Tales From the Bottom of the Film Business

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

A few things I've learned traveling in Latin America:

1) Riding in the back of a pick-up truck can be a fun and easy way to travel, but your ass will never be the same.

2) Wearing a flashlight on your head is not geeky. It's practical.

3) Bad movies are better when dubbed into Spanish, but Bruce Willis movies stink in any language.

4) You don't need to wash your clothes as often as you think. Or your face. Or your hair.

5) Always ask directions more than once, because the first person is often wrong. And in some places (for example, Coban), everyone is wrong. And everybody claims not to be from there.

6) In any language, children are smarter than we are.

7) Dogs on rooves, swimming in waterfalls, the sight of someone carrying a machete on their belt, the occasional afternoon volcano eruption, having a woman with a basket of tortillas sitting in your lap for hours on a minibus surrounded by 30 other people, all of these things can eventually become "normal."

8) Always keep your bags zippered because you never know what might crawl inside.

9) There is such a thing as decent wine in a box.

10) Once you've seen one monkey, you've seen them all.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

No Matter Where You Go, There You Are

When I left on this long trip to spend weeks by myself in a place I'd never been to before and only knew about through Lonely Planet, I thought I was doing something different, exciting, perhaps even a bit wacky. At least for me. But the longer I'm here, the more I realize that traveling in a foreign country is kind of like being on a film set.

For one thing, when you first arrive, you'll notice that everyone is speaking another language. In some countries, this language can consist of such words as "nein," "gringo," or "bangers and mash." In the land of Special Victims Unit, you might instead hear "windjammer," "inky," or "crossing the line." But in both cases, just because you hear things that may sound vaguely familiar, never kid yourself that you know what's actually going on, it's an easy way to get yourself yelled at (again, great motivator, the fear of getting yelled at). Plus, you may have trouble finding people who actually want to take the time to help you learn how to converse. They've got better things to do, like work and drink coffee. And they act as if you're the one who's the idiot for coming to their land without being able to talk to anyone. And they're basically right.

Another way in which working on a film is similar to an extended bout of foreign travel is the way that you make lots of new fast friends, knowing that you will probably only associate with many of them for a matter of months, weeks, or even hours. It's my firmly held belief that anyone is tolerable for a short period of time, although this maxim is often tested in both situations, particularly on a crowded van when one of you hasn't showered for days. (Note: if you are someone I've met recently and you actually know about this blog, you can assume I'm not talking about you). This is heightened by the way in which, as I've mentioned with movies, you tend to find yourselves pushed together into unique experiences punctuated by moments of extreme stress. Such moments can range from, on the one hand, missing the last, rickety bus to your next destination and finding that the only hotel in town is a place you wouldn't let your dog spend the night, even if you hate your dog, to having a very expensive DAT machine eat your entire day's work when you don't have a back-up tape. Although on the one hand you're worried about getting an unshakeable case of bedbugs and on the other about being forced to go back to working for MTV because no one else will hire you, the feelings of extreme panic derived from these situations are strangely similar. Then there are the conversations promoted by long hours together in cramped quarters - like the aforementioned buses or behind a couch in a house in New Jersey rented for a Benadryl commercial - on unusal subjects; discussions of the degradation of quality in Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms; arguments over whether the differences between men and women come from nature or nurture (actually, that one isn't all that unusual, we always seem to be talking about it, even when we aren't); the sharing of random facts stored up over time for use in a future historical novel, etc etc etc. And there is, of course, the wide selection of bad behavior - drinking, drugs, cheating, more drinking, men dressing up in women's clothes while drinking, imitating a rabbit or a monkey or your boss while drinking, and so on (okay, in this case, if I've met you in the past few weeks, some of this may apply to you). And the fact that you are forever moving on. Granted, going to work on the new Fantastic Four and going to a place where you can swim in the cone of a volcano are not, exactly, the same thing. But both can provide you with a strange combination of excitement, sadness, and relief you won't find doing anything else.

Except for, maybe, going home. Although you do meet these people who keep the ride going and never do. People who jump from movie to movie to movie, or the Vietnam vet I met at a place called La Iguana Perdida who was so shitfaced that a bartender half his age had to cut him off. But I don't think either life's for me. While there may always be something new and different over the horizon, there might also just be a bunch of hippie expats who play the guitar and sing Van Morrison, badly, every Saturday night. And while I don't miss New York, I don't mind the idea of going back there any more. I left to get away - from the film business, from having no apartment and nobody to share it with any more either, from my past, my future, my problems in general. But no matter how light you pack, the one thing you bring with you wherever you go is yourself. What you discover, hopefully, whenever you plunk yourself down in the place that you land, be it a street where you're dragging your luggage past pigs and smashed avocados or looking down at Sidney Lumet from the top of a 12-foot ladder, is that you like the self who followed you there. So in a way, being gone has reminded me that I have a life to go home to.