The Crown Season 1: I am absolutely ashamed by how much I loved this show. I'm no fan of monarchy, I'm no fan of any ideology it propounds, and my natural interest in the extremely dull and rather stupid people who occupy the throne would be next to none if their incompetence and venality were not significant to history. But it is the very weight of the office and the significance with which we have, against our better angels, to treat it, that makes this show so compelling. Whether or not we like Monarchy, the English Monarchy is as important as it is absurd, and the decisions of its occupants carry real weight in the world.
Like The Godfather or Mad Men or The Great Gatsby, we have entered a repressive world with its own restrictive rules and customs followed by people we should find repulsive, but the tale is told so thoroughly from their point of view that we can't help but become sympathetic to them, perhaps even complicit in their sins.
The writer is Peter Morgan, writer of Frost/Nixon and The Queen, and a better writer about politics than any current American. I can understand why people might find his writing to be monarchist propaganda, but he documents its absurdity so thoroughly that I find that charge almost completely specious. And even if it weren't, an assertion that the contemporary monarchy ain't so bad is nowhere near as sinister an implication as another rousingly fascist Aaron Sorkin speech that immediately unites a patriotic fictional public.
What makes Morgan's writing so incredible is its plausibility. His ability to impersonate historical figures - get inside their heads and make them say things which completely resonate with both our historical images of them, and the historical record, is unparalleled. And never moreso has he passed this test than in the most acid test of his career, to plausibly render Winston Churchill. John Lithgow's Winston Churchill is wonderful, even if there's a mild whiff of Lithgow simply being John Lithgow imitating Churchill, if Lithgow's Churchill seems more successful than it is, then it's because of Morgan's extraordinary writing.
We now see, as no play or screenplay ever could, how well Morgan manages the evolution of characters. Thus far, he seems as virtuosic a manager of changing character as he is of character itself. In the span of a season, Queen Elizabeth went from overwhelmed, to underconfident, to steely confident, to oppressively arrogant. It is a virtuoso feat of writing, and hardly less of Clare Foy's acting. Princess Margaret is hardly less difficult to manage - who has to go in the span of a season from the girl everybody falls in love with (the princess next door) to a sad drunk. But no royal makes the impact of their uncle, the abdicated and viperous King Edward VIII, played with the seductive venom of a snake-in-the-grass by Alex Jennings. Edward is simultaneously a man of dignity caught in a situation of terrible pathos, a connivingly hateful and petty man, and a complete upper class twit. Jennings aces all three facets.
I have no idea if The Crown's achievement will stay at this lofty peak, but this is as strong a first season as any TV show I've ever seen. It is a show in which the full weight of history is felt upon our backs, as we watch The Crown, we truly feel as though this is how it was made. Stranger Things Season 1 and Westworld Season 1: Stranger Things seemed to be the biggest show since Sliced Bread until the Westworld juggernaut completely subsumed it. I find that to be a shame, because Stranger Things is a better show - both much funnier, much more moving; and however surreal they both are, much more true to life.
It seems odd to think that we're now so far away from the 80's that the the spirit of the 80's requires a revival. Spielberg and Stephen King are still alive and working, so are Ridley Scott and Harrison Ford. Tom Cruise and Eddie Murphy are only 55 now and could still have another forty years. John Hughes is dead but his teens barely look any older: Molly Ringwald and Mia Sara are still beautiful and not even fifty yet, Matthew Broderick is pushing 55 but he looks as though Ferris Bueller could still pass for a high school senior skipping class, Fred Savage barely looks any older than 12. Michael J. Fox is thankfully still around and Danny DeVito's still a major TV star. Whitney and Michael and Prince and George Michael are all dead, but Madonna still performs, so does Bruce and Bon Jovi and U2. Even Journey still hobbles around, however much a shell of its former self. I needn't even remind you who's to become our President, nor do I need to remind you which President made him possible.
In spite of Reagan's presence, the eighties were a decade about youth. The Baby Boomers now had children, and true to their generation's good intentions and terrible follow-through, Baby Boomers wanted to give their children a childhood as idyllic as their own. They completely succeeded, and only forgot to give us an adulthood as well-provided. The nostalgia of Stranger Things is not only Generation X's nostalgia for their lost innocence, it's a nostalgia for a completely lost America. When millennials watch Stranger Things, they have no memory of a secure middle class and small town America where the sense of community was unassailable. When childhood was an innocence corrupted neither by the internet or too many safety rules, and the only part of the world that was dangerous to explore was the human imagination, which created Stephen King-like horrors because the real world was so banal. To Generation X, the 80's is nostalgia for a time when America promised the world to them. To Millennials, the 80's are nostalgia to a time when America thought it could promise the world to them.
Stranger Things is the fantasy of a smart 11-year-old boy. Disappearing and reappearing friends, alternate dimensions, beastly monsters, hurting bullies, fighting evil adults, mysterious slightly older girls who are dependent on him. It's the TV show Spielberg would have made. The horrors are surreal enough that they could never happen in real life, but just as in Spielberg, and occasionally even in Stephen King, what makes it moving is the vivid depictions and yearnings of the American idyll. The scares of Spielberg and King are the scares that pop up from the rumbling unconscious of an untroubled youthful mind. What makes people return to ET and Carrie and Close Encounters and Indiana Jones is not their surreal thrills, but the so plausible grounding in reality that guarantees the thrill. The suburban renderings of the first three are a small community America that very much existed until recently where love for your neighbors was something completely implicit, while Indiana Jones and Star Wars were precisely the kind of escapist sci-fi entertainment that young people of Small Town America consumed - not just in the 1970's, but in low-budget sci-fi fare of the 50's and 30's, and even in dime-store science fiction novels of the late nineteenth century. When we continually watch products like Stranger Things, we're not just buying them to be thrilled, we're buying into an entire disappearing way of life, and even though we know it never will, we're desperate for it to return.
Westworld is without any sentimental illusions that any sort of innocent modus vivendi will ever return, it plunges us headlong into stewed corruption and projects something like the trajectory of exactly where the world seems to be headed by the end of the 21st century: with a superclass of privilege able to rule a new race of automated people created entirely for their own pleasure. It's a tornado of sex and death intermingled with one another, and astonishingly gloomy viewing. I'm not sure it makes for entertainment that's nearly as enjoyable as Stranger Things. But even if Westworld is not particularly enjoyable, it is completely essential to see. It is a piece of devilish entertainment that springs from the dark well of our worst fears.
Where can this possibly end but that these superior beings overthrow their corrupt and inferior masters who've ruined their planet and establish a new, more considerate form of life on planet earth? Any other ending to Westworld would feel false. What is so disturbing about Westworld is how thoroughly it seems to give up on humanity. The fact that we may deserve to be given up on makes the show all the more troubling. It's impossible to do any more than guess what Westworld holds for the future, but to pull any punches after raising issues so troubling in the first year would be to give a false sense of security for humanity's future. Tampopo at the Charles Theater (December 29th): I had no idea, none at all, about this movie which is now one of my favorites. Now that I've seen it, I have no idea if this is one of the greatest movies I've ever seen or simply one of the weirdest. What I do know is that it is now a personal favorite of mine. It is funny, it is moving, it is bizarre, it is sexy, it is appetizing, it is disgusting, it is utterly avant-garde, it is grounded in realistic characters and uses its humanity to branch out into the strangest possible directions. It is everything a great work of art should be.
It is, to put as simply as possible, about the search for the perfect Ramen dish. Anyone with a mania for a particular subject can completely understand this. So much of my life has been devoted to finding the perfect recorded performance of various pieces of classical music, for others, it might be the perfect double play, or the perfect slice of pizza. Whatever the subject, the passion which it can provide in those it absorbs can be all-consuming.
From this subject, the movie takes us in a hundred different directions, breaking off from the main narrative for ten minutes at a time for a long series of vignettes about what it means to be passionate about food. There is no demarcation for why film chooses to go off-topic, it simply does it and expects you to go along with it. From there, I still have no idea how to describe it except to say that it's a film that I find difficult to speak of because the cinematic dialect with which this movie speaks is so far removed from every other movie that I have no idea how to speak of it.
The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam at the Kennedy Center (November 30th) Mahler 5 and some piece by Detlev Glanert...: Both Anne Midgette and Charles Downey fell into raptures for this appearance of the alleged world's greatest orchestra. My response was quite a bit more lukewarm. What is the point of technical excellence without personality? The Concertgebouw is an orchestra that Willem Mengelberg literally tailor made for Mahler and Strauss, and yet in the last 30-or-so years, most of the individual sound that made them so perfect in Mahler has vanished - with only an oboe and trumpet remaining of that once glorious Concertgebouw timbre. What remains is another generically excellent orchestra whose soul seems to long since be absent. An artist's 'mistakes' are how they reveal their priorities, and when every detail is so incredibly refined and polished, there is no artistic profile except for a vapid perfection we're supposed to admire. What lies between them is the difference between a perfectly realistic painting and a great work of art. Even Marin Alsop conducting our modest Baltimore Symphony in Mahler 5 was more enjoyable than this.
(from the Amsterdam days when Mahler was Mahler, the Concertgebouw was a group of musicians rather than an Orchestra with a capital O, and Bernard Haitink was interesting)
The lionizing of Semyon Bychkov becomes ever more mystifying to me. The point of those rambling first three movements of Mahler (and Mahler is never more Mahler than when he rambles) seemed to pass him by completely. Bychkov wanted to create something coherent out of musical forms for which coherence is antithetical to Mahler's spirit. Matters finally improved in the Adagietto, Bychkov is clearly at his best in moments of great musical beauty, and there is no finer outlet for such instinct than Mahler's F-Major bliss. Perhaps it's the astringently tight musical argument of the final, fifteen minute fugue, but the performance finally snapped into focus, with humor and pathos and sincerity which the first fifty minutes lacked completely.
In the first half, we heard a performance of Detlev Glanert's Theatrum Bestiarium. Not knowing too much of Glanert's music, I'm in no position to judge, but even if I'm stupefied in admiration at his orchestration, I doubt Glanert is a truly great composer. Glanert was, supposedly, trying to capture the spirit of Shostakovich - but the spirit was much closer to the Five Orchestral Pieces of Schoenberg and the Three Orchestral Pieces of Berg. One needn't imitate Shostakovich's tonal harmony to stay true to Shostakovich's spirit, but if a composer wants to imitate Shostakovich's spirit, he should probably go back to Shostakovich's sources - Russian folk music and literature and Orthodox church choirs and Soviet military marches - and base it, at least in part, on a new rendering of them. To me, the spirit of Shostakovich was only captured in the contrasts of its decibel level.
(Markus Stenz conducts the world premiere - needless to say to those in the know, he's faster than Bychkov)
See Book Review of Reinhold Niebuhr's Children of Light, Children of Darkness in next week's Jewish Times column.
And now an antisemitic lecture by Miroslav Rabinovitch. Since 1980, Professor Rabinovitch has been a Professor of Marxist Theory at the University of Bratislava. In the mid 1980s, he rose to prominence in Czechoslovakia for refusing to sign his name to a document condemning thirty-two of his colleagues already fired for counterrevolutionary tendencies, though recent evidence has shown that he was in fact the writer of the document. In 1993 he was appointed Distinguished Professor of Sexuality at the Freiuniversitat of Berlin on account of his treatise on perversion: Die Geschichte der Perversionen von der urzeit bis zum Dritten Jahrtausend und von der Saülingsalter aus dem Totenstarre. Eine historische und soziologische und psychologische betrachtung über die Ursachen und Wirkungen und so weiterwhich became an international bestseller. In 1999, he was appointed Distinguished Fellow of Lacanian Fetishism at the Ontological Institute of Social Action at the London School of Economics following the runaway success of his second best seller - Capitalism: A Degenerate's Instruction Manual. In 2003, he was appointed Professeur Distingue at the Sorbonne for his French bestseller: La Dialectique, l'autre, et la jouissance dans Bush, Saddam, et Jerry Lewis. The book did not do as well in translation. In 2006, Columbia University appointed him to their highest Professorial chair given to only twenty people throughout the history of the school: the title of University Professor. In his case the Robert Guccione University Professor of Pornographic Cinema on account of his third international best-seller: The Phenomenology of Ejaculate.
In the last ten years he has written no less than fifty books, none of which contain footnotes. He gained particular recognition in May 2013 when in the span of a single week, he submitted four books for publishing under the titles: Harry Potter and The Epistemological Break, Revenge of the Sith at The End of History, The Dark Knight's Historical Unconscious, Tokyo Drift: The Fast and The Furious and the Sublimation of the Death Drive - but he was thereafter sued by MIT publishing because all five books contained the exact same text. Professor Rabinovitch's defense claimed he intended it as a heuristic statement.
While Professor Rabinovitch describes himself as an unreformed Marxist, he's also had something resembling a second career as a copy editor for the J Crew Catalogue, ensuring that all of its catalogue descriptions have a self-reflexive, ironically knowing, and implicit Marxist critique of itself which allows consumers from the bourgeois elite to congratulate themselves for their awareness of their imminent demise due to the superstructure and everything the superstructure tells them to hold dear drawing ever closer to collapse with every shirt purchase. The Guardian recently reported that Professor Rabinovitch is paid $40,000 per issue.
"I would like to begin this lecture by addressing the obvious question which it poses. I call this an antisemitic lecture. Why? Because there has been an unfortunate stigma in recent history surrounding antisemitism and I feel it is very important to consider the benefits of antisemitism as well as the disadvantages. To state this fact is not, my god, to condone acts of antisemitism, but to defend the very useful concept of antisemitism itself from the threat of its disappearance.
And having a playback memory, Carmen remembered something about copying down everything he said that sounded vaguely like a reference to Isaiah 8:1, and recorded every word of what he said for fear that he'd demand of her why she did not comply with the order he gave mid-binge/tirade to record these pearls of wisdom. In fact, she did it immediately after he let her go from the ledge. She kept a copy of it on her person every day of her life, in case the Producer ever returned and demanded to see it.
The Producer and Carmen slugged on after that night for another sixteen months. When Carmen finally became Steve's, she was more radiantly beautiful than ever before for two whole decades, and considering the dangers she'd passed, one could argue that she was still more beautiful inside than out. Nevertheless, her ribs had the consistency of crushed ice, her joints bent in manners no human being should, the simple act of arising from her bed was pain itself. Among those who'd experienced repetitive trauma, it is not uncommon to deal with the constant rebreaking of bones, degenerative disc disease and an eventual lumbar spinal fusion; bone spurs, torn ligaments, degenerative arthritis, staff infections from corrective surgeries. And that's only from the effects from before he started to hit her face.
