Tying Together Kafka, Scorsese and a One-Time Trip

By on April 2, 2020

I’ve always been too ADD, dyslexic and restless to sit still to read novels. No one that knows me would be surprised at that sentence, although most people that know or meet me think I’m more well-read than I am. I read several classics around the time I was ten years old.  Of them, I remember Pearl Buck’s “The Good Earth”, John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” and Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”  I enjoyed submerging myself into all those stories but preferred playing outside with my friends to reading inside. Evenings were devoted to television shows. TV was much more special back then.

Other than Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island”, I don’t remember having read any novels for high school or college courses — my college writing professor had us watch current movies and critique them as writing assignments — or reading another novel until 1992 when someone recommended Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park” which I read within 24 hours.  I even annoyed myself when my secondary reaction to the 1993 Steven Spielberg film adaptation was “it’s not as good as the book”, which non-novel readers dislike hearing (my first reaction was “Film, video and photographs can no longer be considered admissible evidence in court.”  Actually, the very first reaction was “WOW!”).  I followed up around the same time with John Grisham’s “The Firm.” The next novels I remember reading were J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” and Michael Crichton’s “Prey” (which I thought would have made a fun movie) in 2002. I then went through another drought until 2010.  Among the novels I’ve read over the last ten years are “In Cold Blood”, “On the Road”, the short story “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, “The World According to Garp”, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  Other than “Prey”, “Road” and “Catcher”, reading the other stories gave me an appreciation (or more of one) for the film adaptations, all of which I had seen prior to reading the books.  For instance, the “Garp” movie didn’t make sense to me at all then came fully alive after reading the novel. I resented Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, which I considered bad casting, racist and stereotypically overdone.  After I read the book then rewatched the movie, I thought the portrayal was perfect and all the rest of the story made more sense.  Besides, Mickey Rooney always seemed like one of the most effortlessly talented and likable actors of any era.  He made everything he did seem fun.

A few weeks ago I decided to finally read Franz Kafka because he and the adjective “Kafka-esque” are often referenced. Also, a guy I worked with in Silicon Valley loved his writing and went into a trance at the mention of it. During those moments I felt like I was talking to a cult follower. I got the free Kindle book “Franz Kafka:  The Best Works.”  Kindle has a lot of classic (and other) books that are free.  Since I want to familiarize myself with classics, it works in my favor. I read my first Kindle (short) book, Orwell’s “Animal Farm” in mid-2019 and that experience rekindled (NPI) my interest in reading.  Just prior to that, I read Thoreau’s “Walden” and “A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson, which a friend sent me to offset the dryness of Thoreau and I’m thankful he did.  I read the two books concurrently.  I guess those reading experiences emboldened me and I decided to step up and concurrently read two of the big boys: James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and Homer’s “The Odyssey (Rendered into English prose for those who cannot read the original).”  I found that extended title condescending but it also made any other version intimidating so I guess it doesn’t qualify as a “big boy” after all.  I tried reading both concurrently.  True to its long title, “The Odyssey” is easily digestible, helped by the fact I’ve come across enough references on TV and film (the Coen Brothers’ 2000 “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) that I’m somewhat familiar with the story.  I might even have the 1997 Armand Asante-starring TV mini-series on DVD.

Joyce’s “Ulysses” is another thing entirely.  I never stood a chance of understanding what’s going on. I guess that’s what book clubs are for. I stopped reading it to look online to see what people had to say about it. I watched a Youtube video by a Joyce scholar recommending to not try to understand it and especially to not look up the latin phrases that pop up throughout the book, which I kept doing.  He said to just read straight through it.  A commenter for the video said he was 45 years old and it took him 15 years to get one third of the way through it.  I was relieved that it wasn’t just me but not relieved enough to continue reading it yet.  My mind has to be reconditioned to read something that cannot be interpreted. With all the people I’ve met in my life who fit that description, you’d think I’d be fluent in it by now. I definitely found Joyce’s showboat-y use of words to be impressive, that’s for sure. For as difficult as I find to follow his writing, it seems like it was effortless and pleasurable, even joyous, for him to do.

