Read an Excerpt
Flashbacks were invented in the silent-movie era, probably by D. W. Griffith. But the pre-credit sequence was first popularized in Lewis Milestone’s 1939 version of Of Mice and Men, with the main characters, George and Lennie, fleeing a posse before the credits began. Of Mice and Men was remade twice, first starring . . .
But I better cut to the chase.
This kind of movie information—arcana, you might call it, or trivia, I’m not ashamed of the term—is what I specialize in. It’s what makes up most of my newsletter, Trivial Man, which I produce out of my cramped studio apartment in the West Forties in New York City. I write and publish it myself, and you can find it in bookstores and video outlets around town. If you want to order it, write me at: Roy Milano, Trivial Man, 649 W. 43rd Street, Apt. 5C, New York, NY 10036.
As you can imagine, it’s not a living. To make my meager version of that, I typeset for companies and do other kinds of graphics stuff. But the newsletter is my love—my only one, at the moment, I will admit—and it takes up most of my waking hours, planning for and thinking about it.
I’m not alone—I mean, not in my affection for this kind of movie lore, at least. Since the explosion of DVDs, the Internet, desktop publishing, public-access TV and the like, there’s now a whole secret community of people just like me. Most are also male (big surprise) and unmarried (of course). There are a few women in the group and, as you can imagine, they are as prized and pursued as I’ve heard that women are in small mining towns in Alaska. More about them later.
This community of “Trivial People,” as I call them, mostly to myself, is connected through the Web, film fan festivals, midnight movie showings, long, information-filled phone calls, and sometimes even face-to-face contact. We know more about movies than the people who’ve made them. But our need is largely to fit one fact to another, find lost films—or even lost scenes from films—to, in essence, make sense of mysteries and piece together the past. In that way, we are like detectives, and if anecdotal evidence is to be trusted, we are just as dogged.
I like to think that I differ from some of my “trivial” colleagues. I am younger, thirty-five, presentable enough looking, sort of a cross between Gregory Peck and Chico Marx, and I have actually been married. That is to say, for a brief time, I had steady sexual congress with someone besides myself.
It had, of course, to end. When she left me, Jody—who was a film major but not a trivial person and who later became a psychologist—told me, “You just go on and on, Roy, long after anybody else is interested in your information. Can’t you see everybody’s eyes are glazing over? Can’t you hear their merely polite grunting? They’re all waiting for you to finish talking! They don’t care what the last silent film Buster Keaton made was! They don’t care that Red Skelton remade one of them! And you know what? Neither do I!”
I think Jody had hoped my charming enthusiasm about this subject, of which she said I had a lot, would just naturally be applied to other subjects. But the night she heard me muttering in my sleep all the Best Supporting Actress Oscar winners, the way others count sheep, I think she knew she had made a big mistake with her life.
Still, there are nights when, watching the same old movie on cable, Jody will call me from wherever she is and ask me—with no introductory small talk, not even a hello—who the man playing the waiter is. And when I know, as I always do, she just thanks me and hangs up, and I can hear in her voice relief that there is some security in the world, something stable. And I know that she will call again, and that gives me hope.
Anyway, enough of my “back story.”
The call that changed my life did not come from Jody. It came from Alan Gilbert, perhaps the most petty of all the “trivial” men I knew.
Alan was a few years older than me. For money, he wrote the capsule descriptions of movies in the TV section of one of the New York City tabloids. (“Gone with the Wind, 1939, Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable. Gal survives the Civil War.” You know what I mean.) But his real love was his own public-access TV show—the half hour paid for with most of the salary from his day job—called My Movies.
On the show, Alan sat in his tiny East Village apartment and showed forgotten clips from old films, censored scenes, short subjects not seen for forty years, early pornography, and the like. Occasionally, Alan went on location to interview forgotten actors or cult directors. Mostly, though, it was just Alan, his cameraman—fellow trivial fellow Gus Ziegler—a shabby chair, a projector, a screen, a TV, and that was it. The show ran about twenty times during the week—on channel 297 or something—and chances are, if you’ve ever flicked around at four in the morning, you’ve seen him.
But while Alan and I had a common interest—okay, obsession—he was never generous about his movie finds; he was competitive, secretive, and unpleasant. His one other personality trait was that he talked a mile a minute, as if, if he slowed down for a second, he would realize whom he was. Trust me, that wasn’t a good idea for Alan.
So on this day, when I answered the phone, I was surprised by his tone.
