"After the Honeymoon"
He created a hit opera in 1960, and a cult-classic movie in 1970. Now, 30 years after his big
moment in the pop-culture spotlight, Leonard Kastle is ready to revive his cinematic career
(Metroland, Jan. 4, 2001)
Martha Graham once said she'd like to stage a ballet piece he wrote. His opera about whalers was described as a "masterpiece" by James Levine, doyen of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. He was hired by theater legend Moss Hart as the one-man-band for a touring show. And his first and only movie-directing gig was replacing Martin Scorsese at the helm of a cult classic. For much of his 71 years, Leonard Kastle has drifted through the upper echelons of American culture, earning enviable praise for nearly all of his creative endeavors.
So why haven't you heard of him?
Because for much of his 71 years, Kastle has been saddled with the kind of bad luck that ambitious artists often attract as if they were magnetized. He's been lied to, betrayed, ripped off, shined on, patronized, disappointed, and disheartened. He's survived doomed relationships, vicious legal battles, even a bout with prostate cancer. It's not that Leonard Kastle never tasted success, however -- it's that he has held it in his hands for several fleeting moments.
Now he's ready for one more try. Just a few months after he beat cancer, Kastle is talking about the future with a vigor that makes him seem far younger than he is. Because of a chance meeting with a wealthy artist, and because of new developments in inexpensive filmmaking technology, Kastle recently dusted off an old script, and he's about to resume the directing career he gave up 20 years ago.
"I haven't had the success I really think I should have," he says. "I think the time will come."
A sophisticated and gracious host, Kastle discusses his career while holding court in his meticulous Westerlo home on a brisk winter day. The house, which is as unique as its owner, was built in 1949 from a design by Malcolm Greene Duncan, a peer of Frank Lloyd Wright's, and it looks like an art deco ski chalet, complete with vintage lighting fixtures, hidden built-in cabinets, and rows of giant windows. Kastle, his dog, and his cat live quietly here, a long way from the bustling streets of New York City that Kastle walked throughout his youth.
Yet the house is spiced with hints of Kastle's past and future. Posters commemorate a piano recital he gave in London and the TV premiere of "The Honeymoon Killers," his celebrated 1970 movie. Upstairs, binders laid on his piano burst with the pages of "The Pariahs," his five-hour opera about a doomed whaling ship. And a stack of scripts on the dining-room table indicate that he's ready to launch production on "Wedding at Cana," his new film project. This house is peaceful, yes, but it promises to soon become the center of kinetic creativity.
* * *
Born to Russian immigrants in the Bronx, Kastle grew up in the affluent New York suburb of Mount Vernon. Although he enjoyed the usual pursuits of youth, especially sports, music caught his ear at an early age. "In those days, the piano was a big thing -- I'm starting to sound like an old fart -- but if you were a little upper-class and you wanted to educate your children, part of that was music lessons," he recalls. "I had an older sister, and she took music lessons. I used to beg my parents to let me take lessons, but the teacher said I was too young."
A precocious performance by 6-year-old Kastle proved he was up to the challenges of music education. When his then-10-year-old sister, Norma, returned from a summer at camp, Kastle's parents asked her to play a piece she'd learned prior to her departure. She couldn't remember it, but Kastle, who had no formal training, could. After watching his son tickle the ivories, "My father thought he had Mozart on his hands," Kastle recalls.
The newly discovered prodigy was enrolled in Julliard's Preparatory Institute, but his idyllic youth came to a halt in his 10th year. During what he calls "a summer out of Dickens," Kastle was shipped off to live with a piano teacher named Mrs. Levin in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. The eccentric Levin put the overweight Kastle on a harsh diet, ranted that the boy's father was a bad influence for allowing the youth to see movies, lectured the mystified boy about the virtues of Stalinist Russia, and made him write letters home indicating that he was enjoying his visit. Finally, a cook in the Levin household helped Kastle smuggle out a real latter, upon receipt of which his parents came running to his rescue.
"I had a very sheltered life with very loving parents, and it was the first time I came across cruelty," Kastle says. "I don't know if it made an impression. I got nasty as I got old. I was lovely when I was young."
Despite his claims that the summer in Maine didn't leave a mark, the cruelty that Kastle first encountered in the Levin household eventually became an important facet of his work. "Honeymoon Killers" is a brutal fictionalization of a real-life killing spree. "The Pariahs" deals, in part, with cannibalism; and "Wedding at Cana" is a harrowing allegory about the corruption of the Catholic Church. Kastle's fiction looks at life with an unflinching eye, so it's significant to note when that eye was first opened. "As an artist -- and I don't mean this in a pompous way -- you have to deal with the reality of life," he notes. "Anyone who's dealing with the realities of life has to go to hell, because hell is all around."
After returning from Maine, Kastle continued his musical apprenticeship, often with celebrated mentors. He studied under former Cleveland Orchestra musical director George Szell at the Mannes School of Music, then began a fruitful alliance with one-handed pianist Paul Wittgenstein, brother of philosopher Leonard Wittgenstein.
By the early '50s, after completing his studies at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music, Kastle was a swinging single in New York City. He got work playing piano during Carnegie Hall ballet classes, accompanying George Balanchine and other notables. His quick, acidic wit made him a hit socially and professionally, so Kastle soon found himself hobnobbing with legendary figures. "Martha Graham came to my dinky cold-water flat to hear a ballet piece I composed," he says. "There was a drunken man who lived next door with his mother, and he would get drunk and rage, so he's screaming next door while I'm playing my ballet piece for Martha Graham."
Kastle's encounter with the modern-dance pioneer was the first of many so-close-and-yet-so-far experiences. She said she wanted to stage his piece, but never did; similarly, Levine breathlessly praised "The Pariahs," but never produced the massive opera. "Talk about learning lessons," Kastle says with a trace of bitterness. "I didn't learn them from the nasty lady in Maine -- I learned them from supposedly lovely people in New York City."
Yet not all of Kastle's fans reneged on their promises. In 1952, he was hired as the accompanist for a small-scale revival of "Lady in the Dark," a Broadway spectacular written by Great White Way great Moss Hart. "I did the whole thing on one piano and I would stroke the strings and I had metal objects and I would make crazy sounds," Kastle says. "I got my first review, from Brooks Atkinson in 'The New York Times,' and he said 'The real star of the show is Leonard Kastle.'" Hart and his wife, actress Kitty Carlisle Hart, attended one of the performances, then invited a starstruck, 23-year-old Kastle to dinner at Sardi's.
At the famed restaurant, Moss Hart made the young musician an offer. Kastle tells the story: "He said 'Would you like to save my marriage? My wife has always wanted to do this show, and she has an offer to do it all over summer stock. I have always told her she couldn't do it, because I never believed a show that was so big and spectacular could be done in summer stock. But you've convinced me.' I went from making $2 an hour to making $500 a week."
* * *
Around the same time that he toured with "Lady in the Dark," which sparked a lifelong friendship with Kitty Carlisle Hart, Kastle began a long personal relationship with TV producer Warren Steibel. Kastle also worked in TV, translating and conducting operas for broadcast on NBC, and he made his next move up the professional ladder in 1960. His first opera, "Deseret," a drama about Brigham Young and the beginnings of Mormonism, was broadcast on NBC to widespread acclaim, then produced in numerous cities. "I have reviews of that opera from every city in America, and they are unbelievable," Kastle says proudly. "It really sticks in my craw that with such a reception for my first opera, I should have such a difficult time getting my work produced."
Nonetheless, Kastle won large commissions that, combined with Steibel's TV success, allowed the couple to buy a home in Columbia County. As the years wore on, opera opportunities evaded Kastle, but another kind of opportunity lay in wait. Steibel had long wanted to produce a film, and in the late '60s he convinced a stockbroker friend to put up $150,000 for a movie project. Seizing on the popularity of "In Cold Blood" and "Bonnie and Clyde," Steibel decided to dramatize the "Lonely Hearts Club Murders" of the 1940s, in which a couple bilked and murdered rich women across the country.
Steibel recruited Kastle to research the facts of the case; Kastle did such a thorough job that he was hired to write the screenplay. (Although Kastle was a longtime movie fan devoted to the work of European filmmakers including Luis Bunuel, Francois Truffaut, and Jean Cocteau, he had no formal film training.) Then, during the filming of "The Honeymoon Killers" -- which was shot in Albany, Berkshire, and Columbia counties -- a crew shakeup forced Kastle to expand his role in the production.
Martin Scorsese, whose only credit at the time was the obscure art film "Who's That Knocking at My Door?" was hired to direct "Killers," but quickly fell behind schedule. Kastle recalls that on the first day of shooting, Scorsese and cinematographer Oliver Wood were nowhere to be found while the actors prepared to film a complex scene at a lake. "We're waiting and we're waiting, and they're shooting a beer can in the bush," he explains. "That was gonna establish the mood of the movie. It wasn't in the script."
Scorsese got canned and was briefly replaced by the film's assistant director. A week later, the assistant was out and Kastle was in. "I'm an amateur," Kastle says. "The reason 'Honeymoon Killers' is good is I had no preconceived notions of what a movie should be. I just went by instinct. Half the movie's made up. People think, when they see the movie, it all happened. It's not a documentary."
Because of Kastle's gritty realism and the startling performances of newcomers Tony LoBianco, as a manipulative gigolo, and Shirley Stoler, as an overweight nurse whose devotion to the gigolo turns murderous, "The Honeymoon Killers" earned raves. Truffaut called in "my favorite American film," some critics said it was a better exploration of violence than "Bonnie and Clyde," and the film was shown in festivals around the world. It was quite a run for a gruesome, black-and-white movie filled with grisly murders.
"As far as 'Honeymoon Killers' goes, it's horrific," Kastle says now. "I cringe when I see it. But it's also a great love story. I'm not Euripedes or Sophocles, but remember, the greatest Greek tragedies were built on that -- violence and emotion and gore."
Despite the film's impressive reception, it faded from theaters quickly because Cinerama Releasing marketed it as a B-movie instead of an art flick. The marketing helped form Kastle's longstanding cynicism about producers and distributors. "The people in the movie business are the slime of the world," he says. "They are the lowest of the low."
After "Honeymoon Killers," Kastle turned down opportunities to film other writers' scripts, and concentrated on writing screenplays such as "Wedding at Cana," which is inspired by Christ's first miracle, and "Change of Heart," a drama about organ transplants. Catherine Deneuve nearly starred in "Change of Heart" under Kastle's direction, but the director's bad luck threw his cinematic career off course. Steibel, who was to produce "Change of Heart" as he had "Honeymoon Killers," alienated the film's financiers during an argument, and the project got shut down.
After the "Change of Heart" debacle, Kastle used the downtime between movie projects to complete an early version of "The Pariahs" and pursue other musical projects. In 1978, he wrote a mass for the opening of the Empire Center at the Egg, and in 1979, he was hired to teach opera at the University at Albany.
Throughout this period, his relationship with Steibel deteriorated. Things came to a head in 1980, when Kastle discovered that Steibel had illegally claimed the copyrights to all of Kastle's work. A long, messy court battle ensued, and when the dust settled in 1986, Kastle had won back the rights to everything except "Honeymoon Killers" -- a profitable project from which, Kastle says, he was yet to earn a penny.
* * *
Kastle describes the late '80s and early '90s as a peaceful period during which he wrote more operas and screenplays, and completed his enjoyable 10-year-run teaching at UAlbany. (He says that in recent years, he's had the joyous experience of watching former students credit him for his success. "It's sort of like 'Goodbye, Mr. Chips,'" he says with a morbid laugh.)
In yet another of his life's odd twists, Kastle recently found himself thrust back into filmmaking. After his cancer battle, which included dozens of radiation treatments throughout 2000, Kastle settled in for some quiet time in the hill towns of Albany County. Among his varied activities, he's the organist at an Episcopalian church in Rensselaerville, and it was at that church that he met wealthy painter-photographer Richard Prince. Prince, fatefully, is a huge fan of "Honeymoon Killers." The artist encouraged Kastle to get another film project going, so Kastle revived "Wedding at Cana," which he says is his favorite of his own scripts.
When preproduction starts on the film next month, it will be the realization of a long-delayed dream. "This has only worked out because there's a wealthy artist in Rensselaerville who said 'I'll give you the money,'" Kastle says. "I have to make it on a shoestring, digitally, but it can still be marvelous. 'Honeymoon Killers' is not something I chose to make. What I could do with it, I did with it. This is not being pompous, but there's a lot of me in that movie. This movie, there's a lot more of me, because I chose to do it."
"Wedding at Cana," which Kastle plans to film entirely in the Capital Region and in which he hopes to cast several local actors, is a dark parable involving gangsters, homosexuals, the Catholic Church, persecution, and a miracle. When asked to describe the picture, Kastle launches into a colorful, compelling oratory reflecting his passion for narrative -- and his conflicted feelings about religion. Raised Jewish, he's also practiced Christianity. While he says he will always be a Jew, he's now, as his musical duties indicate, also an Episcopalian.
"I was a six-day Catholic," he quips. "It only took me six days to get disgusted with it. I'm obviously searching for something, but I'm not finding it in organized religion. So where I am is back at 'Wedding at Cana,' which is the most anti-religious movie you can imagine -- but also very religious." Given that the financing for the new movie began with a meeting in a church, Kastle finds it deliciously ironic that "Wedding at Cana" will offend churchgoers everywhere. "They may throw me out of the church when they see this movie," he says, grinning.
As he anticipates his 72nd birthday, which will occur next month, Kastle can look back on both spectacular failures and spectacular accomplishments, and he has every reason to believe that his roller-coaster ride has a few more thrills in store. The peculiar trajectory of his career is proof of something that his beloved piano teacher, Paul Wittgenstein, once said to comfort a 16-year-old Kastle after he'd lost a major contest.
"He said 'We artists . . .' and when he said 'We artists,' I felt so great, he had never said anything like that to me," Kastle recalls. "He said, 'We artists have disappointments that are so horrible, that are deeper and more hurtful than other people have. But they are compensated by joys that other people can never understand.'"
* * *
(Postscript: Kastle's bad luck resurfaced soon after this article was published, when the "Wedding at Cana" project fell apart. However, his debut film still endures: In 2003, the Criterion Collection issued an elegant collector's edition DVD of "The Honeymoon Killers," featuring an on-camera interview with Kastle.)
Mall, the Merrier"
The comfort zones of consumer culture, shopping centers offer an intoxicating illusion
(Metroland, Nov. 18, 1999)
In 1990, Milton Bradley introduced a board game called Mall Madness, the object of which is to "be the first to buy six items on your shopping list and get back to the parking lot." Players build a three-dimensional shopping center by stacking cardboard parts onto the game board and installing an electronic speaker unit that provides the mall's godlike voice. Unlucky players lose turns when, just before making a purchase, the mall says: "You left your lights on -- go to the parking lot." But the lucky ones rejoice when the voice from the rafters announces: "Hey! You get a special sale!" What with racing to the bank to get more cash, worrying that a store might be low on stock, and fretting that other players are getting better deals, a game of Mall Madness is a real nail-biter. And there's no bending the rules, because -- as an ominous, bold-faced warning in the instruction booklet says -- "The voice of the mall always has the final word!"
