A rebel filmmaker struggles to deter professional and personal disaster. 2,334 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Hollywood – 1969
“You’re a fucking kamikaze pilot, Tall,” said Jack Benton from behind his teak desk. “And you just crashed into your own fucking ship!” He wore a chambray blouse and a necklace of mahogany beads, but on his wrist dangled a gold Rolex. And only two days earlier, Jay Sebring had flown back from Las Vegas just to give him a haircut.
“And you didn’t just kill yourself,” Benton continued, pounding the heel of his palm onto a year-old issue of a Black Panther newspaper he’d never read. “You killed me, you killed your wife, and you killed that little band of outlaws you have marooned out there in the desert with you. I’m sure they’ll pretend like it’s a blessing — since they think they’ve transcended the fucking material world like an order of fucking Tibetan monks. But let me tell you a little secret. If anyone had gotten famous from this stillborn movie of yours, they’d be buying Jaguars and houses in fucking Malibu.”
“I just earned you lines around the block!” yelled Tall, standing in the middle of the office, rocking from his toes to his heels with the violent energy of a wrestler on his starting line. He was short, but broad across the shoulders, so that with his arms crossed, his buckskin jacket stretched taut across his upper back. His old tan boots chirred as he pitched onto his toes, and his wavy blonde hair curled down his neck.
“How the hell do you figure that, Tall? From my experience, people go to movies to be entertained — not to feel like they’ve fallen off a roof.”
Tall’s wife Diana sat on a couch in the corner of the office with her eyes fixed on the knotted pattern of Benton’s Persian rug. She wore a red sheath dress embroidered around the neck with a white Khokhloman floral pattern from the front, and kept her black hair pulled back in a tight plait. Since moving to Los Angeles from San Francisco five years earlier, her credits had included Geisha #2, Oriental Dancer, Oriental Girl, Screaming Japanese Schoolteacher, and Chinese Victim. She’d been married to Tall for 11 months, and for eight of them they’d worked together spinning the film Tall had unraveled the night before on The Dean Keller Show. She was furious with her husband, but also shared his idealism. Tall’s rant, for all its bullheadedness, had been an indictment of Pantheon’s puritanism, xenophobia, and racism.
Diana looked up at Benton. “It could be good marketing,” she said.
“Not to Benny Gorenstein,” Benton replied. “To him it looks like an arrogant kid went on national TV and bragged about wasting his money. You’re lucky he didn’t just have you both poisoned.”
“Diana’s right,” said Tall. “You can’t buy that kind of publicity.”
“Sure you can,” Benton said. “It costs your house and all your savings, $100,000 of my money. And you don’t get anything back!”
“Maybe if we just talked to Gorenstein,” Diana ventured.
“Ha!” Benton leaned forward so that the starched cuffs of his peasant blouse rode up on his forearms.
“You’ll stumble out of his office with your hand chopped off like some beggar who stole bread. You’d have better luck panhandling on Sunset. He wouldn’t trust you, now, to direct a middle school musical.”
Anastasio Sevilla had shrunk in the last decade from his peak height of nearly six-and-a-half feet, but in profile he still resembled a bear. The Sevilla men had for 15 generations joined in the harvest every summer. And according to family lore, though the contents had never been properly weighed, at 16 years old Anastasio once lifted a 100-kilo barrel of grapes onto his shoulder and carried it a half mile to the press.
Now 62, and dabbling in European B-movies, Anastasio had grown more sedentary. But that afternoon in a suite at the Beverly Hilton, straining his cream-colored suit as he poured sherry into three gold-rimmed flutes, he still radiated vigor.
“This went into the barrel before our war,” said Anastasio. “We were going to wait to open it until after Franco was shot. But at this rate he might outlast the grapes.”
He left the bar and approached Tall and Diana, who sat perched on an over-stuffed replica Louis XV couch.
“There you are.”
Anastasio handed the couple their drinks, then returned to the bar where he took up his glass and raised it in toast.
“To Franco,” he said.
“To revolution,” said Tall. All three drank a sip.
“How is that, my princess?” asked Anastasio.
