Monday, May 25, 2015

A Snapped Life

Berkeley, Calif. is THE place to go to the movies. We lived there at the university briefly in the late 1980’s. The movie theaters are palatial, with bas relief all over the place, decorative light fixtures, velvety stage curtains and plush seats. Ushers in uniforms with gold brocade cords wear white gloves and little round hats like the little guy who used to call for Phillip Morris.
Some of the movies I saw there were Weird Al Yankovic’s UHF, the first full length Batman, Honey I Shrunk the Kids and several arty films that did not enjoy national distribution. (UHF was the first time I had ever seen Michael Richards, a.k.a. Cosmo Kramer, perform. He played the part of a janitor who got promoted to children’s television game show host. I was not surprised when I later learned that Red Skelton was his idol). My work that summer also concerned films, ethnographic documentaries, facilitated by prize-winning filmmaker Andre Simic (Conviviality: Medicine for the Heart). Among other things, I learned from Andre that films appeal to the same part of our mental makeup as our dreams. Perhaps that is why it takes us awhile to come back to the real world after watching an engaging movie.
I don’t think I considered attendance at a movie as an escape when I was growing up, though. Going to the movies was just an activity that did not cost too much and the snacks were good. However, in retrospect, I see that going to a movie was an escape indeed. Even though the Rialto in my town was not as fancy as those strikingly elaborate theaters in Berkeley, they were quite Baroque, plush and cool. Some of the memorable movies from my youth were The Yearling, Ma and Pa Kettle, The Big Country, Pickup on South Street, Battleground and No Time for Sergeants. (The book of the latter was funnier than the movie, especially when the bumpkin hero goes into oxygen deprivation and says nonsense like, “Put, put, put, Blue.” I have always loved quirky humor more than the kind that makes logical sense.). Leaving these air conditioned movies on a hot August afternoon took a lot of adjustment, both physical and mental. My cousin had a term for the moment you reenter the real world, sometimes as long as 10 to 15 minutes after leaving the theater. He called it “snapping.”
I am glad I have the capacity to snap. It is when people do not have it that they get into trouble. An altered sense of reality can mess us up. We should strive to live a snapped life. Interestingly, when I finish a good book, I do not need to snap. Oh, I think back on the characters, plot and dialogue, but I suppose I do not enter into the book on the level of dreams.

So, I have learned that the cinema is a deeply consequential kind of art. I am resolved to work to lead a snapped life and depend more on my imagination than on digital manipulation of my brain’s synapses. 

Monday, May 18, 2015

Moving On

I was only three when we arrived in the city from the country, but I remember scenes from that day very well. My cousin Tom, age five, who lived a block away from our meager rent house was there to greet us, grinning big. He used to come to the farm a lot, so I knew him well. He was a great and imaginative companion. In fact, my earliest memory has to do with hunting birds with him, using his pop gun, the kind with a cork on a string.
Mother moved to the city as a recent widow, having found reasonable employment there. It was impossible for her to continue running the farm without her husband. So, when the job started, I stayed over at Cousin Tom’s house on most days. He was a late sleeper, so I often sat under the Chinaberry tree behind his house and peeled twigs until he stirred. He always seemed glad to find me so employed when he pulled the curtains back.
Our summer days were full of tadpoles, crawfish, bird dogs (his daddy had a bunch of them), and an ingenious older boy named Joe Glen, who, in our minds, could do anything. For example, he could whittle a cedar shingle into a boat shape, append a rubber band and modified pop-sickle stick thereunto, forming the coolest little paddle boat you ever saw. Those things were fast. He had also constructed several crystal radio sets that actually worked and a (luckily) non-functional one-man submarine from two hunks of metal and a garden hose.
So, Tom and I were more like brothers than cousins, spending so much time together as kids. I spent the night there at his house many times and was treated as one of the family. I seldom saw his daddy, a shadowy figure who shuffled and mumbled around the shaft of an ever-present cigar. Tom and I were not happy when Mother married a fellow who moved us across town. But, I was old enough to ride a bicycle then, so I would still spend many days over at his house. I remember some of those phone calls very well. He would say, “What you doing?” I would usually say, “Nothing,” being ever laconic and unwilling to divulge any of my projects. “Come over?” My answers were most often in the affirmative. It took me about 10 to 15 minutes to ride over there, depending on the traffic and he was always glad to see me roll up.
As we grew older, Joe Glen opened his own radio repair shop and Tom and I abandoned tadpoles, crawfish and bird dogs for swimming in a nearby pool and walking to town to the movies. If we could afford it, we would visit the drug store for cherry phosphates, our favorite fountain drinks. He reached the crazy age of girl interest before I did, but I did not mind. I had interests and friends in my own neighborhood by then.

Joe Glen prospered as technology complexified. Tom became a forester and you know what has become of me. I saw Tom at a memorial service the other day. He looked just like his daddy. We were genuinely glad to see each other.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The New Trial

May 2, the “new” Trial by Jury reenactment played to a full house in the 1874 courthouse at Historic Washington State Park and it was quite well received. I was happy, because in the spring of 2013, upon a request from the state park superintendent, I wrote the script for the drama which was approved at the state level for production. Then I wrote a novel entitled Some Became Fools about the 1879 crime and the 1880 trial. The novel came out awhile back and it was available for purchase at the gift shop after the reenactment May 2. I signed quite a few copies.
I played Judge Grandison D. Royston, the specially appointed judge who presided over the murder trial of a man who poisoned his wife and tried to cover up his crime by a hasty burial. The park historian and interpreter worked with me on developing versions of the script to include several additional witnesses who told the story of the murderer’s scheme to commit this heinous crime so that he could be with a person witnesses referred to as a strumpet. Having so many folks testify in the reenactment required considerable recruitment of a variety of volunteers. We were down to the wire in casting.
By contrast, the “old” 1844 Trial by Jury, which takes place in the 1836 courthouse a few blocks from the 1874 one, requires a much smaller cast with only five or six witnesses testifying. While the park does use volunteers to staff some of the acting slots, it is possible for park personnel to put that one on without volunteers. The state park has been presenting this “old” trial for many years.
I have been cast as the judge in the two trials and in both there are opportunities for high drama. In the “old” 1844 trial of a man who murdered his best friend over a woman, there is a moment in which the prosecutor traps the accused in a lie and there is a struggle between the accused and the sheriff. In the “new” 1880 trial, there is a similar scene in which the accused objects to affidavits affirming that he had uttered incriminating evidence before the murder. In both these explosive scenes, the cast members try to make the emotional outbursts seem real and not contrived. It often works in the “old” trial and it certainly achieved its purpose in the “new” one on May 2. I heard more than one comment that everything seemed very real.

As I understand the park’s plan, these two dramas will alternate with each other every three months. Registered attendees will have a meal at the Tavern Restaurant and then go to the respective courthouse for the action. Historic Washington State Park maintains a schedule of events on its Web page.