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, March 29, 2009

The Pursuit of Perfection

“Nothing endures but change.”

From Lives of the Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius

In the summer of 1970 -- prehistoric times for many of you -- I had a chance to wander through the Smithsonian Institution, in our nation's capitol. A few weeks from turning 20, I was nearing the half-way point of a ten week tour of the country on a motorcycle (my own personal homage to Easy Rider), following a meandering path from the San Francisco Bay Area through Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico, across Kansas and Oklahoma, down through New Orleans to the tip of Florida, and on up the eastern seaboard. After exploring Washington D.C., I planned to ride north to Maine, then take the Trans Canadian Highway all the way to Vancouver before turning left and heading for home.

That's pretty much how it worked out, with a few adventures in between.

But first came the Smithsonian, and its many thousands of fascinating exhibits, most of which I’ve forgotten now, nearly 40 years later. A few stuck in my brain, though, and continue to resonate today -- including a huge gleaming red and chrome piston-driven aircraft engine designed and built by Rolls Royce to power civilian airliners in the 1950’s. The technical details have faded into the mist, but as I recall, it was a sixteen cylinder turbocharged engine, tuned to deliver a huge quantity of reliable power. At the time, it was considered to be the ultimate refinement of the piston aircraft engine, based on decades of hard-earned knowledge and experience gained in peacetime and the life-or-death crucible of war -- the sum total of a legendary engine manufacturer’s engineering skill distilled and tightly focused on a single mechanical device. At the time, it was the very best humans could do.

This engine was a product of the pursuit of perfection, and to a certain extent, represented perfection achieved -- but what should have been a moment of crowning glory turned to ashes when the introduction of the Boeing 707 jetliner instantly rendered the piston-engine airliner obsolete. Much faster, quieter, and more reliable, the jet engine turned the airplane industry on its head, and in the process, relegated that beautiful Rolls Royce engine to the history books.

I was reminded of this a few weeks ago, while working on an episodic crime drama. After filming exteriors all morning, we moved inside to shoot the interiors, using two cameras whenever possible. Once the set was lit, we stood by our lamps to make any final adjustments, then began to crank out the coverage. That’s when it hit me what was strange about all this: we were actually shooting film, with a complete Panavision package. Nearly every show I’ve worked on for the past couple of years has used digital cameras, which means I hadn’t even seen a film camera up close for quite a while. I watched the familiar rituals as if for the first time – the 2nd A.C. running in with a case of freshly reloaded 1000 foot mags, handing them off to the two 1st A.C.’s in return for the exposed mags. While the 1st A.C.’s opened their cameras, mounted the fresh mags, then threaded the film through the sprockets, the 2nd A.C. was breaking the film on the exposed mags and shoving them back into empty case to be downloaded later for the lab.

A reload is all business for the camera assistants, but for the rest of the crew, it means a few minutes to relax, trade jokes, or sneak outside for a cigarette or phone call. The actors get a chance to regroup, while the director thinks about the next scene. This familiar, comfortable routine has been the rule since long before I started my Industry career -- it's all part of what comes with shooting film. At this point, Panavision and Arriflex cameras are miraculous devices, having evolved and been refined over the past 80 years to a point approaching technological perfection. In the hands of a good cameraman, there isn’t much a properly equipped modern film camera can’t do when it comes to delivering the most sumptuously gorgeous images -- but just as this level of near-perfection has been achieved, the digital revolution comes along to jerk the rug out from under the Way Things Are.

It’s deja-vu all over again.

Such is the price of progress, I suppose. Personally, I don’t much care for the new digital cameras. Where film cameras are all precision-machined metal, gears, and glass, digital is nothing but plastic and wires -- digital cameras look like cheap props from some lousy Roger Corman movie. Instead of the well-choreographed dance of the film reload after every ten minutes of shooting, digital cameras hold something like 45 minutes of tape, which means much less reloading – and when the time finally does come to re-load, it’s a simple matter of snapping a fresh cassette in place. What used to take several minutes can now be done in seconds. Maybe the producers think this is progress, but I don’t. Besides, each digital camera comes trailing an inch-thick cable all the way back to the digi-tech tent, further cluttering up the set while offering ample opportunity for the rest of us to slip, trip, and fall.

