So, where you from? Immigration seen through two families who came here and joined into one family and brought me into the world so I could write this brief story of one American man’s heritage, because we’re either Native Americans or we came here from somewhere else and we’re still coming, with the same hope and promise.
So, where you from?
My father was born on a cattle ranch in Argentina. His father had come from Italy and found work there and soon fell in love with one of the servant girls who worked in the great house. She had also emigrated from Italy. They lived in barracks on the large rancho, then married and had their first child, my father.
When my father was ten, he and his parents moved back to Italy, to Camigliano in Tuscany, and took over a grocery store that was owned by the extended family: ‘DiPego Alimentary’. After nine years in Italy my father finished high school and, being the oldest, he was the one to travel to America to find work and help some of his siblings join him there.
He was 19 and spoke almost no English when he boarded the ship in Genoa. He travelled alone with only the name and address of a cousin he’d never met who lived in Cicero, Illinois. He made his way there on the train. The cousin took him in and found him a job in a factory.
My mother’s parents also came to America from Italy. Aboard that ship my grandmother was pregnant with her first child, and the child was born during the passage. There was no doctor in steerage. A Spanish woman helped her give birth, and my aunt was born and named Inez, because that was the name of the woman from Spain.
Once settled in Chicago these grandparents had three more children, one of them my mother, named Alfonsina. They lived in an Italian neighborhood on the South side, and my mother spoke no English until she went to school. She never forgot the shame she felt as the kids made fun of her as the girl who couldn’t speak the language, and then as the girl who spoke ‘broken English’, and then, by the fourth grade, she was fluent, but still carried the pain, and later she rejected that beautiful name Alfonsina and called herself Margaret, which became Peggy, an American name.
My father met my mother’s uncle, and they opened a candy store. Because they sold pineapple candy, the two men were given the nicknames, Little Pineapple (my father) and Big Pineapple (my great uncle who was overweight). My father worked hard and sometimes relaxed by shooting pool, sometimes with Al Capone’s brother, but our family bloodlines go back to northern Italy, not southern, and my relatives, like most Italian-Americans, stood apart from all mob business.
Through his partner (my mother’s uncle) my father met my mother, joining the two families by their marriage. My father and mother lived in an apartment with my mother’s parents. My dad was the wage earner, then half owner of a bar. My mother’s mother did not speak English, but I remember her as a warm, loving presence. My mother asked of my dad that he speak English in the home, and so he did. They spoke Italian to my grandparents and to each other when saying what they didn’t want their children to hear. I regret not growing up bilingual, but I understand my mother’s wishes. Though she seemed to turn away from the past and her “old country,” she certainly honored that heritage with her cooking.
My brother Paul was born, then me, and in 1942 my father was drafted into WWII, even though he was 35 then. So many men were needed. He opted for the Navy and was shipped to California, driving officers around the base at Port Hueneme. On leave in Hollywood he was hit by a car and nearly killed. My mother, who had seldom left the neighborhood, had to get on a train and travel across the country to the Long Beach Naval Hospital to be at his side. It was weeks before he knew where he was, and weeks more mending. In time he was discharged and back to running his bar again, but our neighborhood had grown dangerous. So, when I was nine my father sold his interest in the bar and moved us northeast to the country, to small and peaceful Round Lake, Illinois. My mother’s parents stayed in the city, moving in with my aunt, Inez.
Like his father in Italy, my dad now owned a grocery store where my brother and I worked after school and on weekends: Tip Top Food Mart. It was as if a circle had been completed. By the time I traveled to Italy, my grandparents there had died, but I was welcomed with great affection by all my aunts and cousins. I traveled there several times, once coinciding with a trip my parents had taken to see the family, just outside of the town of Lucca. I watched my parents during that visit, saw my father’s joy, and saw my mother embracing her heritage again, another circle completed.
We’re all from somewhere, and we all have a story, whether we are Native Americans or those who came to live here only last week or 400 years ago, Americans every one, entitled to the promise of this country.
GOLDEN GLOBE! INDEPENDENT FILM AWARD! SCREEN ACTOR’S GUILD AWARD! CRITIC’S CHOICE AWARD! NEW YORK FILM CRITICS CIRCLE! The trumpets are still blowing for the films that are considered contenders as the Acedemy makes its first vote. As a writer I voted for five best picture awards, five original screenplay awards and five adapted screenplay awards, and it wasn’t easy. There were six to eight films in each category that were vying in my brain.
Out of each member voting within his or her branch the choices are tallied and the nominations made. At the second vote, after the nominations, each Academy member will vote again, this time for the full range of all the branches that make up the world of film.
Our votes are secret, but in these blogs I have let you know some of the films that hit hard or delighted and why, and a few that missed the mark, and in my last-minute viewing before the vote, there were some that wowed me right at the finish line for the 2018 releases, like Roma that offered me acting, directing and cinematography I had never quite seen before. Black and white was the right choice, but it’s not just any black and white. It’s Cuaron’s black and white that somehow shines and creates its own reality. It’s another film, like Capernaum, that makes you feel you are not watching a movie at all, but moving along looking at life where ‘acting’ disappears into being and nothing is false and nothing is predictable.
If you’re liberal minded, On the Basis of Sex will have you cheering from the heart, not only for the movie, but for RBG.
And don’t let small films escape you — like What They Had with Hillary Swank, Michael Shannon, Robert Forster and a luminous Blythe Danner, and At Eternity’s Gate, with Willem Dafoe’s Vincent Van Gogh so heartfelt and riveting, plus the stunning German film Never Look Away, and Kenneth Branagh’s deep and moving All is True, and one more, the sweet, smart and endearing film, Puzzle.
(While you’re here take a look at A Family of Writers and see what we’re up to. Thank you.)
I think I’ve been overusing the word ‘amazing,’ so I’m all out of descriptors for two of the foreign film screeners I’ve seen recently: Never Look Away, from Germany and Capernaum from Lebanon. Now, I have many more films to watch before I can be a fair voter, but I can tell you how much these films impressed me.
