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For My Uncle Al

Where Al and Alice and Mary and Jo and George and Big George once hung their hats (Lowell, MA).

So I fly home to New York City from LA today, drawn back to the grayer, tamer ocean for bleak reasons. My uncle Al succumbed to digestive cancer this week after a protracted battle and I’ve got to climb into my heartbroken little car (it was burglarized during my absence) and drive to Massachusetts. I figured I still had time to say goodbye, but, afraid to face his kind, hopeless regard, I really was ignoring the signs that he was getting ready to go. I fucked up.

My mother’s youngest brother, Big Al Edney (back in the day, there’d been also been Grand-uncle Little Al), had a tough life. Fifty-six when he died, he struggled with dyslexia before teachers even knew what the word meant. Drank too much, smashed a couple of cars, lost his license, sobered up, fell in with the Scientologists, fell back out, lived a long time with Grandma Alice, she who I miss every day since her death when I was 17. I’m not sure how he avoided Vietnam, but I’m guessing somewhere between the drinking and the dyslexia, even the US Army knew they’d get a handful. He met up with Pauline (aviator glasses, enormous belly, whiskered chin), she who’d been married to a gay guy, and married her and adopted her brown-eyed pipsqueak of a son Michael, the kind of kid just waiting to grow a mullet and wear a Metallica t-shirt unsarcastically. (Which he did.) Al Drove big rigs. Schoolbuses later.

He was really, really tall and, when he was younger, really, really skinny, adam’s apple and eyes protruding something fierce. When he married Pauline, he got enormous for a while. The two ate steadily and joylessly at family get-togethers: Pepsis chilled in the bathtub, burgers, chips, ambrosia, pies. He looked like my mom, a male, unbeautiful version of her: same big teeth, long features. But where my mom had been given those Sioux cheekbones and blue-yellow eyes that shone with both elation and empathy, Al looked, well, sad. Which he was.

He was always sad, shy and largely silent and terribly gentle, folded into himself in a way that downplayed his great size, as if he were reaching, always, for a level of invisibility impossible for anyone but a superhero. Once when I was a kid, he burned down the Allston apartment building he lived in by passing out with his cig still burning. He came to live at our house for a while after that. Whirled me through the air and gave me wedgies by pulling me up by my tights. I liked him but, all of three years old, felt responsible for him and his loneliness. When he left we had fleas for months. Crazily, years later, Max and Allegra, friends of my friends, moved into the same building, long rehabbed, and it burned down again. Allegra managed to rescue all the cats in the building.

Something about Big Al made me forget to tell him that story every time I saw him. We didn’t have that kind of fluency. I rarely saw him and, when I did, we only talked if I made a point of it since he’d usually be sitting alone at our get-togethers. Everyone on my mom’s side either stares into space or screeches at the top of their lungs when we get together so it wasn’t as weird as it sounds.

It’s not like our family has ever really connected much, even though we see each fairly regularly. Or they do and I rarely go. I’m the furthest, all the way in New York. The rest (my mom’s three siblings and their kids and their kids; her cousins and their many offspring) in various depressed New England towns. And Jennie, my younger sister, and I have always been fairly different from the rest (and different from each other). My mom Mary went to art school, after all, changed her name to Sari Musan, married Bernie, my tiny exotic Jew of an old man, bought the cheapest house in Newton for the good public schools her two babybirds would attend, and promptly fell into a 20-year pool of her own sadness just when she wasn’t expecting it.

When I show up at family get-togethers, which, admittedly hasn’t been too often since I left Massachusetts for college back in 1989, no one really says much to me. There are too many kids — my cousins started having a bunch when they were still teens — and there is nowhere to sit. I hate going back. Not because I’m a snob, though for sure the food is beyond-the-pale and the houses they inhabit are crazy-messy and smelly and everyone’s lives bum me out (unemployment, shoddy public assistance). But actually it isn’t really that. Everyone takes their crap for granted and usually tells their crazy sad stories strangely cheerily. The ones who don’t work at fast food restaurants have mostly done the unsung social service jobs like working as attendants for the mentally and physically disabled. My cousin Sue, so psychic her whole life that she’s scared the rest of us as well as herself, is a corrections officer.

