An Unrealistic Man

Nicholas Roth




I once wrote a screenplay in which Galileo fights the Church, crushing with facts the illusions of centuries. But a producer at Paramount, a man named Gelder (of all things; those who speak German will understand), asked of me again and again who I might see as Galileo. Let us be honest and admit this was not because he had the slightest interest in my ideas for casting, but because his infantile mind must have an image to latch on to and was only capable of thinking in terms of what are called here stars. Clark Gable? William Powell? Cary Grant? I suggested Charles Laughton and, let me confess, this was met with approval. But that which is accepted quickly, one must be wary of. So, I changed my mind and from then on suggested Stan Laurel. “For who but he,” I asked Gelder, “could communicate the innocent despair of a man like Galileo?” A writer assigned to work with me – a fellow Austrian, mind you – asked after this meeting, “What the hell does ‘innocent despair’ have to do with anything? This is a picture about a guy” – yes, “picture,” “guy,” etc.; he spoke this way after only ten years in California – “a guy triumphant over superstition and backwardness. Laurel and Hardy are under contract at Fox. Besides, ya dope, they only ever work as a team. Come on, you got off the boat close to two years ago, you ought to have wised up by now.” Ah, I thought, but I have Galileo himself as an example of a man failing to “wise up,” and I told him so.




I once stood in a producer’s office and told him about a man who trod the earth in great strides like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra (though without Nietzsche’s will to power or nihilism), from mountain to mountain, but who was neither hero nor villain and also not larger, not physically larger, than the average man in any way. No, for I was speaking figuratively when I said he “trod the earth in great strides from mountain to mountain.” I spoke of the proletariat. Something, I must point out, that was hard to make clear to the producer I was explaining this to, for I only wanted to communicate my protagonist’s gigantic ego and self-assurance, while I kept fielding questions from the producer, whose name was Legion – I speak again figuratively; his name was Stitzer – about the size of my protagonist. “Size, sir,” I said, “is beside the point! You must follow me on my path of discovery concerning my protagonist! Do you think this is all so clear to me? Because it isn’t. Where would the excitement be for me if I knew precisely at every moment what my protagonist is going to do? History dictates what my protagonist does, but history is still unfolding!”




Now, you’ll say, “Ah, an unrealistic man, who thinks this kind of thing will fly in Hollywood,” but then listen to this: for I once also wrote a screenplay about a poor washerwoman who falls into a life of prostitution and was told I would have to clean up the screenplay for the Hays office and that it was “unproduceable” as it was. Once I had cleaned it up by removing the explicit scenes depicting the exchange of money for fornication, I was asked if the prostitute might be changed into something “less objectionable.” As the entire story revolved around this woman’s descent into degradation of a very specific sort, I asked what the producer suggested. He said he did not know, schmuck, that’s what they paid me for. “What shall we have her do then,” I asked, “fall into a life of coal mining or a life of Greek wrestling?” He failed to see I was being sarcastic and sat in his chair and put his feet on the desk and considered these alternatives. “Greek wrestling is out,” he said, “but lady coal miner, you might be on to something.” After this I went home and drank myself into a stupor for the first time since leaving Vienna.




When I first came to this strange land I would hear the occasional hum of what sounded like giant machines turning on and off in the night, as if just over the hill some monstrous electrical man, a hundred feet high, were waking and falling back into sleep again, and only after weeks of nights of this dismaying electrical onrush and silence did I find the source in the dam. I walked up a winding road with no destination in mind but to ascend, as if by ascending I could escape some of the heat of the day. But as I walked up the winding street the sun seemed to confront me at every turn, as if standing guard, and I grew hotter and more miserable. Finally the wall of the great dam stood in front of me, and I made my way to the gate and walked along the rim of the wall and stared down at the blue-green water and the curves and marshes of the man-made lake. And then the sound I'd been hearing every night began now in the middle of the day and halfway across the lake I could see water being sucked into what looked like a gigantic drain. It rushed down the sides of the hole, through a railing, and a cloud of vapor rose and reflected a rainbow in the sunlight. Of all the odd things water might suddenly do, this hole in the lake struck me as one of the least likely. Somewhere in the city below, a toilet had been flushed and the lowered pressure on the plateau had triggered something in the dam above, and the gigantic drain had opened and the water had rushed down the line toward the plateau, toward the thousands of toilets, sinks, bathtubs. And here I stood watching it. And so in the night, when I heard the onrush of the water – what I now knew was the hole in the lake – I pictured the black water in the darkness, the white water around the rim of the hole, and of the terrible running of the electrical engines that always accompanied the onrush, the remaining mysterious sound of those engines humming as the water, which it seemed to me ought not to need any help getting down the hill toward the plateau of Hollywood below, was flushed from the lake.




