Friday, April 3, 2009

For Steven

Steven Bach used to start each Monday screenwriting class by asking us what movies we’d seen over the weekend. He’d go around the table asking everyone, no matter how much work he’d assigned for that day; and sometimes one response would provoke him into a story about the film in question or someone he knew in the movie business that would hold us all in silent attention until that final denouement when he’d break the silence with: “So Harry, what’d you see?” Always the showman, when Steven spoke the subject matter always came alive. Whether he was describing Romeo and Juliet as a play “about two fourteen your old kids who do it,” ruminating on Moses’ speech impediment, or defending the college’s educational philosophies (“You kids don’t realize that most other places are just glorified community colleges compared to Bennington”); we listened.

But it was always the world of old Hollywood that he created most vividly as his passion added a zany realism to a subject that in the wrong hands could become little more than a sequence of names, dates, and deteriorating celluloid. You could almost hear David O Selznick fast-talking his way to the top and see D.W. Griffith peeking down the blouses of the underage girls on set. That was his world, and to sit in a Steven Bach class or to read even a single page of one of his books was to lose yourself in that magic. He knew full well that world was foreign to us and was always asking us questions to probe the extent of the generation gap (“Do you kids know Rita Hayworth?”). Modern Hollywood blockbusters seemed to fill him with confusion and disgust—like when he’d fumblingly refer to The Matrix Overloaded or The Matrix Overboard—though behind those misnomers lay a wisdom about the workings of Hollywood I still don’t understand after six terms of classes and 400 pages of Final Cut.

He spent most days in class tearing into our mistakes and pushing us to create work that could compare to William Goldman’s lyrical terseness or Bud Schulberg’s brutal power. I got that crazy feeling that maybe he really believed in us; and perhaps that’s why I was always trying to impress him and consequently was always so devastated by the poorly-planned scripts riddled with sentimentally clich├ęd ideas that I’d inevitably turn in. Bennington was a world of impossibly lofty standards for me that all-too often left me ashamed of my work or too embarrassed to even try developing it. But after four years of discouragement, I’ll never forget our Senior Dinner when Steven came up to me in that flamboyant orange ruffled shirt he reserved for social affairs to shake my hand and tell me how much he enjoyed the story I’d presented at the Senior Literature Reading because it had just been so funny. This was a story that had been subsequently rejected by the Interrobang (“Doesn’t fit the style of our publication”) and Silo (“We encourage you to submit again next year”). I had no idea how to respond. A man who had greenlit Woody Allen scripts, shared dinner with Orson Welles, whose vividly intense prose lingered long after I’d moved on, and who I admired more than any other person I’d ever known, liked my writing. I remember being flustered, humbled, surprised, and thanking him in that stuttering manner I adopt in awkward social situations. And that was the last conversation we ever had.

I still don’t know what to make of all that. One of the very few writers who presented his world to me and helped me believe that my dreams were actually within striking distance is gone. I’ll miss you, Steven.

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This entry was very difficult for me to write, and though I'd love to record every memory I have of Steven Bach and what he meant to me and all of us at Bennington, I lack the skill or energy necessary for the task. Randall, however, has prepared a wonderfully honest series of essays in his blog, which I encourage you to visit.