Monday, April 23, 2007

David Halberstam

A note from Donald W. Faulkner, Director:

We acknowledge with great sadness the untimely death of author David Halberstam, the best and the brightest of his generation of journalists.

We remember his deep, measured voice, punctuated always by the audible pursing of his lips; we remember his silver hair, his ample eyebrows, his glasses, his geniality. We remember his height. Most of all we remember his brilliance.

Halberstam last visited the Institute just before the fateful 2000 presidential election, on November 2nd of that year. We made a television show of his visit that was broadcast a number of times in the years following. We hope to present it on our website in streaming video in the near future.

I can remember David standing on the university podium in the early-evening dark, snow flurries flying, and his talking in a live feed with one of the area television stations. In the brightness of the camera lights, it was a delightfully disjointed experience. Not having any idea of the questions asked him – they all came into his earpiece – we puzzled at answers he provided that involved Al Gore’s chances, Yogi Berra, Viet Nam, and Eisenhower. Each question seemed as though it must have been a non-sequitur, but he answered each with grace and an elegant kind of patience.

He had his own interesting perspective on Al Gore – Halberstam worked early on in his career at “The Tennessean” - but he seemed to be fond, in then-recent elections, of the efforts of Ralph Nader, a childhood friend . As I recall the story, David was launched from the family nest during his young school days to go and live with an uncle in Winsted, CT. There he met a cantankerous classmate whose father owned a diner in the small, northern Connecticut town. Halberstam remembered the younger Nader as the only person more vocal than Nader’s father. He was able to carry on arguments endlessly. But David on that Institute visit sensed the significance of the issues at hand in the 2000 election, then only five days away, and was ready to set aside his childhood allegiances.

There are two other things I recall about him vividly, one small, the other large. The small one was that he always traveled first class, the only way, he said, to get leg room. The other was how, during the question-and-answer session after his evening lecture at Page Hall, he responded to a question about Robert McNamara and Viet Nam. I have seen great men do slow burns, but it was quite something to see the raised hackles on a tall man’s spine at so many years’ remove from the events of which he spoke. Halberstam was unforgiving and would, I thought, have damned McNamara to hell were it in his power. I think it was the only time I saw such long-held and steeped passion. But then, he spoke for a generation. He often did.

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Saturday, April 21, 2007

Steven Bach Visits

Steven Bach joined us last evening for a talkback after the screening of Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will”, her 1934 celebration of Hitler in one of the most skilled propaganda films ever made.

Among the things learned from Bach, author of a recent biography of Riefenstahl: Leni’s film breakthrough was that she placed the techniques of fiction film into a supposedly documentary frame (think for example of Hitler landing in a plane, heroically breaking through the clouds); that she had, since she was funded by the Nazi party, at least twenty cameramen, four of whom, said Bach, were literally the best cameramen in the world at the time. There were nine aerial photographers at least, and a number of the on-ground cameramen traveled on roller skates to get the tracking shot effect of the crowds. The film was, as most fiction films are, really created in the edit stage, and since all twenty cameramen shot unlimited footage there were massive numbers of shots to work with. What’s more, any non-German newsreel shooters (Fox Movietone, Paramount, etc.) had to sign off on a demand giving Leni access and usage rights to whatever footage they shot. That generated all told probably more footage than anyone in the history of film up until that time had shot.

Nearly 500 people turned up for the Institute screening, astonishing since the Institute felt the screening of an old Nazi propaganda film would be the last thing the public would want to see.

One of the things that got Steven Bach into writing about Riefensthal was his biography of Marlene Dietrich. Riefenstahl and Dietrich were born within eight months of each other in the same city, and the two could not have taken more different courses in their lives: Riefenstahl stayed in the fold while Dietrich renounced Nazism and became an American. So, the thing that tripped Bach’s attention to Dietrich was his access to Josef von Sternberg while Bach was a student at USC during the last year of von Sternberg’s life.

But part of the pleasure of hosting a learned and experienced cineaste like Steven Bach is the other stories he could tell. He was of course Senior VP and Head of Worldwide Production for United Artists during the time of the making of “Heaven’s Gate”, the film that Michael Cimino made after his astonishing “Deer Hunter”. Bach’s book on the subject bears a long but apt title, “Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of the film Heaven’s Gate, the Film that Sank United Artists,” and it was called by Pauline Kael the best book on American moviemaking in the conglomerate age. As Bach effectively explained in an afternoon session with us, once production began United Artists was in for a dime, in for a dollar. The enormous budget at the time, $12 million (perhaps the equivalent of $120 million today), was already irrevocably three-quarters committed once the camera started rolling. As it turned out UA would have been wise to shut down production but kept hoping against hope that something would magically change course. All other production had to be stopped in favor of this trainwreck-in-the-making.

The experience cost Bach his job in Hollywood, but he doesn’t seem to have been too troubled by that. He now teaches at Bennington and Columbia and basically says that television has left the Hollywood market competing for the attention of 18-25 year olds who producers usually underestimate by presenting explosions and car chases.

Yet regardless of failures there were magical times, among them the making of “Sleuth” a London stage play bought largely on Bach’s recommendation. It was Joseph Mankiewicz’s last film (Mankiewicz, one of Hollywood’s greats then in the twilight of his career, sued the studio because he wanted an actual intermission in the screening just as would occur on the stage, where the piece was originally performed). Olivier, just having suffered through prostate cancer, thought it would be his own last film. Bach said Olivier could never remember his lines, causing the production to do as many as 30 takes. But, he noted, as Olivier gradually got more solid with his lines, his counterpart, Michael Caine, just kept getting better and better. As it turns out Caine was meant to get first billing in the credits but graciously deferred to Oliver – a classy thing to do. A project in development involves a remake of “Sleuth” with Jude Law, and Caine in the Olivier role.

