28 July 2006

boogers from olympus: the reviewing game

Over at a Alligators In A Helicopter that most-excellent blog from my buddy Scott the Reader, there's a post discussing movie critics and their odd response to the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, Dead Man's Chest. Simply put, though the movie continues to absolutely dominate the summer box office like few movies in recent memory, critics have been oddly personal and mean-spirited in their complaints about the screenwriting team of Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott, the men behind both this movie as well as the previous POTC flick which these same critics near-universally loved.

Now, I'll gleefully confess to possible bias in this debate, as I am personally acquainted with Ted and Terry, and I'm likely prone to give them (and their work) a great deal more credit than what many reviewers might. But I do not think that I am such fame-blinded fanboy that I'll dismiss all criticisms as unvalid and off the mark. I liked the movie a lot, and I very much want to see it again, but I do not love it in the same way that I did POTC1, and I can admit that there are moments where the movie (and the underlying story) disappoint me to some degree.

But that's not what I'm thinking about in this post.

What I'm thinking about is the nature of film critics. Their personality. Their general make-up in terms of emotions and motivation and concerns. You see, I have more than a few friends who are, in various degrees, in the game of film reviewing and film criticism. Some are paid pros operating at a high level, while others are more casual — "pro-grade hobbyists," you might say — who write about movies out of pure love rather than for a payday. Others are just active online reviewers who are eager to share their take on movies with anyone interested in visiting theiur site(s).

And here's the thing: after thinking about it for just a few minutes, I get the nagging feeling that a great many reviewers/critics honestly don't like most of the folks who go to movies.

I say this due to the way I see reviewers sneering at such "common" concerns and issues as popularity and revenues. usually the sneering is most pronounced when discussing movies which HE, the reviewer, with his rare and wonderfully perfect insight, has deemed "unsuitable" for consumption by all us mortals slumming around in the mud down here on planet Earth.

By the way these sorts of critics will decry a movie not for a specific fault or failing, but for the way that others refuse to acknowledge or share his views ON this alleged fault or failing.

By the way the critic will say 'well, it's not awful, but it's nowhere as good as [[some other movie]," ignoring for a moment the lunacy of such a comparison (the issue at stake being is THIS movie worth watching" rather than "how do you compare THIS movie to THAT movie in some sort of abstract imaginary mano-e-mano confrontation?"

Imagine if a beauty pageant judge acted that way. "Well, Miss Paducah is fairly attractive, but in all honesty she's NOWHERE nearly so gorgeous as this OTHER woman who's NOT in this contest and who's NOT really under consideration fro awards right now..."

Yet that's what many critics do, and I think often they do this to remind folks (maybe themselves more than anyone) of just how smart and "well-read" (in a filmic sense) they are, reminding us that becasue THEY have slept through, err, I mean watched all of Truffaut's canon, they are therefore more able to say whether or not JACKASS is an amusing way to spend 8 bucks and 100 minutes.

As I said, I have more than a few friends who are reviewers and/or critics, and in most every case I consider them decent intelligent human beings, but they tend to turn various shades of indigo when I remind any of them "you know, it's a luxury to sit back and write only in judgment of the works of others and never have to really expose or risk any part of your own soul with a wholly original creation."

This is not to suggest that film critique and review is not a creative endeavour, nor does it mean that all reviewers are spurned creative writers (though let's be honest — many are...). It's a tough gig to have to contextualize and analyze the creative efforts of others. But consider this: who reviews the reviewers? What standards are they held to? Who publicly rips them a new one when they have an effort that just doesn't come off as planned? Imagine the uproar if a novelist or writer were published in a major magazine or paper and spent 1200 words dissecting every flub and weakly expressed thought in some reviewer's comments?

"While Ebert's analysis initially seems astute and informed, by the end of the piece we realize all too clearly that he is merely recycling cliched hackneyed complaints better expressed in previous reviews, leaving me to suggest readers avoid this review entirely and instead re-read Ebert's more solid opinions from previous years...."

Everyone has a right to heckle the ball player from the sidelines, but there comes a point where, when you realize these hecklers have never and will never actually risk themselves with a moment between the chalked lines, you begin to understand that there are those who play, and those who watch, and those who watch don't always understand the game they are watching as well as what they might like to suggest.

Interestingly, hecklers hate to be heckled. But in movie reviewing as with most everything else, judge not lest ye be judged and found wanting.

24 July 2006

on the importance of titles

In the screenwriting world, it seems as though different folks put different value on different aspects of any property. Some folks rate the logline as critical, while others are more about the theme, and others rave about the value of “high concept” and some look only at the market value of the attachments to any property.

To be fair, every one of those considerations has importance, and everyone needs to be as rock solid and ass-kicking as possible in order to guarantee the best possible shot at profitability (and don’t even bring up the word “art” in this discussion, as moviemaking is a business, dammit, and you stand as much chance at impressing me with your noise about artistic needs and desires and you do of paying for your Big Mac with just a newly composed sonnet).

But for me, one of the things which can really make or break a project is the title. Some titles simply roll of the tongue in such a way that you smile a little just to hear them—they inspire you and intrigue you and interest you and make you want to hear more, see more, know more.

Of course, the converse can be true as well: some titles are so clunky and/or uninspired that somehow you wind up feeling exhausted after just two or three words:

I’m not going to argue that a title alone can make or break a movie—that’s a bigger debate for someone else’s blog and time—but I will say that in my opinion a good title just works.

And I still don’t have one.

At least, not for the romantic comedy I am trying to hammer into a read-worthy form.

I know the characters cold. I understand my story and outline pretty damned clearly. I have a firm grip on the tone and vibe I’m after. But so far, I have basically nothing in the way of a title. Not just “oh, I have a lame idea,” but “I don’t have jack shit for an idea.”

The title page of the current working draft still reads UNTITLED ROMANTIC COMEDY, which, as I’m sure we can agree, is likely about as inspired as a radio station broadcasting nothing but the sound of a dentist drill.

NOTE: I am not asking for suggestions, and if any are offered I’lll ignoe them and possibly even delete them, as I do not want your damned chocolate in my damned peanut butter. I’m mainly whining that I have a great big hole where a super cool ‘COME WATCH ME” kind of title damned sure needs to go.

