During that summer my girlfriend Laura and I had split up for a few months, I was cast as an extra in a Woody Allen movie. It came about out of the blue one hot, July day at the garage indoor flea market where I sell books. The ventilation is not so great there, and to compensate, they set up these giant fans with mesmerizing hums that tend to just blow around a lot of dust and exhaust soot from the cars parked there through the weekdays. The overall effect is a hazy sleepiness that's difficult to shake, only occasionally offset by a pretty woman passing by my booth or the occasional $100 book sale. As I unconsciously scoped out potential new mates, my thoughts meandered from "what a babe" to "why bother, it'll just be a disaster like last time."
My groggy, downward spiral was interrupted by a slightly overly smiley man and a very officious lady with a clipboard who started talking to me about this Woody Allen movie they were working on, with the working title of WASP (Woody Allen Summer Project). Thinking she was shopping for W.A., I tried to sell her an Edward Gorey first edition, but as her lips moved, something resembling $500 if I set up my booth on their site at Saint Marks Church, came out, so I actually began to listen. I was supposed to show up on a Wednesday morning, and I could even make an extra $125 if I was in a scene. Then another Joe, this kind of chubby metrosexual vintage clothes dealer came and said Scarlett Johansson was going to be in it. $625 for a half-days work, and the prospect of me, chubby, depressed, recently single, perpetually broke, middle-aged loser, being in proximity of stunning Ms. Johansson? Kind of an I heart New York, moment, eh?
I drove my beat up '93 Mazda MPV chock full of books and shelves to the East Village on that Wednesday morning, where they were to stage a flea market scene in a garden along the west wall of the church. It was a huge operation. Many people with orange flags and pointers on the street instructing me to go this way and that, until I reached a sort of central traffic director who simply said, "Pull over here." They had dozens of people kind of...well...just standing around. Usually, when I show up at the flea, there's that dreaded moment of lifting and dollying things to my booth. Not here. As soon as I pulled a box from my car another and another production assistant would whisk it away. It was my glance into movie magic, where armies of production assistants just make things happen.
Another guy with a flag directed me to park around the corner. I meandered to a line of trailers along 11th street, behind the church. I imagined that was where they did make up and costumes, and the stars binged on chocolates and valiums. Another PA with a headset enthusiastically directed me to a row of checkered table clothed tables next to the trailers bearing coffee, juice, tea and an assortments of pastries, yogurt, fruit, bagels, lox and cream cheese. What appeared to be a bona fide starlet emerged from one of the trailers. We smiled at each other while she applied jam to her English muffin and I lox and cream cheese to my bagel. Her ridiculously penetrating blue eyes made my arms go limp, and the blood rush from my head. I dropped a couple bagel shavings and a swatch of salmon into a bowl of berries. I gathered my faculties and quickly ambled back towards my made-for-the-movie flea market booth before any further missteps could occur.
I lingered in the graveyard next the church trying to shake off her stupefying fog, examining rows of 17th century grave markers bearing names like Stuyvesant and Van Cortland. You know that yard by the side door of St. Marks Church, if you've been there, where you go to see poetry readings or trek upstairs to see Richard Foreman plays, or the offices of the Poetry Project. So strange. St. Marks Poetry Project is a focal point for so many friends and acquaintances. All these mignons of high culture maintaining that New York mystique, armies of wee struggling poets, artistes, meant to set this city apart from anywhere else. All of us just beating our brains out trying to make something, anything, that might culminate in a glimmer of brilliance above our work-a-day environs, while here this Hollywood production just waltzes in with it's union guys, battalions of 25 year old PAs, breakfast buffets, Woody Allens, Scarlett Johansens and random starlets, effortlessly taking over and enveloping the place in an aura of a production in production. This aura of movie magic. At that moment, as I walked towards the front of the church now engulfed in the art of filmmaking, the church seemed more hallowed by Hollywood, than by the religion that built it.
Let's examine the 4 fieldstone steps going from the sidewalk to the garden, where the flea market scene is staged. In reality, as opposed to in movie wonderland, no flea market dealer would want to participate, or they would grudgingly, because you'd have to carry boxes over 4 steps sans dolly. The WASP production magically changed those 4 steps from a nuisance to a picturesque detail. A picturesque cluster of moist New York State slate, nearly sensual enough to lick, overgrown with English ivy. And past those steps, panning across the ivy covered yard stands the lot of us: grimy, past our prime, vaguely intelligent but not enough to be employable, rather cynical, money grubbing losers, temporarily donning this tinsel magic to become colorful backdrops, like the ivy, the slate steps, the iron fence, the church, for WA and the stunning Ms. Johanssen.
