Thursday, December 7, 2006

Inhabiting the Spectrum

“Este pinche colina!” shouted a voice over the squealing of tires. Someone was stuck on our hill again. I stretched my neck to peer short-sightedly at the alarm clock: 6:50 AM. The barrio dawn chorus.

I sat up in bed and considered the day ahead: drop off laundry at fluff ‘n' fold; buy gubbings for dinner tonight; write up the interviews I had conducted with workforce development participants; mend my son’s pants; write Christmas cards. The last two I knew to be impossible, but I added them to my list every day in the hope that little elves would come in the night and miraculously next morning there they would be – jeans patched with tiny little elf stitches and Christmas cards correctly addressed and stamped. If you have never received a Christmas card from me, now you know why.

Later that morning, as I was making my way home via the convenience store, my cell phone rang.
“You never call, you never write… ” It was my brother, in town to shoot a commercial but MIA as usual on these fleeting trips to LA. “Lou, how’s your French? How would you say: You can take my life, but you can never take my soul?”
At least this time he wasn’t asking me to explain to the Guatemalan police that he’d been attacked by a gang with machetes.
“Vous pouvez prendre ma vie,” I said, slurping a coffee and reaching into the refrigerated case for shredded cheese, “… mais vous n’aurez jamais mon alme. Kahm-sa-hahm-ni-da.”
“Cum sum humnida?” repeated my brother. How do you spell that?”
“No, sorry, that’s Korean. I was just thanking the store clerk,” I said, balancing my coffee on the roof of my car so I could open the door.
“Vous errez…” tried my brother. “How quickly could you get to Paramount studios? I need you to coach the actress.”
I looked at the shredded cheese on the seat beside me and then down at my sweat pants. I remembered my interview write-ups and all the other tasks I had set myself for the day. “How much will you pay me?”
“A hundred bucks.”
“See you in 20 minutes.”

Exactly twenty minutes later, I pulled into the Paramount main gate, giving directions over the phone to my French friend, Anne-Helene. (I am pretty confident about making myself understood in French, but I could unwittingly ruin a whole advertising campaign if I missed certain nuances. Like the Spanish-language campaign for 'got milk?' which was rendered in translation as, 'are you lactating?' Or the Chevy Nova that had disappointing sales in Latin America until someone pointed out that 'no va' means 'won’t go' in Spanish.) The security guard was a cheery chap, smiling and joking as he looked up my name, all the while giving me sidelong glances, as if trying to figure out whether my glasses and pulled-back hair were the grunge disguise of someone famous. Then he took in my dusty Honda with the cookie crumbs and candy wrappers in the back and obviously decided that the grunge was for real. But he did look twice. I entered the parking lot feeling just a little bit glamorous.

Head up, shoulders back, stomach in, I schooled myself, as I strode down the alleys between stages. Whenever I don’t feel confident about how I’m dressed (every day I have to walk past the BCBG mothers at school) or am threatened with the feeling I don’t belong, I stand up straight and smile. It doesn’t fool anyone of course, but at least I do scruffy social misfit with dignity. It had been a while since I’d been on a studio lot. I couldn’t help feeling a little nostalgic as I walked between the sandy buildings with their huge hangar doors. I spotted a cluster of people drinking coffee and helping themselves to snacks from the craft services table. A white-haired security man hovered over the goodies, shooting me furtive glances. Did I look that much like my brother? Or maybe I really did resemble someone famous? More likely I had forgotten I was wearing my 'proud to be queer' T-shirt again. That and my 'Drug and Alcohol Programs' T-shirt has earned me some strange looks from the elderly couple at the fluff ‘n fold. The occupational hazard of being a social program consultant who actually wears the freebies the client gives her. Thank God I turned down that contract for sexually transmitted diseases.

“Epoch films?” I asked a hirsute gentleman, who was standing with a gaggle of grips. I knew they were grips because a roll of duct tape was hanging from every conceivable part of their bodies. He nodded towards a door that said 'Keep Out!' 'Do Not Enter – Filming In Progress' in large red letters. I pushed the door gingerly, expecting to walk into a daze of lights and the whole crew to start shouting at me. Fortunately, the action was elsewhere and the only thing on this part of the set were cables, camera boxes and a knight in armor. “Lost your horse?” I said, taking in his mournful face. He gave me a disdainful look and shuffled off, clanking. There I go with the sarcasm again! At this rate, I’ll never be rescued from my tower.

Following the golden rules of movie production (don’t walk in front of the camera or trip over the cables) I made my way to an island of 3 tall black canvas chairs clustered around TV monitors. “Vous pouvez prendre ma vie, mais vous n’aurez jamais mon alme!” I declaimed to the back of my brother’s head. He turned around. “Aher,” he explained to the startled faces, “this is my sister.” They continued to stare. “Lou, this is The Director, The Creative Director, The Client…” his eyes opened wider at each title, telegraphing the imperative to behave. “Thanks for helping us out,” said the director, and returned to the monitors.

