Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Losing the Moment

Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.

Shakyamuni Buddha

At one time or another, most civilians have had the experience of suddenly recognizing a street, building, or other familiar real-world locale while watching a television show or movie. This happens a lot more often if you happen to live in or near a major urban population center, rather than say, the rural paradise of Polebridge, Montana. Big cities have always been popular settings for movies, and sooner or later a street, bridge, building, or skyline close to your heart is bound to appear on screen while you watch.

Like most people, I too am a fellow consumer of the visual media. For the most part*, those of us who make the stuff watch it too, which means we see familiar locations all the time – in commercials, television dramas, and feature films. It’s a bit different for us, though, since these usually aren't just places we happen to recognize, but actual film locations we’ve worked on at one time or another. While civilians seem to find this kind of thing fun – “hey, I know that street!” – to me, the experience is invariably jarring. It grabs me by the throat and jerks me away from the comfortable “willing suspension of disbelief” so crucial to maintaining an emotional/intellectual connection with any on-screen drama. Instead of following the action, I’m suddenly remembering the movie/show/commercial we filmed at that particular location, thinking about the circumstances, the people involved, and how it all worked out.

The only thing I can never seem to recall is where the paycheck from that job went...

I’m not sure the Buddha would agree, but in a way, being fully engrossed in watching a good movie or television show really is living “in the moment.” Instead of thinking about next week's doctor’s appointment, or that stupid jerk in the Range Rover who cut me off in traffic while yakking on his/her cell phone, or what time I’ll have to set the alarm to get up tomorrow, my full attention is focused on what’s happening on screen right now. This may not qualify as any sort of meditative Zen experience, but when the show/movie is over, I usually feel somewhat refreshed and invigorated. If that means television really is the modern opiate of the people -- supplying the universally-sought-after false sense of well-being – then at least it’s cheaper than drugs, and legal too.

But when a familiar location flashes on screen, the spell is broken, and my concentration splinters as the sudden flood of work-memories pulls me right out of “the moment.” By the time I manage to process it all and regain my equilibrium, five or ten minutes has passed -- and as anyone who’s ever been interrupted in the middle of heated lovemaking knows, it’s not always easy to get back in the mood. Not that I mean to draw any serious comparison between cinematicus interruptus and the other kind, but you get my drift.

This happened again a few weeks ago while I was watching "Sons of Anarchy," a silly but entertaining outlaw biker drama on FX. The young hero (“Jax”) was up on the roof of the biker lair doing his brooding Hamlet thing (the plot required him to come up with a way to slip a load of stolen machine guns past a car full of ATF agents waiting outside on the street), when it hit me that I'd been there -- not smuggling AK-47's for survivalist creeps, but up on that very roof. I wasn’t sure at first, but as the camera pulled back to a wider shot, all doubt vanished.

I’d been there, all right. A couple of winters ago (back when it still rained in California), I did two long and stupid days of promos with the three leads of “The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” prior to that show’s broadcast debut. One of my many tasks was to rig and power half a dozen 1000 watt tungsten lamps from the roof high above an alley, forming pools of light for “Sarah,” the young “John Connor,” and Summer Glau (playing a sexy killer robot from the future) to pass through as they walked towards the camera.** This was to be a night shot, so the plan was to rig and power the lamps in late afternoon, then wrap them in plastic trash bags to ward off the predicted rain.

All this sounded simple enough, but the task turned out to be a real ankle-turning bitch: the lamps had to be rigged on a radically curved roof that happened to be very steep and slippery -- an extremely awkward, user-unfriendly place to work. I managed to get it done without spraining anything or falling off the roof, but it was a pain in the ass. A location like that -- the roof of a small, crappy sound stage way out in an industrial area of the San Fernando Valley -- sticks in your mind. Seeing it again on screen reminded me of those long two days, and the 12 hour, non-union rate that came with them. Being that "Sons" is a basic cable show (which usually means low budget/low rate), this is a good place for them to film – meaning relatively cheap.

They can have it. I never want to see that roof while working again...

In a way, "Sons" reminds me of a big clumsy puppy – a bit sloppy and silly at times, but I can't help watching it anyway. Ron Pearlman's steely performance as the club leader brings a sense of brass-knuckles gravitas to the proceedings, which helps pave over those frequent storyline potholes. Although the creator/producer of the show claims to have done extensive research into the real lives of outlaw bikers – without naming any particular club, mind you – and says he’s gotten positive feedback from those outlaw sources, I’m not sure “Sons” offers a realistic portrait of life on the biker fringe. Not that it matters, really – this is a drama, not a documentary. In a way, the show is a modern update on the Western, with Harleys instead of horses.

