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Guestwords: The South Fork Cinerama

Wed, 10/04/2023 - 17:30

My childhood broke out when Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet broke into the mansion moored on a Wainscott dune like a shingled ship. As the actors rooted around deserted rooms in the desperate dark, I suddenly remembered a glorious Indian summer evening in 1968 when I stood on the mansion’s grand balcony, surveyed the sandy border between Georgica Pond and the Atlantic Ocean, and cast myself as a sea captain. The sky was so close, so deep, so fleeced with violet waves and salmon islands, my imagination sailed.

It took all of two minutes for this sand-castle memory to wash away. My joy crumbled as the Edwards/Benedict/Kennedy House crumbled on the screen, erasing a refuge for refugees from a memory-erasing clinic. A magnetic landmark nicknamed “Kilkare” (as in “Kill all care”), a 19th-century, 40-window, summer-cottage mascot for a De Beers diamond ad and a James Patterson novel and countless family photos, was reduced to a special-effects prop. A lighthouse became a funhouse.

“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” isn’t particularly spotless or sunny or eternal. Like so many movies with a South Fork setting, it strips the character from an incredibly beautiful, unbelievably mercurial, capital-C character. Restricted by laziness, cheapness, and/or ignorance, filmmakers shoot cliché after cliché, montaging standard country-club-sized houses with anonymous beaches with generic luxury stores with cookie-cutter m(b)illionares. Screenwriters and directors miss the East End’s tidal relationship between nature and human nature, the ebb and flow of the refreshing channel cut twice a year between the Atlantic and Georgica. They just don’t, or won’t, see the ocean for the pond.

I’ve always seen the South Fork as a giant outdoor Cinerama. As a kid I stood on the Chevron bridge at the now-extinct Bridgehampton Race Circuit, eyes zooming to automotive missiles rocketing around hairpin dunes, eyes panning the bucolic bliss of faraway Sag Harbor steeples and Little Peconic Bay. As an adult I siphon my inner child’s wandering wonder inside the bowl of the 80-foot-high Walking Dunes of Napeague, hunting hidden gold and dinosaur bones in the East End’s Sahara. The fertile desertscape of Promised Land in Amagansett, the lovely loneliness of Louse Point in Springs, the shimmering grace of Wainscott Pond — they’re all movies in the making in my mind.

This magic is completely missing from “Angry Neighbors,” the most annoying movie supposedly shot on the South Fork. Based on a novel by Roger Rosenblatt, a former Quogue resident, it revolves around a Hamptonites-hating writer plotting holy hell on a garish new castle that ruins the view and peace on his one-man, one-dog island. Nothing remotely resembles the East End: The light is too pale, the colors are too bland, the water is too diluted. And no wonder: All the exteriors were shot in Minnesota. At least the producers saved enough money to pay Frank Langella’s three stand-ins.

At least “Last Summer in the Hamptons” happens at an East Hampton house covered in cedar-shake shingles, a South Fork staple along with privet hedges. Alas, none of the characters — actors, writers, directors, lovers, relatives — take the time to explain the significance of the house or the location or even the twilight farewell. Blathering on about trivialities, they become clowns in a Chekhovian circus.

Black humor blends well with tragedy in “The Door in the Floor,” adapted from a portion of a novel by John Irving, who wrote the book while living in Sagaponack. Kim Basinger and Jeff Bridges excel as the wounded, wounding parents of sons killed in a car accident. Their pain is filtered, and mirrored, by the East End’s misty melancholy. Levity is provided by an angry artist’s model who lives in a sleek glass-and-stone house that imitates the island headquarters of a James Bond villain. The whole mess messes up a kind, naive errand boy whose pain reflects my pain when my father sold our Wainscott home without my mother’s permission. Dad shut the door on my South Fork life, prompting me to write a memoir that exorcised my pain and gave me a new South Fork life.

Melancholy is moodier in “Return to Montauk,” which pivots on the reunion of a German-born writer and a German-born lawyer. The reunion of the long-lost lovers officially begins when she mires her Mercedes in sand at Hither Hills State Park. Their love affair perks up during dinner at the Lobster Roll restaurant on Napeague. It cracks up during a wrenching conversation about born and unborn children on a Westhampton Beach beach, one of the East End’s many cobweb-clearing canvases.

Montauk co-stars in “The Affair,” a TV series masquerading as 53 hourlong films. One family owns Deep Hollow Ranch; two families end up running the Lobster Roll, where the titular infidelity starts and where I met my first lover. All the hamlet’s main attractions — the train station, the Lighthouse, the Memory Motel — get equal billing. The fifth and final season ends with a slowly soaring, sweeping view of the Point, the East End’s end and its biggest, best Cinerama.

