Me and the Movies

Reflections on a life-long love affair with film

I remember the first movie I ever saw at a theater.  It was The Greatest Show on Earth.  I saw it with my mother at the Paramount Theater in Denver in 1952.  It was about the circus.  I wet my pants.

That’s been the model for my experience with the movies ever since:  I remember them vaguely but was affected by them deeply.

I love the movies.  Here I am a writer, someone who cherishes the written word, yet I’d rather watch a bad movie than read a bad book.

Why is that?  What is it about movies that makes them so . . . irresistible?

People talk about the combination of sight and sound, of the interplay of image and music and sound effects, of the willing suspension of disbelief, of the power of film to draw us into another world and let us experience it, vicariously but still as a simulacrum of reality.

We readers often talk about “getting lost” in a book, of being driven from page to page, of staying up all night reading and not realizing it until morning.  But a book to me has always been an odd, artificial medium.  We put symbols on a page that our brain then has to interpret and, using our imaginations, we need to conjure a face or a place or a sensation or an emotion.

The movie, on the other hand, plunges us into the experience.  I’ve cried a few times reading books, but I’ve cried many times watching movies.  (Actually, I’ve cried in more stage plays than movies, which is an ever weirder phenomenon because the proscenium stage is definitely artifice, but maybe that’s a flaw of my own psychology.)

George Lucas once said that sound was 50% of the movie experience.  Think Jaws, think The Exorcist, think The Godfather, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars, the list is endless that proves his point exactly.

Some movies nowadays seem to take this to the extreme—think any Michael Bay Transformers movie, which are visual and aural assaults.

But the point is, you can’t get any of that with a book:  You can’t get the stimulation (or is it manipulation?) of your ears and your eyes and your brain from the act of reading.

Some of us prefer novels because we want to use my own imaginations, and don’t want some filmmaker telling us what each character looks like and what emotion we should be having at this particular time and when we should laugh—that’s what movies do, they disinvite our participation.

I don’t get most movies on the first viewing.  I often leave a theater puzzled, like not understanding what motivated certain behaviors or what elicited certain responses.  Some movies—most movies, in fact—aren’t worth a second viewing, many not even a first.

I watched Paranormal Activity long after it was out simply because I wanted to understand why a movie made for a nickel could make a jillion dollars.  It was an interesting technique, built some pretty good suspense (or was it just the impatient anticipation that something had to happen, finally, please!), and had a few scary moments at the end.  But really, folks, was it worthy of a sequel?  And another sequel?  And—what are we now, Paranormal Activity IV?

There are other “small” movies that are not so “high concept,” but that tell wonderful stories in wonderful ways, magical ways that touch us and move us and inspire us, but that don’t seem to catch on with viewers or at the box office.  Look at Local Hero or Chocolat or Another Earth or Queen to Play or Waitress or . . . you get the picture.

These kinds of movies, I think, are like novels in many ways:  They are nuanced, they are rich, they are engaging, they are literate.  The words in these movies matter, just as they do in a novel.  Maybe they lack the depth or the explication or the complexity, but they are nevertheless gems of art that thrill us for having experienced them.

The Greatest Show on Earth was a Cecil B. DeMille spectacular—big picture, big sound, big event, big effects.  I happened to catch it showing on television a few years ago and I watched it again, recalling what it had done to me when I was five.  And I was disappointed.  It had become, in these intervening years, just a circus movie; it had a love story, lots of scenes from the real circus, some dramatic conflict, a big fire, stampeding animals, all the stuff you’d expect.  But Like Water for Elephants was a “circus movie,” too, for that matter—and I’d sooner watch it again than The Greatest Show. 

Why is that?  Have I simply grown up?  Have I moved beyond the key demographic?  Have my tastes matured?  Or have the movies themselves changed?

Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago all were big-screen spectaculars that won tons of Academy Awards and earned boat-loads of money.  Cleopatra was a big-screen spectacular that bombed at the box office and almost sank Twentieth Century Fox.  Maybe that’s why they say that in Hollywood they can tell you want made money but not what will make money.  Every success seems to come out of the blue, break new ground, change the course of movie making.  Then we get a dozen knock offs of the same kind of movie, and they all tank in varying degrees.

It’s an inevitable consequence of the law of supply and demand:  If people are buying Ivory Soap, they must want Ivory Soap, so let’s give them ten other kinds of Ivory Soap that maybe vary in shape and color and maybe fragrance but are still recognizable as Ivory Soap because, by golly, what people want to buy is Ivory Soap.  Obviously.

