Sharing Steve :: New Stuff
Tuesday, August 09, 2005

First hand account of the Nantucket Film Fest Steve appearance

I rarely blog first hand accounts of events (because people rarely give them to me), but this one is worth it. You may see a version of it someday published in something more official than this blog, but enjoy the preview. As of now, the author is using a pen name of sorts.

posted on the messageboards:
Aug 9, 2005 12:21 pm
by One Tiny Bite

What if there was someone on the planet who seemed to think exactly the same way you did? Who went out into the world, casting such a similar lens on things, that you were constantly given an eerie sense of having a completely shared sensibility. Then, to top it off, that person wrote about it (sometimes comically and sometimes seriously) and so did you. The difference being that one of you was very famous.

This was how I discovered Steve Martin, the clown-faced comedian whose silly, deliberately exaggerated exterior appeared to mask a person of an entirely opposite nature.

On Saturday, June 18th at 11:30 a.m. Steve Martin sat down in the Nantucket high school auditorium to be interviewed by Bravo’s James Lipton, a highlight of the Nantucket Film Festival’s 10th anniversary. The session began ominously when Lipton pulled out an 8” high stack of cyan-colored cards and began shuffling them. Were these really the questions he intended to ask in a one hour conversation? Did Lipton fear that every answer would be monosyllabic, as Martin had been known for sometimes being terse in such situations?

Lipton’s lavaliere microphone failed and failed again and as the festival organizers rushed to the stage, Martin rushed out too, from behind the curtain, and the crowd broke into laughter when the comedian pretended to repair the problem.

I had come simply to watch but as a journalist and writer/producer, I found myself taking furious mental notes and cursing my failure to bring a tape recorder or even pen and pencil.

Here are some of the things that were revealed about Martin over the course of that day:

1) Martin reported that he “wasn’t very motivated in high school” and that he went to Long Beach State College because it was “near my house.” “I didn’t think about good or great schools the way we do today,” he explained. I had the impression that he was sort of intellectually dormant until something about college awakened him to the idea that thinking people existed in the world.

2) Throughout the interview, Lipton kept grilling Martin about all sorts of minor trivia associated with his films, “Do you remember when you said…?” I thought this was rather tactless of Lipton and revealed a sort of insensitivity and self preoccupation (Look at what a great researcher I am!) that probably gets edited out of his “Inside The Actors’ Studio” shows. It quickly became clear that Martin prefers to focus on the here and now and almost never re-watches his old movies, never mind dwelling on the cinematic minutia.

3) I’ve always found Martin to be a funny dresser, kind of pushing the envelope for effect. On this particular day, he was wearing a pale plaid jacket (maybe seersucker), chartreuse socks and something on his feet that looked like a cross between bowling shoes (circa 1960) and the spikes worn by a competitive sprinter. Just as I was thinking they were the oddest things I’d ever seen on a man of 59, he blurted out, “And I wore the wrong shoes.”

4) Martin evidently wrote 40 odd drafts of “Roxanne.” He laughingly observed, “Sometimes I have to update the scripts, like from horse and buggy to automobile.”

5) The actor/writer largely spoke directly to the audience and he seemed to have an uncanny ability to read the mood in the room. How far could this particular group travel along an intellectual theme? Would they be willing to listen to discussion on quarks and obscure schools of philosophy? At what point would Lipton drag them both into scientific or career details that would be of little interest to the audience? Martin was ready to rein him in. And he did this with the skillful lasso of humor, making repeated calls for brevity. He knew this was not “My Dinner With Andre” or even Salman Rushdie. I was fascinated to observe the dual faces of the man – his skill at communicating as the self deprecating Everyman (what we see in so many of his films) and the other Martin (lurking cautiously beneath the surface) in fear of putting off his audiences with too much brain power.

6) Martin began to talk about his particular brand of comedy and how he saw the sea change away from political comedians in the early 70s. But then he said something quite unexpected, “I began to avoid punch lines to see what people would do with the humor.” I’m paraphrasing here but it was close to that. It was as though he resolved to experiment with two ideas simultaneously – one was that every comedian needed to be absolutely confident, “never desperate for laughs” and two, that these blank spaces (absences of comic resolution) would force the audience into someplace far better than simply finding themselves at a final closing point. I thought this might be like Keat’s negative capability and it maddened me that Lipton didn’t ask him to elaborate. But there were 6 more inches of cards to cover. I vowed to ask him to explain this further during the Q and A.

