The examined life, cinema style

By Chuck Sigars | Jul 25, 2013

Sitting with a couple of lovely women the other day, none of us having much to do at the moment, I livened things up by mentioning that my birthday is this week.

This is nothing new. I’ll tell complete strangers that it’s my birthday, including, if absolutely necessary, by stopping traffic. It’s just a thing.

This led to a conversation about horoscopes, about which I know next to nothing and care even less, and one of my companions, a woman my age, mentioned that astrology had been a big thing during high school.

“High school was a long time ago,” I said, which gives you an idea of what a sparkling conversationalist I can be, and which itself led to another meandering discussion that ended with me singing my high school fight song, with mixed results (more enthusiasm needed, maybe, and possibly a pitch pipe).

For most time frames other then geological, though, high school actually was a long time ago for me. Forty years, in fact. If you’re about to turn 40 and feeling a little old, you should stop that now. I win that game.

Framing our high school years as seminal is nothing new. It’s a cliché now that our secondary education-style socialization has become a model for everything we will do and have done, although I think we’re all being a little theatrical here.

I’m just glad I finally got a decent haircut. I have no idea what I was thinking back then.

But there are things, important and maybe crucial things, that happened during those four years for many of us. I have my stories, you have yours, and I’m pretty sure they align in familiar ways.

Love, friendship, flourishing passions and interests, future paths appearing…you know what I’m talking about. Good or bad, fond memories or not so much, those were important years. Most of us learned some stuff, even geometry.

My memories are mostly good, which probably means they’re selective, although I can still conjure up a few scenes that make me cringe, and there are a couple of things I still probably shouldn’t tell my mother. She’d just worry.

But they’re sticky, these high school years, Post-It notes for crowded brains, cluttering up already messy memories. They can surprise us with their endurance, and their tendency to walk into our consciousness when we have better things to do.

It happened to me this past weekend, in fact. It wasn’t déjà vu; I knew exactly what I was remembering, but it was still sudden and surprising. “I’ve done this before,” I thought, and I had.

I mentioned last week that I’ve been involved in a movie project, a local feature film that needed a 60-year-old actor and settled on a 54-year-old writer who has a very gray beard.

We spent most of the past week filming at a house in Lake Forest Park, whose gracious owners vacated the premises out of a sense of artistic support and self preservation, and whose home began to resemble nothing so much as a house overrun by high schoolers whose parents made a bad decision about going out of town. There was beer, in other words.

And me, bearded and beer-less, as I wandered around during the filming of a series of scenes, searching for my movie wife, looking into empty rooms while a Steadicam followed me around and shot footage from all sorts of embarrassing angles (there are no good angles at my age), it began to feel very familiar.

And so I remembered.

In 1976, the year I graduated from high school and the Steadicam made its debut, I had the opportunity to act in a student film, a 30-minute production shot on videotape with stationary cameras, and in retrospect featuring plenty of those cringing moments.

It felt important at the time, though, a chance to learn some new stuff, and at one point my character spent a few scenes wandering around the campus, looking for people, peering through windows and glancing into empty classrooms. So there it was: I had, in fact, done it before.

There’s something unsettling about this sort of familiarity, realizing that we’ve walked these same steps in this same way. Comparisons are inevitable; joints are noisier, fat molecules have found a new home in odd places (i.e., everywhere), and sometimes hair has vacated the premises in spots very susceptible to the Steadicam.

But I’d also argue that familiarity can breed comfort, smoothing rough edges under uncertain circumstances.

Making a movie is a strange thing for a civilian to do, particularly surrounded by 20-somethings who seem expert and assured and maybe a little overly concerned that one of their actors is a statistical time bomb, a clogged artery away from recasting at the last minute, and comfort helps.

Beer might, too, although I settled for naps on the couch, during which the crew went about their business while taking many, many pictures of me sleeping with their phones. It helped to remember that I’d been there, briefly, before.

Two movies under my belt (there’s not much room over it) is not a lot, but they do feel like bookends, adventures in another life in several ways, shaking the snow globe as I wander toward senior citizenry.

The chances of doing it again are slight, so I’m trying to savor the present and remember the past at the same time. As I say, the past helps.

And the words to the fight song? Nailed it.

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