Saturday, March 22, 2008

Dinner With Henry On Film

It’s a classic question: Name a famous person, living or dead, you’d like to have dinner with. I imagine that a number of readers of this blog would say ‘Henry Miller.’ Indeed, he had a reputation for holding court at the dinner table, regaling his fellow eaters with opinions and reminiscences.

Dinner With Henry is a rare, 30-minute documentary about Henry Miller. It is exactly what the title implies: footage of Henry having dinner. With him at the table is the film crew, and actress/model Brenda Venus, to whom Henry was enamoured in the final years of life. Henry—at age 87—spends the majority of his time speaking on a number of subjects, the most persistent of which is Blaise Cendrars. Occasionally, he complains about the food. That is all. It may not be of much interest to a general audience, but is a curious “slice of life” for any Miller fan who likes to imagine being at the table with him.

Brenda Venus wrote about the filming of this dinner, in her 1986 book Dear, Dear Brenda: The Love Letters of Henry Miller. Although her placement of the anecdote implies that it took place at the end of 1977, Miller says on film that he’s in his “88th year,” which would place the filming year as 1979 [1]. As Venus recounts, two filmmakers had requested to film Henry speaking freely about wine. When they arrived at Henry’s home, he was in “an ill temper” explains Venus, who guessed that he’d had a bad sleep. When dinner time arrived, Henry was asked to “speak frankly and spontaneously.” At first, his comments seemed negatively focused on the meal. It’s unclear who prepared the meal, but Henry does not spare anyone’s feelings by calling it “pitiful” and refusing to eat certain things, or complaining about the order of courses. With some coaxing from Brenda, Henry is finally set on track to various personal commentaries. Although he does offer some comparison between French and American wines, he doesn’t offering any real opinion of the wines set before him, which had been the whole point of the film. “I kept encouraging Henry to say something about the various wines he was sipping,” write Venus, “but he pointedly ignored me while regaling the camera with his powers as a raconteur” [all quotes from Venus, pp. 124-125].
The resulting footage was viewed a few days later. Although its purpose had not been met, it was still “so funny” that it would be used in a documentary about Henry. The history of this documentary gets a bit fuzzy after this. The Bibliography Of Primary Sources (Shifreen & Jackson) lists it as “F7,” and states that it was produced in 1980. It is not listed with the Library of Congress or The California State Library, nor is it listed on the Internet Movie Database or any other film database on the net. The global library database, WorldCat, does have listings for it. VHS tape copies exist in the libraries of the following institutions: University Of N Carolina, University of Delaware, Southern Illinois University, and University of California, Santa Cruz.

WorldCat also helps identify the fact that one version was distributed on VHS in 1984, and the second was distributed in 1991. The earlier version is said to have been distributed by the Henry Miller Memorial Library. I was fortunate to have been hooked up with this film by a blog reader—thanks D.! I’ll try to find out if the HM Memorial Library still has copies, or knows how it can be accessed by the public.

Interestingly, one of the filmmakers became the original Indiana Jones, and the other Henry’s “agent.” They were Richard Young and John Chesko.

First, Richard Young. Now, I’m putting a lot of blind faith in a single posting by an anonymous blogger, so please consider this as I present these “facts” about Young. The Californian blogger, JPShuffle (on mentions both Richard Young and John Chesko in a posting in which he writes about his time in Monterey in the 1970s. In fact, he also happens to mention: “I've visited in the home of Henry Miller and been privilidged to listen to his 'after dinner stories.' He was by far, one of the most gracious and unassuming people ever on this planet.” According to JPShuffle, in the 1970s he worked in the film business, “pounding nails” with Richard Young on various film sets. Young, he says, would later go on to play “Fedora” in the film Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade. ‘Fedora’ [photo, at left] was the character from whom the young Indy (River Phoenix) literally inherited his fedora; the adventuerous man was the prototype on which Indiana would base his whole image. You can view his listing on IMDB to see if you recognize any of Young’s other films or TV shows (assuming, of course, that this is the same guy who filmed Miller).

Of John Chesko, there is more information available in relation to Henry Miller. In her book, Brenda Venus refers to him as “Little John Chesko.” JPShuffle states on his blog that Chesko was a “prodcution manager” for Industrial Light and Magic (the special effects company started by George Lucas). IMDB shows a John Chesko who was active in production support in the late 70s. JP also mentions that Chesko was a friend of both him and Richard Young.

