Roman Polanski is a rapist; or, why Chinatown doesn’t matter

Roman Polanski is a child rapist. And Michael Vick killed dogs for pleasure. These are the facts, and they are undisputed.

Shame – SHAME – on anyone who defends those actions.

This doesn’t mean Polanski hasn’t gone through incredible, unspeakable horror and trauma in his life. Born in Paris in 1933, he and his ethnically Jewish but religiously agnostic parents moved to Krakow in 1939, only to be quarantined to ghettos by the ensuing Nazi invasion. Although Roman was able to escape the ghetto in 1943, his parents were not so lucky. His father was sent to the Mauthausen death camp and fought to survive through it, reuniting with Roman shortly after the war. His mother was sent to Auschwitz and was murdered.  The swelling ideology that overtook a nation and turned otherwise moral but weak minds into monsters has yet to leave our world; Mrs. Polanski’s murderers are reborn every day, and her son will never escape that.

As if this karmic punishment weren’t enough, Polanski also had to suffer through the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, and unborn son. Polanski met Tate while filming The Fearless Vampire Killers back in 1967, and while neither apparently thought much of the other when they first began working together, by the completion of the film they were romantically living together in London. According to many, the relationship was a passionate one that gave Polanski some of the joy he most certainly lost during the holocaust. Of course, all that would change when, in 1969, while Polanski was abroad prepping a film, members of the Charles Manson cult entered the unlocked house Tate and Polanski shared in Bel Aire and ritualistically murdered Tate, her three friends, an unwitting visitor, and the unborn son that had rested 8 months in Tate’s womb. According to police reports and Tate’s murderer, Susan Atkins, not only was Tate stabbed 16 times while pleading for mercy, no less than 5 of those stab wounds alone were fatal. Polanski’s loss was magnified when a predatory press began to speculate, prior to the arrest of the Manson cult members, that Polanski’s hit film Rosemary’s Baby clearly pointed to strange satanist rituals and orgies the couple would host behind closed doors. Of course, the press was sure these self-inflicted practices were to blame for Tate’s death. Of course, these allegations were completely unfounded and debased by the arrests.

No one, not even a least-favored enemy, should have to be dragged through one of these horrific episodes, much less both. It’s too much to fathom. This kind of history can’t help but leave wounds too deep to remove, too wide to sew shut. Too rooted in the image of the feminine to be forgotten.

And yet, Roman Polanski is a child rapist. And Michael Vick killed dogs for pleasure.

According to court transcripts, on March 10, 1977, Roman Polanski picked up 13-year-old Samantha Gailey (now Geimer) for a picture shoot commissioned by French Vogue Magazine and centered around teenage female models. This was not the first time Polanski had photographed Gailey; little over two weeks prior, they had one previous session together on a hill by Gailey’s house, during which Polanski persuaded Gailey to remove her shirt for topless photos. According to later statements, most immediately seen in the 2008 documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, Geimer recalled how she was thrilled to work with the great Roman Polanski, by this time the world famous director of the modern classic Chinatown. However, let us put aside reflections upon the incident and return to the court-recorded account of the incident. Polanski first picked up Gailey from her house in the late afternoon, took her to an unidentified house for one round of photographs, but with about 5 people residing on that property decided to retreat to Jack Nicholson’s home just down the street on Mulholland. There, Polanski and Gailey encountered one dark-haired woman (unnamed but suspected to be Anjelica Houston, Nicholson’s girlfriend at the time). Polanski spoke to the dark-haired woman, then retrieved a bottle of champagne from the refrigerator, asking the 13-year-old Gailey whether he should open it or not. She said she didn’t care. He opened the bottle, poured three glasses. The dark-haired woman drank half her glass, then left for work. Polanski began to photograph Gailey with the champagne glass in hand, periodically refilling it to the point where Gailey could not remember how much she finally had. At this point, Polanski had again convinced her into topless photos.

Polanski then asked Gailey to continue posing in the outdoor jacuzzi. Before they stepped outside, Gailey placed a call to her mother, during which Polanski assumed the phone and assured the mother that she did not need to come pick up her daughter, that Polanksi would provide her with a ride home. Gailey then retreated to the bathroom, where Polanski joined her, presenting a pill split in three parts. Similar to the interaction involving the champagne, Polanski asked her if it was a Quaalude. She said yes. She had seen a couple before, and had experimented with one roughly about 2 or 3 years prior. He asked if he’d be able to drive if he took one. She didn’t know. He asked if he should take it. She didn’t know. He decided to take one. He asked if she wanted one. She said okay. She later said to authorities that she wouldn’t have taken one if she weren’t as drunk on champagne as she was.

