Wednesday, May 1, 2013

TV Bites: The Wanderers

City Island Clam Fritters

I'm still slowly recuperating from my herniated disc, which has kept me from doing much for the last month other than laying in bed, popping pain killers, and getting acupuncture. But now I'm off the pain killers, I'm on to physical therapy, and hoping to rejoin the human race soon.

But here we are with part two of "The 70's Looks Back at the 50's" double bill.

I initially chose this film because I've always been fond of it, and I thought it would make a good double-bill with American Graffiti. But in putting this post together, I got to watch it several times, and I've come to really fall in love with it. Also, I was quite surprised by how much they were connected. I see the movies like cousins, one from California and the other from New York. American Graffiti takes place in 1962 and Richard Price's book The Wanderers also takes place in 1962, though the Kaufmans bumped it up a year for the movie to 1963. Rolling Stone magazine said of Richard Price's book The Wanderers, from which the movie is based, that it is "the flip side of American Graffiti."

But there's more connections. Between 1973, when American Graffiti was made, and 1979, when The Wanderers was made, George Lucas and Philip Kaufman worked for a while on a screenplay together. If you follow this blog (or are just a movie fan) you'll know that movie was (previous Chef du Cinema pick) Raiders of the Lost Ark (which, like today's pick, costars Karen Allen). Also in Price's book (but didn't make it into the movie), there's a somewhat older character whom the lead character (Richie) seeks out for advice known as "The Wolfman." In American Graffiti, there's Wolfman Jack who offers up advice for Curt, the lead character.

The movie has these two moments at the very end which are just wonderful. The first displays the wonders of storytelling as Richie spots Nina (Karen Allen) walking down the street and then sees her go into Folk City. He stops at the door, almost as if there's an actual physical barrier that keeps him from opening it. Through the window, he sees and hears Bob Dylan singing, "The Times They Are A'Changing." He sees Nina, as well. And at that very moment, he makes the passage from teenager into manhood. He sees the life he is destined to live and the life he will always wonder about that he didn't get to live. Like Bernstein's story in Citizen Kane about the girl on the Staten Island Ferry: "I only saw her for one second and she didn't see me at all - but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl," Richie will say his version of that to a guy in a bar more than once. "Man, once there was this girl...." But then he returns to the restaurant and to his world. And as the title song kicks in, Richie shows us that while he is wistful, resigned to his destiny, it's not a bad destiny as there will be many more nights like this - of camaraderie, of drinking and laughing and joking and singing with his people. (Of course, sadly the 60's brings about white flight - as well as some middle-class black flight - out of the Bronx, so it all would soon change.) That scene tells us so much about everything that was exactly happening at that moment in 1963 and how everything was changing. But it does so at a personal level, allowing us to get inside of how the people living then had felt it. That's great storytelling.

Now the second moment displays the wonders of filmmaking. The editor cuts away from the restaurant. We see Joey, more than half in shadow. He has this wild, exuberant, wise-ass smile on his face. The title song is still playing. Is it coming from the car radio or is it in his head? Was the whole movie his recollection of how he wound up at this moment? Shifting angles, Joey's head is now out of frame and all we see are his hands, mimicking the saxophone solo. That shot is pure cinema. Even though there are a few more shots of the exterior of the car as it's heading west, they could have (and probably should have) been cut. Because it's the shot of the hands which lingers. It's one of the best final shots of any movie, I'll be challenging and say.


"Richie, I got my reputation to worry about. You're a guy. Guys don't have to worry about their reputations."

Let's start here. Richard Price was born in 1949 and grew up in a housing project in The Bronx borough of New York.

