Miles and Miles of Files Part V: The One-Shot Gag and the Amateur Director

The bit first, and then the story behind it.

I saw this really swell movie on late night TV last night that I wanted to tell you about.

It was an Italian made gangster movie from about 1968. This head of a dope ring is at a casino in Luxembourg or someplace like that when he bumps into this gypsy guy who gets mad and tells him to be careful around the middle of the month. This guy can’t figure out if the gypsy means the stock market or what, so he laughs the guy off.

In the meantime, this guy’s henchmen think that this guy is starting to lose his marbles, so they decide to take over his business. They really screw things up, though, and they end up killing this guy, and it turns out to be the middle of the month like the old gypsy said. It’s really sad here because the guy’s best friend fires the fatal shot, and the head guy is bleeding all over anyway and hopes he’s going to get help, but all he can say is, “Not you, too!”

Anyway, there’s another guy who tells the townspeople where this guy was mayor that the now-dead mayor would have wanted him, the other guy, to run things. This makes the ex-best friend really mad. He gets his friends to help him finalize the takeover of the smuggling ring when the ghost of the dead guy appears long enough to tell the ex-best friend that what he did wasn’t very nice, and that he was going to get his.

So then there was this big horrible gangland war, and most everybody gets killed, including the ex-best friend, who has one of his henchmen shoot him so it looks like the cops did it. It was a pretty good movie, even if it was dubbed and their lips didn’t match what they were saying and the directing was funny and skipped around a lot.

My point is that this shows that people in modern times could write good movies with exciting plots and neat twists (like the guy’s ghost showing up) just as good as some of the dead writers like Shakespeare. Honestly, I don’t see what the big deal with him was anyway.

Like Little Folks, this is the kind of throwaway stuff that I used to write all the time. This idea originated in college, but I can tell from the paper it was written on (the back of an old mimeographed Child Development pamphlet) that I didn’t write it down until around 1980 or 1981.

This is written in a voice I used a lot back then, my version of the Unreliable Narrator. The gag here (if you didn’t catch it) is that he’s seen this film he liked a lot, and says that people today can write as well as Shakespeare, but the plot he describes is basically an updated version of Julius Caesar.

This idea genesised in a college class I took, where we read Shakespeare plays and then watched videos of them taken from a then-new PBS series of recent BBC productions of some of the Bard’s classics. This is the series that featured John Cleese in The Taming of the Shrew.

When I saw Julius Caesar, I liked the universal themes of political struggle, friendship, and betrayal, and I thought that it would be a great idea to stage the play in the milieu of the gangster film. Again, one to file and forget – when was I ever going to direct Shakespeare?

By the end of the semester, as it turned out. It was announced that we had a choice of final projects. English majors all had to write a paper, but the rest of us could write or choose a scene from Shakespeare to direct. I instantly knew what I wanted to do… the scene from Julius Caesar where Cassius and Brutus discuss how Caesar must go, and one tells a dramatic story of how the Emperor God once came close to drowning. And I was going to set it up like a gangster movie. Two guys discussing the matter while they ate in a restaurant.

So I got three guys to do it (the third played the waiter). At the last minute, I lost one of the leads and had to step in and do it myself, reading from a script. The other guy, an English major I recruited, ended up reading from a script too, for reasons I don’t recall.

I remember going over everything one last time before going into the theater to do the scene. The group ahead of me was directed by a theater major I knew, and she was doing a scene from A Midsummer Nights Dream. Her group of seven or eight was in full costume. We were in our college student grubbies, and had a table and two chairs. And real food from the cafeteria for the meal. The Midsummer group finished, I gave some last minute directions to the waiter (I told him to look at the silverware as he laid it out, notice some dirt on one the spoons, breathe on it to moisten it, wipe it on his apron, then lay it down). And we went on.

I announced that we had some casting problems and that the director was stepping in to read one of the parts. What I remember next is struggling with pages as the food was brought – trying to read, eat, an act all at once is a challenge when you have a script in one hand. I remember the Profs laughing, so I knew my waiter had done the spoon bit. I remember walking off stage, thinking about kissing my grade goodbye. The English major was thinking the same thing. As we got out the door, he cried out, “AUUUUUUUUUGHHHHHH!” The door wasn’t completely closed, and the Profs heard it. They laughed.

As a result, when they posted the grades on the scenes, I didn’t go look. I couldn’t. The English major had to tell me.

I got an A.

The group in full costume with the cast that knew their lines and was directed by a theater major got a B.

To this day, I don’t know if it was my vision or pity that got me the A. Perhaps it was because I did it in the spirit of Shakespeare. The show must go on.

And that, dear readers, is my sole qualification for possibly directing my own play this fall, providing the powers that be at the community theater smile on me.

But no backstabbing Italian mobsters in this show.

Seeing this and yesterday’s strip makes me think that I should try and pick that kind of writing up again, but the eternal question is, what would I do with it? File it and forget it so I can blog about it in another twenty years? Put it here? I’ve done that a couple of times in this forum, but people were hard pressed to identify it as humor. And pre-selling it as a joke kind of takes the air out of things. I guess it’s better to be more focused as a writer, but on the other hand, you lose those spontaneous moments that are more about the joy of writing than anything else.

I’ll think about it.

Meantime, this concludes the Miles and Miles of Files series. Hope you enjoyed it. Or at least tolerated it. The series title, incidentally, was pinched from a Moody Blues song – and I should note that I haven’t owned a Moodies album in at least 20 years.

For endless hours the sirens wail
Await the tide that brings the sail
Cling to the walls and close the shore
The lovers wait who walk no more

(via iTunes shuffle play)


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