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Sunday, December 1, 2019

Koon Woon ------------ TOO LONG OF A STORY (dispatches from the mental health system)

First couple of pages from the first draft:


The Conard File [begin November 15, 2019]:
(Dispatches from the mental health system)

Sarah made her first batik and gave it to me as a present. It was a fish. She was unilaterally in love with me. She was 43 and I was 28 and this was in San Francisco. We were residents of the halfway house Conard for mentally ill people.

Before I moved in I was at the Chinatown YMCA, renting by the month. My father had put me there after I was released from Napa State Hospital. The year was 1977 and I already been homeless once. When I lived at the YMCA I ate mostly Chinese cream-filled buns at a pastry shop at Wavery Lane, an alley off of Grant Avenue, the main street of Chinatown. My father had given me $1,000 and some nice clothes. He figured that I would bounce right back into economic life, but I disappointed him, because even at age 70 today, I never made it back to the workforce.

How do you account for yourself, mister? When I take occupational preference and skills tests I always get accounting and it tells me to work for the FBI and the CIA. A bit of forensic accounting will flush out the criminals and their money trail. I smell the money, I smell the green. It is because I am good in math. But such a job is drudgery as far as I am concerned and it is not that I am unable to work physically or mentally, but it is that I am emotionally unable to work. And there is a reason for it.

“They told him to go back to work, and he pleaded that he wasn’t ready. They said that his disability compensation was over and he needed to go back to work. That night he jumped off the roof and died.” It was not Franz Kafka who juried his disability; it was the State. And the man who related this story was the brother of the said dead man. This was not a major event in a big US city. It was the small town of Aberdeen. When logging and fishing ceased in this small town, there were a lot of alcoholism, teen pregnancy, and crime. I lived here and when I was very young, I started working. An independent contractor was my first job at age 12. I had a paper route. Then the jobs got heavier and heavier but that wasn’t why I broke down.

It was a built-in genetic time bomb. It reminds me of the cartoon in a terrorist training camp. The teacher demonstrating suicide bombing said to the student terrorists around him and said, “Now watch very carefully! You are only going to see this once!”

And when I was exploited by my family and the State sufficiently I judiciously broke down. Even a machine needs oiling but I was not perceived to have any needs. And when one is pulled from both ends vigorously enough, he will snap in the middle. All that is left of this man now is the sad and urgent lesson not to treat others this way. For in the long run, you cannot whip the horse forever to go at top speed and never feed it grass. But maybe “grass” was part of the problem. The government didn’t take care of its youths well enough and offers no guidance. Thrown to wolves are many young and impressionable young men and women. They are sold a false paradise.

Meanwhile, at Conard, Ben found the suicide note. John had left a big pot of spaghetti in the basement kitchen sink and it was turning green on red. He had not been seen for over 72 hours and so Mrs. Wake the director called the police and they found John walking towards the Golden Gate Bridge. He was taken to SF General for observations. This was a blow to the Conard management. They did not screen carefully enough and this is a statistic they didn’t want. Government grants and private donations depend on what kind of positive reports Conard can give them for their money. Everybody’s motive seems pure enough – the patients want to get well, the staff want to have success stories, and the donors really want to feel they make a difference. And so Dr. Stone the consulting psychiatrist came and address the group meeting, a pep talk.

Every resident had a psychiatrist of their own or have a day-treatment program at a mental health center. When I first moved in my psychiatrist, Ron Smothermon, was writing a book and he gave me chapters to read as he drafts them. It was a book about relationships. Ron obtained his medical degree from a Texas university and he was a firm believer in medication. Back in 1977, many psychiatrist and therapists thought that talk-therapy was efficacious. But now I can see that you can talk with me all day, and if my brain was scrambled by defective biochemistry, you will simply make no sense to me. I would be lost to delusions and illusions, not to mention inappropriate elations and depressions. I might not even feel I had a reason to live. Some honestly didn’t feel that way or felt that no one cared and so like John they would be thinking about walking towards the Golden Gate Bridge.

But for the rest of us, Conard was a reprieve. The rent was cheap, we had 24/7 supervision, we had each other, including the Yale dropout James who took Janie by the hand and used my room for sex, because Jim and Janie’s roommates were home and my roommate Allen the photographer wasn’t. I couldn’t refuse them because they had an urgent need. Sex and sexuality were quite open for just a decade ago, all the flower children descended on San Francisco. I was there that time too. I spent two summers 1969 and 1970 at North Beach which borders Chinatown and the Italian neighborhood. I had gone down there because my hometown friend from Aberdeen was there. He was gay and had a partner. Due to my puritanical training as a Chinese kid of Confucian parents I did not take part in sex of any kind, not yet, and there was a horrendous opportunity for heterosexual as well as gay sex, because in San Francisco the women outnumbered the men and so many men were gay. At least that was what seemed to be the case.

Conard itself is an old Victorian house that survived the 1903 San Francisco earthquake. It had been a hotel for world travelers. It is so interesting that the electrical outlets were still capped by a steel cover because they back in 1903 believed that electricity would “leak” the same way that natural gas would leak. It consisted of three floors and a basement. As far as the patients were concerned, the third-floor kitchen was the “intelligentsia” of Conard. It was here when Maria the well-bosomed woman of Greek descent asked me whether I liked Chinese girls or American. I said I didn’t know. I was that naïve. I said I didn’t know and that was one reason why I was at Conard. She had a different motive though. She was deciding between me or Ben. Ben is younger than Maria but he was the loud type and his father was some kind of military big shot. The only time Ben showed any deference to anyone was when I was demonstrating my martial arts kick in the house’s main living room. He said, “I wouldn’t want to walk into that.” So, Maria and Ben became a couple and rode around on his motorcycle. Yes, people pair off and change partners once in a while. My turn will eventually come with Loraine.