"I always wanted to be a writer," he said, "but coming from a working-class background it was hard to feel I had that right. If you’re the first generation of your family to go to college, the pressure on graduation is to go for financial security. The whole point of going to college is to get a job. You have it drilled into your head—job, money, security. Wanting to be an artist doesn’t jibe with any of those three. If you go back to these people who have 'slaved and sacrificed' to send you to school, who are the authority figures in your life, and you tell them that you want to be a writer, a dancer, a poet, a singer, an actor, and to do so you’re going to wait tables, drive a cab, sort mail, with your Cornell University degree, they look at you like you’re slitting their throats. They just don’t have it in their life experience to be supportive of a choice like that. Because I came from that kind of background, it was a scary decision not to go to law school.

"I wrote The Wanderers when I was still in school," he continued. "The book started out basically as assignments for my creative-writing classes at Columbia. Being published almost felt like the prize for handing in the best term paper. I didn’t even know I was working on a book. I was just writing: It’s time to write another one of these stories about these guys, the Wanderers. In class I read what turned out to be the first story of The Wanderers, and everybody hated it. Then Dan Halpern, who had started the literary magazine Antaeus and was a student in class with me, said, Well, I like it. I’d like to publish it. Can I have it? I’d never been published. It took a year for it to come out. Meanwhile, I had gone off to Stanford on a fellowship in their creative-writing program. Out there in Palo Alto, I felt so isolated from my past life that a great need came over me to crystallize my memories of the Bronx, my adolescence, the textures of a life to which I knew I’d never return. So my need to write about these mooks kicked into high gear—it was all tied into homesickness and disorientation. I was writing in the same manner and for the same reason that someone would whistle a tune as they navigated a dark and creepy forest.

"When it was published in Antaeus, an editor at Houghton Mifflin wrote me a letter saying, I’d like to see more stuff like this if you have it. By the time I got that letter I had ten stories, about two-hundred pages. Houghton Mifflin bought the book for like four thousand bucks. My editor straightened out the grammar. I didn’t even know I was doing what I was doing. I was twenty-four when it was published." That was in 1974 (just after American Graffiti was released).

Philip Kaufman was born in north side of Chicago in 1936 and grew up the son of a grocer.

"When I did The Wanderers it was sort of a reflection back to what that was like [when I grew up], although that film took place in New York," he said.

"It wasn't a gang, exactly," Kaufman belonged to, he explained. "This was back in the early 50's and everybody in my high school and in the neighborhood wore those colored jackets and we thought we were really tough guys and sort of greasers and walked around with our hair in DA's, except when a really tough gang walked into the pizza parlor and we'd all immediately assume the pose of wimps."

"I remember gang fights being lined up," he added in the film's DVD commentary. "We'd say we're going to meet somebody at a certain place. Often the fights didn't come off, but there was always that sense that they might. And I can remember football games where we'd fight another school and guys would come to school with black eyes the next day and so forth."

Not long after Price's book came out, Kaufman's then teenage son, Peter, read it and gave it to his father, "and he said to Rose [my wife] and me, 'You guys should make a movie out of this.' So Rose started listening that music, you know The Wanderers by Dion and so forth, and she said 'Okay, let's make it,'" Kaufman recalled.

Rose wrote the first draft of the script. "Richard Price's book was a series of wonderful short stories, but the problem was how do you put all those short stories about a group of young guys in the Bronx into one film," Kaufman said. "And so we went from story to story, combined characters, took parts of stories and put them together. It took us a couple of years to finalize the screenplay."

Some who are devotees of Price's book may complain that the Kaufman's took some liberties with the material, but as Price himself has said, "I love that picture. It's not my book, and I don't care. The spirit is right, and the way Phil Kaufman directed it showed me another way of looking at my own book."

They tried to pitch the project, but with no success. Even though by this time Kaufman had made a few low budget independent films, as well as two larger pictures, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid and The White Dawn. He had also now written the screenplay for The Outlaw Josey Wales and started to direct it, but Clint Eastwood wasn't happy and got him fired so he could direct it himself.

Kaufman then spent 8 months in basically pre-production on what would have been the first Star Trek movie. But Paramount decided there was no market for science fiction films. (This was in 1976 just before Star Wars changed all that.) So he returned to try and get The Wanderers made.