Gailey, lacking a bathing suit and not wanting to get her dress wet, decided to go into the jacuzzi in her underwear. Not having a bra with her, this meant panties only. Polanski persuaded her to take the panties off as well. Gailey complied, later testifying to her fear of him. Polanski snapped a series of pictures, then retreated to the house, then returned without clothes, then joined her in the jacuzzi. Gailey became uncomfortable, and expressed her desire to leave the jacuzzi. Polanski beckoned her to join him at his end. She resisted, even saying her asthma was acting up when, in truth, she was not and had never before suffered from asthma. She simply wanted an excuse to get out. His persistence brought her over, but feeling uncomfortable as he ran his hands along the sides of her waist, she finally pulled herself out of the water and into a towel. Polanski retreated to the pool, beckoned her in, and to satisfy his request, she dove in and swam one length of the pool – again, both are completely naked – before getting out and back into the towel.

Gailey returned to bathroom to dry off and put her panties back on. Polanski joined her, concerned about her asthma. She asked to be driven home immediately. He said he would take her shortly. First, he wanted her to join him in the bedroom. With no other way home, she obliged him, sitting on a couch in the bedroom. Polanski joined her there. He asked if she was okay. She said she wanted to go home. He said she would feel better. He then started kissing her. She said no, but being afraid and intoxicated, she was not violent about it. He assured her he would take her home soon, then he removed the towel around her torso, then her panties, and began giving her oral sex. She again said no, but he did not stop. He then put his penis in her vagina and began having intercourse with her, during which he asked first if she was on the pill – no – and when she had her last period – two or three weeks prior. He said that he wouldn’t ejaculate inside her, then asked if she would prefer him to go through her anus. She said no. Despite her answer, he lifted her legs and put his penis in her anus. In speaking to authorities, she did not resist much because she was still afraid of him.

At this time, the dark-haired woman knocked on the door and asked if Polanski was in there. Polanski retreated to the door, cracked it an inch while he spoke with the woman, allowing Gailey to put her panties back on and walk toward the door. Polanski walked her back to the bed and, pulling her panties down, resumed anal intercourse with her up through his climax. Semen was left on her backside and in her panties. She pulled the panties back on, entered the bathroom, re-dressed herself, combed her hair, walked down the hall, said hello to the dark-haired woman lounging in the living room, left the house, and entered the car, waiting for Polanski to join her and drive her home.

These are the facts, and they are undisputed.

So Roman Polanski is a child rapist. And Michael Vick murdered dogs for pleasure.

Roman Polanski went through hell and back twice in his lifetime to be one of the finest directors the film industry has ever known. Rosemary’s Baby, Repulsion, Chinatown, these films are some of my favorites, and will continue to be considered as such. Chinatown will never come down from my shelf except to either load into my DVD player or loan out to those unexposed to its brilliance. But his talents do not nor should not cloud the fact that he used the privileges of his race, gender, age and artistic status to unduly manipulate a mentally-developing minor into a sexual act in which she did not want to engage. This makes him a rapist, pure and simple. This is not a question of morals, or even of a liberated European colliding against American Puritanism (and even if it was, the two cultures are incomparable: a 13-year-old French girl will have a vastly different emotional maturity than a 13-year-old American, and our respective laws must reflect that). Perhaps that argument might have held water if the act was consensual. But it was not. It was rape by any definition of the word.

For this act, Polanski first pleaded innocent to all six charges:

1) furnishing drugs to a minor;
2) lewd or lascivious acts to a child under 14 years of age;
3) unlawful sexual intercourse;
4) rape by use of drugs;
5) perversion;
6) sodomy.