This is mercifully not a story in which to discuss the particulars of tyrannical behavior which cause such internal horror. This narrator has neither the patience nor nothing like the fortitude to speak in any more than generalities about the abominations perpetrated upon Carmen and he beseeches your forgiveness for his need to speak any further of these depravities. But if this fictional rendering of a single Hollywood player getting off on the scent of blood has anything like the ring of veracity to you, then he asks you to at least consider how many thousands there may have been over the past century of powerful Hollywood men who've acted precisely like this.
This particular apparition of a Producer knew on the night of this "window dressing" (his charming term for what transpired that dawn) that his days as a respected Hollywood player could be counted with two digits. Don't mind us the circumstances of his ignominy, there were any number of risible cinematic bombs in the late 70's and early 80's which wiped out Hollywood producers, production companies, and whole studios:
There was At Long Last Love, Peter Bogdanovich's trivial homage to 30's movie-musicals, Cole Porter songs, and Ernst Lubitsch romantic comedies - because nothing oozes Golden Age Hollywood class quite like Burt Reynolds, who became a superstar a few years previously when Deliverance allowed us to watch him kill a Georgia hillbilly with a crossbow while the hillbilly sodomized a 300 pound Ned Beatty as Ned's ordered to squeal like a pig. There was The Exorcist II: The Heretic, a shameless money grab of a sequel starring a miserable looking Richard Burton during a period when he looked like he was taking parts in horrible movies just so he could pay his astronomical bar tab. There was The Swarm, a horror movie about killer bees that starred Michael Caine, Henry Fonda, Richard Widmark, and Olivia de Havilland - because what everybody wanted to see in the late 70's was the biggest stars of 1945 in a horror movie with a plot too absurd for Roger Corman to film. There was I Spit On Your Grave - a film that couldn't even find distribution for two years because of its quarter-hour depictions (notice the plural) of gang rape. There was X-rated Caligula, a movie made through the combined talents of literary lion Gore Vidal and Bob Guccione - publisher of Penthouse Magazine, who simply wanted to record a literal rendering of the depraved events within the Roman Emperor Caligula's palace in Tacitus's Annals. Every imaginable degradation seemed to find its way into the script; raping a bride on her wedding day - and her groom, sex shows involving children and the deformed (if you don't believe me, watch it), gladiatorial public execution, and a confusing scene for which poor Helen Mirren has to use what is hopefully a prosthetic vaginal cavity to depict herself giving birth as part of a (literally) execrable performance within all these execrable performances. After seeing the original cut, Guccione decided that audiences weren't getting their money's worth, and insisted on inserting a forty-five minute bisexual orgy near the end which the Roman Senators and their wives are coerced into having.
There was, of course, Heaven's Gate, which lost 30 million dollars, ran to nearly four hours in original cut, deliberately killed a horse with explosives, was yanked from movie theaters after less than a week, and bankrupted United Artists - according to most experts the greatest of all movie studios - forever. Some swear it's a misunderstood masterpiece, this narrator doesn't want to find out... Of course, it has a ten minute rape scene...
There was Inchon, the B-Movie hagiography for America's Five-Star General in Asia, and for a moment in 1952 America's would-be dictator, Douglas MacArthur. Financed with no expense spared by a combination of the United States Military and world's most infamous cult leader, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, with MacArthur played by the world's greatest actor - the ailing Lord Lawrence Olivier - for a cool million bucks, and directed by Terrance Young, who made the first few James Bond movies. MacArthur's closest confidante was played by Richard Roundtree, the original Shaft. Who'd have conceived that a movie of such disparate parts would come unglued?
There was Tarzan, the Ape Man - in which a mythical White Ape turns out to be a white man raised by apes and therefore must be brought back to civilisation in England where he can be taught proper discourse. Nevertheless, he retains the animal sexual magnetism of Africa, which overwhelms poor proper and prim Jane. Tarzan's character was found offensive by some in the 1910's when he first appeared, imagine the reception by 1981. Yet somehow, there've since been another six Tarzan movies.
And who can, or should, forget George Lucas's Howard the Duck? A PG live-action movie in which a loveable alien duck gets transported through a wormhole to our world. In the course of the movie, he gets dumped by a club bouncer into a hot tub where a couple is having sex, a human that turns out to be an alien who has a tongue that seems to extend like an erection in the presence of Lea Thompson, Howard's duckbill attempts to bite the ass of a sixty-something black woman whose onion-like posterior he finds quite stimulating, he excitedly opens Playduck Magazine in which we see a photo of a duck with curves and hair and feathered white nipples (later in the movie we see duck boobies with pink human nipples), the Cleveland Police Department sexually assaults Howard the Duck, and actor Jeffrey Jones (himself now a convicted sex offender) walks in on Lea Thompson seducing Howard the Duck.
And, of course, Ishtar. The only of these risible and bank-busting movies directed by a woman, and the only one whose director never directed a movie again. Perhaps Ishtar was, truly, the last movie of the Old-New Hollywood - directed by Mike Nichols's old comic partner Elaine May, Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty starring, Vittorio Storaro (Coppola and Bertolucci's cinematographer of choice) doing the photography, co-starring New Hollywood luminaries like Tess Harper who was Robert Duvall's wife in Tender Mercies, Charles Grodin who grew up in an Orthodox family, Jack Weston who was once Jack Weinstein, Carol Kane who played Woody's first wife in Annie Hall and an Oscar nominee for a part in Hester Street that she acted entirely in Yiddish, an Israeli named Aharon Ipale, Fred Melamed who is best known for his portrayal of Sy Ableman in A Serious Man, and David Margulies who was practically Hollywood's character actor of choice when you needed a Jew. Is it any wonder that a film bombed that had so many Jews involved whose scenario was in an Arab country?
Something rotted in that air of freedom which made the New Hollywood Golden Age possible. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. It was inevitable that the freedom which allowed for realistic depictions of ordinary people with their ugliness intact, with sex, and violence, and emotional turmoil unshielded by a production code, would curdle into freedom's betrayal by making its depictions into something sickeningly exploitative - sometimes freedom's very liberators betrayed it. In the case of Hollywood, what appeared to be a glorious liberation turned out to be merely another swing of the pendulum that landed on equilibrium for a moment before swinging into decadence. Today's Hollywood has a new production code, a code that allows for rivers of blood so long as the violence is confined to an unrealistic genre and its human consequences softpedaled, a code that allows for the naive innocence of children to continue unabated into adulthood with bro comedies about manchildren, a code which only allows romantic comedies in which love's ugly moments are airbrushed out of existence, a code dominated by action movies for which the stars are the special effects. Just as in the old production code, today's Hollywood movies can still be damn good, but in the opinion of this clearly not humble enough narrator, almost none of them show us ourselves. There are ways around the problem - movies like The Social Network and Her and WALL-E and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which only show us a complex image of the human spirit by showing us how technology may have completely reshaped it; or movies like Boyhood or the Before movies or (believe it or not) Borat, in all of which the experimental gimmick that makes them possible is so radically extreme that they can only be done once and never be copied. There are some very fine and human directors working in Hollywood's orbit if not actually 'in' Hollywood: there are at least two American treasures: Alexander Payne and Richard Linklater, both of whom manage in every movie to say something new and elusive about America. Among the 'tribe', there's Jason Reitman, or at least was, who made three of the great American movies at the beginning of his career with Thank You For Smoking, Juno, and Up In The Air, all three of which manage to say something new and elusive about America, and there's John Sayles, whom nobody remembers anymore, but twenty years ago was the God of Independent American Film. There's Ang Lee, who isn't even American, but easily beats Americans at their own game. And of course, there's Errol Morris, the documentarian who makes movies so utterly different from everyone else's that you shouldn't even call them movies by the accepted definition.
Other than them, there are, as Woody once called them, the Academy of the Overrated: Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, David Lynch, PT Anderson, Wes Anderson (whom in all fairness seems to be improving), Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufmann, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Steven Soderbergh (who at least tries to be more ambitious), Sofia Coppola, Peter Jackson, Ken Burns (it takes a rare talent to make the subjects of his documentaries boring), David O Russell, the Wachowskis, Gus Van Sant, Tim Burton, James Cameron...
These are directors so enamored of movies that they jam pack their movies with references to other movies and forget to put references to life in them. Perhaps that statement is unfair, there are exceptions in every one of their outputs, but the exceptions are very few compared to the misfires. There is a kind of ersatz profundity to their movies - movies like The Matrix and Inception and Avatar and I Heart Huckabees (a movie I used to love) with philosophical messages that can fit inside a fortune cookie; a ponderousness which PT Anderson mistakes for profundity, an incomprehensibility which Charlie Kaufmann mistakes for intellectual challenge, a cynical darkness which David Fincher and the Coen Brothers mistake for gravity, an arrested development which Tim Burton and Wes Anderson mistaken for whimsy, a reliance on CGI which Christopher Nolan and the Wachowskis and James Cameron mistake for visual artistry (because in their movies, it's the technicians who are the artists, not the director), a reliance on other movies which Tarantino and David Lynch mistake for ironic commentary. In each of these cases, the problem is that they're weighted down by the baggage of movie history. The movies before them were simply too good, so rather than try to compete with them catharsis for catharsis, they dodge the challenge and instead create homages to what older masters did better than they did, and many critics call these postmodern homages 'original' when the only thing that's original about them is their lack of emotional demand on the audience. These are movies about movies, and therefore perhaps they're movies against movies. Most alarmingly, and prevalent to nearly all of them, are the movies that mistake technology for humanity. Even among the directors unaddicted to CGI, there are more breathtaking shots in today's American movies than ever before. If nature doesn't give you the background you want, if the lighting on some actress's face is not quite what you want, if her jawline is not quite the way you'd like it, you can digitally alter it to any specification you like; but to what end? Today's auteurs have utterly mastered the technical end of filmmaking, and perhaps because we've mastered technique, we've forgotten what the technique is for.
Meanwhile, people who've devoted their whole lives to film tell us that the world is experiencing a cinematic Golden Age of which the United States is the only first world country who remains excluded. As with so many things about Contemporary America - soccer, news, public transit, languages, condoms, history, black humor, cheap health care, gun laws, and vegetables - we have in America only the dimmest awareness of the feast that often seems to happen in every corner of the globe but ours because we're too busy playing with our toys.
Special effects are the new stars of Hollywood. The highest grossing movies are no longer character based movies like The Godfather or Bonnie and Clyde or Midnight Cowboy or Easy Rider or American Graffiti or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or The Sting or One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest or MASH or Fiddler on the Roof or Patton. There were plenty of smaller, character driven films during these years that did well, but it was between 1975 and 1990 that technology become the undisputed box office king, and after that came the systematic gutting of movies that portrayed Americans in their natural state in anywhere but independent film and the Miramax ghetto. Just over the other side of 1975 lay the Star Wars Trilogy and Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Indiana Jones and ET and Back to the Future and Roger Rabbit - and how human and full of personality do those early Spielberg and Lucas and Zemeckis movies seem next to the high-grossing movies of our time! Would it surprise anyone that Tom Cruise or Chris Hemsworth or Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson were actually computer programs or robots that only exist on a screen? There was even an Al Pacino movie about that exact notion fifteen years ago called Simone. Maybe Jennifer Lawrence is just an updated Simone, an indication that these computer avatars have improved to the point that seem so like us humans that perhaps humans are indistinguishable now from robots!
This New New Hollywood came into existence because the knowledge that movies like Caligula and I Spit On Your Grave and Heaven's Gate and Howard the Duck gave us of what we were capable of was too terrible. The freedom to create greater and more uplifting spectacles can also give us things too vile and revolting for contemplation. All it took was less than a dozen movies in which the human animal was presented to us undeniably in all its stinking shit, and the movie world's been running away from its truth ever since.
Our dearly beloved Producer could have been working on any of these movies, it doesn't matter which, but by the same time the next year, The Producer hadn't worked on a movie for nine months; nine months during which his fists literally performed an abortion on Carmen. Perhaps it became his sole source of satisfaction and relief, because for six months, no glamorous friend returned a call, relieving him not only of his own glamor but the sycophants who glommed onto it. Friendship is fleeting, love mere folly, but how much more true would that be when living in a place known as the 'Dream Factory?' But five minutes after every time he went off, he begged her not to leave, just you wait, he'll make you happy again, Hollywood can be something better than its ever been, and you'll be its leading lady!
Then there was the time the Producer bruised her father up after her father asked about Carmen's bruises. Two minutes later, he gave her Dad a $10,000 wad of cash, then drove him to the emergency room personally in his 1977 Lamborghini Countach. The moment he got through the door, he took out more wads of cash for the doctor and nurses and the other patients - they saw nothing. And while they were in the ER, Carmen's sister practically kidnapped her to a courthouse to make her get a restraining order. Carmen was unwilling, worried she was about to get killed. If not by her producer, then by the guys he'd pay to keep her quiet. The judge listened very patiently and carefully and evinced great compassion for her suffering, he then excused himself to his chamber for five minutes, came back and refused the restraining order. Twelve minutes later, the Producer was at the courthouse, gave Carmen a huge hug and kiss as she sobbed her tears upon him, took her home and told her over and over again how much he loved her. Two days later, they were engaged, and she was the one who wanted to go to the courthouse right away; but he promised her a wedding the whole world would know about, the wedding she deserved.
Who could turn down the life he promised? This was a man who knew how to turn the curvature of the Earth to the precise angle he wanted. He was the best actor in Hollywood. For more than a decade, he dealt with creative geniuses every day of his life, but he was a genius of life itself. Every event, the most glamorous, the most spiritual, the most transcendent, the most intangible, could be picked apart and reduced to a transaction. Nothing in life was a mystery to him, and all he demanded in return was that she be no more complicated to understand than the concierge in Oviedo.
Even so, no matter how much of a genius he was, in order to have that wedding, he had to be back in the good graces of Hollywood, and in order to return to Hollywood's graces, he had to be in the graces of multinationals who bought Hollywood up.
It was just at this moment that our dear Producer, whose tastes in cuisine had always seemed tending to the upscale LA specialties of shellfish, steak, and sushi, seemed to develop a yen for rouladen, kasespatzle, saurbraten, kartoffelknodel, bretzels and wurst. Carmen had no idea why the Producer wanted them to go for German every night, and of course he wouldn't explain except to say that there was a different dish he wanted them to try. One night at Old World German Restaurant, the next at Van Nuys German Deli (a standup counter place for which he still insisted that Carmen wear heels), the next at Alpine Village, and the same rotation every night for five or six weeks. Within a month, the Producer was a good twenty pounds heavier, but the moment Carmen's dress seemed a bit tighter, the Producer did what he could to make her not finish what he ordered for them. She would wrap the remains up and take home what remained in a doggie bag, then find them missing from the fridge the next morning.
