There is something I've been meaning to share with you for a long time. When I was thirteen years old my parents had already been separated for a couple of years. My twin sister, younger brother and I lived with my mom during the week in a one-bedroom apartment in Croton, a suburb about an hour north of Manhattan. On the weekends, we visited my father in New York City. It was the fall of 1984. I was heavily into David Bowie and the Talking Heads, comic books and baseball and girls, not always in that order. "Ghostbusters" had come out that summer. My mom took a week-long vacation to visit her family in Belgiummy Ma is Belgian but she was actually raised in Zaire, in the Congo. That meant our father was going to come and stay with us in our mom's apartment.
This was not something to be excited about. My father had just stopped drinkingand has remained sober for twenty some odd years now, but was a difficult man to deal with in his own space. Coming into our life in our mom's home was just going to be weird. Oddly enough, I don't remember much about my dad that weekother than a few isolated incidents that seem directly out of "The Squid and the Whale." What will always stand out about that week is the appearance of my dad's old film business pal, Mike Fox. Dad had long talked about how one of his friends shot the flying sequences in the Superman moviesI remember his taking my brother and me to see the original "Superman" being a really big deal.
One of my dad's great qualities is that he's warm and charming and a social animal. Growing up, we were always surrounded by a cast of interesting, intelligent, funny people. Mike was a beaut. A short, round man, he wore thick glasses that made his eyes bulge more than they were naturally inclined to. He was naturally comic in nature and because of his height, easy to identify with. And he was British of course. I always liked pop's British friends because the sound of their voice was so appealing. But this guy was something else altogether. He was interested in us, and wanted to know what we liked, and why we liked it. He was challenging and authoritative and completely incorrigiblea real pisser. You know, just a hard-on from the old school. He called us Goonswhich we associated with Alice the Goon from the "Popeye" cartoons but he identified with Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Seacombe and the old "Goon Show" from BBC radio in the fifties. We connected. He cared and weSam Ben and Icared back.
Fox was a complete card, a British version of Uncle Buck. He played the guitar with us, sang songs, and was just a true cut-up, a great spontaneous comedian. My father had worked with him in the sixtiesmy dad as a line producer and Mike as a camera operator. In fact, they were working on a job when my parents met. Mike later told me that my mother looked like Grace Kelly and that everyone was pinning for her, and my old man was the lucky son of a bitch who walked away with her, god bless him. They were in Addis Ababa filming "Africa" a TV special for National Geographic. My dad told me that when he was talking to Hali Salasi Fox was behind the Ethiopian leader making monkey faces at him trying to get him to bust up. Sure sounds like something Mike would do.
Anyhow, I don't think he stayed with us for more than a couple of dayshe took a little vacation through New England that he hasn't stopped talking about ever since. But while he was with us, the man spoiled us, bought us chocolate whipped cream in a bottle--"Are you sure your mother buys this for you?" "Of course, uncle Mike." "Right, just wanted to make sure." It was all shtick. Mike tore around the wet leaves of the Croton streets in an absolute tank of a rental car, coming to a skidding halt in front of Mike Gitelson's house, and providing laughs all day long.
Fox's visit was a complete surprise and it brightened everybody's spirits to no end, including the old man. I decided to stay in touch with Mike by writing him a letter a couple of weeks laterhe had encouraged letter writing in the first place. That began an intense correspondence over the next six or seven years that played a major role in formative years. Fox, like my father and my uncle Fred who I mentioned yesterday, all had very strong convictions about art and the creative process and discipline. I took bits of what each of them imparted to me and used it as the foundations for how I approach writing or any other creataive enterprise today.
I've been meaning to share some of Mike's letters with you. Figured I'd run 'em occasionally, see what you think. The late eighties was a productive time for Mike in terms of feature work--he most often worked on commericals, or videos or even TV. But back-to-back, Mike was the operator on John Boorman's wonderful memoir "Hope and Glory" (1987) as then Stephen Frear's shrewdly efficient "Dangerous Liaisons." (1988). Mike gave me an unsentimental education on all things he considered importantchasing girls, spelling, grammar, marriage, tracking shots, good scripts, Thatcher's England, political correctness and manners. At times, he lectured and ranted. He berated and hollered, the conservative old mule. But he always cared. I still have all of his letters1987-1991 is the most active period, and having re-read some of them recently, I feel blessed to have had them in my life. I'd ask the guy a question about zoom lens and I'd get a seven-page typed letter in reply. How dope is that?