At first I had little idea how to make friends. It occurred to me to go door to door in the building in which I found myself, but I thought the tenants would think I was odd and that I might appear to them like an overgrown tree that might fall and bring their roofs in. In Vienna I would have been sitting at a cafe but they hardly existed here. As for going to a bar and trying to start up a conversation, the idea repulsed me. The only thing that occurred to me was to join a group, any group I might find, with regular meetings of intelligent people. Maybe there were such things as book clubs. Maybe I would take up chess and join a chess club. Or perhaps there were clubs where disbelieving Jews could congregate and discuss their various objections to the Hebrew God. But then, I knew very little about the actual practice of Judaism, the religious practice. For, you see, all but my sister, Beatrice, had become Catholics. Of course, there were Party meetings, but those were always insufferable.




I took a great number of photographs when I first arrived. For instance, from Hollywood, looking up Vine Street toward the hills, with the sidewalks full of men under fedoras; and at night, arc lights making an X in the sky over a sea of screaming fans; an apartment building that looked like a tiny castle; a car wreck at a crossroads; a panorama of the San Fernando Valley full of nothing but tumbleweeds; a forest of wooden oil derricks.




I was once invited to Seder at the home of a writer who’s name I shall not mention – yes I shall; his name was Baldinger – and when I said I was not a believer and hadn’t been to a synagogue since I was a boy, he said, “Don’t be an idiot. Do you think you’ll be sitting with a bunch of shtetl Jews? Most of these people belong to the Party.” And so I went. I dipped my finger in the wine with the others, and ate the bitter herbs with the rest. Yet even I grew uncomfortable with the irreverence of the reading of the Haggadah. For each one around the table who read of the ten plagues read with greater and greater sarcasm in their voices and I thought even a half-deaf God couldn’t fail to hear it. And so, when it came to me, I read with a voice of deep seriousness and put the others around the table to shame. For which I was rewarded by never hearing again from Baldinger.




During the war I met with Mann a few times and he would always encourage me to work on my novel and to forget writing for motion pictures. But by then, you see, I’d learned a few things and knew better how the game was played. I made $1000 a week when I worked on a film and precisely nothing when I worked on a novel. In the unlikely event that my novel was published, I might, if I happened to be lucky, make what it would take me less than three months to earn writing for motion pictures.




By the end of the war I allowed myself the illusion that I was, to some extent, sneaking in truths under the wire of lies that go into the construction of motion pictures. But I must confess that by then it no longer mattered much. When the Nazis were defeated and the camps came to light I was making $1500 a week and had bought a house not so far from Mann’s in the Palisades. In fact, my house was slightly farther up the hill from his, though farther to the southeast, and I often stood with a pair of binoculars looking down at his yard a half-mile off. In this way I reassured myself of my worth, when, in fact, all I was doing was comparing real estate. And even then, my property was only more grand in terms of distance up the hill, for his was a much bigger home, with a fine green lawn in front where mine had only a small backyard cut into a steep incline.




I once wrote a screenplay about a man who trod the earth in tiny steps, so that the heel of one foot was hardly in front of the toe of the other. He shuffled through the world, but quickly, like a mouse, always with his hands in his pockets and always either staring up at the sky or down at his feet, pipe jutting out of his clenched jaw. Walking around this way and always coming back to where he’d started, he dug deep grooves into the earth in the form of a circle. And with each completion of the circle another year had passed until he was an old man. Then came a day when he wondered if it was worth beginning on the circle again and he stood where he’d started and smoked his pipe and gave the groove he’d worn into the ground a great deal of consideration. Only now did he see that the circle, which had seemed so wide – after all, it encompassed his whole life, his travels, his thoughts, his great and small accomplishments – was so tiny as to barely contain him.



Nicholas Roth attended UCLA (English) and the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. After the Pause, The Forge, Shooter Literary Magazine, Prick of the Spindle, and Failbetter are scheduled to publish his short stories in the coming months. He lives in Los Angeles.