Monday, April 14, 2014

single premium life

Moira Macdonald, The Seattle Times, 2 February 2013, opens with an interesting tidbit about Stephen Tobolowsky and Groundhog Day; when he first read the script, he thought it "just another comedy, nothing special." He says it changed into "one of the greatest comedies ever created" as they were filming it.

On the one hand, I do agree that it became that. But, I wonder when and where it became that.

Tobolowsky told Macdonald that Ramis shot the scene in which Phil Connors

"shaves his head into a mohawk, takes spray paint and paints graffiti all over the inside of his room, then he takes a chain saw and starts sawing the room in half." It was an expensive scene, and Ramis, after consideration, quickly cut it. He replaced it with a much quieter, simpler moment: [Connors], going to bed terrified, breaks a pencil in half and puts it on his radio. When he said, the audience gasped at that moment, "We expect a crazy Bill Murray movie... and [Ramis] replaced it with visual poetry."

Tobolowsky elaborates for Slate, 25 February 2014:

If you know anything about filmmaking, you know how difficult and expensive that scene was to shoot. It took three days. Everything that was destroyed had to be rebuilt. Paint had to be cleaned off the walls. The set had to be restored for different camera shots. Bill's mohawk toupee cost thousands to make. Not to mention it was near the beginning of shooting, when everything a director does is scrutinized by the studios.

Harold shot the scene, looked at it, and threw it away.

He replaced it with simplicity itself. Bill is about to go to sleep. He breaks a pencil and puts the two pieces on his nightstand. Cut to: Sonny and Cher on the radio. Bill wakes up. The pencil is whole.

When I saw this in a theater filled with real people, the audience gasped. Harold understood the power of poetry and had the courage to tell the story his way.

He's saying this of the director who gave us the poop in the pool bit in Caddyshack, of course... and I feel a little bad for saying that, because I like Ramis, I like his films, and I like Stephen Tobolowsky. I don't think that I think of any bit of them, even Groundhog Day as poetry, though.

Ned Ryerson is on the screen for the second time right now. He grabs Phil's shoulder like they are the best of friends, which I don't get the impression they even were back at Case Western High School. And, he doesn't blink. I've never accused him of being a robot though (unlike Rita). Ned has very little material to work with, or rather Stephen Tobolowsky has very little material to work with here, a few versions of the same scene mostly, but he gives life to a guy who seems at once a force of nature and a lonely misanthrope who in his own way is isolated from the world around him--though he lays claim to having insurance salesmen friends--as much as Phil Connors is.

Third time now--that one is brief. I just turned the director's commentary on, because I want to check something. And, Ramis points out, sarcastically of course, the subtlety of having stopped clocks on the wall in the Tip Top Cafe. Ramis is not known for his subtlety.

The thing I was checking--there are things about this movie I still don't know exactly. Though I have listened to the commentary twice, somehow I missed that Ramis says they did film that bit with Phil destroying the room. I'd gotten the impression before that this was a sequence cut before they even filmed it because it would be expensive. Tobolowsky's story, in two places here, was ringing false to me...

Well, not false, exactly. Factually incorrect. Even if the sequence (or "device" as Ramis calls it in the commentary) was not filmed, that doesn't necessarily make Tobolowsky's story untrue. One of the questions someone asked Tobolowsky at his Festival of Books appearance yesterday was about the detail in his stories, whether he's just always "journaled" and that is how he can recall such detail. Tobolowsky said he didn't journal exactly but that he did always take notes on stuff in his life since he was a kid. He also mentioned that he read a study that said something to the effect that adults who don't recollect much of their childhood probably suffered from some depression and (one of the reasons) they might remember a lot is that they were terrorized--he figures he was terrorized. I suppose I was somewhat as well...

By a cult-ish church telling me the end of the world was coming, by the Cold War telling me nuclear war was imminent, by one of my older sisters occasionally scaring me by, for example, telling me one time our parents who were out were not going to make it home because they were dead. I can't remember if her telling me an earthquake was coming was the same occasion and that was what would kill them or if I am conflating two events. Memory is interesting. And, storytelling like Tobolowsky's--so detailed as to obviously include some invention but so true nonetheless--it fascinates me. I'd like to tell the odd story about seemingly innocuous events in my life to get at some nugget of universal truth. But, so many stories seem to miss that nugget when I think of them, or they are so brief and self-contained as to seem not worth sharing.

Tobolowsky, on the other hand, can make the story of how he inadvertently adopted a stray dog--the story he read yesterday--into an enlightening and hilarious snapshot of something... universal is not the word I want, but it approximates what I want to say. He tells a story so that you want every detail, even specific bits of dialogue--most definitely an invention no matter how factual the tale--to be absolutely true. And, even if the story itself seems simple, shallow, you get a greater depth out of it. I recently wrote about new people coming into our lives and his story made me think of that again. For him--in this case--it was a dog, but you get a sense from the story of how one thing can change the structure of one's life. I wrote in recent... months (I guess) about having a crush on a fellow grad student. But, let's jump into the way-back machine and go a little further. I'm in my 20s, I like this girl, Marie, who works at a Johnny Rockets in Old Town Pasadena, so I find an excuse to go there regularly. I like seeing movies anyway, but that particular summer I saw every single movie that played at the two theaters within a block of that restaurant, a few of them more than once. I made walking across town into my exercise for the time. I altered my daily routine to see more of her. It's the kind of thing I'd like to tell a story about. But then, I get bogged down in details that distract from the point, if I even understand the point.

