If you think of life as a box of chocolates, not in the Gumpian sense of you-never-know-what-you’re-gonna-get but in the “one small, sublime pleasure after another” sense of this …horrible metaphor — well, let’s start again, shall we?
I was thinking of the things I like best in life the other day, John Coltrane blowing his horn in the back of my head, and thought that somewhere in the top 20 or so would be this: Discovering a great work of art — and yes, I’m lumping “popular entertainments” in with that, go ahead and mock — before you know anything about it. We talk stuff to death in this country, and so much of it is just hot air. The other day I surfed past “Cast Away” on cable, and thought for the millionth time how it might have been to see that movie without knowing beforehand that Tom Hanks survives a plane crash, lives for a matter of years on a deserted island, escapes the island, is rescued, returns to his life and realizes he’s lost the love of his life for good, all of which was revealed in the film’s trailer and advertising. I think it would have made for a better movie. Maybe it’s just me.
(Roger Ebert’s review of “Cast Away” deals with this question, and guess what: The film’s own damn director thinks giving away the store was the right thing to do, comparing the marketing of a film to McDonald’s. No wonder he’s such a success.)
Anyway, it made me think of the night I rented “Sunset Boulevard” at the video store, knowing nothing other than this was a classic movie I’ve never seen and that Gloria Swanson says, “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.” Imagine what it was like seeing it unfold that night, just an ordinary weeknight in Fort Wayne, Indiana, one I’ll remember for the rest of my life. I felt like that guy in that speaker ad from the ’70s; “Sunset Boulevard” blew my hair back.
Many years ago, I was living in Columbus, Ohio, browsing the mass-market paperback racks at my local Little Professor, looking for something to read. I don’t remember what prompted me to pick up Kem Nunn’s “Tapping the Source,” but I did, and ever since I’ve wondered why I could pass Nunn on the street and not know who he is. Most capsule descriptions describe it as “surfing noir” or “Raymond Chandler does ‘Endless Summer,'” and these work well enough, but how the book worked on me, a kid who grew up in a time when California was, quite literally, the promised land (promised by the Beach Boys), was something else. It captured perfectly the sense Midwesterners of my generation (OK, change that last phrase to “I”) had of southern California as a place of beaches and sunshine and cool people, along with the inevitable adult realization that it wasn’t.
The back cover said it won an American Book Award for Best First Novel, but for me, it was like the book existed in the Twilight Zone. There were blurbs on the cover from Elmore Leonard and Robert Stone, hardly obscure blurbers, and I couldn’t find anyone who’d read it. Authors like Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis were in every gossip column, but where was Kem Nunn? I’d say, “Sure, ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ was enjoyable enough, but have you read ‘Tapping the Source’?” and people would look at me blankly: Who’s he? And these were people who read books.
I reread the book every year or so, to see if it held up. It did. I found other novels by Nunn, to see if they were as good. They weren’t. Good enough, but “Tapping the Source” was lightning in a bottle.
Well, eventually the internet happened, and I did a little poking around, and discovered what Nunn’s problem was: He lived in California. He got his MFA not at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop but UC/Irvine. Evidently the book had been sold to the movies, but the movie never happened: …cursed by a movie deal that saw his fantastic first novel, “Tapping the Source” altered beyond recognition until it reputedly become the core of the movie “Point Break,” with which it has very little in common. I’ll say. Both stories feature surfing. That’s about all they have in common.
Anyway, I figured Kem Nunn was an elaborate figment of my imagination until one night near the end of “Deadwood,” the series, and I saw his name in the writing credits. So that’s where he ended up, I thought; well, at least he’ll make some money. And then, elsewhere on HBO around the same time, Ari Gold, Jeremy Piven’s character on “Entourage,” made some reference to the script for “Tapping the Source.” I can’t recall the line, but it had something to do with the mythical quality of the script, and may well have been yet another of the ten thousand Hollywood in-jokes on that show. But it seemed to be evidence that Nunn was not only still kicking, but might be under contract to HBO. And that is good news.
Turns out, he is. I’m holding in my hand an advance-screening DVD of “John From Cincinnati.” Co-creators: David Milch and Kem Nunn. Lucky, lucky me. I’ll give you a full report. Alan said, “All I know is, there’s no character in it named John, and it has nothing to do with Cincinnati.” Well, I appreciate the Buckeye reference, if no one else.
(Bonus mnemonic: Cincinnati has its name misspelled more than any other American city, and yes, I’m including Albuquerque, which people at least have enough sense to look up. Here’s my trick for remembering how to spell the Queen City: 1-2-1. One N, then two Ns, and one T. No double Ts, people! One T!)
Quick bloggage: I’m indebted to TV writer David Mills, who blogs as Undercover Black Man, for keeping track of what he calls MBPs, or Misidentified Black People. He contends, and he’s convinced me, that African Americans are misidentified in the news media more than any other group. (Page through that MBP link, and you’ll see the rather overwhelming evidence. The latest: Fox News confuses William Jefferson and John Conyers. Well, they do all look alike.
Yeesh, but I have work to do. Later, all.