The Glance of Speech

After being filmed in an acting class, a student actor discovers his dancing eyebrows. He worries that they’re wild. Undoubtedly. More to the point — they’re eloquent.

Driving home, I remember studying the laws of lashon hara*: What happens on the face is a form of speech. A sneer. A lifted eyebrow. A glance. All as destructive or constructive as words. Jewish sages equated irresponsible speech with murder. What murder is to the physical realm, so reckless speech is to the social and emotional realms.

Aw, don’t take it all so seriously. Small-screen conversations. Fast encounters. You get it. You know what I mean. So little time to sink into what we are really trying to say. It’s easy to forget that words and their proxies are weapons every one carries.

Then I see Red,** John Logan’s play about Mark Rothko and a young assistant. Rothko has taken a mural commission for the new Four Seasons Restaurant, a prestigious and lucrative plum, but his artistic integrity is on the line. Will he allow his paintings to become decoration for rich diners? He’s more serious than this. Abstract Expressionism is already becoming the past, thanks to Pop Art. His aspiration is greater than this. He doesn’t create for the zeitgeist.

I leave the theater thinking about how much my writing, particularly screenwriting, strives to please. How loud the zeitgeist screams, entertain! (Whatever that means.) Granted, Midwest reticence and East Coast seriousness nearly killed me. In those years I chose and weighed words as if they were diamonds or plutonium. But this SoCal frothy lack of memory and now-ness is just as dangerous.

This morning I swing somewhere in the middle, not laying bricks or blowing bubbles, but trying to juggle fire. Knowing that I can burn down a house or warm a cold night—and doing my best to know which of those I’m after.

– – – – –
Image: Mark Rothko, Untitled 1958 (p87).

Rothko’s Seagram Murals

*literally “evil tongue,” a set of laws intended to curb gossip and slander.

**The audience files into their seats at the Mark Taper Forum, but the play has already begun. Alfred Molina-as-Rothko lounges in an Adirondack chair on stage, fiddling with a cigarette and contemplating a huge 8’x6′ canvas, layers of shimmering blocks of orange and red with openings and edges fading and dropping into whatever’s below. For anyone in the audience who could silence the chatter, texting and last-minute iPad whatevers, that 15-minute meditation was as much the play as the rest. But few did, and when the lights finally went down and Rothko lit his cig, the chatter even swelled — listen to this one more thing I just have to tell you — before dying into silence.

*** “I am not your rabbi, I am not your father, I am not your shrink, I am not your friend, I am not your teacher…” Logan’s Molina-Rothko announces. But by the end of the play, he’s all of them to his assistant and (in some way) to me.

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