Saturday, September 10, 2011

Much snow here recently


Dear Matthew,
Congratulations on your coming marriage.
Enola and I were married in the month of October in the same year that Frances McDormand was born. A particular favorite but more for Blood Simple and Short Cuts than for Fargo.
Much snow here recently.
Best,
Gerald


Short or long, it was always good to get an email from Gerald Stewart.

I loved the way he talked in movies ("my frame of reference is film," he once told me). I loved the way he was so deeply knowledgeable on so many subjects, and could tie them all together, and relate them all back to the single overarching subject of cinema, so cleverly.
I'm assuming that the photograph above, which he appended to the email quoted from at the head of this post, is of his own house, in the beautifully named Pocono Pines, PA. If it isn't his house, I don't want to know. Ever since he sent it, I always pictured him in it.
I can't imagine him living anywhere else.

You may know Gerald better under the name Gordon Pasha, the alias (derived from his lifelong study of General Gordon) under which he wrote the blog Laszlo's on Lex. (Read this to understand the blog's title - and because it's superb.)
His other interests, according to his blogger profile, included modern jazz, New York City, John Buchan, South Asian cuisine and baseball - and that was only scratching the surface. He also knew England well, and London encyclopaedically, and would travel here for a month or two with Enola every year to revisit favourite old haunts.
Typically, he revealed the extent of his knowledge of London to me while in the act of downplaying it:
"It would be arrogant to say I know London. But I am comfortable there and have a map of it in my head. Enola and I have probably spent a total of two years out of the last eleven, living and working there. We wander endlessly, and ride tubes or buses from Tottenham to Brixton, from Barking to Southall. We play “bus roulette”, which can take us anywhere (have you ever been in the Willesden Garage?) We always go to Hammersmith on Sundays. My barber is in Holborn. And I feel at home in Highbury."

So when I noticed that Laszlo's had been on an uncharacteristically long hiatus recently, I imagined him strolling around Hammersmith, assuming he was again on his travels (always travels of the mind as much as the body), immersed in the land of Gordon and Sherlock Holmes (another of his extraordinarily knowledgeable passions).
I dropped him a line anyway, just to double-check that all was well.
A little while later, I received a reply from Enola, to say that Gerald passed away on August 5th.

Gerald rarely spoke to me of matters as private, or should I say as uncinematic, as health. The closest he came to acknowledging those few sides of life that cannot be converted back into controllable illusion was this laconic aside:
"The years encroach and I spend much time going from one medical site to another as parts wear out. But my recent round is settling and I hope that I might spend February watching films, posting an idea or two, and catching up with your past posts and those of others whom you recommend."
I think I was most amused by the impatience here - there is a trace of melancholy, but a trace only. Mainly he's annoyed that getting old and sick cuts back on the number of films he's able to see.

Laszlo's was a film blog with a difference: the author's reflections on forties movies were informed not by memories of a television childhood, rediscovering the black and white world in the postmodern living room, as is the case with myself and most classic movie bloggers I know. He had been there, really been there, in New York as a kid, watching them when they were new and part of the cultural pulse of modern life. (See here, for example.)
This perspective gave his writing a unique extra dimension, and he had a rare gift for evoking the mood and moment of times past. His memories, scattered through his posts not systematically but elliptically, in hints and fragments, gave his pieces unmistakable authenticity.
He was, by any standards, a first class writer. Yet there was about him not a trace of pomposity or, it seemed to me at times, even of awareness of how good he was at what he did. He saw himself as an amateur, experimenting in a field entirely new to him.

I can no longer remember how I came across Laszlo's, but I'm proud to say that mine is the first icon on its followers' board.
I wrote to Gerald first simply to tell him how impressive I thought it was, and in particular how the pieces seemed to have so much of his own personality invested in them.
He replied, "Everything I have posted I really care about. I do it for myself (and my wife) only. I think no one has viewed these entries but the two of you."
I made it my quest, then, to change that, mentioned the site whenever I could, gave it an award (which he accepted with his customary thoroughness) and was delighted to see a small number of like minded bloggers making the same discovery I had.
"I would certainly appreciate your mentioning Laszlo’s to others, as such linkage brings together people of like interests from which synergies develop," he wrote to me afterwards, adding "I can share and learn and I can handle adverse comments".
I don't think he ever received any.