The plea held until the undeniably incriminating evidence of the panties surfaced. This not only makes him a rapist but a liar as well. So at this point, he accepted a plea deal as set forth by Gailey’s attorney and agreed upon by the prosecution that saw Polanski cop to the weakest of the 6: unlawful sexual intercourse. (That sodomy was ranked a more punishable crime than statutory rape is somewhat disturbing, but at least it is no longer a crime at all.) Unfortunately, from here on out, the presiding judge, the now infamous Laurence J. Rittenband, completely boggled the case with his strange, disturbing, and illegal theatrics meant to sway the swarm of publicity into his personal favor. However, all that said, Rittenband still only wanted Polanski to serve 90 days in Chino State Prison for his mandatory psych evaluation. If Rittenband was to be trusted, and this is debatable, he would not have sentenced Polanski to any more jail time. However, because Chino let him out after a mere 42 days of evaluation (according to the prosecuting attorney in the case, although nobody serves the full 90 days, nobody only serves 42), Rittenband did not want to look the fool in the eyes of the press-filtered public, and told both sets of attorneys that he would sentence Polanski to a lengthier jail sentence but repeal the sentence after the first 48 days were served, thereby bringing the total days of incarceration up to 90. Upon hearing the judge’s intention, Polanski did not want to risk a multi-year sentence subject to Rittenband’s fluctuating moods, so he drove to LAX, booked a one-way ticket to London, and never came back. Now we add “flight from justice” to the charges against him.

He loses his mother to a holocaust institutionalized by murderous lunatics. He becomes a successful and respected film director. He loses his wife and unborn child to a cult of murderous lunatics. He continues to gain great acclaim in his artistic career. He rapes a 13-year-old girl. He flees to Europe for 31 years. And now he is caught again in Switzerland, hoping to attend the Zurich Film Festival to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award. Instead, he sits in a jail cell, awaiting extradition to the United States for further legal action.

And the film community writes a petition for his release with no less than 110 names attached to them. Names like Martin Scorsese. Tilda Swinton. Darren Aronofsky. Debra Winger. Alexander Payne. Film artists I have both enjoyed and, more important and rare, respected.

Roman Polanski is an artist. A survivor of intense trauma. And he is a rapist. He raped a 13-year-old girl.

Never have I been more sickened to be a member of the film community.

Martin Scorsese I sadly understand, because his love of film and the film community surely must have blinded him from the facts of the case. But Tilda Swinton? Debra Winger? These women are supposed to be feminists. They are supposed to stand up for the rights of women all over the world. And here they are, defending a rapist. More than that, an admitted rapist. Why? Because the case is 30 years old. Because the victim, Samantha Geimer, has called for the charges to be dropped. Because film festivals must be international safe havens for artists.

All of these excuses are bullshit. Why?

Because Polanski did not stand to receive his punishment for the crimes he committed 30 years ago and must do so now. Knowing full well what the sentence could be when he made his plea bargain, his fleeing was not one of evading persecution but of cowardice.

Because if we listened to the forgiving pleas of every victim, then nearly every abusive husband would walk free.

Because film festivals must be safe havens for the work of filmmakers, not necessarily the filmmakers themselves. And last time I checked, Polanski wasn’t exactly a censured individual. I can still check out virtually any film of his readily available on DVD. It is also worth mentioning that he certainly hasn’t had a lack of work in the past 30 years, especially considering his 2002 Oscar for directing The Pianist.

Because Michael Vick killed dogs for his pleasure. And no one came to defend him based on his athletic achievements or checkered past when his court date arrived.

And yet, Michael Vick is still allowed to play football in the NFL, currently on the roster for the Philadelphia Eagles. Personally, I found this surprising. Not because I don’t think the man deserves to play. Simply because I didn’t think there would be a team who would want him or a fan base who would support him. I was wrong on both counts. And maybe I should have been. After all, he is a good player. But do we separate the man from his achievements? Where do we draw that line?

There are many differences between Michael Vick and Roman Polanski, but the most striking one to me is not the contrast in their race or class or profession. The main difference to me is that Michael Vick served his time. He stood for sentencing and went to prison for an act we as a culture deem reprehensible and destructive. And I must have a relative respect for that.

Where are the film artists who will hold Polanski responsible for his actions? Admitting his guilt does not hand-in-hand lead to indicting his body of  work, particularly because he does not play out these pedophiliac fantasies in his films. But to defend him with regards to his art is to say that the benefit he brings to society outweighs the destruction he has wrought as a rapist. If one were to look myopically at the individual achievements, that person might foolishly argue such a point. But to do so would overlook the role of rape in this – or any – culture. To do so would be to support the dominant male hegemony dependent on using rape as a power-check for women. If this were a murder case, there would be no question of Polansi’s guilt; we all understand the destructive nature of murder. But because so often girls are “asking” for it – after all, you see the way they dress. If they didn’t want it, they wouldn’t be so provocative, right? Besides, they probably like it when it happens anyway, they just won’t admit it because they’re too frigid. And where was her mother in all this? Oh yeah, and it involved sex, drugs, and cameras, and that’s just what happens sometimes.

