Ain't It Cool?
By Harry Knowles Paul Cullum and Mark Ebner
Warner Books Copyright © 2002 Harry Knowles
All right reserved. ISBN: 0-446-52597-9
"Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to." -JOHN PAYNE IN MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET
Twelve hundred pounds. Three-fifths of a ton. Six baby elephants. Four of me.
Think of the thing you want more than anything else in life. Maybe you don't even know what it is yet. Maybe it's just short breaths and longing; maybe it's a ring above your head or a fire under your feet. Maybe it doesn't matter; it's all in the wanting-like love is all in the loving. But fix it in your mind.
Now what would you go through to get it?
Maybe it's a golden idol deep in the jungles of the Peruvian Andes, guarded by shrouded caverns and feckless subterfuge and warring Hovitos tribesmen. Maybe it's world annihilation, your finger on the trigger of a tactical nuclear device in a speeding boxcar on the radiating shoals of the Mojave Desert. Whatever.
Savor it. Taste it. This is the crucible by which we are tested.
Twelve hundred pounds. I know this because I put it there myself. Neat, orderly piles of posters and one-sheets and lobby cards and miscellaneous collectibles-flat, stacked paper, stamped with the stuff of dreams. Which we sold back to a clamoring public at once-around-the-block prices. People much like us, who were steered here by impulse or secret initiative to try and amass some of the magic-the stardust and wonder-that those posters reminded them of.
We were Sineaters-my father and sister and me. Gypsy vagabonds, carrying spices and delicacies from the Far East. Artifacts that we could offload onto people whose daydreams outweighed their daily lives, and who would pay the going price to be swept up at will into the light and swirl that two hours in a darkened theater could afford them. In return, we would cart away the petty indulgences and indignities and recriminations their own lives required of them, the trivial sump. Truth be told, this was probably the source of most of that weight to begin with.
I remember I had a firm hold on things-my life, my sanity, the metal crossbar on the old four-wheel wooden dolly I was steering. I was in a great mood. It was my third trip of the day, so it was automatic by that point. We were filling up the last of the two vans we always traveled in, heading home after a solid weekend's work at a local collectors' memorabilia fair. All I had to do was get down a 45-degree concrete incline, out some metal emergency doors, and into the City Coliseum parking lot where the vans were parked. Plus I had a system: I would rest the weight of the dolly against my body and skip backward, so it would carry me back ten, twelve feet at a time, then plant both feet solid and check the forward momentum. I mean, I'd done this. It was easy.
God takes the thing-the thing that you want, that you don't know you Want-and he holds it out just beyond your reach. To where it shimmers in the fading light. And the closer you get to it, the harder it is to make out, so the faster you run for it. And sometimes, since he's a cheeky fucker with a wicked sense of irony, he'll place it on the other side of a lake of fire or a slough of despond, past dragons and lumbering minotaurs and calculating trolls. You think that's your test, and the thing is your reward. But this has not been my experience. The thing is just a plot Contrivance-Hitchcock's MacGuffin, a mechanical rabbit; a diploma or heart-shaped testimonial or Triple Cross from the Legion of Courage, courtesy the Great and Powerful Oz. The test is how well you brave the journey. And the reward is your own character, which is revealed to you in beats and arcs. This is the most important thing I know to tell you: "The only reason they make it hard is to see the kind of stuff you're made of." Because as any writer will tell you, character trumps plot every time.
Nobody used this exit but us. It should have been clear. Except that near the base of the incline, the City of Austin had stretched a hose to drain the ice water from the Coke bins out onto the grassy perimeter. It caught my heel as I was coming down, so that my weight was behind me. I tried to spin around, put my hands out to break my fall, but my feet were already planted, torquing the lower half of my body. Yet even before my balance left me, my attention had already spun around back uphill, to this thing I still couldn't see, but which I was already thinking past. In my haze, I could make out a small golden idol, on an altar of polished stone, in an underground cavern in the Peruvian jungle, which I had just displaced with its exact volume in sand. Or so I thought. And now a giant boulder was barreling down on top of me.
I remembered every step in my brief, ridiculous life that had led me here. Raised in a Skinner box of movie lore and pop mythology. Tarzan and Buster Keaton and Dracula as my baby-sitters. A wild, half-mad mother and a renegade, half-sane father, broken open, turned inside out in the cyclotron of the '60s, only to escape while others just like them got sucked back into the maelstrom.
"This is where Forrestal cashed in. A competitor. He was good. He was very good."
A lonesome, pining adolescence in dust-choked West Texas, reared amid a gothic power struggle that would embarrass even the scions of Giant or Written on the Wind. And then deliverance late in my teens through the aftermarket economy of those same serials and comic landscapes and 16mm dioramas into other, more opulent worlds. Life was good, finally. Maybe a little too good.
"There's nothing to fear here ... That's what scares me."
The dolly caught me square in the small of the back. It bucked me up and threw me another seven feet, just in time for it to roll over my back and both legs, partially paralyzing me. I lay on the sidewalk and tried to roll onto my side, but I couldn't move my legs. I reached both arms back behind me and pulled my head down as far as I could into my sternum, like I'd seen a doctor do once to my mom. As I did, I could feel my vertebrae pop back into place one by one: "Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop." They sounded like rifle shots. They'd been jammed shut.
All I could think of was Tod Browning's 1932 Freaks. There was a character called the Human Worm, and even though he had no legs and no arms, he could fend for himself. A black man-we see him strike a match and light a cigarette with his tongue. This was going to be me. I decided then and there I was not going to burden my family or loved ones. I'd join the circus if I had to. I had worked as a falconer's assistant, and a magician's second on stage. I'd had a job helping a belly dancing troupe into and out of their costumes. (Like Woody Allen says in What's New, Pussycat?: It's not very much, but it's all I can afford.) I'd even been in the movies, in The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, from a Carson McCullers novel. I played a character called Fat Boy, with lines opposite Vanessa Redgrave, even though they accidentally cut me out of the credits. I had a SAG card and everything. There would be something for me somewhere. It just might take some legwork.
Somehow, I managed to drag myself to my car. My motor skills mobilized long enough for me to drive our second van home. That night I fell in the shower and couldn't get up again. I pulled myself into my bed, in a spare room at the back of my father's house in North Austin, where I stayed for the next six months. With no insurance to speak of, due to our gypsy existence, and without access to affordable medical care, I ventured out onto the Internet, then still in its infancy, on a Packard Bell with a 60MHz Pentium processor that I barely knew how to use, to forage for respite and cure. And before I knew it, I had spun myself into a chrysalis of fiber optics and midnight vapors, lying there dormant, reinventing myself with special powers for the better day ahead. I could hear the French-accented sibilance of Belloq, the rogue archaeologist in Raiders of the Lost Ark, his voice deep, mellifluous, wonderful-mocking like that of God himself:
"Dr. Jones. Again we see there is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away. And you thought I'd given up." And so began my quest.
I am the least likely celebrity in the world. This is what I'm famous for. I dress in sandals and Hawaiian shirts-the gaudier the better. I'm roughly the size of a small European import. I have hair like an Irish setter. I look more like a cartoon than even cartoons of me do. I know this about myself. But completely by accident-and kismet, and synchronicity, and an insane amount of soul-numbing labor-I came to be at the perfect center of a universe of my own creation. One I could scarcely have imagined at any step along the way.
Every day, over a twelve-hour period, as I work on international time, I read some 1,200 e-mails, correspond with hundreds of people around the globe, chase rumors, brave innuendo, and field calls from a vast unofficial network of spies that runs the gamut of power and influence within the film industry, from the accidental to the all-encompassing. My words reach literally millions more, 365 days a year, in over a hundred countries, who tune in to find out what's the buzz. Because wherever Hollywood goes to shoot its films, I know what it's up to-my readers are everywhere, on ours and other planets, in this world and the next.
All of these people have at least one thing in common: Surreptitiously, subversively, or self-promotionally, they all wish Hollywood made better movies. And whatever its obvious faults, Hollywood itself would be hard-pressed to disagree. It just doesn't have a clue how to go about it.
Not to worry.
They have a saying among Hollywood insiders that there're two kinds of people in the creative ranks of the film industry-Geeks and Hustlers. It takes both types to make the flywheel turn. The Geeks bring an idea from inception to term. The Hustlers carry it forth out into the world. Together they're the mind/body split. Sometimes, against all odds, the Geeks rise to absolute power-Steven Spielberg or George Lucas. Sometimes the Geeks turn into Hustlers to consolidate their power-James Cameron, Michael De Luca-but inside, they're always still Geeks. Sometimes the biggest Hustlers-Robert Evans at Paramount; Mike Medavoy at United Artists, Orion, and TriStar-seem like rogue biological agents placed here by divine providence to facilitate the spread of the Geek gospel. My feeling is, basically, the Hustlers can take care of themselves. But the Geeks are my people.
Think of a novel like The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. It's about a guy whose whole life is given over to movies-it opens with a Kierkegaard quote, chronicles this character's unrealized desperation as he sleepwalks through life, kind of a Catcher in the Rye at the protagonist's expense. A key early passage profiles his world view:
Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.
Movies in literature are often like that-the home movies that galvanize the narrator in Delmore Schwartz's "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities"; the brutal clash of images in Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust; the recurring poster for The Hands of Orlac in Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano.
They're always mythical or nostalgic or enigmatic, or at the very least imbued with great portent or sadness. And who's to say they shouldn't be? The problem is that they always feel constructed as literary conceits, by someone who has no firsthand experience of what it's like to be obsessed with movies. Who doesn't live and breathe them like virtually everyone I know. The Moviegoer mentions maybe ten movies by name in the entire novel, not including a chance run-in with William Holden and a dog named Rosebud. And it never makes even the slightest distinction between the classics everyone knows (It Happened One Night, All Quiet on the Western Front, Red River) and the ones that merely seem to mirror the New Orleans setting of the novel (Dark Waters, Panic in the Streets).
But walk into any video store in the country and ask the guy behind the counter what he's recommending. You'll get a welter of names and italics and proper nouns, tributaries of the latest hits that lead back into the recent past through a mosquito-netting haze of thick associations and random insights, separating and recombining, forming a wild jumble of genres and competing emotions and speculative connections.
The movies are another world-a foreign place, a physical locus of sound and image whose coordinates may be shared and topography mapped through careful vigilance and an attention to the overlooked detail. And where those observations conflict or contradict one another is merely the specialized biology of that other world-like sentient insects, or silicon-based life forms, or methane-compounded atmospheres. If Tom Cruise is sometimes a testosterone flyboy and sometimes a feckless sports agent-well, he's always going to freak out and kick a wall. Jack Nicholson may be a jarhead or a juicehead or deranged or the devil, but he'll always rope us in by lifting a single eyebrow.
And Thomas Mitchell will always be Thomas Mitchell, and Warren Oates will always be Warren Oates, and Harry Dean Stanton will be Harry Dean Stanton, because they're character actors-holy men entrusted with constancy, the lifeline between films and between eras, no matter how far afield the characters they play. Just as Brando drawn through any thin braid of aspect or accent will always be Brando. That world will tolerate only what the camera allows. Sometimes it's the same as our world, and sometimes it's just the opposite. But it's always brighter, and the light is what draws us to it. Helplessly.
The best essay on film I've ever read was not by Pauline Kael, leaching all the fun out of Citizen Kane, for instance. It wasn't Manny Farber ranting on an adrenaline high about some dusty masterpiece; and it wasn't Andrew Sarris enumerating those objects worthy of our attention. It wasn't in Cahiers du Cinema or Jump/Cut or the Village Voice or fucking Film Comment. It was by Larry McMurtry, of all people, collected in his Film Flam anthology in the mid-'80s, but written on a lark for New York magazine sometime earlier.
Excerpted from Ain't It Cool? by Harry Knowles Paul Cullum and Mark Ebner Copyright © 2002 by Harry Knowles. Excerpted by permission.
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