As mentioned in my previous entry, Phil Cousineau read from his latest book Wordcatcher: An Odyssey Into the World of Weird and Wonderful Words (Viva Editions, 2010) at San Francisco's Green Arcade Bookstore on Thursday, May 27, 2010. I had the chance to pose a few questions to him at that time.
* * *Michael Guillén: As you were selecting these words for Wordcatcher—which was undoubtedly a difficult task!—did you find yourself leaning towards adjectives over nouns? How did you go about choosing your words?
Phil Cousineau: I didn't break them down into grammatical selections, although in my own writing I tend to emphasize verbs more and more as I get older. Ernest Hemingway once said, "You have to learn how to kill your darlings." In other words, if you're feeling a bit roosterish about how clever you are with a certain turn of phrase, you'd better be careful because that's more about you being a cool writer than about actually communicating with somebody. In selecting the words for Wordcatcher the first standard was beauty, something sonic, something wonderfully fun to pronounce and to hear, but which also had to have a good story. Not all great words have memorable stories. They all, obviously, have etymologies or derivations; but, I was looking for the ones with stories.
Scrutinize, for example. It's always been a favorite word. I love that hard "z" in there. Well, it comes from the old ragpickers in Europe, often the gypsies whose only way of making money was by finding rags they could sell to the pulp mills who would pulp the rags and turn them into paper. The act of looking through the rags that had been tossed out by well-to-do people to find just the right rag that could be turned into paper was called scrutinizing. When you scrutinize, you're looking really closely at something. Scrutinizing a manuscript: do we publish this or don't we? The word goes back to this tradition that was clear across Europe probably for 500, 600, 700 years. That's fascinating to me.
[My wife] Jo and I got to stay in Ansel Adams' cabin in Yosemite for a few weeks over the Summer when I was finishing up Wordcatcher and one of the ways I chose words was through what they used to call bibliomancy—divination through words—where some of it is conscious ("I better read so-and-so's dictionary") but often it was walking into great bookstores and trusting serendipity and pulling a book off the shelf. That's called bibliomancy and it's an ancient tradition. I did this in Ansel's house. I pulled a first edition volume of John Muir's journals that Ansel had read in 1917 and that had Ansel's notes in the margins. I thought, "This is cool." So while I'm reading this, I came across a passage about the word scooch, as in "scooch on over." Where does this word come from? By chance, John Muir mentioned a game he grew up playing in the north of Scotland called scoochers. According to Muir, it was a game in which kids challenged each other to scooch closer and closer to the point of danger—to the edge of a roof, or to the edge of a cliff—as if on a dare. So I was writing this down with a big smile on my face, realizing that from hereon in whenever I heard the word scooch I would think of John Muir and his friends scooching closer and closer to the edge of a roof on a house in Edinburgh.
But the story gets better. While I was writing these notes down from the Muir journal, my son Jack was watching an episode of The Simpsons on television; an episode called "The Insane Cloud Puppy." It features a hilarious Christopher Walken reading menacingly to a group of cowering school kids: "Goodnight, Moon. Goodnight, Moon. Goodnight, Cow jumping over the Moon. Please children, scooch closer. Don't make me tell you again about the scooching. You in the red, chop chop." What an amazing synchroncity! Here I had the word and added something from John Muir's journals and right there (as I'm writing!) I hear Christopher Walken say, "Scooch a little closer."
In a sense, that becomes my measure for the book. It adds something. You felt a little bit of delight there because I felt it while conjuring up the word. So it's not just about the word going back to Scotland in the 12th century and Robert Burns being one of the first to use it in 1571—I have a few of those dates and facts in Wordcatcher—but mostly I'm going for the deliciousness.
Guillén: If beauty of the language is your first standard, I wonder if those people you reference who "hate" words might not be those who—coming from a Puritanical tradition—likewise hate beauty?
Cousineau: Sometimes poetry has that double-edged sword to it. I read a little bit of poetry every day. I remember something Huston Smith, that great historian of religion, mentioned to me when I was working on my book about pilgrimage. I had asked him for a bit of advice to put into the book. He said, "Yes, Phil. I can offer you advice. Resist the temptation to turn CNN on the first thing in the morning when you're in Egypt or Ireland or wherever you might be." What Huston meant by that was that—if you take the news seriously, as I do, as he does (he and his wife have read The New York Times together every morning over breakfast for 62 years)—you can take that news in and it will completely adumbrate (i.e., foreshadow) your day if you take world events seriously. News reports can overshadow the rest of your day. You can be in a beautiful place like Ferrari, Italy, but if you're following the day-by-day blows of what's happening in Afghanistan, it could—I won't say ruin—but it can make it difficult to appreciate the beauty of the day.
So what's the answer? Huston says, "Begin every morning with five minutes of sacred reading." Whatever that means to you. It could be The Bible in Jerusalem or—as when I was making a film in Chile—I began every morning by reading some Pablo Neruda. Just five minutes can put a completely different sheen on the day. Yet what I'm feeling towards this beautiful writing is absolutely annoying to many other people. That's why poetry is, again, combustible for so many. Why? Because it's an invitation to deep emotion.
Guillén: And what I'm sensing is a frequent aversion to deep emotion.
Cousineau: Beautiful words actually make you feel something. There are a whole lot of words that I call weasel words, which comes from the fact that weasels love eggs. They puncture a hole in the egg with their teeth and suck all the life out of the egg. Somebody somewhere saw that as a beautiful metaphor for certain people—such as those in the recent administration—who have been weasels around some of the language justifying how we got into Iraq and Afghanistan. If you're taking noble, venerable language and sucking the truth out of it, those are called weasel words
These words come up when the culture demands a whole other level of language. When you argue, "You're taking too long to explain weasel word", you narrow the language down. We do the same with names. Robert becomes Bob. Cynthia becomes Cyn. The reduction is almost unconscious.
Cross-published on Twitch.
On Thursday, May 27, 2010, Phil Cousineau read from his latest book Wordcatcher: An Odyssey Into the World of Weird and Wonderful Words (Viva Editions, 2010) at San Francisco's Green Arcade Bookstore (recently awarded the Best New Bookstore by SF Weekly's annual poll). Phil started off by explaining that the book brought together two of his passions: words and baseball. But he added that Wordcatcher wasn't "just a book written in amber; a book that has been preserved and washes up on the beaches of the North Sea, which is where amber comes from. Every day I'm looking for new words. Every day I'm alert to them and they jump out at me. So, in a sense, this book continues to do the old accordion move, like Proust's manuscript. If you saw that movie about Proust, 2,800 pages begin spreading sideways, then up and down as he's adding and taping pages on and on and on."
The other day while waiting for his acupuncturist, Phil picked up a science magazine—unusual for him; he usually picks up literary magazines—but he opened it up to a story about what happens to whales once they die. "Have you ever thought about what happens to whale carcasses? Who ever thinks about that? But, these scientists have been exploring the ocean floor and they've discovered thousands of whale carcasses, which—as they're decomposing—then become food for thousands and thousands of other fish. So now a whole new science is arising around the phenomena of whale fall. What a fantastic phrase! Whale fall."
The previous Saturday Phil was promoting Wordcatcher on West Coast Live and told Sedge Thompson: "Sedge, this doesn't end with just yesterday's dictionaries or Samuel Johnson's 1753 dictionary, it goes on if you're alert every day." Phil told Thompson how he'd encountered the term whale fall and by the time he got home from the radio station he had an email waiting for him from a musician who—after listening to Phil's conversation with Serge—decided to name his new band Whale Fall.
