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Diane Keaton on Photography

Still Life

edited by Diane Keaton and Marvin Heiferman
Callaway, 90 pp. (1983)

Mr. Salesman

edited by Diane Keaton and Marvin Heiferman
Twin Palms, 96 pp. (1993)

Local News

by Diane Keaton and Marvin Heiferman, edited by Carole Kismaric
Distributed Art Publishers, 144 pp. (1999)

Clown Paintings

edited and with an introduction by Diane Keaton
Lookout/PowerHouse, 128 pp. (2002)

1.

My friendship with Diane Keaton began about twenty-eight years ago, when I found her, one morning, sitting in the flower bed outside the Madison Hotel, in Washington, D.C. She was rummaging in a bag big enough to hold a caribou, which contained a camera heavy enough to stun the caribou with, should that be necessary.

Diane was sad, her sparkle subdued. That being the case I took her at once to a somewhat grotty antique mall in Alexandria, Virginia, and plunged her right into what the anthropologist Mary Douglas calls the world of goods.

This tactic worked. In minutes she had switched her brights back on. She bought a couple of items whose elusive beauty eluded everyone but herself. On the way back to Washington she told me she hoped to be complicated, someday. Someday? I was reminded of those credit cards which come preapproved. I was pretty sure that Diane Keaton was preapproved for complicated, and still is. On a too-brief visit last weekend I had, for a glimmering moment, a sense that I was about to grasp what she was up to. But when she left, she took the glimmer with her, leaving me no closer to comprehending her agenda than I have been for the past twenty-eight years.

She constantly denies to me that she’s a woman of words—written words, she means. But frequently the very originality of her enthusiasms—especially for photography and architecture—means that she often is the only one who can, with sufficient passion, back her bets on different American photographers; and the smarts with which she backs them will likely surprise the vast audience who still sees her as the sweetie of Annie Hall, the role for which she won a Best Actress Oscar in 1977.

Over the years, sometimes with the help of the New York writer-curator Marvin Heiferman, Diane has sniffed out collections or archives of photographs that she feels are unjustly overlooked, neglected, or lost—like, very often, the tarnished human beings who appear in them. Once convinced, she mothers these archives and attempts to arrange for their exhibition and safekeeping and, so far, publication in five books to which she’s written prefaces. They include pictures of actors doing publicity stills in the Technicolor era (Still Life, 1983), clown paintings (Clown Paintings, 2002), salesmen in training (Mr. Salesman, 1993), tabloid photographs from the long-defunct Los Angeles Herald Express (Local News, 1999), and citizens of Fort Worth, Texas, as captured over a quarter of a century by the commercial photographer Bill Wood (to be published in the forthcoming Bill Wood’s Business). All these groups are, in the eyes of Keaton and Heiferman, about to be sucked forever into the labyrinth of oblivion, to take their places among the billions of the forgotten.

I’m going to let Diane have her say about these books, the crucial one being—if I understand her at all—Clown Paintings. Merry as Diane often is, sorrow is her basic subject, and I think she suspects that the sorrow of clowns is apt to be more primal and more exhausting than the usual sorrows of our species.

Her eye, however, is broadly welcoming and embracing, as are her sympathies. Ron Galella, the Dean, as he was known among paparazzi and their subjects from the Sixties on, once shot Diane in rollers and yet she easily forgives him:

Lovers, who, with the turn of the head once had the power to crush, or lift me into the realms of impossible elation are gone, gone, gone. Yet they have returned with the flash of Ron’s camera. I see our lives, and am cognizant of the absurdity of some of my choices, even though they were such very sweet encounters for awhile. But what I am ultimately confronted with is the hard fact that there is no permanence for any of us… ever. Permanence can only be found in the immortality promised by the results of the click of a camera. Like it or not, life moves on as quickly as the photograph doesn’t.

In the end I’m glad to be among the Dean’s cavalcade of celebrities, not just for the recognition value, which I can’t deny I once pursued with a relish I am ashamed of, but also because of the education he gave me.

