Saturday, August 16, 2014

#10. How I got here. Be true to your UCLA film school

#10.  How I got there: Be true to your UCLA Film School along with some dine-out characters.       
I thought it might be nice to take a little breather from all the Hollywood and screenplay stuff to tell you where it started with me.

I have loved the movies since the beginning.

In the late Forties and early Fifties, my best friend Mike Preston (recently departed) and I would walk home home from the Tryon movie theatre on Saturday afternoon re-staging the fist-fights we'd just seen in the roaring oeuvres of The Durango Kid, Lash LaRue, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry (even though he sang too much), and Randolph Scott (oops -- who knew?!).  We did it complete with sound effects and bush crashing falls.  I can still do the galloping horse effect.

Then, in the mid fifties, with dates, we would hold forth in movie theaters across the Carolinas, adding dialogue and sundry remarks.  Besties for 66 years, my job was to make Mikey and the rest of the audience laugh, no matter how loving or sad or horrifying the actual movie was.  To all of you who might have been somewhere in those theaters, my deepest apologies.

 In college from 1958-62, I saw a few movies that certainly peaked my interest.  Like "Sparticus," an early Stanley Kubrick Dalton Trumbo film about the Roman Gladiator Rebellion.  It had everything: spray tanned warriors fighting Kirk Douglas in vain, heart breaking shots of Jean Simmons, hysterical shots of Peter Ustinov, leftie politics, huge battle scenes, and hungry male erotic moments between Tony Curtis and Lawrence Olivier.  "I am Antoninus, singer of songs and I think you dropped your soap, my lord."  Say what?!

And "The Seventh Seal" although with no background in the classics, all that smarty symbolism was lost on me.  I just liked Von Sidow's haircut.

My first real cinematic wakeup call was "Last Year at Marienbad" by Robbe Grillet and Alain Resnais.   I didn't pack the intellectual gear to understand it but at one point, I was so stunned and gripped by its imagery, I jumped up and howled.  Then, from behind me I heard: Sit down, asshole!  Um, okay, okay.  Sorry.

But where my hard core addiction to movies really started was the mid-to-late Sixties at the UCLA Film School.

I got there in 1964.  Here's what was happening in that world: Vietnam, protests, commitment free love (as opposed to the Fifties sex-free love), 250,000 clear channel Mexican watts of Wolfman Jack rock and roll on XERB served up with weed and sunshine.  How could you go wrong?


After scoping out the film school's honchos like Caroll Ballard (already nominated for an Academy Award for his documentary "Harvest"), Francis Coppola (he hadn't gone 'Ford' yet but had already made two low budget features and what was it with these girl first names?), Nietzsche quote-spouting wild man Dennis Jacob, and teachers like Hugh Gray, Jean Renoir, Claude Jutra, and  Joseph von Sternberg.

I had never even seen a movie camera before, had no idea what synch sound was; the whole thing seemed impossibly improbable.

So I lit out for the smaller hills of student theatre, looking for more familiar ground, something I knew a little more about.  A very little it turned out.  Because they had their own honchos.  On their own mountains.  I was misinformed.

Ten years earlier, Carol Burnett had trod those boards; the alumni list was quaking: James Dean,   Gary Lockwood, Tom Skerritt, George Takei.  That year, 1964, Bonnie Franklin was in residence.  Rob Reiner.  John Rubinstein.  Tim McIntyre.

Every Sunday morning, the atheist theatre geeks played touch football in Beverly Glen park with starlets like Ryan O'Neal, his gorgeous wife Joanna Moore and their one-year-old topless toddler Tatum along with several USC and UCLA jocks drafted by the Pittsburg Steelers and a few times  Elvis Presley.  He moved pretty good for a pudge.  Thangka, thangka verr much.            

So falling back into old patterns, I auditioned for plays but, unlike New York, began to actually get parts, the best being Don Quixote in Tennessee Williams' "El Camino Real."  Even better, I did fairly well and made new friends.

