Morris Green teaches Video Production, Film History, and Computer Graphics at Mercy High in Mercy, a small town on the far north coast of California. When he started teaching at the high school eighteen years ago, cell phones equipped with video cameras were not yet on the market and Internet platforms for sharing videos were just being established. Nowadays everyone who has a cell phone can shoot videos, and watching videos via the Internet is an integral part of virtually every American’s life.
A soft-spoken bespectacled man of medium height with wispy reddish brown hair, Morris began teaching at Mercy High when he was twenty-five. He is now forty-three and married to his former student Melanie who fell in love with Morris when she took Computer Graphics and Film History from him her senior year at Mercy High, which happened to be Morris’s first year on the job.
Melanie did not attempt to seduce Morris when he was her teacher, though several of her classmates tried without success, nor did she initiate anything with Morris beyond friendly hugs when they would meet, seemingly by accident, around town during the summers between her years of college. But when she graduated from Sacramento State with a degree in Computer Graphics and moved back to Mercy to launch her Graphics business Please Identify Yourself, she immediately initiated seduction procedures which Morris was helpless to resist.
Now Morris and Melanie have a twelve-year-old son named Orson and an eleven-year-old daughter named Escher, both of whom are video-making computer graphics prodigies and zealous Frisbee golfers like their father. Please Identify Yourself has seven employees and does a huge online identity-package business, Melanie’s clients ranging from individuals to large companies. Morris continues working at the high school, though much of what he teaches has become uninteresting to him because most of his students would rather interact with their phones than with him.
Even Film History has lost its luster for Morris, as the films he considers of great importance are of little or no interest to the vast majority of his students for whom anything made more than a few years ago seems irrelevant to what matters to them today – and what that is, besides getting high and getting laid, Morris hasn’t a clue.
Enter Tuolumne and Tenaya Larkin.
Tenaya, eighteen, and Tuolumne, sixteen, were born and raised on a remote homestead ten miles inland from Mercy and homeschooled by their parents Donovan and Cass, whose folks were tree huggers who settled in the Mercy watershed in the 1960s. Tenaya and Tuolumne never watched television or used a computer or a cell phone or even went to the movies until just a few months ago when they finally convinced their parents to let them go to Mercy High for a year before they venture forth to seek their fortunes.
As is often the case with bright kids who have read hundreds of excellent books and plays while being homeschooled by smart parents and thoughtful grandparents and wise neighbors, Tenaya and Tuolumne find most of what Mercy High has to offer of little interest, but they both take to Video Production and Film History like ducks to water.
Tenaya, a beguiling redhead, is hugely popular with legions of young men at Mercy High, and Tuolumne, a dashing hunk with long brown hair, is a big hit with myriad young women on campus. However, romance is of little interest to either of them compared to their burning passion for the aforementioned subjects taught by the aforementioned Morris Green.
“They’re amazing,” says Morris to Justin Oglethorpe in Big Goose after school one day in late October, Justin the longtime bartender of the Goose as that largest of Mercy’s three pubs is known to locals. “They’re like supernatural versions of some of the kids I had in my classes when I first started teaching here. Intellectually sophisticated, blazingly creative, and they get my jokes, which none of my previous students, even the smart ones, ever got. But Tuolumne and Tenaya do.”
“I know their folks,” says Justin who is fifty-four, six-feet-six, and has carrot red hair recently cut short for the start of the Mercy Rec Center basketball league, the Big Goose team always formidable with Justin, who was on the San Jose State basketball team, playing point guard, and five-foot-seven Pablo ‘Jumping Jack‘ Valdez dominating the paint. “They’ve been bringing Tulo and Tenaya here once a month since they were little kids to hear Ricardo play piano on Thursday evenings. Donovan is stupendously ironical and makes much-sought-after dulcimers, and Cass is the Rock of Gibraltar with a fabulous sense of humor and a singing voice reminiscent of Joni Mitchell. She plays zither.”
“Now if I were to say Rock of Gibraltar or Joni Mitchell or dulcimer or zither in any of my classes, no one would know what I was talking about, except for Tuolumne and Tenaya.” Morris gulps his half-pint of Mercy porter. “When I screened The Maltese Falcon a week ago for my Film History classes and asked my students to write responses to the film, all of them, I’m not kidding, fifty students each wrote a few sentences, the gist of which was they found the film excruciatingly dull, and several of them used the word excruciatingly, which I’m sure their writing software chose for them, except for Tuolumne and Tenaya. They both wrote long gorgeous handwritten elegies to the movie, and I don’t use the words gorgeous or elegies lightly. Can I read you a couple excerpts from their responses?”
“Nothing would please me more,” says Justin, who is also one of the owners of Big Goose, which allows him to have Miguel take over behind the bar while he, Justin, takes a break to hang with Morris and let the good man debrief.
They sit at a small table away from the growing hubbub as five o’clock approaches, and Morris reads first from Tenaya’s response to The Maltese Falcon, that iconic template for a thousand subsequent murder mystery suspense thrillers, minus the horrific violence and moronic dialogue that eventually overwhelmed the genre.