Gerald saw me as a kind of blogging mentor (oblivious to my own relative inexperience) but from this beginning, I'm pleased to say, a friendship grew.
We spoke about movies we both loved but felt were under-regarded by cineastes generally: Portrait of Jennie, The Magnificent Ambersons, Wilder's Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. We wrote of our shared obsession with Edward Hopper.
He loved Woody Allen's Radio Days because it represented an almost entirely accurate picture of the world and the culture in which he was raised. He was genetically programmed to respond to James M. Cain, hardboiled noir, thrillers with a strong New York background (Naked City was another obvious favourite: a film that could have been made with him in mind), but he also enjoyed Ealing comedies, Top Hat, Preston Sturges, Duck Soup. And Michael Powell: he was strongly attracted to films and film-makers with a sense of the mystical.
I was able to send him a copy of Jazzboat, an obscure British musical comedy in which he thought he might appear in a crowd scene, having been there during the filming. (Sadly, however, he didn't.)
When Gerald left a comment on one of my posts, or a reply to one I had written on his, it was his habit to email it to me as well, in case I hadn't seen it. Sometimes a whole new conversation would be initiated this way. (I especially cherish his thoughts on the death of Sherlock Holmes scholar Richard Lancelyn Green, the circumstances of which he enigmatically likened to the film Dead Of Night in a post comment, then elaborated upon in private correspondence in case, he explained, the comments box wasn't the proper place for it.)

He had so many stories still to tell.
When I wrote to tell him how much I enjoyed his post Walled City, but how much potential I thought there was for taking it further, he replied thus:

"I have thought about extending the idea of Walled City first by enhancing the experiences of the 1940s – and then carrying it through to what I saw into my dating days in the mid fifties. Then into films I saw as a soldier in Germany in 1958 and 1959. I came home to the rediscovery of film as an art movement, which took full flower with the Sarris/ Kael wars - I was and am a Sarriste.
With a family, viewing diminished and took us out of dark halls. There was television but the fare was sparse. After a time came VCRs, DVDs and the reemergence of television with cable and TCM and Fox. For the past ten years we have been shipmates to the aging movie stars shuffling around QE2 and QM2. (Patricia Neal in robe and slippers was no longer looking the part. Then there was the obnoxious Carrie Fisher, and the sweet and charming Jane Russell. And as Kurt Vonnegut told us … )
Comments on books and materials, remarks made about images, remembrances of events, and the choice of material alone – might all provide additional insight. There is a built in conflict between the world of research (e.g., bibliography) where everything has to be right and those film blogs that deal primarily with remembrance. It seems if too much research is done, it takes away from the immediacy, the nostalgia and the mood of recreating yesterdays. Editing the thoughts of yesterday with the new found knowledge of today can lead to choppy waters. Writing, like good films, is always full of conflict."

So many avenues opened up in just a few paragraphs!
This was Gerald's habitual method when writing letters and blog posts both. I eventually learned more of his Jane Russell encounter; the Carrie Fisher story, however, was always put off until another day that now will never come.

It's tough to accept that I will never again rise from my bed, switch on the computer, and find that while I slept, Gerald has been reading my old posts an impossibly long way away, and leaving kind, perceptive, erudite comments.
Or that there will never again be an email from him waiting for me in my morning in-box, containing some obscure literary allusion that sends me scuttling to the reference books, or some knowledgeable aside about bit part actors long forgotten by the overwhelming mass of the public for whose approval they had worked.

I had just mentioned him in a piece I had published a few posts back, about how one of the joys of the blogosphere was of getting to know such wonderful people. Now I have to get used to his not being there anymore.
Indeed, he had already left us when I wrote that. I just didn't know it yet.

But Laszlo's will still be there, and just as Gerald described it:

A portal, perhaps, attempting to bring the distant near. A reminiscence of films and players seen during 70 years. First seen in dark buildings surrounded by strangers and now watched again and again on diminished screens. Herewith some random thoughts on that flickering past. Remember when the lights went on and we had to leave the theatre? From Rick’s Café Americain to Lexington Avenue? Laszlo's on Lex...

Others have left far less to mark their presence, that's for sure, and in time, perhaps, it may seem more than sufficient.
But at the moment: much snow here recently.