Make-Believe Cowboy

As further evidence of Shepard's adoption of Hollywood westerns as a model, a vignette from Motel Chronicles which stands out is one in which the speaker describes his attempt to imitate Burt Lancaster's smile from the western, Vera Cruz:
For days I practiced in the back yard. Weaving through the tomato plants. Sneering. Grinning that grin. Sliding my upper lip up over my teeth. After a few days of practice I tried it out on the girls at school. They didn't seem to notice. I broadened my interpretation until I started getting strange reactions from the other kids." (p.14)

One can recognize this trouble-making kid, craving attention and reaction from others through the adoption of a role, in much of Shepard's career.

The second entry in Motel Chronicles, for example, tells the story of an actor who is deeply troubled by his inability to understand the "character" he is playing in a movie (pp. 10-13), perfectly prefiguring "Three Stories." "He tried to keep his mind on business. Where it fit into the continuity. He was supposed to be riding to kill her? The Star? The Character?" the actor asks himself, only to suddenly crash the motorcycle he is riding. (pp.12-13)

In an instant, just before death, the actor finally sees himself as he really is. He is not the "Character" at all. Seen in the reflection of the camera's lens, he sees himself, the man, and defines himself negatively against the "Character." The piece ends, "Suddenly he appeared to himself. He caught himself in a flash. There was no more doubt who the Character was." (p.13) Note here that the epiphany comes only in relation to the camera: what created anxiety in the actor (how to perform in the role) also provided the means of his catching a glimpse of himself and understanding more fully who he is. Like the actor who smashes the radio in "Winging It," this actor experiences a spark of inspiration and of authenticity, though it is not in the script. The epiphany could only occur in such a setting, however: Shepard suggests that only under the pressure of the synthetic script can one most clearly define, by contrast, what is authentically human.
Next: True West, False West
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