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I just learned on Facebook from Clancy Sigal’s wife Janice that he has died. Born in 1926, he was an important voice of the left and well known to CounterPunch readers for his many contributions over the years.
Although I never met Clancy in person and regret not having done so, I considered him a real friend like others I have met and communicated with through email and Facebook. It was Clancy who initiated contact with me 14 years ago over a cringe-worthy matter. I had written a hatchet job on a film titled “Frida” about the artist Frida Kahlo that must have gotten under the screenwriter’s skin:
When I write film reviews, I try to apply the dictum of my late father who used to say, “If you can’t say something good about a person, say nothing at all.” I made an exception last week for “The Quiet American”, which I regarded as a disappointment both in terms as an adaptation of Greene’s novel and the novel itself.
Now I turn to an all-out disaster, although like “The Quiet American” it received rather favorable reviews when it came out. “Frida” is a really stupid biopic based on the life of Frida Kahlo, the Mexican artist and feminist icon who was married to Diego Rivera, the famed muralist. Since it touches on modern art and includes Leon Trotsky as a character, two subjects close to my heart, it is necessary for me to address the profound injustice done to them and to the rather interesting personality of Kahlo herself, who is reduced in this film to a cursing, drinking and brawling eccentric whose motivations seem driven more by her sexual/reproductive organs than her brain.
The screenwriter was Clancy Sigal.
I only wish that I had taken the trouble to see who wrote the film since the last person in the world I wanted to piss off was Clancy Sigal, who was one of my heroes. I sheepishly apologized to him and stressed how much his roman a clef Going Away meant to me as someone whose painful exit from the Trotskyist movement had a lot in common with his own from the Communist Party. When he learned that I was an ex-Trotskyist, that opened up a year-long discussion about Trotsky, Stalin, Cuba, reform versus revolution, and many other topics that would be on the mind of someone who had been part of the revolutionary movement broadly speaking. Clancy tended to look askance at the idea of a socialist revolution in the USA while I defended it—at least as an idea. Since I am rapidly approaching the age that he was when we first started communicating, I can appreciate how he felt.
I should add that I discovered long after the initial flare-up over “Frida”, there was a possible explanation for a misshapen script. It seems that he was working under the tight control of the Weinstein brothers that was described in Peter Biskind’s “Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film”.
By 2001, when Julie Taymor, the director of “Frida” came under contract to Miramax, Harvey Weinstein had morphed into another typical studio boss, especially geared to the corporate expectations of his new partners at Disney. He had also become even more brutal to filmmakers on the need to make cuts, caring less than ever if they subverted their aims.
The rough cut of “Frida” was two and a half hours. The version released to the theaters was two hours and three minutes. When I mentioned to an old friend yesterday that I was going to write about the cuts Weinstein’s forced on Taymor, he said that this helped him to understand why the film seemed so disconnected. It was as if large portions of the original reel had disappeared. Exactly.
After an early screening to a test audience, Weinstein warned the director that changes must be made to make the film more relevant to a focus group. He said, “They were confused about Trotsky, Communism in Mexico.” One imagines that Weinstein implicitly placed himself in the focus group. When Taymor and several of her creative partners met with Weinstein at Miramax offices, she replied that since the film scored fairly well with a focus group, there was no need to make changes especially since it was about an artist and not about Communism.
At this Weinstein flew into his typical tantrum and told Taymor to “go market the fucking film yourself.” Turning to her agent, he added, “Get the fuck outta here.” Next, he told Elliott Goldenthal, Taymor’s companion and an Oscar-nominated composer who wrote the music for “Frida”, “I don’t like the look on your face. Why don’t you defend your wife, so I can beat the shit out of you.” And, finally, for good measure he told all the Miramax executives at the meeting that they were fired. All in all, it evoked that scene from Hitler’s bunker in the film “Downfall” that has gone viral.
Turning now to Clancy Sigal’s greatest achievement Going Away. it is not only a great novel; it is the quintessential story about the soul-searching that went on among Communists after the Khrushchev revelations. Sitting around the kitchen table with his old comrades, Clancy asks how they could have been conned into believing Stalin. In the early 80s, when I was in a state of shock over discovering that I had been a cult member for 11 years, I would have the same kind of discussions with ex-SWP members asking how we could have been conned into believing that we were going to lead a revolution in the USA led by a man who was not quite in touch with reality.
After dropping out of the Trotskyist movement in 1979, I took a writer’s workshop at NYU with the foolish notion that I might write a nearly great American novel. I just needed to find a publisher for my brilliant work (as big a self-delusion as my earlier Bolshevism.) The instructor, a second-rate author of spy novels, said something that has stuck with me over the years. He says that if you can get an editor to read pass the first paragraph of an unsolicited manuscript, you have your foot in the door. If you can get the editor to read the entire first chapter, you will almost certainly be published. Here is the first few paragraphs of “Going Away”. If it didn’t seduce the editor Clancy presented the manuscript to (and it did), it will certainly seduce CounterPunch readers who will certainly want to read an American classic:
THE PERSON WHOSE NARRATIVE appears here was an American, with a crew cut and a 1940 Pontiac sedan automobile, whose childhood had been spent in many cities. Both his mother and father, before they separated, had been trade union organizers. He had grown up chiefly on the West Side of Chicago, a gang boy, a zoot-suiter and a neighborhood leader in a radical youth organization. At twelve he had been a Catholic. In 1944, at the age of seventeen, he volunteered for induction into the Army, choosing as his branch the infantry. While in basic training he volunteered again, this time for the parachutists, but withdrew his application on second thought. Two years later, a staff sergeant, T/3, he went AWOL and hitchhiked through the country from Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, until he struck the Skid Row section of Los Angeles, where he lived for a time. He received an honorable discharge from the Army and then took up his parents’ vocation and went to work for the Amalgamated Vehicle Builders-CIO in Detroit. Anticipating the results of a convention dispute which was to decimate his faction, on the advice of his betters he enrolled as a freshman student at a state university in Los Angeles. He majored in American History and was editor of the campus newspaper until the student body turned out to sack him because of a current political controversy. As soon as his last exam was over, he left the university without waiting for his diploma. The Korean war broke out and in New York he worked inside a small avant garde record company patronized by an heiress. When the unit collapsed he took a succession of odd jobs and was eventually hired by a Hollywood studio.
It was his custom, between jobs, to go on the road, and this he did again upon severing his connection with the studio. After wandering freely, he became a journalist. Then a cabdriver. Then he led an abortive strike of 16-mm film cleaners. On the same day that he was hired as a riveter in a non-union factory, he applied for and received a position with a motion picture and television agency near the Sunset Strip, Hollywood. His two years with the agency were successful and lucrative, and on his birthday he gave notice and then went to bed for several weeks with an illness diagnosed as mononucleosis, “student’s disease.” He returned to settle his affairs at the agency and then drove across the country in a red-and-white De Soto convertible. In Boston, arrangements were made to publish his book, and on the day the shelling stopped in Fort Said and Budapest he took sail for Europe, like so many young Americans before him, to write an autobiographical novel. Except for a short tour of duty as an occupation trooper in Germany, he had never been to Europe. He was twenty-nine years of age.
When I read these paragraphs, I felt an immediate bond with this man who seemed to combine Jack Kerouac and those veterans of the labor movement that had led the SWP, which despite its cultish ways did help me to understand on which side of the barricades I belong.
I am glad to have met and known Clancy Sigal, the writer and the man. He was one for the ages.