Henry made a number of friends in the Hollywood film industry, big and small, from huge celebrities to struggling filmmakers and actors. John Chesko appears to have known Henry as early as 1976, as a letter dated February 12, 1976 suggests: “To Whom it may Concern--,” writes Henry, “This is to testify that the bearer, John Chesko, is not a crook but a friend who is trying to help me sell some of my library to the highest bidder. Be good to him!” [PBA Galleries: Item 359]. In 1979, Henry wrote to someone named Jeff Carpenter; the PBA Gallery listing [Item 358] describes the content as Henry “recommending his good friend John Chesko for a job.”

In 1985, five years after Henry’s death, Chesko’s name appeared in the New York Times [2], where he is described as Henry’s “friend and agent at his death in 1980.” The original handwritten manuscript of Tropic Of Cancer went up for auction this year. Chesko is said to have been “entrusted” with the manuscript, and is quoted as saying that Henry has asked him to auction it for him and give the money to his children. Henry’s daughter Valentine inherited the Cancer manuscript after his death, and John Chesko helped to represent her during the arrangements with the Sotheby’s auction house.

Blaise Cendrars is the most frequent subject: biographical info (9:20); visit to Henry at Villa Seurat (12:10); how “electrifying” it was to read Cendrars (17:00); how Cendrars lost his arm in the Great War (18:25); how Henry left the ailing Cendrars in the hospital because he couldn’t stand to see his hero weakened by pain (20:35); “he was more of a man than I am” (20:55); “He had an influence on my psyche, but not my writing” (23:50).

Three other writers are discussed: Proust’s homosexuality--how his character Albertine is based on a man (12:55); how Henry tried to write like Knut Hamsun (24:20); D.H. Lawrence is quoted regarding an idea that Christ wanted to return to Earth as an average human (25:00).

Miller also explains how he wanted the Nobel Prize for the cash reward, to be able to cover the inheritance tax for his children (03:00); he states that French wine is superior to American wine because of a poor American work ethic (06:15); a fan named Molly who had asked to make him dinner (16:15); slams the Scandinavians for being “boring,” then proceeds to tell the story of the Swede who he’d evaded in Paris (because he couldn’t stand him), who them went on to be on the Nobel Prize Committee for Literature (26:25); tells what Lawrence Durrell told him: that the Committee wanted to wait for Miller to become “more respectable” (28:50);

“I don’t think I can ever stop writing, don’t’cha know? I might write crap after a while, but I’ll still be writing, I feel […] I may die with a pen in my hand, though I’d rather die this way: with my arms folded and a seraphic smile.” (29:45)

[1] At 08:40, Miller says “I’m in my 88th year….” I interpret this to mean that he’ll turn 88 at the end of the year (his birthday is Dec 26); after all, we only turn one year old after living a year, at which point we begin living our second year. I may be wrong about this assumption, in which case this was recorded between Dec 26, 1979 and June , 1980 (his death); [2] New York Times, December 20, 1985: "Auctions" by Rita Reif, Section C, Page 32.


Anonymous Chris said...

RC, I bought a copy of the film on VHS in '97/'98 from the HM Library, along with 'HM Odyssey', 'HM Asleep and Awake', 'HM Reads and Muses', 'HM Reflections on Writing' and 'HM is not dead.' If you have any problems getting hold of copies - drop me a line, but the HM Library is your best bet I would think.

My favourite part of the film is the recollection of what the effect of Blaise Cendrars' writing was. Henry becomes so animated that the young guy asking the questions laughs.

I love the way HM preambles into it. The question is something like; 'What was the effect of BC on you?'

Henry replies with something along the lines of...

'The other night there was a girl here called Molly...'

You wonder where the Hell he is going with the response, but it's wonderful.

He also acts in a quite gentlemanly fashion with Brenda - interesting that, for some reason. She interrupts him at one point and his response is 'What can I get you?'

That's me done. Sorry if it's a bit long. 5.13am here and I can't sleep.

P.S. I would really like to know how Tony Miller is getting on and what he is up to. Valentine has a lovely website - but not much on Tony.

Anyway, All the best.

1:16 AM  
Anonymous Eric said...

Not something else I have to're killing me, RC.

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Blogger Zerovirgolaniente said...

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