Never Look Away is so rich in its characters and its amazing plotting (I know, I said it again) that you CAN’T look away. It’s a masterwork written and directed by F. H. Von Donnersmark, who also wrote and directed one of my all time favorite films: The Lives of Others. (“All time favorites” takes on some extra weight when you realize that I’m 77 and have been watching movies since I was five when my mom would walk my brother and me to the neighborhood movie house on the south side of Chicago in the 1940s. We’d go there twice a week, whenever the movie changed. It was always during the day, and not just a way for her to have a break and get out of the apartment. It was her time to dream, and she loved the movies and where they took her.)
Never Look Away moves from Nazi Germany all the way up through the sixties, but you never lose the connection between past and present: a little girl who grows to a young woman, a little boy who grows up to meet this girl, each of these characters molded by events that have moved through their lives like magnets, pulling them closer and….
I wouldn’t dare spoil a moment of this with more description. It is so deep and so artfully done.
Capernaum is a film that moves off the screen and reaches out to hold you in its grip and never lets go, and it leaves you changed. It feels as if you’ve been transported to Lebanon, to the areas of poverty and chaos (Capernaum is Lebanese for ‘chaos’) and you’re there, watching as all unfolds in front of you, every moment feeling undeniably real. How did the director (and co-writer) Nadine Labaki, find these actors? The boy of twelve (twelve!) who has not one false second on the screen — he lets you discover the awful parenting and the street life that is damaging and darkening his existence, and he’s aware, aware of all it, smart and deep enough to understand what’s happening to him and still, amid his depression and sometimes wild anger, able to love.
Labaki has said that each of the actors were chosen because sometime in their life they had lived up close with these conditions and these people, the undocumented, always hiding from authorities, the parents whose children are looked on as ways to make money, the users, always ready with a lie, a trap.
The passage of this boy, Zain, is our focus, and his life. It is a map through a kind of hell that exits in many bombed and broken places, for too many people, and yet there is law within the chaos, and the boy decides he will use the law, he will sue his parents – for giving him life, sue them so they will stop having more children to throw away.
I can’t help it. This is an AMAZING film.
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I can’t say what my FAVORITE is, but THE FAVOURITE is making a run at best picture, and yes, the pace is great, acting fine, sets amazing, but it does set me up for a dark comedy and then sets me adrift in only the dark and does away with the comedy. This does not ruin the film, and you may be fine with the change of tone, or not. You cannot, though, easily forget the deft turns of plot, the talent of the three women, and especially the monumental performance of Olivia Colman. That’s a triumph.
VICE has the same high level pace and wit, with some bold and clever chance-taking in storytelling. It’s darkly funny, but behind the smile you can’t help but be so wrenched, so angry and so very, very sorry at the damage that was done to this country by Cheney and his group of manipulators -- making a war because they needed one to shift the political climate and serve their purposes, men who are fiddling and congratulating each other as the world burns and hundreds of thousands of people are dying so that they can win their power games. I take exception to the ending but won’t say a spoiling word about it.
Steve Carell, playing Donald Rumsfeld, is -- what’s the right word? Have we noticed that Steve can play ANYTHING, any type, any part of the human spectrum? Will he go all the way and be another Alec Guinness or Daniel Day Lewis? If he wants that there may be no stopping him. Go Steve.
I don’t want to lose sight of GREEN BOOK or PRIVATE LIFE or the pain and truth that shows through A STAR IS BORN. And then there’s IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK with its slowww moving scenes that can afford to be slow because they are so damn deep, and there is so much emotion on the screen whether the actors are speaking or not. I felt I truly lived through that movie, and carried its weight with me. Choosing is not easy this year, but it’ll really get tight after the nominations in January. And there is so much more to see!
I won’t decide who to vote for until I’ve seen all the films, but I have just seen a performance that, to all of us, is a rare gift, and that’s Saoirse Ronan as Mary Queen of Scots. In every part of every scene, she is so true, so deep inside the role that the line blurs between actor and character and then disappears. Ronan hands us a treasure that goes beyond this ‘race’ and this year, and is there for us forever.
Mary and her cousin, Queen Elizabeth the First of England, are each surrounded by male ‘advisors,’ a whole troop of them, pushing and pulling the queens toward the agenda these men have chosen. The queens are also aware of enemies, some hidden and some boldly in their faces. Treachery is always looming in those cold, dark castle corners.
The film is beautifully photographed, and we are held surely in the period. I wish the take on Elizabeth could have contained more of her strengths and less of her weaknesses, but history is open to choices. She is played well by Margot Robbie, but, in a few scenes, partly due to make-up, comes close to caricature.
Could there be a film more different from Mary Queen of Scots than The Sisters Brothers? It’s a frontier story of gold rush days, following two hired gunmen bent on killing two educated men who are interested in the gold that‘s waiting in the streams. I won’t say what happens when they all meet, but I will say that this is a truly engaging film with characters of depth, smart writing, excellent performances and you WILL be surprised -- many times. The actors are amazing, all four: John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed. You do need to be okay with screen violence, with gunfights, but in trade you get more value than you expect.
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More films are coming in my mail, and the trade magazines are getting heavier with all those bucks shoveled into the ‘race’. But there are, in the center of all this, some people putting their hearts and talents into films they hope will touch us – and not just win.
The Front Runner is large in size and very well made, packed with the energy of a race toward the presidency, with mobs of volunteers and reporters and a cast of fine actors that starts with Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga and J. K. Simmons and just keeps doling out exciting performances throughout the long list of players, with surprises like Alfred Molina and Kevin Pollak showing up to strengthen the authenticity of it all.
Through the speeches and strategies and the scandal and heartbreak, I kept hoping to be taken more deeply inside Gary Hart, but he’s not that kind of man. He buries his private life and lets no one in, and the filmmakers went with that, but in leaving me outside, they denied me the deepest feelings, left me out of the center of the struggle. All right, that’s their choice, and I applaud the talent, but I don’t carry the film with me after it ends.
