Once more, with oomph

An unexpected revival of my brief Polish film career.

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Jeanne Meinke

The past is never dead. It's not even past.

—from "Requiem for a Nun," by William Faulkner (1961)

A strange voice from our past — my own — reminded me of Faulkner's famous observation, and also of Barack Obama's elaboration of it — "The past is never dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past" — which proves you really shouldn't fiddle with lines from great writers. Still, Obama's speech on the subject of race probably got him elected.

The returning words, in my case, were on a much lighter scale, though they brought back an entire year that we spent in Poland. In the spring of 1979 I was a Fulbright professor teaching American poetry, sitting in my bare office at the University of Warsaw, when a man came up to ask me a favor. At first, that made me nervous — Poland was still a Communist country, and the University and the Party weren't on good terms. Happily, the man wasn't a government agent, but an assistant director for a boxing movie being filmed in their Warsaw studio. The movie, called Klincz ("Clinch"), was about a young Polish boxer who makes a world tour, and one of the planned scenes was a montage of him knocking out his opponents in different countries, with referees calling the knock-out in their various languages. The climactic scene was to be set in Chicago, and they wanted an American accent counting the defeated boxer out. "This take five minutes — and we pay you," the man told me in efficient English, sticking to the present tense.

Even though they just wanted my voice, I figured this would be my only shot to be in a movie professionally, so "Tak," I agreed. That afternoon he took me to what looked like an abandoned factory. Inside a huge hall, dozens of loudspeakers and other machines were in a circle on the cement floor. They handed me a mic, and led me to the middle, as many people — workers and actors, I presumed — gathered around. I was introduced to the director, Piotr (my name in Polish) Andrejew, who told me to speak with energy — with "oomph," he said, smiling.

I began, giving it my best, raising my arm on the count, like referees in American movies, when Andrejew rushed forward before I was finished. "Nyet," he said, shaking his head, "no, no, no!" Something was interfering with the sound, making a scratching noise. Scrutinizing my clothes, he noticed my belt had a large metal buckle. "That's it," he said. "Take it off."

Obediently, I took off my belt, handed it to him, and got ready to count again. Unfortunately, while in Poland I'd lost considerable weight (we'd been there since August), so when I started to raise my arm, my pants slipped down a bit and I had to grab them with that hand, holding the mic with the other. That would've been okay, but the onlookers began to laugh and whistle. "NYET!" the director shouted again, looking at the hecklers with mock fierceness. "QUIET!"

After a minute or two of suppressed giggles, the laughter subsided. I took firm hold of my pants and the mic, and successfully counted to 10. Andrejew shook my hand (along with his head), handed back my belt, and I went out squinting into the bright afternoon light, my short but turbulent movie career completed. I never heard from them again.

That day, along with many others, receded from our memories, until last June our sharp-eyed daughter Gretchen miraculously remembered, on a NetFlix movie list, the name Klincz, and sent me a copy for Father's Day. She hadn't watched it — no subtitles, so we wouldn't understand it anyway — but: Did my counting make the cut?

That night, Jeanne put the disk in our TV. After the Polish titles, the movie begins in silence, with an extended sequence of a brutal boxing match, the sound muted, in extreme and graphic close-up, blow after blow. Finally, one of the boxers collapses bloodily to the floor, the shadow of the referee spreads over him — and at that point my voice comes on, counting, with oomph!

The planned-for montage didn't make the cut. Instead, the knockout in Chicago is the climax from which the movie flashes backwards. Klincz apparently was a cult hit and Andrejew became a famous director. "You could've been a contender," Gretchen told me. Alas...

No memory of having starred

Atones for later disregard,

Or keeps the end from being hard...

—from "Provide, Provide,"

by Robert Frost (1916)

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