“Cinema opened my eyes to life,”Godard once said. For me, cinema opened my eyes to how life could be portrayed and the possibilities of art, be it a film, a painting, or a two-thousand-word profile on the musician Tricky. Sometimes when I’m working on a music essay, I imagine that I’m creating a sweeping biopic or gritty musical. Movies made an impact on me in incalculable ways as a young writer—the nonlinear storytelling of Annie Hall and The Killing, the brooding characterizations in Citizen Kane and Taxi Driver, the chance that anything could happen at any time to anyone in a Hitchcock film, the edgy humor and razzmatazz of Bob Fosse, and on and on until I fade to black.
Throughout my childhood, Mom often took me to see what modern-day parents would call “age-inappropriate movies,” including Goodbye, Columbus, The Landlord, The French Connection, The Owl and the Pussycat, and countless others. When I was thirty, I finally asked why she took me to see so many grown-up films. “I guess I couldn’t find a babysitter,” she said.
Most writers begin their textual journey copying the style of other writers, but mine began with subconsciously ripping off elements of the now-forgotten 1971 gangster picture The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, starring a young Jerry Orbach and Robert De Niro. After sitting through the matinee inside the Loews Theater on 83rd Street, Mom and I walked from Broadway to Columbus Avenue to visit my writer godfather Hans Wolfgang Schwerin, who lived in Excelsior Hotel on 81st Street and would be, until his death in 1987, my coach, mentor, and supporter. He also bought me my first typewriter, a blue-green Olivetti Lettera.
Uncle Hans was a German immigrant novelist and playwright who once published a poem in the Thomas Mann literary journal Mass und Wert, moved to the Upper West Side in 1946, and had known my mother for years. Extremely nearsighted, Uncle Hans wore thick glasses and was usually dressed in stylish suits. When Hitler took control of Germany, Hans and his family fled to America. When I was a boy, Uncle Hans was my best friend, although he was already in his late fifties. Though he didn’t have any children of his own, Uncle Hans always drew me silly pictures on postcards when he travelled and, when we visited, made up various games that kept me occupied while he and Mom talked.
Out of the blue, that afternoon, he suggested I dictate a story.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“It means, you tell me a story and I’ll type it up.”
Next to my mom on the plush couch—opposite a floor-to-ceiling bookcase overflowing with first-edition volumes and New Directions/Grove Press paperbacks—I stood up and followed Uncle Hans to his bedroom office. Even though I’d read many children’s stories, including my favorite book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I didn’t regurgitate the plots from those books, and instead went for the jugular with a New York City crime story.
For the next half hour, Uncle Hans sat hunched over his ink-stained manual typewriter as he deciphered my enthusiastic eight-year-old storytelling. Standing beside the cluttered desk as classical music streamed from a battered black radio across the room, I freestyled a tale about goofy Mafia members living in Brooklyn, including crazy criminals, a wild lion, and an exploding car.
Uncle Hans managed to get three typed pages out of my reinterpretation of The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. After collating the manuscript, he stapled the pages and handed them to me. “Here is your literary debut,” he said, smiling as though he was already aware of the effect his efforts would have on me. Although there were only a few sheets, they felt heavy in my small hand. Prior to that day, I’d never thought about anything I’d experienced—like watching movies —as something a real person actually created, that it all ultimately began with the written word. Although I can’t recall the title of my debut, I do know it wouldn’t be the last time I turned to films and filmmakers for inspiration; forty years later, living in the age of YouTube, Netflix and other streaming services, whenever I find myself stuck while writing, watching a good movie is usually enough to get me rejuvenated.
That afternoon at Uncle Hans’s apartment, I crawled back onto the couch and stared at the black letters on the white pages. Feeling a sense of pride mixed with puzzlement from my picture-show inspired words, I’m not sure I fully understood what had happened and how much remembering that movie would change my life. Handing the story to my mom, she folded them neatly and stuck the pages into her purse.
Michael A. Gonzales has written essays and articles for The Village Voice, New York, Pitchfork and Mass Appeal. Co-author of Bring the Noise: A Guide to Rap Music and Hip-Hop Culture (1991), he has written music journalism for Newark Bound, Red Bull Academy, The Wire, and Wax Poetics. His short fiction has appeared in Bronx Biannual, Brown Sugar, Black Pulp and Crime Factory. Gonzales is currently finishing his literary New York City hip-hop novel Boom for Real. More information on The Blacklist can be found on Facebook.