SCENE: 1951, Mogador, A favonian wind grazes the inner walls and alleyways with a coolness from the ocean – peak clemency of a very early February – stirring scents of spice heaps from the sprawling souq and oils from idle lanterns and kernels of argan, freshly extracted from billy goat ploppings. H.M. Palmer, scrivener of Hollywood scripts turned cinematic sultan, briefs his yawning battalion via blowhorn.
H.M.: NOW THEN! DUE TO MISADVENTUROUS CIRCUMSTANCES SURROUNDING THE SAKIR TAVERN DEBACLE, I HAVE BEEN VOTED MOST LIKELY TO MAINTAIN HIS SOBRIETY AND WILL STAND IN AS HEAD OF DIRECTION FOR THE DAY! ROGER THAT?
Roger the Grip: Yes sir?
H.M.: You hear that? That’s the sound of moxie! I’m appointing you as second-in-command, my good man! At ease with that clamp and hold vigil over my flock while I go shake dew off the old daffodil.
H.M.: (returning with a more resilient gait) Sorry everyone! I took so long in micturating that I could have etched Mene, Mene, Tinkle onto the washroom wall with my penknife in the interim! But I’m back and ready to commence! (handing Roger a stack of scene-specific scripts) Here, distribute these papers as if Dewey defeated Truman again – I’ve made some alterations.
(After some minor foofaraws over costume and makeup are resolved, preliminary blocking and read-throughs begin.)
Lorene: (affectedly reading her lines as ladylove to the pseudo-swarthy protagonist) George, did you really think I’d let you play the hero back there?
Keefe: (also reading lines as Giorgio, unconvincing male lead and covert Italian defector in the North African campaign) If you don’t want me to stick my nose into your business, I don’t have to.
Lorene: Well, mutagenically speaking, I…hold on, myoota-what?
H.M.: You’re alluding to the proportions of his proboscis. You think it might be cancerous.
Lorene: (dazed but continuing to read) I…I’d let you stick your nose wherever you please.
H.M.: (impatiently, after waiting a few seconds) Go ahead you two…osculate!
Keefe: We both see it written here, Mr. Palmer, but I don’t believe either of us are sure what that means.
H.M.: Shall we round up a couple of Berber stunt-doubles for your kissing scenes then?
Keefe: Excuse me, Mr. Palmer, but instructions are no place to get literary. Speak in plainer language for us.
H.M.: Alright then! Chop chop!
(A perfunctory embrace and buss are carried out by the two stars and their lines are resumed.)
Lorene: Oh, George, how I’ve been longing for that to happen ever since I met you…ever since I saw you in those biscuit-tinted shorts, I wanted you to say those two magical words to me: (her eyes bug out when she notices the nonsensical phrase “ETAOIN SHRDLU” written in upper case letters on her script) There is no sane way of pronouncing these words, Mr. Palmer! I mean really!
H.M.: Sanity is in the angel of the shoulder.
Lorene: (not having any of it) Do you know I am a graduate of the Locust Valley School of Elocution?
H.M.: Is that so? And were you the lucky intern who got to throw the switch on the Lonely Heart Killers?
Lorene: (shouting through cupped hands) Try shoving the small end of that blowhorn into your ear next time!
H.M.: Listen, you transatlantic priss –
Keefe: OK, enough is enough! No need to argue with him, Lorene. Mr. Palmer, with all due respect, the changes you’ve made to the script are outrageous. Is every assistant director still incapacitated with a hangover?
Lorene: Yes, and is our dear director still puking up his black coffee? Did he really leave this lunatic in charge? Where is he at?
H.M.: (searching for hangnails) Who knows…dancing the rhumba with Judge Crater perhaps?
The Director: What’s going on here? You all started without me?
Lorene: Oh thank Heaven! But what in Hell’s name made you hand over the reins to this nutso?
The Director: I never did any such thing!
H.M.: Backtrot go we until our words thought again become…but enough sophistications; I concede.
(Suddenly, as if the gods had transported his great figure to this locale in piteous expedience, Orson Welles is spotted from across the esplanade.)
Orson: (in a voice as plummy as ever) Who am I having the pleasure of shaking hands with? Harold Lloyd?
H.M.: Close! I’m H.M. Palmer, humorist at large. And what brings you to this desert coast?
Orson: Why I’ve been taking part in that modern profanation of shooting Shakespeare.
H.M.: About time someone euthanized that old tortoise.