Still, I watch it with a grain of salt, through the lens of experience. Like everybody else who has ridden motorcycles for a while, I’ve run into outlaw bikers from time to time. They pretty much live and let live as long as you don't fuck with them – in which case you’d better be one well-armed, seriously bad-ass dude with lots of backup. Even then, there's really no percentage in it. Let sleeping dogs lie, as the saying goes. Then again, outlaw bikers aren't all the same – which is a good thing, since sometimes you have no choice in the matter. A simple cascade of circumstance put me around a campfire on a beach outside San Luis Obispo one night during my heedless youth, sharing wine with a biker gang out of Sacramento. As it turned out, “The Romans” were genial, good-time guys who meant no harm, and all was mellow that night. At one point, one of the bikers passed me the jug of wine, then asked a very odd question.

“Would you ever fight a woman?”
“What do you mean?” I replied, not really sure where this line of questioning was headed.
“We was playin’ nine-ball in a bar last week, when this woman came in. She waited her turn to play, then chalked up and ran the table on Ralphie, here. He never even got a shot after the break. Tell ‘em, Ralphie.”

One of the bearded Romans sitting across the fire nodded.

“I wanted another game, but the bitch just laughed in my face. Then she turns around, drops her pants, and wags her bare ass at me. If a guy did that, I’d kick the shit out of him – but she was a woman! What the hell was I supposed to do?”

I didn’t have a good answer, but that didn’t seem to matter. The rest of The Romans erupted with laughter while "Ralphie" shook his head.

All in all, it was an interesting night, but things don’t always go so well. That’s the problem -- you never can tell when the situation will suddenly go all wrong in the worst possible way. Take a look at Hunter S. Thompson’s seminal book “Hell’s Angels” -– a great read, by the way -- and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Given that the bikers in “Sons of Anarchy” embody a don't-tread-on-me, one for all and all for one philosophy of self-gratification (in the form of booze, drugs, sex, money, and power), they seem to have wandered just about as far from the path of the Buddha as the rest of us. While our whole culture is based on quenching the thirst of desire – “the pursuit of happiness,” which so many think they'll find at WalMart, CostCo or Best Buy -- the Buddha’s goal was to banish all worldly desire from his consciousness, and thus transcend the pain, horror, and disappointment that comes with being human. There, in each distinct, discreet moment of living, he sought to find The Truth.

There’s a list of reasons longer than the phone book why I’d never make it as a Buddhist, nor do I have any idea just exactly what "The Truth" might be, but I do understand what it’s like to be “in the moment” -- and how much it stings when you lose it.

* I used to work with a juicer who was rather proud that he didn’t own a television, but he remains the exception that proves the rule.

**Much to my surprise, brief snippets of that shot were included in the show's weekly intro.


egee said...

Interesting post. The philosophy behind T.V. watching! It seems in vogue these days (at least where I live) to proudly state that you don't own a T.V. or if you do, that you only watch DVDs. To each his own, I suppose. For me, T.V. is just what you described, a legalized escape from the world around us. And amidst all the dross on T.V. there's still some pretty good stuff. (Though what that stuff is would probably be hotly debated).

Anonymous said...

I don't own a television, but I'm not a juicer. I'm just somebody who thinks that there isn't enough being shown on television to make it worthwhile to have cluttering up the house.

Michael Taylor said...

Egee, Sammyray:

I'd never criticize anyone for avoiding TV -- we each like what we like, and don't owe explanations to anybody else. There's certainly far more indigestable chaff than tasty wheat on the Toob, which makes the good stuff all that more impressive.

I have to admit, though, I watch the really good stuff ("The Wire", for instance) on DVD, rather than subscribe to HBO.

At this stage of my fast-fading career, TV is just about all I work on, so I keep an eye on it for a number of reasons. I watch a lot of PBS, which is alternately enthralling and depressing -- and when the bleak state of the world depresses the hell out of me, I tune in something lighter to blunt the pain of staring into the abyss.

To steal and mangle a phrase from Barry Goldwater: "Escapism in defense of sanity is no vice..."

Believe me, when you live in a place like LA, any opportunity to escape the all encompassing urban reality is welcome.

Thanks for tuning in.

AJ in Nashville said...


I know what you mean. I remember recognizing the San Pedro harbor bridge in 'War of the Worlds' as it was being portrayed as being somewhere on the east coast. It was pretty surreal until I figured out exactly what I was looking at...

And forgive me for veering completely off-topic here, but I've tagging you with a meme. I hope you have the inclination to participate..

Check out the details here.