In All the Towns . . .
In the eighth grade I took, and passed, the test to get into Brainiac High. In addition to kids like me (escapees from various parochial schools), there were a handful of certifiable brainiacs, a couple of whom lived in the same union-financed Mitchell Lama Housing project as I did. I thought of them as the Brainiac Boys (BBa & BBb) in homage to the felonious Beagle Boys of Uncle Scrooge. One day after school, the weather being inhospitable for two-hand touch, I headed over to BBb’s pad. The BBoys had just that weekend gone to the Festival Theater, on 57th over by the Plaza, to view The Easy Life (Il Sorpasso), it having gotten Bosley Crowther’s middle-brow seal of approval in the paper of record: This unpretentious focus on “The Easy Life” results in compassionate and memorable drama. Both BBa and BBb waxed rhapsodic, BBb going as far as to pronounce it the greatest film ever made.
Holy shit, I thought, I have to check this shit out for myself. So the following Saturday, après synagogue, I walked my ass over to the Festival, plunked down my buck fifty, got my ticket, and watched The Easy Life for myself. The first hurdle was the subtitles—I had to read words on the bottom of the screen while action was going on all over the screen, in order to follow the story I was having such a hard time with because I kept having to dart my eyes down to the subtitles to understand what the fuckers were saying as they were doing the things I kept missing because I was reading what they were saying. I didn’t like having to work this hard just to follow a narrative. About a third of the way in I worked out a way of reading and watching simultaneously, which, while not perfect, allowed me to sort of follow what was going on. That’s when the bigger problem set in. Once I was following the action, I began to think This shit’s kinda boring, kinda dumb. There was an Older Guy in a sports car; he picks up this Younger Guy, a bookworm, studying to be a lawyer, convinces him to take a ride in the cool sports car he’s tooling around in. When Younger Guy agrees, big fucking mistake alarms started sounding in my sub-brainiac cerebral cortex. They go on a series of adventures. Young Guy is getting more and more into the easy life, until finally, in the end, he goads Older Guy into taking a dangerous mountain curve much too fast and before you can say tragic inevitability, the car is at the bottom of the mountain, wrecked, Young Guy is dead, while Older Guy, fortunately thrown from the nascent crash, gets away with a few minor bruises and scratches.
Because I thought the BBoys were intellectually infallible, I wondered what I had missed. What I had seen was definitely not the greatest movie ever made; it wasn’t even half as good as Kiss Me Deadly; not nearly as thought-provoking as Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Maybe the film’s being European had something to do with it. The received wisdom of the day was that Europeans were in every way more sophisticated than us primitive Amurricans. Perhaps The Easy Life was an example of that and my reaction proof of that wisdom. (We call it movies; they call it Cinema.) I rejected that. After all, I was a kid charged with never forgetting. And what was I never to forget? The six million. What, you say? The six million the Nazis slaughtered, I respond. And where did this slaughter occur? In FUCKING EUROPE. There was no way this kid was going to buy into the notion that Europeans were a priori better than us when the only thing I thought they were better at was killing Jews. So if The Easy Life was inferior to the movies in my pantheon, and if being European earned it no freebie style points, I was left with the uncomfortable realization, radical as it might seem, that the BBoys, when it came to movies at least, had neither the sense nor sensibility possessed by me, their intellectual inferior in most every other way. I vowed never to go to see a furrin film again.
One evening three years later I broke my vow (vo denn?) I took myself to the inaugural offering of my college film society, a screening of Andrzej Wajda’s profoundly depressing, relentlessly bleak masterwork, Kanal. The place was packed. I had decided to give foreign movies another chance.
The theater darkened, the crowd quieted, and then nothing. We waited . . . and waited . . . and waited. Still nothing. Soon there was whistling, barking, kids yelling for the movie to begin. And at that moment the Dybbuk took a hold of me, prodding me to add my voice to the mix. I screamed hysterically, in the worst imaginable South Asian accent, a number of times, Don’t jump in the snakepit, Goo-Roo!
The method to this madness derived from Gunga Din, the most interesting character in which is the Guru (Eduardo Cianelli), spiritual leader of the Thuggee, Hindu antecedents to today’s Taliban. When first we see him he stands on an altar haranguing his congregation of killers. He finishes with a stirring benediction of death, urging his multitude to Rise and kill, kill as you will be killed yourself, kill for the love of killing, kill for the love of Kali, kill, kill kill!