I don’t want the reader think that all this is amounts to no more than sex and suicides. But since most of the people at Conard are from their twenties to their forties, with most of the in their late twenties, and mental illness was quite new and in most ways unexpected, some, like me, thought it was just an inconvenient stage of life, like the acne stage of their late teens. And the management at Conard had “great expectations” of us [you know, that is the only thing about Charles Dickens that I could ever empathize with]. I found out that I could go to Cogswell College on a CETA scholarship and so I went there and majored in Safety Engineering. One of the courses was industrial chemistry, and we learned about the many ways to put out chemical and electrical fires. We even make plastic. But let me tell you, having a mentally ill guy in the chem lab was taking a chance. I could have easily dump some acid into another container of acid and have it splatter on everyone’s flesh. I almost did that. All my classmates ignored me until the teacher said that “one student” made a super improvement from the first exam grade to the second, and by then, valences and orbitals were above everyone’s head, and so they all wanted me to have a cram session for the final. This kind of utilitarian friendship I did without.
                                                                                                                                             


                                                         

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Lew Jones -------------- Ishtar Film Theory


Lewton Thomas Jones
Graduate Film Theory  
                        ISHTAR THE LAST GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL
The movie Ishtar by Elaine May is a comedy starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman. The plot went something like this~ Two struggling songwriters meet by circumstance in New York and begin doing their own unpolished songs like ‘Dangerous business,’ ‘Software,’ and Wardrobe of Love’ (We’re Just as good as Paul Simon or Bruce Springsteen) w/their spouses along for a tortuous ride. They get a music agent named Marty Freed (Jack Weston). After getting a bad response from an open-mike Marty tells them he can book them out of the country. Elaine May takes Rogers and Clarke to Morocco and finally to Ishtar. They meet a left-wing agent (May was considered a Commie in the 50’s) named Shirra Assel (Isabelle Adjani) then a CIA agent Jim Harrison (Charles Grodin) never suspecting they are carrying the map that will inflame the middle east. The Emir wants them dead and all they want to do is get booked at a club and cut an album. As comedy Ishtar falls into several genres. The film is May’s attempt at new fetish comedy in that marriage is in the narrative (Gerald Mast 458) despite the obstacles creates a wedding of sorts, even though both of their spouses are gone but the songwriting duo and Shirra Assel are wed metaphorically with their goals. (pg 459)Gerald Mast describes this type of comedy as; “after successfully combating terrible foes, the protagonist earns both life and love as his rewards.” This is the typical plot of melodrama.”
     Ishtar is also a parody /comedy as it was intentionally similar to Romancing The Stone, but as mock-up in its style. The third comedic style you find is The reductio ad absurdum which Gerald Mast describes as; “A simple human mistake or social question is magnified, reducing the action to chaos and the social question to absurdity.” We can see in Ishtar shades of Ionesco-Chairs, Sartre’s No Exit and Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guilderstern are Dead. Not to mention Anton Chekov the father of ‘realistic absurdism.’ Ishtar is didactic  (pg 460) Mast points out; “The typical progression of such a plot rhythmically is from one to infinity. Perfect for revealing the ridiculousness of social or human attitudes, such a plot frequently serves a didactic function.” Elaine May takes the dream of being songwriters to the point of manic obsession. Hoffman and Beatty’s characters are willing to lose everything, their spouses, their homes, their passports and even their lives to get to the vanishing point. Another comedic style we see is called ‘riffing’ or what (462) Mast describes as; ‘goofing’ or ‘miscellaneous bits,” or improvised and anomalous gaggery.” May was an expert in this style; coming from the comedy team Nichols and May. She was a woman intellectual during television in the 1950’s. Mast (462) continues; “The Sennet/paraody riffing films take some initial situation-perhaps a place (Ishtar in this case) and then run off a series of gags that revolve around this central situation.” Woody Allen a peer to May comes to mind regarding this style. The semiotics of a film reveal its nature by introducing us to the characters of the film and we as spectators then identify the scene as comic. We as spectator are ready to follow the genre with this in mind.

