Saturday, 28 July 2012

Steven Spielberg and Me

          Living broke in a small mountain village in Andalucia, I was always on the lookout for a way to make a few pesetas. So when my wife saw a news item that said Steven Spielberg was hiring extras for a film, her ambitions for my future as a star of the silver screen went into overdrive.

          The story said that the famous director had been in Granada, hiring members of “la raza Arriana” (Arian race) to appear as Nazi soldiers in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”.
          “I’m forty,” I grumbled. “Too old for soldiering.”

          “Chicken,” was all she said.
          The next morning we drove our creaking old Seat over the highest mountain pass in mainland Spain to the somnolent town of Guadix, where the railway station had been transformed into Isfahan. It was six a.m. and there was no one on the lot except a few lighting engineers and a guard, who told me that the shoot’s headquarters was in a motel a mile away.

          “Well, that’s that, then,” I told my wife. “Pity we came all this way.”
          “Drive,” was all she said.

          A throng had gathered at the motel.  It was roped off with yellow tape and patrolled by some useful-looking security men.  Barbara pushed me forward to the tape, where a guard looked at me and wagged his finger, windscreen wiper-style.
          “Say you’re in the film,” Barbara hissed behind me.  I did.

          “Where were you hired?” asked the guard, I thought reasonably.
          “Say Granada,” Barbara growled, finger on my fifth vertebra. She was the ventriloquist.  I was the dummy. I did, and to my astonishment, the guard said, “You’re late. Better get to wardrobe.”

          I was the last Nazi to turn up. The other ten were all blond young Germans, already dressed in Afrikakorps uniforms and carrying rifles. I sat down in a chair in front of a mirror, where a Hollywood makeup artist named Fiona gave me a despairing once-over.
          “How long have you had that beard, Sweetie?” she asked.

          “Twelve years,” I replied.
          “You sure you want to lose it? They’re only paying 90 quid a day for this, you know.”

          In ten minutes I was clean shaven and dressed. I had been given a sergeant’s uniform, perhaps befitting my age.  My lower face, long protected from sunlight by my beard, had to be sprayed tan. I was the last to leave.  Someone shoved a submachine gun into my hands. I went out the door and saw Barbara, who was leaning over the rope, trying to catch a glimpse of me.  I walked over. She looked past me, and I realised that my wife of 16 years didn’t recognise me.
          I was hustled onto a bus and we headed for the lot. There were three buses, all packed with costumed extras. Most of these were Andalucian gypsies, wearing Iranian peasant clothes.  As I got on, I felt hostile eyes following me. A man next to an empty seat was reluctant to let me pass. I hung on as we jolted over the rutted road, wondering why my usual good nature was letting me down.

          I found out when we were herded into two groups at the lot. I was with the other Nazis, who were laughing and aiming their guns at each other.  Their average age was probably 19. They spoke to each other in German. I later learned that some of them were on holiday from Dusseldorf or somewhere, and didn’t speak Spanish.  They ignored me. The gypsies stared rudely at us, and it began to dawn on me that Nazis would be as unattractive to them as to Jews, because they shared the same fate in the ovens of Dachau.
          The rail station car park had been covered with sand.  Palm trees in pots cast a little shade from the combination of Spanish sun and the magnesium lamps on towers every few yards. Everywhere out of shot, fat cables crossed the ground, making it easy for someone in combat boots to pratfall. Big trucks with Lucasfilm painted on the side crowded the entrance. A wall had been built between the station and a row of buildings next door. It was cracked and ancient-looking. Two camels stood beside it, unmoving.  No one told me what to do, so I stood as near the shade as possible and looked official, still worried that I would be unmasked as an imposter. A throng of onlookers stood on the other side of a rope.  One of them was Barbara, who had made her way from the motel on foot. I smiled in her direction but she waved me back toward the work.

          Denholm Elliot and John Rhys-Davies were on the set, huddled in folding chairs near a large van. Body doubles for each were lounging with the lighting crew. We seemed to be waiting for something. Then Spielberg arrived. He got out of a Land Rover he was driving with a boy of ten or twelve. I guessed that this was his son, going to work on Saturday with his dad. He had a ball cap on his head and sported a trimmed beard. As he neared the actors, he glanced around the lot.  His eyes rested on me for a moment.  I thought my time as an extra was about to end, but he moved on.
          Things moved slowly. A harassed-looking man with two clipboards herded us Nazis into two groups and told us to walk up and down and peer at the gypsies, who had apparently been instructed to be a crowd in a market. I walked up and down, peering and walking for an Oscar. The gypsies’ expressions were more hostile still. One guy spat near my boots.  I was taller than he was. An impulse to hit him ambushed me from somewhere in my psyche.

          The lunch trailer opened its awning and we were told to break. We queued up and the gypsies broke line.  They sneered at us. They took two meals each and got back into the queue, from where they would begin to sneak upstream. By one o’clock I was feeling like a member of the master race. I swaggered as I walked.  When a gypsy glared, I glared back.
          It took a while to realise what was happening to me—and to them.  We were being driven into role, by the uniforms and the guns.  The other Nazis were really scary; they acted like real ones, and I wondered just how deeply all this fascism was actually buried.

          After lunch I strutted through my role. Spielberg was buried beneath a black cloth on a camera, which I later learned was a TV monitor synchronised to the main film cameras, so that he could see exactly how the shot was framed. We walked up and down, peering.  I didn’t know if I was being filmed or not. A Mercedes pulled up. Sean Connery got out of the back seat and Spielberg and he talked for a moment. I strutted as near as I could get away with, but couldn’t hear anything. Connery drove away.
          About four o’clock, six of us Nazis were instructed to stand near a palm tree placed beside the faux wall. A tall young German was told to pull on the tree.  When he did, a doorway opened to reveal a truck parked behind it.  We did that for an hour or so until the clipboard guy waved us away.

