Juan Gris, The Table (1914)
TENDER BUTTONS: A MOVIE
—for Gertrude Stein
“All the seats…”
suppose it’s a movie—that’s always playing. during the day—and during the night too. all the seats—they’re full & taken. full of young soldiers—back from the war. go red go white—go red white & blue. give me a kiss—my purring movie's all yours.
pretty boy blues
i got the pretty boy blues—sittin’ up late at night. i got those pretty boy blues—with the big lady who knows. i got the pretty boy blues—here in paris. down the back alley—rue de fleurus. i got the pretty boy blues—i’ll never go back home again. i got the pretty boy blues—cause there’s no “there” there. i got the pretty boy blues—cause there never was any there “there…”
a long gay book
gimme your pudding—gimme your sauce. i got a long gay book—waiting just for you. the tunes you play—your standards so high. i got a book just for you—hear the paper crinkle? it’s got a cover—a still life by juan gris. it’s a calling card—just for you. full of tender buttons—portraits so blue.
movies here & now—movies way back then. movies everywhere—stop! stop! gimme a nice kiss—one that’ll really show up nicely. at cannes—and make me famous. gimme a movie—that’ll make me rich. my ears are ringing—my pussy’s plain. plain edition for me—alice knows best. gimme a poodle—gimme some pearls. i don’t have time—for old billy goats. cecile demille—sunset boulevard. gimme that ticket—i wanna be flippant. i wanna laugh—i wanna give the world some lip.
a balcony means—hold me tight. things are likely—to change pretty fast. a balcony means—looking down from above. at the magic screen—that’s far down below. a balcony means—a place for reviews. little things like—learning to see. can you stand it—another lookie-see? the way it used to be—back then at the bijou. popcorn and candy—milky ways & snickers. jujubes pepsi-cola—sticky knee floors. suppose the movie—the snows of mt. kilimanjaro. looming on the screen—just for you & me. hemingway & susan hayward—conversing on the veldt. his leg is swollen—soon he’ll die.
in between scenes—gregory peck back in paris. then humphrey bogart’s down in casablanca—on the tarmac with claude rains. ingrid bergman is flying off—with paul henreid again. dooley wilson’s is playing the piano—“you must remember when.” peter lorre & sidney greenstreet—are having a smoke in the lobby. max steiner & conrad veidt—they’re in the men’s room. “it’s the beginning of a new friendship”—bogart says to raines…
a little called love
a little called anything—is better than nothing at all. says the young handsome soldier—who shudders in the dark. no more wars—no more popes? no more ugly o’reilly’s puss—pressed against the tv screen? it’s absurd—watching tv anymore. the lies, the spies, the beltway spats. gimme a movie—gimme some love. here in the balcony—in the bijou dark.
if lilies are lily white—and popcorn too. what color is my face—in the dark with you? if the screen is silver—if technicolor is black & blue. what’s the difference—between then and now? me & you? no more john wayne—no more westerns. no more hanoi hilton—no more viet nam. no more napalm—lets try something new. something that kills—with schlock & awe? such charming movies—netflix so de rigueur. i got movies du jour—i be cineaste pure. i’m not uptight—i’m totally relaxed. who needs cineplex malls—when i’m at home with you?
the movie is film noir—slim, trim & sleek. slim with light—noir with shadows. a little learning curve here—a little volume turned up over there. surely there’s some closure—a happy ending to it all? film noir is liquid—more fluid than books. books take time to read—movies are easy.
movies aren’t necessary—to show blank spaces. the difference between one-minute sound bytes—and stories about people. it used to be different—big bijou covered the land from la to nyc. those big bette davis eyes—looked down on us so sadly. now it’s different—i’ve got a flat screen in my bedroom. the screen tells me stories—but not like it used to.
a place for movies—a plush carpet stairway. crushed red velvet curtain—darkness deep & old. shiny brass railings—balcony calling me home. tiers of plush chairs—designed for dreams. slinky shaft of light—projection booth whirr. down there the screen—up here the theater.
the meaning of this—it’s enticingly left up to you. it shows sudden faces—bette davis & margo channing. astonishingly how—she could love and hate you at the same time. fasten your seat belts—it’s gonna be a bumpy ride. i hear her saying—looking around the bijou. “what a dump!?!”—the whole audience laughs.
