Thursday, September 20, 2018

Things I learned in my thirties

As I prepare to close out another decade of life, I can’t help but reflect on where I find myself at the doorstep of 40 versus the person I was, and the circumstances that surrounded me, in 2008 at the end of my twenties.  I recall approaching 30 without a sense of trepidation or fear or, most importantly, regrets. All that I learned between 20 and 29 made me the person I was up to that point, and at that precise moment I was dealing not only with the implosion of my first “real” adult relationship but also chronic back problems, some strained family issues and figuring out the next step in my career.

At 39, I’m engaged to be married to the most amazing lady, my back issues crop up only from time to time, I’m on pretty stable footing with family...but yes, again I contemplate my career and where it is going.

However, in the past decade I’ve lived in six different states—and one District—in three different time zones. Since 2011 alone I’ve set foot in all 50 states—and one District—as well as nine foreign countries. I’ve interviewed well over a dozen Oscar winners, multiple Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, several sitting senators and governors as well as one future president. I’ve had a craft beer and/or micro spirit in every single state, hoisted a stein at Oktoberfest in Munich, downed many a hurricane at Mardi Gras, drank mint juleps backstage at the Kentucky Derby with sports and entertainment figures and sipped a Mai Tai on the beach in Hawaii shortly before donning a grass skirt and coconut shell bra to dance before an “appreciative” crowd.

I’ve been in the White House not less than four times and at the Academy Awards twice. Rush’s website once praised my review of their concert. A documentary film I produced won several Emmys. 

I went down to the Crossroads and I’ve been standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona. I’ve tried to count how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall. I’ve toured music recording holy grounds like Abbey Road, Sun Records and Mussel Shoals, stood at Steve Bartman’s infamous seat at Wrigley, driven every mile of Interstate 5 between Mexico and Canada and made a cross-country road trip.


And before meeting my fiancée I dated more women than the teenage me would have ever dreamed possible or even likely. However, such successes have been tempered with extraordinarily painful failures and a rejection so agonizing I didn’t think I would ever recover. (Spoiler alert: I did.) My only other relationship partner in my thirties betrayed me so badly—and then tried to blame me for it—that I didn’t think I could ever trust another.

Dating is remarkably simple: Just be cool and don’t be a dick, which I figured out later. If you master that, you’re already 85 percent of the way there. 

How was it that I was treated better, like a grownup, when I was 17 and working part-time at a restaurant than in my late-thirties going above and beyond day in and day out for three years?

Yet, in 19 months, I’ll be a married man.

I’ve lost and won, failed and succeeded, strived and come up short. Just last year I took a huge risk in my career and was willing to “give up the access” and all the perks in the name of saving both my sanity and spending more time with my beloved. The hit to my bank account becoming a freelance has not been insignificant, and many days I bemoan that I don’t get as much free swag or as many chats with famous people as I once did. All life is tradeoff, and you can’t have everything.

I’ve been lucky, true, and the experiences I’ve been able to enjoy have been outstanding. But I must bring up two salient points about my thirties: I’m just a guy who took advantage of every opportunity I could make and made new ones (you can do this too); and I can’t help but now feel a concomitant anxiety about how I’ll continue to top myself.

I was told constantly in my early thirties that I was still peaking; is this now, in fact, the “peak”? Is it all downhill from here? Are there no more mountains to climb?

I don’t know. But I’m sure as hell ready to find out. And I’ll continue to keep that youthful zest about me in the process.

5 Things I Learned in my 30s

1) I didn’t feel truly “like myself” until the age of 30.

One of the best things about getting older is learning to understand yourself better—and not apologizing for it.

A few years ago I stayed up rather late into the evening killing a bottle of Irish whiskey and having a smoke with a friend I’ve known since high school. This friend and I were both painfully awkward and shy kids who marched to the beat of our drums—while perhaps simultaneously laboring under a belief in being “the chosen,” if only the world would wake up to that fact. Talk of death and suicidal fantasies were frequent companions to our teenage conversations.

What came of this contemporary discussion was that both of us felt we truly “locked in” after 30, which was, not coincidentally, when all of the self-hatred began to fade away for the adolescent bullshit that it is—the drawing in of negative attention if no positive attention is available.

This dovetailed with a second premise that, with the hindsight of two decades, we were able to see with clarity.

“If I could go back in time,” my friend “Flynn” said, “I would tell 15-year-old me, ‘Jane Adams’ likes you.”

By the same measure, I wouldn’t mind shaking the shit out of that curly-haired anti-social freak I was back then and say, “You idiot! It’s right in front of you! You don’t even have to work for it!!!”

Of course, like myself, Flynn was an eldest child. None of my core group of high school guys had older brothers or even older-brother figures we could ask for advice—and most of our dads were basically useless when it came to such advice. No one was there to tell us to at least get some experience, take out a girl just because she’s female, not because you’re trying to fashion a “long-term” relationship right out of the gate. Learn what you like and what you don’t like; how to behave and how not to behave around the opposite sex.

Oh, and one thing else they never told us: Girls want sex too. Remember all those movies where the guys had to pretend to be something he’s not in order to get a date…and then invariably get found out in the process? Well, there’s actually a decent object lesson there about just being yourself.

And learning how to just say yes. If there’s anyone reading this—13, 14 years old, get your parent’s permission—learn to just say yes and ask out as many people as you can. Don’t treat each such interaction like it’s the end-all, be-all of your life.

We were so afraid, Flynn and I discussed. Of what, we’re still not quite sure. Rejection? Hell I’ve gotten three rejections on freelance articles just this past week, and probably will have two or three more by the time you read this. Sure, it stings but you move on. Wish I’d known that back then.

I also recall in 7th grade health class, Miss Dalrymple offered up the following anecdote:

“A guy and a girl go out on a date. He pressures her to have sex. She goes home to her father tapping his foot asking, ‘Where have you been?’ He goes home to his dad who says, ‘Hey, son, did you score?’”

That story scared me soooooo much that I was basically afraid to approach girls for most of my young life—scared of being wrong for wanting anything, so stay away altogether.

Again, if I’d had someone older to ask about such things, maybe my young life would have been different.

No matter, I’m here now and I chalk it all up to lessons learned along the way, whether the hard way or not.

And it brought me to my wife-to-be. All good.

2) A good job is its own reward.

I hate the corporate world for the capital reason that I was raised with a work ethic of going above and beyond, doing the job better than those around me, and this would lead to advancement and raises. For my teens and part of my early twenties, this actually proved somewhat true while working in the restaurant and entertainment industries. If you had a tough skin, dished it out as well as you could take it, did the job right and did it quickly, advancement in pay and position were de rigueur.

In the corporate world, at least in my experience, this doesn’t happen.

My first job out of college, I was kept on for two years as a temp, without a raise or benefits, despite the fact that I wrote a third of the company’s monthly magazine. My boss, apparently jealous of the friends I made in the office—no one talked to him at office events, and he would just sit in the corner alone—by the end was undermining me, which made me want to leave all the more, which made him undermine me ever more.

My last full-time job, at a Washington newspaper not named The Post, I was on the copy desk for 40 hours per week, on top of which I spent a good 20 to 60 hours extra per week, on my own time and on my dime, without making any extra money, attending events, interviewing celebrities, reading new books, chasing down travel stories, flying all over the country pursuing stories during my vacation time, finding and cultivating freelance writers and otherwise posting more and more stories to my employers’ website—which earned them more money with each successive click.

I saw none of that money.

Nor was I thanked. Ever. In fact, my boss once told me, “Stop working so hard.”

Sure, having that press credential opened tons of doors, and I walked through every one. Partly for me and my own experience and edification, sure, but it was basically a second full-time—unpaid—extra job. I got one token raise when I threatened to leave after being given a third person’s job.