The cultists capture Cary Grant, and then Victor MacLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. are caught trying to free him. At movie’s end, with the Thuggee set to ambush the approaching British regiment, the three grenadiers turn the tables and take the Guru hostage. The Guru realizes his followers will not proceed with the attack because it might endanger his life, so he escapes our heroes’ clutches; he winds up standing on the lip of a viper pit, speechifying, urging his followers to attack. His son, and second in command, watches, mute and horrified. In my memory (and to this day I can still hear it), spawn begs seed not to do it; he screams, Don’t jump in the snakepit, Goo-Roo! as Pops leaps to a horrible death.1
Don’t jump in the snakepit, Goo-Roo! was for me, then as it is now, the bon-est of mots, appropriate for any high-angst sitch: when a jumper stands at the edge of a building — Don’t jump in the snakepit, Goo-Roo! When you just know the QB is about to toss the game-ending interception — Don’t jump in the snakepit, Goo-Roo! And when that dummkopf just has to look in the basement or the closet to find out what that noise was — Don’t jump in the snakepit, Goo-Roo!
So is it any wonder it seemed the perfect thing to scream into that vortex of dysphoria swirling through the crowded, darkened theater? Nor should it come as any surprise that my cry was not received and reacted to in the way I would have hoped.
When the projector finally started up, I sank into my chair and escaped into the movie. Holy crap what a bummer, but in a good way. It follows a group of Polish resistance fighters also trying to escape, but they’re not dealing with casual contempt, they’re dealing with Nazis, and their route to freedom is through the sewers of Warsaw. Some get lost, others get wounded, some go mad. Of the three remaining, one kills his mate for lying, then wanders off to find someone to fight with, while the loner, thinking he has crossed the river into safety, rises up out of the shit and into the sun. When his momentary blindness subsides he finds himself facing a German patrol standing over the bodies of partisans they have just executed.
After nearly two hours of this hellish, shit-stained journey and its climax in despair and death, the credits rolled, the lights came on, and I found myself returned to my own hellish journey, hunkered down in the midst of a crowd that considered me a nerdacious doofus who, if he had had half a brain, would have taken his own advice — Don’t jump in the snakepit, Goo-Roo!
As I slouched in my seat waiting for the coast to clear so’s I could split, this guy comes over, big grin, says, Gunga Din, not a question, a statement of fact.
Yeah. Too bad they didn’t get it.
I got it.
He would become My Friend the Film Critic.
As we slapped skins that night, I misquoted in my mind the last line of Casablanca: This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
In All the World . . .
I was asleep, dreaming. A movie. A Polish-Mexican coproduction: Shtetl Lassie Contra Los Zombies Nazis. 2
FADE IN ON:
INT. SEWER — TIME DOES NOT EXIST
Down in the dung. ARTEK and ROBEK, 20s, tattered, shit-stained, stumble along trailed by a dog, SUKA. _Artek carries an outsized framed painting.
In the BG — DOGS BARKING, MEN running.
Robek, we’re going to die! We’re going to die!
We will if you don’t drop that painting, Artek. What’s it supposed to be anyway?
I call it Voyage to the Hell Planet.
The NOISES grow LOUDER; the hunters are closing in.
Where do you think we are right now? . . . What good’s art if you’re dead?
Why live if I can’t have my art?
NAZIS and HELL HOUNDS round a corner. SUKA turns, faces them and
SFX: morphs into CERBEUS, mythic three-headed guard dog of the underworld. As he attacks, ARTEK and ROBEK climb toward the light.
TIME CUT — MOMENTS LATER
Carnage. Bodies litter the sewer. Victorious, blood-soaked Cerberus becomes Suka again; he HOWLS, a keening wail filled with centuries of diaspora and despair.
FATHOMLESS LIQUID BLACKNESS; A JUMBLE OF SOUNDS
Black turns to gray; shapes form; SOUNDS clarify: A RACING ENGINE, TIRES SQUEALING, A PLAINTIVE KEENING.
A beat and we’re focused, viewing from
INT. VAN — MY POV — NIGHT, MOVING
Tight on A TERRIFIED, WHIMPERING DOG, MUTT. It moves to reveal MY FRIEND THE CARTOONIST, 20s, way beyond fear, herky-jerking the wheel: 9 to 3 to 9, faster, faster. But he can’t steady the van.
I’ve lost control!!
Tell me something I don’t know.
Only then did I look out the windshield, the road pitch black except for the glow of our headlights, by which I could see the van slaloming down Route 80, five miles outside Ogallala, Nebraska, doing seventy, picking up speed. And yet time seemed to slow down. This was a familiar sensation, and it was not good — not good at all. I knew this was not going to end well.
