Kafka and I:
Angst for the Memories
Act II: Eulogy
“Look,” says the producer in a friendly tone aimed to disarm, “let me tell you this little story. You might remember the late Harry Cohn. This guy was a former pool hall hustler who became the head of Columbia Pictures. This was the guy who said: ‘I don’t get ulcers, I give them.’ He was brash . . . like a dictator. Harry was the stereotypical tyrannical studio mogul of the 1920s, and if nothing else, he was well hated in Hollywood. So, he finally kicks the bucket and thousands, I mean thousands of people from the industry show up for his funeral. It doesn’t make sense. The eulogy is given, I think, by Red . . . Red . . . you know, the comedian.”
“Red Skelton!” says the director with excitement as if he was a quiz show contestant.
“Yeah. Red says something like we all know what we thought of Harry Cohn. And since so many of you showed up today, let’s be honest, it can’t be to pay your last respects. It only proves Harry was right when he said: Give people what they want and they’ll . . . and they’ll . . .”
The producer can’t finish the punch line. Both he and the director explode into laughter. At first, the starlet smiles uneasily, then a chuckle as the joke begins to dawn on her.
I see the punch line coming and the story is hilarious, but I’m not amused. Composing his pompous self, the producer says, “See what I’m saying here. Give the audience what it wants to see and you’ll pack ‘em in. You’ll be sitting on top of the world.”
My eyes wander about the ornately furnished office. The producer’s got a LeRoy Neiman print on the wall. I know he considers this framed, signed and limited number lithograph on acid-free paper a masterpiece—a work, if he knew better, of good commercial art depicting a sports scene, no more—that is, if it’s not bogus. But copies in Hollywood are rampant, the mentality being—if someone has a hit movie, cash in by making another one just like it. Copy success is the mantra here.
Xerox a Picasso, change a few lines, a few colors, and voila—another masterpiece. This is the gross, unsophisticated mindset I’m dealing with. Art is a mutation, an abnormality, and an evolutionary experience from and for the soul—an expression necessary for sanity. Am I going to waste my energy telling this guy art cannot be copied? I decide against casting pearls before producers.
“Yeah, yeah, sure,” says the producer, “I know you’ve got the best of intentions. We all do in the beginning until reality sets in. But there’s no need to trash the whole script. You didn’t hear me say I don’t like it. Don’t get me wrong. There’s lots of good stuff here. That’s why we bought it. I just want to make a good thing better. I’ve been in this town for a long time. If I wanted to break new ground, I’d have gone into the construction business. My aim is to make a good buck. There is logic in my thinking. I want to make your story commercial—you know, so people will pay money to see it. There’s nothing wrong with that, eh?” He pauses, and then says to the starlet, “Roll us a joint just the way you know how to, will ya, babe?”
“Sure,” she says in a breathy voice, happy to have something to do.
I think: Selling a screenplay means money for sure. But the surreal experience that I sold a script still amazes me. To balance things out, I have come to know that nothing in life is how I thought it would be.
How did this screenplay opportunity turn into a problem? It’s crazy and it’s my doing. My self-imposed standard of not wanting to write for the lowest common denominator has caused me much grief. This decision to live my life in harmony with my own inner truth hasn’t been easy. Some looking into this fishbowl might call it a burden, others an obsession, or as I see it—no way out, no alternative in this game of not selling out to trivial pursuits.
If life is not about making dreams come true, then what is it all about? And what are films? One master Yogi had remarked that movies are a waste of time. Evidently, his fellow countryman in India did not agree as the sub-continent has perhaps the largest movie going public on earth. Movies are, after all, dreams that money can buy.
I could decide to be good to my self. Rationalization works wonders. Who cares if I cave in and kiss the producer’s big ass on the very spot where he keeps his wallet? It’s done all the time. My resistance to pandering is stubborn. Although I’ve been inoculated against this sort of indulgence, the disease is still downright painful. If I’m going to sell something, let it be an honest to goodness original idea. How do you explain this to a producer who wants to update A Tale of Two Cities as another cop and drug bust buddy picture.
If you want the telling of the tale to ring true, you’ve got to feel it by living it. There’s a price, a deal you make with Universe for a visceral experience of a movie larger than any screen. You agree to play it honestly and a muse is assigned to watch over you—to protect you from the ever-present seduction of the sell out merchants, to protect you from your self. I know this is so as I have cut my own deal, summoned my own guardian, my sultry mistress, my lady of words who lurks in the shadows of my life, urging me on to risk saying it as I feel it?
If I was too sure of my self, I learned quickly. Dues are in order and only I could ante up. Before the ink on the metaphysical contract has dried, the test comes. The consolation, although it appears nowhere close at the time, is that the worst of the pain will make you stronger.
Early on in the scenes of my movie an artist and friend has taken me under his Promethean wing. He has not given up on me; he has been relentless and has taught me well. I remember: There is no creation, no fine art without first purging your self from pleasing others. I wrestle with his lessons. Self-expression and freedom of thought in one corner with multiple opponents called food, rent, and material success in the other. I am not unaware that I have imposed upon my self a challenge. Am I a hack? Can I turn my life into a work of art as Marcel Proust had done in his novel Remembrance of Things Past?
As I try to find my place in this script, I cannot shake despair; I know too much, but more likely not enough. Is art religion, or not? My body pays the price for indulging my mind. I wake at sun up, acid of doubt already eating its way through my stomach lining from the inside out. After a shower and shave, uncertainty is ice cold between my fingers and toes, reaching all the way up to the tip of my nose.
I am hollow like a bizarre character on the yellow brick road seeking the Wizard to hear what I already know.»