So people are asking to overlook it. They are asking to overlook the inherent misogyny of the case, the way it tells women that not only are they partly to blame but that it’s basically okay to get raped by an artist as long as he’s a good artist. (For certainly, if this were someone less artistically respected, say, Michael Bay, would there be the same cultural outcry for his release?) Forget the fact that each of these “arguments” completely leaves out the fact that a crime was committed by a perpetrator. The girl didn’t ask for it, the mom wasn’t the person who broke the law, and artists do not live in another moral universe. There is a mythology to the struggling artist that includes emotional turmoil/torture that can only lead to alcoholic binges, misogynist tendencies, and bursts of sheer creative brilliance. Many look to this as an excuse for the artist in ways they do not with other types of people, particularly athletes. Particularly athletes of color.

In the aforementioned documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, a friend of Polanski’s asserted that Polanski was the perfect bogeyman for the press: he was short, he was dark haired, he had a thick accent. He was a perfect embodiment of the “other”. And if he wasn’t those things, then the trial would have gone much differently.

He’s not incorrect about that. If Polanski wasn’t small and foreign but poor and black, he’d be in jail to this day and we would never have heard about it, much less enjoyed a revered documentary about him. But something tells me that’s not what the friend was getting at.

Polanski was able to get away because he had money to immediately buy a transatlantic plane ticket. Because he had professional connections that would allow him continued work and income. Because he had status as an artist and knew he would be forgiven by the artistic community, and maybe even the culture at large. Hell, even his victim has forgiven him, and I am impressed with her courage to do so.

But personally, for me, I have not forgiven him, for he has not served his time. He has used his wealth and status as a shield from justice, just as many have before him, and many will continue to do.

And Michael Vick killed dogs for his pleasure. And served his time. And now plays football for the Philadelphia Eagles. And we can now decide whether we care to patron him and his team.

As for me, well, I don’t really like football in general, so I probably won’t be watching. But some people will, and bully for them. In the meantime, I may kick back and watch Chinatown for the 20th time.

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art in america

The following is the transcript of an undergraduate key note commencement address given by as yet unknown British linguistics professor Winston Conner Diggory Bowles IV. The university in question and year of graduation is irrelevant, as, quite frankly, is Mr. Bowles himself. Indeed, he should be considered more as a particular accent, and less as a real and temporal character… or even caricature.

Ahem. Good afternoon graduates, educators, parental units, friendly associates. I stand here before you, humbled by your achievements, excited by your imminent endeavors, and most importantly, jealous of the naivete your forthcoming sheepskin will provide you in this world where you foolishly believe knowledge and intelligence are prized above all else.

Surely this hideous but nonetheless realistic assessment of your futures spoken by such an authority as myself will rile more than a few of the attending mothers and fathers who, either out of social obligation, classist priorities, or that rare genuine love of knowledge, have financed these last four, five, or even in some unfortunate cases six-plus years of matriculation. But I fear that this world of ours has lent itself more towards, well, not the lower end of the spectrum, as some alarmist social critics would like you to believe. No, my dear children, it seems that this world, and in particular your grand country of America, has taken the decidedly middle brow approach to all aspects we can consider cultural.

I am speaking before a liberal arts college, so please allow me the example of the institution of art, and in particular the notion of high art. When one speaks of High Art, one is typically met with the crooked nostril of indignation from his fellow American. Of course, there is a disdain of all things that reek or even sniff of class strata, normally fueled by a healthy dose of both envy and resentment. You here in America would love to think that your society is a classless one, but the truth of the matter is that the American dream, once considered a simple symbol of meritocratic social order, has mutated into a financial one, one that provides the hope of one day being so comfortably and uniquely wealthy that a person may elevate himself to a degree where he might adequately cushion himself from the aforementioned sneer of the lower peers.

However, the classist disdain afforded to the two simple words “High Art” is infused with no such envy, no such resentment; after all, it is quite rare that one actively aspires to be a “high artist”. No. Rather, it is simply a snub, as if the snubber knew better than to appreciate the arrogant folly that is High Art, done so while standing in front of a framed poster reprint of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” purchased at their local Aaron Brothers. Perhaps we could ascribe this sentiment to the cultural residue of dadaism or, its afterbirth, post-modernism, with their confluence and confusion of the high and low arts – for, indeed, when a urinal can be displayed in the galleries of the Tate Modern, what are we then to say about the Mona Lisa?