About five to six weeks in, the Producer pointed to a table across the restaurant. "That's Karlheinz von Huntze, Executive Vice-President of Polygram Entertainment." Until the 60's, Polygram was a third-German, third-Dutch, third-British corporation responsible for no less than seven of the world's major classical music labels and another ten of the world's major Popular Music labels. A number of these labels were all too happy to collaborate with Hitler's culture ministers in times gone by, but Polygram controlled a vast swath of the great musical glories of the gramophone - glories set down before, during, and after the Second World War: Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Earl Hines, Dizzy Gillespe, Woody Herman, Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Oscar Petersen, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Eartha Kitt, untold numbers of Broadway Musicals, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, George Jones, the Rolling Stones and Elvis during some of their best periods, Eric Clapton, Talking Heads, the Ramones, KISS, Billy Joel, Donna Summer, the Village People, the Bee Gees, ABBA, The Osmonds, Yves Montand, Jacques Brel, Edith Piaff, and hundreds of other pop music acts; nearly every major mid-century orchestral conductor, untold numbers of great classical soloists and opera singers and chamber ensembles, the premiere recordings of every postwar work by Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams, untold numbers of moderately obscure and young and unproven composers whom no major label today would take a chance on, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra... In 1963, it was Polygram's by then long since subsidiary, the Dutch Phillips Electronics (founded by Karl Marx's uncle), that invented the tape cassette.
By 1980, Polygram was surely too big to fail, and yet... its catalogue was simply too large, and it had to either expand significantly to make up for its losses, or shed an enormous part of its product. Since there was very little in music of which they didn't own a significant portion, it was time to move into Movies. What better way to do that than Movie Musicals? Polygram had a 50% share in RSO Records, which gave them a huge profit in the Disco market because RSO Records had the music distribution rights to Grease and Saturday Night Fever. This was in addition to the money made from their contracts with the Bee Gees and the Village People and Donna Summer. Unfortunately, this was nowhere near enough to cover their bill. They needed a movie musical of their own.
Enter Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band... THE MUSICAL! Yes, all the Beatles hits are here, sung as you've always wanted to hear them sung by Peter Frampton, the Bee Gees, and Steve Martin. With cameos from Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, Earth Wind & Fire, Dr. John, Etta James, Curtis Mayfield, Bonnie Raitt, Frankie Valli, and a hundred other musicians - none of which sing their original music, and narrated by George fucking Burns (now there's a name that'll put the young asses in the seats...). God knows how many hundreds of millions Polygram had to pay to acquire the rights for them from EMI, but it was just another couple hundred million pulled down the drain of this spectacular musical black hole. Ever the artistes, John and George refused to even attend the premiere, no doubt they took the money though; while ever the workhorses, Paul and Ringo went to the premiere, then refused to have anything more to do with the movie, or with Polygram.
And there sits Karlheinz von Huntze, all sixty-seven years and 350 pounds of him squeezed into a fecally brown suit that probably fit him when he was fifty-five with a badly tied thin tie that didn't reach his naval, unashamed of his brown teeth and double chin that went past his neck, all of which bit with great begeisterung into the giant plate of braten and sauerkraut in front of him, yet vain enough about his hair to wear a spectacularly bad salt and pepper toupee whose base seemed to levitate an inch and a half over his boneless skull and continue six inches up. On his left hand, a wedding ring seems as though it might at any moment pop off his brat-like finger.
So this was it... The perfect movie musical star - a gorgeously unique looking petite girl with a large head, already well known and liked by everybody in Hollywood, packed to the gills with brains and lungs; no singing lessons necessary, no acting lessons necessary, minimal dancing, can play piano, knows every jazz standard in the Real Book. All it takes is one movie, then she has her choice - greatest living singer or greatest living actress? It's needless to say who's on her arm and advising her every decision.
And of course, she's brilliant when she talks to Huntze. Within ninety seconds, the Producer excuses himself to the bathroom and seems to stay in there for forty minutes. She speaks to him in the fluent German she picked up from her opera training, they compare the Schubert and Goethe they love best, they sing the Papageno and Pamina duet from Mozart's Die Zauberflote at the table (the restaurant bursts into applause, more for Carmen...). He orders four different deserts, and insists on splitting each of them with her and that she eat up her half to the every mouthful. He gives her a standing invitation to visit him and his wife in Hamburg so she can see the Kunsthalle and the Dichterhallen and walk through the taverns where the young Brahms played, and tells her that he'd love to hear her play piano before he leaves town. He writes down an address of a private residence of a freund at who's place he's staying.
Of course, very little piano was played. Someone already as thoroughly demoralized as Carmen has no illusions left of the necessities expected of her. If anything, she was thankful for Herr Huntze's patronizing kindness. The cutesy/schatzi German nicknames he gave her, the grandfatherly forcefeeding of Stroh and Obstwasser before geschlechtich verkehren and makronen afterward (which of course came to her mouth via his boneless hand). He told her she was a shoo-in, all she had to do was meet with a few more people at Polygram and they'd make a musical as a vehicle for her!
It is, of course, needless to tell you that something similar was expected at every new meeting with every member of the Polygram team: Germans, Austrians, Swiss, Dutch, Danish... Old world gentlemen all of them, their courtly manners justifying their sense of entitlement to the world. A few of them were quite attractive - tall, silver-haired gentlemen with immaculately tailored three-piece suits surrounding dark paisley ties or ascots tucked into perfectly pressed shirts; sculpted hair and pencil-thin mustaches above the thin and constantly pursed lips that smoked long thin cigarettes; they wore scarves in the summer and walked with ornate canes - even the young ones seemed old. The bald ones generally had combovers with more mousse than hair, the fat ones always had watch chains on their vests. Never would she leave without an extremely expensive gift - a Channel perfume, a Swarovski Chocolate Box, a De Beer diamond ring, a dress from Christian Dior (and of course, the measurements were perfect). When meeting her at the door they would bend down and kiss her on the hand, or kiss her on each cheek, sometimes three times rather than two. Conversation was always quite pleasant, the meals were always the height of gourmet and gourmand, the wines they picked were amazing (at least when they weren't German...), and occasionally they even flew her to Germany. Karlheinz even got her to the Dichterhallen.
The Producer seemed strangely OK with all this. He never asked her where she was going, gave her free use of whatever car she wanted, and he seemed happier than he'd ever been in their relationship. He was on the phone 18 hours a day, his old friends were his friends again, and during that month when she was in meetings and gaining nearly thirty pounds from all the decadent dishes she'd eaten - which made outfits much tighter and her curves still more alluring - his life was back to a whirlwind of tennis, power lunches, movie pitches from him, and movie pitches to him.
Early in the evening of September 19th, which they both vaguely remembered in the back of their minds was Kol Nidrei Night, Carmen returned to the house to find every light in the house on, the mirrors covered, the unshaven Producer wearing what looked like a white bathrobe and a fisherman's cap on his head, but all of the cap but the bill was covered by a blindingly white shawl with blue stripes over his head. Carmen knew that it was obviously a tallis, but her Producer never gave any indication of being so Orthodox to wear one that long. He was standing in the corner of his living room, his back to the wall, bending his torso up and down at the speed of sound as he read from a black book while his lips moved with barely any sound at all at the speed of light. He didn't even seem to notice her, and as she walked in his line of vision, she saw that not only was he wearing his favorite tie, but the tie was cut in the middle, almost the entire way through.
Before she could even ask what was wrong, he looked at her and emphatically intoned:
"Vahyigah hadawvawr el meylekh nineveh mikis'aw va'yo'aw'ver ahdahrtaw meyawlawv."
And then he began to walk directly towards her, staring her deadly cold in the eye and taking a step a few inches forward with every seven words:
"For the word came unto the King of Nineveh and he arose from his throne and he laid his throne from him and covered him with sackcloth and sat in ashes and he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the King and his nobles saying let neither man nor beast nor herd nor flock taste any thing let them not feed nor drink water but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth and cry mightily unto Adonai yea let them turn every one from his evil way and from the violence that is in their hands."
He then stared at his hand for a moment that seemed like fifteen, as unaware as she was about what he was about to do.
This is the last we will ever say of the particulars of physical abuses perpetrated upon Carmen, and while he can make no promises, the narrator very much hopes that this is the last time he feels the need to elucidate any details of gendered violence in what will hopefully become a mega/meta-novel that takes decades to write for many, many hundreds of pages, if ever. We do, however, have to speak rather lengthily about the repercussions of what was perpetrated upon Carmen, but fortunately, the details of that will proceed organically from the story - with some digressions of course...
"Of course you can stay at my place. However long you need to. I hope you don't mind though, my housemate has a friend staying on our sofa but my room has a foldout couch."
Steve lets Carmen in, they walk into his room, she sees the 250 books on his shelves, she sees the violin case on the fold-out couch, she sees the projector screen covering the window and the projector at the far end of the room with a pile of classic movie canisters as tall as she is; the proverbial cat is out of the bag and she breaks down weeping. Steve holds Carmen to console her, but he has no idea what he's consoling, and while he asks, he's not about to push the matter.
When Carmen finally feels better, she walks over to the canisters, picks out Casablanca, and for two hours they lie down and decide that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world... It's a Monday night. On Tuesday, they watch The Best Years of Our Lives. On Wednesday, It's A Wonderful Life. Thursday, City Lights. Friday, It Happened One Night. Saturday, The Philadelphia Story. Sunday, Steve finally shows her his favorite movie: Sunrise; meaning not that his favorite movie is somewhere between a pretentious statement about nature and a pickup line, but Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, the 1927 masterpiece co-awarded the first ever Best Picture Oscar (even in the first year of the Oscars they could award it all to the best movie...) and a movie that should reduce every living being to a puddle of feelings by its end. It was directed by F.W. Murnau, a young German moviemaker recently immigrated to the United States, who might have proven greater than either Hitchcock or Welles had a car accident not claimed him four years later.
On this, Steve and I completely agree, Sunrise is more than a simply great film. To me it is, next to Citizen Kane, nothing less than the cornerstone of all movies ever made in this country. The dawn at the end of Sunrise is not simply a metaphor for the dawn of a reinvigorated rural marriage, it is a metaphor for the American dawn, for the dawn of movies themselves, for the dawn of witnessing art enacted for us by our fellow humans on a durable screen rather than in our imaginations from a flimsy piece of paper; for the dawn of a modern era when the hope of the New World emerges from the despair of the Old - for the passing of the torch from a world that once coveted Northern European ideals like civilization, education, and culture, to a world that coveted American ideals like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Perhaps these new ideals will prove equally unfulfillable to the old ones, but not yet at least, and while there's no doubt that it's hokey to say that the Sun rose on a new day with this movie, it's no less true for being hokey.
It's probably worth mentioning that some night after one of these movies, they have sex for the first time, and perhaps nearly as importantly, Steve has sex for the first time; this era was a few years before it became a given that 95% of students would lose their virginity by the end of college. I'd like to say that they first did it after they watched "It Happened One Night," but that is much too on the nose...
Steve, like most men, particularly most young men who've never had sex before, has no idea what might cause women discomfort, even if it might seem obvious to them in distant retrospect. It somehow never occurred to him that even a woman as intelligent as Carmen might dislike a movie in which a man who attempts to work up the nerve to drown his pure, Aryan-looking country wife (you can tell how innocent she is by her long blond hair wrapped in a tight bun) so he can take up full time with his knowing city tramp of a mistress with a nose slightly too large to not escape a semitic connotation, but if that's not enough to get the point, you can tell how 'knowing' she is from her black hair cut into a flapper haircut...), whom he also tries to kill when she suggests killing his wife to him - but both times, being the splendidly ethical man he is at heart, he manages to stop himself, and after his nearly killing the two women closest to him in twenty minutes, he resolves to redeem himself because of the purity of his wife's being and sufferance in his ignoring her, his wandering eye, and his bad mind for business that puts their country farm in danger.
After he stands over her, his hands lurched outward in the manner of exaggerated silent movie murderousness as he attempts to work up the murderous nerve to throw her overboard from a canoe on a lake, she waits for her coward of a husband to row back ashore so she can abscond to a bus heading to the city, and he runs after her, begging her not to be afraid of him. She can't escape the iron grip of a husband a foot taller and wider in frame, and as he holds onto her, they wander into a city church, and they watch and listen as a clearly Lutheran priest officiates an expensive city wedding and intones from a cue card "God is giving you in the holy bonds of matrimony, a trust. She is young... and inexperienced. Guide her and love her... ...keep and protect her from all harm. Wilt thou LOVE her?" At which point this wayward, murderous hulk of a man becomes a teary and dewy eyed portrait of remorse who collapses into the lap of his suffering wife like Jesus in a pieta consoled by the Virgin Mary. Because what clearly matters is the husband's suffering, not the wife's.
And if that's not enough to make the Carmens of this world cringe, there's then the moment in the beauty parlor, when the wife runs away in horror from a barber with the temerity to try to take her hair out of its virginal bun - her purity thankfully intact. Then there's the set piece with another 'knowing floozy' who tries to give the husband a manicure, suggestively pulling his hand out from underneath the barber's smock, only for him to swat away her ministrations to his wife's all-consuming relief. A moment later, when an upper-class man tries to get fresh with this innocent country wife and breaks off one of the flowers bought her by her husband to put into his lapel, the husband emerges from under the barber's smock, freshly shaved, and this so recently almost murderer draws a pocket knife, only to nip the flower off as the gentleman covers his neck with his hand, clearly certain that the husband was about to give him what the OJ Simpson defense team called the Colombian Necktie.
And yet, amid all this psychotic violence is the simple story of a married couple falling back in love with one another by experiencing a new facet of life - an innocent rural couple, firmly fastened to the prison of country life's slowness that's caused so much desperation and longing in modern literature, arriving in the bustle and activity of the city to find the life and action for which they ache, and arrive at that perverse balance between the innocence of children and the tragic knowledge of adulthood's sacrifices that is romance - that bond we all seek, the eternal spring of life's being, the fleeting moments we wish are forever, when life as must happen disappears and all that remains is life as we wish it to be. And yet in order for life to occur as we wish it to be, life must be disappointing enough to form our wishes.
And after bits with a drunk pig, impossible to explain, accidentally breaking the head off a statue during some horseplay, making out in what the emotion seems to transform a crowded thoroughfare into the Garden of Eden, and then drunkenly making out as flying angels form ring around them, shortly before which the husband wants to beat up yet another upper-class twit for suggesting that the couple do a country dance for a large city crowd - which they do to the city dweller's eruptive delight. They sail home by moonlight, 'a second honeymoon' the wife calls it with all the literalness of a pure country girl, her errant husband, who nearly drowned her on the same boat that morning, as in love as he probably was on their first honeymoon. She falls into blissful sleep upon his chest, and he gently places the lapel of his jacket over her face, turning in the span of twelve hours from a near-wife murderer to a good husband again who protects his wife.
