THE LAST PAGES OF A GREAT BOOK COME ALL TOO QUICKLY.
by Shaun Costello
There has always been that moment for me, when, enthralled by the prose of a wonderful novel, I suddenly become aware that I have almost reached the end. It’s a sad reckoning. I begin to read more slowly. I take bathroom breaks more often. Anything to put off the inevitable. This happened to me earlier today, when reading the last pages of John Le Carre’s latest novel, A LEGACY OF SPIES. It’s his 24th, and because of his advanced age, possibly his last book. I have read his 23 other spy stories at least twice each – some favorites as many as four or five times. I realize that I am a hopeless case. In this last book Le Carre revisits two
earlier novels, THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, and TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY; linking them both together to tidy up some loose ends. An aging, retired, white haired Peter Guillam is called for by the inquisitors at Whitehall. The British Secret Service is being haunted by ghosts from its past, and the once-young Peter Guillam will be hauled over the coals. The death of Circus agent Alec Leamus, many years before, is now in question. Leamus had a son who is now looking to be compensated for the murder of his father. Was The Circus at fault? Is Guillam responsible? Whitehall has opened the files and found incriminating evidence against Guillam. Whitehall is looking for a fall guy.
For incurable Le Carre addicts like yours truly, the fun now begins. Familiar characters from the past delightfully cascade through the story. George Smiley is still alive but his whereabouts are unknown. The ill-fated Alec Leamus, Connie Sachs, Control, Control’s man Mendel, arch traitor Bill Haydon, Jim Prideaux, Oliver Lacon, Toby Esterhase, Roy Bland, Millie McCraig, Hans-Dieter Mundt, all deliciously brought back to life.
In The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, Circus agents are disappearing, networks are being rolled up, and Alec Leamus is murdered climbing the Berlin Wall. There’s a rotten apple in the Circus, somewhere near the top. We find out, many books later, in Tinker Tailor, that Bill Haydon, very high up indeed, is the soviet mole, buried many years earlier in the Circus, and feeding information to Karla at Moscow Center. But why was Alec Leamus really in Berlin? What was his mission? Who was running him? Control? Smiley? What was Guillam’s involvement? And at the center was the notorious Hans-Dieter Mundt, the head of the Stasi, East Germany’s Secret police – then being run by George Smiley as a double agent.
Le Carre, regardless of his age, has not missed a beat, tying two of his best-loved books into a modern mystery, populated by an ensemble of his best-loved and familiar characters. And his prose remains intact, as sharp and flowing as ever. To his fans, A LEGACY OF SPIES seems a fitting conclusion, if that is what it is, to decades of delicious novels. The book seems, in its structure, to be bidding us adieu. I can only hope that the author has second thoughts, and the idea for one more book up his literary sleeve.
© 2018 Shaun Costello
YOU DON’T NEED STATUES AND FLAG WAVING TO BE A GOOD CITIZEN – GROW UP AMERICA.
by Shaun Costello
Yesterday, October 30th, in an interview on Fox News, White House Chief of Staff, General John Kelly defended Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and referred to him as an honorable man. He also had some odd comments about the cause of the Civil War. In today’s news he was roundly criticized. In my opinion, he meant well, but misspoke, and the criticism of his statements is grossly exaggerated.
Anyone who has spent any time reading nineteenth century history, and more specifically, about the American Civil War, would come to the conclusion that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man. But at issue here is erecting and maintaining statues of Confederate soldiers. Most of these were erected, not directly after the Civil War, to honor the brave and the fallen, but instead, in the early twentieth century, symbolic of Jim Crow America, in an effort to remind African Americans that the Grey Army of the past lives on in the sheets and hoods of the Ku Klux Klan.
And that the uppity Negro better not get too uppity, lest the Klan is comin’ to getcha. The Confederacy declared war on the United States, creating a conflagration that yielded half a million dead. It was America’s darkest moment. The ongoing glorification of the Confederacy is based more in racial hatred, than in honoring the Army in Grey. Instead, read Douglas Southall Freeman’s extraordinary biography – ROBERT E. LEE. And his equally extraordinary three volume work – LEE’S LIEUTENANTS: A STUDY IN COMMAND……..MANASSAS TO MALVERNE HILL, CEDAR MOUNTAIN TO CHANCELLORSVILLE, and GETTYSBURG TO APPOMATTOX. Just about the entire Civil War from The Army of Northern Virginia’s point of view. This is a magnificent series of volumes, and you’ll be a better human being having read them. You don’t need statues and flag waving to be a good citizen. Grow up, America.
