Tuesday, December 11, 2007

"Letter from the Front" - Los Angeles, CA

Okay, it is eight o’clock at night. I am sitting outside the DAY GLOW Sushi Restaurant on Montana Avenue in Los Angeles…. I am eating tuna sashimi, drinking miso soup and typing on my Mac laptop. Across the street is the Aero Theater. On the Marquee, in big letters it says “FLYING: CONFESSIONS OF A FREE WOMAN”, Wednesday Night at 7:30pm. It is Wednesday Night, it is past 7:30 pm, and inside that building sit a crowd of people staring at a large screen watching my film, meanwhile I watch the building from outside, like a lioness, jealous, pacing, protective, wondering how they are receiving my story.

In two hours I will return inside, stride to the front of the stage and find out what has happened. In the meantime, I am in self-imposed exile. It is one of the ironies of being a filmmaker, that I cannot watch my film once it is completed. To look at it is to writhe in agony: I hate every word, I hate every image: “STUPID! STUPID! STUPID!” I think and imagine myself sinking through the floor of the cinema into the dark earth, propelled to the center of the planet, to some molten hell that reads “assholes only.” But these feelings are not new to me. When I made my first film in the eighties, “BEIRUT: THE LAST HOME MOVIE” and had no experience, I forced myself into a seat in the theater, festival after festival, thinking that I should, I must. And after each screening, I would make it through the inevitable question and answer session and then escape to my hotel room where I would burst into tears. Not a few light, ‘spring rain’, tears. No! Big torrential ‘monsoon tears’, that lasted more than an hour and left me pale and shaking, barely able to speak. Tears that scared the hell out of my then Italian boyfriend, accompanying me on what he thought would be a “fun, cool, movie tour!” (No surprise that relationship didn’t last!)

…And “BEIRUT” was a film that won every award in the book, including Sundance Film Festival and was put on many critics ten best lists, so it was not that the audience booed or the press was bad. It is not about what the outside world thinks. Even then, in my twenties, I knew that. It has something to do with what I call “the blood on the wall” effect. All of that emotion that can never be expressed along the way of making the film: the years of fourteen hour, seven days a week labor; the vacations you don’t take, the birthday parties you miss, the friends you don’t have time for; the meetings with smiling money people who inevitably apologize, politely, ‘it will never work’, and walk away; the looks of friends, family, and lovers who eyes say, ‘Why? Why do you have to do this?’; the fear that eats at you, calling your name, saying, ‘maybe they are all right, give up you fool!’ All of those moments when there is not time to scream or cry because it would be too dangerous, it would not get you where you want to go, or worse, it might stop you in the path. When the film is finished, all of that emotion gets unplugged in a torrential downpour. And then there is the secret part we never admit to anyone, not even ourselves sometimes: the film never – and I mean never – stands up to your own original vision of what it could be. I always know what I failed at achieving; I always know the story I imagined that the audience will never see or even miss. And yes, finally I have to grieve that child that will never be born; that child that by necessity had to be abandoned along the roadside so at least its twin could survive….

So, after a while I learned. Don’t watch your own film. And slowly I found out that other filmmakers couldn’t watch their films either – and at least I felt normal. A year or two after the film is finished; you can look at it, but not right away. That was 20 years ago. Now I don’t even try. Now I am seasoned; I am an old timer. I do a quick introduction and slip out of the room into the dark night once the movie starts. I know how to grieve. I accept it. And for two hours or as long as the screening lasts, I am free.

Tonight, I watch the theater from a safe distance behind my chopsticks and seaweed salad. Already across the street, a man climbs a ladder, leaning up against the marquis and begins to remove the letters, one by one, “F” comes down and then the “L” and the “Y” and on…. They will put the marquis up again next week because FLYING will play again the next two consecutive Wednesdays and afterwards, two weekends, one at the Aero Theater and one at the famous Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. This month I will commute back and forth to LA to support the screenings. But right now I am waiting for its first test in this city.

I listen to the people at the table next to me, a couple who are in the film business. Words like “ camera”, “Grip”; “It’s gotten worst since Time Warner…”; “He’s smart and so creative…”; “I watched that footage….”: “She got trashed and was being the biggest brat…” float by me but I can’t grab on to anything substantial. I am a big ease dropper. I love listening to people talk and making up stories about them, their families, what’s going on in their relationship, their future happiness or divorce. But tonight I don’t hear anything interesting that I can fantasize about. I am a fisherman, with nothing biting except for the kind of stuff you have to throw back like eels: “We don’t have a release from him, he has to see it…” “Well obviously he doesn’t want the sex stuff in….” I am bored with their conversation and feel they are failing me. I came to have sushi to get away from my business and it has followed me here. I wondered if this is life in Los Angeles? Finally the couple gets up and leaves, her jumping on a bike, him walking besides her talking about “digitizing footage”. I am happy for the silence, to go back to my own musing.