It was not until months later that I decided to try the Kafka collection.  I read the first six short stories, which are “The Metamorphosis”, “A Report to an Academy”, “A Country Doctor”, “Jackals and Arabs”, “In a Penal Colony” and “A Hunger Artist.”  I’ve IQ-tested at 153 but I guess I’m more PG than I think I am because I found all difficult to read — for all the reasons Kafka’s writing is known (dark, other-dimensional, destabilizing) — and I could only read a little at a time.  After I finished each short story, I found a film adaptation online to see the story fleshed out.  None were anything like my visualizations and they all took liberties, which Kafka’s work is open to, but I still benefited from watching them.  The farther behind me those thoughtful and allegorical stories and adaptations are, the more I appreciate them. Still, it is unlikely I will revisit any of either.  I read the short stories in sequential order (new versions of the book have different stories and sequencing for some reason) and next up was the novel “The Trial.”  I tried watching Orson Welles’ 1962 film adaptation several years ago and turned it off about 10 minutes in.  Unsettling and claustrophobic are two of many adjectives I can think of to describe it.  After reading the first four equally torturous chapters, I threw in the towel a few pages into the fifth.  That’s all the Kafka I ever need to read.  I get it.  Now I will more understand references to his work and the meaning of the word “Kafka-esque”, which pertains directly to the anecdote below.  I have the DVD of “The Trial” and decided seeing the story played out in a two-hour movie instead of reading the rest of the book would be a breeze by comparison.  In sharing the anecdote that is the focus of this writing, I summarize my second attempt at watching the movie a few paragraphs down.

“After Hours” (1985) is one of my favorite Martin Scorsese movies.  I am not one of the people that thinks every movie Scorsese makes is a “masterpiece” or even great (his 1975 “New York, New York” with DeNiro and Minelli was a waste of all their talent) but I’ve watched all his features, including the 2001 documentary “My Voyage to Italy” and except for his 1997 “Kundun.”  Watching “My Voyage to Italy” (I have the DVD and accompanying book) was easy for me because Miramax Films released it (as well as Scorsese’s 2002 “Gangs of New York” and 2004 “The Aviator”) while I was there and all I had to do was walk a few feet from the office to the screening room.  If you want a primer on movies that came out of Italy, that’s the one I recommend. I love listening to people who are passionate and knowledgeable and Scorsese is both about Italian movies (and movies in general).  I like his 1980 “Raging Bull” enough that I bought the 25th anniversary Special Edition DVD set in 2005 and, the same week, watched the movie’s re-release at New York City’s historic and palatial Ziegfeld Theater on 54th Street.  I worked three easy blocks away from the Ziegfeld at the time and repeatedly took advantage of that proximity.  The really great thing about watching a movie in Manhattan was that, after I finished a movie and stepped outside the theater, I felt like I had stepped into another movie where I was a character.  Everywhere is a movie backdrop. I really experienced that feeling when I spontaneously decided to watch David Lynch’s 2006 “Inland Empire” (which I now, fourteen years later, realize qualifies as “Kafka-esque”, although not as much as his amazing 1977 first feature “Eraserhead”) by myself on a cold winter evening.  Walking the city was one of my favorite pastimes and the walk to the IFC Theater on 6th Avenue in Greenwich Village from my apartment in Chelsea was so enjoyable it almost would have sufficed as the evening’s entertainment.  That’s NYC.  As much of a Lynch fan as I am, I still have to either brace myself to watch one of his movies or relax and detach myself and be open-minded.  For this viewing, I had the latter mindset going in.  The powerful ending somewhat hit home for me because it was set on Hollywood Blvd.  I don’t mean the tourist-packed part of Hollywood Blvd. but more grungy part more east (at least when I was there) and the film’s final scene was set deep into the night. For more than five years I lived two blocks from Hollywood Blvd. (my block ended at LaBrea) and four blocks from Grauman’s Chinese Theater, the ultimate Hollywood Blvd. landmark.

After “Inland Empire” ended and I left the theater, 6th Avenue seemed exceptionally energetic and heavily-trafficked, which was very welcoming after “Inland Empire’s” intense surrealism and downer ending (although the closing credits were uncharacteristically uplifting, even fun, for one of Lynch’s movies).  I welcomed seeing all the lights and and cars and people as I started my walk home.  A few blocks into my walk, I approached a crowd of people outside one of the storefronts.  I generally don’t rubberneck when I walk or drive by things like that but I took a quick glance and saw there was no hope of me seeing whatever everyone was looking at so I continued on.  Things happen in New York all the time.  Thinking I left the scene behind me, I continued my energetic walk back in the refreshing February cold (yes, I was one of those New Yorkers and still am) back to my apartment.  When I got home, I put on the local news.  Almost immediately, the story was about the focus of the crowd I had passed on the way home.  Rats had infested a combination KFC/Taco Bell to the point it had to be shut down.  The news footage showed rats all over the counters, tables and stools and they reminded me of little gymnasts in the way they climbed around and over everything.  After seeing that intense Lynch movie, the news footage of the rats was a welcome comic relief. (In the 90’s I saw a PBS documentary about how ironically vital rats are to the health of NYC and it changed my opinion of them).  I chose to include a link to a CNN Money article of the story because I figured it would be the most subtle.  There are more graphic articles as well as videos of the story out there.          https://money.cnn.com/2007/02/23/news/companies/taco_bell/index.htm

