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Karen Black: Perfectly Misunderstood

Karen Black: Perfectly Misunderstood

Karen Black died last week and she was my unlikely friend.

I say so because all the conventional markers could not have
predicted it. I am an atheist, a feminist and a film director and Karen was
none of those things. I plan fastidiously with storyboards and shot lists in
pursuit of the dramatic truth. Karen sought the same truth, but through
jarringly different means. She was not one for labels — though she was given
many. Her unique ability to create character came so honestly from her refusal
to define herself in the past or the future. It gave her a kind of freedom in
her work and life that allowed her to connect so deeply and give herself so
completely to every performance, and to every one of her friends. A freedom so
many of us long for but never quite achieve.

Karen loved language and knew what a loaded word could
convey, even if she could never completely throw off the misunderstandings and labels
that dogged her throughout her life. I watched Karen bring to life a character in my
film — Nothing Special — a
character I labeled bi-polar, with the tenderness of a
mother and the respect of a friend. This was a process that could not be
explained in words or clarified by any contrivance, method or school of
thought. Karen instinctively moved into the dramatic action and effortlessly
stood in the light.

I’ve read much about Karen since her passing, and the
dynamic force that continues to emanate from the phenomenon that is Karen Black
amazes me. To put her into perspective as the rare and wonderfully present
human she was is not an easy task. I have been witness to the strange and
inexplicable projection heaped upon her, good and bad, not only in those
wonderful occasions when we traveled with our film, but also in the mundane
communications of simple requests when perhaps ordering dinner at a restaurant,
or seeking a specific comfort in her hospital bed. It seems her presence
created the opposite of the “observer effect” known in art and
science, which holds that observation changes the nature of what is being
observed. In truth, Karen, the phenomenon, changed the observer by virtue of
her singularity, her quest to be clear, to communicate fully, to be understood.
In the end, it seems she reflects the “observer effect” back on ourselves,
changing our nature, as she remains perfectly misunderstood.

Karen once described to me a great lesson she learned from
Lee Strasberg. She was a young actress in his class attempting to grow her
craft, yet she didn’t like him. What he said didn’t sit right with her, somehow
his personality rubbed her the wrong way, but she had trouble putting her
finger on it. One day, however, Strasberg was as usual pontificating before his
class, yet he was not wearing his trademark suspenders. As he lectured, he nervously
fiddled with his now imaginary prop and it occurred to Karen that for all his
undoubted wisdom, Strasberg was not living in the present. Her observation of
Strasberg’s simple conditioned response freed her. She realized that living in
the present, recognizing something as simple as what is there, rather than
imposing what we wish to be there — this is was what it would take to inhabit
the characters she was to play, and thus ended her relationship with the esteemed
pedagogue. Karen was a great observer of human nature and she could see when
someone was not in the present. Karen inhabited the present.

When we travelled with our film, Karen had already become
ill and was dealing with the early symptoms of her dreaded disease. I remember
one particular occasion when Karen interacted with a festival director, making
a simple request for food in her hotel room to calm her stomach. It was as if she
was speaking in a foreign tongue that the festival director could not comprehend.
All she could see was “Karen Black”; a newspaper clipping; a rumor;
or worse, a complex character she brought to life on screen. The festival
director could not accommodate a simple request for a bagel to calm a troubled
stomach. Karen had become, that difficult actress, the diva written about, the
eccentric italicized, so in   frustration, Karen allowed me to be her
translator, because she needed the bagel, and from that point forward, I became
her go-between.

Karen could be eccentric, it is true, because (at least in
part) there is no reason not to be eccentric when one’s identity is completely
twisted by the projection of others. Her incredibly sane choice to deviate from
what was expected and thus to deliver what could be believed was at once a
device to preserve her reason and a trap she could not escape, even now, after
her passing. By accepting the fact that she would not be seen as her real and
unaffected self, Karen allowed herself to disconnect from the insanity that fiction
would attempt to impose, and she heroically decided not to conform to illogical
rules. For instance, Karen once told me a story about a film set where she and
her co-star were outfitted in zippered overalls to protect them from the bees
that were also in the scene. The costumes were hot and she and her co-star did
not wear clothes beneath. Inevitably, numerous bees invaded their overalls and
her co-star ran screaming and jumping off set, patting his suit as he went,
thus afflicting himself with multiple stings from the countless animals trapped
innocently in his suit.  Karen, on the
other hand, calmly unzipped her gear, stepped out of her costume, and stark
naked shook the bees to freedom and serenely put her suit back on. This was
Karen – she made the logical choice, because she did not subject herself to the
sometimes absurd dictates of decorum.

Karen came to dinner on one of many occasions at my home,
and arriving early, she determined to put herself to good use. She requested 409, sponges and paper towels in order to clean an old tin-topped farm table
that stood, serviceably on our front porch, between chairs and in reach of our
drinks and food. When I popped out with our dinner, which included a roasted
chicken (one of her favorites, possibly second only to pot-roast) with carrots
and potatoes, to discover Karen scrubbing away at the old table, I asked “What
are you doing?” and she replied, “I imagined I could make it sparkle,
but it doesn’t appear to be working”. I blithely replied, as I set the roasted
chicken down: “That old farm table won’t ever shine. It was used for
chopping the heads off chickens” and without a beat she retorted: “Well
then, I’m shining up the karma, so we can eat in peace.” Karen changed the
act of eating chicken that night.

I’ve heard that Karen could be a difficult actress, but that
was not my experience.  She was a
professional. She wasn’t simply on time, prepared with memorized lines and
ready to try anything in service of the character — she cared. She cared about
every role she played, big or small. She endeavored to understand. She lived in
the moment, the painful reality of her characters, in order to do them
justice.  She taught me more about
imagining, discovering and listening than I could ever explain. She lived in
the absolute present and we hypothesized often about the past, present and
future. She preferred the present because it was the place in which one is most
capable of experiencing something close to being real. She could, for a moment,
experience the actual. But I liked to point out to her that many are not in the
present because their now is too difficult and thus they prefer to live in hope
and to think of the future, or to live in the past with the comfort of great
memories. She simply replied, “I know” and looked at me sadly, communicating
with her tragic eyes, her deeply connected understanding of the human
condition. Karen listened and understood, but rarely was she listened to. 

In 2011, Karen asked me to throw her a surprise birthday party.
How could one surprise the Birthday Girl requesting the party, I pondered? But
once she had made the request, she no longer gave it a thought. She didn’t
wonder, will it happen or when? But on the appointed day, many weeks later, she
rolled up in her car while prepping for the fake interview her husband had concocted
as a ruse, and there we all stood, in the front garden, knowing she would look
up when the car stopped and she might put two and two together. “Surprise!!!”
we all yelled, and in her ashen bewilderment she stepped out of the car,
completely flabbergasted, and I stood astonished at her ability of presence. A
few days later she sent me a note with a picture of a large dog sprawled out on
a cozy rug with a little white kitten perched on its massive ribcage. The
caption read, “Some of the best relationships can’t be explained.”  I cannot explain to you the great goodness of
Karen Black, the plain friendship, the professional genius she brought to my
life. But I can say that Karen Black was a mystery of nature that knew how to
live in the moment. 

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