And it pisses me off.

22 July 2006

LA: thur 6 July 2006 (“pt4 — the end of the beginning")


“Hey. It’s me. Brett. Whatcha doin’?”


“Brett. From online. Aggiebrett. Whatcha doin’?”

“Uh, well, just straightening up for a garage sale, and--“

“Great. You can take me to dinner tonight. It’s Friday, everyone else is at gay disco fashion shows or Mason’s Lodge things or Disney premiers, and I refuse to sit in my hotel room watching Entertainment Tonight and eating take-out. How do I get to your house?”

“Uh, well, I’m not sure that this--“

“Not sure? Come on, now. Talk me in. I’m on the 101, or the 134, something with a 1. Heading west. Where is ya?”


Deb is Canadian, which means two things:

1) she’s a little too polite and accommodating for a normal person
2) she sometimes drops that odd “aboot” word into conversation.

I know her from The Artful Forum, the waycool screenwriter’s site run by painfully generous Craig Mazin, writer of the more recent installments of the SCARY MOVIE franchise as well as some other cool recent (or soon to be recent) flicks. Deb, aka “Chesher Cat”, and I were sorta destined to cross paths, as she was once a rock star photographer in the early 70s, while I am (apparently) one of the only people in my peer group who know anything at all about rock music from the early 70s. In the thin-aired world of the screenwriter wannabee crowd, that’s enough to pass as “destiny.”

I’d warned Deb that I’d be in LA, and she (being Canadian and polite to a fault) had said “hey, drop me a line!” Likely she meant that in much the same way that people do when they ask things like “So how’s it going?” They don’t expect that you bring out medical charts and bank statements to give a totally accurate update on your condition, and I’m not sure that Deb really intended that I show up on her doorstep early on a Friday evening, half-unannounced and expecting to be entertained.

But such is life.

I find her place without any trouble—turns out she was only ten minutes from where I was when I called—so I arrive quicker than either of us expected. Cute house, nice trees, quiet street.

On the porch, a laundry basket filled with maybe two dozen very well-worn pro-grade wooden baseball bats. I remember walking past and seeing the chipped dinged maple and ash bats and hoping that the damage was from baseballs rather than coldcallers and surprise uninvited guests, but at this stage of the game I’m on the porch and the dog is barking, so forward seems the only option left.

I knock, she answers, and aside from an awkward second or five right after the initial “hey there!” where we both are left grinning like idiots because we both suddenly realize that we’re not at all sure what the next remark is in this sort of odd crossover moment (when someone you’ve bantered with as an online persona suddenly coalesces into an actual living breathing by god potentially creepy living being), she demonstrates commendable courage by saying “come on in.”

I notice a big blue and silver PowerMac G4 computer and matching Apple monitor on her living room table, and immediately I feel better. Mac people are Good People. She’s trying to show off how well she’s cleaned up her workspace—she’s made numerous online comments about how she works in a dump—and I’m making the polite “yeah, this is great” sort of space-filling response, when I hear the door open behind me. I glance back up the hallway and see a cute 18 year old in cheer shorts prance across the hall into another bedroom. Then another teeny-chick appears, glances my way, sets her jaw and approaches.

“Honey, this is Brett. From Texas.

“You voted for Bush, didn’t you?”

The question is phrased in the form of an accusation.

“Well, er, yeah. But not today.

She looks at me like I just farted.

“I don’t understand people like you.”

Now, know this if you know nothing else about me: contrary to what some might say and what some newspaper reporting might suggest, I am, at heart, a decent fellow. Within certain bounds and from a certain perspective, what you might call a nice guy. But I also have this childish streak, and when someone tries to get up in my grille and give me shit, I tend to smile and give back. You wanna, dance, little girl? Then let’s dance.

“Yeah, and that’s a real shame, ‘cuz it’s absolutely essential that teenagers like you understand people like me. It’s your understanding of people like me that hold the Earth in her orbit and keep her from skittering off into space. And for the record, I live in Tom Delay’s congressional district, my kids swim at the Ken Lay YMCA, and my hobbies include clearcutting the rainforest and clubbing baby seals using ivory tusks. Are you coming to dinner with us?”

Deb laughs. Teeny Chick doesn’t. I shrug.

Deb and I pile into her car at my behest—I whine about being tired and a tourist, and she (“Canadian”) accommodates without complaint.

We drive to Lucy’s Café El Adobe, a cool little old-school Mexican food joint which suits me just fine.

Apparently Lucy’s is a Hollywood landmark of sorts, as there are all sorts of stories about famous diners there, and pictures of name celebs are all over the place—Linda Ronstadt and Jerry Brown... John Belushi... Orson Welles... (Orson FUCKING Welles!)—but it’s not some frou-frou hoity-toity brasserie. Deb and I enter through the backdoor which halfway takes us through the kitchen, and I am reminded that I’ve never yet had a bad experience in a restaurant which I enter through the kitchen.

The food is fine—like most all California “Mexican” food I’ve had, it’s slightly alien to my Texican sensibilities, but fine and tasty. The one odd food beat is the fact that all the dinners include a side salad. Now, there’s nothing wrong with the concept of the side salad, but it somehow seems odd to get a plate of iceberg and tomato wedges drizzled with Green Goddess right before my steaming greasy plate of chili-covered gooey goodness, in much the same way that it might be to have a sushi chef slide you a little easy open can of fruit cocktail as a prelude to your yellowfin and wasabi. I mean, fruit cocktail in a can—fine. Sushi—fine. Fruit cocktail as an appetizer for sushi... just a tad surprising.

[The dressing, by the way, was not Green Goddess but rather some very yummy homemade house special which seems loaded with garlic, but dammit “Green Goddess” just reads funnier than “house dressing,” so I took an editorial risk. So sue me.]

Deb and I enjoy a perfectly enjoyable long dinner. We chatter and trade gossip on all the online personalities with whom we share any familiarity (and trust me, you all would have been totally humiliated to hear what horrid lies and exaggerations of you we tossed back and forth). I giggle and snicker at a few tables of Beautiful People I notice around the room: there’s a peculiar LA vibe where it’s not enough just to be gorgeous—one must also be noticed and recognized for being gorgeous.