"We had a European producer [Alberto Grimaldi] who, at that moment in time, was probably the biggest producer in the world," Kaufman explained. "He had done all the Spaghetti Westerns, he’d done Bertolucci’s Last Tango [in Paris], Fellini’s movies, so many big movies. The Spaghetti Westerns sort of made United Artists at the time. We wanted to show him the script of The Wanderers."

"[Grimaldi] spent a couple of years with the project and really was unable to set it up," Kaufman said. But as Lucas encountered with American Graffiti, "Some top executive there said, 'We’re not going to do this because nobody wants to see a movie about teenagers.'"

Just then, United Artists decided they wanted to do a remake of the classic (and previous Chef du Cinema pick!) Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which Kaufman originally had begun to develop at Warner Bros.

But he continued to try to get The Wanderers set up and somehow the pieces fell together. So right after finishing Body Snatchers, Kaufman headed off to New York to make The Wanderers. "Finally I got the deal," Kaufman said, "and suddenly everybody announced a gang movie!" Indeed, Walter Hill was now directing The Warriors and Michael Pressman was shooting Boulevard Nights.

Once ensconced in New York, the arduous process of casting began. "We had endless groups of kids, radio searches for them, all over New York City. We had enormous casting sessions," Kaufman recalled. "Casting is a great part of your movie, really. If you're lucky enough to get the right cast, the rest follows." Kaufman had a great casting director in Scott Rudin, who would go on to become an accomplished film producer (including previous Chef du Cinema pick The Royal Tennenbaums).

"We were trying to get basically unknowns to be the film. Ken Wahl, for example, had never acted before and I think he was on his way to a job he had at a pizza parlor when somebody saw a photo he had sent in to New York thinking he could play one of the small roles, but as soon as I met him I thought, 'This guy could be the lead.' It was fortuitous because he was a really talented guy."

Along with Wahl, there were other newcomers including John Friedrich, and 400 pound wrestler/opera singer Erland van Lidth de Juede as Terror.

"There was no character like Pee-Wee in the book. Scott Rudin brought [Linda Manz] in for an interview, and Richard Price was there too, and we just thought she was just such a great character – and in fact was a member of a street gang," said Kaufman, "so we wrote a role in for her as Terror's romantic interest.." A year later, Manz would become a star with her role in Days of Heaven. "To me," Kaufman added, Terror & Pee-Wee "are one of the great romantic couples in cinema history."

For the role of Perry, Kaufman said, "We were calling around all the gyms in New York looking for a 6'4” 18 year-old kid and somebody said 'Hey, Tony there's a phone call for you.'" And that's how they found Tony Ganios.

It was also the first feature film for actress Toni Kalem who won the part of Despie. Some of you will remember her for her supporting role in the HBO series The Sopranos. Kaufman has said of her, "Toni Kalem is such a meticulous actress and so careful that what is in her purse is absolutely true to the details of the character in the time, even though she'll never open up the purse in the film, but she just needs to know that everything is 'right' inside."

"Creating the period look of the film was something we wanted to be absolutely accurate in all the details of the period," Kaufman explained, "but at the same time I wanted the film to have a stylized look. Richard Price was a little younger than these kids, particularly gangs like the Baldies and so forth, and to him would have seemed like giants. It was that kind of legendary, mythical Bronx. I believe that's how we remember our childhoods, both the unhappinesses and happinesses tend to be enlarged. It is really the most vivid time of most lives and I wanted to get a look that had that kind of vivid quality to it."

"I didn't want to do it like these musicals," he continued, "like Grease and so forth that have this kind of flashy, glitzy look. The tones I think have a kind of somberness, a little overcast look which makes these colors pop out more. But there's still a kind of muted feeling."

"It's kind of a dream of the Bronx of that time," Kaufman added elsewhere. "So the film is true to the reality of the vision you have when you're a teenager."

