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June 4, 2018 Nonfiction

The Shape of a Story

Jason Schwartzman

The Shape of a Story photo

1.

“Bit ‘im in the jugular,” the truck driver tells me about the bear ten feet away, describing the day the bear went crazy. I’m working on the set of a low-budget boxing film on Brooklyn’s industrial edge. Today they’re filming a dream sequence, and it’s cold and rainy. I can’t see the bear, but his padlocked trailer is shaking right in front of us. 

The shoot is almost done; there is just this bear between us and completion. A 300-pound bear that once attacked his own trainer for no discernible reason. His “best friend,” according to the truck driver. Do bears need reasons? I am standing on the elevated step outside the truck door so I can get one step farther away from the bear. Through a square porthole I can actually see the bars of his steel cage. The driver is cueing up the attack video on YouTube. It is very early in the morning, but he is smoking a celebratory cigar for some obscure personal victory. Or maybe this is just how he begins his day. 

At first, the bear and his trainer are playing. It seems light and friendly, but soon enough the one-inch bear on the iPhone goes berserk and lunges at the trainer’s throat; I have to look away. Even though the truck driver told me what was coming, I can’t quite believe it. There is no cue, no transition—it is clearly not a movie scene. What was half a joke hardens into something more real, the man stumbling off screen clutching his bloody neck.

The trailer shakes again.  

“I don’t understand why they don’t put a bear down. They’ll put a dog down,” the truck driver says, agreeing with me that it’s upsetting and strange this same bear is appearing on the set — that he is still eligible for a scene-stealing cameo. 

 

2.

I have never seen the set itself. I’m a hired hand assisting craft services on days when there are more extras than usual. I am possibly the lowest person on the tall totem pole of the film — a temp’s temp. It started off as a not-so-bad way to make a little extra cash, but at some point I have to admit that these little side jobs are consuming more and more of my life. It’s hard to remember the stuff you thought you were good at when you’re on your knees in the back of a van buried in sacks of Sweet’N Low and wrapped in an enormous fur coat someone leant you because you underdressed. Your grip loosens on the story you used to tell yourself. 

Maybe it is also the fact that there are people pretending, that everyone is an actor, or the fact that the crew members are constantly saying Real Barbara and Real Bob, like we all have two selves. 

The boxing film is “based” on a true story, turns out.  

 

3.

We are instructed not to bring honey today. Usually we set up right outside the restaurant’s entrance, but today we are banished all the way around a corner. Outside is away from the cameras. Outside is jokes, breaks, cigarettes. We brew the coffee, pour out the candy, slice the bread — we are the ones who sate the overworked and the stressed. 

“Any bennies in there?” someone asks me about the M&M's.

With the staff’s hunger comes news of the bear — he is already inside. Apparently this is the bear’s second entrance, since he had to be led in before anyone arrived. A dress rehearsal so he could get used to the environment, so the pathway would seem familiar before all the humans came with their cameras and lights and voices. Apparently the murderer of his best friend likes marshmallows. Fruit loops, too. 

“Did you see it?” everyone asks me, meaning the bear, not the video. 

Word is that the bear is very sweet: his interests include walking in circles and having his neck scratched. He travels with a companion female bear, who soothes him. I ask a Serbian woman I sometimes chat with to describe the bear to me, to those of us outside who do not merit the privilege of seeing the bear firsthand.

“Why would I do that when I can just show you the picture?”

The picture just looks like a bear. It is static, so I learn nothing about this particular bear who is supposed to brawl with the boxer. Unable to see the real thing, I at least want the story. I always thought a pleasure of stories was to feel close to something that’s actually far away, an illusion of proximity.  

Due to my penchant for thinking about these kinds of things, someone calls me The Philosopher. I embrace this new identity. I dress myself up in it. 

“They call me The Philosopher around here,” I tell everyone. 

Someone mentions a lousy bear he once worked with that was supposed to be scary but kept getting scared. We are vanned to a church basement for lunch and a girl with a septum piercing shows me a video of the bear on set. He seems surprisingly playful and cute, but I feel compelled to tell her about the bear’s history. About the jugular. 

“Don’t you know?” I ask. 

 

4.

The set sometimes feels like thoughts moving through a consciousness—these constant random exchanges with hordes of one-lining strangers. One crew member has been obsessing about zombies all day. He asks aloud what zombies are a metaphor for. What do they mean? 

I mention some of my theories: mindless consumerism, immigration, etc. Later he walks through again, his zombie questions veering into thoughts about himself. What he thinks the zombie movies are about: being you but not you. 

“Don’t you ever say something or do something and wonder: ‘Why’d I do that?’” he asks forlornly. 

It sounds like maybe he heard the rumor of the murderous bear too, and it conjured a dark memory. An ill-conceived affair. A mean-spirited message he sent. 