Before Paranormal Activity there was The Blair Witch Project, which sort of broke the ground on the subjective-camera, you-are-there, we-just-happened-to-find-this-footage school of filmmaking.  But Blair Witch didn’t earn Paranormal’s box office, not the first time out, not any other time.  Why?  It certainly wasn’t production values.  Blair Witch relied on the night and a reality sound track of voice-over dialog and, ultimately, some irritating panicked reactions, while Paranormal relied more on some neat editing tricks and jump effects.

But The Cask of Amontillado and The Pit and the Pendulum and The Premature Burial are all ultimately more horrifying to me, maybe because the concepts are more gruesome or because Poe knew how to slowly turn the horror-screw into our brains—or maybe it is the very fact that such stories do force us to use our imaginations, which are capable of much worse horror than could ever be conjured up by any movie.

I mean, let’s face it, starting maybe with Aliens and moving on to the remakes of The Thing and The Fly, and I suppose Texas Chainsaw Massacre and that whole cut-em-up genre that I have never watched, special effects have gotten pretty grisly and realistic.

And guys like Quentin Tarrantino have never shied away from squeezing every last drop of in-your-face gruesomeness from human agony.  I wasn’t a particularly big fan of Inglorious Basterds, but I absolutely LOVED the scene where Christoph Waltz sits down in his Nazi uniform and has that long, convoluted, beautifully rendered “conversation” at the table with the peasant man, who is hiding his children under the floor.  The way that scene builds, the way Waltz modulates his evil, the way Tarrantino slowly reveals the inevitability of the scene, that, to me, is wondrous movie-making—and wonderful story-telling.

I wonder how that scene would have worked in a novel.  I’ve thought a lot about that.  As a writer, I’ve asked myself how a uniquely powerful scene that I’ve seen in a movie might be written as a fictional narrative that would convey the same emotional impact as the movie scene.  It’s not just the setting or the clothing or the casting, it’s that intangible quality that an actor and a director bring to a performance, the tone of Waltz’s voice, the coldness of his eyes, the curl of his lips, his changing cadence, his nonchalance, the breathtaking evil that lurks just beneath the skin of his entire being—how can you convey that in words without losing the very essence of the thing you’re trying to convey?  I haven’t read the screenplay for Inglorious Basterds, but I’ll bet that as brilliant a writer as Quentin Tarrantino is, his words didn’t really “come alive” until Christoph Waltz said them—no actually, until he performed them.

Or how do you capture in a novel the incredible story-telling choreography of the three-minute-and-thirty-second no-cut opening scene in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil or the equally stunning seven-minute-and-forty-seven-second no-cut opening of Robert Altman’s The Player?  Does this kind of directorial tour-de-force get in the way of the storytelling or does it enhance it?  The casual movie-goer may not realize that is happening, but today’s audiences are pretty visually savvy, and after a minute or two of no cuts, you start to get uneasy and you suddenly realize, “Holy shit, this is a single shot!”

Maybe this kind of cinematic bravura is a distraction, the director calling attention to his own virtuosity.  But when Hitchcock follows the just-stabbed Martin Balsam as he falls backwards down the stairs in Psycho, it is no less a virtuoso camera move, but the effect on the viewer is not to ask, “Gee, how did he do that?” but rather to experience an almost stomach-dropping vertigo that makes palpable the shock and helpless inevitability Balsam is feeling right then.  This is virtuosity in service of what the audience experiences emotionally rather than what they might realize intellectually.

That is the challenge for many novels, I think:  Virtuoso technique is marvelous to behold but it’s almost like admiring The Mona Lisa for da Vinci’s brush strokes.  It misses the whole point.

A lot of novels, many popular novels, I think are crap.  They are, at least to me, impossible to read because they are so poorly written.  People who read paperbacks on airplanes maybe aren’t interested in good writing but more in a fast-moving story that takes them out of the discomfort of flying in coach for a few hours.  And people talk about some book being a good story.  But I’ve personally never been able to get past the weak writing to get to the story to find out.  That’s not to be some literary snob, but simply to recognize that even we novelists are in the communication business, and that poorly chosen words and badly constructed sentences produce poor communication.  It’s jarring, inelegant, disruptive, it lacks flow and finesse.

Unlike a movie where the audience is virtually trapped, sometimes literally by all the people sitting in the same row, sometimes figuratively by the darkness and the overwhelming compulsion to watch all the dancing images on screen, the person reading your book can close it after the first sentence or the first page or any other time they like.  Readers choose to read your book, and they invest considerable time and attention to do so, time that probably has many competitors these days.

So I honestly feel that writing well is an absolute obligation that the writer has in that personal contract with the reader.  If the reader is expected to spend time with your book, then you damn well better make sure you respect that reader’s commitment by delivering the very best writing you can.

We all know the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words.  Well, I happen to think that a motion picture is worth ten thousand words, maybe even a hundred thousand words.  Movies are dense with information, and a lot of it us might not even be aware of it if the filmmakers are skilled enough to make us experience the movie rather than just watch it.

