Sunday, December 19, 2010

How Errol Morris Influenced Reality TV. . .for the best and worst

Every week, I feel like I survive I Survived.

Although it’s one of the top shows on my DVR now that’s its third season has started, every time it pops up on my queue I hesitate. Do I really want an intense emotional hangover? Do I really want my blood to freeze like it does when I’m reading a Cormac McCarthy novel? Do I really want to contemplate evil and danger in all its forms and how it can converge on me in without warning or pity?

Although I Survived covers natural disasters, animal attacks and freak accidents, it’s the experience of human-on-human violence that predictably sears the memory: An 11 year old girl awakes on a chartered boat to find her entire family massacred by the vessel’s captain; a tween is rescued from sexual slavery, only to face the vicious verbal assaults of her classmates and members of her community; two friends are attacked by a stalker and the survivor endures his threatening phone calls and even his desecration of her friend’s gravesite; a pregnant woman is invited over to a neighbor’s house only to have the unbalanced woman try to kill her and cut out her baby; a Texas lawman endures several attempts on his life that he later discovers were all masterminded by his girlfriend. These and other such survival stories are told by the victims themselves, although it seems unfair to call them “victims." In one incredible tale, a middle-aged lady is attacked in her home by a knife-wielding maniac and proceeds to turn the tables on the intruder, killing him slowly with her bare hands. Wow.

Surviving death is an evergreen topic. Just look at the last four weeks: the remarkable footage of a shooting at a public school meeting; the startling-to-the-point-of-peeing-yourself tsunami sequence in Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter; James Franco’s Carlos Castaneda-meets-MTV hallucinations in that forlorn slot canyon in 127 Hours. But what makes I Survived so effective is not just its harrowing subject matter but because of how understated and spare the show is. Its visual hallmarks are perhaps the most beguiling feature and are endemic of the series creators’ rare respect for their subject matter and for the suffering of others. It might as well be a radio broadcast because any images would be paltry competition for the hideous and vivid stories told by the survivors, whose faces are displayed in a direct but not harsh lighting with a simple black background a la the “witnesses” in Warren Beatty’s Reds. The subjects do not look directly at us but ever-so-slightly off-camera. There is no narration (save for haiku-like subtitles) and no voice of the interviewer. Any questions are edited with quick fades and blackouts that add to the unnerving quality of these stories. Not that they need that much help.

I Survived is almost alone in the TV universe – surrounded by shows with shrill or patronizing voiceovers, intrusively dramatic music, and worse of all, the “dramatic re-enactment.” That last one has been tackled from all different angles and varying levels of success. Mostly they’ve become comical Mack Sennett reels where hired Central Casting extras (of which I was one once – read my experience here) gesticulate wildly and play up the dumb show like it was a Monty Python sketch. The effect immediately takes one out of the dramatic action like a cold splash of water and trivializes the real-life struggles it supposedly is trying to enhance. (What’s worse is when the actors’ voices are audible: “I am going to kill you now.”) But I Survived cagily goes the other way. When it cuts away from the interviews, there are no re-enactments but Edward Hopperesque friezes of neutral, empty settings – a lonely country road, a forest clearing, the corner of a dark kitchen, a looming apartment building – that relate in some way to the story being told. These shots are so effective and atmospheric – giving a sinister tinge to familiar places we all feel safe in – that they approach gothic horror territory, like Ambrose Bierce mixed with, well, Errol Morris.

"SURVIVORS": A Film by Errol Morris

Morris’ most recent film is Tabloid about the bizarre true tale of a Wyoming beauty queen turned “Mormon sex-in-chains kidnapper.” Ironically, it probably the most exploitative and salacious topic that the 62-year-old documentarian has released. In recent years, Morris has turned out somber films about American foreign policy (The Oscar-winning The Fog of War, the muddled but painstaking Abu Ghraib exhumation Standard Operating Procedure), but his most well-known film, The Thin Blue Line (1988), about the 1976 murder of a Dallas police officer, was released right around the time the Tabloid News golem -- in the form of shows like A Current Affair and later Hard Copy -- was climbing out of the ooze. The Kafkaesque Line was a strange anomaly that on the surface seemed to share DNA with those shows: it did have re-enactments and broke down the wall between documentarian and participant. What’s more, TBL mirrored the show America’s Most Wanted, which debuted the same year as Morris’ film, in that it led to the release of the falsely accused drifter Randall Dale Adams from Texas' Death Row. Arguably, no other documentary in history had such a direct impact on the real life of its subject. It stands alone on that ground.

