THE PROFESSIONALS by Noah Buschel

Some director friends of mine have lately been saying that they’re gonna move their stuff up to the next level. What’s that mean? Well, they explain to me—go for a bigger budget. Go for a bigger audience. Also have an all professional cast. The last part, I get puzzled.

“What do you mean professional?” I ask them.

“Ya know. Like professional. Gone to school, had the training. Been in a bunch of professional projects. Like a professional. Someone who knows what the hell they’re doing.”

“Oh,” I frown. It starts to get really hot on the streets all of a sudden. I wanna go home. In the worst way.

Cassavetes was an artist who always talked about mixing amateurs and professionals. The amateur doesn’t know what the hell they’re doing. There’s a beauty in that. Mix it with the professional’s expertise and you’re gonna get something very lovely, very unique. If one just has a bunch of experts, things are usually gonna be just blah blah blah. They may be smooth and bright and shiny—but there won’t be any personality. It’ll just be a Corvette. There’s another one around the corner. And another one around the next. It’s manufactured beauty. But beauty can’t be manufactured.

It’s hard to cast amateurs sometimes. Maybe you get flak because the producers think you’re just giving your friend a hand out. Or maybe the casting director has some grand theater thespian who deserves the part and has worked his ass off all his life. But it’s probably wise not to get too caught up in resumes and stuff like that. Some waitress who’s been working in a diner for the last ten years may very well be better for a role than the Juilliard chick. And by better, I don’t mean she’s going to be a better actor or performer. But she might be simpler. And she might keep the Tony nominated actors and the Academy Award nominated actors a little more honest. She also might keep the director a little more honest.

And if it is your friend that you wanna cast and that’s the reason? Because you love them? Because you love them and know their heart? And you would trade in a thousand eminent ingénues for them. And you would be honored to have them represent you in any capacity, at any hour, in any way. Well… that doesn’t seem so bad, right?

We live in a time where a lot of us are pretty petrified of imperfection. Some of us beat ourselves up about it. If you don’t have the right jacket, or the right opinion, or the right pedigree—you might as well not even show up on the scene. But when I think about the moments in my life that have made deep impressions, and the movies too—they’re hardly ever perfect. They’re messy and filled with mistakes. Watching Altman’s California Split—it’s one big chaotic dance, stepping on toes all along—and by the end, you’re in love. When has anyone ever fallen in love with perfection? What’s to fall in love with? There’s nothin’ there. I’ve fallen in love with body odors and pimples and sideway smiles and mental illnesses and watching someone try to rise above those illnesses. But I never once fell in love with perfection.

Thinking about Robert Altman got me thinking about McCabe & Mrs. Milller, which makes me think of these lines by Leonard Cohen:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

When I was in my mid twenties I spent a fair amount of time hanging out with a movie star who was in his early twenties. His motto was “I’m a professional.” For instance, I would ask him how he handled tripping on tons of acid at Macy’s for a whole day—and he would toss back his Kurt Cobain hair and snort, “Because, Noah, I’m a professional.” That was his answer to everything pretty much. And in retrospect he was totally right. He was a professional. Still is. And I think it was he who made me realize that the one thing I never wanted to be was that—a professional. I never wanted to be so in control or so invulnerable. No matter how seductive the power he wielded was, I knew he was going up against something far more powerful. He was going up against surprise. Against openness. Against life itself. A professional can even control things enough that he thinks he’s letting go, that he’s in the moment. But he’s not really. Not as long as he’s a professional.

So we try to mix it all up. We throw those different parts of ourselves together into our art. The baby, the killer, the authority, the beginner. All the different aspects of our being. And then whatever comes out comes out. Someone might say it’s strange or unusual. Someone else might say it’s uneven. But there’s gonna be some kind of dignity to it. Some warmth and honesty to it. For me, if I can go see a movie where I feel like it’s half a personal home movie and half an intensely polished piece of craft—I’m in heaven. Hell to me is riding up the escalator at Macy’s, loaded on LSD, while trying to become a snow leopard.

Who shot the gun that set off the run? Are we really all supposed to race each other? I realize there are a limited amount of slots and the cream always rises and all that bullshit… but that’s just Darwin paranoia insanity. That doesn’t have to be how it is. The second it becomes like that, artists lose. Because artists are supposed to help each other, not wrestle over crumbs and shit-talk each other and trip each other. Every man for himself might seem like a good idea. And then the winning streak ends. Oopsie Daisy!

Cast your friends. Cast your friends! They won’t let you down. How could they?