7) One of the most moving moments was when Martin discussed a scene in the beginning of “A Simple Twist Of Fate.” Based on the novel Silas Mariner, the tale begins when a drug addicted mother dies. In the film she pulls her car off the road. In the book, the small toddler wanders, frightened and alone, through the mist toward the glow of a fire in a distant window. As Martin was recounting this moment (in both book and film) he stammered and paused, on the verge of tears. This was so unlike anything I’d ever witnessed him do that I was quite astonished. I guess I believe that only people who experience a kind of deep, insatiable loneliness will understand why this was so poignant. I wondered at that moment if Lipton recalled the tiny sign in Martin’s apartment window in “LA Story.”

8) Another tidbit that might be of interest to some was how Martin began, early in his career, to “jot down everyday things” that he found to be humorous. This constant trolling of real life for humor is why I believe his brand of comedy is so gentle and resonates with such a broad spectrum of people. So much of modern humor is based on insult or just plain crudity (witness the decline of Saturday Night Live) and yet there are really dozens of incidents we witness every day that are quite hilarious when captured and distilled into the essence of a scene. It’s a delightful state of mind to forever experience the world this way. As a writer, you take the best of these moments, condense them, and apply sufficient exaggeration to trigger a reaction of laughter. I thought how I am always resorting to satire when I recount events to other people or write opinion pieces. It’s reflexive at this point in my life. Martin suddenly remarked, “I live in a state of perpetual satire.” Again, I’m paraphrasing -- slightly.

9) The Sconset Casino is a homely place, nothing more than a dull-colored tennis court badly united with a main room where events can be held on a small scale. On Saturday evening, red carpet lined the entryway to add a touch of glamour but it seemed somehow vaguely ridiculous. Supposedly the Nantucket Film Festival had wanted to give this screenwriter’s tribute to Martin before but he was unable to attend. My sense was that he was barely there this time. The room was packed with industry sponsors, the old, grey and powerful and the young, nervous, and aspiring. The walls were decorated with posters from many of Martin’s better known films. The actor/writer wore a striped suit of what appeared to be silk and participated in the sort of polite, idle chit chat that people make while marking time before something of consequence happens. Behind him Macauley Culkin and some other youthful actors chain-smoked and acted silly in their beat-up shirts and jeans. I had the distinct impression that Martin was virtually looking through people, readying himself for the performance of “Being Steve Martin Accepting The Tribute,” the grateful millionaire who first beat out a young Lorne Michaels for an Emmy and now was recognizable anywhere on the planet. In real life the quality of his intensity is immediately apparent but not overwhelming. Perhaps this is because the man has managed his career so well that at nearly 60 he is still a huge box office draw, making films that you can actually watch with your children. There is nothing left to prove. Yet, I wondered, did he live in that life or in another world of novelists, musicians, artists, scholars – the frequently broke but the brilliant? Perhaps he simply straddled them, tonight somewhere inside number 1, feeding the celebrity machine that requires constant feeding and attention. There had been no Q and A after the high school interview. Lipton had exceeded his time allotment by over half an hour and Martin had made it clear he was ready to wrap. I still wanted to ask for the elaboration and to understand what Martin planned to do next with the Martin/Stein production company. This was the one subject neglected by Lipton. But I waited too long. It was time for the main event and Martin was hurried off to sit stage front and center while Brian Williams did the first of several introductions. Williams reminded us all of how rich he (Williams) was, how spoiled his children were, how they’d arrived in their own jet, while carrying on about red tide and other aspects of summering in Nantucket. He’d been to Iraq – making a quick tour in a bullet-proof suit, surrounded by armed military. This part of the story was actually connected to Martin because the commanding officer had told his troops to “get small.” I was thinking to myself, “You ain’t no Edward R. Murrow, more like, say, Pierce Brosnan or Roger Moore, playing the part of the suave anchor who seldom leaves creature comforts behind.” A few minutes later Martin leapt to the stage and observed that Williams should be given “the award for Pierce Brosnan look-alike.”


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