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 28, 2010

Getting Fired

(photo by Michael Ochs)

“Failure is not falling down, but refusing to get up.”

Chinese proverb

Failure... and Success

Hollywood lives on the image of success and all that comes with it – money, power, fancy houses, expensive cars, and the freedom to wallow in every earthly indulgence known to man. The tabloids may quiver with orgasmic joy whenever a celebrity stumbles in public (providing raw, bloody grist for their insatiable mill), but success – particularly the sudden variety -- remains a favorite subject in this town: the previously unknown writer, actor, or director who finally gets his/her shot, nails it, and is promptly whisked from the crowded, fetid stench of steerage below decks to join the rest of the Chosen Ones up in the breezy opulence of first class.

More than the Hollywood Dream, this now seems to be America’s Dream, and the foundation for so many un-Reality shows on TV. Once upon a time, the American Dream was to get a decent job and raise a family in a nice little house behind a white picket fence, but now the collective cultural lust is to ride the Cinderella-story, rags-to-riches rocket from Palookaville to a giant McMansion in a gated community, with a "Great Room" (whatever the hell that is), a 60 inch plasma screen hanging on every wall, and all the useless glittering bling a mountain of money can buy.

Are we really so shallow and stupid, or is that just the way things look on TV?

The flip side of this shiny golden coin doesn’t get quite so much press, and for good reason -- nobody wants to be Dr. Buzzkill bringing dank and gloomy rain clouds to blot out the sun. Still, image and reality usually reside on opposite ends of the spectrum, and reality in Hollywood means coming to terms with failure at some point. For every happy success story, there are a thousand sad tales of ambition gone wrong: the aspiring actress who finally gets her SAG card but can't land any paying gigs, the writer who churns out one spec script after another but never makes a sale, or the would-be director who can’t even get an agent, much less a job.

To quote an Oscar-winning song, “It’s hard out there for a pimp...”

Just as there are many varieties of success (which really is all relative), there are myriad ways to fail, perhaps the most common being the slow death of never quite meeting the inflated expectations created by dream factory of Hollywood itself. But without a doubt, the single most defining and emphatic form of failure is to get fired. I’m not talking about being laid off -- which is as much a part of free-lance life as breathing – but actually getting fired. That's a very different beast. And let's face it, if someone like Michael Ovitz -- in his day, one of the most powerful (read: feared) movers and shakers in Hollywood -- can get fired, then anybody can.

Human nature being what it is, ego, insecurity, and personality conflicts probably trigger most firings, but sometimes a person just isn't suited to perform a given job, or else gets promoted (or falls into) a position he or she hasn't sufficiently prepared for. After catching a break and the opportunity to show their stuff, the result is a failure so dismal that getting fired becomes a form of mercy killing. A trap door opens beneath their feet, and they’re gone.

I’ve dropped through that door into the darkness more than once, each time in a different way and for a different reason -- so I know how much it hurts. Still, my wounds were limited to the financial and psychological arena. I once saw a Key Grip fire his best boy in a much more dramatic and physical manner. When the BB showed up late for work the third day in a row, the Key dragged him out of his pickup truck, beat the holy crap out of him (cracking a couple of the BB's ribs in the process), then shoved him back behind the wheel and told him to get the fuck out of there.

Now that’s a rough way to get fired.

My own journeys through the trap door were more civilized, but (other than leaving my ribs intact) no less bruising inside. Even if you suspect it’s coming, being fired delivers a staggering body blow -- but when you get blindsided, it’s absolutely crushing.

After ten years working as a juicer, then a best boy, I was getting most of my work from one very good gaffer. As his name got around, his career took off, and I went along for the ride. After a certain point, I didn’t even bother to look for work anymore -- the jobs just kept coming, one commercial after another, with an occasional music video for variety. Life was good.

It was then that one of "our" director/cameramen decided to stop shooting and bump my gaffer up to DP.  This was good news, but moving up through the Industry ranks can be tricky. In the world of commercials, it's hard to be a gaffer-DP for long without losing a certain credibility -- at some point you've got to make a leap of faith, and when that time comes, you'd better stick the landing. I'd done very little gaffing up 'til then, and had no particular ambition to move up, but when my gaffer made his leap, my choice was to go with him as his gaffer, or else fall back into the pond with the rest of the day-playing free-lance fish. There are some perks with moving up to gaffer – getting a scout day on many jobs (more money), a new level of respect (however undeserved), and less physical work on set (having a best boy and juicers to wrangle the 4/0) -- but in truth, I wasn’t quite ready to be a gaffer. While working as a best boy all those years, my concern had been running the crew, powering the set, making sure the gaffer had the equipment he needed, and doing the paperwork. I was too busy to study the lighting, and by then my Hollywood ambitions had pretty much plateaued.  This was my job now – something that paid the bills and engaged my brain on a practical, mechanical level, but that's all.

