桶装水订购价格表:My Stardust Memories: an article by William Zinsser | The American Scholar

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Winter 1998

My Stardust Memories

 

Every time a new Woody Allen movie comes along I can’t help thinking back to one of his earlier films, Stardust Memories. That’s the one that gave me my movie career.

The year was 1980, and I was sitting at my typewriter in New York,plying my writer’s trade. When the phone rang I had no greatexpectations; freelance writers answering the phone tend to be bracedfor negative news.

“Bill, honey?” said a young woman’s voice. “This is Sandra from WoodyAllen’s office. Woody wondered if you’d like to be in his new movie.”

That was something new in phone calls. I had never done any acting ordreamed any theatrical dreams. But who didn’t want to be in a WoodyAllen movie? I knew that he often cast ordinary people in small roles.What small plum did he have for me? I hesitated for a decently modestmoment and then told Sandra I’d like to do it.

“Good,” she said. “Woody will be very pleased.” She said that someone else would be calling me with further details.

A half hour later the phone rang again. “Bill, honey,” a voice said,“this is Stephanie from Woody Allen’s office.” How wonderful, I thought,to be in a line of work where I was called “Bill, honey.” Stephaniesaid she was calling to get my measurements. Measurements! I caught awhiff of greasepaint over the telephone line. She needed my jacket size,my waist size, my trouser length, my inseam and my collar size, and Igave them to her gladly. I would have told her anything. I wanted to askwhat role I was being measured for, but she was gone. I called my wifeto tell her I was in show business.

The next day the phone rang again. “Bill, honey,” another voice said,“this is Jill from Woody’s office.” Jill explained that my scene wasgoing to be shot on Friday morning at a film studio in uptown Manhattan.I should get there by nine o’clock and check with the wardrobe peopleabout my costume. Meanwhile I should also report to the movie’s castingagent to have my picture taken and to fill out some forms.

The agent’s office was on Central Park West, and the next day I wentto see her. She explained that she specialized in casting extras, andher walls were lined with photographs of extraneous-looking people. Shewas a woman who had seen a lot of faces, and as she stood me against awall and peered into her Polaroid camera, I thought I heard a smallsigh.

“Where did Woody find you?” she asked.

In the winter of 1963 I got a call from an editor at the Saturday Evening Post.The magazine wanted an article about a hot new comic who was playing ata club in Greenwich Village; everyone said he was going to be the nextbig talent. Sure, sure, I thought; great new comics come along every dayand are never heard from again. I asked what the comic’s name was. Hisname was Woody Allen. That didn’t sound promising either. But I agreedto write the piece, and a few nights later my wife and I turned up atthe Village Gate.

It was an enormous barn, depressingly dark and empty; not many peoplehad come out to catch the hot new comic. But suddenly I became awarethat an amazing jazz pianist was at work. Through the gloom I made out apallid man in dark glasses, curled intently over the keyboard,caressing harmonies out of it that were highly cerebral but also highlyemotional. “The comic’s not going to be any good,” I said to my wife,“but at least I’ve found a great piano player.” It was Bill Evans, whowould become the most influential jazz pianist of his generation.

The comic, however, was no less an original artist. A frail andseemingly terrified young man, blinking out at the audience throughblack-framed glasses, Woody Allen at twenty-seven was already a veteranof writing sketches for Sid Caesar and other giants of television’sgolden age of comedy. But as a performer of his own material he wasstill a novice; at his first gigs his manager had had to push himtrembling onto the stage.

Allen’s monologue consisted of telling the story of his life. It wasthe life of a chronic loser, told in a rapid salvo of jokes: “As a boy Iwas ashamed to wear glasses. I memorized the eye chart and then on thetest they asked essay questions.” “I won two weeks at an interfaithcamp, where I was sadistically beaten by boys of all races.” The jokes,though simple, were unfailingly funny, and beneath the humor they weredoing serious work as autobiography. This was a champion nebbish, onethat every underdog in America could – and soon would – identify with.Allen had invented a perfect formula for an anxious new age: therapymade hilarious. A few days later I interviewed him to learn the detailsof the life I had heard refracted in the jokes – “my father and motherwere called to school so often that my friends still recognize them inthe street,” he told me – and my article was the first long piece totake note of his arrival as America’s resident neurotic.