But thanks? Never. Promotion? Nope.

It was a harsh lesson: Nobody gives a fuck. And by the way, everyone is replaceable. (Although I am sneerily happy to report that, as of this writing, my old newspaper job remains unfilled nearly a year after I left.)

My thinking had to shift: Do the extra stuff because you want to, and for the experiences and the bylines. Don’t do it for a “good job, kid.” Because you won’t get it.

Which leads me to…

3) There’s always another job.

I’ve been laid off seven times, including once during a hurricane (hand to God). I’ve also voluntarily left three full-time jobs without another one lined up. I’ve been flat broke more times than I care to recall, I’ve had my phone and cable turned off due to lapsed bills, bounced a check to a landlord, been turned down several times for health insurance pre-Obamacare, faced down letters from creditors, and I’ve even slept in my car (unrelated to fiscal situations, but it’s a fact).

But you know what, I’ve always found another way to feed myself. I’ve stuffed envelopes for eight hours at a stretch, took a busboy job even though I had a college degree and have done almost every temp job you can imagine. In the past year alone I’ve driven to the airport dozens of times to get people’s bags, driven all over D.C. delivering meals, and once upon a time I made ends meet by making midnight runs to convenience stores to pick up and deliver booze, condoms and feminine products.

While working as a courier, one Thanksgiving, a customer to whom I dropped off dinner tipped me in weed. Another customer the same year, a Secret Service agent, ordered enough meals for 10 people, and when I met him for the handoff, the dude was armed to the teeth with several weapons, a bulletproof vest, and cheerily told me he’d only gotten 2 hours of sleep the night before, which he said “keeps me paranoid,” a useful skill in his line of work.

This year started off rough, but in addition to a lively freelance writing and editing life, I now work part-time at a newspaper again. If I’m not in the chips precisely, I’m happier in my economic uncertainty than I was a year ago working full-time for people I absolutely despised.

And when I once worked during the week for a pornographer, I would often rent out my vocal chords to churches on the weekend.

I sat by myself at lunch nearly every day in 6th grade, reading books and Batman comics because I was “that guy” people loved to make fun of, so you’re never going to scare me with ostracism. 

I’ve been in the workforce long enough to realize that I’m an extreme outlier. Most people either stays at a job until they get a better offer, or they simply never leave where they are—either because they can’t or they won’t. The latter situation breeds fear, career stagnation and a perverse codependency with their employer. They’ll take a bullet for the company if only to prove their loyalty. It’s a weird tribalism I cannot comprehend, and I’ve been on the losing end of this proposition when supposed friends at former jobs suddenly stopped talking to me when I elected to leave.

This concept is entirely foreign to me. No job, no company, no boss is worth selling your soul for. But people sometimes just get stuck and stop growing. This happens in the professional realm as well as in everyday life. We all have that friend who is basically the same person they were in high school, and I guarantee you all know at least five people who are still doing the same job they did a decade ago, probably for the same pay and with the exact same title.

I see this fear magnified in the greater Washington area, where I live. Politicians are too often loathe to take a stand because, well, they’re essentially constantly in a state of job performance review. If they don’t do what enough of what their constituents want or expect, then in two, four or six years, they’re out on their ass again—and that six-figure paycheck goes bye-bye. I’ve met many politicians and, by and large, they tend to be decent folks, but again, I can’t respect a fear of doing the right thing or speaking up for the sole reason that it might cost you that seat.

Be damned for what you believe rather than shut the fuck up and prove yourself to be feckless.

Yes, the world is a scary place. Bills don’t pay themselves and the uncertainty of the future is scary. But it’s also exciting. And there’s always another way to make money.

I’m living proof.

4) Friendships change.

I freely admit this is one I’ve probably had the roughest time with. If it were up to me, the guys would all come over on Friday night once a month, we’d down a keg of beer and whiskey and watch awesome movies until dawn—and then do it again.

That’s basically what I did every weekend when I was a teen minus the alcohol. I ran with a group of guys and really no girls until late in my teens. We only went to each other’s houses every weekend for sleepovers, played Nintendo, made our own sketches on video camera and went to the movies. None of us had girlfriends.

Now almost all of us are married and/or have kids. We all live in different states. Getting the band back together is nigh on impossible. Even if you get, say, three of the gang to agree to meet on X date in Y Zip code, inevitably the other two won’t be available. In all likelihood, the old gang has fractured into microcultures of the old bigger groups. 

The next time conceivably my childhood friends and/or my college buddies will all be together again will be my wedding—and even then, probably not. 

I’ve found Washington to be a very difficult place to make friends. People are almost all in their own worlds and careers to the exclusion of all else. I’ve attended events and tried to turn clients and colleagues into friends without success. Some do get beyond that professional level for a little while but almost invariable drop off.

Though I often travel to see friends in other places, my fiancée and I get few out-of-town visitors. I’ve reached the point where I’ve all but stopped asking people if they might like to visit.

I don’t precisely like it, but that’s life. Entropy gnaws at every group or former situation like Pac-Man, devouring everything in its path until it sometimes seems like “the good old days” never were, because the time since then comes to be three, four or even five times as lengthy as the golden age ever was.

My fiancée is more or less my social life now. We have our D.C. friends and our friends in various other parts on both sides of the Atlantic. I do my best to keep up with everyone on social media and also make a concerted effort to meet up in person during my travels.

I enjoy going out, but I also enjoy TV alone well into the small hours, my books and magazines and putting together new videos. I miss having lots of friends around to share late-night flicks with, but it’s largely beyond my control. I’m becoming less social simply because life changes and the circumstances of everyone around me is likewise shifting day by day.

I have to accept that my wedding day will almost certainly be the last time I ever see some people.

My door is open to any who wishes to visit, but I’m now always surprised when anyone actually takes me up on it.

Again, I don’t like it, but it’s what is. As I age further, it will only get worse. Reunions are never really comfortable because the old pieces no longer look like the picture on the puzzle box anymore.

It’s best just to enjoy whatever company you have when you have it, keep the invitations open and do your best to make the effort. But if no one else does, then don’t bother. (NOTE: This will expanded upon further in a subsequent post.)

5) I’ve learned from my mistakes, but I still make new ones.

Recently a supervisor at one of my jobs had to take me aside for a chat regarding errors that were 100 percent my fault and no one else’s. Even though I’d addressed them and apologized and vowed to avoid them subsequently, he was completely justified in his concern. There were things I could definitely stand to improve on, he said, but this coaching was also leavened with praise for the good work I had done.

His advice was to do something I had actually heard several times throughout my career, and a bromide which—clearly—bears keeping under consideration: Slow down.

Speed isn’t nearly as important as accuracy—even or especially in a deadline-driven profession like mine. Ask questions if you need to, consult the style guide more often, see what others on my team, who have been with the firm for far longer, do and learn from them. Rather than make an unneeded—and, as it turned out, incorrect—call to my own judgment, elevate the issue and/or seek clarification. This will both make everyone’s jobs easier as well as avoid a bit of wrath from temperamental writers (of which, I’ve heard, there at not less than five in the world).

I absolutely hate not being great at my job! Despite my rather carefree personality, my professional reputation is something I take very, very, very seriously. There’s always room to improve, and we all were taught about that tortoise, slow as he was, beating the frantic hare to the finish line.

Yep, those nursery school lessons still have merit in adulthood.

I’m a perfectionist and I hate not getting over the finish line all of the time, so this kind of thing truly hurts, and there was absolutely no way to frame the incidents in question as anything but my own fault. It was also a learning moment: Everyone errs, but recognizing failing patterns and doing something to address them, rather than sulking about it (something I struggle with on occasion) will ultimately lead to improvement.