I’ve always thought, simplistically I admit, but in trying to make some minimal sense out of the order of the universe, that novels are about thoughts, plays are about talk, and movies are about action.  Christolph Waltz in that delicious quiet scene talks a lot and performs very few actions, but his “body language” is rich and descriptive and menacingly unmistakable.

I’ve written a couple of screenplays, and I’ve written a lot of commercials and corporate films throughout my career, and the challenge of the form is considerable.  Every scene has to be pared to the raw nerve, every line of dialog tight and crisp and dead-on.  Screenwriters are after quintessence.

Novelists, on the other hand, are after gestalt.  Screenwriters have hundreds of other professionals working with their material, from directors and actors to costume designers, set decorators, sound-effects people, and musicians, whereas novelists need to create the entire world of experience all by themselves.

That’s why I love writing novels:  It’s just you and your paints and brushes against the blank canvas.  If you succeed in telling a compelling story, if you manage to bring your reader inside your world rather than just giving them something to read at arm’s length, then you’ve done your job.

Watching a movie in a theater is a collective social experience.  You’re influenced by the people around you, by the seats, by the sound system, by the popcorn.  But reading a book is a highly personal experience.  Even if we each come away from a movie with a different take on it, because we’ve brought our own personal experience to the theater and we’ve seen the movie through that filter, reading a book is a solitary experience, with nothing but our own thoughts and surroundings to accompany us.

I have tremendous respect for people who make wonderful movies; I can’t imagine how hard that is to do.

But I have even more respect for the person who writes a wonderful novel, because that is exponentially harder.

I love movies.  Maybe I’m lazy, maybe I’m just a voyeur, maybe I have beer taste, whatever it is, movies have always held a special place in my heart.

But I love writing even more.  Good writing, engaging writing, thoughtful writing.  It’s rare.  It’s very hard to do.  And I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to write at that level myself.

But that’s my goal:  To write a novel that will keep you in your seat for several hours and make you wet your pants.


Arriving Arizona

Your oven is dry heat, too.

“Welcome back to the United States of America.”  I had just told the guy in the gun shop that I’d just moved from California.  He’d smiled and shaken my hand and looked me square in the eye.  To his mind, the western boundary of the country wasn’t marked by the Pacific Ocean but by the Arizona-California border.

I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know things feel different here in Arizona.  For one thing, it’s flat.  I grew up in Denver, so I was used to always getting my bearings by knowing that the Rockies were always to the west.  In California, the Sierra Nevada are always to the east, but since you can’t really see them from the San Francisco area, you have to rely on the ocean—if you see it, it’s to the west; if you can’t see it, you can sometimes smell it; and at the very least, the fog blows in from the west, the prevailing wind is from the west or northwest, and the sun sets in the west.

But Arizona, at least this part of Arizona around Phoenix, is the land of vistas.  If you find a little mound of ground to raise you up a few feet, you can see for miles in every direction.  But if you stood in the Central Valley of California, you could see for miles in every direction, too.

In fact, Arizona and California are probably more alike than either state would want to admit.

The middle of Arizona is sort of like east side of California:  It’s got mountains, it’s got trees, it gets snow.  And southern California is sort of like southern Arizona:  It’s a desert.  If Los Angeles didn’t draw water from the Owens Valley at the eastern base of the Sierra Nevada (what Bill Mulholland accomplished with the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913 and everyone learned about fictionally in Chinatown (one of my favorite movies of all time, by the way)), and now from the Colorado River to the east (which forms that squiggly border with Arizona), it would be as much a desert as the outskirts of Phoenix.

And even Phoenix, which is in the desert, has mountains.  They’re not the Sierra, but nothing is.  But after a short time, you recognize that the White Tank Mountains are on the west and South Mountain is conveniently in the south, so you can get your bearings.  But here the mountains seem to just erupt from the desert like zits on a teenager’s face, interrupting the broad vistas with sudden upthrusts of rock that create an almost cognitive dissonance that such jagged peaks could so abruptly burst from the desert floor.

I have a friend who is an earthquake engineer and travels all over the world to give lectures to fellow professionals.  When I told him we were moving to Arizona, he described the state as “one of the most geologically uninteresting places on Earth.”

Maybe if your professional thrills come from living at the edge of the San Andreas Fault and you like the fact that the local segment of the Ring of Fire is less than a half day’s drive away and you’re breathless that the Cascadia Subduction Zone is just up the coast a ways, maybe by that standard Arizona is uninteresting.  But if you go to the Grand Canyon, you can look down into rocks that were formed two billion years ago, almost half the age of the Earth itself.  You can see trees that have petrified into solid rock.  And you can see a stunning example of Earth’s early history in a picture-perfect meteor crater near Winslow, which could just as easily be on Mars or the Moon.