Phil recently came across a "stupendeous statistic" that the American language has just crossed the 1,000,000-word threshold, as reported by the Global Language Monitor. Though the BBC reports this statistic remains controversial, the 1,000,000th entry to the dictionary is "Web 2.0". "Not the most mellifluous," Phil admits, "which comes from the Greek meli for honey—so it's 'words as sweet as honey'—but, it is topical. In some ways it does make perfect sense."
In order for that statistic to become vivid, Phil suggested the French language by contrast. "In all the years I've lived in France," Phil said, "I'd have these debates with my French friends about what's the most beautiful language in history and the French, of course, will defer to no one in terms of the beauty of the language; but they've also said, 'There are far more words in French, it's a sophisticated and more historical language.' " But, by contrast to 1,000,000 American words, the French language only has 250,000 words, according to the Académie française who, Phil guaranteed, "will resist whale fall because it's way too English." Words like "hot dog" and "laptop" have been kept out of their language and require French translations. If you put up an English sign in a Paris window, for example, police will take it down and replace it with something written in French. German has roughly a half million words. Chinese has 86,000 words. "So this gives you a sense of the width and the breadth of the language and the fact that immigration—despite the ongoing debate, which is not new, we've had this debate for at least 150 years—has fed the language like tributaries into a river." English has been fed by words like toboggan, which comes from the Algonquin language, and amok, which comes from Malaysia (and which Amir Muhammed orginally brought to my attention). Inversely, Wordcatcher includes a whole section on untranslatable words; words that require a full paragraph to explain in English.
In The Unbearable Lightness of Being Milan Kundera used the word litost for a depth of sorrow that reaches down through the ages, down into history—not just personal sorrow—but a deep, historical sorrow that comes from the ground up. Phil relayed that the Czech say Americans are too young to feel this; but, as Urban Dictionary suggests, Americans can certainly afford to wear the word.
As expansive and liberating as all these nuances to words might be, when Phil optioned Wordcatcher he was contractually bound to reduce the 1.2 million words of the English language down to 300 pages. Even if that averaged out to 300 words, "where would you start?"
The question of where to start, where to begin, reminded Phil of a painter friend John O'Brien who—after painting for years and years and years in complete anonymity—turned 40, secured his first exhibition in Baltimore, and sold two of his paintings to Baltimore Oriole Cal Ripken. At the reception he noticed a beautiful young woman who began flirting with him—"Flirt is a word in the book," Phil mentioned as an aside, "from birds that 'flit' from branch to branch to branch to branch"—and this young woman came up to O'Brien and said, 'John, how long have you been painting? You're such a wonderful painter.' He looked at her and he said, 'I just turned 40. I've been painting for 40 years.' "
That's an old answer, Phil qualified. Writers will say that, if you're 50, you've been writing for 50 years. "In other words, you've been paying attention to the art form for as long as you can remember." When this young woman heard O'Brien say that, she responded, "I think I'll do abstracts." Which is to say that she didn't want to put in the requisite 40 years of apprenticeship.
In similar ways Wordcatcher began in Phil's own childhood growing up throughout the 1950s-60s in Detroit in a house where books were read outloud. Though his own 14-year-old son Jack would find this incomprehensible, when his family's old B&W Philco television broke down, they wouldn't fix it for two or three years. They didn't need it. There were only three stations anyway and one was from Windsor, Canada. They had the radio and they read books outloud. If Phil or his siblings heard a word they didn't understand, their father encouraged them first of all to admit it and then directed them to look it up in their "hefty edition of The Random House Dictionary, whose covers were always open like the wings of a giant bird." Paying attention to words got into Phil's bloodstream early.
Phil has taken notes in the back of virtually every book he's ever read, averaging 150-200 books a year, consciously listing unfamiliar words and then looking up their definitions in the dictionary. Then he tries to use the word. Brenda Knight, Associate Publisher at VIVA Editions, asked Phil one night over drinks at Toscas in North Beach what he wanted to write next? Phil already knew that it would be a book he had in a sense been writing his entire life: a book on words. That first night Phil went home from Toscas and wrote 40 pages, simply by dipping into a couple of journals where he'd listed delicious words he wanted to write about. But it wasn't just the etymology of the words that Phil wanted to write about. Most reference books are fairly dry when they go into the Latin and Greek etymologies and—though some reference books engage the most eccentric and strangest words in the language, which can be quite fun—he wanted to do something a little different. Each entry in his book begins with his own italicized definition because after reading many reference books, he's learned there's not a lot of consensus between them. He would have thought there would be some professional convention where everyone got together to reach a compromise; but, then again, that really wouldn't make any sense. Compare Websters to Johnson's, for example, there's a world of difference between those two dictionaries. Webster made an ardent attempt to separate American English from British English, changing spellings as well as intonations, alert to the slight changes in definition that had already been around in America for 100 years. Now we'd probably need to throw out half of Websters' definitions for being racist or limited. The point being that the English language is constantly moving and in flux.
It's dawned on Phil during his book tour for Wordcatcher—22 events over six weeks—that, "if we're going to save good, independent book stores, if we're going to save newspapers and magazines and radio stations, it doesn't begin with the abstract, 'you gotta love books'—that's a little too abstract for me—it begins with words. Kerouac once said that a writer is someone who likes to hang around words. Ezra Pound once said, 'A great book is like a ball of light that you hold in your hand.' Where does the light come from? The light comes from the beautiful words inside."
Phil tells a story in Wordcatcher of poet W.H. Auden who refused for decades any offer to teach poetry. He didn't want anything to do with the Academy. He didn't like being in public. All he wanted was the private life of his writing. Finally, he agreed to teach and had hundreds of supplicants, so to speak, clamoring to enroll in his class; but, he could only choose 20 out of all them. Later he was asked how he came to his decision. Did these young writers provide samples of their poetry? No, Auden answered, he chose the 20 who clearly loved words. Phil admired the elegance of Auden's response. Someone who teaches writing can work with a young writer who maybe doesn't quite have their chops just yet, is still working on craft and technique, but who begins with a passion for hanging around words. A teacher can do something with a student like that, in contrast to someone who may have a God-given talent but doesn't really like words, like certain would-be authors in unnamed North Beach cafes. By "not liking words" Phil means those "bass-ackwards" writers in North Beach cafés looking for book deals without having written a book. He's overheard litanies of conversations among writers in North Beach that completely revolve around who's getting book deals and who isn't. Or who won't bother with rewriting because "it doesn't matter anyway." These are not people who love words.
Phil admitted he's probably one of the last of a generation for whom having his knuckles rapped with a ruler is not a metaphor. He went to a French Catholic school where students were actually rapped on the knuckles if they mispronounced a word or weren't prepared with their homework. Such a severe discipline nonetheless generated a respect and a love for words, books and storytelling, which is what Phil hopes to pass on through Wordcatcher. Phil's son Jack is about to graduate from eighth grade at Cathedral School for Boys and it's of particular pride to Phil that one of the other fathers suggested that all 34 boys in Jack's graduating class be given a copy of Wordcatcher as a gift to send them off into high school, into life. "Isn't that beautiful?" Phil beamed. "It's a fantastic thing that he's offered to do. Some of them might just throw it into the back of the station wagon, we don't know, but at least some of them will remember for the rest of their life that someone thought enough about words and books and the fact that you do need to communicate no matter what field you go into: business, computers, religion, sports, whatever it might be. It behooves you to know how to use delightful words."