In 1970 I moved to New Haven to teach writing at Yale. During thoseyears Allen not only came of age as a movie writer and director, with Sleeper, Love and Death, Annie Hall, Interiors, and Manhattan. He emerged in full bloom as an essayist, contributing to The New Yorker almostfifty pieces that raised literary humor to new altitudes. He wasobviously the true descendant of his hero, S. J. Perelman, and I usedhis work in my teaching.

I knew from following Woody’s career that he had been a pioneerwearer of sneakers in fashion-proud Manhattan. At Yale I had also gonecasual and was seldom out of sneakers myself. But I was prepared to kickthe habit when I retuned to New York in the summer of 1979; I wasn’tgoing to disgrace my native city or myself with rube behavior. What Ihadn’t known was that during my decade away from New York its sartorialcodes would disintegrate. People now appeared to be walking around inlittle more than their underwear, and when the fall theater seasonopened I was surprised to see men attending Broadway plays in sweaters. Icontinued to wear a coat and tie, but sneakers were on my feet moreoften than my upbringing would have thought proper.

One Saturday in the spring of 1980 I was walking down Madison Avenue.Suddenly my eyes fixed on a pair of sneakers walking toward me, and thewearer of those sneakers seemed to fix on mine. It was as if thesneakers recognized each other. We both stopped, and I saw that it wasWoody Allen. We stood for a few minutes and talked about our work andabout writers and writing. Then we went our separate ways and I didn’tgive it any further thought. In Allen’s brain, however, one last neuronmust have fired, for it was a week later that Sandra called to askwhether I would like to be in Woody’s new movie.

Promptly at nine on Friday morning, Ishowed up at the movie studio and was sent upstairs to a wardrobe roomand given my costume. It was the habit of a Catholic priest. I thoughtof all my Protestant forebears; they would just have to understand that Iwas doing this for my art. The somber black robe fit me well, its whiteclerical collar snug around my neck, and I went back down feeling holyenough to administer a sacrament. Woody Allen was standing on the set,which was the interior of a shabby passenger train.

“Do I look spiritual enough for you?” I asked him.

“Those aren’t spiritual glasses,” he said. The director of the visually impeccable Interiorswasn’t going to have a Catholic priest caught wearing the horn-rimmedspectacles of an Ivy League WASP. He called for a prop woman, who camewith a cardboard box full of glasses. Picking fastidiously among them,he fished out exactly the pair that would be worn by a blue-collarparish priest in Queens. They were made of chrome, they had wide sidepieces, and they were ugly. I put them on and looked at myself in amirror. There was no sign of the kindly face that normally gazed back atme. The man in the mirror was an unforgiving man of God.

What was being filmed was part of the opening sequence of Stardust Memories,which served as a prologue to the movie itself. It took the form of asurrealist fantasy. Two trains are proceeding on parallel tracks. One isfull of beautiful people and one is full of ugly people. Woody Allen istrapped on the ugly people’s train, and he looks with longing at thepeople on the other train: handsome Edwardian men in white flannels andboaters with tennis racquets and croquet mallets, laughing women in longwhite dresses and Gibson-girl hats, twirling parasols.

Frantic to get off the losers’ train, Allen begins by pulling on thebell cord. In his hands it’s a comic prop fit for Harold Lloyd, and hisefforts to stop the train lead only to entanglement. Next he appeals tothe conductor, showing him his ticket and pointing to the adjacenttrain. The conductor studies the ticket impassively and hands it back.Desperate, Allen scans the rows of ugly passengers and sees one lasthope of salvation: a Catholic priest. That was my moment.

