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Entries in alex carnevale (147)

Tuesday
Mar252014

In Which What Looks Organic Is Organic

This is the first in a two part series on the life of director Nicholas Ray.

Too Masculine A Role

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Ever since I was four and she was nine I've wanted to make it with my sister Helen, because she was my sister.

Alcohol was the major feature of Nicholas Ray's young life. His father was an alcoholic; his mother was active in the abstinence movement. "I learned about Aqua Velva long before I started shaving," Ray later recalled. "No, I didn't drink it. I poured it over the sheets or into the bathtub to clear the smell of my puke." La Crosse, Wisconsin was about as American as it gets.

While his father went from bar to bar, Ray would wait in the car, sometimes using the time to masturbate. When he was especially drunk, Ray's father would beat his son. One night young Nicholas dragged his father home from a particularly severe bender; he had dragged the pathetic man up from where he lay in puddles of vomit. Later that afternoon, his mother called him to tell his father was dead.

His older sisters were all married by then, pleased as punch to be out of La Crosse. Ray and his mother did not get along so wonderfully, and part of the time she sent him to live with his sister Ruth on the north side of Chicago. A friend attended the University of Chicago, and Ray focused his efforts on transferring from a La Crosse junior college to a place where he might have Thornton Wilder as his instructor. Eventually through sheer force of will he was accepted.

He arrived in Hyde Park with two gallons of undiluted grain alcohol, a determination to have sex with as many women as possible and a passion for acting.

in old age

The director of Wilder's on-campus productions was a popular professor named O'Hara. He took a serious interest in Ray, working up to the point where he parked his car on Lake Michigan and attempted to give the boy a blowjob. "He caressed me," Ray explained whenever he recalled the story. "I wanted to please him. God knows I wanted to say thank you, somehow I wanted to say thank you. I said thank you. He unbuttoned my trousers. I wanted to come if he wanted me to come. I stroked his gray-white hair. I couldn't come. We drove back to campus."

Ray's sexuality was a deeply confusing subject, but he harbored no attraction to the older man. His own mixed-up ideas led him to notice similar confusion in others: "I always suspect the warmth or tenderness or color range of a person who publicly disports himself in either too strict a feminine or too strict a masculine role," he said.

Nicholas Ray only lasted one term in Hyde Park before returning to his junior college in La Crosse, unable to keep up with the academic work. There he started a theater group that become modestly successful, allowing him to open a school for drama that would teach teens in his mother's house, where he now lived.

at Taliesin

1933. Ray's friendship with Thornton Wilder secured him a place with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin. The compound had a variety of activities that suited Ray's talents in the theater, and it was hoped that division would bring in the money Wright's enterprises sorely lacked. Given Wright's financial position at the time, anyone who could pay six hundred dollars a year was accepted.

Ray didn't have the money, so he headed for New York in the meantime. He crashed on a couch in the West Village, sending Lloyd Wright postcards. He had no money by then: his father's death had left his estate to his wife alone, and Ray swiftly spent all he had made from community theater. "Struggle is grand," he wrote Wright unseriously. "It's what we young should live with a great deal more than we do; it is a little-undernourishing to the body sometimes, but what matter, it is as solid as pain."

Wright eventually travelled to New York, and while there he invited Ray to return to Taliesin with him to aid the prospects of the Hillside Playhouse, a new structure which boasted a 200 seat amphitheater. To draw crowds to see films which did not usually make it to Madison or Milwaukee, the playhouse began screening a variety of foreign films. It was Ray's initial exposure to Eisenstein and Carl Dreyer, even the first glimpse the future master of color had of animation.

In mere weeks Ray had himself appointed director of the playhouse. The highest of masters and lowest of apprentices all shared in communal work at Talesin. This mixed Ray in with apprentices in every field. On a sexual level, both men and women wanted him for themselves. But this prominence in the community also drew unwanted attention from its king. Wright had planned to construct sandstone over a few lovely oak panels, and Ray dared to question the architect, asking him, "Is that it, Mr. Wright? What looks organic is organic?" He was on a bus out of Taliesin the next day.

Wright argued that it was Ray's alcoholism which set off the feud. In a letter describing Ray's departure from the commune, Wright wrote, "I am letting him out today... He is intelligent and has many charming qualities, notwithstanding his defects. He should make the most of them." Others have suggested the reason for Ray's departure was due to Wright's secret desire to be with men.

