Sunday, March 1, 2015

Don't Make a Scene: Passion Fish

The Set-Up: "Tell Me a Story." During the month of February, (and beyond, as it turns out) we'll be showcasing scenes that feature a story in the midst of the narrative. That story may couch the plot in a new light; it may illuminate themes or present a back-history. It may be just a distraction. It may be a side-story that resonates throughout the film and casts its teller (or its subject) into the affections or disaffections of the audience, making him immortal no matter how short their amount of screen-time.  

"I didn't ask for the anal probe."  

Back when I worked for a recording studio, I heard a lot of stories. A lot of stories from actors, who were complaining about conditions they were working under—the usual reaction from people is "So what, you're an actor!"

But my reply was always "I didn't ask for the anal probe," which usually got me quizzical looks. It was always said in sympathy and solidarity, but I usually had to explain that it came from John Sayles' little seen but lovely movie Passion Fish. A lot may be forgotten about this film, but this scene has never left me. It is a gold nugget in a fine film, that shows up, plants itself in your memory and leaves (as does the character) never to be seen again.

The actress doing the monologue is Nancy Mette, who had worked with Sayles before, and she is given this little gem of a scene, all for herself, the camera by and large on her, her moment in the sun. This scene is immortal. And Mette's playing of it is brilliant, combining a full range of emotions, but ultimately melancholy and comic.

I hope somewhere actors are using this scene for auditions (although it would be a real acting challenge to try to top Mette), if only as a little defiant education to directors and casting agents about the casual crushing that is done on a daily basis.

The Set-Up: Successful soap opera actress May-Alice Culhane (Mary McDonnell) is paralyzed in an automobile accident and becomes wheelchair-bound. No longer able to act, she moves back to her Louisiana family home to get away from her previous life and the reminders of what she has lost. After a series of failed caregivers, she is able to move past her grief with Chantelle (Alfre Woodard) and the two women develop a friendship beyond their roles as patient and nurse. One day, May-Alice is visited by some actress-colleagues from her soap days.

Action (gimme a series of three).
KIM: One more year of daytime.  Save my money. I am going to quit. 
KIM: I'm going to go back to class, and I'm going to do theater.
RHONDA: Ah-hah!  I think I've heard this one before.
MAY-ALICE: I've said that one before.
NINA: "I didn't ask for the anal probe." 
NINA: Hm. 
NINA: Four years starving in New York, doing showcases I had to pay for myself.
NINA: That was my first big break.
(Nina shakes her head ruefully and laughs)
NINA: My first feature -- this, like, zero-budget movie about people who were taken up into alien spaceships and given physicals against their will -- 
NINA: I go in for the audition and the director is really intense and mysterious, and he has me sit with my eyes closed and free associate, right? We do these improv's about the aliens representing our most primal fears's great!
NINA: Finally, some real acting! And they tell me before I leave that I've got the part! 
NINA: Only I don't know what it is yet, but I'm so thrilled because it's this feature, you know? It's not a student film or anything. So the agent gives me my script and I go through it looking for Margaret, the part that they say I have, and I've got my yellow underliner marker in my hand, only it's drying out, and finally I find only one page with the corner folded over, 
NINA: ...and I'm in this therapy group of these people who have had these alien physicals, and I've got only one line: 
NINA: "I didn't ask for the anal probe."
MAY-ALICE: Not much to build a character on...
NINA: But I'm a professional, right? 
NINA: I prepared! I had backstory on this woman! I knew that she had been to the hairdresser before she came to the therapy group. 
NINA: I knew that she didn't trust that guy who sat next to the fuchsia. I knew that she turned the TV set on the minute she got back to her apartment, just for the sound of it. 
NINA: And I even had my boyfriend, my boyfriend at the time...with a thermometer, you know, um, for the sense memory, right? 
NINA: I was loaded for fucking bear! 
NINA: So finally it comes time to shoot the scene. And they do one take of the wide shot and they stop before my line!
NINA: I was terrified that they were gonna cut it. They move in for reaction shots, close-ups, mostly things that mean that I have to go and sit outside because the camera is set up where my chair is. Well, by the time they get to me,... 
NINA: ...the crew is grumpy because it's late...
NINA: ...and they're non-union and they don't get paid extra for overtime.
NINA: The lead actor is gone. He's got his shrink appointment and...
NINA: I'm alone! 
NINA: And I'm staring at this piece of tape stuck to a stand next to the camera and... 
NINA: ...the director says, "Okay. Uh. Let's try it a few times without cutting and, uh, show me a few different colors."
(Nina pauses dramatically) 
NINA: "I didn't ask for the anal probe." 
(pauses again) 
NINA: "I didn't ask for the anal probe!" 
NINA: (Pauses again, makes an angry face) "I didn't ask for the anal probe!"
(Pauses, looks sad)
NINA: "I didn't ask for the anal probe." 
(She breaks character.) 
NINA: That was it.

Passion Fish

Words by John Sayles

Pictures by Roger Deakins and John Sayles

Passion Fish is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

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