I’ve made tons of mistakes in my life and have tried my best to glean something from each of them in the belief that no experience wherein something was learned is wasted. And even after this most recent episode at the job, when I felt a bit crappy (and, it must be said, after my future wife sat me down for a coaching session), I was reminded of my late karate sensei, who wasn’t about perfection but that you continued to try.

“The day you stop making mistakes is the day you don’t belong here anymore,” he loved to say.

And my college choir director, Ethan Sperry, who was fond of saying, “Don’t make that same mistake again. Make a different one.”

For my forties, as much as I’ve learned from the old mistakes, I’m sure there’ll be plenty of new ones. As well as important lessons to take away from each and every one.

I’ll be sure and let you know.

My 30th birthday party, Sept. 27, 2008, in Silver Lake, Los Angeles, California.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

How freelancing is like sales…or dating

 “It’s only been one day, honey.”
—my girlfriend Victoria, on Jan. 2, 2018

As many or most of you know, I opted to leave my staff newspaper job late last year.  The reasons for this were numerous and perhaps uninteresting to go into here (though I may indeed expound upon this at some later date), and it was an absolute leap into the unknown.  It was the third time in my career that I left a job without another lined up, but unlike my two previous sallies into the void, another full-time job did not avail itself readily.

It was a huge risk, and I basically put all of my chips down.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained.  No guts, no glory.  Fortune favors the bold.  Audentes Fortuna iuvat (thank you Google translate).  I gave up health insurance, a steady income and the access to entertainers and various other cool shit I’d worked on curating over three years as a culture and entertainment editor.

I had to move on.  I was unappreciated, underpaid, insulted and basically doing the jobs of three people for the price of one.  I had a month’s worth of vacation that I was paid out for and some savings.  I took December off to travel to California and spend a leisurely time in New Jersey for Christmas with my family and girlfriend and friends and loved ones.

Then the bills started piling up as my savings dwindled.  The District of Columbia decreed I did not meet the minimum standard for unemployment compensation.  In short, I couldn’t afford to just loaf around on the couch all day catching up on “Game of Thrones” (which I swear I’ll get to at some point, Chris). 

Sink, swim or weep. 

I write now as the first month of 2018 has come and gone.  It’s the first month since June 2016 that I haven’t been on an airplane, although I have in fact been to the airport many times in January to pick up the lost luggage stuck at the Delta counter as one of my side jobs.  For those who don’t know me well, and have seen photos and Facebook posts of me traveling the world over, it might seem ostensibly that I have a perfect life.  Actually, I cannot deny that I’ve been privileged to do some really amazing things in my nearly four decades on this planet, much of it thanks to being a member of the press corps.  I could have been content to be a copy editor on the night desk of a Top 10 market newspaper with a “side job” as the Lifestyle editor.  But I wanted more.  Ambition has always been my albatross and my north star.  No rest when there’s more to be done. 

That said, I have done pretty much every menial job you can imagine over the years—and I say this to illustrate that in January 2018, I’ve had to put back on my hustling cap to get whatever income I can while simultaneously chasing the ephemera of freelance writing.  I gave myself December off with the vow that come January, I’d hit it hard, send out tons of resumes and try my damndest to get articles published in as many outlets as possible.

While, if not paying the bills, bringing in at least a little bit to eat and help Victoria with the rent and groceries.  (That she believes in me is a miracle, and that she is patient with the intermittent remuneration is once again proves she is the greatest woman in the world.)  Thirty-one days hath January, and in the past month I’ve hit it day in and day out, giving as little shrift as possible to self-pity and angst that I’m on the edge of 40 and more or less in the exact same spot I was at at ages 23, 24, 25, 27, 32, 33, 34 and 35. 

I’ll admit, I thought I’d be farther along by now.  Maybe with an Oscar or two or a book published.  Maybe on talk shows.  Or at least maybe, just maybe, not being once again in the gig economy.

But it’s OK.  I can do it.  In the past 31 days I’ve driven around once again delivering people’s lunches and dinners for DoorDash and Postmates (whom I stopped driving for in 2016 when they only revealed the commission after the job was completed, but hey, times are tough), gotten back on the church singing circuit, worked a daylong gig interviewing people at the National Archives courtesy of an old buddy and, thankfully, gotten in a few bylines.

I’m gonna pause here to say that for anyone who wants to be a writer or thinks “gee, I got stuff to say, I can do this, why can’t I make it as a scribe?” let me be the first to dissuade you against any notions of easiness.  In the past month I have sent out hundreds of queries to editors seeking to get into their stable of writers.  Fortunately, thanks to persistence and luck and a rather hefty backlog of bylines from my Times portfolio, at least a few of them were willing to give me the time of day.  In January I got two bylines for a subsidiary of the Los Angeles Times with more to come, as well as a few other publications that have said yes, they’ll take me.

But being a freelance writer in the 21st century is not what it once was.  I recall the glory days (they’ll pass you by) of $1 per word or more.  Now I’m lucky if I get $150 per article.  Some still will give you a byline “for credit” or building up your portfolio.  It’s fortunate that writing gives me a thrill, and more or less during my Times days I was basically an unpaid freelancer.  There’s nothing more thrilling and invigorating than when you find the lede and when you discover an in and a way to make what is interesting to you not only palatable but exciting to an audience.  Martin Scorsese once said “Your job is to get your audience to care about your obsessions.” 

One of the final interviews I conducted as the entertainment editor of The Washington Times was with the great Aaron Sorkin, whose directorial debut, “Molly’s Game,” is still making the awards circuit.  It’s a fine line, I’ve found, between fawning over an interview subject while also bringing in the atypical questions.  As a writer, I can’t help but worship at the altar of Sorkin’s brilliance, but as a professional journalist, when I got to sit down with him in a hotel conference room in DC back in November (with another journo, so we had to take turns on questions), I found I had to ask the “right” questions.  I could have inquired of his writing process for hours, and maybe when I was in my twenties I would have fawned over his success and his awards.  But I found, over the course of several years on the celeb interview circuit, that it was best to approach my subjects—even those whom I came into wide-eyed—with the right combination of admiration and inquisition.  (Sure, I had nerdy questions about who “asked” William Sadler to do his kata naked in “Die Hard 2,” but all of these I leavened with inquiries about the craft.)

So back to Aaron Sorkin.  I got in questions about shooting in Washington thanks to the film adaptation of “A Few Good Men” and if Paddy Chayevsky was one of his influences (it was!), but towards the end of our chat, he gave I believe the single greatest bromide about writing in a succinct axiom that bears repeating:

“When I’m writing, I don’t try to get a show of hands to see what everyone wants and then try to give it to them. I write what I like, I write what I think my friends would like, I write what I think my father would like, and then I keep my fingers crossed that enough other people will like it that I can keep doing it.”

This is an Oscar and Emmy winner basically saying he writes to please himself, his friends and his pop.  It just so happens that his work has had the fortune to be recognized by the greater public and his colleagues.  Oh, and millions of dollars.

But back to earth.  I may fancy myself a writer—and I do—but I find in Mr. Sorkin’s humble assertions an object lesson: Don’t write like you’re out for awards and fame.  Write because you must and you have no other choice.

It’s nice to get paid to write, I assure you.  And I’m fortunate that at least a few outlets are giving me a shot at it, even if the pay is not what it once was.  But I’ve also found that, inasmuch as the byline is the reward, the chase can also be the thrill.

Remember “Wall Street,” that ‘80s flick with Charlie Sheen and Michael Douglas where Gordon Gekko basically says it’s not about what he does with his money but more that he “wins”?  On a far lesser scale, writing as a freelancer is similar: You pitch and pitch and hope someone bites.  You make a “sale.” 