Sure, it’s a little disconcerting at first to be in the garden department at Home Depot and see a guy reading the back of a bag of potting soil while wearing a gun on his hip.  Or to be in Sam’s Club and see a guy impeccably dressed in a black suit and a black silk shirt, escorting a charming-looking young woman also dressed in her finest, while sporting a pistol in an equally fashionable black holster.  Open carry is the exception.  But you know that a lot of the loose-fitting shirts are as much to cover your sidearm as to keep your cool.

But nobody flinches.  Nobody panics and flees the premises screaming, “He’s got a gun, we’re all gonna die!”  This isn’t California.  Here, firearms just seem to be part of the landscape.  Venture out into that desert or up into any of those hills, and there are things there like rattlesnakes that can seriously hurt you.

We live in a “development.”  It’s suburban, but it’s not like being right at the edge of the known civilized universe.  I mean, drive a mile from here, and you’re in raw desert, but still, this is not the frontier.  But we’ve got rabbits all over the place, and you can’t drive a block without having to wait for a quail family to cross the road, or a bunch of mourning doves to decide whether moving over a foot might be preferable to being squashed under a tire, no matter how slow-moving and how patient the driver is.  We have coyotes and javelinas (a type of wild pig) and scorpions and some kind of cockroach that’s about three-inches long and looks like a miniature lobster, only not nearly so mouth-watering.  And you know what?  People embrace all this wildlife.  Just like we did in California.    A lot of people in Arizona, it turns out, come from a lot of places other than Arizona.

But whatever values and experiences and histories we bring from where we lived before, we now seem happy to share the same common experience of living in Arizona.  I don’t know, maybe it’s me or maybe it’s where we’re living exactly, but I feel more I’m in touch with the elements here.  It’s hot.  And after a few days of 110, you long for the days of 105.  But they’re right about the dry heat:  It is different.  When it hit 90 in San Francisco, the headline in the paper was inevitably something like “City stalls as temp soars.”  Here in Arizona, it hits 90 and people are looking for socks and a long-sleeve shirt.

And while the winter here is all nice and pleasant and paradise-like, which pulls in the “snowbirds” from the Midwest and Northeast like a magnet pulling iron filings from a pile of dirt, the summer here reminds you that you are at the mercy of forces on this planet much greater even than the wrath of the IRS.  Dust storms rise up from the desert north of Tucson and roll up into great biblical clouds of brown wind that tower over the land like a tsunami in some end-of-the-world special-effects movie.  TV news crews cover its advance and storm chasers dance at its front edge as it moves inexorably north toward Phoenix.  And the sky turns suddenly reddish-brown and winds begin to whip you and every tree as if someone had turned on a switch.  Then your skin is being sandblasted and fine dust begins working its way into every pore of your skin.

Then as quickly as it’s rolled in, it’s rolled on, and you think you’re safe.  Until it starts to rain.  Not rain in the conventional sense of what most of us know as rain, but rain in the Noah-it’s-time-to-launch-the-ark sense.  It just dumps.  And then you realize what all those deep-carved channels next to the roads are for, because this is the land of the flash flood, where the parched desert has been burnished to a fine hard concrete and water flows horizontally instead of down into the soil.

And maybe during the rain or before the rain or maybe it’s after the rain, the Norse gods and the Greek gods and the Roman gods all seem to be fighting it out in the heavens by hurling great bolts of lightning and thunder bombs at each other.  It makes for an amazing sky—and nervous pets.

But the next morning, the sky might be blue again and the air fresh and clear.  Or it might be muggy and humid and sticky hot.  But either way, the whole world seems to have been covered in a smooth brown layer of dust as fine as talcum powder.  Forget about putting your paper towel to the test in your kitchen, bring it out to Arizona after a dust and rain storm and see how it fares.

They call it “monsoon season” around here, which I thought only applied to the tropics, but certainly applies here, too.

But these severe storms are rare, even during the season, and even at that the mornings and evenings are filled with the most extraordinary light that bathes every palm frond and every Palo Verde tree and every distant mountainside with a soft glow that almost calls to your ears the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, it’s that grand, that inspiring, that holy.

I lived in California for forty-eight years.  I’ve been in Arizona for two months.  But that has made me realize that our real enemy, what will really drain the life from us, is complacency.  “Being settled” is a good thing, but “settling” is bad.  When you thrust yourself into a whole new world, as we did by moving here to Arizona, you realize that we humans need challenges into order to grow and to thrive.  Moving here has reignited instincts long atrophied, a can-do, let’s-get-it-done spirit that is invigorating and thrilling and exhausting but remarkably fun.