Architecture is perhaps her easiest passion. When she left New York and moved back to Los Angeles she bought a house that Lloyd Wright (not Frank Lloyd) had built for Ramon Navarro. It was a fine house if one didn’t mind living on the perpendicular. I would have felt more comfortable there if I had had suction cups on my shoes. Fortunately, when her children came along—they are Dexter, her daughter, and Duke, her son—she realized that it’s perhaps not best to raise toddlers on a precipice and moved down to the flats, into the first of two Southern California Spanish-style houses she has owned.

Soon enough she found herself speaking for the style:

When I think of home I see a giant bulletin board packed with hundreds of thousands of photographs thumb-tacked across the panorama of my mind. Over the years the images that refuse to disappear center on the beauty of Spanish architecture. It’s almost as if they remain to remind me that the eye sees what the mind knew from as far back as the day I felt an ache standing in front of the San Juan Capistrano Mission 50 years ago….

Diane believes—realistically—that we all must be among the Forgotten (a major category for her); it’s just a question of when. If she loves a style she wants to name the heroes who sustained or advanced the style: in the case of Southern California Spanish she applauds specifically the architects George Washington Smith, Wallace Neff, Lilian Rice, Joseph Plunkett, Arthur Kelly, Paul Williams, and “their less recognized brothers and sisters”: she wants as much of their work as possible to be saved from extinction.

Her eye is eclectic and is apt to alight on anything, such as Corot’s Portrait of a Girl at the Armand Hammer Museum in Los Angeles:

Here it is, the sad face of a girl. Yesterday it was the sad face of my seven-year-old daughter, as she grappled her way through the misery of missing her dog Sweetie, but especially her parakeet Tweedy. In her fierce little face all knotted up with tears I recognized the fact that all the love in the world cannot cushion the reality of pain. For a moment, like the sad girl [of Corot] she seemed knowing beyond her years. They, two girls separated by centuries, one brought back to life by a genius in another form, the other a sturdy little girl taking on the vast uncharted territory of an unknown future, share a kind of premature wariness.

In this muted atmosphere of quiet restraint holding the buried treasure that lies in the face a girl, all girls everywhere, even old girls like me, Mr. Corot, with his heartbreaking portrait, reminded me of those early days, when, for the first time, like girls do, I discovered my own sadness.

Still Life, which Diane did with Marvin Heiferman, consists of diorama-like studio stills from the Technicolor era, mostly the Forties and Fifties. Many of them are domestic scenes: here’s Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman sunbathing. Here—a little less domestic—is Ann Blyth getting into a mermaid costume. Here is Fred Astaire eating soup.

On these photographs, including one of Gregory Peck from The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Diane comments:

It’s hard to love someone you’ve never known, but it’s easy to long for someone you’ve seen idealized to the point where you think you’re in love…. For instance I know that Gregory Peck isn’t going to enter my life and become an intimate part of it…. But if Gregory Peck touched them once—he touched me once—he remains a very vital part of their makeup. The ideal image of him takes on many dimensions.

Gregory Peck didn’t like the image. He wrote Diane a scathing letter, one of the few comments from the outside world that I’ve seen about Diane’s books. Evidently he just didn’t like his picture, whatever it may have meant to anyone else. And Diane has her own sense of what is ideal about the images:

What strikes me, and what makes me come back to the photographs in Still Life, is the unmistakable life behind the presentation of a dead cliche. The more they tried to tell me what to think, the more the pictures became strange pieces of fiction, like sloppy scenes from bad dreams, or short visits to the waxworks—sad puzzles that filled me with curiosity. My curiosity was fueled by my inability to tell what was going on. Why did these actors seem to be millions of miles away? What were they hiding behind their masklike appearances? It seems very apparent to me that though the performers dutifully acted out what they were told, the most believable thing about the photographs is the absence of these people’s inner presence. It is as if they had separate reality. I was seduced by what wasn’t being told.