The film is at its most surreal in "Ducky Boy" territory. Kaufman said it was based on a real experience he had. "The look of it sort of came to me when I was coming into New York once in a cab and he went off the main highways and into a strange neighborhood saying he had to pick something up and left me sitting in the cab in a very weird area with strange lighting. And that for me really became Ducky Boy country. It was a little bit perhaps influenced by Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but it still had this sense of just getting lost in an urban environment, moving outside your neighborhood.... In a way they're descending into the lower depths of the urban world here.... The Ducky Boys – none of whom are over 5'3” – a stunted neighborhood where after they fight, as Richard Price says, 'They just sit on their doorsteps and bleed.' There are these neighborhoods that were in Chicago or in any big city – you never want to go into them. They're absolutely terrifying. And this is what happens when you stray in the big city."

Another sequence, one of the most memorable in the film, was also taken from a real life experience. When Kaufman was shooting his first independent film, Goldstein, in 1963, Kaufman recalled, "[W]hile we were out shooting, we just suddenly started seeing people crying on the street. Doors were left open. People were wandering around in tears. We came to a window and everyone was looking into the window sobbing, and on the television set was the fact that Kennedy had just been shot being announced."

So The Wanderers was shot mostly in The Bronx, which led to some interesting, shall we say, run-ins with some real gang members.

Richard Price remembered being in the film's production office when some real former members of the Baldies dropped by. "These guys, former Baldies, came in - they're all middle-aged guys by now - and they're yelling: 'Who wrote this? Whoever wrote this, this is a lie! This was not a bad neighborhood. There was no crime, no robbery. Murder, yes, but no crime!'"

Kaufman recalled an event when they were shooting on the streets one day, "[This] Puerto Rican motorcycle gang came pushing its way through the crowd wanting to see what was going on. They pushed everyone aside and then they just bumped right into Terror and looked up and smiled and walked away. They realized they were out-sized here."

Now there are several themes running through the film. One especially is announced right there at the beginning of the movie and is the quote I've used above. Despie thinks that men don't have to worry about their reputations, but in so many ways the movie then proceeds to show us how wrong she is.

Another theme, of course, is about the times which were a'changing at that exact moment. As I discussed in the opening, the scene where Richie sees Nina go into the folk club, and with the Kennedy assassination, it is the moment the 60's begins.

"Nina is part of the change. She's the world of the future, the folkies," Kaufman said. "I knew Bob Dylan and he gave me the rights to use the song and let us do the scene. It was really generous of him to let us do that.... That is exactly the very club, that is Folk City that we shot it in. And that is the very place where Dylan was appearing back in that year. Those were, in fact, the same posters that were out at Folk City then."

The film's strongest theme is loss of innocence," Kaufman explained. "The news that JFK has been assassinated makes the Bronx suddenly small, vulnerable, and changed forever.”

As mentioned above, when Kaufman started to make The Wanderers, there were several gang-themed movies that were also being made. The movie had a tough time when it hit the theaters, because kids were breaking into gang fights during and after screenings of The Warriors, Boulevard Nights, and others. The Warriors had an especially tough time. Not only did fights break out, but there were shootings. Armed guards were hired to protect the theaters, and eventually Paramount pulled it from theaters.

When Kaufman began to screen The Wanderers, it was generally well received, he noted, but even though it is a mostly sweet, nostalgic look at a bygone era, the studio's marketing campaign made it seem like it was yet another of these gang movies.

"So we had a very tough time getting theaters," Kaufman said. "Generally, where the film played it did very well, but there was a very small limited release. It took a long time for it to find its audience. It's just been great to see that now, however many years later – it went to a brief re-release by Warner Bros. [in 1996] because of the cult following. Bravo Channel in New York says it's the most popular film that they've shown in the New York area. They showed it at the Telluride Film Festival where all the people who run the festival are members of The Wanderers fan club and they all wear Wanderers jackets every year, and know every line in the film. They show the film at least twice a year up there. There were about 1000 people outside, under the mountains, watching the film... and it was a great night."