When The Thin Blue Line was released, staging dramatic re-enactments in documentary features was considered verboten territory. Initially, I remember being put off a bit by Morris’ restagings until repeated viewings showed that he was using them in a subtle, off-center way: obscuring the faces of the re-enactors, repeating the same scenes from different participants’ perspectives (Morris’ persnickety examination of a dropped milkshake is a fascinating example) and the elimination of sound or dialogue save for the hypnotic minimalist pulses of composer Phillip Glass’ score. Film critic Danny Peary, writing about Morris’ weird and wonderful feature debut Gates of Heaven, noted that in his interviews, Morris positions his subjects “so precisely within the frame that they might as well be lamps.” All of this combines to make Morris’ films almost Zen tone poems, which may account for why they've been criticized as “slow” and even “boring.” (I can second that: I fell asleep – in a movie theatre, no less – in the middle of Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., and that’s my favorite film of his.) Vernon, Florida, about a small town of mutilated eccentrics in the Sunshine State’s panhandle, is only an hour long yet feels much longer. That’s not a bad thing: like the beaten up old truck spewing exhaust as it putters its way through the center of the town, the film dips you so deep in mood and atmosphere that its almost jarring to re-enter the world after its over. You have been taken to a different place and have emerged feeling changed as a result.

It's not always pleasant. But it works. And because his techniques have filtered so deeply into reality TV (I Survived is practically a smeared carbon copy of Morris' short -lived TV series First Person) and because they've been warped and dumbed-down by people without a modicum of his talent or restraint, we have Errol to both thank and admonish.


Thursday, December 9, 2010

When Your Doppelgänger Is Nominated for A Grammy

Musicwise, this week of Hannukah has been very good to us Angelenos: Bobby Bradford joining saxophonist Rich Halley in Eagle Rock and McCoy Tyner joining Michael White and Nels Cline at the Alice Coltrane Tribute -- both on Sunday night, no less; the epic alt-jazz documentary Icons Among Us screening at Ruth Price’s Moveable Feast on Tuesday and one of the film’s subjects The Bad Plus playing at the Mint tonight; Cryptogramophone Records founder Jeff Gauthier debuting his new ensemble The Wisdom of Goats Wednesday at the Royal/T Cafe two days before drummer Allison Miller’s powerhouse Boom Tic Boom (with Jenny Scheinman, Todd Sickafoose and the Bay Area’s brilliant keyboardist Myra Melford) plays the same venue. Whewie!

But the biggest surprise and possibly bigger triumph is the Grammy nomination of John Beasley’s Positootly! in the category of Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Individual or Group. (Kudos to Bev Hills jazz impresario George Klabin's label Resonance Records.) Beasley will obviously get a huge bump-up in profile (we surmise Herbie Hancock, for whom Beasley once recorded a tribute album, needs no more statues on his mantle) despite quietly building up his credentials on the L.A. jazz/fusion scene for over thirty years. Consequentially, his credits are too numerous for anything but a short list: Freddie Hubbard, Carly Simon, Steely Dan, Barbra Streisand, Christian McBride, James Brown, Dianne Reeves, Ry Cooder, Chick Corea, Queen Latifah. (I think the Spice Girls were in there somewhere as well.) As a leader, Beasley must have known that leaders don't scour without their sidemen, so he pulled in reedman Bennie Maupin, drummer Jeff “Train” Watts, bassist James Genus, trumpeter Brian Lynch and percussionist Munyungo Jackson for Positootly!

The Lousisiana-born Beasley hails from one of those families who seem to have music dripping out of every pore. His mother and father are both musicians and music teachers. His father, bassoonist and pianist Rule Beasley, taught at Santa Monica College back when it was still called 'Pico Tech' and is known for influencing future players like Nels Cline and Jesse Sharps. (As Cline once recalled, Rule's son was “the best musician in band.") What’s more, on more than three occasions I have been mistaken for Mr. Beasley – enough to to where I once dreamt I was sitting onstage at the Jazz Bakery trying to “pass” as The Beas, sweatily plinking out “Chopsticks” and waiting for the audience to find out they’d been ripped off. Personally, I think he’s much better looking than I.

John Beasley will be engaging in a double-gig relay race on Saturday, Dec. 11: First, he'll lead his trio at the Feed the Blue Whale Benefit in Little Tokyo at 7pm. Then, he'll act as the guest arranger with the Luckman Jazz Orchestra for "a repertoire of classic holiday favorites" at 8pm, Luckman Fine Arts Complex at Cal-State LA.

IN COMPLETELY TOTALLY UNRELATED OTHER NEWS: With the Grammys being announced last week, there was another view of the music industry on display yesterday when the Howard Stern Show had a call-in interview with the neo-legendary rock & roll groupie and workmanlike blowjob queen “Sweet Connie” Hamzy. Her past "collaborators" read like a radio station's record collection: Buddy Rich, Doc Severinsen, Chicago (yes, the whole band), Huey Lewis, Keith Moon, Leslie West, Willie Nelson, John Bonham, Eddie and Alex Van Halen, Paul Shaffer (?!?), Neil Diamond, Rick Springfield, Geddy Lee, Peter Frampton, Don Henley, Stephen Stills, Bun E. Carlos (really?!), Wayon Jennings and several members of the all-girl, all-lesbian horn band Isis (yow). (My fave Connie conquest: Floyd Sneed, drummer for Three Dog Night -- The Sneedster!). Apparently, Sweet Connie was doing promo for the upcoming VH1 rock doc Let’s Spend the Night Together: Confessions of Rock’s Greatest Groupies, which premieres Dec. 15th at 8:30PM on VH1.

