An Evening with
Last April, I spent a bittersweet evening in San Francisco with Charles Beaumont …and Richard Matheson, and George Clayton Johnson, and a crowd of good writers who never worked for Twilight Zone but called Beaumont their friend and colleague. It was a fine evening of memories, and laughter, and a few tears.
Veteran writers William F. Nolan, John Shirley, and Frank M. Robinson were there in the flesh, signing their books, chatting with each other and with fans in a lobby party before the movie. All of this went down in service of the San Francisco premiere of Charles Beaumont: The Short Life of Twilight Zone's Magic Man, a film by Jason V. Brock.
The screening was sponsored by SFinSF -- a wonderful organization dedicated to many good causes, not the least of which is spreading SF to the masses who live in San Francisco. The event was held in their Variety Preview Room, a lobby and screening theater on the ground floor of the Hobart Building downtown. The upper stories of this 100-year old building seem straight out of Blade Runner, which was wonderfully appropriate even without a specific connection either to Beaumont or Twilight Zone.
SFinSF offers multiple events every month: check out their website and calendar.
Following the lobby party, I spent a rapt ninety minutes in the dark, breaking bread with writers I've worshipped since I was ten. Beaumont may have been the subject, but he was hardly the only delight.
I've spent my share of SF conventions gawking at legends such as Stephen King, Frederick Pohl, John Brunner, Alfred Bester, Harlan Ellison—and delightedly discovering that they were approachable, friendly people. (Yes, even Harlan!)
So I loved the time that this film spends with writers I've never met: for example Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson. There were plenty of other "names" that I knew only by reputation. Forrest J Ackerman was especially charming, a legend and regular guy simultaneously; and now someone who I never will meet because he's gone. So I was especially grateful for the generous time spent with him.
The one thing I wished for that this film could never provide was more time with Beaumont. After sitting around with all his friends, listening to them share their stories, I wanted ninety minutes with the man himself. I'm certain that Brock used every inch of footage that he could get—who wouldn't?—and still I wanted more.
The man speaks for twenty seconds or so in his The Intruder sequence. His character is the kind of hero we all wish to be. The way Beaumont delivers those lines gave me a look at what I imagine to be the writer's soul. And it jibes with his friend's descriptions: great passion and energy, intense and clear convictions, the ability to drag you into something you'll treasure only later.
What gave me the greatest pleasure was the "kitchen table" ambience of the interviews. It felt as if I was with friends I see every day. Brock's interviews drew their words out in the way that a conversation would: casually and comfortably.
It's refreshing to see icons as ordinary people, happily lost in a memory.
Still, they could easily have been talking heads and no more, without the inspired editing of Brock's wife and collaborator Sunni. The film illustrates each conversation with incidental shots, interesting angles, related stock footage. Ms. Brock understands the context between visuals and sound. These aren't just interviews, they are illustrated stories.
For example, the opening sequence is a work of kinetic art. The Past is proxied by a tiny black-and-white kinescope of Mike Wallace grilling Rod Serling about his bland new issueless fantasy show Twilight Zone. The interview is a tiny hole of surreality, almost lost in the overwhelming darkness of the screen. It drifts around the void, periodically giving ground to The Present, which intrudes in the form of high-tech opening credits.
It's a subtle suggestion that through Twilight Zone, Serling and Beaumont snuck up and dragged us from the dim flickering Past into the bright technicolor Present. The film's subtext makes a decent case for this evolution. Like Serling, Beaumont wanted to expose the social issues that TV and culture tried to ignore. And he had some success at it.
The Twilight Zone owes much to Beaumont. Our culture owes him too. An extended sequence about Roger Corman's movie of Beaumont's novel (and screenplay) The Intruder cemented, for me, Beaumont's reputation as a dedicated agent of change. And unlike with Twilight Zone's network television need for subterfuge, The Intruder plows into racial prejudice head-on.
It's the way that he plowed into life. His friends appreciated that about him, especially in retrospect. Nearly everyone had a story of being exhorted into some daring act, resisting uselessly at the time but now rejoicing at their friend's audacity.
Beaumont's life sounds like a "burn the candle at both ends" cliche, and the shadow of his tragic demise must inform any narrative. But the film is not a lament. Of course there could have been, should have been, so much more. But listen closely because the crammed carnival that there was, is worth hearing about.
Is this a movie for the general public? No. It's for people who look for the writing credit at the end of a movie or a TV show they like. For people who watch for "Written by Charles Beaumont" at the end of a Twilight Zone. I did that religiously as a teen, catching the reruns at 4:30 in the afternoon circa 1967. I loved seeing the names Serling and Matheson, but Beaumont always seemed to follow shows that really, really stuck with me.
This flick inspired me to find a copy of The Intruder on EBay. It's especially impressive for its era, a landmark of daring for the social comment that it made at a time when censors were terrified of offending bigots. But just as delightful as the courage of writing the story, was the courage required to go down South and make that film. Beaumont spread that kind of courage around; his friends and associates found in his courage, inspiration for theirs.
Brock's film is filled with dear old friends of Beaumont, and of any reader or watcher of SF: Bradbury, Ellison, Matheson, Johnson, Nolan, Ackerman, Roger Anker, Roger Corman, William Shatner; intimates such as his son Christopher Beaumont and best-friend-for-years John Tomerlin. It offers details about Beaumont's life that you knew and surprises that will drop your jaw. Many struggled to explain him, but they all marveled at his drive, his talent, his recklessness, and his daring. Dead at 38, he had packed so many more years of living into that short stretch.
I delighted in details about Beaumont's first meeting with Rod Serling. He trashed the autobiographical The Velvet Alley, perhaps as a test of Serling's character. They became friends. More importantly, the act established honesty as the foundation of their relationship. Beaumont became Serling's go-to man, even if you discount the scripts (such as Living Doll) that his illness forced him to subcontract.
Corman's The Intruder DVD had a featurette about the making of that film in an authentic Missouri setting that featured locals as extras. When William Shatner exhorted an increasingly noisy crowd to resist integration, and the crew (including Beaumont and many of his writer friends) wondered if they would finish the scene—and the movie—unharmed.
Exhilarating! Satisfying. Friends in the seats, friends up on the screen ...even though none of them actually knew me. This film makes you feel a part of something bigger, something good. Maybe even something historic. The Brocks hope to take their film on tour around the country, and I hope that happens. This website will update you about where the film is showing next, and eventually, how you can buy it for yourself on DVD.
Delightfully critical as usual, Harlan Ellison managed to strike the movie's lowest note (for me), and then top it off with the highest. The low first: "In terms of talent, Rod Serling wasn't fit to carry Charlie Beaumont's pencil case." Sigh. Why must there be a competition? Serling's six Emmys are a fact, and talent has many definitions.
And specifically to Ellison's point, Serling valued and publicly recognized Beaumont's talent; it's right there in his acceptance speech for the first Twilight Zone Emmy—they (and others) shared that Emmy. So I say that he gets to carry those pencils. And Beaumont gets to carry Serling's pencils.
The high is Ellison's attribution to Beaumont of the classic quote, "Achieving success in Hollywood is like climbing an enormous a mountain of cow shit so that you can pluck that one perfect rose from the top. And you find after you've made that hideous ascent, you've lost the sense of smell." Beaumont certainly could have sourced this gem: while you're laughing at the black humor, its tragic truth washes over you like a rude odor.
Fate robbed him of a second act, but no one could steal Charles Beaumont's sense of smell, nor his understanding of how to use yours to make his point.
—Steve Schlich, webmaster for rodserling.com