Scenes from the Means (of Production)
After selling my movie script the business part of the trip was finished and we had a few days left over to do all the touristy things children love, shopping on Melrose, a day trip to Disneyland, skateboarding down on Venice beach a drive up to Paradise Cove.
One night my wife and I went to see the English Beat at the Malibu Inn. The kids stayed at the hotel and watched movies under the half-watchful eye of the in-house babysitter. The English Beat, for there was an American one that took precedence I presume. Transplants. They were all there chasing the money and the weather. “What’s not to like?” is the phrase you hear most from ex-pats, same as they say in Marbella or in the tapas bars of Andratx and Palma. My wife, who loves the changing of the seasons, fucking hates the place. ‘How moronic to have this weather all the fucking time,’ would be her take on L.A., and I haven’t found better.
Steve Jones was the top of the pile of British rock-and-roll royalty in L.A. We lost him to them years ago. The artful dodger, whose West London accent refused point blank to succumb to the West Coast; no drawl, no extended phrasing, no squashed consonants, Jonesy’s voice was a wonder of the modern world, inviolate in the face of what is for most of us inevitable mid-Atlantic drawl. Jonesy’s Jukebox a staple of L.A. radio, his Cheech and Chong “Cunninglingus” interview a legendary moment of radio outsider bravura. Lydon up in the hills, Joan Armatrading, where? In the valley perhaps, Bush, Depeche Mode, the Goss brothers, on down to the dregs. I remember somebody told me they even asked Kevin Coyne to replace Jim Morrison as lead singer of The Doors after Jim Morrison died, for fuck’s sake. Coyne turned it down as the record exec was wearing leather trousers. Kevin couldn’t believe it.
“Let’s be straight here, those trousers are the wrong side of the table mate. Ah canner abide ’em,” he observed in his Derbyshire drawl. Now his accent ruined would have killed me.
Paradise Cove, where the seafood restaurant (“surf side tropical drinks and American fare”) has a red-light flashing toy lobster seat allocation system that also vibrates in your hand when your number is up. Makes everyone look stupid, the great leveller in the guise of a plastic lobster. Seated, we ordered mountains of seafood that tasted of nothing much and bottomless jugs of watered-down margaritas. The table looked amazing, but both appeared to taste better in the movies that filmed here and whose memory lingers in the colour, decor and optimism of the place itself.
L.A. resonates in our imagination because of the number and type of movies it sends into the world. It also disappoints because of how similar most of those movies are. It is a familiar city in a way that many places in the States and elsewhere are not. There is an old-fashioned romance about “Jakarta” or “Almaty,” or “Ulan Bator.” The destination board of, say, Istanbul Airport is full of places most of us have never heard of. Closer to home – West Virginia, Kentucky, and the remote counties of New Mexico and North Dakota are as alien, as fictional for many as the Far East or the Arab peninsula.
L.A. will always be a city of the past, a distant place where its vitality was both won and lost. Its constant reinvention is repetitious.
The movies we consume, that become “the great movies” of whatever canon we subscribe to, are little more than stand-ins for all the unmade movies we never get to see. Thrillers typed up and filed away, rom-coms left forgotten under mattresses, handwritten in fountain pen, heist movies imprisoned on corrupted hard drives, sci-fi masterpieces conjured on lunch breaks, fleetingly imagined worlds left burning on retinas of so many night shifts, only half-remembered by morning and forgotten soon after. Illiterate fantasies projected onto the mind’s eye, horror scripts hidden in the cracks of prison walls, indie classics composed by solipsistic minds, confidently plotted out scene by scene and stored safely in memory palaces. Pub stories, bedtime catechisms. And on top of this pile of the unread and the unwritten, we add all of those scripts submitted and rejected by the system – another layer of the untold, unmade projections of the mind – and what we get is a vast story mountain, a slag heap of discarded plots and overlooked characters, three-to-five-act edifices, thematic and experimental follies, an unheeded yet salutary tale for those that pass muster, not rejected or overlooked; the films that get into production, and eventually (or not, this the final hurdle) released into the world.
