-way. Out yonder.

Back East is a museum. Getting bad as Europe. But out West, you can stretch out and breathe. Tim Leary knew.

He toured America, playing electronic music he claimed would prepare the human mind for a voyage into deep space. The Department of Justice brought him. Put him on tour to recant, to take it all back. And he did. He told us the government was firmly in the hands of men and women who only a few years before had been stealing hub caps at Atlanta rock concerts. He said he was about to play some tapes to rearrange the molecules of our brains, to prepare us for deep space, for the long voyage ahead. Anybody didn't want to go had better leave. I trusted Tim, and I wasn't ready for space, so I left. I never heard the Leary tapes. I doubt I'm fit to travel into space. But some folks are.

They're the kind of men and women who were willing to take their chances on a new America, willing to give the kid his shot and help him win the title. And he owes them more than the same old men, running America the same old way. He owes them a shot at something big.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

What I Like

Some things I like in art.

Melancholy moods, dark streets, the rain.


Seeing the old order brought down. Seeing chaos reign.

Reluctant heroes.

Magic and the supernatural.

Women who work retail.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Spring Break

Spring break and my daughter is home today, complaining about having to get out of bed because the maid is coming. The maid's a woman from Brazil. Her husband's a divinity student at the Adventist college in a little town down the road. He helps her clean the house now and then, making her a maid service or cleaning service I guess, which is what we called our maid in Brooklyn, even though she was just a woman from Guatemala who brought her daughter with her sometimes and showed her maid tricks like storing the garbage bags in the bottom of the garbage can. The word maid was a problem in Brooklyn because my wife was ashamed that a sister was cleaning our house. There were programs on NPR about that in those days. Ways to get by without a maid. We lived with the guilt. Now I don't feel guilty about having a maid, just uneasy about being able to afford a maid when so many people are out of work sometimes, but never when I'm picking up the house before she comes, because I know that without the Friday pick up and the maid we'd slowly sink beneath a rising sea of kipple. When the house is picked up enough for her to start cleaning it, I get out of her way. This morning I took the kid to Big Boy for breakfast, and we ended up in a booth next to some kind of old timers' breakfast club, four guys from the local VFW, talking about draft dodgers in the Seventies and a local doctor who did a tour on a medevac plane, flying critically hurt GIs from Iraq to Germany, the kind of old men and the kind of conversation makes you want to say if I get that way please put a bullet in my brain pan. But just to show you how confusing free association can get, I sat there thinking all at once about four or five things, all jumbled up, that I have to put down in some linear way here, because the narrative won't let me tell it all at once. The VFW has to let you use their big, portable barbeque pits if you're a veteran. You just reserve the pit. Tow it home with your truck. Leon told me that at Leon's World Famous Barbeque in Galveston while I waited for my take-out ribs, reading the menu on the wall, reading cold yard bird, a phrase my wife picked off the menu and put in a poem, you cold yard birds, I know the names of poets in high places, while CLM, whose craziness landed me in the Army, waited for her order, standing alongside me at the counter, wondering who I was. I made the mistake of going to see her at Unit D, you don't even have to explain to anybody what a place called Unit D is about, after she slashed her wrists, and the cops, doing me a favor, figuring me, an officer of a local bank, for a respectable guy who happened, unwittingly, to be mixed up with the criminally insane, took me down to the station and showed me her rap sheet. How were they to know that inside that thick file was where I longed to be?

Copyright 2009 Billy Glad

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


I was driving her to school, and my daughter told me if she had been born in the old days we would still be in New York where her name was written in the book. People couldn't move around back then she said, couldn't leave New York the way we did right after 9/11, a move we'd planned to make to the Midwest, made easier by the dust in the air and the smell like a burned out motor or lamp and the scorched pieces of paper that floated into the courtyard of our co-op the day after the towers fell down. That was the day I got back to Brooklyn, drove all night in a rented car, came in across Staten Island with the heavy trucks, ambulances, and military vehicles of all kinds, everything but tanks. The tanks were in my mind. But I heard the helicopters when the rental threw a rod a couple of blocks from my apartment and I parked it in front of a corner grocery and walked the rest of the way home. If it had been the old days, we'd have stayed in New York instead of laying in a supply of Cipro and Amoxicillin and flying out to the Midwest, and I never would have put that guy's eye out at the dump. It was about the time Saddam's sons, Uday and the other one, were killed, gunned down or blown up, and right after I took the wood from the kitchen cabinets we tore out to make room for the new refrigerator down to the dump. Right before that, the night before or maybe the night before that I dreamed I was trapped in the basement and the house was on fire, and I was yelling at my wife to throw the .357 magnum through the narrow basement window so I could blow my fucking brains out to keep from burning alive, the kind of dream that stays with you all day. And right after that dream I took the wood to the dump. Long pieces of wood with nails sticking out that I tried to hammer down, but they kept bending and sliding under the hammer and I couldn't get them all out or bent down flat, and I had to be careful not to jam one into my hand when I was loading the wood into the back of my truck. When I got to the dump, the attendant helped me pull the wood out of the back of the truck and throw it over the side of the walk-in dumpster. And when we were almost finished a guy came out of the dumpster, holding his head and saying what the fuck were we doing, and the attendant told him he wasn't supposed to be going inside the dumpster like that. You're lucky you didn't get killed the attendant told him. I could see the guy had a cut next to his eye, and he was sticking his finger through a hole in his baseball cap and saying you ruined my fucking cap. Then he went over and got in his car and his wife was looking at his eye, and I backed out and drove off, thinking they were probably writing down my license plate number, or maybe they would come back to the dump every Saturday and try to find me. But I was thinking maybe he wouldn't have much of a case, even if he lost that eye, because he probably shouldn't have been in the dumpster. But just to make sure, I called a lawyer so he could set my mind at ease. They say when you leave a place you get a unique perspective on it, see things the people who stay behind don't see. All I get is homesick now and then.

Copyright 2009 Billy Glad