There is a decade-long gap between Still Life and Mr. Salesman, and the pictures in the latter are both sadder and scarier. In Still Life the actors might be bored; actors who work in movies or television are often bored: setting up the pictures takes some time. None of them can have particularly enjoyed doing those shoots, though, as Jane Russell remarks, they gave her lots of time to daydream, and daydreaming was her favorite thing to do.

The book of training photographs for salesmen from the Jam Handy organization brings us to a different level of stress and also a different order of sadness:

Willy [Loman] wasn’t alone. We all believed in the supremacy of being liked. Questions were not encouraged. Instead we occupied ourselves by dutifully repeating advertising catch-phrases like, “Be Positive.” “Remember, people can tell you’re smiling on the other end of the phone.” …How could we have known the seemingly innocent slogans we swallowed whole were part of a national mood that gave birth to some very questionable ethics, namely replacing human attachments—usually fleeting and always complicated—with the accumulation of money and objects….

Mr. Handy, the author of the Jam Handy method of selling, couldn’t have foreseen a future in which these photographs would ever be held particularly responsible for the mess of our lives. But, unfortunately, Mr. Salesman so hauntingly looks out from under the atrophy of living within the boundaries of The American Dream, it’s hard not to imbue him with more than was intended. It’s hard not to look at his faceless stare without shivering at the unidentified frustration waiting to explode.

2.

Before I talk about Clown Paintings, easily Diane’s darkest book, I have to tell a little story. Once maybe twenty-five years ago I went to New York to spend an afternoon with her. She wanted to see New York Stories, the triptych film in which Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Woody Allen each directed segments.

By chance, Diane and I happened to line up at the theater just in front of the Konigsbergs, Woody Allen’s parents, whom Diane greeted warmly. In the steep theater they happened to sit right in front of us.

By another chance I had seen the film three nights before in the White House, at one of the “informal” evenings President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara decided to hold after they moved in. Tom Clancy and his wife were there and I’m not sure who else; but I am sure that the male Bushes, père et fils—despite George W.’s reputation as a one-time shitkicker—can’t manage what most of us would think of as informality. There’s just too much Yale there. Barbara and Laura Bush have plenty of mischief in them, but the guys?

Tom Clancy was soon looking as though he’d like to be allowed to go hunt a submarine, the more nuclear the better. The First Lady tried in vain to get her husband to tell us some anecdotes about the Lincoln bedroom, in which we were standing. The President denied all knowledge of the Lincoln bedroom. He was genial but silent. Barbara offered her husband, whom she usually calls George Bush, Winston Churchill as a topic, but when that too failed to float she gave up and went off to be a midwife to Millie, who was having her famous puppies somewhere below. (The Millie hotline rang during the Coppola segment, by which time a hush had fallen on the crowd.)

After the movie, the President asked if anyone could explain it to him; no one did. After all, it was not exactly Hegel, and he had been Phi Beta Kappa at Yale. So then, three days later, I was sitting practically on top of Woody Allen’s mother, well aware that once we ground through the Scorsese and the Coppola segments her son’s, entitled Oedipus Wrecks, would be looming over Manhattan. In it, as a movie writer put it, “Thanks to a misguided magic trick, Allen’s mama’s head becomes a huge spectral vision on the New York skyline, telling everyone within earshot about her son’s inadequacies.” When it came on, the audience roared, but Mrs. Konigsberg remained entirely unfazed.

Back at Diane’s apartment some friends came and there was a lively game of Trivial Pursuit. A close game, too. Then up came for me the perfect question: Who was President Ford’s press secretary? I had lived in D.C. during the whole of the Ford administration and knew that Ron Nessen was his press secretary—I had, in effect, a slam-dunk and I would have dunked it had I not noticed an ominous look in my hostess’s eye: a fight to the death look. Diane does not welcome small defeats, or, for that matter, any defeats. I had to weigh my options—it was time to think of getting something to eat. Tactically, slam-dunking Ron Nessen could be a serious blunder. Diane was sure to demand a rematch. Did I have the heart for it? I didn’t. I threw the match. (She would ask, what made me think I could beat her anyway?)