Shopping malls occupy a startlingly prominent place in modern American life. Traffic patterns are rearranged to accommodate them, maps are redrawn to include them, and small retailers wage an ongoing David-and-Goliath battle against them. In our consumer culture, malls dominate communities the way churches towered over towns in the Middle Ages. But for those whose faithful patronage facilitates their preeminence, malls aren't loaded with social significance. Instead, they're convenient, climate-controlled hangouts at which the continuous flow of money is as innocuous a part of the atmosphere as piped-in easy-listening music and planters filled with fake palm trees.
* * *
As the well-worn copy of Mall Madness topping a stack of board games in the playroom of her Loudonville home suggests, Darcy Connor is a devoted mall rat. A 16-year-old Colonie High School student who says she goes to the mall at least once a week, with visits ranging from one hour to several, Connor offers a simple reason why she spends so much time there: "The mall is probably the place I go to hang out with people the most."
Connor's explanation reflects the importance of malls to American suburban youth. Because modern communities sprawl so widely -- and because the cutthroat nature of commercial development shunts such traditional gathering places as public squares, parks, and community centers to the periphery of towns and villages -- adolescents naturally gravitate to the one place where they can gather freely and safely until curfew or closing time, whichever comes first.
Although they and their allowances are crucial to the survival of malls, teens are certainly not the only demographic represented in the halls, stores, and food courts of the nation's shopping centers. Senior avail themselves of mall-walking clubs, in which the miles of tiled halls are used for exercise before shoppers invade each morning; seniors also can be found throughout the day, casually sipping on coffee, shopping for themselves or their grandkids, and taking in matinee showings of movies. And representatives from every age group between these extremes -- from twentysomething couples meeting for drinks to parents escorting toddlers -- haunt malls as well.
But it is teens with whom malls are most closely associated. They fill movie theaters on Saturday nights and raise their voices in boisterous laughter when Adam Sandler jokes bout bodily functions or in shrieking terror when butcher knives are wielded against Neve Campbell. They spend cash on CDs, jeans, fleece vests, and basketball-star-endorsed sneakers. And they compose much of the workforce behind the counters of the very malls they patronize.
What all this means is that the only way to understand the mall is to dive into the belly of the beast -- in other words, to brave the mall on a Saturday afternoon with a group of teens leading the way. Toward that end, I arrange to meet Connor and two of her friends at 4:30 by the entrance of an upstairs pizza joint at the area's largest shopping center.
I arrive a couple of hours early and encounter a relentless flow of human traffic. Although certain types of shoppers are given right-of-way -- parents with strollers, the wheelchair-bound, and, in an uncomfortable reflection of the mall's mostly white clientele, groups of young black men -- mallgoers seem as tolerant of shoulder-brushing and near-collisions as New Yorkers strolling through Times Square. Because it seems implausible that any of these people are surprised by the size or momentum of the crowds, I figure there must be something attractive about joining the throng; the idea that getting subsumed into a human swarm is an acceptable tradeoff for the convenience of one-stop shopping seems too pat an explanation.
Perhaps going to the mall provides a kind of validation, as if the action of moving in tandem with thousands of strangers replaces the more demanding action of truly functioning within a community. Shopping is a safe way for people to interact in today's depersonalized climate, because it affords the opportunity to gather without any expectation of human contact beyond curt exchanges with store employees. Aside from running into acquaintances who are shopping at the same time, mallgoers can restrict how much interaction they have, thereby exerting a measure of control over their environment. Mallgoers who feel chatty can strike up conversations with people in every store they visit, but at the same time, mallgoers who crave privacy can observe the people around them from the same remove that anthropologists use to study wild animals. The irony that some people go to the mall to be alone is illustrative of how over-stimulated we are these days; just as families leave TVs on for background noise during dinnertime, the noise of malls provides comforting proof that the machinery of society is operating at full power.
It's not incidental that the rise of malls in the latter half of this century parallels the exodus of Americans from rural communities and cities to anonymous suburbs. People seem to crave sameness in modern life, so the similarity of domiciles within housing developments is commensurate to malls in different cities having stores in common. Just as the hubbub of malls proves society is functioning, having homes and stores recur from community to community provides continuity and, therefore, comfort.
Strolling through the halls, I note the myriad ways that people can dispose of their money, some of which have nothing to do with shopping. Charities and nonprofit groups try to dip into the revenue stream here and there but, fitting the place's nature, the only organizations getting any attention are those offering payoffs. A Hope House "wishing well" into which the charitable are expected to deposit coins and bills is being used as a seat by a sixtysomething man whose bland expression describes the excitement he feels awaiting the conclusion of his wife's trek through a nearby housewares shop. Meanwhile, several people buy raffle tickets from representatives of the La Salle Institute, probably because the raffle's prize is a shiny new Corvette.
Observing the torrent of people and listening to the clamor of conversation, some patterns become clear. Pairs are the most popular configuration for mall visits, from couples to same-sex friends to parents and children. Different groups have different paces: A preteen leading his mom to a toy store or arcade moves much faster than a lone woman casually pricing Nine West pumps at various shops. But virtually no one moves through the mall as fast as a teen without a destination.
* * *
Connor arrives ready for battle with the crowds. She left her coat at home, so she's not weighted down, and she brought a soda to avoid buying one. She's soon joined by Sarah Rosen, 16, and Sarah's acerbic boyfriend, 15-year-old Scott LaMountain. The three speak in quick, functional sentences peppered with all-purpose conjunctions "like" and "you know," and their communication is so constant that it's as if language is a tether holding them together. They move as one and with such deliberate velocity that I'm reminded of hummingbirds zipping from one flower to the next, their wings frantically flapping even when the birds are stationary.
In her sprightly speech pattern, usually delivered with exhausting rapidity, Connor explains the planning that goes into a mall adventure (for full effect, read the following in one breath): "I usually don't go to the mall on a weeknight because of school. We'd rather go on a weekend, because you can stay longer and you don't have to worry about time and stuff, but usually if I was going to the mall, like, on a Saturday, usually I plan, like, a day or two ahead. Talk to my friends, you know, 'What are you doing on Saturday night,' you know, and decide we're gonna go to the mall. We get whoever we want to go, and sort of as time gets nearer talk about a time, and probably that day figure out exactly what time we're gonna meet and how we're gonna get there. Talk about it in school and then on the phone."
Connor, Rosen, and LaMountain zoom through the first store they "hit" -- the verb Connor uses to describe visiting a store -- and their shopping has a stream-of-consciousness aspect. Connor weaves between fixtures on the sales floor to reach a wall rack bearing colorful shirts, then rifles through the shirts with the ferocity of a blackjack dealer issuing cards. The pace at which she and her friends process visual information is startling, as is the ease with which they shift gears. Connor holds up a shirt to show her friends, but they've already moved to another part of the store, so she suddenly unhands the shirt and races to join them without a backward glance. All the while, chat about parties, school, jobs, and cars lobs from Connor to Rosen to LaMountain like a volleyball that must be perpetually kept in the air. When Connor finally decides to buy an inexpensive shirt, the three are so enthralled by their conversation that several minutes pass before they realize the checkout station at which they're waiting is closed.
"I don't exactly go to the mall with my family a lot," Connor says. "Sometimes your parents just wanna go into the mall and get out of the mall, or they wanna shop and you don't wanna shop, or they, like, don't want to go into stores because of, you know, different tastes, so when you go with your friends it's, like, more relaxed. We'll go to stores everyone wants to go to, and then we'll hit individual stores that certain people want to go to. Sometimes if we're, like, in a large group, we'll split up. Tonight, I'm with friends and then they're leaving, and I'm meeting with a huge group of friends and we're gonna hang out and we're gonna go to a movie."
* * *
During the part of her evening I observe, Connor spends very little money; she seems far more interested in catching up with her friends than acquiring goods. She and Rosen are sweetly intimate, sharing private jokes and commenting on clothes that they try on but don't purchase. LaMountain is a cutup who amuses the girls by modeling geeky glasses and, in a novelty store, goofing around with items including a fur phone. He seems unperturbed that the girls are picking the stores; he appears to enjoy their company so much that the setting is irrelevant so long as there's an abundance of sight and sound. Music by the Backstreet Boys, Ricky Martin, Blondie, and other artists blares from store speakers, and although it seems the three are ignoring the songs, sudden comments from Rosen or LaMountain such as "Oh, I hate this song" reveal that their pop-culture radar is acute.
What becomes most evident as the minutes turn to hours is that the mall is an environment these three navigate as expertly as sharks circling the Barrier Reef. They're not looking for anything, but they pounce without hesitation when something catches their fancy. Perhaps because they spend so much time here, they feel no pressure to spend money; they simply find the blur of clothing, jewelry, novelty items, food, and other products to be pleasant diversions.
Connor says the mall provides a great background for conversation as well as an opportunity to see friends whom, because of conflicting schedules, she rarely sees in school. But she admits the mall is not conducive to "deep" conversations. Watching the way her group flits from subject to subject, I see what she means. I also see what makes the incessant distractions appealing. The noise and speed of the mall gives shoppers an easy out whenever conversations get difficult or heavy -- there's always a ready way to change the subject. A measure of privacy can be had by securing a table in the food court or sitting on the edge of a planter, but the presence of so many other people is a safety net that would be unavailable in, say, a quiet living room.
I think this safety net is what people find most appealing about malls. In the same way that schoolchildren gather in noisy playgrounds, college students congregate in crowded dorms, and adults mingle in bars and at cocktail parties, mallgoers enjoy having a place that allows for socializing but prevents real intimacy. All of their senses are engaged, but they don't need to think or feel deeply. Furthermore, the carefree aspect of shopping centers is seductive. Patrons don't need to worry about the weather or automobile traffic, and they don't need to worry about the tribulations of home life -- phone calls, visitors, chores. Patrons are free to roam until their patience wears out, their wallets are emptied, or the gates are shut for the evening. In this sense, malls are the ultimate product of a consumer-oriented society: pre-packaged environments.
* * *
But as much as the mall is a comfort zone for suburban white kids, it's a mixed blessing for others. Black people are eyed with suspicion by many store clerks, and the posturing young black men who strut through the halls with tough expressions clearly make many around them nervous. The presence of antitheft ink tags on leather jackets in department stores, and plastic shucks on CDs in music stores, is a constant reminder that some -- white, black, and otherwise -- find the temptation to help themselves irresistible. These subtle but omnipresent tensions prove that the seeming harmony of the place is at best tenuous and at worst illusory.
Malls must be an alluring illusion, though, because even as this area's oldest shopping centers are dying in the retail equivalent of survival of the fittest, the big ones are getting bigger. Although a plan to install amenities including a skating rink and a hotel to an already large shopping center was recently blocked by an incensed citizenry, the fact that two outdated malls are being razed simply to make room for newfangled shopping centers suggests that the desire for bigger, better retail has been redirected, not quashed.
And an alarming precedent hints that Capital Region malls are, despite their size and scope, behind the times. "USA Today" recently reported that nonprofit group Overnighters Association Inc. runs a program in which RV owners rent space in mall parking lots so they can make long-distance shopping trips without the bother of visiting relatives or seeing sights. If this model catches on, the phrase "living at the mall" will no longer be hyperbolic.
To those who would argue that retail is in fact moving away from physical stores and into cyberspace -- making Overnighters' program a fluke, not a glimpse of things to come -- consider Connor's perspective. "Shopping on the Net doesn't bother me," she says. "I just think that they add on so many extra charges for doing it online, it's not worth the while. If it was a good price, I'd buy something online, but, I mean, I'd still go to the mall, because I think it's fun to, like, try on the clothes and see how you look in them and stuff like that."
Those last three words encompass the aspects of the mall that have nothing to do with shopping: socializing, people-watching, incessant movement. Tellingly, these are among the elements that city dwellers find exciting about the urban lifestyle. A parallel can be drawn, in fact, between the experience of visiting a metropolitan area and that of patronizing a mall; in both cases, visitors move through congested, enclosed environments with a mixture of focused direction and aimless wanderlust. The difference in the mall model, of course, is that all the distasteful variables -- street crime, panhandlers, crazies -- have been removed or at least minimized. Malls are, then, a safe suburban simulation of the urban experience.
Because malls offer intoxicating sights and sounds within a safe cocoon, Connor, her peers, and those both like and unlike her pass through shopping centers on a kind of high, elevated by the feeling that they can do whatever they want. They can linger in stores, be waited on by strangers, study the people around them, or simply roam. This feeling of liberation is matched by the deceptive empowerment given them by the consumerist nature of the place: For a price, the mall and all its plastic wonders are theirs for the taking.
So when the time comes for me to part company with Connor, Rosen, and LaMountain, it's easy to conjure an appropriate ending to the outing. After following the trio down an escalator connecting the upstairs food court to a downstairs atrium, I simply stop moving and let them walk away, as if stepping out of the current of a river. Connor's crew is soon assumed into the throng, off to pursue that rush of empowerment and liberation. As they depart, I notice the giddiness in their casual body language, easy laughter, and joking camaraderie. Here in their natural habitat, they are touched with Mall Madness, and they wouldn't have it any other way.
For writer-filmmaker Bruce G. Hallenbeck, ghosts and ghouls and goblins aren't the
stuff of nightmares -- they're tools for holding onto the wonderment of childhood.
(Metroland, Oct. 11, 2001)
Unless a light is burning in the window, you can barely see the house at night. The locale, on a hilly country road outside of Kinderhook, isn't exactly remote, but the lack of a paved driveway and the way the branches of tall trees droop to the ground help the house blend into the darkness of the rural forest. Cars approaching the dwelling bob and shake as tires grind their way over a craggy gravel pathway. Visitors who step inside the building cause the wood floorboards to issue creaking noises, and the décor is filled with startling images -- the pallid whiteness of a skull here, the horrific mid-howl countenance of a werewolf there. Yet these images are offset by evidence of gentle domesticity, like the impassive white housecat nestled into one of the comfy recliners in front of the television.
The mixture of the frightening and the mundane is a deliberate effect, because for the master of this humble two-story abode, one Bruce G. Hallenbeck, the things that go bump in the night are a big part of what makes this house a home.
Hallenbeck has spent most of his 49 years in this house, first as an imaginative youth infatuated with monster movies and bloody fiction, and now as a seasoned entertainer who makes his own monster movies and writes his own bloody fiction. One reason he stays here is because the place still holds mysteries he can't unravel: Although he wasn't there for the sighting, Hallenbeck says that his late grandmother once saw a hairy beast known among locals as "the Kinderhook creature," which believers describe as the area's answer to Sasquatch, in the woods behind the house.
On another occasion, Hallenbeck himself might have been in close proximity to the mysterious monster. "I had a friend visiting from England," he says, "and I was escorting her out the door one night. I heard something that started as a scream, then turned into a series of howls and ended in a low moan. My friend said, 'Is that a typical American sound to hear?' I said, 'No, I haven't heard that one before.' That's as close as I've been and as close as I ever want to be."