Given that I shanghaied Deb into this impromptu thing, I paid for her dinner (and made sure to defang my chivalrousness by reminding her that she was now obligated to perform sexual favors at the conclusion of our evening), and after ten or fifteen minutes of wrestling and wet-cat complaining about the way Lucy’s handles credit card transactions, we pulled a Reverse Henry Hill and wound our way back out through the kitchen and to her car. We wandered around Melrose, headed back to her place, and then we sat in the driveway and yacked about writing for a few hours.

Here’s the thing: that last bit surely sounds comically dull and nerdy to any non-writers who are (for whatever reason) reading this, but if you are, like me, someone for whom “hanging with other serious writers” is a rare and blog-worthy experience, then you understand exactly why this was so damned cool.

If you live in LA, or maybe in Manhattan, writers are nothing very uncommon or special. If, however, you hail from places like Katy, Texas, or Orlando, Florida, or Pigknuckle, Arkansas, sharing war stories of time in the trenches with another writer who actually understands what the hell youa re talking about... well, that’s gravy, man. A few years back at the Austin Film Festival I remarked to a certain “name” writer (who was slumming with the Little People like me in the Driskill Bar) that he took it for granted, that he had forgotten the loneliness of not yet being a certified recognized card-carrying Pro, and that for folks like me who are still trying to find any way into the party, these odd little painfully brief moments of close contact are like holy relics in some small backwater European village—something we local cherish and protect and hold sacred even while other more worldly types snicker and chuckle at our childish quaintness.

To non-writers, the idea of spending two or three hours sitting in the front seat of a Jeep, talking about writing and act breaks and character development and plot pacing... that all surely sounds approximately as interesting as sorting rice grains by size and shape. But for the lonely aspiring writer, used to always feeling out of place at every neighborhood gathering and familiar with the sensation of having nothing interesting to offer to casual poolside conversation on any random summer afternoon, these nerdy episodes are like splinters of The Cross: real, precious, and beyond value.


After a lot of writing chatter, we realize that’s now after 1 am, so I let Deb off the hook when it comes time for the sexual favors thing—that basket of baseball bats and the knowledge that she has a large athletic son who knows how to swing them played no part at all in the decision there—and then I dive back onto the freeway to head back to my little hotel room.

I sail past the Disney Studios, past Warners, past Universal, around thee backside of the hill, then onto the 405, off at Wilshire, and back up that boulevard where I absolutely do not fit in.

As I toss my car keys onto the dresser, I look out my open window, through the blossoming jacaranda tree and over the blue-lit pool below and beyond the roofline of my hotel to the Hollywood Hills just barely visible beyond. Orange sodium vapor lamps light the streets like strings of golden topaz. It’s been a long day—looking back on it, it feels like at least two and maybe three days worth of memories.

Part of me wants to collapse into bed, but there’s another part of my brain that refuses yet to surrender to the tug of slumber. It's 2 am as I kick off my shoes, fire up my iBook, prop it in my lap, and do what that other stranger part of my brain commands.

A breeze wafts through the room, the curtains slowdance in the shadows, and I write:

“On the whole, it was not a bad day....”

21 July 2006

LA: thur 6 July 2006 (“pt3 — mid-afternoon")

Suze re-emerges from the potty room and we decide we’ve now had too much fun at the Market, so we head out. In the parking lot I look up and notice that across the street is the WGA Library. Again, being from that corner of the planet which is NOT Hollywood, access to the WGA library of scripts and such is something of a rare treat, so I insist on crossing to visit.

We pass through the magnificent Stephen J Cannell gallery to enter the hallowed William Wilder Reading Room. The Billy Wilder room is a smaller than expected but still impressive library featuring a long central table (where three different people are set up with their Mac laptops, all intently banging away on what surely are their own spec screenplays), and loaded shelves filled with nearly identical leather bound volumes.

Screenplays. Thousands of them.

“May I help you?” asks a small yet somehow still intense voice. I turn and find a classic clichéd Spinster Librarian smiling at me with that tolerant smile of a librarian who is tasked with helping an idiot she’d really rather not help.

“Yeah, I was hoping to read a copy of a screenplay today.”

Spinster Librarian walks me in tiny stupid baby steps (as she has already categorized me for life as a paste-eating moron upon entry) through the hyper-complicated process by which a mere mortal might gain short-term access to read a script:

1) you write the title on a scrap of paper
2) you hand the scrap to the librarian
3) she “retrieves the material”
4) you may review the material at your leisure
5) you may NOT remove the material or make photocopies
6) when finished, you return the material to the Librarian

Somehow the Librarian makes it seem as though the process and rules are sacred and arcane, as she takes her time in making sure that I, a toe-sucking moron in her estimation, can understand the intricacies of this hopeless complicated dance.

“Fine,” I say, as Susan excuses herself to the bathroom again, it now having been 7.25 minutes since her last such visit.

I scribble the name of the screenplay on a scrap of paper—I’m almost certain that the paper is high quality linen stuff of the sort normally used only for the resumés of recent college grads eager to seem impressive as they apply for positions as assistant manager of a Luby’s—and slide it to Spinster. She looks at me with that nose in the air and eyes rolled up look that lets me know just how quaint and charming she finds it that a low-order simian is dressed like a human. She’s doing all she can to make me feel like Lancelot Link, and I’m making sure that I just smile smile smile and ignore her dismissive ‘tude.

She looks at the title and puckers in confusion.

“Animal House? You want to read Animal House?”


“I’m not sure we have that title in our collection.”

“You do. I already checked online. That’s why I’m here.”

“Well...” (she says it with exasperation, now tired of indulging the chimp) “... we’ll see about that.”

“Take your time,” I smile.

I swear — the woman groaned just like Lurch from The Addams Family.”

A few seconds later she comes back, leather bound title carried flat before her in her hands like a tray upon which a delicate object is balanced. I’m half surprised they don’t use the mechanical robot arms like in THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN.

“Here.” She lays The Materials on the counter, but does not sldie it to my side of the counter. “It’s actual title is National LamPOOOOOON’S Animal House.”

I try to squeeze her meaning from that oddly-emphasized phrasing.

“National LamPOOOOOON’S Animal House?”