Hey, I’m a juicer – it’s my job to lay cables right where everybody else will trip on them...

As I watched the well-practiced ballet of the camera re-load that day, it occurred to me to look close, because I won’t be seeing it much longer. None of us will. Film is on its way out, slipping into the past as digital takes over. This isn’t the first big change I’ve seen, and it probably won’t be the last -- I used an upright Moviola editing machine to make a documentary in college, but that awkward, clattering machine soon gave way to fast, quiet flatbeds, which in turn disappeared when digital computer editing came of age. The old DC carbon arcs in common use when I first started were supplanted by an ever-evolving flow of modern HMI lamps, which may in turn be phased out if LED lighting -- or some other energy-saving technology -- can do the same job more efficiently.

I don't know that digital looks quite as good on the big screen as the best of film yet, but in time it probably will. Besides, visual quality was never the selling point for digital in the first place -- that argument was lost the moment the economics tipped in favor of digital. In one form or another, digital is here to stay.

That episodic I was working on? I'm told the show will be coming back next season, but with digital cameras instead of film. In the relentless pursuit of perfection – or something like it -- the only constant is change.

Same as it ever was.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Yep, it's a pink apple box.

Nope, I've never seen one before...

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Star Gazing

The Milky Way seen from Hawaii

Back on the home planet a few months ago, I stepped outside late one night and looked up into a wide open sky that was dark as sin, yet full of light. The pale ghost of the Milky Way floated high overhead: our own galaxy made up of a hundred billion stars bound together by the gravitational flux of a monstrous Black Hole, forming an unthinkably vast luminous swirl stretching out into infinity. It was a breathtaking, humbling vista that pulled me one giant step back from my daily self to contemplate mankind’s grain-of-sand existence here in the great cosmic whole.

Yeah, I know -- that and five bucks will buy a nice triple-half-caf-no-caf-soy-latte-frappamochino topped with cinnamon-dusted whipped cream -- but still, it was pretty damned impressive.

Not once in thirty-plus years have I witnessed such a magnificent sight here in the Doomed City of the Future, where the megawattage of light blazing up from nocturnal Los Angeles overwhelms all but the biggest and brightest of stars. On a good night you can make out Orion, the Big Dipper, and maybe the Seven Sisters, but not much else. Blinded by the garish glare of our man-made incandescence, we’ve lost the celestial light-show that enthralled and mystified our ancestors, embedding so many myths and legends deep in our shared cultural DNA. Having traded all that for the Golden Calf of modern technology, we look inward now rather than out, staring slack-jawed into the flickering blue glow of the Cathode Ray Gun, mesmerized by the pale reflections of our own fantasies, fears, and vanity.

I don’t mean to sound overly critical here, nor bite the hand that feeds me. Not only do I watch the Toob like everybody else, I help make the stuff, which means my ability to pay the rent now and into the foreseeable future hinges on the continued popularity of television. Still, anyone trying to sum up the rat-race insanity of modern urban life – our disconnect from whence we came, loss of sense of place in the universe, and our all-too-human inability to see beyond the dull haze of our daily existence – would be hard-pressed to find a more apt metaphor. Over the long history of mankind, the stars have served as a nightly reminder of exactly where we stand in the universe. They guided us across the vast emptiness of uncharted oceans, seemingly endless deserts, and immense open plains. In a very real way, those stars grounded us – but now, for most urban dwellers, those stars are gone.

The best opportunity anybody has had to see the stars from the urban core of LA in the last thirty years came in the immediate aftermath of the Northridge earthquake, when the violent shaking abruptly knocked out the power and extinguished the city lights two hours before dawn. In that sudden overwhelming darkness, every star in the firmament blazed bright in the primordial darkness above.

It was an astonishing, overwhelmingly magnificent sight.... which I completely missed. Instead of staring skyward, I was busy running around my apartment picking things up, checking for gas leaks, cracks in the walls/ceiling, and any other damage to the building infrastructure. In my own barely-controlled panic, it never occurred to me to step outside and look up -- and by the time things had calmed down, the sun was rising in the east. Only later, after talking to friends who commented on those amazingly starry skies, did I realize what an opportunity I’d lost.

