When I was a young New York screenwriter I had the good fortune to collaborate with many of the tough old Jews who had produced the defining movies and TV shows of my childhood. None of them were anything like the sterile MBAs in BMWs who run the business now: these were hard-core Depression kids, mavericks who had started out as coffee brokers or parking-lot attendants or working some other desperate hustle, and had somehow ricocheted into the chaotic Wild West of the entertainment business and taken over. There weren’t that many hot screenwriters in New York back then, and most of us were friends, so we often compared notes on the producers who came east to court us. We laughed at them. They were our fathers’ age, they were squares, they were bald, they had trophy wives, their bellies hung over their belts. And yet…and yet they had somehow managed to immigrate to Hollywood from whacko birthplaces in rural Mississippi or wherever and figured out a way to create magical worlds that entranced us and consumed us on screens large and small through the ‘60s and ‘70s. Laughable as their gold chains and other gaucheries might have seemed to us, they were—in the parlance of today—players.
One such producer was Marty Ransohoff, who in many ways epitomized the breed: a Louisiana Jew who had produced The Beverly Hillbillies, an insanely popular show which was mocked at the time as stupid tripe for morons, but was actually far more radical in satirizing the American class system than the reboot of The Roseanne Show. He’d also employed one of my heroes, Terry Southern, to adapt Evelyn Waugh’s novel The Loved One into a daring and often transgressively hilarious movie, and produced one of the best gambling films, The Cincinnati Kid.
Ransohoff had hired me, via Columbia Pictures, to supposedly—and I lay heavy emphasis on that word—adapt Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales into a movie set in the present day. This was to be the first live-action movie directed by the cartoonist Ralph Bakshi, who was then widely-known—maybe notorious is the right word—for his gonzo Fritz the Cat cartoons. Right from the jump, the set-up made absolutely no sense to me. Geoffrey Chaucer and a dope-smoking cat? Kinda random, no? But I was intrigued, both by the dramatis personae of the players involved and the size of the Columbia check, and immediately began to slough my way through the daunting black-covered Penguin paperback of The Canterbury Tales, seeking modern-day equivalents of the miller and the…I could barely retain what I was reading; my ADD kicked in like a horse-hoof blow to the forehead, as it so often did with “the classics.” Nonetheless I covered half a legal pad with my childishly-scrawled but hopefully convincing ideas in preparation for our first face-to-face meeting.
Bakshi, Ransohoff and I finally convened in Ransohoff’s lavish suite at the Sherry Netherland—glistening urns of coffee, smoked salmon on fine china, the glorious greenery of Central Park in springtime glowing through the windows of the suite. As tokens of my earnestness I carried both the marked-up Chaucer paperback and my legal pad with its cryptic scrawls, and as I began my pitch to the director and producer I was stunned to hear a deep belly-laugh erupt from Ransohoff. He was immediately joined by Bakshi. I broke off in mid-pitch—were my ideas really that bad?
“Wait a second,” Ransohoff said, when he finally managed to stop laughing. “You actually read that whole book?”
“Well, yeah…I thought—“
“It’s a fuckin’ title, Johnny! It’s a title and a concept. A bunch of mismatched characters go on a journey together. Jesus, we’re not gonna make a movie about millers or something, are we?”
Red of face and deeply abashed, I tossed my legal pad on the sumptuous couch and began to laugh myself—what a rube! I shoulda known! So with Geoffrey Chaucer shoved back into his grave we began to plot our movie (which never got made). As the brainstorming roared on, I interrupted at one point to relay some notes I had already received from the executives at Columbia, only to receive another dose of Ransohoff’s scalding laughter. But this time, he codified his amusement in a phrase that, for some reason, has stuck in my brain for lo these thirty-something years.
“Those notes from the Columbia executives? Jesus Christ, Johnny, don’t you understand—that’s all kinderspiel!”
Although I am half-Jewish by birth—“half a Jew is better than none,” as my father often said–my upbringing and my affect and my vocabulary are depressingly gentile, and this was maybe the 50thtime in my Hollywood life that I had been stumped by a Yiddish phrase. Given a few moments, I might’ve figured it out the word via the latinate roots, but the Italian Catholic Bakshi leapt in to interpret for me: “It means baby-talk! Marty’s sayin’ fuck what they say, man! It’s all fuckin’ babytalk!”
What a long prologue to introduce a single word!
And yet I can find none better to describe what I hear every time I turn on MSNBC.
Or the local news.
Or Bill Maher.
Or Stephen Colbert.
We’re bombing cholera hospitals in Yemen, and they’re babbling about Robert Muller: kinderspiel!
American children are starving to death in trailer parks and tenements, and they’re wondering if John Kelly is going to quit as White House advisor: stone-cold kinderspiel!
A great physicist/professor once told a student: “Your answer is so far away from right that it’s not even wrong.”
Consisting of nothing but canned and pre-packaged kinderspiel, the corporate media of America is so far away from right that it’s not even wrong.
We have to take steps to prevent ourselves from this hideous kinderspiel contagion, and I’ve found one particular object that is highly effective.
I listen to Rachel Maddow babble about the evils of peace with Korea, and with enormous gratitude to the concept of remote control I turn her face to blackness—death to the kinderspiel!—and five seconds later I’m listening to Junior Wells sing Early in the Morning, with Buddy Guy on guitar—jagged, menacing beauty, black cowboys riding at a measured pace across a bluesy terrain to nowhere.
One drink of wine,
Two drinks of gin,
And a pretty young girl put me
In the shape I’m in.
Come see me early in the morning,
Baby at the break of day—
You oughta see me hug my pillow
Where my baby used to lay.
Human truth, accompanied by one of the greatest harp solos of all time.
I hear Barbara Starr on CNN droning naked propaganda for the armaments business and—fuck yeah!—grab that magical remote control again, and five seconds later I am reading, for perhaps the 500th time, the most heart-hurting haiku of all time, by the great poet and Buddhist scholar Issa, which was written at the death of his infant daughter. The poem expresses the conflict between his soul-deep belief in the teachings of Buddha and the all-too-human emotions that are ripping him up, in spite of those teachings:
I know the world is just one drop of water.
I KNOW the world is just one drop of water!
Oh my God.
But not only is it not kinderspiel; like the plaint of Junior Wells, it is anti-kinderspiel. Issa and Wells, like William Blake and Merle Haggard, like Flannery O’Connor and Lenny Bruce, are plentiful sources of this powerful anti-kinderspiel vitamin.
What passes for “news” in America today has nothing to do with reporting the actual state of the world. It has become a cult of sordid personalities, insisting that we ignore all human suffering, all human joy, all human struggle, in favor of the dreary melodrama of Robert Mueller and Donald Trump—kinderspiel that rots our brains, screening out all the news not fit to print—news of our unending oppression of black people, our imperialist gangster moves around the world, our slaughter of the poor.
Marty Ransohoff has passed into the Valhalla of Hollywood warriors, and God bless him for that gift he left me: “kinderspiel.” In all the intervening years between that sun-flooded suite at the Sherry Netherland and now, I have found no better word to describe what I see on TV and read in the newspaper. And I will always try to remember the core truth about this kinderspiel: it’s so far from right that it’s not even wrong.