Then one day, I got a summons from Colin Young, the head of the Motion Picture Division.  The bearded Scotsman looked at me, I looked at him.  "We took a film school gamble on you, Chow Puppy," he said.  "So far, it's not exactly paying off.  So: less plays, more movies.  That's all."

After my little hitch in the Dog-Marines, I got good at recognizing orders.  And one good way to reintegrate a life is often through work.  So I got a graduate student job as one of the projectionists in building 3H, the film school movie theatre.  In those days, nearly the entire film division was housed in WWII, un-airconditioned, mal-heated, nearly collapsing wooden buildings that teetered on the uninhabitable.  For some reason, we loved them.

We thought the new buildings were pussy.

Graduate school was a real eye-opener for me.  Every course I took was fun because it was all in pursuit of an MFA in film; film history, film editing, cinematography, film sound, film workshops, what's not to love?  And here are some moments from those days.


I had two great camera teachers: firey Bill Adams who never let anything upset him.  "You have to learn to laugh as the camera goes over the side," he once said.  In other words, it's only a movie.  You're not curing cancer.  Fill out the insurance papers, get another camera, and shoot it again.  Keep going.  To me, this was one of the great Life Lessons, just those two words.

Keep.  Going.

And there was the great Joseph Von Sternberg.  I was assigned to help him get set up at the start of his year.  What do I call you, sir?  "Call me 'Joe'" he said.  Anxious to pass on his secrets, he never seemed to stand on worshipful ceremony.

One afternoon I watched him reset the various lights for one of our advanced students.  As we looked on, agog, the old man walked around, narrating what he was doing and why in the clearest, simplest terms.  "There," he said when he had rehung the last lamp.  "Is that all right?"

All fucking right?!  He had transformed a more or less acceptable scene into a perfect black and white Caravaggio.

'Joe,' huh?  I believe I'll stick with 'Sir.'


We all knew and loved fellow student Mamo Clark.  She was from Hawaii and years before had been an actress.  But in '64 she was in her mid-fifties maybe, her beautiful skin weathered and lined by years in the tropical sun.

This moment happened when we were looking at a pristine 35mm print of "Mutiny on the Bounty."  Harvey was projecting, so I got to sit out front, right next to Mamo as it turned out.  As Gable and Franchot Tone were playing their scenes with two south sea island babes, I realized that (I believe) Tone's girlfriend was MAMO!  Right there, in her twenties, a vision in palm fronds and puka shells.  Jesus H.  It's Mamo.  Suddenly, we were all aware of it.  Applause began to build.  I looked over at her; tears were running down her face.  Pretty soon, a standing O.  And then, it was over.  At the movie's end, there she was in the cast titles.  Our Mamo.  Who knew?  I mean, who ever knows anything?

A year later there was Sister Mary Twiggy, a beautiful, happening, politically active Maryknoll nun who introduced many of us to a lifetime direction.  She once said all you need for a revolution was a Big Idea, a mimeograph machine, and a Swingline stapler.  We gave her the honorary last name.

One afternoon again in Film History class, we were watching the 1933 Merian Cooper/Willis O'Brien version of "King Kong" with Fay Wray and Bruce Cabot.  In the loving, oddball seduction scene with Wray sitting in Kong's huge hand, one of our best and weirdest students Felix Venable (more on him later) shouted out, "She's littler than Kong's cock!"

Don't look at me!  He said it.


For some years UCLA film geeks moved through the process learning to edit on "Gunsmoke."  Colin Young had made a deal with fellow Brit, Philip Leacock  who was then producing the highly rated, famous TV western.  As I recall, we were all given the same basics: One gunfight scene's worth of 16mm film uncut dailies, the uncut sound takes and the hardware tools to cut it.  Like gang synchronizers, trim bins, winders, splicers, viewers, and sometimes even one of the venerated Movieolas!  Oooo.

First we had to synch up the sound and film; a task that came more easily to some than others.  I was 'others.'