The other form of earth-bound star gazing has always been going strong here in LA, of course. Brittney and Paris and Lindsay, Brad and Angelina, and more recently, Mathew and the Surf Thugs battling the Malibu paparazzi. Ooh, there goes Nicholas Cage in the Mayfair Market! Hey, it’s Keanu Reeves at Honda of Hollywood! Sammy Davis Junior at Gelson’s! Crispin Glover down on Larchmont! And look over there in the granola aisle at Erewhon -- it’s Kramer from “Seinfeld,” a year before his legendary racist-rant comedy club meltdown.

OMG! Who can I text???

It’s pretty much impossible to avoid running into the celestial beings of Hollywood, since here They Walk Amongst Us, but you’d be surprised how different most of them look without the aid of camera-ready wardrobe and makeup. The only reason I noticed those listed above is because Sammy shamelessly mugged his way up and down every single aisle in the store for a good twenty minutes, Keanu Reeves happened to be right in my way as I headed for the racks of motorcycle oil, and Michael Richards has such a distinctively loony appearance that he couldn’t hide if he wanted to... which at the time, he didn’t. Nicholas Cage happened to be coming through the automatic doors to buy some groceries as I was heading out -- and even someone as oblivious as me can’t help recognizing an actor who bears such a strong resemblance to a lovesick goat, especially when he’s become one the most overexposed actors of modern times, with a new and cheesier movie coming out every other month.

Yo, Nick! A word of advice: I appreciate that a guy’s gotta put food on the table, but dude, give it rest. In your case, absence might not make the heart grow fonder, but it could help cool the smoldering fires of contempt fuelled by such an overabundance of on-screen familiarity. I’m just saying...

As for Crispin Glover – believe me, a guy that weird stands out in any crowd, even amid the human zoo that is Hollywood.

I used to date a woman who had an almost supernatural ability to pick celebrities out of the crowd. With the night vision of a big cat, she could spot even a minor movie star at three hundred yards. At close range -- in a theater, bar, or restaurant -- it was no contest: any celebrities present would light up her star-seeking radar like a Christmas tree. We’d be sitting over drinks and appetizers, talking about something-or-other, when her gaze would suddenly freeze as she locked-on a human target over my shoulder.

“Who is it this time?” I’d sigh.
“Rosie O’Donnell” she’d reply -- then get up to interrupt Rosie’s dinner and tell her how wonderful she’d been in “A League of Their Own.”

It was hard to believe this woman hadn’t just rolled off a hay truck from Palookaville, but actually grew up here in LA. What at first seemed like her charmingly star-struck naivete got old in a hurry, though, and a few years later, she married some guy with a lot more patience than I could muster. Hey, good for her and good for him -- I hope their kids grow up to watch lots of television, and thus help keep me employed.

There are at least two schools of thought on the matter of celebrity recognition in public.

1): Celebrities desperately want to be recognized, which is why they were driven to do whatever it took (and it usually takes a lot) to become “celebrities” in the first place. According to this theory, gushing over them in public is a symbiotic indulgence feeding the needs of fans and stars alike -- it’s a win/win situation, so go for it.

2): Like Greta Garbo, film and television stars want to be left alone. Famous people can’t go anywhere in public without being harassed by swarms of paparazzi, fawned over by clueless idiots, and having their lives/drinks/meals/haircuts interrupted by rabid, mindlessly mewling fans clawing for a piece of something they can’t have. To interrupt their privacy in public is rude and unseemly -- so show a little class for a change, sit tight, shut the fuck up, and be content with stealing little sideways glances.

I suspect there’s truth on both sides. Celebrities are caught in the push-pull dynamic of need-it/hate-it/can’t-live-without it, and like the rest of us, they want to have their cake and eat it too – but we can’t, and neither can they. Life just doesn’t work that way.

Truth be told, I don’t pay much attention to my fellow Angelinos as I fight through the herd in this ever-more-crowded urban labyrinth. I spot the attractive women, of course, but probably wouldn’t recognize Anne Hathaway, Kate Winslet, or even the lovely Scarlet Johansson if I bumped into her on the sidewalk. It might dawn on me a day or two later who I’d collided with, but in real-time, I’m pretty much clueless about such things -- which is just fine, since those of us who work in the biz see plenty of actors every day at work. With a few notable* exceptions, the stars overhead are a lot more elusive and impressive than those working under the hot lamps on set.

