27 October 2008

Fast Times at ACSF

Sean Penn is coming back to Shelley's acting class. He was there a couple of years ago, some months before we put on that play. I quit the class after the play, so I don't know what's been going on there since, but rumors indicate that Shelley's daughter is/was dating Emil Hirsch, who starred in the film Sean had just finished shooting last time he came to the class. So, I imagine Shelley's been keeping the lines of communication open, and now -- well, here he is (supposedly) coming back.

Shelley sent email to me and presumably other erstwhile classmates, inviting us to rejoin the class in the run-up to Sean's return. The weekend after I got that email, I went camping, and spent an evening trying to write a scene to perform for the occasion. But I hit a few dead ends, and, as is typical, haven't picked it back up since then.  So... I don't have anything to show for the past couple of years, in which my excuse for not acting is that I want to write my own part and "play myself".

I was talking at work about Sean Penn coming back. I was standing atop a loading dock awning, painting a warehouse wall with Josh and Caitlyn. Josh has been working with me for years, but Caitlyn was new, and didn't know I'd been in an acting class before. She was asking about my involvement. I gave my usual excuse, that I was "accessing tools of personal expression". She asked if I feel like I'm acting in my day-to-day life. I can't remember how I replied, but I'm sure it sidestepped the question in some way. At least, I didn't focus as much on the question as I'm drawn to doing so now... I look at the phrase above, "my usual excuse, that I was 'accessing tools of personal expression'", and I think of how limited my vocabulary is, how rarely I express a new idea, how often I'm having the same conversation or relating the same story to another audience--how often my own original words or ideas come to feel to me like clichés. Even that sounds clichéd, how often I've said, "I've said this so often it feels like a cliché." Sure, maybe I tailor the phrasing to suit the moment, maybe, but regardless: I can see how my life consists of a lot of rehearsing a series of familiar scenes. Thus, as in any acting situation, I face the ever-present danger of losing touch with the meaning of my words, or choosing the wrong meaning, because I've lost understanding of which is right, or if there even is one. The eternal search for meaning... What does meaning even mean? Ugh. And so on.

It's like a life spent practicing telling jokes; which, actually, is my biggest take-away from Sean's first visit: the man is an entertainer. Pretty much all night, 'til 4am, whether with an audience of one or two, or the entire group, he made effective use of his inevitable position at the center of attention to churn out a seemingly endless stream of jokes and stories. I can only remember one--probably even the next morning I could only remember one. This may be one of the things that differentiates me from successful entertainers. Nonetheless, I retained a joke, one joke, and perhaps it's a testament to Sean's entertainment value that I'm asked to repeat it whenever I mention "Sean Penn at my acting class", to anyone who's heard it before. Anyway, Josh, who's heard it before, asked me to retell it for Caitlyn, and volunteered to play my role in the story (it's a joke with roles--there's physical humor):

We were standing on the sidewalk outside the Uptown, so Sean and some others could have a smoke. I don't smoke, but, like, Sean Penn's outside the bar and I was gonna stay inside? I remember being out there with Eric, and Rex, and him, and I think the joke got set up when Sean asked Rex if he was into martial arts. I vaguely recall thinking it seemed kinda racist to ask that of the only Asian guy present, but I didn't think it long before Sean continued, "Do you guys know anything about wrestling?" I was probably on the verge of piping up about having wrestled back in high school, but Sean wasn't done.

"Do you know what this is?", he asked, and he might first have asked me if I mind--I don't recall--but as he asked, he stepped behind me, slipped one of his arms under one of mine, reached up with his same arm and grabbed the back of my neck.

"Half nelson", we all called out in unison, as though we were being helpful, as though Sean had seen someone pull this clever move recently, and needed us to clue him in with our fighting expertise, like he'd been looking, however long, for somebody--anybody--who could help him understand this crazily effective martial arts move. He slipped his other arm under my remaining pit, and clasped hands behind my neck, "And you know what this is".

"Full nelson". I was happy to be passing this test, although I swear there had to be some sort of dawning realization by this point that I was being made the butt of a joke. But maybe not. I don't remember exactly, but it's just as likely that I'd already detached, and was reflecting in real time that "OMG, Sean Penn has me in a headlock".

Then, he started humping me.

"Do you know what this is? A Father Nelson."


So... despite or because or regardless of all that, I'm thinking of going to Shelley's class again, after so long away, ostensibly to see what kind of people are there, and what they're planning to do for Sean's Second Coming; and to see how Shelley's behavior compares to last time. She definitely... changes in the face of celebrity... or maybe it's more accurate to say "in the company of people materially successful in her field of expertise"?  Anyway: certain aspects of her personality get amplified when the ambient star-power can be measured in megawatts (resonant frequencies? I dunno: I've been listening to Alvin Lucier's I Am Sitting in a Room lately, so I've got resonant frequencies on the mind... I highly recommend spending at the very least 15 contemplative minutes with Alvin).

But deep down, I know I'm secretly harboring some vain and futile hope of being swept up in that same materially successful orbit -- futile, if for no other reason than that... well, it's the odds: if only one in ten thousand actors finds fulfillment in her craft, how much less are the chances for someone who rarely even practices the craft, who also doesn't even really get the concept of fulfillment. But then, any fool will tell you "right time, right place is the remedy for those odds", so roll the dice, muthafucka! It helps to be standing at the craps table. "You gotta play to win!", and other platitudes of the restless gadabout and ne'er-do-well!

I just read a couple of movie reviews in the Times. Concerning one of Mr. Penn's latest films, What Just Happened, A.O. Scott writes, "[I]t is not enough to expose shallowness and duplicity unless you have some notion of what depth or honesty might look like". And Manohla Dargis writes the following about Caden Cotard, the protagonist in Charlie Kaufman's new film, Synecdoche, New York:
Inside the warehouse, he builds a replica of his world line by line, actor by actor, until fiction and nonfiction blur. Like the full-scale map in Borges’s short story “On Exactitude in Science,” the representation takes on the dimensions of reality to the point of replacing it. The French theorist Jean Baudrillard uses Borges’s story as a metaphor for his notion of the simulacrum, which probably explains why Caden, who has trouble naming things, considers titling his production “Simulacrum.” I don’t even know what that means, sighs Hazel. You may giggle knowingly at that line, but the poignancy of this exchange is that Caden, who is so busy creating one world that he forgets to live in another, doesn’t seem to really understand what it means either.

[The film is] extravagantly conceptual but also tethered to the here and now, which is why, for all its flights of fancy, worlds within worlds and agonies upon agonies, it comes down hard for living in the world with real, breathing, embracing bodies pressed against other bodies. To be here now, alive in the world as it is rather than as we imagine it to be, seems a terribly simple idea, yet it’s also the only idea worth the fuss, the anxiety of influence and all the messy rest, a lesson hard won for Caden. Life is a dream, but only for sleepers.
Where I go to church, every sermon is left open-ended, for anyone from among whoever else has assembled to stand up and conclude, and I'm at that point in this one. 'Cause I don't know what to make of it. I'm of a mind that sitting at the couch most of the day, polishing up a blog post about doing stuff, is pretty much the same thing as having done stuff. I'll leave it to Merlin Mann or Bre Pettis to debate the specifics. According to The Cult of Done Manifesto, anyway, it should count as at least "a ghost of done".

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