Tuesday, November 28, 2006


Part of what happens is a kind of mass hypnosis I think. You know, the power of suggestion. I was at a presentation the other night called something like “Science Theatre” where two British scientists showed slides and film clips to disprove non-scientific beliefs and demonstrate how easily the mind can be manipulated. One of their demonstrations was about backward lyrics to songs, using a clip from “Stairway to Heaven” if I remember right. They played the backwards clip and it was obvious that what we were meant to hear, and most of us did, was the word “Satan” a few times. It was a very distorted version of the word, but nonetheless pretty apparent to most of us.

But that was all we could hear. The rest was gibberish and obviously just random sounds. UNTIL they put up a new lyric on the screen and highlighted the words as they played the backwards clip again, words that made a kind of sense having to do with “Satan” and the singer. Everyone in the audience heard those words where they had previously heard only gibberish. It demonstrated incredibly well the power of suggestion.

I think something similar happens with evaluating the work of artists. Some authority figure, like a professor or critic or leading practitioner of the art or even publicity department affirms in print or on TV or film or in a lecture that so-and-so represents the cutting edge or the next big thing or already is the next big thing, ala the article on Muldoon (see part I), and presto, it’s now conventional wisdom, as they say.

This even happens in Hollywood, the center of hype. In my early years there, Jack Nicholson had a stake in a club called “Helena’s” in east L. A. that was run by a Greek woman who had been a notorious belly-dancer before she played the role of the dyke in the backseat of the car in FIVE EASY PIECES. She was a friend of Nicholson’s and the way I heard it he set her up with this club. She and I were friends for awhile too, but when her club first opened I didn’t know her and the doorman wouldn’t let me in because I wasn’t a star, or a friend.

Then there came a time when I was let in, I forget why, maybe it was who I was with, and I started going there regularly because despite the doorman, it seemed like my kind of crowd. But I found it difficult to make friends there, as I’m not much with small talk and I missed the camaraderie I felt in New York where I’d been living before this.

Then one night I dropped by the club and everyone was saying hi to me. I told the friend I was with, “I guess it just takes a little time out here for people to get to know you, now it feels more like New York” or words to that effect and he replied, “Schmuck, don’t you read the trades?” which is what they call The Hollywood Reporter and Variety, the papers that cover “the business” as people in show business chauvinistically call it. I didn’t read them. He said there was an article in one of them about how I was writing three different screenplays for three different studios, and that’s why people were being friendly, they thought I “had some heat” as a writer, usually a job that has little power in the movie business as it’s run in Hollywood, but does at certain times, like before a script actually begins to be produced but has already garnered interest, or the times I’ve been called in to “doctor” a script already shot (like the one in which a sexy European actress was starring—she ended up calling me in my one-room little pad on the border of Venice late one night and purring to me over the phone as she asked about the narration I was adding and new scenes to be shot, wanting to make sure whatever it was I was contributing was to her advantage).

What I came to learn about Hollywood was that you could hire a publicist who everyone knew and she could get you publicity that everyone knew she got you, and was paid for, and the studio heads and other big guns would read it or hear about it, and their minds would shift and they would see you as more of a player, as if the hype you paid for was true! Even though they knew it was hype! I guess they were impressed that you got the right publicist or the right publicity or whatever. (I never did it, though I thought about doing it a lot. Maybe if I had I'd be financially secure now, maybe not.)

Meanwhile they would talk all this baloney about how talent would out, like the scenes in SINGING IN THE RAIN where Donald O’Conner’s and Gene Kelly’s characters talk with the studio head as if Debbie Reynolds’ character’s talent had to be rewarded and the goldmine movie star she’s talking and singing for needs to be taught a lesson. They actually have lines that state that of course the young up-and-comer’s talent is what’s important and must be rewarded with screen credit and her own movie to star in. And the female star she’s making look good has to trick the studio head into not exposing the truth! As if!

As everyone making that film knew, and we all know now, there were all kinds of talented singers and dancers and body doubles and so on who made stars look or sound good and never got screen credit, let alone a chance at their own stardom. There’s tons of talent in Hollywood that’s exploited just for the purpose of making some “star” look better and that talent is rarely rewarded in any way even close to the ways the “star” is. Not that there aren’t stars who deserve some of what they get because they get people into theaters and make unbelievable amounts of money for the people who back their movies. But there’s very few of them.

And not that there aren’t talented actors, whose movies don’t make the huge bucks, but still deserve to be stars because their artistry moves so many. A lot of people feel that way about Nicholson and didn’t appreciate my take on him in THE DEPARTED. I dig a lot of Nicholson’s work and accept how talented he is. But I also accept that sometimes some other talent, maybe an even as yet undiscovered one or overlooked one could do what he’s supposed to be doing with a character, even more originally and interestingly and movingly. Only they won’t get the chance, because the powers that be are afraid they’ll lose their jobs if they take a chance on a relative “unknown” should the project fail, or because they just can’t judge talent unless it’s hyped or gets attention in some other way out in the world.

Okay we all know that. But explain the art world to me, and the vagaries of that “market” especially for new talent, but even for established ones. I just saw where a piece by an L. A. artist I still think of as young sold at an auction for over two million dollars. I’m happy for him. I dig his work and I dug him when I got to know him when I first lived in L. A. and he wasn’t getting enough for his art, to make his rent. More power to him. But how did his work go that high while some other artist, equally innovative or interesting or committed or talented or even more so, gets overlooked, even shunned.

It’s kind of like what the Republicans were so good at for the past several years until their incompetence in most other areas started to get in the way. They would issue talking points and a daily message and, as John Stewart’s Daily Show would often demonstrate, every talking head coming from their side on TV or radio that day would use the same words, to make the same talking points, to deliver the same message. And for several years there, it worked. Much to the chagrin of a lot of us. How could people be so stupid?

But it wasn’t any more stupid than the idea that undernourished, frighteningly skinny teenagers represent the heights of female allure. Or that people driving very fast around and around on a circular track while wrapped in advertisements is really exciting to watch on TV. Or that being attacked by a band of men, a majority of whom are from Saudi Arabia, demands a retaliation against two other countries, the first of which had some connection to the men, the second none whatsoever. Etc.


AlamedaTom said...

The three "cream" posts got me thinking about another angle that the Lal did not cover -- curdling some of the legitimate cream that rises to the top.

Let me explain. Especially when I was in my twenties, I thought I was the coolest, hippest cat around. I was all too ready to dump on anything that I perceived as "mainstream" or an example of what I deemed to be "selling out." In looking back now, I am embarrassed over how I put down some souls who had risen to the top, but deserved to be there. In other words, I curdled my cream! I just started thinking about this today, so I don't have a huge list at this point, but here are five examples that painfully spring to mind:

1. Louis Armstrong: I, the ultra-hip jazz fan was alway pooh-poohing Satch. I think a lot of it was because he was on the Sullivan show and did do some pretty pitiful stuff in those appearances. Later, a friend pulled my coat to the real Satch and I had to spend a year just listening to his old shit and wondering how I could have been such a fool. One day, about a year ago, I was driving around on a beautiful sunny day and the FM jazz station played the Ella-Louie version of "Dancing Cheek to Cheek" and I couldn't stop smiling for days.

2. Lionel Hampton: Same deal. Some pretty awful appearances on the Sullivan show. Years later, I was listening to FM jazz and heard Lionel's version of "On the Sunny Side of the Street." Literally blew me away! Again, a year spent listening to his older, and surprisingly some newer material, and realizing how totally cool that cat was.

3. David Bowie: I don't know what the hell I was thinking on this one. I used to rail about Bowie and how he wasn't really a musician, etc. Duh. Now I can't get enough of the double CD set "Best of Bowie." Now, I realize he was way ahead of me. For doubters, one of my favorite things is to play Bowie's smoldering, incredible take on the old Johnny Mathis hit "Wild is the Wind." But all the rest of it is pretty glorious too.

4. Steely Dan. Ouch. I came back from three years in Germany in 1973, and a guy at work was telling everyone how great Steely Dan was. I had heard a few things of theirs, but of course I dismissed them as being "too slick," "too commercial." Only after I hooked up with my wife in 1991 did I get hipped to how truly innovative and pioneering these guys were. Nuff said. I am REALLY embarrassed about that one.

5. James Taylor. I remember being in Europe for three years and hanging out with a guy whom I really dug, who in turn dug Baby James. I would argue with him about whether Taylor was really that good. Like everyone at that time even I recognized Carole King as irrefutable "cream," but I was just too cool to accept Taylor whom I deemed too slick, too commercial, and in addition, getting famous on Carole's coattails. The revelation in this case was gradual. I would hear one of James' great songs, with those invariably impeccable musicians and backup singers, and realize I dug it immensely, and more weird, it would flash me back to happy times in the past. Pretty soon I realized I was having that experience with pretty much everything of his that I was hearing, so I went out and bought that great double CD of his live performances, which was one of the first all-digital live recordings ever made. I still listen to it all the time.

[After previewing this comment, I've decided to also post it on my own blog, with proper reference to the Lal's "Cream Trilogy" just to get this topic out there. I'm interested in hearing whether others have had similar experiences, especially in other areas such as literature, movies, etc.]



Lally said...

Hey, I hear you. Just to set the record straight, I don't begrudge anybody their success, especially in the three areas I know best from experience, music, movies/TV, and books, wait is that four? Anyway, if somebody makes it they did something right, even if it's just schmooze the right people. What I lament is all the talent that never gets the success it deserves. And yeah, I too have had blinkers on when it comes to some who have succeeded, like James Taylor, same deal, I had friends who dug him while I thought of his music as some kind of "soft rock" or something, derivative etc. until I got a little older, actually a lot older, and heard him singing a Carole King song, in fact a phrase from a song, "but don't you let them" as I was being driven back from a life threatening operation and it made me cry, he put it across so simply, sweetly, but deeply. Since then I've been digging him. I also, as you may remember, put down the Beach Boys when they first came out around the time we first met, thinking they were just too lame in those striped short sleeve shirts and dorky hair styles, and their rip off Chuck Berry guitar riffs, etc. But maybe ten years later, I reheard them and realized how great their harmonizing is and the structures of the tunes, etc.l and got that they were coming, indirectly I guess, from the white church, Bach chorale shit, the way all those soul and R&B singers came out of the black church. Lots of others I've come around to as I've mellowed with age. But again, I wish so many talented people I've dug in my life had gotten just a piece of that bigger success that can lead to financial security or at least get and keep their books published and music recorded and all that.