Hallenbeck acknowledges that his active imagination might have played a part in his perception of the unearthly sound: "I'm sure most fantasy writers would love to see a UFO land on their lawn. I've always tried to be an open-minded skeptic when I'm investigating these things. I know that when I see something in the sky at night, it's probably an airplane, and when I hear something in the woods, it's most likely an animal and not a bigfoot. But I've had experiences where I can't explain what I've seen and heard."
As if on cue, a soft thumping sound begins to emanate from somewhere just outside the house. Hallenbeck and his visitor look over to see the cat -- on the other side of the house, and therefore not the source of the peculiar noise. "See, even now I hear a strange sound," Hallenbeck says with a smile. "Probably a chipmunk." Probably.
* * *
The simple joy that Hallenbeck derives from imagining that there might be a supernatural creature lurking outside his house offers a snapshot of his personality. For even though he's a grown man with a wife and, as of recently, a steady day job with New York state, he's still very much the young boy whose grandmother took him to see countless movies starring Dracula, Frankenstein, Godzilla, and other fantastic monsters. He was first published at age 12, when he wrote a letter to the editor of "Strange Tales," a comic book starring mystic superhero Dr. Strange, and the same enthusiasm that prompted him to gush about a fictional sorcerer fuels most of his creative output.
Hallenbeck is best known as the director of such movies as 1990's "Vampyre," a minor cult film that puts a whimsically surreal spin on bloodsucking, and 1997's "Fangs," a compilation movie about the history of vampire flicks. He also is a veteran journalist who spent the '80s writing about movies for "Metroland" and other outlets. Most recently, he's settled into a relationship with EI Independent Cinema, a small New Jersey-based distributor, for whom he has written a handful of scripts that are being made (by other directors) into low-budget, direct-to-video thrillers. Somehow, he's managed to spend his whole life re-creating the otherworldly chills that enthralled him during his youth and adolescence.
"I remember for years being haunted by the ending of 'House of Dracula,' because he turns to dust," Hallenbeck says. "It seemed so magical. I think I'm one of those people who's always doomed to live in the past -- when I was 10, I was nostalgic for being 5. I think when the average person grows older, they tend to lose their sense of wonder. But people who are into this genre hold onto that."
Hallenbeck recalls the sage advice he received from the infamous publisher of a fan magazine called "Famous Monsters of Filmland," whom he once interviewed for a radio show: "When Forry Ackerman jokingly says 'Don't grow up,' he doesn't mean 'Don't be responsible.' He means 'Keep the dreams in your life.' I think a lot of people get stodgy when they get older, and forget how to have fun. I think now we're starting to realize how fragile life is. I like the adage 'Do well and do good.' It sounds to me like hedonistic altruism -- maybe that's because I'm a born-again pagan. But I think people need to remember how to have fun and imagine and dream. I just wish they'd loosen up."
* * *
Hallenbeck began making Super-8 home movies at age 13, and at age 19, he became a published author when "Moonbroth," a periodical based in the Northwest, printed three of his H.P. Lovecraft-influenced short stories. But Hallenbeck says he didn't become a serious filmmaker until around age 20, when he was exposed to classic films such as "Citizen Kane" and "The Seven Samurai" by an instructor at Columbia-Greene Community College.
"He opened my eyes to a kind of filmmaking that I hadn't seen before," Hallenbeck recalls. "I started writing film criticism at that time, and it made me look at films in a deeper way. Whereas before I'd been looking at films to get a thrill, now I was looking at subtext and characterization and metaphor."
Around that time, Hallenbeck spread his creative wings by acting in a TV show and several radio plays, while still nurturing his passion for writing stories about monsters and mutilation. He worked briefly for New York state after completing college, then spent most of the '80s splitting his time between journalism and stillborn movie projects. One particularly exasperating experience involved a proposed flick called "Grave's End," which Hallenbeck envisioned as a modern version of the gothic frightfests that Hammer Studios produced in the '50s and '60s. At one point, Hallenbeck was flown to England to meet with financiers, and a cast of supporting players from Hammer movies committed to appearing in "Grave's End." But the money for the project evaporated before cameras rolled.
"Because of all that frustration, I decided in the late '80s to make my own film," recalls Hallenbeck, who at that time fortuitously met a New York University-trained cinematographer named Tony Panetta. Panetta, an Albany native who had recently returned to the Capital Region, was anxious to use the Arriflex 16-milimeter camera he had purchased, so the would-be auteurs joined forces. "Despite all the 'film education' I have, my heart lies with horror," Hallenbeck explained. "Tony wanted to make an art movie. So we compromised and made an artsy horror movie called 'Vampyre.'"
Shot for a thrifty $60,000, the "Twin Peaks"-style riff on Carl Theodor Dreyer's classic 1931 film "Vampyr" is filled with echoes of Hallenbeck's persona: While the movie is atmospheric and violent enough to qualify as horror, it also is loaded with non sequiturs and odd humor. Just as Hallenbeck peppers his conversation with lines from cult movies, groan-inducing puns, and snippets of comical accents, he designed "Vampyre" to be fun and scary at the same time. "It's a little film that certainly has a lot wrong with it," the director says. "I kind of look at it as my special child, but we got it done. It's very surreal and weird and goofy, but it's been out there twice, and now it's coming out on DVD, so that's something."
In the same year that "Vampyre" was initially released -- by a distributor whose dubious approach to accounting has kept the director from ever seeing a penny for his efforts -- Hallenbeck wrote about the "Kinderhook creature" in a Warner Books anthology called "Dead Zones." Later, he co-authored a locally published book called "Monsters in the North Woods," which is now in its third printing. Throughout the '90s, Hallenbeck continued writing about movies as well, for publications including the glossy periodical "Femme Fatales," which is dedicated to starlets who appear in fantasy films.
* * *
Hallenbeck's choice to stop writing for "Femme Fatales" reflects an unusual aspect of his approach to horror, because he quit the magazine when it became too sleazy for his taste. Although his affection for the slinky babes in James Bond films and the busty heroines in Hammer flicks knows no bounds, he draws a clear line between eroticism and exploitation, which differentiates him from the scary types who occupy the lower rungs of fandom. So even though the scripts he's writing for EI feature plenty of saucy clinches, Hallenbeck is still the same guy who cringed when his distributor demanded he add topless scenes to "Vampyre."
"There are certain topics that I don't like, but it depends how they're dealt with," he says. "I think there's a difference between the kind of cheesecake you see in a 'Vampirella' magazine and what you'd see in 'Hustler.' Certainly a lot of what I'm doing now is erotic, but if someone asked me to write about a necrophiliac running around, I wouldn't want to do that. It's too much for an old geezer like me.
"As far as the sex in genre films, I always thought it was interesting what Jamie Lee Curtis said -- she got her start in horror films, but she was never asked to do a topless scene until she did 'Trading Places,' a comedy. So it's not just horror films. In one sense, any film designed to make money is an exploitation film. I think, ultimately, you have to have that element of the damsel in distress. I don't think it's exploitative. I think it's a natural human interest."
Just as Hallenbeck tries to use sex sparingly, he never uses four-letter words in his scripts -- not out of prudishness, but because he thinks the vulgarity-heavy dialogue in contemporary movies is unimaginative. Similarly, the thinks there's a difference between a movie about a pretty girl running away from a werewolf and one about a pretty girl running away from a machete-wielding maniac.
"I don't particularly care for slasher films unless they're exceptionally well made -- the only ones I can think of are 'Psycho' and 'Halloween,'" he notes. "I've always liked supernatural horror more. I think especially in the wake of what's happening right now, people want to escape from real horror, to be able to walk out of the theater and say 'That couldn't really happen.' I wouldn't even want to compete with the headlines right now. I don't know a single horror writer who could come up with something as ghastly as what happened on September 11."
* * *
Hallenbeck spent much of the late '90s working in relative obscurity, because his last two feature-film projects were held up by postproduction problems. But in the next few months, a flurry of movies bearing his name will hit the marketplace. The first one will be either "Misty Mundae, Mummy Raider," a spoof that he wrote for EI, or "Blood of the Werewolf," an anthology film from Michigan producer Kevin Lindenmuth that contains "Blood Reunion," a Hallenbeck-directed vignette costarring Hallenbeck's wife, Rosa.
Of the woman he married in 1999, the filmmaker happily notes: "There are a lot of horror-movie geeks out there who never find a soul mate. They may find someone who tolerates their interests, but doesn't share them -- so it's good that we're a team."
Other forthcoming projects include the Hallenbeck-scripted EI flick "The Witches of Sappho Salon," about supernatural lesbian hairdressers, and "London After Midnight," the long-delayed action/horror movie that Hallenbeck began making several years ago at a number of Capital Region locations.
"I'm trying to sneak a lot of things into these movies, because, in concept, they're fairly conventional genre pieces," Hallenbeck says of the EI slate that also includes the as-yet-unfilmed scripts "Caress of the Mummy" and "The Brides of Countess Dracula." "I'm trying to do what [B-movie producer] Roger Corman used to do, which is throw in a little social commentary here and there to put some intelligence behind the craziness. I've been told that some of my scripts are too literate and have to be dumbed down. I like films that have something going on under the surface."
Ironically, just as Hallenbeck found his groove cranking out screenplays for EI, he returned to state work. Penning low-budget thrillers doesn't pay the bills, so he decided to get a steady job with health insurance and retirement benefits, at least for the time being. This pragmatic approach to balancing what he loves to do and what he needs to do has defined Hallenbeck's career, as seen by his decision to live in his childhood home instead of relocating to, say, Hollywood. The filmmaker has been based in the Kinderhook house since the early '80s, and he inherited the home after his grandmother passed away in 1993. For years prior to her death, he cared for his ailing relative much as she had cared for him when he was young.
"I feel much more creative here, for lack of a better word," he says of his beloved dwelling. "I really like living in the country. I've got eight acres of land, and it's mostly woods. It's very peaceful. I think because I grew up here, there's a lot of inspiration here for me. A lot of the fantasy I had as a child is still with me. I feel if I'm writing scripts for other people, I don't need to be anywhere but in front of my typewriter. I'd done enough traveling and, writing for 'Metroland,' I'd done enough schmoozing at press junkets and stuff. I never had any desire to go to California -- if I was going to go anywhere, it was going to be to England. But England's not a good place to be struggling. I'd rather be struggling here."
a Fin and a Prayer"
With "The Little Mermaid," Disney seeks to reclaim its place atop the animation business
(Washington Square News, Nov. 8, 1989)
ORLANDO, FL. -- "We're trying to make a new animated feature a year, which is as much as the studio ever made in the heyday of animation back in the '30s and early '40s," said Roy E. Disney, nephew of the Walt Disney Company's legendary namesake. With next week's release of "The Little Mermaid," Disney's 28th full-length animated feature and its first animated fairy tale since 1959's "Sleeping Beauty," a revitalized Walt Disney Company is "back in the animation business," Disney said.
With low-quality Saturday-morning cartoons lowering the standards of the industry, audience interest in animated features has waned immensely in the last two decades. Disney has only released three animated features since 1981: "The Black Cauldron," "The Great Mouse Detective" (from the writing-directing team behind "Mermaid"), and last year's successful "Oliver and Company."
"When I came back," said Disney, who returned to the company five years ago after a break over creative differences, "there were a little over 200 people in the animation department, and we're up around 600 people now, including the more or less hundred people down here in the new Florida studio."
Behind the expansion is a recently renewed passion for high-quality animation, led by ex-Disney animator Don Bluth, whose first film, "The Secret of N.I.M.H.," was praised for detailed character illustration, elaborate backgrounds, and ambitious scale. Coupled with the staggering success of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," last year's live action/animated comedy, Bluth's rise indicated the presence of a new audience for high-quality animated features.
"We like production values," said "Mermaid" codirector, cowriter, and coproducer Jon Musker, "and we can use Don as our excuse to get those production values. We have to compete in this market." Those production values include the most elaborate sound design ever created for an animated feature, and the most elaborate special effects employed for such a project since the Disney landmark "Fantasia." By the way, the competition to which Musker referred is "All Dogs Go to Heaven," the new Bluth film featuring celebrity voice work that's due for release this holiday season.
The process of bringing the tale of Ariel, a spirited young mermaid who longs to be human, to the screen began four years ago when codirector and cowriter Ron Clements came across the Hans Christian Andersen story in a bookstore. The tale fulfilled all the requirements of a Disney fable: strong heroine willing to sacrifice all for true love; unmistakable good/evil split; fantastic locations. So Clements and Musker brought the project to Disney and Jeffrey Katzenberg, chairman of Walt Disney Studios since 1984.
"If you look in a historical perspective and go back to 50 years ago," said Katzenberg, "the animated movies that came out of this company were films, and they were films that were successful in the full universe of movies. They entertained young and old alike. 'The Little Mermaid' is the first one that I feel has an opportunity to succeed in the full universe of movies. Animated features should not be made at children, they should be made for the kid in all of us."
To give Ariel her voice, the Disney team sought out lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Harold Menken, who wrote the songs for "Little Shop of Horrors."
"For me," said Ashman, "the stylistic challenge, what was specifically exciting to do, was to create something that might be comfortable at home on the cassette shelf next to 'Sleeping Beauty,' 'Snow White,' and 'Cinderella,' that wasn't necessarily an imitation of those films, and that might not even be as good as those films -- because that's asking a lot, those films are great -- but to feel that it's from the same world as those films."
Ashman and Menken contributed seven songs, and Menken composed the score. A soundtrack album is getting a heavy promotional push, and an Oscar nomination for at least one of the songs seems likely. As for a potential single, Menken said the songs were conceived as pieces of the score rather than separate commercial entities. "It's very difficult to tell stories through many of the kinds of music that are popular now," Menken said.
As with their songs for "Little Shop," the tunes in "Little Mermaid" are far from traditional cartoon numbers. "I think everything with an audience is negotiable as long as there's a reason," Ashman said. "So you can write a reggae song, 'Kiss the Girl' -- if the character is Jamaican, it can be in a fairy tale and that's fine. But there better be a reason that it's a reggae song. The French chef can be kind of a Maurice Chevalier spoof, because he's a French chef. But I can't put the French chef song ['Les Poissons'] on the mermaid just because I wanted to be so original and daring and cute. I'd be a fool, and you wouldn't buy it."
Musker and Clements geared up for the animation process while the music was being completed. They split directing duties just as they shared writing chores on the film's script. "It was divided into sequences," said Musker. "Ron, for example, directed 'Under the Sea' -- that number I didn't really have much to do with at all. I did 'Kiss the Girl' and the witch's number, 'Poor Souls.' We had to negotiate at the beginning who got to do what songs. We sorta worked it out, and we're both low-key enough that we didn't kill each other. We both reviewed the storyboards so it didn't feel like two movies stapled together."