This is just like dating.  Now, I’m in a loving, happy relationship, the best of my life, but I wasn’t always a man off the market.  I remember well my time “on the scene.”  I was using three different apps to “meet” people.  Occasionally you’d meet someone in person.  And of all those in-person meetups, some would end successfully.

It’s about the game.  Just like freelancing.  Pitch, pitch, pitch until someone—or more than one someones—says yes, we’ll pay you for your words, kid.  When I drive around now as a delivery boy, I use DoorDash, Postmates and Roadie simultaneously.  Jobs come in and I grab them or let them pass by.  The more I work, the more I make.  It’s a numbers game.

You hear sales guys talk about chasing the high.  When I was doing standup comedy, you heard about comics talking about chasing those laughs.  I remember the best audience I ever had, who were eating up my jokes like they were cocaine candy.  It was never that good again (truth be told, I wasn’t that good anyway), but I always hoped it would be.  That’s the little bit of positive reinforcement that keeps you going: in dating, in sales, in comedy, in the gig economy.

There’s one more pile of gold just over the hills.

But in my current “occupation,” it’s also the way to stay afloat.  Because, invariably, then comes the pitfall.  Earlier this week I took my car into the shop for some routine maintenance, only to discover that my Scion tC needed a ton of work—so much, in fact, that it would cost me more than I made freelancing and hustling the entire month of January.  (I’ll spare you the numbers because it’s both uncouth to discuss and because they’ll make me cry.)

So why do it?  Why keep at the game?  Why not go back to being a full-timer in Corporerica?  Because, frankly, I like it.  Because it’s fun.  Because it’s adventurous.  And, most of all, because I’m a writer.  This is what I do.  I have things to say and stories to tell and the lives and projects of the famous to distill into 1,000 words or less.  I could be selling insurance or back being an office drone.  I could be struggling less.  I could be less in the red.  

It’s fun chasing the “win,” just like in dating or in life.  The world will not come to you.  I’d love for it to be not so and for fortune and success to fall into my lap.  But I know better. 

And so I continue on.  Through struggles and trials and tribulations and setbacks and low bank accounts and rejections and, more often, hearing nothing at all after hundreds of inquiries.  Don’t get into this business if you can’t take rejection, McFly.  Do it because you love it.

Persistence is key.  In life, in love, in the professional world.  Don’t give up and keep going.  Allow for epic self-pity but then toss the drink aside and move on.  The world needs good stories and great journalism more than ever now.  People want to buy it; I want to supply it.

I’ve always said I’m the world’s worst salesman.  I can’t sell anything I don’t believe in and wouldn’t presume to push it upon you.  I was the world’s most insecure teenager and twentysomething, but finally in my thirties I found a product I could believe in: myself.  I’ll sell the shit out of it and be the professional writer editors dream of.  I was on the other side of that table as an editor and now I’m here selling.  But I wouldn’t presuppose to sell you anything you wouldn’t want.  I’ll only bring the gold.  I’ll only bring a good job. 

I bring only the stories that need to be told.  Fuck all the rest. 

I am a writer.  This is my gift I share with you.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

That time I met the 45th president

It was over in about 60 seconds, but I had the chance to ask one question — just one — of the incoming 45th president of the United States. Here's how it went down:

At the 2015 White House Correspondents' Dinner on April 25 of that year, despite not having the proper credentials, I managed to finagle my way from The Washington Times “party” and downstairs to the back of the red carpet press receiving line, where I got in a few minutes with Al Roker, Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir, all of whom were friendly.

Then I saw him coming, unmistakable as an exploding volcano on a glacier. 

My boss Cheryl was there, and she managed to catch the first photo of me as Donald Trump came down the receiving line — my face a mixture of drunken bravery and “can I really do this?”

It was getting near time for everyone to go inside the ballroom for dinner — off-limits to anyone except guests and employees of the lone media outlet allowed access: C-SPAN. (I tried every door to get into the dinner itself but was rebuffed at each.)

Pressing up against a phalanx of other journos and a general stream of gawkers, I managed to get to within about 10 feet of the New York billionaire when a tall woman with perfectly coiffed hair stopped me.

“Who are you with?” she asked in a tone that meant business.

“The Washington Times,” I responded.

Her face brightened.

“Oh, he loves The Times. I'll make sure you're his last interview before he goes into the ballroom.”


“But you will only have 30 seconds, so one question.”

One question. Just one to ask of the star of “The Apprentice.”

I had it.

As he got closer, I made photos behind his back, mocking the famous sourpuss visage. Mocking the powerful is not just fun, it's more or less a necessity.

Unsurprisingly, as I was on deck, Trump and Melania were accosted by another reporter, with her final query the predictable: “Are you going to run?”

Remember, this was months before Trump descended that escalator at Trump Tower to proclaim that he was going to shake up the system the same way that Arnold Schwarzenegger vowed to “pump up” California and “hasta la vista, baby” Gray Davis.

Both office runs seemed improbable (and I lived in L.A. at the time of the Ahnold contest and voted in that election too), yet here we are.

Anyway, in quick reply to the question about running for president Trump said, “We're looking at it.”

His handler, the lady who had stopped me to learn who I was with, then shuffled The Donald and Melania over to me.

Now or never.

“Hi, Mr. Trump, I'm Eric from The Washington Times,” I said. “I'm from New Jersey, so I'm really curious about your thoughts on removing your name from your casinos in Atlantic City.”

Maybe I imagined this, but I swear I saw just the hint of a twinkle pass over his eyes, almost as if the guy, who has never been a stranger to microphones, was thankful to finally be asked something different.

“Let me tell you about Atlantic City,” he began. “They made a lot of mistakes down there, and a lot of people told me I was smart to get out when I did.” (You can hear the entire exchange here.  Apologies the audio quality ain't that great.)

He barely looked me in the eye, seemed distracted, perhaps even annoyed at being the center of attention…but that can't seem possible. I put on the plastic patient reporter's smile as he talked up how thoroughly brilliant he was for getting out of AC when he did. (However, those pesky facts must intervene, as a report by The New York Times shows that while Mr. Trump indeed made out like gangbusters on the Trump Taj Mahal and Trump Marina Hotel Casino, his employees, investors and, let's be frank, the city of Atlantic City itself were all left hanging out to dry.)
After my 30 seconds, I thanked Trump and reached out to shake his hand, which he proffered.

He and Melania then disappeared into the ballroom, where President Obama would spend much of his speech that night ribbing his eventual successor.

It's probably unfair — and certainly unscientific — to think you can get the measure of a man in only a half-minute of interaction, and I won't even pretend that I “know” Donald Trump any better than I did in the moment before we spoke as reporter/interviewee. But, having been there, I can offer what little I was able to gather in impressions:

While the WHCD is certainly a big to-do, and it is an absolutely public event, my feeling in the moment was that he was seemingly, uh, more subdued than one might expect. I expected him to scream at me in a loud voice — you know, with me being “dishonest media” and all — but to reiterate, he seemed to present a certain disinterest in the proceedings, as if this were one more lily pad he had to hop in order to leap to the White House.

While I wouldn't precisely classify our interaction as friendly, he certainly wasn't mean either. I had a question that was of interest to me given that I'm from the state where Atlantic City is located, and here I had a chance to ask a man whose decisions have shaped that sinkhole by the sea (sorry, but it's true) for decades, rightly or wrongly.

He gave me a straightforward answer, which is about all I could hope for — and yes, one certainly tinged with braggadocio.

Never mind that it was nearly identical, word for word, to a response he gave to Chris Wallace of Fox News at one of the first Republican debates less than four months later. You can watch the fireworks here, including a moment where Trump rips Chris Christie for presiding over such a mess.

I'd ask how we got here, but the evidence is everywhere.

(The article I wrote for The Times about that interchange is here.)