But I cannot believe this lack of respect for the high arts rests solely at the feet of the postmodern aesthetic, for while America may be the quintessential postmodern country, with Las Vegas being its crowning capital – a city that is perhaps challenged only by Tokyo – we must remember that Dadaism started in the back-room bars of Zurich and grew to flourish in the jazz clubs of Paris, two cities which indeed continue to have the highest regard – and the largest collections – of high art perhaps anywhere in the world. No, this disdain is uniquely American, and it is inextricable with the country’s notion of the artist himself.

As previously stated, the underlying goal of any American who strives to pick him or herself up by the bootstraps is ultimately to accumulate enough wealth in order to… what? Achieve the respect, or more likely envy, of his or her peers? Reach a place where the the respect or envy of peerage is irrelevant? Perhaps. But what is guarded as most sacred in this country, the currency that is both revered and reviled, is that of being one’s own master. As a country that not only works the most hours, days and weeks in the entire Western world, but also has seen its communities condense under the thumbs of monopolizing corporations such as SBC, Viacom and Citigroup, that dream of owning one’s own business, setting one’s own hours, delighting in one’s own work has not only become less promising but indeed has become rather stifling in its improbability.

So what does that American dreamer, always playing strictly by capitalism’s rules yet just as often butting up against institutional barriers and false economic promises, think of the bohemian artist, lounging in her studio loft, waking-sleeping-fornicating as her desires dictate, and giving free, unmitigated expression to her own dreams?

“Get a real job, hippy.”

You see, it is not that the artist is necessarily of a higher economic class than the average American; indeed, I need not stand here, authority that I am, and remind you of the competitive difficulty and financial paucity the art market readily supplies. Rather, the artist is of a perceived leisure class, exploiting the ends meant only to be afforded by the exclusive means of money. That she finds the temporal space to externalize her inner desires without the accumulation of wealth or the centuries-old superstructure most commonly known as the corporate ladder is a slap in the face to the modern American dream. The act of creation, considered a leisure activity, is only legitimized when it is monetized; and, of course, the higher the price tag, the more legitimate the artist. Never mind that some of the greatest Renaissance artists lived in squalor, and not all by tragic circumstances. Consider Gaudi, whose self-imposed vow of poverty provided him the mind frame to create Barcelona’s most breathtaking and innovative architecture, both in facade and structure. Consider also Bernini, whose impossibly corporeal marble statues were handsomely patronized by the Medici family, whose parlor dealings within both the Florentine government and the Vatican kept power centralized for over two centuries.

I do not mean to glamorize the state of poverty, for anyone who has experienced it will tell you that there is no honor in it. However, I do mean to say that we thus find ourselves in a country, however temporary my own case may be, where only those who might afford a higher education (and know how to use it) appreciate the high arts, while those who either squander their opportunities of university teachings or avoid them altogether are left to sneer down their noses at some of mankind’s finest creations. It is these people, these fallen members of the intelligentsia, who turn to find value in and elevate some of the lower arts to the aforementioned middlebrow. It becomes little wonder then why the most populist of all art forms, the cinema,  oscillates to the lower-middle common denominator, not quite the horrifying dirt lowest, when attempting to reach the greatest number of people.

The irony of course is that high art has always been created in an attempt to lift humanity’s spirit, to show the human how he or she might find beauty in both the mundane and the extraordinary of existence on this earth and beyond. It has been used to illustrate and display the inner life, to create a psychic community wherein we all recognize our universal humanity. All this while the low art simply entertains, providing absolutely necessary but nonetheless simple diversions from self-examination or exultation.

But all is not lost, my dears. For, as I began, those of you who have attained the skills to appreciate knowledge, intelligence, high art, and the high artist, as you leave these ivory gates you carry with you the flaming sword of naivete in your grip. Use it swiftly and strongly in the creation and patronage of a high culture. Provide the rest of us with something to grasp toward. You can still bring it to the masses and show that it means no harm, carries no arrogance, that in fact it is here to help, even elevate. But I implore you, do so quickly, before the demands of maturity and financial responsibility dour the flame. I leave it up to you. And please, do not dismiss me solely due to my cultured mode of speaking. For though I myself might reek of classist trappings, must that dilute the truth of my message?

Once again, my congratulations to the graduates, and may the light of knowledge shine brightly on you and from you to us all. I thank you.