I mean, don't you ever miss getting letters?
I know I do. Anyhow, I'll start at the beginning. I must have sent Fox a few things around the holiday season in '84. Here is his first letter back to me. It is typed on light blue paper that has Fox's home address printed in another shade of light blue on the top right hand corner.
Alexander Goonington-Smythe Esq,
67 Bari Manor,
Old Post Road,
8 January 1985
My Dear Smythe,
Thank you tones for your delightful note, the contents of which, I found electrifying
It is indeed a long time since we last communicatedtoo long a time, I fear. I blame you for this, of course; it's something we adult can usually get away with when dealing with snotty kids.
Providing it wasn't copied or traced, I was most impressed with the enclosed line drawing of the jocks at work. I take it that the latter is your workyou didn't see fit to tell me. You have talent and I hope this is equally reflected in your guitar-playing technique. You'll be please to knownay, I'm sure, proudthat we have US football every Sunday for an hour on national TV here (Channel 4) and that it has been so well received during the last two years that we are to have baseball too. Isn't that wunnerful? English soccer has gained itself such a fearfully bad reputation over the last decadeboring, defensive and thus negative play; few goals; tatty stadia and, worse much worse, the mindless and brutal violence of a significant number of its younger fans (they can't really be described as 'fans' since they've all but destroyed the game for everyone). This season has hardly seen any UK football for many reasons not least because attendances are at an all time low and, having fallen into disrepute, sponsorsnow a necessary evilare refusing to be associated with the sport. In contrast, US football is full of colour and action and information; the pitches are immaculate and the team-strip is nothing if not imaginative and equally colourful to such an extent that a UK leagues has formed and we are now playing the game here.
I thought you could only be a 'freshman' at university. [I was a freshman in high school.] So you are cruising chicks, are you? Well what happened to that quaking little jelly-baby who was so terrified of asking the devastating Mo-neek for a date, that I had to do it for himand I'll bet you didn't show! When you say 'older women', I take it you mean 16-year olds.
Thank Mike and John and the rest of the goon-gang for sending me their love. I'm touched, and I send my back forthwith.
I shot a video-promo (actually it was film) of a band called Style Council at Wembley arena just before Christmas. Have you heard of them? I didn't think too much of their musicthey seemed to be trying to play black music and I'm prejudiced enough to think that only blacks can do thatand oh, so brilliantly do they. I'll never, as long as I live, forget the Stevie Wonder concert in Rotterdam. It's spoilt it for me
Had an interesting job after that shooting from a helicopter over London at low level (800ft). The weather was perfect and even quite warm at altitude (you'll appreciate that he have to fly with the door offwell-strapped in, of course) and the morning sun was low and golden and thus threw everything into sharp relief. We did this for two days and I got to know London all over again, but from the air. The main impression is how close to everything else it is to everythingand so it is, but you try driving a half-mile in even moderate traffic and that didstance [sic] seems infinitely longer than it really is. This seems like a banal existenceperhaps it isbut it was the first and last impression I had overflying my hometown for such an extended period. For your information, LondonGreater London as it's known, that isis about 40 miles across and almost the same going north and south. You'll excuse me for adding that, particularly from the air, it is surely with Paris, the most beautiful capital city on earth. I'll take great delight in showing it to you when you come over.
My daughters are finestill driving me batty regulairly [sic]. I had super presents for Christmas plus a very good time and I hope that you did too. I'm really sorry that I didn't send you any giftsit was just that time and the awful effort of it all go the better of me. I don't like to admit to youit's a problem me and G. Washington have and had.
I hope you and the other two (who I cannot bring myself to name) are seeing lots of your old dad and giving him lots of love and understanding. You don't need any advice from me on that, I know, but last time her wrote, he seemed a little low. A hug and a kiss come in handy to a dad at a time like that.
Please thank Sam and Ben for all the lovely letters and tell them I haven't replied only because I just can't keep up with their output. [I was the only one who had written to Mike at that point, though later, Sam, and especially Ben shared a correspondence with him too.]
Best of love, Alex, old buddyand thanks for writing
[Written in script and signed in red ink]
And that, as they say, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. More to come.