“‘Bogart’s face, oh his face,’ reads Morris, passionately. “The sublime sorrow of a man shaped by his awareness of the falsity of hope. His sorrow is etched in his face from the corners of his eyes to the corners of his mouth, vestiges of tenderness only apparent when he smiles, and even those vestiges are tempered with bitterness. Whatever else the movie is about, Bogart’s angry despair is the engine of this movie.”
“Wow,” says Justin, impressed.
Morris nods. “Wow, indeed. Listen to this from Tuolumne.” He puts down Tenaya’s seventeen-page opus and picks up Tuolumne’s ten-pager. “‘Surely Beckett saw The Maltese Falcon. He must have. And wouldn’t Bogart have made a sublime Vladimir and Lorre an incomparable Estragon in Waiting For Godot? The profound absurdity of people for generations throwing away their lives and the lives of others to possess an illusion left me breathless. Did Hammett know his book was homage to meaninglessness? Did Huston know he was translating Hammett’s allegory into visual shorthand of grief born of greed? Is this a meditation on the fruits of deprivation? The movie is made with such care, such sincerity. Indeed, it is this unfettered sincerity that amplifies the absurdity into a maelstrom of tension – about nothing!’”
“Wow again,” says Justin, smiling at Morris. “You must be thrilled.”
“I’m reborn,” says Morris, gazing wide-eyed at Justin. “I care about teaching again. I have a reason to go to work. I want to share a thousand things with them every day. And glory of glories they seem to be infecting the other kids, challenging them to think beyond the blur of their numbing media to grok the miracles of the classics.”
“Hallelujah,” says Justin, clinking his coffee mug with Morris’s glass of porter. “All is not lost.”
In November, Morris takes his two Video Production classes to the Fletcher Gallery in Mercy to see the latest show of local artist Bertram Hawley’s life-sized and uncannily lifelike wooden sculptures of naked women and naked men. Bertram is eighty now. He used to show annually at the Fletcher Gallery, but has slowed down in his old age and this is his first show of seven new works in almost three years.
Virtually everyone in Mercy goes to Bertram’s shows, and most of the kids in Morris’s Video Production classes have not only already seen this year’s show, they grew up going to Bertram’s shows with their parents and friends. Even Tuolumne and Tenaya have gone to these shows since they were little kids, their parents eager to expose them to excellent works of art and music.
But this show of Bertram’s sculptures, five women and two men, has such a powerful impact on both Tenaya and Tuolumne, they decide to contact Bertram and ask if they might film him speaking about his art.
A slender agile man with snow white hair neither long nor short, Bertram was born in Los Angeles to British parents, moved to England as a teenager, and stayed in England until he was forty when he returned to America with his British wife Alison who is exactly his age. An actor of some success in England, Bertram gave up stage and screen for sculpting after surviving a terrible car accident that rendered him prone to severe anxiety and panic attacks, his emotional condition much improved since moving to Mercy where he and Alison have lived for thirty years now, Alison a psychotherapist.
On a sunny Wednesday after school, armed with an excellent video camera and tripod and audio recorder on loan from Mercy High, Tuolumne and Tenaya arrive at Bertram’s big airy studio adjacent to the house where Bertram and Alison live a mile inland from Mercy. They find Bertram having tea at his work table with Eliana, the lovely seven-year-old daughter of Bertram and Alison’s good friends Zeke and Conchita, Zeke a gardener who works for Bertram and Alison once a week, Conchita a real estate agent.
“Welcome,” says Bertram, coming to greet Tuolumne and Tenaya on the threshold of the studio. “You’re just in time for tea. I am having black, Eliana is having mint. We just made a pot of each.”
“Thank you,” say Tuolumne, bowing graciously. ‘We’re honored to meet you.”
“Truly,” says Tenaya, bowing, too. “We’re in awe of your art.”
“Oh don’t be,” says Bertram, laughing. “They’re just gigantic wood carvings.”
“They’re so real,” says Tenaya, gazing around the studio – an as-yet-untouched pillar of oak, seven-feet-tall and nearly three-feet-wide standing under the central skylight on the carpeted platform where Bertram does his sculpting. “So alive.”
“A friend who owns a few of my pieces says he talks to them,” says Bertram, leading them to the work table, “and believes they listen and sympathize.” He gestures for Tuolumne and Tenaya to sit. “Eliana this is Tenaya and her brother Tuolumne.”
“I know who you are,” says Eliana, who is not British, but being a preternatural mimic has an impeccable British accent whenever she spends time with Bertram and Alison, which is often. “You sometimes come to the Goose with your parents on Thursday evenings to hear Ricardo play, and your father has pints of dark beer and your mother has glasses of red wine and you have lemonade.”
Tenaya sets up the tripod, mounts the camera thereon, frames her shot so the worktable and those around it are the center of attention, and activates the camera before sitting down.
“I thought you looked familiar,” says Tuolumne, smiling at Eliana, her long black hair in a ponytail. “You played a duet with Ricardo the last time we went. You were fantastic.”
