Thursday, May 05, 2011

The Long Arm of Ebertfest and the Warm Hand of Tilda Swinton

Dear Saint Chaz, Saint Roger, and You for whom “blessed” (that is, not yet canonized) comes to mind increasingly,

Like my father before me and his father before him, sturdy Ohio men we, I get into my car. I set my jaw. I drive hundreds of miles, do my business and promptly drive hundreds of miles back. Grampaw and Grammaw would drive 600 miles to visit us, sit on the couch a friendly hour or two, then drive back. Uncle Howky (we never could settle on how to spell his name) drove 700 miles, ate a few items at Dad’s funeral brunch, then drove home.

Man, we Ohio men love to drive and hate to stay. But at risk of damage to my genes, I left Ebertfest later than they would have dictated. I didn’t want to leave. Lucky I had two friends to haul back to the hotel to catch planes or I might still be tramping around Randolph Street and the Virginia Theater for the afterglow.

I’d been haunted with the feeling that I hadn’t had enough time to talk to anybody. A few words here and fewer there. These sturdy Ohio genes, which ordinarily prompt silence and laconicisms, strained some, perhaps meaning to go Lamarckian and change to the tune of that environment.

Genes prompt a man to do funny things. Not far from the Mississippi river at St. Louis, they prompted me to exit, bumble through a few streets unrelated to the rest stop, and wind up at a franchise gas’n’eats just off the beaten path from the highway.

No sooner did I hang up from chatting with my wife than another car pulled into the lot and a man got out also still wearing his Ebertfest pass. We laughed and gestured and ate dinner together. His name was Mike Kelly. He was accompanied by one of his twin sons, 26 year old Patrick. Mike and his sons are ten-year Ebertfest faithful. Patrick has a photographic memory, and after meeting Roger in Telluride 10 years ago, decided to be a film critic himself. He has the nickname “Encyclopedia Pat.”

Now I don’t know about all this fancy disease stuff. Patrick showed off a spectacular memory for the hour or so we sat. I’ve got a client like Patrick who’s lately turned seventy. He too is a frighteningly smart guy. He too takes pills for it. I think that if our society weren’t so damn-dumb frightened of intelligence, people like these wouldn’t need nervous-pills as they do.

We said our g’byes, Pat and Mike off to Arlington, Texas, me to Abiquiu, New Mexico and, as genes would have it, returned to the highway through an exit called Randolph Street, same as at the Virginia Theater.

Look at these faithful people, Rodge, driving hundreds of miles to Ebertfest. This is a pilgrimage. Tilda Swinton may be right.

Thanks to Roger’s remark in a column, I got to hold Tilda’s hand for an Anglo-Saxon moment – that’s three minutes, and we are both Anglo-Saxons, if forced into it somewhere in our genes. Three whole minutes holding her hand. I wanted to see if she was a saint. I must explain this, in a way I hadn’t time to do with Saint Tilda.

In 1974 at the Last Chance Saloon in Albany, New York, my gorgeous bandmate Blanchie and I got to shake legendary jazz drummer Jack Dejohnette’s hand. He had spent a year holed up in a cabin in Vermont, reinventing his art and craft in solitude. That’s saintly. Jack was reputed to be a saint.

Blanchie said, “It’s funny, but, like, you could feel every one of his fingers one at a time?” She said it was like each finger could feel you by itself.

Yep. I’d never felt such a handshake before, where all the fingers feel individually conscious against one’s own. We decided Jack DeJohnette must be a saint, like people were saying he was. The impression remains with me.

I never felt such a handshake again until 26 years later. At the turn of the 21st Century I shook hands with singer songwriter Melissa Ferrick, about whom I later wrote an epic piece I never did finish. What a fire-ant of a performer. Look her up one day. Melissa’s fingers, too, seemed conscious of themselves in that unique way. We hugged and the whole Melissa felt like that. This isn’t just a musician, she’s a saint, too, like Jack DeJohnette.

So, this Roger Ebert fella calls this Tilda Swinton actress a saint. From years of experience I know Roger is no glad-hander and has lots of intuition. Writers must. Tilda turns the tables from the stage that night and tells 1600 people that it’s Roger who’s the saint. What if she’s right? I wanna feel both their handshakes for myself.

A saint is a tricky thing, so one has to be careful whom he calls a saint and whom he doesn’t. The nearest medium-large town from here, for instance, is called “City of Saint Francis of Assisi of the Holy Faith,” or Santa Fe for short. Saint Francis was an alcoholic nicknamed “Cecco,” which I believe was 13th C. Italian slang for “rich kid drunk all the time.” Also, he was nearly burned at the stake at least thrice, and if the Pope hadn’t had a dream that Cecco could make the indebted Church a lot of money, he’d have been dead after only those few locals shook his hand and suspected he was a saint. Had Cecco not died when he did, he’d have been burned at the stake anyhow. His best pals were tortured to death. Then he was canonized by popular demand.

