Okay, I've survived my first day here in Shangri La at Little Ark.
Now, aside from walking up the hill to Big Ark to catch my bus in a few
minutes, what am I going to do for my next trick?
I'm sitting at my desk in my classroom staring at the blank first page
of my journal, and I haven't the slightest notion where to begin. I will
introduce my students and describe the events of the day, yes, but there
must be more if I am to have any hope of pulling this thing off. My work
here in Little Ark with my junior wackadoodles is supposed to form a
kind of prism through which I view the life and work of the Old
Wackadoodle. That isn't going to be so easy. I could spend years working
on this crazy project, and end up with nothing more than a worthless
stack of paper.
Then again, it's not as if I have anything better to do.
Some people, usually not writers, are fond of saying that everyone has
a novel inside her or himself, by which they mean that every person's
life would form a rich and interesting literary tapestry if only the
right words could be found to weave it. Yeah, right. I've published 23
novels and upwards of a hundred short stories, all filled with mystery,
murder and mayhem, and not one of these works has anything whatsoever to
do with my life. I have no idea how I do what I do, and am simply
grateful that I can do it. My ability to imagine and to word-mine those
images is a mystery itself, a gift, and in a very real sense I view it
as something apart from me as a person. When I search inside my life,
mostly what I find is banality, desolation and desperation.
I'm sitting here trying to organize my thoughts, but all that comes to
mind is Dora and the time more than 30 years ago when she trashed my car
and poured lighter fluid over her head and I brought her here to Big
Ark, the adult psychiatric facility only a ten minute walk up the
service road outside my classroom window. She changed after she almost
shot her lover while both were in a drunken rage. Both of them stopped
drinking after that, and they have been together in a stable
relationship for more than twenty years. Now she is a sad woman,
overweight and diabetic, spending her days cleaning houses and visiting
our son in prison, crying a lot and bemoaning the fact that there isn't
enough money to hire a good lawyer to file yet another appeal of Alan's
horrific sentence. But when she was young and married to me she was like
a brush fire burning deep underground, inextinguishable, eating the
roots of the living things around her. She was responsible for one of
the two times I've been in jail, innocent of her charges, but stone
guilty and deserving to be shot the second time, so drunk from rage,
frustration, two bottles of vodka and a half bottle of Scotch I could
have died of alcohol poisoning, or killed Ven, my second wife-to-be, and
anyone else on the road as I tried to drive home after we'd had dinner
at the home of the film director for whom I'd been writing dirty movies.
Despite the fact that the body of my published work then consisted of
only three poems and a short story in an obscure, mimeographed
"little" magazine that probably had a readership of less than fifty,
I'd answered an ad in The Village Voice placed by a film company called
World Pictures, which was looking for a screenwriter. Samples of work
were to be sent to the production company, which had an office in New
York City. Hoping that a personal touch might help me land the job, I
gathered up three of what I considered to be my best unpublished short
stories and drove the next morning into New York.
The address given for World Pictures turned out to be a private
apartment on the fourth floor of a shabby, low-rent high- rise. I
knocked on the door, and a short, nervous-looking man with a sallow
complexion, sunken dark eyes and an unruly shock of black hair answered.
Through the open door I could see an old Moviola film-editing machine
set up in what appeared to be the living room of the small apartment.
Stacked against the opposite wall were boxes of what I presumed were
manuscripts submitted as sample work by other aspiring screenwriters.
Certain that I did not stand a chance against all the competition
crammed into the boxes against the wall, I simply introduced myself,
asked that I be considered for the screenwriting job, handed the man my
three manuscripts, turned and walked away. Two days later I received a
call from the man, who introduced himself as Tommy Land, a film director
working for World Pictures. I had been awarded the screenwriting job,
and was asked to come into the office the next morning at 11:00 A.M. for
a special screening of World Pictures' latest feature. Since I was on
vacation from teaching for the summer, I certainly could, and I went to
sleep that night imagining myself as a successful Hollywood screenwriter
with a beach home in Malibu.
Months later, after I had proved my usefulness to World Pictures and
Tommy and I had become friends, he told me he had never read any of the
manuscripts submitted in response to the ad. I had been hired solely on
the basis of my "cool" - I hadn't tried to pressure or pitch him when
I'd shown up to personally deliver my work.