Then it was our job to cut that scene as we saw fit.  There were enough takes, many different angles to do it dozens of ways.  So those days and nights were filled with swearing, heat, the sound of flying winders and the slap of the Movieola brake handle.  But mostly what I remember is actor John Anderson saying to James Arness "So you really are a Marshal." After nearly sixty years, I hear this line in my dreams.  Like many there, I learned how to cut a scene in a fairly straightforward manner, a triumph of the uninspired.

When it came time to show our versions up on the big screen, one stood out.  Richard Chen, an impossibly tall Chinese graduate student, cut his "Gunsmoke" on nothing but reaction shots.  You heard everything including So you really are a marshal but never saw the source; his scene played out on others' faces.  It was odd but utterly compelling; a lesson that a straight approach may be the fastest, maybe even the clearest...but not necessarily the best way home.


Even though I projected some of these, most in 35mm, I can't quite remember them.  The first one was twenty-four straight hours.  We showed old movies, new movies, studio movies, independents, some not even released yet!

Due to the wiles and secret phone calls of our film booker and my boss Gary Essert who had major connections with every studio in town, we saw "Dr. Zhivago" at MGM before Omar Sharif did.  We did a twelve hour marathon of nothing but trailers, previews.  It was the hardest, fastest projection we ever did; a thread-up and reel change every two-and-a-half minutes!  Everyone smoked in those days and we were screaming hippies, eating mostly cheese burgers, pizza and onion rings.  After these marathons, the projection booth smelled like a toxic dump site under a light coat of patchouli.


It was the longest short month of my life.  Stirling was producing and directing, Charlie was shooting, Kit was doing sound with Bruce, and I was along to schlep and do everything else.  It was to be an hour long documentary on the 'successes' of a USAID government program to help foreign small businesses flourish on the theory that then they'd want to become an America-loving democracy.  It was 1965; we were more naive then.

I never worked so hard to do so little.  From one end of poverty stricken Brazil to the other, most of the 'small businesses' we were to shoot had either moved or failed.  One abandoned tiny factory presented such a good photo op that we had to wait a day for some kind of chemical to be delivered that would smoke prolifically when ignited.  From a distance, it looked like the factory was chugging away, 'smoke' billowing from its stack.

It seemed we were broken down every week with malfunctioning equipment or seized and/or lost film.  Most of the time was spent in the dark interior of the huge country, in tiny rooms featuring on-and-off electricity, no showers, mosquitoes so big that when you killed them, they left a quarter-sized blood splatter, and only a single toilet down the hall.  We spent most of this off time trying to fix the Arri or the Nagra tape recorder or answering questions about the Watts race riots in L.A. which we knew nothing about because when they'd happened, we'd been in transit.

Here's what I learned from that trip: When you are making a movie that Steve McQueen is not in, for the U.S. government, in an unstable country in a paranoid time and you do not speak the language and don't really know what the hell you are doing, either drink a lot or bring enough reading material to get you through.

I ended up in late evenings, reading aloud "The Tin Drum" by Gunter Grass, a horrifyingly great book and a big hit with the crew.  God, I was glad to get home.  As for our 'mission,' I don't think I ever saw the finished film.


Felix Venable was a hilarious, sneaky genius with the morals of a dumpster cat.  Back in San Francisco, he'd been employed (proudly) as an FBI informant, mixing good info with bad, selling it to the highest bidding careerist agent.  Felix made one of the most memorable films of that time: "LeS ange Dormant."  LsD...get it, get it?  It was hypnotically beautiful and totally original.  He peaked with that film and was lost for a while until he found...

...James Douglas Morrison, odd duck from Florida, the young son of a U.S. Navy Admiral.  Jim had discovered film, dope, girls, and rock and roll pretty much in the same year.  And you remember that face, once the baby fat fell away, oh my god, that face.  The resultant apotheosis was a group called The Doors.