“Yes,” she explains patiently for me in a way that communicates clearly taht she rates me a card carrying idjit, a moron incapable of operating doorknobs or pencils without adult supervision. “National LamPOOOON’S Animal House.”

“Well, I’ll be gentle with it, then.”

She nods and seems reluctant to let me have The Materials, so I surprised her by leaning in and grabbing The Materials from the counter. She seems surprised and serves up a slight gasp, but realizes too late that there’s nothing more to be done.

The Chimp has The Materials.

I plop down and start reading. Suze grabs a magazine—UROLOGY TODAY, I remember hoping—and then we kill an hour. During that time, my cellphone vibrates once, but I ignore it. (Not entirely true. I reposition the phone for increased nerve conductivity and pray for another call, but what I mean is that I did not check to see who the call was from.)

I finish National LamPOOOOOOON’S Animal House and return The Materials to the Spinster. She’s nervous, clearly expecting gunplay or a barfight or something. You can see it in her eyes— Monkeys throw their own poop, don’t they! Oh my god!”

I meet Suze as she comes out of the restroom, and we head back into the light where I check my cellphone for missed calls. We hop into Suze’s car and head up into the hills, up Mulholland Drive. As we cruise around the bends and through the canyons, I return the call that came in while I was in the Billy Wilder Room and end up laughing with Snake, one of my former college roommates, now a lawyer back in Texas.

The reason I’m laughing is that Snake called at exactly the moment I was reading a script about collegiate idiocy, a script which basically mirrors many of the memories that Snake and I share, a script which will no doubt be the model for a script about those memories and experiences, the script which most all of my college buddies have been on my ass to sit down and write for more than ten years now. Somehow, the ridiculously well-timed irony of it all amuses me.

I cut short my chat with Snake as Suze needs to find a restroom, so we pull into a Starbucks atop the hill, and I buy another 4-dollar bucket of go-go juice. Christ Almighty I’m am fried on caffeine, I think excitedly to myself in an internal voice which sounds like The Great Cornholio.

As I sit out front with my 4-dollar hypersweet iced tea, I marvel that this is a totally normal looking little strip center, one that looks not one whit different than any I might find back home, except:
1) it’s crowded by rugged hillsides which look only slightly less fake than the landscaping in a theme park
2) eucalyptus trees tower everywhere
3) there’s a short bald dude in a brown velour jogging suit wandering around the parking lot in front of me, yakking loud into a cell and gesticulating like a wildman, and he’s a dead ringer for a 4/5-scale model of actor Michael “THE SHIELD” Chiklis.

Suze emerges and sits with me.

“Look,” I say. ‘It’s a 4/5 scale model of Michael Chiklis....”

Brown Jogging Suit Guy turns around—apparently he heard me as I didn’t really bother trying to lower my voice—and I find that it’s not a 4/5 scale model of Michael Chiklis..

It’s actually Michael Chiklis -- the genuine article in all its surprisingly not so imposing majesty.

Chiklis seems confused and stunned, but I just laugh and give him a peace sign, and then he laughs loud and goes back to his call. I’d like to think that he told his phone-pal “some redneck Eddie Haskell looking mutherfucker just called me short!”, but perhaps that’s just the romantic in me.

Suze scolds me (she does that a lot—she’s very maternal that way) and we grab her car head off down The Hill. While winding down the backside into the San Fernando Valley, we swing past the home of one of the few Big Time Writer Pals we know, and we call his cellphone—perhaps Suze needed to use the facilities in his stately pleasure domes—but he’s away, likely schutzing with supermodels in Gstaad or smearing coconut oil on supermodels in Bora Bora or windsurfing on Mount Baldy.

With supermodels.

We continue down the hill, slide onto the freeway back to Pasadena, and Suze explains to me that she has plans that evening, as some jazz-noodling pals of her have a CD release party as part of a fashion show at a gay disco.

In case you need help, “jazz” and “fashion” and “gay disco” are not exactly chart-toppers on my interest meter, so I beg off any more fun with Suze and head out into the lengthening shadows to see what last second amusement I can stir up in SoCal.

As I accelerate westbound back onto the 101, I pull my phone list and start running down the names, looking for someone I’ve not yet bothered.

I find a name. I smile, and I dial.

14 July 2006

LA: thur 6 July 2006 (“pt2 — things forgotten, things denied”)

Whenever I’m on one of these odd solo visionquest sorts of extended weekends (where The Wife and kids are left safely at home and I stumble around in-country somewhere), I tend to squeeze more time from the daily grind by eschewing certain luxuries.

Food. Sleep. Sensibility.

As a result, sometimes the margins grow fuzzy, and memories of one day bleed into one another, or run off the edges of the page entirely, or sometimes don’t get logged at all.

Like Thursday.

I spent the early morning having coffee, the late-morning driving around Hollywood to Pasadena, noon hour barnstorming tourists at Universal, and early afternoon at Big Boy.

I now look up and realize that somewhere in there Suze drove me all the hell around Hollywood.

Including The Farmer’s Market, where we wandered around the stalls while sipping heavily caffeinated coffee drink until finally we wound up at the big shiny Barnes&Noble store at the rear of the fancy shopping area attached to the market. Barnes&Noble is not such a novel experience for me (as I had to explain more than a few times to wide-eyed LA friends, contrary to their mental images, the Houston area does actually have such cutting edge niceties as paving, and indoor plumbing, and cable TV), but what was kinda cool and different was a Barnes&Noble where the “movies and screenwriting” section was not really just half a shelf worth of random oddball trade paperbacks from geeks you’d never heard of. It wasn’t really a surprise—this is Hollywood, after all—but it was cool to see half a wall’s worth of books on and about movies and moviemaking. Several shelves worth of published scripts and screenplays. Pretty much every screenwriting book I’ve ever heard anyone reference online was in evidence that day.

Nerd Heaven.

I poked around and skimmed books (bought nothing), and then Suze excused herself for a potty break (it had been twelve minutes since her previous such break, after all...). I wandered over to the fiction area and looked around.

A table out front pimped “New Titles,” and I just scanned the table quickly while passing by. I’m not normally a big reader of thrillers, but for two reasons I just had to stop and give the table a minute or three of my time:

1) I actually know the author of one of the prominently displaysd books I see on the table


2) standing there also looking at titles is a shit-hot brunette who looks like Jamie Gertz’s younger less frumpy sister.

