Here is Jason’s post on the same event. We have coordinated the launching of our respective posts, realizing that we both wanted to write about the same thing (and they would have gone up early this morning if Blogger hadn’t chose today to crash and burn). I haven’t read his yet, he hasn’t read mine. I can’t wait.
Believing in magic means you have to take responsibility for it. Belief in magic does not connote a passive stance, but an active one. This has been a lifelong lesson for me, and something I need to keep learning. Magic is always there. The potential to “break through” into that other realm where things click, and shimmer, and glow with connection, is always there. Always. Yes, even in line at the DMV. Believe me, there are times I cannot access it. There are times I forget that the potential is even there. But when I remember, there’s always a moment when I hover on the brink. Accepting it becomes a choice. I can say: “Hmm, let’s run after that magic, because I can FEEL its presence here”, or I can blow it off, thinking, “Bah, no time right now.” My experience with the Irish Apple employee is a perfect example. I could feel that something was on the other side of our dynamic so I decided to take the risk.
When I talk about magic I am not talking about Hogwarts. I am talking about the moment when the barriers between people, often strangers, fall away. When you are in a pure state of listening and talking, moment to moment, and everything feels easy. I could talk about what these moments AREN’T, but it is a good challenge to describe what something IS, in and of itself, rather than just saying, “This is NOT LIKE THAT.” However, a brief example will suffice. Often, especially in first conversations where people are concerned with making a first impression, the conversation will be a jostling for position (even if it’s friendly). People can get positional, they make declarations (which say, in essence, “This is who I am“), and while all of this is often just a reaction to social awkwardness or feeling shy, there is also an element that seems to be about resisting domination by the others. Declaring your individuality over the group. But by affecting that stance immediately with other people, then that means intimacy is not possible. You yourself have killed it. (And then you go home and complain how boring everyone is and how shallow. Well, if you insisted on chasing after the potential of magic, and not making it all about yourself, you might have found the hidden depths you think you want.)
But enough of this negative talk. I have been trying, ever since Saturday, to find a way to put into words the conversation I had at the end of the night at the party, a conversation involving Odie, Jason, Steven Santos, Steven Boone, and Kurt Osenlund. It seems to have something to do with magic, and without fear of exaggeration I can say that something rather extraordinary happened amongst all of us. Perhaps when I list it out, in its parts, it won’t sound so, but that is often the risk you take when you try to write about Magic. The essence of it lies between the words. Here, though, the words were a big part of it.
There are times when language is used to impart information only. It is practical, useful. Then there are times when you need words to try to hash something out as it is happening. An uncertain language, grasping for certainty. Then there is the deeper language – the heart/soul language – that comes from an honest and true place (it is unmistakable, in any tongue), and it is, in its very nature, intimate, and it requires intimacy in the space between. Language like that cannot exist in a vacuum. It requires participation from the listeners. People talk about the “space” created at special events, a “safe space”, or a “healing space”, and I think a lot of that comes from the energy that occurs when jostling-for-position suddenly ceases to be an issue, when everything you hear is right, and everything you say is right, when what another person says is nothing but illuminating and fascinating, and every word leads you on some journey of discovery. I talk with my well-known friends on this level all the time, but it is rare indeed to find it at a party with people you only know a little bit.
We have Steven Boone to thank for all of us reaching that next level, although I would say that part of what was going on is that nobody resisted his call. There was no one in that group who tried to laugh it off, or joke us out of intimacy, or cut anyone else down for their contribution. We all know those types of people. We meet them all the time. Sometimes we ARE those people. They cannot sit IN a moment, they become restless and must push that moment aside and move to the next.
All of us, since then, have exchanged emails about how incredible that particular conversation was, and how it left a real mark on us, reverberating for days. In a way, our conversation had a similar energy to children playing in a playground. You don’t need to know someone’s entire backstory to be intimate with that person. Playing is the most intimate thing you can do, and conversation, when it’s good, is like playing.
I have met Steven Boone a couple of times, and have always loved his writing. He is currently blowing everyone’s socks off with an ongoing series over at Capital New York about his experience with homelessness (not to be missed), but he’s a smart, passionate film critic as well. I’ve been reading him for years.
I wasn’t sure if he would show up at the party, and I saw him walk into the living room and was excited. We both write for Capital now, so we stood there for a while, talking about my Tribeca pieces, and his homeless pieces. I asked him how that project had come about, and we talked about the history of it. We were awkwardly complimenting each other on each others’ writing, and there was such a kindness behind everything I didn’t mind my own awkwardness. I was happy to see him.
Then, a couple hours later, the 6 of us I mentioned earlier found ourselves in a circle, chatting. We started with 5, and then Kurt joined us – as the conversation was heating up. He asked for an update, so he could get up to speed, someone filled him in, and he joined in wholeheartedly. There was lots of small talk first. Of course these are interesting funny people, so small talk with them is not, “Nice weather we’ve been having.” Somehow Odie and I started talking about Straitjacket (the William Castle movie with Joan Crawford), and we basically re-capped the entire movie, complete with pantomimes on my part (of her lighting the match off the record player). We talked about the Muppet Movie. We somehow started talking about Stallone (Boone had done a great piece on The Expendables for Capital), and his first screenplay for Rocky (not the shooting script, but what Stallone wrote before he even sold it) and how brilliant it is. And I will just say this, and I’ll get off it quickly: I was the only woman in the group, and I am used to men talking over me, if I am outnumbered. It’s a common thing when men get together, it just happens, and I’m happy to fight my way in to get heard, but it was nice in this conversation to not have to fight.
And it could have gone on in small talk for another hour. The hour was growing late, and the party was winding down. We were engaged with one another. But then Steven Boone said, presenting it to the group, in his soft gentle voice, “I want to know, from all of you, what movie …” he put his hand over his heart. “is your heart.”
Odie said, “You mean like a desert island movie? Because in that case, Coming to America.”
Everyone started laughing (Odie is awesome), and Steven said, “No, no, not desert island … but yeah, Coming to America, of course … but I mean, if you had to pick a movie that you think IS your … your heart … what would it be?”
As one, we all plummeted off the cliff into deep contemplation. Nobody piped up immediately. Everyone thought deep and hard. It was like we were on a suspension bridge, high above an abyss.
“What would yours be?” I asked Steven, a bit of a copout on my part, and he said, “Well, I’m not sure. I would love to hear what people say.”
In a flash, we all got very organized. It happened unconsciously. We were standing in a circle, and, without even setting it up formally, we started going around the circle, first one, then the other. We went in order. One person would say their movie, and then a conversation would erupt about that movie, and then we all would subside again, and, together, look at the next person in the circle, signalling, “Your turn.” Steven had kind of become our moderator. Always with that gentleness and support, he kept us on track. I thought about it later: This is the conversation that he wanted to be having, and so he was requesting of us that we do, too. One resistant person would have tipped the balance, one jokester making sarcastic remarks or making fun of someone else’s choice, or demanding that said person DEFEND their choice, would have ruined the fragile suspension bridge we were on. Our conversation had a polite and somewhat formal structure, and yet that very formality allowed everyone to go deep.
It seemed forbidden to question someone else’s choice. Not that I would anyway, I don’t care if you say Encino Man is your “heart”: I would find that fascinating and illuminating and would want to hear you talk more about it. But one dismissive person would have been like a canker sore, or a blister … something annoying and grating, and keeping us from what we were after: connection with each other’s dreams, longings, loves.
Because here’s the deal: sometimes our most important experiences are tied up in movies. Movies are not “just entertainment” to us. They have often handed important things to us, lessons, chunks of ourselves, or understanding. Movies have often put into words an unnamed grief or a sorrow. Movies have said to some of us in dark moments, “Hey. You’re not alone.” Steven was requesting (without really saying it) that we talk on that level. Yes, it’s fun to go the Desert Island route, too, but most of us said during the talk that our Desert Island movie would probably not be the same thing as the movie we were talking about in THIS conversation. Movies can rip you apart, movies can show you a truth that is so blinding you have to squint. Movies like that may not be comforting if you had to watch them for all eternity on that damn desert island. You might want a little laughter, or a little naked boobies, to break up the monotonous days in THAT scenario.
Steven looked across the circle at Odie, prompting him silently to go first. There’s something so accessible about how Steven listens: and it is listening that creates the “safe space”. Odie said, “You know, I would have to say Sirk’s Imitation of Life.” A rustle of response went through the circle, but nobody spoke. Odie said, “There’s something about that movie that just rocks me, it has to do with my grandmother [corrected!], and how I think about my grandmother, and if I had to pick a movie that spoke to me the most it would be that one.”
My mind, of course, had been racing, ever since Steven Boone asked his question. There were times when one of us would be speaking and I would look around the circle and I would feel two things going on in everyone at the same moment: they were listening, totally listening, but also they were thinking of what THEY wanted to say. It’s not that we wanted to pick the right movie that would get the approval of the group, it is that we really wanted to narrow it down to the best choice, the truest choice, for ourselves. So I found myself listening to Odie, and very moved about what he said about his grandmother, and although he didn’t go into details, I found myself thinking about Imitation of Life and imagining the impact it had on the man standing beside me. It made me feel close to him, even though there is so much I do not know. But at the same time, I was flipping through my entire history of movie-going. What do I say?? One of my childhood favorites? One of my eternal favorites? Like To Have and Have Not or Only Angels Have Wings? But … are those movies the REAL answer to Steven Boone’s question? I actually grappled with this in the 20 seconds I had to think about it. It seemed incredibly important to me that I pick the right movie, that I really grapple with Boone’s question on the level that he was asking it. So, no. Only Angels Have Wings is one of my favorite movies, but I can’t say that it IS my heart. Neither is Running On Empty, although I could make a case for that one, a pretty deep case, actually, and for about 15 seconds it was my first choice. But then, in a flash, I knew exactly what my choice was, and I was shocked that I hadn’t thought of it immediately.
So when Steven looked at me, his eyes saying, “Sheila?” I said (and I felt shy, not sure why, but perhaps because when you are in such a conversation you are revealing something about yourself), “Opening Night. Cassavetes.”
That is really the only answer I could have given. I have barely written about that movie. This is the closest I have come, and there’s no text in that post. How do you write about what IS your heart? I even found myself getting a little bit emotional as I said the words “Opening Night” because the effect that that movie has on me lies in a realm far beyond language. I do know this: I’ve only seen it once all by myself, and I was so destroyed that I found myself lying in bed at 3 in the morning literally wringing my hands. I hadn’t known people actually wrung their hands outside of books. I learned my lesson that night: Only see this movie in the safety of a group or with a good friend. I stay far the hell away from Opening Night.
And that is why it is my heart? Perhaps this warrants further examination.
I didn’t say anything more but at my words something very emotional broke over Steven Boone’s face. I don’t think I had read anything he had written on Cassavetes, so I wasn’t sure what was happening, except that something had happened. He said, impulsively, “Okay, I have to give you a hug now” and he crossed the circle and took me in his arms, hugging me so tight. Steven let me go and I said to him, “That movie cracks me open like a fucking walnut, Steven.”
The two of us went off on a Cassavetes tangent, with some interjections from the others. Steven mentioned Love Streams, and he said it in almost a swoon. He just said the title. “I know,” I responded. “Love Streams.”
Odie said at one point in here, “You know, as much as I love Imitation of Life, I can’t imagine ever just sitting down to casually watch it. It always just destroys me. No way do I want that thing on my desert island.”
We were laughing, and I said, about “my” movie, “I am unable to watch it by myself. I’ve tried and I can’t make it through. It’s too close, too much.”
“I think what it is is that we identify so closely …” said Odie.
“We recognize ourselves …” I said.
“Yes. Yes. It’s recognition.”
Steven B. said, “There’s just something about the vision of what love is in Love Streams … it’s so powerful, and in Opening Night …” He glanced at me.
I said, “Well, there’s that whole theme of having a whole other self walking along next to you … a self you can’t shake, someone there to remind you of everything you’ve lost and given up on … it’s just unbearable …”
Steven said (and I mention this because I want to mention everything – all of it adds up to Magic) – “You know, you look a little bit like her.”
Jen had said that to me before, when I showed her Opening Night, and although I wish I could get my hair to do what Gena Rowlands’ hair does … I will take the compliment. I know it’s not true, but I will take the compliment anyway. When Steven complimented me, I heard Jason start laughing (in a really kind way) because I obviously was so touched and flattered (it showed all over my face, I’m sure.)
Can you say “safe space”, where I get to be a little bit vain and flattered in a really girlie way surrounded by men without the scoffing response of someone who can’t bear vulnerability?
Boone said, “Well, you don’t look as crazy as her.” Laughter. I said, “Seriously, give me time.” Also, have you seen these photos?
Then Steven looked at Steven S., and Steven had his answer ready. “Raging Bull.”
Again, another murmur of response in the group. We were working together to create this thing called a conversation.
Steven said, “It has this vision of masculinity – I guess I feel like I could be that – that that is in me …”
Odie said, “I think most men have that. We know we have that potential, we know we have that violence in us, and we have to work against it.”
All of the men in the group nodded, together in their shared understanding of that dynamic. (It was extraordinary for me to witness as the only person in that group who has a hoo-hah.)
It was around this point that Kurt (someone who was completely new to me, I had a couple of really nice conversations with him earlier) joined our group. He said, “What are you guys talking about?”
Steven Boone, again in that open gentle way he has, said, “We’re talking about what movies are our heart.” He said it in a way that had such gentle authority, you knew what he meant. Kurt looked around the group and said, “What did everyone else say?”
So, again with the formal organization we all had unconsciously assumed, we went around the group again to say our choices so far. At one point I looked at Jason: he would be the last in the group so he had a lot of time to sweat it out. His face was CONSUMED with thought. I started laughing and said, “Jason, don’t think about it too much! You already know what it is!”
He was laughing, too, and said, “My mind is RACING right now.”
“I know. I can actually FEEL your brain activity across the circle.” Then I turned to Steven Boone who was next. “Steven?”
He thought about it. He said, “I asked the question not knowing what my own answer would be. I have found listening to all of you to be very …. nourishing.” I wanted to cry suddenly.
I said to him, “Love Streams, maybe?”
He said, thinking, “Yeah, that is definitely at the top of my list. But I was thinking too about …” and my God, it’s my bad, but I didn’t hear the title, and I didn’t want to break the flow, so I didn’t ask him to repeat it. It was a Japanese animated film, maybe Princess Mononoke? Maybe one of the other participants will remember. (Answer provided below with clip: My Neighbor Totoro.) Boone said, “And there’s that one scene where they’re walking in the rain, and ….” He stopped, hand over his heart. It had cut him to his core.
We all turned to Kurt. Kurt is moving to New York this summer with his partner, and is a new friend of Keith and Dan’s, so he was coming to this party pretty much cold. But he said “Yes” to what was going on in this group. And once he joined us, it was like he had always been there.
He said, “I think I have to say Angels in America …” I loved it because we had already managed to have an in-depth conversation earlier in the party about that HBO movie and how much it had affected him. He said, “I saw it when I was first coming out and … ” He then stopped, like he didn’t know how to continue. These things affect us in a way beyond language. We all were nodding at him. Yup. We got it, brother, we know.
There is a nervewracking aspect to this, and I’ll tell you why. Film critics are so much fun. They all have opinions (myself included), and strong likes and dislikes. Of course. They’re film critics. You don’t want a NEUTRAL film critic. You have to be able to know what you think and why you think it, and also how to put it into words. And part of the fun of that whole world is to state your opinion, hear someone else shoot it down, or validate it, and then you take it from there. It’s one giant debate club. But this was not that kind of space. However, you still have the sense-memories of that old vibe, where you say you like such-and-such a movie, and someone will laugh at you (in a friendly way perhaps, but still), or look at you gobsmacked and say, “You LIKED that?” and you then need to build your case. Believe me, I love building a case for G.I. Jane or Blue Crush, or other movies people dismiss. But in a conversation like the one we were having, you wouldn’t want to have to defend your choice, because it was too personal for that. You didn’t want to be JUDGED for your choice. That was one of the things Odie said to me in the emails we exchanged the next day, that it was great to express who you were without any “fear of repercussions” (especially, I am assuming, for men. At least that was what Odie was implying: Men able to talk like this to one another – straight and gay – without having to “man up”, or defend, jostle.)
Then we all turned to Jason and started encouraging him, because he looked so bogged down with THOUGHT. (I would have been doing the same thing if I hadn’t gone second!) “Come on, man, let it out!” “You can do it!” “Don’t think so much! Say the first thing on your mind!”
Jason then seemed to gather up his forces and he said, “Okay, well, I have to say that for me it is the episode of The Muppet Show when Harry Belafonte was the host, and I’ll tell you why …”
Odie sort of rocked back and forth on his heels and said, “Yeah, I look forward to hearing you defend this.” It was so funny. He was gearing up for Jason’s explanation.
I know that Jason is a big fan of The Muppets, and when I had my surgery last fall, he suggested that The Muppet Show would be perfect to watch as I recuperated. I come from a long line of Muppets fans, so it was so fun to hear him go OFF on this particular episode and what it meant to him, and how it changed him, and how, when he was 18 years old, and it was his birthday, he had made his girlfriend go see Harry Belafonte, because Jason just HAD to see him. It was important to him. And you know, looking at Jason’s enthusiastic face, and hearing his specific memories of that episode (all of these people have memories like steel-traps: you have to, you can’t write about movies if you don’t), I felt myself getting caught up in it.
I had the same sensation listening to everyone talk about their choices. I was no longer in myself. My energy was across the space of that circle with them.
When we finished going around the circle, Steven said, “Thank you guys … No, really” and we all said, “No, no, thank you for starting that …”
Then Kurt said, “What are some of the THEMES that always get you guys if they show up in a movie?” We all started to think and then Kurt said, “For me, it’s anything having to do with fathers and sons.”
All the men in the group had a visceral affirmative response to this, all of them saying at the same time, “Oh yes,” “Hell yes” “Totally.”
Odie said, “I don’t know what it is, but that’s such a powerful relationship – I don’t know any man that isn’t deeply affected by movies that deal with that relationship – I mean, I have sisters and I know there was some powerful stuff going down between them and my mother, but I don’t know if it’s the same thing with mothers and daughters … I just know any father-son plot …”
Kurt said, “It just kills me.”
The funniest thing was at this moment another guy came and joined our group, briefly, and we gave him a brief rundown about what we had been talking about, the movies that are our heart, and he said, automatically, with no hesitation, “Big Fish.”
It was such a beautiful and perfect dovetail with the father-son conversation, one of the most powerful representations of it (that last scene!) and we all remarked upon that.
Jason said, “For me, any moment that has to do with pure triumph …”
More nods of assent, and Jason said, “Like there’s a moment in Tin Cup of all things, that actually brought me to tears the first time I saw it.”
Odie said, “Yeah, those moments …”
I said, “There’s a moment like that in The Rookie -”
Odie leapt on it. “Yes! The Rookie! That one scene where he’s told he’s going to the Major Leagues …”
And after all of that … it was time to say goodbye. I had a drive ahead of me, and it was 11 o’clock at night. We all said our goodbyes, not really acknowledging yet the Magic we had all tapped into, and the fact that we had somehow, silently, decided to tap into it. But I felt that bond, so much so that I had to email all the participants the next day to continue the conversation. And the correspondence continues. I made 5 new friends that night. And whatever happens in the future, if I only see them once a year at Keith and Dan’s annual May-Ham party, I will always consider them friends for life because of the Magic circle we all collectively created.
It’s even more perfect because it just as easily might not have happened. That’s the perilous thing with magic.
Nicholas Mosley’s masterful novel Hopeful Monsters is all about the coincidental and the supposedly random, and how so often those two things are one and the same. In it, he writes at one point:
I thought – oh strange and terrible world, you should not be destroyed! There are people whom you can love and who love you – Just let us know, every now and then, what might be an ark.
Reflecting back on those 5 guys and that circle of talk, I think:
I know an ark when I see one.