The Failure of Small Talk

On Sunday I helped Prometheus move some new furniture into his house, and afterwards he took me to lunch around the corner at La Mediterranee in the Castro. We found a shaded table out on the sidewalk. The restaurant was employing a bizarre, tag-team style of waiting tables; every time we looked up, a different waitress was giving us menus, taking our order, pouring our coffee, leaving the check. It was a bright, warm day; the fog had burned off by noon. Across the street, among the lush greenery of Café Flore, there were new outdoor tables with bright red parasols. When the waitress overfilled my glass, I let the spilled water on my forearm dry. I heard not the words but the confiding tone between the two women seated nearby. They were my mother’s age, dressed in layers of lycra and sweatshirts, meeting for lunch after the gym. When Prometheus sneezed one of the women blessed him. I had my back to Market Street, but every now and then I’d glance over my shoulder at the streaming mass of people. I watched an acquaintance emerge from his apartment with another new boy at his side, both of them blinking into the sunlight. I watched cars compete for a valuable parking spot, secretly rooting for the boy with a basket of laundry in the passenger seat. I saw, with a pang of regret, a couple who were once better friends of mine, back when they were both still sober. I watched with envy as they strolled arm-in-arm with other handsome men. I pictured the fun and release awaiting should I ever need to be a boy again, forgetting the cost I paid, if only for a moment. We sat there for an hour, talking. It seemed that all the people walking by were holding hands.


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Last week I was invited to a screening of a rough-cut version of the film I worked on this past spring. I went alone to Dolby Studios down on Potrero Street, and took a slow elevator to the third floor. The doors opened and everyone was gathered in the lobby, munching on hor d’oeuvres and sipping from bottles of water. There were about fifty people there, many of whom I knew from working on the film. But a curious sort of social physics occurred in which all of my conversations took about thirty seconds, and everyone moved on to other conversations with other people. I let my social awkwardness take over and spent the better part of twenty minutes leaning against a table in the corner, watching everyone talk, staring out the window at a slice of the downtown skyline and the Bay Bridge stretching across the water. Thursday is the only night of the week that I usually have to myself, and I was a bit resentful, showing up out of obligation to the director, not especially looking forward to seeing myself on the big screen. My introversion needed its batteries recharged, and later as I watched the film I felt even more the sense of being spread thin, flayed open for public consumption.

Sometimes acting satisfies me in a way that writing can’t. I’ve been lucky enough to work with talented directors and actors in well-written plays, when the energy from the audience swelled within the theater, carrying us along in its buoyant stream. There’s nothing quite like it; the immediate, addictive quality of applause and excitement. Unlike writing, acting is almost always part of a group effort. Because of that collaborative nature, there’s always the danger of putting yourself in the wrong hands. I once appeared in a horrible production in Minneapolis where it was misery forcing myself on stage each evening. After that experience I vowed I would rather not act than act in something I didn’t enjoy.

So I was a bit wary when I first read the script for this film. It wasn’t badly written, but the story itself didn’t quite move me. It was a simple matter of taste. There was a surreal, Cocteau-esque quality to the story, and I’m usually drawn to more straightforward narratives. There was one scene that I particularly disliked, which involved my character, David, sitting on a toilet while the main character, as a ghost, delivers a monologue that David can’t hear. I’m rather squeamish about bodily functions; even bathroom humor makes me a little anxious. So the thought of being captured on film (or, rather, digital video) taking a crap was less than thrilling. But I didn’t want to disappoint the director, who wanted me for David, and I wanted the experience of film acting, so I took the part. I held out hope that the scene would eventually be cut.

Filming the scene itself was torturous. We had been working all day, at the end of a long week, and I was worn out. I sat on the toilet with bright lights focused on me, trying to look lost in thought. “Mikey, can you try not to blink so much?” the director asked. But asking me not to blink is like asking me not to think of a white elephant. I was trying so hard not to blink that all I could do was blink, my eyelids fluttering in protest against the lighting and my exhaustion.

Last week, as I watched the scene playing on the big screen, I couldn’t get past the hard, mean look on my face, as well as the mole on the side of my nose, which I normally forget is even there. There were funny jumps in editing, and the main character’s monologue sounded so trite; the epitome of expository dialogue. It had been hard enough watching the sex scene, which I did shirtless. That was several months ago, and in the intervening time I’ve put in many more hours at the gym, but those hours aren’t committed for all time on film. I was failing miserably at watching with a detached eye, focusing entirely on my insecurities. I made it all about me. I slid down in my chair, wincing at the sound of my own voice.