Wordcatcher begins with an epigraph by essayist Lewis Thomas who wrote a book on word origins called Et Cetera, Et Cetera: Notes of a Word-Watcher. Cousineau quotes Thomas: "Every word, without exception, is an enchantment, a wonder, a marvel...." Right away Wordcatcher is into one of the most mysterious aspects of words and language. Thomas uses the word "enchantment" but another word for enchantment in old Scottish is glamour. Originally, glamour meant "spell" (where it's used as such in the recent vampire mythos of the Twilight and True Blood franchises). The raison d'état, the motivation, behind 99% of contemporary advertising is about casting a spell—not about telling the truth—about the product they're about to sell us. Phil sources the word glamour to grammar because grammar was a talent and ability practiced and known by very few people up until the rise of mass education with the Germans in the late 18th century, followed by the English, then the French. Up until that period the only people who knew how to read and write were the clergy and the scholars; a miniscule portion of any population. Those who could read or write had an ability to enchant everyone else. Out of the aura of learning came grammar and the subsequent elision that evolved into glamour, which comes down to us as a word that accompanies marketing: something must be made glamorous in order to help sell it.
Phil describes his book Wordcatcher as being written in a discursive way, as if the reader were riffling through the pages of a dictionary. Phil gave one of the first printed copies to his mother Rosemary and—when she read his description of how his father Stanley used to pull down his favorite books from the family's oak book shelves to read aloud—she recalled how for the 17 years that they lived in that house her sisters and neighbors criticized her for "showing off", feeling the book shelves were ostentatious. They suggested the books be hidden away in the hallway closets. Though disturbing to consider in retrospect, Phil is at the same time proud that his parents refused such advice and kept the books on their shelves. These were books that weren't just there for show.
Phil's friend Eric Johnson, who designed Deadlines (Phil's first volume of poetry), used to be one of the buyers at Black Oak Books in Berkeley and he told Phil that at least once a month he would get a phone call from an interior designer who would say, "Eric? We need five yards of books." Five yards! Because they were building book shelves in someone's home who didn't care what the books were as long as they had nice looking spines. These were books that were meant to be looked at and never read; but, in the Cousineau household, books were actually read. Phil's father's knowledge of words was encyclopedic—made up of the Latin cyclo, "circle", and paideia, "learning" (pedagogic comes from the same root)—referencing a "well-rounded learning", not just an intellectual learning that makes you smart as a whip. The word encyclopedia reminds Phil of the anecdote told by the sons of the famous ballplayer Yogi Berra who—when asked for an encyclopedia—didn't know what his sons meant but picked up on cyclo and thought they were asking for a bicycle. He responded, "I had to walk to school and so do you!"
Another category of words in Wordcatcher are the TBR words, i.e., "to be revived". One such word, which Phil first heard when his parents took him to see a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream in Stratford, Ontario, was seeksorrow: someone who looks for trouble or sees sorrow everywhere. Phil considers seeksorrow "one of the top ten words that need reviving. Who hasn't felt oneself to be one's own worst enemy? We've all know someone, perhaps a co-worker, who seems to go looking for trouble, but one word is swifter than five." Certain words have disappeared for a while because we haven't needed them; but, they come back when they're needed again.
Another such word would be bedswerver, which Phil encountered—again—in Samuel Johnson's dictionary. He forgot about it until the recent media flurry around a certain famous golfer in our culture who had been accused by a dozen or two dozen women of—as the euphemism goes—philandering, which is an okay word that has its own fairly noble origin; but, philandering is such a dull word to describe what was actually happening. Shakespeare's bedswerver, on the other hand, doesn't mince meanings whatsoever. Originally, the word referred to women who behaved this way; but, Johnson tracked down its male equivalent: bedpresser, a word that allows you to almost see the indentation in the mattress.
Then there's lucubrate, a word Phil found early and has loved all his life. It has the same source as the word lucifers, one of the great old words his grandmother used for matches. It comes from the Latin lucere, "to shine" or "to bring forth light" and refers to people who work by candlelight. An admitted "nightcat" his entire life, prone to writing when others are asleep, lucubrate still applies to Phil even though he hasn't worked by candlelight since he lived in Ireland without electricity. Lucubrate falls within the domain of someone who "burns the midnight oil." So before Thomas Edison invented electrical lights in the 1890s and before we could flip a switch, people lucubrated.
"This is how my life as a wordcatcher began," Phil reads from his book. "Word by word, book by book, play by play, movie by movie, road by road, café by café, pub by pub, conversation by conversation, dictionary by dictionary." In that spirit it's as if Phil has been following out his ancestry, which goes back to the French voyageurs in Canada. His grandfather Charlemagne Cousineau used to travel by canoe six months a year up and down the great rivers of Canada, fishing for trout, and hunting wild fox and so on. In his grandfather's spirit, Phil looked up the word derivation, which he felt to be the impulse informing Wordcatcher. Derivation was coined by Samuel Johnson in his first famous dictionary of 1753 and it means "to follow back to the source." It goes back to the tradition of taking canoes upstream to a river's source (de, "from", rivus, "stream"). Dr. Johnson further defined derivation as "the tracing of a word from its origin."
Derivation also reminded Phil of Mort Rosenblum's The Secret Life of the Seine wherein Rosenblum went back to the source of the Seine and determined that it flowed from a bubbling spring in the southwest of France flanked by two stone goddesses. This bubbling spring is what becomes one of the mightiest rivers of France, the Seine, and serves as one of the metaphors in Wordcatcher. "Every word I've uttered in the last 15 minutes, every word you've uttered today, has a history and—if you want to get in a boat, paddle a canoe—you can go back to the origin and there will be a bubbling spring there. Often exciting. Sometimes the origin is lost in the mists of history; but, it will add to the depth of your understanding of language."
"In a word," Phil continued, "this book of weird, wonderful and wild word stories is a game of catch. When I throw a baseball around with my son Jack at the Joe Dimaggio Playground in North Beach, it's a game of give and take, each of us throwing the ball so that the other can actually catch it." This wordcatching is one of the most important ideas Phil is trying to get across in his eponymously-entitled book. After reading hundreds of word origin etymology books, Phil discovered some that were "so cleverer-than-thou"—or as Herb Caen used to say, "Berkeleyer-than-thou"—where one tries to one-up someone else: "Oh, you don't know this word? You moron." Or he came across those who were performing a stunt, like reading the whole Oxford English Dictionary over the course of seven years. Instead, Phil has tried to write these words as if he and his reader are playing a game of catch and making it beautiful and simple enough so that the reader might want to actually use some of these words, or at least recognize them with a certain amount of satisfaction and pride. "Call if the sport of a wordcatcher," Phil emphazies, "playing catch with the ball of language that's been thrown to me by all the writers and storytellers who came before me. ...No one captured this joyous jolt better than Shakespeare when he wrote in King John: 'Zounds! I was never so bethump'd with words!' "
Zounds is a funny word—it can make you laugh—but it also has a mysterious origin. There were centuries in which people could not publically pronounce the name of God. You had to come up with euphemisms or you would be in serious trouble with the Church. This is, of course, happening even now with another major religion of the world where a person can actually be killed for making cartoons of God, as happened to Dutch film director Theo van Gogh. One expression in the Middle Ages was "I swear by God's wounds", which became an epithet: "What I'm saying is so true, I swear on God's wounds." There came a time when you couldn't say that aloud anymore and "God's wounds" was truncated or elided down to zounds.