The goddess Ishtar is a goddess of fertility, love, war, romance and adventure and is equivalent to Venus, Kali  and Isis. Elaine May’s Ishtar  is a movie that in theory is both mythology and contemporary realism via the use of the apparatus and the jingle of big business.  The Elaine May Ishtar  was a movie of huge proportions  costing 51 million dollars in 1987. It was 23 million over its original budget. Key terms in film theory immediately pop up-‘excess, auteur, feminism and production. When Warren Beatty is thrown in the equation as co-producer we think of ‘perfectionist’ and Hollywood star and womanizer. Add Dustin Hoffman to Ishtar and we have a montage of great interest and possibility in the brew.  The excess began from the beginning; for example, Columbia spent 8 million dollars on advertising, prints, promotion and publicity. (NY Times 87) The question arises; how did a movie that was scheduled to cost 28 million go so wildly over budget?  The Hollywood Reporter called it in 1987; “Colossally dunderheaded.”  The Daily News said; “A half -baked comedy that somehow turned into a runaway ego trip.” The Los Angeles Herald Examiner called it; “a piffle with a 40 million-plus price-tag.” Those who hated it even before it came out probably didn’t like Elaine May anyway. Janet Maslin of the New York Times admitting a lot of monotony in the film said; “The best is funny, sly, cheerful and here and there even genuinely inspired.” The stars of the movie appealed to an older audience. Columbia’s distribution president James Spitz at the time said; “We did very good business in Los Angeles, but it was a disaster of major proportions in Chicago. The cultural semiotics obviously played on the star appreciation in Los Angeles where Chicago didn’t care it would seem.  Spitz went on to say; “When Siskel and Ebert got through with the movie, nobody-and I mean nobody-came to see it.” The inside info was that Warren Beatty proposed the film to Guy McElwaine, Columbia’s chairman. The idea presented was a comedy with Beatty and Hoffman directed by improvisation comedian/auteur Elaine May. It was whispered that Mr. Mc Elwaine purchased Ishtar without a script.”  The Hollywood model for making a movie was activated by Beatty and Hoffman getting 5.5 million each, plus Beatty getting $500,000 for producing. Elaine May got $1.5 million for writing the script and directing. The movie budget  was $14 million without the camera being turned on. A metaphoric apparatus was at play in Ishtar. The trio of equal force have all been dubbed perfectionists. Their differing views almost created a static mise en scene. The word on the street was that each star and the director worked on their own final cuts of the film once during the editing. Plus there were three separate teams of editors working all day getting paid double time, triple time, and the most expensive of all golden time. If that excess wasn’t enough Beatty didn’t approve the poster until a year later –six weeks before it opened. 
     Elaine May was originally with Mike Nichols as a leftist comedy team.  The joke of this movie would be as Deleuze’s notion of political cinema; “If there were a modern political cinema it would be on this basis; the people no longer exist, or not yet.” Elaine May’s profile in society as a woman film maker could be viewed in the feminist dogma as ‘victim.’ Laura Marks argues;“ The element of communal experience that is implicit in Bergson’s theory of perception necessarily informs the process of cinematic spectatorship as well. Perception is never a purely individual act but also an engagement with the social and cultural memory.”  We see cultural semiotics already in post production ie. the level of fiction, organization, of film content . Rutsky regarding film analysis states; “The context in which a film is made determines how it is made. It is therefore a mistake to neglect examining a film’s context or to treat contextual analysis, as merely “extra work” …(which leads to excess). Ishtar was imitating the comedy of life which is its tragic absurdity. It deals with show business, the military Industrial Complex, cultural screwball and the demise of The Great Amercian Novel which Norman  Mailer said couldn’t be wrote anymore, because of our fragmented society. Elaine May in a comedic brushstroke reveals that mediocrity is the gel that holds us together today. The film is prophetic of the Bush Iraq invasion. Rutsky, goes on to say; “The production of a film is the situation when financed and produced. Films financed and produced by major Hollywood studios are, for example, subject to a range of influences and pressures that affect the film’s ultimate form. Financial pressures and creative vision are in many ways, structurally at odds in this process and the negotiation of these conflicts cannot help but define the resulting film. Often this process has been seen in terms of a conflict between the vision of the auteur and the restrictive structures of Hollywood.” No none could have predicted the cult status that Ishtar receives today. Elaine May a known esoteric and no stranger to sarcasm. In her film a NewLeaf she shows how people will react to money and power through Walter Mathau’s character. (who will kill to get his money until love stops him.) The impression of reality takes away the psychosis of false desire. This style could be her signature as director/ auteur.
     The goal of Elaine May’s characters in Ishtar is to become ‘famous’ at least with Lyle and Chuck (Beatty and Hoffman). Chuck is or ‘The Hawk’ is willing to give this dream up temporarily after gazing at Shirra  Assel’s breast (People’s Party in middle East) in the airport in Morocco. The feministic humor is in a soft Marxist way revealed in this scene. The Wikipedia defines the Apparatus theory as; “The cinema is by nature ideological because its mechanics of representation are ideological.” The breast is in fact an ideological and cultural exchange if not mythological and psychoanalytic.
The dominant ideology of the culture within the viewer is in this case the goddess of past and present as revealed by the apparatus.  Ideology is not imposed on cinema however it is part of its nature.  The best joke is that when Lyle touches her breast after he mistakes Shirra Assel for a guy.  The screwball nature of the film is the left breast (Marxist) is gazed by Chuck and the right (Capitalist) breast is not seen but is felt up. This is Elaine May coupling. It is all part of the goddess and the modernistic connection to that which serves the primal functions. The woman is the image and the look, but only in regards to the goals, of the characters. The suspicions are released as Lyle is advised by Shirra Assel to go to the market ask for Mohammed and buy a blind camel. Chuck (Hoffman) is accepting money from the CIA (Grodin) who helped him get his passport back. Perception is May’s way of joining the paralleling of plot and sub plot. We as the spectators know that Lyle and Chuck are hiding in their new roles from each other. It is the shift from New York to Morocco that flips this perspective and why it created detractors. Unlike the Hope Crosby travel movies Elaine May has cast an existential paradox in the montage. This as film theory is‘variety’ -(151 Anatomy of Film) Bernard Dick writes; “A great director need not have a wide repertoire of themes; there is a difference between a varied body of work and a varied number of themes. The same scenes can occur within that body of work, repeated or modified to fit the particular type of film.” The style of Elaine May is repetitive in that she enjoys revealing absurdity in narration and action. She uses language as a sort of contradiction of purpose. In the auctioneer scene Chuck (Hoffman sells guns to the runners as Lyle (Beatty) relays the nonsensical yelling with positive responses. May shows us a parallel to the breast scene how desire can transcend language . When you need water or your life is in danger you will reach out in primal way to simply communicate any way you can. The mise en scene is the reality of whatever culture one is caught up in. It dominates the air with language. Wittgenstein wrote; “Language is the mirror to Society.” Godard would see this as the reflection of reality on itself. Orson Wells once said; “I believe a work is good to the degree that it expresses the man who created it.” In May’s case the woman who created it.  The Hope Crosby road films are a genre that Elaine May modeled Ishtar after. Ishtar fell into Becket’s Waiting For Godot with cinematic humor at play in the desert scene with the blind camel. (the beads didn’t shine like they were told)  The desert’s existential overtones were never intended in the early road movies. This analogy can be seen (text 693) in what Thomas Schatz describes; “Although verbal language systems are essentially neutral and meaningless, film genres are not. As a system English grammer is not meaningful either historically or in socially specific terms. It is manipulated by a speaker to make meaning.”