Published in: on June 28, 2009 at 9:59 pm  Leave a Comment  
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to all the Star Wars playa-hata haters out there

There’s been a popular critique of anyone who has been dissatisfied with the state of the Star Wars universe since May 19, 1999*. To paraphrase, the critique typically goes something like this: “Well, there were a bunch of 5-year-olds in front of me, and they LOVED it, so dude, just remember, the movie’s for kids. Like, lighten up and shit.” There’s a commentary by Jeff Jensen in Entertainment Weekly this week that more or less says the same thing in regards to the latest desecration of the Star Wars universe, aka Star Wars: The Clone Wars. To Mr. Jensen and everyone else who might make such an argument, I have the following rebuttal:

FUCK YOU.

You know what I loved as a kid? You know what movie I stood in line for an hour with my mother and siblings for? The fucking LAND BEFORE TIME. And you know what? That movie has stayed with me ZERO. Zilch. Nada. All I remember from that piece of shit is that the mealy-mouthed dinosaurs are running from some crazy looking tyrannosaurus. And that’s it. Oh, I think the T-rexs name was Sharptooth. Or maybe Sharktooth. My eight-year-old mind couldn’t comprehend the difference between the two. Fuck, my twenty-eight-year-old mind can’t comprehend the difference, either. But you know what? I fucking ate up every moment of that movie, hook, line and sinker.

My point is not to rag on the original version of Ice Age. Rather, it is to point out that kids are stupid. I don’t mean this as a slight to kids. Kids are supposed to be stupid. They don’t know better. They are easily distracted by spectacle and loud music (which, incidentally, considering the state of the average Hollywood blockbuster today, should be indication enough that our current audience of adults is getting dumber – or, more optimistically, is being treated dumber – opening weekend by opening weekend). Kids gravitate more towards cartoons because it more closely resembles or relates to their developing worldview; they’re still trying to figure out physics and consequences, which are often murky at best in most hand-drawn animation (computer animation by design works with a perfect set of locomotion physics).

But as fantastic as Star Wars was, it was never cartoony, nor was it stupid – and I’m talking the original trilogy here, episodes 4-6. I enjoyed them as a kid, and I still enjoy them as an adult. They speak to both sides of that very wide and fuzzy line of maturity. The reason is simple: they’re good stories, told in abstract, far away lands, with fantastic characters and mythic plot lines. Anyone can follow them in any culture and at any age, because they are fundamental and universal.

So to make excuses for the Star Wars universe’s current stupidity by saying, “well, it’s designed for the youngin’s” is to insult the intelligence not of children in general but rather the inner child of every adult. It is insulting to say that, “yes, the part of you that wants to experience fabulous settings with epic stories is a pathetic, fucking moron who desperately wants to laugh at Jar-Jar’s fart joke.”

Pixar studios doesn’t seem to have a problem in creating films that speak to a wide demographic but are first and foremost squarely aimed at the children/family market. Finding Nemo, Toy Story, Monsters Inc. all play to the child in all of us without insulting anyone’s intelligence. Why doesn’t Georgey-boy take a cue from those guys and make movies in a similar vein? Oh yeah, because he once owned and subsequently sold Pixar to Steve Jobs. Way to stay in tune with the demands of the art market instead of relying on brand loyalty and merchandising.

So if you’re walking down the street, and you hear me bitch once again about Ahsaka, the ridiculous girl padawan that Annakin is paired up with in the dreadful new cartoon, be very, very careful telling me, “dude, it’s for kids.” I may just kick you in the balls and tell the yard duty you fell off the slide.

*For those who aren’t obsessively geeky like myself, that is the release date of Episode 1: The Phantom Menace – and for the record, no, I did not have to look it up on IMDB, and no, I didn’t even check. That’s how much of a dork I am.

Published in: on September 19, 2008 at 7:00 am  Comments (1)  
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Star Wars: The Clone Wars

Why?

the mythical “I”

If you’ve been driving around Los Angeles recently, or probably anywhere for that matter, you have no doubt seen the huge billboards that read, CAMERON VS ASHTON. And they have a little sliver that reveals the eyes of both movie stars Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher. It’s an ad campaign for WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS, a surely shitty Hollywood rom-com (that’s insider speak for romantic comedy – get in the know!), but I found the billboard to be somewhat interesting. Not interesting in the SARAH MARSHALL kind of way, which was actually more obnoxious to me than anything – not only does it sort of indulge and validate by its mere existence (with its spray-paint, home-made design) that immature desire to tear down the person who broke up with you, but there’s supposed to be a comma between “My mom always hated you” and “Sarah Marshall” to separate the name as a direct address. I’m not fucking around here. Without that comma, the sentence doesn’t make grammatical sense. Seriously, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read screenplays where the dialogue runs together like a herd of rampaging elephants slamming into a brick wall. “Take this woman” has a whole different meaning than, “Take this, woman.” Come on, people! Take some pride in your writing!