I was eight years old at a sleepaway camp in Maine and a 10-year-old girl popped her grape bubble gum so loud next to my ear underneath the purple aurora borealis sky. My nose started to bleed, nerves, I was sweating, shooting stars were shooting. She let me kiss her anyway, with the blood and everything. Her name was Manya. It was my first french kiss. It definitely wasn’t her first one. The taste of blood and her grape gum and the swirling of her tongue and I relaxed and she guided me, but I guided her too eventually, and then we were just smack together in the night. No more me or her. Just gone, together.

What if Twombly, Basquiat, and Pollock hadn’t invited imperfection into their work? The museums sure would be a lot more stuffy.

But maybe I’m just being silly. I know the game is fame, and the matter is money. The art is for power and the amateurs are just funny. There must be some way to keep your innocence in such a rough, rough world. But you’ll lose your agent, and boy you’ll lose your girl. Take a look around, it’s plain to see. Be cool, be cool, be sexy. This is no time for subtlety, sensitivity, sympathy. Yeah, I know, you don’t have to tell me. And yet, and yet…

I’m staying the night at my friends’ place in Red Hook. Their little girl, Sylvie, she’s made all these great magic marker drawings. They’re in her little room. And you can’t beat them. I mean you just can’t beat these drawings. So what’s one to do? I don’t know. I don’t know. I guess this essay has kinda lost it’s way.Probably a while ago. Sorry. I’m not really sure I have any idea what I’m talking about here anymore. It’s getting late and I should go to bed. Sylvie’s got The Ugly Duckling on her shelf. I vaguely remember it. It was a swan all along, right?

— Noah Buschel

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5 Responses to “THE PROFESSIONALS by Noah Buschel”

  1. Bilge Says:

    You are aware, of course, that those Robert Altman films you mention WERE in fact made by professionals: Professional actors (some of the biggest stars at the time, actually, and most of them professionally trained), professional crew people (including established and experienced cameramen, set designers, you name it), etc, etc. And Altman himself was the consummate professional — a guy who had cut his teeth for years in TV, industrial videos, documentaries. I realize that that’s not what you’re necessarily talking about, but if you’re going to interpret “professional” to mean something like “anonymous,” at a certain point the word ceases to have any meaning.

  2. Michael Tully Says:

    You make a valid point, Bilge, but I think in the context of Altman/CALIFORNIA SPLIT, Noah had moved on from the professional vs. amateur point and was talking about perfection vs. imperfection specifically. Which is where his argument totally holds up. Altman was a pro, and worked with professional actors, but he also fully embraced accidents. I’m thinking of the dress-caught-in-the-car-door motif in THREE WOMEN. That was a bad take that he thought was funny and decided he would work into the script. Noah is right, damn it!

  3. Lou Row Says:

    This guy Noah Buschel is a great writer. And his movie Missing Person is great.
    The essay goes all over the place perhaps. Perhaps that is the point? He was not saying anything about Altman not being a professional. He was saying Altman was in touch with his amateur side too. In other words not too slick. Like David Fincher and Chris Nolan are.

    Also Altman often did in fact use plenty of non-actor actors. Like Ronee Blakely.

  4. Gary Lundgren Says:

    Another nice post, Noah. It made me think of Jandek. One of the reasons I dig him is because from the very beginning he insisted on making music that was completely without polish. And, most of it isn’t really derivative of anything out there. For over thirty years the man has literally been on his own island making improvisational, off-putting, almost atonal music with a complete disregard for who might be listening.

    But that’s not the reason I like him… the reason is because how often in his enormous stack of records he will brush right up against perfection…and you suddenly find yourself emotionally moved by a shift in tone, a lyric, the passion in his vocal or just the way his percussion and harmonica sounds.

    But he rarely lingers there, he just lets the moment pass and returns to his workmanlike style that can have a way of testing anyone’s patience.

    Critics of Jandek say any musician could’ve been him. This makes me laugh because it is such a short-sighted insult. It’s like saying anyone could’ve been John Casevettes or Alison Anders or Mike Leigh or Sam Fuller or Spike Lee or David Lynch.

  5. Levin Gordon Says:

    “These little 8 mm video recorders and stuff will come out and people who normally wouldn’t make movies are going to be making them. Suddenly, one day, some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart and make a great film with her father’s camcorder and for once the so-called professionalism about movies will be destroyed forever. And it will really become an art form.”–Francis Ford Coppola

    Excellent piece by Mr. Buschel!!!

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