I had a perfect view of the accident as it unfolded. I had no time to develop a proper sense of terror because in the nanosecond following the awareness of impending doom, doom fucking dropped. The van vibrated, swayed, swinging from side to side. Suddenly we were skiing, careening down the interstate on just two wheels. Then we were airborne, crashing down to earth the split second after liftoff. The van began rolling, over and over. During the first revolution the windshield flew off and we were showered by sparks shooting into the cab, the result of high-speed steel scraping blacktop. There was yowling, screaming, and the giggling unto death as we rolled and tumbled, tumbled and rolled, like we were being spun inside a giant commercial clothes dryer. Then, as suddenly as it began, it ended. We rolled to a halt, upright no less, on the grassy median between the east and west lanes.
It took a couple of seconds before our processors came back on line and we cycled through a series of emotions at Mach 3: shock, disbelief, relief, and finally elation. A light shoulder check to the door and it opened, the grating of metal against metal the perfect post-crash sound effect. We ejected ourselves from the pod of death as if propelled by rockets in our asses.
After a momentary celebratory spazz dance, my friend noticed his art supplies erupting out of the van’s gaping rear doors. He went from joy to frantic in a nonce, commenced desperately collecting inks, markers, pads, and windblown drawings, spouting all the while an agitated and mournful monologue that made him sound like the Mad Hatter in meltdown; he was in such a tizzy, running, jumping, rolling after his pens and papers, that the first-responding highway patrolman added his high-powered flashlight to the search, the both of them on their knees, rooting about in the frozen grass of the median trying to recover the tops to Magic Markers (lest they dry out), locate tiny, treasured, luxe bottles of Doctor Martin’s Bombay inks. Meanwhile Mutt, my friend’s self-referentially named dog, ran in circles howling, trying to recover his tantalizing tail, which managed always to remain ever so slightly out of reach.
Maybe it was the near-death experience, maybe I had a minor concussion from the repeated pounding of head against metal as we did our rollover on the freeway, or maybe it was the realization that surviving put the lie to my belief that if it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all. Whatever the cause, I watched this recovery effort without contempt, ironic distancing, or nihilist rejection; instead saw it as a noble act of self-affirmation. While it was true that My Friend the Cartoonist was doing the funky-chicken-without-a-head dance, what was important was why he was doing it. He had envisioned something, transferred it from noumena to phenomena using pen, paper, ink, and took such pride in what he had created that he was frantically chasing down both the means of production and the windblown work itself. He was an intellectual cowboy (the mind boggles!3 ) rounding up his strays along the Nebraska interstate on the great plains of the heimat in the freezing cold, sans jacket, having just survived a crash that in the real world could have had a happy ending only for the stunt double of an A-list actor at the crashemonium climax of a franchise action movie — Mission Impossible V: Lust for Life.
Now how cool was that?
1 Or so I imagined. Turns out spawn of Goo-Roo never says Don’t jump in the snakepit, Goo-Roo. He just sort of minges and whines and screams when Dad jumps into the nest of vipers.
2 In homage to the loopy (Velez) titles of Lucha Libre Mexican films starring Santo, the masked wrestler, as in Santo contra los Momias de Guanajuato or Santo contra los Asesinos de Otros Mundos.
3 The Thing from Another World pits a flock of eggheads at the North Pole, led by the humorless, Nobel Prize–winning, Lenin lookalike Dr. Carrington against a shrewdness of flyboys tasked with resupplying them. The conflict is what to do with the flash-frozen alien in the ice that the boys recovered after they blew up its flying saucer, crashed and buried in the perma-ice, with thermite bombs. The brainiacs want to thaw the Thing out and study it, but the army’s stalwart Captain Hendry puts everything on ice awaiting orders from HQ. Meanwhile the Thing is stowed in a cold room and guarded by crew members. But before you could say What possessed you to place an electric blanket over a block of ice? the creature has thawed and escaped, battling a kennel of sled dogs and losing an arm in the process. When they get the arm under the microscope, the test tube jockeys discover that it’s made up of what seems to be vegetable matter, prompting this exchange: Scotty the Newsman: It sounds like, well, just as though you’re describing some form of super carrot. Carrington: This carrot, as you call it, has constructed an aircraft capable of flying some millions of miles through space, propelled by a force as yet unknown to us. Scotty: An intellectual carrot. The mind boggles!