Elia Kazan, Ray and others

In New York he joined a group of left-wing actors and writers calling themelves the Theatre of Action. There he re-met an acquaintance from his hometown, the director Joseph Losey, and a short Greek actor named Elia Kazan. Except for Kazan and a few others, most were communists; and under direction from political leaders in the party began advocating for certain changes in the New York theatrical world. Ray and his girlfriend Jean Evans lived in the theater's 27th Street home. When the theater broke up, the two relocated uptown.

Losey went on to better things, and hired the still-destitute Ray to be his stage manager. Recently returned from Russia, Losey was the darling of the left-wing theater, a Darmouth and Harvard grad who was engaged to ready-to-wear clothing designer Elizabeth Hawes. Losey quit the play they were working on due to interference from the party before opening night, but joined the movement later.

on the set of the CBS show

Ray made good money and with a baby on the way, looked for more. The couple moved to Washington, where the father took a job with the WPA and met Alan Lomax. "He was certainly one of the most splendid young men in the whole world," Lomax said of Ray. "He seemed to me to be the person I'd always dreamed of being. He was very powerful and gentle and wonderful to look at. He had a kind of grin and laughter that were the same thing."

Ray grew to hate his desk job at the WPA, as much as he enjoyed spending time with Lomax and producer John Houseman. Initially faithful to his new wife, he soon allowed himself to step out on her in Washington. He had a conflicted attitude towards these dalliances. "I'm afraid that sex destroys intimacy more often than it creates it," he admitted regretfully. They eventually went back to New York to try to claim a better life for themselves where they were once happy. Ray directed a CBS series entitled Back Home Where I Come From featuring performers from Lomax's project.

After the show was canceled, they lived on Evans' income alone. "I think we're going to get really straight on our own problems," Evans told her friend. "We've been very happy in many ways  and there's something we've got now which we never had before  a kind of cohesiveness that comes with trouble." She could not have been more wrong.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

"Coming Home" - Kaiser Chiefs (mp3)

"Meanwhile Up In Heaven" - Kaiser Chiefs (mp3)

Thursday
Mar202014

In Which We Shut Our Eyes Wide To Elia Kazan

The Friendship Mask

by ALEX CARNEVALE

She says the same thing, that bitch, that you do about me, that I'm an emotional cripple, by which she means that I don't release my true emotions, that it's a cover-up, what I show the world.  

- Elia Kazan to his therapist about Barbara Loden

Elia Kazan decided to break things off with Barbara Loden. She had already felt, almost imperceptibly, his reluctance. She had recently told him at length of all the men she had ever been with. She informed him of her history, she said, so he did not have to wonder.

Enraged, Kazan began cheating on her whenever he could. She rehearsed her part in The Changeling all afternoon and evening at Lincoln Center, and he was free to stroll off from the set during those times. With a blonde girlfriend, he now exclusively courted brunettes.

with first wife Molly

One of these available women was a singer in a religious choir he had met in Tennessee. She kept her eyes closed while they fucked, mystifying Kazan. Another was a Greek brunette who tried to convince him to impregnate her and disappear. (He refused.)

While Loden was being fitted for costumes for her role, he wandered in Central Park one day and picked up a girl playing softball. She gave him her dead husband's favorite sweater.

Kazan's friends feared that Barbara Loden had trapped him years before by keeping her only pregnancy. The boy, Leo, was now three, and Kazan had less than no interest in him. "I've never regretted telling Barbara that if she wanted a child it was all right with me," he writes in the best show business autobiography ever penned, A Life. "Knowing my nature, wouldn't you say she was taking a riskier chance than I was?"

wrapping up 'Streetcar'

Seven years into the relationship, Kazan was now weary of her. ("No one can tell me that novelty is not a great charge in sex," he states in A Life, as if that were a revelation.) His numerous indiscretions only further convinced Kazan that he and Loden did not have love between them anymore.

Elia and Barbara

He planned to pick up Barbara Loden from rehearsal in a cab and head back to her place, where he would break the news gently. In the taxi, she immediately began complaining about how he had blocked her scenes, and criticized his directorial efforts in general. Kazan turned on her, dismissing his earlier reticence towards cruelty. She listened quietly to what he said.

