The day we hung Tom Skerritt:

By Stephen James Broadbent

Six-fifteen a.m. The sun drives a slow and steady spike through the morning sky. My eyes stretch out across this barren land, with its bony crust and rattling snakes as lethal as the journey I am about to board. I have entered a transient place where I fade into the surrounding landscape, beyond the tunnelled view of your perception. I am a quiet flash of skin, a laughing drunken man at a table, a corpse along a hillside. Yes, I am a fugitive without glory, injected in a land where the outlaw is King for one simple moment among the faces of heroes. Walking slowly, a silhouette traveled back in time, I pierce the crowd. I am a mystery, shadowed with lightning hands on silver six shooters resting at my waist. Who will it be this day? Whose last glance will burn the image of my scowling face on his dying thoughts, his final moments seeping from the wound in his heart?

Unknowing of my fate, I am placed upon a hill made fierce by a fortress with false walls. I wait, with endless patience, watching in awe at what we are about to do. These filthy scavengers, my peers, gawk to the man on horseback below with a dull noose around his neck. He is our glory this day, with a story unknown to us, as we are unknown to each other. I know only that he will hang and I will cheer.

Shrieking in rage, trying not to laugh with a hundred-year-old rifle hoisted above my filthy painted face and tattered rags. Giant white lights inspirit the oak from which he hangs. Tom Skerritt falls, and snaps as I holler relentlessly in the distance, a mere flash of realism panning the landscape.

“Cut!”… The eye shuts and my saga is suspended, for now. I will repeat my epic debut against the gusting winds, and watch a heroic Skerritt die six times before his tragic moment fits just right into our story. From 10 hours to 20 seconds, I have tasted the breath of stars. I am an outlaw run ragged across an Albertan wasteland disguised as a new frontier where a lawless Texas meets the border of Mexico. I am the unsung, hoisting our heroes into glory. Twenty seconds down, 14 minutes and 40 seconds to go.

Amidst the bustle to beat the sun and meet deadlines, I thought, “What is 10 hours under a blazing 43° sun in damp, musty long-johns and wool pants for a chance to stick my head in the clouds, if only for a moment?” For 10 days, I lured a distant place of fairy tales closer to the ground. I was etched in an image with Randy Travis, where filtered light painted our photo, unknowing who was who. I drew chicken salad from the same bowl as Leonor Varela (you will know who she is soon enough) and exchanged a thinned grin nod with James Van Der Beek. I waited in awkward silence on a rock with Usher, driven to nerves by a kid four years my younger.

One gusting afternoon, while stunt men flipped and curled in dance like sparring around me, I talked of fight scenes and props with the t1000 Terminator. From a distance one could hardly tell us apart.

In this time I soaked in the sun of jet-black Ferraris with casual waving to flashing lights and gleaming capped teeth. I basked in the flat reflective world of magazine smiles, with the beauty and the power and the thick fragrance of envy in the air. There was time for laughter on my image soaked face, as if each movement and motion made was the born creation of some other’s longing. We waited for countless hours, 80 of us. We sat in swarms of mosquitoes and wore the same filthy clothes day after day. We endured pinching wigs and pounds of brown makeup leaking into our eyes from the sweat of the desert heat. All to make our childhood fantasies a little more real, to reach past the screen into the permanence of film. Here we stole a glimpse of something outside of ourselves and cast light onto a piece of humanity imbedded deep within our most fervent spaces.

The lure behind movie stardom has little to do with making movies or any sort of artistic venture. It is about the most simple and even trivial of desires, but one that ever looms over our fear bearing heads. It is the inevitable threat of mortality driven by our obsession with being seen, so we don’t simply fade into the mass around us, forgotten to the past. We go to movies to be entertained, to be humoured and frightened and forced to tears. But we also go to see our stars, the images of our ideal selves risen to an untouchable place. With their poses and charisma, we stand on their shoulders and look out across a sheet of mediocrity. Their scandals rivet us and their characters charm us, with each event burning the faint image of our own faces in the
stuff of dreams.

Fame is seen as the greatest success because it is our greatest chance of enduring past our own lives and past the same common faces we see every day, but can’t quite remember. In our calmest, perhaps most clouded moments, we all wish for something extraordinary to shock the starved imagination into shallow pleasure. It helps take us onward to the things we know are real and releases us, on occasion, from the dragging teeth of passing time. That afternoon I crossed the path of Tom Skerritt on the way to our designated holding area. He glanced at me for a moment, almost grinned, and climbed into a white Chevy Tahoe where he was driven upwards along the trail.