At Canter’s: Mary and Me

Super Bowl Sunday, San Pedro–style: At the Indian Room, top, it was business as usual for (from left) Lisa, Ivan and Harry. Meanwhile, at The Spot, customers Susan and Tammy helped out at the grill — because not every football fan can live on beer and chips alone. Photos by Slobodon Dimitrov

Someone once asked Kurt Vonnegut why he wrote. He said, “I write to kill time. Why are we here? We are here to kill time — to fart around. That is my view.”

I fart around at Canter’s Deli. I do it with Mary Woronov. The name may be familiar. Mary was a movie star. She was in a movie in 1982 called Eating Raoul that had a modest success. Later, it became a cult favorite. Mary is a painter, really. She is a painter who supports herself through acting jobs. She’s had many shows, but the paintings are a hard sell.

We get together once or twice a month to split a Reuben sandwich at Canter’s. I like talking to Mary. She is depressive, a type I normally avoid, but she is a funny depressive. She is smart and has a good critical mind. She is into philosophy, anthropology, primitive myths and so forth. It’s only when she involves herself with men that her instincts betray her.

There is something about Canter’s. It relates to the concept of time and the puzzling ways this concept can be altered by the environment. Canter’s would have been a good place for Einstein — another Jew who enjoyed a good Reuben — to invent the theory of relativity. It’s open 24 hours, and you can sit there for 24 hours, and some people do.

We pass the Canter’s bum, hunkered outside the door, on the way in. There are several Canter’s bums. They work in shifts.

We eat in the back room — a cavernous space used for parties and banquets. It’s quiet, and we are not near people. (Will Rogers said he never met a man he didn’t like. Charles Bukowski said he never met a man he liked. Mary falls into the Bukowski category.)

Our conversations always begin the same way. Mary says, “I have no money.”

Here is a woman with a beautiful studio to paint in, no day job, her time is spent painting or writing or day-trading on her laptop, and on Sundays she hits the Hollywood farmers market to buy organic produce for $4 a pound. It’s amazing what passes for being broke these days.

She says, “I want to kill my mother.”

This is more like it. We are both members of the aging-mother club. Mary’s mother is 85; mine is 87. Her mother lives in Florida. Last week she drove the car through the front of a store. Now they want to yank her license.

For auditions, Mary uses an impersonation of her mother responding to an unacceptable notion such as: No more driving. She screws her features up, peels back her lips to reveal pointy little fangs, and her hands come up in front of her like paws, nails forward, puncturing the air. Then she screeches obscenities. It’s terrifying.

This is why we must isolate ourselves in the back room of the restaurant.

While Mary’s mother was driving the car through the storefront in Florida, my mother was falling down a flight of stairs at the airport hotel in Buffalo, New York, breaking her hip, as it turned out, on her way back to Los Angeles — to Ontario Airport, where I picked her up, got her (and her new wheelchair) into the car and onto the freeway for the drive to her home in Yucca Valley.

On the freeway she says, “I have to pee.”

Pause.

“Why didn’t you pee in the plane — or at the airport where they have 170 toilets?”

“I was in too much pain.”

I’ll make a long story short. After controlling her bladder for 2,700 miles she gets to within 25 feet of her own toilet and there she is, standing outside the car, and she can’t move another centimeter and pees her pants in the driveway.

Mary says, “They should just be put to sleep.”

We move on: the stock market. We are both in the market, getting hammered. I have read many books about the market, and they all agree on one thing: You must have a system. Every day, Mary takes her dog for a walk around the block at 3 p.m., and coming in the other direction is a neighbor with his dog, and when they meet the neighbor gives her a stock tip. That’s Mary’s system.

 

We talk about painting.

I say, “There’s an opening tomorrow — in West Hollywood. I’ve seen this woman’s work. Its great. You would like it.”

This one doesn’t have a prayer. Mary’s been to 400 openings. She despises openings — including her own. Her attitude is: Just buy the fucking painting!

Next: movies. This is a short conversation. I haven’t seen a movie in seven years. I have declared a moratorium. It’s a long story. Now Mary insists it is time to terminate the moratorium and the movie to do it with is a German film, The Princess and the Warrior, which, as I understand it, documents the many laughs to be had by inhabiting an insane asylum.

I say, “Somehow, I know not why, the idea of sitting through two hours of a movie revealing the intimacies of life inside a German insane asylum has zero appeal for me.”

So it goes for two hours. We eat, and drink coffee, lost in our thoughts, a couple of artist/writer types with nothing to keep them going but some dismal hope that the future will work out better than the past. But what future? We’re pushing 60 — the future is Forest Lawn.

She mentions Paul Bartel. Paul wrote and directed Eating Raoul. He died two years ago, but we continue to speak of him. Why? Because Paul, for years, had promised a sequel to Eating Raoul, and Mary was to star as per the original — at a salary of $75,000, which would have been $72,500 more than she received the first time around.

One day Paul called. He said, “It’s set. I am making the movie. I have the money.”

The next day he dropped dead.

