Books #2: Diary of a Balaban


The Close Encounters of the Third Kind Diary, by Bob Balaban.

Odd that I should choose this as an influential film book from my formative days? I, who enjoy slapping Spielberg from time to time? Ah, but CLOSE ENCOUNTERS still strikes me as a lovely thing — maybe I get cross with SS because I want him to be better, because I know he can be.

This slender tome gave the young me a glimpse into the convoluted makings of a blockbuster movie (the Star Wars book/magazine that linked Lucas’ pulp space opera with everything from SILENT RUNNING to METROPOLIS to FREAKS was also helpful) and was amusingly written t0 boot. Before you’re too harsh on me, remember I was about 11.

ce3k2Same book, different title.

Balaban is a fascinating figure — a jobbing actor in everything from Seinfeld (Costanza leers at his teenage daughter and costs Jerry a TV deal) to CATCH-22 (“It’s good practice!”), he later became a director (of PARENTS, the Lynchian ’50s-set comedy-Gothic, in which one can exult to Randy Quaid saying “You can be yourself in the dark…”) and a producer for his friend Robert Altman (GOSFORD PARK, in which he also plays a producer).

BB played Truffaut’s interpreter in CE3K, which gave him lots of lines which are basically just translations of Truffaut’s. They could have just been exposition or repetition, but BB infuses them with his own character’s feelings. Essentially the job gave him a great vantage point to watch a super-production in the making, and he covers the unfolding story with an appealing self-deprecating wit.

[Spielberg] asks me to say a couple of words in French. I say, “Il y a avait longtemps depuis que j’aie parla Francais, et si vous me donnez ce role, je devrais beaucoup etudier. En effet, je ne sais pas si je opurrais le faire.” I say this in very rapid French which I have been rehearsing all morning. Roughly translated, it means: “I haven’t spoken French in years, and if you give me the job I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it.” Spielberg is impressed. He doesn’t speak French.

Also, this bit about dining in Wyoming with Truffaut:

All the food is “chicken-fried.” It is impossible to translate chicken-fried steak into meaningful French. Truffaut seems nice. He keeps asking for vegetables, and the sad little waitress keeps saying, “We have cottage cheese.” I, of course, speak my normally fluent English to the waitress, who thinks I am French too, and keeps repeating everything I say in English, in English.

It’s kind of like Woody Allen, but true.

12 Responses to “Books #2: Diary of a Balaban”

  1. Balaban also played the sad young man who gives Jon Voight a blow-job in a 42d street movie theater in Midnight Cowboy.

    AND the producer who’s keeping Ryan Phillipe in Gosford Park

  2. Yeah, he’s had a fascinatingly varied career. And his uncle was Barney Balaban, the producer who discovered Esther Williams (herself the star of a fascinating inter-racial Tijuana Bible).

    And he plays the movie critic Farber in The Lady in the Water, and HAL’s dad in 2010.

  3. Arthur S. Says:

    It’s like a great out-take from DAY FOR NIGHT.

    Bob Balaban obviously has has a fine life

  4. I regret not seeing his other stuff as director: Parents showed a lot of promise. But I always get a kick out of seeing him in movies, and his work in 2010 is wonderful: his relationship with HAL is heartbreaking.

  5. I was surprised when I saw him in ALTERED STATES, saw it many years ago and then again not too long back. Recognized him immediately the second time around, from Seinfeld of course.

  6. I guess he got a fair bit of scientist work, with the beard.

    In Close Encounters, Spielberg added a line halfway through the shoot where he explains he’s not really a translator, he’s a cartographer. Balaban writes that he wishes he’d known that at the start, “I could have found ways to play him more like a cartographer.” He’s being funny, but I bet he could!

  7. It’s weird because I loved producer Julia Philips’ Close Enocounters memories in “You’ll never eat lunch in this town again”, but never heard of this. I recommend Phillip’s book-really vicious savage stuff. Does Balaban mention Truffaut passing out from heat stoke? With Phillips and Balaban and Truffaut’s letters you could get a Rashomon style retelling of the shoot.

    For Balaban’s other directorial efftorts. I’ve heard good things about “The last good time” with Armin Mueller-Stahl and his zombie movie “My Boyfriend’s Back” was pretty wild. In the vein of “Parents” but a bit softer
    “He ate someone for me!” Now doesn’t that sound like love to you?”

  8. I’m gonna try and track those down. Sound like my kind of thing.

    Balaban’s account is very sweet and kind, don’t recall Phillips featuring much. Don’t recollect the heat stroke incident. DVDSavant himself, Glenn Erickson, worked in the FX department and considered writing the on-set diary for Spielberg too, I seem to recall.

    Her book is v entertaining but I don’t see her as a reliable witness, given the chemistry coursing through her system. And her paranoia about Truffaut is just silly: she was convinced he wasn’t deaf and could speak perfect English, was just being French to annoy her.

  9. david wingrove Says:

    In her memoir YOU’LL NEVER EAT LUNCH IN THIS TOWN AGAIN, the late Julia Phillips actually blames her cocaine habit on the stress of making CLOSE ENCOUNTERS.

    Mind you, she seems to blame anybody and anything but herself for just about everything that went wrong with her life. Seldom have I read a more loathsome or alienating wallow in grautuitous self-pity!

  10. Yet strangely compelling. By the time she wrote the follow-up she’d really run out of both stories and excuses, though. Interesting that she helped make so many good films — perhaps she wasn’t as obnoxious in life as she comes across in print, and perhaps there was some real taste and talent there too.

  11. I was going to mention Balaban’s memorable cameo in Midnight Cowboy, but Mr. Ehrenstein beat me to it. Another interesting entry (on one of my favorite films)…keep up the good work.

  12. I have a whole other list of books I recommend to students to improve their film language… the Corman is maybe the only one on both lists, so far.

    (I haven’t actually made a list of ten yet, so I’m still open to suggestions.)

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