The choice I faced left me no good option, so I took a deep breath and made the leap.

As a brand new gaffer, things were fine so long as I worked for that DP, who knew exactly what lights he needed for each shot and where to put them, allowing me to fake it as I learned how to read a light meter without holding the damned thing upside-down. But as hot as he’d been as a gaffer, he was still a newbie cameraman with only one real client, and when that director wasn’t working, neither were we. Fortunately, the cameraman for our other account -- the big one -- was willing to take me on as his new gaffer, allowing me to keep earning a decent living. But the world of commercials is a high-stress arena without much leeway for learning on the job, and I was expected to come up to speed fairly quickly. Unfortunately, I wasn't a quick study at lighting, which left me feeling very insecure in a position I'd essentially inherited. Things went okay under the circumstances – we got the shots lit to the director's satisfaction, and the jobs went reasonably well – but truth be told, the cameraman was shouldering most of the load. Before every shot, he'd tell me where to put the lights, then I'd turn to my best boy and repeat his orders.

I was a gaffer in name only.

Eventually a scheduling conflict arose, forcing me to choose between jobs for these two cameramen. The tribal loyalty that forms the glue of below-the-line Hollywood demanded that I go with my ex-gaffer, but the other cameraman (my real money-maker) told me not to worry – he’d do this one with another gaffer, then I’d be back for the next job.

A couple of weeks later, my phone rang on a hot, smoggy, hungover Saturday morning in early July. It was the DP from my big account. The tone of his voice told me this wasn't good news.

“I lied,” he said. “The new guy and I got along really well, so I’m going with him. I’m sorry...”

I mumbled something, then hung up, reeling. I’d just lost the best and most lucrative gig I’d ever had -- and with it, the economic wind beneath my wings.

I'd been fired.*

Losing the gig was bad enough, but what made it worse was that I really liked and respected this DP. He was a terrific cameraman and a great guy, fun to work with and possessed of a wonderful sense of humor. In some ways, he was a bit like the big brother I never had, teaching me things about lighting (and life) as we went from job to job. If getting fired was rough, being fired by him -- someone for whom I had so much personal regard -- was brutal.

In my more lucid moments, though, I had to admit he wasn’t wrong. The production company we worked for was paying top dollar for a crew, and in my case, they really weren’t getting their money’s worth. I knew it, he knew it, and they knew it, so in a strange way, I was almost relieved -- at least I wouldn’t have to fake it on their set anymore. But I still had to pay the bills, and that account had been my bread and butter. The other cameraman – my ex-gaffer – was still struggling to establish himself as a DP, turning down gaffing jobs and working maybe once a month. Given that a DP makes so much more than a gaffer, he could afford that (if barely), but with a mortgage back on the home planet and rent due here in LA, I needed more work.

I got on the phone and put the word out, and bit by bit, jobs trickled in -- first as a juicer for whoever would hire me, later as a gaffer for the crappy Fringe-Co outfits I thought I’d left behind. It was hard, but this time I immersed myself in the craft of lighting with a focus and intensity born of desperation -- and slowly, job by job, I learned the ropes of being a commercial gaffer. In time, my remaining cameraman landed more solid accounts, and I was again able to leave the Fringe-Co purgatory and resume doing commercials with decent budgets.

With the 20:20 clarity of hindsight, I could see that getting fired had actually been a blessing (albeit a rough one), forcing me back in the trenches to learn the hard way – perhaps the only way – new skills that would serve me well over the next ten years. Failure hurts, but it can be a compelling motivator. Years later, I ended up gaffing several commercials with the cameraman who’d fired me, and by then was able to pull my full weight. He appreciated that almost as much as I did, and it was a great reunion for both of us. Although we don’t work together anymore (he left the business to teach, then my gaffing career went up in Canadian smoke), we’re still good friends.

Call that what you will, but I call it a success.

Getting fired is a stinging failure in the short term -- a serious bitch-slap -- but it can provide a useful opportunity to re-examine your approach to your job/career. Until you realize something's wrong, you don't know it needs to be fixed. That might mean deciding to crack down and put your heart and soul into the job, or maybe you need to go in an entirely new direction. Either way, the experience -- painful though it is -- can help you grow and succeed over the long run. If nothing else, it just might change your own personal definition of the term "success."

