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That Old Demon

This piece has expanded into something much longer than I expected. It's 2700 words. It is also my birthday present to myself, but it's not for my birthday today. It's for my birthday twenty years from now.

On Tuesday, it was raining in LA. When it rains in LA, it doesn't just rain and be done with it. In LA, rain has to be hyper-dramatic. It can't just cleanse the streets and wash away the dirt. It has to power scrub everything as the palm trees shake against the grey sky like plastic dish brushes.

On Tuesday, I decided to go to a late afternoon showing of Don't Come Knocking, the new Sam Shepard-Wim Wenders film, before the movie disappeared off the movie-going radar. Maybe I'm a dying breed, but I wanted to see it on the big screen. Besides, there was a bargain matinee at 4:15 at the Los Feliz, so off I went to Vermont Avenue. When the house lights went down, I was the only one in the theatre. Maybe it was the rain.

Before I talk about the film, I'm going to talk about Sam Shepard. Sam is big in my writing universe. In fact, I would even go so far as to say I would not be writing at all if it were not for Sam Shepard. No, I don't think I should say that. I don't want to turn him into a god in my writing universe because he's really not. Sam is. . .well, you'll see.

Let us flash back, wayyyy back to 1983. The Midwestern USA. In May, Return of the Jedi came out, and Han, Leia, and Luke lived happily ever after with a bunch of whiney ewoks. The trilogy had sparked my imagination, but the fire wasn't burning yet. Then, in the fall, The Right Stuff came out.

You gotta remember, back in 83, there were still a lot of big ass movie screens. It's not like today with all the multiplexes and fifty seat theatres. In the eighties, there were still some old movie palaces with big ass mutha screens and dolby stereo sound systems. I saw The Right Stuff on one such screen.

Across the high desert, a man in a leather jacket rode on a horse and came upon a small orange plane shaped like a bullet and called the X-1. He studies the plane. He's got lines on his face and knows how to ride a horse. He rides off. He shows up at a drinking shack in the middle of the desert and gives a rattle snake tail to the bartender. He hangs with his buddies. He says sure he'll fly the X-1. He spots a lady at the bar, then rides after her (‘she's his wife') into the desert before busting his ribs on a cactus. The next day, he breaks the sound barrier.

Chuck Yeager did in fact break the sound barrier, and this character in the movie was named Yeager. This guy in the movie was cool. He behaved all calm and quiet, but there was something else---something behind the eyes---something wild. They talked a lot about chasing down that demon in the sky, going after that unknown thing. He needs to get into the plane to do that. It's not just speed. It's something else.

The movie continues. We see the beginnings of NASA and the Mercury program while Yeager stays out in the desert flying planes. In the climax of the film, while the Mercury astronauts watch a fan dancer (my younger bro liked the fan dancer) in Houston, Yeager narrowly escapes death as his plane crashes in the desert. The final shots of him show him walking in the desert all burned and bruised and carrying his parachute. He has lived to fly another day---or something like that.

My young brain was churning with the kind of heavy stuff that you don't realize is heavy at the time but has the power to change your life. I wanted to chase them demons too. For awhile, I wanted to be a pilot, just like Yeager. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), I realized two things. One, women could not fly combat at that time. Two, the guy who played Yeager was a playwright.

Around this time, I discovered the drama section of the local library. Plays made good reading because they were shorter than novels and not dumbass like most teen fiction. I could also easily imagine how they looked on a stage. Sure enough, right before Neil Simon, Sam Shepard plays sat on the shelf.

I remember reading the early stuff. I remember not knowing what was going on in these plays. They weren't simple stories like other plays I had read. They were more like dreams. I couldn't explain it. I just knew I liked it.

Also, around this time, the local Playhouse did a production of Buried Child. I got the play out of the library. My mom read the whole thing. I read half. I don't know why I didn't read the whole thing. We went to the performance together---not an uncommon thing, we went to a lot of plays and operas when I was young.

My mom is a social reader. She loves discussion and book clubs. She loves to talk, and her weakness still to this day is work which is emotional. She loves not only the heart strings but the whole trumpet section.

