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Archive for November, 2009

Warhol’s “Minyan,” Paired Up

Golda Meir, the first member of Warhol's minyan, takes a seat and waits for the others.

Golda Meir, the first member of Warhol's minyan, takes a seat and waits for the others.

For his “Jewish Geniuses” portrait series, Andy Warhol ended up choosing 10 subjects — coincidentally (or not?), the number of Jews you need to start a religious service.  (Technically, I’ve been told, a minyan is traditionally 10 men — but as a feminist Jew, I think I’ll just go with a gender-free definition.)  As I have been working on Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?, I’ve found it helpful to pair up the 10 — not for any thematic reasons, necessarily, just as a mnemonic device:

  • Ein/Stein: Albert Einstein and Gertrude Stein.
  • Rhapsody in Lou: George Gershwin and former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.
  • Acting Out: Sarah Bernhardt and Sigmund Freud.
  • Metameirphosis: Franz Kafka and Golda Meir.
  • I and Thou (and Thou and Thou): Religious philosopher Martin Buber (author of I and Thou) and the Marx Brothers.

Now, you may notice that — with the Marx Brothers — there are actually 12 members of Warhol’s minyan (not even counting Zeppo or Gummo!).  So, okay, let’s call this a “baker’s minyan.”

Becoming a “Warhol Jew”

josh_kornbluth-copyMuch of my creative focus for the next several months will be on expanding Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews? — an hour-long presentation I did in January, commissioned by the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco — into a full-length theatrical monologue, which will debut at Theater J in Washington D.C. in March and then play at the Jewish Theatre San Francisco in April and May.  My director and producer, as they have been (thank heaven) for years, are David Dower and Jonathan Reinis, respectively; I am also working with two of my favorite collaborators, designer Alex Nichols and composer Marco d’Ambrosio.

The original challenge laid down by the CJM’s commission was fairly simple: I was to visit (and, as it turns out, revisit and revisit) their exhibition “Warhol’s Jews: Ten Portraits Reconsidered,” guest-curated by Prof. Richard Meyer of USC.  The 10 portraits at the center of this exhibit were of famous 20th-century Jews whom Andy Warhol — after what turns out to have been a quite interesting and collaborative process of selection — had committed to silkscreen in 1980.  The collection (which appeared at the Jewish Museum in New York, among many other places) was received at the time with commercial euphoria and, for the most part, critical vituperation.  Hilton Kramer’s 1980 New York Times review is one of the nastiest I have ever read.  Here’s how it begins (as quoted in Meyer’s terrific essay in the recent show’s catalogue):

To the many afflictions suffered by the Jewish people in the course of their long history, the new Andy Warhol show at the Jewish Museum cannot be said to make a significant addition.  True, the show is vulgar.  It reeks of commercialism, and its contribution to art is nil.  The way it exploits its Jewish subjects without showing the slightest grasp of their significance is offensive — or would be, anyway, if the artist had not already treated so many non-Jewish subjects in the same tawdry manner.  No, the Jews will survive this caper unscathed.  So, very likely, will everyone else.  But what it may do to the reputation of the Jewish Museum is, as they say, something else.

Wow — tell us what you really think, Hilton!

I knew nothing of Warhol — and, sad to say, not so much about my fellow Jews (other than what I had picked up via osmosis by hanging out in various delis) — when I began working on this project.  Since then, I have been trying to make up for lost time — chatting up rabbis (well, two), reading books and articles on Warhol and Jews, and listening to audiobooks and watching videos by and about Warhol and about Jewish history.  For a Jew raised about as secularly as possible — and by parents who were no fans of Pop Art, either — this process is a great challenge, both exhilarating and confusing.

In a phone conversation I had with David today (he’s in Washington D.C.; I’m in Portland, Ore., right now), he pointed out that my previous monologues have placed me in various roles — son, husband, father — but have perhaps not actually come to terms with who I am (other than in relation to others).  I find this idea to be quite provocative, and will try to pursue it as I continue my researches and improvisations (assuming, of course, that there is an “I” to do the investigating).  A question that also interests both of us is how much of my parents’ communism may have been derived from the Jewish traditions that they broke away from.  (In my mom’s case, the rift actually came a generation earlier.)

Hovering over all the proceedings — as I study the Jews, as well as the very religious (Catholic) Warhol — is my continuing lack of belief in God (at least, as some sort of supernatural being), which is somehow joined with my lifelong fascination with theology.  (When you’re a Jewish atheist who spends six formative years at an Episcopalian choir school and has a communist father who’s obsessed with Jesus, some weird things can happen, I guess.)