The sequence took all morning to film. There was the usual quest forperfection: the fussing with lights and angles and sound, the reshootingof scenes that didn’t satisfy Allen or his cinematographer, GordonWillis. Finally it was time for my scene, and Allen gave me myinstructions. I was to show no emotion when he approached me as asupplicant. It was the best possible directing advice for someone whohas no idea how to act and would ruin a scene by trying to. I’m a personwho doesn’t photograph well; if a photographer asks me to smile Icontort my cheeks in a weird simulacrum of mirth. But to show noemotion is easy; anyone can keep his face blank. It’s also the perfectresponse dramatically – the ultimate nightmare for any petitionerseeking help.

Without boasting, I can say that I gave Allen no glimmer of hope whenhe came pleading. No matter how many takes were required to solveGordon Willis’s technical problems, some of which were related to ajouncing mechanism under the seat that made the train appear to bemoving, my performance was steely in its discipline, and when it wasover – all six seconds of it – I turned in my ecclesiastical garb andleft. I had the rest of my life to look back on my movie career.

But it wasn’t over. Several months laterthe phone rang and a familiar voice said, “Bill, honey, this is Sandraat Woody Allen’s office. We need you for another scene.”

Sandra explained that the final destination of the ugly people’strain is a city dump, where everyone is discharged to wander over acresof garbage. The scene had been filmed the previous fall at a dump in NewJersey, but the weather was cold and everyone’s breath was showing.Allen wanted to shoot it again, this time at the main New York City dumpnext to Jamaica Bay, near Kennedy airport, the biggest dump in theworld. As a new addition to the cast of train passengers, I was neededamong the dump walkers. Sandra said the bus would leave from VeseyStreet, in lower Manhattan, at 5:30 a.m. the following Tuesday. Could Ibe there?

“I’ll be there,” I said. “What about my costume?”

“Not to worry,” she said.

On Tuesday morning, earlier than I’ve reported for any task sincebasic training in World War II, I found a large bus parked in thepre-dawn darkness of Vesey Street. Most of the ugly people were alreadyon it; extras are so dependent on their occasional day’s work, one ofthem told me, that they take no chance of being late. Their aspirationis to graduate to a “five-liner,” the next higher union job, which callsfor five lines of dialogue. During our long day together, with itsendless waiting around, also reminiscent of the army, I found them to bemen and women of deep resignation and good cheer.

Our bus took us across the East River and through the lighteningstreets to a senior citizens’ center in outer Queens, near Far Rockaway,where, in a recreation room, our costumes were neatly hanging oncoatracks. Seeing my priest’s habit and my chrome glasses waiting forme, I understood that in film production, as in baseball, it’s not overtill it’s over; costumes stay rented for the duration. I changed into myholy attire and several of the extras called me “Father” and asked for ablessing. The sun finally came up.

Back on the bus, we proceeded to the dump, a vast range of hills madeentirely of garbage. Sanitation trucks kept arriving with garbage fromall over the city and seagulls came screaming down to meet them. It wasan ideal landscape for a surrealistic movie: a place at the end of theworld, alien and desolate. We were told that Woody Allen had visited thedump the previous day to decide where he wanted to shoot our walk. Hechose a spot where the garbage was piled in a configuration that pleasedhis artistic eye, and that’s where our bus now arrived to meet him andthe crew. But Allen had forgotten that garbage doesn’t hold still.Monday’s picturesque formations had been compacted under new truckloadsof trash, and the panorama that greeted him on Monday wouldn’t do.Shooting would be delayed until he got the garbage rearranged.

The Sanitation Department had evidently been told to cooperate withthe filmmakers, for soon we saw trucks with new garbage making their wayup the mountain. Galvanized by their approach, Allen turned intoToscanini, conducting each driver to where he wanted the load dumped,until at last a high wall of garbage had risen not far from where wewere standing. The air was scented with the refuse and unfinished mealsof seven million New Yorkers, and new gulls descended in noisy armadas.Woody was satisfied.