“The Affair” has an affair with drowning — actual and emotional. The show constantly conveys the danger of living year round in a seaside resort, a desperation buried in every South Fork graveyard. It showcases two of my favorite East End sites: the park-like Cedar Lawn Cemetery in East Hampton, which is moved to Montauk, and a sky-swooping, origami-folded house on an Old Montauk Highway cliff, relocated to Block Island. It’s also plagued by absurd-to-awful lapses in geography. The worst, or best, example is a bicyclist who disappears down a beach path off Old Montauk Highway and magically emerges at Montauk Harbor. That impossible trip would have been possible only if the bike sprouted wings and became a two-wheeled Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

A windmill moved from Montauk anchors “The Windmill Movie,” the crazy diary of a filmmaker’s crazy quest for a meaningful sense of home. Richard P. Rogers shot decades of footage in the Georgica Association, the wealthy Wainscott enclave where he grew up and grew to resent his own privilege. After dying from cancer, his dream project was completed by an ex-student who edited scenes of the actor/playwright Wallace Shawn playing Rogers, his friend. While there are plenty of pictures of the Settlement’s natural and architectural charms, no one enjoys the charms. All we get is whining and cocktail-party yakking, windmill tilting and fireflies fading.

Also set in the Georgica Association, “Who Invited Charlie?” is far more settled than “The Windmill Movie.” Written by Nick Schutt, a former Wainscott summerite, the witty, touching story tracks Manhattan family members who escape the Covid crackdown at their summer house, only to be invaded by an ex-college roommate, a happy-go-lucky, down-on-his-luck bear in a greenhouse. Charlie ends up charming his hosts, cheering up a troubled boy with Jeep donuts on Beach Lane Beach, leading a celebration of a gorgeous sunset from the shore of Georgica Pond, the star of many gorgeous aerial views. The movie’s second hero turns out to be the remarkably complex, compelling pool where I learned to swim, crab, and treasure nature.

I like “Charlie” and “Windmill” partly because I love the beauty of the Georgica Association, my playground for three special ‘60s summers. My middle-class family roamed the Settlement only because my dad was a barbershop-quartet buddy of Bill Noble, grandson of Walter Edwards, a Georgica co-founder and Kilkare’s original owner. I discovered my first nature preserve by Noble’s house, a converted barn shaped like a whale, with a round tower for a head. Bill’s son Nick and I camped in a tent in a grove of shad trees wind sculpted to gnarly witches’ fingers, lulled to sleep by the ocean’s whispering hiss. I still hear the sea’s siren song in the wind, whenever and wherever.

“Rocket Gibraltar” could be a siren song to my childhood; in fact, it could be a Gehman home movie. No, I didn’t turn a wrecked rowboat into a Viking funeral ship for a grandfather who didn’t want his corpse eaten by worms. Yes, I loved exploring the type of ocean/pond berm where the kids find and rehab their grandpa’s goodbye vessel. Not only that, the film’s youngsters and their parents share my East End passions for the beach, baseball, writing, sex, classic cars, and fast cars. One family drives a red Mustang convertible, the same-colored ‘60s muscle machine that introduced me to the Beatles’ “And Your Bird Can Sing,” my first unforgettable tune, on East Hampton’s Main Street.

“Rocket Gibraltar” comes closest to sparking the sparkling, rippling vibes in my dad’s vintage Polaroids. But it doesn’t come close to capturing the South Fork’s vibrant, vital, fragile ecosystems. I’m still waiting, impatiently, for feature films featuring the following:

The rustic grandeur of East Hampton’s Northwest Woods, which bosom bay, harbor, and creek. The majestic marshy meadows near Lazy Point, the Amagansett haven of old fishing shacks. The civilized wilderness in Oakland Cemetery, a Sag Harbor sanctuary for nurses and diplomats, mechanics and ballet dancers. The generations of African-American families in the neighboring neighborhoods of Sag Harbor Hills, Ninevah Beach, and Azurest. The many more generations of Native Americans on the Shinnecock Reservation in Southampton. The Mexican gardeners tending Quogue estates and living in Flanders. The pests — traffic jams, ticks, wind farms — that spoil paradise.

Who will be the director who transforms Louse Point into an ideal location for a romantic assignation, or a Mob assassination? Maybe Steven Spielberg, whose East Hampton compound rings Georgica Pond. After all, he’s a whiz at filming stories about conflicted kids (“E.T.,” “Empire of the Sun”) and conflicted beaches (“Jaws,” “Saving Private Ryan”). Or Robert Benton, who once lived by Georgica Pond in the Georgica Association. After all, all his pictures — “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Nobody’s Fool” — depict people shaped by places. Or Alan Alda, who lives in a Water Mill house designed by Norman Jaffe, who designed the avant-garde stone saltbox in Wainscott that made me an architecture fool. After all, Alda shot a good chunk of “Sweet Liberty” in Sag Harbor, where my dad appeared for two seconds during a party disrupted by a helicopter hijacked by a rogue actor.

In the meantime I’ll continue to make my own mental movies. I’ll dream up scenes while walking Beach Lane Beach to Georgica Pond, basking in the saffron sunsets, staring as Kilkare’s windows become amber eyes. 

Geoff Gehman is a former Wainscott resident, a journalist, and the author of “The Kingdom of the Kid: Growing Up in the Long-Lost Hamptons” (SUNY Press). He lives by a river in Bethlehem, Pa., and can be reached at [email protected].

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