My mom’s family’s dogged blitheness freaks me out; I read it as shutdown, though I think it’s also a form of bravery. But what really has kept me away is that no one except for some of the kids ever says a thing to me when I show and it hurts to not feel like I belong to my own fucking family. I live in New York, I went to college, I worked as a television actress, I’ve mostly made my living working at magazines and on Internet publications. No matter how broke I feel, I live in a different world, where things can change every time I turn a corner. I’ve been so, so lucky both in terms of the choices my milltown-born parents made and in terms of the connections I’ve fused in my life since I left their house. And even if I don’t always feel that the rest of the family and I occupy different universes, everyone else does. It’s not like they resent me; it’s that I’m a different species, plain and simple.

But it’s not as if I’ve been able to escape entirely the bottom that Al made his home. I live in it differently: lose whole days when I can’t face my computer, can’t face New York’s crackle right outside my door. A few times I even considered trying to talk to Al about it. He’d been my grandma’s favorite in a way, since he’d lived at home for so long and had come to love reading as much as she did once he mastered the process. (She bought him two extra years of special dyslexia training after high school on her meager salary.) Usually, I’d just volunteer jokes instead and he’d laugh generously, a big man giggling with great gums showing. And, ah, those sad eyes. Only when we talked about science fiction did the conversation grow remotely natural. He reminded me so much of Grandma, whom I missed more than I even realized until recently.

My grandmother. Self-taught, she went to school only till her early teens herself but read everything under the sun and did crosswords every day of her life. She and Al got into science fiction, and that was the only real connection I ever formed with the both of them. I’d read their old paperbacks when I’d go over to Grammie’s, and eventually they got me my own subscription to Isaac Asimov Magazine. I loved its various conjectures about the future, so many of which have since come true. Did I thank them properly? I worry and know that I didn’t. I was a kid, and an ungrateful one at that. If I’d thanked them enough, I could have talked with them about the mags, maybe gotten past that crazy silence that both of them always generated like mournful monks. Instead I chattered on about myself: gymnastics, school plays, my many A’s. I must have been something else for them, barging into their sanctuary whenever my mom drove up to Lowell, to the house where they lived and where Mom had grown up. Some rooms in the house were so filled with books you couldn’t even open a door into them. Mystery novels. Socialism. The classics. Buddhism. Transcendentalism. The rest of the rooms were on their way.

Grandma got poor-people sick in her early 70s — factory air, bad diet, cartons of Camels macked her system — and she started reading about macrobiotics. Ate mostly beans and vegetables from then on and lived a while longer. I think it was loneliness that did her in finally, when Uncle Al married Pauline and she began to live alone. The year I was 17, I interviewed her and Al and Mom and George and Jo, my mom’s other siblings, about working in the mills. A teacher submitted the report to a historical society and I was offered a grant to conduct oral histories in Lowell while living with my Grandma. She actually called a few times to see if I accepted it, which was big. She never called. But I didn’t go; wanted to be near my acid-dealing boyfriend so I could fuck him on the regular to make sure he didn’t fuck anyone else. (He did anyway.)

She got sick that fall again and died in the winter. At the funeral when I did the eulogy, I talked about her clear denim eyes that never missed a beat and looked up to see Big Al’s own blues, brimming with tears, gazing straight into my own for the only time of our lives. Later Jennie, always on the little-sister lookout for my hypocrisy, said, “I thought you were just being an actress. But then I could tell you were for real.” It was seeing Al cry that day that made me real. He felt it all, I think, and it was too much for him. Always.

None of the rest of us ever did let ourselves feel much usually. The crying might’ve never stopped once we started. The horrors just kept coming and coming. The many disastrous fathers of the cousins’ kids, and the cousins’ kids’ kids. Sexual and physical violence. Mental illness. Homelessness. Prison. Poverty. Alcoholism. Sex workers. In fact, if I had to say for real why I left home so completely that year (I’ve not lived in Massachusetts since I graduated from high school, never spent another night in my parents’ house), it was so I could learn to feel again, this time in a way that didn’t just hurt.

