Bombastic Camp Under a Bright Moon

Yesterday night I had a very nice time at the offices of Prima Donna Productions. I was a featured guest for their monthly Hot Meal/Cold Read series.

It seems to have really caught on, even though it's just at the second month so far. There is a cap of only ten attendees. The events fill up fast, Nikki tells me. Tonight we had nine actors — one wasn't able to make it. They ranged from seasoned veterans, to new-comers, to people returning to acting after long absences.

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Just by luck, I managed to bring the perfect amount of material. Nine actors, seven selections — and two of the selections were dialogues. Everyone got words just for them. I had forgotten how cool it is to heard other people read words I have written.

When things are going well, there's this weird necromancy involved in the writing process. It's just you, scribbling on paper or tapping away at plastic keys. And some times, somehow, you create something as real and vital as the table you're sitting at or that mosquito buzzing in your ear. They're not just words any more, you've generated the real deal, alive and frisky.

But a whole new form of alchemy begins to form when you bring in actors to use those words of yours and they make something precious out of the base metals and dross of your work. You might discover that a serious piece of poignant confession is actually an absurdist comedic riff. Maybe you learn that three pages of clever banter is nothing of the sort. Perhaps a sensitive actor shows you that your scene of slapstick bafoonery plays so much better as dry deadpan.

I love those moments when I work with actors and, after I call “cut,” I have to tell them I never knew that one of their character's lines was supposed to be funny, and if it succeeded within the scene, I say thank you, thank you so much. A filmmaker who can't learn from his actors is a fool and a hack.

The two guys who read my three page micro one-act I'm planning for the Olvidate del Alamo show were so perfect. And usually I try and set myself up, as often as possible, for color-blind casting, but this particular piece needs two white guys, to help sell a sociopolitical message, and also convey a certain sense of historical realism. But the two wonderful performers were Latino, and African-American. But, man, I need to think this through. Maybe it WOULD work with them.

And then there was my Luminaria piece. I wanted a man to do the narrative voice-over. (I had been thinking along the lines of Orson Wells from his days hawking Paul Masson, and if you're old enough you'll recall those commercials wherein Wells in his most baritone Falstaffian slurs of inebriation would intone that “we will sell no wine before it's time”.) But the actress I gave it to was so phenomenal, I had to cast her. There on the spot. Normally I would let Nikki contact her so the woman might be able to gracefully decline (I mean, I'm not so egotistical that I don't think that there are people who, after seeing the admittedly amateurishness of my film work, might decide between NO and HELL NO.) But I couldn't hold my tongue.

Before she did her reading, I explained to her that the piece was supposed to be pretentious, and she should chew scenery like a terrier going after the wainscoting. “Preposterously over-the-top,” I believe I added.

Jesus. It was sublime. I didn't know the piece was that strong and that hilarious. It was something I hammered out the other night, basically in real time, as fast as my fingers can fly over the keyboards (which, admittedly, isn't so very fast, as I believe only about five of these ten fingers really know where the right keys are).

Below we have the three blocks of the piece:

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Ever since we climbed down from the trees all those millions of years ago, we have continued to look back up. The sky held all our hope for light and fire. The blazing sun and the heavenly bodies at night provided light. And even fire came down from above in the form of lightening strikes on a dry prairie. He who could harness the magic of the heavens would be worshipped by a primitive society that placed such value on the communal hearth which could cook food, warm bodies, frighten away wild beasts, and provide light to the darkest midnight.

Ever since we first transformed a hunk of flint into a spearpoint we have worked to modify and improve our tools so that with little more than a flick of a finger or a thumb we could turn night into day or have the very primal fire leap from our hands as a simple gift to give another. It is this ease, this natural genius for invention, that marks our species as vastly superior to the baser animals.

Ever since James Pillans invented the chalkboard in 1798 we have been breaking the very the stuff of nature on the anvil of Science and Mathematics until the finest detritus we could observe became little more than probabilistic wave-forms that may or may not exist, depending upon the tools of observation. We have snaked an outlet cord so far down into the realm beneath the subatomic strata, that were we to succeed in tapping that reservoir, we could shine light onto the darkest midnight between the galaxies.

