Wednesday, February 05, 2014

"MOTEL CHRONICLES" by Sam Shepard

Photo by Johnny Dark

In theatre work, one looks for the “spine” (arrow of focus and intention) in each character as well as how they converge on the theme through the arc of the play.  All scenes are played in the same sequence, linked in the time of the acting and viewing, regardless of how episodic they may be in the plot.  Marshall W. Mason is particularly eloquent in explaining the “beats” of the action, the moments and their management in order to supply a sort of “music” through the few hours of play.  One beat more intense, another supplying information, and maybe one that shows a transition or change from one mood to another, so on.  “Creating Life on Stage: A Director's Approach to Working with Actors” by Marshall W Mason (Nov 22, 2006)

In a movie, these “beats” become something metaphysical -- in fact, that’s probably the source of the beat concept that doubled the term back to the theatre, though the concept is also very much related to music.  In the beginning of film the length of beats or scenes were dictated by the amount of recording film in the camera.  Now the raw versions still begin with “action” and end with “cut.”  These spans of recording are then edited later.  The practice is to shoot many “takes” -- pieces that might be discarded later "on the cutting room floor", though sometimes the cast and crew might be called back to film a “missing” piece when the film is assembled continuously, but it is realized that there is a bit of information or transition or even symbolism that wasn’t thought of earlier.  The beats, the spine and the plot trajectory are in the minds of the director and editor.  Often there is a sound track of music -- or just sounds.

Actors do their scenes as dictated by a shooting schedule that is often controlled by budget or access, so every scene at a particular location -- regardless of the chronological order in the plot -- is shot at the same time.  Screen acting is often a matter of producing a specific emotion without any grasp of where it comes from or where it’s going.  This is bound to create a kind of dissociation on the part of the actor.

photo by Johnny Dark

Earlier I reacted on this blog to “Great Dream of Heaven” (2002) a book of short stories by Sam Shepard, who is also an actor on stage and screen.  On stage he has occasionally played roles that were written by himself, based on himself, but he finds that nearly intolerable.  More often he plays roles based on his alcoholic, tough, military father -- a loner, a dominator, but with spots rubbed emotionally bare by the struggle to survive.  In real life he has sought warm family, especially a classic “mother” capable of embracing an assortment of characters.  “Motel Chronicles” (1982) is an earlier anthology of short stories, dedicated to his biological mother, and ending with an account of the near-fatal brain hemorrhage of Johnny Dark’s wife, who was the embracing mother of a menage that included her daughter, who was married to Sam; their son, Jesse; and another daughter, unmarried.  One must note the dogs who were family members.  The anthology begins with Sam as a small child, wrapped in a blanket and carried by his mother among giant cement dinosaurs.  She sang.
Photo by Johnny Dark

This pattern seems -- at least in Sam’s case -- connected to the West, especially the post-WWII West in its transition out of trauma into at least the semblance of progress.  In those days, before motels became corporation franchises on interstate highways, they were often little shoestring operations, then became backwater businesses that dabbled in prostitution, and now -- at least in Portland -- are converted to subsidized housing.  In those days, just before the motels (“motor hotels”) there were still wooden small town hotels, and then, in cities, slightly more fireproof SRO refuges for solitary old people.  My great-grandfather died in one.  This episodic trajectory is not relevant to Sam’s stories, because he didn’t see it yet.  Maybe his success has prevented him from seeing even now what journey-camps mean in philosophical terms (Deleuze-Guattari), but he has recorded what they feel like, whether they are in the portable shelter of a moving car or in the more long-term shabby refuges -- trailers or shacks -- in no-income places like the desert. 

These glimpses -- sometimes called poems and other times stories -- are not the conventional narratives we are used to, based on suspense, power shifts, character development, and revelations.  They are a peneplain of emotion, maybe partly because of drugs -- most commonly alcohol --  or maybe because of social estrangement, a sense of not fitting in anywhere.  For him the belonging comes from domestic animals: dogs, horses, goats, sheep.  Not buffalo, antelope and coyotes -- let alone the romance of wolves.  The desired norm is a ranch.  