Alright, I rantingly digress*. Back to Cameron and Ashton. What strikes me as interesting about the ad campaign is not just the focus on the stars superseding that of their characters – that shit’s been around for centuries (in fact, the only current realm of advertising that focuses exclusively on characters is that for animated films). Rather, it’s the idea of these two stars, or rather star personas, going against each other as if we won’t be watching a contrived plot with fabricated characters enacting premeditated behavior. No, we’re watching Cameron Diaz spar with Ashton Kutcher. Live. In the flesh.

It’s an interesting statement on the audience’s at least partial desire to feel like the work of fiction is, temporarily, a potential fact; that this faulty, (purportedly) humorous but ultimately passionate relationship that Ashton Kutcher and Cameron Diaz will be getting themselves into on screen may have actually happened to the actors themselves, and that the film crew was just lucky enough to catch it. I’m not talking about cinema verite/documentary style – that’s a totally different animal more reserved for “heavier” fare, where the filmmakers want the audience to believe that what they’re watching is actually happening. No, this is almost the opposite: it’s the audience hoping that the escapist fantasy they’re watching has actually come true for someone… and potentially might come true for them by extension.

It’s that sort of displaced, wishful thinking that makes the “I” in a novel work: the idea that perhaps “I” doesn’t just refer to the central character, but the author as well. That, perhaps, this story really did happen to the man/woman behind the pen. That, perhaps, these stories we tell ourselves really are a physical part of this world.

And, of course, they are. Stories are the way we make sense of our surroundings. They not only give us alternate points of view on both mundane and seminal moments in life, but they also allow us, through the help of an avatar, to experience and purge emotions that might otherwise be unhealthy to act upon. We not only want to believe that the character is actually the author, but by extension we want to believe the character is us. While we do need to know that the work is a contained fiction in order to leave our emotions in the theater (since we don’t sacrifice goats after plays anymore), we also want to believe that we are not the only flesh-and-blood person who has felt these things. For, in the end, isn’t all fiction just a form of emotional autobiography?

Dennis Potter tackles this concept in his television miniseries masterpiece “The Singing Detective”. It’s not only about an author who imagines himself as the lead character in his book, thereby having his real life coexist with his fantasy life, but it has a meta-side to it in that this author character suffers from the same rare disease that Potter himself suffered from: psoriatic arthropathy, a disease in which the body loses all control of temperature and the skin breaks out into rashes, burns, and flakes. In giving his character this identical disease, Potter essentially challenged his audience to consider, “perhaps this is an autobiography cloaked in a fiction. Perhaps this is truly who Dennis Potter is. And if so, perhaps I’m not alone in these feelings that I’m relating to on screen.”

It’s interesting – though not surprising – that, despite the example above, this type of connection in visual dramatic media happens more often with the stars themselves; despite what anybody says about the “auteur” theory, it’s more difficult for an audience to accurately and immediately identify the author of a film/television show/theater play than the author of a novel. It’s why the star system worked – and still works – so well, and why Julia Roberts can continually play slight variations on her star persona. (Because who here knows what she’s like at home?)

Anyway, all that said, there is no fucking way I’m seeing VEGAS. If at least part of me is going to believe that I’m watching real people go through real experiences, I at least want to like the people I’m watching. And who wants to identify with Cameron, Ashton, and that situation, anyway?

*rantingly” is not a real word. I made it up.

Published in: on April 25, 2008 at 11:51 pm  Comments (2)  

Behold the Power, or UweTube

It can unite. It can divide. It can make you laugh or cry. It can allow even the smallest of voices to be heard by the smallest of audiences. But most importantly, it gives all of us the outlet to be political activists in ways we may never have thought imaginable.

Witness the internet and its quintessential website YouTube in all its populist glory when Uwe Boll breaks his silence concerning the online petition against his films. Should you not be familiar with Mr. Boll and his body of work, consider exercising the democratization of information and look him up on Wikipedia.

Happy Monday.