Glen Keane, the Disney veteran responsible for animating Ariel's soul-baring number "Part of Your World," recalled the process of connecting with the aquatic character. "Where she's singing the song, I really fell in love with the idea of animating someone's lower eyelids," he said. "I was looking at a film of [voice performer] Jodi Benson singing 'Part of Your World,' and she looked so intense there, and I really believed that this was something strong inside her, and the only way I could show that was by making her lower eyelids come up. And so I just kept drawing these lower eyelids all the time. It was odd -- usually I do the villains, the big characters. And in this case, I was trying to control myself. I feel like I learned more on 'Mermaid' artistically than anything I've worked on."
"You have to really, really get into it," added fellow animator Andreas Deja. "You slip occasionally, get lost in clichés. You always question yourself and strive for original things. It's tough, actually. It's very tough." Deja, responsible for the character of Ariel's father, Triton, said that hard work pays off. "Once it works, and the thing really looks like it's alive, and especially when it's thinking and seems to be scheming something -- it's a great feeling."
Several of the animators on "Mermaid," including Deja, worked on "Roger Rabbit," produced for Disney's Touchstone Pictures division. "Rabbit" was directed by Robert Zemeckis, produced by Steven Spielberg, and overseen by Katzenberg. "He's a missing ingredient at Disney that we haven't had since -- well, since Walt died," Keane said. "He's the man to please."
"Animation has become a passion for me," Katzenberg noted. "I'm hooked. It's just great fun and really challenging, and since it is truly the most collaborative art form that exists, I think, it's a place where I can be a part of the process without co-opting. I would say that the ambition I have for 'Mermaid' is probably unreasonable, and maybe that's what keeps Disney hungry and always pushing forward."
Katzenberg acknowledged that Disney's recent animated features didn't match the standards set by the company's founder. "People stopped trying," he said. "They were intimidated by their own heritage." He said he believes "The Little Mermaid" is a return to prime Disney storytelling form, and further believes that it's going to be a hit. "Because it's not an animated feature," Katzenberg said. "It's a movie."
of the Broom Closet"
Persecution behind them, witches enter the mainstream
(The Source, October 25, 1995)
Lord Hunter, High Priest of the Earth Star Circle coven, was a tall silhouette on his porch in the woods when he raised his hand to quell the two dogs that were jumping wildly around him. In a clipped, low voice, he signaled for his guest to enter the house while the dogs were calm, because "I can only control them for so long."
Lady Circa, High Priestess of the coven, was waiting inside. She was ready for the visitor. She had made brownies.
The scene was a trailer park in rural Hudson, and the setting was a bright, lived-in family room: overflowing book shelves, cat lounging in a cubbyhole by the stove, bright-eyed 3-year-old girl racing across the floor, dinner dishes on the table. Lord Hunter is Tom Sheely, 40, a computer specialist for Duchess County Community College, and Lady Circa is his wife, Debbie, 37, a Duchess County social services worker. Their coven meets in the Sheelys' gray, double-wide mobile home. "Witches are the people next door," Tom Sheely aid. "We don't dress up in funny clothes all the time."
The Sheelys practice Wicca, a European nature religion that may have emerged as early as 16,000 B.C. They are pagans, rural dwellers who follow polytheism -- the worship of more than one god. "All Wiccans are pagan," Tom Sheely said, "but not all pagans are Wiccan."
"People hear the word 'pagan,' and it has a negative connotation because of misinformation," Arthur Carroll said. Carroll, 52, is a Watervliet resident whose company, Birch Moon Creations, sells organic jewelry, art objects, and craft items. Carroll knew little about Wicca and paganism until last year, when he began researching markets for his products. "I've been doing a lot of studying on many natural paths to spirituality," he said. "One of those is broadly defined as paganism, and there are hundreds, if not thousands, of subdivisions."
Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Shamanism, and Wicca are some of those subdivisions. "The established churches of Western civilization have been very oppressive of other types of religion," Carroll noted. The established, monotheistic churches -- Christianity, Judaism, and Islam -- have waged bloody war against paganism throughout history, and have given the word "witch" an evil connotation. "We've gotten the worst PR in the world," Tom Sheely said. "The way most Americans think about witches, they'd rather live next to a Nazi than a witch."
If current trends hold forth, more Americans than ever before will live next to a witch, like it or not. Sheely cited a decade-old Center for Religious Studies survey that counted 200,000 declared witches. "For every open witch," he added, "I know of at least a dozen closet witches." With New Age stores spreading prodigiously, occult sections in bookstores growing, and classes like "Wicca 101" available to the general public, paganism is on the rise.
"It's the fast-growing religion in the world," Carroll said.
What is Wicca? No two witches answer this question the same way, but a few basics are consistent. Deities in their many forms are aspects of nature (moon, sun, earth, etc.). Wiccans believe in karma, divination, and reincarnation. Magick -- spelled with a "k" to distinguish it from showbiz illusions -- is used to raise positive energy and disperse negative energy. Ask Wiccans to describe their faith, and it sounds like this: "I'm more aware of my connection to everything, and everything's connection to me"; "I used to worry a lot about money, but now I know that whatever I need will show up"; "It gives you good hair days all the time."
"Some people think it's all free love and sex," says Dee Anderson, who teaches Wicca 101, where some prospective students ask about naked covens and orgies. "We're more tree-huggers than anything else. A few people get discouraged by that." Anderson, a 37-year-old Schenectady resident, teaches at Myth & Magick in Troy, and she's a member of the Hudson Valley Pagan Network, a three-year-old service organization. She's a professional nurse, and she's a witch.
HVPN arranges several public sabbat rituals each year, partially to dispel the image of naked, withered crones dancing around a bubbling cauldron to summon the devil. "Sabbats are celebrations," Tom Sheely said. "You are affirming change and affirming that change is what's keeping you alive."
Anderson said that HVPN sabbats involve "no nakedity," though they do involve some circle dancing: "We try, but we're really not very coordinated." And the most diabolical thing made in the cauldron is stew.
"Always being linked with Satanists is a real drag," said Christine D'Allaird, 27, also an HVPN member. Wiccans stress that Satan is a Christian idea with no place in their religion. Instead, Wiccans pray to a Goddess, sometimes called Diana, and a Horned God; these figures represent the male and female aspects of creation. The gods are worshipped at eight sabbats per year (the next is Samhain, the Celtic word for Halloween), and also at monthly esbats.
"An esbat is a regular worship service," Tom Sheely said. His wife added that esbats are "more serious than sabbats. They're used for teaching, raising energy, doing healing work, consecration of tools." The tolls of witchcraft include the athame (a ritual knife, often handmade), scourges, cords, wands, swords, and spears. Though blades are essential in Wiccan ceremony, rituals are nonviolent.
"We're against the spilling of blood," D'Allaird said, "or of any other body fluid, for that matter." Sex is an aspect of Wiccan ritual, but it's an extremely uncommon one. Anderson said she knows of no one in the area who practices "sex magick."
* * *
"We've had our own Holocaust," Tom Sheely said. For six centuries, the Vatican, and then the Spanish monarchy, sought to "convert" pagans by torture and execution. The Inquisition (1233-1834) crossed from Europe to America with the infamous trials at Salem, Mass. The exact number of victims is unknown, but theories range from 200,000 to 9 million dead.
Persecution against pagans continued well into this century: Witchcraft was illegal in England until 1964. That year, Gerald Gardner published "The Meaning of Witchcraft," the seminal text of modern Wicca. "Gardner thought his was the last group," Tom Sheely explained. "He wanted to put down what it was about so it wouldn't die." Gardner's protégé Raymond Buckland brought "Gardnerian Wicca" to the U.S., naked rites and all. ("Gardner was a nudist well before he was a Wiccan," Debbie Sheely said.)
The new/old religion found a warm reception in turbulent 1960s America. "A lot of taboos were breached in the '60s," D'Allaird said. "You wanna rebel against mom and dad? Grow your hair long and say you're a witch."
Debbie Sheely said that Wicca has grown in tandem with other trends of the '60s, '70s, and '80s -- environmentalism, feminism, and gay liberation, all aspects of "the public's awareness that people can be different and still be OK." The late '80s saw the birth of another trend, broadly called New Age, or what Carroll's catalog refers to as "earth-centered living." Stores such as Blue White Rainbow in Guilderland and The Creative Mind in Latham sell crystals, meditation tapes, and books about raising consciousness.
"In today's society, there's a need to connect with the earth," D'Allaird said. "We don't live where our parents live. We are a highly mobile society. Our family structure is being retooled. Wicca is a way of identifying with something. Your coven is your adopted family."
"Most people come to Wicca as a last resort," Debbie Sheely said. "They have searched, they have agonized." Sheely herself tried several branches of Catholicism in her teens and 20s, but "it wasn't enough," she said. "It wasn't there."
* * *
Pamela LaVersa, 38, is a witch, but she doesn't belong to a coven; she calls herself a "solitary practitioner." From her home in Stuyvesant, she makes craft items such as jewelry and incense. "Most of the stuff I sell is not related to my religion," she said. "It's just a job." When LaVersa sells at craft fairs, customers often ask about the supernatural qualities of her products. "A pair of earrings is to decorate your ears," she tells them. LaVersa will explain which items have Wiccan significance, such as candles with healing auras or incense used for relaxation. "They laugh, they think I'm crazy," she said. "They're also the same people who say 'Do you know a spell to do this?' They don't believe in it, but when they want something, they'll ask.
LaVersa described a ritual, this one to "counteract negative energy," she said. "I'll burn something like a pink candle, because pink is love. I'll set a black stone by the candle, to absorb the negative energy, and a piece of rose quartz to project love. I'll sit a few minutes absorbing and projecting. Being a witch is something different for every person. Me, particularly, I meditate, I visualize."
For some witches, magick is a private affair. "I talk very little about the exact specifics of what I do in ritual," Anderson said. D'Allaird cited psychologist Erik Erikson's phrase "magical thinking," which refers to the stage in childhood when "We believe everything we think and do has an influence," she said. "The thunderstorm happened because you made your mother angry that day. Pagans actively get back in touch with that."
"I would say maybe it is kind of a psychosomatic thing," LaVersa said. "But I would argue that's probably what any religion is, and I feel we all kind of create our own reality. So if I believe that a pink candle is going to blow away negative energy, then I know it will."
* * *
Tracy, 32, has been a "closet" witch for five years. "It makes it easier on me and everybody else not to explain my religion," she said. "When you work with the public, you get elderly people who are very Christian. If they knew you were a witch, they wouldn't come." Tracy, a doctor's assistant who requested that her last name not be used, is also a "dual path" witch: She practices both Wicca and Christianity.
"Out of all the kids in our family, I'm the only one who went to Sunday school," she said. "When you're raised with Christmas, it's kinda hard to turn your back on it totally. I look at Wicca as enlightening myself more." Like many witches, Tracy stumbled into Wicca. Throughout her twenties, she became more sensitive to nature, to other people's emotions, and to animals. But she was well along her path before she met another witch. "A lot of times," she said, "you don't know each other exists."
But "like attracts like," Tracy added, offering the example of a college friend. "We knew each other in college -- I was not Wiccan in school. I saw her years later, and she was wearing a pentagram necklace. We just ended up flowing in the same direction." More often, Tracy said she encounters ignorance, even hostility. "I'm not gonna deal with that crap," she said. "When you have people who are steadfast in their belief, that's OK. It's not my job to enlighten them. I have no right to change their point of view."
As Tom Sheely said, "One of the few things that almost all Wiccans agree on is that if you are on a spiritual path and you are fulfilled, then we are genuinely happy for you. We don't want to convert you -- you are where you are supposed to be. The only thing we consider wrong is if you are hurting someone."
While Tracy mentioned the frustration she experiences whenever Jehovah's Witnesses ring her doorbell ("They always hit me when I'm home sick," she said), LaVersa can do her one better: She was married to a Jehovah's Witness for 14 years. "I was actively interested in Wicca since I was about 17," she said. "I was about 35 when I came out." Because her husband "thought anything of this sort was the work of the devil," she spent years putting books about witchcraft into the family bookcase backwards, to hide the titles.
Although she said religion was not the reason the marriage ended, LaVersa said that becoming single gave her the freedom to fully explore Wicca. "The first time I ever tried a ritual, I had no reason to believe it would work -- I just knew it would," she recalled. "I was in big trouble trying to make it by myself, and I needed a certain amount of money to pay the electric bill. I felt a sense of calm [doing the ritual]. Out of the blue, someone offered me a very temporary job, which paid exactly what I needed. It's like the Rolling Stones song: You can't always get what you want, but you get what you need."
* * *
"One of the reasons we're so open is that we couldn't find teachers," Debbie Sheely said. "We had to blunder across them. No one should have to go through what Tom and I, and so many of our contemporaries, had to go through. It's just wrong. So many people end up bruised or in psychiatric counseling because what their spirit said was true, their religion said was false."
The world is changing for Wiccans, but much remains the same. The Sheelys described an acquaintance who went to a psychotherapist about a personal situation. Her Wiccan beliefs came up during the session, and the therapist said, "I'd like to refer you to a psychiatrist who can give you medication because you think you're a witch."
"This was five years ago," Tom Sheely said angrily.
"We would like to not have that type of knee-jerk reaction," Debbie Sheely said. "We are not the bad guys. We don't teach fear, we don't teach sin. We teach love, respect, and personal responsibility."
But knee-jerk reactions are what the Sheelys encounter, time and again. Earth Star Circle is a legally incorporated New York state church, yet efforts to join a local interfaith council have been unsuccessful. "They won't even tell us what the entrance requirements are," Tom Sheely said. "I've studied hard. I'd like to talk with my fellow clergy." He said he's gotten as far as convincing one member of the council to bring up the issue at meetings, "but every time she mentioned it to the Catholics, they essentially went out to get firewood."
Anderson described fundamentalists who've come into Myth & Magick trying to convert the "heathens." "They always go away surprised that we're nice people," she said. And Debbie Sheely talked about a phone call she received from a Bible-thumper who wanted to save her soul. They talked for 45 minutes, Debbie Sheely said, and "we parted with a great deal of respect for one another."
"There was an instant where my ex-husband said 'You're not gonna make it through Armageddon,'" LaVersa recalled. "It was kind of like telling a Jewish kid there's no Santa Claus. You can't scare me with a concept I don't believe in."
* * *
More and more witches are coming out of the broom closet, in life and art. A recent episode of CBS' nighttime drama "Picket Fences" featured a Wiccan who successfully fought for custody of her child when her religion became known. The Sheelys said the episode was well-intentioned, except "I would never have a child at a sky-clad circle," Debbie Sheely remarked. ("Sky-clad" is Gardnerian for "naked.")
In the '70s, songs like "Black Magic Woman," "Devil Woman," and "Witchy Woman" propagated a sexual, pseudo-Satanic stereotype; last year Sinead O'Connor's album "Universal Mother" included a Wiccan prayer in the liner notes. A Goddess-worshiping character appears on the soap opera "One Life to Live"; Madonna leads a coven of witches in the upcoming movie "Four Rooms." This atmosphere is a far cry from the late '80s, when Wiccans formed an anti-defamation league in response to John Updike's novel "The Witches of Eastwick," and when Jim Henson produced "The Witches," a movie that Debbie Sheely said "hurt terribly, because Jim Henson was someone I respected."
