Well, I've been writing this newly bloggified version of Beyond the Multiplex for, what? Two weeks now? So it's clearly time to make it inappropriately personal. Here's what's going on: I'll post when I get a chance and I'll cover at least a few more of this weekend's movies. By the end of the week I should be cranked up to a near-normal level of posting, whatever that means. But right now the machinery is working slowly and sporadically.
Just as I picked up my rental car in Salt Lake City on my way to the Sundance Film Festival, I heard that my stepfather, Mel Fiske, had died that morning in California. He was 89 and he'd been getting sicker fast and it wasn't unexpected, so I stuck it out at my overpriced Park City condo through the festival. (I would have enjoyed seeing Mel's expression of horror when I told him the price. He loved luxury, despite his lifelong commitment to radicalism, but I guess he thought it should always be cheap, or free.) Now I'm taking a little time off to be with my mother.
Mel was a lot of things: a former Communist and lifelong rabble-rouser, a World War II Marine Corps combat veteran, a writer and journalist (he preferred "newspaperman") and father of three. He was born almost 90 years ago to Russian Jewish immigrant parents in the Bronx, got married four times, had a voluminous FBI file and ended up as the protagonist of an amazing love story whose other principal character was my mother, a California WASP to the core of her being. I'd be remiss not to mention that late in life he became a Salon contributor, to his immense delight.
From my own perspective, Mel was able to be a father figure to me after I was already an adult man, something my actual father could never manage. Of course it helped that he wasn't my actual father, so we had no history of adolescent quarrels, of mutual betrayal, disillusion and disappointment. I wasn't the only one: Mel was a natural tribal leader, one of those instinctively paternal-fraternal-avuncular guys who draws a circle of literally or virtually fatherless younger men around him like bees drawn to honey.
I was already in my 20s when I met Mel, but when I see the person I have become -- a critic and reporter with literary aspirations, a husband, homeowner and dad -- I feel how much his influence has permeated me. We often disagreed about books or movies or music, but the disagreements stemmed from the passionate belief we shared -- beliefs he instilled in me, partly -- that those things were pathways to confronting life, not modes of avoiding it. I kept making him sit through art movies that baffled him, and he kept giving me novels by James Jones, Thomas Wolfe and John Sanford (his particular favorite) that I never even opened. As usual, he was the more generous one.
When we found things we both loved, like Mozart operas or Bergman films or Billy Bragg or the Oakland A's, we reveled in them and didn't have to talk about it much. I almost wrote him an email about the latest off-season A's news a week or so before he died, but it's OK that I didn't. They're going to suck really bad for the next year or two and then they're going to move to an especially desolate stretch of California suburbia, and I'm delighted he didn't have to think about that in his last days on the planet.
Mel had lived a long life that was sad and rich and joyous, in the grand tradition of human beings, and his time had come. That eases the painful jumble of sadness and wonder and amazement a little, no question. But not really all that much. So I'll spend a few days with my family (something we all should do more of, or so we tell each other) and then I'll get back to work, as we all have to do when these things happen, and someday soon I'll see a movie that makes me think about Mel and I'll start crying there in the dark.