For Christmas 2015, Cheryl gave me a four-panel photo frame of four of the photos she took of me with The Donald that night.  I hung it up over my desk at home last year, where it would be either hilarious when he ran and lost or a source of journalistic pride that I once got to ask a president a question.

Now, actually, it's both.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

My Best Times at the Movie Theater

Some of my fondest memories are of the movies—going to them or watching them at the homes of friends.  It remains a communal experience unlike any other, and still relatively new in the history of the world, combining elements of theater, live music, communal religious experience and even vicarious emotional relevance.

To put it in a less high-falutin' way, it can be a shit-ton of fun to laugh along with fellow cineastes.  Even if the films aren't the best sometimes, they're the worst!—the inter-mutual participation in a common event like a film viewing is a rapidly decreasing phenomenon in the age of Netflix and social media, where every exigency is hyper-articulated to one's own solipsistic narrative.

I'm both extremely social and extremely self-secluded, but still, there's almost nothing like being in a raucous movie theater that has cast a spell—inadvertently or otherwise—upon the collective.  Here then now are some of my most incredible outings (and yes, for these purposes, it requires that I left the home) in my cinemagoing career.

(seen at the University Village 3, Los Angeles, California, spring 1997)

Anaconda, by even a liberal definition, is a terrible movie.  It is one of those films that tried so hard to be a quasi-Jaws ripoff but failed so spectacularly, on almost every level, that it achieved camp par excellence.


Two words: Jon Voight.  While the talented thespian is now known mostly for being the estranged dad of Angelina Jolie and belonging to a right-wing fringe group, there was a time when Voight was considered a serious actor, most notably in his amazing turn as a haunted Vietnam vet in Coming Home.

Wouldn't know it by the time the "script" for Anaconda landed on his desk, however.  Employing some kind of head-scratching accent that is part mumbly Marlon Brando, part Latin Lothario and major part WTF, Academy Award-winning Johnny V. chews up the scenery with a squinty-eyed creeper showcase as snake-hunter Paul Serone—not only growling at the titular serpents but also creeping on J.Lo, who apparently was out to prove that her performance as Selina wasn't a fluke or something.

I heard or read somewhere that no one sets out purposely to make a bad movie, and I believe that was true of Anaconda.  But that's why, on my elementary school report cards, there were grades for both results and effort.  I'm going to go out on a limb and bet that all of the established cast members of Anaconda—Jennifer Lopez, Ice Cube, Jon Voight—did it for the cash, while second fiddles Kari Wuhrer, pre-Frat Pack era Owen Wilson and Danny Trejo all likely did it for a free lunch.  They even snagged a halfway-decent director in Luis Llosa, fresh of the success of Stallone's The Specialist.

Which leads to my own entry into this miasma of ludicrocity (yes, I made up a word, sue me).  At the tender age of 18, in my freshman year at USC, I would pretty much go to see whatever was playing at the University Village 3 as it was right across Jefferson Ave. from the campus and, having no car in notoriously spread-out L.A., it was the only theater within walking distance.

Also it was cheap.

Also, it was a good place to get outside the college bubble and mingle with folks from "the neighborhood" (just so we're clear: that's code for the poor people, typically of color, who lived in the area surrounding the insanely wealthy private university to which I still owe thousands of dollars for my English degree, which was worth "every penny").

So on a Saturday afternoon, plunking down my 4 bucks, I laughed my way through Anaconda with an audience that was pretty much all in sync.  The film tried so damned hard to be scary, but succeeded only in repeatedly scraping the funny bone.  Owen Wilson gets a pretty decent onscreen demise, but what truly caps it is the ensuing scene showing his outline in the snake's belly.  Not horrifying, just stupid.

Then in the climax comes a scene of such pure poetry, words cannot describe it fairly. I will leave for you to watch what happens after Johnny V. falls victim to the main snake, only to then...well, just watch...

Needless to say, the entire theater went bananas at the gag-capper, applauding voraciously at the callback to Johnny V.'s having winked lasciviously at J.Lo the entire film prior.  It was one of those moments of unsullied communal joy that simply cannot be recreated at home.

Sadly, University 3 is no longer there, as USC bought up the entire property in an expansion effort that also vanquished such stalwarts of my college years as the 32nd Street Market, my old video and DVD rental shop and the hilariously downmarket liquor store that warehoused hilariously named knockoff brands like Bad Frog and Howling Monkey.  This move will, in my un-humble opinion, further isolate future Trojans from the overwhelming poverty of nearby Los Angeles and keep them in that bubble of academia that promises so much with a degree in hand.

Oh, and those who don't have cars will now have one less place in which to take in their afternoon camp.  Just sayin', SC.

The Big Lebowski
(seen at Burbank 12, Burbank, CA, spring 1998)

All we knew was the Coen Bros. were coming out with their follow-up to Fargo.  Jeff Bridges and Coens regulars John Goodman and Steve Buscemi were in it.  It was about bowling.

What we got was a neo-noir about a stoner inadvertently thrust into a Raymond Chandler-esque L.A. detective thriller.  That and the single greatest cinematic treasure trove in modern times.

If you've never seen "The Big L," I won't even try to explain either its plot or its appeal.  For my purposes here, on that spring 1998 evening, it was about seeing something new.  Something different.  Something incredibly special.

Something no one had ever fucking seen before.

I've since seen "Big L" well over a hundred times, and it continues to get better with each repeated viewing and each new gag or subtlety uncovered, but the freshness of seeing it for the first time on a spring night in Los Angeles with Steve and my Men's Chorus buddy Ryan was a unique evening.

Of that outing two things stand out in my mind, with the first being the Dude trying to explain away his lies in a rambling soliloquy before the "Big Lebowski" that ended with the eponymous millionaire asking, echoing the audience's thoughts, "What in God's holy name are you blathering about?"

Sometimes moviegoing is as much, if not more, about enjoying your pals' reactions than it is about the movie itself.  Never was this more true than during the climactic parking lot brawl that pitted the Dude, Walter and Donny versus a trio of German nihilists.  When John Goodman bit off Peter Stormare's ear and spit it to the sky, Steve was laughing so hard that he slapped his knee, which was something I thought only happened in knock-knock jokes.

Lebowski-fever was a slow burn.  The film itself did rather poorly in theaters.  Steve and I first spread it to our circles, and it soon became "our movie," the little film that we thought people should know about.  Over the years it became like a secret handshake when you found someone to swap lines with out in public.  Getting onto a plane a few years back with my Big L shirt on, a guy sitting in the aisle seat tossed a line at me, which I gleefully volleyed back until I passed...just a little moment of joy between strangers in the secret Lebowski society.

Nowadays there's a fucking festival!   (Yes, I've gone...twice...on two coasts.)

I like to think that Steve, Ryan and I started the phenom ourselves, but truth is that almost certainly there were little pockets of acolytes just like us all over the country who, like a virus, spread the evangel of Lebowski to the world.

It's now as much a part of popular culture as the Beatles and the Kardashians.  But it had to start somewhere.  And I feel extremely fortunate to have been there on the ground floor in that darkened theater as a 19-year-old college, sophomore.

Grease (re-release)
(seen at Mann's Chinese Theater, spring 1998)

I'm a choir nerd, and in college I was that annoying subspecies of choir geek known as the a cappella dork.

Naturally, the choir geeks and I (mind you, this was a MEN'S chorus, so not a single breast amongst us) had to go out to see Grease when it was brought back for its 20th anniversary, and what better place to do so than the famous Mann's Chinese Theater on Hollywood Blvd.  (For those of you unfamiliar with this Tinseltown landmark, it's the place with the hand- and footprints from famous people out front.)

