Some time in the early 80s, my preteen years, when my father subscribed to the over-air cable alternative WHT, I must have seen a weekend or late night broadcast of “Harold & Maude”.
I don’t actually remember seeing the film. A decade later, Alex Reshanov and I watched it. Though I had no recollection of previously sitting through the film I knew the whole thing. Not only had I known the film, it had made clear impressions on my still forming mind. Like the atheist seeds planted by “Jason & the Argonauts” (which I clearly remember watching over and over), “Harold & Maude” provided a vocabulary for my constant thoughts on death. In another way it voiced legitimacy to my habit of forming close friendships with older woman.
Gail Levin with Roz Chast at WNET recording for “Need to Know”
The first of these matron pals was my Great Aunt Betty who took me to every Phillies game for years and taught me to wear a seat belt. Aunt Betty was the second person I knew to die. Her passing brought me more shame than sorrow. Shame that I wasn’t there, shame that I didn’t really know her at all. What could a 12 year old boy know of septuagenerian spinster anyway? We know so little about ourselves, how can we know about others?
My latest Ruth Gordon -and the best since Aunt Betty -died yesterday after a long spell with cancer.
Gail Levin was a great friend. For at least a half-decade we spoke nearly every day. Though she was effusive with affection, Gail was not a particularly “open” person (with me, at least) and I liked that a lot. Her story came together piecemeal over edit sessions, movie screenings, art shows or shoots. I once presented her with a painting that abstractly depicts two men setting sail on a trans-Atlantic journey. “You know I crossed the ocean in a sailing ship…”
Gail behind camera at our studio with Dewald Aukema shooting Steve Brodner for “Cab Calloway: Sketches”
A few people have asked how old she was. I have to laugh and say “I have no idea!” She interviewed Hal Ashby, I know that. She interviewed hundreds of interesting people and was really, really good at it. When her sickness made it impossible to travel, a colleague went in her stead to conduct an interview. Watching the footage together, the subject was stumbling for a name -an old Hollywood agent -the interviewer didn’t know (neither did I). Gail immediately shouted it out to me. The interview subject, an old guy himself, deflated with his failing memory. That moment I learned that a good interviewer needs more than good questions. She was able to get people to speak deeply and honestly.
I’m having trouble speaking deeply, but I can honestly say that I loved her a great deal, and will miss her even more.
Just as she could produce the right fact at the right moment, she also had a way to find commonality with people- everyone’s kindred spirit. Maybe it was Frank Loesser or basketball or just a kind word at the right moment, Gail was a person who immediately made life a shared experience.
Gail and I worked together for only six or seven years. In that time, both her parents died, my father died, the Phillies won the world series (her Boston days left her a Red Sox/Celtics/Patriots fan- though she also like goofy Eli Manning too and took up for the Phillies with me). We worked on 16 contracts and developed a bunch more -many productions, like The Naked Campaign, involved multiple films. Whether she asked for titling of a work-for-hire film like “Two World, One Planet” (please note we had nothing to do with titling in this trailer -Gail would have been appalled) or more intricate design, animation, and effects sequences in “Jeff Bridges: The Dude Abides” or “Cab Calloway: Sketches” she approached our work together holistically. People were not making parts of a film or doing a “job”, everyone provided a voice and the results -when successful -would be a rafter shaking choir.