* There's more to this story -- an almost surreal double-whammy of personal complications that made the situation infinitely worse -- but that'll have to wait for the book.  This wasn't my last taste of failure, though, nor the last time I'd be fired. It was all part of the bruising process of learning the ropes in Hollywood.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


(Photo by Deborah Fisher)

Monday morning, sunny and crisp on the second day of Spring. While hanging a damp bath towel on the sash-cord clothes line outside my apartment’s back door, I heard a most welcome sound; there amidst the usual sirens, car alarms -- and the hollow, booming thunder of a garbage truck making its rounds out in the street -- came the pure lilting tones of a Mockingbird greeting the dawn in full song. I stopped for a moment and listened to the bird's astonishing vocal acrobatics, which were such a stark contrast to the daily cackles and caws of the crows, Hollywood's dominant form of avian life. Those crows can be interesting to watch, but they don't do much to inspire one's soul.

But that Mockingbird? Pure magic.

Winter is gone, Spring has arrived, and life is good. The hillsides and houses surrounding the LA Basin will be going up in flames soon enough, but for the moment – this brief, sweet window before the Solar Hammer of Death comes down from above – LA is actually a pleasant place to be. The hills are as green as the suburban lawns below (lawns nourished by other people’s water...), while California poppies bloom all around the neighborhood front yards, creating splashes of a deep seductive orange that draws and holds the eye. Jasmine is everywhere these days, filling the air with a heavenly scent. Birds are chirping, bees are buzzing, and the women -- ah, those lovely SoCal women -- have shed their winter coats for an infinitely more appealing/revealing wardrobe.

Hey, youth may be a memory, but I’m not dead yet -- and this is indeed the season to feel very much alive.


“Failure” being the subject of next Sunday’s post (and possibly beyond), I couldn’t help nodding at Rob Long’s description of the television industry as being “a business of failure” in last week’s Martini Shot commentary. The beauty of Long’s approach is that he never spares himself in these meditations – he readily admits to being a part of the problem even while describing the inevitability of us all becoming part of the eventual solution, willingly or not. There will be (and has been) much collateral damage as The Solution rolls through the Industry, crushing the careers of many beneath its cruel and heavy wheels. Whatever your craft, failing to adapt to the new realities might be the biggest failure of all.

But we can talk about failure on Sunday -- right now, I'm heading outside to enjoy this gorgeous golden Spring...

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Orbital Velocity

“Should I stay or should I go?”
The Clash

AJ put up an interesting post over at The Hills Are Burning recently, tackling the “should I stay or should I go” conundrum facing many young free-lancers as they struggle to reach a level of career and financial stability solid enough to provide decent housing, health insurance, and some kind of IRA, 401K, or pension plan to build for the future -- a goal I've come to think of as achieving orbital velocity.

In the good old/bad old days when feature production thrived in LA, joining the union was the most direct method of solving such problems. For those lacking familial connections (that would be me), getting in the union was the hard part. Most new members faced a couple of lean years after paying the budget-busting initiation fee, but once they learned something about the job and got their names in circulation, enough work would come in to qualify for the health plan, with pension benefits (such as they were/are...) accruing from Day One of union work. Back then, a lot movies were made right here in Hollywood, with most location pictures bringing in a full crew from LA. Even the crappy low budget, non-union features I worked on in the early days always flew most of the technical crew from LA out to distant locations. Television was much fatter back then as well, following a predictable schedule making it possible to work much of the year, rather than in the desperate fits and spurts typical of Toob work nowadays.

Ours is a very different world, with very few features being shot in and around LA, while television staggers along trying to cope with an economic model disintegrating under the relentless assault of the digital revolution. Many veteran union members are having a hard time finding enough work these days, which doesn't leave much for those proud owners of brand new IA cards. I don’t mean to channel my good friend DJ Bummerpants (a gaffer I occasionally work with), but these are not good times to break into the film/television industry or climb the Hollywood ladder of suck-cess following traditional routes. With so many of the old paths blocked or washed away in the recent shit-rain of change, young people today have to find their own ways up. In this Darwinistic Dystopia, anyone who puts forth a disciplined, sustained effort can survive, but only the fittest – meaning the most connected, determined, creative, and imaginative people – have a realistic hope of making a truly comfortable living over the long haul in Hollywood

That’s the bad news. The good news? I'm not sure there is any good news here in the once-Golden State, where so many voters remain firmly in the grip of an angry me-first/tea-bagger form of denial, but for young people hoping to carve out an Industry career far from the smoggy confines of Southern California, opportunities are more abundant than ever. With so many states offering significant subsidies luring production from California, Industry wannabes all over the country can find feature films and television being shot relatively near their local community. In the zero-sum game of film production, Southern California’s loss has been everyone else’s gain. For those just starting out, Hollywood is no longer the celluloid Mecca where all their dreams might come true. Right now, entry-level and below-the-line workers in every craft here in LA are being squeezed from both sides and kicked where it really hurts by the precipitous decline in our homegrown Industry.