Once her room, she took off all her clothes immediately, as she always did, to appease him. "I wanted to lie still on the bed and hold her," Kazan writes about the post-coital mood. "But I noticed she didn't like this the way she once had, and although her head was on my upper arm, and her leg over mine, she seemed tense, like a runner before a race. Then she said, with a casualness I thought feigned, 'Daddy, I wish you'd tell me what you want me to do.'"

with his father

He could think of no real reply. Moments later, she said, "It's either we marry or break up for good." After seeing her home, he went to the apartment of the young widow. There he was happy for a time.

+

When Elia Kazan had first introduced Barbara Loden to his friend John Steinbeck, the writer told him, in no uncertain terms, to stay away from her. Kazan planned to resolve his conflict with Loden by leaving for Europe; his therapist suggested he would feel better if he said goodbye to her. There, on a bench in Central Park, he met his son Leo for the first time.

Molly & Elia with John and Elaine Steinbeck

Elia had been with his first wife Molly Kazan when he first met Loden. Ostensibly a playwright, Molly was not much of a writer and on some level, even after four lovely children by her, Kazan could not forgive this weakness. Molly first learned of Kazan's penchant for infidelity during his not-so-quiet affair with the actress Constance Dowling.

with katharine hepburn & spencer tracy

He always made a habit of introducing his wife to his mistress, but his affair with Constance was so obvious Molly was told by a third party. His wife banished him to the study of their home, right next door to the bedroom, and seriously considered divorce. A friend gave her a piece of advice: "If you want him, you'll have to take him as he is." The only one who supported the director in the marriage's impasse was his parents.

+

He started up with Loden originally on the set of Splendor in the Grass. They had sex during every single lunch break. When the production was in New York, he would go home to his wife and their maid would serve the family dinner. He only stopped having sex with Loden when she became visibly pregnant.

directing Vivien Leigh in 'Streetcar'

Again he was compelled to see what Molly thought of Barbara, and vice versa. Unable to resist, he asked Loden for her opinion on his wife. "She's a very handsome woman," Loden said.

with Molly and their four children

Throughout these lascivious trails, Kazan reveals he felt very little in the way of guilt. His penchant for self-acceptance in A Life reeks of 20/20 hindsight, but there is something else at work there, too, an essence his analyst identified and determined could never be fully repaired. Kazan did not long for other women because there was something lacking in his life. He had determined that this was his life: what primacy could any other part of his self claim, to stand up to that?

Elia's commiseration with Loden waxed and waned as the years went on. Sometimes she sent him letters describing an empathy she felt for him; at other moments she wondered if she even liked the man at all.

From his perspective, her innate destructiveness and lack of interest in how others viewed her was what attracted him in the first place. It was also the inner element which produced the natural charisma invaluable to her work as an actress and filmmaker.

Molly Kazan

Loden and Kazan continued to see each other, if infrequently, in the last years of Molly Kazan's life. (She died from a brain hemorrhage in 1963, and was buried with her wedding ring.) Given a new primacy in his life after Molly's death, Loden challenged Kazan regarding the stage roles he gave her. She constantly threatened to move to Los Angeles.

Kazan openly wondered to friends whether he'd required Molly to make his relationship with Loden work. He lost the ability to maintain an erection with her during sex, and attempted to break things off, as I have already described.

with Marlon Brando

Free of Barbara, wandering the earth, Kazan felt somewhat alone. He wrote to Loden, suggested he missed her and asked her to come to Japan. They kept writing until she arrived, and when he saw her at the airport, he knew he had made a mistake. Still, she did everything she could to please him, and he responded in turn. She seemed happy to be with him again until Kazan told her that he had been fucking around with another woman in the month before she arrived.

Back in the U.S., Kazan continued seeing both Loden and his new mistress. (He was never able to manage much more than two at a time.) Again, his curiosity got the better of him, and he encouraged Barbara to confront the other woman he was seeing. Kazan called the girl to warn her Loden might try to see her.

"She's right here," the girl said.

"How are you getting along?" Kazan asked.

"I like her very much."