The check arrives. It’s always the same — $21, and I always give Paul, the waiter, $4 because my mother was a waitress, and I tell Mary to give me $12, and she fishes around in her wallet mumbling about money, waiting for me to relieve her agony. Sometimes I do because, as she once said, “When they stop buying your lunch — or paying for your drugs — you know you are finished.”

I pay the check, and we get in line at the bakery counter to buy an apricot macaroon for the dog. In front of us is a guy who catches sight of Mary pacing back and forth in her way, and he says, “Aren’t you Mary Woronov?”

He brightens up, and so does she. She can turn on the charm when she wants to, and let’s face it — you must defer to your fans.

We head home. Mary wants me to see a painting she’s working on. She lives in a courtyard-type situation with a driveway down the middle and parking in back. You enter via a small room — a study area. There are books, paintings, memorabilia, souvenirs and artifacts gathered during her travels. The room has a thoughtful quality to it that is satisfying. It’s philosophical.

On her easel stands a large canvas, 60-by-72 inches, two people fucking. Well, you could say two people fucking or you could say: hideous creatures engaged in mortal combat. It could go either way. There is a green creature and a red creature. The green creature is on top looking up at the viewer in a disturbed way, out of this creepy landscape — a poisonous yellow sky above, with a tree below bearing some sort of nuclear fruit near a low stone wall she has managed to make look evil. The colors are wild — amazing.

Mary and I stand there before the painting, its two vile creatures with repellent skin tone banging amidst a piteous landscape.

I say, “I like it.”

—Jack Spiegelman

Restorations: Who Will Save This Film?

“Uh-oh, looks like the game has started,” says John Cassidy. He scrutinizes the movie quote that a colleague has written on a company marker board: “Before you go any further — I think you should know you’re not alone.” A smile of recognition stretches wide across Cassidy’s bulldog features.

“Do you know it?” he asks me. Not a clue.

Cassidy, following procedure in which quotes are added until the movie title is guessed, writes another line: “The Lone Ranger rides again — Yahoo!”

“How about now?”

“Uh.” I’m getting sheepish. “The Lone Ranger Rides Again?”

Cassidy laughs — I’m way off.

You’d never guess from the drab stucco exterior of this three-story building — let alone from the fluorescent functionality of its interior, give or take a few posters — but this is a place that could set any film buff’s heart fluttering.

 

Hollywood’s Film Technology Company, Inc., a lab that specializes in restoration work, is where many of the world’s great broken, scarred and decomposing films come when their corporeal beings need saving. Over its 30-year history, the company has worked on thousands of television shows and films, from home movies, to orphaned curios, to classics such as King Kong, Mildred Pierce, Battleship Potemkin and Citizen Kane.

Sometimes the lab acts as an intensive-care unit. When the footage of Ernest Shackleton’s miraculous 1914 Antarctic expedition arrived, the celluloid — later incorporated into George Butler’s documentary Endurance — was so brittle there was only one chance to run it through a special printer to save the images. Other times, when a film’s condition is stable, Film Tech acts like a primary-care physician. This is where Casablanca comes for its checkups.

Cassidy, who is a film timer, determines the proper exposure for every shot of a film so that when a new print is developed, the final product will have a consistent look. It’s painstaking work that leaves Cassidy little room for awe in the face of historic celluloid, especially when he’s threading something like the original camera negative for It Happened One Night through the spools of his analyzer deck. “I don’t get too emotional,” he says. “You can’t be on pins and needles and still do this job.” Still, Cassidy admits, “Sometimes I do have to stop and say, ‘Oh wow.’”

He recalls an otherwise routine inspection of an original negative for an episode of I Love Lucy. “It just hit me that I was holding the actual film that was in the camera — in the studio, in 1952 — when they were making the show that became the Vita-Meta-Vegamin episode. That’s the sort of thing that puts everything in perspective, knowing that you’re helping to save a part of our cultural history.”

On this day, the wow factor peaks when the gorgeous, eye-popping colors of a home movie shot by an American diplomat in China during the 1920s burst across the monitor in Cassidy’s darkened workroom. There’s something hypnotic in the way Cassidy shuttles back and forth between shots — a vibrant array of poppies, a parade of rainbow-scaled dragons — to set the light levels just so. Cassidy adds another movie quote to the trivia board (“Ah, codfish cakes deep-fried in antelope fat — I love it”), but I still can’t guess the film. He then turns to the reels of a short-lived black-and-white TV show from the 1950s called Love That Jill, a Lucy knockoff starring Anne Jeffreys.

“I have her autograph,” says Cassidy when he notices my attention waning as the unremarkable images go by. “My dad had a radio-interview show in Los Angeles called Luncheon at the Music Center, so I grew up meeting a lot of people — Maureen O’Hara, Jack Benny. Not bad for a kid of 12 or 14.” Not bad at all, but still, Love That Jill is no Casablanca. Of course, for Cassidy, that doesn’t matter.

“I try to treat everything with the same respect,” he says. “It’s a client’s property, but I also take a humanistic approach. Things are always getting rediscovered, and time changes attitudes. You never know when, or why, the film you’re working on may serve a need.” In the long run, for Cassidy — who finally ends my torment and reveals the source of the quotes, Howard Hawks’ African safari epic Hatari! — little having to do with film is trivial. —Paul Malcolm

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