Precious Lord, Take My Hand–Thomas A. Dorsey

ten commandments 1

By Lara Shelton

The building I worked in was called the Egg. It was a beautiful piece of brickwork and brass with an airy inner court, which sat just across the street from the Universal lot, and was scheduled for demolition when the Metro Line came through. Every morning I spent a few minutes in the car becoming appropriately tense for the day while the Metro workers in their glaring orange uniforms dissected the building with scopes. A casting office occupied half of the Egg, and the front entrance was a study in factory-floor dehumanization. Budding actors and actresses would enter as if on a conveyor belt, their headshots and resumes tucked into manila envelopes, and exit a short while later, having been processed by the rejection mill into something lifeless and uniform.

Most mornings the sidewalk near the entrance was claimed by a homeless man with a puppet, the kind with long boneless arms which looped around his neck in a listless hug. The puppet had mangy blue fur, and sang gospel in a booming baritone.

Precious Lord, take my hand!
Lead me on, help me stand.
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn!

The man was blind, but apparently the puppet could see perfectly. He looked me up and down with his bulging plastic eyes. I liked his mangy appearance, the immediate and ironic contrast he made with the people entering and exiting the casting office. When I gave them a dollar, the man took my money and put it in his shirt pocket without pausing in the song:

Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home!

Before I could get through the doors I heard Kathleen sweetly bellowing, “Is that my favorite assistant?” I was her only assistant. Somehow she made me feel like a kept woman.

Sphinx“We’re interviewing Production Designers today,” she mouthed around a headful of phone. “I need you to pull files.” She gestured to the dozen or so Post-It notes she had stuck to my desk:

Call Lightning Dubs about trailer
Return reels to:
L. Piton
S. DeMaro
Send Thank You to Evelyn Marsh Agency for lovely (!!!) flowers
Find a new office! The Egg closes in three weeks!

I nodded and silently went about my business. The office was always fraught with tension, even when it was only Kathleen and me. We were packaging a Virtual-Reality Twilight Zone rip-off, to whom an aging male actor who had enjoyed a hit sitcom in the early eighties was attached. We were currently working on designing a “look”, yet from the mood of things anyone might have thought we were preparing for war.

I was not a paid assistant. I was an intern. What nobody tells you is that going to film school does not prepare you, in any sense, for working in the film industry. What they do tell you, over and over, is that you’ve got to pay your dues. Nobody tells you what those dues are, exactly. And so even though, as a recent film school graduate, I couldn’t find a paying job, I threw myself into everything, including helping Kathleen design a “look,” for long hours and no pay, in a kind of quasi-religious penance. I sat in on meetings. I went to screenings. I fielded hundreds of hand-scrawled Post-It notes. Most of what was talked about, or screened, or written, had very little to do with my reasons for attending film school in the first place. But I had to pay my dues.

sphinx 2Kathleen had a vaguely feline aspect to her. She was languid and derisive. She always seemed to be thinking about what others could do for her. She was neither attractive nor unattractive, but there was a certain self-possession which cast a spell. She had no room for doubt or even self-reflection. But there was also something about her which made me think she had been an ugly child, or at the very least, a child who had been told often that she was ugly. At some point, I reasoned, she had made the decision to become powerful, and this image of herself somehow sustained her through the inevitable insults.

One day her Post-It note had read:

While I’m in London:
Call Lightning Dubs about trailer
Research a new office space before they tear the building down!
Handle phones and office. Be present.
I’m taking you to lunch today. I appreciate you. So make a reservation.

By then I knew her well enough to schedule my “thank you” lunch at her favorite restaurant. Her impending trip had made her wistful. “I remember what it was like,” she said over a plate of farfalle, “huddling on the beach without a permit on a cold winter night, trying to get off those last two shots. And your feature has shrunk to a short because you’re so far under budget. Somewhere along the line, you have to compromise that naïve college student integrity. You have to kiss ass. What you hope is that some day, after all the ass-kissing, you’re in the position to kick it.

“The world sometimes seems glossy,” she said, “like an Interview or an Entertainment Weekly. You tell yourself you deserve these things and it’s as if you really belong there—you really belong in Aspen, or at the Venice film festival, because you think that somehow you’re better than other people. Somehow more entitled. And the more you keep telling yourself that, the more ambition you have for yourself, the farther you’re going to go.” She paused, looked out at the traffic on Cahuenga. “So maybe I’m nothing special,” she said. “I try not to think about it.”

sphinx 3It’s hard to convey the mood of utter hopelessness which had descended on me following college, but I suspect it wasn’t unusual. There was a period where I couldn’t shake the feeling that the world was a very hostile place. This was shortly after the Rodney King verdict and the ensuing disorder. Los Angeles was huge, and there was a sense in which the connective tissue which had once held it together was strained to breaking. Chaos threatened to erupt from the thin crust of asphalt. People on the freeways kept their windows rolled up. Gang bangers flashed signs on street corners. Junkies shot up on the Walk of Fame.