Not that it’s easy to kick-start a career in New Mexico, New Orleans, Florida, North Carolina, or Michigan either – when a production sets up camp, everybody wants in on the action – but locals and semi-locals now have a fighting chance at breaking in without making the long drive west to this sprawling and hugely strange megalopolis, where the cost of living rises with the unemployment level as the pool of Industry work continues to shrink.

This will be no comfort to AJ or her peers working hard to build a viable career in Hollywood. It’s hard enough to gain altitude while fighting constant headwinds and periodic Industry downdrafts, let alone generate sufficient momentum to break free and achieve orbital velocity. The questions young free-lancers wrestle with are brutal:

1) How long should I hang tough in pursuit of a Hollywood career when real progress isn’t evident?

2) When is it time to face reality and say “enough”?

3) What if I keep chasing the Hollywood dragon only to find myself still stuck in the no-zone at age 35 or 40?

These are deeply personal questions, answerable only by the person staring into that bathroom mirror. Nobody else can supply the answers -- that’s what makes such decisions so hard.

Although things were easier in some ways when I was in AJ's shoes – working non-union, trying to generate some career momentum -- I know very well what she’s talking about. The unions were locked up tight back then, but with plenty of non-union productions filming in and around Hollywood, finding work wasn’t the problem. Non-union features paid no benefits or overtime – we worked on a “flat,” meaning each day went as long as the director felt like shooting – and the money wasn’t great. On my first feature working as a grip (having shed the label of PA as fast as possible), I received a flat $65/day working 90 hour weeks. With union scale around eight bucks an hour at the time, I was getting screwed out of roughly a hundred bucks a day over those 16 hours, not including the benefits I wasn’t getting.

The following year, I landed a feature working as a juicer for an even $100 a day (roughly $300 in today’s money) on the same flat-rate deal. I didn’t bother with health or auto insurance – hell, I was young and immortal – nor was I the least bit concerned about pensions or other means of funding my retirement. All of 28 years old, film work was still an adventure, and I saw no point in worrying about the far distant future.

A couple of years later, I was ready to quit. In fact, I did quit. My highest annual income to that point was around $20,000, and with the doors to the union still closed to me, I saw no clear path to improve my situation in life or the Industry. Besides, I’d met a girl about to graduate from law school, and she had me thinking about a very different kind of life. The film biz had been fun for a while, but enough was enough. I have a very clear memory of driving along a freeway in the San Francisco Bay Area one late summer day, thinking to myself “That’s it. I’m finished with Hollywood.”

My dance with the movies was over.

Only 30 years old, I was still young enough to chart a new course. Still, I had a few lingering job commitments in LA, so I decided to grind it out through Christmas, then pull up stakes and start the new year fresh, four hundred long miles away from all that smog. In a way, it felt like I was giving up -- but I also sensed a great weight being lifted from shoulders.

But as AJ – wise beyond her years -- put it:

“...this town of ours is like being caught in an abusive relationship. After a good pummeling, whether it be from a rough few days at work or a dry spell that's gone on for too long, it knows just the right thing to say to lure you right back into its arms. It'll throw a good day or two your way; just enough to fool us into thinking that things will change. That life from here on out will be better. So you stay, but before you know it, the cycle starts all over again.”

Back in LA, a Key Grip called. I didn’t know the guy, but he needed a best boy to work a commercial, and got my name from somebody. The rate was $275/10 -- more than twice what I was accustomed to making -- and the gig paid overtime. We worked very long hours, and by the end of that three day job my paycheck added up to well over $1200, an amount that would normally take me two full weeks to earn. Best of all, that Key Grip called me back for the next job, and the next -- and suddenly I was on a roll. I worked as his best boy right up ‘til Christmas, at which point I’d grossed $35,000 on the year, almost double my previous best. The following year I made a full $50,000, and was on my way to achieving orbital velocity. The next year I left gripping to do commercials, music videos, and the occasional feature as a juicer and best boy electric. Eventually, I ended up as a commercial gaffer for another dozen years.*