Published in: on April 14, 2008 at 6:19 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Perfect Screenplay

This comes from my old Myspace blog, dated 4.7.2006

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Nobody ever talks about the perfect song, the perfect novel, the perfect poem. Because to do so would presuppose that there is an ideal of any of these art forms, and that would be preposterous with such a variety of voice and style inherent in all artistic mediums. Yet, with film there is this frustrating tendency to classify some films, and particularly screenplays, as perfect – the perfect structure, the perfect plot twist, the perfect character development. Forget that most of the criteria that determine these ideals of “perfect” ignore the virtues of some of the greatest films made outside the United States (Antonioni, Wong Kar-Wai, to name two). It doesn’t matter when you’re trying to create a product that will reach the largest audience and, by consequence, garner the largest profit.

Film became a business model in the eighties with the fade of old school film producers/executives who were brought up in the “industry” and the rise of business school CEO’s as studio bosses, corporate take-overs, media conglomerates, and my personal favorite, the test screenings. This is not to say that film wasn’t a business before that. The studios have always tried to predict the tastes of their audiences and then give them pleasing and unchallenging movies as a result. However, older film executives also understood that, without having numbers at their disposal, they had to go off their gut reaction to a story and produce from there. That’s what allowed us to have the film noir movement through the 40’s and 50’s, it’s what allowed us to have the Hollywood renaissance through the 60’s and 70’s. But since then, the bulk of the most interesting films made in America have come out of the independent movement (which in itself is now slowly being devoured by the studio system – we’ll see what happens).

Guys like Syd Field, Robert McKee and the like have responded to the idea that there is an ideal business model for the creation (not the production) of film stories, and consequently we get books like Screenplay and Story that try to mathematically break down how a story should be told. There are even people who try to provide a systematic method for creating stories, not just showing how those stories should be told. By creating essentially a mathematical formula for an artistic form, we now have an “ideal” to which we as writers should aspire. Bullshit. What a way to stifle artistic expression and creation.

While I agree with these mountebanks in that the way you tell a story is just as important as the story itself (see Inside Man as an example of this), we need to realize as both a business and an audience – yes, this includes those of us that still go to movies – that not all films need to be all things to all people, that it’s okay for some films to have small audiences just as it’s okay for some films to have huge audiences. More than that, if you’re just showing people what they want to see, how are you holding up your side of the artistic bargain, or even the commercial bargain for that matter? Aren’t you as either an artist or a salesman supposed to show people something different, something they didn’t realize they needed, and let them decide whether to like it or not? There’s something that happens at this moment – dare I say mind expanding? – that you never get if your values are just re-enforced by telling the studio you want more action movies with Bruce Willis (which is not to say I don’t enjoy those films…).

Just as in music, books, poetry, painting, sculpture, performance art, theater, and any other artistic form that falls between or outside, we as artists, audience, and business people need to break from the idea of an ideal film that almost everything will fall short of. In doing so, we might start enjoying things that are just a little (or even a lot) imperfect.

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(note: the following was a response from friend Jeff Crocker. I liked it at the time, and still do – I mean, when else are you gonna get a Napoleon Dynamite and Total Recall reference in the same paragraph – so I thought I’d include it. Enjoy.)

I think where your argument shifts it’s tracks is when you start talking about Syd “Big Joe Campbell” Field and Robert “Billy Joel” McKee. Don’t get me wrong, Mr. Meyer, the points you are making are accurate and unfortunate. But Field and McKee exist only in the world where we have accepted COMPLETELY that film is a business. There was a gap and they filled it. They subconsciously were convinced that only a certain screenplay sold consistently and then saturated the market with their own brand of, shall we call it- “screenplay scientology-” a self-help program for the weak and greedy, the quick-bucks and the Big Momma’s Houses.

Syd Field and Robert McKee are trying to make money themselves with their own soul-stealing business models. They realized a long time ago that selling a screenplay is one in a million, but there are thousands of Starbucks that need aspiring screenwriters to go into their coffee shops with their laptops and read “Hero with a Thousand Faces” while their modified MS Word idles on page 4 of their screenplay. It’s good conversation.

But again, you’re absolutely right that the exceedingly creative side of things has been in the independent sector, which will always result in a metaphorical and emotional strip-mining of these people, with Hot Topic shirts, Burger King Tie-ins, and MTV contests “To BE Napoleon Dynamite for a day!”

The only comfort I can take in this is that the pendulum will always swing back and someday in the near future, between Demolition Man and Total Recall, we will be begging people to care about movies to one-sixth the amount they do today.

Published in: on March 14, 2008 at 7:11 pm  Comments (1)