where’s my umbrella—so i can dance the streets? so i can do gene kelly—singing in the rain? where’s my sword—so i can do the “z”? slice up the villains—be a gay zorro today? where’s my big sleep—where’s my key largo? where’s murder, my sweet—clair trevor’s terrible smirk? where’s dick powell & mike mazurki—where’s farewell, my lovely? where’s raymond chandler—when i really need him? to get thru my stupid life—with his smooth noir dialog? where’s my titanic—when i’m going down? where’s my great escape—when i really need out? where’s the utter joy—the wry wit & great dreams? the extravagant camp—that makes my day? where’s the movie—to translate life for me? showing me the mistakes i’ve made—how yesterday’s gone, gone, gone? where’s the salad dressing—the artichoke that talks? the day without a center—the tender bijou night?
film is a kind of glass—it’s got a strange hurt. you can see thru it—the light is spreading. an expensive cigarette case—a glittering chandelier lobby. so handsome & convincing—so polished like yesterday. the beveled mirror’s edge—borrowing ghostly images from the past. the marquee flashing below—the church across the street. the world can be so callous—turn up the volume please. a costume change is needed—to oyster the night. to give a likely roundness—a place to drape my pearls. see the gold tassels—gracing the doorways? how subdued the red velvet—adds class to your every move? like that jar in tennessee—putting all the quotidian violence in quotes? if you believe in such nonsense like i do—it shows how reckless & nostalgic you are. the world’s out there—we’re in here.
light blue rays
light blue rays—shining down thru the darkness. the reckless swoons & old terraces—the gilded closets with a thousand secrets. the movie plays on—the whole scene groans. when maria montez—displays cobra island in all its fatal decadent beauty. the way fay wray faints—all the way from skull island to the empire state building. the way mamie van doren leans up against the refrigerator—putting the make on russ tamblyn in high school confidential. a beautiful sex-crazed aunt—her cool-as-as-cucumber cute nephew. moody marilyn monroe pouts—suave george sanders schmoozes. those manhattan cocktail parties—with all their bitchy campy one-liners. kim hunter morose—takes the next bus to wichita. corny kansas ain’t so cute anymore—when a guy like william holden shows up. dancing at the picnic—with a smile & shirtless. shirley booth standing on the porch—calling out every night. “come back little sheba—where have you gone?” terry moore and richard jaeckel—making out upstairs in the bedroom. burt lancaster getting drunk—he knows how to do it right. natalie wood going down on warren beatty—splendor in the grass set in kansas. even though it’s filmed on staten island—and upstate new york. william inge writing the screenplay—especially for warren’s film debut. wishing he could be natalie—down on his knees. it’s lucky he didn’t have a mental breakdown—and get institutionalized like her. funny how intellectualizing makes things worse—sometimes tearing families & lovers apart. ending up years later—in a locked fume-filled garage. inge sitting in his mercedes—with the engine left running. darkness at the top of the stairs—darkness deep in the human heart.
once handsome richard burton—shakespearian movie star. tied-up burned-out old lush—in a jungle mexican hammock. night of the iguana nightmare—ava gardner crooning him the sad blues. truman capote and harper lee—taking the santa fe super chief to holcomb, kansas. lonely motel nights in garden city—young killers stalking the high plains wheatfields. tall poplars in the prairie night—pale white grain elevators in the moonlight. how much more nihilistic can you get—than the silence the clutter family knows? hush, hush, sweet charlotte—the south knows grisly murder too. southern gothic more classy—than midwestern gothic for sure. leave it to bette davis & olivia de havilland—they know how to ham it up. plots to drive you crazy—plantations full of murder. but nothing compared to imitation of life—douglas sirk’s ultimate glitzy soap-opera. beginning with the cascading jewels—the diamonds and sapphires of the unfolding credits. lana turner shocked to find out—her own daughter, sandra dee, has stolen her lover, handsome john gavin. juanita moore’s mulatto daughter, susan kohner, trying to pass—getting beat up by troy donahue in an alley. when he finds out the awful truth—susan has strong urges to be white trash like him. how dare she be so uppity—how the box office sales soar across the country. such lurid scandals—such prices to be paid. for fame and fortune—and the rains of ranchipur.