Just as AJ said, Hollywood knew exactly how to suck me back in and keep me here -- and in the back of my mind, I’ll always wonder what would have happened if I’d missed that one crucial phone call. The lawyer? She ended up marrying some computer geek who worked in a place I'd never heard of: Silicon Valley. Just as well. Later -- with clear, dry eyes -- I could see we’d been a bad fit anyway. Sometimes things really do work out for the best, however raw it feels at the time.**

I really don’t know what to tell AJ and all those other young people trying to make it in this stupid town. I was fortunate to start out riding the wave of a strong economy in Hollywood, but that’s all over for a while -- maybe forever. Until the constantly evolving digital revolution stabilizes, the future of feature/television production and distribution will remain in flux. Meanwhile, all of us – but especially the young people – are cursed to live in what the Chinese describe as “interesting times.”

Given my own checkered Hollywood history, I won't recite the shopworn homilies on the virtues of Hard Work, insisting that putting your head down and pushing with all you’ve got will make everything work out fine. Success in any field demands hard work and persistence -- that's a given -- but when flying into the wind, it's not always enough. Right now, the wind is in Hollywood's face, and until it shifts, getting up enough speed to reach orbital velocity will require the usual hard work along with a timely and generous dose of good luck -- that, or some solid-gold connections, neither of which can be conjured up out of the mist. Making it in Hollywood is still doable, but will take an enormous effort with absolutely no guarantee of success. Those still scrambling just to gain an Industry toehold have to ask themselves just how badly they really want that Hollywood dream.

All I can say is this: if you’re young and asking these tough questions, take a good look at the evolving nature of the business, then stare long and hard into the mirror for an even deeper look inside yourself. Keep asking until the answers emerge. They will, in time -- and for better or worse, you’ll know which way to go.

This is not a comforting answer, but these are not comfortable times.

For any of us.

* So why, you might ask, am I back to juicing? It’s a long story...

** She’s now a rich housewife living happily-ever-after in her giant McMansion way out in the suburbs...

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Breaking Bad... Again

The "Breaking Bad" mobile publicity unit at one of the major studios last week, preparing to make a swing up the California coast...

This post might sound like a re-run from last week, but no -- yet another, much longer and infinitely better interview with Vince Gilligan (showrunner of "Breaking Bad") has materialized from the digital ether. As readers in the SF Bay Area already know, Tim Goodman (ace TV critic for the San Francisco Chronicle) writes a very lively and interesting blog on the paper's website. When the opportunity arises, he posts extended podcast interviews with people who matter in the TV biz --and right now, nobody matters more in television than Vince Gilligan.

Not Conan, Leno, Simon Cowell, Kate and Jon, or even the disturbingly ubiquitous Kardashian family.

Granted, I'm a partisan here -- I got hooked on "Breaking Bad" thirty seconds into the pilot episode, and remain addicted to this show, my television drug of choice. Still, this is a terrific interview. Goodman does an excellent job of asking pertinant questions and moving the conversation along without stepping on Gilligan, who comes across as a surprisingly humble, thoughtful, and likable guy -- needless to say, it's too bad there aren't a lot more showrunners like him in our business. At a full hour, the podcast is long enough for a relaxed and fascinating discussion of the genisis and evolution of "Breaking Bad" over the first two seasons, with some great stories and insights into the process of making the show. Industry veterans will appreciate the many levels of this discussion, while civilian fans will get some idea of just how hard it is to make a television show. Even a bad television show is a grueling ordeal to get in the can, which makes "Breaking Bad" nothing less than a miracle.

No spoilers are revealed regarding the upcoming Season 3, so do not fear -- just find a comfortable chair, lean back, and fall under the spell of Goodman and Gilligan.

If you're a fan of "Breaking Bad," you'll be glad you did.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Lie That Tells The Truth

(Photo courtesy of Flying Pig Brewing Company, Everett, WA.)

Despite the swarm of buzzing helicopters Sunday afternoon, I more-or-less forgot about the Oscars until the show was two hours old. With a load of laundry to wash and a sink full of dirty dishes, I had more pressing matters. Once the chores were done, I tuned in but was instantly bored to death, and flipped the channel to something else until 8:00 p.m. Then -- all out of viable options -- I settle in to endure the final hour as “The Hurt Locker” collected most of the gold.

That was fine by me, since “Hurt Locker” was the only nominated film I’ve yet had a chance to see.

Not that anybody asked, but a few impressions from that last hour stuck to the inside of my skull like the remains of last night's burrito splattered all over the microwave glass.

