Posted on | May 14, 2010 | 7 Comments
“What’s your favorite kind of computer?” Callie would ask.
“Wang,” Clara would say.
The news of Callie’s death by suicide has brought much comment about her dedication to avant garde film, Warhol in particular, the most beautiful by Jim Hoberman in the Village Voice. But the Callie I knew had a life outside of screening rooms.
This born New Yorker loved a small lake and family lakehouse just outside the city. There were snapping turtles, which she would watch snare unaware birds. Sitting on the porch on humid evenings was never dull. Lightning storms could cast freakish bolts that would come in through the porch and zizzle through the house until they raced out of a door. When rabies infected the local racoons, her letter bearing a description of the animals emerging froth-mouthed from the woods was terrifying and beautiful.
Callie was a singular story-teller. Her account of a family fight, held in the pantry between her mother (was it her mother?) and stepfather, consisted entirely of the moments in which they shouted the labels of jam jars back and forth at one another.
Callie was every inch the product of old New York and its recreational environs. She hated Woody Allen films and the Pottery Barn approximations of a world of tortured New York intellectuals that she understood all too well. She loved good crockery, and quilts, and had a magical touch decorating her too dark apartment on the Upper West Side. How the shelves holding up her massive collection of books stayed up I don’t know. After my then boyfriend and I put them up for her in 1978 or so, and I left New York City, every visit back I would look at the books, think of the shelf-bolts and thank them.
Callie and I met when we both worked at a film distribution company called Cinema 5 in the 1970s, a phase that didn’t make her obituaries but that was remarkable all the same because of the endlessly fascinating eccentricities of the company owner, Donald Rugoff. When Rugoff took out an enormous ad in the New York Times for his young second wife’s chocolate chip cookies, it was Callie’s office where the stunned employees gathered.
When Callie became my boss and actually pounded my desk one day for emphasis to do with increasing rentals of art films to colleges, our friendship might have ended, but I quit for other reasons. I moved briefly to an equally artsy distribution outfit, where the infinitely sweet and funny man who would become Callie’s brother-in-law handled all the prints and whose shorthand for the Japanese film Woman in the Dunes was “Dunessucker.” “I’ve got three Dunessuckers ready to ship!” Richie would yell as UPS arrived. But that job, too, was short-lived. I never shared Callie’s dedication to the world inside the screening room. It was always Callie who, after a movie, would have latched onto a moment and needed to talk about it the way I needed to find a restaurant or bar. And it wasn’t all Jonas Mekas territory, either. She was very taken by the way Jane Fonda was reduced to wheedling her boss for more serious assignments in the China Syndrome. She loved the Honeymooners and once leapt from her chair to act out Art Carney showing Jackie Gleason how to “address the ball” (“Hello ball!”) in the episode where the bus driver needs to learn how to golf to impress his boss.
She was eight years older than me, but seemed older because of a fabulous head of grey hair acquired in her thirties, which she’d talk about rarely in terms of color but instead in believe-it-or-not terms about how, soaked with sweat, it froze when she removed her hat after power-walking around the Central Park reservoir.
We were so close during the brief window that I lived in New York in the late 70s that I was the one she rang in the middle of the night after finding motel receipts in her boyfriend’s pocket. I remember taking 3am subways from Williamsburg to the Upper West Side that appalling night that she discovered her then live-in partner was a cheat.
But, as time passed, she expected more, things I didn’t deliver. I had a brief history with **Ondine, a star of Chelsea Girls, who back in the 1970s might well have had one of the last extant prints of the film under his bed at his mother’s house in Queens. That was the state of Warhol’s film legacy when Callie began tracking down the films, cataloguing them and writing about them. Of all people, I should have understood her passion, and supported it. But I didn’t. Looking back, my response to her announcement of a screening of the eight-hour-long “Empire” in its entirety (“Is this a promise or a threat?”) might have been the coup de grace for our friendship. Or the fact that I used phrases like coup de grace. Callie couldn’t bear Miss Piggyisms.
Unlike Callie, I did not last long in New York and the remarkable thing is how long our friendship persisted with me living in London and she in New York. Somewhere I have a picture of Callie looking very like the distressed cat lover she was with my two dogs in Kensington Gardens. In the same album there is a shot of her cat checking out a stuffed gorilla that, during a visit to her in the mid-1980s, I bought at FAO Schwarz after a boozy lunch at the Grand Central Oyster Bar.
It was Callie, some time in the early 1990s, who after a meal observed that I was becoming judgmental. By that time, I’d been the restaurant critic for the Independent newspaper long enough to effortlessly ruin meals perfectly acceptable to those not paid to sneer. “You were never so opinionated before,” she said, squinting accusingly. In part because of that remark, not long after it, I quit. It is torture to look back on the reviews in which I complain about my soup.
In 1998, a friendship that had lasted twenty-two years finally snapped. In a visit to New York, the old Callie was still evident. I still remember her telling me about the Jon Benet Ramsey case; all I know about it and will ever need to know came from her captivating account. But she was also angry, restless and sad. When I couldn’t agree with her that things only got worse, or validate her darkening views, on my last night there, she threw a tantrum so bad, so personal, that I packed my bags in the middle of the night. She stopped me and we made up, but the reconciliation didn’t stick. We spoke only once after that, in 2001, shortly after the World Trade Center bombings, when I rang to ask if she was OK. She was OK, she said.
I chose to believe that until I learned about her suicide.
Callie Angell looked at the world differently than most. I will never know what she saw in Warhol, but I was lucky enough to know what she saw in many other things. No matter the event, when something happened, anyone who knew her would always thirst for her take, the Callie take.
* Warholstars.org pays tribute to Callie and offers links to other obituaries and remembrances.
**At my behest, sometime in the mid-seventies, Ondine brought his copy of Chelsea Girls to the University of Maryland for a showing. He arrived with his then partner, Roger Jacoby. At the time, openly gay couples were rarely if ever seen in Prince George’s County, Maryland and would have had compelling reasons to fear for their lives. My roommates and I were awestruck. The screening did not go well, and would have been a disaster had, after the crowd yelled, “You suck!”, Ondine not yelled back, “Thank you! Do you?” His wit and ready refunds disarmed the worst bullies. As a kind of twofer, we had also arranged for Roger to give a film class the next day. There was no money for a hotel, so I gave my bedroom in a shared student house to Ondine and Roger. Ondine, revved up on speed and vodka, found a Jakob Burkhardt text, read all night and spent the next day extolling medieval iconography while he, Roger and Roger’s three or so students rode around College Park filming the town’s formidable continuum of strip malls and whatever strayed into their path. I have no idea what happened to the footage. I saw Ondine one other time, at a cinematheque in New York, for a showing of one of Roger’s films. He arrived wearing a cape and dominated the event. We probably spoke — I’m sure that he was as polite as a Sheridan Whiteside figure could be after being followed back to New York by an awe-struck provincial.