The inability to speak Arabic but able to communicate is May’s way of injecting the entertainment communication she is versed in, which is comedy of the absurd. Like Anton Chekov ‘The father of realistic absurdism.” May creates a story too real to not evoke laughter. (692 Text) –Schatz states; “Among other things, the commercial film is a communication system- it structures and delivers meaning. Throughout its history, evocative phrases like “the grammar of film” and “the cinematic language system” have suggested that filmic communication is comparable to verbal communication.” Ishtar is a movie about communication whether it be chuck and Lyle singing bad songs in clubs or the CIA cutting deals with Shah. The climax of course is the map that will inflame the Middle East brought by the two messengers. It would seem that to succeed in the arts you need to go to an oil rich Arabian site find something of huge historical value and black mail two cultures in order to get a recording contract. Bordwell (text 775) says; “The classic narrative cinema –paradigmatically, studio feature film making in Hollywood since 1920-rests upon particular assumptions about the narrative structures, cinematic style, and spectorial activity.” In regards to art as a mode of cinema May would agree that a narrative is a way to create art as life.and vice versa. Ishtar is definitely political social satire her trademark since television in the 1950’s. Bordwell goes on to say; “Identifying a mode of production/consumption does not exhaustively characterize the art cinema, since the cinema also consists of formal traits and viewing conventions.” Ishtar was labeled “Hollywood” from the get go so it was placed with less than artistic high art. The spectator understands the communication of the film which commercial. It is in retrospect especially after the invasion of Iraq that the viewer is privy to the information and chaotic intentions that Elaine May put into her script. The spectator is educated by the realism of an historical fact and can now understand the consequence of bad communication.
     A filmmaker’s unconscious mind and the psychological mechanisms effect the viewing process  Baudry asserts. “The union of semiology which is psychoananalytic is concerned with the symbolic science of cinema or semiology of the cinema” according to Metz. In Ishtar Elaine May has similarities to Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser who believed that individuals as ‘subject’ think they are creative agents much like Beatty and Hoffman’s characters (songwriters). They enjoy the very experience that subjugates them. This is even more true when they are being chased by the CIA and the Middle East for mistaken identity. For Baudry this self-mis-recognition is what Lacan called the ‘mirror phase.’ We watch the music careers of Chuck and Lyle as spectators with a sense of power because we identify with the apparatus as voyeur. It is not really us that are so untalented. We watch the film as optic judges which Baudry defines as ; “artificial halluncinatory psychosis of the cinema apparatus.” The dream of being famous is what Freud saw as a biographic psychoanalysis that is using the dream as metaphor. Ishtar as a film about losers and in reality becoming a loser film becomes cult like because reality is in conformity to our inner dreams. It serves as a mirror through which the spectator can identify their self as a coherent and omnipotent ego able to judge what is good and what talent is. People can sit in the theater or watch Ishtar like gods with the camera activity hidden. Elaine May as film maker uses her unconscious mind to reveal the psychological mechanisms in the viewing process or what Baudry calls; “more than real or perspective artificalis, the mystic writing pad, the cave or mimesis.’ Elaine May helps us to understand our past as film stops being special and becomes temporal or as Deleuze says; “It is through the camera that we have to live in a universe that is metacinamatic.” This lets the spectator into all kinds of virtual past and future images which are stored-actual-present images constantly generated with both types mutually influencing one another. In Elaine May’s script we can in this sense come to understand the past, present and future through camera consciousness which has entered our perception. Shapiro states; “experiencing events critically in the present is made possible not by the exercise of a faculty of judgment, that is: to integrate with cognitive function but by a cinematographic apparatus.” The confusion of American culture and Arabic culture in Ishtar is to understand contemporary culture and its parts and futures and necessitates a development of a camera consciousness. Otherwise we are lost in imperialistic voyeurism and blatant dumb down humor to benefit those ignorant to the joke. It is easier for May to use film and editing to jump between layers of time as well as the actual and the virtual, immersion where the past, present and future coexist. Ishtar starts with the mundane lives of two characters who want to be in show business with the song; “telling the truth can be dangerous business, honest and popular don’t go hand in hand, if you admit that you play the accordion, no one will hire you in a rock and roll band, but we can sing our hearts out, and if we are lucky the neighbors won’t complain.” (song Dangerous Business) The scenes are broken up in flash backs and then a geographical jump to a totally foreign culture but they maintain this dream that is like the film/Hollywood. It is in various as well as linearly another world with a transcendental world of difference, like Oz when Dorothy leaves Kansas in a dream.
There is the real and unreal images where only the actual is in the physical present as we follow Chuck and Lyle on their path to stardom and intrigue. This is the l’actuel et le virtuel. As Baudry sees it; “ Every actual image is surrounded by a fog of virtual images.” We can’t see the vision of Chuck and Lyle’s dream in Ishtar but we know it there by their actions and the narrative at play. All our perceptions are like particles that construct and deconstruct themselves from frame to frame as our real object-mirror-object. The screen comes alive with sound that is culturally contemporary and we join in to laugh or judge the movie Ishtar.
   The sound narrative in Ishtar is a musical sound track but it also is a cultural exchange as we see Chuck and Lyle bumbling through the streets of Morocco. Charles Grodin as a CIA agent enters Chuck’s room and says, “Hi I’m an American, I heard you were here too.” He has Chuck give his autograph for his son and tells him to keep the pen which is a bug. Privacy is the issue and the idea that if you are American you will be watched if you go outside the language of one’s reality. Doane sees this as,” the voice in humans” or the fantasmatic in cinema where sound is married to image. Doane feels it is technicians and presence that make sound marketable and closer where the sound seems anchored in space. She sees this as ‘body oppression’ with characters and spectators (with topology) are the server spaces. Chuck is the servant to the CIA in Ishtar in a representational illusion of place or as Doane says; “A disconnected bulb for enunciation mise en scene perpetuating the image of unity.” The CIA in Elaine May’s film is there to give it a controlling tone of oppression but distance for the viewer.