My brother quickly ushered me behind a black curtain where a damsel in a blue torn dress was being dabbed with powder and having her lips painted by two attendants with matching blond spiky hair. The actress turned her eyes towards me, while keeping her face uplifted for the ministrations. The two blonds fell away, and without smiling, the actress recited the French words in a flat accent.
“You should push your lips forward,” I corrected, “and put the emphasis on ‘jamais.’”
“I studied French for seven years,” she said, looking down her nose in a fashion that was indeed very French. Her attendants took on similarly pained expressions. It didn’t help that in the throes of proper French articulation, my chewing gum had popped out of my mouth and onto the floor.
“And you should make the ‘a’ in ‘alme’ wider” I carried on, undeterred. After all, there was a hundred bucks at stake here.
“There’s an ‘l’ in ‘âme?’” the actress asked, looking from one to the other of her make up artists as if for elucidation. Blond hair bristled in suspicion.
Just then, Anne-Helene arrived and quickly confirmed that yes, indeed ‘âme’ had no ‘l.’ I could have told them that the circumflex accent was actually a sign that a letter had been missed out, and as the spelling in Spanish was ‘alma,’ it was reasonable to believe that at one time the French spelling also had an ‘l,’ so technically I was right, in a historical sort of way, but by this time I had grown bored and decided to head over to where three black leather sofas had been grouped into an impromptu sitting room at the other end of the stage.

The lounge arrangement was to house the so-called ‘creatives’ from the advertising agency, who hang around on set listening to iPods, drinking white wine and generally getting in the way. All dressed in black, it was hard to distinguish them from the sofas. The client was typing furiously on a laptop, but paused long enough to register me as I perched on the sofa arm for a chat. I happened to glance up and caught sight of my brother in a booth overlooking the stage. When our eyes met, he stood up with an alarmed expression on his face, all the while continuing to talk into the phone.

After my chat, I picked my way over cables and between lamps and screens to the iron staircase leading up to the booth.
“I’ve got to go, my sister’s been talking to the client,” said Rob as he hung up the phone. “What’s wrong?” he demanded.
“Wrong?” I asked. “Nothing. I was just telling them how I got out of the film industry because it is so meaningless and the people so shallow and egotistical.”
My brother put his head in his hands, but his groans were drowned out by the cries of the extras, who appeared to be doing their best to storm a bright green backdrop, waving sticks and rolling their eyes. The telephone rang. Rob picked it up and clamped his free hand over his ear: “Sorry? I can’t hear you; the peasants are revolting.”

I decided to resume my ‘meet and greet’ tour of the crew. Three gentlemen stood together, observing the peasants. I surmised they must be art department because they weren’t adorned with rolls of duct tape and didn’t have the whippet hound quiver of production assistants, who stand poised like Pharaoh’s slaves to satisfy the slightest whim of the production elite. (Earlier Rob had seen the director eating a pear. “That looks good,” said Rob, and moments later a PA materialized bearing a polished wooden bowl filled with wax-perfect pears. My brother has come a long way from the days when he used to have to rugby tackle me for the last cookie.)

Meanwhile, Anne-Helene had been taking her duties very seriously. The actress was now bound to a stake on top of a bonfire (no wonder she had been a bit tense earlier – the unruly extras were wielding real fire brands) and Anne-Helene had positioned herself in the actress’ sightline, right next to an impromptu hand-written autocue. I watched several takes, but all this standing around was making my back hurt. Time to reclaim my quotidian life, now that my brother’s crisis had been averted. I said my goodbyes and slipped away, back out into the sunshine, back down the wide walkways, past an awed group of tourists on a studio tour, past office workers with ID badges swinging from their neck, and into the parking lot where two men in suits were having an argument as they climbed into a BMW convertible.

“Bueno,” I was at home and conducting a telephone interview in Spanish with a 56-year old Mexican lady, “and did you want more than four-day week cleaning at the hospital?”
“Pues, no,” she replied, “I’ve had seven children, I’m tired. Four days is enough.” We laughed companionably as I wrapped up the interview. After writing up the interview notes, I picked up the sewing, just so I could do it badly enough that my mother would be obliged to finish the job properly once we got home for Christmas.

All in all, a very good day, I reflected. It was fun to revisit the movie world, but more satisfying to finish the day relating to someone whose daily dramas were about feeding her children. But then everywhere on set I saw baby pictures – inside camera cases, as screen savers – reminding me of my early days in program evaluation when my own screen saver read 'Josh needs to eat.' People really are all the same, it’s just that in the rarified stratosphere of fame and fortune and the razzle-dazzle of movie production it is easy to forget. How could that actress, who received $100,000 for one day’s work relate to the señora on minimum wage? I consider it my very good fortune that I inhabit neither extreme, yet get to rub shoulders with both. Now if I could only harness those little elves, my life would be perfect.

Copyright © 2007 Louise Godbold


jilla said...

I started to print out your new addition but I suppose because I am your Aunt I think you are good, Lou – I had finished reading it before I had finished printing it. I liked your second paragraph of daily chores – have you read any of Tillie Olsen’s books about domestic/creative life for women ? Your description of your re-visit to the studios was entertaining – I liked ‘all dressed in black, it was hard to distinguish them from the sofas’. You are still the ‘big sister’ – I would love to hear Robert’s side of the story. I was also glad to hear about ‘young’ nephew Robert – Simon has just turned 40 so Robert will be 40 in February. Love from Australia. A.Jill

Lou said...

Dear Aunty Jill,

now everyone knows I'm over 40!

Anonymous said...

What a good story about the ability of keeping things in perspective. Hope some if not all the $100.00 was able to go towards something indulgent and not a necessity (!)

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written as always Lou.


Dan's Library said...

What's a gubbing? Very much appreciate the photos you are adding to your posts! Jolly good show!