Sunday, January 23, 2011

Memoirs of the 1970s Part 12: Literature and a Nod to Hal Ashby

I don't remember the exact year, but it must have been in the very late 1970s, when I was milling around the B Dalton, or The Paperback Shack at the local mall (in between visits to the Record Shack or the Slack Shack, or Pops and Suds, Spencer Gifts, Smoke and Snuff, Peaches Records and best of all, The Haircutting Place which was an all wood panelled shack where two people would cut your hair: a beautiful blonde who was a double for Chery Tiegs and a tall man in a white leisure suit a full mane of feathered hair, a beard, Foster Grants and an oversized panama hat in some kind of plastic complete with a feather). I picked up a book by one Jerzy Kosinski and asked my friend Greg who worked at the bookseller (in keeping with my habit of having friends far younger and older than my own age) if it was any good. It was called Being There.

(A couple of years later it was made into one of the few decent films from any novel, by my favorite Hal Ashby, complete with Peter Sellers, Shirley Maclaine and others. Below is a great anecdote from the production history of the film).

What is perfectly appropriate and fitting is that I was a child reading an adult novel, indeed one with sexual matters discussed within but that had at the center a protagonist who was an adult man who was nevertheless developmentally stuck at a child's stage. (Wonderfully, as in all good art Chance's condition is never defined or conceptualized - before the age of medical labels like aspergers and so on). In keeping with the feeling of the period Chance's simplicity is thought to be the result of culture and experience since all he knows was what he saw on television, being isolated and holed up in a wealthy estate, where all he had trained to do was take care of the garden, yet apparently never had occasion to actually leave the estate.

The most important face about my reading of a novel, written for adults in a most adult sensibility (in contrast to today's popular and even fine arts where the sensibility is child-like though the content is often adult, and not good child-like as in Wordsworth and Stevenson, but a bankrupt or beneath bargain basement conception of the child), and featuring a childlike adult protagonist is that this novel had a seal of approval by none other than my all too brief principal at the time. Before all the awful teachers and administrators took over in the middle of the year there was a short-lived principal of character, decency and learning who would take me aside in this sort of free school (NOT the one that was outdoorsy, but some other one that was in the end far worse. At about a school a year it is hard for me to reconstruct with complete exactitude or accuracy. But I do have the senses, the impressions, like the ones in this particular blog). This principal was tall, lean, an ex-marine: a pacifist, bearded Principal, wearing boot-cut Levis and Frye boots and a trim beard and with a passion for literature. He took me aside in secret behind closed doors and said:

"This is the ONLY Kozinski novel that I can deem okay for you to read. But you have to promise me something. If you read this novel you are to do a book report on it, for a grade. And in return you have to 'read' something for me. You have to go with your parents to see a movie called One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. It features a great new actor named Jack Nicholson and the movie is about what America is really like and about".

Well I read Being There and went to see Cuckoo's Nest. The movie did have a bit of overheated pathos that was well done, and it gave me a sense of certain themes in American art and ideas about stylized performance and comedy. My principal - let us call him Murphy - told me the keyword was TRICKSTER. "Research that word. What is it?"

Reading the book report over in my adult years I am struck my little I understood this novel. I would write out each character's name and a brief description:

"Chancey Gardener is a very nice man and a good gardener. Eve is a wife of a powerful man, the president of the United States. She is a very nice lady. She wants to love another man because her husband is not physically able to love anymore. Elizabeth is a very nice woman who likes Chance. He likes her too but not in the same way. Mr President is a very nice man who works hard at his job and is misunderstood".....

And so on.

I wish I had read other, better books that year. Not necessarily ones written for kids because I did read those, some in that year, like Are You There God, It's Me Margaret? and Then Again Maybe I Won't, both by Judy Blume. But the kinds of books I later discovered other children were reading, like Treasure Island or even Shakespeare.

The novel is not great. Years later there would controversy surrounding Jerzy Kozinski's status, vis a vis plagiarism and other issues.

The film is better than the novel. Which as we know, is a rare thing indeed.

Here are actors and others in tribute to Hal Ashby's greatness. I should one day write of Shampoo and The Last Detail as well.

Here is the opening of Ashby's film Being There with Peter Sellers.

I can't help but feel there was sartorial inspiration upon me at the young and impressionable age I saw this at the theater. One of the noteworthy things about the film is the Bruce Conner like fashion it uses media and television. The insane anarchy of the imagery makes it so much more interesting than other studio movies and adds so much to the meaning (through the stylistic effects) of what it is to be live in a mediated life. The film, in this sense does not date but is for us in the here and now, in the internet age. Ashby thought about all these things.

Note too Johnny Mandel's piano score, based on Eric Satie, one of two piano scores that are as good as anything written for the concert hall. (The other is David Shire's score for The Conservation).

But this particular blog is not about Hal Ashby or my weird schooling. It is about, in a sense, what it means to read whether it be visual or textual, and how and what we find when we are able to finally read and how we develop as a consequence. Many of my childhood years were spent in from of a television just like Chance in this fiction. I recognized the images in this film yet, because of Ashby's Brechtian style was able to look critically at the imagery. For the first time, through Principal Murphy and this film, I began to criticize and be skeptical of media.

And that is all I have to say for the moment on life or art.

1 comment:

  1. It's so funny what you wrote about BEING THERE as a child. It's shows how much children are invested in the value of being "nice." I think most kids are like that. It's funny to think about the difference in your critical skills then and now.

    I read one of Kosinski's INAPPROPRIATE novels at a tender age, one of the ones your teacher wouldn't let you read, as it was on our bookshelf at home. The book was THE PAINTED BIRD. I agree with your teacher that there's an appropriate age in which to be introduced to certain things.

    There's only one film I've ever seen as an adult that made me feel the same way I did when I was a child and saw things that were too adult for me, and that film was SALO.