The rest, lost.
Well, most of them. If you dig around the internet you will find snippets from, hints and glimpses of what’s on the slag heap of our collective filmmaking imagination; unwatchable movies, usually short thankfully, that make the ones we see masterpieces by comparison. For every shit film that gets made there are many worse ones that thankfully don’t. What’s out there is a clue to what we are missing, from the showreel pieces, audition tapes (that goldmine of celebrity backstory), “self-tapes” (because now actors have to audition themselves on their phones undirected), to the dreaded short film that starts with a Facebook shout-out to anybody who has a lawnmower “we” can borrow over the weekend. All of this “content” is a big red flag as to how bad the movies these people wanted to make would be. Kickstarter and Indiegogo are commercial expressions/exploitations of a zeitgeist of creative self-entitlement, along the lines of “My film has to get made, against all the odds, it’s too important not to.”
I have never seen a movie that had to get made, or that changed the world, or a brave movie. Bravery is for the dispossessed, not the self-entitled. Changing the world is another story.
Amateur movies are mind-boggling in their aping of genre – the mistakes, the blindness, the sheer bloody-mindedness and desperation of people who want to be in the industry, who want to tear down, break in, own, penetrate the system, whatever the cost.
Again, Facebook and other social media are the great enablers and windows into this world as they are of infinite others; hosting the underworlds, hinterlands, micro and macro demagogueries of our times.
A black (dark/tattoos) man holds a gun on a (white/pale) woman (with red lipstick) sitting on a chair, her hands tied behind her back. The gun is odd. It’s a revolver, an obvious prop which doesn’t look heavy enough, probably sourced from friends or ‘friends’ on social media. Isn’t America meant to be awash with real guns? Can’t they even get that right? Anyway, the man asks the woman a question, a pressing question, “Where is X” or “Who did Y” and she replies “Kiss my ass.” The man swipes her a backhand across the face. Cut to a closeup on a trickle of blood on red lipstick, which she licks silently in reaction to being struck. The man asks her what’s behind the door. They are in what looks like, or approximates, a basement. Cut to a closeup behind the chair where we see the woman “loosening her bonds.” In fact, the rope wasn’t tight, wasn’t tied properly, and it just falls off her hands. No tension in the rope, no tension in the shot. She’s free. She jumps up and takes the gun from the man as he is about to open the door. She points the gun at him and says, “Get away from the door” to which he replies, “Kiss my ass.” Touché. The action then cuts to another story environment altogether as this is a clip from the actress’s showreel.
I kid you not.
No story, no tension, cinematic clichés executed badly, bad makeup, zero craft of any kind. Now the “kids” have high-def digital cameras and super cheap or free editing software on their laptops. In some senses they own the means of production. State-of-the-art technology is at their fingertips. What they don’t have, amongst many other things, is the right makeup to make people look good in high-def. So, you see the flakes of lipstick, which in a closeup of a mouth is distracting and just adds to the shoddy, imitative school play tonality of this dreck. And it’s everywhere. Go Google.
These filmmakers get together to shoot their own commercials and then try to get them voted onto the Super Bowl. Now, the Super Bowl is like a Zoroastrian fire temple to Americans of this stripe. A secular/holy/“God bless America” validation for creativity in the realm of television commercials, on the high altar of capitalist endeavour, and all the riches that it brings with it. This is the Ayn Rand-on-steroids “we will make it or die trying” generation. White middle class gangsterism at the top of its curve. They congratulate themselves on their boldness, how groundbreaking they are to do this, and have the bold as brass hutzpah to set up film festivals, online competitions and scriptwriting prizes to validate, perpetuate and lionise this bravery.
They exhort you to watch their fucking 30-second commercial and “give a brother” a 5-star rating. Like Uber drivers, you like me, I like you, and we both aggregate our way to success and fortune. Crowdfunding is literally what happened to “Hey, buddy, can you spare a dime?”