I try to toss in my two cents and set his mind at ease. “Of course!” That’s something that is actually very human, I say. Not being consistent. Not always knowing. But he isn’t really listening to me. He looks expectantly at a higher-ranking crew member.

“Uhhh, no,” the guy answers emphatically.

 

5.

The Serbian women tells me that she grew up with bears, owing to an eccentric father who reminds me of the protagonist of every John Irving novel. She’s on her break, one cigarette after another, and she shows me the pictures to prove it. 

They named the bears Meda and Medita. Boy and girl in Serbian. She also says she’s from Iowa—it seems unexpected but possible, the old waves of European immigration to the Midwest. I mention one of my Iowa bits, that, like some of the Midwest, you can recognize it by the perfect gridded regularity of the region when seen from above, sized for crops. She gets confused and the jig is up. Then a confession: she has never had any bears.

Is that what happens on a set? The proximity to a larger fiction inspiring smaller ones? Everyone fancying herself a storyteller? Or is it just what happens anywhere, inventing yourself over and over again?  

At first I like the anonymity of the job, but over the course of the day, I crave shreds of recognition. That I am not just this. That there is more to me than subpar kiwi slicing. 

“I’m an editor,” I tell someone when they ask. “A writer.”

Sure I am, but I am this other thing, too. 

She calls me a “double agent.” 

It hits the spot. 

Calling everything “material” as a way to comfort yourself. 

 

6.

Instead of complaining about the weather, conversations about Grizzly Man are substitute pleasantries. Werner Herzog tried to make it seem like a mystery, but really it was simple, some guy says. Dude showed up at the wrong time of year, when there were no more salmon. If the bear have their salmon, he said, you can walk right up to them. 

“He didn’t have food so he became food. They’re not stupid — they remember.”

Bits of the YouTube video nag me all day, seemingly preloaded for my spare minutes. I never get to see the bear with my own eyes though — I don’t even know he’s gone until someone tells me. 

During the long eras of downtime, I am still talking about the bear, wondering about it, and someone tells me the truck driver is a liar, is just pulling my leg. 

“I saw a man die,” I tell him, awkwardly attached to the idea.

Somehow it feels like something is being taken away. With all this downtime to think, I wonder if I latched onto the legend as a kind of narrative ticket, an outsider’s way of sneaking inside the set I was never allowed to visit. Tired of being on the periphery of things. Of moving to a new borough and knowing no one. Of always missing the heart of the matter.

What a magical thing: a bear in New York City. The skyscrapers his forest. The fur and the steel. A wonder. 

 

7.

We have second meal and I am just shooting the shit with the PAs. There is not much left for us to do. It is sinking in that I was likely duped by the mischievous truck driver, that the video bear was another bear queued up from a basic YouTube search. 

As I think more about it, I realize that maybe the man in the video didn’t even die. I feel relieved. The narrative possibilities are spinning, spinning, spinning. 

Another PA sits down and we talk about the rumor of the bear. About how I believed the story. 

“It’s probably true,” this second PA says, to my surprise. 

Someone sitting nearby wonders aloud why the bear isn’t in jail for what he did. 

“He already is,” the first PA says. 

 

8.

“That’s the real boxer,” people whisper when the man on whom the movie is based shows up. 

Everyone wants a picture with him, an anecdote, a shred of this man they can peel off and slap somewhere on the virtual walls of their life. I am no different. It feels like a personal messiah has arrived. I endure the special pleasure of having my hand crushed by his. 

“What’s the secret of boxing?” I ask him, sliding back into reporter mode. 

“Training. Conditioning,” he says, “but it doesn’t hurt to have a 20-inch neck.”

He is Chuck Wepner, a famous bruising long shot, one of only four people who actually knocked down Muhammad Ali. So tough they called him the Bayonne Bleeder. The guy could bleed out a million quarts and still stand. No one was able to knock him out, not once.  

“Never been stopped yet,” he told me, now an older man.

As it happened, a then-obscure actor named Sylvester Stallone watched his 1975 title bout against Ali from across the country in LA. He wrote a screenplay based on Wepner’s life which became Rocky, one of the most successful movie franchises of all time. Wepner never saw a cent, though. 

Later I read in an interview that he used to falsely claim he got paid $70,000 because he was embarrassed. It was his life and he got nothing? 

It doesn’t seem to bother him anymore. Maybe because he’s finally getting his own movie, or maybe he just got over it. Still, I can’t help but notice he keeps a thick wad of photographs inside his jacket pocket, secured with a rubber band. He’s a sweet man. All he wants to do is show everyone his pictures. Here he is with Big Celebrity A, with Big Name Politician B. 

Here he is with a bear. They actually fought, once upon a time. 

Wepner gives me his card, which lists various achievements and the phone number for the liquor store he owns. I look it over, feeling like some kind of kin. All of us clutching our own myths. Some true, some less true, all ours in the end. 

“Inspiration for Rocky Movies,” his card says. 

 

image: Aaron Burch


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