At that time, I was the opposite. I was internalizing everything, taking it all in and dreaming of moving away to college. I wasn't rebellious. I was serving time.

The production of Buried Child was regional at best and mediocre at worst. It wasn't funny. It wasn't sad. It wasn't anything. It just was.

During intermission, my mother was talking with everyone around her about it. She could have started a salon in the middle of the theatre. I don't remember what she said. I just remember her voice at a lower pitch than usual trying to find the depths of this play and perhaps her own being.

Flash forward. I'm in college in New York. No, I'm in London. I start writing a play moment to moment, line by line. I get it. I lose it. I get it back. I get the flow. I find the voices, the visuals, the myth. It's glowing. I'm glowing. I'm in fuckin' London with no sunshine, but it's all glowing.

Flash forward. New York. After college. In a theatre video archive, I watch stuff from fifteen years before. I don't exist in real theatre time. I go to the past.

I watched two one-acts from 1980, Tongues and Savage Love. These were pieces done in collaboration with Joseph Chaiken. On a blurry black-and-white video tape with big headphones on my ears, I watched a ritual collage of words and music. They used a small space to its fullest potential and used music as a character. Heck, the audience became a character. You, you, you. According to my notes, there is a line in Tongues, ‘he was born in the middle of a story he had nothing to do with'.

I saw another Chaiken collaboration from 1991 called War in Heaven. My notes have only quotes from the play: ‘I died and the day was born and I became an angel on that day'; ‘there was a time when the light from my eyes was so powerful it burned the sun'; ‘take me back' (used as a refrain).

I also got to see the 1983 Circle Rep production of Fool for Love directed by Shepard with Kathy Baker and Will Patton. The colors of the video were like a Van Gogh painting---vibrant but fading into each other strangely. This is the sexy Shepard play about the half brother and half sister who love each other too much. Even though the play is lopsided to the brother who gets more jokes in the beginning, the sister, played by Kathy Baker, goes for it. She claws around the walls. She might want decency, but she's a wild thing. A lot of energy comes out of the brother, but the sister has some power too. A woman in Shepard's worlds doesn't have it easy, but if she's a fighter, she'll get her power.

Around this time, the Signature Theatre Company did a Shepard season. They did a bunch of revivals including a rewrite of Tooth of Crime, Curse of the Starving Class, and a bunch of one-acts. There was also a new one act, When the World Was Green (A Chef's Fable). I don't remember much about that play except that it was an old man and a young woman, and there was a lot of green in the play. It had a lot of life.

I continued to hack away at my plays. Most of the time, the plane blew up. Sometimes, it stalled on the runway. Still, I chased that old demon.

Flashforward to Los Angeles two years ago. I volunteer at a screening to for the DVD release of The Right Stuff. Chuck Yeager, the director, and many of the cast members are present. I get to shake Chuck Yeager's hand. I watch the film again, and two seats away from me sits Ed Harris. I can't say a god damn thing to him. What does one say to Ed Harris anyway? Loved that Pollack movie, babe. Uh. No.

Finally, finally, finally Los Angeles, on a rainy Tuesday. Yes, I'm really gonna talk about the film now. I liked it. I liked it a lot.

Don't Come Knocking is the second collaboration between Wim Wenders and Sam Shepard. Paris, Texas was the first collaboration. Every review I read said that Paris, Texas was the better film with its quiet melancholic lyricism. I hadn't seen it awhile, so it didn't haunt me.

Nowadays, the only Wim Wenders film which haunts me is State of Things. Hollywood, Hollywood, Never been a town people had it so good. Some of his latest films have felt overwrought like he has too much money, too much access to talent, or just too many ideas in his head. I don't what's going on. However, when Wenders is clear and sharp, he's magnificent.

The other half of the collaboration is Shepard, the movie star with the lone cowboy image, a playwright of great renown, and that guy you saw in that movie, you know, that movie with that other guy and that girl. In the last few years, he has also started writing short prose pieces which are sharp, witty, and great fun. If I was to encapsulate his work, I'd say he digs into the dirt of American myth to find both the comic and tragic worms underneath. Or something like that. Do you see why I never became an academic?

