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, August 6, 2023

Start Making Sense


The other night after dinner, with no baseball on the Toob (my team enjoying a rare off day), I perused the streaming offerings of Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and Apple TV wondering what to watch ... but nothing sparked my interest.  Yes, Netflix had recently delivered the Wolf of Wall Street disc -- which I want to see -- but this just wasn't the night for a three-hour movie, so I thumbed through my stack of DVDs until landing on Stop Making Sense.  As a big fan of The Talking Heads back in the day, I loved Jonathan Demme's musical documentary during its initial theatrical release in 1984,  but after nearly forty years, had to wonder if his film was really that good, or if the circumstances that day played a role in my fond memories.

Those circumstances were at least mildly amusing.  I'd just finished the second -- and blessedly short -- workday on what was certainly the silliest job of my Hollywood years, and since we were done well before noon, the gaffer and I bought a few beers, tucked them into our jacket pockets, then walked two blocks to a theater running an early matinee of Stop Making Sense.  It turned out to be a terrific film, and a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours while technically still being on the clock ... and getting paid.

Still, that was then -- the pre-digital, pre-internet, pre-cell phone, pre-everything-about-modern-life era -- and this is now, so the question hung in the air: could this film hold up after all these years?

Did it ever, and then some.  

I have no idea if younger generations have tuned into the Talking Heads, or if they're so besotted with Hip Hop, Beyonce, Taylor Swift, and the synthetic auto-tuned pop music of modern times that they dismiss anything older as dusty relics of a primitive era, but they really should -- and there can be no better introduction to the power and creative genius of David Byrne and his band than Stop Making Sense. Their performance in this film is a brilliantly theatrical blend of music and dance that simply will not allow you to just sit and watch: young or old, you're gonna have to get up and move at some point during that hour and a half.  

It's fucking great -- even better than I remembered.

Truth be told, I was in something of a funk that night.  Sometimes the grim reality of getting old joins with a sense of despair that our world really is falling apart, and together these dark forces kick me into a pit that can be hard to escape. The baying hounds of existential angst were hot on my heels before I slipped Stop Making Sense into the player, but with the opening notes of Psycho Killer, those Dogs from Hell vanished into the ether.  The next ninety minutes were like dancing on Cloud Nine.  As silly as it sounds, the film created a feeling of real hope, and I'm still surfing that high a week later.  

Granted, it was sobering to realize that this message of hope came from nearly forty years ago, like the dazzling light of some distant, long-dead supernova, when I -- and The Talking Heads -- were still young, but hope dies last, as the saying goes, and comes as a welcome tonic to the toxicity of modern times.

The only tinge of regret I have is that I didn't go to one of the four shows the band played at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood, where the filming was done.  As good as this film is, being there would have been an epic  --  dare I say, ecstatic -- life experience of the sort that don't come along very often. My apartment was just a few miles from the Pantages at the time, but I was working very long hours on commercials and music videos in those days, when it usually wasn't possible to do anything but go home, inhale a few drinks, then go face-down on the bed after work.  Toiling in the film business inevitably conflicts with so much of real life, and such is the price we pay. 

Check this movie out, kiddos -- you really will be glad you did.

So the strike drags on.  It's very good that the actors -- unlike the DGA -- read the writing on the wall and decided to join the writers on strike. Solidarity counts, and I have to believe this will hasten an agreement of some kind ... but God knows when that'll happen. Disney CEO Bob Iger took time out from counting the $100,000 or so that he rakes in every single work day of the week to chastise the WGA as being unrealistic in their demands, but I suppose this "How dare the help get so uppity!" attitude is to be expected from a guy whose nearly $700 million fortune bought him a giant yacht - among other things - with which to escape the mundane realities that dog those who do the heavy lifting at the keyboard and on set in Hollywood.  Then there was this entirely damning and revealing quote from an AMPTP member:

 "The endgame is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses."  

That's what's called "saying the silent part out loud."  So much for "bargaining in good faith."

Still, the entire industry from top to bottom is finally feeling the economic ramifications of the digital revolution, which seems a long way from over. Yes, the CEOs are still raking in absurdly huge amounts of money, but the squeeze is hitting their companies as well, and the uncertainty over how this will all play out tempts them to kick the can down the road as long as possible before making the hard decisions required to settle the strike. In this interview -- again from Fresh Air -- Bloomberg reporter Lucas Shaw explains how the television industry evolved from the days of broadcast networks to cable to streaming, and how some of the biggest players in Hollywood nowadays are corporations for whom making television and movies is a secondary concern.  That's worrisome.  A company whose sole business is film and television would be more motivated to reach a deal quickly than a giant corporation with its sticky fingers in many economic pies. We haven't seen the last, nor perhaps the most fundamental, of changes that continue to upend the Hollywood landscape and impact the lives of everyone who works there.   

Maybe this strike won't end until the producers really do succeed in starving out the writers and actors ... or they could save themselves and everybody else -- including thousands of below-the-line workers who've been put out of work through no actions or fault of their own -- a lot of needless pain by realizing that it's time to stop making threats and start making sense.

Fingers crossed.


NPR's Fresh Air recently broadcast an interview with Timothy Olyphant, who first came to my attention in the David Milch epic Deadwood, then as the star of an excellent episodic drama called Justified that ran from 2010 until 2015, when the show was brought to a logical conclusion.  FX is rebooting the character of Raylan Givens from Justified in a new drama called Justified: City Primeval set in Detroit, so Olyphant was doing his duty promoting the show. 

For what it's worth, Fresh Air made a point of explaining that the interview was recorded before SAG decided to join the WGA strike.

It's a good interview, with Olyphant telling what it was like  -- and how much he learned -- working with David Milch and the veteran cast of Deadwood, the occasional awkwardness of working on screen with his daughter in the new show, and about the process of acting on screen, among other things.  I haven't seen his new show, but thoroughly enjoyed listening to this interview.  Maybe you will too.

Finally, here's another good one from the keyboard of Joe Leydon, who I mentioned in last month's post.  Joe's long tenure as a film critic brought him interviews with some of the best and most interesting people in our business -- this month's selection is from 2017, when he sat down to talk with the late, great Harry Dean Stanton.  It's a great read, very much worth your time.

So, here we are in August already.  Summer seemed to stretch out forever when I was a kid, but now it's gone in the proverbial blink of an eye. Assuming that you're not sweltering in unbearable heat or fleeing from the flames of rampaging wildfires, enjoy what's left of this summer while you can.