Memories of Menello

by Brad C

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This is going to be a long document, but Ric was one of my best friends for over 30 years, and I have a lot of memories.  We met soon after I moved into NYU’s Weinstein dorm in the Fall of 1980.  I was a Cinema Studies major, and a few weeks after moving in I noticed the night shift desk clerk talking to a group of people and mentioning some film director’s name (probably Welles).  I moved closer to eavesdrop, and was quickly amazed at the level of critical discourse coming from this guy.  I started standing around the desk with the other people and putting in my two cents, which elicited comments or rebuttals from Ric.  Eventually, I found myself spending most of the night with him several days a week, watching films on the tiny B&W TV to Menello’s running commentary, interrupted only for a nanosecond as he handed some resident a light bulb or a roll of toilet paper.

Larry Case, Katherine Kahn and, yes, Rick Rubin were also regulars, but many others came and went over the three years I lived in Weinstein; and all of us learned something about cinema that the professors I was paying couldn’t convey with even a tenth of the wit and broad knowledge possessed by Mr. Ric.  What would always amaze me was his mental database of not only directors and actors, but also composers, production designers and cinematographers.  He could glance at a film in progress and tell you what studio released it from its “look”; he would often start humming the soundtrack of films he was talking about, or quote some line of dialog he found amusing (often from a film so obscure that you weren’t sure it even existed, until a later viewing confirmed that Ric had quoted the line exactly right!).  I had the best conversations of my life with Ric, and they were addictive—after spending the summer of ’82 in Los Angeles, I drove back to New York and arrived at the dorm after 11 p.m.  As I entered the lobby, Ric bellowed, “CARTY!” and extended his hand with a big grin.  I put down my luggage and started talking with him for the rest of the night, not even visiting my room until sunrise.

Eventually, I left New York, but would occasionally visit on business.  The first time I did this, I called Ric to see if we could meet, and he told me to come to Bensonhurst and have dinner with his family.  That was the first time I met Lucille and Rocco, whom I had just seen a few months earlier in Ric’s classic “Fight for Your Right to Party” video.  Ric’s mom made me the first of many great ziti dinners that night, and Ric and I watched laserdiscs until dawn.  This became routine over the next few years, supplemented by phone calls and e-mails (with all-caps whenever Ric had an important point to make!).

In 1990, I moved to Red Bank in my home state of New Jersey to take a new job.  One day Ric called and told me he was directing another music video, this time for MC Lyte; the song was “Cappuccino,” it was being shot in the Village, and he wanted me to be in it!  I was delighted, and asked him why he wanted me; he replied that there was no costume budget, he needed someone to play a yuppie businessman, and I was the only guy he knew who owned a suit!  On shooting day, I expected Ric to be a nervous wreck, but he was completely happy and relaxed, and shot all the scenes quickly and efficiently.  I thought, “This is where he belongs”; needless to say, one of the great honors of my life was appearing in a Ric Menello music video!

Not long after, Ric’s family moved to Matawan, which was about thirty minutes away.  I started visiting a few times a week; on weekends, I’d drive over to pick him up and we’d go to the cinema or to my house for a movie or two.  Although the two round trips meant I’d be driving a couple hours each time I got together with him, it was always worth the journey, because Ric’s enthusiasm for film, music, literature and other arts was so contagious (interestingly, I never heard him discuss a television show other than the news… I doubt he ever watched anything on the networks).   It was clear, though, that he felt very isolated without a car, a job or any of his friends from New York except those who occasionally made the trip down.  I was doing some freelance video reviews at the time, and I started letting him write them so that he could make some money (and unlike with his other, later collaborators, he got the lion’s share of the fee!).  We went to a taping of the David Letterman show, and when the producers heard Ric laughing about something in the line waiting to enter the theater, they grabbed our elbows and put us up front in the fifth row; I guess they wanted Dave to hear that guffaw during his monologue.  At one point, Ric laughed so loudly that the camera cut to us: Letterman saw the shot on his monitor, and quipped, “Get that man a Thighmaster!”  Ric laughed even harder, again on-camera, and Letterman apologized before continuing his monologue.  As always, he was totally unself-conscious about his weight; on the other hand, he seemed rather proud of himself after staying a couple months with Rick Rubin in L.A. and losing quite a few pounds on a macrobiotic diet Rubin’s chef designed for him.

