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Swimming to Cassavetes

By Ben Pleasants.

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Tamar Simon Hoffs does her fifty laps every morning swimming to Cassavetes. Is that a place or a person? She’s an A-Type, funny, slender, tiny, not powerful. Nothing stops her. She’s driven by a humanistic good humor. Her husband is a UCLA psychiatrist with a specialty in mind-brain integration. Her daughter, Susanna Hoffs, was a Bang before becoming the lead singer for The Bangles. There are paintings of brains on the edge of her porch. It’s eleven a.m. on a warm Westwood morning. Early July, 2008.

In the UK, daughter Susanna calls to discuss her opening act the night before with The Police. Sting’s Police. ‘I’ll be Watching You.’ O.J’s theme song. Behind the house, beyond her lap pool is the famous Westwood Cemetery.

“He’s in it,” she tells me. Then Tammy mentions something about a haircut. My tape machine is acting up. The night before I’d been to Beverly Hills to see her film, Red Roses & Petrol. I liked it a lot. It’s from Joe O’Connor‘s play by the same name. It’s about Irishness. Tamar Simon Hoffs is not Irish. Maybe Viennese. The way Vicki Baum was. She wrote Grand Hotel and died happy in Hollywood.

The film packs a powerful, lyrical, poetic Irish wallop. Not at all what I expected. It resonates. It has fine pauses. It allows the actors to play with the language. It’s like an erased DeKooning line drawing. It’s spare and small and sad and real, from the sadness of the play itself. I’m wondering where she got that from. The pauses and the erased DeKooning that Robert Rauschenberg pulled off. You have to take the play apart piece by piece, in order to build it into a film.

Before breakfast I scanned a cruel review from the Village Voice written by Aaron Hillis. For Hillis the film did not resonate. He called it “bland as boiled cabbage.” Boiled cabbage can actually be quite savage, the way they make it in Dublin. But what Hillis wants you to know is the film is not really Irish. Shot in 2003, why, he wonders, did it take so long to get distribution? I’m sure he loved Iron Man.

I’m a playwright. I know about small productions without big advertising budgets and the bad reviews stringer critics can pile on when they don’t get their perks. The t-shirt and the plastic toy. Tamar is excited with her distributors and Hollis’ review doesn’t phase her at all. She is soaking wet from swimming to Cassavetes. Just the thought of it makes her smile.

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Contrary to what Aaron Hillis wrote, the film I’d seen the night before was as “fookin’ Irish” [sic] as they come. My mother and all her sisters were as Irish as Paddy’s pig. My friend, Joseph O’Neill, 7/8ths Irish and a psychologist, sat sobbing on my right side. He’s “feckin'” Irish too.

Didn’t matter the film was shot in the San Fernando Valley. It hit him pretty hard. A wake where no one comes. With “feckin'” Malcolm McDowell. And he was there through the whole film, alive in flashbacks. O’Neill had recently lost his mother, a Irish woman he loved and respected. There was the whole Catholic thing. Whether they should turn off the machine or not. Weighing a life. Erasing a DeKooning line drawing.

It’s all there in Joe O’Connor’s play and it’s all there in Tammy Hoffs’ film: the sum of a life of a university librarian played by Malcolm McDowell weighed out over a weekend with his two daughters, his wife, his son and a woman of mystery who keeps showing up. Irishness and Irish death. The old Irish songs and dances. The film moves lyrically through time. Forward and backward. The girl who keeps showing up is Colin Farrell’s sister Catherine. She gets it just right. There is discomfort in her presence. She carries you along with her sad, washed out beauty until it all makes sense. A sad, soft Bonnard painting in the rain, not boiled cabbage at all. Not what you thought.

His only son, played by Max Beesley, who makes it late to the funeral after making it first with a BOAC flight attendant on his way from London, is not Eugene O’Neill in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. The fights come early and then they soften. There’s not that sturm and drang of American sadism.

Joe O’Connor is the brother of Sinead O’Connor. It’s about his family. His sisters. His mother. His father. It’s more about the subtlety of who we all are. Isn’t that the joy of Indie films? A wake where no one shows up but the family. Or almost no one. Swimming to Cassavetes. I know that’s starting to bug you.

And here’s where he comes in: Joe O’Connor, brother of Sinead, writing about his father in his own Irish verbiage. Opens to that rich, peculiar Irish dance and music, through the soft night before the firelight. Aaron Hillis prefers Picasso to Bonnard, but Tamar Hoffs’ little film thrives on spare actors who are free to move with the camera. In their Irishness, erasing the lines of the play one by one until we are sitting there in the living room thinking about our own families and our own deaths and our own firelight. There’s a tiny bit of Our Town in the corner. It’s spare and lyrical and funny and profane and painful. It’s Cassavetes.

And there’s a reason: I recall how we all didn’t get him at first. He was an actor, not a director. Was he making home movies? Why was there all that … disconnection? The holding back, the pauses, the erasures! Very un-studio. But actors got it right away. They lined up to work for Cassavetes for scale. They knew what he was erasing. The act. The boiled cabbage acting of the studios. Because, real life has many secrets. And what does this have to do with Tammy Hoffs? Friends call her Tammy. It would take her half an hour to explain Tamar.

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Tamar Simon Hoffs had twenty four hours with John Cassavetes as a young director when she was studying directing at AFI. Twenty-four hours and in that time she did one of the greatest films Cassavetes ever starred in. The awkward silences and the hard pauses. She watched and let the camera roll. The film was The Haircut. Twenty-two minutes long. It’s from her script, not the Ring Lardner short story. It’s won a number of awards. It’s how she got Malcolm McDowell interested in her film, Red Roses and Petrol in the first place. She charmed him with her writing. It’s how she got to cut John Cassavete’s hair as a beginning director in her first film, The Haircut. Cassavetes read the script and loved the idea of doing a little film. A two-reeler. A short.

“He gave me twenty-four hours with total dedication and all his majesty as an actor and a director,” she told me. “And he’s out there.” She pointed beyond her pool. I’m not getting it.

“‘I’m yours for twenty-four hours,” he said. “Till the limo picks me up and takes me back to the studio.” She was a student then and she knew how to listen. He liked her language, the way she set up the scenes, the humor of it. He liked the idea that he could play with what she wrote. And there were good supporting actors. The coach from Cheers is the barber. The story is about the haircut of a lifetime for a big shot in the music business.

As he acted, or stripped away the actor’s tricks, Cassavetes taught her what a director should be. How to look for the moment to shut up and let the actor work. How to listen for what was inside the face of a human being giving what he really is. How to wait for the pauses that are true to life.

They all knew they had something magical in twenty-four hours. Susanna Hoffs, The Bangle who was only a Bang was in it. Her mother wanted to take her out, but Cassavetes loved it for its realness.

When it was done and he had given everything he could give, John Cassavetes stood in the street and stripped off his suit, shirt, and shoes, dropping into the back seat of the limo to return to the studio in his shorts. That’s why I said Hoffs was swimming to Cassavetes.

He’s out there beyond her backyard, in the Westwood Cemetery with Natalie Wood and Truman Capote and Donna Reed and Eve Arden, and yes, Marilyn Monroe, where the stars reside.

They’re just a straight line from her lap pool, which ends in a grave marker she bought from the cemetery. Twenty-five laps a day swimming to John Cassavetes and twenty-five laps swimming back to reality. Red Roses and Petrol is made with John Cassavetes’ hand on her shoulder. If that’s not “feckin’ Irish”, I don’t know what is.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ben Pleasants is a writer and the author of Visceral Bukowski: Inside the Sniper Landscape of L.A. Writers.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, July 26th, 2008.