Perhaps … just perhaps.

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If you can get a talented actress to pile up the ham so that her reading makes Phyllis Diller look like Helen Mirren, you're on to something. What I got was more than I could ever have hoped for. Bombastic camp, yet still a element of grandeur that made the hairs on my neck stir.

What fun!

And great food, you know, for the Hot Meal part of the evening.

Great job, Nikki!

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Back home I sprawled out in the bed of my truck and aimed my star-gazing binoculars at the near-full moon. It is just so insanely silver and bright. The southern Tycho crater shines as albino scar tissue spreading out to the darkening region of the Mare Nubium. Under magnification, the moon looks so naked and exposed. It can only hide when it's in our shadow.

Speaking of our shadow, Wednesday night — this Wednesday, the 20th — there will a full lunar eclipse. Head outside and check it out. Here in San Antonio the action begins at about 7:45. The moon will be in full eclipse for almost an hour from 9 until just before 10. And everything should be over by about 11.

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Today was a postal holiday. President's Day (or as we like to call it 'round this parts for the last seven years or so, “Fuck Off and Die Day”). At the risk of further offending federal employees, this Monday holiday stuff really throws my NetFlix cycle out of whack. I won't be receiving Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place until Wednesday or Thursday. What an ordeal!

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Actually, tonight I drove to the post office to stick the prepaid mailer in the box. But the gigantic outside mailbox (there's just one) was super-stuffed with all of Sunday and Monday (probably mostly DVDs in prepaid mailers), and my piece of mail would be left there, sticking out for anyone to swipe. And were that to happen, I'd be waiting forever for In a Lonely Place. Screw it, I'll just clip it to my mailbox in the morning (and hope no one but the mailman swipes it).

The DVD I'm currently lugging around with me is Terrance Malick's Days of Heaven. For some reason I had never seen this film. Malick's previous film, Badlands, had a major impact on me. What a breathtakingly beautiful movie. The best performances we've yet to see from both Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen. How did Malick feed us the passions of love and violence which was presented as absolutely banal, and yet every second of the film was compelling and vital? Badlands kicks ass!

Days of Heaven had, for me, a serious strike against it. I find Richard Gere to be one of the most wooden actors Hollywood has foisted on the world. Yes, I understand that many people find his “pretty boy” credentials flawless, but I'm not swayed by a pretty face with soulless eyes.

But it was a treat to see Sam Shepherd, and so young — he's always an excellent actor. Brooke Adams was also amazing. One of the great crimes of the 20th century is that Brooke Adams never broke through to feature film stardom. I was also very impressed by Linda Manz. She played the kid sister to Gere's character. Apparently Malick decided to scrap most of the dialogue in the final edit, bringing Manz into the recording studio to provide voice-over narration (much of it improvised by the 15 year-old actress). Manz's odd dialect choice (maybe that's really the way she talks???) is a bit hard to sit through. But her performance is absolutely compelling. There is something so terrifying about this little girl and at the same time something so natural. It's little surprise that Harmony Korine decided to track down this former child actress and cast her in his film, Gummo. (A friend gave me a copy of Gummo years ago, and I found it's inherent cruelty so disturbing that I could only watch it for about ten minutes at a time. Maybe I need to squirm my way through it again just to watch Linda Manz.)

I think Days of Heaven is cluttered, convoluted, and ultimately unsuccessful. To acknowledge it as a beautiful movie is a gross understatement. The extraordinary cinematography alone makes it a film I can highly recommend. But I think the story and the characters became over-shadowed by the location, photography, and the grand set pieces. But maybe it was just that I had to keep looking at Richard fucking Gere that so irked me.

Also, I was having problems with the setting. The film was supposedly set in the Texas panhandle. But it was filmed in Alberta. Alberta doesn't look like Texas. And Malick, a Texan from way back, knew this. Nothing about the film would have suffered if they said they were on a farm in Alberta. And to make matters worse, the very first time we see this Texas farm house, we know we're in Texas because the house has a flag pole out front. But for this quick shot, the art department screwed up and hung the Texas flag upside down. It was remedied in all the other shots featuring the flag, but it did set the tone (unconsciously, I presume) that we weren't really in Texas.

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