I REMEMBER NOTHING
AND OTHER REFLECTIONS
by Nora Ephron
About a year ago I found myself developing a surprising appreciation of Nora Ephon. Like many New Yorkers who lived through the Seventies, I read her tasty pieces in Esquire, when she was probably America’s most entertaining essayist. As the decades passed, I read her, saw her movies (both written and directed) and enjoyed most of it. Then, about a year ago, Sleepless in Seattle turned up on HBO Streaming, so I watched.
About a half hour in, I clicked on pause. I was not prepared for what I saw. It was perfectly constructed. I started watching again, and the whole movie was as perfect as the first half hour. This level of story structure is rare these days, and you’d have to go back to Hitchcock to match it. Somehow when I saw it in a theater when it was first released, the quality of the construction went right by me. Maybe it was the popcorn.
I started revisiting her films and books. Some were great. Most were good. Nothing was terrible. I have to admit here that I was developing a serious crush on a dead person. I began to grieve at not having known her, and envying those who did. Her son, Jacob Bernstein (Jacob, out of Nora, by Carl) made a documentary about his late mom called EVERYTHING IS COPY.
I’ve watched it several times, and the more I discovered about her, the more I grieved at never having known her. She was brilliant, and challenging, and terrifying. Had I been invited to one of her famous dinner parties, and when tested, crapped out as dull, it would have been like the death of a thousand cuts. But, if I got a laugh out of her it might have been orgasmic.
Much of the text in Jacob Bernstein’s documentary is from the pages of the book titled at the top of this page, read by Ephron’s friends. She was dying of leukemia when she wrote and directed Julie and Julia, her last film. As I watched her son’s chronicle, and read I Remember Nothing, I began to realize that Julie and Julia was not about those two women at all – It was about Nora Ephron. It was about Nora’s relationship with her sister Delia. It was about a perfect marriage, not necessarily about Paul and Julia Child, but, after two failures, about the perfect marriage Nora found with writer Nick Pillegi. It was about everything Nora Ephron loved, and knew she would soon lose.
The above titled book ends with two chapters; What I won’t Miss, and What I Will Miss. Although very few knew of her illness, and claimed that they were shocked by her death, I find it surprising that they missed the clearly stated clues. In writing I Remember Nothing, Norah Ephron was saying goodbye.
© 2017 Shaun Costello
(I recently came across a letter I wrote to Laura Helen Marks, in response to some questions Helen asked about two films of mine, and about my old friend Jamie Gillis. She was doing research for her book:
PORNING THE VICTORIANS: Erotic Adaptations and Gothic Desire
I found the letter interesting, particularly my insights on Jamie, so I am posting it here on my Blog.)
A letter to Laura Helen Marks
I should preface any remarks by reminding you that, in the case of Dracula Exotica, I am not the author. Ken Schwartz, who I had known for several years, wrote the screenplay, lifting the story from the screenplay of “Love at First Bite”, which had done surprisingly good box office six months earlier. Schwartz vehemently denied any connection, even claimed he had never seen “Love at First Bite”, but the similarity was too extreme to be coincidental.
I am attaching a link to my Blog, that describes the production of Passions of Carol. Please feel free to lift any quotes that you might find useful.
In the case of Dracula Exotica, although I was not the author, I did make story changes and adapted the screenplay to my own sensibilities, as I saw fit. I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula when I was in High School, and it remained food for thought forever after.
I think I’ve seen most of the motion pictures adapted from Stoker’s novel, but most of them lost their way, the screen writers having no clue as to what Stoker was up to. The silent “Nosferatu” is probably the closest to the original. The whole vampire myth is dear to my heart.