There is a scene in Ishtar where Chuck is negotiating in the customs room to get another passport. He realizes that he made a mistake and jumps up a punches the wall which turns out to be very thin with a stranger looking in. It is slapstick in a sense but it also reveals to the spectator that even in the movie the apparatus or what seems hidden is a prop of sorts. Belton says; “You can’t conceal the artifice, effacement is never totally successful, it reveals itself in a kind of transformed state in the aesthetics and stylish practices that grow out of the work.” Elaine May is a comedian foremost and understands absurdism and existentialism which are in play all over Ishtar. The sound track in Ishtar pervades an almost anthem of mediocrity making a nonsensical connection to the reality of show biz and what we perceive as spectators. Belton sees sound technology; “as transparent or not inevitable revealing its own presence in the form of consciousness that intervenes between one spectator and the original sound…transmit and transform, the cinema remains the phenomenological par excellence, it weds or collapses consciousness with the world.” Ishtar received no Oscar awards but it received three Razzie Awards, ‘Worst Director-Elaine May, Worst Producer-Warren Beatty and Worst Screen Play-Elaine May. In defense Warren Beatty said; “Ishtar is a very good, not very big, comedy, made by a brilliant woman, and I think it’s funny.” Dustin Hoffman commented; ”There’s an underlying message to that movie, you know, that I think made it worth doing, and I would do it again in a second.”  Elaine May in an interview with Mike Nichols said that she has met many people who say they hate Ishtar but never actually saw it. In the New York Times June 1, 1987 (Late City Final Edition) David Chasman, a long time studio executive commented; “The 94 day shooting day shooting schedule was not out of line for a major movie, but it was out of line for a supposedly small comedy.” He went on to say; “The villain is not the unfortunate star but the irresolute, weak, and indecisive executive. Artists aren’t supposed to be responsible. Executives are supposed to make shrewd judgments.” It is possible that post production editing could have make her mirror of reality more palatable, but the slow dance on the killing ground clowing would not existed. The auteur status of Elaine May was left unsullied and film theory has a new icon of contradictions to add to the pile.   
     In regards to Hollywood genres Ishtar was expected to fall into that mold and when it didn’t it was condemned. The comedy that Elaine May is known for is improvisation or free association. When humor is sophisticated as much of it is in Ishtar you need a select audience. A Hollywood audience especially at the time saw no humor in failing songwriters or U.S. dealings in the Middle East. May told Mike Nichols in a recent interview that she modeled the movie around the Iran-Contra, Reagan time.(she missed Trump/Syria/Kurds) The prophetic truth was soon to be revealed with Star Search, George Bush w/ son, all compelled to act out the movie  Ishtar with zest and gusto to a sea of television viewers in the early 90’s and 2004. The Hollywood of 1987 is much different to the one after 911 as well. Thomas Schatz (pg. 691 Text) states; “There is a sense, then in which a film genre is both a static and a dynamic system. On the one hand, it is a familiar formula of interrelated narrative and cinematic components that serves to continually reexamine some basic cultural conflict.” In regards to typecasting a genre as say ‘Hollywood’ Schatz  goes on to say; “ For as one sees more genre films, one tends to negotiate the genre less by its individual films than by its deep structure.” The playfulness in Elaine May’s script was in contrast to what a ‘road movie’ or a Hollywood comedy should be. The language had a different tone in Ishtar and this for May was true to the nature of the comedy. Schatz might agree when he says (Pg693 text), “A film genre, conversely, has come into being because of its cultural significance as a meaningful narrative system.” Elaine May who uses language to go out of genre would lend her prowess to the verbal narrative. Regarding this Schatz says; “Whereas a verbal statement represents a speaker’s organization of neutral components into a meaningful pattern, a genre film represents an effort to reorganize a familiar, meaningful system in an original way.” May’s originality is never in question and her script in Ishtar is all about the female role and the outside inside Godardian dance into the real.
     Feminism was not the driving force with Elaine May because she felt comfortable interacting with men and regarded their burden as universal. We can see this in her empathy for the male characters who follow their art just may did and the repercussions on their relationships. Willa leaves Lyle and Carol leaves Chuck (Hawk). The idea here is dedication to the craft as May sees it creates a different marriage which is show business. When Chuck arrives too save Lyle from his bad versions of Simon and Garfunkle, they highlight the night with a sing a long- There’s No Business Like Show Business.” This is not to say  May’s unaware of the gazing at Shirra Assel by Chuck and Lyle. Shirra Assel is a protagonist for her own country as a left wing agent to unseat the Shah. There is a Jewish spin on the film’s idiom and linguistic stasis concerning cultural repression, but Elaine May lets the action pull the film along till all three get what they want. For Shirra Assel it is equal rights for her people. The only way to secure human dreams however is to get control with a map of antiquity that will inflame the Middle East if the wrong hands get it. This political positioning  according to Stam and Spense (Pg 885 Text) is described as; “Satirical or parodic films, in the same way, may be less concerned with constructing positive images than with challenging the stereotypical expectations an audience may bring to a film.” In response to the Arabic images in Ishtar (pg 887) Stam and Spense write; “Western attitudes toward non-western peoples are also played on here. Hassiba is first seen in traditional Arab costume, her face covered by a veil.” Shirra Assel is veiled and both lyle and Chuck first mistake her for a boy.  Stam and Spense continue (887); “So dressed she is a reminder of Arab women in other films who function as a sign of the exotic.” May gets this joke and uses it to say that women are empowered by their own circumstances and not by western standards. Shirra Assel tells Lyle who says he will see her again soon; “you are such an American, this is a very old culture you are in.” This point of view is addressed by May in many scenes of Ishtar’s contemporary antiquity. The line that chuck wisely proclaims to Lyle in their earlier meetings: ‘That’s because most men choose to live their lives in quiet desperation.” Lyle (Beatty) responds in a Texas drawl; “Boy you can say that again.”The advantage of colonial privilege is apparent in Ishtar and would be suspect by audiences today due to a younger audience with coined diversity tattoos rampant. Elaine May’s humor doesn’t change the fact but it creates a laugh like Chaplin, she has brought empathy into the dark cave of spectatorship. Stam and Spense (Pg 888) write; “The question of the point of view is crucial then, but it is more complex than at first appear. The granting of point-of-view shots to the oppressed does not guarantee a non-colonial perspective.” Elaine May greatest accomplishment in Ishtar was to create a movie that takes reality and through a series of montages deconstructs the deconstruction dogma of the new insecure rules in art. It is better that it failed than succeeded commercially because its biggest trick was to neutralize the idea of war and conflict as being nothing more than people’s need for fame, power and  marriage of cultures.  (Mast 75) Eisenstein in regards to montage and conflict  says that; “ a montage is characterized by collision. By the conflict of two pieces in opposition to each other.” Ishtar is full of this conflict, first personally then culturally. Eisenstein says; “So montage is conflict.” May as auteur was examining her own conflicts in Ishtar either, as a women spectator,entertainer or social political comedian. Her cinematographer language is about the relevance. De Saussure’s project of general semiotics states; “to study the ordering and functioning of the main signifying units used in the filmic message.” (103 Mast)  May used Ishtar as a didactic narrative for the first gulf war. She did this by showing us the American dream and then the Middle East dream. May’s connotation and denotation brought these signs together. The viewer can decide if it’s funny or boring as many did though some didn’t.  Metz writes; “The study of connotation brings us closer to the notion of the cinema as an art (the seventh art). As I have indicated elsewhere in more detail, the art of film is located on the same semiological “plane” as literary art.” May’s script depended on the star power of Beatty and Hoffman. Her cinematographic style was philosophical, humanitarian and ideological in a comedic atmosphere of semiological material. The editing in Ishtar was a big problem as Metz explains; (109  Mast) “ Human intervention, which carries some elements of a proper semiotics, affects only the level of connotation (lighting, camera angle, photographic effects,” and so on.” Sequence needs the apparatus to be in harmony with the creative process and Istar  survived this as a cult DVD but a movie disaster. Metz says; “ (119 Mast) “The filmic “shot” therefore resembles the statement rather than the word. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to say that it is equivalent to the statement.” “For there are still great differences between the shot and the linguistic statement.”