Loyal and true believers, we followed them from little gig to bigger gig, from The London Fog to the Whiskey a Go Go when they famously played with Van Morrison's 60s seminal group, Them.  The Doors had something magic from the first time they took the stage.  And nothing like "The End" had been heard or seen: "He took a face from the ancient gallery and he walked on down the hall.  He came to a door..."  Much of their creative force came from keyboardist

Ray Manczarek, organist and south side Chicago jazz pianist.  He still had the "c" in his name back then.  I remember working on Ray's 171 graduation film called "Induction Day."  We were shooting in some little Santa Monica apartment and Ray, encountering a difficult lighting situation, sent me to fetch his faculty advisor, a Brit/Canadian film maker named Terence McCartney Filgate.  I found him out in his car, reading an article in the new "Cahiers du Cinema" about himself!  Eating my grin, I asked him if the article was any good.  He tossed the magazine in the back.  "No."

Neal Cassady wasn't a UCLA student.  He was, of course, one of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters and Jack Kerouac's famous burned out inspiration for "On the Road."  Cassady was going to be the subject of one of our student's Mexican adventure film.  They borrowed my Ducati motorcycle (a five speed Diana, the fastest production 250 CC in the world at that time) for their trip, Cassady's last as it turned out.

One night down there, under the stars and an inspirational miasma of cannabis and Seconal, someone threw out the open challenge to count the railroad ties from their encampment to San Miguel.  Along with how many donuts it would take to fill the Grand Canyon -- that sort of night.  The next morning, Cassady was gone.  Apparently, they found him three days later, near death, twenty miles down the track.  His last words were reported to be, "Sixty four thousand nine hundred and twenty eight."

The UCLA film crew was invited by Federales holding machine guns to leave Mexico immediately.  They beat feet with some of their equipment and the clothes on their back minus all their cash.  So far as I know, my Ducati is still down there.  None of them ever said a thing.  I loved that bike.

Rodney Alcala.  Ooooo, boy.  I will say nothing about Rod except he was famously a contestant on "Dating Game," has been on NBC's "Dateline" three times surely setting some sort of record.  And years ago, I was his T.A. in UCLA's beginning film workshop.  Find a pair of thick rubber gloves and click on his link.  You never know anyone as well as you think you do.

I guess I should tell you that back in the Marine Corps, for about five months, I was a Naval Aviation Cadet with Richard Crafts.  I'd known him at Parris Island, we were actually buddies.  I washed out of pilot training (smartest move the Corps made that year) and Dick went on to fly in Vietnam, later for the C.I.A., finally for Eastern Airlines.  Then he murdered his wife Helle.  Then he froze her body and chainsawed her into manageable pieces.  Then he rented a wood-chipper (is it coming back now?), took her out in a snow storm, deep into the Connecticut woods and -- well, you get the idea.  So did the Coen Brothers for "Fargo."

Although he was convicted and is serving 60 years, Dick still claims he's innocent.  That she either just disappeared or he was the classic SODDI victim, Some Other Dude Did It.  He actually hung his first jury with that one.  Ahhh, Dicky, we hardly knew ye.


Back to better times and another summons from Colin Young.  He looked from my new California drivers' licence to me.  "Pup, take the film school van and go to the Los Angeles airport tonight to pick up one of our guest lecturers." Okay.  Who is it?   "She's German, should be in her early sixties."  Okay.  Who is it?  "This is kind of a secret mission.  You know her work..."  Jesus, Colin (we were better friends now), who the fuck is it?!

When I first saw Leni Riefenstahl coming down the long tiled hall at LAX, I froze.  First of all, she was still beautiful, high style, all sharp angles and long grey hair radiance.  This was the woman who had directed "Triumph of the Will," one of the greatest documentaries ever made.

One little problem: it was a nearly two hour cinematic paean to the rise of Adolph Hitler.  Oh-oh.  Don't get me wrong, it's an artistic and strategic achievement by any measure... except the one that actually counts: who it's about.

And now, it was thirty years later and the people in West Los Angeles (with its significant Jewish demographic) had heard she was planning on coming to guest lecture at UCLA and were beginning to make their own plans.  All this, of course, was fully known to Colin Young but unknown to us Chow Puppies.

With a baggage cart of matched Parisian luggage, Frau Riefenstahl waited curb-side while I went to short term parking and got the van.  She already looked pissed.