The same thing with gossip. You would say, "You'll never guess, but I swear that James Cameron has just inked the deal for the sequel to Avatar, I swear on God's lips himself." "God's lips" becomes gossip.
Along with the mysterious origins to such ordinary words, Phil has included some rather extraordinary words in his collection, namely floccinaucinihilipilification, which is the longest word in the dictionary by just a few letters over what he had been taught in his French Catholic school as the longest word: antidisestablishmentarianism. Floccinaucinihilipilification refers to something that has been considered a trifle, unworthy, or useless. Phil has actually seen this word in print a few times, used by such writers as William Safire. George Plympton used it once to describe an antique dealer who was selling trifles for great prices.
So there are musical words and there are fun words that you can bring out at dinner parties. When his son Jack hears people's stomachs gurgling, he says, "Pop, you can hear their borborygmi!" Borborygmus, the word for stomach growl, comes from Old Greek. And if you wonder how the word can possibly be used, consider Vladimir Nabokov who wrote in his novel Ada: "All the toilets and water pipes in the house had been suddenly seized by borborygmic convulsions." Maybe it was a challenge he set himself? Maybe a bar bet? But if you've ever lived in a brownstone in New York with all their old radiators, they do indeed sound like grandpa's stomach growling at Thanksgiving dinner.
So though there are instances where such fancy words can occasionally be used, more often ordinary words are just as dazzling on another level. For example, a simple word like accolade, which refers to a few minutes of praise or—if it's at the Oscars®—minute after minute after minute after minute of backslapping. The origin of accolade comes from the Medieval custom of dubbing someone with a sword to turn him into a knight. Apparently in the dubbing ceremony—which is related to the Latin word for the neck, collum—the blade was supposed to nearly nick the neck. Not only does, let's say, Queen Elizabeth have the power to cut your head off, but she can dub you on the shoulder nearly nicking your neck and name you a knight of the realm instead. What's happened with the word accolade has been happening since "God was in diapers" (as Alan Watts used to say). The word can survive but very often the associations around it are no longer needed. We still needed a good-sounding word to describe praise but we didn't need the whole dubbing associations. Those dropped out even as we held onto the word.
The same thing happened with the word baffle, which is from about the same period in Medieval England. Baffle referred similarly to a knight of the realm who later betrayed the Crown. If he was found guilty of betrayal, the knight was hung upside down by his ankles in front of the Tower of London for a few days so that the rest of London could mock him as they passed by. This was called the baffling torture. It referred to being turned upside down. After a while when that form of torture stopped and one could actually criticize the Crown without being arrested and turned upside down, the word was kept because it still referred to something important. In all of the words that have survived there is a seed to the word that is needed generation after generation. Nowadays, we say something like, "I'm baffled; I don't understand how someone like George Bush was re-elected." Or: "I don't understand how Barry Bonds continued to play after taking steroids." Whatever it happens to be. When you feel turned upside down, there is something atavistic in there. You use that word baffle and immediately everybody knows what Roy Blunt calls "a sonicky truth to the word" where it rings true to the ear even if you don't quite know the dictionary definition.
As someone who loves mythology, Phil learned early on that—if you want to know the deep truths of the psyche—you need to go back to mythic antecedents. This plays into his love for the etymological roots of words, as well as his interest in where artists begin their creative lives. When did Van Gogh first want to paint? When did Beethoven first want to compose? Phil has always had an interest in the beginning of things. So it probably shouldn't be any surprise that he sought out the first published word. Over 25 years ago, he clipped out a small two-line bullet from one of L.M. Boyd's newspaper columns. Boyd was serialized in hundreds of newspapers across the country for years right up into the '70s, probably into the '80s, and was a great fount for assembled trivia—which, incidentally, comes from tri via, "three roads", and refers to what you talk about when you come to the crossroads—and he wrote that the first recorded word, probably in Herodotus, is bekos, not only the most famous Phrygian (later Phoenician) word, but some say the very first word period. According to Herodotus, bekos meant bread.
Another thing Phil does in Wordcatcher is to provide companion words for his main selections. Bridging from bekos to companion, Phil queries what the connection might be? Companion comes from the Latin com, "with others", and panis, "bread" and by extension "someone to share bread with." Phil grasped the breadth of this connection—bread, breadth, same word right?—in the late '90s when he was leading a tour in Paris. He had the opportunity to guide his group to one of the most famous bakeries in all of Europe and the oldest bakery in Paris: Poilâne's on the rue du Cherche-Midi. Lionel Poilâne was still alive then. His great great grandfather had founded the bakery and his father had baked bread for Picasso, Chagall and Matisse when they were young and couldn't afford a loaf of bread. They would trade him paintings for bread, which can be seen in the back rooms at Poilâne's. Lionel Poilâne led Phil and his group down into the bowels of the 16th century building that houses the bakery where they saw the tremendous ovens baking bread for people all around the world, including Barbra Streisand who has french bread flown in by FedEx every morning to her house in Malibu, as does Woody Allen in New York.
Inviting someone into your home for a meal frequently seals a friendship. To cook for someone is an important ritual of hospitality. And the placing of the bread on the table even before the first course is of utmost importance—something shifts in the friendship and in the entire room—as this intimate tradition which goes back many years is once again evoked. The intimacy remains in the word companion.
Another good con word would be contemplate, which means to build a temple inside of yourself. Right around the time of the Enlightenment with the rise of individualism came this notion that—not only can you go into the temple—but you can find the temple inside of yourself. The Greek gave one sense of this but it was lost during the Dark Ages. Harold Bloom quotes Shakespeare as the birth of the Western individual and writes that Shakespeare personalized so many different characters by way of their personal pursuits. So now it's not enough just to go to the cathedral, or the mosque, or the temple; now comes another injunction: you can build an interior life at home. You can pray at home. You can commune in your own way with whoever you believe is God. Out of that period comes the word contemplate, which is different than meditate. Meditation is about letting thoughts pass through your mind's attention without identifying with them. Meditation has more of an Eastern cast while contemplation is a more Western notion: "I'm going to contemplate my relationship with God. I'm going to deeply contemplate my relationship with my wife or my friends."
And then there's conversation. To define this word, Phil enacts an exchange with me: "Michael, we haven't seen each other for months. Let's not just go to a café again; let's take a walk in Golden Gate Park or let's take a walk along the Embarcadero." When you walk side by side with someone, maybe you might walk in silence for a while—there are people who are so close you don't even need to talk—but, generally speaking, over the millennia you walk shoulder to shoulder with someone and you talk. That's the origin of conversation: con verso, to make a round with someone. So you say, "Let's walk out to the waterfall and come back again. Let's walk to the next town and then back again." Out of that walking and talking comes our whole idea of conversation.