I was there with two of my buddies from the USC Men's Chorus and our a cappella group, the Hangovers (what do you want, we were all 18-22 when this happened!) plus one of our number's boyfriend in the days when a great many were still closeted.

The event briskly became a theater-wide singalong and quotefest.  But what turned this outing into a transcendent memory was that during the movie's penultimate song, "You're the One That I Want,"
audience members congregated in the front of the house to dance and sing alonga party that continued through the finale, "We Go Together."

Ryan, who had come along to The Big Lebowski not long before, and who was due to transfer back to Ohio at the end of the semester, said as we drove back to campus, "That was the most fun I've had since I came here."  Interestingly enough, just the other day I had lunch with Ryan and his wife, our first meeting since that spring 17 years ago!

There's Something About Mary
(seen at the Bridgewater Commons Mall, Bridgewater, New Jersey, summer 1998)

While home from school in the summer of 1998, I was working two jobs to have spending cash, get some experience in the film biz as an intern at the New Jersey Film Commission, and also to keep my mind off some unpleasantness going in my the final months of my teenagerhood.  At the time I often worked overnights on Thursdays, so on Fridays, after a nap, my buddies and I would typically check out the new films, including such turkeys as Lethal Weapon 4 (don't even get me started).  

One particular Friday, we planned a "hop" for a double feature of The Mask of Zorro and There's Something About Mary.  For those of you uninitiated, a hop is where you pay for one movie but then, slyly or otherwise, walk from one screening to another without paying for the second (or third) movie.  I'm pretty sure God couldn't have foreseen such a modern version of thievery when he handed Moses those "commitments," but it's been quite a while since I was in Sunday school, so...

Anyway, having barely slept the night before, I dosed off several times during Zorro (not that I missed much), and it being an early Friday afternoon, there was little need for subterfuge as we walked down the hall for Mary.

And then...holy fucking shit!!!!

I must interject here that I am not one for the subgenre of gross-out comedies.  For one, they require little to no sophistication and, to be frank, almost no virtuosity with humor.  They aim low, for the scatological, for the most base laughs possible.  I couldn't get through the Farrelly Bros.' breakthrough hit, Dumb and Dumber, stopping off when the cop drank pee from the soda bottle, and thus my expectations for Mary were rather bleak.  However, just days earlier, my buddy and current film producing partner Dave called me and said, "Let me tell you, it earned that R-rating."

You can't just leave a 19-year-old with a tease like that.

Now, There's Something About Mary is far from a perfect comedy.  In fact, in perhaps the greatest bit of irony, the film procures three of the biggest laughs in cinematic history interspersed with lengthy passages where almost nothing funny happens.  But man oh man, are those three gags epic!

Mind you, this was waaaaaay before social media, back in the days when you could still reasonably catch a flick after opening weekend without having the entire plot or the best gags entirely spoiled for you...except of course, be it for those loud-mouthed "friends" who liked to tell you ahead of time that the DeLorean gets smashed at the end of Back to the Future Part III (thanks, Jason, haha, love ya, man!).  We knew going in only that the Farrellys enjoyed their fart and piss humor, not how it might be applied in their latest effort.

In the first act of Mary is the "zipper gag," wherein Ben Stiller gets his junk caught in his fly, which the Farrellys take to the next level, with ever more humiliation foisted upon hapless Benjamin as more and more townsfolk attempt to help out.  What could have been a one-line joke is stretched out over multiple minutes, with the tension, and the laughter, ratcheting up quickly.

Need I say much about "the hair gel scene" that hasn't already been said?  Well, for one, there was a time when absolutely no one knew about it...nor was expecting it!  It wasn't enough that Stiller masturbate while gawking at the women's clothing section of the classified ads, which in and of itself is chuckle-worthy; it wasn't enough that his jizz "vanished" into thin air; it wasn't enough that it be revealed it's on his ear when Cameron Diaz shows up at his door for the door.  Nope, she then takes it from his ear and, thinking it's gel, runs it through her pate.

This is comedy brilliance, layering and layering upon a gag until you're feeling beyond uncomfortable just for beholding it.

But my god, what laughter!  It's almost difficult to relate the horrified guffawing of a roomful of grown adults enjoying an unexpected semen gag, particularly in the days before Seth MacFarlane made any and all bodily functions fair game for comedy.  The shocked laughter took several minutes to wear off, which is just as well as almost nothing funny happened again until the end of the film.

Which brings me to the dog attack.  Left alone with a roomful of cocaine, Mary's roommate Magda and her terrier, Puffy, get a little too much booger sugar up their nostrils, leading to Magda engaging in a herculean cleanathon and Puffy losing his dog-mind and going to town on Stiller's genitals.  Now even though the gag was alluded to in the preview, the buildup it to was masterfulas the camera dollies in toward a closed door, Puffy's pounding upon it from the inside in rhythmic doom becomes a laugh in and of itself.  

You know what's about to happen, but it still has to happen anyway...and you're absolutely helpless to turn away.

Then Puffy attacks.

The Farrellys don't even try to disguise the fact Stiller is so obviously wrestling a phony dog, but he does it with such gusto in that way only Ben Stiller can be humiliated (his crotch once again a target) that it unleashes a hurricane of laughter then amplified to 11 with a Three Stooges joke in which Stiller's attempt to poke Puffy in the eyes is countermanded by the dog's finger-block.

I have never, before or since, laughed that hard in a movie theater.  Honestly, I somewhat hope to never do so again, such is the joy of the memory.

It was a special, special day.  And for a few fleeting moments, I forgot about the teenage angst I was feeling toward the world...and, naturally, toward a few select females whom I felt had "wronged" me.

Halloween H20: 20 Years Later
(seen at Cinema Plaza, Flemington, NJ, summer 1998)

How many times can Michael Myers (the serial masked murderer, not the recently spotlight-eschewing comedian) die and be resurrected for another killer spree?  Well, by 1998, the magic number had been six, but for the original Halloween's 20th anniversary, the filmmakers figured it was time for one "final" go-round with the silent slasher and brought back Jamie Lee Curtis for the occasion.

(Didn't quite work given Halloween: Resurrection in 2002, again with Jamie Lee Curtis, and then Rob Zombie's reboot of the franchise in the aughts.)

There was really no way this was going to be any why did my group of four decide to go and see it?  Boredom?  To laugh at it?  Maybe a combination of the two.  Whatever the case, me, Chris, Steve and Don started talking at normal conversational volume as soon as the opening credits rolled...and never stopped.

Funny thing was, nobody ever yelled at us, shusshed us or even asked us to stop.  Most likely because they too realized this was a piece of shit and that the best way to get through it was to chuckle.

I mean, c'mon, within the first few minutes a big title card comes up that says "October 31..." [dramatic pause] "...Halloween."

Never mind that LL Cool J somehow got shoehorned into this sad exercise in franchise-milking.  Or that twentysomething stars of the day Michelle Williams, Josh Hartnett and pre-in-every-other-movie Joseph Gordon-Levitt winds up on the wrong end of a butcher knife.

But then, ho ho, Janet Leigh—yes, mother of Jamie Lee Curtis—shows up for a cameo with her daughter and offers the wink-wink line "If I might be maternal for a moment..."

See, that's funny because...

Thirty-eight years after getting slashed to bits in Psycho, one of Hitchcock's most famous starlets is reduced to self-parody in a vehicle exploiting her own progeny's nostalgic retread of a 20-year-old low-budget horror classic.

Hooooooollllllyyyy sheeeeiiitttt!!!!

Oh, and just for shits and giggles, here's a fun tidbit courtesy of the IMDB:

"Halloween: H20" is the seventh film in the series. H20 is the chemical symbol for water which has a pH balance of 7.0."

As Wayne Campbell proudly proclaims when Alice Cooper tells him the history behind the city name of Milwaukee, "I did not know that."

Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later is pretty dreadful, not only as an attempt to reignite a rather decent late-'70s slasher classic but also as a too-knowing exercise in the era of self-referential horror fare like Scream (whose writer, Kevin Williamson, was initially tapped to pen H20).  It went wrong on almost every level, but in an honest way in which you could tell the filmmakers really, really thought they had something, if not good, at least halfway decent on their hands for the popcorn crowd.

So drop a quartet of Jersey boys into the mix, talking at full volume, and you have the recipe for a rather fine evening.  Wouldn't trade it for a "good" movie given the chance, I assure you.

(On a side note, the Flemington movie theater has also gone the way of the dodo, closed forever in 2011.  It was the site of many, many high school and college-era moviegoing experiences, and it was the only place I ever paid less than $4 to see a movie.  Now the town where I went to high school has not a single movie theater, providing one less venue for local teensand the young at heart—upon which to exercise and exorcise their energies.  What is this world coming to...?)

(seen at Burbank AMC Town Center 6, Burbank, CA, Jan. 27, 2008)

Nineteen years since John Rambo had graced the silver screen.  Honestly, what were we expecting?

In a few words: not this.

I grew up on the '80s action genre, but let's be frank: Attempts to revive and/or reinvigorate the formula had largely failed in the late-'90s onward, thanks not only to the aging of its heyday stars like Stallone and Schwarzenegger, but also due to increasingly tired, cliched rehashes of old revenge formulas and "I'm too old for this shit," self-aware audience winking that forgot the crucial fact that action movies could be both fun and gruesome.

So along comes the curiously misnomered Rambo, the 4th film in the First Blood franchise.  (Never mind that the third film, in 1989, was called Rambo III.)  The lone-wolf former Green Beret-turned-reluctant warrior had been shelved for the better part of two decades, left behind as the Reagan-era Cold War mythos that had given him ascendancy faded ever more in the rear-view.  Russians as bad guys had long since become beyond passe as villains (Russian mobsters, on the other hand...), leaving Rambo without a clear enemy to bring him out of retirement.

And plus, Stallone was 61 by the time of Rambo's Jan. 2008 release, well past retirement age for any cinematic avenging angel not played by Clint Eastwood. was Rambo, and Stallone had done a fairly decent job with reviving another of his classic characters in the self-written and -directed Rocky Balboa in aught-6.  Could it work?

Well, the first positive sign was the R-rated trailer that began churning up bloodthirsty appetites on the web a few months out.

What was gleaned from the trailer was that, if nothing else, Rambo (then still titled John Rambo) promised to pull no punches and, most importantly—and this is key—to play it without irony or self-reflexivity.

The deal was absolutely sealed when someone took the time and the imagination to make a Rambo "kill chart," detailing not only the body count in each of the four films, but the average kills per minute and number of bad guys killed with Rambo's shirt off.

This gem I forwarded on to my buddies, and...

...that was it.  Game the fuck on!

So me, Steve and Chris, old chums from New Jersey (and who also had been with me at both There's Something About Mary and Halloween H20) made the pilgrimage to downtown Burbank on a Sunday night, flasks of contraband hidden in our jackets (because, yes, it does get chilly in Southern California in wintertime).

It was clear from the first minute that the audience, though sparse, was all entirely on the same page.  A rice paddy full of innocents is slaughtered in the first 3 minutes, followed immediately by the title card in blood-soaked red—met with thunderous applause.

It is a special, rare magic when an entire theater is immediately in sync, especially on the unlikely evening of Sunday.

For a good hour-plus we sat in joy at the carnage, but then came the film's final battle, a gorefest drenched in unabashedly overblown violence that I can only describe as pure cinematic ecstasy. Despite some incredibly awful low-back pains (long story) I was jumping up and down in my seat as limbs were severed, heads exploded and mofos eviscerated with recently smelt knives.

To put it another way, it was, as Steve put it, "pure bliss."

After it was over, the only thing to do was retire to the nearby BJ's for a beer and a chat.

"Fellas," Steve said over the first round, "I know the year is only a few weeks old, but I'm calling it: best film of 2008.  I can't imagine having more fun at the movies this year."

What made Rambo so special was its complete lack of cheese.  Stallone, for all of his perceived and/or real lack of acting chops, played it with a straight face.  And as director and writer, he went completely for broke and so over-the-top as to verge on grisly camp.

For whatever reason, it worked.

I couldn't put it any better than how Steve summed it up:

"They're finally making movies for us again!"

Although Rambo failed to usher in an era of neo-action films, it did provide for likely the most fantastic evening at the movies of my life with great friends who grew up with me watching those same types of films on Friday and Saturday nights in darkened living rooms while drinking Gatorade and eating chocolate bars.  Its replay value on DVD remains undiminished.

Sly, wherever you are, bravo and thank you!

(seen at the New Beverly Cinema, Beverly Hills, CA, March 2014)

Spring 2014, and a good portion of the old Jersey crew reunited in L.A. for a long weekend of drinks and movies and burritos and In n' Out burgers.  Ryan hadn't been back to California since moving away in summer '99, and I'd move back east in fall 2011 and was, at that time, living in the Midwest.  The three of us probably hadn't hung out together in over a decade.

Going to a midnight movie was never in question, but WHAT?  And, this being L.A., WHERE?

Incredibly, during my 15 years as an Angeleno, I had never been to the New Beverly.  It was saved from the scrapheap thanks to one Quentin Tarantino, who also serves as the artistic director and programmer.  Little doubt, then, that that foremost consumer and purveyor of "junk culture" would exhibit a midnight show like Pieces.

Pieces is perhaps the zenith of the '70s and '80s Spanish splatorama cinema.  Directed by Juan Piquer Simon, it is a cheaply made, poorly acted exercise in "splatter porn" more than two decades before the term was ever coined, involving a serial killer who murdered his mother as a child and now is making mincemeat out of unsuspecting college personnel and students at a thankfully unnamed Boston university.  It's terrible exploitation cinema made without any aspirations toward artistry whatsoever.

It is also unquestionably watchable with the right mindset.  And the right friends by your side.

Here is how it begins.  Mind you, this is the very...first...scene!

This is the type of bad film that was made to be enjoyed with a crowd of irony-conscious cinemaphiles—an exercise in movie-making that is so far beyond redemption as to be laughable for even daring to be made.  It fails so utterly and consistently as to become a ne plus ultra example of how camp cinema can actually nourish the soul as much as "legit" film.

Exhibit A: At about the halfway mark the "main" character and the lead female have just discovered a horribly severed human body...which is pretty much the most awful sight one could ever hope to not encounter.  So how does actress Lynda Day George play a scene requiring the character to express such revulsion?

Rather than try to put it into words, I'll show you:

Going to see Pieces at midnight in Beverly Hills with my childhood buddies, all of us now in our mid-thirties, was a holy outing that I doubt will ever be topped.


The English Patient
(seen at Bound Brook Cinema, Bound Brook, NJ, Dec. 1996)
Bound Brook was an old single-screen cinema where I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark as a kid (and screamed my head off when the spirits came out of the ark), Rocky Horror at midnight and also where Dave and I went to see The English Patient one very, very cold winter's afternoon in 1996.  The staff warned us as we entered that the heat was Dave and I sat through a three-hour epic in our coats and hats shivering like a couple of washed-up winos. Fortunately, Dave had some old ratty blankets in his car under which we warmed ourselves like we were at a 1980s Times Square porno theater or something.

The Brook, like so many other classic theaters, is gone now, having been in a state of perpetual disrepair for years and now used only sporadically for "special events."  The last time I was there, entire sections of seats were roped off and the roof leaked.

And did I mention the heat didn't work?


