by Mel Neuhaus
I FIRST MET RIC MENELLO in the Fall of 1972 (Jeez, I can’t believe it either…41 frigging years ago!). I had just entered the New York University film program as a Freshman, and was in the incredibly boring throes of indoctrination and other introductory nonsense.
I was sitting in on what seemed the like 10,000th speech in a packed auditorium, nodding off whilst wondering if I had made the right decision. Maybe I SHOULD have gone to a film school on the West Coast. This was a killer.
The dull monotone specimen on stage droned on; I made a comment to myself – or THOUGHT was to myself…a faux pas immediately brought home by quiet titters around me. A couple in the row ahead of me stirred. I at once pegged him as an affable lad of reasonable intelligence; I was particularly cognizant of his unruly mop of black hair appendixed by a handlebar moustache that could have been sanctioned by the Schwinn Company. The woman next to him was a stunning brunette – kinda like a Seventies version of Kat Foster. The moustache turned toward me and perfectly complimented my aside with a caustic one of his own. The three of us laughed. This seemingly inauspicious event was my initial contact with the person who would end up as my best friend on Earth, the man, the legend…the icon known as Ric Menello. It was (so far) the best time I had at NYU.
After the oratory torture, I saw the pair in the lobby. I introduced myself, reminding him that I was the guy who made that comment.
“I know who you are. It was only ten minutes ago.”
The woman chuckled.
“Oh, really? That speech made it seem like last week. My name is Mel Neuhaus.”
“Richard Menello,” replied the stache, extending his hand, causing his ever-present folded and crumpled copies of Variety and The Hollywood Reporter to drop to the ground.
“It’s great to FINALLY meet someone in the film program who has a sense of humor…”
“Ummm, well I’m not exactly in the film department. I love cinema, but, technically, I’m a law major.”
“FIGURES! So far, you’re the only person I wanted to talk to…I’m taking Film Production as a minor; my major is Cinema Studies…”
“Oh, so you’ll see me around. I sit in on a lot of their screenings…even though like I said I’m not in their department. Well, not yet anyway…I’m thinking of changing my major…”
“Well, lots of greats came out of law…Preminger started as a lawyer.”
“I know! You like Preminger?”
“Yes, very much, especially the scope stuff.”
“Have you ever seen WHIRLPOOL?”
I segued into my Jose Ferrer impression: “From now on, you do whatever I say!”
Menello beautifully countered with a poifect Richard Conte: “I can’t figure it! Somethin’s wrong with my wife!”
We both laughed.
“Have you seen that late stuff – like TELL ME THAT YOU LOVE ME, JUNIE MOON?”
“Uggghh, what a piece of shit!”
“You said you liked the scope stuff, but how ’bout the noirs? Ever see WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS?”
“Love it! Dana Andwuse!”
Menello caught my slurred pronunciation of the actor in his d.t. voice, and, in equally questionable taste, drunkenly mimicked, “I have no idea where I am…Ever see WHILE THE CITY SWEEPS?”
We both laughed like a couple of bitches. ‘Kat Foster,’ the woman whose name I still did not know, stepped forward, “Do you two want to be alone?”
“Do you mind?” I asked in an aristocratic European accent.
“Fredrich Ledebur in THE MAN WHO TURNED TO STONE! I fucking can’t believe that you quoted from that movie!”
“Or that you got it!”
And, thus, the saga began…
Haig P. Manoogian was the head of the NYU Film Department. As I always do, I instantly rifled my mind trying to decide which Hollywood type he reminded me of, finally settling upon character actor Art Smith.
The first semester of Film Production would comprise making an array of mini-epics shot in 16MM black and white on (maximum) 100 foot rolls.
“What if I need more film to tell my story?” every member of the class asked.
“NO!” screamed H.P. “You’re all too inexperienced…You’re basically a bunch of smug schmucks who couldn’t hold anyone’s attention past the three minutes of a 100 foot load. If possible, I’d give you 20 foot rolls…”
I had to admit he was right…well, of course, not with me, but with the other smug schmucks.
“Each movie you make will tackle another aspect of filmmaking: by that, I mean lighting, editing, interior and exterior photography, fast and slow motion, creating mood…all that crap. To help you along, each one of you will have to buy an indispensable volume to guide you. It’s called The Film-Maker’s Art – and I want you to get it today.”
The Film-Maker’s Art was written by Haig P. Manoogian.
These masterpieces would be made by four-student rotation crews, so that everyone would get a chance to direct, shoot, produce and gaff, the latter also being responsible to score the prerequisite drugs, alcoholic beverages and other nourishment. We immediately learned that the gaffer was the most important member of the unit. Just like in real Hollywood. The results, as one might imagine, were unusual, to say the least.