The last time I ever saw my uncle was at a family cookout. After a year of reporting unsolicited weight loss to his shitty poor-people doctor (That’s good, Al. You needed to lose some weight), he’d been finally diagnosed with stomach cancer. Stage four. Al was easily 6’4 and the time before I’d seen him he’d been toting such an enormous gut that it’d given him a hernia. Now he weighed in at 120 and was grey and yellow, eyes not sad so much as scared. He managed half a shake my cousin Kimmie matter-of-factly made him and then he threw it back up. I tried my hardest to go over to him — I was not a kid, I reminded myself, no matter how long NYC lets us extend our adolescence. All I could manage to tell him was that I was sorry he was so sick and to kiss his dry cheek.

I yell at my mom for being such a checked-out caretaker of Jen and me when we were coming up; it’s our worst fight these days, and a ridiculous one to have now that I’m in my 30s and she is in her 60s. But I’ve got to give it to Sari: She did her best by her brother as he died over this last year. He’d been given only a few weeks to live back in February and she went over to his house every day to help him out rather than hide her head in the sand. She and Jo did what they could while Pauline sat by, shellshocked. Made him food he could eat to gain back some of the weight. (They couldn’t do chemo with him so weak; not that chemo’s often much help at that stage.) Got him cable. Bought him a better Barca Lounger and hospital bed. Helped with the small things since they couldn’t do anything bigger, basically. Jennie, who’s become a hospital-trained dietician, figured out to how to make his shunt more comfortable.

And I stayed away. “Don’t come,” said Jennie over and over. “The house and the situation will just make you mad.” I figured she was right, that they didn’t need my self-righteous indignation on his behalf. That I wouldn’t do anyone any favors if I came and raged against the cold house falling apart to which he was relegated for his final days, against the shitty system that landed my uncle in this rut even younger than his dad in turn. (Grandpa George, a textile cutter, died at 59 not long after the mills closed and moved South.)

But Jen said it was terrible. That Al rocked in his chair and just stared, frightened as could be. That the hospital had sent a counselor over to talk to him but that she fell on their ripped-up sidewalk and ended up in the emergency room. Woe to all who enter the Edney family vortex, I thought, and stayed away. I prayed for him from NYC with Yancey, though. I asked my grandmother to send him guidance and clarity from where ever she was and I asked God to protect my grandmother’s baby son and my mom’s baby brother, to send him peace and release him from his fear. I wrote Al. But I never did see him again.

I kept thinking I’d still have a chance. He hung on for so much longer than anyone expected that I went ahead and bought tickets to the West Coast to tend to my own mess at the beginning of this month. Right before I left, my mom said:

“I think Alfred has hung on so long because he’s getting love from all of us and he needs it, and so he can get used to the idea of dying.”

He got used to it, I guess. The other night, high on morphine (his first mind-altering substance in more than 20 years), he hugged Pauline. Told Michael and Michael’s new baby girl that he loved them. Said, “I am leaving now.” And then my uncle Al, who had such a hard time living well on this Earth, had himself a good death.

I pray that Grandma was waiting right there for him. I’m sure she was. When I talked to Jen from California, she said that he’d been getting more talkative right at the end. Talked about Grandma, and about how much he’d been missing her. Jen said it was the first time he’d really opened up to her. I felt jealous that they’d talked and that she’d been able to help at all at the end of his life. I wished I’d spoken with him frankly about his depression years back, when antidepressants may have actually made a difference in his life, not just in his death. I’ve never been much good for my mother’s family and I’ve never gotten much back.

But I can write this, for better or for worse.

So here’s to you, Big Al. Gentle, so gentle that you never could get much you needed from this world, and gentle, so gentle that you never hurt a fly. I love you very much.

SIFFting (Seattle International Film Festival)

SIFF (Seattle International Film Festival) was oh-so-Seattle-y. I’d be more afraid to explain what that means if I thought my dear friend Mary, who is a staunch Seattle convert, would actually read this.

