Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on November 18, 2012
As a bi-monthly blogger my next post is scheduled for December 2nd. A few days before that, on November 30th, you will be able to see four Morlocks on TV courtesy of TCM. The idea for putting some of the Morlock bloggers in front of the cameras was first floated around last March when we were asked if we would fly out to Atlanta to be interviewed by Robert Osborne. It was both a privilege and an honor to be asked to be a guest-programmer for TCM, and I’m confident I can speak for Suzi Doll, Richard Harland Smith, and Moira Neylon, in saying that we were all happy to accept. I’d never been on national TV, but I’m in front of hundreds of people for the film series I program on a regular basis, and I’ve had my share of public speaking stints, so I’m not exactly the shy type. But as soon as I sank into the red chair opposite Robert Osborne for pre-recording on the morning of Wednesday, May 9th, at the TCM studios in Atlanta, my brain took a vacation.
Yup, I screwed the pooch on national TV. Or, at least, that’s how I remember it. If it looks better than that, my hat is off to the editors for working not just their usual magic, but a miracle. I hasten to add that it’s not a spectacular belly-flop worth watching, like Crispin Glover’s infamous 1987 Letterman appearance to promote Rubin & Ed (which is actually great theater). Nor was it the kind of drunken melt-down that raises eyebrows, like Jack Kerouac’s stint on William F. Buckley’s 1968 episode of Firing Line. No, my belly-flop is not worth posting on YouTube. It was the kind of small and awkward moment that evokes embarrassed pity from bystanders but is easily enough forgotten (I hope). Nothing to see here. Move along now.
There are over a dozen writers that contribute to TCM‘s Movie Morlocks site. When I read their posts I’m always impressed with the depth and flow of both their knowledge and passion. There is an undeniable art to being a word-smith, and most of the Morlocks have a natural talent for it. Most, but not all. There is one Morlock who is clearly out of his element, and when he crunches away at the keyboard it’s obvious he might as well be smashing random rocks together praying for a spark. Sometimes he’s lucky enough to muster enough heat to warm up a half-baked thought, but these moments are few and far between. That is why, instead of writing, he’d rather be cracking beers open in a dark man-cave lit only by the dim glow of a movie in the background. He is undeniably the laziest and most unambitious Morlock working for the TCM website at moment, and that Morlock is me. So I was very surprised to be one the four lucky ones to get the email invitation last March. Seniority has it’s privileges but in retrospect I should have kindly deferred my spot to any of the other remaining Morlocks. It would have been the right thing to do for the greater good of all involved.
Okay, enough with the self effacement and on with the show. Here’s what happened as I remember it.
The first order of business came from a TCM producer in an email from March 5th: “Would any of you be available to do this with us in May? If so, to kick things off I’d need a list of 10 films you’d be interested in hosting with Robert so I could run them by programming.” Another Morlock who knew the drill and had already been interviewed by Osborne, Jeff, helpfully advised us to also avoid long epics or any films that are already played too often.
I then provided the following list, in chronological order:
Mad Love (Karl Freund, 1935, 68 mins.)
I figured the last two were too recent, so I also tossed in The Frightened Woman (Piero Schivazappa, 1969, 86 mins.) as a Hail Mary pass, but figured the odds for that one were slim-to-none. Not too much time went by before hearing back on which films would get the green light, and for me that meant talking about Five Million Years to Earth. It’s a movie that I have very fond memories of and one that clearly influenced titles as diverse as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
THE GREEN ROOM
Any avid watcher of a talk show will have heard of “the green room,” that backstage area where featured guests can chill and unwind as they wait for their turn. I was surprised that TCM‘s green room was literally painted green – I had thought it was just a room full of plants, or a nod to guests like me who were green behind the ears. Richard, having been in green rooms before, was not surprised and told me that the reason for this is that the green color is supposed to have a calming effect on ones nerves. Two thoughts came to my mind when he said this: 1) This room is not green enough. 2) I should paint the inside of my house green.
The next thing I remember is being approached by two people who were going to help get us ready for the limelight. I was wearing a brown t-shirt with the words “The American Astronaut” splayed across the chest. Of course, The American Astronaut had been one of my top-ten choices and it is a film I like to champion because the director of that sci-fi, western, musical happens to also be a friend and an avid TCM watcher. I thought it would be appropriate to have that shirt on while talking about a science fiction film involving martians, and, I’ll admit, I had the sneaky hope that it would serve as a conversation piece that would allow me to mention it briefly. The woman in charge of wardrobe took one look at the t-shirt and then gave me a stern look and asked if I had something else to wear. I did, a wrinkled, black, short-sleeve button-up shirt that had been crumpled into a shoulder bag for several days.