I showed Menello my copy of The Film-Maker’s Art, to which he logically replied, “Art? Meaning Art Smith?” I nodded in the affirmative. In true movie manner, I then cut to the chase.
“Richard, would you be in my movie?”
Menello smiled his infectious grin, patted me on the shoulder and emphatically replied, “No!”
“What?! Why not?”
“What’s in it for me?”
“The knowledge that you saved me from taking a minor that might actually provide me with a viable vocation!”
Menello sighed. “How ’bout some cash?”
“How much do you want?”
“Let me deliberate…”
“What ever you say is fine ’cause I have no money!”
“ In that case, how about lunch?”
“It depends…You’re not leaning toward the Russian Tea Room, are you?”
“No, I’m leaning toward the pizza place on the corner by Weinstein Hall…”
“You drive a hard bargain, but reluctantly, it’s a deal”
“You are truly a cheap bastard, and I accept.”
“You are truly a lousy friend whose evil mercenary ways will ultimately lead to your doom.”
We shook hands….which wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.
It never ceases to astound me that today one can conceive a fairly professionally-looking movie on their iPhone – in color, High Definition, impressive stereo audio…even in 3-D!
Not so at NYU in the 1970s. Our baptism by fire was hindered by the intrusive demands of The Filmo. The Filmo was an iron-forged 16MM workhorse, but one whom the adage about “beating a dead” one was specifically written for. At least our Filmos were. It was masturbationary filmmaking, and, by that, I mean hand-cranked.
At least one-third of the Filmos were defective, usually afflicted with long bent, malalignment of the crucial shutter aperture. In layman’s terms this meant that no matter how carefully you shot and protected the exposed film, it would return from the lab bursting with jittery double-printed images/ light leaks that guaranteed total composition obliteration. This would have been of great concern to us budding geniuses – especially the ones who took great pride in mastering the light meters, those egg-bubbled devices required to obtain the ideal settings for proper lensing, were it not for one thing: the light meters didn’t work either.
The Filmos had a huge hole in their center. Originally, these were sealed by built-in winders that resembled giant ends of a medieval key, the kind Basil Rathbone used to lock up Olivia de Havilland in the castle tower. The first time I saw an intact Filmo I didn’t know what to make of it. “What’s this for?” I naively asked. “Where’s the hole?” I stupidly added, leaving pundits wide open for an inappropriate response.
NYU had purchased a whole stock of hole-y Filmos dirt cheap; this was part of their insidious plan, as some mathematical wizard had discovered that the vacant hole was of the exact dimensions of your standard hotel doorknob. Thus, a gross of the easily-obtained hand-turners were ordered toute suite. Early on, we were gleefully instructed on how to insert the shaft into the side of the camera and properly wind the mechanism. This was low-tech for dummies…at a tuition price most of us spent the subsequent three decades paying off.
It’s amazing to me that no one in an institute of learning such as NYU ever took it upon themselves to at least mark each faulty camera, so that we students wouldn’t have to suffer as much degradation as their footage. Forget about retiring the rotten equipment…or even repairing them. There was never any money for insignificant fluff like that. I often thought of the local Village used book store and approximately 320 dog-eared copies of The Film-Maker’s Art that landed there after each semester, and how many Filmos could have been bought…
LSS, making a movie at NYU was akin to a kind of cinematic Russian roulette. You never knew if your film was ever going to be useable….
I don’t remember the purpose of the first movie I made with Menello, except it was an interior experiment. The crux of the “narrative” was of an entirely uninteresting nature, and my “star” obediently went through the motions – stopping only to remind me that I told him two hours at the most and he had already wasted a half a day.
“I quit at 6 – or it’s time-and-a-half pay!”
“What’s that – extra cheese?!”
Truth be told, I wasn’t happy with this undertaking either, and only saw salvation via the picture’s capper – my favorite technique of “breaking the fourth wall.” Oliver Hardy brilliantly developed this during the silent era, even before teaming with Stan Laurel. He would watch something with great disdain, and then look into the camera, in effect, asking the audience, “Can you believe this?” That was my entire motivation for this exercise, and it all depended upon Menello’s thespian expertise. When the given moment arrived, he finished his on-camera task, looked into the lens, rolled his eyes and shook his head. CUT! Barrymore couldn’t have done it better (and I don’t mean Drew…or even John Drew…or Ethel…well, maybe Ethel).
