Very Special Paper, Indeed

Musical InstrumentsIt is 1988.

My father lives in a hunting cabin off the highway near Missoula, Montana. It is Spartan in its décor. There is a cot. A small fridge. A bathroom. He isn’t here much. Most of his time is spent in the Rattlesnake Wilderness, where the U.S. Forest Service maintains a cabin for the rangers.

We have returned from town. His neighbor, a young man with long, wavy black hair, is outside. The man wears a black T-shirt and black jeans. My father has described his neighbor to me as being ‘crazy’. This diagnosis stems from an obsession the man seems to have with paper. My father tells me he has spoken about the ‘special paper’ he needs for his project. He can’t get it in Missoula. He must get it shipped.

We get out of the car and my father introduces me to the ‘crazy’ man. We start talking and my dad excuses himself, leaving us alone. I mention I play music. His interest is piqued. “We should jam some time,” he says. I tell him I don’t have my guitar with me.

He smiles. “Come here. I want to show you something.” The crazy neighbor takes me inside his hunting cabin. It’s the same model as the one my father occupies but this guy had a different decorator. The walls inside his cabin are covered with musical instruments – guitars, basses, a lute. There are instrument cases leaning against the walls – cellos, violas, violins. There’s a piano and an organ, and some kind of electronic keyboard.

An Atari computer displays musical notes arranged on a staff.

My father’s crazy neighbor turns out to be a composer. He plays these instruments. ALL of them. He tells me he is composing a ‘heavy metal’ symphony.

Adjacent to the computer is a tall stand that looks something like a drafting table. Sharpened pencils and a drafting brush for clearing eraser crumbs rest on an oversize sheet of paper, printed with repeating lines of musical staffs. It is the paper a composer uses for writing out all the different parts for the instruments in an orchestra.

Very special paper, indeed.

Jerry Lewis: The King of Comedy has Left Us

Jerry Lewis passed away this past Sunday. For many, who only know his annual telethon toJerry Lewis raise money for Muscular Dystrophy, they have missed out on one of the true greats of film comedy. I came to know Lewis first through his variety show on television and his films with Dean Martin. They were a perfect team, like Laurel and Hardy. Their personalities played off each other in an almost musical way. But not long after I began watching Martin and Lewis films, I discovered a book at the local library called ‘The Total Filmmaker’. It’s author: Jerry Lewis.

I was a film geek starting in sixth grade. I began shooting Super-8 movies, writing screenplays, and directing the neighborhood kids to die on cue. I read every book I could get my hands on about making films or film history. Here was a book by an artist I admired in which he shared his feelings about the medium and some of his techniques.

I learned about the films Lewis made after he and Dean Martin went their separate ways – ‘The Errand Boy’, ‘The Nutty Professor’, and ‘Cinderfella’. He borrowed from the silent comedians who had only their bodies and faces with which to express themselves. And not just Americans. There was a fair bit of Jacques Tati mixed in with Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.

In his book, Lewis described how his love of the medium had started while shooting the Martin and Lewis films. He wrote that between setups he would wander off to talk to the guys up in the catwalks to find out what they did. He would lose track of time learning about the different types of lights. They would have to send someone out to find him to resume shooting.

There was one thing in the book that did not compute with my sixth-grade mind. Lewis described the act of ‘licking celluloid’ as if it were an intoxicant. Only later, as an adult, did I finally come to understand what Lewis meant.

Lewis claimed to have invented video playback, and many have given him credit. Being able to watch a take immediately after it was shot by recording a separate video image has become the way films are made.

Lewis’ career went through peaks and valleys. While he continued to perform live in clubs across the country, his films ceased to hold the public’s interest – in the United States, anyway. In France, Jerry Lewis was lauded as one of the great film comedians of all time.

I remember one performance from his variety show. He was in the stands watching a red-carpet reception for a film premiere. There’s no dialog. He just watches, waves, tries to get close. Then he gets a brain storm. He paints his chinos and windbreaker black. Sneakers, too. He puts on a scrap of black fabric for a tie. And he strolls down the red carpet himself.

Martin Scorsese was a fan. He cast Lewis in his film ‘The King of Comedy’. If you haven’t seen this film, you have missed one of Robert DeNiro’s greatest performances. Lewis plays a talk show host. DeNiro plays a fan named Rupert Pupkin, who kidnaps Lewis. In a strange twist on the skit from Lewis’ variety show, DeNiro (With the help of Sandra Bernard) forces Lewis to interview him on television, so he can be just like all the stars he sees on TV.

Much has been said, and there has been much speculation about, Lewis’ reason for making Muscular Dystrophy his personal cause. Regardless of the reason, he personally raised many millions of dollars for research into this debilitating neuro-muscular disease. May he rest in peace.

 

 

Not my Best Day

'Hey, Neil?' by Steven Deeble

‘Hey, Neil?’ by Steven Deeble
Photograph by M. R. Lewis

It is 1986.

I watch the capstans turn in the cassette recorder on the table. I look up as the detectives glance at each other, signaling another change in tactics. They have been questioning me for almost two hours.

Three weeks ago, my mother was found murdered.

The tape records my answers, alternating with expressions of my grief.

“We found your studio out back in the garage,” begins ‘Good Cop’.

“We’re painters ourselves,” chimes in ‘Bad Cop’.

Oh, great. I picture sad clowns and dogs playing cards.

“You have a painting – it’s a brain.”

Oh, fuck.

“Yeah.”

“What does the astronaut represent?”

“Our ultimate technological achievement.”

The astronaut is Buzz Aldrin at Tranquility Base, taken from the classic photograph by Neil Armstrong. In my painting, he has been relocated into a surreal seascape.

“What about the brain?”

“That’s how we achieved it.”

“What does the checkerboard represent?”

“Integration. The black and white squares – think of them like woven threads.” I interlock my fingers. “There is strength in the integration of opposites.”

“What about the ocean?”

“It’s the source of all life.”

“And the lightning?”

“Electricity – the power of the brain.”

“What do the mountains in the background represent?”

This gives me pause.

“There aren’t any mountains in the background.”

“Sure there are.” They look at each other. “We both saw them.”

Shit. They’re seeing breast imagery.

“I didn’t do a good job of painting the underside of the clouds. You did a Gestalt.”

They look at each other again.

“A what?”

I explain figure/ground reversal.

Later, as I am leaving, ‘Bad Cop’ stops me.

“By the way what’s that painting called, anyway?”

“It’s called ‘Hey, Neil?’”

His face reddens. He is a big guy. He steps towards me.

“What?” The word comes out like steam from a crack in a pipe.

“The painting is called ‘Hey, Neil?’.”

His jaw clenches. He seethes. His eyes narrow to slits.

“You called it “Hey! Kneel!’? Like ‘Get down on your knees’?”

I swallow. “No, like Neil Armstrong. The astronaut.”

I think he is going to hit me.