Stan and Ollie is a much smaller film, exploring the last bits of an amazing comedy career and an amazing friendship. Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly get Stan and Ollie so very right. They truly bring them back to us, and then allow us to step inside where we have never been, where the most famous comedy team in the world (in 1937) become older and human and flawed and still loving.
I think the people who will love this film the most are the ones who, at some time in their lives, loved Laurel and Hardy, and that was me between the ages of about eleven to fifteen when all of their shorts and movies were played heavily on TV. They had me on the floor, laughing to tears. Sure, I also laughed at Abbot and Costello and Martin and Lewis, but I didn’t love them. And I don’t care to watch those other teams today, but I’ll jump into a Laurel and Hardy routine any time. Right now.
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As the Academy screeners pile in, I’m going to record some opinions for whatever they’re worth. Watched Destroyer last night, and there’s a lot that’s strong and smart about this film, but I wish they had trusted Nicole Kidman’s acting instead of making her look so BAD for shock effect. They lose credibility because the living-dead woman they created cannot be believed as a detective lieutenant of police. Yes, make her look more hard-ridden than ever, but let her act the rest. She can do that. Also, come to find out, the time-frame we thought we were in is altered near the end –- so they get a zinger, a surprise, but I felt tricked, as if they had hidden a puzzle piece. The film is well shot, energy is great, acting fine throughout, dialogue smart and, yes, Kidman shows us a character that hasn’t yet been on her resume, but excesses and the plot trick take away.
Recommended so far: Disobedience, Private Life, Green Book, What They Had, and Boy Erased.
Have you noticed how this year of films is so, so dark? You Were Never Really There and Hereditary and Vox Lux and First Reformed will push you deep into the pit, deeper than necessary to tell a hard story. I think this is because we’re living through a dark time -– just a theory.
More to come.
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I went to my doc for my yearly physical with one troubling symptom: nasal drip. Five weeks of some kind of allergy – explosive sneezing and a box of Kleenex a day.
The standard EKG heart test startled her – there was a dip where there should have been a rising. I had zero symptoms for any kind of heart trouble, but it troubled her and she sent me one building over to the Santa Ynez Cottage Hospital Emergency Room. There they gave me another EKG with a similar finding and also a blood test that was inconclusive. I was told to report to the Santa Barbara hospital in the morning for a stress test and another EKG.
Went to the SB ER and waited. Checked in with several units including nuclear medicine and waited and waited, had a new test. The test was inconclusive. They needed me to wait two more hours and take more pictures of my heart at rest. By this time (it was Friday) the ER was filling up. A storm of voices was rising slowly around me, rolling beds clamoring. All rooms were filled, so I was placed on a gurney in a hallway with many other patients.
I’m sitting on the gurney, comfortable, clothing on, blankets if I need them. I’m given a box lunch chicken sandwich with Jello for dessert, and I’m eating and using my small note pad to play a word game to pass the time.
But then, I hear in the gurney behind me, the desperate breathing of a woman who sometimes whimpers aloud, sounding terrified. I can’t turn all the way around and see her, but I hear her, and meanwhile the hallway is becoming more and more crowded with emergency patients. I feel guilty. I’m just waiting there and having my Jello. They are scared and in pain, some of them critical. The staff keeps hurrying by (good, staff, caring people). I’m eating the last of my potato chips and now I’m writing down both my word game and the bits of sentences I hear all around me in the ER.
In the word game I play I try to find the number of words within a word and see if I can win by finding more words than there are letters in the word. Paranormal has ten letters, but I find eleven words there: Pa, Par, ran, a, an, normal, no, nor, or, norm, ma; so count that a win, while moving around me I hear the voices.
“I can’t sign this. I can’t read it! They took my glasses away!” “Are you able to draw blood in 12?” “I fell. At home. I live in an apartment and.... Down I went. It hurts a lot!”
“Pathfinder” has ten letters, but I can find only ten words there, so it’s a tie: pa, pat, a, at, path, fin, in, find, finder, er.
“And we need your urine.” “You’re obviously very upset. You’re hyperventilating. You may black out. Let me give you something to help you relax.”
A teenage girl is sitting in a chair, not a patient, and next to her I can see only the arm of probably her mother who holds her close as the girl weeps loudly, shaken, weeping on and on as the woman holds her. Is the girl weeping in fear for a sick or broken friend, a relative? Is she weeping over a death that is just down the hall?
“Sparking” is a win. Twelve words within a ten letter word: Spa, Spar, Spark, pa, par, park, a, ark, parking, kin, in, king.
The test was given. My heart-at-rest showed that I was not in danger. I was sent home. I had been there half a dozen hours, waiting, lives crashing around me, maybe ending. Ending: en, end, din, in, ding. Not a win.
(No, not Dallas and Cleveland. Think back.)
As a boy:
I played with Lincoln Logs, built forts that came with painted lead frontiersman for defense and Indians for attack. Even at that young age, I wavered a little when it came to whom I wanted to identify with. The frontiersman with a musket had a Caucasian face. The Indian was way too red, but he also had bird feathers in his hair and war paint and, let’s face it, a much more interesting color palette.
I watched six of the best John Ford movies on early television in the forties, all of them Westerns, and two men became my early heroes: Henry Fonda from Drums Along the Mohawk and My Darlin’ Clementine, and John Wayne from Stagecoach, and the three Cavalry movies. These films played again and again on those early channels, and I never tired of them. In all these movies there are Indians who are fearsome and some who are actually respected, (and yes some who are clownish, too.) In many of the Ford movies there is this slight dichotomy, even up and through The Searchers, which could be the best of all if only we could do some surgery and remove that ridiculous and badly played love triangle that sinks the middle of the film. I would gladly pay someone to edit that out. How many of you would chip in? What an unmarred classic it would become.
Clothing and names:
Still young, I gathered many books about Indians, both novels and histories and even large picture books, studies of the tribes, and I loved the wardrobe, and how the warriors painted their faces and painted their horses! Each one an individual masterpiece of magic and mysticism, and the way the women adorned themselves and decorated their hair. Brilliant. The names of the tribes conveyed to me adventure and a world so deep and different from mine: Choctaw, Cheyenne, Comanche, Cherokee, Lakota, Navajo, Osage, and that fierce and biting word: Apache.