And on that note: the best night of real star gazing I ever experienced here in LA was close to twenty years ago, during the Persiod meteor shower that hits every August. Late one Saturday night, I drove my dusty old Camaro way out into Soledad Canyon, then lay on the warm hood and leaned back against the windshield to watch the fireworks. It was a great show, too, with a brilliant streak of celestial lightning ripping across the dark heavens every two or three minutes. Every so often, really big one would light up the entire sky, trailing iridescent smoke from one horizon to the other.

It was an amazing night, and all in all, considerably more dazzling than anything -- or anyone -- to be seen back down on the grimy, broken dream-encrusted sidewalks of Hollywood.

*I'd walk a long country mile for the chance to talk to Nancy Travis, one the nicest, warmest, and most appealing actresses I've ever had the pleasure to meet...

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Hurry Up and Wait

Nothing quite sells "tragedy" like blood on the snow...

“The waiting is the hardest part...”

From "The Waiting," by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Another day, another dead blonde. It was a young mother this time, stabbed and left to bleed to death in a snowdrift by our brooding psycho-killer. She was very attractive, of course, this being episodic television, where beauty is so often a fatal affliction. There she lay in her own backyard, next to a little snowman she'd helped her young son make.

That’s how it read in the script, anyway, but in reality, the art department built the snowman after special effects sprayed a mysteriously fine white powder all over the set, then brought in an industrial-strength chipper to blow nearly a foot of freshly chipped ice into the back yard. The resulting “snow” was cold, wet, and slippery, just like the real thing.

The “backyard” looked real too, but was actually just a wide driveway enclosed by a couple of fences built for the occasion, then dressed with patio furniture to compete the illusion. It all looked very convincing on camera, though; the lovely blonde lying there, eyes closed in the stillness of simulated death, her crimson movie blood staining the cold white snow.

Sometimes I wonder about this business, but working on a crime drama inevitably means depicting Bad Things happening to Good People. Still, there’s no denying it’s a bit weird to see all these dead bodies in the course of a day’s work.

At least they’re not real. If I’d somehow ended up an LA cop instead of a juicer (fat chance of that happening), I’d be dealing with seriously authentic bloody mayhem every week rather than the cruelty-free cinematic variety. I’d also have a much more lucrative retirement to look forward to, but I’m not sure the haunting memories of all that human carnage would be worth it.

There’s a reason cops suffer such a high rate of suicide.

We shot the snowy exteriors during the cool of the morning, then went inside. By the time we’d lit the tiny, cramped duplex, then shoehorned the camera, DP, camera crew, gaffer, first AD and the boom man inside – oh, and the actors – the only place left for a juicer to remain out of the shot (and ready to make any necessary adjustments to the lighting) was the bathroom shower.

I left that task for one of the core crew, escaping back outside to stay by two HMI par lights blowing in through the windows and front door. With no apple boxes handy, I turned one of the par's lens cases on its side (sitting on the handle is quite literally a pain in ass), and sat down to wait.

And wait...

We do a lot of waiting in this business, but it’s not the tap-your-toe-and-sigh experience of standing in line the Post Office, DMV, or the Laundromat, wishing the spin cycle would wring the excess rinse water from your soggy wash a little faster. The clock doesn’t really matter in episodic television, where crews are doomed to work at least 12 hours every day no matter what -- and those are the short days. The longer days can stretch out from 14 to 18 hours, depending on the budget, the contract you happen to be working under, the director, and the actors. The only meaningful way to measure each day's progress is by the scheduled pages left on the call sheet, which means you don't allow yourself to get caught up in watching the seconds/minutes/hours tick away. That way lies madness. To cope with the long hours, I gear down into an odd sort of emotional four-wheel drive, an I'm-here-to-work-endurance mode that dulls the tedium of grinding out the day one shot at a time.

Never having been locked up, I can’t say for sure, but episodic television always feels a bit like serving a jail sentence – taking each day as it comes, and never allowing yourself to look too far ahead. The money and food are a lot better in Hollywood than in prison, though, and you don’t have to worry about getting raped on set – a real plus, that. Besides, if you really hate the job, you can always quit, an option not open to those in the Big House.