Sitting front and center on the table was A Field Of Darkness, a new novel from Cornelia Readan old and dear e-pal of mine. I’ve “known” (in the online banter sense) Cousin Cornelia for something like 5 years now, and I remember her sharing news of every major milestone in the development, pitching, and eventual publication of this debut novel. For that reason the book remains a hugely thrilling thing for me: it’s not my book on display at a major vendor’s endcap display, but dammit that book is proof that normal regular civilians can and do transmute from lead to gold, can move from “struggling aspirant” to “actual By God professional” through the proper application of talent, tenacity, and dumb luck.

Which is all fine and dandy, but I already have my own autographed copy of the book, and I’ve already had a nice fuzzy wuzzy emotional scene over the book before when I met Cornelia at a Houston-area bookstore and we both got a little misty-eyed and hugged and shared that ”one of us actually made it off the island!” struggling artists experience whenever one of their peer group breaks through to real commercial success.

Congrats to Cornelia, blah blah blah... I’m hanging around that table for the Gertzian Brunette Babe. “Yowza.”

I make a good show out of pretending to skim the book jacket notes of a few books. She does the same. I check out Cornelia’s bio. I check out Brunette Babe.

“Cornelia Read,” I say aloud, reading the cover of the book. Brunette Babe glances over at me. I smile. “I know her, you know.”

Brunette Babe stares at me for approximately 1.2 seconds, displaying exactly the proper degree of soul-withering “I so do not give a fuck” ‘tude that my masculine bits are ready to pull the EJECT handle and punch out for parts unknown.


Brunette Babe gives the tiniest hint of a shrug. I watch her as she heads over the New Age Philosophy.

"Obviously not into guys..." I note to myself.

13 July 2006

meanwhile, a status report

The term "ass deep in alligators" springs to mind.

July has turned into yet one another scheduling joke (the 28th consecutive such month...), as the kids need dentist visits, and orthodontic visits, and pediatric visits, and parties and sleepovers and camps and so on, and so on. Weekend before last I was in a hotel on the far south side of the Houston area as part of a little league baseball tournament. Last week I was in LA. This weekend I'll be in central Texas on a family vacation. Week after that is a nother baseball tourney. Week after that it's BACK to LA, but this time with zero time and attention to Hollywood as I'll be swinging through as part of oldest son's big Boy Scout camp trip to Sequoia Nat'l Forest. I'll return just in time to head to another out of town baseball tournament, the then the week after that school starts and it's back into the regular grind.

Which, actually, might be preferable and more productive than life on the IRREGULAR grind has been so far this summer.

Don't get me wrong—there have been some stupidly cool things so far this summer, and by jumped harry I fully expect and demand a few more before Labor Day sneaks up and telethons past like another annual lapmarker. Scripts are out there. People are starting to respond. Connections are starting to blossom into potentially useful relationships. Heretofore disconnected pieces of the puzzle now start to connect to other small sections, so that something kinda sorta like the beginnings of a hint of a Big Picture are maybe possibly starting to coalesce into view.

But dammit it feels like everything is accelerating, and I'm constantly struggling just to keep up. I'm Lucy Ricardo at the candy making line, and the belt is now starting to speed up a little bit.

Hold tight, my pretties. Methinks this ride gets rougher a-fore it gets smoother.


12 July 2006

LA: some thoughts on "meetings"

In LA, "meeting" seems to be a very different verb than back home. At home, meeting in the social sense refers to an informal casual impromptu short-term thing. It might take 90 minutes total to set up, drive to, meet, shake hands, drive home and be fully and finally done with the “meeting” proper.

But in LA “meeting” becomes half a day's effort. First you play phone tag and swap voicemails announcing the intent to discuss a meeting. Then you finally connect and begin the preliminary negotiations of the where and when, which is a high order algebraic calculation involving the respective locations of the parties involved, their schedule of OTHER meetings, plus what you are having for dinner and with whom.

The preliminary negotiation phase usually ends when the cell phone signal breaks up as one or both parties drives into the hills and canyons, or hangs up and later CLAIMS to have driven into the hills. There then follows a second round of swapped voice mails, and then both parties manage to reconnect to finalize the logistics--- where, when, etc. At that stage both parties get into their cars and sit in traffic surrounded by shiny BMWs and Mercedes and Lexii and the occasional Bugatti coupe, most always driven by people who look vaguely like either Don Henley or Heather Locklear, and who almost always have a cell phone mashed to their ear. You spend an hour floating slowly down a concrete river of steel and fiberglass until you get to the rendezvous point, at which stage you then start to circle in ever-expanding rings in search of anything resembling as parking spot.

Important Rule About LA: no business establishment seems to want more than one or two patrons actually patronizing that business. Every business I visited in this trip had, at most, three parking spots visible, and usually these were clearly and ominously marked “20 MINUTES ONLY”. Cops and private parking enforcers roam the streets, marking tickets and calling tow truck drivers. Every fifth block which you drive down will have a parking lot with space for 15 cars, and there will be 20 cars in that lot--- everyone parks so as to block in other people, and you merely announce a description of your car as you enter the business, and when someone else needs to leave and you’re car is blocking them, everyone smiles and you go move your car so as to let the trapped person back onto the slow moving concrete river still drifting past at just below pedestrian speed.

During the 15 minutes required to actually find a parking space and get back to wherever the meeting itself was supposed to take place, you again swap a round of voicemails, and then manage to meet at the meeting place for the actual meeting as both of you are talking to one another on the phone to alert the other about the unexpected delays and difficulties of the meeting.

Now the meeting takes place. Smiles, airkisses, and everyone sits on a street side table both to see and to be seen. Sitting outside is never a problem in LA as the weather seems slightly less erratic than does the weather in my hotel room. Somewhere there surely is a thermostat where they set the entire LA/West Hollywood are to “sunny and mid 70s” every day. If ever the temperature wavers by more than 8 degrees, or if ever the sun is even partially obscured for more than 7 consecutive minutes, a repair crew fixes the faulty thermostat ad all is immediately set well once again.