“It’s lovely,” Diana said.
“It’s more than that. Wait for it. It floats on the tongue like a gold leaf.”
“How much longer are you in town?” Tall asked, trying to mask his impatience.
“I fly to Paris on Friday.”
“We were hoping you’d come visit us in the desert.”
Sevilla smiles. “Say the name of the film for me again?”
“The Dim Incalculable Hours,” said Tall.
“Too long.” He takes another sip. “Carta Blanca. That’s what you’ll call it when it shows in Spain.”
“I like that,” said Diana.
“Yes? Good. You’ll give me a producer credit.”
Tall glanced at Diana, then leaned forward with his elbows on his thighs.
“That’s actually what we wanted to talk with you about.”
Anastasio set his flute down on the bar. “Is that right?”
“We’ve been working with Pantheon for almost six months. Mainly with Jack Benton. And he’s been all right. But now they’re trying to pull out on us.”
“Because of these things you said on the television?” asked Anastasio.
Tall clenched his jaw and leaned back. Diana recrossed her legs away from Tall.
“Can you blame them?”
“We put up $150,000,” said Tall. “$157,000, actually. Mortgaged our house. And they’ve only put up $75,000, really. I think we could take the project back without them raising hell.”
“Take it back? Who’s going to distribute it?”
“We’ll strike the prints, we’ll go to the international festivals. It’ll be ready for Cannes, I think. Or if not, Venice will have me back. And San Francisco. We’ll go through the art houses in New York, the Nuart out here. And we’ll keep what we earn.”
“It’s too much work.”
“If John can do it, why can’t we?
Anastasio rapped his fingers on the marble bar.
“You know they’re pulling out? They’ve said this to you?”
“Jack brought us in this morning and said Gorenstein was yanking it. And we’re supposed to start shooting next week. The whole cast is in the desert. The crew, too.”
“And how much do you need?”
“Another $300,000 to do it how we have it budgeted. But maybe as little $150,000 to get through production.”
Anastasio walked to the window and looked out at the forest of young palm trees. Tall put his hand on Diana’s knee. Diana readjusted the skirt of her dress, then folded both hands around the petiole of her glass. Tall removed his hand.
Anastasio turned around. “Even if Pantheon would release the option, with the money they’ve already spent, this isn’t the kind of film I make. I’d make you ruin it. It would need tits out to here.”
Winking, he cupped the air in front of his chest like a pair of enormous breasts. “And explosions, a shootout. You want to make a film for the brain. I make movies for the loins.”
Tall’s shoulders sank. Diana stared down at the legs of the sherry clinging to the crystal. “I’ve seen your other film,” said Anastasio. “The Fish Snake. The Snake Fish, excuse me. Strange, stark, in the head. You know, European. Not Spanish, of course. Maybe Swedish. Art, I love. But I am not an artist. I help make sensational things — to sell.”
“But this is going to be a sensation,” said Tall, nearly shouting.
“To you it’s a sensation because you’ve seen the film in your mind. Maybe you can project it in my mind, later. But for now it is an enigma. I think the word is the same in English.”
Anastasio approached the couch. “I know you don’t like to play these games, William. Your father refused to kiss feet, too. You both want everyone to think you’re a genius, up here.”
He raised his arm above his head and chopped a notch in the air.
“Above money. But if you can’t convince Pantheon to support the film — if you try to trick them, go around Benny Gorenstein’s back — he’ll put a sword through you.”
Anastasio leaned over and laid his hand on Tall’s shoulder.
“Your father was a great friend, and I love you. But I can’t fix this.”
Tall took out a cigarette, folded the box lid closed, and tossed the pack onto Hollywood columnist Robert Baleman’s desk. As he searched his jacket pockets for his lighter, Baleman, in a checkered blazer and light blue pants, lifted the blinds on his single window. From the fifth floor of the Los Angeles Times building, you could see the concrete banks of the river winding through an expanse of low warehouses.
“I’d help you, Tall, if I thought I could.”
Tall pulled on his cigarette, then exhaled as he spoke. “I’m just talking a short piece. Sort of lay out the facts.”