Oh, and speaking of The Wanderers' jackets, if you want one for yourself, here's where you go....

In fact, it was due to the strong reception at Telluride in 1996, that Warners decided to do the reissue. Today, it remains sort of a cult classic in that it has never really found the audience it deserves. In 2012, it had a screening at the Film Society at Lincoln Center.

One final bit of trivia: The artwork in the poster that Joey does for the football game was actually drawn by famed comic book artist Neal Adams.

I'll finish with this quote from Kaufman which I think nicely sums it all up.

"So much of this," he said, "is about male bonding and male love and a time when it meant something a little different than it may mean now. In a way, this was the highest moment of that time, when they were all Wanderers together, even those who were set out to wander around the world. And Dion's song was the anthem of that time."


The Bronx is one of the five boroughs of New York City. But what is a borough?

According to Wikipedia: "The term borough was adopted to describe a unique form of governmental administration for each of the five fundamental constituent parts of the newly consolidated city. Technically, under New York State Law, a 'borough' is a municipal corporation that is created when a county is merged with populated areas within it." Confused? Don't worry, it doesn't really matter. All you really need to know is that the five boroughs are Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx, and Staten Island.

The Bronx, was named after the first recorded settler in the area (1639), a Dutch sea captain name Jonas Bronck. At first it was called "Bronck's River" or "Bronck's Land," which eventually evolved into The Bronx. It is the only one of the five boroughs that is not an island.

"At the turn of the century," according to, "the quiet suburban streets and farms of The Bronx began to yield to rapidly expanding factories and urban neighborhoods. In 1914, the borough's main thoroughfare, the Grand Concourse, was completed; it had been inspired by Paris' great boulevard, the Champs Elysees. By the 1920s the Fordham Road-Grand Concourse intersection was a great commercial nexus and a center of tree-lined avenues, with luxurious homes and apartment buildings designed in the latest Art Deco and modernist styles."

"In 1904 the first subway connecting The Bronx to Manhattan was opened," according to the Bronx County Clerks Office. "The new subway lines opened at this time and in subsequent years, along with the older Third Avenue Elevated line, provided cheap rapid transit to and from Manhattan. During the first third of the twentieth century these rapid transit facilities served as a catalyst for hundreds of thousands of workers and their families to leave tenements in Manhattan for spacious new apartments in The Bronx. Many ethnic groups made this move but the largest contingent was Jews from central and eastern Europe and their descendants." While you can find several websites that note that The Bronx had the highest population of Jews in New York, other sources say that title (at least in 1930) was held by Brooklyn.

During prohibition, bootleggers and gangs "ran rampant" in the Bronx. By 1926, the Bronx was noted for its high crime rate and its many speakeasies. Then Mayor Jimmy Walker stated: "The Manhattan Polak is very different from the Bronx Polak. The Manhattan Polak would smuggle in the illegal whiskey secretly so as the cops aren't on 'em or don't see 'em a mile away. In the Bronx, the Polaks don't give a lick if they spotted with it. They'd pull out their guns as quick as lightning and the cops would be dead men in less than a second."

But it wasn't all wild in the streets. "The borough [also] became known for its colleges and universities," writes the Bronx Historical Society. "It also had a growing number of public high schools, among them The Bronx High School of Science, which by the mid 1990s had a higher number of graduates with doctorates than any other high school in the United States."

After World War II, "About 170,000 persons displaced by slum clearing in Manhattan, mostly Black and Puerto Rican," and moved to The Bronx, the Society continues. "In 1950 social workers reported enduring poverty in a section of the southern Bronx." At the same time, the older (white and middle class black) residents were leaving to move to the suburbs. "Systematic rent control was introduced during the Second World War to prevent rents from skyrocketing as empty apartments became scarce; it soon prevented conscientious landlords from paying for repairs to their aging buildings. Buildings were often set afire, at some times by unscrupulous landlords hoping to collect insurance, and at others by unscrupulous tenants taking advantage of the city's policy that burned-out tenants should be given priority for public housing and receive money for new furnishings. A period of rampant arson in the late 1960s and early 1970s ended only after this policy was changed and a limit was imposed on insurance payments for reconstructing burned-out apartment buildings."