The guests departed and Diane went to change, as I watched night settle over Central Park. Then something tilted, and it tilted downward. She changed clothes four or five times, but then lots of ladies change clothes several times, as they decide who they are for the evening. Diane is a beautiful woman, known for her acute fashion sense. She looks good in anything.

Or so I had thought, until, finally, she emerged in a bowler hat and a brown suit that made her look square, and not square as in uncool, but square as in “not a rectangle but a square.” It was if she had searched not only her own closets but all of Central Park West and found the one outfit that did not become her. Why?

As we waited in sudden misery for the elevator she turned to me and said in a tone to pierce the heart: “I look like a clown.”

It was scary, not silly, and it wasn’t about the clothes. What she couldn’t find was anyone to be: and, forced to a choice, she chose the Clown. In so doing she humbled herself, and would scarcely look at me. With that moment in mind, when I scan the photographs she has located and sponsored, whether about clowns or salesmen or actors, I can see that a high percentage of them are of people life has humbled—even if they don’t yet quite realize it. What happened that evening was that the Clown Inside tried to call her home.

Three weeks later, Red Skelton walked into my bookshop in D.C. He was a thoughtful book collector who came in when he could. Only this time he was weeping: there were tears on his cheeks. He didn’t mention them, I didn’t mention them. They could have been allergies, I guess, but I doubt it. He wasn’t moaning and groaning but there were tears. He was careful not to drip on the books. I think it was the sadness of the Clown Inside.

There’s nothing the fondest friend can do about the pain of clowns—pain, after all, is where their job starts. In working up to the book called Clown Paintings—it’s filled with paintings of clowns—Diane called various of her friends who work in comedy to get their thoughts on clowns—and what she got was their permission to shove off. Woody Allen and Steve Martin and the others she lists “work in comedy,” and comedy arises from pain, not from happiness. Perhaps the pain of clowns is a little more primal, which is one good reason for people who work in comedy to give clowns a pass.

Her 1999 book, Local News, is a selection of photographs she extracted from the files of the long-defunct Los Angeles Herald Express, a Hearst tabloid. To this she appends a light, lovely account of growing up with her family in the Los Angeles of the Fifties and Sixties. It’s a tribute to the city which she’s now come to accept as her hometown, and also a tribute to her family, in which she is deeply embedded as mother, daughter, and sister.

The photographs are not so light: they’re photographs of the humbled, and Diane has this to say about them:

…The forgotten faces of the Local News, faces that almost never existed, like my father’s and his mother’s before him, these portraits are a stockpile of neglected treasures. This book honors them; it honors the pretty, the hopeful, the ordinary, the murdered, the ugly, the tortured, the smug, the guilty, the lost and found. Their beauty lies in a transcendent beauty we all share: our common fate. Each human face is a compelling mystery, that looks back at us like a mirror reflecting the absolute fact that we live, we die, and we are forgotten. This book is for all of us, your family and mine. This book is for those who slip away unnoticed.

Diane Keaton’s theme is that we’re all the forgotten, which requires debate; but not here. In regard to the photographs, Diane rejects this forgetting; she challenges it when she can: and she will, I suspect, go on doing so in her preface to the work of the Fort Worth commercial photographer Bill Wood (1939–1973), to be shown at the International Center of Photography in New York in 2008.

Those who have read the quotations I’ve provided will have no trouble identifying the big themes that Diane Keaton returns to often: nothing is permanent, pain is unavoidable, we’ll all be forgotten, we’ll frequently be lonely or despairing, and we’ll all die.

I expect she grasps by now that her two children, Dexter and Duke, may have slain the Clown Inside. What with all that soccer practice, moms don’t have much time for the Clown. The next time she chooses to deck herself out in a suit that makes her look square I doubt that it will be a very big deal. As she writes, “Maybe it’s time to recognize that, like the Clown, we’ve all gone for the laugh, sold out on occasion, dressed for effect, and paraded our hearts on our sleeves.”

Letters

Keaton’s Own Lens December 6, 2007

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