When I arrived at the offices of World Pictures the next morning, Tommy
introduced me to Leonard Katz, a former cab driver, the owner and
producer of the film company, and its sole cameraman. Leonard's pleasure
and specialty, I would learn, was crotch shots of women clad only in
panties. World Pictures produced low budget soft porn films.
The sloppily edited, rough cut of the film I was shown was seventy
minutes long. The first twenty minutes of the film showed two women
walking and talking on the streets, going into shops, and otherwise
going about their business, whatever that might be. Something was
obviously being discussed, but it was impossible to tell what, because
there was no soundtrack, and no script. Leonard did not believe in
scripting his films, since writing a script took too long, and he would
have had to pay too much money to anyone who actually knew how to write
a script to do it.
Leonard's production schedules and procedures were simple. They would
find a "location," usually a friend's house. Then he would rent
cameras and other equipment on a Friday afternoon, since he was not
charged over the weekend. Two or three professional porn actresses would
be hired, usually at fifty dollars a day, and various male friends would
be recruited to play the male roles. Over the weekend they would do a
"wild shoot," meaning he and Tommy would make things up as they went
along, and then dub in dialogue, music and sound effects at a later
date. Prints would be made up and distributed to various porn theaters
around the country.
With this particular film, something had gone horribly wrong: Tommy had
decided that this time he wanted to make a "more serious" film,
meaning that he actually wanted to tell a semblance of a story instead
of merely pasting together a dozen or so sex scenes, giving the
"movie" a title, printing it up and distributing it. To this end he
had made up a story, which only he knew, and on the morning of the first
day of shooting had instructed the actresses as to the general subject
of the dialogue he wanted them to improvise before setting them loose to
wander at will along the street and go into any shops they liked. After
a few hours of this, Leonard and his girlfriend had pressured Tommy to
"get on with it," meaning to start shooting some sex scenes. This had
been a mistake. Tommy, frustrated in his artistic ambitions, had gotten
high on pot, rented costumes from a Halloween shop, and shot the rest of
his film in a loft where he'd staged a non-stop simulated orgy. The
result was the "film" I was shown - ten minutes of two women walking
around moving their lips, and sixty minutes of orgy. Dubbing the film
was impossible, since Tommy could not remember his original story, or
exactly what it was he had instructed the actresses to talk about. The
actresses, when asked, admitted that they had not really understood
Tommy's instructions, and so had simply spent their time on camera
discussing their boyfriends. Without some kind of soundtrack, it would
be impossible to release the film even in the bottom-feeder markets they
Could I, Leonard asked, "do something" with the rough cut, meaning
write some kind of voice-over narration that would tie the ambling and
orgy together and allow them to release the film? He would pay me one
Well, sure 1 could "do something" with the mess, would, and did.
Obviously, 1 wasn't going to become a Hollywood screenwriter, but I
would have done almost anything to be paid for my writing.
In fact, Leonard had been so pleased with my work that he'd altered his
production operations. Now he would shoot enough footage on weekends for
two or three films, Tommy and he, still making up story lines as they
went along, would do rough edits of the films, then call me, having
discovered that I could tie just about any nonsensical film together
with a voice-over narration written after the fact. I found all this
"paint-by-the-numbers" writing, the eerie power of my imagination to
impose order on their chaos, highly entertaining, and I tried to leaven
the absurdity of what I was doing with a little humor. Apparently, I
succeeded. I wrote the narrations under the pseudonym Ron Rheego, in the
unlikely event that anyone I knew might actually see one of these films,
and, incredibly, Ron Rheego films acquired a certain cachet among the
cognoscenti of low budget pornographic movies. By the time I was
finished with World Pictures, Ron Rheego had "written" nine films,
along with the trailers to promote them, and a Ron Rheego Film Festival
had played on 42nd Street.
By then it was evident that Leonard had no interest in ever shooting
anything other than crotch shots. But I still wanted to make "real"
films, and I thought Tommy did too. After years still dismally
unsuccessful at getting my fiction published, it occurred to me that
Tommy and I might form our own film production company and, using his
expertise, try to raise enough money to produce a medium budget mystery
or action-adventure film, with Tommy directing from my original
screenplay. It was this dream born out of frustration that had led to
Ven and I having dinner with Tommy, to my getting blind drunk and
spending a second, this time well-deserved, night in jail, and finally
to these memories thirty years later as I sit in a classroom inside a
children's mental hospital.