If I had to choose a “place” that illustrated this, it would not be LA or the Montana Eastslope.  Rather it would be the sense impression I got from Winnemucca where I once applied for a teaching job.  All fences jammed with tumbleweeds.  All people with glazed eyes.  The windy dry.  The paintless buildings.  A shadow land.  Many of Shepard’s  vignettes are accounts of dreams with surreal associations, bits of the lives of other people as seen through their own eyes the way an actor or writer tries to understand -- but then leaving with no attachment.  Sexwork made easy by a lack of real contact.  “Skins” is a one slang term for paper money.



Bukowski writes about this world in this way, though he also lived a conventional life and is prone to philosophizing.  No one I knew in my nomad days ever talked about Bukowski, but now it seems like everyone does.  We knew about Whitman, who seemed more pastoral.  Safer.  When my family traveled cross-country, usually car-camping with a tent trailer, but on one long expedition to Detroit staying in run-down motels, I caught a glimpse.  

These stories were written by Shepard in the years, roughly, that I was in seminary.  When I made long jumps from Chicago, as for internship in Hartford or returning to Montana, I stayed in such places.  By that time most of them were run by “Patel” family members, who made it a specialty.  I looked for cheap rooms and because I was dumb, sometimes mistook hour rates for night rates.  The East Indian desk clerk always looked at me skeptically, but rented me a room to keep from making trouble.  I might be a cop:  I used my cop face.

Let’s get fancy:  “Origin:  late 17th century (denoting a section between two choric songs in Greek tragedy): from Greek epeisodion, neuter of epeisodios 'coming in besides', from epi 'in addition' + eisodos 'entry' (from eis 'into' + hodos 'way').”  So the term was theatrical from the beginning after all.  The Beckett/Kafka tragedy is not like Greek progression to a climax, but against that.  Nothing happens -- just waiting.   No catharsis.  But then time comes along and wipes out the consoling, admiring mother.


As an episodic stand-in for family, the booth in the pancake house is a sort of motel version of waking to a warm kitchen with familiar food.  Sitting with buddies, one rambles through accounts of dreams or thoughts about life or maybe even big ideas of future success.  Waiting.  These are the vertebrae of the connecting spine between Johnny Dark and Sam Shepard as revealed in their recent book and movie.  But it never quite heals Sam’s idea that life is a lost world that he doesn’t deserve anyway.  In the end he leaves the marriage that had seemed to be a refuge, because it wasn’t.  There’s never any refuge, esp. in the life of a highwayman who goes from one “hold up” to another.  He can only relate to the “sidekick”.  Luckily for him, that sidekick has a gift for being at home, content, securely attached to people he loves.  And luckily for the sidekick, the loot of the highwayman pays the bills.  What an American West story!  We read about it because we recognize it.  Or maybe men do more than women.


But it is sort of a secret and until he won the Pulitzer Prize Sam was not mainstream (this book was published by City Lights in San Francisco where he had a theatre presence).  Or maybe it was playing a tough astronaut that made it okay to read his books.  He's the only one who accuses himself of being an imposter.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCCABIqz8bw  Sam reading from “Motel Chronicles.”

2 comments:

northern nick said...

Knockout! This one really shows how your intelligence, knowledge, skills, and ability come together around literature and theatre (Art). For me it's the spoken voice, oral literature performed, in situ. Where the world really is the stage. That's why I love the Eastslope (say you) Front Range (says I) and the traditional communities of which you speak and write. I do see SS loping along, and -- it seems somehow -- I've seen him out there, and also know him.

inkandpages said...

A search engine pointed me to this post. I can't recall what the search was for. But what I read here resonates, no, haunts me. Not only the subject matter (abandoned motels are a leitmotif in my memory), but the references and intelligent writing as well. I find your entire blog captivating. Bravo.