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Saturday, September 15, 2012

"Remember the Empire Hotel!"

Humphrey Dixon flies into town. Jim and Ismail are seeking his advice on what to do with "The Bostonians." We meet for a meal, he tells me about his life in LA, and we have quite a time reminiscing about some of our common experiences working for Ismail and Jim.

On one of their pictures, Humprey arrived in New York, late at night. I believe it was to edit Dick Robbins' little film about street musicians. Anyway keys were left for him somewhere to some friend's apartment. An hour after he picked up the keys he got to the place which was at the other end of Manhattan, and naturally the keys didn't fit. He spent the whole night wandering midtown looking for a room. The President was in town or something. Finally he found a ground floor windowless cubicle in the Empire hotel. He took it and paid cash.

"I was afraid of getting mugged in the lobby! And the mice in the room, not to mention the MOLES! Yes Moles!"

"Weren't they rats?"

"No." Humphrey said. "They were moles. I know moles when I see them. They have the little frilly pink noses. And there were a lot of them. I think there was a hole in the floor below the bed that led to bare ground."

"Too bad they're not putting you up in the Empire now! It's been acquired by some big company. They're going to make into a luxury hotel. Restore it to former grandeur!"

"Luxury my ass!"

We had a good laugh. Merchant-Ivory somehow always got us into the places that are cheap, but interesting. If a carpet-bagger with wads of cash had followed us buying up the real estate they'd have made millions.

Now Humphrey's got a high paying job in L.A. editing a film for a big production company. After he signed the contract the producer gave him a Lincoln Continental. All their editors got a car, a villa with pool and a tennis court, free meals, and plane tickets. He can't quite believe it all.

"None of this was in my contract with them. They gave it all to me later. They said, 'Give us the receipt for that, we'll pay it!' "

Yet between all this talk of striking it rich in Hollywood, I sensed Humphrey's longing for the underpaid work he did for Merchant-Ivory.

In later years, a man wants to touch his roots. No mention of what's to happen with me on "Bostonians", though I sense Humphrey is routing for his star assistant.

On the way home I remembered the crash courses Humphrey gave me in editing room procedures, protocol and techniques. He's old school, a Brit, dour as they come, given to flashes of gentle smiles and laughter, but sanguine on most topics. This is what made him such a brilliant editor on his first editing job, "Autobiography of a Princess", undoubtedly one of Jim's very best films.


I received a great letter from Barney, written so well I am touched with envy. He writes the way any person does when they write at their best. How long has it been since words have flowed that way for me? When the words sit happily, form an image, bulge with humor, laughter, confidence. Images one can call up and remember later. The letter arrived after his short trip to India with Zakiya to do publicity for one of Shashi Kapoor's films. He wrote me in his letter that he regrets having made the trip:

"A week of preparation, a week of traveling and a week to recover afterwards

"Bombay is still a slum, always will be," he added.

On this point I know he is so wrong, but the way he wrote it was so funny that I let it slide by. This disconsolate note led me to think he doesn't quite understand the sources of strength in his own work. Our trip to India challenged Barney, made him stretch, he felt himself put out, his privacy invaded, his senses bombarded, his tastes insulted, but after recoiling from this his writing became stronger. He dwells on these bits of ire with a sense of humor. A writer must constantly laugh at himself, must never become absolutely certain that he himself isn't a fool of fools.

At the urging of Ismail, I'm reading "The Stranglers" by George Bruce, a scholarly book based on the experiences and work of Major William Sleeman, putting an end to Indian Thugs, or the 'Thuggee'. These were professional assassins, that travelled India performing ritual murders, usually in very remote places. They were almost entirely unknown until the 19th Century when their practices were uncovered and their followers brought to justice by Sleeman, who learned that the "Thugs", hence the origin of the word, were worshippers of Kali, that murdered religious pilgrims for their gold and silver, and covered up their crimes by disemboweling and de-limbing their victim's bodies, then burying the pieces in pre-dug graves.

John Master's "The Deceivers", about the same subject, lacks the truthfulness that this volume makes up for tenfold. The script for Merchant-Ivory's version of "The Deceivers", should be based on truth, on the facts of the Thuggee in India, and not on John Master's purple-prosed, and watered down version of it.

I bought the book at considerable cost from a collector, at Ismail's behest. No mention on refunding my cost on that - he knows I want the editing job on  'The Bostonian's'. No word yet but in any event they want me to work on "The Perfect Murder", and if that doesn't get funded, "The Deceivers" as well.

I pack for India.

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