Looking Back At “Last Call”
by John Stanton
I wonder if other filmmakers stop halfway through a film and ask themselves what the thing is actually about. At some point we had that great old black and white photo of the last day of the Bosun’s Locker. We had a quote calling the place “the last great saloon on the east coast.” We had a bunch of cool stories about the hippie days. We had recently recorded some great music.
To my mind it did not yet add up to a film. What we had was a story that could not hope to be more than a series of “those were the days” memories. Then David Halberstam agreed to an interview.
Among the many talents of the late, great, writer was the ability to put experiences into a larger context. The moment in which he explains that big new money feels the need to show off, to build houses that “violate the landscape” with garages big enough for five cars when you only have two, was as concise a description of the attitude of the new gilded age as you will ever find.
Then there is that lovely moment when he smiles at the camera and says that he simply likes dive bars, feels more comfortable in them having a beer, thinking about his work day, and in a very simple way being part of things.
Halberstam had reminded us what this film was about. It was called, Last Call: Dreams, Main Street, and the Search for Community. It was a cautionary tale of gentrification. And so it was about change. One man’s fix up, of course, is another man’s end of an era.
I wonder if Halberstam ever worried about those things he had to leave out of his books? There must have been some story he liked but could not use. I remember John Shea telling a wonderful story about being on Nantucket fresh from the Yale Drama School and wanting to put on Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest.”
It was a long and rambling story about trying to put on a play in which the audience would follow the actors to several locations on the island, which stood in for Prospero’s island of exile in the play. It was a story filled with the energy of youth, with cooks and carpenters, fisherman and waitresses, that he tried to turn into actors. It ended, like much of that decade, with the realization that, “there was just too much craziness going on in those days to pull it off.”
It was perfect. I tried for a month to fit it into the film. In one edit version the film began with a series of island images played out over Shea’s voice telling the story. But it ended up on what, in the days when films were made with real film, was called the cutting room floor. It exists only on some piece of videotape tucked away in a box in my office.
Through it all was Del Wynn. There is a scene in the film where Del and David Perry are just hanging around visiting in Del’s shop. The scene is like a clock tick to me, a physical manifestation of time passing now that they are both gone.
Del Wynn and David Perry (provided by John Stanton)
Finally it was rolled out to audiences. Again I was worried that we had failed. People brought their own interpretations to the film, some of which where a far cry from what I was trying to say.
Then I was invited to screen it in, of all places, Omaha, Nebraska. Somebody had seen it at the old Gaslight Theater, now the Starlight, that summer it premiered. He was the only person in that Omaha audience who had ever been to Nantucket.
There is an old saying that a documentary film begins when the houselights come up and people begin to talk about the ideas in it. That night in Nebraska the crowd told stories about the old pre-gentrification neighborhoods that once defined their lives.
As I left a couple stopped me to chat and the man said it was too bad I did not have camera with me because he had plenty of stories about a bar his dad once owned near the slaughterhouses that once marked on part of that town.
We all have our stories. At some point that become our shared history and define us in a way that a more distant history like say, 19th century whaling, can never do. If we are lucky we get to use these stories as a springboard to decide how we want to live today. More often life simply goes past us and we do not have that chance.
It might have been Tom McGlinn who pointed out to me one day that things on our island have changed much since Last Call first premiered. It is a point well taken. Nothing is quite so true as the idea that things will keep changing.
I have no idea what we can do about those changes. None at all. But it seems to me the first step is remember.
John Stanton’s film Last Call is now available on DVD for $24.95 by sending a check to Shouldered Oar Films, Box 348, Nantucket, MA, 02554. It can be seen at The Starlight Theater on Dec. 5, at 11:30 am and at The Chicken Box on Dec. 10 at 7:30 pm.