Category Archives: Esprits d'Escalier

Stardust Memories

The very moment I was invited to see the new Woody Allen movie, I felt that unsettled feeling one invariably feels meeting an old lover for a drink. Really, it’s a feeling I’ve felt before seeing every Woody Allen movie since Small Time Crooks, when things started going south, a full decade ago. You know what I’m talking about.

Me: Hi! Wow!

Her: Hi.

Me: How are you? You look –

Her: Fine. I’m doing…I’m…[trails off]…yeah.

Me: Well, you know, that’s great.

Her: Not really, but…yeah. Anyway.

Me: Okay. [Drinks quickly] God, you know, we used to be something! Remember?

Her: Are we really going to talk about that?

Me: No. I mean, we don’t have to.

Silence.

Me: But it’s true. Remember?

She stirs her drink.

Me: Come on, Hannah and Her Sisters, Broadway Danny Rose! You were incredible! We were incredible! I mean the two of us together. Right? Because even when you were like Everyone Says I Love You and everyone was disappointed, I was right behind you, saying, “No, no. It’s fine. Really, this is what’s happening, you’re wonderful, and I’ll be there even when you’re…” [Off her look] What’s wrong?

She shakes her head.

Me: What’s wrong?

Her: I don’t want to talk about –

Me: No, no, no…tell me. You can tell me.

Her: You’re bullying me. I’m someone else now.

Me: Bullying? What?

Her: Keep your voice down.

Me: I’m just trying to have a conver-

Her [blurting]: It’s just that every time I see you we talk about the same things! Diane Weist, Robert Greenhut…

Me: Those were great times, our times! Remember Mighty Aphrodite, even then–

Her: I remember! I remember!

Me: And that night at the Angelika? Manhattan Murder Mystery? Even when you weren’t all dressed up, you were adorable…

Her: You see, that’s your problem. You’re stuck in then. You always were. Even when we met all you wanted was Annie Hall and Manhattan. You you you you. Gordon Willis and Santo Loquasto and you you you! But what about me, the new me?

Me: I wanted the new you.

Her: I gave you Deconstructing Harry and you were blasé.

Me: I’ve changed.

Her: No you haven’t. Match Point and Vicky Cristina

Me [incredulous laughter]: I can’t believe you’re doing this.

Her: Doing what?

Me: You’re not really bringing those up, are you?

Her: Why the hell shouldn’t I?

Me: Oh come on. Those things weren’t any good. They just weren’t as bad.

She slaps me.

Me: What am I supposed to say? “You really returned to form”? No way, honey. No way. You got lazy. You let me down. You let all of us down. And all of your “I have to see the Knicks” bullshit, what’s that about?

Her: I love the Knicks.

Me: Okay. Fine. Wrap at 5:00. I don’t care. Wrap at 4:00 if you want to. But tell me this: how can you call it a day and not get a single good take in there?

Her: I don’t have to take this from you.

Me: You say you love masters but really what you mean is “I don’t want to do another set up.”

Her: I’m leaving.

Me: There were shots in Cassandra’s Dream that were out of focus!

Her: I’m leaving now.

She gets up.

Me: Okay, take it easy, take it easy. Sit down, alright? Okay, I’m the guy that loves Radio Days, remember?

Her [calming down]: I don’t know what to tell you. I’m getting older. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I don’t even know if I like it anymore, but I do it. I keep doing it. So if you don’t like all of them, well, I’m sorry. I really am. I wish you would. But I’m not Bergman.

Me: There you go with that again. You always say that.

Her: Well it’s true.

Me: No it is not. You’re just as good as he is, just as smart, just as meaningful, just as –

Her: No….

He takes her hand.

Me [gently]: God damn it, would you listen to me?

She’s quiet.

Me: Just listen to me. I’m going to say one thing and then I swear I’ll stop, okay?

She nods.

Me: Okay.

He takes a breath.

Me: Husbands and Wives.

She says nothing.

Me: That’s Bergman quality. Remember? Judy Davis and –

Her: I remember everything.

She smiles sadly.

Me: When we were good, we were good, huh?

Her: There was no one better.

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Today’s Word

“Everybody these days is talking about transmedia,” said video game agent Keith Boesky in a recent New York Times article. “Transmedia”! Finally my enemy has a name.

I remember the afternoon I first had a sense of what was to come. It was in film school. One day, from out of nowhere, it was decided that we of USC’s Film Production department were required to take a video game class. The moment I heard the news I remember thinking, “Years from now, I will look back on this moment as the beginning of the end of meaningful content in Hollywood.” It was a flash-forward containing a flashback.

That day, I barged – literally, barged – into the dean’s office. I was shaky, borderline belligerent, and fueled by the righteous fire of someone whose parents were footing the bill.

“This is a mistake,” I said. “You’ve got to be kidding with the video games.”