Since I last wrote I have been back on the road for two weeks, only sleeping home in my bed in NYC some 4 days before taking off to Chicago to do press for the opening of FLYING there next week, then flying to Denver to drive to Telluride for the film festival there for four days, driving back to Denver, and hopping on a plane for LA yesterday. I arrived early last night, tired and cranky. And admittedly a little scared: new city, alone, yes - female. To top it off, I booked a new cheap car rental that promised to have a pick up bus circulating the airport and after one hour waiting at the curb, nothing passed. Finally I call the rental car office and the manager says he’ll come. Fat Chance! I think. I am ready to board a bus to Avis and pay, when surprising he shows up five minutes later in a black gleaming oversized SUV. He is wearing dark sunglasses, a black suit and tie, and has a face that looks like it’s been through a war or a fire or belongs to an extra in a Sylvester Stallone movie, playing the part of the Bodyguard for the mob. I climb in the cab with him and we take off. This must be LA, I think. During the ride he is smile-less and silent, except to say that his rental company wants to expand over the USA. I think this is a good sign; they must be concerned about customer service. I begin to relax; everything will be fine.

When we arrive at the car rental place, there are no other customers in line for three agents who sit gossiping behind their counters. My check-in agent – about 20 years old — has food in his teeth. I don’t think he has ever done this before. I ask him to change the rental from a midsize to a compact to save money and he fidgets in his chair and frowns; he calls over his manager – an overweight man, with a flat round face, in his forties — who shrugs carelessly and whispers something in the boy’s ear, which makes the boy laugh and his eyes flit to my face. Perhaps they have not gotten the Bodyguard’s message that the company wants to expand? I begin to fantasize what the Bodyguard should do to these two — except he is nowhere in sight. Thirty minutes pass with the two men giggling back and forth trying to make this new fangled machine in front of them – a computer – change my reservation. Finally, I have the key in my hands. I have made it. I gather my luggage and drag it out to my car, which is gleaming white, and new looking, I sigh with relief, already imagining arriving at my hotel room and laying down on a perfectly made bed, while I look out at the ocean. Instead, I open the front door and am confronted by a large brown stain running down the seat upholstery. I gaze around the interior – the passenger seat also has dark brown stain on it. I open the back door and the two seats are the same. It looks like someone has urinated on every corner. “Shit!” I think.

I gather up my entire luggage again, sweating, and cart it back inside and go back up to the agent.

“Come look at the car,” I say.
“What do you want me to do?” He asks.
“Come outside and look!”

His eyes skirt around the empty room, hoping for some escape from leaving the building with me, but there is absolutely nothing to keep him. He shrugs and finally gets up from his chair to follow. I show him the stains and then together we go from car to car to find a clean one. To my shock, every single one has dark brown stains on the seats.

“What do you want me to do?” the boy-agent asks again.
“I want to see your manager!” I say.

So now the manager comes out and says blank faced:

“All our cars are like that…. What do you want me to do?”
I say: “I have been renting cars for 25 years and I have never seen rental cars like these.”
“Well” he says, shrugging again, “What do you want me to do?”

What do you want me to do?! I am about to start screaming. I can’t believe my ears.
I expect this attitude in other countries, not because I am a flag-waving American, but because other countries don’t have the competition we have here. Isn’t: “Take care of the customer or die!” an American motto? The manager should be apologizing and walking backwards to remedy the situation. He should immediately bump me up to a bigger car, but clearly this manager has not read the rulebook on customer service. He is staring at me with an empty look on his face. I control my voice as best I can:

“Do something!” I say, “I am not taking a car like this.”
He shrugs again, grabs the young agent by the arm – and says, “Okay we’ll look in the back… but I am telling you: all our cars are like that….”

I stand on the pavement fuming, trying not to fume, which only makes me fume more. I fantasize my revenge: this company is going to go out of business and the man in front of me will soon be without a job, sitting in his living room in his undershirt all day watching TV. Perhaps there is one thing I have not explained, there is an effect on the human brain of traveling as much as I do. Maybe it is obvious, but it often even catches me off guard. It has something to do with the number of lines you stand in, the number of times you have to take off your shoes and put them back on, the number of places you have to let some stranger rub their hands up and down your body for a search, the number of flights your plane is delayed or canceled. The number of hours spent being jostled and prodded and being told to buckle your seat belt, turn off your cell phone, take your bag off the floor, put you bag on the floor, and pay $3 for a bag of pretzels on a $300 dollar flight. And at the end of it all – just when you think you have picked up your luggage and are ‘free at last’ — you have to find another two dollars somewhere in the bottom of your bag to get a luggage cart!

I call it the rage effect: You start out calm and collected, then slowly this evil sludge starts boiling in your veins and inevitably gets mixed up with jet lag because time zones have a way of changing everywhere you go. And all you want is for everything to go smoothly – it never does or rarely does so you end up trying to control the steam fuming out of your nostrils half the time. Or swallowing the crazy things you want to yell at the Security Guard when he sees you are traveling alone and puts you in the line for the extra special double security check, which takes another half hour and causes the acid to rise in your stomach because he doesn’t care if you miss your plane, that is not his problem.