Loden somehow emerged the victor of these events, and she moved in with Kazan a few months later, walking into Elia's study and putting Leo in his lap. They were married in Kenya soon after, and a ceremony was held in the Caribbean. They were wed for less than a year before he found a mistress that would complement her better.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

loden during her cancer
"No Devotion" - White Hinterland (mp3)

"Wait Until Dark" - White Hinterland (mp3)

Thursday
Mar132014

In Which We Visit The Grand Budapest Schmotel

Delicious Frosting

by ALEX CARNEVALE

The Grand Budapest Hotel
dir. Wes Anderson
100 minutes

Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) is an apprentice baker at Mendl's, a famous patisserie in the greater Zubrowka area. She is ostensibly content; she has a boyfriend and a caring mentor at her workplace. She sleeps in an attic room that occasionally becomes cold during the winter, but that is when the warmth from a wood stove fills the room with a comforting heat. Still, something troubles her placid existence: she is the only female character of any note in Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel.

There is something profoundly satisfying about Wes' movies, since you know no one will ever change or be altered by the events around them in the slightest, except possibly a small note of recrimination or exuberance at the completion of their tale of woe. This rejection of the traditional satisfaction of narrative turns The Grand Budapest Hotel into a sort of vapid picaresque, something like eating the frosting off the top of a cake.

The masterstroke here is casting Ralph Fiennes in the role of a bisexual concierge who seduces rich old ladies. At first we are disgusted by this frothy caricature, but we soften to him like we do to so many other Wes Anderson protagonists, who succeed merely on the enthusiasm of their love of their world: its elevators, booby traps, perfumes, handsoaps and keys.

Fiennes has a protege of his own, the precociously-named lobby boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori). The two travel to the home of a Dowager Countess (Tilda Swinton) who Fiennes has masterly seduced in the confines of his hotel. She is a disgusting creature, basically a less ambitious Cruella de Ville, and in the wake of her death Fiennes hopes for a bequest from her estate.

The concierge discovers she has been murdered by her family, and the rest of The Grand Budapest Hotel concerns itself with what will now happen to her ample holdings. In a particularly disturbing scene, Willem Dafoe pursues and executes the family's Jewish lawyer in an allegorical fable of anti-Semitism. Attorney Deputy Kovacs is the most virtuous character in all of Wes' movies, for he is the only one who gives a shit about his duty.

The hotel itself is rather deprived of joy before and after the war, and the other major set, a prison camp, is also a design disappointment. It would be weird to repeat the detailing of the Life Aquatic's submarine on a concentration camp, but it is hard to believe there wasn't a better prison movie here. What the director is really in love with is how style should overwhelm anything, and nothing will survive when pitted against it. He proves this so often we must agree it is mostly true.

Abandonment of people and places is foremost on Wes' mind here. "I can't go back to prison," the subtly ethnic Fiennes whines about his tenure in a Harvey Keitel-infested jail, but he could equally be talking about the hotel itself.

Rather than a celebration of anything, the hotel is a cauldron of bad memories and unexpected feelings, just like every long lived-in place. When we move on from painful environs, The Grand Budapest Hotel points out over and over again, they are never the same upon our return to them. This is an ancient, romantic theme; but then most of Anderson's recent movies feature an intense aversion to anything contemporary. It is only his best work which tell us something about the world we live in, rather than the one they lived in.

In his debut as young Zero, Tony Revolori's laconic expression makes the most of his unforgiving role as Fiennes' refugee lackey. He is never given very much to do in the part; he only really changes his clothes once or twice in the entire movie. The full depth of his affair with Agatha is avoided at all costs: we are never permitted to watch anyone show real love to each other in The Grand Budapest Hotel, as if that would violate the sanctity of the place. Ronan offers even less in her slim role. We are mostly told, in grating, purposeless voiceover, about what a remarkable and brave person she is.

Despite this coldness, there is some kind of underlying sympathy in The Grand Budapest Hotel, although it takes great pains to really locate it among dark jokes about dead cats and Jews. You actually have to admire the director for not pulling the heartstrings more, since both of the protagonists of the film are poverty-stricken orphans. But had we been informed of that at length, we would have instantly forgiven them anything. Forgiveness and pity is never what such people want, and they are loathe to accept any.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

"When You're Older" - Fair Oaks (mp3)

"See What the Sun Gave" - Fair Oaks (mp3)