Don't Come Knocking is about a washed up movie star named Howard Spence (played by Shepard). One day, Howard rides off the set of the Western he is shooting. The title of the film comes from a sign in Howard's trailer, Don't Come Knocking If the Trailer's Rocking.

So Howard rides off on a horse in a flashy cowboy costume with turquoise boots. He rides and rides. Back on the set, the ADs and PAs are all in a dither. Where is Howard? Where is Howard?

Enter Tim Roth's character. He works for the insurance company which could lose a lot of money if the film isn't made. He has to find Howard and bring him back to the set. He's a very quiet and bit anti-social but extremely polite.

Meanwhile, Howard exchanges his horse, spurs, boots, and shirt for a shirt and vest from an old man. With no boots, he walks along the railroad tracks in red stocking feet. Yep, Howard is a bit of a goof cadet. He eventually buys himself some boots.

Where do you go when you've got nowhere to go? Home to Mom, of course. Mom is played by Eva Marie Saint. Mom has sold the family farm and lives in town. She hasn't seen son in decades but has kept a scrapbook of all his tabloid exploits. Apparently, Howard has been a Hollywood bad boy. Mom embraces son and welcomes him home. Mom is angelic. She makes eggs and cookies. She opens the door for Howard after he gets in trouble at the local casino. The only thing she can't stand is bad manners.

Dad is dead. In fact, right after he arrives, Howard must accompany Mom to cemetery to put flowers on the grave. Dad is gone, but he is still present. His car sits in the garage. Mom gives Howard his clothes to wear.

But the film doesn't end with Mom. It's not a film about a young man, and there's a whole lifetime to cover. Howard soon learns that up in Butte is a waitress who had a child by him, so off goes Howard in his Dad's car. Could Howard be transforming into this father?

In Butte, we meet Doreen, a waitress. Actually, she now owns the café. We also meet her son and his red haired girlfriend. There is also a blonde girl (played by Sarah Polley) with the ashes of her dead mother. She is potentially another child fathered by Howard. In a cityscape with too few people and too big buildings, the characters all bump into each other and walk around each other. What's refreshing about this family reunion is that nothing is put on it. It all happens from the characters dancing around each other. It is a lovely dance to watch.

At the center of this dance is Doreen played by the fantastic Jessica Lange. She is such a joy to watch. In every scene, she's either smiling or giggling or laughing as if she knows a really funny secret. She doesn't just stroll around Butte. She walks with a purpose. She's got lines on her face, and those lines tell her story. We women oughta keep our lines on our faces. Why should the boys have all the fun with it?

When Howard shows up, Doreen smiles, says ‘there's your son', and walks away. When her son confronts her with every ounce of James Dean angst he can muster, she simply smiles and says ‘yep he's your Dad'. When Howard confesses that he's always loved her and should have married her twenty years before and wants to move in with her, she bops him with her handbag, kisses him on the lips, and says ‘no'.

Jessica Lange is playing a real woman. Doreen is a real character with a lot of power and energy which makes her fun to watch. In Butte, all the women have power and energy. They make things happen. Sarah Polley's character tells Howard where his son lives. The son's girlfriend jumps up and down on a couch. When the son is trashing the apartment, she walks away. She doesn't have to put up with his angst.

The film's climax is simple. It's on a couch in the middle of a quiet street. The son had thrown the couch out the window and rejected the father. Where is poor Howard to go? He's got no where to go. He sits on the couch as the world spins round and round. Have you ever reached that point where you have no where else to go and you're just sitting immobile as the world keeps turning? You've think you've reached the end, but then something happens. An angel comes.

And it's glowing. It's magical. It's joyful. It's the stuff of movies. That's all it is. Just a movie.

Tim Roth's character shows up, and Howard goes back to the shoot. But the daughter and the son and the girlfriend become their own family, and they drive down the road in their grandfather's car singing ‘Where is Howard? Where is Howard'.

Some of those movies are pretty good. You know, they're like dreams. Sometimes they become dreams. Sometimes they start a fire in the head. Sometimes they feed the fire already in the head. You gotta feed the fire. How else will you chase that old demon up there?

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