In the world of the industry, everything was surface. Most of the people around me seemed content to get caught up in the glamor and intrigue, to touch the hems of various celebrities’ garments and snipe about them behind their backs, or to penetrate the inner sanctums of power and afterward deride their decorating schemes. Being in film school had been the most exhilarating experience of my life, and a number of my professors had commented that I was one of their most promising students. I still dreamed of some kind of artistic fulfillment, and the snarky insider anecdotes I was gathering seemed poor compensation for the sense of losing touch with my dreams. I was broke, living with my mom, and working for Kathleen. For free. It was a harsh comedown.

While Kathleen was in London I was required to attend her social events. One was an Industry party where there was supposed to be ample opportunity to make good contacts. However, most of the executives had sent their assistants as proxies and we all drifted around the room, partaking of sushi and business cards. After an hour or two I began to feel completely disassociated from myself and sat down at the pay bar.

A girl whom I knew only in passing sat down next to me. “I get what you’re doing,” she said.

“What am I doing?”

She smiled an odd little apelike smile which I only belatedly realized was her way of removing a fleck of seaweed from her teeth. “You’re trying to look important,” she said. “You look important by looking disinterested.”

I wondered if the sense of disassociation I was feeling was a hallmark of the important people in the Industry. If there was a look. And if the look was everything. “So why aren’t you mingling?” I asked.

sphinx 4“I’ve schmoozed all the good people,” she said. I surreptitiously watched her face as she scanned the room. She had a big face, and I think that was why I had remembered her. I thought, this girl’s face belongs on a Rose Parade float, three stories tall. I could almost see the little driver behind her eyes pushing his animatronic buttons as she careened down Colorado Boulevard. “Are you going up to Santa Maria this weekend?” she said. “A bunch of us are going up for a cheap weekend.”

“It’s the first I’ve heard of it,” I said.

“I figured Patty had asked you,” she said. “We’re going to find the ruins. At the beach.”

“In Santa Maria?”

She nodded. “From when they filmed The Ten Commandments. They’re buried up there in the sand.”

The night was pink with neon as I careened down Sunset after the party. I was in a bad state. Everything was surface, and every surface was shiny and vacant. A man dreams a dream, and then takes a picture of that dream. And the picture becomes the reality, and what is left behind is only ruins, and they make for a cheap weekend.

sphinx 5When Kathleen got back from London something was revealed at work. First, the puppet man was gone, and his absence was eerie, like the silence of birds preceding an earthquake. I found myself singing the words precious Lord, take my hand, as I entered the office. And meaning them.

Inside, Kathleen was speaking with the IT guy who was on staff in the Egg building. “It froze up on me,” she said, as she gestured for me to sit down and listen as well. “I can’t get at any of my files.” I pulled up a chair and sat down next to her. The IT guy was showing her how to use the fax modem. Kathleen was talking to him as if she wanted to get him into bed. She was wearing a white man’s shirt, no bra. As she leaned over to speak to him her shirt, buttoned too low, fell open and her right breast, small and pointy, nosed outwards. And I was close enough to see the dark hairs which surrounded the nipple, like a man’s. Once again I got the sense of the girl who had been told, over and over again, that she was ugly. Something about this made me immeasurably sad. I got a stronger sense, somehow, of what the dues were. I knew I did not want to pay them.

I didn’t quit, not exactly. When Kathleen sent me to check out a new office facility to move into, I just left and never came back. I left a Post-It on her windshield wiper which I hoped would convey my feelings:

I can’t do this any more. Please don’t call me.

She did call me though, again and again. This, too, made me immeasurably sad. I felt bad for not being able to tell her directly why I couldn’t work for her, but how do you tell someone that she is a ruin? Moreover, how do you tell her she is a ruin of something that never really existed in the first place?

A couple of weeks later the Egg Building was torn down. I drove by just to see the empty space where it had once been. I got no satisfaction from this.

lara pic
The Ruins at Santa Maria

Eventually, in another, very different life, I made my way up to Santa Maria. The beach there was lonesome and vacant, and I thought about the ruins, hidden underneath the sand. They had once been part of someone’s vision. Now they waited to be discovered, like the bones of something huge and dangerous. I didn’t venture out to find them, though. I wanted to let them lie.

Mahalia Jackson sings “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”

Link to news article from the Santa Maria Sun

Precious Lord, Take My Hand–Thomas A. Dorsey

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