Do I believe that Romanian bats bite tourists who then spread a plague of blood-lust throughout the civilized world, that only the crucifix, symbolizing the ultimate sacrifice that saved humanity from the fires of eternal agony, could put an end to? No, of course not. Do I believe that humanity, reduced to a state of pure passion, is capable of anything? Yep!
I worked on a documentary for Broadway producer David Merrick in Haiti in the 1980’s. I witnessed Voodoo rituals up in the hills. I met zombies. They do exist. Although, not in the common, fictionalized form. The local medicine man, or Ngana, gains power, and income, through terrorizing the indigenous proletariat. And what medicine man, or wizard, has not been, first and foremost, an alchemist. The Ngana administers a drug to his victim, that slows the heartbeat to almost nothing, and proclaims him dead.
Because the temporarily deceased is barely breathing, the oxygen in his coffin is sufficient to sustain him for three days, after which he is exhumed. And, to the horror of the locals, he has come back to life. Ngana takes life. Ngana gives life. Long live Ngana, who gladly accepts donations of chickens and goats, not to mention cash, from the terrified believers, to prevent their following in the zombie’s footsteps. Control through terror. The big lie. Hey, it worked for Hitler.
Although the zombie is still alive, after his subterranean adventure, the lack of oxygen in the coffin invariably causes brain damage, and that far away look that reminds the locals to give generously when the Ngana passes the collection basket.
Zombies are about fear and superstitious belief, but Vampires are much more complicated, and like their Haitian cousins, also exist in superstitious belief. A myth, believed in passionately enough however, can become real, particularly if wrapped in the tendrils of sexuality. The Vampire is a very sexy boy. He is irresistible. He is the apocalyptic bite me/fuck me.
And the welcome antidote to repressive, inhibited, Victorian sexual mores. The ruined maiden’s lament, “What could I do? He bit me. I was in his power. He willed me to do his bidding. I was helpless to resist his foul demands.” So, the girl got laid and it wasn’t her fault. A violation of her carotid artery, followed by an eternity of sexual conflagration and moldy coffins. Unless, of course, there’s the intervention of a stake, or a silver bullet.
Dracula is all about the sacrifice of virginity to the forces of evil, on the alter of responsibility. The two drops of blood on the wedding sheets. The two incisor-driven puncture wounds on the virginal neck. “It’s not my fault. He bit me”. If this isn’t porn fodder then I’ll have sex with Ron Jeremy in the venue of your choice. Please don’t hold me to that.
Passions of Carol is another story altogether. But playing with Vicorian mores by layering them into blatantly sexual realities becomes contrapuntally delicious. This was my first screenplay, and while writing it, I realized that the closer I stuck to the original, the funnier and more satisfying the movie would be. Sexually repressed Victorian England is the fertile crescent of sexual deviance. (See the movie “The Ruling Class” – the world’s first S&M Musical, starring Peter O’Toole)
The last question – Yes it was my idea. Somehow including the inability to ejaculate to the many inconveniences (blood drinking, infanticide, late hours, dirty finger nails, etc.) suffered by the living dead seemed only fitting.
Read the attached and quote at will. I hope this helps.
The second letter:
First of all, you are not bugging me in the slightest, Laura. I support what you’re doing, and I’m happy to give you any information that might be helpful. OK, you’ve read the piece on Drac, and you’re probably aware that Jamie and I were close friends for many years, sharing many a late night adventure, prowling Manhattan’s dark canyons, looking for, and often finding, the shit. You’re familiar with the films I made back then, and you should be aware that I seldom made a film without Jamie. He was reliable, attractive, and on film sets, where most of your time was spent waiting for all of the elements to be in sync, allowing you to get a shot off, Jamie was fun to have around. He kept the cast and crew amused with funny songs and stories, and the females in the cast found him seductive and passionate to work with.
That said, what was Jamie’s attraction? He was a good looking guy, but looks alone don’t seduce, except in the extremely shallow. He had a substantial penis that needed little encouragement to stiffen, but penis size alone, even if it’s always hard, is not the answer. He was intelligent, engaging, and curious about everything, which are attractive traits, but intelligence, while the ultimate aphrodisiac, is not the answer either. So, lets put them all together. He was good looking, had a handsome and active member, was passionate and entertaining, and engagingly intelligent – a pretty handsome package. But there was something else, something beyond all these positive elements, something few people understood. Jamie was dangerous.
