Essays

Off- and On-Camera

MARY MEIGS

This passage is from In the Company of Strangers by Mary Meigs (Talonbooks). The book is Meigs’ account of her experience as one of the actors in The Company of Strangers (199), a semi-documentary film by Cynthia Scott; it is also a meditation on time, old age, magic and the phenomenon of film.

Out on the set, except for the fact that there is always someone to catch us if we stumble, or someone to set up folding chairs for us between scenes, we are beneficiaries of the semi that denies the passing of clock-time. There is nothing to remind us that we are old except direct comparison with all those staff and crew members who are young. In the outside world an old person is, all too often, either invisible to a young person or perceived as an obstacle or a doddering idiot.

On location we are the centre of attention; all that paraphernalia is dragged around, set up, the sun is made to shine or the rain to rain, in order to make a beautiful picture of us. We can bask in a whole summer of attention, we are acting out the myth of our ideal selves, off- and on-camera, and we come to believe in our new reincarnations, there in the centre where the perspective lines meet. It doesn’t matter that we, flesh and blood old people, are being translated into a film-language that expresses old people (us seven, at least) to Cynthia, Sally, Gloria and the others. They evidently want to show that old women don’t necessarily dodder, quaver and shuffle.

The attention so soothing to our egos, even if we know that it is the impersonal attention necessary to all filmmaking, is an exercise of their group will; all of the people standing and watching us are willing us into our semi-selves, until our image of how we’d like to be coincides with theirs. But we don’t even fight; we don’t say mean things about each other, we are, by and large, our best selves.

I took my best self back to Montreal with me and was surprised when she was displaced by the old self, subject to the usual fits of crankiness. Almost as if the old self said to the best self, “Who do you think you are? I’m still here.” Like an old cat growling at a new kitten.

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MARY MEIGS

Mary Meigs (1917–2002) was a writer and artist, author of Lily Briscoe: A Self-Portrait, The Medusa Hotel, The Box Closet, In the Company of Strangers, and The Time Being, all published by Talon, as well as many articles and essays.


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