Seattle is a very clean, amiable city that, like most places, matches its civic personality to its climate. In this case that translates into slightly uncommited, indeterminate, ultimately mild if rarely sunshiney. The locals are disarmingly nice. During my stay there, (I arrived for the last week), barristas drew me maps; strangers sorted out which buses I should take; herds of traffic slowed to a complete stop the minute I stepped foot off curb. By Day 2 I longed for a remark as strong as the local expresso: a sneer; a diatribe; hell, a sidelong look at my boobs. Anything to cut through the veneer of overcast skies and polar fleece.

Perhaps that’s why so many Seattlites who consider themselves alternative still dye their hair bracing colors ‘90s-style; at least you can glimpse hot pinks and greens through the clouds. What goes for alternative in Seattle moved into the mainstream of the rest of the country 10 years ago, though, and then sank without a trace except on annoying retro-grunge nights of certain New York City clubs. Short bangs (not long ones swept sideways), Mary Janes, ripped jeans, rock tee shirts, plaid flannel. And the rest are scrubbed clean with pressed jeans, fugly shoes, and guileless expressions unsullied by wrinkles. (Dewy climates beget dewy skin, apparently.)

You could argue that a town’s film festival in turn takes its cues from the town’s personality. (The sexual misadventures that distinguish the Bermuda film festival for sure gives new meaning to the word “triangle.”) That said, Seattle’s film festival is actually fairly impressive. A full 28 days (most festivals are significantly shorter), it includes a wide range of new features from foreign language and domestic directors, many of which promise to be the biggest indie hits of the summer: The Last Mogul, Layer Cake, Junebug, Ellie Parker, Mad Hot Ballroom, Shake Hands with the Devil, (which came and, I believe, went already at Film Forum), Murderball, Heights, Her Minor Thing, Deepwater (oy), Americano, Last Days, March of the Penguins, Lipstick and Dynamite, and (of course) Miranda July’s You and Me and Everyone We Know, which took Caméra d’Or at Cannes, thereby stripping its best asset: sleeper status. (Welcome to the making of an indie hit 101, j’guess.) A tribute to Argentine film. A secret festival (a Crackerjack idear, if there ever were one). Special honorariums for Joan Allen and Peter Sarsgaard, both terrifically worthy actors.

So it’s probably merely coincidental that I cobbled together a rather monotonic program for myself, but I can’t help but wonder. All the films I screened — admittedly, a bit of a sloppy seconds conglomeration as I was trying to only screen movies that I hadn’t seen before — fell under the umbrella of fine though I was never knocked out of the water unexpectedly. At the Hamptons film festival 2003, I randomly sat in on Assisted Living, still two years away from finding distribution, and really dug it. At SIFF (is everyone too well behaved to call it SIFFilis but me?), I never did quite experience that out-of-pocket surprise, which arguably is the best part of small festivals.

Of the 11 movies I screened, then, here are a few particularly worth mentioning: Mars, a surrealist number about the tiny aspirations of a tiny Russian town stumbled upon haplessly by a visiting prizefighter. It shone brightest when its youngest cast member, a tiny blonde female Mussolini, barreled across the screen, maternal amusement tugging at her small features. “This world is not ours. The freedom of choice is one illusion or another,” drones one character. Overall, a kind of abject Jean-Pierre Jeunet movie. A Wonderful Night in Split, a black-and-white Croatian film, genuflected far too much at the altar of Quentin Tarantino by way of Sin City (drugs, teen prostitutes, a-chronological sequencing). Its best scene was, like a true pussytease, its first: messy, comic love made amongst a rubble of cabbage soup and dumpy kitchen chairs. In Heights, Glenn Close and many pretty, almost others play a host of artists connected by a social web that they don’t entirely glimpse; twas fine but perhaps best suited for viewing in default mode on the Sundance Channel. Frozen, a Northern English film about a fish worker seeking to make sense of the disappearance of her sister, transcended its many filmic repetitions through brilliant casting. Namely, fierce, economical Shirley Henderson, one of my favorite actresses working today and the exact sort of a 40-year-old the US lacks in spades. (Her faint American shadow is Jennifer Jason Leigh, I suppose; another intense, compact woman, albeit one who simply cannot act).