The perpetually smiling art director, or production designer, whatever he was, spotted me in my pensive moment on the colonnade landing of the church's main entrance, and sort of patted the side of my arm while greeting me with my jumble of coffee and whatnot. "I see you found the food table, Mr. Heterosexual slob," I imagined him saying. He was supposed to be famous in his field, Joe, the metrosexual vintage clothing guy told me. Joe knows everything that is fabulous enough to know. I often am struck that I have no clue what he is talking about. At the flea market, he'll start saying something, and the first sentence, I'm like, "ha, ha" then almost immediately I realize I'm watching his lips move without the faintest clue about what is coming out.
We say hello and wave as I walk by his booth. Joe is already holding court with an effusive older woman from the art direction staff, and a couple gayish guys who may be set dressers, or fiddle with lights or something. They are all unfurling fabrics of skirts and shirts against their outstretched arms, their faces agog with the wonder of fleamarket discovery, compounded by the glory of it all being on a movie set. It's a feel-good environment on steroids, and I'm bathing in my post-break up rawness. Or rather, I feel like I suddenly woke up in a cold shower. They turn their heads and wave to the art director who is escorting me to my booth. I don't feel part of this environment, but I wave back in tandem with the art director anyway. Although I'm really happy to be here, to get away from the pointless obsessing of a relationship gone awry, the energy level is exhausting. I think it would be for anyone. To perform a quick assessment of the people hovering around Joe, any of them would be more upbeat than the most upbeat people I know, even Joe.
We arrive at my booth and the art director extends his arm sort of Bob Barkerish from The Price is Right, introducing me to my home, my fake book selling booth for the morning. It was an picnic tent without any sides, certainly typical of those seen at outdoor flea markets, but with varied bubbly 70s orange, green and blue Turkish looking stained glass lamps hanging inside from the structural tubing of the tent. The lamps were quite a nuisance, as they dangled just above eye level, but not above head level, so that myself, and the various other extras would continually bump our heads into them during the course of the morning. However, I suppose they were low enough to hang below the ceiling line of my tent, so that the camera 100 feet away at the end of the isle could pick up on them.
I had gone through the trouble of getting colorful art books and whatnot, so that should a camera pan across my booth, there would be all sorts of splashy colors and textures to greet the camera. I took my job as extra quite seriously. Also, should it pan across me and my goods, that would be quite decent advertising. I discreetly placed my cards throughout my booth.
I brought a few books of value. Derriere Le Mirror, a large format art magazine famous for it's big splashy Miro or Calder covers. A gorgeous early 19th century American Bible with unusually nice red, straight-grain morocco that I later sold to the Bauman's, a first Olympia edition of Burroughs soft machine in jacket. I began unpacking, thinking of placement, what would impress Scarlet Johanssen and whatnot. Perhaps being a haggard, embittered, recently Xed middle-aged slob, made me focus inappropriately to the task at hand, the rare chance to impress the likes of a Ms. Johanssen.
But there was a whole other level of this human stage prop thing, and that was the level of the professional "extra." Now, don't I'm belittling anyone's job, nor their desire to become famous. After all, I'm a writer and as we all know, writers in general spend their lives begging for agents, deals, publishers, in short: fame and money, though the fame is more approval of ones craft, not celebrity. But according to a vaguely hip 20-something guy in cargo pants who was an extra stationed to my booth, most of the extras had studied acting in school, and were poised to move up the ladder to parts with lines, and theoretically following with starring roles. Just like the jumble of assistant directors coaching them. I saw the girl from the breakfast buffet with another beautiful girl. I guess they were extras. They listened intently to another woman who I guess was some sort of assistant director giving them instructions for the scene.
Then this extra named Harry entered my booth. He was quite jovial and didn't seem to be as concerned about the professionalism as the cargo pants guy, the two girls and the assistant director. "I was a tuna fisherman for a while," he told me. "Then, I was a cop. Now, I just want to do something fun in retirement." So here he was, 78 if a day, long Italian nose with kind of a bulb at the end. He wore a mostly white golf shirt, with red and black triangles and whatnot, deco-style, the type that Joe probably sold for $75. Harry no doubt picked it up at Sears ca. 1947 for 50 cents. At first glance, Harry seemed to be the kind of guy who was most comfortable holding holding a martini, while telling wife jokes. It was one of those "whoa" moments where you're looking at the guy telling you his life story and you realize: Jeez, the guy is straight out of a Woody Allen movie! No, wait. This guy IS in a Woody Allen movie, and like, I'm like so gratified that Woody Allen put up this huge production just to entertain me, Joe Maynard, for like 4 hours on a Wednesday morning, I could just pee myself, and if I did, another PA would just direct me to one of those trailers and give me another pair of pants to wear, anyway. Probably nicer than the jeans I came in with.
