Monday, June 20, 2011

Pilot Down


On May 25th I sat down to some olives and a few bottles of wine with Raven B, graduate of Columbia University’s Film Program, Melissa B., a terrific New York stage actress, and Tuuli N., a speech communication and voice teacher from Finland. We all shared one thing: exposure to Perry Mills. Raven and I happened to take some of Perry’s classes, while Melissa and Tuuli knew him peripherally, so our two voices dominate here. But the wine was drunk by all. Here are a few choice moments from our evening.

Raven: …we used to ride motorcycles together, Perry and I—

Jakob: You used to ride motorcycles with him?

R: Yeah. I had this really shitty little—I mean, look at me, picture me on a motorcycle, and picture the sort of motorcycle I’d ride—it’s probably exactly what you’re thinking—

J: I’m picturing one of those little things that Hispanic teenagers ride that are like ”this big”—

R: It was essentially that – it was the smallest motorcycle that was technically still—

J: What was the horsepower on it?

R: It was…90 cc’s.

J: Was it? Do they actually make motorcycles like that?

Melissa: It was a vacuum cleaner.

J: You invented it.

R: I built it out of recycled things that I had lying around – but no, it was this tiny little thing that I had and I mentioned it to Perry in class, and he said (affecting a Mills gruffness) ”Well I ride motorcycles”. And he said we should ride motorcycles together.

J: What year was this?

R: Oh, goddamn, I lose track about a decade at a time—

J: Well, give a decade at least—was this the 90’s?

R: No, it was the oughts – maybe 2003.

J: Well you’re the only person I’ve ever spoken to who’s ridden a motorcycle with Perry Mills.

R: Actually, I will say on record that I had the scariest moment in my life riding a motorcycle with Perry Mills. You know Chuckanut—

J: Beautiful drive.

R: Yeah, and Perry basically taught me how to ride a motorcycle, because I had this little thing and – you know, he was very very patient with me – and I’d get on the thing and – he had this, you know, big old ugly hideous—

J: All the cc’s that were supposed to be in your engine went into his

R: He had siphoned them into his prior to me even getting that motorcycle – But it was ridiculous, my motorcycle – well, here I’ll show you what it looks like –

J: Great, we’re going to see a picture of Perry eating your motorcycle pop up on your iPhone…

J: Oh, no, that’s actually a really cute bike! I mean with 90 cc’s and all, at least it’s a good looking little thing…

R: Anyway, I had this stupid little piece of shit thing that maxed out at 50mph, and he took me out to Chuckanut, and I was terrified the entire time I was riding with him – he looked back and I was just very very tense… And Perry was like ”Okay, you’re not leaning into your turns, you’re just driving straight up like a prissy little boy”, so he made me get on the motorcycle with him, and – you know: ”Sit behind me, grab the fat and hold on”—

J: The best illustration of ”love handles”—

R: ”Faith handles”, yeah and, you remember, Chuckanut’s got very very tight curves, and he went like a million miles per hour and – you know, you’re supposed to turn into the corners and…I don’t know if he was showing off or this is how people are supposed to do it…

J: He went horizontal?

R: He went horizontal, and my elbow was like, you know, a centimeter from the—

J: While you were on it?

R: While I was on it, and I was like: Okay, I’m riding on the back of a bike with a crazy man and when we die people will find this out and say ”Okay, so he voluntarily got behind Perry Mills on a bike knowing who this man is?”

J: Like I said, you are the only person I’ve ever spoken to who has been on a motorcycle with Perry—

R: God, Perry, Jesus… No, but that was a joy, though, I really enjoyed it. You know, Perry’s known for having this rough exterior but when he was riding a bike he’d be like the sweetest man in the world, you know, he’d look over and say something about how life itself is all about what’s behind the next bend in the road, and you know, you realized that Perry was like this absolutely fucking – is. I guess he’s still alive.

(The room becomes laughter)

R: Sorry, Perry.

J: Don’t worry, this is going to go online verbatim—

R: Hey, I haven’t seen him in a thousand years. But, no, he was just really sweet when riding bikes. You know, he really loved it.

***

J: You were an English major.

R: So, your question is…

J: Why the hell do you know Perry Mills, why did you come over to the theatre department?

R: Well: A) The creative writing department was lackluster and B) I had to take some classes outside my discipline. And I read about a class that sounded fantastic, and that was Perry Mills’ Intro to Playwriting or whatever it was called. So I went over there, and signed up, and the class proved to be something wonderful. You’d present something and he’d either bat it away or draw it further out of you. And I was terrified but he was a saint: he drew me out of myself. He would not accept ”No” for an answer, he made me participate in (student run production company) New Playwrights Theatre, he made me do all these things…

J: But there was some talk about his overlooking people, or…

R: Yeah, well, it’s like when I ended up in graduate school I had this professor I hated with all my heart and soul, and I realized later that she was a lot like Perry Mills in that there was a narrow parameter that she’d take to in terms of art. And I came at her at the wrong trajectory—I just wanted to graduate because I hated the program and so I wrote this script that I felt was safe, it was something fluffy and light, and relatively stupid, and I submitted it to her and she hated it with all her heart, and I took it very personally and I hated her. But after some consideration—maybe on this very evening after several glasses of wine—I realized it was a testament to—I mean, I don’t really want to give her this much credit, because she’s probably still a horrible harpy—but I think it was a testament to her credibility that she recognized it was false and she batted it away and said ”This isn’t good enough.” And in so much as I think I still had potential and she might have ultimately been wrong about me, I think Perry may have done that with some people who for whatever reason attempted to approximate something they thought would be of his sensibility and he, sensing a fake, would bat it away. I, for whatever reason, happened to approach him honestly, saying: Here’s what I have, kill me if you have to. It’s like a story out of mythology: if you don’t approach the dragon with a pure heart he’ll eat you.