Witchcraft has earned a tentative place in the mainstream. "Some people will just be happy that they don't burn us alive," Tom Sheely said, but he and his wife want more. "I want these kids to know from the get-go what is out there," Debbie Sheely said. "I want to see my religion taught in the schools."
The Sheelys do not consider their children Wiccan. Tommy, 14, attends Sunday school; Jesse, 11, has learned to recite Hebrew rituals. "It's important that they know their choices," Debbie Sheely said. "Our kids come to circles, and we tell them 'This is different from what your friends do, and this is why it's different.'"
"Our kids would take initiation and dedication in a shot if we offered it to them," Tom Sheely added. "But they're not old enough to make that decision yet."
The Sheelys said that membership in their coven is strictly voluntary. "If somebody wants to leave, we don't stop them," Tom Sheely said. "We're not the Moonies. What we tell people is 'Don't hurt anybody,' and that's about it." Debbie Sheely wears the title High Priestess, but "I cannot tell one of my people that they have to answer to me. My word is not law. At most, my instructions can only be suggestions or advice."
Debbie Sheely's words were echoed by Anderson and D'Allaird. "I don't want it to seem that we know something non-pagans don't," D'Allaird said, "or that we're condescending. Our door's open."
"Most of the separation between religions happens up here," Anderson said, indicating her head. "It's a conscious mindset. We strive heavily to make people feel welcome."
The Sheelys, Anderson, and D'Allaird still hear the same clichés every day. "We don't go kidnapping children and robbing graves," Anderson said. According to these practitioners, Wiccans don't curse, don't hex, and don't recruit. "We do nothing without someone's informed consent," Tom Sheely said. "Even more than doctors, because doctors can only screw up your body. Religion can screw up your soul."
Sidebar: "Witch City, USA"
SALEM, Mass. -- No one paid much attention to the man walking down Winter Street wearing an executioner's mask, a cowled black cape, and a smear of blood down his chin. Those who did take notice politely asked to take his picture. He obliged by raising his arms like Dracula, growling through his dime-store latex mask.
Welcome to Salem, Mass., where Halloween is officially celebrated for two weeks, and unofficially observed year-round. Billed in tourism brochures as "Witch City," the seaport town was the site of 1962's witch trials, in which 20 colonists were executed on charges of witchcraft and heresy. Along with the Japanese internment camps of World War II and the McCarthy hearings of the blacklist era, the Salem trials are one of the darkest smears on American history.
"People come here because they want to know what happened here," said Gloria Caccizio, 60, director of the Witch Dungeon Museum. For $4, patrons watch an abridged reenactment of witch trial, then tour a reconstructed dungeon. Caccizio said that interest in Salem has never been stronger. "One never seems to come to the end of new theories about why the witch hysteria happened," she said. "It's a very complex subject. You could take so many different views -- economic, psychological, social."
In 1692, several young girls accused a group of Salem villagers of consorting with Satan to bedevil them. Though the girls later recanted, their accusations cost lives. Contemporary Salem features several tourist attractions that address the trials: the Salem Witch Museum, the Salem Wax Museum of Witches and Seafearers, the Salem Witch Trials Tercentenary Memorial, and so on.
"We went to see what they were about," said Tom Sheely, a real-life witch who practices the nature religion Wicca. "It was not so much that what the accusers did was wrong, but that they got the wrong guys." Sheely took the impression that "It would have been OK if they had killed real witches."
Salem is currently at the peak of Haunted Happenings, a fortnight-long observance of Halloween that includes live shows, festivals, and parties. A new event for 1995 is "Ask a Witch," wherein Wiccans mill with tourists on the town's cobblestone streets. "The witches are certainly included" in the festivities, Caccizio said. "A great many of them are responsible, upright citizens.
"Salem is not only noted for the witch hysteria," she added. "It's a beautiful maritime city, the history is extremely rich, and we have a beautiful museum [the Peabody-Essex] and beautiful architecture. We are a real working city. The city itself is history."
Salem's vintage architecture -- about two dozen square blocks of tall gables, elaborate brick facades, and reconstructed forts -- is polished for show and peppered with tourist-trap gift shops, restaurants, and hotels. Visitors gravitate toward the downtown district, drawn by the brick turrets of tall buildings and the hazy shapes of seagulls drifting above the horizon. Along the way, they pass New Age stores selling witches' brooms, Tarot cards, and how-to magic books.
The geography of Salem has altered since 1692, however. The home of the executed Rebecca Nurse is on land now owned by the town of Danvers, and the original location of the dungeon is now occupied by a phone-company building. But much of the original village can be found in contemporary Salem. Tourists can visit the House of the Seven Gables, the setting of Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel, and they can drive just outside town to Gallows Hill.
The morbid nature of Salem's history is at odds with the upbeat, lively feel of the place. "All of us try to put out as honest a tale as we can," Caccizio said. "We hope to entertain and inform. We use drama to do it, and that gives us a certain license."
Faced with a maturing fan base, comic books ditch the kid's stuff and tackle themes that appeal to adults
(Metroland, Feb. 21, 2002)
It's a quiet Friday afternoon, and Mischel Nivins is holding court at Albany comic store Earthworld. Her hair is black today -- although it's just as likely to be red or multicolored depending on her mood on a particular day -- and she's clad in her signature dark clothes. Briefly setting aside the acidic wit that makes her a colorful part of life at Earthworld, Nivins explains that she was introduced to comic books by her mom, who read underground comics in the '60s. "They were just part of the household," she says.
Nivins emulated her mother's interest in the medium by delving into the alternative comics of the 1980s. "I remember starting to read 'Hate' comics when they were coming out, and 'Eight Ball' and 'Love and Rockets,'" she says. "They had, like, real situations with real people, and I loved the artwork. I prefer reading independent comics. I just don't like a lot of superhero comics in general. They don't speak to my life."
Nivins, who says she consumes the books of Camus and Sartre as eagerly as she digs into new indie comics, takes a low opinion of people who take a low opinion of comics. "It's reading," she says. "I don't see how anybody can put down reading in general. Those are the people who'd rather sit in front of the TV and the PlayStation 2."
Before long, other Earthworld regulars join the conversation, including store owner J.C. Glindmyer and former employee Mike Witt, both 42. They jump at the opportunity to dislodge the stigmas attached to the medium they've enjoyed since childhood.
"I think it's one of the most underappreciated art forms," Witt says.
"The American art form," adds Glindmyer.
"Oh no, not again," moans Nivins, who apparently has heard this discussion before.
Perhaps the most pervasive cliché about comic fans is that they're undersexed young men who get off on reading about muscle-bound heroes and bubble-breasted heroines. And while the racks at Earthworld feature plenty of titles that cater to the hormone-crazed, Glindmyer stresses that not every comic fan has the same taste. "I'm not into books that are pandering," he says. "Some of the things I carry because I feel obligated to -- mindless, shock-value stuff."
All three Earthworlders offer examples of distasteful titles the store has carried in the past, and it's generally agreed that an issue of "Verotic" put together by heavy-metal musician Glenn Danzig was particularly repulsive: The story depicts a man who pays to have his daughter kidnapped and raped, then masturbates while watching a video of her subjugation.
"I hate carrying stuff like this," says Glindmyer, a father of three. "There are times when I open up boxes and wince."
But there's a big difference, the Earthworld staffers say, between exploitation and entertainment. Nivins praises the work of Adam Hughes, a so-called "good girl" artist who draws sexy images of heroines like Wonder Woman, and points out that some indie artists who depict beautiful women do so realistically, by addressing issues like weight fluctuation.
The tastes of the staffers vary greatly, and some of the titles that a majority of them enjoy are surprising. "Haw! Horrible, Horrible Cartoons by Ivan Brunetti" is a store fave because it uses a cartoony style that echoes whitebread strip "Family Circus" to depict scenes such as youths being warned by their mother not to use "Daddy's good cock ring." Even high-minded comic fans aren't above puerile thrills, but it helps if the thrills have an air of subversion. As one staffer says with a grin: "If lovin' 'Haw!' is wrong, I don't want to be right."
* * *
"Kids don't read comics any more," observes Matthew Smith. "The market reality is that people who read comics right now are 18 to 30 years old, and comics are rising to meet that audience. So you're seeing more complex stories in what used to be fairly simplistic power fantasies."
Gone are the days when Superman trounced Lex Luthor month after month with nary an introspective trance. Today, the genre with which comic books are most closely associated -- superhero adventure -- is filled with mature themes like sexual diversity, political strife, and even religious conflict. Smith, a comics professional based in Delmar, just finished drawing "Nightcrawler," a four-part series for major publisher Marvel Comics in which the demonic-looking superhero of the title grapples with, among other things, his new identity as a priest.
Edgy concepts have been explored sporadically in comic books throughout the medium's history, but the consistency with which adult themes are appearing today represents a revolution of sorts. Particularly at Marvel, the publisher of such enduring characters as Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and the extended family of mutant superheroes known as the X-Men, storytelling has become more sophisticated and daring than ever before. Writers from other mediums are penning best-selling titles -- "Babylon 5" creator J. Michael Straczynski is behind the hit relaunch of "The Amazing Spider-Man," and "Clerks" director Kevin Smith is handling the popular DC Comics title "Green Arrow" -- and out-there books from smaller publishers are helping to keep adult readers interested by evading juvenile themes and concentrating on things like characterization and social consciousness.
As some observers note, however, the maturation of comic books is an economic necessity. The history of the medium is filled with dark periods during which various factors threaten the existence of comics, and one such period occurred not too long ago. In the early '90s, a boom period occurred in which comics with apparent resale value -- notably the issues comprising DC's "Death of Superman" storyline -- were distributed in unprecedented quantities. New buyers, called "speculators," jumped onto the comics bandwagon in the hopes of making a killing by selling these popular comics at jacked-up prices. Publishers, in turn, badly overextended themselves to meet new demands. So when speculators realized that they couldn't unload all the comics they had stockpiled, they pulled out of the business and caused a huge downturn in sales.
The aftershocks of those seismic shifts are still being felt. "Earlier this year, they listed the 30 best-selling comics, and 21 of them were Marvel," notes local collector-entrepreneur Rocco Nigro. "Yet Marvel is always on the verge of bankruptcy. In the realm of entertainment, comics have always been the bottom of the barrel."
Nigro felt the industry shakeup personally, because the downtown Albany store he co-owned, Crypt-O-Comix, was one of several local shops that closed in the late '90s. The downsizing of the industry was so severe that even FantaCo -- the area's oldest comic shop -- shut its doors in 1999 after 20 years in business. Today, the owners of stores that survived the changes of the last 10 years are encouraged by publishers' realization that the comic audience has matured, and also by the prominence of such projects as the WB series "Smallville," about the early days of Superman, and the upcoming big-budget "Spider-Man" movie.
Nigro suggests that the industry survives the vagaries of the marketplace because comics offer a unique form of entertainment.
"That whole word/visual thing -- you can't get that in any other medium," he says. "A great example is 'Little Lulu.' So much happens between the panels that you're adding information with your mind, and when they did it as animation for HBO, it didn't work, even when they used the same stories that John Stanley did. So much has to do with that visual pacing. I still buy a lot of old books; it still piques my interest to find some hidden treasure. And there are a lot of great new books to read. I just read the first three issues of the new 'Catwoman' relaunch, and those are beautiful."
* * *
While the superhero genre dates back to 1938, when a pair of Cleveland teenagers created Superman, comic books had been around for some time prior to the Man of Steel's arrival. The first comics were cheaply produced compendiums of previously published newspaper strips, and the pre-superhero comics that contained original material dealt with pulpy subjects like crime, war, and cowboys. After Superman became a cottage industry -- he was featured in radio shows, movie serials, novels, and more -- costumed do-gooders achieved terrific popularity.
By the mid-'50s, comics had diversified to include everything from gentle humor titles to stomach-churning horror titles. In 1954, a psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham wrote a screed called "Seduction of the Innocent," in which he claimed that comics were corrupting kids, and his attack led to censorship and even the death of a popular line called EC Comics. The reactionary climate caused a creative tailspin that didn't turn around until the early '60s, when new blood at DC Comics, and the emergence of Marvel Comics, refreshed the superhero genre. Comics grew up even more with the famed social-issue stories of the late '60s and early '70s, notably the "Green Lantern/Green Arrow" storyline in which a DC superhero's sidekick got hooked on heroin.
Around the same time that Speedy shot smack, comic fans got savvy to the idea that superhero stories might be worth money. "By the time 'Silver Surfer' No. 1 and 'Conan' No. 1 are out, you have people who are going to newsstands and buying comics solely for the purpose of reselling them," notes Nigro. By the mid-'70s, such phenomena as comic conventions and specialty comic stores were commonplace.
Once publishers began selling directly to fans via stores like Electric City Comics in Schenectady -- which is now the oldest continuously running comic shop in the area -- they began experimenting with new storytelling techniques and more mature material. Yet until the late 1980s, boundary-pushing stories mostly were the province of the so-called "underground" publishers who nurtured the careers of talents like Art Spiegelman, a Pulitzer winner for his Holocaust-themed comic "Maus," and legendary eccentric R. Crumb.
In 1989, comic fans got a hint of things to come with the release of "Sandman" No. 1, which launched writer Neil Gaiman's sweeping exploration of a mythical universe in which the title character belongs to a family of godlike creatures that also includes Death, the Sandman's sardonic sibling.
Walt Curley, 35, an Albany record-store employee who has collected comics since he was 9, remembers cracking open the first issue of "Sandman" and getting caught up in Gaiman's dark, literary storytelling -- despite being a lifelong superhero fan. "It's not really something that I normally would have read," he recalls. "I was taken aback by it. Neil Gaiman put in just enough DC continuity that I could fit it into the universe I knew."
Curley's experience speaks volumes about where comics are at right now, because today's edgy titles succeed not by supplanting everything that came before, but by adding provocative new wrinkles to previously existing mythology.
* * *
Whereas a great many fans stop reading comics in high school or college, ditching superheroes in favor of more "adult" interests, Curley has read comics for most of his life. "I never really had the dropout," he says. "It was just a hobby I enjoyed, and I didn't see a stigma attached."
Once he finished school and started working, Curley put his hobby to work by taking a job at October Country, a now-defunct comic store in New Paltz, near his hometown of Kingston. "I started reading more because I had more time and I had more money to blow on comics and records," he recalls. "I also think I read even more because I had access to books I could read and not worry about buying -- especially on those long shifts where you didn't have a lot to do. That's probably when I peaked out. It was almost like working in a library."
