Sunday, November 20, 2005

Art, Movies, Money

Less money; more freedom
Martin Scorsese

Hanging out at the Whitehorse Tavern in the later 1950s I would regularly share poet José Garcia Villa’s table in the back room on Friday nights. José taught poetry writing at CCNY: despite his quirk of putting commas after every single word. Friday nights he would gather with some of his students, some of his friends, and I seemed particularly welcome.

José, a little odd in a number of ways, made no secret of having the hots for me. Once he respected that I wasn't that way however, he left me my own space and I enjoyed his soirées. (Dylan gone, José was the most famous poet currently a regular. Oh, all sorts stopped by: Faulkner, James Baldwin ... Jack Hawkins ... Tom Clancy seemed glued. But those are novelists, actors, singers. The White Horse was Celtic, however German Ernie was, and poetry was the Celtic main thing there.) I always got tons of free drinks at the Whitehorse — why was gone into at [censored, temporarily offline] — and José also got more than his share.

Oh, hell, I’ll repeat why here: years passed before I myself learned the reason, but Ernie, the owner, hated the Madison Avenue types that flooded the place after Life Magazine had featured the White Horse in its article on Dylan Thomas. The ad exec would request a tab, Ernie would comply: and then put every second or third drink for his preferred customers onto the bill of those he didn’t like. Mr. Exec would show up on the weekend, and out loud call, "Ernie, my tab." Then, "What? $187? I only had two beers." And Ernie would respond, "Pay it, or get out." Again and again, they paid. Ernie also bought his own rounds: like once an evening. If Ernie’s pony of Chivas Regal arrived at your table, soon followed by Ernie himself, that round was on Ernie. Otherwise, 50%, sometimes 75% of my bill, of José’s bill, was on Madison Avenue. One time I think I had sixteen beers: my bill was seventy-five cents (if I could be said to be thinking under those circumstances).

Anyhow, José once explained to me how he became a poet. As a boy in the Philippines he had wanted to be an artist: that is, to paint -- with paints, brushes, canvas, paper. But José couldn’t afford paints and brushes. José could afford pencil, paper. José became a poet. It was cheaper.

I write this as I pause before watching Batman Begins, the DVD. These days I spend more time with the player paused than playing. But I plug away, and slowly catch up on many of the movies I missed while starving at FLEX, while starving at my novels ... When I had a couple of dollars and a little leisure, I had seen a lot of movies. Early 1970s that ground to a halt.

I vastly preferred movies to the theater. With movies you got drama, a social medium, without all the planning, date making, advanced ticket-buying. And the art: the art could be so fabulous: Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa ... Griffiths, Chaplin, Ford, Hitchcock ...

In 1955 Ray’s Pather Panchali hit the world. International awards galore. It not only played in cities, it played the occasional suburb. By 1958 I had seen it I don’t know how many times. One time in the 1960s all three films in the trilogy were playing en suite at the Little Carnegie. I entered at noon and watched them cycle till midnight. Was I ever a basket case by the time I staggered off to find something to eat.
Point is: Ray made Pather Panchali using a rented camera: and friends, amateur actors. The movie cost him a few hundred dollars to make. Now Robert Rodriguez makes watchable films at bargain budgets. Still, even for staggering cases like Ray’s with Pather Panchali, cameras, film ... cost more than paints, brushes ... and a lot more than pencil, paper.

But think: think of the artists who’ve drawn in the sand. Think of the poets who wrote without pencil or paper. Think of the millennia of epic poets who composed in their head, who performed at the camp fire ... And think of our society were everything costs more and more and more.

I’m going to go watch my movie now. But I expect to come back sometime and marvel at how good movies can be despite being so, to some extent necessarily, expensive to make: to make, to market, to show. It’s astonishing -- to me -- that art and movies have ever come within a light year of each other.

Oh, wait: favorite story: Chaplin was wildly successful immediately upon entering Hollywood. We all know that. Chaplin was the first artist to "earn" $1,000 a week: an unheard of amount at the time. What we don’t all know ... Wait: Chaplin said, about to sign, "Could you make it $1,075 a week?" "What’s the $75 for?" he was asked. "I need something to live on," he answered.
What isn’t known is that he was expected to pay for the movies he made out of that grand! It wasn’t salary; it was budget. And he wanted to blow the whole grand on the celluloid.

No comments: