Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Swiss Army Knife of Emotions


There is a splendid self-fulfilling prophecy about the word “emote,” at the absolute least because its first four letters are the same four as the word “emotion.”  The word “emote” is an analog for producing emotion; it is nearly an equation hidden (but not too carefully) within itself.

Individuals who emote, actors in particular, are referred to as over-the-top, meaning they not only show emotion, they show it all over their shirts and blouses, they exude it, they propel it forth in a stream, reminding you of the effect on one individual in a room who has eaten a garlic-laden dish while all the others in the room have abstained.

Depending on one’s background, emoting emerges as ethnic indirect proportion to the number of individuals of a particular culture there are in a room…or a play…or a short story…or a novel.  Your own ethnic and cultural backgrounds lead you to place Jewish and Italian at the top of the list, French next, then Mexican, then Spanish.  This racial profiling came to your mind because for the better part of the past twenty years, the person who cuts such hair as you now have is a native of France.  You once came upon her in an animated, hand waving and hand wringing exchange in French with another woman.

You assumed they were in some fierce argument, perhaps related to accusations of poaching customers or not returning a borrowed scissors, or, worse, some basic disagreement about the craft and science of hair cutting.  Ma, non, Maryelle explained to you.  We were discussing where to have lunch.

None of this is meant to suggest or imply your belief that emoting resides only in what is linguistically described as the Romance languages.  You have vivid memories of some boyhood years when you were living for a time in the small township of your parents’ birth in east central New Jersey.  You were at a farmer’s market with your father.  One man, wearing a gray suit with an ominous red diagonal motif and a tie-less shirt, buttoned at the collar, appeared to you to be alternately jumping up and down while pushing at another man in a butcher’s smock.  The butcher-smock man was saying something in a language you’d come to recognize as Polish.  The man in the suit was shouting in a language you could not identify. You turned to your father for help.

“He,” he said, pointing to the agitated man in the suit, “is asking a question in Hungarian.”

“Yes?” you said.

“You call this a sausage?”

“And the butcher?”

“The butcher is answering him with another question.”

“Which is?”

“I suppose you’ve already had experience with this kind of language.  The butcher is saying, ‘What the fuck do you know about sausage?’”

You are of an age to have appreciated so-called ham actors in an oddly prescient set-up to your own acting career.  Ham actors were those who’d learned their craft well, but who, perhaps too much directed by booze or ego, over-played their roles.  Among these were John Carradine, John Barrymore, Akim Tamaroff, Mischa Auer, Robert Newton, Donald Wolffit, Bob Hoskins, and Nigel Bruce.  Your admiration for them was extensive.  Surely they lived for those moments and those roles when they could cut loose from their more restrained performances.

As you grew into some of the hand-me-down clothing of your destiny, you were assigned the job of shill at a carnival booth.  The actual booth was called a ham wheel.  Players bet dimes or quarters in a manner similar to roulette bets.  Were the wheel to stop on your spot, you could win a tinned Hormel ham, or a pound of Maxwell House coffee, a pound of Farmer John bacon, or a jar of Best Foods mayonnaise.  Of course the wheel was rigged, controlled by the individual who spun it, calling out the suspenseful results as it clicked to a stop.  Your job was to win the ham with such brio that all and sundry in the vicinity would be motivated to wager on the next spin and the next, and the next.  You assured your boss that you’d learned the equivalent of winning hams in the Theater Arts Department at UCLA, a fact that got you the job, but after two fairs in two cities, Visalia, and Bakersfield, you were fired.  “You can’t win ham worth shit,” your boss said, a rebuke that still stings when you think back on carnival days.

There is a bit of a ham, an emoter, within you and, as a result you need to watch to make sure your characters climb towards but do not reach the top, which they then go over.   Response in the act or lack thereof, rather than the words, piled on like some emotional Dagwood sandwich.  This is as true when characters (or you) come to realize they have done something they knew better than to do, but did it anyway, as when they venture into disaster without prior warning.

Reality is like the forest or, for that matter, like Nature; when seen in particular ways, it is fuck all lovely, stunning in its implications, shimmering with possibility.  Those same implications and wonders can put an end to you with no thought much less remorse.  Reality doesn’t care.  The best you can do is care.  Go ahead.  Care.  See if Nature cares.  See if Reality cares.  Some others may care.  Perhaps even some others you want to care will in fact care.  Emoting will not help.  Caring will.  Caring is your entire toolkit, reduced to one Swiss Army knife with a nicked blade.

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