Boats Against the Current
And still we keep on creating, though myself not as much I would like of late. Lacking friends with benefits, I turned earlier this summer to friends with books out.
Marcia Trahan’s memoir Mercy: A Memoir of Medical Trauma and True Crime Obsession explores her own medical ordeals, her obsession with true crime on television, women’s bodies as commodities in society, and her own identity. Sue William Silverman’s How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences, a memoir in essays, explores assault and addiction, and masterfully illustrates how trauma can stalk a person’s life, sometimes in brief shadow, sometimes in full-blown flashback.
I like to call Lee Martin’s recent fiction “Southern Illinois Noir,” although whether he likes me to call it that is not something I have asked. In his recent novels and story collections, momentarily untethered people make rash decisions that lead to outsized consequences; sometimes, as in his recent Yours, Jean, based on a true crime, an entire town acts as both chorus and cast.
There has been little progress on my own work, except for publicity for and correction of the proof of Censorettes. While I have little to complain about (I know; I am lucky!), how rarely that stops me. I am able to work from home, and I am putting in more hours than ever, including Sunday afternoon, which at least provided peaceful, uninterrupted time. I am attending a virtual writing conference next week, and need to get my day job ducks in a row.
Once I was done, a walk to the park was in order. My new favorite place is Chateau Le Woof, because I love the ingenuity the owners had of turning a former industrial parking garage into a dog-friendly cafe, open to the street, across from the park. On the way there, I met a woman and her dog. The owner and I nodded, but the dog did a full-fledged double take and pulled her back to where I was sitting. “YOU AGAIN!” he would have cried, had we both been human, and cast in a romantic comedy where in an earlier scene I would have stolen his parking spot, or spoiled some meticulously prepared model just before the big presentation. He gazed at me with ardent brown eyes through dirty white fur.
“Hi,” I said to the dog, as his owner tried to break his stare and pull him along, chuckling apologies to me. I said to the dog, “Hot out, right?” and then, as a man walked by, “Okay, I’m really not that interesting. Try that guy.”
Because of allergies, I’m not a petter of strange dogs, particularly ones who regard me like an antic Cary Grant regarding the leopard, if not Katherine Hepburn, in Bringing Up Baby.
Then, I said to the dog, “Alright,” and got up to walk with them to the park.
“You a Vermonter?” asked the woman.
Strange question, I thought, until I looked down and realized I was wearing a Vermont t-shirt. I still think it is a strange question. People don’t necessarily wear t-shirts advertising their home, so they can be returned if life becomes wayward. People visit places and buy t-shirts to show they were there; there is even a cliché about it. But I once wore a t-shirt I bought in Canada on a Brooklyn riverside bike tour, and people kept asking me what province I was from, or telling me how much they liked Quebec.
The woman was herself from Burlington. I told her, then, about Vermont, how I attend the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Conference in Montpelier, Vermont every summer (where I met the above authors, Lee, Marcia and Sue), how this year it is virtual, which means I am not at my picnic table on the town green at the top of the hill, or hanging out in the Cafe Anna with my friends, but in my apartment, in my same crippling home desk chair, a captive of Zoom, with pandemic hair and bad lighting (I know; I am lucky!)
Maybe I am a Vermonter.
We turned the corner on Vernon Boulevard, where some string players were entertaining an insufficiently socially distanced group and their dogs.
My canine love interest took off across the park, a sculpture park, which is currently home to this monolith.
The music of the strings lured me out of the park and I stood among my insufficiently socially distanced neighbors, enriched that day by so much heat and creativity. We are isolated; still, we create. We are ordered to keep a distance; still, we connect. We experience ordeals and suffer from bad decisions; still, we write books (albeit ones with blood-splattered covers).
The string players launched into I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You, alternating the melody line, first the pizzicato, then the legato. We all grew very still and drank it in. We knew we were lucky.