This is a true story. A Jesuit I know, privileged to have a key to moldier basement vaults in the Vatican, wrote me these things. There is no report about what Cecco's handshake felt like.

After this exchange from the stage about who is a saint and who isn’t, we all retired to the beautiful Betsy Hendrickson’s for a late night party. Shortly after I chatted with another saint who happened also to be there – Hilde Back, a tiny Swedish woman whose Small Acts have proven great results on this planet – Tilda Swinton materialized in the midst of the living room crowd. I set my jaw and determined to shake that hand of hers with every sturdy Ohio gene at my disposal.

It’s difficult to earn the focused attention of a celebrity like Tilda, especially at a party. For one thing, my sturdy Ohio man’s ego has little patience to wait around for mere palaver with anyone in this world; no, canals need dug, wild injuns need fought and injustice needs rectified. What, to an industrious and sturdy Ohio man, are these uppity people who may merely be saints?

But Tilda’s eyes were such fun to watch, I could have stood the rest of the night as others bent her ear and traded pens and notebooks and so on. Those eyes were fun in the movie and fun to watch on stage and fun at Betsy’s party (and sigh, hardly time to chat with Betsy either). Those eyes moved according to a fascinating spontaneous vitality. Mm-hm: sometimes saints’ eyes are that way.

“The only thing I have to say to you that might be of any value is that you look all the world like Joan of Arc on the stage,” I said. “May I shake your hand?” We held hands for the rest of the conversation.

“My mother told me I’d surely be burned at the stake if this were the middle ages,” Tilda twinkled. “And I’ve got red hair and a vestigial extra nipple,” she gestured. “I’d be a goner for sure!” A little pause, then, “still... that might not...”

“Perhaps a movie someday,” I offered, still not sure why she reminded me of Joan of Arc or why I should bring it up. I’ve only ever seen the famous painting of young Joan at the New York Met; the model for it was a six year old boy with a snubby nose. Not Tilda. Yet... those eyes... well, I told her so. “You know, Roger’s a pretty intuitive guy... and those eyes... and...”

“Oh, I’m not the saint, Roger is,” she reared, still holding hands, repeating her counteraccusation about Roger’s sainthood from the stage after “I Am Love.” (And by the way, the Tilda who’d come out onstage was exactly the same size as the 25-foot Tilda who’d just appeared in the movie on the big screen. I don’t know how larger-than-life people do that. Some saintly trick).

I would have heard the rest of this speech except I’d begun to feel the glowing warmth of her hand and looked down at it. Pale Anglo-Saxon-Celtic-Pict white, slender and a little bony with blue veins. You’d expect it to feel rather cool... you know, someone who sleeps with the windows closed. But it was as warm and welcoming and generous as a great big Texas howdy-do. The kind that hands the homeless a buck or two. Better yet, the woman she was speaking with was giving her info on how to get in touch with a charity organization that feeds and educates African kids.

So I explained why the handshake, feeling my time was nearly up (timing, too, is an intuitive thing). “I’ve always wondered if I should be a jazz musician,” Tilda said, turning where she could feel someone else tugging for her attention. We unlocked hands.

Tilda and Hilde had been standing together in the middle of this room, surrounded by buzzing people. Hilde, being elf-sized, was difficult to hear no matter how low I bent. But I already know she’s a saint. I’d seen the movie.


Three-thirty in the morning has not been my favorite bedtime for a few years now. I’ve been to bed with the birds and up with the hoof-clomps of cavorting horses. Plus, I feel apologetic for wrinkling the impeccable hotel sheets.

As sunlight wafted into the hotel windowm all I could remember was looking at Tilda Swinton’s eyes, which had been such fun to inspect; they were still sort of floating around in my head.

I’d been dream-thinking through what little of the night there had been. The revered Oscar-winning actress had claimed from the Virginia Theater stage that she wasn’t an actress at all; she was an impostor, a fraud, a complete nothing. She was a film fan, not an actress. Not a saint. A nothing. A zilch. A zero. Diddley-squat. Doodley-squat. A bugger-all git. Jack shit. Careful, self.

I’d sat in the audience and believed her. Right she was, right indeed. No ceremonial humility here. She’d exuberantly, generously released the Key to Success right there on stage, I thought: you start as nothing. You go back there just as gladly when you’re done.

As I drove through Missouri composing this letter I did a mental exercise trying to describe nothing, nothingness, zero, zilch, doodley-squat, jack shit. I’ve been playing with that linguistic exercise since I was 22. Still no dice. No wonder Socrates said “I know nothing,” and no wonder Paul (who would also deny being a saint, since he was a psychotic mass murderer before falling off his horse one day) said “I am as nothing.”

