I woke up this morning thinking about Urban Dance Squad. There aren’t many mornings where I’m awakened by thoughts of Dutch funk rock bands that haven’t been mentioned in American popular culture over the last quarter century, but these things happen. Let’s blame an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of undercooked potato. That’s how it is with musical ghosts.
Fortunately, I have Mental Floss For the Globe in my stacks, and as I write this sentence “A Deeper Shade of Soul” burrows its way down my ear holes. This is aural time travel at its finest. I’m 24 years-old, flopped on the futon in Su Casa apartment #207, just off of Sunset Boulevard in the heart of Hollywood. Outside my door and one floor down runs an alley. Most nights the police helicopters come, their spotlights searching for whatever bad guy lurks between the Su Casa and whatever pleasantly named apartment building we back up against. Last night they let the dogs loose on some poor bastard. “Get him off me! Get that fucking thing off me!” he screamed. “Stop fighting,” the cop replied. This is how it is with L.A. cops. Recently a video surfaced of them beating a guy named Rodney King who was already on the ground. The only resistance the video appeared to show was King holding up his arms to fend off the baton blows.
In front of my futon rests a 13-inch color television with a five button remote: volume up/down; channel up/down; and power. The TV sits on top of a cardboard box. Prior to getting cable I used a coat hanger as an antenna, but now I watch MTV for 30 bucks per month instead. It’s pretty much the only thing I watch. Urban Dance Squad are in heavy rotation these days, and right now they’re carving up a day-glo skate park.
At the end of my block stands the Ralphs grocery store that everyone in L.A. calls the Rockin’ Ralphs. This neighborhood belongs to the aspiring rock stars courtesy of its geographical location: The Su Casa and the Rockin’ Ralphs mark the halfway point between the Strip and Musicians Institute. Guys with long hair come from all over the country to attend MI and learn how to play eight notes per second — meedly meedly meedly — rather than playing songs. I have long hair, too, but I’m a front porch strummer, or I would be if my porch didn’t overlook an alley prone to police dog massacres.
The neighbor directly on the other side of my television plays Extreme’s “More Than Words” on a loop. I think he’s trying to learn it, a task that takes all of ten minutes but he’s been at it for a month. My upstairs neighbor has a screamer for a girlfriend. The nights she visits sound like a scene from Porky’s.
On my last trip to Ralphs I ran into Stoney Jackson. “Stoney!” I said. “What’s up?”
“Huh? Oh. Hey, how you doing,” Stoney said.
“I’m James. I’m working on your movie right now.”
“The Looters. I’m an assistant editor.”
“Oh. How’s it look?” Stoney asked.
“Looks great, man. Your scenes are really good,” I said. Stoney rubbed his eyes. “You okay?”
“Huh? Yeah, Just something in my eye. I’ll see you,” Stoney said, and he put a carton of eggs in his basket.
We’re cutting The Looters on the Warner-Hollywood lot, just a short walk from the Su Casa Apartments. Most days I walk, and when I do I carry my Walkman. Urban Dance Squad is my current go-to. When I drive, I have my own parking space on the lot with my name on it. That makes me feel important, but I’m not. I’m not even an assistant editor: My title is apprentice editor.
Not only am I just an apprentice editor but at this point in the film there are only three of us on the crew and I’m the odd man out. The editor and his first assistant have been working together for over a decade, and they have their routine. I’m a disruption more than anything. When I try to do something one or the other always intervenes. “I’ll take care of that,” he or she says. “You just go back to your cutting room. I’ll let you know if we need anything.”
I try to stay busy, but there’s nothing to do. I mount reels of fill — old film prints used to fill space in sound rolls — on my workbench and study the frames, trying to figure out what movie they’re from. I listen to my Walkman. I write. I draw. I read A Confederacy of Dunces for the first time. Whenever possible, I sneak into the editor’s cutting room and watch him work. He’s working on a scene that happens all in one dark, grainy long shot. Figures are visible in a parked car. Lots of silence, and then muzzle flashes inside the car — the classic drug deal gone bad. The editor plays different songs while he runs the scene over and over, trying to find the right temporary music to set the tone for the music editor when she comes on board in a few months. “I just can’t find a song that works,” he says to the wallpaper, but I overhear it.
The next day I bring in the Beastie Boys’ “Something’s Got to Give” and play it for him. “Yeah, that would be a good song,” he says. “If the scene was staying in the movie.” I go back to blending with the wallpaper.
I spend a lot of time with my tail between my legs. The editor and director work on a scene one afternoon while I sit silently near the door. “You can’t jump like that,” the director says. “The scene loses any narrative sense.”
“That’s why it works,” the editor says. “They’re fighting. It’s supposed to be chaotic.”
“Chaotic yes, but the audience still needs to be able to follow the scene,” the director says. Back and forth they go. They’ve worked together for over a decade, too. They are a tight crew and I’m just an owl in the eaves, but then the director swivels in his chair and says, “What do you think, James?” I didn’t think he even knew my name.