It’s not testing yourself at your limits, not like Naked Survivor or some such show where you’re cast into the jungle with nothing but a pocket knife and a Q-Tip.  But it’s the idea of rattling your cage, upsetting your routine, forcing you to cope and invent and discover and live in a new way.  That’s what’s great about it.

I love California.  I loved living there for forty-eight years.  And California is still there, just a few hundred miles away.  But I’m already loving Arizona.  I doubt I’ll make it another forty-eight years here.  But what the hell, it’s worth a try.


Leaving California

A state or a state-of-mind?

I crossed the California state line heading east on Interstate 10 at 2:03 p.m. on Friday, May 23, 2014.

I had left the state I never thought I’d leave.  I never thought I’d leave because I’d been there since 1966—a mere forty-eight years.

Obviously, inertia alone favored my staying.

As did history.  My mother’s entire family was in California.  My dad’s was in South Carolina.  That’s why I grew up in Denver.  Sort of splitting the difference.  So one summer we’d drive out on vacation to visit my South Carolina relatives, next summer we’d drive out to visit the ones in California.  I went to Disneyland not too long after it opened.  And Knott’s Berry Farm just up the road.  I went to San Francisco Seals baseball games in Kezar Stadium with my grandfather.  My mother worked in San Francisco and lived on Bush Street when she met my father, who was fresh out of WWII and stationed with the Navy at Treasure Island.  I spent a couple of years going to UCLA, but then transferred to Berkeley, where I earned my degree in philosophy.  Then I studied film at San Francisco State.  And attended the Graduate Management College at Stanford.  My entire advertising career was spent in San Francisco.  Everything I was, everyone I knew, every experience I’d had as an adult was in California.

Yet I left.

It was easier than I thought it would be.  In fact, the hardest part was leaving our daughters, one of whom lives with her fiancé in San Francisco and the other in Los Angeles.

The other deterrent was fear.  Not fraidy-cat fear like not wanting to jump off the high board or touching both terminals of a nine-volt battery at the same time, but fear of the unknown, cutting every tether and letting yourself drift on the fickle breeze of fate.  You forget how dependent you become on the infrastructure you’ve build around yourself over the years—friends, doctors, where to shop, where to get your car fixed or your hair cut, who to call in an emergency, which movie theater had the best seats, the best sound system, the best popcorn, how to get around, where to take out-of-town guests to show off your community (which was especially easy in the Bay Area, with San Francisco, Sausalito, Stinson Beach, Muir Woods, the Marin Headlands, Wine Country, and even Lake Tahoe and Yosemite all easy gasp-inducing drives away).

So why leave?

Because it was time.

Ronald Reagan famously said that he didn’t leave the Democrat Party, the Democrat Party left him.  I don’t know that California left me, exactly, but I do know that the California I knew when I was a kid visiting in the 50s, going to school in the 60s and 70s, and working in the 80s and 90s was not the same California that I left two months ago.

Maybe California became a victim of its own California-ness.  The state has always had a schizophrenic personality.  LA and SF always have always had a certain urban tension, as much a function of cramming a few million people into a small space and expecting them to get along as it is of an aspiration to be an edgy amalgam of New York, Boston, and Chicago reconstituted with West-Coast Cool.

Yet other than these two great centers of cultural, social, and intellectual uniqueness (I mean, Stanford and Berkeley are less than forty miles apart, UCLA and USC just over ten, Apple is one freeway over from Google, Intel, HP, they’re all right in the neighborhood, just like Disney is in Burbank just across the 101 from Warner Brothers, which is just across the LA River from Universal, which is just over the hill on the Hollywood freeway from Paramount.

The genius that has changed our world is nowhere more concentrated than in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Los Angeles area.

Yet the rest of the state—the parts that aren’t San Francisco and Los Angeles—might as well be on another planet.  The Central Valley is the breadbasket of America.  Geographically the floor of an ancient inland sea that flowed to the Pacific through Monterey Bay (which was not in Monterey at the time, but actually down near Santa Barbara—got to love that San Andreas Fault!), the Central Valley is to agriculture what Hollywood is to movies and television:  It’s where it happens.

And forming the Central Valley’s eastern boundary are the Sierra Nevada, a remarkable range of tectonic uplift, volcanic building, and glacial etching that has given us the highest peak in the continental United States with Mt. Whitney in the south, Lake Tahoe in the middle, and Mt. Lassen and Mt. Shasta to the north as part of the same potentially devastating chain as Mt. Saint Helens, Mt. Hood, and Mt. Rainier.

These massive forces of nature that shaped California seem also to have shaped the personalities of the people who live there.  When gold was discovered in 1848 at Sutter’s Mill near Sacramento, it promulgated one of the largest migrations of human beings in history, flooding California with people from all across the country, from Canada, and from around the world.  Before then, of course, before the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican-American War, California was part of Mexico, as were all of Nevada and Utah, and parts of Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico.  And the Gold Rush of 1848 only drew more people from Mexico, Central America and South America.