Phil ended his reading with "a good San Francisco word": shanghai. This was a word Phil had to look up when his father read it aloud from Jack London's The Sea Wolf. It means "to kidnap and secret away aboard a ship." Shanghai was a clandestine word conjured up in San Francisco's Chinatown and North Beach during the Gold Rush years. The story goes and goes and goes that ships docking in San Francisco Bay had usually been away at sea for many many years, leaving their crews depleted. Many of them died. Some of them just jumped ship in places like Argentina or Valparaiso, Chile—which is why we have a Valparaiso Street in North Beach; a reflection of San Francisco's connection to Chile, the last stop for boats from Boston around Cape Horn before they got to California—and the solution for having the crews depleted for many a captain was to walk from the wharf up Broadway to Grant Avenue through North Beach into Chinatown where they stopped at bars called deadfalls. In collusion with the bar owners, the captains plied sailors with free drinks, often with a "Mickey Finn" dropped in for good measure. These unsuspecting Jack-Tars (i.e., sailors) were then led to trap doors that dropped them into perilously dark basements, where they were bound and tied until the next morning. Then, usually still drugged, they were frog-marched (a great old word!) to the harbor. As if in a bad movie, the hungover sailors woke up days later to find themselves halfway to Shanghai.
Extolling the virtue of the writer who hunts out the right word, Phil recalled Mark Twain who said that the difference between the right word and the wrong word is the difference between fire and firefly. The word you want is the fire itself not the firefly that mimics the fire. The exact word gives power. Goethe once said that we could spend our whole life floating down river with just the words we need; but—once you find the word that you've been looking for—it's like a raft that appears to a drowning man.
One of the surreptitious agendas of Wordcatcher is the rescuing of so many Irish words that have never been given real credit. For example, words like phony or smithereens, if you look them up in traditional dictionaries—especially the OED—what you'll find is "o.o.o.", which means "of obscure origin." Either the English knew all along that these words were of Irish origin and they didn't want to admit it because of political reasons, or it just took several generations to ferret out these meanings. A simple word like phony goes all the way back to the tinkers—what they called "the traveling people"—in Ireland who would gather on O'Connell Bridge in the heart of Dublin to try to sell phony gold rings to Dubliners or the occasional tourist that came by. Many of these traveling people were forced to leave Ireland during the Potato Famine and ended up afterwards in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and so on, and some of them still had to try to make it in America so they continued to sell phony gold. Fáinne, ring, became phony.
There's a lot of great Scottish words in Wordcatcher as well. Phil offered an anecdote of when he was filming an architecture film in northern Scotland a few years back. He came down with pneumonia and ended up in a hospital near Findhorn, which was disappointing for him because they had been filming all over Scotland and he was really looking forward to visiting and filming in Findhorn. The film crew went out and shot for a couple of days; but, as they led him into his hospital room with a temperature of 106°, he overheard one of the nurses saying, "Aye, did you see the yank hurpling in this morning?" Hurpling? He had to ask. Hurpling is the Scottish word for "limp." The next morning in the local Edinburgh paper there was an article about 22 soccer players being admitted to an Edinburgh hospital for hurpling injuries.
New words? He's overheard his son mention zitcoms for teenage comedies. Or spendorphins to describe the anticipatory rush of going to the shopping mall. Digitalia is a disease where people's digits are constantly seeking out keyboards. The list goes on and on.
Cross-published on Twitch.
Hector Ceballos' 16-minute short Remember Me In Red (2010) is featured twice in Frameline34's lineup, first as part of the Transtastic! shorts program on Thursday, June 24, 2010 and then again on Sunday, June 26 preceding the Mexican documentary Tierra Madre (Mother Earth, 2009). Further, actress Mariana Marroquín—who plays the conflicted role of Fidelia in Remember Me In Red—will be one of the panel particpants for the free-to-the-public Frameline event "Says Who? Gender Variant Representation In Media."
As Cindy Emch has written for the festival catalog, Remember Me In Red honors the chosen family and community of Latino queers in this tale of "a closely-knit group of transwomen who band together to weather a tragedy." She synopsizes the film: "Emotions run high as Fidelia is arranging her best friend Alma's funeral, only to have Alma's parents arrive from Mexico and insist that their son be buried as male. Alma's friends pull together to honor both the parents' wishes and those of Alma herself."
In its commendable simplicity, Remember Me In Red reminded me of a comment made by B. Ruby Rich at her Frameline30 address on the "genderation gap" wherein she inferred that transgender narratives revolve around the revelation of an anatomical secret. It likewise struck me as the inverted equation of Joao Pedro Rodrigues' To Die Like A Man. The vested choice of that Portuguese film belies the compromise struck in Remember Me In Red where the corpse of Alma is first laid out dressed as a man for the memorial service attended by family, only to later be transformed by Alma's chosen community into her authentic visage: beautiful and dressed in red.
I am further reminded of a comment made by Fran Lebowitz in James Rasin's engaging documentary Beautiful Darling: The Life and Times of Candy Darling, Andy Warhol Superstar (2010)—Frameline's Centerpiece documentary—that, admittedly, agitated me. Considering Candy Darling, Lebowitz queried why any man would want to give up his "winning hand" to become a woman? Ceballos' Remember Me In Red may not answer that hypothetical but it certainly revolves around the discrimination faced by transwomen in their choice to both live and die as women.
Finally, I bear in mind a comment made by Jed Bell at the Riot Acts screening earlier this week wherein he celebrated transgender narratives that shifted away from victimization. With regard to that creative transition, Remember Me In Red articulates its way through discrimination and suggests the celebratory transgender narratives yet to come.
Cross-published at Twitch.
Take a walk around midnight in the city / Young blood is hiding there somewhere / And if you're lookin' for somethin' to do / There's always somethin' happening there.—Ricki Lee Jones
With Scott Boswell's The Stranger In Us (2010) being one of the first films at Frameline34 to go on rush and the first to claim one of Frameline's TBA slots, I gladly revisit my interview with the director from earlier this year. The Stranger In Us is screening this evening at 6:45PM at the Roxie Film Center (on rush) and on Friday, June 25, at 11:00AM at the Castro Theatre. Don't miss this gentle, authentic tale of San Francisco's youthful street culture.
Scott Boswell's first feature The Stranger In Us faces the street with considerable compassion, observing the youthful exploration of urban night life with generous honesty and tact.
Scott Boswell is production coordinator at San Francisco State University; a hybrid position where he teaches half-time, while lending production support for all the media needs of the film students the rest of the time. Having graduated with an MFA from San Francisco State in 2004, the shorts he produced while he was a graduate student were the first shorts he distributed, with some success. His film came to me in an interim cut by way of Frako Loden who felt I would appreciate its subtleties. She handed me her screener, which I watched, and which intrigued me enough to contact Boswell to see if he would be willing to discuss the project. We met up for coffee at Bean There in the Lower Haight.
* * *Michael Guillén: You're in post-production for The Stranger In Us; working on color correction?
Scott Boswell: We are right now, yeah. In the Fall we decided to do some focus test screenings of the film with small groups of people who didn't know anything about the project and mostly didn't know me. The result pinpointed where people were finding the plot confusing. We decided there were maybe five or six issues we needed to address and so we've done that.
Guillén: Thus, the screener I've watched is not as the film stands today?
Boswell: What you've seen is before we did a re-cut, yeah.
Guillén: I was intrigued by your film's narrative structure, which—admittedly—I "got" more upon second viewing than the first. It took me a bit to understand that your main character Anthony was remembering earlier events while on a bus to find his friend Gavin. So I'm wondering now if that's been shifted in your recent edit?