Finally, as I fantasize about taking out a machine gun, the manager drives up with a slightly better car – only one big stain on the rear seat. “Okay” I say, “I’ll take it but we have to write it down on the check-out form.” I go back inside anyway to do all new paperwork for the new car and of course the kid-agent doesn’t mark the stain and I have to make him redo the paperwork twice….

Enough said. I am finally on the road. I open the window let the mild Los Angeles breeze smelling faintly of the sea hit my face. I head for Santa Monica to a small motel I always stay at called the Bayside Inn – or used to stay at because I haven’t been in LA in five years. I turn on the radio and begin to hum a bit with some sixties song from childhood. When suddenly I realize that all my landmarks have changed. They must have built some buildings since I was last here! The empty grasslands along Pacific Highway that used to be there when I drove this route before are gone. But wait, I am not on Pacific Highway! I am lost. I am really pissed off now because the midsize car that I turned down to save money had a GPS, and this little midget car does not. Have you ever tried to stop and ask directions in LA? No one drives with their windows rolled down. No one looks right or left. Dare I say it? People in vehicles do not seem friendly here. While it was daylight when I arrived, with plenty of time to spare to drive to my hotel, after my two-hour car rental ordeal it is now nighttime and frankly, that ‘women alone in a rental car in a strange city’ feeling has kicked in. I hate it, but there it is. Have I said this before? I HATE FEELING THIS WAY! I HATE FEELING LIKE A PANSY GIRL!

Okay, I calm down. I don’t stop to ask. I keep driving. And after a lot of wrong turns I make it to the motel, which I love because it is relatively cheap and right on the beach. All the rooms are motel style opening to the outside. They remind me of the sixties motels I stayed in with my parents on road trips as a child. I check in and finally have my key. I am standing on the balcony above the street and this short older man walks by and starts calling up comments – “Hey want to fuck?” I can be up in a jiffy!” I don’t even have the energy to give him the finger; I am not feeling that strong. I glare at him and continue giggling the door to my new motel room exposed to the street, hoping he doesn’t remember my room number later to return and pound on my door (don’t laugh – this has really happened to me….).

Meanwhile, the key won’t turn in the lock. I mean it really won’t turn. I see the man on the street stop and stare at me with a huge grin. “Want me to come up and help you now baby?” He calls to me, his voice running with butter. My heart is pounding. Finally I look at him and yell: “No, I can do it myself!” I hear him laugh. I rush downstairs back to the front desk; get the manger who has a bad leg to climb up the balcony to try to open my room door. He gives me that eyes rolling look, which says – lady you know when I get up there the key will work. And I pray that I have not been the hysterical woman I fear I seem like. I begin to sweat. Thankfully, I am vindicated: he too is unable to make the key work. Yippee, I think, you see! He calls the senior manager, who finally comes and announces that the door is jammed. But it is the only room they have left. I have to wait while they get a locksmith to fix the door. Yes, I have the, “Travel Blues” …

Needless to say everything is repaired, I get into my new “home for three nights” and collapse. Now it is the next day and I have nothing to complain about. Right now I am just trying to pass the time, drinking my sake, while across the street people I’ve never met before watch FLYING, the film that used up 5 years of my life….

It is time to go back in the theater and see what magic has occurred – or not. I pay my bill and cross the street. In Los Angeles there is this wonderful law that if you walk in the crosswalk the cars have to stop when you step off the curb, so I step off the curb and a red Mercedes comes to a halt immediately just for me. What power! I feel important as I walk across the pavement. I slip into the theater, and pick up my little camera that I shot the film with to show the audience. I enter through the back door into the darkness as the credits roll. There is a big round of applause. To my relief I can see that the theater is still full. There is always the filmmaker’s nightmare: everyone has left, while you were eating sushi.

I walk down in the blackness and stand by the stage. As the lights come up, everyone claps again. I have turned on my camera to film them – and the audience laughs when notice that the film has continued. A lively discussion ensues and to my astonishment, people stay to talk for more than an hour. At this moment it is all worth it: the bad travels, the car rental man, the changing city, the key that didn’t work – even the guy who whistled at me last night and made me afraid. Here in this room, he becomes a story to illustrate the female life we are all living – even in 2007 in Los Angeles, California. He illustrates my fear at age 47, a fear I couldn’t admit when I was younger, because it would have crippled me and I never would have left the house. A fear, I explain, which could only be acknowledged now by making a film about what its like to be a woman today. I notice heads nodding around the room. One woman shouts out, “Amen!” Another woman calls, “YEA!” The audience understands; their lives too have been vindicated. I feel myself finally relax. This is the reason I have made the film.

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