While working at the store, Curley branched out from the superhero titles he grew up on and began reading indie titles such as "Yummy Fur" and groundbreaking mainstream titles like "Sandman." Yet through it all, he stayed faithful to franchises like DC supergroup the Teen Titans. Over the years, Curley has soldiered through relaunch after relaunch, reading variations like "The New Teen Titans," "Tales of the New Teen Titans," and "Team Titans." "I think I stay with that one more out of loyalty than anything else," he says, "because it's had more bad years than I can count."
While Curley has numerous friends within the comics field, including fellow fans as well as professional writers and artists, he acknowledges that his hobby isn't inherently social -- which suits him just fine, because he enjoys spending long stretches of time alone with his collection. "It is more of a solitary thing," he says. "It does lend itself to the stereotype, and there's a lot of truth to it. There are a lot more people like the comic-book guy on 'The Simpsons' than anyone would like to admit."
Witt is another collector whose troves of comics and action figures are a big part of his life -- "I have one U-Haul space completely full of toys and one U-Haul space completely full of comics," he says. He even credits superheroes with helping him become literate. "The only way my father could get me to read was to sit me down and read comics to me," he recalls.
Watching the traffic in and out of Earthworld, it's clear that the devotion Curley and Witt have to comics isn't out of the ordinary. The folks who pass through the store include everyone from young kids who peruse the 25-cent bins to graying boomers who unflinchingly drop hundreds of dollars on hardcover volumes containing reprints of stories they read as children. The customers are racially and ethnically diverse, and the staffers say that more women read comics now than ever before.
* * *
Glindmyer calls the books in the bargain bins "shake and bake" comics -- they're titles that didn't sell well upon publication and haven't increased in value since, so he tries to sell them in bagged bundles or at garage-sale prices. Despite prevalent delusions to the contrary, most comics don't become collector's items, and the ones that do gain value because of their scarcity. So if you're a former reader whose mom tossed out all your old "Superman" issues when you were a kid, don't fret. ("I hear that story at least 10 times a day," Nivins says.) If everyone who bought a copy of "Detective Comics" No. 27 still had their copy of Batman's first appearance, copies wouldn't be worth what they are now. Which, by the way, is in the neighborhood of $241,000.
"When I had my store," notes Nigro, "I always said 'Do you go to Barnes & Noble and buy Anne Rice and Stephen King books and then bring them back and say 'I want to sell this, and get more than cover price?' It's just that mentality. People are so used to it."
Nigro was a speculator before the term was coined. He started working at FantaCo when he was 16, and he used his employee discount to stock up on the hot titles of the day, like "The Uncanny X-Men." But instead of trying to cash in on his investments, he traded items from his stash for older comics with which to supplement his own collection. Likewise, Witt recalls dropping $600 for a copy of "Superman" No. 2. The collectors who stay with comics tend to stay because they love the medium, not because they love making money off the medium.
And as in any hobby, there are levels of elitism. Nivins, who grew up loathing the X-Men comics her brother read, was aghast when underground writer-artist Mike Allred -- known for the edgy series "Madman" -- took a job drawing an X-Men spin-off called "X-Force."
"At first I was like 'I cannot believe Mike Allred is doing an X-book,'" she says. "For years, I could not read a Marvel book. But I picked it up and went, 'Wow -- there's guts and blood and naked supermodels -- this is my kind of comic!' The best part of 'X-Force' now is the letters section -- people are like 'If you don't change this book back, we'll never read it again.'"
The demented aspects of "X-Force" may be a shock to fans who started reading comics after seeing the blockbuster "X-Men" movie a couple of summers ago, but Marvel's willingness to tweak the formula of its most lucrative franchise -- the X-Men family of titles includes numerous books, and features one of the company's most popular characters, Wolverine -- is indicative of how things in comics are changing for the wilder.
* * *
Back at Earthworld, Witt -- a member of the Earthworld inner circle known as the Avengers, after the Marvel superhero team of the same name -- takes a seat behind the store's counter to sing the virtues of his home away from home. "We treat everybody that walks in the door like family," he says.
"And I hate my family," Nivins adds, laughing.
"I think it's a fun place to socialize," Witt says, "because people come from all walks of life, and we talk about comic art and stories and crossovers into TV."
"I'm probably the only one of my friends who likes going to work every day," Nivins says. "I'd really rather be here than home."
Asked which comics they value most in their personal collections, the Earthworld staffers slip into a kind of cheery reverie. Glindmyer describes his copy of "The X-Men" No. 1, which is signed by writer Stan Lee and which has three holes indicating that a previous owner kept the book in a three-ring binder. "I know that one's mine," he says.
Nivins talks about the day a friend bought her a vintage copy of "Sandman" No. 1. "We were reading it with the hot-dog tongs because we didn't want to touch it," she says.
Glindmyer recalls a fan who didn't treat his treasured comic quite so gingerly. One day, a customer dropped about $10 on a Spider-Man back issue, then removed it from the plastic bag in which it had been carefully stored since publication, rolled it up and shoved it in his back pocket. Other collectors present in the store at the time were aghast. "But that's a comic fan," Glindmyer says with a shrug. "There's nothing wrong with that."
Comic fans come in all shapes and sizes, and their appreciation for the medium often manifests in unexpected ways.
"I was watching 'Weakest Link' with friends," Nivins says, "and the question was, like, 'Billy Batson turns into superhero Captain Marvel when he says what?' I was, like, '''Shazam," you motherfucker!' Everybody looked at me."
Sidebar: "Back to the Drawing Board"
Matthew Smith is proud to say he got kicked out of college.
After graduating from Bethlehem Central High School, Smith enrolled at the College of Wooster, in Ohio, to study theater. But not long after he got there, an old hobby caught up with him when he began dating a girl who read avant-garde comics such as "Moonshadow" and "Sandman." "Here I was, a theater major going 'What I'd really like to do is what I wanted to do when I was a kid, which is comics,'" Smith recalls. "I was so busy drawing comic books that I didn't have time to go to classes or do homework. My junior thesis project was a comic book."
Smith eventually landed in Los Angeles, which he describes as having a vibrant community of comic fans and creators. After a brief detour into the multimedia business -- he spent a year designing video games for Disney Interactive -- Smith finally got a gig drawing superheroes. Even better, he got to work on a cutting-edge DC Comics series called "Starman." Although Smith now cringes when he looks at his "Starman" work, the job started him on a six-year journey of freelancing for major publishers as well as independents.
"The biggest accomplishment of that period was doing the DC crossover "Day of Judgment," which had an enormous cast -- Superman, Wonder Woman," he says. "I got to play with all the toys." During this period, Smith apprenticed with highly regarded writer-artist Mike Mignola, whose stylized, moody style is a big influence on Smith's artwork. Smith contributed to Mignola's "Hellboy" series, and cocreated a recurring character called Lobster Johnson.
Eventually, however, the irregularity of freelance income took its toll, so Smith moved back to Delmar. He now splits his time between working at an area bookstore and laboring on comic projects at a drafting board in his family's suburban abode. Smith, 30, most recently penciled an X-Men spin-off called "Nightcrawler," and he's developing a revival of a defunct Marvel Comics series. "I'm at an interesting period in my career," Smith says. "I've been out of the field for about a year, and I'm reestablishing myself. I'm right on the cusp of doing what I think will be the best work of my career. The projects I'm developing now for Marvel are all things I'd be writing and maybe not even drawing. I'm lucky in that I seem to have been given the equipment to tell stories."
The stories that Smith wants to tell lean toward the dark side of comicdom, because his favorite fictional genre is horror. And while some of the titles he dug as a kid were mainstream escapism -- "I used to sneak out of the house on my bike and go down to the convenience store to dig out the new issue of the 'Star Wars' comic" -- he remembers being enthralled by an apocalyptic storyline in the DC Comics title "Legion of Super-Heroes." Smith says he hopes to emulate the scope and gravity of that series in his own work.
As in other branches of the entertainment industry, Smith says, the trick to succeeding in comics is making the right connections. "The big part of it is networking -- having the right people like your stuff and really coming through for an editor," he explains. "I think a lot of the artists are trying so hard to do something new that the deadline isn't important to them, but it's still important to the editor. So it can be tough. There are a lot of guys who just pure and simply want to do comics, and a lot of people want to use this as a stepping stone for another career, whether it's storyboarding for Hollywood or illustrating children's books."
Interestingly, Smith says that becoming a comic professional initially dampened his enthusiasm for the medium. "I went through a long period when I just couldn't stand reading comics -- this is after I started working," he says. "In the last six or seven months, I've really started devouring comics."
Smith says that by comic-illustrator standards, he's already "middle-aged" at 30, but he adds that his relatively low profile in the industry may work to his advantage. Because he hasn't been overexposed by drawing or writing a regular monthly title, he's poised to "surprise" readers when he unveils the Marvel project that's percolating in his brain. And for Smith, being surprised is a big part of the fun of working in his chosen field.
"The neat thing about comics being a multi-person enterprise is that every so often the person you're working with will take your idea to some place you never expected," he says. "It's incredible when you're surprised. You feed off each other -- a good partner is always challenging you to raise the bar and come up with new things. The interesting thing about the process for me is the moment when everything comes together -- when all those ideas in your head come together and create something new."
of the Night"
When it comes to bedroom music, different strokes please different folks
(Metroland, Feb. 10, 2000)
You know the scene. Some second-rate Casanova with his shirt open to his navel is trying to put the moves on a nubile young woman, so he goes for the sacred troika of seduction tools: wine, candles, and music. The idea that playing sexy music will help a guy score has become such a cultural cliché that it's often satirized in movies and on TV, but, as with any cliché, there's a grain of truth inside this familiar scenario. Music, in all its variations, is often just the thing to set the mood for a close encounter of the bedroom kind.
Ask a handful of people what kind of music goes with sex, and you'll get a handful of different answers -- not all of which are predictable. Although many contend that sultry R&B artists create the perfect ambience for intimate moments, there's room in the sexual spectrum for everything from hard-driving rock & roll to gentle classical music. And in a random survey of about a dozen people, one artist towers above all others when the subject is whose grooves help people get their groove on.
"You put on Sade, your clothes fall off. It just happens. It can be very embarrassing," jokes Bob Wolf, host of PYX-106 morning show "Waking Up With the Wolf." Known for sensual hits including "Smooth Operator" and "No Ordinary Love," Nigerian-born soul-pop singer Sade Adu and her eponymous band were the clear favorites among those contacted for this story, even though it's been nearly eight years since she has released an album.
"Her music is kinda slow and methodical," says Rachel, a 27-year-old student who lives in Saratoga Springs. "It would definitely keep me in the mood."
But just because Sade's songs sweep many off their feet, don't count out the so-called "guru of love" just yet. "I don't think Barry White's overrated," says Walt Curley, assistant manager of Delmar record store Coconuts. "But I think a lot of the new people are, like D'Angelo. A lot of the new stuff is just raunch. You don't need it so explicitly spelled out -- it's better when it's left to the imagination."
How much is left to the imagination has a lot to do with how people choose their boudoir sounds. Many say they enjoy playing romantic songs performed by artists with low, sensual voices and set to slow, steady grooves. But sometimes, words get in the way. "There are certain sections of Peter Gabriel's 'The Last Temptation of Christ' soundtrack that are very conducive to the old bump and grind," says Stella, a mother-to-be in her mid-thirties. Stella says that the tribal rhythms featured in Gabriel's instrumental score are particularly erotic, and "rhythm," unsurprisingly, is a word that comes up repeatedly during discussions of sexy music.
Meghan, a 29-year-old home-health aide, mentions a CD of 17th-century composer Johann Pachalbel's "Canon in D" mixed with the sounds of crashing waves as a relaxing complement to private moments. "It's easier to kind of get into a focused state of mind without the distraction of lyrics," she says.
Another classical piece, cited by fortysomething ex-musician Frank, is Beethoven's "Pathetique" -- although Frank also mentions U2's aggressive "War" album, the transcendental techno-pop of Portishead, and the pelvic-thrust funk of James Brown as bedroom favorites. The eclecticism of his choices is typical, because most people associate different genres of music with different sexual moods.
"Sometimes, I'm in the mood for AC/DC -- but that's usually when I'm having sex with myself," offers funnyman Wolf. "You know, it depends on the type of sex. The Doors are very good for anal sex. I bet you didn't know that."
Some of the other artists whose music was deemed coitus-friendly include the late R&B-jazz siren Phyllis Hyman; technomancers William Orbit and Moby; trial-industrial group Test Dept.; dance-industrial titans Nine Inch Nails; and marijuana-mad rap-rockers Cypress Hill. Anastasia, a 22-year-old college student, has a quick answer when asked what works for her: "I like the 'Great Expectations' soundtrack -- song number five." (For the record, the track is "Resignation," by British rockers Reef.)
"Usually, a good sex song should have a good groove. It can't be all jumpy with chug-chug guitars," says Bob Carlton, front man of Saratoga Springs power-pop group Dryer. Carlton adds that bedroom tunes should have thoughtful lyrics, and mentions singer-songwriter Fiona Apple as an artist with a mattress-ready sound. "She has that groove I was talking about -- it's nothing too bumpy. It's just real slow. It's not too upbeat or too downbeat. Mary Timony of the band Helium has something about her vocals. They're real wispy -- they're there, but they're not there. They just kind of burn into you."
And while some of Carlton's favorite bedroom music was made by '90s women, he's also got an ear for classic tunes by '70s men. "Barry White will always be associated with sex, but I'm more of an Al Green guy," he says. "You can get a woman naked in two minutes with that guy."
The idea of music as a tool for seduction seems to be a uniquely male idea, however; most of the women surveyed say that they use music to accentuate sexual moods or to evoke romantic feelings. Natalie Martinez, anchor of WXXA program "Fox News at 10," says that the songs that put her in a bedroom state of mind are more about love than lovemaking. She cites Duncan Sheik's eponymous album and Macy Gray's EP "On How Life Is" as two favorite discs, and adds that Eric Clapton's 1977 ballad "Wonderful Tonight" is a terrific sex song because it's romantic instead of hot-blooded. "A lot of people interpret that song differently, but I always look at it as him watching his wife or girlfriend getting ready to go out," she says. "He thinks she looks great, and he's proud to be with her."
Ron "Sugarbear" Williams, a popular area radio personality heard on hiphop-R&B station JAMZ 98.3, says there's a big difference between ballads and true nookie numbers. "A long song evokes emotion," he says. "A sex song speaks to your physical desires. Something like R. Kelly's 'Bump and Grind' definitely gets you in the mood. An R. Kelly song helps my hands move. Gets right to the point, you know?"
Williams pegs Marvin Gaye's 1973 track "Let's Get It On" as one of the few numbers that's effective as both a sex song and a ballad. "In terms of love songs, there's nothing like it," he says. "It touches every emotion possible." Williams, a fan of the music that White cut with the Love Unlimited Orchestra, says that many of the modern R&B artists he spins on JAMZ try to emulate the sensual balladry of '70s artists including White and Al Green. Of the new crop of soul singers, Williams says his favorite is Maxwell. "It's just on the smooth tip," he says of the music featured on discs including "Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite" and "Embrya." "Women love that. If you want to get somewhere with a woman, you've gotta put on the Maxwell."
