Friday, August 15, 2008
In a similar vein to its geological younger sister, the state of Montana, Iowa City works magic on me. In the middle of gently rolling green country springs up this arty little college town with brick streets and farmhouse neighborhoods of wide porches, shaggy gardens and droopy shade trees. I spent two year of graduate school here, watching lots of movies, making some of my own, helping friends make theirs, writing a bad paper here and there (I didn’t learn until my second stint in grad school that “pulling an all-nighter” is a technique for bad work, not a study skill), spending precious time in bars and at pool tables and in bed.
“Too much boy and not enough books,” said my buddy Kyle when I flunked my comprehensive exams on the first try. Not that there were such a large number of boys (I can’t call them men because as Don Draper via Mathew Weiner put it so well, “the young don’t know anything; they don’t even know they’re young,”), but those few (those unhappy few) took up most of my time, energy and attention - whether they wanted to or not. Ah, but the drama boys are all long gone – on this trip, I am reuniting with friends.
Last weekend’s reunion took place in our nineteenth year since graduation, the first reunion was nine years after we left. Don’t ask why the funky numbers, it just kind of makes sense. Kyle wasn’t able to make this trip because of work, which is easy to forgive. Jim, on the other hand, who is apparently going by “James” now, refused to come, saying, “I’m not thinking about the past; right now I’m all about the future.” Kim, as kind as ever, said she was not sure how to think about that. Sally said she knew exactly how to think of it. So we are making “James” an F-you video, standing in front of Iowa City landmarks and happily crowing, “I’m living in the past!”
The two days in Iowa were a steady stream of food and drinks and big laughs and old stories and walking, gasping over the news of old friends, the transformations of the town and the soft faces of the children walking the streets. I laughed so much that all the stale air in the bottom of my lungs was squeezed out and floated away.
Dianne (who wasn’t in film school with us, but came to Iowa after I left) and I sat and talked for a couple of hours and it was like a tonic. So deeply great to be with a good friend who knows you, who you know well and yet want to know so much more about. Being with her is a gift.
On the drive up with Clark and Kim (now married, not going together in Iowa, Kim was with Kyle then – all the shuffling’s a little Secaucus Seven, isn’t it?), the games began that continued all weekend: What familiar movie, when you come across it cable flipping, sucks you in like a vortex no matter how many times you’ve seen it? Your five desert island films. Five bad films that could have been great but for some bad creative decisions (I said the blink editing ruined the spectacle of Moulin Rouge!, which was on Eric's list of favorites; he said the miscasting of Paul Dano and the music of There Will Be Blood killed it for him.) Greatest TV series ever. Five guilty pleasures (Ice Castles!) Five best made for TV movies (Boy in the Plastic Bubble, Jessica Lange in Normal, The Day After, that other terribly sad end of the world film with Jane Alexander - ah yes, it was Testament, Longford.)
At the first meeting at the Sanctuary, the applause that we gave Sally all the way from Rhode Island and Don and his wife Emily extended throughout the entire bar. Over black and tans and framboise lambic and smoked trout pizza, we reeled off old names and got the news: teaching, married, lost his golden looks, ill, unknown, living in upstate New York. The web extends - Carlos Rojas Cardona was the matchmaker for Clark and Kim! Eric introduced Don and Emily! Sally was along for Eric and Burton's first date! There is the head rush of recognition – a door opens suddenly and you are there again - that face, her smile, his story! You know again the quality the light had, the smell of that room.
The next morning we gathered in our pajamas, well, Sally and Emily and I wore our jammies for breakfast. More screams of laughter. Kookelorus is a kind of a scrim or shade used on a film set that will create a pattern of shadows when placed in front of a light. It's a word that I barely remember and can't believe I once used casually in conversation a long time ago.
We pass the morning walking to our old apartments, posing for pics and telling stories. Bix, of course, wins the prize with this bat shooting incident. We never find Barry's log cabin; he claims it is long gone, yet another in his long line of stories that are too fabulous to be believed – relationships with people none of us met, his own production company, an Imax film about the sun! Sure, Barry, sure.
Sunday. The beautiful Iowa River that flows through the heart of campus flooded two months ago. Hundreds of hard-hatted workers from Catastrophe Operations begin the day on the arts campus. I pass them as I run in the opposite direction, many say good morning. I shiver to think of the mold growing unseen in unreachable corners of buildings where water should never touch. Giant yellow and white tubes slink from diesel generators pumping dry air into the doors and windows of the union, our Communication Studies Building, the library, the theaters, the arts campus buildings, the museum. The artwork has been long ago transported to Chicago in air-conditioned trucks. There are plans to sell the jewel of the collection, an enormous Jackson Pollack, for cleanup funds.
Jeff, who is a landscape architect working for the National Park District, points out because the water table is still so high the beautiful trees we see around us on the riverfront may still be drowning, invisibly. The art students will paint in the abandoned Menards in south Iowa City this semester.
I just passed this bit of construction dross without a thought until Burton, who is an architect in Minneapolis, identified it as the weight needed to keep the manhole covers from exploding into the air. Don is in the picture for scale, insert joke here.
Of course everything reminds us of a movie. The whole event itself is very Big Chill, actually, now that I think about it, we’ve even got the peer who passed too soon – Jonathan, who I last saw at the 1998 reunion, a talented filmmaker and charismatic teacher died suddenly of a brain aneurysm in 2001 at 43. I had been using his last project, a reality series called American High, in a documentary unit I was teaching to my honors juniors when I received word of his death.
Kim mentions that downtown Iowa City on Friday night with the rockin' beer gardens and a hooka bar reminds her of the scene from It’s a Wonderful Life where Jimmy Stewart returns to his sleepy town to find it full of neon and noise. This begins a twenty minute riff on the better film, It’s a Fuckin' Great Life where Jimmy has the chance to cheat on his hooker girlfriend Violet, but when he passes, he is shown the tame and boring life that could have been. Alternate title Pottersville.
Other memorable moments. “We were married to women for 15 years,” says Mark the merry innkeeper at the Brown Street Inn. His partner Bob nods, then mimics a gun to his head. We sit there stunned, then Don yells, “Don’t I know it!” Emily hits him.
Kim announces at breakfast that she had a dream about Sam Waterston, then went to Google upon waking to find out if he was married. Yep, for twenty years. Eric asks, “So what do you have to Google to find out if YOU are married? ‘Married, me, question mark?’” Kim is turning red and shaking and crying and looks like she might need the Heimlich.
The first morning I apologize to the young woman who appears in her nightgown to grab a bowl of cereal. “I’m sorry we woke you.” “Oh I’m not awake,” was her reply.