Some Buildings on the Skyline of the Past

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It’s funny how memory works. Budd Schulberg’s death yesterday got me thinking about On the Waterfront and The Harder They Fall, which got me thinking about Hollywood, and Schulberg’s collaboration, when he was 24, with the down-on-his-luck F. Scott Fitzgerald.

This in turn got me thinking about the fall of 2001 — actually, I’d been thinking about that time in my life anyway, so it was just another reminder — because that fall I was reading all of Fitzgerald, and I’d turned 24 myself just a couple weeks before 9/11, which remained in the distant background amid the general meltdown of my entire personal life in the foreground.

Jesse Nathan, in footnote iii of his essay from yesterday, writes that “pieces of art, if they succeed, become fixed points in memory. They become buildings on the skyline of the past.” That might be especially true during stressful times. I can’t remember what I was supposedly studying in college that semester, or what precisely I was doing for money, but I do remember, vividly, almost everything I read then.

Fitzgerald of course, and almost every story in Zoetrope: All-Story Vol. 5 #3, for example. The first story in that issue is a Hollywood story, which then reminded me of another litmag I read around then, Tin House 6: Hollywood.

Thanks to this confluence of reminders, I thought of one extraordinary piece in that issue of Tin House by Barney Rosset, in which he tells the story of how he got Samuel Beckett to write a film, called Film, which ultimately starred an elderly Buster Keaton. I think I’ll quote from it.

The first actor Beckett wanted for the only major role in Film was the Irish actor Jack McGowran. He was unavailable, as was Charlie Chaplin, and so was Zero Mostel … Finally Alan [Schneider, one of Rosset’s partners in this venture] suggested Buster Keaton. Sam liked the idea, so Alan flew out to Hollywood to sign Buster up. There he found Buster living in extremely modern circumstances. On arrival he had to wait in a separate room while Keaton finished up an imaginary poker game with, among others, the legendary (but long-dead) Hollywood mogul Irving Thalberg. Keaton took the job. During an interview, Beckett told Kevin Brownlow (a Keaton scholar) that “Buster Keaton was inaccessible. He had a poker mind as well as a poker face… He had great endurance, he was very tough, and, yes, reliable. And when you saw that face at the end — oh. At last.”

Unusually for Tin House, the entire article is online. You can also watch Film on YouTube, in three parts. I was especially struck by the sequence in which Buster Keaton puts out his cat, only to have it run back in when he tries to put the dog out, only to have the dog run back in when he puts the cat back out; it’s a slapstick sequence typical of both Keaton and Beckett.


Jeremy Hatch is a writer, musician, and professional bookseller leading a cheerful, aimless life in San Francisco. He is the Junior Literary Editor of the Rumpus and has a blog which he updates once in a while. More from this author →