When I came to collect her, she scowled as I tipped the Skycap who carefully loaded her endless luggage into the vehicle.  As we were on our way out, she asked me why I had given money to a man who was supposed to do exactly what he was doing?  "Why do you pay him egztrah?"

Listen here, Leni baby.  This ain't 1934, he wasn't SS and you don't have a goddamn all-event pass anymore so shut up and relax!  At least that's what I said in my mind.  I think the actual words might have sounded like "To make sure your luggage was handled the right way, ma'am."

She wanted to know how much I gave him.  All right, goddamn it, this is where I drew the line.  Right here, right now!  Unleashing my blitzkrieg move, I told her it was five dollars.  She snorted scornfully.  But I totally had her: It was ten.

Nailed it.  And the night ride up to Sunset Blvd. was peaceful.

When we turned right on Hillgard toward the UCLA guest house, everything changed.  There were cars double-parked up and down the street and a stream of middle-aged people were walking toward the UCLA guest house.  Wait.  What the hell is this?

I slowed the van; from the passenger side, Leni Riefenstahl rolled the window down and looked out into the night.

As we pulled up into the guest house parking spaces, we saw that the house was surrounded by two or three hundred people -- adults, strange at any time on a college campus -- their arms linked.  There were several police cars, both UCLA and LAPD.  I got out of the van and came around to the passenger side.  I looked at her, she looked at the crowd.  Who was creepily, utterly silent.  "I guess I should have expected this," she said, the overweening scorn gone.  "Some forgive, no one forgets."

And then, an older, well-dressed woman came up to us.  "Are you Leni Riefenstahl," she asked.  Frau Riefenstahl nodded.  "Then, go home," the woman said softly.  "If you come back, we'll be here.  With the L.A. Times and TV news cameras.  Understand?"  With that, she turned and walked back to join the silent line of people surrounding the guest house.

"Let's go," Riefenstahl said.  So we did.

I wish I could remember what happened then.  I know I didn't take her for pizza and beers.  I didn't take her to a hotel.  What did a broke hippie movie grad student know from hotels?  I didn't take her back to my shared apartment for her to sleep on the couch and then the next day start a career-capping documentary on chow puppies.  I didn't take her to a double feature of "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" and "Night and Fog" and we didn't share a tub of buttered popcorn.  I didn't take her back to the airport.

I think I took her to Colin Young's house -- way the hell and gone up in Topanga Canyon -- and dropped her off for him and the howling coyotes to worry about.

But who knows?  That hot buttered popcorn's sounding pretty good about now.


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  2. Leni Riefenstahl? LENI RIEFENSTAHL? Wow. But I thought ALL her movies were two-hour cinematic paeans to the rise of Hitler--or similar propaganda. Except for "Blue Light"--the only one I saw--in which she plays her own scantly-clad lead. Wow, what a fabulous welcome she got! And what a description they gave of her: "She's German."

    I can't believe you were good friends with the guy who inspired the murder in Fargo. "Dicky, we hardly knew ye"--indeed. Except that in this case "you haven't an eye, you haven't a leg" applies more to . . . ugh. That's just sick.

    I would LOVE to see Richard Chen's version of "Gunsmoke." There must be some way I can see it!! That sounds fascinating.

    Billy, you've been through some pretty weird shit.

  3. I only just noticed that you mention Lash LaRue. I first and last heard of him when he died and my step-dad said, "Hey! Maybe now his name is public domain!" (He'd always envied it, and for a while I politely called him that.) I just looked online and saw that Lash taught Harrison Ford how to use the bullwhip. I wonder if Harrison Ford then taught Lash how to renovate houses.

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  5. "In those days, nearly the entire movie division was housed in WWII, un-airconditioned, mal-heated, nearly collapsing wooden buildings that teetered on the uninhabitable. For some reason, we loved them."

    Oh, God, did we ever!!

  6. Awesome writing! The description of the smell of the protection booth is just fantastic! I laughed out loud.