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Saturday, September 22, 2007
This Island, Hollywood
A college degree, it is said, remains the essential passport to success in the dog-eat-dog competition of our ever-shrinking, increasingly globalized world. No doubt this is true, but some courses of study are more equal than others: there are degrees and degrees. Sadly, the more interesting credentials tend to cluster in fields that although undeniably fascinating, are unlikely to provide sufficient thrust to launch a high-octane career rich in the material rewards our society deems essential to achieve true success. A student who chooses to devote his/her precious college years to the pursuit of a major such as Aesthetic Studies, for instance – as opposed to something like Computer Science, Business Administration, or one of the many well-worn and reliably remunerative career paths -- stands a fair chance of ending up doomed to the labors of Sisyphus, facing the daily struggle to push a very large rock up a very steep mountain for a very long time. Unless this misguided soul happens to be supremely gifted, incredibly lucky, or somehow manages to marry into a very wealthy family, the post-graduation price for following one’s heart rather than putting shoulder to wheel in the more prosaic (read: boring) disciplines -- which invariably require endless and miserable exertions of the cranial muscles -- can be high indeed: a working life that remains the functional equivalent of summoning up a big phony smile while inquiring “Would you like fries with that, sir?”
Take it from One Who Knows: walk that path and you just might end up in Hollywood.
Having followed the muse of youthful sloth all the way through college (and who was neither gifted, lucky, nor able to marry a nice rich girl), I've paid the price in the form of thirty years hard labor toiling “below the line” in the salt mines of the film industry. And it’s not over yet. Assuming I can keep answering the daily work bell, several more years of breaking rocks in the hot sun lies between me and the shiny brass ring of retirement. Trouble is, the actuarial statistics make a strong case against looking forward to that bright and sunny day. According to the obituaries in our dreary little union newsletter, an alarming number of freshly-minted retirees shuffle right off this mortal coil into the Great Beyond soon after being turned out to pasture. It seems the reward for squandering one’s life and vitality on a career of hard labor in Hollywood is grim indeed: a swift take-down, followed by the cold and clammy hand of death. Some serious digging is required to find the silver lining in such a gloomy cloud, but if I've only got a handful of years left after pushing off into the deep water of my “golden years”, it’ll be steak and lobster every night, bartender, and keep those martini’s coming. Rev up those credit cards, run ‘em deep into the red, and to hell with the mortgage -- the only real estate I’ll need for the long haul is six feet under ground.
The bad news is that it’s a little late to do anything about it now – a good twenty-five years too late, apparently. An old college friend, now a successful and respected television writer/producer with five gleaming Emmys resting on her fireplace mantle, once told me of an article she’d read positing that those who work in the film industry longer than five years are thereafter ruined for any other line of employment. The reasoning was simple: once a person has spent half a decade doing a performance-oriented job for which no formal training is required (or even exists, in most cases) -- work that is sporadic, intense, and often pays well enough that the ensuing periods of unemployment/recovery/rehab are greeted with open arms -- this individual has by then been rendered forever unsuitable for the nine-to-five, forty hour week, fifty week a year grind so many gainfully-employed Americans cheerfully accept as normal life.
In other words, we’re spoiled.
There’s some truth in that. A working life in Hollywood has more in common with running off to join the circus than anything resembling the comfortable routines of a more conventional career. Once you've grown accustomed to the chaotic rhythms of free-lance Industry work (and all those oh-so-sweet weekdays off), it becomes increasingly difficult to envision crawling back to a desk under the pale fluorescent glow and tick-tock-watch-the-clock mental constipation of the Cube Farm. By then, an invisible threshold of some sort has been crossed – a “tipping point”, in the jargon de jour -- after which you’re trapped in Tinsel Town as surely as all those doomed mammoths and saber-toothed tigers who long ago met their grim fate in the stinking petro-swamps of the La Brea Tar Pits.
At first it’s all one big adventure, rolling into LA brimming with the brash, blissful ignorance of youth, filled with a burning desire to work on real Hollywood movies, no matter how cheesy or lame they might be. Such blind ambition is essential, since the only Industry jobs a clueless kid with no real connections or usable skills can hope to land will be on the worst-of-the-worst low-budget schlock. But that doesn't matter, because in those early days, simply being allowed to work on a film is a two hundred octane blast of pure adrenaline. In time you learn enough about the process of making movies -- and yourself -- to focus on something resembling a career path, be it getting your hands dirty in one of the technical crafts, keeping them clean in the white-collar arena of production, or embarking on the hard and rocky quest of the wannabe writer/director. You make your choice and push on, climbing the ladder as luck and opportunity allow. As the years pass, the work becomes more routine in many ways, more complex in others, but you keep moving forward, gaining experience, and ever so slowly, without ever really noticing, your joi de work begins to calcify and crumble. Your footprints slowly turn to dust. Then, on some hot and smoggy morning five or ten or twenty years later, you wake up to the stark realization that Hollywood isn't The Emerald City after all. Suddenly it looks a lot more like Alcatraz, where getting on the island took some doing, but getting off was infinitely harder.
By now, no intelligent employer back on dry land will have you -- one look at that Tinsel Town resume lights up the Damaged Goods warning like a Christmas tree. And if by some miracle you manage to charm your way through Human Resources, and sweet-talk some naive, do-well-by-doing-good employer into giving you a job, what then? Slow-motion disaster, that’s what. All too soon your new boss will find that in hiring a Hollywood refugee, he or she has brought into the fold the sort of bad-apple employee whose only contribution is to drag down the productivity of everyone else. You’ll fully intend to work hard, of course, but it’s so much easier to spend half the day at the water cooler entertaining your fellow wage-slaves with tales of life in glamorous Hollywood. But at that rate, you’ll run through your entire repertoire twice over in no time at all, after which you’ll have to start inventing stories to hold an audience. Soon you’ll be dropping names with shameless abandon, trying to wow the wide-eyed civilians with lies about cruisin’ with Brad, Jennifer, Lindsey, and J-Lo – and that’s when your co-workers will finally understand just how full of crap you really are. Suddenly alone at the water cooler, you’ll have no choice but to slink back to your desk and grudgingly buckle down to whatever mindless drudgery you’d been hired to do.
Too little, too late. At that point, you’ll have all the time in the world to daydream about the good old days back in Hollywood (having conveniently forgotten why you ran screaming from the asylum in the first place), since by now your employer will have rectified his/her mistake and given you the boot. Even Hollywood at its most ridiculously absurd will start looking awfully good when you’re shivering the night away in a cardboard condo beneath a freeway overpass on the edge of town. Still, you’ll have a whole new audience down there -- a little rough around the edges, maybe, but ready to be dazzled by all your great Hollywood stories.
It rarely comes to that, though, because the only way most Industry workers ever manage to leave is in a hearse. For all but a few determined, hardy, and resourceful escapees, Hollywood remains a life sentence without parole or time off for good behavior. And the awful truth, I suspect, is that if I should finally manage to limp across the finish line of retirement, I’ll probably end up like all the others, gathering from time to time with fellow gray-haired retirees over coffee -- or something stronger -- to swap lies about how great it all was. Even in retirement, there’s no getting off this island.
Sometimes I wonder if, over the eons of eternity, Sisyphus didn't finally come to love that big rock of his after all.