Sarah Paul, front woman of area dark-pop band Jump Cannon, has a different perspective on all this sex-music talk. "I've had several friends come up to me and say that the first Jump Cannon CD was their favorite sex music," she says, "and I was like 'Whoa!' I was a little surprised, but I think that's a great thing to have people bring your music into that part of their lives."
Paul cites Siouxsie and the Banshees' "Juju," the Cure's "Disintegration," and any Cocteau Twins CD as good background for gentle encounters -- while reserving a special place in her heart for the Jesus Lizard's "Goat" and Nirvana's "Bleach," both of which suit wilder nights. "I think the thing that connects the albums is a definite level of genuine emotional sincerity in the music," she says, "which is why I took it as a compliment that people responded to my music that way. Because, obviously, they were responding to the emotion."
Even though he enjoys music that "helps his hands move," Williams echoes Paul's statements with his advice for men who are picking music to play in the bedroom. "Go for the heart," he suggests, "and not the genitals."
in the Jungle"
Sigourney Weaver experiences close encounters of the primate kind while playing slain naturalist Dian Fossey
(Washington Square News, Sept. 21, 1988)
NEW YORK -- "No, I'm not sick of gorillas -- I miss them now," said Sigourney Weaver as she greeted reporters at the Regency Hotel last week. She was concluding a morning of interviews promoting "Gorillas in the Mist," the new film in which she plays the late anthropologist Dian Fossey, who spent nearly two decades researching mountain gorillas in the wilds of Rwanda. "They're so similar to us," she said of her simian costars, "that I do feel I made some friends."
The film, which opens in New York Friday, is based on Fossey's autobiography of the same title. Weaver explained that during her research for the role, she met with many of the anthropologist's friends and eventually with Farley Mowat, the novelist whose latest book, "Woman of the Mists," is about Fossey. Because of legal reasons, Mowat couldn't show Weaver his main source, Fossey's diaries -- but he was able to present one unusual piece of correspondence.
"He did show me one latter that she'd written to Cindy, her dog," Weaver said. "I know, everyone will laugh, but I tell you, that was the single most important piece of information I had because you read this letter, and it said things like 'You and I promised each other a long time ago that we would never cry in front of each other.' It was like a letter written to her daughter going away to college. It was not a letter that you would ever conceive could be written to a dog. It was written to an absolute equal. It had such dignity and such love, and . . . It did tell me everything I needed to know about Dian. It showed me how far away I was, because I don't know of anyone who treats animals with that much dignity.
"She was always an obsessive person and sort of a primitive person," Weaver continued. "She concentrated on just becoming more and more defined, and I felt that if I could convey the true love that Dian felt for the gorillas, by the time my character was doing all these extreme things to protect them, people would understand."
Producer Arnold Glimcher decided to make a film of Fossey's story because, as he said, "It would be a life-changing experience no matter how it turned out." He secured Fossey's full cooperation, and she was enthusiastic about the project. Production was originally slated to begin in 1985. Glimcher made arrangements to meet with Fossey at Kerisoke, her base camp in Rwanda. The night he arrived, Fossey was murdered, and the next day Kerisoke Mountain was closed for the ensuing investigation. At first, Glimcher thought the project would die with Fossey, but he soon decided that the story was more important than ever.
Concurrently, producer Peter Guber began developing another version of the story, because after Fossey's death, her story became public domain. Guber, a major player in the industry and then head of Columbia Pictures, said he was "besieged by every female lead in Hollywood," including Jessica Lange, Vanessa Redgrave, Shirley MacLaine, Jane Fonda. Glimcher, unaware of Guber's activities, began negotiating with Weaver, then interested in doing Glimcher's next project, an adaptation of Susan Miller's novel "The Good Mother."
In early 1987, both Glimcher and Guber sent teams to Africa to scout for information and locations, so the producers received calls from confused assistants. Glimcher and Guber met and discussed their projects. Glimcher had the rights to Fossey's autobiography, and Guber offered the powerful Guber-Peters production group. The two merged forces, and "Gorillas in the Mist" became a rare example of two studios collaborating in the development of a property. Glimcher was the producer on location while Guber worked in California.
Both producers were on hand at the Regency press junket to explain the project's unusual genesis. Glimcher said that by the time the producers pooled their resources, he had swayed Weaver into taking the role. The next task was choosing a director. Oliver Stone, James Cameron, and Bob Rafelson all expressed interest, but Michael Apted ("Coal Miner's Daughter," "Gorky Park") won the assignment because he met the special requirements of the production: He was available, he had extensive documentary experience, and he was in good shape.
Being physically fit was a prerequisite for the cast and crew, since the producers had decided to shot at Kerisoke and to use many of the same gorillas with whom Fossey had worked. That necessitated shooting at 10,000 feet above sea level, and Rwanda refused to let the production use helicopters. The first call was usually 6 a.m. every shooting day, and the hikes up the mountain took several hours, during which actors and crew carried gear from their base camp to various locations. The predominant concern during shooting was the gorillas' behavior, and neither Glimcher nor Apted could guarantee the safety of their crew or actors.
Bryan Brown, who plays photographer Bob Campbell in the film, acknowledged trepidation. "So my first day going up there, yeah, I was bloody apprehensive," he said at the Regency. "When you see these gorillas, I mean, they're not little, they're big. I mean, they weigh 600 pounds or 1,000 pounds each. Also, when they open their mouths, there's a huge mouthful of teeth."
Brown screened some film that had already been shot before he left London for the Rwandan location. "I saw the one bit of bloody footage where the silverback came charging at Sigourney on her first day, which was great to see," he said wryly.
Weaver elaborated. "When I got to Africa, I was more set up to work with the Mountain Gorilla Project tourism groups, and they don't allow any interaction," she said. "I really wanted to work with Dian's groups, because I knew that I needed to interact. I needed to let them touch me and fool with me and stuff. When we got there, I said 'I'm sorry, I won't be going out to see the [tourism] gorillas with you today.'"
David Watts, Fossey's assistant at Kerisoke, was with Weaver at the time. He told the actor that the gorillas in Fossey's group were nearby. "And sure enough," Weaver said, "we were just 10 minutes away from Kerisoke, and all of a sudden we heard chest-beating, and I looked up on the hill and some trees were shaking and . . . It's hard to describe. It was just -- you sort of feel like you're in a fantasy, almost, to see those huge animals, and there's no zoo, and really you're in their kingdom. It was a wonderful feeling. I think a lot of my confidence came because David never told me too much.
"I remember the day that Zis ran up the hill," Weaver continued. "He'd been staring at me for 20 minutes, and no one could see him, and I was getting a little worried. He was really looking at me for such a long time, and then he'd sort of scratch and look away, and then he'd come back and look at me again. I was beginning to feel a little uncomfortable, because I knew something was going to happen. Well, I'm sure David did expect what was going to happen, but luckily he didn't say 'Now, the silverback's gonna run up the hill and hit you,' which is what he did."
Despite the close encounters, the actors say their anxiety faded quickly. "Strange thing was, by the second day I had no apprehension," Brown said. "I had no fear." What changed? "Them," Brown explained. "Being amongst them, and just realizing that they don't attack you, that they aren't aggressive, that they aren't out to eat you, that you're not prey. If you were stupid, you could get yourself in trouble."
Weaver said that looking at a gorilla's face "is like looking at a fellow human being's face, because they're very sensitive. It is as if we didn't have to words to communicate, and we still wanted to find out about each other. They're dealing with you in such a human way that I think you look into their eyes and go, 'Well, I'm at home. I'm with friends.'"
Screenplay's the Thing"
Movie scripts are usurping novels as the medium of choice for many writers -- but what does that mean for the future of literature?
(Metroland, April 13, 2000)
Richard Redlo never meant to become a screenwriter. After working for 15 year as an assistant New York state attorney general, he quit in February 1995 because of ideological differences with newly elected Attorney General Dennis Vacco. A year later, he wrote an offbeat novel, "Gravities," about a gay teenager who uses the Internet to communicate with the spirit of late actor River Phoenix. But his endeavor unluckily coincided with massive consolidation throughout the publishing industry -- during which major houses drastically reduced the number of books by first-time authors that they published -- and Redlo wasn't able to sell the book.
"I was thinking about writing a second novel, and it occurred to me that some of the critiques I had of my novel were that I was a very good visual writer, but I wasn't quite getting the internal exposition down right," Redlo recalls. "I took a workshop in screenplay writing, and fell in love with the structure of screenplays. So I took the novel I had written and turned it into a screenplay, and people responded very well. I just kept writing screenplays, and now I can't stop."
Redlo's story reflects a major shift in American literature. Increasingly, writers are setting aside the age-old dream of writing the Great American Novel and instead are trying to write the Great American Screenplay.
"I'm openly gay, and I always wanted to change the world in some way to make it more accepting of gay people," Redlo says. "By bringing my experiences to a screenplay format, and hopefully eventually having a producer bring them to the screen, my hope is that what I used to do in terms of petitioning or lobbying or marching will be more effective."
Whereas in the '80s, many young writers were inspired by the success of hip novelists Bret Easton Ellis ("Less Than Zero"), Tama Janowitz ("Slaves of New York"), and Jay McInerney ("Bright Lights, Big City"), today the inspirational figures include Quentin Tarantino (writer-director of "Pulp Fiction"), Kevin Smith (writer-director of "Dogma"), and Alan Ball (the Oscar-winning scribe of "American Beauty"). These and other screenwriters are proving that there's room in the Hollywood firmament for personal, controversial statements as well as popcorn entertainment.
One person who has been inspired by the success of independent-minded screenwriters is Tom Mercer, who runs Words Without Pictures, an Albany-based series of dramatic readings of unproduced movie scripts. As was Redlo, Mercer was bitten by the screenwriting bug after a frustrating experience with traditional fiction. "I tried collaborating with a friend on writing a novel, and we invested a lot of time and came up with a 700-page manuscript," Mercer explains. "When we finished it and took a step back, we decided it wasn't worth showing to anybody, so we deep-sixed it."
Mercer, who recently turned 49, says that he's planning to follow Redlo's example by leaving his state-government job to write screenplays full-time. "I'm at a point in my life where I'm not so much motivated by money as I am by personal achievement," he says. "I want to invest whatever time I have in my life doing things that I can feel good about every day."
"I think more people are going into screenwriting, and that's not just because it's the 'in' thing to do," Redlo notes. "When I was trying to get my novel published, I would have publishers at major houses say 'We just can't get anything published now,' 'We just consolidated with some other company,' 'We just got taken over.' They've put a freeze on everything. So all of a sudden, less and less fiction got published, and I think people got discouraged by that."
Redlo adds that the success of independent films -- from the 1989 breakthrough hit "sex, lies, and videotape" to 1998 Oscar winner "Shakespeare in Love" -- is another important factor behind the flood of new screenwriters, because indie films are traditionally more writer-friendly than mainstream movies.
"There's nothing wrong with having the dream of making a million dollars and winning an Oscar -- however, don't hold your breath," Redlo says. "Very few people ever even sell a screenplay. In fact, by being optioned and earning $2,500 one year, I was easily within the top quarter of screenwriters in the country in terms of salary. If what you're really looking for is money or recognition, don't go into screenwriting. But if what you have is a great love for words and a need to express yourself and tell the stories that are accumulating in your mind -- so much so that you almost can't wait to finish one screenplay before you start your next -- then that's who should be writing screenplays."
* * *
"People are attracted to writing for the screen because it's easier, and there's a lot of money involved," Elmore Leonard said at an April 6 seminar at the University at Albany's Page Hall. "It's easier to put down on paper, but it's just as hard because there are so many people involved."
Leonard, whose novels have been made into films including "Get Shorty," "Jackie Brown," and "Out of Sight," spent more than 20 years shifting between novels and screenplays before he swore off screenwriting in 1993. At the seminar, which was presented by the New York State Writers Institute, he recalled the vagaries of working with willful movie stars ("The lines the actors make up are inevitably the ones the writer came up with first and discarded because they were so trite") and the frustration of the Hollywood screenwriting process.
"When I adapt one of my books, I just assume that the producers like the book and want to see the book as a movie," he said. "The trouble is, your enthusiasm goes into the book. But then there's draft after draft requested as each person puts in his two cents, changing the story. So I didn't have much fun doing that, especially because I was writing for studio executives who have no idea what they're doing. They have no story sense. I think of screenwriting simply as work. So why work?"
Leonard's experience fits with the classic model of writers' relationship with Hollywood. In the early days of talkies, playwrights and novelists were recruited to crank out pulpy stories and collect outlandish paychecks; later, writers from radio and television made the transition to movie writing. Throughout the studio era, writers were left out of the industry's decision-making process unless they were also directors, producers, or actors. But in the late '60s and early '70s, writers such as William Goldman ("Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid") and Robert Towne ("Chinatown") earned groundbreaking fees for "spec" scripts -- screenplays written without studio backing -- that attracted top talent. By the mid-'90s, spec-script sales had reached such astronomical heights that Shane Black was paid $4 million for "The Long Kiss Goodnight" -- a sale that helped fan a sweepstakes mentality among fledgling screenwriters.
"I think writing a screenplay is for writers what the lottery is for other people," offers Albany novelist Penny Perkins. "It's the literary lottery. You know, everybody has dreams of 'Let me write a screenplay and sell it for a lot of money, and then I can write what I really want to write.'"
Perkins, who began her writing career with short stories, wrote a screenplay prior to completing her debut novel, 1999's "Bob Bridges: An Apocalyptic Fable," and is now finishing her second script. "I think they're both the great American ambitions -- to write a novel or a screenplay," she says. "It may be that over time, as we shift more and more to a visual culture instead of a literate culture, the ambition has shifted more toward screenplays."
Perkins says that novels and scripts are both satisfying to write, but in different ways: "The appeal of the screenplay for me is dialogue. I love hearing characters in my head talk to each other, so that's a big pull. With the novel, the appeal is having a huge, expansive canvas to paint on. You know, you can go inside a character, you can go outside of a character, you can change perspectives -- there's just more room to play with ideas. The point of a screenplay is to use as little description as possible to make an image form in the reader's mind, but with a novel, you can paint the exact picture."
"Screenplays aren't necessarily about language, especially in the narrative bits, where you describe what people are doing. In the novel, that's where the writer plays with language," notes Schenectady novelist-storyteller-screenwriter B.A. Chepaitis. "When you're writing a novel, the only thing you have to work with is sound -- air. You know, you're moving air around through words, and that's it. That's the only thing you have. When you're writing a screenplay, you have everything, but you have to fit it into this tight little space."
Chepaitis -- whose adaptation of her own science-fiction novel "The Fear Principle" is under consideration at a Hollywood production company -- is one of many writers who enjoy working in film and fiction. "There are things that you just can't do in one medium that you can do in the other," she says, "and what I've found is it's a really nice balance for my brain to go back and forth between the two."