During the meeting you will notice a few surprising things:

1) Everyone seems like they are on an off day, where they are just kicking back and decompressing from the rigors of doing actual productive work. In Houston, you see these same sorts and this same vibe, but it’s mingled with other vibes, most commonly the “Jesus H Christ on a cracker, son—we gotta get this goddamned deal done today before it all goes to hell on us and the Mexicans vote in someone new who won’t play ball” or “that sonofabitch blew the deadline and now we gotta find another supplier before the rigs get iced in and we lose 8 months off our production schedule.” In LA, by contrast, there is this odd hazy vagueness to all business calls, as if whatever project is on the table is both a) open ended on the back, and b) tentative at best on the front.

2) everyone in Hollywood is short, attractive (or at least sure that they are), and not really going anywhere in particular. All the men seem to be around 5’9”, either bald, balding, or shaven (but still often with a ponytail), tanned and either oddly fit or surprisingly non-fit. Everyone seems either to be slightly over-worked or under-worked in terms of muscularity. Steroidal hunks, chunky dweebs, and heroin chic emaciated freaks comprise 80% of the males you might ever encounter. Everyone else?

Screenwriter geeks.
all-seeing B

11 July 2006

LA: thur 6 july 2006 (“FIRST MORNING”)

[note-- as with most of my travelogues, the post-event wrap-up tends to run longer than would a real-time video record of the events described. If this is a problem for you, there are likely many other blogs more to your liking, and I urge you to go find one.]

I wakened to another damned perfect day, San Diego my intended destination.

There’s an aerospace museum there which is a fair second place to the National Air & Space Museum at the Smithsonian in terms of its orgasmic wonder to airplane nuts (and, for those eager beavers scoring along at home, I am a airplane nut). I’d been wanting to see this museum since summer of ’05, when they hosted a rare reunion of the surviving members of a certain Russian flying corps of WW2. I’ve got a screenplay about this topic circulating around LA, a ridiculously cinematic story about one of these amazing aviators whose story has never been told. The SD museum has a standing exhibit on these Soviet combat flyers in combat, and it seemed worth a look, as did the museum’s expansive collection of vintage aircraft.

I never got there.

When I wake, I started working the phones to touch base with a page long list of LA based names and personalities I’ve been meaning to see when possible. One of these—a woman whom I’ve known through online writing efforts for 5 or 6 years now, but nothing relating to screenwriting—wanted to meet for coffee, so we met.

(And what IS it about “coffee” in LA? I’m stunned by the amount of coffee which gets drunk in this town. I had one producer laughingly but seriously tell me “cocaine is so early 90s. Now everyone is hopped up on Red Bull and Starbucks. The same stupid mistakes get made as before, but we make them a lot faster now, which increases productivity.”)

So I agreed to meet an old acquaintance for morning coffee, thinking it might take an hour, and then I’d be on my way to San Diego. Instead, it took two hours just to actually get to that part of this meeting where we were actually drinking coffee. We met at that sort of LA place which seems to exist on every corner and at least twice more in mid—block between the corners: an old brick place with at least a dozen umbrella shaded tables. We sat around and drank our 4 dollar coffees and wore our sunglasses and effected just the right level of “je ne sais don't give a fuck,” that peculiarly LA ‘tude where you make it as clear as possible that you are at once both indispensably important yet utterly unconcerned with it all.

Gorgeous women wander past with numbing frequency. Guys who look like they are looking for an Abercrombie ad to fall into mill about like pigeons. BMWs and Mercedes and Bugatti coupes whisper past. And at some point I look up and realize that it’s creeping up on late morning, and that a trip to San Diego now will mean sitting on the 405 parking lot for something like 3 hours, leaving me only a few scant hours to see a museum which I know will require many more hours than I now have.

So I wave of the much anticipated SD side trip, and start working the cell, baybee.

A few calls latter I have some things to do, people to see—meetings.

I’m sailing east on the 134, and I start to notice that there are a lot of gorgeous civilians in this damned town. Walking in Westwood or Beverly Hills, I expect to see gorgeous people, but here I am north of downtown on a workday and every car I pass or which passes me seems to be driven by Ben Affleck or Jessica Simpson. OK, every once in a while I spot an Edward James Olmos driving a landscaping truck, Bea Arthur drives a water delivery truck and makes unsignaled lane changes, and don’t quote me on it but I’m pretty sure I saw Grady from SANFORD AND SON at the helm of a Maserati which had seen better days, but they all looked mahvelous.

South on Fair Oaks, and I pass the theater where Tim Robbins kills the screenwriter in THE PLAYER. Everywhere I go in LA I am surprised to recognize locations used from familiar movies and TV shows. Plus, I was constantly fighting back a secret smirk as I recognized pretty much every major thoroughfare’s name from a childhood wasted watching ADAM 12 and EMERGENCY ( “Squad 51, MVA at Pico and Highland. See the man.” “Roger that, Rampart. 51 responding.”).

I pull up at a cute a cute Pasadena bungalow on a tree-lined side street, the home of my pal Susan, and we shoot the shit for a while. Remember, I’d expected to be away south in San Diego, so I’d not really booked much locally for Thursday. Being a Texan (and therefore “good people” in the classic sense of the phrase), Susan has some Texas beer in her fridge, so I partake. She’s supposed to be cleaning the place for a poker and bullshit thing the next night that I’m supposed to attend, but being a good hostess means blowing off the mundane for the profane, so we decide to wander around and see what we can see.

We swing by Universal Studios where we have have a good bud (we’ll call him “Steve,” as do his parents and all other acquaintances) who works in the legal support office—a suit. He’s already pre-cleared us with security, so Suze and I sail in and submit to the cavity check that gets us past the front gate and then we be-bop up to the 3rd floor of the fabulous Lew Wasserman Building like we know what the hell we are doing.

We get there, find his cubicle empty, and are about to start shouting “Hey-- what the hell?” to the semi-concerned observers in adjacent cubicles, when my cell rings. (Seriously, what did people in LA do before cellphones became de rigueur?) Buddy Steve alerts us to come on down—he’s waiting at the open air café across the drive from the Fabulous Lew Wasserman Building.

In a golf cart.

I laugh, hop in, and away we go.