Our assignment as outcasts from the ugly people’s train was to trudgeaimlessly across the garbage, looking dazed and forlorn. It wasn’t hardto feel like a lost soul; we were in a land of lunar strangeness.Underfoot, the terrain was damp and fetid, grabbing at our shoes. Allenplaced his camera so that we would be framed against his wall ofgarbage. It loomed behind us like a mountaineer’s cliff, sealing us off.

So began what would stretch into hours of walking on the dump. On onelevel it was one of the most interesting days I ever spent, whollyoutside the normal experience of a lifetime. Cinematically, however, itwas tedious work. The skies were gray, and the sporadic sun reflectedoff the garbage unevenly. Allen and Willis wanted to make sure thatwhatever sequences they shot would match one another in quality of lightand density of seagull. They shot us from a distance, straggling acrossthe tundra, and they shot us in close-up when we came near, our facesetched with loathing at our fate. But perfection eluded them, and atmidday we were sent off for a break.

When we returned after lunch the unthinkable had happened: ourseagulls were gone. Fleets of sanitation trucks were dumping new loadsabout one hundred yards away, and our gulls had flown over to get afresher meal. We needed new gulls so that the afternoon scenes wouldmatch the morning scenes. Word went out, trucks arrived with new garbageto top off our old garbage, and the gulls came screaming back. Shootingresumed, and in midafternoon, on a peak in Queens, my movie careerreally did come to an end.

Stardust Memoriesopened in September, and a few days before the premiere my phone rang.“Bill, honey,” a voice said, “this is Beverly at Woody Allen’s office.There’s going to be a screening tomorrow night at the Coronet Theaterfor everyone connected with the picture. You’re welcome to come andbring any guests.” I called my wife and children, and the next night weall went to the Coronet to see Daddy in the movies.

Around me I recognized quite a few of my fellow uglies from the trainand the dump. But they weren’t the only freaks in the theater. Uglieswere everywhere! It was as if we had all been sprinkled with somemutational dust coming through the lobby. To my relief, the lights wentdown and the movie began. I was nervous – would my debut be a success? –but soon the worst was over. My face, enormous on the screen, was coldenough to scare even a venial sinner, and when it later reappeared in a close-up at the dump I was proud to see that it was still unleavened by the quality of mercy. I could relax and enjoy the rest of the film.

Actually it was a querulous movie, not all that enjoyable. Allenplays a celebrity comedy writer who yearns to be allowed to make aserious picture and to be taken seriously as an artist. Instead he ishounded by his adoring fans at a film festival in the Catskills and atother public appearances, the resentful prisoner of his fame. Like itsprologue, the movie took an owlish view of humanity. All those fans swarming over Allen—the HieronymusBosch school of filmmaking – were as ugly as the passengers on the trainand at the dump. Now I understood who all the men and women around mein the theater were; the casting agent had done her job well. When themovie ended and the audience spilled out onto the sidewalk, passersbystrolling up Third Avenue stopped in wonderment at so much geneticdisarray.

After the film was released, I heard from some of my former studentsat Yale. As master of one of Yale’s large residential colleges, I hadknown many undergraduates. But when I handed them their diplomas theyhad every right to expect that I would no longer keep popping into theirlives as an authority figure. It was their bad luck, however, to beWoody Allen’s natural constituency, and as soon as Stardust Memories opened,they flocked to see it. When my stern clerical visage jumped out of thegiant screen, I was told, startled cries went up from various parts ofthe theater. It was the sound of Mother Yale’s sons and daughtersregressing to the womb. They hadn’t graduated after all.

I was sorry to have caused them such a traumatizing moment. But as Ilook back on my movie career I have a larger regret. I never got called“Bill, honey” again.

 

William Zinsser is the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well.