|Thoth in prayformance (Photo courtesy HBO)|
(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)
He wasn’t half-naked this time. Though he still sported the headband, red feather and Egyptian-deity makeup, the chill of late November had forced Thoth out of his customary gold loincloth and into black tech pants and windbreaker. Surprisingly, he could still move his fingers on the violin neck as he played, danced, stomped and sang in his multiple voices – all at the same time.
The sun dipped behind the buildings surrounding Central Park; cold shadows slid across Bethesda Terrace. He’d begun promptly at 3 pm (his time slot by arrangement with some other buskers who shared the tunnel). No passersby gathered to watch. On weekdays at this time of year, the few people still in the park by dusk were hastening to warmer places, too rushed to stop and appreciate the whirling one-man opera in the Arcade. Yet Thoth performed full out, to the point of exhaustion, as if to a crowd instead of an audience of one.
That one, a tall blonde bundled-up woman in a felt hat, leaned against a pillar and watched him for two hours, even after darkness fell and the tunnel’s ceiling lights switched on, along with the park’s sixteen hundred streetlamps. Whenever Thoth took a break to drink water from a camelbak, the woman moved off, walking around the terrace briskly to keep warm, then returning when she heard him tune his instrument for the next aria. She did not applaud, nor drop money into his violin case; whenever he glanced at her, she looked away.
I didn’t want to engage with him in any way until I had observed a complete “prayformance” from beginning to end. When I chanced upon him the month before, I’d only witnessed the opening prayer that convoked his invented gods in his invented language. Now that I was experiencing the whole work, I was even more astonished. People have to see this, I thought. Lots of people everywhere, not just parkgoers and tourists.
His was a unique feat. So many gifts had to exist in one person to accomplish it. The imagination, composing, fantasy writing, an extraordinary voice, impressive musicianship, foot percussion in complicated meters, all had to combine and work simultaneously. (You try singing Wagner while jogging.) There might be only this man in human history who could bring it off; hence it would live and die with him. A phenomenon of such fragility could collapse at any moment, with no record that it had ever occurred, except for the snapshots and videos that tourists brought home, describing how they’d witnessed an only-in-New-York freak show.
Thoth belonged on film. Should I take the next step and make it happen? That hefty fee I’d just received for my ill-fated script would cover the cost. He was a great subject. Even for an outsider artist, he was way, way out on a limb. Yet his commitment was unwavering. One could feel his faith; it altered the air around him. Speaking in tongues, he had his own Holy Ghost infilling him. The sight repelled some, captivated others. Thoth moved me. He reminded me of all the sacrifices artists make, in ways small and huge, and the loneliness of our endeavor as we inch out on the limb. A documentary would show audiences not only what he could do but what it cost him to do it.
But I still didn’t approach him because I hadn’t decided if he was nuts in a bad way.
There is clinical-crazy, and then there is artist-crazy. The latter doesn’t frighten me, because I have my own seat on that spectrum. I love the company of wild and weird creators and visionaries; they’re my family…as long as they have some measure of self-control. It’s the ones who slice off their ears that I step away from.
I checked my watch nervously: five o’clock. The park was now too empty and dark for my comfort; I wanted to leave. Thoth had paused to rest again. If there was more to come, I would have to miss it. And I still didn’t have my answer on the subject of his mental health.
An old man with a cane shuffled into the Arcade. Thoth evidently knew him. The man stopped and they chatted quietly. Suddenly Thoth busted a laugh so big and loud the entire tunnel vibrated: a barnyard donkey laugh. Someone else, like you perhaps, might hear it as the kind of crazy bray common to the funny farm. But I went the other way.
That’s it, I thought. He’s sane.
Arriving home, I sent Thoth a message on his website: I was a filmmaker, wanted to make a short documentary about him, contact me if interested….
As I grew to know him over the seven months I shot the film, Thoth proved to be only slightly more wacky than I, and otherwise was as centered and responsible a person as one could hope, the opposite of a prima donna. He lived with his mother in Queens, though he kept as aloof and ascetic as a monk, striving to improve and purify himself as a receiver and transmitter of messages from unnamed sources. Unsure of his ethnic identity, as a mixed-race son, Thoth believed he was channeling the spirits of his ancestors, who had originated in every part of the world; accordingly his music sounded as if it came from many cultures, though so commingled they were no longer identifiable. He channeled the words as he played, later figuring out their meaning, as we pick up any foreign language in a strange land, and he was compiling a dictionary as he went. It was a neverending project because the spirit communications never stopped flowing. He was a fully open flume.
This was his full-time work. He lived off contributions from audiences in the park. Some days they gave nothing. He didn’t know how long he could keep it up. Rather than become incapacitated by age, he hoped to die while prayforming.