There had been tribes everywhere in America, even where I grew up in northern Illinois. We had had the Potowatamy. Well, okay, no offence, but some of the names didn’t give me that same ticket to wonder. And too many tribes were named by outsiders. The Nez Pearce? French trappers and boatmen saw a tribe that made cuts on their noses as part of their symbolic individualism, and so this proud tribe exists in our history as the cut noses. Not fair. Most tribal names translated as ‘The People.’ That was their thinking. We are the People, others are…the Others. And sometimes their enemies named them, as in the name Apache, which the Apaches learned to carry with pride and with challenge.
In one of the later John Wayne movies, Hondo, I think, his character has a line about the waning power of the tribes. “End of a way of life. Too bad. Good way.” Okay, he didn’t write that speech, but at least he said it.
After I had strayed from Wayne and moved to Brando, I read a quote from the Duke that said “I think the Indians were selfish to fight us and not share their land.” Really? Duke? Come on. Let’s imagine this: Caucasians in the 1500s – a rural town in Belgium or Holland or England. People are farming; there are stores; trades, a system of law. One day, some of the people on the outskirts of town notice that strangers are moving into the area. An Indian tribe, for instance, and they’re putting up their own village. They use the water; they hunt.... Well the town council meets and the talk is angry and full of outrage.
The town burghers or the ‘Watch’ or whatever, walk over to the village and they’re pretty upset. “No… No, you can’t come here and do this. No. This is where WE live. You have to go somewhere else! You can’t stay here! What were you thinking?”
The Indians stare at these people, at their hats, maybe at their wooden shoes, and some of them laugh, but the older, wiser Indians say, ”We have come to share this territory and live our lives here and we ask that you don’t bother us. Don’t be so selfish, and why are your shoes made of wood?”
So, of course, the town Watch raise their blunderbusses or draw their swords and, well, there it goes again, but the other way around. So John Wayne’s statement of selfishness is just silly to me. Of COURSE the Indians fought to defend their lands and way of life.
Many of the whites called the Indians savages and pointed out how they even killed women and children on their raids. Well, gosh, guess who the whites killed when they raided Indian villages, even peaceful ones. We also gave them blankets we knew were full of smallpox. And when we saw that alcohol was very damaging to them, we made sure they got plenty of that so…. Let’s try to be fair. Let’s savor these people who shared our history, and, by the way, they’re still here. No, they didn’t disappear, didn’t die off. Some are on the reservations that were set aside for them, but many are in the towns and cities and colleges and armed forces and the trades and professions and all the lives all around us, and some of them hold special gatherings once in a while, and out come the drums and rattles and songs and shouts and the pride and that great wonder and magic they gave me, gave us all.
There are films I watch every two, three, four years, and some even sooner, some after a decade. Why watch a film you’ve seen when you know the story and all the surprises are gone?
If you enjoy a particular dinner at a restaurant, you’re almost certain to return, not the next night or even the next week, but you are very likely to go back and order that dish now and then because you can count on it to make you feel good. You remember the aroma and the taste and want to treat yourself.
Any one of my favorite, often-watched films, is certain to deliver, and to stir in me the familiar emotions that captured me the first time. I can count on that, and even though each of these favorite scenes is banked in my memory, I want to taste them again, and smile, and maybe mist over, maybe laugh or be shaken again.
I love this moment in “In the Heat of the Night.” Sidney Portier has been picked up as a murder suspect, just because he’s black and not from this southern town, and the sheriff asks him, in a threatening, browbeating manner, what work he does in that northern city he claims to be from. Portier answers in a strong voice, “I am a police officer.” What a great moment. It changes everything in the story. When I watch it again, and then again, I notice every detail, every expression of the players, I feel the verbal punch of those lines, and see the startled reactions played out.
This is why we watch certain films again and yet again, to relive a moment like that. I want to celebrate this feeling. So that’s what I’m going to do here. I’m going to write a perfect storm of moments that live inside of me. I’m not going to write ABOUT them. I’m going to just let them come pouring out, and I promise I am NOT looking them up. They’re going to come at you just as I keep them in my memory, so there may be mistakes, but I want them raw. Here we go.
“I am a police officer!” “I’ll be your daisy.” “Who are these guys?” “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” “It’s alive!” “And she rescued him right back.” “I AM your father!” “Watch the skies.” “You’re a doggone Yankee liar. Prove it.” “Shoot straight, you bastards!” “I’m shootin’ pool, Fats. When I miss, you can shoot.” “Would you like a roll in the hay?” “Now it’s garbage.” “I belong to the church of baseball.” “Snap out of it!” “I bet I could eat fifty eggs.” “I could’ve BEEN somebody.” “The gold! It’s goin’ back to the mountain!” “Ach, the poor, wee man.” “Hmmm, brother Morg’s gun.” “Leave the gun. Bring the Canoli.” “Come back, Shane. Please come back.” “I am Zampano!” “Socrates was not Belgian.” “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” “I AM the Shore Patrol! I AM the goddamn Shore Patrol!” “There isn’t an Indian alive can catch me in an open field.” “Madness. The madness!” “Stay alive! \Stay alive!” “All work and no play makes Jack a very dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a very dull boy.” “Union! Union! Union!” “I must warn you, sir. My father was the greatest swordsman in France.” “Please die, Spartacus.” “Moses supposes his toeses are roses, but Moses supposes erroneously.” “Hey! I’m walkin’ here! I’m walkin’ here!” “Do I know you? Why, do you think you’re going to? Because I know an awful lot of people and until one of them dies I don’t think I can know anyone else.” “Nobody dies.” “I know a lot about pigeons, Lilly.” “What if this is as good as it gets?” “Sanctuary! Sanctuary!” “Why can’t a woman be like a man?” “Why shouldn’t I smile? Boxin’s a sport, isn’t it?” “I am not an animal! I am a man!” “Amigo, we’ve been had.” “Goodnight you lords of New England.” “Ed Sullivan!” “I find a good girl every night, Mom.” “Well that tears it!” “It was just a little walk in the warm Italian sun, but it wasn’t an easy thing.” “Guy’s-sittin-at-home-watchin-his-television-set-who- used-to-be-somethin’-of-a-rover. That’s what’s happenin’ all over.”