In any case, there’s a lot to chew on here — and as I gnaw away at this juicy material, I will try to share elements of the process in this blog.  Anyone who is interested is invited — nay, beseeched — to join in the process in the “comments” section beneath each entry.  If there’s one thing I already know, it’s that dialogue is good — and not only for the Jews!

The Path to Fulfillment

barcodeIt isn’t easy — at least for someone like me.  You move forward into the unknown, guided by those who have gone before.  They can tell you what it was like for them, but that doesn’t mean it will be the same for you.  You need support, you need the right tools — and you need to find the local Post Office.

Usually, orders at my online store are fulfilled by my fabulous business associate, Dana Dizon. But a recent eblast offering a $10 discount (still available, by the way, using the code BLAST1) resulted, happily, in more orders than we had expected — especially of the DVD of Haiku Tunnel, the movie I made with my brother Jacob several years ago.  And as it happens, Dana had sent most of our stash to Portland Center Stage, where I am doing a run of my show Ben Franklin: Unplugged. (After each performance, I plop myself in the theater lobby and kindly offer to sell my stuff to departing audience members.)

So Dana called me and — in as calm a voice as she could muster — told me I’d have to send out some of the orders myself.  Now, you have to understand that I have, well, issues about mailing things out; in fact, that is exactly what instigates the comic-neurotic plot of Haiku Tunnel: my character’s boss gives him a bunch of very important letters to mail out, and he doesn’t.  Now I’m the boss — and yet, strangely, still with many of the personality flaws I used to exhibit in my secretarial days.  (Meet the new boss — same as the old assistant.  Yikes!)

But people had paid for their books and DVDs, and needed to get them right away.  So, over the phone, Dana walked me through the online process by which I could print out customers’ packing slips (two copies, one for our records) and shipping labels (cut at the dotted line; staple the bottom half to our copy of the packing slip), and log all these actions as having been completed.

“Pick up a bunch of envelopes and boxes from the Post Office,” Dana instructed.

“Don’t tape over the barcode!” she added.  “They don’t like that.”

A worried silence from my end.

“You can do this!” she exhorted.

I could tell Dana was concerned.  She does everything incredibly well, and likes to do things herself.  If I messed up, she would feel responsible (I know, she shouldn’t — but that’s just how she is).  I took a deep breath, then headed over to Portland Center Stage to grab some copies of my merch and use their printer — and, as it turned out, their computer, their packing tape, and of course their stapler (as we all know by now that the bottom half of the mailing label must be stapled to our copy of the packing slip!).  Many of the theater’s astonishingly nice and helpful staff members showed me how to find everything — not to mention get over my usual skittishness around Windows computers (yeah, I’m a Mac guy, even though I look much more like the PC fellow in those commercials).

As I was applying the tape to the packages (though not over the barcode!), I heard a loud thrumming from somewhere nearby.  Eventually I realized what this was: the sound of a typical Portland rainstorm hitting the skylight.  So now I would have to carry all this stuff to the Post Office through the rain!  Postal workers do this all the time, I know — they’ve even been known to deal with sleet and snow; then again, they also go postal.

Fortunately, there was a respite from the downpour just as I left the theater.  Holding the packages label-side down — in case of any unexpected drippage — I made my way to the (fortunately nearby) Post Office.  I needed to hurry, as Dana had been very clear on the phone that I needed to actually mail the packages on the same day as I had printed out the mailing lables; otherwise, the entire global financial system would collapse (or something).  On line at the Post Office, I briefly became entranced by a display of bubble wrap (you have to admit, there’s nothing quite as marvelous as bubble wrap) — only to be told, somewhat gruffly, by the woman behind me that the next window was now open.  I handed my pile of merch to the postal worker (a grandmotherly looking woman with a tattoo on her forearm — god, Portland is cool!) and stared at her in fear and anticipation as she ran her scanner thingie over all my (untaped-over) barcodes.  She nodded at me.

“Everything okay?” I asked, tremulously.


I felt a burst of endorphin-powered euphoria.  I had completed the task, even though it involved more than one step!  Haiku Tunnel DVDs, as well as Red Diaper Baby books and DVDs, were now on their way to all the incredible people who had ordered them.

I texted Dana that it was all over.  A moment later I got a text back from her, thanking me (even though, of course, I should have been thanking her for setting everything up so well — typical Dana).  If there were an emoticon for relief, I’m pretty sure she would have added it.

Then I headed back to my hotel, bathed in a warm glow of satisfaction and relief.  Fulfillment achieved — by me, for once.

“Haiku Tunnel” DVD’s Priced to Move!

