Murder the Prepostions, Alive Again
by Jerry Blumenthal
It’s 1993. Les Bridges, 58, has been divorced for a while now but is a devoted if sometimes distant, self-involved father of two daughters, both recently married. Les is an adman/writer who a few years back transplanted his highly successful company from Chicago to New York, and is now experiencing something of a second life as a downtown poet, reading at bars and cafes, self-publishing, and happily cutting a pretty cool swath among the black turtle-necked groupies in late-night Village post-bohemia, where, no big surprise, he meets up with a beautiful young woman half his age, a dealer in outsider art, and they are soon married.
Three months after the wedding, Les has a serious stroke, which he barely survives. Here’s how he describes this period in his life: “It was a heady mix of fabulous cash and crazy ideas. I lived on planes…L.A., Chicago…then in a great house in the East Village. My life was a fireball. Cannot do this forever, right? The stroke was a massive thunderbolt.”
He suffers some physical effects but is afflicted mainly with aphasia, an injury to the left side of the brain, where we normally and mostly automatically find and connect the right words to express our ideas. Les’s case was severe, wreaking havoc on his family and needless to say laying a heavy blow on his future as a wordsmith, both commercially and poetically.
It’s three years later, 1996. Les is nearing the end of two years of therapy at the Rusk Institute in Manhattan. Although he’s made tremendous progress--- writing poetry again, and working to keep his ad business afloat with the help of his younger daughter Lynda (who now has her own 2-year old daughter), the stroke is still very much with him, as he continues the maddening struggles with finding the right word and often the right sequence, and his self-defeating anger at having been dealt so bad a hand. But he begins to feel that his poetry is coming around and he finally gets up the courage to arrange his first reading since the stroke. It is to be held at the Back Fence on Bleecker St. in the Village, one of the places he got his start as a poet with an audience. Les contacts us (his old friends, Jerry & Gordon, at Kartemquin…we’d worked on some sponsored films together) and offers to fly us out and put us up for a few days to film what’s going on in his life. We accept the offer and come to New York, where we film some very interesting material (seven hours to be precise): the reading at the Back Fence is a success, sort of a time-warp, funny and moving; the therapy sessions at the Rusk Institute are fascinating, medically and personally; Les’s daughters are interesting and charming. The situation with his young wife is less accessible, but we are happy and return to Chicago with our hi-8 footage.
With the help of a west-coast filmmaker friend of Les’s, I cut a 17 minute sample, an early Avid edit (which Les titles Murder The Prepositions), but it is not long before the flurry of shooting, editing, and promotion begins to wind down. There is no money; the fundraising ball bounces out of reach of one too-busy player after another, before just sort of bouncing completely out of frame, gone. Kartemquin is busy starting some big new projects. Les’s progress with language reaches a kind of plateau. His advertising business is kaput. Family and healthcare trump everything.
It’s sixteen years later, 2012. Having recently finished a long-term project, Prisoner of Her Past, and for a while now no longer involved in day-to day affairs at Kartemquin, I find myself fishing around for something to do…something maybe like making a film. I’ve been in pretty close contact with Les over the years, and after a good deal of back-and-forth between me and Les and his younger daughter Lynda, it turns out we all share an interest in revisiting this long-dormant fragment of a story. We agree that it shouldn’t spend eternity in a box on a shelf, that it’s a story that deserves an audience. We also agree that in the great Kartemquin tradition of chasing stories until they run out of breath, we’ve got to look at Les and his family today to make the story whole. Our mantra is that the past (in this case mainly the footage we have from the nineties) will be all the more revealing when seen through the lense of the present. We envision a narrative that moves seamlessly back and forth between the present and the past.
Les left the city five or six years ago, basically following his daughters and their families to quieter locales. He now has his own place in sleep little Dobbs Ferry, twenty miles up the Hudson from Manhattan, where both his daughters live just minutes away. Their bonds are of course emotional (Les’s with his granddaughters are especially deep), and Les’s personal needs have naturally grown with age---not just because of the stroke. There are cataracts, falls, all of the usual indignities, and having two devoted daughters nearby has become more than a luxury.
Les’s house in Dobbs Ferry is comfortable, spacious, and at times very lonely. But he is still writing poetry every day and recently had four poems published in the New York literary journal, Sensitive Skin, the glossy front page of which has a photo of a smiling, nattily–dressed William Burroughs loading a sawed off shotgun. Our plan is to hang with Les mostly at his home, and film for three or four days this spring. He’ll be working, discussing the past and his plans for the future, which will include a much-anticipated visit from Lynda’s daughter Layla (who appears in the early footage at the age of two and is now studying at Vassar--- something in fact having to do with neurological disorders). We’ll of course arrange to be there for this. Layla likes to stay with Les when she’s home from school.
Then there’s the footage from 1995, which is rich. Les’s therapist from the Rusk Institute, Ruona Bertaccini, tells us that she finds the 17 minute sample, even on its own, more interesting than most of what she’s seen about aphasia. We’re certain that viewing it rearranged through contact with Les’s current situation and his twenty-year story of survival will make this material even more interesting. Ruona too has been in touch with Les over the years and wants to participate in the current phase of the project. She should have much to add to the story.
We know that a lot depends on how successful our trip to Dobbs Ferry is, but we hope you can see that we’re not exactly shooting in the dark. Adam Singer (who will co-produce and shoot the film) has been through the material with me and is a great new set of eyes on the story’s possibilities. We’re planning our shoot. Adam is optimistic, now that’s saying something.
Practical news of the project, funding, editing, etc. will be coming after we shoot in Dobbs Ferry, which should be some time this spring.
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