Pick out the ones you know and add your own favorite lines!
There are many people in America who are angry and frightened and want their country to be as it used to be when they felt that life was simpler and more peaceful. If you are among those people who remember those times, I’m with you, because the fifties were my growing up years, too.
I love my country for what it stands for and for what it strives to be, so let’s take a look at our America back when we were young, and safe and at peace. Oh, and by the way, I’m Caucasian. Oh, you, too? And we were lower-middle class, moving slowly upward to middle-middle, and not very aware that we were living on top of a soup pot, living on the lid of that pot, and that the soup was becoming very hot, but we didn’t feel it yet, maybe just a tremor now and then. Let’s examine that soup.
Gays were generally hated and you could beat up a homosexual and probably get away with it, and being found-out as a gay man often meant ruin and shame. Usually, back then, a man could beat his wife and not be punished. Also, an accusation of rape often saw the man walk away and the woman suspected. Black kids could not swim in many town pools. What signal does that send to a child? Same with bathrooms and water fountains for blacks, and I’m not just talking about the South.
In little Round Lake, Illinois, where I grew up, if a black family was motoring out of Chicago and wanting to enjoy the lake region, maybe have a picnic, our town cops would tell them, sorry, this is only for residents (not true of course). The black parents would say to their kids no, we can’t stop here. And the kids would ask why? This takes a long time to heal, but it must if we still believe in our country.
One of my summer jobs in college was factory work. Mostly whites were hired, Mexicans tolerated. On a break a woman was complaining about Blacks walking by her home while she and her daughter were in their yard wearing shorts. The Blacks did not do anything or say anything, but she was bitching, and when somebody disagreed with her she said, “We’re better than they are, and that’s that!” She somehow needed that power, the power over somebody. Anybody.
Jews were also discriminated against in America then, in a quieter and less obvious prejudice; it wasn’t just about color.
Before we moved out of Chicago, we lived in a tough neighborhood where my father was half owner of a tavern. There was an incident in the bar one night, a fight, and my Dad had stopped it and taken a knife away from one of the men. My father was not much of a talker, but I remember this moment from when I was only six or so, my father explaining to my mother and brother and me: “Some people don’t like the Blacks, but…” I remember him shaking his head in deep thought. “But, ya know…people are people.”
What a statement. Thanks, Dad. In his quiet way he was telling us that people should be taken for who and what they are – as people, individual people. Race and ethnicity and nationality and religion and gender and sexual identification, should not count, not at all.
In the sixties the lid on that pot was steaming, and we could feel the steam coming out. People were challenging prejudice in its many forms. It was a chaotic time, but headway was made. This country became more fair, but of course, it didn’t solve everything .
Now the lid has come all the way off, and again, to some people it feels like chaos, but we got through it before and we’ll get through it now, because we have to. Because that’s the promise of this country: liberty and justice for…whom? For all. All.
The world is moving in this direction. We found out recently that in one Middle Eastern country, the women there were finally granted the right to drive. Cheers. Yes, and in Round Lake, Illinois today, just let a cop try to block somebody’s picnic because of race. That doesn’t work any more. And gay people are finally, in the minds of millions, just people.
We’ve seen the new President of our country try to move us backwards. He wanted to discredit homosexuals all over again and have them pulled out of our armed forces. Luckily the military said no way. These are soldiers, and the only way to judge them is by the yardstick of soldiering. This president has promised his voters that he will take us back to…what? A country that only says its people are free and equal, but hides the truth?
So what I’m saying to all the worried, angry, upset Americans of my generation is this: we can’t go back. Because back then there was just too much ugliness that was hidden, tamped down and swept away, out of sight to many of us. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t what America promises.
What we have to do now is to learn to take people, not in bunches, but one by one. That’s all we need to do, to remember that each of us is an entity, a person, and no label can say who we are. We’re not bad or good based on race, religion, nationality…based on anything but our personal self. It’s how each one of us behaves in the world that’s important. That’s it. Each one of us. Each day.
If you, like me, were growing up in a rural area in the late forties, early fifties, you might remember having, in your home, a party line. It meant that a group of homes shared a telephone line, and if you picked up your phone to make a call, you might hear a conversation taking place. If you did, you hung up and waited a while for their call to be over—or you didn’t. Sometimes…I listened in. You had to be quiet, hardly breathing, stealthy, and the reward for this was a kind of invisibility. It felt as if I disappeared, and, being unseen, I could walk into the middle of two other lives and be…a spy, a secret listener.
Even if the call wasn’t interesting, it was still somebody else’s life, something not meant for me to hear, a time of privacy. They might hear the click of another user, but it was a soft sound. “Did someone pick up?” “I didn’t hear it.” “Hello?” “There’s nobody there.”
And, they were right. I became nobody, unseen or heard, and all the accounting of incidents and giving of advice and the anger or pity or laughter or tears were secrets that no one else was supposed to hear. If felt powerful and daring and even dangerous as I stood there, taking quiet breaths and overhearing a conversation about linoleum.
If I got tired of listening, I would slowly and silently hang up. It’s usually summer in my memory when I think about those daring moments. It’s daytime, and I’m not at school, and my mother is walking through the kitchen dropping words behind her like bread crumbs. “Jerry, you were listening.” “No, I…”
“You’re not supposed to listen. How would you like it if….” “No, I just…tried to call Buddy, but he wasn’t home.” “Sure, oh sure.”
She knew I wasn’t trying to call Buddy Bendull on the next block or Bill Waldren across the street, because we never called each other. We sought each other out by a more ancient system that avoided any contact with adults. I would walk or bike to Buddy’s home and stand there, outside, in his yard, and I would call out to the house. It was always the same four notes: “Oh-oh Buddeeee.” For my other friend I needed only three: “Oh-oh Billlll.”