the movie critic
addison dewitt—where was he when i needed him? “and what’s your name?” dewitt asked. “i call myself phoebe,” i said. he looked me over—telling me i looked like a phoebe. “there never was, and never will be, another phoebe like you,” dewitt said. “we movie folk—we have abnormalities in common. we’re a breed apart—from the rest of humanity.” i told him i wasn’t modest—i never tried to kid my myself. “a revolutionary approach—to the movies,” dewitt said. ”i’m going to take a nap now,” i told him. “why not?” he said. “the mark of a true killer—sleep tight, rest easy and come out dishing.” i looked dewitt over—after all a movie critic might come in handy. “that i should want you at all—suddenly strikes me as the height of improbability,” dewitt said. “but that in itself is probably the reason. you’re an improbable person, phoebe, and so am i. we have that in common. also our contempt for humanity—and inability to love & be loved. insatiable ambition—and talent. we deserve each other.” i tried playing hard to get—although the director’s couch was nothing new to me. “what do you take me for?” dewitt said. “look closely, phoebe. it’s time you did. i am addison dewitt. and i’m nobody’s fool, least of all yours.” i told him i didn’t know what he was talking about—i asked him to please say what he had to say? plainly & distinctly—and then get out. “very well, plainly & distinctly,” dewitt said. “i didn’t come to hollywood just to see the movies, discuss your dreams, or view the palm trees of los angeles. i’ve come to tell you—that after tonight you will belong to me.” belong? i asked. to you? “what a dull cliché, phoebe,” dewitt said. “you can do better than that.” belong to you, i asked. it sounded so medieval & melodramatic. “so does the history of hollywood, my dear,” dewitt said. “since norma desmond & sunset boulevard.” i laughed at him—he bitch slapped me. “remember, now—as long as you live. never laugh at me—anybody else but not me.” i walked to the door—i told him to get out. “you’re too short for that gesture—besides, you want an oscar don’t you?” later at a cocktail party—“oh author!” i said. “that’s not an author,” addison dewitt said. “that’s a playwright.” but what was i supposed to do? call out oh playwright—get me another martini? “you have a point,” dewitt said. “an idiotic one, but a point.” i got moody and morose. “you’re maudlin & full of self-pity,” dewitt said. “you’re magnificent when you pout .” i’d made my first stage appearance—at the age of four in midsummer night’s dream. i played puck the fairy & entered—quite unexpectedly—stark naked. i’d been a star ever since. a great star—a true star. i never was or could be—anything else. “wait until you read my column in the tv guide,” dewitt said. “it’ll make minutes fly like hours.” you see—addison dewitt was a movie critic. his native habitat—was hollywood. in it he toiled not—neither did he spin gold from straw. dewitt was a critic & commentator—essential to hollywood. and me? i was just phoebe—a mere earthling. a wannabe movie star—a graduate of the copacabana school of dramatic art.
notes to tender buttons
show me does tender buttons work—as a surreal or cubist movie? is it possible to film such a modernist piece? what would the filmscript be like? without the standard narrative protocol of plot, character complication & closure? the juan gris painting “the table” on the cover of the sun & moon classic editions paperback alludes to the compositional problem. like many of his still-life compositions, multiple perspectives, the inclusion of pages from a detective novel as well as the headlines from a newspaper & the de-centering of the highlighted oval—all of this complicates narrative as we know it. gertrude stein’s approach to cubist storytelling is tender buttons—an ongoing opining about food, objects and rooms. she has a dialogical eyeball for everything around her. she ad-lib’s & improvises as she moves along. is this simply all her imagination—an "autobiographical " composition with multiple perspectives without closure or storyline? i've got my own theory about auto-poetics. basically, it's performance art. entering the "continuous present," going thru the stein protocol: beginning again & again, etc. everything she says in "composition as explanation." so that last night i had this dream about stein. to me dreaming is the continuous present. the same with ralph ellison’s writings on jazz & dj spooky’s sampling techniques in cds like optometry or cage’s in a landscape. stein was doing lithographs of herself in a studio. self-portraits. they were beautiful. better than picasso or juan gris. after a cup of coffee in the morning, i went thru the dream in my head. and bingo, i was into that same continuous present. i opened my copy of tender buttons and immediately "translated" it into something ad-lib & autobiographically relevant to me. movies and dreams, as bunuel says, are meant for each other. so that's how i wrote tender buttons: a movie. we'd been discussing bunuel's nihilistic los olvidados (1950) here in the movie club forum. i understood perhaps for the first time the "immediacy" of tender buttons in terms of translating it into a movie. a stein-esque filmscript. i don't know whether it works or not—it’s just an experiment in film crit. it does seem "autobiographical” to me. a kind of bijou performance piece. so much of language poetry seems to me to be "performing" what stein has already done. each poet & moviegoer is totally unique—which in a way makes each film “automatically autobiographical."