Now, as I calculate it, there are four possible ways to tour the Universal studios:

1) The easiest and most common is to pay bucks and take the studio tour on the tram.
2) The ballsiest is to simply sprint past the security and see how far into the property you might get before they let slip the dogs of security. The guards themselves seem less than intimidati8ng, as they all seemed a bit older and pudgier than I’d imagined. I asked if we were far from the Joe Don Baker Salon where these guys surely all get their hair helmets coiffed and shellacked.
3) The best way to see the studios is to be escorted around by one of the endless number of gorgeous women wandering around. I’m pretty sure that these trips are reserved for Important People, people with names like Spielberg and Scorsese and Howard, or for guys who have been hired to work with or for these sorts of names. I am not one of those sorts, nor do I work with or for them, but I’m trying, Ringo. I’m trying real hard.

The coolest combination of safety, access, and coolness is Option 4: the private golf cart tour from a friend on the inside, and I heartily recommend it to all. (unless, of course, Option#3 is on the table, in which case, rock on, you magnificent bastard.

Steve zooms away as if he owns the damned lot, which is of course yet more of the proper LA ‘tude: “fuck you, I’m important.” We sailed past various large grey-beige buildings the size of airline hangars, most off which had more Joe Don Bakers standing guard, and which usually had a half dozen young men and women in rumpled suits hanging about, smoking and reading from stacks of stapled pages—actors hustling to keep their lines fresh as crews set up for another shot. We screamed past a crowded tour tram, honking to remind then that Goddammit We Are Fucking Important. I tried to act sleepy. Some of the tourists snapped pictures of us. The ‘tude was full on.

We sail around the back lot at what passes for breakneck speed in a golf cart. We rumbled through the city square set of Back To The Future—complete with the courthouse clock frozen in time as it has always been since 1985.

On the corner of the square is the drugstore soda shop set from BTTF, a set which had also been a drugstore in THE STING (the store in which Doyle Lonigan waited for Hooker’s Western Union man to phone in the racing tips). I called my kids at home to tell them where I was. My 8 year old film freak son wanted to know if the drugstore set was painted more like Back To The Future or The Sting.

Smart kid. Weird, but smart.

Back to the cart and again we run tourist trams off their routes, getting more sidelong glances from wandering Joe Don Bakers, more ugly glares from tram drivers and more adoring waves from star struck tram riders from places like Dubuque and Pisswater, Kentucky.

”Oooooh, LOOK, honey! It’s Steve Martin and Kevin Bacon, driving around in a golf cart! AND THEY’RE WAVING! SNAP A PICTURE! QUICK!”

On one especially surreal psychic whiplash inducing 30 second swing around the hill which dominates the back of the Universal lot we emerge onto Whoville from Ron Howard’s THE GRINCH, turn a corner into the parking lot of the Bates Motel, head up the slope past the spooky Bates home (which turns out to be half-scale so as to achieve a forced perspective, giving the house the odd sense off being part off some demented miniature golf park), then slip past the Desperate Housewives street, make another left and slide through the wrecked airliner in the suburbs set off WAR OF THE WORLDS, and then tear through a cobblestone set that looks vaguely like some cheesy European village of the sort that might be used by the 90210 gang to shoot their European adventures.

“This is where the 90210 gang shot their European adventures” Steve tells me as we cut off another tourist-laden tram and carve a turn towards the Old West street set. The Joe Don Bakers watch and keep things under control, the tram driver glares, tourists wave and flash more photos. We smile and wave. The tourists will get back to Tallahassee and tell great tales off the friendly stars they saw waving at them on the tour.

We careen around the back of the hill to this huge concrete covered bowl shaped area which looks like the world’s biggest kiddy pool or perhaps some crazy underused skate park. Along the far end of the pool stands a huge blank white wall which makes me think of a drive-in movie screen built for some never-popularized Super Ultra Mega Maxi Panascopovision Hyperwide Supreme format, or maybe the Great Wall of Chinatown. In front of that wall stands a huge hydraulic platform, and atop the platform is being built what can only be The Ark. Or, at least, the front half of The Ark. Next to The Ark stands a huge black... “device” which boasts several house sized tanks on the top level, lots of motors and pumps below, and huge trough-like sluices leading from the tank to downspouts next to The Ark.

“Wave generator?” I ask?

“Yeah, this is for the sequel to BRUCE ALMIGHTY. I think Steve Carrel is taking over in HEAVEN ALMIGHTY.”

Somehow, like most everything else on the studio tour, it seems kinda underwhelming and almost comically smaller than it ought to be, but I’m sure the magic of CGI—no doubt that huge wall is a bluescreen backdrop for use in compositing the final shots into some stunningly big shot—will give the final shot a grandeur as yet totally lacking.

We sail around the water tank, scream down a hill past some sort of collapsing bridge last used in the old Bionic Woman TV series (“they refuse to tear up anything which might ever have some use down the line...”), around the JAWS shark tour effect show tank (cheesier than the worst action park lost river ride you have ever seen), and then rumble past the executive bungalows, which of course represent sacred ground for aspiring screenwriters.

These are just a series of small unremarkable ranch style bungalows arrayed in a row like some roadside show park for low-end starter homes. When major directors and production companies are working on a picture on the lot, they set up shop in these bungalows for weeks, months—years—at a time. So if you are a writer, your dream is to get a meeting in one of these bungalows, as they are almost always occupied by Serious Players. Steven Spielberg. Ron Howard. Tori Spelling’s gastroenterologist.

As we sail past, I think we all wanted to make some great snarky joke to minimize and undercut the importance of these bungalows as a goal worth working towards, but none of us could really bring ourselves to do it.

One does not mock Paradise while staring through the still-locked Pearly Gates.

Steve swings back to the parking lot and drops us off. He returns to his job (licking stamps on union work agreements for the studio), while Susan and I get back into traffic and head around towards Pasadena.

Suze and I wander over to Bob’s Big Boy on Riverside. Suze explains to me this particular location holds some quirky significance to us screenwriting geeks, as this is the coffee shop where our heroes and close warm money lending friends Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio used to hang out when first starting out, working on stories in long coffee-fueled stretches. Of course, now that T&T are damned screenwriting superheroes (and when you pen a movie which shatters the three-day opening weekend tally to the tune of $135.6 million, by god you get fitted for a cape), they now likely do their brainstorming on platinum zeppelins over fields of greased supermodels, but per usual I digress.

