A Tasty Role

A few weeks ago my friend Tracie asked if I’d be available for a small part at noon on Sunday. She’s taking film classes, and for one project they needed a waiter to pile food on the table during an awkward dinner conversation. It sounded pretty simple, and I had the time available. Plus, hey! Free Chinese food!
The weekend approached, and the shoot got cancelled. The restaurant where they’d arranged to film had been closed due to a family emergency. The crew would have to find a new location and reschedule. I made good use of my reclaimed time by sitting on our couch and watching TV.
Tuesday, the text messages started. We were on for Sunday again, this time at 8:30 in the morning. Oof. I had said I’d help, and I could make it, so I agreed. Also, there’d been a rewrite, and I was now the male lead.
Tracie: Can you play an asshole?
Some might say it’s the role I was born to play, although I’ve never been comfortable with that side of my personality. In fact I’ve spent the last few decades learning to be a decent human being, fit to interact with others. But I’d agreed to help, even if it had been under different circumstances. I condensed this into “sure”.
I asked if I was still the waiter, and she told me that the waiter was gone. I’d be the bad boyfriend now.
She had one more piece of advice.
Tracie: Wear anything an asshole would wear.
I decided that meant to dress normally.
I showed up at the college a quarter to 10:00 on Sunday morning. The time for the shoot had been mercifully pushed back by an hour and a half. I hadn’t questioned this, just gratefully accepted the new reality.
Another thing I never questioned was what had happened to their previous lead jerk. I’d helped on a couple of student films before, and one thing I’d learned is that things will go wrong whenever there’s an opportunity. The reason that it takes so many people to make a movie is that the ones who aren’t minimizing problem opportunities are busy wrestling with the more opportunistic problems.
We got off lucky in that we were only shooting for a three-minute scene.
But that was to come. At this point in the narrative, I’d just arrived. With the aid of my trusty tricorder, I found the building where Tracie had said to go. I was a touch early, so rather than call her for further instructions I decided to take a quick tour of the facility. To my surprise, I immediately stumbled into our location.
Tracie and her classmate Lindsay were setting up lights in a small lounge. There were some tables and cafeteria chairs, and bright light shone through a skylight three stories above. With careful framing it would look like a food court. This made sense when I got the revised script. No waiter, no restaurant, just a place where a woman could try to end a relationship over a meal.
Frame from student film "Dim Sum"

For over 2 hours I ate Chinese take-out and behaved as a cretin.

(screen capture used with permission of Tracie Diamond)

That’s right: try. I was going to be a terrible boyfriend who’s so self-involved that he can’t tell it’s over. As far as my character was concerned, this was all leading up to two or three minutes of sweet, sweet love.

As I finished reading, my victim arrived. Jayne and I were introduced, and we all went over the plan. The food would be ordered at 11:00, and we’d start filming when it arrived. Until then, Jayne and I would rehearse while Tracie and Lindsay got the lights and other gear set up.
Then the wheels fell off. Some manner of musical worship extravaganza kicked off in an auditorium next to the lounge. The minister/MC very kindly warned us about what would be happening, but the upshot was that we’d need a new location where the sound could be controlled.
Tracie and Lindsay settled on another lounge on the other side of the building, near the entrance I’d used. I don’t remember for certain, but I think it was about 12:30 by the time we were settled in and had acquired the food for the shoot. Starving, I shovelled take-out into my gullet.
Big mistake. The reason we had to have the food was because I’d spend the next two hours force-feeding myself in take after take. Part of my character’s jerkishness (jerkiocity?) was consuming around fifteen cartons of take-out to his girlfriend’s one and expecting her to pay for half. I didn’t have to actually eat that much, but nearly every shot of me required me to be chewing or swigging down Coke from a 2-liter. Then there were the close-up shots of me cramming more food into my mouth while still chewing.
Lindsay wanted me to eat some egg rolls and dumplings for some additional shots. Already stuffed well past full, I made a game attempt. As I bit a dumpling in half, I felt my throat blocking itself off protectively. I couldn’t even taste the food anymore. Disgusted, and forcing myself to swallow, I tossed the remains of the dumpling onto the table.
“Great!” Lindsay encouraged me.
When we were cleaning up, Tracie asked me if I wanted to take any of the left-over dumplings. I politely declined. It’s going to be a while yet before I can even think about having Chinese food again.

