I Am American Cowboy Jim
By Mimi Lipson
From Metrograph Vol. 15, Summer 2018.
A chronicle of a Slavic scholar father who fell in love with
America movie theaters.
Little Vanya: “I am American cowboy Jim. And this is my talking horse, Waldorf. All day long we ride and smoke. (That is, I smoke. As is well known, horses don’t smoke.) In the evening we sit in the Arizona desert and play on the guitar. We especially like songs about life in the Arizona desert. I respect my horse Waldorf, and as far as I know, he respects me.”
This is from a translation exercise in A Russian Course, a textbook written by my father, Alexander Lipson. In the same exercise, Little Sasha says: “I am Arabian prince Abdul. And these are my dear wives.” Little Sonia is “a doctor of all the sciences.” The leading professors repeat everything she says. “For instance, yesterday I said: ‘Mathematics is the queen of the sciences.’ Today all the leading professors repeat: ‘Mathematics is the queen of the sciences.’”
My father died in 1980 at the age of 51, but his name retains currency in the shrinking world of 20th Century Slavophiles—in large part because of this odd, lively textbook, its lessons dictated by shock-workers and hooligans, trolley car drivers, mushroom pickers, lovelorn janitors, and such recurring characters as Comrade Borodin and the famous Professor Schultz. It is Richard Scarry meets F.V. Gladkov. What does any of this have to do with cinema? Well, A Russian Course is full of types and role-playing and pretending, character actors in cowboy drag.
My father died in 1980 at the age of 51, but his name retains currency in the shrinking world of 20th Century Slavophiles—in large part because of his odd, lively textbook.
My father loved going to the movies, and my brother Sam and I were his usual dates. We lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts—walking distance from the repertory houses in Harvard Square, biking distance from half a dozen single-screen neighborhood theaters of the sort that have now been divided into multiplexes. My first understanding of the large people on the large screen was probably that they, too, were projections of my father’s mind. He loved Hollywood tough guys like Clint Eastwood. He loved Charles Bronson more; Bronson was not just a tough guy but also Polish-American. Of the small-screen tough guys, Kojak was his favorite. He took us to see Telly Savalas in Killer Force, twice. Twice we saw Savalas chase Peter Fonda, O.J. Simpson, and the other diamond thieves through the Kalahari by helicopter; twice, bewilderingly, he ripped Maud Adams’s wraparound skirt from her waist before stalking off camera. This was at the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square. A child’s ticket and a tub of popcorn each cost 25 cents, though we never bought popcorn.
I remember my father showing up at school in the middle of the day to take us to the movies. I think of it as a regular occurrence, though maybe it only happened a few times. We’d be called to the office where Dad was chatting up the principal. “Ready for your dentist appointment, kids?” I have a specific memory of the three of us getting on his bicycle, Sam on the rear rack and me on the crossbar, and riding to the Somerville Theatre to see The Strongest Man in the World.
Maybe the occasion stands out because the Disney picture was an unusual choice for my father. In general we saw movies that appealed to him. His tastes were catholic; he liked westerns, police procedurals, and cast-of-thousand disaster movies such as The Poseidon Adventure or Airport. Or an afternoon at the movies might mean suffering through Wild Strawberries. When Sam was 9 or 10 years old, Dad took him downtown on the T to see a “Swedish art film,” which turned out to be hardcore pornography. They left when the heavy action started. Around the same time, they went to Last Tango in Paris and stayed until the end. Afterwards, their mutual embarrassment took some time to wear off.
What is life? What are people? People are ants, and life is an anthill.
In what does life end? Life ends in zero.
–A Russian Course
The Brattle Theater in Harvard Square was where my father went, often as not, to indulge his taste for Mitteleuropean gloom. Sometime in the late seventies they ran a weekly Fassbinder series, and for ten weeks or so, he and Sam went to a Fassbinder double feature every Wednesday. I wasn’t living with my father at the time, so I missed a lot of them. I only remember seeing Fox and His Friends, The Marriage of Maria Braun, and Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?.
I would have been twelve or thirteen then, and I didn’t understand much about these films. I thought of Herr R. only as slapstick comedy until I saw it again decades later. I remembered Kurt Raab’s character appearing behind the neighbor as she sat on the sofa nattering on about her new skiing outfit, and bringing a heavy object (which I remembered as a frying pan) down on her head. I’d forgotten that he murders his family. I experienced Fox and His Friends then as a slow-moving bummer with a surly and unattractive protagonist, and Maria Braun seemed like a cinematic soap opera. It would be some time before I could begin to feel the weight of history in it. Now, remembering the volumes of Holocaust literature on my father’s bookshelves, I wish I could go back and watch it with him again.
I think, though I’m not sure, that by the time of the Fassbinder series my father had already received a cancer diagnosis, had a kidney removed, and been declared “in remission.” He was hospitalized again in January, 1980, at the old Peter Bent Brigham: the model, I’m told, for the television show St. Elsewhere. He occupied the last bed in an open ward, which meant he had a window, which gave him the opportunity to act out the death scene from Dark Victory. “Look how it’s clouding up,” he said in the character of a devastatingly chipper Bette Davis. “It’s getting darker every second!”
The last movie he saw was Norma Rae. We took him to the Somerville Theatre one last time that spring, and by then the playacting was over. He was a bald, sunken-eyed wraith, and he couldn’t have weighed over 85 pounds. His mind was mostly gone. It’s hard to know what he made of the film, but he cried unabashedly at the end, when the union activist from New York City says goodbye to Sally Field.
Where are the forget-me-nots of last week? They blossomed, blossomed…and now have all disappeared.
–A Russian Course •
Mimi Lipson writes fiction and nonfiction. Her first book is a story collection called The Cloud of Unknowing.