I often find myself looking up old friends, acquaintances, college chums and the like on the internet. Who doesn't? Having majored in theatre in college I have more than a few old friends and acquaintances listed on IMDB or IBDB. This week I decided to look up one of those chums on a whim. I was thinking about my 21st birthday (not sure why) and he came to mind (more on that in a moment). I had a nagging feeling he was no longer with us due to health problems he had when I knew him way back when and I was right. Charlie Murphy died September 9, 2006 at the far too young age of 65.
I met Charlie at the Catholic University of America where he found himself in the theatre department for a year or so while I was there getting my undergraduate degree. I was never sure if he was taking classes, auditing or just hanging out for the hell of it and I didn't really care. He was so damned entertaining to be around, so loud, so funny, so full of stories. He was old enough to be my father but there was no "wise old mentor" feel about him. He could never be that starchy. He smoked and drank like tomorrow there was going to be a prohibition against tobacco and alcohol and all that legally remained must be finished today. Before I met him he worked in television throughout the seventies appearing in one sitcom and drama after another. I still remember when I asked him what shows he'd been on and he gave me the rundown. One of them was Barney Miller and I told him I loved that show. When he told me he played the guy who turned in the found money and was checking back each day to see when he could claim it I shouted, "I know that episode! That was you?" Sure enough, I caught that very episode in syndication a couple of years later and, now recognizable to me, there was Charlie acting up a storm.
He might have gone on to bigger parts as his appearances were increasing but in 1982 he was hit by a drunk driver while crossing Sunset Boulevard and was forever after neurologically impaired. That is to say his memory was affected more than anything else. He had trouble remembering names and faces and this, coupled with difficulty in memorizing dialogue, was a nightmare for an actor. Nevertheless, with great difficulty and discreet onstage assistance he managed to memorize lines and was cast many a time in productions on campus. He didn't have the look or feel that Hollywood goes for in leads or even major supporting roles but the theatre is more open to eccentricity and Charlie fit in perfectly with his gravelly but booming voice and his hearty laugh.
A laugh very much in attendance on the night of my 21st birthday. The legal age for drinking the hard stuff changed from 18 to 21 long before I reached 18 so I had to wait until I was 21 to buy it legally in a bar, even though I'd had plenty before then. Down the street from the dorms was Colonel Brooks Tavern, a local hangout for the CUA crowd. Naturally, it was the first place I headed after rehearsal for some play of which I now have no memory. What I do remember was Charlie insisting he buy me the first drink. He asked me what I wanted and I said, "Bourbon." He ordered me a shot (they served drinks that way back then kids) and one for himself and we toasted my 21st. Then another. And another. Then he insisted on tequila. Then I said, "Hey how about shome Sh-sh-shcotch?" Before long there were a few tables pushed together and about eight to ten (at times I'm sure I saw 16 to 20) of my fellow students all buying me free booze and enjoying the show. I am someone who, as they say, prefers to be onstage at all times and this night I was, pun intended, drinking it up.
Later that night, upon arriving back at my dorm, my body decided, quite independently of my own wishes, that it no longer wanted any of that alcohol inside it anymore and thought it best that the booze make a grand exit for the ages in the water closet just around the corner. Which it did. Dramatically and loudly.
I think about all of this with fond memories of Charlie. Sure it would've happened without him but he got the ball rolling that night and I'll never think of it without thinking of him. And now he's gone. The article says he died of natural causes and nothing more so I don't know if it had anything to do with that accident all those years ago. But I do know this: 65 is far too young to leave this plane of existence. And once you've left, you're not coming back. And that makes me restless.
I started this blog due to some of that restlessness. It's had its ups and downs and there have been times when life seemed to be conspiring to keep me from doing it. Financial problems have been the main thing (lawsuits, I.R.S. actions). My wife and I built up a mountain load of debt trying to build a stable environment for our children after a rather messy divorce and custody entanglements. No matter how bad you think your finances suck they're nothing compared to mine. Tens upon tens of thousands and tens of thousands more owed to the IRS because we didn't pay taxes on our take home because we needed money to pay rent, buy food and keep the phone hooked up. Believe you me, some phrases become cliche because they're simply unbeatable when it comes to revealing the truth and in this case the cliche that springs to mind is "when it rains, it pours." But feel no pity for me (and Argentina, if you're reading this, don't you dare cry for me). I've got a wonderful, beautiful family and just about the most understanding, caring, thoughtful and most beautiful wife a man could possibly hope for. And on top of all that, she's an inspiration.
Right now my wife and fellow artists are putting the finishing touches on a gallery that will be opening soon and featuring their art. They had a very successful art show a couple of months back and this gallery opening is an extension of that. The gallery has only a temporary lease so it's not permanent but it is inspiring. It's inspiring because we get up before dawn and drive into work before anyone else gets there so that she can leave early to pick up our seven year old (she of the milkshake line) from school or camp, get home and make lunch and dinner for everyone. And then once I've gotten home late from taking the bus and metro and get the kitchen, and whatever else needs it, cleaned up and help with laundry and homework I go downstairs and peruse DVDs for ideas about upcoming posts. I find that hard enough but how she finds to time to paint incredible works of art I don't know. But she does. She is an artist and that's all she wants to be and nothing is going to stop her. And this I know about myself: All I want to do is make movies.