          At five, we were herded onto the buses again and driven back to the motel.  Relations with the gypsy/Iranians had deteriorated. Two of us Nazis sat in the very back, radiating threat, while the gypsy/Iranians swore at us. We turned in our uniforms and queued at a window for our pesetas.  Some of the inferior race tried to collect their wages twice. We of the master race were outraged.
          As I drove us home, I heard myself talking about the gypsies in a way that unsettled my liberal soul.  Barbara scowled. By bedtime that night, I had recovered enough to launch into a philosophical lecture about how external things like uniforms and role play could be responsible for turning a good person bad.  She didn’t reply.  I reckon she must have gone to sleep. When I switched off the light, I was wondering whether I would go back the next day. 

Of course I did. Ninety pounds was a month’s wages in that village.

Postscript: Don’t look for me in the scene in Isfahan where Denholm Elliot is kidnapped, chucked through a wall and bundled into a Nazi truck. There really is something called the “cutting room floor”.


Thursday, 12 July 2012

My Life as a High School Traitor

          I went to high school with a guy who had an IQ so high that tests couldn’t measure it. Or so it was claimed, anyway, when we got into trouble.
          His name was David P. He was the very first out atheist I ever met.  Once in the school dining hall, after collecting $1.50 dare money, he stood up on a table and shouted, “There is no God!  If there is a God, let Him strike me dead now!”

          Most of us were only trying out this atheism stuff.  This seemed serious.  Unconsciously, as a body, we moved away from the table like pigeons scattering in the park. I had on rubber-soled shoes, but that didn’t seem enough. There was a thick silence.  Even the teachers were waiting, it seemed, for a lightning bolt. David P pocketed his buck-fifty and got only two days’ detention.
          David P went around talking about Nietzsche and Sartre.  I made do with Jack Kerouac. He would interrupt history class and spiel what seemed to be intact lines from The Communist Manifesto.  He refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord’s Prayer in home room. After some bullying, I went along with that too. We got five strokes with a paddle as punishment, administered by a football coach in short pants. They didn’t fool around when it came to halting blasphemy in Robert E. Lee High School.

          We went to school as little as possible.  There was a cinema in Five Points where a couple of adolescents could slip in the fire exit door and make their way to the balcony seats, where only a few old men sat with their coats in their laps. We got caught for playing hookey and punished.  David P used to sing the Internationale while getting his licks. We were put on what was called “Garden Club”, a day when you carted bricks from one end of the sports field to the other and carted them back after lunch.
          One day, David P had an idea. “These morons are Christians, aren’t they?”

          “Sure,” I said.
          “Then let’s go to the movies,” he replied.  I went unquestioningly.  Anybody who read Remembrance of Things Past on the toilet could work out a plan to miss Garden Club.

          We were on the carpet the following morning.  The Principal and the Assistant Principal were both there. None of us were smiling except David P. The Principal asked us why we had walked off the school grounds without permission.
          “Well, you see, Christ appeared to me on the football field,” David P said. “He emerged from a white cloud, dressed in a long robe and said, ‘Leave this place and go to a place of worship and spend this day in prayer.’  So we did. Didn’t we, Art?”

          Time telescoped. I looked up, expecting to see enraged Principals.  But their faces were white and frozen.  Probably not as white and frozen as mine.
          I still claim I was more afraid of Jesus than the two school officials, but I’m sure David P never believed me. I got two weeks’ suspension, but maybe I’ll get it back in heaven someday.

          I said, “We went to see The Swamp Thing.”

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Thank Higgs

The news has left me breathless with excitement. They’ve found the God Particle!

          All those centuries of fussing about with theology, when all they needed to do was build a 25-kilometre tunnel 100 metres under a Swiss mountain, spend 9 billion dollars, and scare the bejesus out of all those Chicken Littles who thought black holes would gobble up the world. Undeterred, they kept bravely firing electrons at each other down the Large Hadron Collider until—voila!—the dream of physics was realised.
          The Standard Model rules OK.

          In case you don’t know a lot about the Higgs Boson, a word of elucidation might be useful. It is not to be confused with a species of large grazing animal. That is a bison. Etymologically, the word is not related to Bozo, who was a famous clown. Nor does it refer to the Bozo, a fishing people of the central Niger Delta in Mali. Why wonder, when you can ask Wikipedia: "In particle physics, bosons are one of the two fundamental classes of subatomic particles, the other being fermions. Bosons are characterized by their obedience to Bose–Einstein statistics”.
          The Higgs Boson, proposed in the 1960s by a physicist of that name (Prof. Higgs, not Prof. Boson) is one of six types of these obedient little particles. Finding it moved things from theory to fact. With it, the current view of the Universe and all that is thought to be proven. Not only that—because bosons are what is called “force carriers”, you have a handy way of explaining why there’s any stuff in the Universe at all.  You might as well just call it God.

          I’m as delighted as the news entitles me to be.  My only quibble is with that use of the word “why”. Bless them, the physicists may have confused what Aristotle called “efficient cause”, meaning the direct agent that brings about an event, with “ultimate cause”, which is about the purpose and meaning of an event. In other words, “how”, not “why”.
          So maybe the theologians won’t be in the unemployment queue quite yet, after all.

          Thank Higgs for that.