So California has always been on the frontier of heterogeneity, with the ocean on one side and mountains on the other, with redwood forests in the north and desert in the south, with the highest place in Mt. Whitney and the lowest place in Death Valley, with 10% of the U.S. population but 30% of the welfare, with invisible poor and ostentatious rich, home to the Summer of Love and Charles Manson.  Dramatic conflict raised to an art form, endemic in the place and in the people, not being part of history but making history itself, leaving today behind to create the future tomorrow.

If it’s happening, it probably happened in California first.  Open-land trusts, ridge-line building restrictions, no-growth initiatives, air-quality standards, emission controls, green-building initiatives, technological breakthroughs that changed the world of electronics, medicine, finance, entertainment, transportation, clothing, and even the grind of daily living.

Yet these very achievements have led, over the decades, to a certain sclerosis, maybe more a paralysis, as if the expectation of being “California” were so high that success grew into a parody of itself.  Google was a brilliant concept that was built into a fabulous business that became so successful that it became the “star” of a movie with Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson.  The executive chef, the free food, the geek-chic, the nap pods, all of a sudden all the stuff that made Google unique and creative and fun now made it more like an updated, hipper version of Woody Allen’s Sleepers, notwithstanding, I assume, the Orgasmatron.  And then, in the end, when Sergey Brin does his fly-by across the quad saying hi to the newly arrived employees, the two having survived their internship, the cute inside-nod to only the insiders, like Hitchcock getting off the bus in the background while everyone else is fussing over the dead body in the gutter, business celebrity and entertainment celebrity are revealed to be one and the same, and all of a sudden the illusion is shattered, reality blurs into fantasy (or is it the other way around?), and we cross that barrier from observer into participant.

Everyone seems to be a “package” anymore, but especially so in California, where buzz gave way to heat which is now giving way to trending on Twitter.  We’ve all become marketers of our own “personal brand.”  It’s not enough to star in movies, now you’ve got to star on Twitter and Facebook and your fan sites, now you’ve got to have a website and a blog, you’ve got to write a book about your own personal crisis and how you overcame it so that others might learn from your mistakes because if you “can help just one other person avoid what I went through, then it was worth all the pain I had to overcome.”

Barack Obama writes two memoirs before people twice his age even think they have enough life experience to justify one.  Every CEO has to write a book about his “secrets” to business success.  Every athlete about how she overcame crushing self-doubt to become a champion.  Every movie star the tell-all story of drug addiction or sex addiction or some unheard-of addiction or what really goes on between takes on the set.

California was populated from the very beginning with dreamers and schemers.  The Gold Rush changed the state only because it drew people who were driven to succeed.  You don’t uproot your entire family and travel 3000 miles in a covered wagon through searing heat and stunning cold, through marauding Indians, heartless bandits, and soulless con artists, just for a chance to strike it rich unless you’re made of strong metal.

California delivered on every promise it ever held out to the newcomer, not to all of them, maybe not even most, but to enough of them that everyone else believed opportunity was still right at the tip of their fingers and if they only reached a little higher, tried a little harder, hung on a little longer, it would be theirs, too.

That’s the California Dream.  Anything is possible.  But possibilities come in an avalanche and they can smother the probabilities.  That’s why the California Assembly passes legislation to allow transgender high school students to choose whether to use the boys’ bathroom or the girls’ bathroom rather than tackling what some might consider the much more substantive and vexing challenges of state-employee pension reform or a dwindling economic base or even the fact that movies are being made everywhere in the world but Hollywood these days.

Marketing researchers have demonstrated it for years:  Too much choice leads to purchase paralysis—and no purchase at all.  California is awash in choice.  Not only does everyone have his or her own brand, but now each has his or her own cause or interest or addiction or passion.  Everyone talks about the collective good, but everyone acts in their own narrow self-interest.  No one rises tall enough to look beyond themselves to see how certain decisions might have benefit for more people.

It’s the old saw that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  So if you’re a gay-rights activist, for example, everything you see is through the lens of your gay activism.  Or a pro-choice activist.  Or an environmentalist.  Or a PETA member.  We don’t seem content to accept the world as it is anymore; we only want to accept it as we think it should be.  We don’t accept that life is unfair or that people might be unequal or luck can make you rich or make you poor; we don’t accept it because we refuse to accept that we might not be the masters of our own destiny.