All of these instances are now astern. In a way, maybe that's a good thing.  My buddies and I still love to talk movies, and we love our camp (I'm looking at you, Death Wish 3!) like nobody's business.  But there's something to be said for acting like buffoons in a movie theater while you're young.  I'm no longer quite so young, and most of my cinemagoing buddies are spread out in multiple cities and time zones, and we seldom get together anymore.  We all have "real" jobs and careers.  Most of them are married now.  Middle age ain't far off.

It's really the memories of being there in those darkened theaters with good friends that made these seven moviegoing outings—combined with our youthful exuberance and approaching film with the precise elixir of irony and excitation that increased severalfold the enjoyment of collective experience and the distaste for often-ludicrous filmmaking—so memorable, so fun, so irreplaceable.

Of their times and places.  Other locations and in the past.

I sure hope we can enjoy more like this.  For it truly reminded me of why it is we go to the movies in the first place, for not only the taking in of art (or flotsam) but its digestion and regurgitation with fellow cinemagoers.

In the end, that's really what it's all about.


Monday, July 13, 2015

Man versus "Jaws"

In honor of my annual July 4 viewing of Jaws, here is part of an essay I wrote in my (failed) attempt to get into grad school as an English/film studies doctoral candidate.  Eventually, I hope to turn all of this into an academic film book called Men With No Names about masculinity in cinema from 1968 on.  For now, here's a taste (no pun intended):


Men can be at war not only with themselves and with other men, but also with some external force that tests their mettle and resolve.  Such is the case with Benchley’s Jaws, a potboiler of a novel that posits that a giant, killer great white shark stakes out a New England summer town’s beachfront for its human meals.  (Interestingly, the term for this in the scientific literature is a “rogue shark.” )  

In the novel, Martin Brody, the town police chief, is in a fading marriage with his wife, Ellen.  Then the shark shows up, and all havoc is wrought lose.  If the beaches are closed, the town will lose valuable revenue.  The mayor owes money to the Mob and needs the beach business in order to settle his debts.  The town will basically die if people stay out of the water.

Brody is but a workingman with little in the way of intellectual capacity.  Sharks at the time of the novel’s writing being, well, pre-Jaws in the level of public consciousness, the police chief enlists a scientist, Matt Hooper, to help with the problem. 

Hooper, a rich college graduate, and Ellen, Brody’s wife, embark on a heated affair.  Brody inadvertently brings more grief into his life than the shark has already provided. The final corner of the triumvirate of maleness in Jaws is Captain Quint, a grizzled, modern-day Ahab with a particular distaste for shark-kind.  After several more deadly encounters, the final chunk of the book is devoted to the three men embarking on Quint’s boat in order to hunt down and destroy the beast.  This results in Hooper’s death at the hands (or rather, the teeth) of the shark, and Quint is killed when a rope attached to a harpoon used to spear the shark encircles his leg and drags him into the deeps with the
dying killer.  Brody is left alone and swims back to shore. 

So we have three different representations of masculinity: Brody, the blue-collar policeman; Hooper, the rich intellectual and virile outsider; and Quint, the unsophisticated fisherman who traffics in profanity and street jargon.  It takes all of them collectively to take down the shark; in this situation there is no such thing as a one-man army.  It is a problem that is larger than any one of them could face alone, and each brings to the task his unique gifts and abilities to overcome the monster. 

The film version of same keeps the general story intact but makes remarkable departures in tone and timbre.  The film version is sexless.  The young woman killed in the surf by the shark at the outset, while still skinny-dipping in the film, does not engage in sex on the beach with a male prior to her swim (which would in fact fall into the slasher film axiom of sex equaling instant death).  Also elided is Hooper’s affair with Ellen Brody; he and Martin Brody are more or less a tag team.  The only sex in the film at all is obliquely referenced in Quint’s various blue jokes, such as “Here’s to swimmin’
with bow-legged women.”

But the triumvirate of Brody (Roy Scheider), Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and Quint (Robert Shaw) in their extended passage of hunting the shark on the Orca is intact—however, unlike in the novel, the Orca never returns to port after each individual day at sea.  Each represents a different kind of man and representation of masculinity. 

Hooper is a wealthy college lab rat and pleasure sailor who has never had to work for a living, and naturally Quint despises him.  Brody falls somewhere in between them in temperament: cautious and reflective, observant without being overtly incisive, but quick to act when the situation dictates. 

(On a side note, Jaws may in fact be in the only film in history that has a double three-act structure.  The entire section of the three men on the Orca hunting down the shark stands on its own as a entire sub-story and follows all of the beats and formats in three acts.  E.g., Act I of Jaws ends when the body of the first swimmer is discovered on the beach and Brody knows that there is a problem; Act II ends when Quint is killed by the shark and Brody must face the monster on his own.  In the “mini-movie,” which begins with the first shot of the Orca at sea an hour in, Act I ends with Brody chumming the water (“I can go slow ahead; come on down and chum some of this shit!”), at which
point Jaws makes his first full appearance, and Brody tells Quint, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” As in the macro-movie, Act II concludes with Quint’s death, and Act III has Brody going mano-a-tooth with the shark.) 

While the shark itself is absolutely an external problem for the three men, Brody is also afraid of water—a major problem for a character who will have to tangle with a tiburon malo.  This phobia draws instant empathy for the audience as the danger of the situation becomes ever more palpable: To be in the water means to vicariously be in the drink with the shark.  Brody is aquaphobic right from the get-go, which will serve to only complicate his plight (and ours) as the film progresses.  Spielberg and his cinematographer, Bill Butler, heightened the sense of apprehension for the audience by
filming the action at water level.  This makes the anxiety that much more alarming for the audience: We too are swimming with the shark!  Spielberg humorously explained away his reasoning in a supplementary interview as to how the water-level camerawork puts the audience off-kilter, by saying, “Very few of us have ever actually been in the water with a shark, but we’ve all gone swimming.” (emphasis added)

The audience’s empathy and identification with the simple activity of swimming not only creates a bond to the frightening scenario of swimming with a massive, hungry shark, but it allows the viewer to vicariously share in Brody’s elemental terror of the water itself.  

Jaws gives us a main protagonist who has an unreasonable phobia, the
comeuppance of which is essential to the thematic throughline of his character.  For all
his marksmanship with a gun, his levelheadedness as an officer of law enforcement, his
ability to see that the response of the mayor and the town council to the shark problem is
untenable, his entire character makeup as a strong, perceptive man...Brody simply will

This is refrained throughout the film in various ways, such as Ellen telling Hooper that Brody refuses to even leave his car when they take the ferry over to the mainland.  In a more subtle visual gag—one of Spielberg’s abiding strengths as a director—both times that Brody is first seen on Hooper’s science
boat and later on the Orca, he is actually wearing a life preserver.  While on Hooper’s boat, he is not only clearly intoxicated but is also drinking straight from the bottle!  (That Brody is an alcoholic is not in doubt.)  To further underline his fear, the shark’s first major appearance immediately follows his “Come on down and chum some of this shit!” line while on the Orca.  Even getting close to the water for Brody is met with dire consequences, which only reinforces the terror of the beast. 

And yet, in the final minutes, Brody succeeds in blowing up the shark...from water level as the Orca sinks; Hooper resurfaces after being thought dead; he and Brody have a celebratory chuckle...and then paddle together back towards shore. 

At its most thematically basic level, Jaws is about a guy who is afraid of the water.  The very last thing he is seen doing in the film is swimming: fear faced and conquered. The large shark chowing down on his townmates is entirely incidental to the theme and only serves as a vessel to make his fear of the water far more terrifying. 

So it can seen that our heroic males overcome not only external forces but also irrational internal fear and neuroses.  The deepest films and novels and stories feature protagonists who must do both.