Perhaps it wasn’t merely my own program. Members of the five juries reported a genuine difficulty in picking out the best of their litters. One jury that shall remain unnamed wanted to avoid awarding a film altogether. (Even the laidback SIFF powers-that-be couldn’t brook with such nonsense.) For me, the best moments of the festival took place when the visiting filmmakers tromped right over all the Seattle niceties. “Enough with the copperhead salmon already,” was a typical comment after a few days. Filmmaker Álex de la Iglesia in particular cut quite a figure when he arrived late for interviews brandishing comic book bags. “I am not a serious filmmaker,” he said, wiping mustard off his face when introducing his own movie (the sitcomartist El Crimen Perfecto). “I don’t like serious movies. Here I am cool, indie modern Euro moviemaker. But in Spain I am a fat fucking big-budget bastard,” he said with much glee.

And just in case the Seattle audience was inclined to give him one more benefit of doubt, he crowed, “It is not my English that is bad. It is me that is bad. I am bad!” and pounded his enormous chest, emblazoned with a beheaded woman.

Does it really rain in Spain?

Generically Speaking: The Snoozefest That Is Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Just so you know: Mr. and Mrs. Smith really is stone-cold shite. I can understand the compulsion to see it if only to gauge firsthand whether or not Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were truly making it. (Answer: Does a scientologist proselytize on a subway?) But be forewarned: When the film ended, I wanted my two hours back. I could have used them to, like, clean my cupboards or something.

The film, about two married assassins unaware of each other’s identity, buckles under the weight of:

A. Angelina Jolie’s acting. It’s not like Pitt didn’t stink up the joint — he barely dipped into his bag of tics to shuffle through this little conceit — but he comes off as Olivier next to her mannequantics. She really did deserve the Oscar for her performance in Girl, Interrupted, but it may be that she was merely mining her true personality structure. Since then, she’s admittedly chosen shoddy vehicles, but she has been shoddy in them; it’s hard to tell where her Lara Croft ends and the Craft action figure begins. (They’re both very waxy.) With her pneumatic features and impossibly long, tapered limbs, Jolie is always easy on the eyes in a way that invites the projection of all kinds of wisdom and wryness upon her. But since I don’t actively want to fuck her (critics who do vascillate between punishing her for it and grossly overlooking her limitations), I can’t help but observe how woodenly she preens for the camera. I challenge Jolie to hold a weapon without lowering her lids and pimping out her lips. And she is supposed to be Hollywood’s stock temptress these days — possibly because her breasts seem real. What dire, Dairy Queen days these are.

B. An interfering soundtrack. To the point where the movie would suddenly stop in its tracks and convert for the duration of a song into a music video. I am more stringent on this point than some, but I don’t think a film should ever take its cues from its music; it’s an awful cheat for conveying information or an emotional development. In Smith, I could close my eyes and known exactly when the fighting stopped and the lovin’ began. It was easier, actually; when I can see it, the flexing of Jolie’s lips educes a dying fish rather than a woman in love.

C. A too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen script, which, as usual, robbed the film of any coherence. For example, why does it matter so much that two assassins live under one roof? And does it really matter so much that an entire army of assassins would be sent out to kill them? And where do the two place on the assassin food chain? Why don’t they experience any fallout from being assassins? Who contracts them? And why if they are so smart do they never figure out each other’s identity, especially since they’re in the same field? Did the script-writing sessions take place in the kind of sweaty sensory deprivation tanks that Michael Jackson’s jurors must currently be beating their heads against? The script would have benefited from either better developed gags or higher stakes. (With The Bourne Identity and Swingers under his belt, director Douglas Liman certainly has both a better action movie and comedy in him.) It would have benefited, in other words, from a committment rather than a story-by-consensus. As it was, what should have been the climatic ending just about dribbled to a stop.

The best thing about this film is the Smiths’ kitchen, all steel and marble and (naturally) very good knives. Maybe the Iron Chef would have spiced things up. We would have needed Vincent Vaughn moonlighting as a homicidal momma’s boy to make it worse. Doh.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy