Friday, June 22, 2007

Alternate Lives

From time to time I've wondered, as I suppose most of us do, what it would be like to be living another life completely. If I had the chance, or if by some magic I was told that I would have to switch places, what life would I switch to?

One person whose life looks pretty impressive from my point of view is Bill Bradley. An All-American basketball player at Princeton, Bradley led the Tigers into the final four in the NCAA basketball tournament. In his final game, under instructions from his coach to stop being such a team player and just shoot the ball, went deeply into the zone of unconsciousness and set an NCAA scoring record of 58 points. (There is an awe-inspiring play-by-play description of the last moments of that game in John McPhee's early Bradley bio A Sense of Where You Are. ) Having been drafted by the New York Knicks to play in the NBA, he elected instead to accept a Rhodes Scholarship, then returned two years later to become an NBA All-star, winning two NBA championships and winding up in the Hall of Fame. As if that weren't enough, he decided to run for the U.S. Senate in 1978 and won, after which he was a Senator for nearly 20 years. An athlete, a scholar, a politician: not a bad life, if one had to choose.

Another candidate would be Sam Shephard. Shepard, who in his early days was a drummer for the Holy Modal Rounders, is an academy-award winning actor, a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, and the author of several collections of what might be characterized as creative nonfiction. Cruising Paradise, for example, is one of my favorite books, and one that I have come to like even more because there is an excellent audiocassette version which features Shepard reading his own work. So Shepard has been a winner at just about everything he's tried. He's funny, he's smart, he's artistically and musically talented and he's a terrific writer. I won't even mention who he's married to. So yeah, he's on the list.

Today in class I played for the sophomores the segment of the audiocassette entitled "Winging It." This story is offbeat and funny, especially in the audio version, where you can hear how Shepard uses a high pitched, frantic, somewhat overwrought voice for the director, and a low-pitched, deadpan, laid-back voice for the actor. But what's interesting is that even though their personalities and their basic approaches seem to be at odds, they ultimately complement each other and by a complicated network of interactions, based on intuition and experimentation, come up with a satisfying solution to a somewhat daunting artistic challenge. Its one of the best short demonstrations I know of in literature of the how professionals collaborate in the creative process. Here's the story:


In this scene I'm playing now, I'm supposed to burst into this shack on a run-down tobacco plantation and discover that my childhood friend, whom I haven't seen for twenty years, has hanged himself from the rafters. The "friend" is played by a dummy, complete with broken neck, bulging eyeballs, phony blood trickling out its mouth and all its skin turned puffy and milky white. Anybody can tell it's a dummy. It wouldn't fool a house dog. But I'm supposed to somehow muster up the belief that this is indeed my long-lost buddy. He bears no resemblance to anyone I've ever met, dead or alive. I've seen corpses, but they never looked like this one. The only dead things I've seen hanging were deer and pheasant. I've been in the presence of death several times, but the memory of those dying ones doesn't provoke anything like the correct response to this situation. Grief is different from horror. I know what my character's reaction should be, but I know if I try to imitate this idea in my head, it will come out being exactly what it is — an imitation. I cast my fate to the wind and try to just wing it on the first take. No rehearsal; just wing it and see what happens.

I burst into the shack and discover the swinging phony corpse, but just as I look up at it, the entire door of the shack breaks off its hinges and slams me square in the head. It's a rude awakening. As I'm recovering from the blow, it occurs to me that this might in fact be a way to approach the moment of the character's discovery. As though he's been hit in the head by a door. Why not? I haven't come up with anything else. On the second take, after the door's been remounted, I try it this way. I wing it. The director says: "Yes, yes! But it appears to be more physical than psychological. Why is that?"

"Oh, you want 'psychological'?" I say. "I didn't know you were looking for that."

"Well, 'psychological' is perhaps the wrong word. But you know what I mean. Something to do with his torment."

"Ah, okay. Psychological torment. Okay."

"Well, these are perhaps not the right words. I just wasn't sure what it was you were responding to in that moment."

"I was trying to play it as though he'd just been hit in the head by a door."

"I see. But why? What has this got to do with the situation?" he says.

"I don't know. I thought it might work. I'm desperate for suggestions."

"Well" he says, "it's very simple. You haven't seen your dear friend for twenty years, and you walk in and discover that he's hanged himself from the rafters. That's quite different from being hit in the head by a door, isn't it?"

"I suppose you're right. I don't know. Yeah, I guess you're right. I was just experimenting."

"Good! That's good! I love experimenting. I'm an experimenter myself. Just try something else. Are you ready? Are we ready, everyone? Let's try another one."

"Ready," I say.

"Good! Camera! Camera! Let's have silence, please! Silencio! We're going to go again!"

On the third take I burst into the shack, the door stays on its hinges; I don't play as though I've been hit in the head by it; I stare up at the phony corpse; nothing happens; I see a prop radio on a bench, and for some reason I stagger over toward it and turn it on.

"Cut! Cut!" he screams. "I don't understand this either. What is happening here? Why are you all of a sudden turning the radio on? I don't get this."

"I have no idea," I say. "It was just an impulse."

"Good! Very good. I love impulses. That's the way I love to work myself, instinctually. That's very good. Let's try again."

"But I thought you said you didn't understand it."

"I don't, but it's very mysterious. It has a mysterious quality. It might be good. It gives me an idea. What if the radio is already on, and it's playing as you burst in the door. Then you see the corpse and you cross to the radio and turn it off. Shall we try it like that?"

"You mean turn it off as opposed to turning it on?"

"Exactly," he says. "That's exactly right. You turn the radio off—"

"That's the only thing you want to change?"

"That's it. Everything else is perfect."


On the fourth take, I burst in, discover the corpse; the radio is playing; I cross over to it and just stand there staring at it. The camera keeps rolling on my back. The radio keeps playing.

"Cut! Cut! Did we forget something?" he says.

"Well, you know, I was wondering—I was trying to follow this new impulse that came up."

"Which one was that?"

"I was just wondering what it would be like to keep listening to the radio for a while, after seeing my buddy hanging there."

"Yes, but for how long?" he says. "We can't just keep rolling film on your back. It's not interesting."

"Right. I see your point."

"Let's try one more, please. We've almost got it. I feel good about this. I think we're very, very close."

On the fifth take, I burst in the door; discover my dummy buddy; walk straight to the playing radio and snap it off.

"Cut! Cut!" he says, "Now, what I feel — what I'm feeling now is that it's too automatic. He just walks over there and turns the radio off as though nothing's happened. There's no reason. It's lost all its mystery now."

"I felt that too," I say. "I've felt that from the very start. A lack of mystery."

"Well, let's try one more. We're very close now. I can feel it"

On the sixth take, I burst in the door; discover the corpse; pause for a second; cross to the radio; pause again; then I smash the radio to the floor with my fist. I just cold-cock the sonofabitch.

"Cut! Cut!" he says. "That's perfect! Absolutely perfect! That's the one. Print this one! It was perfect.”

So. There you have it. Great story. In the context of a couple of alternate lives. Bradley and Shepard are the first two that occur to me to be on my list. Who's on yours?

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