"The Film is a Poem..."

The first line of Roger Ebert's autobiography, Life Itself, is the kind of opening line most writers wish they had written: "I was born inside the movie of my life." It's an elegant, humble start to the story of a writer who became the only movie critic to ever win the Pulitzer prize. The only movie critic, it is said, that many people ever read. Well, for the sake of movie critics everywhere—and here I think Roger Ebert would agree with me—I hope that's not true.

Ebert left behind a lifelong career of loving movies, a body of written work unparalleled, save maybe in the works of the great Pauline Kael, a body of work he planned to continue building even as his own body was failing him. I knew him through his writing, and I found his prose always to be warm, witty, and eloquent, even when he was being downright acerbic. His criticism I sometimes liked less, as he occasionally got his facts wrong, misremembering or misquoting. Still, he always had an eye for the loving details, as in his review of Star Wars, where he notes Luke's landspeeder reminds him "uncannily of a 1965 Mustang."

A decade ago, when I began watching movies in earnest—which only means, with aspirations to write about how and why they move me—I usually disagreed with Ebert's overly generous, three- and four-star reviews of popular American films. His reviews of the great movies, though, I absorbed, so conversational and approachable was his style. As the years have gone by, I've mellowed in my own conversations, gotten more approachable myself when it comes to movies, and I see his work now in a different light. He was that rare and gifted writer who bridges the gap between his subject (cinema) and his readers (everyone). No small feat in a nation that still holds little respect for movies as art.

Tonight I watched McCabe & Mrs. Miller, one of the greatest movies ever made about longing, isolation, love and loneliness. Ebert wrote this about it, in one of his finest reviews: "It is not often given to a director to make a perfect film. Some spend their lives trying, but always fall short. Robert Altman has made a dozen films that can be called great in one way or another, but one of them is perfect, and that one is McCabe & Mrs. Miller. This is one of the saddest films I have ever seen, filled with a yearning for love and home that will not ever come—not for McCabe, not with Mrs. Miller, not in the town of Presbyterian Church, which cowers under a gray sky always heavy with rain or snow. The film is a poem—an elegy for the dead."

It's a fitting kind of mourning, I think, to revisit this movie tonight. Ebert has been an undeniable influence upon this blog, just as another writer I once knew, Barry Hannah, was of immeasurable influence upon my fiction. I once thought Warren Beatty's achingly beautiful line—"I got poetry in me!"—might have been attributed to Barry, who spent some time in Hollywood in the seventies and worked with Robert Altman doctoring scripts. A friend chased that theory down and, straight from Barry's mouth, debunked it. But it's still the kind of line Barry would have written, probably wished he had, when he thought about it. And so McCabe & Mrs. Miller has always held a special place in my heart as the movie that reminds me of a writer who taught me, who teaches me still. Now, I guess, two such writers owe the film a debt.

In Life Itself, speaking of his own death, Ebert says, "What I expect to happen is that my body will fail, my mind will cease to function, and that will be that. My genes will not live on, because I have had no children. I am comforted by Richard Dawkins's theory of memes. Those are mental units: thoughts, ideas, gestures, notions, songs, beliefs, rhymes, ideals, teachings, sayings, phrases, cliches that move from mind to mind as genes move from body to body. After a lifetime of writing, teaching, broadcasting, and telling too many jokes, I will leave behind more memes than many. They will all also eventually die, but so it goes."

That list of memes seems like a thing McCabe might rattle off to himself, mumbling his heart out before a mirror, putting bullets in his pistol. Unlike McCabe, Ebert will be remembered for a much longer while, and he never mumbled.

A version of this post originally appeared via The Banana Tree of Jean Louis in 2013.

Gone, Baby. Gone.

In March 2010, I was having dinner at a Mexican restaurant with a handful of other teachers and the writer Judith Ortiz Cofer. Cofer was the visiting dignitary to the two-year college where I work here in small-town Georgia, and six or seven of us had taken her to the only joint in town with decent grub. Over the chips and salsa, Cofer was lamenting the gone-baby-gone days of the "bad boys" of the trade — writers like James Dickey who, when hired to read on a university campus, would end up drunkenly serenading the college President's fifteen-year-old daughter at five in the morning from the lawn beneath her bedroom window. Those were the days, Cofer said, when writers were dangerous.


I don’t know about that.

But I do know that Barry Hannah is often remembered as being of those days, and so when the conversation inevitably turned to his legendary gun and trumpet, I couldn’t help smiling.  The truth was I, now a teacher of the trade and a struggler at the craft, had not known a dangerous man. In fact, I had learned to write at the feet of a man who, when he smiled, resembled nothing so much as someone’s sweet grandmother. A grandmother, sure, who wore leather and rode a motorcycle down the back-roads of rural Mississippi. A grandmother, sure, who professed a deep admiration for the intricate mechanisms of firearms.