J: I remember seeing a student approach him—a new student—and this was very important to me, to see someone approach him for the first time—and she said ”Hi, I’m ignorant. Can you help me?” And I remember walking past that moment with a glow in my heart: she said the right thing. And Perry beamed, and from that moment on, as far as I know from how she described her experiences with him during school, he always took her seriously. I think she touched upon something in him that allowed him to think ”Oh, yeah, I could speak honestly to you for the next few years and make sure that you’re on the right track.” And other than that, I’m not sure what else a mentor is for.

R: Well, I remember one student, I think her name was Blandy McBlandoe, and she was really bored with everything, and she wrote this play, and it was really boring and, as bland as her heart was, it was from her heart. And I’m sure it was about whatever Perry hated most: like, being a 20-something-year-old with a 20-something-year-old roommate…and it was three-acts long. She put it up, she did everything she should have. And you could tell, Perry being a dragon, that he didn’t love her. But she stepped correct. As bland as she was, she approached the thing the right way. And he never gave her shit, when he spoke out it was always based on the work she put up, you know. ”This isn’t working right, etc., etc.” And she passed through his lair without incident, and graduated, and became an accountant or whatever. But the thing is that only the people who were really false to him were lashed out at. And pretty much the worst thing as an artist is seeing someone who’s just faking it break into the artistic world, because the only thing you die by is your convictions. Perry would reject insincerity.

***

R: Let me just say this, too: Perry is in many ways a selfless bastard. I mean, I would never be where I am now, which is…working at a restaurant—

(explosive laughter)

R: No! I mean, I would never have gone on to film school if it hadn’t been for Perry Mills, I would never have done anything like that without—

J: Where did you go to film school?

R: (Mock upper-crusty accent) Columbia University. But I would never have had the guts to do that, to pursue the arts wholeheartedly if it would not have been for this man, because he…it might have been a small view of the world that he had because he had been mired in the arts for so long but, you know, he never seemed to talk like there was anything other than that. You know, he’d basically say we were stuck in this purgatory and the only way out is through art. Which was great—you know, I took his class four fucking times—

J: Which class did you take?

R: Just the one, the playwriting class. You could take it—like, there was no limit on how many times you could take it—

J: Were you in the playwriting concentration?

R: No, I was in the creative writing concentration.

J: Right, you were an English major.

R: Yeah, I was seduced by Perry Mills. Not in a…sexual way…for those people who are paying attention—

J: There are none of those. Anyway, you had sex with Perry Mills—

R: Many, many times, on his motorcycle, at 180mph. No, but I took the first class on a whim, and I was terrified, because I’d heard Perry Mills was a motherfucker and the scariest man who ever lived—

J: And you never took his aesthetics class.

R: Never took the aesthetics class.

J: Well, I’m sort of both in admiration that you survived the motorcycle ride, but also amazed that you never went through that class.

R: Well, in my de—what’s the opposite of ”defense”?

J: Offense.

R: At my offense, I was a coward back then. I wanted to just stick to my thing—

J: Oh, I remember you now!

R: His playwriting class, though, to this day, was unlike any other workshop class I’ve ever taken. I’ve taken a lot of workshop classes since, and I took a lot prior, in creative writing, and…I can’t really tell the difference much between them except that this one was a lot like being on a pirate ship. There were a lot of people just trying to please Perry but that didn’t seem to really phase him because he’d just get to the heart of matters, which a lot of teachers I’ve had otherwise hadn’t done, and the reason is very very simple. The other classes I’ve had, there’d be this sense of political correctness or civility, which didn’t exist in Perry’s class. He may have hurt a lot of people’s feelings but if he thought your work was quality stuff he’d do the exact opposite—but it wasn’t a false sense of appreciation—you got the sense that Perry was there specifically to be this…he’d reject the work of people who really just shouldn’t be writers, and I think it was much to their service, stemming them off at a young age so they didn’t get themselves into a 150,000 dollar debt at film school like I am… Thanks, Perry.

J: But you’ve got a job in a restaurant to pay that off.

R: That’s true, I take that back. Thanks, Perry. He actually wrote me this beaming recommendation letter that I’m sure is one of the reasons I got into that fucking place.

Tuuli: Did you like Columbia University?

R: No, I hated it. But that’s not Perry’s fault. Anyway, Perry dissuaded people who should be dissuaded.

