Al Rockoff, Gerard Depardieu, Monsieur Brick etcAugust 9, 2011
A possibly apocryphal tale making the rounds concerned Al Rockoff and the editors at the Phnom Penh Post. As everyone knows, Al deprecates the way he was portrayed by John Malkovich in The Killing Fields. Not hard to see why—it would be a bit like dodgy Claude Rains leaning on your shoulder for the rest of your life.
Malkovich’s major flick at the time was Being John Malkovich, and as Al was preparing to mount an exhibit of his war photos at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club for the 25th anniversary of the fall of PP, the crusty snapper and the Boston Brahmins who ran the rag were having a palaver over how to present the show—and what to call it. Kathleen Hayes said, “How about Being Al Rockoff?”
My favourite Rockoff story, second-hand of course, is ‘The Payroll Run’. Al was flying shotgun with one of Lon Nol’s paymasters one day, presumably a nervous gentleman, since he had more soldiers on his list than greenbacks to pay them. They set down on the front line somewhere, and the officer informed the impatient (and hungry) men he was very sorry, but he would have to return another day. They killed him. Then they started a fire, cooked up his liver and invited Al to join them. “No thanks,” said Al. “I’m a vegetarian.”
John Updike (what is it with New England?) once quipped: “I sometimes think I shall never view / A French film lacking Gerard Depardieu.” Indochina being a slice of the Francosphere, Depardieu launched the first Western film to be made in post-Soviet Cambodia. When Matt Dillon’s City of Ghosts was in need of financing, it wasn’t till Depardieu signed on at the eleventh hour that the film picked up steam and got the green light. (That was the word on the street and it’s true, man, because I was there.)
Before you knew it, the French quarter was full of cameras, gawkers, extras, assistants, caterers and Gerard himself. The loony bar owner he played was merely an exaggeration of someone we all know, one way or another.
Of course, if good customer service is your idea of human relations, then the character will appear eccentric. But travellers who neglect to take account of where they are (it seems to me) are the true eccentrics.
Last time I was in town was a few years ago: after a good cry driving through the back streets, and a shower at the hotel, I hit the tiles at dusk and went looking for Brickman. Naturally, when I found him (The Deer Hunter!) he was roundly berating a member of his staff. Not my biz though—the Brick and I went back a bit.
That evening, when his friendly neighbours turned into feuding marauders, and started pelting marbles into the boite that rang off the brick walls with a life-threatening ziiiing!—and preparatory to a full-on attack in which they reached for whatever came to hand, namely—natch—bricks, it became incumbent on us customers to help out.
After the violence died down, the Brick, who had been waving a stick and screaming for some time and finally had to be restrained to prevent his getting himself killed, went upstairs to cool off. I carried on chatting with an Ulsterman who had done some nifty work with a chair over somebody’s head, both of us keeping a jaded eye on the shuttered door. A pair of hackettes, recently of Oxbridge and predictably mum about their hack-work (Sex trade? Edible spiders? Fish in a barrel?) were debating Welsh nationalism and putting the Ulsterman in his place. Fascinating. When Brickman re-emerged, bloodied and dishevelled after another night on the front lines, the hacks wanted to know what was in the Cornish pasties; oh, and were they fresh?
Another favourite of mine had to be Yorkshire Dave, gay and mostly silent, who started up The Pink Elephant on the riverfront at a time when Happy Hour was largely confined to the few bars near the monument across from Chez One-Eye. (Coup-ready hacks could cock an ear for the sound of tank engines whilst enjoying their martinis—a bizarre location, admittedly, but there was little to no traffic back then.)
The Pink is still a place to go, IMHO, even if it is overexposed to touts and tots. Dave, sadly, died of a heart attack on the premises. His colleagues took him to hospital but lacked the readies to satisfy the staff, who dumped poor Dave in the parking lot out back. Mad dogs and Englishmen, and all. When the body melted, Simon M and some others bravely came to the rescue, which can’t have been pleasant. At Dave’s funeral at Wat Langka, the monks were unable to get his coffin into the cremating oven—typical—and a chap called Big Tony took over and helped Dave on his way to the Celestial Realms.
Simon had a beautiful, brainy wife whose sister died of an HIV-related illness, sadly not uncommon among beautiful women in the 90s. Before she died, she had agreed to an ‘arrangement’ with Mormon missionaries: they would help pay her hospital costs if she would convert to their zany cult. When she died, the monks assumed she was still with Lord Buddha. Arriving at the pagoda to perform the rites, they were interrupted by the Mormons and a tussle ensued over the soul of the departed. The boys from Utah prevailed and, like ghouls out of RL Stevenson, made off with the body. Simon and Snow went after the f*ckers at their HQ but the walls were unbreachable.
When he went to jail for a bit—for assaulting another teacher—I had vaguely heard of Simon whilst at the Daily. A story came up one night about a foreigner sucker-punching another guy on the riverside; the snooty hacks seemed to think I might know him since I was also teaching, but no. Later, however, I got to know him pretty well and he helped me out with a visa problem when I (voluntarily) left the country. I knew they guy he punched out, too, but that’s another story—before my time, man. Another good one involving Simon (you can’t make this stuff up) concerned the lunatic who devised ‘Rape Camp”—a guy from the States who had had a raw deal with his wife, something of a femi-nazi. One night at the Walkabout, I happened to be sitting nearby and inadvertently heard a bitter colloquy between himself and an imaginary friend on the subject of American Women—those bitches, man.
Dan had brought an unlikely business plan to provide employment for cash-strapped Cambodians—on-line stripping. Foolishly, he made the error of revealing this to Simon and Snow over a beer. I was at the Heart with my girlfriend one night when Dan ran in, squeaky-voiced, and called for Samnang and the guys phone the embassy and order a car for his protection. He fled behind the counter, a place where we have all been, albeit under happier circumstances. “I am an American citizen!” he hollered.
Snow and Simon waited, cackling and slapping the table. They had deployed a big stick to herd their quarry up Street 63, banging the railings along the way and, doubtless influenced by their Khmer wives in the arts of vengeance, letting him know what lay in store. This was weeks before “Rape Camp” came to the attention of the NGOs, perhaps the same NGOs who had run a few of my colleagues out of town over the years. It hit the news like an anti-tank mine, and Dan was packed off on a plane for offending the great Khmer people.
Everyone comes back, though. Dan tried returning not once but twice—observed muttering to his imaginary friend atop the Koh Kong ferry—only to be deported each time. A nut like him would have been made welcome in the Nineties, but times were changing fast. If only it hadn’t been for those meddling NGOs…
Utopia, poems by Kevin Halligan is available on UK Amazon
Al Rockoff photo by Adam Jones