But dangerous?

There was nothing dangerous about the man I saw in Walmart in 2006 on a snowy night in Oxford, Mississippi, wearing a woman’s scarf and gray sweat pants and pawing through the five-dollar bin of DVDs, looking, like me, I guess, for something special to watch on a cold winter’s evening.

In the 2004 winter issue of The Paris Review, Barry Hannah tells interviewer Lacey Galbraith about the incident in Alabama that became infamous, how he once brought an empty pistol into a workshop and “twirled the chambers to explain six movements in a short story.” This had been a lifetime ago, a drunken mistake that became the specters of things Barry had done only vaguely, haunting him into old age. In the interview, Lacey kids him as to whether he remembers what the six movements were. “No,” he tells her. “I could make something up, but it would be untrue….”

In the wake of his death, one or two writers out there have attempted to canonize Barry’s apocryphal past. If you’re like me, you’ve probably read a few of these in search of something honest.  One of the worst pieces I read was by a New Orleans writer. He paints a picture of a shit-faced but ambitious skirt chaser casting a fly rod from a balcony on Decatur Street. All things the writer of the piece didn’t witness, mind you, because he was too much of a ninny to drop by his buddy’s party and actually meet Hannah. The piece celebrates the writer’s cowardice. It’s a strange, mealy kind of tribute, one I’d wager Barry would have been baffled by. Secondhand tales set down as first-person remembrances, all done in the spirit of love.  Odd.

Barry always spoke of his past in interviews as a joyous, messy time, stopping well shy of naming regrets. By the time I knew him, though, his bad-boy days — the booze, the carousing, the guns and trumpets — had become as central to his life and writing as his forgotten six movements. Instead, he’d tell you it was a vision of Christ that had begun to inform his life and work, a deeply tanned man standing quietly at his sickbed. “I haven’t paid you enough attention,” Barry told him.



Kind. Generous.


At a party I attended my first year in the program, Barry’s wife Susan — gone, as well, now — found me hugging a wall and suggested I “quiet down.” Moments later I shared my first words with Barry, who sat in a chair in a corner, drinking a Red Bull. I learned he, like me, didn't care for these academic shindigs. My God, though, how many of them he must have gone to in his life, and this was only my first. I loved him immediately, if only because his soul seemed that of a quiet, thoughtful man’s who’d rather be home reading with a dog at his socked feet. So that’s pretty much what I did when it came to parties for the next three years: stayed home.  Barry went, of course. In truth, he carried the mantle of writing god with immeasurable grace in Oxford, a place at once expert and ignorant of men like Barry Hannah. They love their mythic drunken writers so in Oxford, toast them with champagne and without irony when they’re over a decade sober. It’s no secret that Barry sometimes chafed at that love, likening Oxford, as he put it, to a kind of “theme park for writers,” more enamored with myth than truth. If he was dangerous, he was dangerous only to everyone’s idea of themselves. He walked taller than the pretenders, and there were a lot of pretenders in Oxford.

Anyway, now that Barry’s gone, I hope the legends unspool until there’s nothing left to hold them together, and the only thing that remains is this: he lived, he wrote, he taught, he loved, he died; he did all of these with grace and as much dignity as they required.

Someone somewhere, I know, remembers James Dickey sitting quietly in a room, feeling old and thoughtful. But where’s the fun in telling that story? It’s not even a story, not by the standards of Barry’s fiction. No beginning, no end, just interminable middle. No thrill. No danger.

Just an old man looking for a good story cheap on a cold night.

I guess I could make something up, but it would be untrue.

This essay was originally published alongside a number of others from Barry's students in a special issue of Drunken Boat.

Because Andy Likes Puppets

One Friday in September of 2010, Crystal and I went to The Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta. The trip began with an email to me, forwarded from Crystal, the subject line reading: "Because Andy Likes Puppets...."

It's true: I do like puppets.  In fact, I adore them.  My mascot for another blog I used to keep was a puppet. A chimpanzee. His name is Jean Louis, and I've had him since childhood, but he hasn't always been Jean Louis. He used to be George. He became Jean Louis in graduate school at Ole Miss, when my sense of irony and existential angst was sharpest. Now, I tend to think of him as JL. Something else you may not know:  JL enjoyed a brief run in pictures in the early part of this decade, most them directed by and co-starring me (no, you'll never see them; no one will, save those who knew me then, and with any luck they'll keep their secrets). In my favorite of these, JL was a homicidal phantom tormenting a lonely guy struggling to sell his novel (those first few years after earning the MFA were hard, creatively).