I was nursing my morning coffee — I got up late because I’d stayed up way too late watching an embarrassingly bad Netflix series (embarrassing that I let it break my sleep regimen since I was fast-forwarding through half of it anyway). So, nursing coffee, turned on the t.v. because there’s a Doctor Who marathon on BBC America but it was an episode involving the Daleks and I am that rare Doctor Who fan who really dislikes the Daleks. I had errands but they could wait until I finished my coffee. So I hopped over to Turner Classic Movies, where Eddie Mullen had just begun to describe the TCM premiere of Repeat Performance, a noir from 1947, the prints of which were thought to have disappeared.
Although I am a fan of film noir, I had never seen Noir Alley, or Eddie Mullen, its host. I am a huge fan of Ben Mankiewicz and always hope, when I stumble on an old classic movie that reminds me why I went to film school instead of getting an English degree like everyone expected, that it will end with Ben walking across the terra cotta floor of the TCM studio to tell the viewers of some contractual dispute or gossip behind the making of the film. He has a wry, bemused why-do-I-live-in-this-town approach to his stories, while Mullen is more brusque and professorial.
Still, the story he told of Repeat Performance was a compelling one, spanning the birth of a B-picture studio, Eagle-Lion Films, which was owned by British film producer Arthur Rank and was meant to churn out the B pictures to accompany major British films. When Mullen rattled off the names of the producers who had worked there, he included the name of a grandfather of a friend of mine.
Long ago, I abandoned a novel about a B picture company called Eagle-American. I am currently whiling away the hours on a novel in which a minor character is based an Arthur Rank/Alexander Korda type figure. Let’s say a Rank-Korda type figure. I put my fictional studio in Denham, as Korda’s was. But since my British mogul was only in one scene, I figured it was alright to borrow Denham.
Repeat Performance is just the kind of title I would have given to a film produced in my fictional worlds. When Mullen said that the film had been out of circulation for so long that the people who saw, years ago, had begun to wonder if they had imagined it, I thought of the Julio Cortazar story We Love Glenda So Much, about a group of cinephiles so devoted to the work of a retired actress that they began to steal prints of her films and re-edit them to correct its flaws.
I was now glued to my couch, errands be damned.
Repeat Performance is like a combination of It’s a Wonderful Life if that film had begun with George Bailey shooting Mr. Potter instead of mislaying $8,000, and All About Eve, if Margo Channing had shot Eve. It opens with a celebrated Broadway actress, Sheila Page, shooting a man on New Year’s Eve, then running down the fire escape to a swank nightclub where everybody is celebrating. Among the callow “Say, why’re you out in your nightgown?” types, she finds a friend, William Williams, pleads with him to accompany her to the home of her theatrical producer. As they approach the producer’s door, Sheila says “Oh, William, I wish I could live this year all over again!”
And so she does. Sheila gets a new 1946.
She tries to keep her husband, Barney Page, the murder victim, away from a successful playwright who seduced him away from her in the old 1946. She tries to keep William Williams away from the sugar mommy (played by Natalie Schafer, later to be stranded on Gilligan’s Island) who will bankroll his artistic dreams but have him committed to an asylum when she tires of him. (William Williams had, on the first New Year’s Eve, just walked out of the asylum, and caught a bus to that nightclub, apparently.)
But in true “Appointment in Samara” fashion, Sheila Page cannot alter destiny. She seems little interested in destiny, although than her own, and that of her poet pal William Williams. The United Nations and the Cannes Film Festival both launched in 1946, but aside from a brief jaunt to California to try to keep Barney sober and away from the conniving playwright, the film unfolds entirely in apartments, theaters and nightclubs. (Barney, by the way, is in no way worth any of this trouble. He sulks, drinks, and cheats and carries on like a poisoned Ricky Ricardo.) There might never have been a war, since no one mentions it. Barney wrote a play five years ago, and William Williams has been writing poetry, but apart from one sailor seen in a nightclub, there have been no men fighting the war.
In the end, Sheila cannot alter fate but the one bright spot is that she has a friend (and possible suitor) in the person of the producer, who is played by a man who reminded me so much of George Saunders that I kept checking IMDB, even though it told me the first time that it wasn’t George Saunders. (It turned out to be, Eddie Mullen said afterwards, George Saunders’ brother.)
Unlike Sheila, I do not wish a do-over. Maybe just a better performance, rather than a repeat one, in the coming year.