This poor woman then had to spend the next 10 minutes ironing my wrinkled shirt. Adding insult to injury, I then heard her ask me if I had any cats. “Two,” I said. “I can tell,” she replied. My black shirt wasn’t just wrinkled, it was also covered in more hair than Chewbacca’s pajamas. I don’t know why I didn’t notice this before, but there in the light of the green room, that black shirt looked like I’d rubbed it with balloons for optimal static charge and then used the shirt to buff up my cats. Out came the lint roller, and if I felt bad for the wrinkles this paled in comparison to how I felt watching her try to get all the cat hair off my shirt. When I put it on, there was still cat hair on it everywhere and I ended up getting what felt like a full-body massage with her lint roller. As she passed it over my chest, her eyes lit on a small tag over my breast-pocket, and she said “we’re going to have to cover that up.”
Confession: I’m the kind of guy whose wardrobe consists of 40 t-shirts and only a few “nice” dress shirts – most of which I buy at a thrift store. I’m not a brand guy. I don’t shop at fancy stores. So the fact that my breast pocket was adorned with a small brand logo totally escaped me. On TV, though, logos and brands are a big deal, so out came the black electrical tape to mask the logo. I felt like the kind of rube that epitomizes amateur hour, which is fine when you’re on a local cable-access channel, but not fine when you’re dealing with professionals. Next up was make-up, and if I felt bad for the woman responsible for my wardrobe, let’s all take a moment to reflect on the challenges that faced the make-up department. I don’t even bother to shave most days, because when I look in the mirror it’s easy for me to give up the ghost. The make-up department didn’t have that option. They are the true unsung heroes working behind the scene.
I stood in the wings with Patricia Kelly (Osborne had just finished interviewing Gene Kelly’s widow moments earlier) and saw Suzi Doll and Richard Harland Smith do their thing. They made it look easy and fun. I relaxed and enjoyed the atmosphere of being on the set. Then it was my turn. I was introduced to Osborne, who was friendly and warm. I knew he had recently celebrated his 80th birthday but you wouldn’t know it because he looked great for his age. I took my place at the big red chair next to Osborne’s and was fitted with a microphone. Under the full glare of lights, the crew could still see that I was still covered in cat-hair, so out came the lint-roller again.
Since I didn’t have a coat, the receiver had to be placed next to my thigh, and I was instructed not to move. This made me a bit nervous, because I’m the kind of guy who talks with his hands, so suddenly I had this image of me getting entangled in my wire and whipping it around like some crazy person fighting with a yo-yo. I made a mental note to stick my arms to the chair and keep them there. This resulted in the astonishing realization that flapping my arms and hands around apparently is singularly responsible for pumping blood to my head because, the moment I decided to not move my upper appendages, my brain went into hibernation.
It didn’t help that my chair was swiveled to the right so that my left side was facing the cameras and crew. I can’t see out of my left eye because of a child-hood scar left on my cornea, courtesy of high winds and a piece of broken glass. If the film crew tried to give me any cues or get my attention, I wouldn’t be able to see them. Still, I’m no stranger to improvisation, I’d done my homework, and I thought I would be okay. Robert started things off with a soft lob of a question, and I was out the gate. But my babbling was cut short when the film crew noticed an annoying glare coming from my chest – the piece of electrical tape that had been used to hide the logo on my breast pocket was catching light and distracting the crew. They took off the tape (logo be damned) and instructed us to start from the top. Here’s the thing. I’m not an actor. I don’t know how to press the “reset” button and start afresh. So I tried a different approach, but it didn’t feel fresh any more, and there were more fumbles, and more cuts, and it all led to a downward spiral of diminishing results.
At one point, my brain checked out completely. I sat there soaking up the lights, the scene, the crew, and the fact that I was sitting across from a man who began his career working for Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, and marveled at the strangeness of it all. Osborne asked me about one of my earliest movie memories, and I could have talked about the child who didn’t want his parents to fix his horribly crooked teeth because he wanted to grow up to play monsters like his hero, Boris Karloff. Or I could have talked about the seven-year-old kid whose parents wouldn’t let him see Jaws unless he read Peter Benchley’s book first, in its entirety – which he did. Or of how that same kid could only watch a half-hour of TV a day, so he saved up his half-hours for creature-features over the weekend so that he could watch Attack of the Crab Monsters and It Came From Beneath the Sea, all from the safety of an elaborate pillow fort. None of those stories came to mind. Instead, I was the deer caught in the proverbial headlights. Where was that pillow fort when I needed it? Oh, Boris! I let you down. Instead of putting on a frightful performance as a monster, I simply put on a frightful performance.
My trip to Atlanta was not without it’s highlights. I got to share beers with my fellow Morlocks, Jeff turned me on to an amazing film I’d never seen before called The Hour-Glass Sanitarium (Wojciech J. Has, 1973), and I received a TCM coffee mug to keep as a memento.
Every time I see that mug, I get a bit of a jolt – and not from the coffee. It’s a green mug… just not quite green enough.
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