“What are the facts? Your wife is Oriental, and she got sick of playing geishas? So you wrote a film for her to star in? And then you pissed off Benny Gorenstein and he pulled the plug?”
Tall flexed his jaw and stared out the window.
“You don’t need me to lay out the facts,” Robert continued. “No one cares about them. You need me to editorialize. You need me to call you a martyr, and then call a studio head a Philistine.”
Tall took another drag. “Pantheon buys, what? $500,000 in ads from us? I even pretend to tamper with that I could lose my job.”
“Is that how you write your reviews?”
“No,” Baleman said. “But that’s how Marty edits them.”
Tall watched the smoke rise from the tip of his cigarette. His resting face was a scowl, so that when he was deep in thought, he often looked furious.
“I like you, buddy,” said Baleman. “But you’re on your own.”
Slowly, Tall unlaced his brow and leaned forward in his chair. “Don’t attack Pantheon, then,” he said. “Leave Gorenstein out of it. Walk into Marty’s office this afternoon and pitch him a profile.”
“From what angle? Marty doesn’t give a shit about artistic ambition. I know for a fact he hasn’t even heard of Snake Fish. And he doesn’t watch Dean Keller.”
“Tell him it’s an exclusive. You’ve got every inch of access, obviously. You can stay out at the compound. If Marty thinks it’s going to be a sensation, he’ll go for it.”
Baleman smiled patronizingly. “But it isn’t a sensation. And I can’t make it one. Besides, you think some hand-job profile is gonna change Gorenstein’s mind?”
Tall sat back, clenching and unclenching his right fist.
“I’m telling you as a sometime friend,” said Baleman, “you go in and you get on your knees in front of Gorenstein, and you suck his old cock until he forgets you ever insulted him.”
Tall stood and ground out his cigarette in the opaque green ashtray on the corner of the desk. “I can’t wait to read your review of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” he said, shaking Baleman’s hand with enough pressure that, if Baleman hadn’t been squeezing back nearly as hard, he would’ve broken bones.
“Or better yet,” added Baleman, “send Diana.”
Tall slammed the door as he left.
Tall devoured the turns on Mt. Hollywood Drive, honking to warn oncoming cars, then dropping hard onto the apexes of the curves and accelerating out to the limit of the shoulder. On a few corners, the tail of the Sprite went light as he touched the pine straw with the rear tires.
When Tall was angry, he drove. And he was angry often — at the Pantheon executives for their conservatism, at the war, at the police, at his neighbors who benefitted from the status quo. But most of all he was angry at himself. Pantheon had trained its guns on him, but only because Tall had, unprompted, thrown rocks across the neutral zone. The morass in Vietnam was chewing up the young men who couldn’t excuse their way out. But Tall had gotten a special dispensation for asthma — not because he’d had an attack in 20 years, but because he was a “quantity of known value,” as the doctor had described his privilege. Tall’s hatred of police brutality was not feigned. But he hadn’t risked anything to challenge their corruption. He hadn’t joined the Freedom March in 1965, even though he wasn’t working that spring, and could’ve chartered a private jet to Selma if he’d wanted to. And Tall did despise his neighbor’s blind consumerism, their profiteering, their scorning of change. But just because his house was smaller, and his car was cheaper, and despite the fact that he dressed like an outlaw — with his fringed jacket and worn-out cowboy boots — in just the last month, Tall had spent more than a thousand dollars on a new color television, an Ampex Micro 85 cassette player, and a Sony CV-2000 VTR that could record live television. And just like his neighbors, when the Watts Riot flared up, he locked his door, and talked to Diana about moving to a mountain cabin. As Tall tore down out of the hills, and sped along the river toward Lankershim, he was acutely aware of all these contradictions. And making the right turn onto Ventura against the red light at close to 40 miles per hour, nearly side-swiping a truck full of copper piping, he knew fully, for the first time, that his rage was ruining Diana’s life, too. He caught sight of himself in the rearview mirror, then, and brimming with hatred, spit at his own reflection.