“Dear friends! I am shooting a hilarious little project and am looking for a cool creative office space in the L.A area to shoot in this Saturday for a couple hours. Anyone has any ideas?”
It’s for a 30-second spoof commercial.
And afterwards, this:
“We made magic today. Great shoot everyone!”
They post shit like this to empower each other. To sustain each other as their P.T. boats hit the beaches of hard facts and they either drown or stumble ashore under the heavy fire of reality.
It gets a gazillion likes. They use hashtags like #actorslife #believe #makeithappen #keepgoing. You can skip the posts themselves and read their pathetically similar stories simply by the hashtags they keep. New demo reels, websites, short films, spec commercials, writing retreats, classes, acting gurus, empowerment systems, programmes, audits. So much energy spent to make it happen. At best, another month’s rent gets paid, nobody repos the car and you still get to eat out three nights a week: Sushi/Mexican/Korean.
And when all this breaks down, and the checks don’t get paid and you hear about somebody else’s car being repossessed, then it’s all spiritual hashtags, how fucking blessed they all are, (not to be on the street).
In this town.
In this town when a successful commercials producer has to take a few months off to recuperate from an operation or illness, they and or their friends post begging messages for donations to keep them afloat during their convalescence! Shamelessly, with no sense of embarrassment, because this is the truth of the matter. Everybody knows it, it’s not a shocking revelation for these people. They put up with it, it’s just the way things are. For a brittle middle class, social media provides them with social security. Reach into your heart/wallet and GoFundMyCancer, Kickstart our son’s college fund.
And these are the winners of the American system. Imagine the life of the rest.
Doritos have cashed in on this DIY filmmaking “craze” and set up a “Crash The Super Bowl” contest for suckers to upload their own Doritos commercials.
There is a legion of fucking nobody, wannabe actors armed to the teeth with unread (to be fair it is unreadable) copies of Atlas Shrugged, a novel that empowers them to “Be bold!”
A sentence is not a leper bell. Sense is absent from this sentence.
Alan Watts is also compulsory viewing for these clowns, although his truisms are pretty harmless, and he has a cool voice, with a cut glass English accent unsullied by his transplanting. I flash on him as a posh Steve Jones, smiling to myself that they would have got on like a house on fire.
“Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.” Now that is a sentence that makes sense. Jonesy would love that.
Ayn Rand. On T-shirts. Her quotes chalked on the blackboards of artisanal coffee shops from San Francisco to Shoreditch.
“The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.” Ayn Rand.
I will make and sell cookies. And you will buy them. A video did the rounds on social media of a young woman with Down’s Syndrome as the new poster girl for this type of small business heroism. She loved cookies so much she started baking them and now sells them out of. . . her love of cookie-making is valid for sure, but this shared, liked and talked about because she is making money, and by inference joining the (outer) ranks of the onward march of the young entrepreneur. They use her, her disability, to validate themselves, living proof of the goodness of what they are doing.
I, on the other hand, have sold my screenplay for 150 grand and a writer’s credit. This amount validates me. I’m cheap, relatively, like the guy who goes back into the busy restaurant where he has just eaten to validate his valet parking. Some super-hot director will shoot my film, which in fact will no longer be my film, although I will rise, fall or hold steady, according to his fortune not mine. My fortunes pegged to those of a known unknown, so to speak.
“The man who lets a leader prescribe his course is a wreck being towed to the scrap heap.” Ayn Rand.
We are not directionless wrecks.
I will redeem all of us Ayn, I will not let us be towed to the scrap heap, even if I have already taken the money with no desire or ability to return it.
I will find a way to redeem us.
I am at 35,000 feet. Nothing can touch me.
Six hours to go, my wife asleep, the little one snuggled in her lap, my eldest zoned out to the Hunger Games, three screens glow back at us all and I glimpse Jennifer Lawrence drawing her bow taut, poised exquisitely at the point of release.
Writer, producer and director of commercials, content and film, and a creative director of digital content across all platforms. Also a debut novelist in 2019.