On The Road

It's been years - a lot of years -- since my last book tour and for all I know they don't even use authors anymore. Well, I'd find out this time, going on the road with my new book, a trade paperback called "Beyond Popcorn: A Critic's Guide to Looking at Films," published by Eastern Washington University Press. I start my tour in New York, where I grew up and where I've already had a career in films. The first reading is to be at a most welcoming venue, Applause Theatre and Film Books on 71st Street just off Broadway. What could be better? Friends and relatives are alerted and show up in a group. When you're an obscure author with an unpromoted book from a tiny publisher, and you live in a town that's had even country/western singers making fun of it ("Stuck in a Motel Room in Spokane") you look for these things. Unfortunately we all arrive on the day that Applause Books is closing its doors for good, though neither I nor my little claque, gathered on the store steps waiting to be let in, know this. Nevertheless, at one minute before reading time a young woman who hadn't yet got the news shows up to open the door and let us in.

My readings aren't so much nose-in-the-book as they are notes on areas the book deals with, like how to think like a critic, how to tell a good film from a great one, whether foreign films are better than domestic ones, what all those credits mean, and a list of all the films you have to see before you die.

I also have a chapter called "What we learn from Buster Keaton," and at readings I use that to lead into a screening of scenes from five famous comedies. I begin with the Polish Comedian joke, which requires a foil from the audience, and I usually ask if there's a journalist in the crowd. Here's the joke: You give the foil two lines to learn: "So you're the famous Polish comedian," and "To what do you attribute your success?" You rehearse them until everyone in the room knows them by heart. Then, when we do it for real, the payoff goes "To what --- "Timing." This time I have a real journalist, my friend Victor, who is not only a journalist but the publisher and editorial director of The Nation magazine. No problem, except that Victor decides to upstage me by giving the punchline before I do. Thanks, Victor.

Next day, though, makes up for it with 40 minutes on Leonard Lopate's NPR noon show. I try to remember to flog the book, but Mr. Lopate does it for me, so I don't have to. Heartfelt thanks to Gigi Lamm, the University of Washington Press publicist who arranged the tour and made the media contacts, and whom I know only by phone and email.

On to Washington, D.C., and a lovely venue I'd discovered earlier in the year when I was in town on other business. It's Visions Cinema Bistro, a two-screen theatre with attached deli and bar. On Tuesdays, in addition to their regular film programs, they schedule filmmakers, critics and other movie people to speak about their work. When I'd been there last spring to see a film in one theatre, the great Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami was speaking in the other one. And now here am I doing the same thing. A big crowd and many questions afterwards. Why do people get so mad when they find out I've listed "The Sound of Music" as the worst musical ever made? Oh, well. No accounting for taste.

Next morning at Fox Channel 5 News for the usual three minutes with clips from my comedies, and a host who hasn't read the book. I expect it and am not disappointed. That evening at the Barnes & Noble in Georgetown things go well, they have books galore, and lots of people who line up to buy them and have me inscribe them.

On to New Orleans, where I visit my son Nick's neurobiology lab and watch slices of mouse brains being tested for electrical conductivity between neurons. Lots of action, if you happen to be in that field. My real reason for the visit, though, is to join Nick's trivia team for the weekly competition at a bar in the French Quarter. He and I are good at Trivial Pursuit, and our third team member has his Ph.D in British social history of the 20th Century, so I think we'll be easy winners. Ah, hubris. Here is the one question I get right: What is the language that has only 12 letters, including the five vowels a, e, i, o, and u?

The many questions I miss badly undercut the pleasure of a big story and interview in the Times-Picayune and a nice success at Barnes & Noble's store in suburban Metairie, where happily no one tries to upstage me. In fact one lady buys four books and has me inscribe them to four friends, with the note "Season's Greetings, 2001." She tells me she's just taken care of her Christmas shopping. Good idea - at $14.95 my book is a cheap gift. I'll have Gigi offer the book to Hallmark stores. Next stop Santa Fe, where she's gotten me a big story in the New Mexican for my reading that night at the local Borders.

Here is an interesting phenomenon. The reading is in the store's café, on their little stage, with the audience in front. But sitting at tables right behind my people are a half-dozen café patrons sipping lattés, reading books, making notes, whatever. I don't mind that no one looks up during my talk, but I do expect some interest in the film clips. Wrong. Great comic moments from five wonderful films, and NO ONE CARES. Oh, well. As I leave, a salsa combo is setting up for their gig. Good luck.

Next stop Los Angeles, where it's a good thing both my wife and I have family, because they are the only ones who come to my reading at Border's in Westwood. On the other hand, my reading at Vroman's in Pasadena draws a big crowd and a fair number of signings, including one for a man of a type I've now seen at a few different venues: the autograph groupie, who comes with a camera and wants to be in a picture with you, on the off chance you'll be famous some day. He's been coming to dozens of readings there and shows me photos of himself with everyone from Ted Koppel to Camille Paglia. So will he show them his picture of me?

Into the home stretch at San Francisco, where a midday reading at Stacey's draws a big crowd. Stacey's even gives me a gift of a book of my choice. I think about the O.E.D. but decide on something more in keeping with my status and the price of my own book. I realize that what I like most about the tour is performing, and by now I've gotten it down pretty well. I even know the applause lines. Maybe I should go back to directing.

Last stop is Seattle. Two big hits there, at Third Place Books and then at the University Book Store, where I finally meet Gigi in person and thank her for her work on behalf of an unknown author. Still, though, my Amazon.com ranking remains stuck in the mid five figures. Will I ever move in with the big boppers? Time will tell.

August 2001