An Occurrence at Chemistry Lab (or maybe Physics)

I spent a week in high school waiting to crash back-first into a cinderblock wall and die.

It was a particular wall into which I expected to be slammed: that of the lab for my Physics class. Maybe it was Chemistry; I never really paid attention in either of them. Same teacher and lab in either case. Absolutely the same hard wall.

Being a fan of the works of both Edgar Allen Poe and EC Comics, it was inevitable for me to come across Ambrose Bierce’s short story “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge.” For those who haven’t read it, it’s available for free from Project Guttenberg — directly and through Amazon and iTunes. Go. Read. Seriously, it’s good stuff.

The idea of experiencing desperate escapes during the few seconds before death has become fairly common, especially in science fiction and horror. “Jacob’s Ladder” is a particularly good cinematic example of the conceit. It and “Occurrence…” tend to be considered horror, I believe because the thought of having your survival be nothing more than a fantasy is frankly terrifying.

It is. It’s a horrifying feeling. Every so often, I’d stop what I was doing and wonder when I’d feel the wall. Would my head strike first? My back? Would I even know, or would everything go dark in the middle of “The Cosby Show”? Then I’d pretend I didn’t know that I was milliseconds away from death and get back to drawing dungeon maps.

At the time I was acting in an adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” for our one-act play team. I was Old Man Warner, for the simple reason that when asked to read for the part I forgot to hunch over and adopt a raspy, high-pitch voice. I’d been allowed to keep my big 80s coif, but I had to undergo special training to transform my gangling limp into an elderly shuffle.

The week before performing our play for competition (yes, we acted competitively), I was worn out and numb from all the rehearsals. I cling to that as the reason I didn’t try harder to preserve my life in Chemistry. Physics, whatever. It’s that or admit that I lacked quite a lot of sense, which would beg the question of whether I’ve actually gained any in the past few decades. I have enough self-doubt without bringing facts into the equation, thank you.

Anyway, I sat with my back to the cinderblock wall. There was another lab table between me and the wall, but movies had proven to me that nearly any injury would induce high-velocity backward flight. Across from me sat my friend Paul, looking innocent as he always did. Between us, an outlet box jutted from the lab table.

Maybe he was bored. Maybe he thought I wasn’t entirely stupid. I certainly hope that he wasn’t actually hoping I’d die. In any event, Paul had found a bit of copper wire left over from another class, and he bent the wire so that the ends were roughly half an inch apart.

Then he handed it to me and said “Stick it in the outlet.”

I did.

Splatted on the Physics Lab Wall

Some part of me still expects that I'll hit that wall any time now.

Please remember that I was tired from rehearsals. Yep. So very tired.

There was a blinding flash and the sound of Mothra hitting a bug zapper. All I could see was a splotchy green field. I waited to feel the hand of authority on my shoulder.

“Mr. Frost,” I would hear in icy tones. “Come with me.”

Instead there was nothing but stunned silence. I heard what came next, but I had to get the visuals from Paul. The teacher had been reading a magazine and seemed uncertain as to who had done what. He stood up, got red in the face, and instructed us (with no small irritation) to stick to lab procedures. Then he sat down and went back to the magazine.

I guess I can thank Tesla for alternating current, but for the next week I fully expected to abruptly discover that my idiocy had done me in.

Incidentally, my performance as Old Man Warner that weekend earned me an acting award. All the rehearsing and training had paid off. Or maybe I displayed a convincing understanding of the closeness of death.