My crew of three burst out laughing. “That’s a wrap!” I jubilantly announced. “Thank God!” shouted Menello. I shook my pal’s hand, and offered additional thanks for his time and patience. “This was the worst day of my life!” he announced and dashed out the door.
The afternoon of the screening was spectacularly reminiscent of hanging day at Newgate Prison. Manoogian ran up to the front of the class before the first unspooling to remind us “Don’t worry about what you’re about to see. NONE of this is going to be any good. It’s not supposed to be ’cause none of you know anything! Expect the worst – and, trust me, you won’t be disappointed!” With those inspiring words, our dedicated professor retreated into the dark. The flickering projector light pissed its ray onto the dead insect-stained screen…It was magic time.
As much as I hate to admit it, Manoogian was right: these were some of the most horrific examples of movie-making since Jesus Franco decided to enter the industry.
Each 100 foot roll seemed to be worse than the previous one. I wondered if it was the projector. Could the lamp be too dull? Before I could think of an answer, Haig sadistically blurted out, “Time for Neuhaus.” Where was the governor? Why couldn’t he commute my sentence? I was innocent! This can’t be. “Roll it!” sneered H.P. Loving-his-craft. I was walking the last mile.
The movie dragged on for nearly all of its never-ending 100 foot running time. I heard yawns, some from myself. I could almost discern a unanimous “Oy!” – even from the small but potent white supremacist faction representing the hate…errr GREAT state of Vermont. Then there was a gasp. Menello looked into the camera, did his schtick…and the picture ended. A few laughs masked by fake coughs – just in case it wasn’t supposed to be funny. Then more chuckles. Some faint applause even. Manoogian bounded up the aisle – a big grin on his face.
“Truly an unremarkable and undistinguished albeit faithful rendering of the assignment…”
“Thanks a lot,” I groaned.
“Until the end,” added Manoogian with a twinkle in his eye. “That guy in the picture – what an ingratiating character. He makes it work. I wanna see more of him!”
The chuckles erupted into a couple of bona fide guffaws.
“Who was this guy, Neuhaus? Where did you find him?”
“That’s my friend, Richard Menello,” I proudly replied. Then, with pomposity, “I discovered him.”
“Is he studying to be an actor?”
“Sort of – a lawyer.”
“Naaa, this guy, Manilla, he’s great!”
“Menello,” I corrected.
“Monella.” Manoogian would NEVER get the pronunciation right. “Good job. Well, anyway, not bad.”
I couldn’t wait to tell Manilla. I found him at the Bobst Library, reading about current Italian cinema.
“You were a hit. Everyone laughed. They loved you!”
“Good. Forget it.” He didn’t even look up.
“No, really – FORGET IT. And I’m not being humble. I can read your thoughts. I’m not doing anymore. I’ve effectively retired.”
“You don’t understand…”
“YOU don’t understand…and, by the way – check this out: David Hemmings is making a movie with Dario Argento…”
“I have a plan…”
“So do I – not to appear in anymore movies…”
“At least you can listen…”
“I’m always open for conversation…”
“Okay, lead me your ear…Throughout the year, we’re going to be assigned a number of technical film projects – each one an exercise on another basic aspect of making movies. I envision the entire series starring you…”
“Shut-up and let me finish….I envision the entire series starring you…and we explain each technique with humor…really – that’s the only way to get it across…entertain the crowd….Make ’em laugh. Laugh, clown, laugh…”
“Well, they can laugh with somebody else.”
“But you’re a natural.”
“Then you can naturally find someone else…”
I threw up my arms in disgust and rose from my chair.
“They’re showing BARQUERO on the Deuce with RIO CONCHOS, probably all-red, but in scope….Wanna go this weekend?”
“Yeah, sure.” I sadly exited.
I can’t swear exactly what happened next, but, putting together all accumulated accounts, it went something like this. Later that evening, Menello, during his typical nocturnal NYU prowls, was approached by a shapely belle femme as he headed toward the Brooklyn-bound D-train.
“Hey, you’re the guy!”
“The one from the movie – in film class.”
“You’re sooooo funny.”
“Oh, why thank you. It was nothing, really.”
“No, it was really good.”
“Are you a friend of Mel’s?”
“He made the movie.”
“No, I don’t know him – I saw it this evening in a workshop. They’ve been running it for a couple of the classes.”
“Could I, per chance, interest you in a carbonated beverage?”
“That would be so cool.”
The first thing I saw when I arrived home was the blinking red light of my answering machine. I pressed the “Play,” button. That unmistakable Menello audio, bombastic and, I dare say, decidedly Wellesian issued forth a game-changing six-word query: “What time do you want me?”
A star was born.
© 2013, Mel Neuhaus