“Ricardo is my piano teacher,” says Eliana, returning Tuolumne’s smile. “He sometimes humors me by letting me perform with him. I do little flourishes in the high notes while he does everything else. I’m very lucky. He only has three students because teaching piano interferes with his composing and practicing. He earns his living as a waiter at Campeona and occasionally gets residuals from a movie he played the music for. Isabella Remembers. I’m in the movie, too, and so is Bertram. I was only four-years-old when they made the movie. You really should see it, and I’m not just saying that because we’re in it.”
“We’ll rent it immediately,” says Tenaya, delighted by Eliana.
“No need,” says Bertram, enchanted with Tenaya and Tuolumne. “I’ll loan you my copy.”
“Ricardo,” continues Eliana, looking at the camera and arching her eyebrow, “is composing a quartet for piano, cello, violin, and oboe that is so beautiful I can hardly believe it exists. He’s such a genius, and so is Bertram, though they both say they are merely well-practiced.” She laughs a deep hearty laugh one might expect from an adult, not a seven-year-old. “Aren’t geniuses funny?”
“Yes, aren’t we?” says Bertram, winking at Tuolumne. “So tell me about yourselves.”
“Well,” says Tuolumne, placing the audio recorder in the center of the table, “we hope to interview you and shoot some footage for a school project and…”
“It’s all just a ruse to meet you,” blurts Tenaya, gazing at Bertram as if seeing a miracle. “I feel like I’m in the presence of… I don’t know… Picasso.”
“Oh dear, no,” says Bertram, emphatically shaking his head. “We are told by multiple reliable sources that even at eighty Picasso would have been chasing you around the studio intent on ravishing you, whereas I was never that sort, though you are lovely. Don’t get me wrong.”
“You mean…” says Tenaya, frowning. “Picasso was a womanizer?”
“Famously so,” says Bertram, tickled by Tenaya’s innocent dismay. “Which just goes to prove that one’s art isn’t necessarily a reliable representation of one’s persona. I, for instance, carve statues of naked people, yet I’m terribly shy about letting anyone other than my wife see me naked, and even with Alison I feel more comfortable with at least some clothes on. Most of the time.”
“When we were in the gallery with our class,” says Tuolumne, giving Bertram a mischievous smile, “I couldn’t help imagining all of us spontaneously taking off our clothes to be naked with your sculptures. They seem to want us to be naked. Do you know what I mean?”
“I do know what you mean,” says Bertram, his eyes twinkling. “I think your vision would make a wonderful short film, and you have my permission. I’m sure we could arrange something with the gallery.”
“Oh no,” says Tenaya, solemnly shaking her head. “Our wonderful teacher Mr. Green would get in terrible trouble if we made a movie with naked students.” She sighs. “Though it is a lovely idea.”
“What about this?” says Eliana, holding out her arms to the camera. “We see a bunch of people going into the gallery wearing clothes, grown-up people, so wonderful Mr. Green won’t get in trouble, and then we see them walking around looking at the sculptures, and then a little while later we see them coming out of the gallery naked except they’re still wearing shoes and hats.”
“Or it could be a couple, a man and a woman,” says Bertram with a gleam in his eyes, “who come into the gallery and move silently about, slowly disrobing, one item at a time, until they are both naked and cease to move and become wooden sculptures of themselves.”
“Or,” says Tenaya, her eyes wide with excitement, “a lonely man and a lonely woman enter the gallery separately and are mesmerized by the sculptures, and after some suspenseful wandering around, they meet each other next to those two statues, the man and woman you’ve posed together, and they gaze at the two statues for a long time and then turn to each other and slowly disrobe and assume the poses of the statues and then we dissolve to them leaving the gallery together, wearing their clothes again and holding hands.”
“Or,” says Tuolumne, too excited to stay sitting, “it could be a class of high school kids who come in being loud and joking and making childish sexual comments. But seeing the sculptures quiets them and we only hear occasional snickering until even that stops and they’re all lost in wonder, and then each of them says something self-revealing and when they leave the gallery we can tell by the looks on their faces they’ve been changed.”
Bertram looks at Tenaya and asks, “Did you film us saying all that?”
“Every bit of it,” she says, nodding.
“And I’ve been recording audio since we walked in,” says Tuolumne, beaming at Bertram.
“Brilliant,” says Eliana, raising her teacup as if to make a toast.
“You know what I’d like to do?” says Tuolumne, carrying his cup of tea to the pillar of wood in the center of the studio – Tenaya expertly tracking him with the camera.
“What would you like to do?” asks Bertram, joining Tuolumne at the pillar and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with him in a shaft of silver sunlight.
“I’d like to film you carving your next nude from start to finish,” says Tuolumne, reaching out to touch the pillar of wood. “We could stop by on our way home from school and shoot a few minutes every day, and when the sculpture is done we’ll make a time lapse movie of your nude taking form. With comments from you and a soundtrack of Ricardo’s piano music.”
“I like the way you think,” says Bertram, resting a hand on Tuolumne’s shoulder and not telling him the future he has just foreseen – Tuolumne becoming his apprentice and working with him as far into the future as Bertram can see, which is at least another few years.
“Aren’t they exquisite together?” whispers Eliana to Tenaya.
“Exquisite,” says Tenaya, loving her shot of the two men, one young, one old, contemplating their futures together.