The dean looked up. His still eyes, peering out from behind thick screenwriterly frames, told me it was no use. “It’s the future,” he muttered. “Electronic narrative is the future.”

“Electronic narrative? I came here to learn film. Cinema. Not to analyze Donkey Kong.”

“It’s a good skill to have.” He put down his dog-eared copy of Syd Field. “Another arrow for your quiver.”

“What arrow? What quiver? I want human feelings!”

“It’s another form of story telling. That’s all.”

“Show me a video game that does what Cries and Whispers does, and I’ll take the class. Show me Ingmar Bergman’s Mortal Kombat, in which I can play Liv Ullmann and do battle with a total metaphysical breakdown, and you’ve got yourself a convert.” I was kidding, but I was completely serious.

The next day, I was in a basement with fifteen pale-faced boys who I was certain had never seen a bare tit in their lives. For two hours, we discussed a game called Grand Theft Auto. Then I raised my hand.

“Have any of you ever wept at the end of a video game?” I asked. “I mean really wept. Convulsive sobs.”

They blinked back at me. Then one spoke.

“The end of Final Fantasy IV is really sad.”

I didn’t speak. My professor – in all honesty, a very nice man – tried then to help me see it another way. “You know, of course, that film was originally perceived as a low-culture medium.”

“You can’t compare the evolution of a mammal to the evolution of an amoeba,” I announced. “Film came from D.W. Griffith. You people come from Pong.”

After class that day, I returned to the dean and begged him for clemency. “They’re Pong People,” I pleaded. “And they’re going to kill us.”

The dean hung his head.

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Gaslit

Yesterday, upon discovering Iron Man 2 had sucked in $133.6 million over the weekend, I stumbled to a brunch of six Bloody Marys. Only moments later I found myself conversing with George Cukor. Here is a snippet from our nearly four-hour exchange:

GC: Put down that butter knife! Put it –

SW: I’ll do it, I swear!

GC: Put it down!

SW: Try and stop me! Just try – ow! – let go of my neck!

GC: Give me the knife!

SW: [Suddenly crying] George…I just don’t…A hundred and thirty three –

GC: Shhhh…Sit down…

SW: [Crying harder] I just…I don’t…

GC: Sit down, Sammy.

SW: I – okay…

GC: Have another sip.

SW: Thank you.

GC: There, there. That’s a good lad.

SW: I know I shouldn’t be shocked, but somehow I am…every time…every single…I don’t know…

GC: Hey, did I ever tell you the story about Judy on Star is Born?

SW: No. This is my first hallucination.

GC: Ah. Well, toward the end of shooting we had to do a scene when she’s in a state of total depression after her husband’s suicide. Do you remember the scene?

SW: Yes.

GC: Keep drinking. Breathe through your nose.

SW: What –

GC: Drink.

SW: Okay.

GC: While we lined it up Judy just sat there, very preoccupied….Just before the take I said to her very quietly, “You know what this is about. You really know this.” She gave me a look, and I knew she was thinking, “He wants me to dig into myself because I know all about this in my own life.” That was all. We did a take. And she got up and screamed like someone out of control, maniacal and terrifying….She had no concern with what she looked like, she went much further than I’d expected, and I thought it was great…

SW: Did you –

GC: When it was over, I said to Judy, “You really scared the hell out of me.” She was very pleased, and she didn’t realize what an effect she’d made. And then — she was always funny, she had this great humor — she said, “Oh, that’s nothing. Come over to my house any afternoon. I do it every afternoon.”

SW: Wow. Tell me another one.

GC: [Chuckles] Some other time, perhaps.

SW: Please, George?

GC: I’m pretty tired and there are a lot of other filmgoers I have to get to before – put down the knife!

SW: I’m going to do it!

GC: Put it down!

SW: I swear, George! This time I’m serious!

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The Dawn of the Modern PR Campaign

I was walking down the streets of New York, mulling over the release strategy for my new book, Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and The Dawn of the Modern Woman, when I was mugged.

I didn’t see him and I don’t know how it happened. All I know is I was on the ground. “Hey man, are you okay?”

Are you okay? To someone who’s been contemplating the book business, this is an imposing question. “I don’t know,” I thought to respond, “am I? Are any of us?” Instead I chose to ignore him, and laid there fretting about my impending photo shoot. I had hoped to appear dapper and slightly licentious, like young Truman Capote on the back of Other Voices, Other Rooms, but now I was certain to look more like Eric Stoltz from Mask – but with Jewish hair.

Moments later, a cop was squinting at my nose. He was a short man, with the face of Jon Polito and the body of Miriam Margolyes. “It looks like you’re pretty roughed up, buddy,” he observed, “and you’re gonna hurt for a while but don’t you wurryboutit. The ladies are gonna love it.”

But I didn’t want ladies. I want sales.

