Saturday, April 4, 2009

Sing Thee To Thy Rest

Other than my brief goodbye, I haven't really had a chance to address the recent loss of Steven Bach, a screenwriting professor of mine from Bennington College.

He was probably the first teacher I'd had who made me feel like I'd stepped sideways in the world, slightly out of sync with my life as it had been lived previously. "Him?," I thought. "This man, former senior vice president in charge of worldwide production at United Artists and producer of such movies as Hair, Raging Bull, and Annie Hall, has come down from the heights of the profession I'm hoping to enter just to thumb through my inconsequential dramatic doodlings? How did it come to this? I'm just a kid from podunk Georgia...."

He wasn't the kind of teacher you were ever "close" with; Steven was much too dignified to indulge in anything like gossip. But this dignity meant that he treated the ideas of those around him with respect. And if you faced his honest scrutiny with a confidence that your ideas deserved his attention--in short, with your own dignity--then even fundamental disagreements were amicable and informative.

This is not to say that every single student was treated to a jovial how-de-do and a cup of warm cocoa. Like every diplomatic soul, he had little patience for people who seemed unaware of how they appeared to others, or for those whose default response to criticism was to dig in their heels and bare their teeth. To quote a stoic of whom Steven undoubtedly approved, "If evil be spoken of you and it be true, correct yourself; if it be a lie, laugh at it." He preferred that people take their slings and arrows straight on.

After hearing that he'd passed, I went digging around and found an old notebook from one of my screenwriting classes with him, just to relive for a moment my brief time under his tutelage. Below are a few of the advisorial bon mots I was sufficiently amused and/or enlightened by to record for posterity:

  • "Put a gun on the table--it's gonna go off. Hang a little girl from an orange tree--somebody's gonna notice, besides the Florida Orange Tree Council!"
  • "I don't play."
  • On the flaw in studio execs' stressing character likability over all else: "If I ask you to close your eyes for ten seconds and when you open them I have laid on the table a teddy bear and a rattlesnake, I know where your eyes will gravitate."
  • To a student whose screenplay featured a man who may or may not be a sexual predator: "You've gotta take him off the hook of our wandering, debauched minds."
  • "It's okay to be comical in a tragic situation, it's not okay to be trivial."
  • On inborn talent: "...And Sibyl Shepard, when she was 25, was Sibyl Shepard."
  • On our class time together: "This isn't the self-pity hour."
  • On negotiating for anything you can get away with: "PriceChopper doesn't give food away, even though you're cute and you've got a pencil."
  • On character development: "Nobody lives such a one note life except monks...and we're not so sure about monks even."

And finally, just to demonstrate his control of understatement:

  • "We're the most harmless people in the world, in Bennington, Vermont."

He will be missed.

1 comment:

John Harlacher said...

He sounds like a brilliant fellow. You are lucky to have learned from him.

Thanks for sharing!