Boswell: No, that basic structure remains intact. But we actually added chapter cards to give the film seasonal stamps to help distinguish that these are two different tracks in Anthony's life. There's actually three. There's the track of him on the bus, where he's having memories of these two people who have come into his life and who he's lost. There were lots of questions around that in the focus screenings. People typically by the end of the film pretty much understood the structure; but, the questions always landed in the first act.
Guillén: To be honest, I didn't fully catch the structure until Anthony showed up with a black eye….
Boswell: Which is easily an hour into the film.
Guillén: …and then I thought, "Oh. That's why I'm not following certain things here. The sequence is being shuffled." I liked that, however, because that's truer to how people actually remember things. People don't remember things in a linear fashion.
Boswell: That was the idea behind it. The trick with editing this project was finding the balance between people enjoying the puzzle while figuring out the structure and being annoyed by it.
Guillén: I was never "annoyed."
Boswell: I'm glad to know that.
Guillén: I've watched enough films to know there are many different ways to structure a narrative and none of them are essentially wrong; it's whatever the filmmaker wants to do. Let's back up a bit to the title: The Stranger In Us. Why that title?
Boswell: By and large the film is about self-discovery and the character—this actually comes up in his poetry—is exploring the relationship between himself and strangers, but also the discovery of what he doesn't know about himself. For example, most people who find themselves in a situation where their partner is not treating them well and is being abusive surprises them. We don't go out into the world on a daily basis thinking that that's going to happen to us, normally, right? This particular character comes from a sheltered world and enters this urban area to discover that he's doing things that he may never have thought that he would do, on the streets with Gavin, the homeless character, experimenting with drugs and those kinds of things.
Guillén: While I was watching this again this morning in preparation for our talk, I found myself considering that an alternate title to this film could have been Face the Street. Where your film spoke to me was in my own experience of growing up on the streets of San Francisco. I arrived here in 1975 at the age of 21 during that incredible Castro Florescence where it seemed we had all been summoned by some kind of homing beacon. Anthony's experience in your film was my experience and—I might venture—will be every young gay man's experience coming to a metropolitan center like San Francisco. In some ways your film was difficult for me to watch—i.e., remember—because, of course, I'm so much more mature now. [Laughs.] I'm more centered, more grounded, and it was difficult to relive that awkward and necessary pain that a young man has to experience in order to familiarize himself with the stranger within. I appreciated how this was expressed not only through Anthony's struggles to become a poet but in the poetic vision of the film itself. Are you a poet?
Boswell: No, not in the traditional sense.
Guillén: So this isn't a situation of a closet poet coming out as a filmmaker?
Boswell: No, but I'm drawn to it. I appreciate slam poetry, which the current generation of young people have embraced and—in many ways—they're expert at it. Before I worked at SF State, I ran a digital filmmaking program for teenagers in Oakland and, of course, I started to meet all the different worlds I ran in and all the different arts that they create. Slam poetry was one step away from what we were doing.
Slam poetry has become so popular and has received so much attention that now they feature slam poets on HBO and they're hosting national competitions. But myself, no, I'm not a poet. What you said earlier about coming to the city and sharing Anthony's experience I find particularly interesting because—since I've been working on this project—I've found a number of gay men who have told me that. There's a lot of mythology around San Francisco, especially for gay men. Hence, when we arrive here we don't quite know what to expect but we're driven by some sort of optimism.
Quite a few people have told me that they relate to Anthony's experience of feeling alien in the city at first and having trouble making connections with people while discovering this more urban, gritty street life. I love that. For me, I didn't quite know what to expect from the Castro but somehow it was disappointing.
Guillén: When did you arrive in San Francisco?
Boswell: I arrived here in 1997.
Guillén: Ah, so what you entered was the commodified Castro?
Boswell: I did! I experienced a commodified, more gentrified Castro and—at least on the surface—what I was seeing were more materialistic values and things that weren't interesting to me. I came looking for an alternative and, instead, felt alien in this enormous gay world. But I also came to discover that there were lots of us like that.
Guillén: Definitely. I have often said that the meanest men I have ever met were gay men in the Castro. Which was quite a shock to me when I arrived in San Francisco from the conservative Mormon belt of southern Idaho. I came expecting brotherhood and found brutal hierarchies of sexism and—much to my alarm—racism.
Which leads me to one of the distressing topics in Strangers In Us: that of partner abuse, a subject that's not usually addressed in gay narratives. The self-loathing that capsizes relationships among gay men was skillfully handled in your film. Likewise, inversely, the genuine relationship Anthony had with Gavin the street kid pulled me right in for feeling so resoundingly honest. Truthfully, I learned to know myself as a young man by hanging on the streets. Anthony's desultory late night wanderings and how he learns to navigate the city—down to the broken glass and shit on the sidewalk—struck me as an urban poetic aesthetic of a young man's coming into being. I have to ask then: where did this story come from?
Boswell: The story is autobiographical and very much reflective of my experience coming to this city. Of course, whenever you work on a piece of fiction it becomes more and more fictionalized; but, the lead characters are based on people that I knew and experienced. I was largely trying to capture that experience, which is unique to people like yourself and I who have come from smaller, more conservative regions….
Guillén: Where are you from?
Boswell: I'm from central Illinois, a town called Normal. I literally grew up tasseling corn in the summertime. Normal was very much in the Midwestern Bible Belt. I moved here sight unseen. I just decided to pick up and go West. I don't regret it for a minute; but, I will say that you find yourself in this entirely new world and it's exciting and scary and makes you question everything about yourself. Ultimately, you either find your place in it or you don't.
In terms of domestic violence between gay men, you're right, I haven't seen that portrayed much in "gay" movies, or between same-sex couples at least. But it's always been of interest to me on a political level as well as a personal level and that's one of the reasons that I wanted to explore it. I mean, I've seen violence portrayed between gay men such as in Brokeback Mountain where I felt they were effectively trying to beat out the homophobia, that they were both frightened for being attracted to another male, but that violence was coming from somewhere else. I was more interested in the kinds of violence integral to a relationship, whether it's between two men, two women, or a man and a woman. I feel this is a big issue in the society at large; but, I haven't seen it dealt with a lot in the gay world.
Guillén: In some ways, it's not cool timing as it seems most gay films these days are concentrating on positive images. That's okay in and of itself, although I believe it delimits the potential of queer cinema, which—unfortunately—appears to have collapsed into rom-com fantasies that I don't feel particularly further queer sensibility, other than to offer comfort through fantasies of commodification. Partner abuse isn't a comfortable subject to look at, but, it's a real one, and I commend your film for tackling the theme, and the performances of your actors for rendering it real. Can you speak to me about your three main actors who play Anthony, Gavin and Steven? Are they San Franciscan actors?
Boswell: They were when we shot the film. Let me start by saying that my initial approach to this project was completely different. I was wanting to do something a little more experimental. And if I may back up just a little? I've always been fascinated with the Polk Street neighborhood as an older, grittier, alternative to the Castro, especially the Polk Street that I knew in the late '90s. Now Polk Street's become more gentrified itself; but I was fascinated with the kinds of bars you'd find there and the diversity of people, the rent boys on the street, the tranny hookers and all of that had some sort of appeal to me. I was thinking of doing something more like a documentary set in the Polk Street area but it would be a hybrid narrative where I would bring in actors into the scenario and film it like a documentary to see what we could make. Then as I worked on it, the script became more fleshed out and traditional, and I posted earlier than usual for actors before I'd actually finished the script, because I was still thinking of a more experimental approach. I wanted there to be a lot of improv and stuff that had to be worked out before the camera rather than in pre-production.