I enjoy writing about them too and have no intention of ever willingly stopping that aspect of my love for movies. But I want to make them. I have no camera equipment and no money to purchase any so my digital camera with it's video capability will just have to do. And that's just fine. One thing my wife and I always talk about is how someone can have the most expensive, bells and whistles laden guitar in the world and not play a lick (*cough*my rich roommate in college*cough*). Another buys a ukulele for fifty cents at the thrift store and makes beautiful music. It's not the camera that matters, it's the movie it's being used to create. To a degree.
I often wonder - Was it more difficult to make a good movie in the early days of filmmaking? Should I admire the silent screen giants more than some hot young director today? Did working with limited technology necessitate more creativity? These aren't questions one can find the answers to through research and collection of empirical data and yet I am inclined to answer "Yes" for all three.
With the prevalence of relatively cheap digital technology available today we have become a world of photographers and filmmakers, loading up our Flickr accounts with our latest works of art and wondering why Pulitzer hasn't called yet. And I don't necessarily mean that flippantly. I've seen amateur photos on Flickr that I found extraordinary in composition and subject matter and knew that whoever took them had a gift for photography. I've seen others where just because someone learns how to adjust the light filter for their 578th picture of a sunset they think they've done something the world will never forget. It goes both ways.
Same with YouTube as well as short subjects that I get sent for reviews. People send me links to their short movies to review (any film blogger out there is probably all too familiar with this - I usually send them a reply saying that I'm not really a review site) and some of them are quite good while others have been made only because they could be made. Because it's so goddamn easy to put together a movie of any kind at this moment in history. Because high quality special effects and green screen software cost a couple of hundred bucks, not hundreds of thousands. If you want to make a movie go right ahead. Really, there's nothing stopping you at this point. But can you make a good one?
In the early days of movies there was limited technology. There was no sound (except for occasional pre-recorded effects), no color (except for hard to light two-color saturation processes) and poor film stock that easily and quickly degraded and had a tendency to burst into flames if not properly stored. Putting together an hour and a half to two hour film with only inter-titles as your dialogue required generous amounts of creativity. It makes the works of those early filmmakers all the more impressive to me. If you've seen Lumière et compagnie (1995) you know what I mean. In that film, directors from David Lynch to Spike Lee were asked to make short movies using the 1895 technology and the results are mixed at best. They give it a go but still maintain a modern sensibility or play off of the limitations in a modern way that, to my eyes at least, made their efforts underwhelming. And even if their short movies are still decent efforts they don't compare to their greatest modern works because there is just so much one can do with century old technology. But that's the point. So when I see a movie like Sunrise with it's multiple exposures, optical effects, indoor and outdoor photography and above all, a great story and well told, I am amazed.
So as not to confuse, I'm not saying that filmmakers today don't hold up to the filmmakers of the silent era. As with any era, there was more dreck and mediocrity than quality work at any given moment. I'm saying that it's so easy to put a movie together now that artistic laziness can all too often creep into the mix. Decades ago writers and directors had to come up with creative work arounds for effects that couldn't be achieved. Often, it made the film better. Cat People and Jaws are two examples where NOT showing anything was much more effective than showing it. And on Jaws, by the time they could get the damn mechanical shark to work ... well ... let's just say there are times when I wish they hadn't. I like not seeing it in the beginning much more than seeing it at the end.
On Night of the Demon, another film directed by Jacques Tourneur of the aforementioned Cat People, the demon is not seen and the film works to great effect as a result. Until... you see the demon, the demon that the producer insisted be in the movie. And let me tell you, Tourneur was right to protest until his throat was bloody and sore. That demon is not only ridiculous looking, it's movie crushing. The whole film comes crashing down in the all important final minutes because of it.
Today of course, Night of the Demon, Cat People and Jaws would have CGI demons, cat women and sharks from the opening credits until the lights came up. And they'd be lesser movies for it. Even when the rare movie comes out that shows less (The Blair Witch Project) and is a success as a result, no one learns from it. The Blair Witch Project would and could have been made in the early days of filmmaking. It understands work arounds, it understands creativity in the face of minimal technology. And even if the characters are a little on the dull side and do things like cross over flowing water twice without thinking to simply follow it downstream, they were improvised and inhabited by young actors willing to take a chance on a different concept. And above all else, without showing a single thing, it provided one of the creepiest endings to a horror film I've seen in many a moon. But there aren't many Blair Witch Projects out there and filmmakers today would much rather show the witch anyway. To use that old canard, just because you can do something doesn't mean you should do it.
So how many of us are making movies because we can, and not because we must? The most important thing for me is the love of the form and that's where the dilettantes are exposed in the face of those who have it in their blood. Charlie Murphy acted because he had to, even when a drunk driver nearly made it impossible. My wife paints because she has too, even when there are only 30 minutes in the day when she can. And those filmmakers of old, from Murnau to Keaton and from Eisenstein to Chaplin, made movies because they had to, even if they couldn't always achieve the effects they wanted (although Keaton probably did). They're an inspiration to me, all of them. And in Charlie Murphy there's a reminder; do what you must and do it now because we're not here for very long. And when we're gone, we're gone forever.