The other Scorsese film I want to single out is his 1990 “Goodfellas.” I don’t remember what the SF Chronicle review specifically said but it was enough to get me to see it with two co-workers at a multiplex in Redwood Shores, CA at a 5pm or 6pm showing on opening (Fri)day.  I worked at Oracle Corporation in the same city at the time.  Once it started, I quickly realized “Goodfellas” was a gangster movie but its connection to other movies in the genre ended with the categorization.  From the opening scene, it was a vibrant and relentlessly engaging rollercoaster ride.  I stressed intensely during several scenes and laughed loudly during others. The reactions of the appreciative packed house mirrored mine and, before I knew it, the movie was over.  After the end credits rolled and we peeled ourselves out of our seats and stepped out of the theater, my co-workers asked, almost in unison, “So, what did you think, Dan?”  I’m very opinionated and energetic so I’m used to people entertaining themselves listening to me express myself when I’m enthusiastic about something.  This time, however, it took a moment for the question to register and all I could come up with was a noncommittal “I don’t know what to think”, to which both quickly agreed.  Over the next several days and after the mental dust settled, I decided “Goodfellas” was one of the best movies I’d ever seen and my stance has not deviated from that opinion.  In the 30 years since it’s release, I’ve seen it at least that same number of times and it never loses any of its impact, ability to engage me or ability to make me hungry, especially the backyard scene with the big spread of warm Italian cheeses and cured meats and the sauce-stirring helicopter scene.  I dislike ranking movies — my top 20 constantly switch around from day to day — or being asked what my favorite movie of all time is but, if you ask me on the right day, the answer would be “Goodfellas.” I find it to be a very complete film. I don’t think so highly of my own opinion of movies to designate anything a “masterpiece” but, if I did, I would use that categorization to describe both “Raging Bull” and Goodfellas.”

One of the things that makes “After Hours” unique for a Scorsese movie is its whimsical fictional storyline.  “Whimsy” is not a word you associate with Scorsese, although you see bits of that element in some of his movies, like the bitter and ironic “Wizard of Oz” parody opening of his 1974 “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”, the movie that won Ellen Burstyn her Best Actress Oscar.  

The first time I saw “After Hours” was the one and only time I took acid.  I lived in Scottsdale, AZ at the time and drove up to San Francisco for a weekend. I arrived into the Bay Area the day before the San Francisco Gay Pride parade in 1992 (after that year, you couldn’t pay me to go to one of those things in any city) and the energy that night in the Market & Castro area was explosive in its energy (the next day’s regimented, structured and orderly parade was anticlimactic by comparison which, at the time, was fine by me).  I had frequently been offered hard drugs by friends since I was a teen, especially when I started hanging out with the more sophisticated and bohemian people of San Francisco, and always politely declined (I went to high school 40 geographic miles and a million idealogical miles away from The City).  When people like you, they want to share things they like with you. I smoked pot and that was more than enough.  Even then I rarely got high when I went out until I was in the car headed home.  I didn’t do it to be inebriated as much as to help wind down and it helped me get to sleep. Other than some meals and visiting the Napa and Sonoma valley wineries, I rarely drank alcohol.  I gave bottles of alcohol given to me as gifts to friends who appreciated them.

That (completely unplanned) night, the buddy I was with asked, “Wanna do acid?” when we were at a bar and was shocked when I said, “Sure!”, knowing he would be surprised by my answer.  He said, “Wow, I didn’t expect that response!  I was just being polite. You always say no.”  During this exchange. I remembered reading that Dan Rather took LSD because he was doing a story on the drug and he wanted first-hand experience so he could report with some level of authority on it. I always thought that was smart of him and gave him credibility, not only on that story but in general. It’s within reason to give more weight to the opinion of someone with experience on a topic over someone who lacks it. I’m sure he drew a sensible line in terms of how far he would go to give himself insight into any subject he reported on. To an extent, I used Rather’s experience as justification for breaking my hard-set rule by accepting my buddy’s offer. Another contributing factor was the overwhelming energy of the massive crowd on the streets and in the bars. It was hard to stay inert with all that happening around me.