Sean Penn is a wonderful actor on the big screen, but he comes across as a complete moron on television. During his brief appearance Sunday night, he was typically incoherent – I had no idea what he was mumbling about -- but at least he didn’t punch anybody in the face or publicly call for his many critics to get cancer and die in screaming pain. That's progress, I suppose.

Barbara Streisand seemed to float right out of “Sunset Boulevard” – unsteady and glassy-eyed, she was out of touch, out of steam, and way out of her time. Do yourself (and the rest of us) a favor, Barbara; go back to Malibu and stay there.

Although some people seemed put off by Sandra Bullock’s acceptance speech, I thought hers was the best of the lot during that final hour. I’ve been a fan of Jeff Bridges since “The Last Picture Show,” but his acceptance “speech” was embarrassing -- The Dude did not abide. Still, it was great to see him win an Oscar at long last. Although I was afraid poor Katherine Bigelow might pass out from hyperventilation while repeatedly praising all men and women in uniform throughout the universe (everyone but meter maids, near as I could tell), I was glad to see her win.

One hour of the Oscars was more than enough. It baffles me that people can sit through four hours of this stuff, but to each his/her own.

Something else bothered me a lot more than the Oscars themselves. Leading up to Sunday’s show, the media gave endless press to a few Iraq war vets loudly complaining that the “The Hurt Locker” did not provide an accurate portrayal of the war or the delicate art of bomb disposal. Even the PBS Newshour got into the act, pairing a Washington Post film critic with an Iraq war vet (head of an organization called the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America) who was very unhappy with the film. The LA Times added fuel to the fire with a piece that gave voice to yet another group of irate veterans, describing the efforts of a few Hollywood professionals to train and equip these vets in the art of film-making so they can tell their own stories as they see fit.

I have enormous respect for those who serve our country in the military, and have done (in many cases) multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Too many haven’t come home, and of those who do, many more have suffered irreparable damage that will blight the rest of their lives. A frighteningly large percentage of those who emerge physically unscathed have suffered terrible psychological damage that can have devastating long-term consequences. The extent of their sacrifice cannot be overstated, and I totally understand how those who have endured the searing horrors of war would be put off by Hollywood movies that inevitably get things wrong, or don’t ring true to their own personal experience. If the resulting anger motivates them to make their own films and set the record straight, more power to them.

I can understand why they’re pissed – they suffered (and continue to suffer) in ways we civilians can’t really comprehend, and resent seeing their experience warped by Hollywood’s relentlessly commercial lens in presenting something on screen that does not reflect their war. Truth be told, I had my own problems with “The Hurt Locker” -- after a tense opening scene that had at least one major flaw, the film went into overdrive with three extended scenes that made very little sense even to someone with no military background. In most movies, such gaping holes in real-world logic would be enough to turn both my thumbs down, but there was enough good about “Hurt Locker” – a riveting tension that had me on the edge of my seat, and a need to see what happened to those three central characters – to pave over the potholes. I don’t consider “Hurt Locker” a great film, but for me, its virtues far outweighed the sins.

Were I a veteran of the war, maybe that wouldn’t be enough – perhaps I too would be angry that this movie did not echo my own personal experience. As one vet was quoted in the LA Times: “I’m so mad that there has been such critical response for ‘The Hurt Locker,’” said Kyle Hartnett, a Los Angeles-based Army veteran who studied film production at San Francisco State University after serving in Afghanistan. “It’s so inaccurate.”

For the benefit of Mr. Hartnett (who apparently didn't learn much at SF State) and all the other vets who’ve been carping about this movie: “The Hurt Locker” is a feature film, not a documentary. Documentaries strive to tell a relative truth* about a given subject, while feature films (even those based on fact) are fiction through-and-through -- and as with all good fiction, a well made feature spins a lie that tells a greater truth. The critical acclaim showered on "Hurt Locker" acknowledged the movie's acting, camera work, editing, sound, direction, and overall production -- the totality of the film. That's how the system works. This movie was not meant to be an educational film demonstrating the proper method of bomb disposal in a combat zone, but rather a drama about a solider who has become so addicted to the "drug of war" -- a purpose-driven adrenal rush that gives his otherwise unremarkable life a heightened level of intensity and meaning -- that he's been ruined for anything else. It's a very old story wrapped up in the trappings of a brand new war. So long as the drama is presented in an acceptably believable manner (which it was -- just barely -- to this admittedly ignorant civilian) the actual nit-picking minutiae of military tactics are beside the point.

Look at the forest, gentlemen, not the trees.