I don’t remember learning that. I just knew it, and it’s still very clear to me, that feeling of being at home, making a model plane (just the easy plastic kind - my brother made the intricate balsa wood airplanes), or lining up my lead soldiers on the blue rubber-tile floor upstairs, or reading, or…. And I’d hear the voice, and the three notes meant for me: “Oh-oh Jerrrr.”
It was a good sound, a little song pulling me away from what I was doing and promising a bike ride (speeding dangerously on the gravel roads) or a walk to the lake if it was warm, or the channel across the street fishing for carp with worms or small balls of Wonder Bread, or best of all a softball game, if we could gather enough kids, girls too sometimes, and we would walk down the road to where the farmer’s field began.
Mr. Hart grew corn, but usually left one of his fields fallow each year, and this became our rough diamond with pieces of wood for the bases or somebody’s hat. If there weren’t enough of us we’d play bounce or fly: just one batter, all the rest of us fielders. The batter would toss the ball upward and swing, and if one of us caught it on a fly or on one bounce, then we became the batter.
I remember one summer when I lost my timing. I couldn’t toss up that ball and swing and hit it. I missed every time. This embarrassed me and made me mad – and finally, frightened that I had lost this skill forever. I think the fear invaded me so that I was trying too hard. The next summer I was afraid it would happen again, but it didn’t. I wonder if I could hit it now. I’m going to dig around in the garage. I know there’s a plastic bat somewhere and a Wiffle ball. I hope this doesn’t hurt my shoulder. “Oh-oh Jerrrr.” Come on out and play.
There is this Puerto Rican, Italian- American man in New York, washing dishes and doing other odd jobs while auditioning for an acting role anywhere, anyplace or, for hope against hope, a tryout at the Actor’s Studio. He has a memorable face, smallish eyes, high cheekbones and a ready smile and a wild laugh that can be charming and disarming or…if he wants, to be chilling and deeply dangerous.
There is this young man who studies at the Actor’s Studio, landing the part of a drug pusher (in the production of “A Hat Full of Rain,”) who has his hooks into the protagonist, and in this movie, his first, his character’s name is Mother, and he is the one who lingers with you when the story ends.
There is this Korean spy who bedevils Frank Sinatra in the “Manchurian Candidate” and, with Frank, gives so many of us the very first karate fight we’ve ever seen, and it is strange and powerful and thoroughly believable.
There is this Mexican farmer in a strong scene that pits him against Marlon Brando in “Viva Zapata,” and he holds his own. And then, as one of the coolest of the cool, who call themselves “Ocean’s Eleven,” he is part of the group, and, soon, part of the ‘Rat Pack’ itself, friends that hang with Sinatra and Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. and the rest.
Then, playing a Mexican again, a bandit, he gets the best of his pursuer, Gregory Peck, in the dark and powerful “The Bravados” but does not kill him. He talks to Peck, simply, believably, and shows that he is not the killer Peck thought he was. Oh yeah, then in a movie in the early eighties, he plays a strange and dynamic Italian hit man who is sought and chased and finally killed by Burt Reynolds in “Sharky’s Machine” and that’s when, as the screenwriter, I met all of these men who are one man: the actor Henry Silva.
When you get to know Henry you laugh a lot. You can’t help it because of his great comic energy and the way he embraces life, and none of this is acting. He’s never ‘on’. He’s a deep, loving friend who is also unpredictable and joyous to the point when, at one of our many dinners out, as we talked about, for some reason, jungles, Henry began, at full voice, mimicking the sounds of jungle birds. He didn’t do this to be noticed, just to have fun.
He’s sorry, and I’m sorry, that he never got to play the part of some ‘normal’ guy having fun, or some normal guy doing anything except threatening or hurting or killing someone. It’s the fault of the cheekbones, the planes of that striking and strange face.
He is fluent in Italian and Spanish, and went to Europe hoping to change is image, but was cast as what? A guy named “Johnny Cool,” who, at least, was the star of the film, but…there he is in the poster, holding a machinegun.
He did his share of spaghetti westerns, too, usually as a Mexican, once as an Apache! – and has played Arabs, also. But my best memory of him (he’s retired and 91 now) came at the Christmas parties my wife Chris and I used to throw when we lived in Santa Monica. A certain spot on the couch was always saved for Henry and his girlfriend, Wendy, and no matter how full the house became, the center of the laughter was always around Henry on the couch.
As they grew, my sons, Justin and Zachary, got to know him through these parties, and now we speak of him often and get together to screen his movies, watching that guy from New York, the dishwasher with the dream, being everybody-- except himself, but having fun and throwing that great energy of his into the make-believe.
Here’s to Henry
Will you come along with me? I have this idea about film and why it can be so powerful, and why we relate to it so strongly. So come along and pretend that you are SEEING what I’m going to describe to you. Okay?
Here’s a man walking through a park. It’s a warm, sunny day, and he’s feeling good, and the park is green and flowered and it’s close to the ocean, on a bluff above the Pacific, like Palisades Park in Santa Monica.
The man is thinking about that great steak he had for lunch, and while he’s thinking about it, we SEE the steak, sizzling on a plate. Now we’re back with the walking man, ambling along. He has a habit of jingling the change in his pocket as he walks, and we SEE for a moment, right into his pocket, see his fingers fluttering that dime and two quarters.
Now we watch him choose a bench and sit, and very soon, a lovely young woman comes smiling toward him. He doesn’t know her. She asks, “Would you like me to do what I do?”
He’s surprised, wondering. He says, “Well, I don’t’ know. What do you do?”
“I dance,” she says, and she begins dancing right there in front of him, and she’s very good. She begins a twirl, and she twirls faster and faster until she is just ... a blur. And then this blur ... disappears!
The man stands up, stunned, and looks around. Where is she? He happens to notice, then, that below him, near the beach, there is a large yacht passing by. And there she is, on the deck of that yacht, waving at him.