Haiku Tunnel, the “office comedy” I had so much fun making with my brother Jacob, is now available — exclusively! — at my online store.  (Sony ran out of them, apparently, and the slow economy has delayed their plans to put out a new batch as part of a cool “Signature Series” of DVD’s.)  Enter the code BLAST1 to receive $10 off your total order.  (This discount also applies to the Red Diaper Baby DVD and book.)

Adding Haiku Tunnel to my store has called up many happy (and frantic) memories of when we made the film in the summer and fall of 2000 (the movie was released in 2001), among them:

  • Discovering, on the first day of shooting (in my brother’s old apartment), that I would be required mostly to lie in bed and “act” asleep.  (I turned out to be a natural at this!)
  • Seeing the look of delight and amazement on the face of our executive producer, David Fuchs, when he showed up that morning and saw all kinds of trucks and equipment up and down the street.  How, he wondered, had we gotten so much out of so little money?  (No one had the heart to tell him that most were for a commercial shooting nearby.)
  • Preparing to shoot a crucial scene in an office building in downtown Oakland, only to learn that (a) the actual guard on duty refused to relinquish his post to our fictional guard, (b) by the time we were finally ready to shoot, it was lunch hour — and thousands of people were about to flood our “set,” and (c) a Mexican Independence Day parade was approaching the building.  (We solved the first problem by appealing to the “real” guard’s love of film, the second by — I’m afraid — having our P.A.’s stall all the building’s elevators for a few minutes, and the third by working really, really fast.)
  • Me running into George Lucas at the Skywalker Ranch while we were doing our postproduction sound there, and blurting out, “Thank you, Mr. Lucas!!”  He looked aghast, as if he had been ambushed by a slightly slimmer Jabba the Hutt.  (I learned later that you’re not supposed to talk to him at all, or even look at him; he’s very shy.)
  • Getting the phone call from Isaac Hayes’s manager that Mr. Hayes had watched a video of our movie and had liked it — and was thus granting us the right to use his great cover of Dylan’s Lay Lady Lay.
  • Doing an all-nighter in the edit room to complete a rough cut of Haiku to submit to Sundance — and then falling asleep on the BART train and going way past my stop.
  • Getting the message from our sweet and brilliant producer, Brian Benson, that we had gotten into Sundance — and Jake and I busting out our “We-Got-In Strut” as we walked with David Fuchs to a celebratory lunch in North Beach.
  • Carrying the just-barely-completed reels of our film on the plane to the Sundance Festival.  (They were heavy!)
  • Going to meet the legendary Tom Bernard and Michael Barker of Sony Classics at midnight at their chalet in Park City (where the festival takes place), just as Hollywood-perfect snow began falling.
  • Seeing a trailer for Haiku at a local movie theater in Berkeley and thinking, “Wow, my head is scarily big!”
  • Attending a sold-out preview screening of the film in San Francisco with a lot of our cast and crew — and David Fuchs beaming, saying, “Wow, people really seem to like it!”

… and so many other memories, as well.  Now Jake and I are making the kind-of sequel, Love & Taxes, and having just as much fun (and angst).  One day, the film gods willing, you will be able to see that movie in theaters and on your home screens.  In the meantime, there are the Haiku Tunnel DVD’s — preserving the happy efforts of a bunch of quixotic, film-making optimists for as long as these types of media remain watchable.  It’s a nice feeling.

Un-Solo Performance: Notes on My Off-Day

What I do on stage is called “solo performance,” and people sometimes ask me (with real sympathy), “Isn’t it lonely up there?”

And I tell them, emphatically, No, it isn’t!

There’s my crew — up in a booth (possibly knitting during the long stretches between cues).  There are all the characters in my monologues — often people who are very dear to me, some of them no longer alive but very much in my thoughts and my heart as I (imperfectly) portray them.  There’s my producer, whose love of and respect for the theater I have the honor and duty to represent.  There’s my director and collaborator: these stories we create are, in a deep way, a chronicle of our evolving friendship.  There are the designers and the composer, whose beautiful worlds I inhabit.  There are my family and friends, whose encouragements and loving corrections continually run through my mind.  There’s the theater staff — working in a field that offers strictly limited remuneration but unlimited epiphanies.  There’s my own staff — my colleagues who (among other things) arrange for my travel (and that of my set and costumes) and absorb my freak-outs.  There are my investors, and those who choose to donate to the theater.  And, of course, there is the audience: changing in personality from show to show, sometimes rapt, usually adventurous, occasionally sleeping peacefully (dreaming, perhaps, of an actual drama, with multiple actors) — always granting me the enormous gift of their cumulative genius.

So no, it’s not lonely at all on stage.  As for this hotel room, however — well, that’s another story.