Knowing he was exposing me to a mind-expanding experience, my buddy looked forward to seeing my reaction to being high on acid. He also knew if he made the offer an hour earlier or an hour later, my answer would likely have been different. Without either of us knowing it, he struck while the iron was hot. I had no idea what my answer would be until I gave it. He placed in my palm a tiny piece of paper, telling me it was a half of one hit (as a precaution since it was my first time) and left to walk around as I talked to a guy at the bar.  When my friend came back to check on me, he asked how I was doing.  I told him I didn’t feel anything and wasn’t impressed.  My friend took my word that the dose was not enough so he gave me what he said was an additional full hit, left again as I sat at the bar talking to the other guy.  When my buddy came back saying he was ready to leave the bar, I shook hands with the guy I talked to, got off the stool and, the moment my foot hit the floor, I realized I had made a big mistake.  I did not feel my feet on the ground.  It felt like I was levitating and my only hope at the time was that I retained any semblance of control over what my body did, especially my legs and feet.  I was not ready for it at all, which was made more clear when we opened the door and saw the street and all the foot and car traffic, which looked nothing I had ever seen in my life.  I did not want this feeling at all.  I wanted it to go away, which sounds more comical in retrospect than it felt at the time. For the next several hours, we walked around a super-crowded Market & Castro area, going in and out of bars, and met a lot of people.  I apologized to everyone I spoke to, explaining I was on acid for the first time and felt out of control.  To a person, each told me they could not tell I was high at all, much less on acid, and that I maintained very well.  At one point, I was part of a 10-person half circle of people talking on the sidewalk.  Someone two people over from me asked, “What happened to that guy that did acid for the first time tonight?”  I was lucid enough to find that funny and laughed and said, raising a hand I could not feel, “I’m right here.”  The group reiterated that they could not tell I was high by the way I interacted.  I told them I needed to hear that because I felt like I was having a nervous breakdown.  I’m not sure I ever felt the need for validation that I was OK more than I did that night.  It seemed they felt obligated to make sure I was OK, which had to put the brakes on the fun they were having.  Then I realized I was part of that fun for them.  Several people tried to pick up on me but I insisted I was not neither looking for nor in the position for anything like that.  At this point, the night became about survival and getting to a safe place. I had to carefully place each step as I walked on the sidewalk.  The things I saw and heard were other-worldly.  Later, my buddy told me, “Oops!  That wasn’t a hit and a half I gave you. You took three hits of acid.  Don’t worry, I’ll be right by you all night.  You’re doing great.”  We went to a surreal — trust me, it’s better for me to leave it at that — party at some guy’s house that I couldn’t leave soon enough.  We probably left that party around 3am and finally went to my buddy’s Lower Nob Hill apartment. Knowing I could not sleep and taking advantage of an opportunity that could not have been better scripted, he put on “After Hours”, saying, “The is the perfect movie for you, especially you, now that you are on acid and had the night you just had.”  I completely connected with Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) and what he experiences and the movie paralleled the vibe of my experiences that night.  Throughout the night, Paul has chance meetings with one screwy character after another that leave him feeling disoriented and unsatisfied and his night gets progressively more complicated and seemingly inescapable.  It just occurred to me that there was a “Wizard of Oz” element to what he was going through.  Not coincidentally, Marcy (Rosanna Arquette) tells Paul an anecdote that includes a “Wizard of Oz” reference.  Paul originally leaves a boring evening at his apartment in the hopes of having some light harmless fun, then spends the last half of the night desperately trying to get home.  See how my own night mirrored Paul Hackett’s?  That entire night had to be the most perfect and elaborate setup I’ve ever had to watch a movie that could not have been more appropriate.  Unless I’m not telling the story right, you don’t have to be on any drug to see the parallel.

In starting to watch the 1962 Orson Welles adaptation of Kafka’s “The Trial” last night — which I stopped after 15 minutes not long after the preamble — the story is prefaced by a parable entitled “Before the Law”, narrated by Welles (who is said to have dubbed the lines of eleven of the movie’s characters, including some lines of lead Anthony Perkins) over drawings to illustrate what was being said.  The moment I heard the line where the guard tells the man trying to get in why he will accept his bribes, “I am taking this only so that you do not think you have failed to do anything”, I recognized its similarity to when the night club bouncer in “After Hours” tells Paul “I’ll take your money ’cause I don’t want you to feel like you left anything untried”, which I thought was a fascinating line the first time I heard it.  Remembering that I had only read the first four chapters of the novel, I researched the parable’s place in the novel.  A priest’s telling of the parable does not appear until late in the novel, which I had no intention of reading any further than I had.  Had the movie not moved the parable from later in the story to the very beginning, I’d never have caught the Kafka-inspired reference in “After Hours.”  Then it occurred to me that “After Hours” — and my night on acid — is like a Kafka story.  In “The Trial”, Jozef K woke up and his world and his place in it had changed and all he wanted was for it to resume to normal. Both Paul Hackett and I started our unplanned nights with the intention of having safe, harmless fun, only to have them spiral out of our control in ways we couldn’t have imagined. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Twenty-eight years later, by adding Kafka — who had been recommended to me in 1994 — to the mix, that experience on acid and watching “After Hours” that night finally came full circle last night and the realization of the connections hit me as being profound, powerful and exciting. The realization was a rush and it was the biggest immediate payoff after reading Kafka’s great but tortured writing. Movies (and life in general) have the tendency to get that type of reaction from me.

