Monday, August 17, 2009

The American Crowbar Case

As my junior year of college came to a close, it looked like I was going to be moving into a new house. I'd decided to stay in Pittsburgh during the summer to make up some college credits I'd lost while transferring schools a couple years back. I made arrangements to live with my best friend Paul. He'd been living in a one bedroom apartment off campus; but now, with a live-in girlfriend and a friend in need of summer lodging, Paul was looking for a bigger place to rent. Remarkably, he discovered that we could afford to rent an entire house.

The house was not particularly attractive, but we could hardly tell. We saw nothing but potential. It had a basement, two main floors, and a top-level attic. I think there were three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a laundry room, kitchen, TV room, living room - a huge step up from the dorm rooms I was accustomed to.

After Paul signed the paperwork, we all decided to spend a Saturday cleaning the place up before we moved in. The previous tenants had left behind a lot of random debris - posters, containers, small furnishings. The house was in Oakland, home to two major universities, and had no doubt been roughed up by dozens of college students before us. We brought garbage bags and buckets, and got to work.

About halfway through the day, I opened the cabinet door of the TV stand left behind by those before us. I found a small stack of papers with crudely drawn cartoon characters. Looked like someone had been working on a comic. But upon closer inspection, I discovered that they were actually storyboards for a short film. The title was No Longer Gage.

I was naturally curious. As a lifelong movie lover -- not to mention a film student at the time --this was right up my alley. Furthermore, it was a window into the lives of the people who had lived in this place before us. So I took a break and read the storyboards. The drawings were rough, but got the point across; the captions were very detailed, making the story easy to follow without a script; and they had apparently been examined by a professor or trusted friend, as there were red-ink comments throughout.

The film was about Phineas Gage -- a man who, aside from having one of the awesomest names in human history, inadvertently contributed to humanity's understanding of the brain by launching a spike through his head. In 1848, he was part of a team building a railroad track in Vermont. One of his responsibilities was to pack explosives for blasting the roads. Unfortunately, a blast went off prematurely, sending a metal rod through his left cheek, the frontal lobe of his brain, and out the top of his head. Miraculously, he survived. But after the incident, friends and coworkers noted dramatic changes in his personality, commenting that the man was "no longer Gage."

Newer evidence suggests that stories of the changes in Gage's personality may have been greatly exaggerated. Regardless, there were changes. This lead to breakthrough research in neuroscience and psychology pertaining to the regionalization of the human brain -- different areas of the brain controlling different aspects of our personality, motor functions, hormone regulations, etc.

The storyboards covered all of this. In what would equate to no more than three minutes of screen time, the Phineas character was set up, the blasting accident occurred, and the changes in his personality were established. And that was it. It had no ending. In fact, it didn't really have a middle. It felt less like a short film than like a prologue to a much longer film.

The question, then, would be, "What else could possibly happen in this film?" The railroad accident occurred when Phineas Gage was only 25 years old. After the accident, nothing much of interest happened to him (much to his relief, I'm sure). He served an obligatory tour of duty as an attraction for P.T. Barnum for about a year. Otherwise, he did a little traveling here and there, picking up odd jobs to get by. He died at the age of 36 after a series of violent convulsion, no doubt stemming from his injury. How do you fill out a feature-length story about Phineas Gage?

That question may soon be answered. On August 4, Creative Screenwriting Magazine announced the latest winners in their AAA Screenplay Contest. (No, I did not enter this contest. Yes, I still care who the winners were.) The semi-finalist script was Phineas Gage by Dillon Euler.

The mind reels.

First of all, I'm left to wonder if this Dillon Euler might happen to be the person who was working on a Phineas Gage film project in Pittsburgh at the beginning of the decade. The storyboards were unsigned, and I never found any material in the house to identify the previous occupants by name. I suppose it's a bit of a long shot that this would be the same person. But on the other hand, why not? I know for a fact that this former Oakland resident had an interest in both film and Phineas Gage. The percentage of people who would pursue a project like this has to be quite small.

Second, just because this high-ranking script was titled Phineas Gage doesn't necessarily mean it's about Phineas Gage. Searching for Bobby Fischer is not about Bobby Fischer. Phineas Gage may not be the subject of this script's story, but may instead serve as some sort of metaphor for the fictional characters and events in the script. Having no access to the script itself, I have no way of finding out.

The sad thing about screenplay competitions is that the winning scripts rarely get made into movies. It's a shame, because I'd really like to see a movie about Phineas Gage. I'm sure I'm not alone. There's gotta be at least eight or nine other people out there who would want to see that.


In a stunning coincidence of timing for the screenwriter, a photograph of Phineas Gage himself -- the only known photograph of the man in existence -- was discovered and authenticated just last month, right around the same time the script was being judged for placement.


Back in Pittsburgh, our rose-colored perspective on the house was fading. Rusty nails seemed to be protruding from everywhere, one of which tore Paul's pants and stabbed his leg. The walls and carpets refused to get clean no matter how much work we put into them. When we finally got around to the basement, we discovered it to be coated with sickening mildew and mold. The owner clearly didn't concern himself with taking care of the property; why bother when there will always be groups of college-aged suckers willing to put up with it as long as it's cheap?

We broke our contract on that place, and went on to find a nice duplex in Squirrel Hill. I left the Phineas Gage storyboards right where I found them in the Oakland house. Who knows - maybe the originator of the material would realize he forgot them and go back to get them. Or maybe the next group of suckers would be as interested in reading them as I was. Or maybe it was the next tenant who read those storyboards and was inspired to write the top-placing screenplay.
But let's be honest -- the storyboards were probably just thrown out by someone without a thought. Fortunately the same fate did not befall the photograph of Gage. "One man's trash..." right?

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