Of course, none of this has anything to do with Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, which was the reason for our trip to the Center for Puppetry Arts that Friday. In the email Crystal sent me, the Center was advertising a 7 p.m. event:  "Mr. McFeely Remembers: A Tribute to Fred Rogers." Tickets were ten dollars. In my mind, this constituted what one sometimes refers to as "a once-in-a-lifetime-event," the opportunity to hear the Speedy Deliveryman from Mister Rogers' Neighborhood talk about what it was like to work with a man widely recognized as the greatest television "communicator" in the history of the medium. Also, it was a chance to see part of my childhood -- part of all of our childhoods -- in person. Nothing short of momentous, of course.

We arrived at the center early to wander through the museum, which is essentially a shrine to Jim Henson's Muppets and the art of puppetry throughout the ages. The parking lot was empty, save a white Toyota pickup driven by a round little man who pulled in shortly after we did. We sat in the car for a moment, wondering if we were in the right place, so deserted was the lot. The man in the pickup sat there, too. Crystal joked it might be Mr. McFeely. After all, wouldn't a speedy deliveryman be early? We got out, went in, and, once told that the theater would open in about an hour, were admitted to the museum.

We were standing just inside the entrance, reading something on the wall about the history of puppetry, when the man from the Toyota walked in behind us. I heard the girl at the desk greet him, saying, "We're so glad you're here!"

"Hello," the man said, and the sound of his voice was like the opening of a door to a place deep inside me. He might as well have said:  "Speedy delivery!"

The white Toyota. It was him. I froze. I let him pass, and then I whispered to Crystal: "That was him!"

How to explain what I meant.  It wasn't awe or admiration for David Newell, the actor, who had walked by. I've never understood celebrity worship, especially minor celebrities of the TV or local radio station variety. What I felt pass me in the corridor there in a museum dedicated to the wonder of puppetry was not him the guy who played Mr. McFeely, but him the friendly and benevolent ghost of childhood past.

We wandered on through the exhibits of Fraggles and Muppets, each new corner surprising and delighting with original puppets from Labyrinth, Sesame Street, and The Muppet Show (the frayed stitching of Rowlf the Dog, Ernie in his glass case, somehow lonely without Bert).

The auditorium upstairs opened and began to fill. We took our seats. We waited. The air in the room charged. Two women several rows back had puppets out, little green homemade monsters that seemed every bit as lively and happy to be here as we. 7:00 came. Then 7:05.  Crystal and I made nervous jokes: Mr. McFeely was backstage, snorting mounds of cocaine, a bottle of bourbon being pried from his hand. Around six or seven after, the Center spokesperson took the stage and introduced David Newell, who mysteriously had not yet appeared. And then, of course, one of the doors to the auditorium opened down front and we all heard, "Speedy delivery!" and in darted Mr. McFeely in cap and uniform. It was cute, sure, but it also warmly undercut any last drops of irony that might have been hanging in the little black raincloud of adulthood above us.

What followed was a two-hour presentation in which it became apparent that Fred Rogers was, in fact, a saint of television. I was alternately delighted and moved, especially by the puppets, on which Newell chose to focus a great deal of his presentation, appropriately enough given the venue. Rogers did most of his own puppetry, as well as the voices, turns out. In the Q&A that followed, people asked oddly geeky questions about particular episodes, some of which I thought missed the point of everything we'd seen. Even Newell seemed a little surprised by the precision of one or two questions regarding a purple dancing bear or some such thing, but he was gracious and generous with his time and love.

I was oddly touched by the couple sitting in front of us. Probably our age, the man had obviously grown up -- like we all had -- with Mister Rogers, but he had perhaps grown sideways with him, as well. Newell showed excerpts from the show, and the guy in front of us would elbow his girl before a clip or an outtake like a kid gearing up for his favorite scene in a movie. Daniel Tiger sings about being a mistake:  here it comes, here it comes!

It reminded me of how, one aimless year between college and graduate school, when I had lived at home with my parents and taken night classes at a school fifty miles away following my first break-up with a girl, I had spent the days having lunch with Mister Rogers on PBS. I had found him again at a time in my life when I needed a certain kind of comfort, the affirmation that someone somewhere liked me just the way I was.

JL sits quietly on my shelf in my office now. Has sat quietly for almost seven years. Every now and then, when I'm blue about life, creativity, writing, art, I think he may come out and make one last impromptu appearance. Like Sir Didymus and his friends, I guess, he's there when I need him. It's comforting: how the ghosts of childhood are ever with us. Sometimes we meet them in the flesh. Sometimes we animate them ourselves. Either way, what wondrous friends they are.

A version of this post originally appeared via The Banana Tree of Jean Louis in 2010.