Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Film Viewing, or Several Brief Moments of Panic

It was dark by the time I got up to campus, and I checked my watch, saw that it was only half past four, and knew that England was going to provide a fun, fun winter. This being late November, I figured that, come December, it would be dark at four in the afternoon, and I would be sitting in my room, staring out at this unending twilight, and wonering why I hadn’t stayed closer to the equator. At any rate, I went back to the flat to prepare some food.
After a brief, conversation about Magic the Gathering with Zaf while beef sizzled in a frying pan and spaghetti boiled in my pot, I ate and headed out to the lecture theater that had been reserved for the viewing.
Now, I’m one of those people who’s really bad about leaping in and meeting people. When I’m introduced to someone, there’s no problem. But, if I’m at a party, and there’s someone right next to me, I can’t make the first move. For the most part, it’s because I start running through every joke I’ve ever heard, rejecting them, then thinking about the best way to say “Hi” without sounding like a sex offender, madman, avid church goer, or any number of other things. By this time, the person has retreated somewhere else in the room and I’m safe to wander around, red Solo cup firmly in hand, until I get bored and leave.
Outside the lecture theater, a group of people stood around in a clutter, talking. I’d recognized them from the showcase, but I couldn’t go up and say, “Hi, I saw you in the showcase. That is, I was watching the showcase. Not in a creepy way, because that would be weird. But I bought a ticket. To the showcase. That’s what I did, because I don’t really like musical theater, but I figured it would be an interesting thing to see, and, wow, how about that, here I am. I mean, you know, I’m not attacking you when I say I don’t like musical theater, it’s just a personal thing. I enjoyed the showcase, but not because of you. I mean, you were good, don’t get me wrong. I saw it because my friend Gary, Dixie—what do you know him as? Gary? Gary was in the showcase, and he invited me along, and so, yeah, I figured that I’d go, and then, hey, wouldn’t you know it, bam, I’m in a production. Weird how the world works, huh?”
Of course, by the time I got to the end of that in my head, I was sitting down in the mini-auditorium and really wishing I had brought a drink. I looked around. There were about ten other people in the room, and, holy shit, I’d forgotten just how loud drama folk could be when they wanted. They had the vocal strength of five yodellers each and filled the room with conversation.
I sat back, propped my feet on the seat in front of me, and started making popping noises with my mouth.
Eventually, a tall guy walked in. I recognized him as one of the other guys who had gone for Tevye and nodded to him. He sat down a few seats down the row, and we had a very brief conversation boiling down to “Hi.” Laura—the director, remember her?—walked in with a few other people I’d seen before—like her friend, Lucie—and then did something that made me wonder just what the hell parallel universe I’d stumbled upon: Out of her big black bag, as she was saying something about how Campus Watch were bastards (I think), she pulled a Granny Smith apple and placed it on the table.
“Snacks,” was the first thing that popped into my mind. Then, as I saw what was on the face of the apple, my mouth dropped open. Into the front of the apple was carved eight Greek letters.
My mind flashed back to the train from London, with the husband and wife, and, from there, to the warehouse where I was drugged and fitted with a ball gag. Giraffes, part of me thought, may or may not have been involved in some way.
I whimpered. The man to my left—Adam, it transpired—asked if I was okay. I turned and said, “I’ve been drugged, confused, and made privy to the secret arms deals of the elderly—all because of that fucking apple.” I pointed to the table.
Adam looked over and said, “What apple?”
I looked back. There was no apple.
“Fuck,” I said. I looked around me. No one was wearing a bowler hat. No one was looking at me. From what I could tell, no one was about to leap up and jab my arm with a hypodermic needle filled with some sort of tranquilizer. Regardless, as the computer in the front of the room started sounding like it was going to overheat because of the DVD, my heart started pounding and I was on the verge of leaping from person to person and shouting, “Hail hail hail hail hail, Eris Eris Eris Eris Eris!” to see what sort of reaction I’d get.
I was saved from doing such a thing by Dixie’s sudden arrival. “Thank God!” I shouted. A couple people looked up.
Dixie walked up to the row I was in and sat down next to me. He pulled out a bottle of the same cheap wine present at Thanksgiving dinner, and the movie started.