I cheered silently when one of the audience members, in the post-film feedback session, said the monologue in the bathroom seemed extraneous, and suggested cutting it. Naturally somebody else said they loved the monologue. The entire feedback session played out like that, each opinion canceling out the others. I kept my mouth shut, feeling too raw. And biased. Afterwards I left quickly. I wanted, as I often do after acting, to go home and hide for a while.

Maybe that’s why I’ve refocused my efforts on writing in the last couple of years. Alone with the page, I am free to create my own little world. I do not work for another person’s vision, merely my own. When my work is less than successful, however, I have nobody else to blame. But apart from issues of control, writing is just more natural, for lack of a better word. Writing, as opposed to acting, complements my introversion. I’ve been writing several years longer than I’ve been acting. Long enough that it’s an inseparable element of my character, like a virus, flowing through my blood, resistant to all cures or forms of medication.

I don’t think I will ever officially quit acting. I will probably always hold out hope that some marvelous little project will fall in my lap. I was reminded of the power and beauty of live performance when I was in New York City in June. I went with him to see De La Guarda, a sort of downtown circus act, as if the cast from Rent took over Cirque du Solei. The show had been running for a long time, and even I could tell that its heyday had passed, and it was now attracting a bridge-and-tunnel crowd. But the show was new to me. I was tired, having worked all week at the writer’s workshop, and then coming to New York City to try and decompress amid the chaos of Gay Pride weekend. And when I’m tired my emotions boil just below the surface. For the show everyone was horded like cattle into a large, dark room without seats. Then the show began. Above us there was a low ceiling made of paper, and lights flickered above it while shadows of people flew overhead. Ethereal, pygmy-like music played, as tiny balls poured in rivers above the surface of the paper. The shadows of people flying above multiplied and they spun faster and faster, and then little by little the performers began to tear their way through the paper, teasing the crowd, showers of foam balls falling around them. Suddenly the entire sheet of paper was torn away, and the impossibly tall ceiling of the hall was revealed. And there were performers strapped in harnesses and cables, flying above us. The music shifted, and a pounding, throbbing, tribal beat filled the hall, and then suddenly there were two girls, each strapped in a harness, and they were literally running up the side of the wall, in tandem, their footsteps synchronized to the frantic beat. They flew up and down the wall, zigzagging across and back and somehow never getting caught up in the cables. The music thundered and I suddenly got choked up. I started crying; I couldn’t stop. That happens to me sometimes. It started when my mother died. It has something to do with loss, of wishing so fiercely that she was still alive, so that she could see such beautiful things. But it’s also about passion and excitement; seeing young people doing what they love, creating something physical and crazy and wonderful, there in New York City. I cried and cried, watching those girls race up the wall.

I left the theater exhilarated and even more exhausted. He wasn’t as impressed with the show. But I’ve always been a little sensitive to these kinds of things.

Like everyone else I get older, and each decision takes me farther away from other paths. It saddens me a little to think that I may never do something like that; fly above a crowd to thundering music. I’m not twenty-five anymore. I don’t like having to choose between two passions. That’s the tyranny of choice; all those possibilities of youth, each demanding to be lived. For a while I wanted to be a famous film actor, with several edgy independent films under my belt. But sometime in the past year I’ve come to realize that whatever talent for acting I might possess, I would probably always be a more natural writer.

Last week at the screening I sat at the back of the theater, listening to the audience members voice their opinions. I was struck again and again by their intelligence and articulation. Words spoken by people who were clearly in their element. People who obviously lived for film, who understood good filmmaking and the art of telling a story through images. I was impressed, and a little intimidated. Then I realized that I, too, have my element: I come alive in writing classes and workshops. I felt a little better about my decision.

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In the summer in San Francisco the fog begins to roll in from the ocean every afternoon. It moves in over the Richmond and the Sunset neighborhoods, and then crawls slowly over the crest of Twin Peaks. If you’re standing in the Castro and look west, you can see the white cloud of fog pour along either side of the valley. I never tire of the sight, even after six years. Like writing, like introversion, it fits my temperament.

Last night the fog lingered into the night. I parked my car at the end of the street and walked up past the eucalyptus trees, their leaves dripping. I took my time, the mist cool against my sunburned face. I think of you when I walk up the street at night, as I do when I see the things I want to show you.

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