I was an extra in a movie called Cosmic Radio. I did a party scene with Irene Bedard and Seymour Cassel. Bedard’s character was having an argument with her love-interest in the foreground while Cassel’s character mingled with guests in the background. I played one of the guests along with my mom.
A four of us were given blocking to move on a tracking shot, but on the fourth take the director called cut. “That’s the wrong blocking.”
The extras looked at each other as if asking each other how did all of us miss the blocking.
“That’s the wrong blocking,” the assistant director echoed. “We cut it after the last take.” Whether the director had told the A.D. to cut the move and he forgot to tell us or whether the director had just made that decision and the A.D. was covering for him, we would never know, we just moved to our second mark and prepared to emote casual cocktails.
Once the shot started, Seymour Cassel came up to where we were mouthing conversation and he asked soto voces, “Isn’t this the worst movie you’ve ever been in?”
“It’s the only movie I’ve ever been in,” my mother murmured.
“You’re in luck,” Cassel whispered back, “your career can’t anywhere but up from here,” and as he made one of the extras snort a laugh, he moved off to liven up another cluster of human scenery.
At first I thought Cassel was upset about being used as part of the scenery. While the drinks in our hands were fake, he was pulling real beers from an ice bucket. “Don’t you wish you had one of these?” he asked me on the next take, lifting his bottle to mine. But looking back on it, his joking made the party more like a party.
I don’t know if Bedard felt the same way. Her character was frustrated, and between takes she stayed in character. Although Wes Studi wasn't in the scene, he was in the movie. He stood outside the shot, observing something, maybe Cassel’s clowning. Maybe something was going wrong on the movie. Somewhere around the seventh or eighth take, Cassel disappeared. Maybe his six-pack ran out.
|Gena Rowlands and Seymour Cassel in Minnie and Moskowitz.|
But I still remember him from Minnie and Moskowitz, a movie that shocked me when I was a teenage boy. Having been raised on “wholesome” movies, I was amazed I felt compassion for such a transgressive character. I would come to associate Cassel with director John Cassavetes whose aesthetic had no pretense to glamour. I’d spend decades trying to figure out such characters.
But I’ve never seen Cosmic Radio. The scene lives in my memory; I used words to incept it into yours, which is what Barnes did with John Bunny, an actor I’d never seen, and who had no dialog to incept himself into my mind.
|John Bunny had the clown's rubber face that worked in medium-shot.|
I'd never really seen Barnes, either, although I'd seen an actor playing her in Midnight in Paris. The real Barnes had watched Bunny, spent an afternoon listening to the silent film star, transcribed his words and embedded them in hers. Through her writing he breaks his silence. It's a great profile.
Then, Woody Allen wrote her into Midnight in Paris' dialog, so I picked her essay out of Ebert's massive collection. It was such a random process, but it defied death. Barnes listened to the funny man be serious. Bunny was going to die a month later. Writing and photography are part of the resistance. The camera loved Bunny. Not everyone could flow from the music hall stage, through the lens and onto the celluloid, but Bunny could.
|"Wait," Gil exclaims in Midnight in Paris. "That was Djuna Barnes?"|
And Barnes had the gumption to write down his words.
So while reading her essay, I thought of Cassel whispering in the background of the shot. I thought of all the whispers that ended up more memorable than the movie's dialog and remembered the late Seymour Cassel.