No, no, “nirvana” won’t do either. It’s just... nothing... You know, jack. Zilch. Zero. Nothing. Quit the semantics while you’re ahead. I dunno how it works, it just does. He, she, it, you, I, all nothing, then, there you are. You’re a Tom Dark or a... how about being a Turner Ross, I really like that sturdy Ohio man – or a Tilda or a Hilde or a Roger or a Chaz or an Omer, and there you are. Attached are these things you’ve done, the great most of which you’ve forgotten in the ebb and flow of your tides.

I walked into Chaz and Roger’s place for brunch and met Omer Mozaffar Sahib, and he said “Do you realize that one year ago we were over in that corner singing ‘Trololo’?”

Yes, I said, and this year I meant us to try “Stout Hearted Men” and uttered the first line of it before I realized I’d meant “Nellie the Elephant.” This comes of a 3:30 a.m. bedtime for me these days. And anyway Nellie the Elephant was an English song. It didn’t quite make it in the U.S. But what’s this, an English accent behind me... ah, Tilda had arrived for brunch.

But too many, too many people to talk to. All of us. All right, some time with the magnificent interviewer and film critic Pablo Villaca... and veteran David Poland who led the charge to the internet. Poland had brought Ebertfest the cutest little boy in the world, and the three of us philosophized about child rearing. Don’t get stupid enough to hit your kids. I wanted to talk to Rodge, of course. Everybody wanted to talk to Rodge. Some with notepads. Serious. I had a single thing I was dying to tell him. It was this:

“Godfadduh, I am honah’d and grateful dat you have invited me into your home on yuh dotta’s wedding day – on da day of yuh dotta..’s wedding. And may dere foist child be a masculine child. I will leave you now, Godfadduh, becuss I know you are busy.”

Well, it was. I'd rehearsed it, memorized from the movie. But Gracie hissed me out of the way, so I didn’t. Roger flashed me a note asking me, in my semi-awake confusion, to call the highly intelligent Krishna Senoi over (we’d had a chat. His friends wanted him to make sure I was not several people writing under the same name.) Then I sat down.

This was a precious chair to luck into. Tilda was making her way through the tangle of sea-legs and had been halted precisely long enough for me to snag her attention. “I kept seeing your eyes in my dreams all night long,” I said.

She whirled around and bent over indulgently, the way I’d had to do with tiny Saint Hilde, and said “Oh, I’m so, so sorry!”

This meant a bouquet of pleasant ripostes to be made, but time, time time. Oh, no, I said, searching for defining and definite words. “Pleasant” didn’t describe it, although it was. Well, shoot, nothing described it. I didn’t even know what I was saying as it came out of my mouth.

In fact, McNulty’s Twilight Zone stopwatch had been activated. Time stopped as I realized there simply wasn’t enough to articulate what I meant. My account here is a jumble of what I said versus what can’t be said quickly enough, even as a legal disclaimer on a radio commercial.

Whatever I said wound up concluding “You’re very easy to fall in love with.”

I would soberly bang down a judge’s gavel, declaring that this was what to say. Put it in the court record. TILDA SWINTON VERY EASY TO FALL IN LOVE WITH. FILM AT ELEVEN ON EYEWITNESS NEWS. I mean... yeah, really. I sure could. Anybody could. Many have.

But these... distant little glowing coals, what did I see? These were in the Tilda-eyes that hadn’t yet faded from my inner vision and were now a perfect match for the real Tilda’s... what are these? Tiny, distant red glows of alarm? How could this be? Danger, came the faintest call I’d ever heard from Whoville, potential evil has circled the moon at a distance of 249,000 miles, and could be headed here. Just a precaution.

Hmm. Well, here at Mission Control, I couldn’t quite catch what she replied, owing to the high hum of conversation around me. I tried to elaborate, of course she’d agree, she knows it’s the god’s honest truth, she’s easy to fall in love with, period. I mean... so am I sometimes. Not so affluently, though. And this had something to do with being “nothing,” like. Heady stuff. For the weeniest, teeniest millisecond of a googolsecond, something about the whole universe had made the subtlest Higg’s Boson spark of sense. Maybe saints trigger that in people. They can’t be blamed for it.

All I could do was push a mental button that launched these words: “Don’t worry. I’m married to the only woman out of 6 billion who can get along with me... so, you’re safe.”

I’d jumbled the transmission. I’d meant “out of 3 billion women.” I still couldn’t make out what Tilda replied. She turned around to Saint Roger and Saint Hilde who was seated between the two of them. Tilda gave Hilde a kiss, rather vaguely looking back at me. At that point, someone snapped a photo.

Here it is:

The last thing I did before I rushed off to get Saint Anath White and Saint Pablo Villaca to their planes on time was hurriedly shake Roger's hand goodbye. Well I'll be damned, it was a lot like Tilda's.

XoxoxOXoxOXoxXOxoxXOxoxXOxAll, Tom