If you’ve never seen the film version of Fiddler on the Roof, go see it, and you’ll be struck by how dated some of the visual effects are. For instance, back then in the 70s, it was not yet known that sudden zooms, random cuts, and sudden, uncomfortable close-ups (the sort that are so detailed that you can see individual pores on someone’s face) should only be used in Sergio Leone films. However, Fiddler breaks that rule—notably during the “Tradition” sequence. What you’ve got here is Tevye on his cart delivering his spiel about, you guessed it, traditions in Judaism.
Now, you know in the song, how you’ve got the spoken monologue bits, and then a bit of a YUH-DUH NUH NUH, DUH vamping sort of thing before the chorus chimes in with “Traditio-o-o-o-o-n!” in order to deafen the audience? Well, during the instrumental section, the film cuts to random bits of Judaica sprinkled around the village of Anatevka. The result, if you know nothing about Judaism, is confusion. If you know about Judaism, it’s overkill. And, if you’re in the middle ground, as I’m guessing most of these people in the society were, then the only reaction you can come up with is to shout, “Jew!” at the things on the screen.
And that’s what they did.
And that’s what made me flash back to when I first moved to Tennessee and it came out that I was Jewish. The people out there didn’t know how to react. They had a bona fide Heeb in their presence. One guy turned to me and said, “Do Jews have electricity?”
This was before I knew about sarcasm, so I said, “Yes, of course.”
He turned to me and said, “Oh. Cause I saw Fiddler on the Roof, and they didn’t have electricity.”
After that, I figured that anything was fair game, so I made it a habit of telling people who asked about Judaism that we worshipped snakes and sacrificed Christian virgins on the Sabbath. Thinking about it, it’s a wonder I had friends in Tennessee.
So, as a group of people towards the front shouted “Jew!” at Lazar Wolf on screen during the fathers’ bit, I sunk in my chair and took a swig of the wine. But, aside from flashbacks to middle and high school, I started thinking about how I could play this character. Everyone likes Topol as Tevye, but I always thought he emphasized the drama. I didn’t want to do that, drama meant emotion, and emotions are terrifying. So, then, my other option was Zero Mostel. Of course, I’d never seen anything with Mostel in it, other than a few clips of him on The Muppet Show, so this meant, of course, that I’d have to go about the nasty business of coming up with my own interpretation of the character and—then, suddenly, I was hit the the realization that I was freaking myself out and overthinking things. I thought back to my guitar lessons:
When I started high school, my mom bought me a black Squire Stratocaster with—I think—a maple neck and peal inlays. The thing still works. At any rate, she bought it on the caveat that I’d take lessons for at least a year and a half—a request I gladly acquiesed to.
My guitar teacher was a music student at MTSU who managed to get into the school without taking either the SAT or the ACT. Mitch was a tall, lanky guy with long blonde hair, glasses, and a habit of playing the “Jeopardy” theme song whenever I was trying to figure out the best way to play a scale. His method of teaching guitar was letting me choose what song to learn and then, being quite a good teacher, taking a technical lesson from even the most mundane things. (For example: “Blitzkreig Bop” turned into a lesson on the theory of power chords.) Another great thing about Mitch was that he was easy to sidetrack. Whenever it comes to lessons about anything, I pay attention for about fifteen minutes, at least grasp the mechanics and theory of what we’re talking about, and then talk about something irrelevant. But, all that aside, the most important thing about Mitch was that he taught me two valuable life lessons:
1) Set your expectations as low as possible—that way you’ll never be disappointed. I tell people this, and, more often than not, their reaction is something along the lines of, “Dear God, that is depressing. I shall go kill myself now.” And, while I can understand how people can see that philosophy as depressing, that’s not exactly what’s going on. Essentially, it’s almost Zen. By building up expectations, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment, because nothing can really live up to the fantasies we come up with in our imaginations. So, the trick becomes to see when you’re doing that, take a realistic approach to the situation, and, generally speaking, you’ll be happier with the result. You may not be as ecstatic as you would be thinking that the date you’re going on this weekend with the gorgeous redhead with the green eyes will lead to wild, tantric sex, but the reality of the situation will be much more of a let-down when she gets annoyed that you’re staring at her breasts the entire time.
2) Just let it roll, man. In other words, sometimes the best ideas and performances come from living in the moment and little to no preparation beforehand. Throw in a little chaos, and you’ll find that, just maybe, the end result will be a whole lot more fun.
So, sitting in the dark room with Topol and... the other guy singing “To Life,” I figured, what the hell, I’ll let it roll.

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