But in these days before doppler radar, a frenzied storm erupts as suddenly as the moonlight seemed eternal but a moment ago. Even the city dwellers duck for cover. The calmness of the lake upon which they live turns into a roaring sea, while the pure and terrified country wife holds onto her husband for dear life, preventing him from doing the rowing necessary to save them.
The desperate husband wakes the whole town up and forms a search party on the lake. She survives by holding onto a bundle of bamboo picked and placed into the boat by his mistress - but not before he tries to kill his mistress yet again when she comes to claim her prize, and this time, nearly succeeding while we're half-rooting for him to be successful! But a figure who is probably the wife's mother tells him that she's been found and is alive. He comes back to her bedside and sits by it for the rest of the night, the entire town relieved and overjoyed that one of their own is not lost. The movie ends with the wife awakening, her long blonde hair finally let down, bedecked in white nightgown and white sheets, her roughly four-year-old son sleeping by her side, and she awakens at the rising of the sun to her husband by her bedside, and they share a kiss that dissolves into rays of sunlight and the burst of the sun. Is it not the most beautiful image in all of cinema?
18 hours after this husband almost became a wife-murderer and a few minutes after he almost becomes a mistress murderer, his wife awakens, and they live on, if not happily ever after, then redeemed with a second chance at life - the seemingly redeemed husband seemingly proven utterly deserving of happiness and forgiveness, never mind that had he remained a good husband, the life of his wife would never have been in danger, let alone twice, let alone that the first of the two times he was the direct cause of the danger, never mind that he was almost became a murderer yet again just a moment before his reunion with his wife.
Sunrise is exactly as melodramatic a movie as it sounds, with those utterly unbelievable silent movie gestures and a dramaturgy that wouldn't be believable in a Christmas pageant. And yet it should matter not a whit. Its melodrama is just a symptom of the metaphysical drama taking place onscreen. The metaphorical stakes are nothing less than a human soul, the husband's soul. What yetzer will the soul embrace? Will evil be rewarded and virtue punished? Is a redeemed soul that once strayed deserving of any reward? As melodramatic as Sunrise is, these are not questions easy to answer, and as any Hollywood movie must, Sunrise tries to answer them definitively, and yet it cannot. How many days before the husband erupts again in a violent rage? How many days before he tires of the farm and eye wanders again to another city girl who's probably named Rachel.
Sunrise speaks to us from another world where cynicism has yet to be invented. Men are men, strapping, quick to anger, quick to lust, quick to violence, yet able to be soothed by the purity of love, for which it is a woman's holy duty - a duty she can either assume, thereby becoming like an intercessing goddess, or reject, thereby becoming a whore. It is very easy to be cynical about such movies, and yet one's critical faculties feel an overwhelming urge to melt in the presence of such sincerity. Just as in the music of Bach or the painting of Rafael; Murnau arrived on world history at a very specific moment when his chosen artform was on an indivertible course to conquer the world with its power. 1927 was the final full year of film's Silent Era, and the very moment when visual storytelling blossomed in a manner never seen before and perhaps never since. In this final twilight of Silent Film, everything about the visual components of movies become as fluid and poetic as ballet - sets, lighting, costumes, exposures, even overacting: Sunrise, Metropolis, Faust, Flesh and the Devil, Mare Nostrum, The Son of the Sheik, Sparrows, The Temptress, What Price Glory?, The Winning of Barbara Worth, It, The Italian Straw Hat, London After Midnight, The General, Pandora's Box, The Crowd, The Wind, Underworld, The Unknown, Steamboat Bill Jr., An Andalusian Dog, Lonesome, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Queen Kelly, Sadie Thompson, Show People, Diary of a Lost Girl, The Lodger, Man With a Movie Camera, The Last Command, The Docks of New York, The Circus, 7th Heaven. Just as it was forty-five years later, there was something magic in the cellophane - but the magic dissipated far more quickly. The Golden Age our parents may currently reminisce upon took sixteen years between Bonnie and Clyde on one side and The Right Stuff on the other. The Golden Age which their grandparents remembered began around 1926 and was all over by 1929, but for those threeish years, all a director seemingly had to do was be competent at his job, and he'd create something eternal.
There were flashier directors after Murnau who had much more trenchant insights into human nature, but insight into humans would dilute everything which makes Murnau so special. Just as with Bach, I doubt there is a single artist in his medium who can make you believe again in everything about life about which you've abandoned all hope. If you're close to suicide, watch Sunrise. You may have thought yourself a cynic, but all bad feeling melts in the presence of its beauty - it is the beauty of dawn, of hope, of the idea that not a single person in the entire world is beyond redemption or undeserving of it. It tells the sinner within us all that no matter how badly we oppress others, we are not beyond mercy. It is the kind of hope that those of us privileged enough to feel will use as resolve to take our instinct toward sin and use it for virtue while having to question no longer what is virtuous: to move mountains, to overthrow governments, to build societies, to make a girl who was nearly a movie star into the love of your life.
And all this is precisely everything that Carmen least wanted to hear or see at this moment. Carmen was probably much too close to her agonies to experience anything like a trigger for reliving them, but the idea that a man who is so clearly evil can achieve redemption so quickly was everything that contradicted the last eighteen months of her life. When a man has murder in his heart, there is no redemption for him, and even if there is perhaps an infinitesimal possibility of redemption, it's certainly not something the man discovers over the course of a single fucking day.
Steve did not see her rolling her eyes and grinding her teeth and tensing up her hands in the darkness of his room. He often looked over at her to gauge her reaction, but never caught her at any particularly expressive moment. As we men seem to do 95% of the time, he saw what we wish to see in women, and if men much more experienced and confident around women than young Steve have no idea what women are thinking, then how was Steve to know? And therefore it came as quite a shock to him when Carmen let out an enormous guffaw toward the end when this prodigally murderous husband kneels in a state of grace at the bedside of his utterly saintly, unblemishable, wife.
The second after Carmen let out her roaring cackle, she apologized profusely, as anyone in a new relationship would after guffawing at a potential significant other's favorite movie. When Steve immediately turned the movie off and light on, she went somewhat limp, as though the dread which coursed through her heart dissociated herself from the room before she had to experience the inevitable melodrama that would ensue. But, to her astonishment, Steve was extremely interested in knowing what she thought.
But for one of the first times in her life, the inkwell of her verbal acuity had dried, and she was at a loss to explain precisely what she found so offensive about the movie.
Why did she weep when she saw his books? Because for the last few weeks, she'd found herself unable to recall what she'd read. Books were, to her, something to access with instant neurological availability. One glance at a piece of paper, and it was committed by heart for life. Whole tractates of the King James Bible, whole acts by Shakespeare, whole chapters of the Quixote and whole stories by Kafka she could recite in the original Castillian Spanish and Prague German with the exact pronunciation of its location and period, whole piano concertos by Mozart - both the solo piano part and the orchestral score, whole albums of Edith Piaf and whole operas by Verdi which she was able to sing and play on the piano as though it were second nature, not only able to sing any jazz standard or song by Dylan or The Beach Boys or trash song by Herman's Hermits or Tiny Tim, but able to improvise half-hour piano solos around them with countermelodies and modulations and thematic interpolations of a dozen other songs by the same artist and a dozen more by the artists they influenced and the artists who influenced them. Any one of which she could summon to mind and memory as though by animal instinct, as naturally as the rest of us take a breath or eat a meal after a day's fasting; any one of which were available to call to mind for an audition.
Her parents had no idea where she came from. They were rural immigrants like any rural immigrants, perhaps a bit better at what they did than most, and perhaps assimilated a bit more easily into American life than some did. Music was not something they made themselves, but at they were aware of music and loved it, and surely all four their own parents were musical - folk musicians to whom a career in music, or any career at all, was an alien concept. When they weren't fishing or farming or selling their goods, they played the quena and the bandolina and banduryia and the bukhot; national instruments of the Philippines and Colombia, where their days were spent as farmers and fishermen, and nights around campfires and oil lamps with Tinkling and Muisca dancing - a life that could just as easily take place in either 1600 AD or BC as in 1940. You got up in the morning, you served your particular God, you did your best to avoid other more evil spirits, and you went to sleep until one unsuspecting night when sleep claimed you. Legendary family stories developed around particular members of the family, but you didn't know if these family members died a few decades before you were born, or a few hundred years; maybe even a few thousand. Perhaps variations on these particular stories were common to every family, every town, every region of the world, and perhaps all these folk tunes are just as similar from place to place. But because these stories and this music have no historical record, they seem infinitely more authentic - coming to us from that ether generated by the long darkness of pre-history, when the world was only explicable through magic. Life itself was magic, any day when a person was shielded from death was its own miracle that required a supernatural explanation. Every respite from death was a beautiful gift, every object of order that endowed life with ever so slightly more convenience was wrested from the chaos of nature, and therefore an object of indescribable beauty that could not be conceived had it not already existed. For a moment in these people's lives of whom we have no record, these artful objects did not imitate nature as so much humdrum art does, but rewrites nature's very laws, and therefore every folk tune was beautiful and perfect, every folk tale was beautiful and perfect, every pot and plate was beautiful and perfect, every meal was beautiful and perfect, all of them gifts handed down from above and below by forces well beyond their understanding, because they were all wrested from a nature that would never guarantee a life good enough to consistently house the presence of any of them, and the appearance of any of these gifts from the spiritual realm was a gift to be savored until the spiritual realm claimed them back. A pot, a plate, an instrument, could so easily break. A musician or a storyteller could die. The fish could disappear from the water, the crops not grow, the animals disappear from the forest. And where there was light, darkness would descend upon the face of the deep.
Miracles were not supposed to happen in America, and yet, here was the miracle that was Carmen Chavez - with all the modern advances in technique, here was a person who overcame technique and played with it as a baby does with a rattle. Perhaps she's a second Mozart, perhaps she's even a Shakespeare of performance - someone for whom a career as arm candy in a Burt Reynolds movie would be utterly wasted. She should be playing and singing Poulenc and Schubert at Carnegie Hall, she should be playing and singing Cleopatra and Sally Bowles on the West End.
Her parents, both of them, stopped going to church when they came to this country, but when Carmen sang lullabyes back to her mother when she was six months old, when she was speaking entire sentences at nine months in Spanish, English, and Tagalog, reading in all three languages by a little after her second birthday, and reading adult books by four years old - they realized that only God could conceive of such a being, and they had to prove themselves worthy of their divinely-mandated responsibility. It was shortly after her fourth birthday that her parents had confirmation that something truly extraordinary was happening - perhaps a literal confirmation. They flew back for a cousin's confirmation in Bagota when she was four, and during the celebration in the downstairs church rec room, somebody had broken into the organ loft and made the whole church resound with the note perfect melody of Alma Redemptoris Mater. After the melody was complete, it was played a second time with harmonies, and the harmonies were completely different than the usual organist, perhaps simpler but they worked just as well, perhaps better. But this was no teenage amateur breaking in - both the door and the organ were simply unlocked, and little Carmen, four years old but barely looking three, sitting down on a bench upon which her legs were barely long enough to reach its end, let alone reach the pedals, and played on four keyboards all by herself. The priest who played the organ was eating bandeja paisa and drinking aguardiente just as everybody else, so the parish monsignor stormed up to the organ loft with his ever-ready switch, expecting to find some teenager with a year of piano lessons who broke in and possibly damaged the door. But the moment he saw this girl barely larger than an infant play Alma Redemptoris Mater, he dared not make his presence known until she was done. When she was, he picked her up and kissed her on the forehead and told her she was a miracle from Heaven. He carried her downstairs to tell her parents, and they wept as they knelt in front of a statue of the Virgin. It was a miracle such as those of which their own parents always spoke. For twenty years, they never missed a Sunday, and every spare dollar not devoted to good works was devoted to supporting their extraordinary child who came from nowhere.
The only way she could have learned how to play a keyboard was on those few times her father took her to see Uncle Ray (who couldn't see her of course), and Uncle Ray would play some songs on the piano for her while Carmen's father fixed some wiring in the lights (and why Ray Charles needed lights nobody knew...) and Carmen watched the keys which Uncle Ray could not see as he played. As Carmen progressed, Uncle Ray was all too happy to give an occasional lesson in jazz whenever he was in town, and after the lesson was over, Carmen would be sent to play with a friend down the street with a couple dollars for candy while Uncle Ray gave Carmen's mother a lesson too.
When Carmen's Ina told Uncle Ray heard about what happened, he sat her at the piano, and instead of playing Alma Redemptoris Mater, she harmonized a note perfect and slightly out of tempo What Would I Do Without You and sang the whole song, a few words were mispronounced as a four-year-old would without thinking of what she can't understand: "I get all closer to me," instead of "Aw, get all closer to me." Even a brilliant four-year-old plays like a brilliant four-year-old, but a four year old like this could astonish the world.
This narrator has little to no interest in the details of how she appeared on Ed Sullivan and Dick Clark's American Bandstand when she was seven. He has only a little interest in the details of the private piano teacher from Hungary, Mr. Nordau (Doctor Nordau), contracted directly from Universal Studios by Uncle Ray, who paid every cent of her piano lessons for twelve years, the methods and personal manner of Dr. Nordau turned her into an obedient girl savant until her fingertips bled. He would balance a coin upon her hands to teach her finger positioning, and when the coin fell off he would strike the hand with a ruler. By nine she'd already graduated from Beethoven Sonatas to Liszt Transcendental Etudes, so the red letter days in her life were not when she mastered a new piece, but when she graduated from a silver dollar on her hand to a half-dollar, from a half-dollar to a quarter, from a quarter to a nickel, from a nickel to a penny, frm a penny to a dime. The narrator also has little to no interest in the details of in the details of the other upper-middle-class immigrant teachers from Germany and Austria and Poland and Romania and Czechoslovakia and Italy and the Ukraine who taught her in the High School of Science which she insisted upon going to rather than a school for the performing arts, or who coached her in the various extracurriculars for which her abilities and work ethic could only be described, once again, as prodigious: drawing, dancing, creative writing, English, French, Italian, German, calculus, chemistry, biology, physics, philosophy, theology, history, current events... Still greater than her ability to assimilate information was how each teacher took it upon themselves, as though they were the only one to do so, to try to mentor Carmen and steer her in the direction of their field, as though netting such a prize achiever into their field would be the achievement that justified decades of surrendering some prestigious post-Hochshule career to put up with every worthless and verzogenes Gor und wildes Tier in the security of Southern California.