Could the movie have been made as well had the production strictly adhered to the hard facts of war zone reality? We'll never know, and it really doesn't matter. This is the movie the producers and crew managed to make under very difficult circumstances -- and for all its problems, “The Hurt Locker” is a pretty good film. Given that the budget was a hair over eleven million dollars -– probably less than the craft service budget of “Avatar” -- it’s actually something of a miracle.

I don’t mean to sound unsympathetic to these vets. If some misguided producer/director was foolish enough to make a movie about the life of three juicers on a film set, I too would probably be up and yelling at the screen over the resulting (and inevitable) glaring technical inaccuracies. Good drama doesn't let the facts get in the way of telling a story, which is why experts in any field are bound to be frustrated at how their world is portrayed in a feature film. For that reason alone, soldiers would do well to avoid war films, cops should forgo police dramas, and doctors might be happier if they ignored movies centered around their chosen profession. All feature films are fiction, and fiction is the art of telling lies. Anyone who goes to a movie expecting to see the literal truth up on screen might as well dream that pigs could fly.

Even very good "true” stories usually require serious manipulation – the application of poetic license -- to create a dramatically satisfying arc that forms the spine of every good movie. War stories are among the most highly contrived of all, as they depict human behavior in the most subjective, extreme, and horrific of circumstances. I've never seen a movie about World Wars One and Two that showed combat the way it really was, nor did the majority of the Vietnam era war films.** Most of the Gulf and Iraq war movies have been ignored by the viewing public until "Hurt Locker," and even it hasn't exactly set the box office on fire. The dramatic focus of most war movies is on the people involved -- their reactions and what happens to them as events unfold. The actual military tactics and historical record form the background against which the real drama plays out.

Those vets profiled in the LA Times will learn this first-hand if and when they try to put their own stories on film. It's not so easy to make a good movie -- you don't just turn on a camera and start telling the "truth." Still, I really hope they get that chance. The Industry is always in need of fresh voices bringing a real-world perspective to movies and television. As our world changes, so do our modes of storytelling, and perhaps some of these vets will form the vanguard of another cinematic new wave in Hollywood's future.

* Just as all writing is a form of lying, so is all film-making. Generalizing about documentaries is a dicey business, since they cover such a very wide spectrum, from the unblinking eye of the Maysles Brothers or Frederick Wiseman, to the slash-and-burn polemics of Michael Moore. Still, it’s safe to say that many (if not most) documentaries come with the baggage of an ingrained point of view that tends to exclude, minimize, or discredit opposing perspectives.

** Full Metal Jacket may have provided a reasonably accurate rendition of the Vietnam experience, but although individual scenes of that film were absolutely brilliant, they didn’t add up to a coherent cinematic experience – not to me, anyway. I thought Platoon was much better, but not having personally experienced Vietnam, can't say how accurate the film was.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Breaking Bad

He's baaaaack...

Fans of “Breaking Bad” -- and if you're not, you should be -- will want to click here to listen to a fascinating (if all-too-brief) interview with showrunner Vince Gilligan on NPR’s “Fresh Air.”

Despite its brevity, the interview reveals some very interesting things about how the show was cast, its evolution over the first two seasons, and the surprisingly productive relationship Gilligan enjoys with the network. As he reveals, "network notes" -- generally reviled by showrunners and writers alike -- can sometimes be a very good thing indeed.

"Breaking Bad" returns for Season 3 next week, and from the sounds of things, it’s gonna be good...

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Oscars Commeth

The Oscarettes prepare to strut their golden stuff on the red carpet...

All is quiet on this crisp bright Sunday morning, but it's the calm before the storm. Soon enough, a flock of news helicopters will take to the skies and hover over the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, recording every meaningless detail in today's annual orgy of self-congratulation known as the Oscars. The resulting mechanical din -- a nervous airborne clatter that will occasionally change pitch as the wind shifts, but never really cease -- will put an end to this otherwise nice quiet Sunday.

Every year, the temptation to pull out a deer rifle and draw a bead on these metallic dragonflies is almost overwhelming -- but That Would Be Wrong, not to mention felonious. I will not spend the rest of my life in jail for shooting down one of these choppers, even though the gawking, grinning fools inside certainly deserve a fiery death for their sins against our culture.

I haven't been shy about expressing my feelings towards award shows in the past, but if anyone remains unclear, here goes: The Grammys remain the worst -- typically lame in concept and execution -- with the Emmys finishing only slightly higher on the scale of marginal cultural relevance. The Oscars are best described (IMHO) as “a bloated exercise in narcissistic onanism.”