“Kid, what do you for a living? What’s your job?”

I mumbled.

“You’re a blogger?”

I mumbled emphatically.

“Oh, a writer!”

I smiled. Blood spurt.

“Well, now you’re gonna be in the papers.”

What? The papers. Wait a second. “Yofinkdanoyowkpah – ”

“Don’t try to talk – ”

The papers. “Yoo fink da Noo York Potht cud wun an item bout – ”

“Listen, kid. Keep your mouth closed.”

But I wanted to sing. I wanted to run to the top of the Conde-Nast building and cry out in wild joy. “Yoo fink Janet Mathlin readths the Potht?” I wasn’t thinking now, I was exploding. “Offither, yoo fink it wud bebedder if the other thide of my fathe wath…” There was literally no end to the possibilities. If I could get mugged again, wouldn’t that make for a better story? And if I did it in another part of town, I could reach a new audience. Of course the backdrop was going to be key here. What about the Bronx? There really was something in my book for the Puerto Rican community. Or Chelsea? No, I had the gays – but the hipsters? If I could just change into a flannel shirt before the next mugging, Nylon might even go for it. Or even Interview. Whoa, whoa. Easy there, keep it cool, keep it viral. Art Forum? Because this is bigger than mugging, this is performance art. Yes, MoMA! Move over Marina Abramovic! “Sam Wasson’s latest series, ‘Mug Shots,’ is the artist’s most explicitly political sequence yet. In the wake of health care reform, Wasson, author of Fifth Avenue, 5.A.M: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and The Dawn of the Modern Woman, sets about to demonstrate the inefficiency of the national…”

The paramedics were upon me now, dabbing at my wounds. I tried my best to keep the fuckers off, but my arms were too sore.

“It’s okay, you’re going to be fine. Really.” They were cleaning me up.

No.

“Just hold still.”

Now Graydon would never notice.

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Out and About with James L. Brooks

It’s of enormous comfort to know that somewhere out there in this vast, hilly city of ours, probably between 26th Street and Doheny, James L. Brooks is puttering around in a shaggy windbreaker and sneakers, driving himself to Whole Foods, hopelessly scanning the shelves for a soy product he can’t find, and returning to his Prius more aggravated than when he left it. Yesterday’s piece in The New York Times made me think of him. Now I can’t stop.

If not Whole Foods, then maybe Starbucks, the one on Beverly south of Little Santa Monica. I can see James L. Brooks, modern master of what we call “dramedy,” aggravated to find himself at the very end of a long line of customers, pulling out his years-old Blackberry to check messages as he shuffles forward, struggling to download the picture of his ex-wife that his daughter accidentally emailed to him from their room at The Four Seasons Maui. Struggling all the way up to the counter, he finds himself face-to-face with the barista and forgets why he even came to Starbucks in the first place. Was it for coffee? He squints at the big menu. A blueberry muffin? But what about that piece he read in the New York Times, the one about the dangers of fructose? Overwhelmed – and angry with himself for letting such a small thing defeat him – James L. Brooks leaves Starbucks and gets back in his Prius. “Please enter your destination.” He thinks of his ex-wife and starts to cry. There’s fructose in everything.

You see, this is what makes James L. Brooks different than Nancy Meyers, who calls herself his acolyte. A look at Brooks’s second masterpiece, Terms of Endearment, and we remember that a dramedy is not simply a narrative form of alternating lights and darks. It’s not, “See Diane Keaton Laugh and then Cry.” It’s “See Shirley MacLaine in the Painful Joy of Life.” It’s “Isn’t it Funny The Way We Hurt Each Other and Get Hurt?” That’s why they call it dramedy, not drama-comedy.

James L. Brooks understands the distinction. As far back as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” we’ve seen him fuse rigorous emotional logic with warm, welcoming comedy, creating a genuine closeness between the audience and his characters. Unlike most contemporary comedies, when Brooks’s people are funny, it’s never at the expense of their humanness; in fact, it only enhances it. Think of Albert Brooks in Broadcast News. He’s given as many one-liners as a character in a sitcom, but they don’t come off as shtick because they express that frustrated, lacerating instinct that makes him such a clever journalist and such a difficult lover. Brooks is unafraid to let him get ugly, but no matter how unappealing he becomes, you love him. That’s what the comedy does, and it’s not calibrated for laughs, but to the needs and fears of the characters in question.

The opening moments of Terms of Endearment are just as full. In what may be her best performance, we see Shirley MacLaine obsessively keeping watch over her sleeping baby, expertly evincing comic beats from an otherwise panicked situation. Then, after the laugh – our laugh of recognition, of closeness – she checks on her baby again (a third time, I think) and with Brooks’s proper, adoring close-up we feel the sweetness beneath her worry. We know her, we love her, and the movie’s only just begun.