Working on first unit requires you to exist in a strange state of tense limbo, quietly vigilant between rapid bursts of highly-focused physical activity. As a juicer, I have to remain alert to anything involving electrical power or lighting the set. We keep an eye on the light cast by our lamps, looking for any flickering or inconsistency that might indicate a problem with the generator, ballast, or head. When we detect the distinctive reek of something “cooking”, we inspect all the cables and ballasts until the problem is identified, then decide whether this constitutes an emergency requiring immediate action (which means making the director and cast wait while we replace the damaged piece of equipment), or if the slowly melting cable or connector can last until that shot is done. All the while we’re monitoring the walkie-talkies, ready for any changes the gaffer or DP might suddenly demand. Some DP’s will shoot five takes, then decide to make a slight adjustment to a lamp – add a single, make it a double, take it up, drop it down, pan it right a hair, tilt it up or down an RCH -- then lock it off.

So I sit on that hard little lens case and wait, listening to the radio chatter. The sun is high now, beating down on all that gradually melting ice on the other side of the fence. As the resulting water seeps under the fence, a small but steadily-growing pool forms. After hour or so, it’s six feet long, three feet across, and four inches deep, the water tinged red from all that movie blood.

Whenever my civilian friends happen upon a film crew in public, they invariably report how boring it all looks. “Nothing was happening,” they complain. “Everybody just stood around doing nothing.”

Welcome to Hollywood, where something’s always happening, even if the untrained civilian eye can’t detect it. In a way, a film crew is like a football team, except where each gridiron club has two basic units within the team – offense and defense – a film crew has several. Long before first unit arrives, the set decorators show up with truckloads of furniture to turn the location into whatever it’s supposed to be for the given show – a doctor’s office, body shop, strip club, whatever. If we’re filming in someone’s home, a layout board guy/crew will come in to put down a protective layer of heavy cardboard over the hardwood floors and rugs.

First on location is usually the location manager or his/her assistant, followed by an armada of teamsters driving the equipment trucks. At this point, the actors are usually dressed in the appropriate wardrobe and sitting in the hair/makeup chairs, being buffed, puffed, and teased to a state of cinematic perfection. Meanwhile, the grip and electric crews are unloading and staging their equipment for the first shot of the day.

With any luck (and a fat enough budget), a set-lighting rigging crew has already put in the main cable run from the location set to the power source – usually a generator that may or may not have arrived yet. If the production won’t spring for a rigging crew, the first-unit juicers have to lay the cable, raising the first serious sweat of the day.

It won’t be the last.

The camera crew is now assembling their cameras for whatever mode is needed: a steadicam, dolly, crane, sticks, or hand-held. Second assistants load film into the appropriate magazines (thousand footers, generally, or 400 foot mags for steadicam or hand-held use) – and if the production has left the 20th Century chemical-based world of film to go digital, they’re busy patching together the hi-def cameras and running thick cables from each cameras back to the digi-tech tent, where the $20,000+ high-def monitor will live.

Meanwhile, the director is on set planning exactly how he wants to shoot the scene so he can block and rehearse the first shot. Once he's happy, we light the shot using stand-ins, as the grips follow along with the appropriate diffusion and flags to soften and cut the light.

Finally, the call goes out for “last looks” – making sure the actors are perfectly coiffed, costumed, and propped for the scene – and only then are we ready to shoot. A small army of people has done a lot of fast, precise work to reach this moment of readiness, when the director can finally call “action.”

Civilians rarely see any of this. They generally come along in late morning or early afternoon, well after the great frenzy of getting The Machine up and rolling is over and done -- and at that point, we're deep into hurry-up-and wait mode. On this day, we'll do dozens of shots from dawn until well after dark. To make it work, and stay on schedule, each “team” – set decorators, grips, electric, camera, wardrobe, makeup, hair, and production -- has to stay a step or two ahead of the game, always preparing for the next shot.

Until this particular shot is in the can, I have to stick close to my lamps. Much as I dislike wearing a walkie-talkie, it does allow me to wander as far as the craft service table around the back of the duplex. When Nature calls and I need to visit the “honeywagon” (a three minute walk down the street), I announce a “ten-one" on the radio (short for "10-100") and wait for a response – that way, the rest of the outside crew will know to cover me should one of my lamps need adjusting. Once I hear an acknowledgement, it's on them to cover me -- and meanwhile, I’ve covered my own ass.