Friday, December 3, 2010


My friends hate me now.
Emilio Estevez

Will it ever end?
Rob Lowe

When I saw it, I just knew, that's it.
Judd Nelson

Needless to say, not many participants came away from this film unscathed.

The term “Brat Pack” originated with this film and not – as the popular misconception runs – with The Breakfast Club, also released earlier that year. The term first appeared in the June 10, 1985 issue of New York magazine, two weeks before S.E.F. was released. Unfortunately, as we will see, Hollywood’s Brat Pack was the cover story that week (alongside the eerily similar “Ronald Reagan’s Great Right Hope"), which may have helped cement the moniker in the pop culture arena. The phrase had 19 days to sink into the consciousness of the American republic, which makes S.E.F. the quintessential Brat Pack film not through merit but through sheer perfect timing -- the kind a magazine editor dreams about.

David Blum (pictured above), a writer from Queens not much older than his subjects, was originally assigned to cover the rising career of Emilio Estevez. Estevez invited Blum to hang with him, Lowe and Nelson as they held court at the newly built Hard Rock Café in West Hollywood, much in the same way the original Hollywood Rat Pack (Humphrey Bogart, Erroll Flynn et al) held court in Holmby Hills and the Polo Lounge. Unlike the second and best-known version of the Rat Pack (Sinatra, Sammy, Dino), the young actors were not seasoned Hollywood vets who could get away with the privileged behavior of their antecedents. Observed Blum: “What distinguishes these young actors from generations past is that most of them have skipped the one step toward success that was required of the generation of Marlon Brando and James Dean, and even that of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino: years of acting study.” Estevez (“the unofficial president of the Brat Pack”) was the son of established Hollywood actor Martin Sheen and was already on his way to building his pseudo-auteur writer-director-actor persona. (He was already at work at his scripts for That Was Then, This Is Now and the terminally idiotic Clear Intent -- later flopping in theaters as Men At Work -- and the bargain-basement vanity project Wisdom.) According to Blum, Estevez “stands as a vivid prototype of the Brat Pack he seems to lead. Barely 23 years old, he is already accustomed to privilege and appears to revel in the attention heaped upon him almost everywhere he goes..He is living the life that any American male might dream of—to be young, single, and famous.” These words would come back to haunt both writer and subject.

The young stars' universally negative reaction to Blum's profile was certainly understandable. If you are woefully unprepared for the demands of instant (or even gradual) fame, you will certainly be unprepared for anything not remotely worshipful that pops up about you in the press. But then again: Remember how invincible you felt when you were young? Now multiply that times 100 and add in agents, limos, parties, media buzz, hotel-elevator fellatio, pushy parents and everyone telling you “You’re It!!!” Blum adopts a by-now identifiable tone; today, this would be described as “snarktastic,” but it's really as old as newsprint itself: the adopting of a sort of big picture glibness that acts as a journalistic wedge between you and your subjects. It’s also the way a journalist “sells” a story to a reader, by taking a sort of removed-yet-commanding tone (e.g., America’s trust in newsman Walter Cronkite seemed to increase according to how stentorian he made his voice). After all, one of the first thing they teach you in Lamestream Media 101 is that it’s a fine line between an article and a press release.

Of course, some writers can – and have – go to far with this distancing technique, but reading Blum’s piece today, it’s surprising how tame it is. Lowe does not come off as a dick but as a fresh faced young kid from Ol’ Virginee who is simply and naively dazzled – like a child gazing for the first time at pretty Christmas lights – by all the hubbub surrounding him and his niggaz. Nelson, however, comes off as the guy who makes celebrity encounters with the common folk an awkward and unpleasant affair. (In one painful frieze, a young girl who is invited over to their table sits down next to Nelson, who ignores her while loudly opining to everyone else: “You can let them get close but you can’t let them sit down.”) When it comes to the actor he terms "the overrrated one", Blum's observations seem stung with the same kind of appropriate indignation anyone would feel as watching an entitled young scrub act like a bitter ass-jack: "And now, in St. Elmo’s Fire, [Nelson] shows—with his role as a congressional assistant—that he was better off when typecast.”

