Friday, February 4, 2011

"No, I better, I say, I better not look; I just might be in there."

Twelve years ago this very day, I became a Los Angeles resident. First parked my car in the garage, slept a night in my apartment, bought a bag of Jack in the Box. It was easily the biggest change in my life I ever made. I came out here with a dream, a dream that to a significant degree is still unfulfilled, but if you consider that the average sleep cycle contains multiple dreams, then it can safely be said that while one has yet to arrive, others have been lived out quite nicely.

I do not think it is hubris or hyperbole to bring up the fact that a significant portion of today's readership of this blog is due to the generous nature of filmmaker Edgar Wright. When I declared his most recent film to be one of the decade's best, he liked my words so much they were tweeted to over 200,000 followers, many of whom came to visit, and out of that contingent a select few have chosen to continue visiting. I subsequently had occasion to provide some material assistance to Wright's second programming block at the New Beverly Cinema and again received both public and private gratitude from the genial maestro. While I do not classify myself as any kind of professional critic, and he has been just as generous to my friends Julia Marchese and Peter Avellino so I am not any kind of golden child, I daresay I have not witnessed this kind of mutual appreciation between creative visionary and cultural arbiter since Werner Herzog and Roger Ebert. And it serves as template for one of the installments of the REM cycle that came in the package with my move to the West Coast.

Like many a child of the '70's, I was raised on the groundbreaking story and song omnibus FREE TO BE YOU AND ME, and among my favorite pieces was Betty Miles' modernized (and to some degree, benevolently sanitized) legend of Princess Atalanta and the foot race, where a headstrong princess plans to thwart her father's desire to marry her off by agreeing to wed the winner of a marathon she knows she will trounce all competitors in, and an ordinary boy who wants merely an audience with the princess and trains fiercely to compete in the race and match her skill. They end up in a tie at the finish, the boy refuses to accept the marriage unless the princess desires it also, and both parties choose merely to spend an afternoon getting acquainted and go their separate ways, with the narrator proclaiming that perhaps they will meet again, perhaps not, but in either case are living life as they wish. While most read this as a feminist spin on traditional fairy tale myths, few seem to pick up that it is also a rather observant parable on aspects of our desire for fame which a lot of people never quite understand.

James Mangold's WALK THE LINE more explicitly provides similar insight into what we might call the Atalantian myth. At the beginning of the movie, boy Johnny is shown as fascinated by show business, lovingly quoting Foghorn Leghorn, and more importantly, a fan of precocious child star June Carter, the unspoken key being that she is living the life that seems so unlikely but that he yearns for: comfort, warm family, singing, success. While he grows older, he aspires to the dream, works at it quite fiercely, but he otherwise follows the patterns of sensibility by marrying a childhood sweetheart and getting a salesman job, because everything he's experienced says he won't make it, even dwelling on the fact that he really does not know first wife Vivian that well, but he begs her to marry him because he has already absorbed the notion that she is as good as he deserves or can expect. Then Johnny breaks out. And now he's considered the equal of a hitmaker like Elvis. And, more importantly, the equal of June Carter; he gets to talk to her and be friends with her. He's gotten validation that yes, what was seemingly impossible is happening, and unfortunately, his wife hasn't dreamt as large as him. Sure, she loves him and is happy for him, but she sees entertainment as a job that can be left behind when at home, when he sees it as his whole reason to go on.

Let me compare this to a plot thread in Stephen Hopkins' rather terrible HBO biopic THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PETER SELLERS. There is a crucial scene where he tells his wife and family that he's leaving them because he "loves Sophia Loren more" than them. Maybe those were his exact words, but in the way it is presented in the movie, it is not correct to his character. Yes, Sellers was a cold, selfish bastard who put himself ahead of his family as opposed to Cash, but in a way they were similar. What Sellers was likely trying to convey to his first family was that after years of being the chubby boy who did silly acts in the longshot hope that a pretty girl would just look at him, he was now getting that kind of attention without having to be "on." He was in love with what Loren represented, that he was cast as a romantic suitor for her in a movie (where, in keeping with the Atalantian myth, she was playing a princess), and that it was considered plausible to do so. Again, it may not be fair to compare two famous people of different integrity, but the execution of this common obsession which unites Cash and Sellers is handled better. In both biopics, we see the requisite road flings, the tension at home and on travel, the channeling into drugs and violence. But Hopkins' agenda is just to show what a nasty prat Sellers was, at best an egotist and beauty/star-fucker, while Mangold understands that Cash stays drawn to June because in his youth, he basically wanted to be her, and upon getting to know her, and their heretofore unknown commonalities (overshadowed by a "better" sibling, sublimating insecurity through comedy, dealing with public shame over a first divorce), realizes (too late for his own marriage) his insight was better than he could have guessed and that they were meant to be in each other's lives.

Sure, on the surface this is naive, and could be interpreted as suggesting that Jodie Foster should have had a one-nighter with John Hinckley. But this does get at why we love certain stars: the notion that they are doing the things we would like to do, and that if we worked hard enough on our own, we could be on equal footing to them. The term I particularly like for this status of equillibrium comes from professional wrestling. Most matches you see on TV are called "squashes" - some ham-and-egger gets pummeled by the star in under two minutes, demonstrating that the erstwhile challenger is clearly not in the same class as the victor. But then there are the matches where someone still rather unknown but not obviously green is in the ring with a much bigger name, and that match goes for a longer stretch, and even if the star still wins, he has made it look like that new guy was a legitimate challenger, and the crowd starts respecting that new guy more and paying attention. It's called "The Rub." An established, respected performer elevates a lesser-known individual and gives them the appearance of being on their level. And all of us who ever plucked three chords or first learned how to say "To be or not to be" go forward in the hope that our skills will be strong enough to earn that rub from those that inspired us.

Which is where I drag myself into the story. I would be lying if I didn't admit to some of my hopes upon moving to Los Angeles being unrealistic. In some cases, such as meeting a pretty ingenue at a premiere party and asking for a phone number, they still are. And on those nights where you're looking at $30 in the checking account and how many $1000's in credit card debt, in a cluttered apartment where no woman has set foot for as many years as it took to release "Chinese Democracy," you wonder if the whole megillah is a misguided notion. But in the decade-plus I've been here, I think it's safe to say on more than one occasion I've run that foot race with Atalanta, and spent some wonderful vigils together. Whether it was Mark Cronin putting me in pole position on a silly game show for 130 episodes, or Edgar Wright tweeting this blog to some of you this past New Year's Eve, there have been enough applications of The Rub to tell me that my dreams are still worth pursuing.

So here's to 12 years of training, prayers, and vitamins, and down-to-earth princesses. Let's keep running a while shall we.

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