Bad Freethrow Shooter, No Follow-Through

4 Aug

I wanted to become a filmmaker after I saw Taxi Driver in 1984. The film was already 8 years old, but in 1984 I was 15 and I was ready to understand Travis Bickle. Up until then I’d read Hemingway and Kafka and Antoine de Saint Exupery; I was very much influenced by Roger Waters and Pink Floyd, and I desperately pushed to be a writer. But when I saw how Scorsese and Shrader had re-written and re-invented the cinematic “hero” (or, rather, anti-hero) I was hooked. I was quite sure I could write my own stuff, so why not follow through and film it. Taxi Driver led me back to Marty’s Mean Streets and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Coppolla’s Conversation (my all time most under-rated film in history) and, of course, the two Godfathers. Then came Apocalypse Now and Cimino’s Deer Hunter and David Lynch’s Eraserhead which blew me out all the way to Pluto. Lynch came back at me with The Elephant Man and Blue Velvet; I wasn’t excited about Wild at Heart, but that’s probably because I despise Nicholas Cage in everything I’ve ever seen him (except Adaptation). Something about a mediocre actor trying to channel Elvis which turns my stomach and makes me reach for the gin.

In 1987, after having worked for three years cleaning out warehouses in Cleveland, then as a projectionist for AMC Movie Theatres in Washington D.C., I gathered enough money to buy a Bolex wind-up camera ($535.00) This was the kind of gear that Flaherty had used at the North Pole to film Nanook in 1922. It was brilliant. You would wind up the motor and have 25 seconds’ worth of a shot. Nothing could be longer than that. But I wanted nothing longer than that, anyway.

I went to Film School at the University of Maryland from 1987-1991 and my thesis was a 12-minute documentary film called “The District” which basically outlined the horrible social ills and the crack epidemic through which Washington D.C. was going at the time. Just to give you a general idea, it involved a character being desensitized by television news to all the crime and social upheaval and ruthless murders that were going on in D.C. in the name of the Rock. The “actor” was my friend Pete who was this thin, gaunt, peculiarity of a young man, and who had shaved his head for the part. The footage of Pete watching the mayhem on the news was intercut with real footage I had shot handheld out of my car on the streets of D.C. I had some doozies: bodybags coming out of rowhouses, police kicking and beating suspects, hookers being rounded up into squad cars, dealers running from cops…all the good stuff that went with living in Washington D.C. in the 80s and early 90s.

I had a hard time shooting with my Bolex leaning out of the passenger side of my car (driven by Pete) because most of the street people thought I was brandishing an Uzi machine gun, so they’d all duck for cover. But I got my shots. For those interested, or those who can remember this…I shot on 16mm black-and-white reversal film. Reversal film was cheaper because you could not yield a print from it. You didn’t have a negative. The lab just developed it, and you went to cut it in the editing room knowing you’ll never have a second chance if you fucked it up. Livin’ on a prayer, yo. Mhm.

So my baby was edited down to a 12-minute version, onto which I dubbed Public Enemy’s “Welcome to the Terrordome” track. I was quite surprised at the splash it made in my class, which was fraught with black turtle neck, Doc Martens-wearing, and goatee-sporting poseurs who were more interested in stroking their own creative cocks than actually making films. At the end of the screening it was dubbed the “Taxi Driver” of the 90s. It took me by surprise, how well-received this little piece of celluloid was, and it gave me confidence that I could travel to Tinseltown and get going in the business. Eventually, my film was given a slightly-above-average grade by a film professor who was a D.C. native and who was looking for solutions within my statement. I defended my position by pointing out that our own fucking Mayor was a crackhead, and the entire U.S. Government had no answers, so what would make the tenured academic insect think that some anonymous immigrant/naturalized citizen would come up with viable solutions. I was more interested in expressing my rage by documenting how poorly the nation’s capital had been run by city and government administrators and how out of control the crack epidemic had gotten (see present-day Philadelphia. Bwana, or Bwana Jr. wanna get in on this one?). But the Taxi Driver parallel sort of brought it all full-circle for me.

From some of my fiction on this site, you pretty much know how my trip to Hollywood turned out. The reality of it was that I understood right away the percentages, and the fact that I was going to be a motherfucking gopher (“go for a cup of coffee…go for my water bottle”) for the rest of my life. I was a smart cookie, even at age 21. I got how things worked. My quick foray into porno movies for the sake of making a living, left me with literal holes in my stomach (ulcers) and after one gig on the production crew, I left to become a short-order cook at a Bennigan’s in El Toro. After a few months I decided I could get this kind of job back on the East Coast, so I came home and, like a fool, got into Television. Most of you know the rest. It’s not worth re-hashing here.

I always get prodded for explaining why I “didn’t stick with it” or “pay my dues.” I think people are conditioned to read from scripts. When you have a sharp shit-detector, it doesn’t take long to ascertain your future. I had to cut my losses before it became too late. Before the only thing left for me, at age 38, was to dream of becoming a server at Musso & Frank’s on Hollywood Boulevard.

I’ve never wanted to go back to making films. Although the technology is available now to go fully independent, I no longer want to work with intangibles like actors. I have very little respect for actors and what they’ve done to the art itself; it’s mostly performed badly by a majority of people who, in their daily lives, are insecure motherfuckers willing to lie to others, and cheat in the name of The Craft. To see if they’re believable, they run shitty lines on people in their lives. That, to me, is pure manipulation and counterproductive to the art of acting. It doesn’t teach one to be a better actor; just a lousy liar. I wouldn’t want to work with these bozos. No thanks. Nowadays I stick to writing–an admitted solitary preoccupation–but nevertheless a rewarding discipline, despite (or in spite, Ms. She) a lack of audience.

I coulda been a contender? Maybe. But I’m no longer interested in shouldas/couldas. Actually, I never was. Living life as a shoulda/coulda is analogous for me to being imbedded in that 8th circle with Satan and Pope Pius whateverthefucknumber he was.

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4 Responses to “Bad Freethrow Shooter, No Follow-Through”

  1. slyboots2 04/08/2007 at 6:05 PM #

    Ah. Now see, that does explain a lot- and I contend (having lived in a film school town for a while) that the only ones who really do make it have all the right connections- whether via blood, water, or whatever (I can explain the water one- a friend made it because he was the fishing guide to a certain director whilst in high school)- it takes that. And the rest of us poor sods get to look into the shiny store with our noses pressed all greasy against the glass.

    Bitterness- absolutely. Your saga reminds me of my own PhD story- long, bitter, fraught, and thankfully over. And no turning back. Which is really fine.

    So, the writing thing- keep it up. That’s all. Just, please, please keep it up. Because more than anything, I want to see your books on the store shelves. And on my shelves. Next to the Proust.

  2. (A)L(e)x 04/08/2007 at 6:17 PM #

    if the time ever comes, sly,
    i’ll be on the lookout
    for that woman holding a cat,
    waiting in a very very short line
    to get her copy of the book
    signed.
    (VERY short line).

  3. OMYWORD! 11/08/2007 at 8:39 AM #

    I’ve eaten at that Bennigan’s.

    I’m joining your audience.

  4. Lx 11/08/2007 at 9:41 AM #

    thanks oh.

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