Much of this business comes down to just that: covering your ass – not as a bureaucratic maneuver to shift the blame on someone else, but simply to make sure our crew's responsibilities are carried out in a prompt and efficient manner. Were I to head for the honeywagon without informing the rest of the crew, the gaffer would look bad inside when his orders to adjust the aim of a lamp didn’t get an immediate response. If the gaffer looks bad, the rest of us look bad -- and that is definitely not good.

To keep our gaffer – and thus the rest of the crew – looking good, we always make sure our collective ass is covered. This constant vigilance on the part of each department is the grease that keeps the wheels of The Machine running smoothly.

And so it goes, cranking out shot after shot until mid-afternoon, when we finally break for lunch, nearly two hours late. After lunch, we start prepping for the night exterior scene, pulling all the tungsten lamps off the truck and deploying them around the front yard and out into the street. It’s not a complicated sequence, but at night, it's up to us to supply all the illumination, and that takes just about every tungsten lamp we’ve got.

It’s the old bitter joke about “shooting available light,” which normally refers to filming with daylight only, using no movie lamps at all -- but in this case, it means shooting with every light available.

In other words, empty the truck.

We finally get it all done sometime after ten, then wrap as fast as possible, piling into the last van back to base camp around 11:30. It’s been a long two days, but at least I’ll get to sleep in. The company will shoot on stage the following day, and won’t need any extra hands until Friday. That’s the good news: I’ll get a day to rest up, then one more work day this week to pad my paycheck. The bad news is that Friday is a night shoot -- movies-‘til dawn -- way down at one of those big theme parks on Beach Boulevard, deep behind the Orange Curtain.

That’ll be fun.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Rob Long, again...

Anyone familiar with this blog knows I'm a big fan of Rob Long’s weekly “Martini Shot” commentaries on KCRW.* These commentaries are smart and pithy, and delivered in a wonderfully droll manner light-years from the usual overheated Hollywood hype. As a veteran television writer/producer, he's been around long enough to accumulate a wealth of great stories to illustrate his commentaries.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I'm compelled to point the way once again. Rob’s offering last week (“Positive Rob”) was another gem. Cick here to enjoy what may be the best four minutes of your day...

*Current shows and extensive archives can be accessed via the link on the sidebar.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Day of the Locust: Part Three

Attack of the Octo-Mom

Just say no...

I was spinning my wheels trying to come up with a post for this Sunday, when it dawned on me that I’m way overdue for a hiatus week. Having been pretty busy working the past month (and very grateful for this little run of work), it's time I wandered off the reservation and let someone else do the heavy lifting -- in this case, the ever-reliable LA Times.

As a society, we readily proscribe all sorts of behavior -- don't smoke here, don't drink there, and don't kill anybody unless the government hands you a gun and says "go." But when it comes to the indiscriminate pumping out of babies by parents hopelessly ill-equipped to provide the long term support critical to raising a sane, well-rounded human being, we seem to have a hard time knowing when to say “no.”

Sometimes I wonder if maybe Nancy Reagan was right after all – not about drugs, necessarily, but concerning our shared lack of common sense when it comes to anything having to do with children.

I can understand why a couple trying to scratch out a living in an impoverished agrarian society might consider having fourteen children a good idea. Without the aid of modern farming technology, many hands are required to coax a living from the stubborn earth, and when faced with a murderous infant mortality rate, the logic of sheer numbers is compelling. Pumping out fourteen babies over the course of ten years might be a bit rough on mom, but life outside the Garden of Eden can be very harsh indeed.

The stakes are high, their choices limited.

Given the pervasive nature and unknown duration of the current global economic collapse, it’s no longer unthinkable that life for us all could devolve to that level over time*, but at the moment, to feed, clothe, care for, and educate fourteen children would be a horrendous strain on any family. The notion that an unemployed single mother -- a woman whose only apparent skill in life is convincing doctors to help her give birth to enormous litters of human babies -- can somehow marshal the resources required to take proper care of eight brand new babies (in addition to her six other children), is ludicrous.