DPW March 31, 2020

Especially after sharing my one-time-only wages-of-sin experience with acid, I do not condone the use of recreational (or any, if you can help it) drugs. Even with marijuana, it is best used as a substitute for pharmaceuticals (all of which are scary) for things like pain, anxiety, depression, stress, appetite stimulation and the other useful and corrective purposes it can serve when used correctly. Look at articles about how many NFL players use it instead of prescription medication. The foundation for their careers is frequent and intense physical and mental stress. Their opinion on the topic is valuable. For them, marijuana has nothing to do with “partying” or being slackers. It’s sensible and safe self-medicating. Being purposelessly inebriated isn’t something I recommend to anyone at any time for any reason. No one is more impressive in that state than when they are sober. I have a vivid recollection of a conversation in the early 80’s where I was at a buddy’s house and we and his other friends were getting ready to go out. I said that I liked being sober when I was out because I wanted to be at my best and I didn’t want my judgement impaired. Their response was, “We can’t go out unless we’ve had a few drinks or a few hits of pot first” as they were drinking and getting high. They thought I was odd and I thought they robbed themselves of a more alert and enjoyable experience. Other than a little egg nog during the holidays or an occasional single sip of someone else’s margarita — both of which always emphasize and confirm why I backed off alcohol completely — I have not had alcohol in more than four years and don’t miss it. That sounds like something a recovering alcoholic would say, but it’s not that I drank a lot; it’s that I drank at all. I was friends with a guy for 15 years before he told me he was an AA sponsor. He doesn’t tell me much about his experiences or sponsees, but what he’s told me is intense.

I likewise rarely had alcohol before I moved to NYC in 2004. It was surprising how much more prevalent its use is in NYC than it is in Los Angeles. When I socialized with co-workers or neighbors in Manhattan, they felt uncomfortable if I didn’t drink with them. I don’t miss that mindset at all. Drinking and taking recreational drugs give people the impression they are being out and doing something. I’d have done better to have gone somewhere else while they drank, which I often ended up doing and that place was usually my apartment. The unobstructed view of Midtown along with whatever movie or TV show I was watching or music I was listening to or visitor I was talking to often was enough stimulation and entertainment for me.

Instead of using drugs or alcohol, make yourself feel better and healthier in ways that are more practical, accessible, sensible, substantial and beneficial by eating right and exercising regularly. There is a direct correlation between your physical health and your mental health and certainly in the chemical way your brain functions. Feeling good physically and mentally should be a sufficient enough high for anyone.

I mention that I find Kafka difficult to read. I could barely read a page before nodding off. I attributed it to the unpleasantness of what I was reading but, in thinking about it, reading has always been like that for me, especially school texts and novels. I don’t have that problem when I read about current events or sports or anything else I like to read, although I’ll often read until I get the major points of an article. It finally occurred to me to google “why do I fall asleep when I read.” One of the reasons given was that we are conditioned to associate reading with sleep because we were read to sleep by our parents when we were children, although I don’t remember that happening with me. It my have, I just don’t remember it. Google the topic yourself. All I needed to know was that, not only is it not just me, it’s most people, and now I’m bathed in relief. I thought I was narcoleptic. Now I’ll look into ways to compensate, like listening to music while I read or reading a little in the middle of the day.

About Dan Walker

As part of an Air Force family, I went to elementary school in Great Falls, MT, junior high in Cheyenne, WY and high school and college in the San Francisco Bay Area, graduating from San Francisco State University with a degree in business. I was fortunate to have worked for great companies in Silicon Valley (Oracle Corp) and Hollywood (Miramax Films). I also lived and worked (primarily in financial services, which has no great companies) for eight years in Manhattan, New York City. I now reside in New York's beautiful Hudson Valley.

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