The ideological content of Ishtar was similar to the question (22 Mast) Bazin asks; “What is Cinema?”
He states; “The cinema owes virtually nothing to the scientific spirit.” May would agree, sometimes when its ‘art for art sake’ the apparatus and the rest are along for the ride and the artist takes the abuse at the end. May provided the viewer with a high profile of satire and exposure of dominant ideologies in a very funny way but didn’t have an audience of artists to catch all the symbols on display. (25Mast) Bazin describes it very well : “There are numberless writings, all of them more or less wildly enthusiastic, in which inventors conjure up nothing less than a total cinema that is to provide that complete illusion of life which is still a long way away.” May brought America too close to a reality that we cared little about in Morocco and an American karaoke culture that judges and is hateful of its own reflection. Rochelle O’Gorman (Amazon. Com Editorial Reviews) wrote; “Ishtar torpedoed May’s career as a director plus May’s unwillingness to make nice with Hollywood.” Gorman went on to say; “If this comedy had been made by unknowns, it would have simply faded into the obscurity it deserves, the fuss came about because May squandered much talent and a ridiculously large budget.” Let us go to circa 2008 and see the reality of this CIA/ military Industrial Complex/ The New Show Business (Star Search etc.)/Middle East Oil OPEC world and then judge Ishtar on this criteria. It would seem that May it would seem is a prophet or an artistic visionary who depicted in Ishtar the false mirror of what we call ‘art’ or the ‘profound’ or as Kracauser (Text pg. 153-1960) writes; “If a film is an art at all, it certainly should not be concerned with the established arts.” We now see Ishtar as a ‘cult film’ regarded as ‘film art’ as opposed to traditional art or outside the mock documentary genre. Gorman states; “Ishtar is a parody of Orientalism, American identity, politics and popular culture.” In regards to the Hope/Crosby and Nichols/May duos Gorman writes; “If Abbott and Costello had made this flick it might have worked.” I would disagree because may was on the other side of comedy with a wit that is only found in the brilliant Jewish history of comedy. The fact that May was Jewish made the Middle East closer to the sensibilities of her own world of spectator-ship. What May did with Ishtar was sublimate her own show biz experiences with the politics and psychology towards a world with higher IQ’s. She carries us to a better awareness for the general audience. The failure of Ishtar is the success of writing a nonsensical script. How do you write the Great American Novel in the metaphorical sense? The answer for the spectator is simply to show that what ties us together at this point is ‘mediocrity’ in the arts, in politics, in religion, in contemporary society today. May’s script may very well be the last ‘Great American Novel.’ The art of film is now invisible to the masses but mediocrity holds the show together. We see this when Lyle and Chuck get their recording contract by cutting a deal with the CIA and the Middle East. Parker Tyler( Film Theory #2 pg 45) writes; “If we scrutinize the practice of film criticism, even in superior places, we find the better fiction films frequently reviewed as if they were novels cast in sequences of pictorial and aural illustrations…Naturally, critics don’t always consciously commit themselves to an inevitable parallelism of film with literature and the stage.” (Pg 45 text #2)Tyler goes on to say; “A whole book has been written by a well-meaning and cultivated scholar about the methods by which film converts a novel into its own technical idiom.”  (George Bluestone’s book –Novels into Film, University of California Press, 1961).
In conclusion Elaine May is a transcended feminist auteur of high merit who through language and high comedy wrote a social political psychoanalytic  script that bombed at the box office but accomplished a place in the arts as literature.  Ishtar has become a cliché for failure just as the last administration and their policies and philosophies have become. May was concerned about Bush senior and his Iran-Contra excesses and with this movie she has left an historical film for the gene pool to gag on. I don’t think she was concerned about film theory when she created this celluloid novel but it falls into a place of intellectual discussion anyway. The rejection of Ishtar was the rejection of the mirror that parallels the world of today. Johnathan Rosenbaum (Internet Johnathon Rosebaum.com) writes; “I am willing to concede that Elaine May’s fourth feature (Ishtar) is less strong than the three that preceded it. But because I regard May as a major American writer-director and Ishtar as a movie that in no way betrays her uncommon talents, I would have included this title on my list even if it hadn’t sparked off a lynch-mob frenzy in the media.” May’s integrity is obviously looked on well in the know. In film we do have the message which begins with the press releases. We as spectator are involved in the psychological and social semiotics of the introduction of a film. Rosenbaum continues; “Most of the bile was occasioned by the film’s large budget and its producer and costar Warren Beatty’s handling of the press, both of which are so irrelevant to the film’s  merits that seem beneath discussion.” The expectations and the audience are influenced by the lords of the apparatus god or the corporation. Rosenbaum writes; “If money is a ‘real’ issue, why is much lesser talent like woody Allen given a free ride and everyone’s blessings for shooting his ludicrous September script twice, with larger separate casts?  The female victim wouldn’t appeal to May but she as feminist theory shows is not playing the traditional game as expected by a woman in the film industry. May’s wonderful sense of absurdity is apparent when Rosenbaum describes her at the screening; “A prominent LA publicist told me that she (May) got into trouble with some of her friends simply by laughing at the movie at a press screening.” He goes on; “As I’ve had occasion to argue elsewhere, May strikes me as the closest thing we have to Eric von Stroheim-not merely as an outlaw perfectionist and obsessive truth-teller (telling the truth can be dangerous business,” runs the theme song of Ishtar; “honest and popular don’t go hand in hand’) with the darkest view of the American Dream around, but in the very progression of her work.” (all quotes page 4) Rosenbaum summarizes May’s film as; “a subversion of Hollywood fantasy from within, set in a mythical country.” May is beyond American political correctness and sustainable consumptive up, up with people smoke screens. She is the true radical and has created a cult classic in a genre all to itself. Rosenbaum sums this up; “Perhaps the most subversive thing about Ishtar is not so much failure or mediocrity of her bumpkin heroes (Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, cast against type in Strheim-like fashion), or the havoc created by their Reagonite ignorance in the third world, with politics and show biz turned into mindless equivalents, as the fact that she loves them just the same as with Bertolucci, her simultaneous contempt and affection for the monstrous demands to be read, like her ferocious wit, as intricate auto-critique.” May is the comedian of true empathy Promethean and Chaplin in nature, and, Ishtar is her wonderful Trojan Horse delivered to the dark cubicle of spectatorship. The great surprise is that she wants a laugh rather than a war.