How did she imbibe so much information so quickly? Well, if one can reduce such ability to a practical application rather than divinely-mandated ability, her technique was to simply sing her facts. From the moment at five years old that she realized "Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally" could be sung to the famous tune from Eine Kleine Nachtmusik if you put an extra 'please' on that ending D, she realized that she could find the right piece of music to assimilate any degree of information she wished. But as I'm sure you've guessed by now, what unfortunately matters in Carmen's story is not the ascent, but the descent.
So you'll unfortunately have to permit me to fast forward to five years after we left Carmen, sometime around 1984, when it came time to name their first daughter. Steve and Carmen already had two 'failed' pregnancies to their confution before Cleo came into the world, miscarried because of what the doctor so tactfully referred to as an 'incompetent uterus.' Due to a division in the uterine septum, the children could not derive nourishment from their mother. They therefore passed all too quickly into lavatorial oblivion. I don't remember whether it was the second or the third time that Carmen sprained her pelvis during which Steve asked an OBGYN to take a look and see if the uterine canal could be repaired during the same time that the orthopedist tried to mend the pelvic damage.
Surely enough, six months after the surgery, Carmen had a green light to get pregnant again, and nine months later, they commemorated that joyous day by naming their first daughter Clarissa, in part after Virginia Woolf's most famous creation, but in part to commemorate the day when they first got together and Steve helped Carmen to understand what became their favorite book: Mrs. Dalloway, but mostly because Steve's mother insisted that the daughter be named after her own recently departed mother, Clara, who came to Los Angeles from Berlin in 1936 with a four-year-old daughter hidden in a large suitcase with some holes punched out for air while a husband and two pubescent boys were stranded in Germany.
It was all pretty hard until 1992. Carmen's capacity as a pianist became more and more reduced. By 1987, she could not play for more than an hour at a time without straining a muscle in her hand. By 1992, the strain became a sprain. By 1998, it was a half-hour before she'd break a finger. By 2001, it was the length of a Chopin Waltz played at pianissimo, and then she had to close the piano for the rest of the day. By 2004, she'd forgotten that she couldn't play; she would sight read whatever music was on the piano stand, and would negotiate around the two or three digits she'd already broken in the days and weeks preceding with a howling scream cutting off whatever once beloved Schumann character piece or Schubert Impromptu or Debussy Prelude caught her attention from the piano stand (their younger daughter made sure to put different music on the piano every day so there wouldn't be the same piece resounding around the house forever).
Through it all, Carmen still had her gorgeous voice, which thirty-five years of cigarettes could not wreck, even if it moved her voice down a half-dozen fachs. Unfortunately, she realized that any kind of performance, any at all, might put her straight into the public's black eye because of her time with The Producer. Who knows to what she could yet again subject herself, or to what she could subject her family? To remind people that another paramour of this producer still stalked the streets of LA like a ghost could reopen all manner of old trauma, put the life of everyone she cared about at risk from people The Producer might pay to silence her before she talks, and might make a scandal of her life and her childrens' to the press. She and Steve both agreed that she had to stay away from the stage until The Producer was dead, not even so much as a dinner theater. The Producer was still around Hollywood, one of the many ghosts of Hollywood infamy, a low-level, stipended producer allowed to walk around the studio lots, absorbing the sun like a vegetable as he 'supervised' B-movie releases, which the New New Hollywood let him refer to as his 'comeback.' The comeback necessitated many tabloid magazine and TV stories which would plaster his many sins and conquests and legends ten years after his trivial comeback seemed like any comeback at all. Once every two months there was another scoop chasing journalist calling Carmen, not talk about her story, but about the story of the woman Carmen was left for - Tamera Wittenberg. No comment of course.
Nobody could figure out of Tamera Wittenberg was European Royalty or white trash from Kansas, but she was tall, twig-like, leggy and blond in precisely that way which the charitable call statuesque and the uncharitable call a bimbo, but the 80's called perfect beauty. It's true, she didn't seem like a great brain, but she was as quiet as a mouse and submissive as a dog with its belly up. She was never anything but polite to Carmen.
Carmen however, had nowhere else to go, and was, in fact, living in a room down the hall from the Producer for the first five months that Tammy and The Producer were involved. Carmen had no job, and even after The Producer took up with Tammy, she was understandably worried that The Producer would go ballistic if she showed any initiative outside his house, so for five months, she simply stayed in the house, she read, she went to school, she went back to her room, where the maid would leave a meal for her at her doorstep.
This continued for five months, she would speak to The Producer when spoken to, and occasionally he would visit with her in her room - where discourse was at least a bit more civil than it used to be, and congress a bit more gentle. But one day, Carmen heard the same shouts and shattering of glass and turning over furniture and whimpering tears that she knew so well from time past emanating from the bedroom that once was hers. It was eight-thirty in the morning; she immediately walked out of the room without a single possession. She walked from The Producer's Beverly Hills house to which she belonged for eighteen months to the USC campus to meet with Steve three hours later, and life resumed as well as it could.
Carmen wanted to teach voice, but unfortunately, there is never enough market for a voice teacher and far too much market for piano teachers. One would think that parents would go mad with the desire to teach their children most basic musical skill in the world, but singing is so basic that there is no mark of respectability to it. The piano, rather, is the ultimate mark of respectability. If one can carry a tune, one can sing. But to play a piano well is no less an achievement than building your own house or creating beautiful woodwork and clay pots. In Europe, America, or Asia, child who plays piano well is the ultimate mark of a family that wrested order from the existential chaos of living in a lower social class.
Back in the 80's, there was a full roster of piano students whom she taught while Steve watched the kids, but Carmen knew that there were many better piano teachers in the area, so she kept her prices much lower and hoped that volume would cover the expenses which her billing would certainly not. As so many music teachers are, she was in no way cut for a job of managing children; managing their anxious mothers who want to believe their child another Horowitz, managing their bored fathers - more interested in picking her up than his children. Even among her few intermediate-level students, she knew she could never impart any valuable musical ideas to indifferent children whose parents assured them that they would understand why they needed to play piano when they were older. She was becoming like so many of her teachers who wanted better for her, and she did not understand why this new generation of students were so much less obedient than she once was. Her frustration with her charges was continually palpable to them, and most of the kids who'd been with her longest would dread their lessons in a way that ensured any inclination toward practicing killed in its inception. A few times a year, another student would break down in tears mid-lesson, and a call would follow a few days later from the mother: "Jessica has too much on her plate."
All through this life-era, Steve lost as much money as he made. Even with health insurance, the surgeries Carmen needed ever more direly were a fortune each to each - and the more surgeries she needed, the higher her premiums went, until she was just plain uninsurable and their family policy was cancelled. Steve and the children had to each get an individual plan, but Carmen was on her own, corrective surgery after orthopedic surgery after cardiothoracic surgery, and eventually even neurological surgery.
Furthermore, matter how long since she left The Producer for him, Steve feared that Carmen was accustomed to a luxury he couldn't possibly provide, and couldn't possibly admit he couldn't provide. If she hadn't bought a new dress or jewel in a month, Steve would buy her one (to the very end, Carmen was immaculately dressed). But not even Carmen's needs and wants, or the thought of a baby Steve thought Carmen couldn't possibly carry to term, were enough to keep Steve an accountant. When Steve told his mother he was about to go into business with a friend to operate a video store, her screams woke baby Clarissa up.
Steve's father was more supportive and said to give it, and their son, a chance to do what he wants, but his mother was right. Even in 1980's Los Angeles, there wasn't enough demand for a local independent to carve out a share of the market from Blockbuster Video. Had they closed in 1986, Steve would still have possession over the money from his accounting days to pay off their loan. But Steve and his friend kept borrowing to keep it going until early '88, by which time the bank came to repo everything in his house while his four year old daughter absorbed her first vivid memories and his wife tried to calm their screaming six-month-old second daughter: Elizabeth. The furniture, the silverware, the fridge, the beds, the piano, the violin, the books - all 900 of them, the 3700 VHS tapes, even the film cannisters and the projector equipment from college. We were lucky they didn't take the house. For the next five years, Carmen had to teach piano from a four-and-a-half octave Yamaha keyboard which her stepfather bought for her.
Steve did the only thing a real man can do in that situation, he went to his parents for a loan. His mother gave him a big hug, and of course she told him that of course they would, but he knew the condition.
So Steve went back to managing managing books and accounts at the very same bank that repossessed everything he owned. At least they knew him... But when he applied for a job interview, the very last place where thought he'd get an interview, the place he applied to as a private joke, was the first to call him back. Nobody seemed to remember that they took his entire life away from him just a month ago. Perhaps they did, but they were too polite to mention it, or perhaps they were trying to make it up to him; or perhaps he was too generic to remember, or perhaps he was just another anonymously bad investment vehicle among thousands. Nobody checks your credit score when you're applying to be the man who checks the credit score. All they knew was that he had shining recommendations from the last bank at which he worked, high academic honors from the Marshall School of Business, and a mother who threatened to take her account elsewhere if they didn’t give him a job.
Steve stuck with his mother's agreement in good faith for three years. Again and again, he offered to repay the loan, but his parents wouldn't hear of it. Every day was miserable, this was the price he paid for doing nothing but watch movies and change diapers for three years, but Steve had a life again. He was making only $65,000 a year, but after taxes it was all pocketable money thanks to his parents (really his mother's) loan and their agreement to pay for any further surgeries Carmen needs. His beautiful wife learned to spend on a budget surprisingly well, his daughters were brilliant and the older one already showed some flashes of her mother's former brilliance.
In 1991, Steve returned to his mother with a check for the entirety of the loan. He didn't pay for the surgeries "I'm going into business again and I've quit my job."
"Please tell me..."
"No it's not in video."
It wasn't even movie related. Of course his mother refused to accept the check, and she was actually slightly enthused when she heard his plan, though not as enthused as she might have been. It's LA, people need protection from crime, and he was going to become his friend's junior partner and manage the distribution of car alarms.
It wasn't a bad idea. His parents had been burgled twice in the last five years. Sure, Fairfax was not the neighborhood it once was, but you never used to expect anything like that kind of crime can happen to you. Why can't Steve go into home alarm?
The date Steve stood up to his mother was March 2nd, 1991. The next day, Rodney King would get the pulp beaten from him at the corner of Foothill Boulevard and Osborne Street. Business was slow for fourteen months thereafter. Steve was drawing a salary, but while home alarm was something every white person thought he needed, too few people seemed to think they need a car alarm.
But on April 29th, 1992, Reginald Denny and Fidel Lopez were pulled from their cars and beaten on camera as a racial maelstrom deluged its way through the City of Angels, and car alarms become something everyone thought they needed, not because their cars might be stolen, but because a car alarm can surely be what saves you when a pack of marauders attack you while still in a car you can lock, and all you have to defend yourself is a vehicle made of steel that can go up to 200 miles-per-hour.
By June, Steve, who'd never made a salary higher than $55,000, was pulling in $60,000 a month, and would continue to do so for the duration of the 90's - roughly $105,000 a month in the currency of a quarter-century later.
It was also in 1992 that Steve's father passed away quite suddenly; an apparent heart attack while behind the wheel of his SUV, but Steve's mother didn't want an autopsy to confirm it. No sooner than her husband passed did Steve's mother want to be all the more in the lives of her only child and granddaughters. But no longer had Steve to rely on his mother for loans, no longer had Steve to rely on his mother for advice, no longer had Steve to rely on his mother for support. In the 80's, when Steve and Carmen went out on the weekends, they would drop the kids off with Steve's parents, and his mother would keep a close eye on the kids, but in the 90's, they could hire a stunningly cheap Spanish-speaking nanny. In the 80's, when Carmen needed surgery and neither Steve nor either of her parents or step-parents could pay for it, Steve's mother would sign checks with no questions, except for some private words with her son about how disappointed she was that he married such a high-maintenance woman. But in the 90's, Steve made more money in a year than his parents made in ten. In the 80s, Steve's mother would call four days a week, full of advice and opinions, and her son would listen to them all patiently and with seeming cheer. In the 90's, Steve was sometimes too busy to even take his Mom's call once a week.
Steve's mother - whom we'll call Denarius, not because that was her name but because that was the only thing anybody ever called her which she liked - didn't exactly hold her tongue about her opinions of her son's ingratitude, but she at least held it by her own standards. Even if she complained constantly to relatives whom she knew Steve never had any time for, she never complained about Steve's newfound independence to Steve himself. Perhaps Steve was right to be uninterested in his extended family, they never really forgave Denarius for marrying outside the faith, but her relatives all lived in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and how many semitic men were there to choose from in Pismo Beach?
Steve's grandmother, Clara, his Oma, wanted a future for a daughter with no father, no brothers, no money, no English. These supercilious ersatz Yekke relatives were born in Frankfurt and came to America as children more than fifty years ago. They made millions in schmatteh factories in which lots of Jews were forced to take jobs - Jews with the bad foresight to came over only later when there were many more of us, when business was already tougher, and when Jewish immigrants didn't have much money to bring with them.
Aside from the suits and dresses they wore on all occasions, no matter how warm the weather, these relatives might as well have been from another planet - Russia even... Jewel-encrusted rings on half their fingers, necklaces for every day of the week, cars for both the husband and the wife which chauffeurs usually drove, a dinner fit for Shabbos every night. And yet, it was the Great Depression, so apparently they had very little money they could lend a supposedly cherished relative with a kleines Madchen. Sympathy, sympathy, sympathie for their plight, a job in the factory, but not even enough additional money to pay the rent, and not a cent offered to her to bribe Clara's family out of Berlin.
Los Angeles was a big city, but Clara knew she wasn't wanted there. If her only remaining relatives wanted to keep her side of the family as small as possible, then she knew she had to go elsewhere to give her daughter a new family.
She meant to go up to San Francisco, but as so often happens in these immigrant stories, the only Auto she could afford broke down in a smaller city, Pismo Beach. Rather than get a new car, she renovated a derelict motel and turned it into a nice bed and breakfast with a restaurant on the downstairs floor. Pismo Beach is the Clam Capital of the World, or so they say, so Clara's signature dishes were clams fried in schmaltz and clams stewed in the Yemenite Zhug which Clara's aunt taught her to make. There was kugel and matzoh ball soup on the menu, a brisket sandwich, potato pancakes, a beef stew on Saturdays, home-cured pastrami, and corned beef around September, homebaked babka, chopped liver, blintzes around June, stuffed cabbage, beef sausages, a potato and spinach pastry - knish - which the migrant workers thought were empanadas, mandelbrot - a chocolate chip and cinammon biscotti, a lekekh - honey cake, served in the fall, pickled herring, sufganyes - a home fried doughnut, in the winter, tzimmes - a carrot yam stew with raisins and apricots around Thanksgiving. The Matzoh Ball soup was so popular that a number of people had the idea that Clara should put some shellfish in it and turn it into a Boulliabaise, but Clara's personality was so forbidding that nobody would dare make the suggestion. Nevertheless, "Clara's" was a hit, and if it had nothing to do with the winningness of Clara's personality, it certainly had something to do with her daughter's.