"After a period of dramatic population losses in the 1970s and early 1980s, the population of The Bronx began to grow again. More than a quarter of the 1.2 million residents in 1990 were Puerto Rican, and there were also growing numbers of Dominicans, Cubans, Jamaicans, Koreans, Vietnamese, Indians, Pakistanis, Greeks, and Russians. Many Albanians settled in Belmont, many Cambodians in Fordham."

It appears that gangs have pretty much existed in The Bronx for most of the 20th century. The gangs of the 1950's were well documented in Richard Price's book. The Bronx gangs of the 1970's can be experienced today via the fascinating documentary 80 Blocks from Tiffany's. Gangs still exist today in The Bronx, and as this article notes, they are no longer just for guys, either.

Interview with former Ducky Boy


After Richie is pretty much told he is going to marry the pregnant Despie or else, her father, Chubby Galasso, grabs Richie by the neck and say: "Hey, do you like clams? I'll take us all to City Island for some clams. I ain't no hard guy."

And I ain't no hard guy either, so that's what we're making today.

In New York Times' food writer Molly O'Neill's New York Cookbook, a collection of recipes from both restaurants and home cooks throughout all the city's boroughs, she writes: "Paper boats of clam fritters are still pushed across fast-food counters... but most vendors agree that it would be difficult to top this recipe. It is adapted from one that appears in The Ford Treasury of Favorite Recipes from Famous Eating Places, by Nancy Kennedy." (The Ford Treasury was published by the Ford Motor Company.)

Those lucky enough to be born in this "Cape Cod-like enclave" of the Bronx refer to themselves as "clamdiggers." I'm lucky enough to have a dear friend who lives on City Island and I always make a day to go up and chill out there when I get back to NYC.

So that's that.... As always, cook, eat, watch & enjoy!

City Island Clam Fritters
adapted from The New York Cookbook: From Pelham Bay to Park Avenue, Firehouses to Four-Star Restaurants, by Molly O'Neill
Click Here for Printer-Friendly Version

Makes 12 fritters

1 cup sifted AP Flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup littleneck clams, drained & chopped (about 2 dozen)
1 teaspoon fresh tarragon or parsley, finely chopped
1/4 cup shallot, finely diced
1 egg, beaten
1/4 cup milk
1 tablespoon butter, melted
peanut oil, for deep frying

In a large bowl, stir together the flour, salt, sugar and baking powder. In a small bowl, stir together the clams, egg, milk, tarragon, shallot and melted butter. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir just to mix.

In a 10" skillet, pour the oil to a depth of 1-inch. Heat until very hot but not smoking. Drop the batter from a spoon in to the oil and fry, turning once until golden brown, 4 minutes total.

Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper bags. Continue frying more batched until all the clams are cooked.

Serve with coleslaw & tartar sauce.

Philip Kaufman Official Page
Ken Wahl Official Page
New York Gangs @ Stone Grease site
Bronx Gang Documentary Diary
Richard Price: The Art of Fiction, Interviewed by James Linville @ The Paris Review
The Bronx Historical Society

The Wanderers DVD
The Wanderers: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack CD/Vinyl
The Wanderers, by Richard Price
Philip Kaufman (Contemporary Film Directors), by Annette Insdorf
The Wanderers jackets, belt buckles, lighters, etc.... (also Ducky Boy wear!) @ Rockabilly Rules
The New York Cookbook: From Pelham Bay to Park Avenue, Firehouses to Four-Star Restaurants, by Molly O'Neill

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