1.      Film Theory and Criticism, Mast and Cohen, New York , Oxford University Press, London 1974, Toronto
2.      Film Theory and Criticism, Marshal Cohen, Leo Baudy, New York, Oxford University Press, 2004
3.      Turning Point in Film History-Andrew J. Rausch, Citadel Press, Kensington Publishing, New York, 2004
4.      The American Film Institute Desk Reference, Dorling Kindersley Publishing Inc. 375 Hudson Street, New York 2002
5.      Movie Making Course, Chris Patmore, Quatro Educational Series, 2005
 


Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Naw' leans Revisited

Naw’leans Revisited

It was a return trip, a bucket list type of thing. My memories had faded of this city, home of a favorite author, full of amazing architecture and wonderful food. A steamboat sung and paddled on the Mississippi, memories of the riverbank quickly replaced by many closed factories with bent piers devoid of ships. The open French market bustled with life, baskets and open-jawed baby alligator heads with glass eyes, petrified bird claws at voo-doo stands, the aroma of Beignets from Café DuMonde wafting through the air, cups of steaming café au lait in every hand, even my own.
In a sidewalk doorway, his face importune, I noticed dirt-smudged cheeks, a gaunt frame like rickety scaffolding. A small black dog and he huddled together, a worn blanket around them both, friends under a gray sky, as a chill day threatened rain.  Anything will help, on a sign handwritten at his feet. I handed him my still-wrapped Muffuletta sandwich.
Walking on past loud clubs, Crazy Corner and House of Blues, past street musicians, raucous with rhythm and laughter, my thoughts were askew, in contrast to the homeless man and dog. What had I expected in this, the city of endless drinking and music? Not the abject poverty, not boarded up houses, long abandoned, several years after Katrina. As I moved slowly along streets full of still-ruined buildings and cars up on blocks, I saw children playing innocently alongside parents, faces deeply lined with despair.

One building, a massive wall crumbling to pale powder – chalky white, flakes of pink lay in slivers on the dark pavement. I look up at this old hulk, bricks a sun-faded russet, with loose fine dust barely holding between the courses, a mortarous barrage waiting to rain down;once standing steadfast against winter storms, now broken free under the hot sun, baking dry any last remnants of moisture. The wall appears to slough off in a shower of forgotten fragments, an exfoliation of time, exposing an under-layer anxious to be seen.
 Finally, I saw a young man with a crudely drawn sign on cardboard, “Poetry on Demand”.  He was poised on a stool; in front of him was a fruit crate on which balanced an old manual Smith-Corona typewriter. Being a poet myself, I was intrigued and allowed him to create in five minutes, a poem describing my visit to this famed city. On a scrap of paper, brilliant words shouted words of my life, a lone poet wandering streets filled with happy travelers, feeling somehow out of place, feeling more drawn to a homeless man and his dog and a student selling poems. I handed him some money, knowing I would return home with a souvenir much more me than a sequined tee shirt.


Julie A. Dickson
Exeter, NH


Virus-free. www.avast.com

Friday, October 20, 2017

Vignette and poem by Julie A. Dickson

Mayonnaise Memories

I was sixteen wearing a Howard Johnson’s turquoise and white checked uniform. Reaching over into the freezers, making sundaes and serving fries resulted in my arms being painted in sticky splotches with ice cream and catsup. At work, we wiped down tables with rags and our hands smelled of old milk and bleach. As I drove myself home, yawning at 10 pm, I would find a spot I missed; like glue the chocolate and strawberry stuck on my elbow. My shoes felt tacky on floor of my car. My whole life felt sticky during those years waitressing.
Later, I traded in ice cream for gasoline. I stood outdoors in summer heat and bitter cold, gas pump in hand beside countless cars and trucks, gas burping like backwash onto my hands. Henry Cain drove a dark blue Porsche. The gas fill was on the top and I had to hold the nozzle carefully while he stood watching his precious car. I guessed it was paid for by Cain’s Mayonnaise since the factory was nearby. I wiped gas droplets from my hands and accepted the 35 cents per gallon that he handed to me with a smile. My hands smelled perpetually of gasoline, no matter how often I washed them, or covered them with gloves. At night, I used to stand under a hot shower to escape from the gas fumes that seemed to stay in my nose for hours.
In a home stocked with Miracle Whip, the word mayonnaise was a like profanity to my mother. Her jar of Miracle Whip stood proudly inside the refrigerator door and found itself in egg salad, tuna salad and on sandwiches. I didn’t taste mayonnaise until I had met Henry Cain and bought my own jar, placing it next to my mother’s Miracle Whip inside her refrigerator. Anyone listening would have thought I had committed a grievous offense; her remarks and chides echoed through the house. My father intervened and settled the mayonnaise issue – he saw no harm in it, but he did expect me to pay for it myself if I needed such a luxury.
I finally moved onto to another restaurant position before leaving home and there I served seafood with homemade tartar sauce made with Cain’s Mayonnaise and pickle relish. So many jars of mayonnaise and I never once bought Miracle Whip after I left home. The lingering odor that followed me home was fryolator grease but at least I had the taste of mayonnaise to savor and remember.

                                                                                                                Julie A. Dickson

                                                                                                                Exeter, NH


The House I once Lived In

The green house with white shutters still stands,
even though the apple tree is long gone from
the front yard, replaced by a disappointing
circle of dirt filled with geraniums – not what
my father had in mind when he planted the apple tree.
His first crop yielded a single yellow apple, which
my mother cut into quarters for us to share,
its crisp sweetness left us wishing for more.

The house looks smaller now, a ranch home
nestled in a neighborhood with one hundred
similar houses, lined up in identical blocks.
I look up at my former bedroom window,
underlined by a white flower box- empty now.
My mother would have mourned the absence
of the flowers, we always planted there.
I recall my brother and I hanging out our windows,
side by side, talking well after bedtime.
He kept a treasure box hidden in the flower box
and one spring we discovered it, rusted
and forgotten after being buried in snow.