***

J: Well, Melissa, on that note, you knew Perry Mills at least at all, but you were in the acting concentration at Western. As I remember it, there wasn’t anything in place, at least in the acting section, that could act like some kind of quality control. I remember countless untalented people running up the bill with no one telling them: Hey, kid, this really isn’t for you.

M: When we were juniors, they instituted a process where you had to audition to get into the upper level acting classes. My group avoided that—I guess we were grandfathered in—but right after us they started to audition people if they wanted to move from the 200-level classes to the 300-level classes. And they weeded people out.

J: Well, the environment we’re talking about—the department, specifically the other teachers—that’s an interesting subject in itself. I remember, for instance, Lee Taylor—

M: Lee Taylor! I remember Perry once looking out the window, seeing Lee shuffling along, and he said ”Oops, looks like Lee’s cloaking device is malfunctioning again.”

(Bursts of laughter)

J: Well, I remember having to explain to Lee that purple wasn’t a primary color. He kept insisting that it was. And I got really frustrated and said ”Lee, the only primary colors are red, blue and yellow, you get purple by combining the first two, it’s secondary” and he got pretty purple himself and said ”Well, I meant it’s an important color.”

R: It’s primary to me!

(Laughter)

J: And he was the lighting instructor! This is what I mean: no quality control.

***

R: What’s interesting was going to Columbia after Western and, you know, film is a similar beast to theatre, there are a lot of egos involved, and that’s usually in the faculty—and the faculty is usually people who have ”wanted to” and failed and are resentful, and are now teaching people who are probably going to shoot past them… And this happens a lot at Columbia where, like what you guys were saying about the theatre department faculty: people taking resources that are meant to be allotted to the students—

J: Wait, we need more wine for this part.

R: Yes.

(Wine occurs, robbing us of the topic.)

***

J: Something hit me the other day, and I want to run it by you. Don’t stretch here with me if it doesn’t feel right, but something hit me about Perry. It seems to me, at 33, that I have now had just enough life-experience to realize how brutal a place the world really is. If I’m not 100% cynical or jaded, I certainly am damaged enough to get a lot of how Perry sees the world. So, by my gauge, he’s not necessarily wrong in his worldview. But at 23, I was barely old enough to know that the world existed beyond my front door, let alone how cruel and terrible it is and how much it doesn’t love me. I wonder, since Perry wants the best for people like us – people with an ear developing to handle hard truths – if he simply had, for the most part, the wrong audience because of wrong timing—that he should have been speaking with more experienced people who have more experienced ears.

R: That completely resonates with me. I completely agree with that. But I also feel like… Since moving to New York I’ve become obsessed with the afterlife – with hell, with the concepts that we consider when we think of ”the afterlife”—and purgatory and everything are simply warnings: warnings against character breaches or character excesses, etc. And with Perry I felt that he was a guy who crashed there. A place where he shouldn’t have crashed. Because Perry’s a great pilot. He’s a great guy, a smart guy, a terrific writer, all these things. But he crashed. And it’s a place where people like us shouldn’t crash. And he was desperately warning us away from that spot. But yeah, I mean, he would say this in his own words—in fact, one quote I’ve been thinking about a lot from him is ”If I was living up to my potential, you would never have met me.”

J: He said that?

R: All the time. And that said to me, he shouldn’t have been here, we shouldn’t have met him at this point in our lives—

J: But do you ultimately feel that there was a useful justification to his being there?

R: A useful justification?

J: Obi-Wan Kenobi could have come across any Jedi-wannabe. It was all in the timing that the match between him and Luke Skywalker was made and made right. We can only speak to the period we were actually in—it seems kind of worthless to think about what could have been, what he could have done, but—

R: Was it a beneficial period? I mean, when I think about the definition of a hero—as someone who’s basically—I mean, hopefully the debate about what constitutes a hero will go on indefinitely, but one definition is: here’s a man who’s overqualified for his station, settling in a place that’s somewhat beneath him…I mean, I can’t make a nice soundbyte here—

J: You don’t have to.

R: I don’t want to be elitist but I also don’t want to be the opposite of elitist—

J: Deletist?

R: I don’t want to be deletist! I don’t want to beat everyone up: but we went to Western. Lord knows how we’re doing now, lord knows how we’ll do later, but I think we were hitting a little below our mark and there was a very lovely safety net to catch us and spring us back up and inspire us to do what we should have been doing, to be what we should have been all along, and I think Perry did that for a few choice people. And, yeah, so: goddamn right that was wonderful. And I’ve been reading Richard Dawkins lately and reading about how genes are always working to make as many copies of themselves as possible—and with Perry, I mean, I don’t want to say he failed in the slightest, and I think it’s terrible that he’s been kept away from teaching, but I think he basically put himself in a position where he could catch a few people with low self-esteem, catch a few people who were on a bad trajectory, and that’s a great thing. I mean you’re here and I’m here… If you can save even two people, that’s… I mean, I didn’t even know if I was going to go to school, I didn’t know what I was going to do…but the man reversed my trajectory; he flipped it and pushed me upward, and he did it single-handedly. He did it out of instinct—he saw things that needed to be batted away and things that should be batted back into the game and he did that. Instinctively.

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