I can’t remember what I said, but it was option three — a version of the scene not considered by either director or editor. When I’m through babbling, my suggestions are met with deafening silence. After ten seconds that last for two hours, the director says, “Well, I guess I’ll just go home and let James finish the picture since he knows more about directing than I do.”
I read The Bell Jar, Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird — books we weren’t assigned in high school dumb kid English class. Crime and Punishment, Lolita. Nabokov knocked me out. So did Mario Puzo, which I found in a remainder bin at the B. Dalton in the Beverly Center. I was too stupid to know that I wasn’t supposed to admire Puzo, so I enjoyed him. I liked the way he built scenes, and I liked Nabokov’s use of language.
The L.A. County Museum of Art hung a Thomas Hart Benton retrospective, and I tried to write a novel based on the show catalog. It wasn’t really, but I used Benton’s paintings as a starting point for each chapter. Thanks to Benton, I learned who Persephone was: the goddess of the underworld, the condemner of men’s souls. She made a good proxy for Jody in my failed attempt at long fiction. It was an awful manuscript, but a worthwhile exercise.
Benton’s most famous student was Jackson Pollock. No two artists could have more different styles — Benton with his tight, illustrative paintings and Pollock with his abstract splatters. I liked them both, courtesy once again of being too stupid to know that I was supposed to love one and hate the other. Naivete has its advantages. Somewhere in there I realized that what I gravitate toward in visual arts is a good narrative sense. Benton told stories.
I cut off my hair, or more precisely a barber named Clarence cut off my hair. He worked at a three chair shop just off of Hollywood Boulevard. It was an impulse move — I walked past the shop one Saturday afternoon on my way to the Chinese theater and just did it. “You sure?” Clarence asked. My hair reached to the middle of my back. When he was done it didn’t even touch my collar.
I admired my editor greatly. He took me to the track and to the shooting range, let me cut a scene that he knew wasn’t going to make the final cut. Now and then he’d take me out to lunch. Years later I found out that he didn’t like me. I was devastated. I guess at 24 I was still looking for fathers.
The movie was a piece of crap. The plot summary might have been written by a grade schooler: Two firemen, played by actors whose first names were Bill, search for hidden treasure in a derelict warehouse occupied by a gang, two of whom are played by rappers named Ice.
Every morning when the roach coach pulled into the parking lot and honked its “La Cucaracha” horn, I ran downstairs for a breakfast burrito. This is an anecdote of no consequence, with exception to the morning that the woman behind me in line asked if the truck made good burritos. We small talked for a few minutes before I realized that she was Robin Wright and that her boyfriend, Sean Penn, was standing behind her, punching my face with his eyeballs.
We screened a rough cut of The Looters for a preview audience. The purpose of this exercise was to get the volunteer audience to fill out comment cards, allegedly in order to improve the film but really to get a good score with which to sell the movie. People all over town talked about their cards in terms of percentiles, where 100% meant the entire preview audience loved it and 0% meant they hated it. The worst cards I’d ever heard of were 9%, which essentially cursed that particular film to the purgatory of the unreleased film vault, or straight-to-video hell.
A good score was important, so the company responsible for assembling the audience stacked the deck. Nobody cared about actors named Bill, so the recruiters packed the house with fans of rappers named Ice. These volunteers did their job well, cheering every time an Ice did something, but not so much when a Bill was on screen. Poor Stoney Jackson didn’t get any play one way or the other. Studio executives and producers, the director, and the editor watched from the back row, pleased with the response.
And then we got to the last reel. In that first cut, the firemen played by Bills somehow take down an entire street gang and get away with the hidden treasure. The crowd of people gathered to thrill at the exploits of the Ices were outraged. They jumped from their seats, screaming and swinging their arms. They threw delicious snack foods. Some tugged at the rows of theater seats, trying to rip them free so that they could throw them…somewhere: through the screen, at each other, somewhere. I don’t think they had formulated a real plan. The one target denied them was the makers of the offending finale. At the first sign of trouble the back row cleared out, my editor telling me on his way to the lifeboats to head up to the projection booth, reclaim our reels of film, and head out the back door when it seemed safe.
When we got the cards back, our score was around 20. The mood around the cutting rooms couldn’t have been much darker. The director and editor huddled together, trying to figure out how to salvage the picture. They brought the screenwriter in. He made copious notes on a yellow legal pad. One of the Ices dropped in for a personal screening and offered his suggestions. I kept my mouth shut, lest I be accused of trying to show up the director again.
Eventually they settled on shooting a new ending, which was fine by me. That meant a few more months of guaranteed work, even if all I was getting paid to do was stay out of the way. The Looters was back on track, I still had a job, and Urban Dance Squad remained in my Walkman power rotation. Things were pretty good.
And then Los Angeles burst into flames.