* * *
Michael Wolk had a three-picture screenwriting deal at a major studio and lived to tell the tale. A New York City novelist, playwright, and director, Wolk broke into movies with "Innocent Blood," a horror-comedy spec script that was purchased by Warner Bros. and directed by John Landis in 1992. Wolk says that the years he spent penning screenplays for Hollywood moguls were lucrative but frustrating.
"It didn't seem to have that much to do with writing," he recalls. "As I got into the studio culture, it was about 'Who's got the hot project?' 'What do they really plan to do with it?' 'Is Mel Gibson attached to this other film that your executive is working on?' -- and no one's attached to yours, so they don't really care. The people who don't read the scripts are very fascinating -- people that are in charge of your project are oftentimes just reading the notes. Eventually, when you get paid for things that are not produced, you realize you're writing for, like, the two people at the studio who read the scripts."
Wolk eventually soured on studio politics, and decided to take his filmmaking career into his own hands. He cofounded a production company and recently completed his debut as a writer-director, the low-budget comedy-thriller "Deep Six."
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist William Kennedy, who lives in Averill Park, shares Wolk's frustration with the Hollywood screenwriting process, even though he says he had great experiences on "The Cotton Club" (which he cowrote with Francis Coppola) and "Ironweed" (which was filmed, word for word, from his adaptation of his own novel).
"The fact that screenwriting is a collaborative operation makes it very difficult to have any sense of personal integrity or quality," he says. Kennedy explains that when he worked with Coppola, he discovered that the key word in screenwriting is economy: "The reduction was like a journalistic institution -- get your story in the first paragraph, jump to the bottom of the scene, and don't waste any words. I'd write four pages and he'd cut them to two and a half, so I got to writing two pages and cutting them down to one. I learned that what you wrote yesterday, cut in half today."
Because of the reduction necessitated by the screenplay format, Perkins adds, certain stories aren't suited to scripts. "It's like the form of a script itself forces you to externalize more, and the form of the novel doesn't," she says. "Screenplays are typically very dependent on structure. You know, there's gotta be conflict, and conflict has to have certain points along the way, where it shifts to higher stakes and higher degrees. A novel of ideas might not fall into that form, and if you want to do a character study, maybe that might be better as a novel or a play."
* * *
But, according to Donald Faulkner, some stories that would be appropriate for novels are ending up as movie scripts -- or what he calls "novels-as-screenplays" -- because the lure of Hollywood is so great. The associate director of the New York State Writers Institute, Faulkner says that young authors are increasingly catering their books to cinematic treatment.
"I think of a book that a friend of mine named Tom Perotta wrote, called 'Election,'" he says, referring to the source material of the Oscar-nominated satire. "Now that was a manuscript that was optioned before publication, and this is what will happen a lot. People write novels-as-screenplays. I think Tom very successfully moved beyond that -- he's a writer of some integrity, and he kept his novel-as-novel. But a lot of people start hacking around at their books to make them more Hollywood-friendly, and basically get the soul out of the book.
"Every literary agency has a West Coast office," Faulkner adds, "so whenever you're negotiating a book contract, you're simultaneously trying to negotiate some sort of film rights, and I think that young novelists trying to work in this environment get quickly sucked up into this thing. A person could expect a nice run of maybe 5,000 to 10,000 copies sold for a first novel, and make, I don't know, $15,000 to $20,000. Then, all of a sudden, the prospect of another $100,000 just for a studio to kind of put it in development for a short period of time -- it's just very seductive."
Whereas Faulkner worries that good stories are being compromised by movie-mad writers, Wolk worries that the increasing popularity of screenwriting is filling movie screens with bad stories.
"I think that [new screenwriters] like the medium -- very often, it's the medium that compels them, and as far as the storytelling, they're not, at first, so aware that it's really important what you have to say," he observes. "It becomes more of a stylistic exercise sometimes. You know, 'How do we say this in a really cool way' rather than 'What the hell are we saying?'
"It's a question of how bad you want it," Wolk continues. "Do you have a story that needs to be told? Does something drive you to tell your story, or are you just trying to recycle bits and pieces of movies that you've seen? Are you basically re-editing, in the chop shop of your mind, the things that have already happened and that had a visceral effect on you visually? Or are you telling a story that really cost you something to tell?"
The influx of inexperienced movie writers probably will add to the stigma that the literary establishment has long affixed to screenwriters, Faulkner says.
"Some of it's the 'If you're so smart, why aren't you poor' approach, a sort of reverse discrimination saying 'Well, screenwriters, they're just hacks selling their souls, because they're making money,'" he opines. "As long as the author can sit in the room, can shut the door, and say what it is he or she has to say from the bottom of their hearts, that endeavor is going to hold more weight than writing by committee, which screenwriting often ends up being."
Or, as the pithy Leonard put it during the seminar: "Margaret Atwood said to me, 'What if your career had started as a screenwriter?' I said, 'It wouldn't have, because I wanted to be a writer.'"
Local airplay gives small-town punk act F-Timmi a shot at stardom -- just months after a recording contract slipped through their fingers
(Metroland, Feb. 28, 2002)
Things were going well for F-Timmi that day last fall. The four lads who comprise the band's current lineup had been playing together for only a few months, but they already had a head-turning performance at a major music conference under their belts. So when they crammed into a small room to play a showcase for Atlantic Records executives including Craig Kalman -- the label's vice president in charge of signing new bands -- they felt like they were on a roll.
"There's 15 people in suits -- it's pretty stiff," recalls drummer Chad Davis. "We played really great, and everybody was juiced."
"Kalman came up to us and said two words," says front man Mike Biggane. "He said, 'Good job,' and he walked out."
The label execs and F-Timmi's reps exited the room for a quick discussion, then returned to give the expectant musicians the verdict. "The guy was like, 'Let's give these guys a record deal and a development deal,'" says Biggane. "That night, we all go to sleep thinking our dreams have come true. And then the next day is Sept. 11."
Guitarist Douglas Palmer picks up the story. "I'm laying in bed sleeping and I hear our friend Amanda pounding on the door and she's yelling 'They're bombing the World Trade Center!'" he says. "She's like, 'Band meeting! Mike's room! Now!'"
Davis, Biggane, Palmer, and bassist Brian Springfield recall this sequence of events with a mixture of clarity and wonder. On the evening of Sept. 10, they drank themselves silly and looked forward to touring Atlantic's offices in the morning. But on Sept. 11, they found themselves stranded in a locked-down Manhattan, unsure how to balance the fear and anxiety of that dark day with their euphoria at the impending Atlantic deal.
"We were walking through Times Square and everything was closed," recalls Biggane. "The fucked-up thing was we were eating in the hotel restaurant and the bomb squad ran up to this van across the street. The police towed the van right by the window, and we were sitting there with our $20 hamburgers going, like, 'What the fuck?'"
F-Timmi eventually made it out of Manhattan, but the eerie vibe of that morning lingered for the next two weeks. For while the world grappled with the enormity of the tragedies in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, four punk-rockers waited for contracts that never seemed to arrive. Finally, the band's lawyer informed them that Atlantic had withdrawn its offer of a record deal, but still wanted to give F-Timmi a development deal -- meaning that the quartet would have to settle for the vague promise that they might be offered a recording contract again somewhere down the road.
"They backed out because they didn't want to commit to an unknown band in a falling economy," Davis says.
"After that," Biggane adds, "we got really depressed."
* * *
F-Timmi aren't depressed anymore. While they still don't have a deal with a major label -- they turned down Atlantic's halfhearted offer in the hopes they could do better elsewhere -- they do have a song in heavy rotation on local hard-rock station the Edge (WQBK/WQBJ). The song, "Speechless," is a pop-tinged number that recalls the cheerful energy of Green Day's early hits, and it's been hotly requested since the Edge began playing it earlier this month. The radio play has garnered F-Timmi a new wave of major-label interest, and a brief profile of the band appears in the current issue of well-read industry mag "Radio & Records." Whereas most bands spend their careers hoping in vain for a single shot at the big time, F-Timmi are poised for their second such shot in less than a year.
This is a heady time for Biggane and Davis, both 23, and Palmer and Springfield, both 22. The four all have day jobs -- from carpentry to car detailing -- and their collective financial resources are so humble that they shop at Salvation Army stores and trek to gigs in a caravan of used cars. It's understandable why they've got so much invested in the idea of turning their local success into national notoriety.
Davis describes the band's current sound as "melody-driven rock with punk influences," which represents a substantial change from the F-Timmi style of yesteryear. When the band formed in 1996 under the auspices of lead singer Tom Brennan -- a friend of the current lineup who's still Biggane's roommate -- they played simplistic, hard-driving music that was heavily influenced by the neo-punk heroes of the last decade. (The band's name, by the way, is a tongue-in-cheek reference to former member Tim Booth, and the "F" stands for just what you think it does.)
Biggane says that he played guitar as a child, then abandoned the instrument until Brennan taught him to play Green Day's "When I Come Around." And Davis says he became a punk fan because he digs the music of blink-182. In the band's early days, however, these young players discovered that punk-rock purists don't think highly of musicians steeped in the sounds of contemporary alternative-rock radio.
"We used to open for Trauma School Dropouts," recalls Springfield, referring to the defunct area band known for their adherence to old-school values. "We thought we were punk, but we'd have kids with Mohawks spitting on us."
In addition to playing music that's not punk enough for some punks, F-Timmi don't feel obliged to develop dangerous reputations. "I got arrested last year on the way to a Wait show for driving with a suspended license," Biggane says. "I felt, like, all badass 'cause the Wait were like 'Mike from F-Timmi just came straight from jail.' When people asked me what I got arrested for, I was like 'Shut the hell up.' My license is clear now, by the way."
F-Timmi place so little importance on appearing disreputable that they even clean their room for visitors. The group's rehearsal space is a dark, plain room on North Pearl Street in Albany -- in a crowded building employed for similar purposes by numerous other local bands -- and the musicians explain that the night before this interview, they carted away what they describe as an ankle-deep mess of beer bottles.
In terms of their music as well, cleaning up their act has done wonders for F-Timmi. The band recall that after Biggane wrote the first version of "Speechless" last fall, they were noncommittal about including the track on the EP they were recording. But after tinkering with the tune in the studio -- and cutting off a long acoustic intro that Biggane had written -- the band turned the song into a polished pop tune.
"I said, 'Dude, 'Speechless' has 'single' written all over it,'" Davis recalls. "What I love about it is the chorus: It's hooky as hell."
"It's one of those songs that's almost so cheesy it's fun to play," Springfield adds. "I smile all the way through it."
"Whatever, man," Biggane says with a contented shrug. "We're on the radio."
* * *
F-Timmi will celebrate the release of "The Shocker," the EP featuring "Speechless," with a show tomorrow (Friday) at Saratoga Winners. And while it may seem that the band are taking the no-brainer route to success -- record a single, get it on the radio, then play live once it's a hit -- the band's members explain that it didn't quite work that way.
The current F-Timmi lineup took shape in January 2001, and not long after, band pal Dan Neet -- front man of late, great Capital Region rock act the Clay People -- helped F-Timmi land a showcase slot at the Philadelphia Music Conference, which is attended by scores of industry types thirsty for new talent. The band's gig at the June 2001 event caught the ears of a lawyer named George Stein, who discovered Jeff Buckley, and Frank Chackler, whose father was instrumental in Fleetwood Mac's career. Chackler wanted to ink a deal predicated upon F-Timmi working with onetime Guns N' Roses producer Mike Clark, but the band signed with Stein instead.
"George was right up front with us," Davis says. "First thing out of his mouth was 'We're gonna make some money.'"
"He said, 'You better hope I can buy a house because then you can buy five,'" Palmer adds.
Stein helped set up the fateful Atlantic showcase in September, as well as a showcase for RCA Records in October that didn't go nearly as well -- the band members say they were so jaded by that point that they didn't play well. In fact, it was disappointment over the whole Atlantic situation that led F-Timmi to record "The Shocker."
Prior to this year, the only recorded F-Timmi products were low-budget demos cut in local sound guy John Delehanty's basement studio. But in January, F-Timmi traveled to Woodstock for six days of intensive work with Conehead Buddha member Chris Fisher serving as producer. The band say they told Stein to lay off the label showcases until the recording was done, because they wanted to refocus their energies on the music, not the music business. "It was basically 'Play for us and the kids that are at shows, and not worry about which label is gonna be there,'" Davis says.
The come-what-may attitude remained after the last recording session was over. Before the band even got completed discs with artwork and liner notes, they sent a copy to Dave Hill, the Edge's program director, so a radio ad for an F-Timmi concert could be cut together with snippets from the disc. Hill liked what he heard, then added "Speechless" to the station's playlist -- as Davis says, "It got on the radio by accident." By mid-February, the track was featured in a top-of-the-hour montage describing which tunes are about to be played.
"It was, like, Creed, us, Godsmack," Biggane says, the surprise of the moment still clear on his face.
"I almost pissed myself when I heard that," Springfield says.
The radio play has given the band's quest for a major-label deal considerable momentum, and has even won them new allies: Last week, they were signed to the roster of Los Angeles-based concern Rebel Management, whose clients have included Christina Aguilera.
* * *
A poster of Aguilera hangs in F-Timmi's rehearsal space, and the musicians get pretty animated when discussing the slinky outfit that the comely pop star wore during her performance at the closing ceremony of the winter Olympics on Sunday. Despite their savvy attitude about the music business and their intense focus on hitting the big time, the members of F-Timmi are still skateboarders who like to hang out with each other, drink copious amounts of beer, smoke pack after pack of cigarettes, and talk about pop-music hotties. As they interact in their smoky little room -- the decorations of which also include a giant "Taxi Driver" poster, a Spider-Man kite, and flyers for bands F-Timmi have played with -- the band members give the impression that they're happy just to have come as far as they already have.
They joke easily, for instance, about having emerged from the small town of Kinderhook, Biggane's hometown and Davis' home of many years. (Palmer is from Greenville, Springfield from Nassau.) "'We're F-Timmi from Kinderhook, New York' -- that's how every show starts out," Springfield says.
"We're from the only town where the eighth president is from too," Palmer chimes in. "Rock out!"
The way the members riff on how 19th-century commander in chief Martin Van Buren might be integrated into their stage patter seems typical of their loose vibe, and the musicians insist that they're friends first, a band second. To back up this claim, Palmer describes how F-Timmi took a fishing trip last year to get away from the distractions of the rock lifestyle: "We went to a lake with no fish and spent two days throwing lines in to catch rocks."
They add that their camaraderie extends to their devoted fan base, which includes folks such as "Crazy Eddie," the guy who drives all the way from Buffalo to catch the band in Albany, and the two kids from Cairo who invented a handshake inspired by the band's logo. The group even balk at describing their listeners as "fans," preferring to characterize their supporters as members of an extended musical family. Palmer says that he and his bandmates know most of their listeners by name, and he describes gigging in the Capital Region as "like playing a big house party with all your friends."
Yet the band admit that they're itching to welcome people in other parts of the country into the F-Timmi fold. "Everybody wants to get out of their hometown," Springfield says. "We just want to get in a van and play wherever we can play."