Yes, there is a sour vinegary aftertaste to Blum’s observations (“Estevez, who is only five foot six…”; “No one from the Brat Pack has graduated from college…”) but that was nothing compared to the pillorying Blum received from the actors themselves. “You’ve ruined my life! How could you do this to me?” yelled Estevez to Blum on the day the article hit the newsstands, when angry calls from P.R. agents overwhelmed the New York switchboards. Lowe was particularly vicious, running to both the Chicago Sun-Times, where he maintained that the writer had “burned a lot of bridges” and was "not Hunter Thompson or Tom Wolfe, he’s David Blum living in a cheap flat,” and the Donahue show, where he stated that Blum was “jealous of their fame and wealth and success” and joined the other cast members in calling him an “unethical creep.” (In an almost unforgivable betrayal from one of Blum’s peers, Time magazine movie critic Richard Shickel appeared on the same show and defended the Brats by calling Blum “sleazy.”) When jewelry designer Loree Rodkin, at the time Judd Nelson's manager and bed partner, encountered Blum at a screening, she called him a “vile human being” and publicly castigated him until he fled the screening. Schumacher later commented to a journalist that when he met Blum, “smelled about him the person who had never been invited to the party in high school—that he looked at this group of beautiful, talented, perhaps overpaid young people, and…he had found a way to get even.” Producer Lauren Schuler Donner agreed: “This is a guy seeing something that he didn’t have.” Thing is, Blum completely admitted there was a sliver of envy in his writing. But, his point was, so what? “I, like everybody else in America who isn’t a Hollywood movie star probably thought being a Hollywood movie star is a pretty cool thing.”

There is much that is prescient about Blum’s article—particularly his indirect foreseeing of the future of overpaid Hollywood actors like Tom Cruise, who would tip the balance away from directors and command enormous salaries that could make or break a production. But Blum’s most piquant observation comes from how the transistory qualities of fame and success might bite these young cheubs in the ass: “The Brats will be coming to New York this month to promote St. Elmo’s Fire, which all of them seem rather obsessed with. Each new Brat Packer movie carries with it an increased burden – if it is not a success, the young unknowns starring in the hit movie of the moment might come up from behind and replace them. And that would mean the end of the kind of ensemble efforts that created the Brat Pack.” Blum even gives Judd Nelson credit for having such self-awareness: “You can be ‘hot’ and be a shamelessly poor actor. It’s possible, now it’s possible to be at the top for half a second and then disappear. It’s such a strange thing, to try to build a career on this heat.”

If there is a slight unfairness about the article, is that Blum simply profiled three of the St. Elmo stars, and that actors who didn’t hang out with them or were interested in other things than partying got included in with the rest. (Moore, Sheedy and McCarthy were mentioned only in passing -- Winningham not at all.) Ally Sheedy told Interview in 1998: "[The article] immediately started this terrible association with us, that we were these kids who had too much, too fast.” Andrew McCarthy, who wound up nursing a nasty cigarette and alcohol habit much in the vein of his S.E.F. character, told the New York Observer in 1999. "It didn't have anything to do with me!  It didn't exist!”" McCarthy told writer Susanna Gora: "The media made up this sort of tribe. I don't think I've seen any of these people since we finished St. Elmo's Fire."

In some weird way, the “fallout” from the New York article prevented an even-more-embarrassing sequel to S.E.F. Screenwriter Carl Kurlander, who would later go to write and produce Saved by the Bell: The New Class, has admitted that Schumacher started him on a “St. Elmo’s II” script immediately after the first film but that it was too soon and also impossible to get the young cast members together again. Director Joel Schumacher has expressed interest in reuniting the cast for a sequel and claims he gets weekly letters and emails pleading with him to continue the story of our Georgetown urchins.

Evidence of general impatience about this forgettable unforgettable film came last August when ABC annouced it was readying a reboot of the movie as a TV series with Schumacher and New Brat Topher Grace among the producers. This prompted the folks at to imagine their ideal casting choices for the series, which makes all of us who grew up on the original feel mighty mighty old.

What St. Elmo's Fire says about the United States in the 1980s is not nearly so trenchant as what it says about bad art immemorial: that there will always be astonishingly poor taste, and people who shouldn't be succeeding in their vocations succeeding in their vocations to the great frustration of everyone with a shred of talent or sensitivity…The Brat Pack is about being facile little shits on top of the world headed for the painful fall of the rest of their lives--there's poetry, even familiarity, in that, and watching them when the world was their oyster has to it an air of cloying sadness.
Amazon comments by Thomas F. Redmond from Cleveland, OH, 3/31/05

Theoretically, if I could do it over again, I would not have done St. Elmo's Fire. I wouldn't have done it. But I have no regrets about any of it. Fame didn't get to me. I tried to behave myself. Looking back, I wouldn't have gone out as much. I would've stayed home more...I like to call it the exuberance of shame and youth."
Judd Nelson, Cybermutt, 12/01