The creationist backlash that refuses to accept random chance as the guiding principle of the universe is matched by an equally ardent anti-Darwinian refusal to accept that we are will-less animals on a passionless stage driven by incomprehensible biochemistry that renders utopia nonsensical and uniformity—including the concepts of equality and justice and humanity—impossible.  The Second Law of Thermodynamics prevails.  The whole system tends toward increasing entropy.  Order consumes energy.  Chaos is the rule, disordered uniformity, the zero-energy state.  You see a teacup fall from the kitchen table and shatter into little pieces on the floor, but you never see the little pieces suddenly leap up off the floor and assemble themselves into a teacup.

Maybe that’s California’s problem:  Maybe its entropy is increasing, maybe it is moving inexorably toward its zero-energy state of chaos because it simply takes too much energy to try to keep all the pieces together.  Too much beauty, too much choice, too much money, too much distraction.  That pioneer spirit is still there.  California is still populated with dreamers and entrepreneurs and innovators as much it still is with grifters and scammers and parasites.

I love California for all its contradictions and confusions and frustrations.  But it exacts a certain toll from you, a toll you may not even realize is being insidiously levied until you’ve left; not a physical toll, not even a psychological toll, but a psychic toll, a spiritual toll, a toll that erodes your ability to be in touch with yourself at an important and fundamental level.

In California, sometimes you realize that all you’re hearing is the constant chatter of all the little tempting voices and that you’ve lost the ability to hear just yourself.

So it’s time to leave.

Respecting the Reader

Hello, is anybody there?

Some writers write to write; it’s a compulsion, like singing along to Mama Mia or reading Fifty Shades of Grey on your Kindle.

Other writers write to remember, anticipating the day when they will have to leave sticky notes around the house to remind themselves to let the cat out.

Me, I write to be read.  If I didn’t, I’d just cavort with my fantasies all day and save myself a lot of grief.

When I was an advertising writer, there wasn’t a word I wrote that ever ended up the same way it started out.  Even the minimalist words in a television commercial were scrubbed up one side and down the other, from colleagues to creative directors to clients—and, oh, yes, the lawyers, who never met a fun word they couldn’t find some reason to kill.

But as a novelist, objectivity is a choice rather than an imposition.  Personally, I’ve found it easy to get sucked in by my own words, basking in how wonderful they were to write rather than how relevant they might be to read.

So I try to keep one goal always in mind:  Respect the reader.

If someone is going to spend actual money to buy my book, then invest hours or days of their time to read it, my principal obligation, I think, is to make that investment worthwhile.  Money may come and go, but time only moves in one direction, and there’s nothing worse than getting through a book and thinking you should have spent your time washing the car or watching reruns of Friends.

Personally, I think books should be fun to read, should be engaging, involving, challenging, enthralling.  Elmore Leonard said if it sounded like writing, he took it out.  For me, it’s just the opposite:  I think reading is all about the writing. 

Words matter—not just in the mouths of the characters but in the minds of the readers.  I don’t just want to be told a story, I want to get lost in a story.  I want poetry and imagery and sensory experiences.  I want to do things and think things and even be things I could never do on my own.  I want the book to be a guide to open up a whole new world for me, so I feel enriched for having read it rather than depleted for having wasting my time with it.  In the end, I want to put down the book and be flabbergasted and exhausted and utterly alive and say, “Wow, that was great!  When can we do it again?!”

Is that easy to achieve?  Nope.  But it’s worth striving for, don’t you think?

What the F*** is Wrong with Wolf?

Too far?  Or not far enough?

Martin Scorsese’s new film, The Wolf of Wall Street, is a three-hour testimonial to the proposition that nothing succeeds like excess.

Whether it’s Leonardo DiCaprio’s acting, Scorsese’s directing, or the characters’ carefree wallowing in a cesspool of depravity, drugs, booze, sex, and random acts of greed, the movie is an utter assault on moral balance.  It drains you, stuns you, and makes you feel a little less noble as a human being.

The characters are possessed by a primal drive to one-up each other – to snort more coke, bed more women, drive more exotic cars, have bigger houses, bigger expense accounts, bigger yachts, bigger hangovers.  Live fast and die young.

Nothing seems to exemplify this gestalt better than the use of the word fuck, which populates the dialog like consonants in Polish names.  A lot of  reviews have expressed faux astonishment at this fact, many actually citing that the word is used more than 560 times during the movie.  (Someone actually counted?!)

The irony is that this outrage is directed at Scorsese for his movie when in fact the excess is all in the book!

Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Jordan Belfort, is a real person and he really was called The Wolf of Wall Street (in a Forbes article of all places), and he wrote a confessional book about his exploits published in 2007.

I’ve read it.  It is not exactly a whiz read.  Belfort writes in the first person, which is fine, but he loves to reminisce in dense gray paragraphs of sometimes excruciating detail.  But he offers two important caveats right up front.  The first is that his book is written “in a voice that was playing inside my head at that very time.”  Which is why the writing is frenetic and bombastic and lubricious – because his mind at the time was fueled by a pharmacopeia of drugs.  And the second is that his book is “a satirical reconstruction” of the “insanity” of that time.

