Tigers in Lavender: 3
In 1951 Indiana University took over from Kenyon College a famed but underfunded institute, the School of English, which IU renamed the School of Letters. For years the Summer Institute of the School of Letters drew pre-eminent writers and scholars to give lectures and hobnob. In the summer of 1964 the guests included the poet John Hollander, who had earned his PhD at IU a few years before; the critic George Steiner; Robert Fitzgerald, poet and translator of Homer; and several others of note. Frank Kermode was to have come, but then could not.
Also in Bloomington that summer was a professor of Theater Studies named Gerald Rabkin, who the previous semester had taught the first course ever in film history at IU. It was a night course. Of course Lance and I (among a small number of others) took it. It consisted of lectures and discussion and the viewing of films, which the instructor (using his own money, I think) rented in 8mm copies from a company called Blackhawk in Davenport, Iowa. The films were in 8mm and came in ten minute reels, and were shown in class on a little home 8mm projector. We watched, among other films, the entirety (at least some of us did) of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, compromising twenty reels or so. It took a long time.
Gerry Rabkin was every undergrad’s dream of a teacher. He had a big shabby apartment in town, and threw parties to which students, grad students, and professors young and old came. He’d been an actor, he’d played in a skiffle band in the streets of London as a young man, he had an in at IU’s famed Kinsey Institute, where he was researching ancient porn films for a book (he got Lance and me in to see the recently acquired Scorpio Rising, Kenneth Anger’s art film about LA biker gangs). He was hip, but not pretentious, in fact funny and generous. Lance and I recruited him early on for a role in our film.
We planned a scene where the Anarchist Intenational inner council would meet to condemn and seek out our band of misfits. With Gerry’s help (they’d often been at his parties, where young women could be met) we interested several of the leading figures of the Summer Institute to play the figures of the council: Hollander, Fitzgerald, Steiner, a Portuguese scholar with a wonderful beard, and perhaps another I’m forgetting. I wrote brief speeches for them, describing the particular terrorist tricks each was expert in. We hit upon an appropriate setting – the entrance hall of the new Liberal Arts building, 50s grandiose, with a vast bas-relief map of the world on the far wall. Before this wall we set a long table in blond wood that we dragged from a conference room, and along the table a row of those shiny steel standing ashtrays that were everywhere on a campus where everyone smoked all the time. John Hollander liked the effect – “Very moderne,” he said “Rather Flash Gordon.”
We had suggested outfits for our anarchists, or brought things with us – I don’t remember. Steiner was a sinister Jesuit with priestly collar, Fitzgerald wore a black T-shirt, Hollander was a dishevelled Irish revolutionary. (It strikes me now how inapposite these were, as though on purpose, but really — the two Jews in Catholic and Irish circumstances – what did I know then?) We had borrowed a wheelchair somewhere, and I pushed while Lance filmed a tracking shot of the gang. Then each gave his speech – Hollander speaking darkly about standing with Pearse and Connolly at the GPO in ‘16, Fitzgerald holding a vial and saying how a minute amount of sodium thrown in water could make a huge explosion…I forget the others.
Then Gerry Rabkin, as an operative, was brought before the council and ordered to destroy the outcast separatists. I believe he was given the Luger. End of scene. We were proud of ourselves. The great difficulty, or germ of failure, was of course that we had no way to record sound in this very talky scene, and so it would have had to be dubbed if ever it reached that stage, and the perfectly apt voices of the humanists gathered there would never be heard.
We did film a chase scene, where Gerry Rabkin pursued our Cybulski, whose name ws Dale; he finally shot Rabkin with the Luger (there was only one, swapped from shot to shot as needed.). That’s largely all I remember of the scenes we shot — no, there was one where our anarchists planted a bomb in a trash can. The crual explosion would be filmed elsewhere and fitted in. Later on, when Lance and I and the beautiful blonde had moved to New York and sound film was possible I wrote a ort of frame story, where the leader of the breakaway anarchists (me) is in jail and writing a memoir, which was to serve as narration for the original silent footage. But nothing more actually eventuated.
Meanwhile Lance and I together and separately did become filmmakers, and did work we are proud of: but it was documentary films we made, not dreamy and impossible anarchist fantasy. Among the things we learned in this career was that the lines are, actually, not so far apart.