Orson: (succeeding a guffaw worthy of Falstaff) One supposes!
H.M.: (recollecting) That’s right though – you put out that version of the Scottish Play a few years back, sans Scots, avec accents.
Orson: Yes…who’s crew is this?
H.M.: Uh, it’s mine actually, but, you know, in all my New York minutes of sitting in the director’s throne, I’ve become grandly disillusioned – Von Stroheim can hold onto his own damn monocle! No, my ideal – and you can tell me what you think Orson, I respect your opinion – my ideal film is one that showcases none but the most natural and undemanding of all actors: the animal!
Orson: (pretending to avert his eyes from the sun into his sack of onions) I see. A sort of hearkening to cinema’s origins in the galloping horses of the zoetrope?
H.M.: But more zootrophic – these actors aren’t unionized and will work for food. Just visualize this prelude for a moment – flashes in the dark moving on a gradient from calm to chaos: a parliament of owls huddled in winter…a murmuration of starlings on the first of spring…a fluther of jellyfish contesting the undertow…a quiver of cobras squabbling in a sand pit!…a crash of rhinos rumbling in a Serengeti heatwave!!…a maelstrom of salamanders overflowing a witch’s cauldron!!!…an implausability of wildebeests frenzied from an onrushing flash flood!!!!
Orson: (facetiously) How about you open with a quiet riot of flowers and leave it at that?
H.M.: (catching his breath and spelunking his pockets for a handkerchief) Please excuse me…I don’t know at which turn I ceased slavering and began slobbering.
Orson: I hope you won’t take offense to this question, but do you harbor some compulsion to remain persistently…grandiloquent?
H.M.: Entre nous…every one of my specialists – even my podiatrist – suspect it’s a curse. Some kabbalical trash collector gave me the evil eye when I pitched a Yiddish lexicon I’d been gifted for my bar mitzvah.
H.M.: As a matter of fact, W.C. Fields personally posited this glint of inspiration to my face – “Imbibe me this…,” Whitey hiccuped at me – Whitey was what all W.C.’s closest friends called him – “Imbibe me this, my boy…which came first? The -icken [hic] or the egg? The correct answer will either be inscrutably sage or whatever you want the answer to be so long as one maintains the answer’s consistency for the rest of one’s sorry life.” I’m trying to uphold both of those approaches at the same time.
Keefe: Sorry to interrupt this conversation Mr. Wells, but this kook has rewritten all of our scripts and thrown out the originals. Do you think you could help us whip up a rework?
Orson: I know better than to take sides in someone else’s mutiny or coup or whatever’s going on here. (to Palmer) I can see you’ve been raising some eyebrows, my friend.
H.M.: Lucky me – I’ve managed to raise Cain and eyebrows all in the same day. Pardon the zeugma.
Orson: (to Keefe) Look, if you want my advice, just remember that films come in cans.
Keefe: Cans? I’m not sure I –
Orson: Yes, cans, as in cans of beets or asparagus. They’re harvested at their freshest, appropriately ripe state and then sealed up for preservation. What I’m trying to say is, improvise until you get something you like and I’m sure you’ll be fine. And as for you Mr. Palmer, try and remind yourself that wit is the salt of conversation, not the food. Now if you’ll excuse me, I hear there’s a zarzuela in town and I’d like to catch it. Toodeloo.
Keefe: Now look at that – you’ve scared him off!
H.M.: Deliquesce for me, will you?
(Twilight. The day’s shoot is drawing to a close. If any apologies and forgiveness have been made, they were achieved out of misunderstanding.)
H.M.: I’m considering a rebrand in the vein of what the editors did last year with ACE. I’d stitch a chevron on the left sleeve of all my work shirts that says Q.E.D. (Qualified Experienced Director). What do you think?
Roger the Grip: …
H.M.: Couldn’t be held down for your tetanus shot, eh? So, what’s for dinner tonight? Shmoo?
Roger the Grip: I’m taking a nap.
H.M.: Hmmph…well, if you ever start to wonder where I’ve got to, you’ll likely find me leaning/loitering at a random barbican, slowly sipping away at some advocaat; I’m feeling pensive anyhow.
(And with that, our glorious and selfless abdicator gamboled among the crenellations of the city walls until he deplastered an advertisement pleading men of all ages to take a boat off-shore and ogle the ecdysiasts of a top-shelf fleshpot safe from the adjudications of Islam. On the back of this poster he began drafting his next screenplay.)