Clara never married again, and her daughter never saw so much as a man in her mother's life. But Denarius was the petite and exotic and funny waitress who served with a smile after school and before homework, who always took the orders right and remembered the name of every second-time customer. She was not beautiful in the way all the other swell girls in Pismo Beach; she was a half-foot shorter, she had a bumpy nose and a complexion perpetual tanned - though no one ever saw her on the beach. She wouldn't wait for the fella to pull out the chair or hold the door, and never waited for the guy to tell her what she thought before telling him first. But the swell fellas in Pismo were crazy for her. Every one of them was a faithful customer after school, and every one of them probably asked her on a date multiple times, but she'd never say yes to any of them, and because she never said yes to any of them, they'd come back to Clara's twice as often to change her mind.
One guy never asked her out, so he, of course, became the one Denarius asked out. In 1955, he became Clara's son-in-law. Frederick Johansen, six-foot-four, All-California high school football lineman, decorated Korean War vet, electrical engineer, man of five-hundred words a day, and former Lutheran acolyte. Certainly not good enough for her daughter, but good enough for America.
The Los Angeles relations refused to come to the wedding, refused to send a gift, and refused to speak to Clara for more than fifteen years. Until '55, Clara would come down every year to Los Angeles for the High Holidays and the Seders; she went to every Bar Mitzvah, every wedding, every bris. Occasionally Denarius would accompany her, but usually not. Denarius barely had half a dozen conversations with any of them as a child. Who the hell knows if these relatives ever went to shul if there wasn't a high holiday or a simcha involved? But even if they didn't, to marry a shegetz among cultural Jews is tantamount to declaring allegiance to Hitler; it is and will always be an excommunicable offense that breaks families apart forever because it's the argument leads down the rabbit hole of theology's most important and unresolvable question: Is faith motivated by love, or is love motivated by faith?
In our modern era when tolerance has finally won a few battles over faith, the question of intermarriage becomes still more vital. When the world shows signs of growing more tolerant, what need is there to uphold the groups and struggles of old? Every intermarriage, be it Jew to Gentile, Black to White, Liberal to Conservative, Lamb to Lion, is a rejection of old polarities - a declaration that all the great struggles which your ancestors underwent were absolutely unnecessary, irrelevant to the present, and deserving to be sucked into a black hole of forgetfulness. Memory can be as much a curse as a blessing, and surely many memories deserve to be forgotten. But in the modern era, when we so often seem upon the precipice of a new and finer world in which differences can finally be reconciled, perhaps all that stops us from realizing a world that's closer at least to this finer new world is the fearful memory of the world as it once was and always threatens to be again. However, because we cannot erase these memories, perhaps these memories of worse times are precisely what dooms us to never achieve a world of greater tolerance.
It was within a month of the wedding that Clara unexpectedly took up Fred's parents invitation to visit their church. In her nearly twenty years in Pismo Beach, our local legend Claradonna Zweig was never seen to socialize with anyone, and Fred's parents only invited her out of politeness. Yet by the end of 1955, she was a regular attendee to St. John’s Lutheran Church in Pismo Beach who insisted upon catering the Sunday lunches free of charge. On Good Friday 1956, she took baptism and never missed a Sunday thereafter for her remaining twenty-eight years.
Clara’s was closed every Sunday thereafter, and after Church, Claradonna Helena Zweig would return home with a friend from her congregation, Sieglinde Schafer, a widow from Breslau whose husband, a promising Captain in Germany’s Eighth Army, was felled by a hail of bullets but two months after they were married in June 1914. Hauptmann Schulz was one of the 12,000 fallen Germans at the Battle of Tannenberg, whose legendary acts of bravery enabled the slaughter of 170,000 Russians. Sieglinde was roughly ten years older than Clara. She’d found her way to Pismo Beach with her father in roughly 1920, after the German riots against the Polish, who would eventually transform Breslau into Wroclaw, burned down her extremely German father’s medical offices. Who knows how they ended up in Pismo Beach, but Dr. Schafer died in his sleep in 1938, an eloquent and celebrated member of the Central Californian Bund whose funeral at St. John’s Lutheran was attended by hundreds of German-Americans and Klansmen alike. He was eminent throughout the state, perhaps even the Western United States, for his many kind words and trenchant insights about the great strength of new German regime. Every Bund organization from Montana to New Mexico would engage him to speak as an expert on German politics.
And so every Sunday in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, Clara and Sieglinde would go after church to Clara’s modest apartment over the restaurant. They’d sing all the songs of gymnasium days, they’d play four-hand duets on Clara’s out of tune upright, they’d recite all the Goethe and Heine forced upon their memories by rote, they’d talk disapprovingly of the other church members, and they’d recall friends and husbands long dead.
Clara’s daughter found Sieglinde Schafer a bit icky, and was certain Ms. Schafer was antisemite, but she was happy that her mother finally made a friend when all she’d ever seen from her mother was work and sacrifice and testiness. She too had an older friend who could remind her of whom she truly was. Even so, her mother's turn toward a new religion proved too much for her.
St. John's installed a new Pastor right before Christmas 1965. A smiling blond from Montana who sported a flattop haircut and bolo ties every Sunday. On Good Friday '66, the tenth anniversary of Clara's baptism, he shocked the congregation by mounting the pulpit with a guitar in his hand. Younger members were overjoyed, they stood up and clapped excitedly while putting their arms in the air as though second nature. Clara and Sieglinde, on the other hand, were incensed and immediately petitioned the board for his firing. But no one on the board objected, they loved Pastor Lehmann, so that was the last which either Clara or Sieglinde made about the issue. For the next twenty years, they simply sat in the back pew and scowled.
Much less objectionable to Clara was Pastor Lehmann's fundraisers for Reagan and Nixon, his preemptive encouragement of student deacons to volunteer for the Vietnam War, his public shaming of a lax daughter who asked a question about the War's justice. Clara had never been a political sort, instructing her daughter from the earliest age that political questions are what tear people apart from each other and can only interfere with people trying to go about their lives. But Clara's daughter began to notice the inveighs that Clara now seemed to be parroting from her Church about ungrateful students who protested against this great country of ours, and the ungrateful negroes who dare compare the way good Christians in the South treat their black people to the way godless Communists treat their billions of unfree citizens. The day that Fred offhandedly made a comparison to Clara about segregationists to Nazis was the day he ended up with a bowl of Matzoh Ball soup dumped on his head.
That last point about the ungratefulness of negroes was the one that Clara's daughter found truly inconceivable. How could Clara call negroes ungrateful when she owed so much of her triumph in America to a negro woman? Neither Clara nor her daughter were the sole progenitors of 'Clara's success. The third, and perhaps most consequential, in their trinity of unexpected prosperity was Mrs. Washington, the kindly lady from Clayton County in Georgia whose husband drove her to work every day from Grover Beach at four in the morning in their beat up Plymouth Valiant before he went back home to get their four children ready for school and then drive fifty miles east to his job as a farmhand and then return at ten to pick Mrs. Washington up. The kindly lady who went every Sunday to sing in the church choir at Bethel Baptist, and catered their after-service lunches every week with 'Clara's leftover provisions from the week's food supply. When Clara herself became a Christian, she immediately informed Mrs. Washington that she no longer had access to the leftovers to cater her church because Clara would now use them to cater lunches at her own church.
Mrs. Washington was the kind of woman who would always sneak Clara's daughter a cookie, sometimes two or three, whenever Clara was too busy manning the stove or the cash register to look up. Running a business takes all kinds of people, and you need a boss who can kill with kindness as much as you need a boss who delights in killing.
Mrs. Washington was, begrudgingly, one of Clara's first hires. Clara thought that colored help, even if they worked in the kitchen, would drive customers away, but she needed the help immediately. Nobody knew who Clara was, and Clara had no idea how to get more applicants attention. The men were in the theaters of war, and their wives were almost fully employed in the factories. If Clara's was going to be a success, they needed all the help they could get. But Mrs. Washington had been waiting tables since she was an eight-year-old kid in Georgia. Clara had no idea how to take inventory, how to fill staffing needs, how to quickly update menus, and how to advertise. It was certainly not Clara who came up with the phone book advertisement in 1945: "Clara's: Home Cooking from the Jewish Mom You Never Knew You Needed," Every time a waitress broke down in tears from the stress of dealing with a customer, or from dealing with Clara, Mrs. Washington was always there with a hug and tissue. Every time a health department inspector or a supplier needed to be supplicated, it was Mrs. Washington, not Clara, who'd handle the negotiation. Every time a customer was in the hospital, Mrs. Washington would visit with a dinner tray taken without Clara's knowledge and some good cheer. Clara was an institution in Pismo Beach, but Mrs. Washington was the reason every customer over the age of 30 came back. And yet for almost twenty-five years, she never took her meal anywhere but in the kitchen.
In 1966, an increasingly infirm Clara accidentally spilled a boiling pot of Matzoh Ball soup on Mrs. Washington while she was mopping the kitchen floor. The skin on Mrs. Washington's limbs was forever disfigured thereafter, and she never properly walked again. Clara claimed to her daughter that it was the wet floor from the mop that made her slip, but her daughter always suspected that Clara, in her sixties and showing every year of it on her once waif-like and now witch-like frame, was already nowhere near as strong or coordinated as she once was.
Perhaps Clara used the accident to explain an infirmity caused by the simple accumulation of years and cares. Clara was untouched by the scald of the soup, but she claimed that her arms and knees were bruised from the fall and was never the same thereafter. She also claimed to have a nagging pain in her right shoulder where the pot fell on her. She claimed that she sympathized with Mrs. Washington for how badly she was hurt by the fall, but perhaps she used her own pain to absolve herself of guilt.
Clara told Mr. Washington that his wife deserved whatever Clara could possibly give her, but that Clara couldn't give her much. Secretly, Clara always thought she'd paid Mrs. Washington far too much, and occasionally suspected Mrs. Washington of occasionally skimming from the cash register. She carefully explained to Mr. Washington that she couldn't possibly pay them anything more than something minimal when Mrs. Washington could no longer work? The hale and healthy Mr. Washington, perfectly slender, grey at the temples and the mustache, with eyes that bore into interlocutors with all too much understanding, nodded silently and sagely as he stood in front of Clara's paltry explanation; not so much as a word in response after the hello, and when she was finished, he walked out of the restaurant without saying so much as a goodbye. Clara promised the Washingtons a dollar twenty five a week for the rest of Mrs. Washington's life - a minimum wage for an employee who maximized Clara's life. She sent it in the mail every week until she died, but never got any confirmation that the Washingtons received it.
But let us now speak of Denarius’s older female friend. Denarius Zweig had never ridden a horse before meeting Annie-Jane Ivers, she’d never shot a gun, never played a hand of poker, never lit a fire, never slept under the open sky, never smoked a cigar or a joint, never skinned a deer. The boys all wondered where Clara’s daughter went when she wasn’t waiting tables, the answer was to let Annie-Jane Ivers show her the dank and steam and slit of the natural world.
Annie-Jane Ivers ran away from her father’s house in 1919, when she was only eleven - her mother perpetually bruised, her independence perpetually violated, her sister perpetually defeated. One month later, she became a permanent worker at Monsieur Marchand’s French Boarding House named Coquette. By fifteen, "Coquette" was the Madame. By seventeen, she was turned into to the street for asking that her older peers get better pay and treatment. Mr. Marchand explained that it was not because she asked once, but that she heard his explanation, yet insisted upon asking twice.
Over the next twenty years, Annie-Jane worked as a bandit, a banker, a blacksmith, a butcher, a bounty hunter, a cardshark, a cowherd, a deputy, a gold miner, a gunslinger, a homesteader, a marshal, a medicine showman, a missionary, a preacher, a railroad laborer, a rancher, a rustler, a schoolmarm, a shopkeeper, a snake oil salesman. No coquette she. You work overtime to survive, or survival works you over.
1948, forty years old, five-feet ten, her hair a bluish silver, her shoulders broad and hands as calloused as any laborer in America, her face wizened by crow’s feet and laugh lines and four packs a day, her skin prunishly bronzed like a person who hadn’t been indoors in a quarter of a century, her eyes with the mischievously rapid movements of a woman hard to impress and easy to amuse, she walks into Clara’s and after ten minutes, Denarius gets her to order the cheese blintzes. Annie-Jane likes them so much that she comes back for the cheese blintzes eight nights in a row. Denarius tries to get her to order something else: the babka, the bialy, the borscht, the brisket, the bulbitchki, but no, she wants more cheese blintzes.
With Annie-Jane’s barmaid humor and her scullery maid’s crudity, Clara’s daughter had never known it was possible to laugh like that. Clara did not approve of Annie-Jane’s loud ostentation, and warned her daughter not to get too friendly with this woman, but she couldn’t exactly tell a customer not to come who stayed for five hours at a time and ordered fifty dollars worth of blintzes every day.
In 1949, Annie-Jane acquires a hundred acre horsefarm. She invites both of the Zweigs to come out and see it. Clara, of course, says no for both her and her daughter. Her daughter, of course, calls Annie-Jane up and says that she’s going to come out there without her mother’s knowledge. The next day, she asks Fred Johansen out on a date for next Saturday, on Sunday, she tells Clara that the date went so well that they’re going to have a second date that day. Clara doesn’t approve of her daughter moving so fast, but better to be with Fred Johansen than with that freienfrau.
The next day, Clara’s daughter rides a horse, shoots a deer, smokes a cigar, plays poker. Fred Johansen pecked her on the cheek yesterday, but when it’s time to say goodbye until the plans they made next week, Annie-Jane Ivers bends her backwards over her knee and gives Clara’s daughter a realization she can never unrealize.
Saturdays with Fred and Steve, Sundays with Annie-Jane. That’s how it was most weekends for eighteen years. When Denarius needed an excuse to start spending nights under the stars of Ivers Farms, she tells Fred they’re getting married. Seven weeks later, they declare their love before God under His watchful nave at St. John’s Lutheran. Within five years, the Saturday mornings and afternoons are entirely Steve’s, the Saturday nights and Sundays are entirely Annie Jane’s. Fred simply goes into the garage with his short-wave radio and tunes up his Chevy.