So, what we’ve been looking at, what we have actually SEEN, must be on film, because of that cutting to a steak, to a pocket, because of that twirling, that blur, that yacht, a film can do all of that, but, no, I have not been describing a film. Then what else could it be? What else behaves like that? Oh, I know ... the human dream state. That’s right. A nighttime dream behaves like that, and I believe that of all the arts, film is the closest to the human dream state. I also believe that is why film can have such power over us, can capture us and sweep us anywhere, everywhere.
When we dream, we become, in a way, an entire movie company, building amazing sets, creating, for instance, a crowded antique shop with hundreds of objects cluttered together on the tables, the shelves. We choose these objects, instantly. We create all of it, and then we jump away from this shop and are captured now by the sight of a mammoth desert dune, and we hear thundering, and now we see, we SEE, six hundred horsemen riding over that dune, and all this time it is us, our subconscious, making a dream.
So the movie, a new art form, was invented only, what? One hundred and twenty years ago? And it captivated us very quickly, and soon it grew, with invention and imagination, into a more and more realistic vision that could take hold of us and yank us inside, inside of this Motion Picture, because, in a way, we have always been inside of it, and it has always been inside of us, every since we were able to dream.
Thank you for coming along with me on that exploration. There are other topics I want to share with you, but, for now, I want to guide you to the Family of Writers page of this site, where more good news keeps piling up. Please check it out.
More good news arrived recently. My book WRITE! Find the Truth in Your Fiction was selected as a finalist in the writing category in the 19th annual Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Awards.
Thousands of independently published books are entered each year. Over 120 librarians and booksellers are in charge of the judging. Narrowed down to a small group of finalists, the winners will be announced on June 24th.
WRITE! is a teaching book packed with what I’ve learned as a professional writer over 45 years of creating novels, screenplays, and stage plays.
Conversational in style, my book will help a writer focus on making fiction feel real so that the work becomes deeper and richer, bringing the reader or audience inside so that they will live it, too.
A Press Release with contact info and more on this subject is available on the Press page.
Also coming up this month is a Business Expo in Santa Barbara on Saturday, April 29th from 8am till 2pm. at Fess Parker’s Doubletree Hotel, where I will have an ‘Author’s Table’ manned by a friend, Alison Toddhunter. She will have paperback copies of “WRITE!” for sale there. As a bonus, anyone who buys a copy of” WRITE!" will receive a FREE novel from the list of books I wrote in the 70s, 80s and 90s. These are overstocks from my former novel-writing days: “With a Vengeance,” “Keeper of the City,” and “Cheevey.” Two thrillers and a coming of age story.
And one more thing - on April 12 I will be addressing the Salt Lake City Film Society, presenting a seminar and a screening of my film: “Words and Pictures” with a Q&A. Busy month!
Being a writer is like living in a house of a thousand rooms. All the doors are closed. You walk down the dark hallways. You choose a door and stop and open it. You snap on a small lamp. You see some movement in the shadows, some images, now a face. More shadowy people arrive, and the room seems to widen. Something is happening just out of sight. You’re hearing voices now, the words are becoming clear. You begin, sometimes slowly and sometimes all at once, to see how these faces and places and voices are all coming together into one idea. You’re beginning to sense a meaning here, and just the possibility of a story, if only you can capture it and hold on to it and make it your own.
This image above is not something I need to communicate to my two sons, Justin and Zachary (Nico) or to Nico’s wife, Ami, because they are all writers too, with their own houses and rooms and stories. Being a family of writers means that there is much that we share, even without talking about it.
This month somebody must have tossed a bouquet into the air because all sorts of flowers are falling among the four of us. As new work is released, nominations for awards come in, and rave reviews show up. So let me guide you through all of this for your own reading and watching pleasure.
My very talented daughter-in-law, Ami Silber is a writer in the ROMANCE genre, bringing to that field a real depth and power through her finely wrought characters and stories. Writing under the name Eva Leigh (and formerly Zoe Archer) she has earned yet another triumphantMy very talented daughter-in-law is a writer in the ROMANCE genre, now writing under the name Eva Leigh (and formerly Zoe Archer) has earned yet another triumphant review for her work, a blend of fine writing and solid research in historical fiction. This new title is A Duke Until Dawn.
Here's the review:
Leigh’s magnificent Regency-era erotic romantic thriller, the first installment in the London Underground series (which has nothing to do with present-day London’s mass transit system), crosses class boundaries with abandon. Alexander Lewis, Duke of Greyland, believes he’s finally found love, but after one unforgettable night, the object of his affections vanishes without a word. Two years later, he learns that the affair was nothing but the end of a well-practiced ruse by beautiful Cassandra Blair, who’s been forced into a life of crime. When Cassandra is abandoned by her mentor and left to fend off angry investors and jilted employees, she turns to Alex for help. He reluctantly agrees, but insists they work together to retrieve the funds she’s owed. As they brave the unsavory areas of London, Alex’s wild side emerges and he gets to experience life outside of wealthy enclaves, while Cassandra learns that not all “aristos” are selfish and uncaring. With her dedication and loyalty to Alex, Cassandra challenges the old adage of “no honor among thieves,” and Alex breaks free of his ducal shackles to claim his beloved despite her bloodline. A variety of weapons, plenty of riffraff, a couple of wanton and witty friends, and a hint of kink make this a fast-paced and seductive treasure.
Her other books have earned starred reviews in Publisher’s Weekly and glowing words from Romantic Times. Last year’s Scandal Takes the Stage was selected by the Washington Post as one of the three BEST Romance novels published last November and gained her a nomination from Romantic Times Magazine for Best British-Isles Set historical works.
She is a graduate of the prestigious MFA writing program at Iowa State. Visit her at www.evaleighauthor.com.
Writing under the name Nico Rosso, my son and Ami’s husband is also an established writer in the Romance field and has created a new Romantic Suspense series called AUTOMATIK. Book 2 in this series, One Minute to Midnight, has been nominated for a Romance Writers of America RITA award in Romantic Suspense! A second book in this series, Count Down to Zero Hour, received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly. These are down-to-the bone, noir-tinged, Romantic Action books. See all his books at www.nicorosso.com.