Far from the being the balls-to-the-wall celebration of excess depicted in the movie, Belfort in his book actually has a higher purpose:  “. . . what I sincerely hope is that my life serves as a cautionary tale . . . to anyone who thinks there’s anything glamorous about being known as a Wolf of Wall Street.”

The movie is about excess, but the book is about addiction – to money, to things, to love, to sensations, to some magical something just out of reach.  These addictions grow and invade and metastasize until eventually, like a cancer, they kill their host.

Jordan Belfort doesn’t die.  But The Wolf of Wall Street does.  The movie equivocates about his fate at the end, leaving us to wonder if he really gets away with it after all, getting a slap-on-the-wrist punishment but keeping all his wealth.  But in the book, in real life, the only thing Jordan Belfort gets away with is his sobriety – because he loses everything else.  Everything.  He goes to prison for twenty-two months, and he loses his business, his assets, his home, his wife, his children, his friends, himself.  And he is still on the hook to pay back his defrauded clients $110 million, somehow.

So maybe the real criticism of Martin Scorsese’s movie shouldn’t be that it goes too far in depicting excess – but because it fails to show us the shattering consequences of that excess, it doesn’t go far enough.

Nevertheless, having said all that, like Fellini’s Satyricon, you need to see it once.

It’s Never Too Late Unless You’re Dead

Worse than not succeeding is not trying at all.

I’m sixty-six years old and trying to launch a career as a writer.

Actually, that’s not quite true.

I am sixty-six years old, but I’ve been a professional writer my whole career.  I was an advertising copywriter and creative director at several global agencies for twenty-five years and I’ve been an independent marketing and communications writer for ten.

But I’m launching a career as a novel writer now because of Mike Koelker.

Mike was the creative director on the Levi’s account at Foote, Cone & Belding in the 70s and 80s.  That was the hottest account in town and Mike was the hottest creative director.  As the VP of Worldwide Marketing at Levi’s once told me – and it was after several drinks at Reno’s, so I know it was true – “If Mike Koelker leaves FCB, Levi’s leaves FCB.”

Mike also gave me my first break.  He referred me to Ron Berman, who was creative director of the office, and Ron eventually hired me.  I was lucky.

But what I still remember vividly was sitting in Mike’s office one day, talking about creative stuff like we always did, and some account executive, trying to kiss up I figured, asked, “Mike, you’re such a great writer, why haven’t you written a novel?”

Without hesitating he responded, “Because I guess I have nothing to say.”

That was sad, I thought, even at the time, because I bet Mike had plenty to say.  He’s gone now, so we’ll never know.

But that stuck with me and made me wonder throughout my own career if I was similarly afflicted, that I had nothing to say.  Even before I got into advertising, I wrote a novel.  I sent it around to agents and publishers.  And they all sent it back.  Years later I reread it and realized they were right:  It was bad.

That’s actually what propelled me into advertising.  Having failed at my first novel – so easily dissuaded! – and then having written a play and a screenplay, both of which suffered the same fate – I pitched myself to the ad world.  And I got in.  And I loved it!  So I didn’t worry about whether I had anything to say — I was getting paid to write.

But I’m older now than Mike was when he died, and I think I finally have something to say.

So with that as a basis, I’m “starting over” at sixty-six.

Actually, that’s not quite true either.

I actually started over about three years ago.  I wrote a screenplay called Cenote.  I pitched it to Kerry McCluggage, I pitched it to Tony Bill, I pitched it to Charlie Meeker.  No, no, no.

So I rewrote it as a novel.  And I queried agents about it.  And they all rejected it.  So I rewrote it.  More queries.  More rejections.  More rewrites.  Queries-rejections-rewrite.  It was a nice dependable pattern in my life.

And in the process of writing Cenote, I discovered that the story is actually a trilogy.  So I’ve already written the second book in the series, called Primrose, and I’m working on the third, called Eden.

But while these books bubble to the surface, I thought I’d start this blog.

Because I think I have something to say.

Maybe you do, too.  Post a reply, ask a question, let me know what you think.  Maybe you write, maybe you paint or sculpt or take photographs or do music or weave baskets — whatever you do, just as a joy shared is twice a joy and a sorrow shared is half a sorrow, a dream shared has a better chance of becoming more than a dream.

Because I think a dream, any dream – even if it seems distant and unreachable and unrealistic – I think that dream deserves a chance to struggle and squirm and fight its way into existence.

Because a dream is a gift.  It’s a fragile, magical thing that can carry us away and let us soar.

I don’t care how old you are, if you have a dream, it’s worth the effort to try to see it come to life.  Because it’s never too late.  Unless you’re dead.  Mike taught me that.