Over lunch, Suze and I decide to head up The Hill to her favorite Starbucks. I figure “why not—we've had a full morning of ass-sitting and it’s been almost three hours since my last non-fat half-caff semi-frozen reverse-thread 5-speed free-range mochalatté.”


10 July 2006

LA: wed 5 july 2006 (aka, “THE ARRIVAL”)

The flight was supposed to take 4 hours, but of course, nothing ever really works as smoothly as it’s supposed to in my world. So when I arrive at 1:30 for my 2:36 flight, I find that there IS no 2:36 flight, as the planes for America West airlines have all been delayed or rerouted due to the weather. As the counter lady explains this to me, I stare out the wall-sized windows of the terminal to watch a long happy trail of planes arriving and departing at the neighboring Continental terminal. They seem to wave and wink, as if to say “sorry, man—we wish you’d booked us, too!”

So the 2:36 flight turns into a 4:40 flight, which puts me into Phoenix at 5:40, and of course I am not allowed to continue on to LA on the NEXT flight—leaving at 6:10—but must instead hang around until the 7:45 flight. I’m now scheduled to arrive LA at 9:20.

I call the hotel and rental car desks to alert them of the changed itinerary. Hotel says no prob, the room will be held without any issue, but the rental car folks say “well, if you’re not in our office by 10 AM, you can’t get a car until 5 AM the next morning.”

“”But isn’t this the LAX office?”


“So you serve one of the busiest airports in the world, yet you shut down before the Red Lobster next door?”


It turns out to be a non-story, as the plane arrives at 9:15, the baggage pickup takes 5 minutes, I step outside into a waiting shuttle, and 15 minutes later I’m in the queue of velvet ropes at the Enterprise Rental counter. I look out into the big garage area where prepped cars are waiting. I’m fourth in line and I count six cars remaining in their garage, two of them being large Denali-grade SUVs.

When I finally get to the front, the girl quickly confirms my reservation and then leads me to the garage and points to bench.

“Let's see if I can find you a car.”

And away she goes. As do most of the cars in the garage. Half teh cars there drive away as I sit there. Tired, hungry, ready to get some rest, as by my clock I’ve now been traveling for twelve hours, and then she comes back.

“We’re out of the intermediate grade cars—how about an upgrade?”

“So long as it doesn’t cost me anything and I don’t wind up driving an Abrams tank, I’m pretty much fine with anything. She waves, and some dude comes squealing in driving a silver convertible.

So 20 minutes later I’m toodling down Wilshire Boulevard, my top down, yakking into my cellphone as I pass a gleaming black Bugatti coupe coming the other way as we pass a building with a ten-story tall poster of Captain Jack Sparrow leering down at me.

Sparrow seems to wink at me.

“Welcome to Hollywood, love.”

tales of a pilgrim in an unholy land

So... the LA Trip was good.

How good? Good enough that i was near-tearful to see it end, but glad to arrive home when I did, as I was starting to feel truly weird and disconnected — that odd "between worlds" sensation when you start to get half-attuned to some new environment even as the homesickness for the old environment starts to mount. If I stayed a day longer, I dunno that it would have all felt as good and right.

So, in the coming days I'll try to post some odd (and typically longwinded) tales of what went down, and what seemed to happen, and what impressions I took from it all. Hell, a lot of what follows is entirely accurate, while the rest is merely just "true."

If any take exception or offense, you are forgiven. Go blog your own lies and near truths.


03 July 2006

leaving on a jet plane

Los Angeles. City of Angels. The land where dreams are made real, and the real gets reduced to dreams.

I'll be out there this week — shmoozing and visiting and carousing and networking and touching base and socializing and all that jazz.

It's a surreal thing to think about. Right now I'm ass-deep in Suburbia, with a yard needing mowing, kids in the yard, a homeowner's association complaining about some damned fool thing ("please remove your recycling bin from the curb promptly in the afternoon after pickup!"), and I just spent two days at a little league tournament in the company of a whole bunch of very similar folks: perfectly fine anddecent folks with kids and mortgages and relatively normal lives.

Come Wednesday, I'll hop a jet and three hours later I'll be in LA. Staying somewhere between Bel-Air and Beverly Hills. Meeting with folks whose names appear on DVDs in my movie collection, talking about words I strung together and put onto pages.

I'm wondering if at some point in that flight out there — maybe over the Trans-Pecos region — I'll suddenly switch from Suburban Dad Guy to LA Screenwriter Guy, almost like crossing into an adjacent time zone. I think that particular emotional jet lag will be worse on the return flight, as I have to re-calibrate from Fun Unencumbered Guy Tasked With Radiating Charisma Ceaselessly and crawl back into the cocoon so as to more easily fit back into Normal Life back here at home.

I think Batman might have a similar period of disconnect, as he drives home to the Batcave after a hard day of fighting super-criminality and starts to realize that he (as Bruce Wayne) has a breakfast meeting with the donors from the foundation, then a 10 AM meeting at the lawyers, a noon date with the architects designing the new Wayne Plaza building, and don't forget that the Batmobile needs an oil change and a front end alignment.

What seems normal today will seem unbelievably alien and strange a week from now, even though it remains every bit as mundane and unremarkable as it was before.

"What the hell am I doing?" That's a question I feel myself asking myself a lot these days. Nobody I deal with in Real Life has an idea or understanding of the crazy screenwriting thing I am working towards, and even if I tried to explain to them what it's all like and about, they'd still look at me like I was a sea bass bubbling at them in Swahili. They all try to seem supportive and excited, but if I told them that I was working to become a bullfighter or a lion tamer or a secret agent I think their response and reactions would be largely the same, as all of those — screenwriter included — are occupations that real people don't actually claim.

And yet I have my ticket, and my hotel, and my rent car, and the laptop is loaded, and the scripts are printed, and I catch myself quietly running through trial run responses to such questions as "so what are you working on these days?" or "so what's it about?"

I am Batman, ironing his cape as he looks out the window and watches the neighbors mow the yard next door.

Somehow... it's deliciously ridiculous.
ready but not B