Thursday, April 27, 2006

from Jules et Jim Posted by Picasa
The Man Who Loved Movies

This post is personal reminicence, inspired by an issue of the alumni magazine of Knox College, where I was an undergraduate. And if you've arrived here from the Knox site, welcome. This particular site has become a more personal one over the past few years, though it's more about personal obsessions than a day-in-the-life.

For those who were at Knox when I was, you might be interested in a couple of other sites I've just started: 60s Now and the Boomer Hall of Fame.

I post on current events affecting the future on Captain Future's Dreaming Up Daily. If you took astronomy with me, and happen to recall my Captain Space hat, you won't be surprised at that title, nor my Soul of Star Trek blog.

And if you'd like to catch up on my past published writing, some of my favorite magazine and newspaper pieces are at Kowincidence. Now, forward to the past.

I was pleased to see Jay Matson on the cover of Knox Magazine, and to read of the Alumni Achievement Awards to David Axelrod and Bill Barnhart.

Though he identifies himself as a philosophy major, Jay Matson was known on campus foremost as a poet, at least by his senior year, when I was a freshman. We were all in awe of him---his quiet, brooding figure defined “the poet” for me. When Mary Jacobson (who I essentially---or was it existentially?-- adored) told me that my writing had been singled out as promising (for a freshman) by Jay Matson, I felt I had something to live up to.

Then I recall visiting his farmhouse several years later, where a water pipe had burst from the cold, and several rooms were virtual skating rinks. I didn’t see him on my visit to Galesburg in the early 1980s, but I did write about his success transforming historic downtown buildings in my book, The Malling of America.

As the editor of the Knox Student, Bill Barnhart honed his journalistic skills in a tumultuous time on and off campus, and he also had to deal with several unruly columnists, like Skip Peterson, Mark Brooks, Kevin Cameron (unless he was gone already), and me: wild men all.

But the person I want to acknowledge most is David Axelrod. David ran the Cinema Club, which I believe was his invention as well. He chose, booked and exhibited foreign films, pretty much monthly as I recall. This may not sound like a big deal now, but consider this: at the time there were few film courses anywhere in American colleges, and none at Knox (I believe the first at Knox was a filmmaking course given by Richard Alexander of the English department in 1967 or so.) Only a few small theatres in major cities showed foreign films at all (and of course this was before video stores and cable TV.) Movies in general were still considered disposable entertainment.

So beginning with my freshman year, I bought the little card that entitled me to see these movies with strange titles, identified as well by the magic names of the directors: Bergman, Fellini, Godard, Antonioni, Truffaut, Kurosawa… I used to read the titles and names and try to imagine what the movie would be like. When I went to them, sitting in the darkness and staring at these strange apparitions of light, I understood very little of what I saw that first year. But gradually I absorbed their vocabulary, and by the time David graduated, I was a film buff for life.

Although my screenwriting efforts got me no further than an entertaining Hollywood lunch with a William Morris agent (our waitress had been a stand-in for Lillian Gish, who she still resembled), and writing and even directing a few videos for clients, I did wind up writing a lot about film, for various periodicals. This not only involved seeing hundreds of movies but doing interviews on Hollywood sets and on one occasion, spending an hour talking with Francois Truffaut, and exchanging letters afterwards. (I even told him about the scene in which he and Godard—his friend and later New Wave rival—have a shootout, in the last play I wrote and directed at Knox. He laughed.)

The resulting article was in Rolling Stone, called "The Man Who Loved Movies." He liked it, and a piece I did on the (now lost) art of double features, which mentioned a pairing of two of his films. Both of them are reproduced over at kowincidence. (Which was a name given to me, by the way, by the ineffably beautiful Mary Jacobson. (I can see her cringing at my word choice.) I used it for the name of my temporary band for my one and only rock and roll record. But that's another story. )

I’m pretty certain I saw Truffaut’s “Shoot the Piano Player” at Cinema Club, probably my first Truffaut film. I just watched the DVD of it last week, with commentary by Annette Indsdorf, Columbia film professor. I met Annette when she was Truffaut’s translator for his U.S. retrospectives in 1979. Just another link in my life that began with the Cinema Club.

With his dark hair falling in his eyes, David was a personality and a presence at Knox. His off campus apartment featured a homemade reproduction of a Modrian painting (“Broadway Boogie-Woogie”)? rendered with colored tape, as assembled by the rapturously lovely Judee Settipani. I remember him as not saying a lot, and saying it softly (not like some of us loudmouths) but after due consideration, making it count.

I remember some of his pronouncements to this day, and not all of them about film, though this one was: he pointed out to me that the world is not black and white, so black and white movies are inherently abstract. It’s a basic concept now, but at the time it was profoundly new, at least to me, and especially impressive because it seemed to be an insight he’d reached on his own.

The only times I’ve seen him since Knox were in movie theatres: once in Chicago, and once in the mid 1970s at the Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge, MA. (Actually I ran into him in the adjoining restaurant.) At the time I was practically living at the Orson Welles. I was seeing at least 10 to 20 films a week; once I saw 10 movies in one day. I may be an extreme example, but I’m sure there are others whose lives were enriched by what David Axelrod began, as a student at Knox.

UPDATE: If you're interested in David's more recent activities, his web site is, strangely enough, Which isn't the no-brainer it might seem to be, because there are lots of David Axelrods out there in cyberspace. So I figure he had to be pretty quick to get that url.