Phil walks past ice sculptures and, oddly, I am reminded of one day in particular walking across town.

I had just tried to cut my own hair (something I had managed successfully a few times before and many time since) but a mishap with the little plastic length guide thingy on the clippers had me accidentally cutting my hair far shorter than intended in one spot--maybe talk of Phil Connors shaving his head sewed the seed for this memory returning just now. Of course, I had to cut the rest to match, so I had a buzzcut that was the shortest you can do with the clippers. And, I walked to Old Town that day wearing cargo pants--I believe they were dark grey--a tank top, and sandals. I remember the sandals because I didn't often wear them when I knew I'd be walking far. I had a bracelet on as well, chain links, and I had the passing thought that I might resemble some skinhead if not for the shoes, angry at the world when I was probably in a great mood. I had just been writing before leaving home. It was my usual practice that summer to write for an hour or two after I got home from work. I was working a temporary office job that would end up lasting for nine months and I would be asked to leave by a new supervisor who didn't like that I decorated the carpeted wall of my cubicle with chains of staples I had removed from the reports I had to sort as one of my daily tasks. I worked from 7 to 3:30 with a half hour for lunch. I was home by 4 and then I would sit down to write. I was working at the time on a novel called DemonAngel: Crossing Rubicon, the second in a series. The main character, Rachel Doyle, also had a tendency to walk around her town a lot, but she was not out there looking for guys (though she did often find them); she was looking to avoid the everyday existence--

(Kinda like Phil Connors, actually.)

She was HIV positive, her brother had been abducted at a young age by a secret government cabal intent on harnessing his supernatural abilities, but she didn't know that yet. A different waitress than the one I liked may have had a thing for me, but I didn't know that yet. I was probably seeing American Pie that day; it was one of the movies I saw more than once, so I am just playing the odds here. I stopped at Target to buy a CD... I don't remember what it was but I remember that it fit snuggly in my pants pocket as I walked.

Marie, it turned out, was not working that day. Another girl with whom I was friendly, Ariel, was. I ordered some fries and a chocolate coke--they weren't supposed to add the extra flavor to any refill but Marie normally would add vanilla or cherry or chocolate to any of my refills. Ariel did not. The place was empty and Ariel and I ended up talking a bit and there was a lot of laughing, but I cannot remember much detail but for the children's menu we were both taking turns coloring. I don't think she said anything about my missing hair.

Phil's doing the speech now, the one in bed with Rita asleep before him. Since that bit starting having some feeling for me again, it hasn't gone away. I wish I not only could say such things to someone but that I would mean it. And, back in the summer of 1999, I probably wanted much the same. I had a tendency to want the girl I couldn't have and not notice the girl who wanted me. Back in college--the first time--I had a thing for a girl in my Spanish class and one day a different girl in that same class said something, and I wish I could remember exactly what it was, about going to her dorm room. I realized only later, because I was a moron, she was asking me out. There is so much of my life since then that I would never want to lose, and I believe in a sort of butterfly effect kind of life experience, that one moment goes a different way and my whole life from then until now changes, maybe I don't have my kids today, maybe I'm not back in school working to be a teacher, maybe I'm not even doing this blog. But, there have been times where I wished I had not been such an oblivious idiot that day in the hallway. My 20s would have been a very different time, but then maybe I would never have tried writing regularly--even if that didn't pan out into a career, I think my novels and my short stories and my screenplays are a huge part of who I am. They've helped me exorcise personal demons, dispel unreached dreams, and deal with a lot of my, for lack of a better word, fundamental understanding of the universe and my place in it. This blog does the same a lot of the time. I mean, I think now about Ariel and Marie and Jonna (the college girl) and I think of alternate universes in which things were different. I wonder if that other me has kids, if they are anything like the ones I have in this universe.

I don't believe in alternate universes of course, but as Jan Harold Brunvand likes to say, never let the truth get in the way of a good story. And, alternatively, as I said above in regards to Stephen Tobolowsky's storytelling, never let invented details get in the way of the truth. A story's truth is not dependent on facts. The two things are close in definition but far far apart in actual practice. When I was reading Tobolowsky's recounting of that scene of destruction, and thinking it wasn't actually filmed, his conclusion still rang true, to an extent. I mean, to be fair, in the commentary, Ramis implies that the reason they didn't use the footage was because they couldn't match up the shot of the destroyed room to the intact room for the transition into the next day, a practical reason, not necessarily because he thought the scene didn't work. Still Ramis, Tobolowsky, and I all think the pencil breaking scene that replaced it was a far better choice.

Today's reason to repeat a day forever: to find a pencil worth breaking (even if that metaphor seems meaningless).

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