Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Sez You

This weekend, I went to see a friend, Kate Berry, perform at a repertory theater in tiny Creede, Colorado, and experienced a one-of-a-kind moment unique to live theater.

Five minutes into the second act of The 39 Steps. the power went out. Two of the actors were stranded, frozen on stage for maybe seven minutes, first in darkness, then in flashlights, then in emergency lighting, then, even after the power came back on, while the crew rebooted the audio sound effects system.

As luck would have it,
the blackout occurred at a moment in the plot just as the anxious, on-the-run protagonist was impatiently waiting while an old geezer slowly moved a chair across the stage. Twice, the actor playing the geezer, Michael Bouchard, started up again only to be halted by the stage manager's voice over the P.A. So when he finally finished his task, the audience burst into sustained applause.

Afterwards, I met the actor playing the protagonist, Steven Cole Hughes, and he apologized for the fragmented performance. I reassured him that not only did it not ruin my enjoyment, but that when he looked back at the summer, this might be the performance he remembered most. (I don't know if I convinced him.)

This dichotomy -- between one's experience and memory of an event and how others view it -- keeps cropping up as I get older. I thought about it again last night while watching the new HBO documentary about lottery winners, Lucky by Jeffrey Blitz (who directed the terrific spelling-bee doc Spellbound, and the sadly neglected indy feature about high school debate teams, Rocket Science, with Anna Kendrick).

In my twenties, I stumbled into a coffee shop in the depressed downtown of Easton, PA, where there was a line of ticket buyers stretching out the door. I wanted to do a story dissecting the line: who these people were, how often they bought tickets, how much they'd ever won. I pitched it to Rolling Stone, but Jann Wenner rejected the idea, saying he didn't want to read about a bunch of losers. That wasn't what I was after, but I couldn't articulate it well enough to change his mind.

Lucky  juggles the story of a wide range of lottery players -- the ones still hoping, the ones who won and then frittered it away, the cautious, rational winners who nevertheless found their lives upended. They range from a nearly homeless, troubled man whose dreams are, to say the least, limited, to a Vietnamese boat refugee who spends his winnings in ways that will bring tears to your eyes.

What it conveys, non-judgmentally, is the dissonance between what people expect when they hope to win the lottery and what the reality is. As someone in the movie puts it, the lottery doesn't change you so much as it does amplify what was already there.

A different sort of story of experience vs. memory surfaced on this week's podcast of This American Life, in which legendary ad man Julian Koenig tries to reclaim several classic campaigns that have been appropriated over the years by his former partner, George Lois. The story -- reported by his own daughter, a TAL producer -- starts out skeptically, with the 88-year-old Koenig laying claim to inventing thumb wrestling, use of the word "character" to mean "quirky individual," and the national acceptance of shrimp as a food.

Yet as the truth of his complaints accumulate -- in his memoirs, Lois claimed to have come up with, among many Koenig innovations, the industry-changing Volkswagen ad [left] cited on season three of Mad Men -- you realize why he feels so slighted and wants to set the record straight. Is Lois a liar, a publicity hound, or does he really no longer remember the story right? Each of these men experienced their own reality of what happened between them. But why is it so important to Lois, who has built up his own legend over the years, not to cede any creative acknowledgment? To do so would undercut his vision of himself. Hopefully his deluded exaggeration will be corrected in the history books.

I can recall several situations in life where I had a completely clear idea of what had happened, only to learn that other people involved felt the complete opposite. Especially in Hollywood, where nobody likes to say no to your face, every meeting feels like a slam-dunk, and then nothing comes of it. It's easy to lose sight of what is a good idea, or even how to present yourself.

The impasse between who and where we think we are, and how the world sees us, remains a tantalizing puzzle.


Carl said...

In the end -- frightening as it is to contemplate it -- we are what other people think we are. If you think you're a great guy, but misunderstood, and everyone else thinks you're an asshole, then... you're an asshole.

David Handelman said...

You meant "one" not "you." Right?

jeff said...

Julian's a friend of mine and I've heard through a mutual friend some of these claims by Lois. I don't believe them for a second.

As an aside, the writers of Mad Men (or writer) like to toss around the early 60s references to show off their knowledge. I got a kick out of it last year when Don Draper pronounced it "KO-nig." As any baseball fan would know, it's "KAY-nig."