“Roy, buddy boy, how’re you doing?”
“Hello?” I said, confused. “Who is this?”
“Alan Gilbert, you stupid son of a bitch, who else would be calling you, you’re so pathetic?”
That one moment of camaraderie had obviously been as much as Alan could handle.
“Alan? My God. To what do I owe this sudden burst of pleasantness?”
“I’m not being pleasant. I’m gloating.”
“Gloating? I shouldn’t be surprised. But how come? Did one of the networks finally buy your show?”
I knew this would gall him. It stuck in Alan’s craw that some other public-access shows—for instance, one that featured a seventeen-year-old boy shouting obscenely at the camera for an hour—had been picked up by such cable networks as MTV. This seemed unlikely for My Movies, given Alan’s unkempt appearance, his thinning hair always plastered on his sweating head, and his untucked shirt always billowing out over his emaciated frame. Also, despite his own rattling speech, the pace of My Movies made a simple half hour seem like a grueling week.
“Not yet, but one day soon that’s going to happen. One day very soon.”
“Well, it happened to SquirmTV, why not to My Movies?” SquirmTV was the name of the screaming-teenager show, a bête noire of Alan’s, and I just threw it in to annoy him.
“Don’t even mention that little scumbag to me—he’ll be off MTV in a month, you mark my words!”
“Okay, Alan, we’ve had enough fun. Why are you calling?”
“I got something big.”
I slowly pulled back from the receiver. Alan had never offered to share anything with me before, being distrustful and squirrel-like with information.
“You heard me.”
“What is it?” I asked suspiciously.
“You’ll see, and then you’ll thank me.”
“You know that I’d die before I’d do that.”
“Okay, you’ll respect me and then you’ll worship me.”
I couldn’t help but pause again, impressed. If what Alan had was so good he was actually going to show it to me, then it had to be pretty damn good.
“Why don’t you send it over?” I said cagily. “I’m home all night, finishing my newsletter.”
“No way is this leaving my sight. I’m taping my show tonight. So come over and watch it and be the first on your block to know how great I am.”
I considered this. “Who else is going to be there?”
“No one. Because, besides me, you’re the best.”
I smiled. This was an odd but touching piece of praise. Awful personality aside, Alan really was the best. But I was happy to be second if it meant not being him. In the “trivial” world, you clung to whatever small life raft of normal humanity you had.
“Okay,” I said.
“Taping starts at eight. Be there on time.”
The time was a silly affectation, of course. Alan taped My Movies and delivered it to the station whenever he wanted. If he paid them on schedule, he never even had to deliver it. One time, for three weeks in a row, he reran the same episode—obscene imitations of Disney cartoons—because he’d had a bad reaction to drugs and had to be hospitalized. (I forgot to mention that Alan had one other interest besides movies: any drug that would, for however long, kill the pain of being him.) So the idea that I was hurrying to his apartment was absurd.
But I had to admit, I was excited. It wasn’t every day that something new—that is to say, something old and rediscovered—landed in my lap, even if it was really in the lap of my enemy. In our strange, underground world of arcane movie facts and figures, the idea, of course, was not to have or even to see but to know.
I was nearly sprinting when I got to Alan’s place.
The front door of his tacky little brownstone on East Third was open, having offered no resistance to the junkies who now smoked crack in its vestibule. I stepped around them, groans in my ears, acrid smell in my nose, and headed to the stairs.
Typically, Alan lived on the top floor, the sixth, the most annoying place. Having taken the flights at an eager pace, I was winded when I pushed open his door.
I didn’t have to knock; it was open, too. This seemed hospitable of Alan, but I assumed he was as excited to reveal his discovery as I was to witness it.
The first thing I noticed was not the disarray of the place. My own apartment was stuffed with papers, magazines, books, and videotapes, too. What was unusual was that Gus Ziegler wasn’t manning the videotape camera, as he usually did. The camera stood, as if patiently waiting, on its perch of a tripod, staring as blankly as a bird at the “set,” which was, of course, Alan’s only room.
There was the TV on which his film clips were shown. It was not turned on. There was his old 16-millimeter projector. It had no film reels upon it. Opposite, his rickety old screen had fallen over and was lying on the floor.
Alan, the host, sat where he usually did, in his fraying, graying, and overstuffed chair. His hair was even more unruly than usual. His mouth was open. And a steak knife had been pushed deep into the heart that, to be honest, I never even knew he had.