Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Thoughts sparked by Nick Stahl. Googling for information about Nick Stahl feels far more shameful and perverted to me than trawling for porn. Oh my god, there is some Stahl fan art on the internet that makes me want to die, it is so embarrassing! In order from most to least embarrassing , here is my hierarchy of embarrassing fan behaviours: fan art; fan songs; erotic fanfic; non-erotic fanfic; cosplay; conventions; fan video montages/slideshows; pictures of fans with the celebrity; fansites; posters/computer wallpapers of the celebrity; social networks/blogs.

By this you can conclude that I find fandom very embarrassing, even though I should probably save my embarrassment for my own obsession with the Terminator franchise; at least these poor Stahl fans have never made a cake in the shape of Nick Stahl's head. Which brings me back to the man in question, who starred as John Connor in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.

What a strange-looking man he is, with his wide- and deep-set eyes, little nose, giant chin and sticking-out ears. He intrigues me because in one of my favourite parlour games, Plausible Family Casting, I can't really think of anyone else currently working in screen acting who looks enough like him to be a plausible Stahl (perhaps Matt Damon, at a pinch – interestingly, Stahl lost the lead role in All The Pretty Horses to Damon).

Stahl got his start as a little tacker in Mel Gibson's movie The Man Without A Face. It's interesting how much more conventional and corn-fed he looked as a child. Here he is with Unkie Mel at the pre-mere in 1993:

The reason I am going on about the way he looks is that, while in the past I have not been interested in Nick Stahl at all, over the last month or so I have been spending a lot of time staring at a screen with him on it. I've been working my way through the two series of Carnivale, in which Stahl starred as Ben Hawkins. (I won't go on about the actual show too much, although a heartfelt shout-out goes to my brother Matt for indulging me on Sunday in a gratifyingly lengthy discussion about its Byzantine plot.)

It's an interesting role in which Stahl doesn't have much dialogue and is called upon to look confused and uncomfortable much of the time. But I was quite intrigued by the way that Stahl makes bewilderment romantic and even heroic in Carnivale. Here he is at work, displaying Ben Hawkins's trademark knitted brow and slack mouth:

There is also a particular way he walks, a kind of slouching amble, and a slow, Southern way of talking, that made me wonder how much of what I was seeing was the character and how much was Stahl himself. So I did the unthinkable. I rewatched Terminator 3.

I stand by my previous assertion that Stahl was horribly miscast in this film. The standard cry is "Where was Edward Furlong?" Here, I'm afraid, was Edward Furlong:

Still kinda badass, I suppose. ("Later, dickwad!") But anyway, of all the potential actors who could have played John Connor they got Nick Stahl, and it turns out the walk is probably just the way Nick Stahl walks, because he did it in this movie, too. What also struck me is that the bewilderment from Carnivale is also there in Terminator 3. I had always interpreted this as wimpiness, but this time around I responded sympathetically, and I felt as though Stahl's John Connor better dramatised the tragedy of someone at the mercy of an unwanted destiny.

The rest of the movie remains pretty bad, though.

But this makes me wonder two things:

1. Do we become affectionate towards people merely by looking at them a lot?
2. How much of our private selves is visible in the work we do?

Today I saw the Michael Caine movie Is Anybody There? I was thinking about how Nick Stahl is really small biscuits in terms of 'actor persona', since Michael Caine has always played versions of the same character. But are we really seeing Caine the person, or a quality that he realised, early in his career, he was good at portraying?

However, Is Anybody There? is set in an old folks' home and I kept noticing the way that the old folks had wedding rings that looked as though they'd been worn for decades. You know, almost sinking into the skin – these rings didn't look like costumes. It made me think about how visceral acting is, how much the illusion of life on screen depends on subtle corporeal details such as these. In small ways, actors do inhabit their roles.

The contemplative life. Recently I went away on a writing retreat organised by Leanne. At first I was afraid about not being a 'real' writer ('real', in this case, meaning "long-form fiction"), and intimidated by the fact that the other people there, whom I mostly didn't know, would be 'literary'. But it turned out that everyone had different kinds of writing (and reading, and planning) to pursue.

I'd been at the end of my tether before I went – that feeling of constantly being behind on everything, with work piling up (literally, in my case – unreviewed books, DVDs and CDs everywhere). Just making it from day to day was a real struggle. Worst of all, I was feeling fuzzy in the head, as though my brain wasn't quite tuned in properly.

By contrast, the writing week (although I only dared stay five days away from the internet) felt quiet and clear. Life was very simple and pleasurable: I would get up at around 9am, potter about in my PJs with avocado crazy toast and a cup of tea, reading bits from the weekend papers (we'd left on Saturday).

Then I'd get dressed and sit down at my computer for some serious work, punctuated with more pottering about and a rediscovery of my childhood fascination with the maintenance of wood fires. I'd finish work at maybe 6pm, then it would be time to have dinner and socialise with the others. I would be among the last to bed at maybe 11:30 or midnight.

When I got back I felt a real sense of loss. It wasn't just the hollow feeling that sets in upon returning from a lovely holiday. It was bewilderment: having 'rebooted' my life, how was I going to maintain that sense of quiet, that restfulness, among the usual internet white noise, emails wanting stuff from me, bills needing to be paid, bags full of unwashed laundry and a cat who alternately demands to be cuddled and poos on the goddamn floor?

I was worried that I had become the sort of person who can't handle everyday stress except by physically removing myself from it. That's just not practical. So I was intrigued by this Cary Tennis question on how to live a "contemplative life" while still being 'of the world'. It's a slightly different case here, as I don't especially want to devote my life to spiritual contemplation or permanently cloister myself, but I do want the sense of clarity and simplicity that can come from having time and space away from the quotidian.

Also, something in me responded to Cary's observation: "You mention groups, so it sounds like you are imagining not a solitary existence but membership in some sort of spiritual society, perhaps one that is shut off from the hustle and bustle, one made up of people who seek a spiritual way of living."

Perhaps what I seek is the kind of solidarity and companionship I enjoyed during the writing retreat. A group of people who were dedicated to thinking and writing in ways that were related, yet different, to my own. People who slid gracefully around each other's rhythms of work and spaces of thought, yet who were also fun and companionable in non-professional ways. Sometimes I keenly feel my lack of a workplace and colleagues. I mean, I have them, but I rarely actually work side by side with them.

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