Tag Archives: Ed Ricketts

From Steinbeck to Hane to Bach, by way of Ixtlan and Li Po


Culture is a slippery slope. One thing leads to another. A book leads to a poem, or a piece of music, or a painting, and suddenly you’re haring off after something else entirely.

We’re coming up on the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach. Even if you don’t know him, you know his music. Even if you don’t like classical music and avoid it like the plague, you’ve heard something by Bach. One of the pleasures of getting to known the man’s immense body of work is the little epiphany you get every now and then, realizing something he wrote — Toccata and Fugue, anybody? — has been imitated and recycled so many times that it has permeated the cultural aquifer.

We’re coming up on Bach’s birthday, and at the top of the post is the cover of the first Bach album I ever bought — Book Two of The Well-Tempered Clavier, performed by Glenn Gould. If memory serves, I scored my copy at a long-vanished record store in the Moorestown Mall. The thing is, I wasn’t looking for The RickettsWell-Tempered Clavier, I was looking for The Art of Fugue. That’s because my favorite book at the time, the book I re-read at least three times that year, was John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, which I still think is the best thing he ever wrote — second only to The Pastures of Heaven. And if you’ve read Cannery Row, you know the novel is, among other things, a song of devotion and admiration for Ed Ricketts, the Monterey-based marine biologist Steinbeck used as the basis for Doc, the novel’s scientist hero. Along with being a scientist, heavy drinker, and epic lover of women, Doc was also passionately fond of The Art of Fugue, and while the teenaged me could at the time only dream of indulging in the first three, I could damn well score myself a copy of Bach’s valedictory work.

Only I couldn’t find The Art of Fugue in any record store, and in the pre-Amazon landscape of the mid-Seventies it was a rare and lovely thing to find a record store willing to do special orders. Even so, I’d been wanting to take a crack at Bach — I approached album purchases as a form of self-improvement back then — so I thumbed through the bins in search of something that looked promising. That’s when I saw the angel-coiffed Bach staring back at me.

Another of my high school, fixations, along with Steinbeck, was the works of Carlos Castaneda and his (probably imaginary) encounters with the Yaqui Indian seer Don Juan Matus. The covers of A Separate Reality and Journey to Ixtlan sported the magnificent cover art of Roger Hane, whose style was so instantly recognizable that I had to get that particular Bach album. There was even a full-sized wall poster of the cover illustration. Hane also painted the coversJourney_to_Ixtlan for the 1970 Collier paperback edition of The Chronicles of Narnia. (Hane was killed by muggers in 1974, and when the fourth Don Juan book, Tales of Power, came out I was pleased to see the cover artist had written “For Roger” over his own signature.) So I proceeded to work my way through the entire Well-Tempered Clavier, and when The Art of Fugue finally turned up, I found it to be every bit as good as Steinbeck (and Doc) had promised.    

Cannery Row, as well as the essay “About Ed Ricketts” from The Log from the Sea of Cortez, included paens to the work of Li Po, and in due course I found the collected works of that drunken Chinese poet. Another bell ringer. 

See what I mean? It’s a slippery slope, this culture business. One thing leads to another. And all this because we’re coming up on Bach’s birthday.

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Dream projects: Carroll Ballard

Pick a book that’s crying out to be adapted for film, then name the director best suited for the job. First up was David Cronenberg and Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi. Next came Spike Lee and Charles Mingus’ semi-memoir, Beneath the Underdog. And now . . .

CARROLL BALLARD: Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck.

Carroll Ballard is not a relentlessly productive filmmaker: in the thirty years since his first feature, The Black Stallion, was released in 1979, Ballard has directed only five other films. Ballard’s meticulous working methods and his preference for understatement are, to put it mildly, unfashionable in today’s film industry; his most recent movie, Duma, almost went unreleased, and was finally distributed to a handful of theaters only after Roger Ebert went to bat for it.