It gives me enormous comfort to know that somewhere out there, James L. Brooks is living his life – a life that, despite his millions of dollars, looks a lot like mine, and yours.

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Nancy

Esprit d’escalier.

Literally, it means “sprit of the stairs.” Figuratively, it’s what you should have said when you had the chance. But now that you’re on the stairs, on your way out, it’s too late.

I met Nancy Meyers at a dinner party off Via de la Paz. It was around Christmas time a year ago and we were all standing around the buffet making jokes about Gran Torino. It was sometime around my second drink that Nancy arrived. She was late, but she was so charming about it, so recklessly flummoxed, it was instantly forgotten. She claimed it was something having to do with the kids, and I believed her. Just one look at her big, black sunglasses, cashmere sweater set, and chunky leather purse, and anyone versed in the unspoken semiology of Brentwood would know: this person was a mom, and a cute one too.

We spoke only briefly that night. But, had that night been last night instead of last year, and had I been given the chance (and two more drinks), our conversation might have been completely different.

“Nancy?”

“Yes!”

“Congratulations on the weekend. They say it was the best ever.”

“Oh, well, thank you, sweetie.”

“Some stiff competition and you did good, I think, right?”

“We did alright. A few more blue people and we would have done better.”

“Maybe. But you had Meryl.”

“Still, we should have made her blue. Or at least 3D.”

“She could have handled it.” I drink. “God damn her. She can do anything.”

“Yes, well – ”

I drink again.

“Sweetie, I want to get to that prosciutto before it disappears.”

“Okay, but before you do, I just wanted to say, I think you’re very courageous, going out there and making personal movies about… ” I hesitate. “I mean, romantic movies about women…of a certain – ”

“Older women.”

“Older women. Yes, that’s just the – just the term I was looking for. When there’s AvatarAlvin and the Chipmunks, and Sherlock Holmes, I just wanted to say, I really appreciate it. I know a lot of people do.”

“Wow, well, thank you, that’s – ”

“Having said that, I would appreciate it even more if you made stronger decisions with the camera, cut out a good half-hour, hold off on the Williams-Sonoma kitchens, and not light the thing like it was a tampon commercial, but I really don’t want to split hairs here. You did the impossible, you made a personal movie in Hollywood, and that’s just fantastic.”

“Okay. Thank you.”

“Now let’s get some prosciutto.”

“I’d rather go alone.”

“Of course, of course. Merry Christmas.”

“Yes. Merry Christmas.” She starts to go.

“I loved Father of the Bride by the way.”

“Thanks, I’m going now.”

“Okay. Great.”

The French Have a Phrase For It

Miranda July. I met her at a dinner party off Coldwater Canyon.

It was so chic. I can’t tell you how chic it was. The whole night I jockeyed to get next to her. Finally, at the end of the evening, after our hostess told us to write our names in permanent marker on her mahogany table, I made my move. “Miranda,” I said, on our way out “You’re great. You’re just great.” (I’m wildly articulate in moments of high anxiety.) I asked her what her next movie was about. “It’s about a cat” she said, like a cat. “And the cat is in love with a plastic bag.” I swallowed. I smiled. “What’s it called?” I asked. She drew an invisible lock of hair around her tiny ear. “Satisfaction.”

And that was that.

Literally, esprit d’escalier means “sprit of the stairs.” Figuratively, what you should have said when you had the chance. But now that you’re on the stairs, on your way out, it’s too late.

“Miranda?”

“Yes?”

“Can I tell you something?”

“Yes.”

“Well, excuse me, but I didn’t want to see your movie, Me and You and Everyone We Know, when it came out. It looked like something a sad girl in high school would have liked.”

“Okay.”

“But my friend Goldblatt, who has seen it like three times, insisted I go. I told him I thought it looked, honestly, like just the sort of posturing, faux-indie, cutesy, aimless, airless crap that makes me want to run to Hepburn and Tracy, but he assured me that I would change my opinion after I saw it.”

“Okay.”

“You don’t say much do you?”

“It’s late.”

“What I wanted to say was, it blew me away.”

“Oh.”

“You made a romantic comedy from your guts, you know? Who does that? Romantic comedies – the good ones at least – seem to come from heaven, but you made one that – even though it’s all pretty and soft – that feels so earthbound and packed with all of the hot blooded vigor of a real and really lonely person.”

“I’m tired.”

“Do you know what I mean? When I heard that little boy say, sweetly, ‘You poop into my butt hole and I poop into your butt hole…back and forth…forever,’ I got it. I thought, ‘Yes, that’s love, isn’t it?’ And then I thought, ‘Wow, I can’t remember the last time I heard anything in a movie that so succinctly and hilariously summed the whole thing up. It was almost like one of those glimmering lines from Lubitsch.”

“It was nice meeting you.”

“Hey, wait.”

“Yes.

“What’s your next movie about?”