A few other people came in the booth. The art director lady that was in the other Joe's booth looked through my Lartigue book. If you don't know Lartigue, he took a bunch of photographs of his family in France when he was around 10 years old in the circa 1910s. Because they were quite wealthy, and had hobbies like tinkering with horseless carriages and flying machines, the photos are quite amusing. He spent the rest of his 80+ years on this planet promoting and selling his photos from this brief slice of his life, culminating in a thick, oblong book meant to look like the family album that it is. He designed the book himself around 1960. So I told her all that, and offered it for $225. She said she'd think about it.
I turned around to put a loudly colorful Miro book face-out at the front of the booth, when I noticed the two lovely extras planted themselves in a sort of bored standing position in front of my booth examining the lower shelf facing out to the isle. The girl from the food table sheepishly smiled at me. It was an adorable smile with a hint of pink gum line above her brilliant pearly, orthodontically perfect teeth. "Hi," I said through my crooked, coffee-stained accidents. I thought it was an incredibly smart introduction. Straight forward, unpretentious and absolutely dull in that sense that if you are immersed in the fabulosity of movie making, there is no need to say anything to compete with it.
Harry clocked my efforts. Now too self conscious to continue, I retreated into my booth putting empty boxes under the tables.
"Quite a number of pretty young things, eh?" Harry commented over my shoulder.
"What a gig you've got going," I said. "Is it like this every movie?"
"Yeah. If I were 30 years younger, that one with her hair tied back..."
"So what, are you single? Married?"
"Just broke up."
"Ah, that's too bad. Get over it. Look at her! Look how elegant she is. Her chin, her nose, so delicate. Now, that's a classically beautiful dame."
She was. 25ish, a bit more worldly, than the other, like she had been to a prestigious eastern college, or kicked around Europe for a couple years -- at least spoke French as a second language. She was slightly darker, hint of freckles, an elegant neck, and her eyes also quite piercing as they darted around the ersatz fleamarket.
"I'm partial to the other one I met in the food line," I said nearly inaudibly fearing she may hear.
He smiled like he was my grandfather or something. "You never got to date that cheerleader in high school, did you?"
Two other attractive women suddenly appeared in entirely too much make up. What I mean by too much make up is even an understatement. You've imagined too much make up, now quadruple it. It was immediately apparent that they were "in" the movie, and made up for the camera. The two pretty extras eyed them with casual smiles, everyone in the courtyard seemed to face them, or if they were turned away seemed to be in tune with their movements. One was about 20-something, the other pushing 40, both small, about 5'2", thus substantiating that saying that they really are smaller in real life. The older one was wearing some sort of leopard patterned tights with high heels, huge sun glasses. The younger one was just plain foxy. I've learned from IMDb, that they were Evan Rachel Wood and Patricia Clarkson.
They went through the stuff in my booth, both of them picking up this and that, and slipping in and out of fake southern accents. Though I was flattered by their attention, I was also hoping for their patronage! But with the accent thing, I realized they must be priming themselves for their scene, so I didn't want to be too intrusive. They left my booth and continued down the row of vendors with a couple guys humming around them with I suppose light meters, sound meters, or something. Then they disappeared. Tech discussion broke out among the crew.
This laid back hippie type, about 50 or so, shoulder-length hair, introduced himself to me. Let's call him Henry. "So I'm the foreman. If you need anything, if anyone asks you for anything, just let me know. I've got some paper work here." He held out a clipboard. "This paper says that you have set up your booth and will be paid said amount, and the other is a SAG agreement that as a freelance extra you'll be paid $125 if they use you in a scene. If you're in two more movies, you'll be asked to join SAG -- and don't worry: You'll be in the movie and get that 125."
Turns out he was a creative type as well, but the steady paycheck sort of made him happy and lazy, according to his own account. That too is part of the movie magic spell. A subtle paralysis that comes over you with all the fabulousness. Like everything you do, say, touch or shit is golden.
Henry told me it was his last movie, that he was retiring. Pension and all. Perhaps he'd become an artist again. That or go to the Caribbean. Mexico. Somewhere warm with a beach.
When Henry left, I saw the two pretty extras had been looking around my booth. The breakfast buffet girl smiled. Harry kept staring at the other one until he started talking to her. I'm sure it was all very gentlemanly, but in a hushed tone. She seemed to like his attention. Well, if the old man can do it...
"Are you an actress extra?" I asked immediately choking from the awkwardness. "I mean, do you do this as a job."