Just now, the front door opens and from
my parked car, I see a woman peering out
at me, suspiciously. I wave, as if my friendly smile
will assuage her uncertainty. She waves back
as I leave my car and call out, “I used to live here”
trailing off, hoping she will excuse my intrusion.
Instead she beckons me closer and invites me inside.
Really? I am shocked that, as a stranger she allows
me entrance and I slowly step into the house
I once lived in.

The furniture is new and not at all like when
I was a child, the old brown davenport missing.
Gone was the dining room table where my mother
set out Sunday meals and birthday cakes.
Silently, the woman escorts me down the hall,
where, instead of the ballerina wallpaper I remember,
a brightly painted bedroom greets me. I smile.

Walking to the window, I see my car, the yard
empty of my father’s apple tree and finally,
I slowly lean forward to make sure that
my brother’s treasure box is really gone.
                                                                                                                Julie A. Dickson

Friday, August 18, 2017

Julie A. Dickson ----- two nonfiction pieces



Torturous Vessel                                                     


A bouquet sat centered on the kitchen table, my eyes studying the lead crystal vase that had belonged to my mother. The etched wide square vase was so heavy, I dared not carry it with one hand. My mother’s voice [long gone] echoed in my head – two hands!

The vase had been a familiar sight, often filled and refilled with garden- cut flowers, roses from my father, even weeds lovingly picked by me and presented to my mother. Pussy willows, golden rod and wild daisies were equally displayed in her favorite vase, no preferential treatment for roses over weeds. We all knew she loved flowers, especially yellow and purple which are also my favorites. Ground violets, too small for the vase often floated in a low dish. She always loved fresh flowers of any variety.


Ironically, the only flowers I received as an adult were presented as a silent apology. Yes, he went too far at times. An acid remark caustically emitted, a hastily hurled comment in my direction as I cringed, closed my eyes or looked down. The words entered my ears, cutting through tissue and bone as though on a direct course to my heart, already scarred and scabbed over from frequent attacks.


Somewhere in the past, perhaps when I was a teen, I felt so utterly diminished and rejected that a trap door slammed shut. My heart was broken, carelessly cast aside and lay covered, protected as beneath a plywood floor, constructed from necessity. You cannot hurt me, my heart seemed to murmur so that only I heard, like a whispered voice in the wind-rustled grasses beneath my feet. It’s too late, the voice spoke – how can harsh words enter now, after that time when I was younger and after previous years of hearing the condescending tones of my father? The current spoken words of my husband were familiar; they spoke of my lack of value, my uselessness.


Instead of a beautiful lead crystal vase that my mother cherished, all I saw before me was a torturous vessel filled with silence. Six red carnations did not speak, but I heard the feeble excuses and promises they represented. They arrived wrapped in green tissue with a packet of nourishment, as if by dropping granules of white powder into water, all could be made right.


Wordlessly, a bunch of flat green ferns with red carnations were left on the table as he passed through the kitchen. I watched him recede into the living room. Unwrapping the flowers felt akin to removing a bandage from a not-yet-healed wound, the red carnations like blood-droplets. I smiled ironically that for over twenty years, he did not remember my favorite flowers – daffodils, yellow tulips and roses. [Carnations were his mother’s favorite flower] Instead, stood before me, blood-red flowers that seemed to call out in horror from the battlefield of my life. The wounded and bleeding hopes were set before me as a reminder.


Impulsively, I tore the carnations from the vase, dripping water across the kitchen floor. I threw them unceremoniously into the sink, stuffing them into the drain and turning on the disposal unit, grinding them into red mush. I stood leaning against the kitchen counter, feeling relief. With the blood washed away, the torturous vessel was restored to the lead crystal vase that my mother loved.


From the living room called a disembodied voice, “What’s for supper?”


Julie A. Dickson

Exeter, NH
-------------------------------------



Squirrel Arrestor                                                  


In no way did my father think of himself of an inventor. The 50-pound sack of sunflower seeds in a covered metal trash can to protect them from pesky rodent invasions in our garage.

Moving from Western New York State suburbia- a heavily wooded area of New England was appealing to my parents. The bird feeder became of my father’s hobbies. Standing his post at the kitchen window, armed with Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America, he identified nuthatches, woodpeckers and blue jays. Notes were kept, bookmarks saved pages of every newly discovered bird. An LP record of Audubon bird calls sat in the living room console stereo; family sat around the room identifying the songs of cardinals and sparrows with as much enthusiasm as we could muster.

The resident challenger of Ornithology was the common grey squirrel, long of tail and acrobatic in nature. Squirrels could jump through the air from the roof, grasping the feeder while waiting for the violent swaying to subside; and then contorted into impossible positions; they hung upside down to dump the contents to the ground. Flinging themselves below, the seed-fest would begin. All song birds within a mile radius were scared off, much to my father’s dismay.

Knocking on the kitchen window had no effect. Cracking seeds and stuffing them into already fat cheeks, Mr. Squirrel ignored my father. Running out the back door sent the squirrel lunging for the nearest tree until the intruding human disappeared into the house, when he would return to the seed pile persistently. A hanging feeder from tree branches, attached to a window ledge, or set atop a pole – the squirrels found them all.

Captured in a Havahart trap, transported 3 miles away, where my father sprayed a-bit of white paint on each squirrel’s tail-tip resulted only in the knowledge that squirrels traveled farther than 3 miles. My father stared incredulously out the kitchen window at the white-tipped scoundrel eating his bird seed!

The solution to his problem came in the form of a metal trash can lid. A round hole drilled in the center, the lid was affixed to the pole 12 inches below the bird feeder, pole set away from roof and branches. This design worked reasonably well, diverting even the cleverest squirrel from reaching the feed, except for morsels scattered by the messy blue jays. My father was the true- inventor of the squirrel arrestor; he just didn’t apply for a patent. Many years later he purchased a conical squirrel arrestor fashioned from sheet metal and the old trash lid was returned to its can, with duct tape covering the hole.


Julie A. Dickson


Exeter, NH

Koon Woon ------------ TOO LONG OF A STORY (dispatches from the mental health system)

First couple of pages from the first draft: The Conard File [begin November 15, 2019]: (Dispatches from the mental health system) ...