The farmhands give enormous respect to Denarius, never making so much as a pass or flirt, and give her the nickname 'Denarius' because she always rode a black horse. She didn't understand the nickname, but she loved it all the same. Nearly two decades of blissful Sundays, sleeping next to Annie-Jane in fields of open California pampus, awoken by American goldfinches and Savannah sparrows, vigilantly ready for the dawn to welcome another Sunday of riding and hunting with a sunstroked and windswept face which, for eighteen years, Fred never asked once how she acquired.
Sometime around Memorial Day 1967, Denarius returns to Clara's for work on Monday, not windswept but ashen. The only person with little enough tact to ask her what's wrong is Steve, who gets the first of many an earful from his mother.
Steve never got the full story of what happened to Auntie-Jane except what he read thirty years later on microfilm - which was that the legendary Annie-Jane Ivers was found on a small minority of Pine Flat Lake's shoreline that wasn't on her property. Her wrists had been bruised from shackles and her legs chained to a weight that the coroner said had clearly fallen off. He also indicated the presence of multiple barbituates in her system that he speculated were ingested by dissolving in strong alcohol.
One find and simple day in the early summer when he was eating some Matzoh Ball soup, a drunken hand from the horse farm showed up and started screaming some variation that only imprinted itself within his seven-year-old brain as 'YOU DID IT! IT WAS YOU!' while waving a gun at screaming customers while Clara sobbed unreservedly. Denarius emerges thirty seconds later from the back with a rifle, loaded and cocked, and tells the farmhand they'll talk outside. The conversation from the window was animated, but the guy never showed his face around Steve's Mom again.
What happened was probably as simple as Annie-Jane growing sick after twenty years of Denarius living her weekday life as a devoted daughter to a repressed Jesus freak and devoted wife to a beach bum drip, and who knows what a person as hard-scrabble as Annie-Jane Ivers would have done to complete an objective denied for twenty years? As Steve read the microfilm, he began to remember Auntie Jane showing up at inopportune moments like when the family was at a Howard Johnson's, which would prompt an animated discussion twenty feet from the table, or showing up unannounced at their Pismo house, sometimes appearing from some distance in the window. Steve remembered thinking it was very strange when her mother ordered Auntie Jane out of the diner, "I just want to eat here. Remember when that was normal?" she'd say. Until then, Steve had never seen Auntie-Jane in the diner himself, but he thought it as odd as Auntie Jane that she was being ordered out.
It was at the 1967 fourth of July party of the Johanssen clan that Clara’s daughter decided to do something which surprised the hell out of everybody, particularly Fred. Steve was seven years old, and she decided he needed to go to Hebrew school. “But why?” Fred asked, not in frustration but in bewilderment. “Why does anybody need a Hebrew education in Pismo Beach?”
“That’s the problem. We have to leave Pismo.”
And just like that, they moved. Fred Johansen was the type that always got along. His entire family was in Pismo more than a hundred years earlier. Dozens of births and deaths and baptisms and confirmations, decades of toil and sacrifice and simmering family resentments that were worked through by the thousands upon thousands of little bonds of love that keep a family together through their worst periods to the moments that all families cherish - the holiday dinners, the birthday parties, the lazy afternoons on the beach, the relaxed Sunday barbecues, the drunken nights out that occasionally ended in throwing a punch or two, but always made up for the next day, the grass they smoked in the back yard. Yet it never occurred to Fred, or to any other Johansen, that such bonds had to work to be maintained, or could strain under the pressure of longer distance.
Whether or not those bonds strained, Fred kept his feelings to himself as he always did, and but for perhaps an extra whiskey before bed or a doobie after everybody was asleep, he was the same quiet picture of smiling amiability in middle age that he was when his wife forcefed him matzoh ball soup for the first time. If he disliked it, he kept it to himself, and sipped on matzoh ball soup at least once a week for the rest of his life.
So in 1967, Steve found a new job as an electrical engineer in LA, and the Johansens moved to the big city. Steve went to public school in Fairfax, and his mother, in truly theatrical Hollywood fashion, got a Bas Mitzvah at the closest Reform Temple, Beth Hoveh, and while she only knew a couple college acquaintances in LA, she made sure to turn the Bas Mitzvah into an event. She sent laminated invitations to every member of the Beth Hoveh and to all her estranged relatives. Worried that these relatives might disapprove of a woman being called to the Torah, she kept calling their houses, talking their ears off for forty-five minutes at a time with whatever subject she could think up, and boaring her way into renewed ties and friendship with them until she was sure they’d relent and RSVP ‘Yes.’ The reception was not held at the synagogue, but at Nate n’Al’s Deli in Beverly Hills, near where her relatives lived.
Fred wasn’t the type who thought much about money. He didn’t spend much, and there wasn’t much he wanted to spend. As far as luxuries went, he had a small boat he built himself, a couple rifles for hunting and a fishing pole, a wet bar in his basement, the 1952 Chevy 3100 pickup that he drove and repaired himself for forty years, and the zither his grandfather, Olaf Erikssen, taught him to play. Any luxury more grandiose than their slightly larger than average 3 bedroom house would not have occurred to him to buy.
But from the moment they were married in 1955, Fred’s wife made sure that every cent not devoted to home or car maintenance was tied up in Treasury Bonds and stocks: GE, GM, Coke, Chrysler, the Seven Sister oil companies, Conoco Energy, Boeing, Campbell Soup, Kellogg, IBM, Whirlpool, Proctor and Gamble, Detroit Steel, Studebaker, Collins Radio, National Sugar Refining, Zenith Electronics… Some of these investments went bad, but of course, most of them paid off quite spectacularly. All you had to do was buy the stock, not touch it for forty years, and you’d have enough money to feed a hundred generations of hearty Johansen folk who wouldn’t have to ever work again.If Fred ever realized that he was a multi-millionaire, he never gave much indication. Steve didn’t realize it either until his mother died and her will left him 18 million dollars in liquid assets.
From the moment Steve turned seven in 1967, his mother watched his grades like a hawk; gave him extra math problems over meals, schlepped him across town for violin lessons, bought him books with no subtle pressure that he should read, signed him up for every extra-curricular, occupied his empty moments with chores around the house.
Every Saturday from the move until Steve was thirteen, the two of them would go every Saturday to whatever movies were playing at the Chinese Theater. Different movies played there every week, usually in double features, from cartoons to subtitled foreign films. No matter how adult or violent, no matter how risque, no matter how intellectually challenging or B-movie dumb, the ritual was inviolate. Steve and his Mom would sit through it together. It was their ‘thing’, a way that Steve’s Mom could show that she trusted him, and perhaps an unspoken apology for driving him so hard.
Steve eventually had to become a teenager like all teenagers, and became too old to regularly get caught with his Mom every Saturday. Sometimes they’d go, but Steve would usually try to get out of it. By the Saturday of Steve's Bar Mitzvah, their movies became just another chore his mother pressured him to complete.
Pressure was Denarius's adult life: yelling at Steve and Fred, complaining about them to cousins whom she knew tolerated her rather than liked her, loafing around a house with the soaps on the television while her husband was at work and come home to meals that were a pale shadow of what her mother could offer when they visited her in Pismo, let alone Fred's mother. The weekend smoking habit of Ivers Farms became a two-pack a day habit in Los Angeles, and Steve would complain endlessly about how the house would wreak and show his mother every newspaper article he found about how cigarettes can kill. His mother would simply shrug, and on this issue would ask for the privacy she never gave Steve, and Steve knew better than to ever point out the hypocrisy.
When Steve got a girlfriend in Junior High, she banned the girl from their house and staked out near the girl's house in case Steve went over there. They had to meet in secret, but Lisa tired of the sneaking around and eventually went with the running back of Jr. High football team, Mike Johnson. When high school came around and Steve was a lanky six-foot nerd with aviator glasses and a too large nose, and in any event kept too busy by extra-ciricculars for romance, his mother would question him pointedly about why he didn't have a girlfriend and what he could do to make himself more attractive to women.
The first true explosion between Steve and Denarius had to wait until Steve was eighteen, when Steve's Mom insisted that he not study at the film school and get a practical major that could prepare him for work. "You knew that I wanted to go to the film school and you let me apply there so I would stay close to home. Now you tell me I can't go. You just want to keep running my life!" he said in a rare moment of drama and assertion against his mother that ended with the punctuation of a slammed door to his room, a Hollywood-like gesture never seen before or since in the Johansen household. This all-too-rare moment of assertion from Steve was perceptive, more perceptive than Denarius would have guessed, but long experience taught him his mother's motives all too well. Of course this was her motive, and she didn't see what was wrong with it. Parents are there to guide their children. She didn't want Steve to turn out a wild animal like Annie-Jane, and what was the point of having children of she couldn't do better for him than she or Steve's family ever had. Children may disagree with the means, but they'll thank you in the end, and they'll know that you did what you did for their own good. For the week before college, Steve locked himself in his room and never came out. He snuck out through his window for dinner at McDonalds, and of course Denarius noticed, but against her better judgement, she took Fred's rare piece of advise to let him go.
Denarius was not impressed with Carmen. She was as impressed as anyone else with the stunning beauty that now hung around the Johansen household, but Steve kept telling his mother how brilliant his fiance was, yet Denarius never saw the brilliance for herself. Carmen was quiet, she dressed a little trashy, she was helpful when it came to serving and doing the dishes, and Denarius was grateful for that. When she heard Carmen play the piano, she was vaguely impressed, but she attributed the wrong notes to a lack of practice and work ethic that was in fact due to neurological trauma.
Steve did not dare tell his mother the truth of Carmen's condition until they were married and she was pregnant with Clarissa - knowing that his mother would accuse him of throwing away his future for a woman with such a serious condition, and no doubt would inveigh that Carmen brought these conditions upon herself due to her innate sluttishness.
But Steve's mother was in fact more understanding of it than he thought she would be. Burying her head in her hands and offering immediately to pay for any surgeries - the kind of debt which Steve would do anything to avoid. She explained, quite matter of factly, that had she known she would have advised him against the marriage in no uncertain terms and instantly knew that that was why Steve waited to tell her, but Carmen is now one of us and we take care of each other.
For years thereafter, Steve waited for his mother's explosion on Carmen which never came. His mother exploded plenty, but instead of using his marriage to Carmen as an example of his irresponsibility, Denarius would almost inevitably take Carmen's side - or at least what she thought to be Carmen's side: when Steve embarked on his video store venture, "You have an unwell wife to take care of and you're going off to run a business that everybody knows will be a flop???" When Steve had a second daughter, she exploded again, not even because of his recent eviction but because "You're going to subject an orthopedically challenged wife to another pregnancy???"
Denarius would note with alarm Carmen's every new slurring of speech, every slightly hesitant step, every sentence not finished, and would offer to come help around the house however often they needed. Steve and Carmen never took up Denarius's offer, but during the eighties she would show up unannounced for two evenings every week during which she'd insist on helping to straighten the house and cook dinner, and happily watched the grandchildren during those Saturday nights when Steve and Carmen went out with friends. During the eighties, she would occasionally try to get Steve and Carmen to come with the kids on Friday nights for Shabbos dinner, but they would inevitably leave after an hour-and-a-half, explaining to Steve's Mom that they had to get the kids to bed and the kids inevitably wake up in the car if they fall asleep first at her house.
Even when Steve's mother was at her most furious with him for his video store venture, she would call him most weekdays and talked to him for forty-five minutes. Steve would roll his eyes to his partner or the rare customer he had to handle, but he would always take the call and answered any questions she posed within the paragraphs of verbiage and shul gossip with an undertone of indulgent irony.
Fred, whose pot belly grew exponentially after the move to LA, died of a heart attack in the winter of '93, a few months from retirement and the beginning of the whirlwind vacations Denarius was planning. About a month after he died were the LA riots, during which she braved the whirlwind of violence and traffic to come directly and unannounced to Steve's house with a rifle and twenty pounds of dried goods to make sure that everybody was safe and well-fed.
It was shortly after the riots that Denarius noted a difference in how she was being received by Steve. The realization that she might be shut out of her son's life dawned upon her in gradual steps: pride her son was finally working hard, bemusement the work never let up, suspicion she was being avoided, alarm she was being shut out, devastation at the loss of her son.
It wasn't a total shutout. How could Steve completely shut his mother out of his life? But four calls a week became one call a week. Forty-five minutes became a half-hour, zealously guarded; or so Steve's mother believed. After five weeks, Steve's mother began to time him to see how long it would take before he would say he had to go. The goodbye would take five minutes as she inevitably recounted to him all the things she wanted him to do that week. On week six, the stopwatch said 29:35; week seven, 28:46; week eight, 27:54; week nine, 26:43, week ten, 25:37;, week eleven, 24:45. Once their talk time slipped below 25 minutes, she was positive she was being avoided.
Steve's mother resolved to redouble her commitment to her son and his family, she showed up unannounced at Steve's gate three evenings during the workweek instead of her customary two. She would show up at precisely five in the afternoon with dinner and dessert in tow, just as their nanny was bringing the kids home through the door from school, so that the nanny wouldn't clog her grandchildren's arteries every day with Pepian, a spicy Guatemalan stew with all its fried cornmeal and shredded pork.
One day, after Steve and Carmen came home from babysitting, she was talking to Steve after the kids and Carmen went to bed, and said she wanted to talk to him about how often she came to the house. Steve also wanted to talk about it. Denarius wanted to come over four times a week, Steve wanted her to come over two.
Steve: The kids need to concentrate on schoolwork.
Mother: Is my help for them not good enough?
Steve: It's fine, they just think you're too strict.
Mother: They think I'm too strict? Did you ever tell them how I was with you?
Steve: Let's not use that metric.
Mother: What metric? They have to get good grades and they've inherited their father's lazy gene.
Steve: I don't want to make my kids lives more stressful than they already are.
Mother: What's stressful about them?
Steve: Cleo's miserable in school.
Mother: I'm sure she is, you're letting her gain weight hand over fist. Of course, if you didn't move out to Orange County with all these shallow people she might not have such a problem.
Steve: Mom, kids are kids, and I just want to let my kids have some fun if they can.
Mother: They can have fun and still learn some discipline.
Steve: Yeah but Cleo says you're raising your voice whenever she puts down a wrong answer. You don't have to do that, do you?
Mother: Math is important! It saved your life!
Steve: Math is important, but it's not so important that you have to make Cleo cry.
Mother: I didn't mean to make her cry. She just wasn't paying attention! She needed to stay focused!