"Do I pay my rent with it?" she said. "Yes."
"They pay well?"
"$160 a day."
"Really? They're paying me a lot more -- oh, sorry. No one likes a bragger."
"Well, it's one of those things you do when you want to be an actress," she said. "You just don't want to get too comfortable in it, though, or you're just be a career extra."
I introduced myself. She introduced herself. She was Cassie. From Tallahassee. Her parents were hippies. She'd been studying acting as long as she can remember. Played Julliette in high school. She also waited tables at a barbecue place not far from the flea market. I told her about our little garage flea market, how the smiling man and lady with the clipboard picked a handful of us for the movie. Cassie picked up some disbound chromolithograph pages that were a from a 19th century children's alphabet book. The C and D pages were especially of interest.
"Your names sake?" I inquired, assuming "C" for Cassie.
"No," she said smiling. "I like the other side."
It was "D" for Darkie, with a minstrelesque black man in what resembled an Uncle Sam suit, top hat, etc., and spectacles...I guess that would be an Uncle Tom Suit. I told her it was $20 but she could have it for $10. I didn't want to be a push-over. But I should have just given it to her.
Woody Allen walked past. He was short, older than that frozen image of him in Annie Hall. He seemed kind, lacking in any gregarious gestures that one might expect from a show businessman. A couple assistants pointed him to a monitor that had black metal light shield around it. He said a few things to another assistant who in tern shouted instructions to everyone else. Apparently, there was too much motion on the street outside the gate to the churchyard. A PA or two cleared people from the sidewalk in front of the church. The two made up actresses appeared again. They said something to me, but honestly, I couldn't tell you what it was then or now, what with their pretend accents. I also felt like we were in parallel universes and just happened to exist a few feet away from each other, without ever really being able to communicate.
Cassie and the other girl took their mark about 5 feet from in front of my booth. Harry took to his decided pose looking down into my glass case. The board snapped, the scene began. The actresses looked at books on the shelf facing out of my booth, then walked down the stone isle towards the camera. Then it was over. A new murmur of activity. The union guy came by to remind us to do exactly what we had just done once again, which for me was absolutely nothing. Everyone took their marks again, Harry, Cassie and the other girl, the two stars, and the whole thing was repeated. Then Woody Allen muttered something to a guy with a megaphone, "10 minute break everyone, then the next shot."
I still hadn't seen Scarlet Johanssen. I was a bit disappointed. However, Cassie and the other girl were quite lovely. I began considering whether a fat old fart like myself had a shot at a gorgeous young thing like her. But wait, she came back into my booth again. I told her about the things in my glass case on the table, the William Burroughs first edition and the like. She once again picked up the Darkie Chromo.
"Are you at the flea market every week?" she asked.
"No every week," I said. "I do these antiquarian book fairs, but I'm at the flea once or twice a month."
"I go there all the time, I've never seen you."
"I've never seen you either, and I find that more remarkable."
There. I'd done my duty: flirted.
"I'll look for you next time I go," she said smiling.
"Everyone listen up!" said an assistant director with a megaphone. He explained the next scene. At the opposite end of my isle, they were setting up a shot where the girl played by Evan Rachel Wood, meets a young love interest. About a second after his explanation the scene started. The Union guy, Henry, gestured for me to step out of the booth. When I was near him, he said to just get in line behind two other people and another guy would signal for me to walk through the scene past the two stars. "Just don't look into the camera," he said.
Now, I'm not proud of this. It was no doubt counter productive to the movie cause, but I could not help but turn and face towards the actors, and incidentally, towards the camera while walking past them. I mean, there I was walking along and, 'Hey, there's a big fucking camera poking in my face!' But aside from that, I felt I should be looking at what the actors were holding, which was an antique handkerchief. Partly, because at the flea, when people are scouting around, people always look at what other people are picking up. If someone else notices it, it must be worth something. That's the psychology. But in this scene, I'm certain it appeared, I was just facing the camera.
The take was finished. Henry instructed everyone to get back to where they were, lined up all of us who were walking past the actors, and said to do exactly the same thing.
In the next take, I was in a quandary, but I did exactly the same thing. I faced the camera again! And the next take again. And the next take, the fourth, I actually wondered if I was fucking up the whole works, as the other shot was done in only a couple takes. But they would tell me, wouldn't they? I reasoned with myself. So I did it again. No one said anything to me, but I had this vague uneasiness.
Then an assistant director announced the scene was done and thanked us all. We could go home now. I started packing, Harry, the cargo pants guy, the two pretty extras, all said good bye. I told Cassie again I hoped to see her at the flea. It was all very brief and the extras dispersed. As I packed, I started thinking about the money sunk into all those extras. 35 or so paid extras just in this scene, times $160 comes out to $5400. Then about 12 or so vendors at $500 each is $6000. Quite an expensive minute or so scene.