And it was this danger that lurked somewhere deep in his psyche that, when added to the aforementioned, made women swoon. Although he seldom acted out, the possibility of an eruption of passion, whether caused by anger or frustration, was always present. And that possibility, even in its dormant stage, made him irresistible to women.
If Dracula’s appeal was bite me/fuck me, Jamie’s was scare me/fuck me. Long before I was offered the directing job on Dracula Exotica, I was aware of Jamie’s Vampire-like qualities. It was something we talked about many times.
Something he was aware of, and nurtured. Like Dracula, Jamie Gillis was dangerous. No slam bam thank you Mam, he. A girl who took him home took a risk. And risk is very, very sexy.
I hope this helps,
© 2017 Shaun Costello
THE ASHLEYFICATION OF SMUT
by Shaun Costello
(Below is a link to a Village Voice story that describes how Ashley and April Spicer helped David Simon and George Pelecanos research their new cable TV Series, The Deuce.)
So, rather than researching the era with people who actually lived it, David Simon and George Pelecanos, the producers of the new Cable TV series, The Deuce, chose Ashley and April Spicer, neither of whom were born when all of this happened. Amazing. Now I understand why neither Simon nor Pelecanos responded to my offer to help. Ashley obviously told them not to. I stood up to Ashley’s Nazification, or is it Ashleyfication, of the history of the adult film world of the Sixties and Seventies. Ashley Spicer actually thinks he owns the rights to any people or events that he chronicles from those days. My publicly expressed disdain for Mr. and Mrs. Spicer has gotten me banished from the pages of their web site, a fate I relish. Mr. Spicer is an investment banker with a hobby – the yesteryear of smut. He has used and abused many in his efforts to become the Ayatollah of smut history.
No matter how many people Mr. Spicer interviews, no matter how many pieces of archival material he collects, the fact remains that he wasn’t there. His connection to that era is second hand. He never lived it. He is a revisionist historian on a mission. I am amazed at how easily people can be fooled. The porn people he digs up are flattered by his interest and seduced by his persistence. He demands exclusivity from his discoveries, like a real estate broker with a fresh new listing. He has hoodwinked almost the entire population of an era, with his adorable British accent, and his attentive manner. And when he has milked his victims out of every ounce of information, farmed their memories, sometimes painful, until they have exhausted their use to him, he simply discards them, like yesterday’s news; with the understanding that he now owns the rights to their memories, in perpetuity. Mr. Spicer is a charming con man, who has left a long string of victims in his quest to become the curator of an era that has fascinated him since adolescence. And, I suppose, he has succeeded. When Simon and Pelecanos needed to research the smutified world of The Deuce, who better to call on, then the undisputed Nabobs of Seventies 42nd Street, Ashley and April Spicer. So Mr. Spicer’s dream has been realized. His expertise in sleaze is recognized by those who don’t, unfortunately, know any better. He sits atop his collected mountain of memorabilia like a Pasha with his harem. But the fact remains that all he has collected is hearsay. His encyclopedia of erotica is strictly second hand. He has no direct memory of any person or event he has so painstakingly chronicled. He speaks the words of those who lived them. Those words are not his own. He will never really know the smell of the Times Square subway station in 1971. He was never there.
© 2017 Shaun Costello
Shaun’s “SIRACUSA” Sauce
(Actual Italians marvel at it’s authenticity)
“ONLY THE SPECIAL ONES GET MY SAUCE!”
A long time ago Johnny Bonanno’s grandmother, Anna Maria Bonanno, an immigrant from the town of Siracusa, in Sicily, taught me to make this sauce. Over the years it hasn’t changed much. As much as I’ve tried, I just couldn’t improve it. Mrs. Bonanno insisted that each time I made this sauce, I should give a portion to someone special. She was a wise woman.
This product has been known to cure the following:
MALE PATTERN BALDNESS
CHRONIC NAIL BITING
THE HEARTBREAK OF PSORIASIS
SEXUAL DYSFUNCTION IN LABORATORY ANIMALS
FEAR OF TRUFFLES
Remember, tics and fire ants hate people who eat my sauce.