Steve: Look Mom, you just need to be a little nicer. To her, to us. Sometimes I think you're always under a lot of stress because you're lonely, maybe it's time to start going out and meeting new people. Have you thought about dating? It's been more than two years..
Mother: (cutting Steve off) ..I'm not lonely! I'm just taking care of my responsibilities!
Steve: Mom, sometimes I think you don't need to be so responsible.
Mother: Who's gonna be responsible if I'm not?
Steve: We can be perfectly responsible when you're not here.
Mother: And where's the evidence of that?
Steve: That's unfair Mom.
Mother: You do nothing but put your happiness first. You try to go to film school rather than get a real degree, I have to make you go into finance. You leave your accounting to operate a video store that everybody knows will go belly up, and I have to find an apartment for your family and pay for your wife's surgeries out of pocket.
Steve: Come on Mom, you were already paying for those before I got the video store.
Mother: That's supposed to make me feel better?!?
Steve: I'm sorry you feel that way Mom but nobody's stopping you from being a little more selfish. Everybody wants you to be happy.
Mother: I'm happy when I'm with you and your family! I'm happy at my Temple and what would make me really happy is if you came to temple more often with the girls!
Steve: We can talk about that another time Mom.
Mother: Always another time. You always put me off.
Steve: When have I ever put you off? I see you four times a week! We talk on the phone all the time!
Mother: You barely talk to me on the phone anymore! We used to talk four times a week for forty-five minutes. Now you can only talk once a week and you can't even talk a half-hour! I timed it!
Steve: You timed it?
Mother: I had the suspicion that you were trying to get me off the phone after a half-hour, so I've timed it for the last five weeks, and you're not letting the conversation go more than a half-hour.
Steve: Do you have any idea how absurd that sounds?
Mother: Do you have any idea how absurd it is that we talk so little anymore?
Steve: I'm hard at work, I'm making money, I have a family, it's exactly what you always wanted from me. Even if it's true, who cares? We still see each other four times a week!
Mother: So you're deliberately hanging up on me after a half-hour?
Steve: I have to work! What's the big deal?
Mother: I don't have anybody else! I've got my friends from Temple and a few cousins. Who else am I supposed to talk to?
Steve: I thought you said you weren't lonely.
Mother: I'm not lonely if I'm doing things for people I care about!
Steve: Are you saying that the things you do for us are really for you?
Mother: How can you say that?!
Steve: I'm just saying that's what it sounds like you're saying.
Mother: The things I do for you are for you! Family is my biggest priority!
Steve: It's mine too!
Mother: Is it really? You spend less time with your children than I do!
Steve: I'm at work till late, things have to get done! Carmen is with them, and whatever she can't do anymore the nanny does.
Mother: The nanny does... That's a nice thing a person does whose priority is family, pawning them off on a stranger because your wife can't properly look after her children.
Steve: That's really not fair Mom. Emely is great with the kids!
Mother: A mother should be the one looking after her kids, and if she can't because you chose to marry somebody with a mental handicap, the grandma should look after them!
Steve: Mom that's a terrible thing to say about Carmen and I'd really like you to apologize.
Mother: All I said was the truth. Carmen is mentally handicapped and you chose to marry her anyway. And now we all have to sacrifice to make up for what she can't do.
Steve: Mom, I hired a nanny to help Carmen out. Nobody is asking you to sacrifice anything.
Mother: I want to sacrifice. I just wish you didn't make me.
Steve: I'm not making you!
Mother: Of course you're making me! You married a stupid woman with a pretty face and now I have to look after her!
Steve: Carmen is not stupid and she's not just a pretty face. Carmen has, is, and will always be the woman of my dreams. She's my reason for living! What was I supposed to do? Not marry her?
Mother: Yes! That's exactly what you're supposed to not do! Do you honestly think your Dad was the person I dreamed about? You honestly think I wanted to spend forty years talking cars and zithers? But your father was a good man, a sweet man who did everything he was ever asked to do! I married him because I knew he would give his kids the best possible life, and he did. And what did you do with the life he gave you? You use the best possible life to marry a pretty girl who's mentally retarded!"
Steve, as ever, never really challenged his mother. He simply indulged her until she decided to leave, and then resolved that he would never see her again.
The Johanson family, like 4 million other California families of the upper-class in the 90's, lived in a gated community. For the first week, Steve simply instructed security to not let his mother car into the community. He knew this plan would only last a week until his mother harangued the security guard into letting her in - so he’d have to be bribed, but she could also find a way to climb the gate. Living on a six acre property with a massive garage in their 5,400 square foot mansion, Steve and Carmen had barely ever met their neighbors. Their neighbors might have seen Steve's mother's Ford Taurus station wagon pull into the driveway, but even if neighbors saw her pull in, her car would disappear behind a twisted, winding, downwardly sloping driveway into a veritable forest of sugar pines before the car would disappear from the pines into a garage that could hold five cars.
So that first week, Steve went door to door to all sixty houses of his development to instruct his neighbors to beware of a high-strung woman in her early sixties who was stalking his family, claiming to be his mother. The neighbors all seemed like very nice people, many of whom invited him into their house for an hour of conversation. The Jewish couples would serve him coffee and cake, the black couples would serve him wine and cheese, the goyisher wives would get him a beer. They were all lovely people, and he never socialized with any of them ever again.
Surely enough, Steve's mother was spotted by neighbors, whom of course had no idea who she was - how could they if Steve swore she wasn’t whom she claimed she was? She’d inevitably climbed the gate when they spotted her; her pants were full of soot, her shirt torn at the belly, she was bleeding from her arms. She was detained by the police as a vagrant. She called Steve to bail her out, but Steve would not answer. She was held in a cell at the police station for four days before the Synagogue Rabbi posted bail.
Steve also left very specific phone instructions. He instructed his secretary to tell his mother he wasn't in however many times she called. For seven weeks, she called every hour of the workday, on the hour, to ask if he was back yet. In three years, he never gave his mother his unlisted private office number, yet after two weeks of his not returning calls, his mother located the number and demanded from the first sentence why he was refusing to speak to her. Steve hung up immediately and left his phone off the hook for the next nine months.
The daughters were strictly told to never answer the phone; not that it mattered, because Elizabeth was four, and Cleo had no friends to call. The nanny was told to simply hang up if it were Steve's mother. And Carmen, by the way, was having so much neurological trouble by this point that she rarely remembered how to use a phone.
After four months of calling every day, and thirteen attempts to get onto Steve's property, Denarius gave up calling. A month later, she found out she had stage 3 lung cancer. Seven months after that, she had died without telling Steve anything. Her synagogue supervised the funeral, and there were no mourners for whom to hold a shiva house, so her shul and cousins davened mincha and maariv at her cemetery, shoveled some dirt onto her grave, and went home.
It was only when the executor came to the house that Steve found out. His mother was dead and not only had he inherited eighteen million dollars. Steve was already worth $11 million, it's not like this news made him eat better than he ever did before, but how in God's name did Steve, whose every possession the bank repo-ed less than a decade earlier, now stand at a net worth of $29 million?
He might have required every penny to get Carmen through what followed. Steve’s mother died in 1995, and in 1995, Carmen had the five-thousand word vocabulary of a six year old, and not all in the same language. By 2000, a neurologist estimated her vocabulary to be the 800 word lexicon of the average three-year old - she’d forgotten the names of her spouse and parents and children, but at least had some dim idea that some sort of bond connected them. By early 2004, her vocabulary was down to 50 words and she had no idea whom anyone was. Neurologists assured Steve that only an extraordinary brain could have declined so thoroughly yet so slowly. Emely, a certified nurse before she left Guatemala, became the house’s lady; driving children to school and Carmen to medical appointments, observing and recording Carmen’s decline very closely, talking on the phone with doctors for at least an hour every day, bathing and dressing Carmen, administering medications to both Carmen and Clarissa with an exact schedule, trying to provide the emotional support to Steve’s frustrating daughters that their given family did not, administering physical therapy to Carmen, cooking and cleaning for the family and house, and marrying Steve the year after Carmen’s passing.
Yet through her entire decline, Carmen’s ability for singing remained undimmed, and for hours at a time, she would tirelessly sing melodies from their bedroom like a lark - the only pasttime life would still allow her. Even the option to walk was almost completely unavailable to her. Doctors assured them that any attempt at physical therapy for Carmen could only put her body in more danger, but Emely refused to believe so and attempted to administer it on her own, which of course prove the doctor’s prognosis exactly right. The simple act of movement was so dangerous that Carmen was only allowed to walk to the kitchen for meals and for regular trips to the bathroom - which she eventually could not notify anyone about in advance. Soon, even that proved too cumbersome. By 2000, Carmen mostly had to be tied to bed lest she break a bone while moving too strenuously. She was strapped by the arms and legs until a day the next year when she forgot why she was being strapped down, and repeatedly writhed so terribly that she managed to break most of her extremities and dislocate both a shoulder and a hip - all of which would of course cause her to cease her singing and howl like a flayed wolf. For the rest of her life, she would have to spend all but roughly 20 minutes every day strapped down to her bed, unable to move any part of her body.
Steve, while no Carmen, was musically far from illiterate, having not only been to more than his share of rock concerts and knowing the same half-century of top 40 hits that we all do, but also playing the violin and subscribing for years to the Los Angeles Philharmonic. And while he could sometimes place the melodies she sang, he could never place most of them. He always wondered why Carmen never composed her own music, but it would seem that his wife, wrenchingly robbed of movement and memory, finally found her own voice as a composer. For two years, he placed a tape recorder next to her bed to take down all the melodies - nursing a secret hope that Clarissa, during a period when she felt more forgiving to her father, would turn her mother’s songs into fully fledged and arranged music.
Steve and Emely began their affair in 1999. Emely was a few years younger than Steve and Carmen, no great beauty, thin and pinched with eyebrows that seemed to be ruffled in a perpetual scowl, but nevertheless attractively petite and swarthily complexioned much as Carmen was, but whereas Steve ruled Carmen, Emely ruled Steve. It was Emely who convinced Steve to throw Clarissa out of the house in 1999 when she was caught smoking weed in her room, yet again. It was Emely who took Elizabeth to evangelical church and Bible study.
The affair began as an occasional thing, a surrender to temptation which happened roughly once every six weeks by two people working in close quarters in a big house in which they knew they knew where to go so they wouldn’t be caught. As Steve, a multi-millionaire boss with hundreds of employees and plenty of time off, began to do even his work from home, it happened more and more often in the middle of the day while Elizabeth was at school, sometimes just a room or two over from where Carmen was strapped down to her bed.
In March 2003, Emely let slip something - Steve knew it was a test of loyalty, and he was too dependent upon her to say no. Emely was tired, she’d been administering to Carmen for more than ten years, she’d been everything and through everything for Steve’s family, and there’s nothing she did for Carmen which an up-to-date professional couldn’t do better. Steve, as his father before him, simply shrugged and gave in to the whim of the woman who worried about his life so that he wouldn’t.
In May, Emely placed Carmen in Solheim Lutheran Home in Eagle Rock, twenty minutes from their house. A young woman who nearly became world famous for her genius was placed in a memory care ward with people twice her age whose sole memories came from an era before her parents even came to America. But her constant singing was such that even if the other patients couldn’t hear her, their children certainly could. After four different complaints about the noise, Steve was asked to take Carmen out of their facility.
In December, Emely placed Carmen in St. John of God Retirement and Care Center in South LA, a full fifty minute drive from the house. A still beautiful forty-five year old woman without a single gray hair on her head was placed in an elder care facility with white-haired and no-haired people twice her age, and looked after by orderlies half her age. The next April, Steve and Emely came to visit, Carmen was, as ever, singing, and looking perfectly beatific as she immersed herself in her music, but while Steve was walking back from Carmen’s bathroom he noticed something slightly awry. When Emely was ready to leave, he asked Emely if he could have a moment alone with Carmen. Emely was hardly in a position to say no, though she certainly made a mental note of it. Steve immediately went over to the trashcan, and could not fail to recognize what was in front of him without having to pick it up: a magnum condom wrapper. Steve knew instantly that Emely had to take her out of this facility immediately.
Steve was too shocked to respond to Emely’s questions in the car with more than one-word answers, which Emely noted with growing alarm. In their now bedroom, after Elizabeth went to say her prayers and go to bed, Steve told Emely what he saw and what they had to do. Emely, relieved to find out what was bothering him, immediately told him he was being ridiculous and to forget about it. It couldn’t possibly be a used condom. Steve, however, was adamant - a fight proceeded during which Steve wanted to take Emely back to the facility. He swore up and down that it was a Magnum. Emely asked him what he saw, he said he saw the M and part of the a - Emely assured him it was a candy bar wrapper - a Mars or a Milky Way. She also reminded Steve that he had an important meeting with a car dealership in the morning for which a twenty or thirty million dollars could be on the line and salesmen all around California whose business were assembled, so he badly needed sleep.
The next morning, Steve called from the car to postpone that meeting and drove to the facility. No secretary was at the door, no nurse on the wing, no patient in the hall. It seemed and sounded like an empty facility. From the moment he came in, all he heard was Carmen’s singing. She was singing, over and over again, the Gregorian melody to Alma Redemptoris Mater which she played on that church organ in Bogota, and whose story Carmen’s mother and father recounted to Steve so many occasions. He heard it everywhere, in the lobby, in the elevator, on the wing, and in her room. She smiled with the smile of the blessed as she sang it. The trashcan had been emptied, and all that was left for Steve was paused in awed admiration for her final performance of this goddess at whose temple he was granted the life-justifying purpose of being its sole worshipper. After she was done, she sang it again, and again, and again, six times through Alma Redemptoris Mater. And in a manner that no one can know how many elder care patients have been euthanized, Steve placed a pillow on her head for her seventh rendition, and until she drew her last breath and passed without so much as a mild convulsion in struggle. On her seventh rendition, she rested. A week later, Steve and Emely quietly buried Carmen in a church funeral, and in contradiction to her parents' wishes, Carmen was buried in an evangelical cemetery. A week later, Steve and Emely were having dinner at China Garden Restaurant on Brentwood Blvd. And Steve reluctantly had to say hello to an old acquaintance of his from Beth Hoveh Hebrew School sitting two tables over. His overenthusiastic friend, sitting not just with his overweight wife but his entire extended family, was greeted with a ten minute explanation of exactly how they knew each other from Hebrew school and an explanation to the entire family of every minute detail about their old hijinks, the peculiarties of the teachers, and updates on what everybody from Hebrew school is now doing with their lives. When Steve was spotted, his old friend greeted him not as "Steve" but as as "Shmuel!", which was how he was known in Hebrew school. Steve replied to him: "Great to see you, but it's just Steve now."