Except for The Nutcracker (an honorable attempt to find a non-cliched way of filming the biggest chestnut of the Christmas season), Ballard’s films deal Cannery Rowin some fashion with mankind’s relationship with nature, whether the subject is the companionship between a shipwrecked boy and an Arabian racehorse (The Black Stallion), a motherless child who nurtures a brood of goslings and then must teach them to migrate (Fly Away Home), yacht-racers working to master the vagaries of sky and sea  (Wind), or a research scientist trying to understand the ways of wolves on the Alaskan tundra (Never Cry Wolf, based on Farley Mowatt’s proudly unreliable book). They are also sumptuously good-looking movies, often breathtakingly so — I date my lifelong fascination with Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography to the almost abstract beauty of the Mediterranean landscapes he captured in The Black Stallion. Along with his fine taste in cinematographers, Ballard brings an eye for the telling detail  and the crucial moment, honed during his early years as a documentary filmmaker.

A similar blend of artistry and documentary precision is at work in John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel Cannery Row, set among the derelicts, prostitutes, lowlifes, eccentrics, and workers of the Monterey waterfront. The sort-of hero, Doc (loosely based on Steinbeck’s close friend Ed Ricketts), is a Renaissance man and Lothario who collects and preserves sea creatures from nearby tide pools for sale to laboratories. Cannery Row itself functions as a sort of tide pool in which exotic personalities survive, mingle, and sometimes prey upon one another, and Steinbeck observes from a rather chilly, above-it-all perspective.

In the morning when the sardine fleet has made a catch, the purse-seiners waddle into the bay blowing their whistles. The deep-laden boats pull in against the coast where the canneries dip their tails into the bay. The figure is advisedly chosen, for if the canneries dipped their mouths into the bay, the canned sardines which emerge from the other end would be metaphorically, at least, even more horrifying. Then cannery whistles scream and all over town men and women scramble into their clothes and come running down to the Row to go to work. Then shining cars bring the upper classes down: superintendents, accountants, owners who disappear into offices. Then from the town pour Wops and Chinamen and Polaks, men and women in trousers and rubber coats and oilcloth aprons. They come running to clean and cut and pack and cook and can the fish. The whole street rumbles and groans and screams and rattles while the silver rivers of fish pour in out of the boats and the boats rise higher and higher in the water until they are empty. The canneries rumble and rattle and squeak until the last fish is cleaned and cut and cooked and canned and then the whistles scream again and the dripping, smelly, tired Wops and Chinamen and Polaks, men and women, straggle out and droop their ways up the hill into the town and Cannery Row becomes itself again — quiet and magical. Its normal life returns. The bums who retired in disgust under the black cypress trees come out to sit on the rusty pipes in the vacant lot. The girls from Dora’s emerge for a bit of sun if there is any. Doc strolls from the Western Biological Laboratory and crosses the street to Lee Chong’s grocery for two quarts of beer. Henri the painter noses like an Airedale through the junk in the grass-grown lot for some part or piece of wood or metal he needs for the boat he is building. Then the darkness edges in and the street light comes on in front of Dora’s — the lamp which makes perpetual moonlight in Cannery Row. Callers arrive at Western Biological to see Doc, and he crosses the street to Lee Chong’s for five quarts of beer.

Though there is already one film version of Cannery Row in existence — a weak 1982 adaptation directed by David S. Ward — the film that offers the best look at the Row in operation is Fritz Lang’s 1938 melodrama, Clash by Night, which opens with a documentary-like sequence showing the Monterey canneries coming to life as the fishing fleet comes in. It wouldn’t surprise me if the sequence influenced the Steinbeck passage quoted above.

The biggest problem with Ward’s 1982 film is that only about a quarter of it derives from Cannery Row. The rest comes from Sweet Thursday, the 1954 sequel which, following the badly flawed East of Eden, marked the beginning of Steinbeck’s decline. The Broadway-ready storyline — it was adapted as Pipe Dream, the least successful musical in the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon — has Dora, owner of the local brothel, scheming with the colorful derelicts of Cannery Row to get the solitary Doc hitched up with a lovely young runaway. Aside from the shrewd casting of Nick Nolte and Debra Winger in the lead roles, Cannery Row is a sodden mess that replaces Steinbeck’s curiously poetic vision with stale sentimentality. (Ward is after all, the screenwriter behind the cuddly con men of The Sting.) Ballard couldn’t do worse if he tried; but he could certainly do much better.

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