by C. J. Hirschfield
Grand Lake neighbor Charlie Haas, a former magazine reporter, has written the screenplay for films including Over the Edge, Tex, Gremlins 2, and Matinee. He really is a local celeb, but he doesn’t much like talking about himself. Instead, he relishes playing the role of The Enthusiast, which is, appropriately, the title of his well-received 2009 novel.
Talking with Charlie is like listening to the smartest and most curious person you know, whose recommendations for film, books, and music reflect not only vast knowledge but an attitude of pure delight in the sharing. What follows are some of Charlie’s favorites, which I personally plan to explore.
Books: Anniversaries by German author Uwe Johnson, published four years ago by New York Review Books with a new English translation. Haas admits that the two-volume series is “enormous” (1668 pages, to be exact) but quickly adds that it’s also brilliant and heartbreaking, and says he’s never read anything like it. It is the late 1960s, and a German woman in her thirties living in New York decides to tell her young daughter the story of her own childhood, sharing memories of the days of Nazism and Communism. “A masterpiece that requires your full attention” was the headline from the New York Times Book Review.
Haas’ next book recommendation is mercifully much shorter: Mr. Beethoven by Paul Griffiths. This book is “a brilliant fantasy,” says Haas, but with an historic twist. It’s a fact that in 1823 the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston wanted to commission Beethoven to write an oratorio. The novel adds years to the composer’s life and imagines he accepted the job and journeyed to America. It chronicles the adventures that follow, including the deaf composer’s learning sign language, as well as a little romance.
Shifting from historical fantasy to a thriller, Charlie highly recommends The Gloaming by the British writer Melanie Finn. From The New York Times Book Review: “The novel sends prosperous Westerners to eerie, treacherous Africa. Miraculously, Finn avoids every cliché about first- versus third-world problems. In this richly textured, intricately plotted novel, she assures us that heartbreak has the same shape everywhere—especially if it involves the grief of losing a child.” Haas is a big fan of the book’s indie publisher, Two Dollar Radio, a family-run business in Columbus, Ohio that also runs a bookstore/vegan café. Their goal is to present “bold works of literary merit, each book, individually and collectively, providing a sonic progression that we believe to be too loud to ignore.” Yes. Like a two-dollar radio.
Here are the films that Charlie would like to turn you on to:
The Vast of Night, directed by Andrew Patterson, scored 92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and is available on Amazon. In the 1950s one night in New Mexico, a switchboard operator and a radio DJ discover an odd audio frequency that could change the small town—and the future—forever. Charlie says that although it’s extremely low-budget, the camerawork is “like Warhol,” smart with excellent and creative visual storytelling.
In Tangerine, a trans hooker tears through Tinseltown on Christmas Eve searching for the pimp who broke her heart. The film was shot exclusively on a trio of iPhone 5s. It is available on Amazon.
Set over one summer, The Florida Project follows a precocious six-year-old as she “courts mischief and adventure with her ragtag playmates and bonds with her rebellious but caring mother, all while living in the shadows of Walt Disney World.” The film is available on Netflix.
Charlie says that the two films are “wonderful in every way.”
And what about music, which Charlie listens to all day when he works? Jazz trombonist Naomi Moon Siegel’s Shoebox View is a favorite (“wonderful and warm jazz music, lovely grooves full of feeling, and a terrific composer”). Also highly recommended are The Kenny Process Team’s Stayin’ In With the Kenny Process Team and the Grammy-winning big band jazz music of Maria Schnieder; the album titled The Thompson Fields is his favorite.
I asked Charlie if he’s succumbed to the current Wordle game craze. He has played it a couple of times, but his favorite go-to word puzzle is Out of Left Field, the cryptic crossword series created by longtime San Francisco Chronicle music critic Joshua Kosman and his partner Henri Picciotto (available weekly through a Patreon subscription). For those unfamiliar with the joys of cryptic crosswords, Charlie suggests an essay written by recently deceased composer Stephen Sondheim, who was a big fan and used to construct them himself. Why cryptics? “They’re very entertaining because they’re non-literal; each has its own personality and can be nutty and screwy,” he says.
It’s hard to process all of the content and noise that’s out there in the world, but our neighborhood’s own cultural curator, Charlie Haas, is working hard on our behalf, finding and filtering, uncovering the artistic gems that will get us all through these crazy times.
C. J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel, and advocated on behalf of the industry. She has penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years, and now writes regularly for The Oaklandside, EatDrinkFilms and Splash Pad News. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University. Hirschfield currently lives in Adams Point and serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film Series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.