Four 28 ounce cans of Italian plum tomatoes. There are many brands available. Don’t fall for, “Wow, these California Marzano tomatoes are great.” They’re not. Product of Italy only.
One can Italian tomato paste.
Extra Virgin olive oil.
Six good sized cloves of garlic – minced. You can never have too much garlic.
Fresh basil. The pile of leaves on your cutting board should be about the size of a volleyball. You can never have too much basil. Chop into sensibly sized pieces, but not too small.
One good sized sweet onion – peeled, sliced, and the slices halved.
Freshly ground black pepper.
Kosher sea salt.
Crushed red pepper. More is better than less.
Red or white wine. More is better than less.
Granulated sugar. A small handful.
With the stove burner on medium, sprinkle some olive oil on the bottom of your pot. More is better than less.
Into the heated oil goes first the onion – cook until soft. Then the garlic. Don’t let it burn. (Maybe 45 seconds) Spinkle with sea salt and ground pepper. Now, in goes the tomato paste and a hand full of the chopped basil. Stir vigorously. This becomes the glue. The quality of the glue determines the quality of the sauce. Simmer for a minute or two, until it turns into heavenly red sludge. Now, in go the tomatoes. Crush them as they cook in the pot. I use a potato masher. Crush thoroughly, but not completely. You want some solidity to your sauce. Now, in goes the remainder of the basil. No, it’s not too much. You can never have enough basil. Now, sprinkle with crushed red pepper – you guessed it, more is better than less.
Now we reach a critical moment: In The Godfather, there is a scene in the Corleone kitchen where Clemenza is making sauce for a bunch of family soldiers. Michael gets a phone call from Kay, but refuses to say he loves her within earshot of the boys in the kitchen. Clemenza teases him when he hangs the phone up.
“C’mere kid, learn somethin’. You never know when you might have to cook for twenty guys.” He explains his process to Michael, ending with, “You put in your wine, a little sugar, and that’s my trick.”
In order for your sauce to be successful, it is imperative that you quote Clemenza. As you put in the final two ingredients, you must say out loud, “You put in your wine, a little sugar, and that’s my trick.”
Reduce heat, simmer for two hours, and………………..Siracusa Sauce.
If Mario Perillo were alive, he would describe this sauce as, “Più è meglio di meno.” This roughly translates as ‘More is better than less.’
© 2017 Shaun Costello
SATURDAY KIDDIE MATINEES
By Shaun Costello
When I was a kid, I lived in Valley Stream, a suburban community in Long Island’s Nassau County. On some Saturday’s, the local movie theater would offer Kiddie Matinees. From 10AM until 4PM the theater would provide six hours of uninterrupted movie madness to ecstatic youngsters, who were devouring lethal doses of movie candy, and screaming their brains out.
Parents would simply drop their kids off at 10AM and come back six hours later to pick them up. Very few parents ever accompanied their children inside the theater. It was just us kids, most of us armed with projectile weaponry like rubber bands and paper clips, and bean shooters, ready to turn the inside of that theater into a war zone. Some days the venue would offer an assortment of kid-friendly features, like Martin and Lewis, or Francis the Talking Mule. On other days, the offering might include six hours of theatrical serials, like Flash Gordon, who did battle with Emperor Ming the Merciless, who ruled the plane Mongo with his evil Death Ray, and enslaved its population, which included the Clay People, the Shark People, and Hawk People: all of whom would eventually be freed by Flash and his erudite pal Dr. Zarkoff. In addition to Flash, the theater might offer my all-time favorite – Tim Tyler’s Luck.
Tim, at the helm of his trusty Jungle Cruiser, traversing the jungles of Africa, (which looked oddly like the same location used for Hopalong Cassidy) spent his time searching for his lost father, saving gorillas from heinous hunters, befriending black panthers, rescuing a variety of blonde women from the clutches of evil doers, wrestling with alligators, avoiding the dangers of quick sand, and basically saving the world.
At 4PM a long line of station wagons (we had a Nash Rambler) waited outside the theater, to collect the kids, who were exhausted from six hours of unsupervised screaming, and green from a serious movie candy overdose. Boy, this was fun.
© 2017 Shaun Costello