My son, Justin DiPego, a screenwriter, has a new film in release called The Ghost of New Orleans, now available on cable and DVD and starring Terrence Howard, Josh Lucas and Lake Bell! One review called it “A haunted noir thriller.”
Justin is also a personality in the DIY field, winning awards and maintaining his own articles and high-style videos at www.doitwithjustin.com.
My book on Creative Writing, containing all the tips, examples and methodology from my 45 years in in the field, was just announced as a nominee for the BOOK OF THE YEAR award presented by Foreward INDIES, the organization honoring independently published books. Please check out the testimonials and the reviews for this how-to on Amazon (So far, 23 reviews, all five-star) and on this site. WRITE! Find the Truth in Your Fiction is available in paperback and also as an ebook.
Maybe, next time you turn a page or watch a movie screen, you’ll be sharing with us whatever we found in one of those shadowy rooms.
Come on in.
Hope you’re very well. Letting you know about some pieces of good news. My story Latin Jazz? is now published in a literary magazine called Dime Show Review. This is Volume 2 and includes essays and poems along with the stories. You can find it online at www.dimeshowreview.com or pick up a paperback copy on Amazon. (Speaking of poetry – you’ll find a poem of mine when you scroll down – had my father in mind when I wrote it. Hope you enjoy.)
Also announcing here a release of a movie I wrote with my son Justin called The Ghost of New Orleans (original title: The Little Murder.) It has a solid cast, and it’s so good to see that writing credit with both our names. That happened once before on a TV film we wrote called Parallels. Fun. And BTW, my other son Zack and his wife Ami both write books in the Romance genre under the names Nico Rosso and Eva Leigh or Zoe Archer. Fine writers all.
And on April 12, I’ll be in Salt Lake City giving a talk to the Film Society there presenting “Ten Tips From the Writing Trenches,” all material culled from my how-to book on creative writing: WRITE! Find the Truth in Your Fiction. Which means…making fiction FEEL REAL to the reader. This book is also online in both digital and paperback formats from Amazon.
After the talk, I’ll be screening my film from 2015, Words and Pictures, staring the very exciting duo of Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche. Check it out if you haven’t seen it yet – streaming or DVD or Blu-Ray.
Hope you and yours are fine. We’re thriving with two new standard poodle pups joining our family!
(Oh, here’s that poem)
I’m taking California’s 101 South to L.A.
nd the ocean’s on my left, no, on my right,
and I’m doing 75 past the site of Port Hueneme
so I touch my neck, feeling for the chain,
pull out a navy I.D. tag, and shake it so it jingles.
Maybe somebody sees me from the other lane, wondering
why that old man is jingling his necklace that way,
so I explain and say my dad was a sailor in ’44
stationed at Hueneme and after that had a long
life and a grocery store, and when he died, there
wasn’t much. I chose the I.D. tag and my brother
picked the watch, so when I pass this place
I picture dad in the photo in his sailor clothes,
white hat, happy and bewildered face, 35
years old and his youngest son only 3, so I didn’t
know him yet, and he didn’t know me, but maybe
I was on his mind, and now he’s on mine when I
pass here and see the sign, so I jingle the tag to say
hello to the sailor he used to be and hope the sound
somehow connects him to me, because there wasn’t
nearly enough connecting, though he lived to 82,
and maybe there never is, is what I’d say to you or
whoever saw me in the red Prius on 101, a man of
70 waving a chain because he’s still somebody’s son.
Hail from the Chief! Big warm hello to all of you. After the tour I booked a helicopter ride over Milford, and it was, of course, beautiful!. Chopper puts down on a mountain top glacier for a while. One of my sons said this looked like a James Bond shot. The other said just one word: Badass.
Ours was an expedition, an adventure. It was so much more than a “sight-seeing” trip. You want to see the wonderful statue of David in Florence? Well, you walk into the Academia Galleria, and there he stands. The Mona Lisa – she’s there in the Louvre, hanging on a wall. Those are sight-seeing trips and worthy in their own right.
But I feel like we earned the sights we saw. The wind never quite blew us over, the rain never daunted us, (the hail, either!) and if getting somewhere took some doing, well, we did it. Very soon, our group became a “We." You people who gathered for this expedition were gracious, fun and easy to travel with, without one exception out of 21 souls!
I came wanting to stand face to face with all the stunning beauty I had seen in pictures – and the realities were even more amazing than I dreamed.
I came, also, to be face-to-face with the Maori culture and history, which I’ve studied, and this, too, went beyond my hopes. Face to face with a Maori warrior (with a spear!) sending me his power in his Haka. (What a moment of travel! Like a time machine, and a great privilege for which I thank Lee and Karen and all of you.) And I thank, again, the dear Karen for taking us inside the settlement, the holy room, and inside her culture with love and grace.
Lee was our perfect guide/mother/friend – who always knew where we should be and when and the best way to get there, available for any question, and sharing her Kiwi life with us, a major, major(!) plus on the trip.
David Scott Silverberg was a surprise to me, not only for his depth of knowledge, but for that wonderful exuberance that had him explaining things with his whole body (!) because the facts are so exciting to him, and, so, he made them exciting to us. (Well, okay, some of us napped in the planetarium, but, hey we were tired that day, and I’m old). And then David would spoil us on the bus rides by reading (and very well) short stories by New Zealand authors, so that we gained yet another level in the study of a country and its people.
So I came away with many treasures: the day of the Haka, (sounds like my next film!) The wild ride through beautiful and dramatic Doubtful Sound, the amazing moments in that cave! (Just hearing our guide singing toward the roof of that great, ancient “cathedral,” let alone the dazzling glow worms (glimmer, glimmer). The wonderful land of the geysers and hot pools, and the use of that seemingly magic inner-earth to heat the Maori’s homes and cook their food. And the fine times and talks with all of you.
Let me now press noses and foreheads with each one of you. My wife enjoys sharing that lovely way of greeting with me, but, no, she doesn’t refer to me as Chief. Sigh.
Wishing you all splendid days.