The subject of my first documentary, Marjoe Gortner was a prevaricator who kept much of himself hidden – even from himself. By contrast, Thoth was always striving to locate the truth that defined his being. This involved constant and rigorous introspection, a dismantling of walls within, so that in my interviews I was able to probe as deep as I liked. He was familiar with his own complexity. However, there was one wall that did not yield to my pressure, a mystery that he’d lost interest in solving, or so he said. Yet it was the very thing that drove him onto the path to mysticism.
It was easier for Thoth’s sisters to identify as African-American because they were quite young when their white father divorced their black mother. The family never saw him again. On the other hand, Thoth (or Stephen Kaufman as he was then known) was older and had been very close to his dad. He took the sudden abandonment very hard, bewildered by it, and also left bewildered about his racial identity. Bewilderment led to depression, and depression to withdrawal. In college he stole sleeping pills and tried to commit suicide. Before he was found and revived from his coma, he experienced a voice telling him to go back: “You have more to do.”
A long period of self-emancipation followed. Ethnically, and sexually as well, he found freedom in being ambiguous. He rediscovered his many creative gifts. Financially, he made do by playing Bach for handouts in San Francisco’s subway stations. And ever since the near-death voice sent him back to life, he sought to find out: what was the “more” he was meant to do? He took the time to be quiet, and listen for answers. The other-world revelations began; the art of prayformance was born.
Thoth was 46 when I started filming him. He had long since put away the matter of his father’s disappearance; he rarely thought of him. I, however, was not satisfied to let it lie. A reunion of father and son would be so dramatic on film – if I could find Dr. Kaufman. I began with a simple internet search. What came up was a death notice.
Thoth’s father had died only six months before. All along he had been practicing medicine in Rockville, Long Island, a mere half-hour’s drive from Queens where Thoth had grown up and was living now. And it was my duty to deliver the news.
As I paused with my hand on the phone, I suddenly felt an inward urgency from an outward source, an insistence so strong that my own self seemed crowded aside. It was a message I didn’t understand, that was meant for Thoth. I recognized it as the same feeling that had overcome me when I delivered a message to my dad from his dead father (see Chapter 15), a message that was not to be denied.
When I reached Thoth, he received the word of his father’s death in neutral silence. Either he felt nothing or didn’t know how to feel. I tried to keep quiet out of respect but the inner crescendo forced me to stand down and let the message come out. “There’s something else,” I said, “and please forgive me for this, I don’t know what it means, but I’m supposed to say your father wants you to forgive him for something.”
Another silence, a long one. Then Thoth spoke up: “I think I know what that is.”
He had never told the story to anyone. In fact, he had utterly forgotten it, buried and blocked it, until this moment when his dad’s message broke through. As if shot from the depths, memory burst its secret, as fresh in detail as when the young boy Stephen had sealed it inside.
For a little while following the divorce, Dr. Kaufman faithfully visited his children, sometimes taking his son out for a spin in his little red sportscar. He always drove too fast, and this particular day, with nine-year-old Thoth buckled into the passenger seat, was no exception. As his dad’s car approached an intersection, the traffic light was changing; he sped up, just as a boy stepped out on the crosswalk. “He hit the boy, and the boy bounced up and against the windshield and fell off to the right. It was horrifying, it was the worst thing…The boy died at the scene.
“When the police questioned my father, he said the light was green. But I knew, and saw, that the light was yellow turning red. And it was a really hard thing because my father, being a doctor and the most moral person that I knew, he was lying, and I couldn’t believe it. I was not able to understand.
“My father stopped contacting me after that and I never saw him again.”
Opening up to grief was a difficult passage for Thoth. The tears simply weren’t there, until he saw the finished film and witnessed the scene where he visits his father’s grave, and speaks to him at last, and cleanses them both of the past. There in the editing room, he finally cried.
Thoth seemed to never shy away from the truth, even if some of it came from invisible ancestral spirits. Whatever he held inside, he was addicted to putting it all out there. And I do believe that truth is rewarded, when we make the effort and sacrifice to find it. There may be no recompense but only reprisal in one’s lifetime here, but the eternal Elsewhere is all rejoicing. For Thoth, his reward was 39:58 minutes of fame, the length of our film Thoth – two seconds under the maximum length required for submission to the short documentary category of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
When we got the nomination, Cinemax bought the film. Between cable TV and YouTube, and his presence onstage at the Academy Awards ceremony where the film won, Thoth and his work would eventually be seen by over a million viewers. I’d told myself, People have to see this. I’d fulfilled my promise to the universe. As for my own reward, helping Thoth brought me more satisfaction than anything I’d ever created for my own ego.
I must add, the Oscar did feel really, really good. Thirty years earlier, I’d shared the Feature Documentary award with my older male partner. Overlooked was the fact that I was the first woman director to win an Oscar, and it was further assumed that my partner had done all the work and that I was just the cute young tagalong. Thirty years later, winning a second award as a solo filmmaker told everyone, “Yes, I was always more than the girlfriend.”
It almost didn’t happen, though. Making a good film was not the only hurdle to clear on the way to an Oscar. The other necessary was finding the right gown.
(To be continued.)
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