One of the first people to respond was Raphael Barker, who appeared as Rob in Shortbus (2006). This threw me because I wasn't expecting to hear from someone who had some props. I thought, "Okay, well, let's meet." So we had coffee, hit it off immediately, and in some ways he inspired me to move forward with the project as it is.
Guillén: Let me be clear about this, when Raphael contacted you there was no finished script? How did he know what he was auditioning for? Had you posted a general story outline?
Boswell: Yeah. On the call for actors, I tried to pitch it in the way that I felt passionate about it. That's what drew him. He actually said something about how he doesn't normally respond to these but this sounded like an interesting project and he wanted to find out more about it. When I saw Shortbus in the theater, Raphael genuinely impressed me in that movie. He was one of my favorite actors in that film. Out of all the actors in that film, he's the one I would have wanted to contact me. So I was very excited that he was interested. When we met, I tried to explain to him what I was trying to do with the project and he got it. He was on board for it. There was another good eight months before we actually went into production. I did audition Raphael because I needed to know he could do it. He genuinely gave the best audition, which is apparent in his performance in the film.
Adam Perez, who plays Gavin, was one of maybe forty auditions for that role. We just kept looking at actor after actor. Ultimately, he proved to be bringing to the role what we wanted. We made him audition three times because we wanted to see that he could handle it. Raphael was kind enough to come in and do a chemistry test with him. They worked together very well, which I was excited about.
Scott Cox, who plays Steven, is a local stage actor who, incidentally, is the sweetest guy on the planet. If you've gone to plays locally, you've probably caught him at some point. I knew him because of a short I had worked on several years ago. We had been trying to find someone who could handle the difficult role of Steven. Fully qualified actors were having trouble bringing something to the role that we were looking for and I just suddenly remembered Scott and having worked with him a number of years earlier, so I contacted him and asked him, "Would you like to audition?" He was excited about it. And then it all worked out.
So that's how we came to working with those three and all three of them were such a pleasure to work with—and thank God!—because you hear nightmare stories sometimes.
Guillén: How much did they lend to the development of the script? Did you do a lot of improvisation with them to shape dialogue?
Boswell: We did. A fair amount. The script is 100 pages; but, the way it reads, there are paragraphs that say: "Now we're going to improv", with descriptions of what should happen for the set-up and I let them go where they wanted with it. I wanted to capture a naturalistic feel to the film and retain some sense of the original documentary impulse. Personally, it's also the kind of acting I enjoy. The truth is that 85% of the script was written but the actors were given liberty to adlib and then there were moments when we risked improvisation. We did spend quite a bit of time in auditions as well with improv to see if people could handle it. I have to say that sometimes the actors provided gold and sometimes they didn't; but, ultimately, I got what I needed. All of them brought moments to the script that I didn't compose myself. All of them also brought moments that were absolutely off base—which is what happens in improv—and that's when as a director you need to step in and bring it back to where it needs to be.
Guillén: Who are you imagining to be the audience for this film?
Boswell: That's an excellent question. I decided when I made this film that, first of all, I was just going to do it. That's not because I don't care about audience. But I wanted to make a feature for a long time and I woke up a couple of years ago and realized, "You can! Maybe you go a little bit into debt. But do you choose to buy a car or choose to make a low-budget feature film?" Once I had that thought, nothing was going to stop me. I'm a big believer in quality work and I believe that—if work is done well—it will find an audience. I don't think The Stranger In Us will appeal to all gay men. I do hope it plays in LGBT festivals. I hope it plays in international festivals too. We haven't aggressively started the distribution process yet. I suspect the audience will be somewhat diverse. We have shown it to maybe 100 people now and we've received some positive reactions from a diverse group of people and so The Stranger In Us needs to appeal to a certain aesthetic taste, to people who can appreciate the kind of film that we've shot and made. Perhaps those are film festival goers? Maybe there's an LGBT market for it? In general, audiences who can appreciate dramatic character-driven work. It's definitely in the indie vein so I imagine it would have to be something of a film festival audience.
Guillén: Though the film allows access in several different ways. For example, I've approached it by way of memory because, of course, the film reminds me of my own youth and my transformation from rural to urban. In fact, because it faces the street so honestly, I was wondering how its urbanity will speak to audiences outside an urban area? I have to reiterate that the depiction of Gavin is one of the most thrillingly authentic portraits of queer street youth I've ever seen. It was the character of Gavin, and Adam Perez's pitch-perfect performance, that enthused me about wanting to talk to you about this project. Basically I just wanted to tell you exactly that. Gavin, as a character, is such a grounded, real person. Also the bartender who Anthony solicits for help in determining Gavin's whereabouts is someone I feel I already know. And, of course, I'm very intrigued by the transgender character Sonja who serves a wise and poetic function in the film, almost like a member of a Greek chorus. What were you trying to say through her character?
Boswell: It's funny you mention Sonja. She comes up a lot in conversation, which I enjoy. My initial idea—and the way it's written in the script—is that she is another one of those lovely characters that you meet in the Tenderloin. What I love about the Tenderloin is all the crazy—and I mean that lovingly—people that you encounter. I don't think Sonja's crazy at all. I never wanted her to be a joke or a caricature or anything like that. I wanted her to be lovely. Joshua Grannell actually helped me find her. Her name is Veronica Klaus. She's a well-established local cabaret singer. I approached her and she agreed to do it and the song she sings in the film is her song. There's a studio version of her song that we'll probably incorporate into the credits in the final cut.
Sonja is a character who's a bit mystical in that she observes what's going on around her and she sees that Anthony's in pain. She offers whatever comfort she can, even by just crossing paths with him on the street. In retrospect, I might have included her more, largely because I love Veronica's performance. Of course, going into it you don't always know what you're going to get; but, in this post phase, I have often thought that I would have put her in more often.
Guillén: That's actually a question I was going to raise. Being that this is your first feature, a project that you have strived for quite a long time, and now that it's moreorless done, would you have done anything differently? What is the main thing you've learned from your first feature?
Boswell: I've learned a lot. I've learned that you must always be extremely focused and mindful of your vision for the project. If you lose sight of that, scenes aren't going to work. Only you, as the director, carries that. Meaning that it's not necessarily the responsibility of the actor. They're not the director. You might find that they tripped, especially when you're allowing improv. For instance, Raphael loves to be funny.
Guillén: He does have some cute bits he delights in.
Boswell: And thank God because it brings layers to the character.
Guillén: His humor reveals his vulnerability.
Boswell: Exactly. But if it were to drift too far in that direction, the tone of the film would be lost. So there were times that I had to pull him back. The only thing I would do differently is that I imagined this to be a piece where all of the puzzle would fall into place more clearly than it seems to. That's one of the reasons we've done some additions and re-cutting to set up more clues to guide the audience into what they're seeing. I don't like films that hit you over the head with structure and its meaning and things like that, but I failed to realize as the writer of this piece just how obtuse it is for many viewers. I will be more mindful of that in the future.