We spoke of another friend of the Institute’s, David Thomson, to whom Bach dedicated his Leni book. We decided to have Thomson and Bach on stage some time in the near future to debate some trumped-up issue about film. Steven Bach thought the idea good, save for the fact that he disagrees with Thomson over nothing save for Thomson’s love of Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”

Importantly, Bach spoke of another film with which he was involved, “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” from John Fowles’s novel and scripted by Harold Pinter. The book, a huge success, left producers with a casting problem not unlike that of casting Scarlett O’Hara in GWTW. The adaptation, bringing the story half into the present, and left half in Victorian times was, as Bach said, the kind of risk a studio could take then, but which it never could now.

As Steven Bach tells the tale the issue was less the casting of Meryl Streep than with casting Jeremy Irons. Irons had just completed the the first run of “Brideshead Revisited,”for British TV and which was not yet screened by PBS in the USA.. He was under contract to complete the Brideshead effort within a specific time frame but wagered everything to support the film project he believed in.

Much more to come about other times, like tales of the brilliant producer, Sol Zantz, and about Robert Wise, who gave up a great project because he misunderstood a phone call.

One thing that is irresistible to note: Zantz held rights to "Lord of the Rings" and early in the 70s was negotiating with the Beatles to star, with Ringo as Frodo. You can do the rest of the casting in your own head.

We salute Steven Bach’s visit and will welcome him upon his return.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Edward P

You have to admire someone who can keep an entire novel in his head for ten years, win a Pulitzer, and then say, "I don't want to own anything more than what I can fold up and bring in to my apartment at night." Edward P Jones visited with us this evening and we renewed an ongoing friendship. We admire him immensely.

Lots more news about the Institute's doings to come. Heady times and nonstop pleasure. Not like reading poems at your local healthfood store. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

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Monday, April 16, 2007

Einstein and Some Pulitzers

Walter Isaacson visited the Institute tonight in service of his new #1 bestselling biography of Albert Einstein. What is impressive about Isaacson is what he praises in Einstein: curiosity, a certain iconolclastic spirit, and the capacity to imagine. We had a good time. He's a good man.

The events were clouded by news of the disaster at Virginia Tech. Everyone was both stunned and supportive. A moment of silence was held.

Among the things that Isaacson did speak of, beyond Einstein, was his work for the recovery of his native New Orleans. This led him also to recall a shaping influence on his decision to become a writer: his meetings as a very young man with the hero of many writers, Walker Percy.

More about that another time.

The Institute notes and celebrates today's award of the Pulitzer Prizes. Quite oddly in this time of literary baited breath is the fact that finalist for the Prizes are only announced as the winners are announced. And so, as we salute Cormac McCarthy (our Founder William Kennedy's review of McCarthy's novel in the NYTimes Book Review was, we think pivotal in McCarthy's recent success, both with Oprah and the Pulitzer committee). But we would be remiss in not acknowledging the work of both Alice McDermott, a friend of the Institute's, and Richard Powers, both finalists in fiction who were saluted today as well.

The same holds on other fronts: in saluting Cynthia Tucker, we also salute Ruth Marcus. In saluting Debby Applegate, we also salute David Nasaw, poor fellow, whose brilliant Hearst biography was not even nominated by his publisher.

In poetry we salute Natasha Trethewey, but also tip our hats to finalist David Wojahn.

One of our more subtly favorite authors, Ray Bradbury, was saluted, and we invite all and sundry to read his "Green Shadows, White Whale, one of the best books we've read in a long, long while.

And John Coltrane? Well, let's salute John Coltrane - We're glad the Pulitzer committees made it into the 20th century....

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

In Memorium Kurt Vonnegut

All of us at the Writers Institute mourn the loss of one of America's great treasures, Kurt Vonnegut, who died April 11 from injuries suffered after a fall. Kurt was New York State Author from 2001-2003 and is remembered with great fondness. Our sympathies go out to his family.

Those who attended his inauguration as State Author and witnessed his lecture, "On How to Write a Short Story" saw something they will remember all their lives. He presented his lecture with great good humor and immense good will. He drew story lines on a chalkboard that a number of audience members later tried to buy. I, Director of the Institute, recall leaning over to George Plimpton who had acted as Master of Ceremonies for the event and saying, "this must have been what it was like to see Mark Twain."

Kurt Vonnegut had many ties to New York State, and in particular to Albany and its University at which his brother Bernard taught for many years (and who came up with many of the scientific ideas that supported Kurt's own imagination about things like Ice Nine). Kurt Vonnegut also had many ties to Schenectady, where he had worked as a Public Relations writer for General Electric.

Indeed, upon accepting the Edith Wharton Citation of Merit for Fiction Writing that established him as State Author, Vonnegut said:

"It is a most agreeable honor, with my 78th birthday only a few days away, that New York State should declare so publicly that I, although born in Indianapolis, am one of its own. And it is a fact that most of my published works have been created within its borders, beginning with columns I wrote for The Cornell Daily Sun, in Ithaca, where I was a member of the class of 1944. Yes, and after my service in World War Two I went to work as a publicity man for General Electric in Schenectady, and was also a volunteer fireman in the nearby village of Alplaus. GE was the inspiration for my first novel, Player Piano, and Alplaus for my fifth, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. . . .I have in fact followed in the footsteps of two other native Indiana writers Booth Tarkington and Theodore Dreiser, in coming to New York for the dynamic companionship of the nearly countless world-class artists working here."

Kurt Vonnegut was one of a kind, and he left the earth a richer place for his sojourn here. We will miss him deeply and will honor his memory.

-- DWF

photo credit of Vonnegut at chalkboard: Judy Axenson

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