Monday, December 28, 2009


My current Netflix sequence is “The Glittering Prizes,” by Frederic Raphael, from his book by the same name. It is semi-autobiographical, account of his years at "Cambridge, where he majored in the usual Oxbridge subjects -- condescension, arrogance, lordliness, classics and philosophy.” The smart-mouthed characters, led by Tom Conti who is a sort of Anglicized version of Al Pacino, bounce around bedeviling each other and trying to find a woman -- they claim for sex, but actually for mothering.

“’The Glittering Prizes’ reveals Raphael's remarkable technical expertise and depth of emotional insight as he traces the unfolding lives after their graduation, of a group of Cambridge contemporaries. The chief of these, Adam Morris, is a novelist similar in temperament to Raphael himself. He is an ironically minded but aesthetically talented Jew whose temporary foray into the world of the mass media is engaging farce, meant also to define the difficulties that the serious artist encounters in holding fast to his genuine impulses.

“The difficulties that the serious artist encounters in holding fast to his genuine impulses.”

Northwestern University, where I did my undergrad degree, was no high brow English school, but we were very much focused on being “serious artists.” A lot of us were Jewish (not me) and my own little theatre circle included some gays, which we kept quieter than Raphael does about being Jewish. Or maybe that was just me, since I wasn’t developmentally far enough along to be either straight or gay. I was sort of latent, “pre-sexual,” childish. But I had no intention of being ordinary and neither did any of the rest of us. It’s just that we went around in phalanxes of three or seven -- not so much pairs.

Whether or not we “held fast to our genuine impulses” is only now, fifty years later, becoming slowly apparent. But part of the problem of deciding about that question is that our original impulses were kind of fuzzy and an even more major part is that fifty years later, myself and maybe some others realize that our goals were dominated by the Frederic Raphael pattern without our knowing it. We had wanted “glittering prizes” maybe, but now maybe we don’t. There ARE other ways of looking at a life.

Raphael himself ran into the phenomenon when he was asked by Stanley Kubrick to write the screenplay for “Eyes Wide Shut.” Raphael wrote a memoir about Kubrick called “Eyes Wide Open” which mostly people thought was an alibi for a remarkably strange movie. “Eyes Wide Shut” certainly testified to the values of the Viennese Jewish paradigms of Freud mixed into the English markers of their class system: pretentious houses, education at famous schools, and the idea that sex is something privileged that can only be properly understood and practiced by the rich. But the whole thing exceeded privilege, becoming weirdness.

At Northwestern I lived in stone “quads” patterned after Oxford and so on, but the real action was here:

The house number on this old-fashioned alley “carriage house” with its converted hayloft apartment that often smelled vaguely mousey, depending on the weather, was 616 1/2. The primary occupant was Stu, our Golden Prince, a doctor’s son from Wisconsin whom we all considered a genius on the scale of D.H. Lawrence. In fact, we identified so strongly that when “Sons and Lovers” came out, I knitted us all woolly neck scarves. I still have mine. Stu was engaged to his high school sweetheart, whom he eventually married. The two sets of parents had insisted that the couple attend separate colleges to make sure the relationship was durable. “Durable” understates the case! The marriage is like the Rock of Gibraltar, regardless of living in Brentwood for many years and traveling in a fast lane, sometimes with car wrecks.

In a few months Stu and Jerry, the two guys here who are now in their (ahem) sixties, will be voting on that glittering prize called an Oscar. They’ve both gone far in Hollywood. If I told you their names, you could Google them and be impressed. The women in these photos are Greek, not that that’s particularly relevant, and they were neither actors or directors, but have served in many ways. One married an actor. I, of course, split to Montana. Different mythology. Dusty prizes.

We were all kids, not much older than the Cinematheque guys, and -- like them -- fiddling endlessly with tools to make them work, though it was all mechanical. Nothing electronic, unless a light meter is electronic. I don’t remember any of us being much of a quick quip-er, though I can pull off a good one nowadays. In those days, if one were sarcastic or metaphorical Stu would focus on you and ask in an arch voice, “Do you know why they don’t send donkeys to college?” Then we’d all laugh.

Laird, who became a famous Shakespearean actor and for years directed “A Christmas Carol” in Denver, probably comes the closest to what we thought was the “highest” art in those days. We believed in repertory theatre and the classics. I lost Tom for a while, but found him again thanks to Google. Rather surprisingly, he is a noted artist as well as acting. He’s kept in closer touch with the original cohort in some ways, but not Stu. Now and then I think of the names of others who weren’t part of the “inner circle” of 616 1/2 and Google to see what they’re doing. Many are just lost.

616 1/2 actually belonged to Alvina Krause, our beloved and sometimes terrifying acting professor. She lived downstairs in the house and rented rooms upstairs. Paula Prentiss and Dick Benjamin lived there. Once they came into the upstairs hall and found AK, as we called her, in her nightgown with her hair down, balancing on the railing over a two-story stairwell. She was sleepwalking. They talked her down. That might be an apocryphal story, but I’m inclined to think she was about to fly and she could have if she’d wanted to. Tony Roberts, then Dave, and Dave Pressman were part of that inner-inner circle and both were part of a Manhattan Jewish tradition of theatre and burlesque that has served them well over the years. These people have achieved about as we expected.

Tom remarks on how intense the memories from those years still are. I’ve wondered who will be the one to capture the legend in print. I only watched, but that might be an advantage. The terms of education and of life-goals have changed drastically over fifty years, but I think those times could still be mined for gold, whether or not it glitters still.

No comments: