Tales From the Bottom of the Film Business

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Dying Stars and Supernovas

When the year turns, I get a little maudlin. Something about endings and beginnings and benchmarks -- I have a January birthday, a lot my friends have January birthdays, many of us are either at or closing in on age 40, and thinking about these things makes me have to go breathe into a paper bag for a couple of minutes. That combined with too much time to sit on my ass while on vacation or unemployed at home, since it is, again, January. You know how much I like being unemployed, but it is best punctuated with days of work, otherwise it can get to be a bit much when combined with my natural tendency to ruminate, some of which you get to experience here, some of which you don't and you're lucky, because it tends to be about things like, "Should I move my car today? I could just move it tomorrow since it's in a Monday spot. It would be good for me to get up at 8. But then I would have to get up at 8. Plus I would have to move it again at 11, or really 10:40, I hate competing for spots, doesn't anyone have a job in this town? Maybe I should just move it today. But then I'd have to move it again on Thursday or Friday, unless I just move it again tomorrow, so I might as well just move it tomorrow..." Yeah, see, and you wonder why I don't blog more often. Still, I was doing pretty well this year. Until I became obsessed with death.

It started with James Brown. Okay, maybe it started with Gerald Ford, since I heard about him first, but I had never met Gerald Ford. He was a major part of my childhood though, since he caused my first political argument, initiated with Lori DeGraw when she wouldn't stop singing a song that started, "My peanut has a first name, it's J-I-M-M-Y…" Those were the good old days, back when that caliber of political name-calling was confined to the 3rd grade.

But I worked with James Brown. It was a few years ago, on a commercial, I think it might have been for something cell phone-related. He was already in his 70s at that point, and he was definitely showing it. Although that hair never changed -- heck, it never moved -- I think we were all a little concerned watching him make his way, slow- and somewhat unsteadily, on to the set. But then the lights went on, the camera rolled, and suddenly his feet were moving faster than a PA who's getting screamed at during lock-up (not to make light of your pain, guys), and there he was, the Godfather of Soul. It was memorable. He died in December of heart failure at age 73.

Then I read somewhere that Peter Boyle had also died in 2006. I worked on a movie with him, briefly, in the mid-90s, where he had one of those marginal-star-for-a-minimal-amount-if-you-get- them-in-and-out-in-one-day parts that were big in the indie films of the 90s, the ones which I remember fondly for their six-day shoot weeks. In such a short time he made an impression of extreme grouchiness, but I can't really blame him. Here he was, a well-known actor with a long list of credits, playing some part called Belted Galloway in a movie that was notable for 1) the disorganization of the production, 2) being a star vehicle for Calista Flockhart, and 3) a huge finale scene involving cows in Central Park. Don't ask me to explain what this had to do with the plot, or explain the plot for that matter, but booming the cows did get me a millisecond of fame in the form of airtime on the evening news. Similarly, my only memory of Peter Boyle is of him growling at me, possibly motivated by something I did, possibly not, you don't retain much when you're trying to cram all of your sleep for the week into one day. Still, it’s a memory. He was 73 when he died in December.

Adrienne Shelly also made a quick and lasting impression which was otherwise completely the opposite. I met her the one day I worked on a movie called "Grind" that she was starring in with Billy Crudup. Of course, it had to be the day of the sex scene. Sex scenes are strange and awkward occasions. Working on one is a bit like joining a group of random strangers to go stand outside somebody's bedroom window: you're trying not to look, but at the same time, you kind of can't help it (and if you're shooting or booming or pulling focus, you really have no choice). Usually, because they close the set, it's a small group of random strangers, which makes it a bit more intimate but no less weird or, in my opinion, completely unerotic. But I seem to have a knack for getting myself hired to do sound for the one or two days of a job when the sex will happen. On "The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love," the two girls had sex on the first of the two days I was there. On "The Sopranos," I was asked to boom a series of sex and post-coital scenes
to make the actress more comfortable, even though I was not the boom operator. And I've been privy to a number of sex scenes in which the writer-director cast himself in the lead role solely on the basis of his own sexual fantasies, and those provided high points of discomfort in what is generally an uncomfortable situation. But Adrienne Shelly just sat up and said, "Hi, I'm Adrienne." I introduced myself back and that was pretty much the extent of our contact but it made all the difference. Her death was the most disturbing, a murder by an unhinged construction worker made to look like a suicide, in November. She was 40.

Last, or chronologically, first, but I sort of scanned the obituaries backwards, there was Ann Richards. I got to meet her working on a series of videos for the Dallas Women's Museum that I recorded sound on some time in the late 90s. It was an interesting project. I learned a lot of things during the shooting of the women's health exhibits, ranging from how women's symptoms for heart disease are often overlooked because tests have traditionally been done on men to, from a woman who was wheelchair-bound with MS, how truly evil it is for a non-disabled person to park in a handicapped spot. But meeting and miking Ann Richards was definitely the high point. We did the interview in Austin, where W was sitting up in the governor's mansion having defeated her in '94, probably due to her veto of the Concealed Carry Bill. Ah, Texas, where guns roam free. Still, she was as regal and feisty as ever, the same woman who brought down the house at the 1988 Democratic National Convention by saying how HW was "born with a silver foot in his mouth." She died of esophageal cancer in September at age 73.

This was all sobering news. Still, I had to wonder, why was I spending so much time dwelling on it?
While four people in one year seems like a lot, it isn't necessarily, considering how long I have been at this and how many people I've met. I have worked with many with other people now deceased, including Tupac, Run DMC's Jam Master Jay and Ted Demme, to name three who spring to mind because of their untimely deaths. Although it is kind of spooky that three of the four from this past year died at age 73, it is a pretty ripe old age (and Peter Boyle may have been only 71, depending on where you get your factoids). And yet, I was somehow driven to rifle though the obits, looking for other familiar names among the thousands considered notable, like the Polish actress who died of a bee-sting, the tri-athlete who collided with a car, the model who died of anorexia nervosa, the racehorse who was euthanized, the Chairman of Hooters of America who died of "natural causes."

I think the real reason that I've been more focused on death than usual -- and this is where the blog gets more serious, so if you're not into that, if you were expecting perhaps a light and cheery blog about death, now would be the time to change the channel -- is that I had a friend pass away in December. J was not a star, although I sort of tried to make her one, since she was a subject in a documentary I made over the course of five years. It's an odd way to become friends with somebody. Here's a person you hardly know and you are trying to convince them to trust you enough to spill out the personal details of their lives.

With J, it was surprisingly unstrange. And she went through a lot over the course of the film, changing careers, coming out to her mother, falling in love and then breaking up. In some ways she changed, in terms of what she thought she wanted and who she wanted to be -- she was going through her late 20s -- but she was still so indelibly herself. And that was what people reacted to when they saw the film: they felt as if they knew and connected with her. Even when she wasn't sure where she was headed, she was never really confused about who she was.

After the film was done, we saw lot less of each other. It was the basis of our relationship, and we were busy people. Like most busy people, especially freelancers, she didn't really notice that she was feeling kind of run down until one day, since she had no health insurance, she stopped by a free clinic. They did some tests and she left. When they got the results of the tests, they spent the night frantically trying to find her, since they didn't have her records. When they finally reached her at 6 am, she kept telling them she had to go to work, and they kept telling her she had to go the the hospital. Soon after, she was diagnosed with leukemia.

I saw J sporadically over the years when she was sick. She'd get better and worse. I never knew if I should visit her when she was worse because I wasn't sure if I was somebody she'd want to see, someone who maybe, unfairly, knew too much about her, who'd started talking to her about her hair and then pried open her life. And while I guess I work in this world because it's easy for me to step back behind that window and observe people most of the time, it's really hard to watch a friend deteriorate without wanting to do something
. And there was really just nothing to do other than be there.

Which was all J really wanted from her friends, no matter how she'd met us. It became clear to me at her funeral, in December, seeing all the different groups of friends she had -- college friends, roommates, girlfriends, neighbors, people she worked with part-time selling fish at the Greenmarket, people whose weddings she'd photographed, all of whom wanted to say something about how much she'd meant to them. If she liked someone, she let them in and was happy to have them. It was that simple: she just knew how to be there, all the time.
I think that's what hurt the most when she died, that she so loved just existing. That and the fact that she isn't here any more.

So this blog is dedicated to J, who would have been 38 this year too, whose life I was lucky enough to be allowed into, who some day I will watch on DVD again and instead of feeling sad, she will make me happy, because she had more star quality than any star I'll ever know.