SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
October 31, 2010

Neanderthal Man Visits the University

 

Not long ago, my friend Luca Dipierro told me he was holding a screening of his most recent film, 60 Writers in 60 Places, at the New School. This was very good news, and I told him so. Then after some hesitation he asked if I might be interested in participating in the panel discussion that was to follow, given that I’d made a brief appearance in the film.

            Now, normally the very term “panel discussion” fills me with horror and dread, soon followed by screaming, hair pulling, and running in the opposite direction. But Luca was a friend I hadn’t seen for awhile, he’d made a very good film, and I would be paid. So I agreed. I hadn’t done anything like this in quite some time, but Luca promised me it would be fairly low-key. Plus I would be paid.

            Luca and his girlfriend picked me up before the event and we went over to the New School together. This was a good thing, because even though the auditorium was only a couple of blocks from the subway, I don’t think there’s any possible way I would have found it on my own. I’ve been in that situation before, wandering around, still looking for the building hours after an event had ended. It’s only funny long after the fact, and generally leads to bad feelings.

On the way there, I learned there would be eight or nine other people from the film on this panel with me. That made me a little nervous. I hadn’t heard of any of them (though perhaps I should have), and the company of writers in general is something I go out of my way to avoid. Well, there was no getting out of it now—and besides, this was Luca’s show, not mine. Plus there was that whole “getting paid” business, which wouldn’t happen if I bolted. I swallowed my creeping fear and forged on. I was glad to see Luca. He’s a very interesting fellow.

            When we showed up a few minutes late (I needed to have a smoke before entering the building), the crowd was bigger than he expected, which was also a very good thing. We took our seats and they rolled the film.

            When the lights came back up again, Luca led me to a seat at a long table with the aforementioned other writers who’d appeared in the film. The moderator made a little spiel about the film, then opened the floor to questions.

            Now, before we got to the auditorium, Luca gently hinted that he was hoping I’d refrain from telling the story of our attempts to film in Greenwood Cemetery. I think he knew it was a story I planned to tell. I also think he knew that however much he hinted against it, it was inevitable. And sure enough, a minute or two into the post-film discussion a perfect opportunity afforded itself, so I snatched it and told what I thought was a very funny story involving a blind guy, an Italian, and a cemetery security guard.

When I finished the story, I was greeted, as usual, by the chirping of crickets rising slowly from the darkness. In previous, similar situations—lots of them—Morgan has tried to convince me that this is all nothing but a trick of the room’s acoustics. But I think one of these days I’ll simply have to accept that things I find uproarious will just confuse and annoy a general audience. Put another way, I should learn to shut the hell up.

            In short order, the audience began to direct their questions to the other writers on the panel, who went on to discuss their own contributions to the film, using terms like “vulnerability” and “the tension between the word and the space,” and the interesting ways in which different scenes “interacted with one another.”

            Perhaps I should explain that the film consists of sixty short clips, each featuring a different writer reading a line or two from their work in a different public place—a grocery store, a health club, a subway, a church and the like. After the footage from Greenwood didn’t turn out, my spot was filmed at Coney. Some of the clips are funny, others a little sad, others confusing. Together they all make for an interesting whole. So then the question arose, “how did we choose the specific passages we read?”

            Well, off those other (smarter) writers went again with academic and poetic terms like “tension” and “contrast” and “reflection” and “irony.” People talked about the profound significance of reading a poem about personal pain in a fancy restaurant.

When it came my turn I made the usual mistake and simply answered honestly: “I had those lines memorized, so, um . . . I guess that’s why I chose them.”

            Yes, well. I think it’s probably a good thing I stepped away from academics when I did.

            When the discussion was over and the audience filed out, a number of people stood around talking while someone sat down at a piano and began playing Beatles songs badly. Luca got me some wine and I stood off to the side while people discussed smart things.

            Perhaps out of a sense of obligatory pity, a novelist approached me and we started to chat. He seemed like a nice fellow. At one point he mentioned he was working on a novel, so I asked him what it was about.

            He was silent for a long time, and I figured I’d broken some cardinal rule of writerly etiquette, though I had no idea what it was. Finally he said, “It’s hard to explain . . . ” He then went on to describe his novel in terms of it’s structure and the ideas he was attempting to express. It went on for a bit. In the end I had no more idea of what his novel was about than when he first approached me. Then he asked me what my new book was about.

            “Oh,” I said. “Um . . . it’s about a monster.”

            It was right about that point that I recalled a conversation I had with my agent a few years ago. I foolishly thought I wanted to submit something to the New Yorker. Why the hell not, right? Classy joint like that? In response to what was clearly a case of brain fever on my part, my agent, bless her, was blunt.

            “They don’t want you,” she told me. “They’re all Establishment. You are not. They’re all part of the Academy. And you? You’re a Neanderthal.”

Standing there with that kindhearted little novelist, empty wine glass in hand, all these intellectuals and academic poets around me talking tenure and Tennyson, I suddenly realized why it is I so adamantly avoid the company of writers—namely, because I am an idiot.

 

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