Yes, I’m quoting myself – and for that, I hang my head in shame...

As for the Golden Globes, I really don’t give a shit. It doesn't matter to me what the vast majority of American journalists think about movies, much less the foreign press. Why should I care what Jean Pierre Maginot, ex-intern at Cahiers du Cinema and current film critic for the Escargot Gazette (and Golden Globe Voter) thinks about "The Hurt Locker," "Crazy Heart," or “Avatar?”

There are a few critics I keep an eye on – Anthony Lane and David Denby of the New Yorker are always fun to read, some of the Salon Magazine critics are worth checking out, and Manohla Dargis – once of the LA Times, now the NY Times – can be very good when she deigns to use words I don't have to look up in the dictionary.

Dear Manohla, here's a tip from below-the-line: a giant brain and encyclopedic vocabulary aren't always a film critic's best friends...

I thoroughly enjoyed the reviews of Michael Wilmington back when he wrote for the LA Times, but he moved to the Second City Tribune well before the Internet took hold, and I lost track. Kenneth Turan of the LA Times is predictable if not particularly inspiring, but a lot more readable since he gave up using phrases like “a backroads bildungsroman” in favor of sticking to English.*

My admittedly parochial favorite remains hometown critic Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle. I don’t always agree with him, but he’s a very smart guy who usually offers a structural analysis explaining exactly why a given movie does or doesn't work. His analytical approach to and feel for the medium of film come through loud and clear in his reviews, which are always written with intelligence, wit, and style. And when Mr. LaSalle encounters a truly unworthy cinematic effort, his dissection and subsequent evisceration of the offending movie is something to behold -- and wonderfully entertaining for anyone not involved in the production.

In last Sunday's Chron, he explained how and why the Academy picks the annual Oscar winners and losers. I have no idea if he's right about this, but he makes a compelling case – and as usual, it’s a pleasure to read.

Check it out before the show starts tonight, and what unfolds over the following four hours just might make a lot more sense.

* A sin Turan committed in his review of the move Tex back in 1982. Sorry Ken, I can forgive, but will never forget...

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Wrong Number

Uh, I don't think so...

So I wandered downstairs to the mail box the other day -- unemployment offering endless opportunity to wait for the afternoon mail -- and found the above full-color glossy 5-by-10 postcard amidst the usual junk mail.

There he was, an alabaster Jesus hanging from the cross in a lush sylvan glade.

The pitch was on the flip side, in the form of a penetrating question: "Do you have a plan for what's to come?"

That had a rather ominous ring.

"We plan ahead for retirement," it went on. "We plan ahead for our children’s college education. But a surprising number of us fail to plan ahead for our funeral arrangements. At Catholic Mortuaries, we are here to guide you through the traditions, values and principles of your faith so that you are buried with reverence and respect."

I get the point; as a no-longer-young-person, I've now moved into the Death Futures demographic. Rather than dangling visions of flashy cars, fancy clothes, or diamond rings (items I wasn't particularly interested in thirty years ago, much less now), I've become the target market for the end-of-life industry -- long-term care insurance, funerals, and cemeteries.

Yes, I'm talking to you, Forrest Lawn...

Then came the hard-sell kicker in big red type:


"Save up to $800 on services with our special limited-time offer. Call 888-416-6440 today to find out more about the pre-planning process."

Such a deal. And you know, if I was Catholic (or had any faith whatsoever in the religious-industrial complex), I just might save up my unemployment checks to make that call. Religion is a business like any other, with a right to sell their proprietary smoke and mirrors on the open market. But -- unless there's something I don't know -- I'm not even on the verge of retirement, much less going six feet under for the Big Sleep, so what's the rush?

The answer, as usual, came in the very small print at the bottom of the card:

"Catholic Mortuaries, as subsidiary of Stewart Enterprises, Inc, offers Forethought ™ funeral planning funded through the purchase of whole life insurance from Forethought Life Insurance Company, Indianapolis, Indiana. A representative of Catholic Mortuaries, who is an agent of Forethought Life Insurance Company, can answer any questions you may have."

So what had all the appearances of being a message from a local branch of the Catholic church turns out to be from a grubby insurance company in far off Indiana -- an offer not from kindly old Father O'Blarney, but rather a hard sell from some insurance agent.

Why am I not surprised?

Just as I was working up a full head of angry steam about all this -- unemployment offering endless opportunity for that, too -- I happened to notice the name on the address, both of which were for the old lady in the apartment below.


I took the card downstairs and slipped it under her door, feeling younger with every step, the sun shining just a little bit brighter outside.