Guillén: "Obtuse" only in the sense that, I suspect, people don't really want to know themselves very well and are, thus, reluctant to do their share of the work. As you said earlier, a lot of young gay people come to the city with preconceived notions of what life is going to be like for them once they arrive here. They anticipate a fullness of experience that real life often delivers fractured. You can become hardened because of that, jaded, which was always something I was most fearful of as a young man: I didn't want to become a jaded queen.
Boswell: [Laughs.] Which, fortunately, you didn't.
Guillén: [Knocking on the table.] Fortunately, I didn't. But, even if you don't become a jaded queen, you still hazard becoming a macho mannerist hiding behind enacted virilities. Rather than concerning yourself with the imagined failure of your narrative, I would focus on how it successfully depicts a young man who doesn't even really know what he can have or become yet—though he might have a sense of what he wants—yet, by film's end, even though it's left open-ended and is not neatly tied up, you sense that Anthony is ready for the challenge of living an authentic life. It's a subtle optimism: every young person can answer the call to lead an authentic life. For gay people, especially, it's problematic because there are all that many more barriers in the way of leading an authentic life, not the least being their own preconceptions and fantasies.
Boswell: I agree. That has been some of my own frustration with San Francisco. I don't mean to bash the Castro; but….
Guillén: [Laughs.] Oh go ahead.
Boswell: The Castro symbolizes….
Guillén: All that went wrong!
Boswell: When I first moved here, the apartment that I found to live in—and you know how competitive and difficult it is to find housing—was in the Castro, which shocked me. I never expected that to happen as someone coming from the Midwest, and everyone knowing what the Castro is, and so on and so forth. To me the Castro symbolizes the inauthenticity that you're describing. I've always resisted it. Of course, I love the Castro Theatre and I love the sense that there's this mythological community that's always festive and safe—even though it's not always—but, my attitude has largely been to resist falling into that and, as cliché as it sounds, to not become that, to remain true to myself. That's one of the reasons I moved out of the Castro. And you may notice in the film that Anthony never goes to the Castro. He's in San Francisco but he never goes there.
Guillén: I did notice that. I noticed that the film focuses on the Civic Center, the Tenderloin and Polk Street.
Boswell: That's why. Because of what the Castro symbolizes for me. I completely agree with you. I think it's reflective of what I do want to say about this city.
Guillén: As a film journalist who watches lots of movies and monitors the fantasies that basically inform movies, I often consider which fantasies (i.e., movies) can actually help people lead an authentic life and which will throw them off the track. One of my main critiques of queer cinema is that I often feel that the stories that are being told/sold are inauthentic narratives.
Boswell: I agree.
Guillén: These are not stories that are going to help anybody achieve anything, except perhaps a momentary illusion of normalcy, which itself is fraught with error. Returning to your choice of locations, and your decision to monitor Anthony's nocturnal wanderings, are you familiar with the work of João Pedro Rodrigues?
Guillén: His debut feature was O Fantasma, and he followed that up with Odete, and most recently with To Die Like A Man. One of the aspects I most enjoy about João's work—and I've talked to him about this—is that he uses the night as his mise-èn-scene. Night becomes the realm or the domain within which his characters discover themselves. Night is their mirror. Can you speak to what night means for you in The Stranger In Us?
Boswell: First of all, I can't deny that it's based largely on real experiences. In that sense, it's purely just trying to capture something I experienced myself. There was … is a Gavin and he was someone that I used to only see at night and run into in the neighborhood, and he was someone with whom I developed a friendship when I didn't feel that I had a lot of other close relationships here, and had gone through and just come out of a difficult relationship. But I love the visual symbol of being in the dark. I also love the beauty of Polk Street at night because it's so colorful and florescent and for me it sets up what is simultaneously appealing and scary about it. Because there are all these things going on around, it's possible that you could get hurt; it's possible that you could get lost; but, it's also erotic and beautiful and there are other people out there just as lost and lonely as you are. In terms of just a place on the planet where different people meet, I found the Polk Street region a fascinating place to explore and it seems to me that happens most at night.
Guillén: I've frequently considered that what was so different in the '70s was the proportion between private and public space. So much of what was public space has become privatized since then, such that it's only at night these areas are reclaimed as public. I especially took note of this in the scene in The Stranger In Us where Anthony meets Sonja. This was filmed outside the public library?
Boswell: It's actually the Asian Art Museum, but the Civic Center area.
Guillén: I was fascinated by this because the Civic Center is truly a private sector of art and cultural institutions, a government sector with city and state institutions, and yet at night it's being reclaimed as a terrain of self-discovery for an alternative culture.
Boswell: The shot where Anthony sees Gavin for the first time is in front of City Hall.
Guillén: How did you decide where you wanted to set your film? You've talked a little bit about Polk Street already. Did you have any issues filming in these locations?
Boswell: No. For the most part we had permits.
Guillén: So you weren't shooting guerilla?
Boswell: We didn't do it all guerilla, though we did do a bit when we shot a few hours past what we were permitted for. But no one asked. It's funny, we shot for days and for hours and hours on Polk Street, in the alleys around Polk Street, and the police never once asked. Which, of course, if we hadn't secured the permits, they would have asked every time we went out there. I don't know if they had bigger fish to fry; but, we chose the locations largely for aesthetic reasons and lighting reasons. We didn't set up any outside lights. We scouted very carefully beforehand and spent a lot of time walking around and driving around that area, looking for places where light always falls at night, either from street lamps or any other artificial lights set up in the area. Then we set all of our scenes beneath those lights because it's very easy to walk just a few feet away and fall into darkness in a way that wouldn't work for the visuals. We based our locations largely on the light that we could find. Some of the scenes turned out beautiful in ways that look almost lit. If you look carefully, there's light on the shoulder, on the head, on the face.
Guillén: Which lends to its naturalistic look. It is real, without being murky as can often be the case. You've billed your film as cinema vérité, though your camera is more controlled and composed than what I would associate with cinema vérité. To wrap up here, though you're still in post-production, what is your strategy for getting the film out there once the film is finished?
Boswell: The obvious first step would be to submit to film festivals. I always find this to be a tricky step in my work because I don't just want to be a gay filmmaker; but, I get that I'm dealing primarily with gay characters and themes. I always hope that my films will screen in international film festivals as well as the LGBT festivals, and my shorts have, so hopefully this one will as well.
Guillén: Do you strategize that way? Do you aim for a general audience first and then fall back on the sure LGBT audience?
Boswell: Typically, I've done them both simultaneously and just see what happens. But there are a couple of other possible trajectories. I, ultimately, would love some DVD distribution. I obviously want it to be shown as much as it can and my hope is to interest some of the distributors who would distribute a movie like this. My producer Cheryl Valenzuela has been largely looking into these possibilities. Also, independent filmmakers are dealing with the fact that there's a lot more media being produced because it's cheaper to produce now—which is why I could make this film—but, when you hear the number of submissions that festivals are getting now, it's staggering. So how does your film get attention? There's a movement of DIY filmmakers creating distribution strategies that work for them and we're just starting to look into that to try to create our own buzz around the project. This is all new territory for me so it's simultaneously mysterious and exciting and worthy of exploration in the coming months. We're in the grey zone of thinking, "Who's going to show this? And when?" That whole international vs. LGBT issue is tricky, because you don't want to turn anyone down but you also don't want to undersell.
Cross-published on Twitch.