The one, the only, Nancy Nall asked me to tell this story.
First she had to tell it to me, because I'd forgotten it.
Nance remembered it because her memory had been jogged by the release of the movie Color Me Kubrick last week in the theaters and simultaneously on DVD.
Here's the story as Nance told me I told it to her.
Back in Indiana, I used to teach with a guy who did not look like John Updike.
This must be as distinctly understood as the fact that old Marley was dead or just as in A Christmas Carol nothing wonderful can come of the story. My collegue did not look like John Updike.
Updike is bony and angular with a long jaw and a big beak of a nose and a boyish mop of blond hair. At the time this story takes place he was in his mid-fifties. My colleague was in his thirties. He was barrel-chested and burly, with a round face and a snub nose. His hair was dark and he wore glasses with thick lenses. The only way he resembled Updike is that he was tall, well over six feet.
So, one day, my colleague was having lunch at a McDonald's in Indianapolis and as he was finishing up his Big Mac a woman approached his table. She had an apologetic air and looked ready to bolt like a rabbit approaching a dog it wants to borrow money from. She spoke to my colleague in a near whisper.
"I'm sorry to bother you," she said, "But I had to ask. Are you John Updike?"
And my colleague, without stopping to think for a second about what he was doing, smiled up at her and said, "Yes, I am."
It was reflexive. He wasn't a born liar or a habitual practical joker. He didn't make a hobby of going around impersonating famous authors. He was just responding to the woman's need to believe he was who she thought he was. It was so obviously important to her that she was meeting the real John Updike that he didn't have the heart to disappoint her. He became John Updike to help her out. He was doing her a favor the way he'd have told another stranger who asked the time or given them directions. The woman was thrilled when he said he was John Updike, but she was also relieved. She'd have been mortified if he'd turned out not to be Updike. As it was she was feeling a bit foolish for disturbing a stranger while he was eating. My colleague reacted instinctively to save her from embarrassment. He wanted her to be meeting John Updike and he wanted John Updike to be nice to her. So he was.
He invited her to sit down.
She was too shy and flustered but she had to tell him how much she loved his books. He was her favorite living writer, she said, still whispering, as if she was afraid that if anyone overheard a crowd would come rushing over to join them. She was reading Rabbit is Rich and it was wonderful, she said, and she showed him that she had it with her to read on her lunch hour.
My colleague said, "Would you like me to sign it for you?"
The woman nearly fell over. Of course that's what she wanted but she was afraid to ask. She handed him her book and he autographed it with a flourish. Inscribed it to her and dated it and everything.
She gushed her thanks and hurried off. My colleage was a little disappointed. He'd thought she wanted to talk about "his" books with him and was ready to oblige.
That was it. My collegue had never been mistaken for Updike before and probably never has been since. I have no idea if that woman ever realized she'd not met the real Updike. Given the way people's minds work and how bad most of us are with faces, odds are that even if she saw a picture of Updike later that afternoon she'd have convinced herself that it was the same guy she'd met in the McDonald's. I like to imagine that a long time afterwards she met the real Updike at a bookstore or college reading and asked him to sign a copy of Rabbit at Rest or In the Beauty of the Lilies and when she got home compared the inscription to the one in her old, treasured copy of Rabbit is Rich and wondered why Updike's handwriting had changed.
It's important to note that although he was ready and willing to play along longer than she needed him to, my colleague did nothing to convince that woman he was John Updike. She convinced herself before she even went up to him. She'd wanted to meet her favorite author and so she did.
The reason Nance was reminded of this story is that Color Me Kubrick is about a guy who looks and acts nothing like the film director Stanley Kubrick going around London in the early 1990s pretending to be the film director Stanley Kubrick.
Alan Conway, a failed travel agent turned petty grifter, wasn't doing anybody any favors by letting movie fans think they'd met a famous movie director. He took advantage of their self-deception, using their desperation to be liked and thought well of by a celebrity to get them to buy him drinks and meals, put him up for the night in nice hotels, go to bed with him.
After Nance told me the story of my colleague and about Color Me Kubrick I went out and rented it.
Don't rush. Unless you are a truly devoted fan of John Malkovich and have more than a passing interest in Stanley Kubrick, it's not much more than a witty diversion. Malkovich himself seems to be engaged in an experiment to discover just how creepy and repulsive he can be and the director, Brian Cook, seems to have been so fascinated and amused by Malkovich's experiment that he decided he didn't need to do much actual directing, he could just point the camera at Malkovich and let him loose, tossing him chunks of scenery to devour every now and then like a keeper at SeaWorld tossing fish to a particularly hungry and starved for attention killer whale.
Letting an actor do whatever he wants is a sign of either timidity or a complete lack of interest in the actual art of acting, which is what I suspect was going on in the case of Cook with Malkovich. But then Cook would have learned his indifference from the master of indifference.