Maybe children number seven through fourteen will grow to up win multiple Nobel Prizes for curing cancer, heart disease, and herpes. Maybe they'll find a way to free Rush Limbaugh from his angry, bloated addiction to Oxycontin, soothe the painful burning itch of hemorrhoids, and alleviate the heartbreak of psoriasis for all mankind.

Or maybe they’ll all end up as serial killers.

We'll find out in the years to come, I suppose, but as the increasingly surreal saga of the Octo-Mom unfolds in the press – and whatever your feelings toward this disturbed young woman, you’ve got to love that comic book moniker – I can’t help wishing that Nathanael West, H.L. Mencken, and Mark Twain were still around to offer their own unique brands of caustic social commentary. But they’re long gone, and when it comes to describing the beyond-the-pale absurdity that so often results when human desire teams up with a modern technology lacking any governing filter of common sense, words pretty much fail me. Add in the 24/7 media frenzy freak-show, and you’ve got another only-in-Southern-California tale of reality gone wild.

Although there have doubtless been further developments in this bizarre drama during the past week (any story strong enough to attract culture-vulture/media whores like Oprah, Dr. Phil, and Gloria Allred has some serious legs), the LA Times summed up the whole sordid story rather nicely here.

"What fools these mortals be," wrote William Shakespeare, in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" -- and the man had a point. I think we'd all be better off if people like the fertility doctor who "helped" Nadya Suleman had the good sense to just say no.

* Even if we recover from these self-inflicted wounds, an infinitely worse crisis looms in the not-too-distant future when we finally run out of cheap oil – and that one really could take us back to the horse-and-buggy era in a very big way...


It's with some reluctance that I recommend you catch or TIVO the Season Two premiere of "Breaking Bad" tonight (Sunday) on AMC -- here in LA, it airs at 10 pm, but check your local listings. Prompted by SF Chronicle TV critic Tim Goodman, I took a flyer on "Breaking Bad" last season, and was hooked right from the first nightmarishly hallucinatory scene. Season One was simply brilliant, and from all indications, Season Two continues the roller coaster ride in style.

So why the reluctance to recommend such a terrific show? Because this is the kind of series you really should watch right from the very beginning. So many layers of character and plot are gradually revealed over those first seven episodes, that coming in at this point just seems all wrong. But that's up to you -- you can always TIVO Season Two as it comes, then hoard it until you've had a chance to watch Season One on DVD's from Netflix or your local video emporium. Whatever you do, check this show out. As of tonight, it's the New Best Thing on TV.

To read an excellent review from the inspired keyboard of Mary McNamara, click here.

Sunday, March 1, 2009


In like a lion, dazed and confused...

A funny thing happened to this week’s post – rather than going on-line Sunday, as planned, it somehow appeared in this space on Friday. Those of you familiar with Blogger (or any of the other popular blog hosting services, I imagine) know it's easy enough to schedule a post to appear at a predetermined date/time in the future. I do this fairly frequently, writing a post during the week, then clicking “post options” to publish the post at 12:00 noon the following Sunday. This leaves me time to go over the post, correct typos, and make any edits in a relatively leisurely manner.

Things didn’t quite work out this week. I followed the usual procedure with what was supposed to be today’s post, but rather than following orders, “Back to the Grind” went rogue, breaking out of its digital holding cell and posting sometime Friday, laden with misspellings, typos, and -- as Strunk and White would say -- “needless words.”

My first impulse was to point the finger of blame somewhere else, in this case, aiming my scorn at Blogger, which does have a tendency to go sideways with some regularity. But this time, the problem came from a most unexpected source -- my wall calendar, which lured me into believing that today would be February 29. I dutifully entered that date on the schedule, which apparently confused the Blogger software so much that it immediately published the post.

Thus the shame and heartbreak of premature blog-jaculation... Live and learn.

Despite this – and my currently work-flattened, utterly inert brain – I have not come to this Sunday morning empty-handed. Here are the two most recent “Martini Shot” commentaries on life above-the-line from Rob Long, at his pithy best, along with an astonishing Youtube performance that really must be watched/listened to, rather than described by mere words on a screen.

All in all, these three little gems will occupy less than 13 minutes of your busy day. Check 'em out -- you won't be disappointed.