Bum Day

Today I played a bum in movie you will never see.

I regret not getting a still shot of me fully bummed out. The makeup lady went to town on me — I think she was tired of just covering up blotches and blemishes on the other actors and was happy to have someone for whom her job was exactly the opposite. In the end my skin looked filthy (not just dirty, but that ground-in grime that extends several millimeters below the surface), I had a nasty-looking sore on my lip, and I had a black eye. Some vegetable oil for the hair, and I looked truly awful. Given time, I think she would have continued to add deformities and lesions, but this is the movie business, and there’s never enough time.

It was raining lightly when we made our way from the makeup room onto the streets of Prague. I shouldn’t have looked in the mirror after the makeup was done; I felt a bit self-conscious walking down the street. Doubly so when the first thing we did upon meeting up with the rest of the crew was duck into a little cafeteria-style restaurant for lunch. I did not look like the kind of guy you want in front you in the chow line. (Did I mention the big ketchup stain I put on my chest?)

Lunch finished, it was time to start acting. We made our way to a nearby park and selected a bench. They had forgotten the classic bottle-in-the-paper-bag prop, and so I was handed a plastic bottle of wine (if you take a bottle into most wine stores here, they will fill it for you). The wine was pretty good. We did a few takes. “I think you’ve found your calling,” Little John said. He meant it as a compliment. Actually, I might have been overdoing it a wee bit, but the crew was laughing (later in the day a shot was blown when the crew laughed as I scratched my ass), and I was in touch with my inner bum. I took a few lessons from the Miguel Martinez face book, moved with that careful deliberation that drunks use, and when I moved to the next park bench I sat very heavily.

The temperature was dropping. It was not just meandering in a downward direction, it had a heartfelt need to explore the basement. [As I write this, it is snowing.] We did the scene several times, using the camera from different angles, while I slowly emptied the bottle. For the off-the-tripod shots, the cameraman said he wasn’t able to hold the camera completely steadily after a while. But we carried on, for the art. I blew a couple of decent shots by saying “I could be you!” instead of “You could be me!” Technicalities. I had a lot more lines than I had been told about, and none of them stuck that well.

The rain continued. My shoes leak.

A woman passed by, then stopped on the corner and made a phone call. “Think she’s calling the cops?” one of the crew asked. Apparently this little venture had dispensed with some of the formalities. “Nah, she’s smilin'” another said. Our next location was right around the corner from the police station. There were cops everywhere, but none paid any attention to us at all. I didn’t think about it, I just continued to ply my craft.

That’s what actors say, right? “Ply my craft”? Because, well, I really don’t know crap about that stuff. Or about acting, for that matter. But being a bum on a park bench, that I can do. Being a guy who appears to be a bum wandering the street who is actually not a bum at all, I managed to pull off well enough to make them happy.

“You should have asked for more,” the assistant said as he paid me. Next time, I will.

Sometimes, you see things.

I am sitting in a bar, watching a woman with no shirt serving beer to a man with no nose. Actually, I have seen that before, in this very bar. What I had not seen before was the event that drove me here.

First, a small detour. I was sitting in the Little Café Near Home when the call came in. I will be getting up absurdly early tomorrow morning. My last word from Athena had been costumes on Monday, shooting on Wednesday and Thursday. I got increasingly neurotic as I received no further word about costumes, and I sent Athena a couple of messages. No response. Tonight, while wrapping up my celebration of successful bumness, my phone rang. I am expected to be at a certain Metro station at 6 am. The good news: starting that early, overtime is a distinct possibility. The bad news: starting that early, I will be getting up even earlier.

But that’s not why I am here, now.

After the hokej (rhymes with hockey) game, Little Café Near Home cleared out. It was just me and Bechovins (rhymes with Bevins, only in Czech). Then another guy came in and started scooting furniture around in a nonsensical way. After some muddling he unplugged the now-quiet television and plugged in…

Guess. Go ahead and try. You won’t get it right, but if you guess something completely crazy and then read the next sentence, which will be more whacked-out than what you came up with, that will make the revelation all the choicer. Have you guessed? All right then.

…a hair clipper. Bechovins was getting a haircut. In a place that serves food. Faced with a choice between drinking in a bar where the only other guy was getting a haircut, drinking in a bar where women with no shirts serve men with no noses, and not drinking at all, I chose “B”.

The man with no nose is much more difficult not to stare at than the woman with no shirt. She is quite pretty, and if everyone here in the bar had a nose, she would be drawing my eye. Sadly for all, that is not the case. He has a piece of gauze taped with a big X over his face, and there is no bulge beneath. It has been this way long enough that I wonder why he has not come up with a better gauze holder, something more comfortable than tape. I don’t know how he lost his nose; there must be a story there. I hope that eventually he gets a new one. In the meantime, what bothers me most is the tape. But, like him, I am getting used to it.

Don’t mess with me, man, I’ve read The Art of War.

About five hundred years before some guy named Jesus said maybe we should be nice to each other for a change, another guy over in China set out to codify the methods of not being nice, and doing it really well. Sun Tzŭ had a lot of thoughts about war and its purpose. In his mind, war was a means to ensure the safety and prosperity of the people of a nation, and if that was at the expense of the people of another nation, well, so it goes.

In fact, throughout his writing, he comes up with argument after argument to support one of his primary tenets: fight the war in the other guy’s country.

For all that, Sun Tzŭ was not a big fan of fighting battles at all. In his opinion, the greatest generals would never become famous because they would rarely have to fight, and when they did they would already have manipulated conditions through espionage, subtlety, and misdirection, so that the battle was already decided before it was fought. The greatest general of all would never fight a single battle.

He also pointed out that war was expensive. He was a proponent of swift, decisive action, and advised that laying siege to a walled city was folly, and would only empty the coffers of your nation and cause undue suffering among the people, which in turn would undermine the security of your homeland. Instead, he advised swift and subtle action, finding something of value to the enemy that was less well defended, and attacking that instead, forcing your opponent to come out from behind his walls. If the enemy does not know where you will show up next, he will have to spread his forces thin, trying to protect everything. Sun Tzŭ advises not even trying to defend less valuable assets.

Are there lessons for the modern age here? The four years of carnage that was World War One run counter to everything The Art of War teaches. Today’s war on terrorism is less clear-cut. Certainly we are the larger force spread thin as we try to defend everything, yielding initiative. But even spread out, we are massive and can carry big hurt just about anywhere very quickly.

There are two other things in the book that stick out, however. The first is adaptability. The author (and subsequent commentators) lay out the principles of carrying out a successful military campaign, and getting the most from soldiers. Time and again, however, we are reminded that flexibility and creativity are critical assets. Sun Tzŭ also pointed out that direct confrontation is one of the last resorts for achieving your objective.

The second thing that sticks out is haunting, considering our current situation in Iraq. “In times of peace, plan for war. In times of war, plan for peace.” When the US military exceeded all expectations and swept into Baghdad, only to stand to the side as the city descended into civil disorder, setting the tone for all that has followed, undermining our authority and credibility, demonstrating an apathy toward law that has yet to be repaired, we saw what happens when you fail to plan for peace during a time of war. There was a period of two days when we had a (not guaranteed) shot at forestalling much of what has happened since. We could have been the undisputed good guys. We failed.

Some of the details in the book are not relevant anymore, and quite a few other people have done some thinking on the subject since. This work has the advantage of being brief, simple, and to the point. He did not say war was bad, he said it was expensive, and that it was best waged swiftly, or, better yet, without using armies at all. But once you have your army on, ou must know exactly what you want and where it is, understand the enemy and all his plans, and take the fight to him. If you are not certain, stay home until you are.