Cook was the assistant director on three of Kubrick's last four movies. For some reason he missed working on Full Metal Jacket. Screenwriter Anthony Frewin was Kubrick's long time personal assistant and his screenplay is as indifferent to the characters of Conway and his victims as Cook is to the actors playing them. No surprise. Kubrick himself regarded characters as the excuse to make a movie and treated actors as merely the focus point for his camera. He was the coldest-hearted of great directors. (I'm talking about the side of himself that shows through in his films. For all I know he was a warm and loveable teddy bear of a guy in real life.) After Dr Strangelove, nothing like a real human being ever appeared again in a Kubrick film, except for Vincent D'Onforio's baby Marine in Full Metal Jacket, and I'm not sure his humanity isn't an accident of the absolutely inhuman way the character's treated.
Adams and Frewin seem to have made Color Me Kubrick because they saw it as an amusing way to send Kubrick a greeting card in heaven. The movie's full of in-jokes and affectionate allusions to Kubrick's movies. My favorite is the very opening shots of the movie which starts with a couple of bowler-hatted young thugs who look like rejects from Alex's gang in A Clockwork Orange on their way to break into a house and re-enact the rape scene. Turns out that they are a couple of extreme Kubrick fans who think they're on their way to Kubrick's house to pick him up and take him out to dinner.
There's an I'm Spartacus moment that's almost as funny, but takes place late in the film long after the point when I stopped caring about it.
The biggest inside joke, though, is the one that comes from the true story of Alan Conway. Conway knew absolutely nothing about Stanley Kubrick or his movies. This could have been the basis for a number of scenes in which Malkovich gets lectured to by his victims on what a great artist he is. As it happens, this is what happened to one of the actors in the film, Jim Davidson, who was actually met Conway back when Conway was passing himself off as Kubrick. A friend introduced Davidson to "Stanley Kubrick" in a restaurant and Davidson sat down to talk and ended up buying Conway's dinner and drinks. But, although Davidson didn't know what the real Stanley Kubrick looked like, he was a fan of his movies (Hey, I wouldn't recognize Ridley Scott or Pedro Almodovar if I fell over them.), so of course he wanted to talk about them with "Kubrick." He was especially interested in the long tracking shot in Full Metal Jacket. "How many takes did that require?" he asked Conway.
Conway smiled wanly and after a long pause said, "Lots."
At which point Davidson realized what was happening and excused himself from the table.
There are few moments like this in Color Me Kubrick, partly because the movie is naturally more concerned with the people Conway managed to fool than with those he didn't, but also because the filmmakers thought it would be more fun for us to watch Malkovich doing a guy who knows jack-all about filmmaking and the business of making movies going on and on and on about both, constantly overplaying his hand with wilder and wilder flights of fancy and yet somehow still getting away with it. The inside joke is that anyone who knows anything about Kubrick and his movies, and that includes all of us watching the movie, doesn't it, would have pegged Conway as a fraud right away, which makes all of his marks complete fools and all of us watching the movie oh so superior.
This saves the filmmakers from having to ask the question, just how did Conway get away with it? If all his victims were fools and buffoons the question's answered before it's asked.
Because they never ask the question, the movie only gets interested in the other characters at the moment when they're meeting Conway and it loses interest in them at the moment they realize they've been had. This means that even though they are all different types their roles in the movie are exactly the same and each of Conway's cons is pretty much exactly the same as the last. It gets repetitive and old awfully fast.
But I was thinking of my colleague and the woman who colored him Updike.
She was not a fool. She was in a way lucky she didn't sit down to talk with "John Updike." What are the odds she'd have picked an English professor who could have discussed Updike's work with her, unless part of what drew her to my colleague was his "scholarly" air. But who was she anyway? Why was meeting John Updike so important to her? What good did it do her to have met him? What harm might it have done to her if she'd found out the man who autographed her copy of Rabbit is Rich wasn't the author? What harm might it have done her to think that it was?
Without any answers to those questions my story is really just an amusing anecdote.
Stories begin with the question what happened, but they don't get anywhere until they start asking Why should we care that it happened to these characters?
This is the way that Color Me Kubrick is a real tribute to Stanley Kubrick. It never starts asking that question.
Say you've got an Irish playboy in the 18th Century who lives a careless life and ends up having his leg amputated after a duel?
Say a squad of Marines goes to Vietnam after having survived boot camp with a psychopathic drill instructor.
Say a married couple's bored with each other sexually.
Say there's a creepy guy who goes around pretending to be a famous movie director.
Say what about them?
Color Me Kubrick: A True...ish Story. Directed by Brian Cook. Screenplay by Anthony Frewin. Starring John Malkovich, Jim Davidson, Richard E. Grant, and Robert Powell. Magnolia Pictures and First Choice Films. 2005 but not released until 2007.
Please visit the movie department at my aStore, Mannion at the Movies.