When Ric’s dad got sick, he was deeply affected: I think he started to realize he’d be on his own sooner than later, and he started having anxiety attacks and phobic episodes.  Sometimes when I’d take him to lunch he’d just eat quietly with his head down.  He was prescribed various medications, all of which just seemed to make him more depressed: some even caused hallucinations.  He got better over the course of a year, but in 1995 I moved out of state and then out of the country.  We kept in touch by phone and mail, and I saw him on my last day in America in June 2001 before moving to Europe (where I’ve been ever since).  He was the same old Ric again, and I had a great day with him in the city before boarding my plane that night.

In the mid-2000s, after not hearing from him for awhile, I called Ric and asked how he and his mom were doing… he replied that his mother had died several months before, which shocked and saddened me.  He was living on borrowed time in the house in New Jersey, and had very limited funds.  My wife—who also knew Ric from Weinstein, which is when and where we met—and I sent him some gift certificates for the local supermarket, and bought him a book on “cooking for beginners.”  However, I doubt he ever did anything in the kitchen more complicated than boiling water.  When I heard he was moving back to Brooklyn, I was relieved and delighted: he could finally get around to different places on the subway, spend time with his old friends, and see movies at the Film Forum and other revival houses.  Unfortunately, most of my conversations with him over the next couple of years concerned his problems with his eyesight and his money troubles as he waited yet again for his “friends” in the movie business to pay him the pittance they’d toss his way for helping them look good on screen and within the profession.  When he finally got into the WGA and got some decent money for “Two Lovers,” he didn’t need to stall his landlord anymore and seemed poised to finally be able to support himself and get his long-overdue recognition for his brilliant ability to know what did and didn’t work in a script.  When my wife and I saw “Two Lovers” in Cork, Ireland (where we were living at the time) we cried as we saw his name in the credits… at last, we thought, at last!

My last meeting with my old friend had been the summer before, when I was back in Manhattan for a week.  We met for lunch and a long walk; a couple of days later we went to Film Forum to see a new print of Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Cercle Rouge.”  We had some Italian food afterwards on McDougal Street, hugged goodbye, and went our separate ways.  I watched him wander down Bleecker with that inimitable gait, and wondered how long it would be before I’d see him again.  I’d mentioned that he might be nominated for a writing award at some international film festival, but he said he had no interest in going to Europe because he feared the toilets would not be up to his standards!

So we continued chatting on the phone and exchanging e-mails, usually spurred by the death of some movie icon.  We’d go back and forth about the career, although I already knew his thoughts about the deceased since he never changed his critical opinion about anything in the 32 years I knew him.  We’d therefore re-hash the same arguments we’d had dozens of times before (e.g., when I’d say I hated the drunken brawling scenes in so many John Ford films, which I felt stopped the films in their tracks to indulge in low comedy, Menello would respond, “You’re wrong!  THAT’S FORD!”).  I’d always end these commentaries about the newly passed by writing, “And Mickey Rooney still lives!”

I’m glad I was able to talk to him about “The Immigrant” and about his Roselli script, both of which he was very proud and excited about.  I’m grateful to learn that he’d resumed his wise Buddha role in his Brooklyn neighborhood haunts, and that he’d made new friends and attracted new acolytes.  I’m happy he could spend so many hours watching films with his best friend, Mel, and that there’s some video record of their chats about movies to remind us of Ric’s special wit, presence and joie de vivre.  Those are the things that console me when I think of a future without one of my oldest and best friends; they are what sustain me when people who barely knew him trash his memory by trying to turn him into Rain Man or the Elephant Man or whatever other simplistic narrative they can try to force on this complicated, multi-faceted and deeply sensitive man.  The outpouring of love for Ric since March 1, 2013 is a massive rebuke to those who claim they gave him, out of “charity,” much more than he deserved: we all know better.  We know what a privilege it was to be accepted by Ric as a friend and intellectual sparring partner (and to be embraced by his wonderful parents in turn).  We knew he never wanted anything from his friends except the pleasure of their company, even as he himself was exploited mercilessly by his lessers.  Mostly, we knew him as the man who could be counted on, no matter the time of day, to provide you with the most stimulating hour of conversation you’d have all week.  The loss of such a man is something those of us who loved him will never get over… nor will we ever forget him.

[And, as of July 6, 2013 when this was written, Mickey Rooney still lives!]

©2013, Brad C

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