A couple weeks went by. Sure enough, on another hot summer day, Cassie showed up at my booth. The other young girl she was with was a bit surprised by Cassie and I being so familiar. I explained to her about the movie. Somehow, it came out that Cassie was 18. Wow. I had the hots for someone nearly 30 years younger than I. Someone who, if we were in a primitive culture, could be my grand daughter.
"I didn't realize that," I said. "You're just so beautiful, I had no clue how old you were."
"Here, just take the print." I said. "A gift."
"You sure?" she asked.
"Yeah," I said. "It was kind of a special day, and I'd like for you to have it. After all, they paid me more than they paid you."
And off she went. That beautiful young thing.
The Weeks past. Fall set in, the rich people returned to the flea after their summer absence in the Hamptons. It was closing in on Christmas. Laura and I had gotten back together. I was broke. It was cold. There are a few celebs that frequented the garage. One is this supermodel Helena Christiansen. I didn't know who she was when I met her, although, I certainly noticed her looks, but everyone else filled me in on her fame and fabulosity. That first time she came in my booth she had bought some Edward Gorey first editions. She's hard not to spot what with her Euro-supermodel-fabulosity. Her 8 year old son is usually with her, and they sweetly examine everything together. When they had checked out my Gorey books, she turned the pages with him and they remarked on Gorey's rare twisted humor. She bought 3 of them, 2 signed, for a tidy sum of money, for which I am ever so grateful.
A couple weeks later, I had these two Jersey guys in my booth. They often set up and sell pulp fiction paperbacks, porno, sci-fi, rock posters and such.
"Come on, cut me some slack here!" the one was saying holding up a paperback copy of SIDEWALK SIN. "The corner's all bent and the back is stained like somebody came all over it!"
And suddenly, there she was: all six feet tall of Helena Christiansen. This elegant being from the parellel universe, with her son in tow, and hopefully (forgive me, I'm not greedy, just perpeturally broke) with money. And I've got these two clowns in my booth chiseling away and talking splooge in their Jersey accents.
I was temporarily paralyzed. Just then, Ms. Christiansen dropped a bag in the isle nearly at my feet, and every guy within a 12 foot radius jumped to pick it up -- except me. I just stood there frozen with one of those one size fits all uncomfortable smiles. She thanked whoever it was for picking the bag up, politely smiled at me and walked in my booth. I remained smiling. The two bushy-browed Jersey guys hovered around her with their crooked smiles while I hoped to God they wouldn't say or do anything else more embarrassing.
At that exact moment, I heard from about a foot behind me, "I really like my Darkie." I turned around face to face with Cassie, no make up. I felt all soft and fuzzy noticing a zit over her eyebrow. She had her jacket unzipped and beneath was wearing a silk top that resembled a slip. She looked so young, so sweetly flat chested. I suppose it was her innocence clearly contrasted against Ms. Christiansen's worldliness, but I realized, in the nicest way, she was way too young for me.
"Glad you like it," I said.
She didn't break her step, just clocked the whole situation with the Jersey guys, Ms. Christiansen and all, waved her mitten good-bye from at sort of hip-level disappearing into the crowd.
. . . .
Recently, the smiling production design guy was walking through the flea market.
I looked at him quickly trying to reference all the ambiguous faces and names I meet at the flea. Was he a John? Michael? Definitely not a Helena Christiansen.
"The Woody Allen Movie!" He said emphatically with his usual smile.
"Seen it yet?"
"I didn't know it was out?"
"Months ago," he said. "Unfortunately, I don't think you made the final cut.
"Oh, well," I said. "Maybe I'll netflix it..."
So Laura and I netflixed it. I have to say Laura and I, because I don't want it to seem like I'm just cringing at something I'm a bit close to, it's much the opposite. I've always enjoyed Woody Allen, especially the early funny ones. I had no real expectations, I was just curious about how it turned out. However, Laura and I were stunned that "Whatever it Takes", or any movie, could be as bad as it was: Not funny, nor dramatic, nor clever, nor innovative, just a bizarre failure.
First, the overall wit of the film did not have any consistency. Like it wasn't quite biting satire nor laugh out loud funny. More like a bunch of kids in a class as a group project decided to do a Woody Allen Movie and they each threw in different random "Woody Allen" cliches. It had the cranky older, neurotic Jewish intellectual. The young love interest. Lots of didactic dialogue. Lots of New Yorky stuff. However. Larry David, though I know it may be part of his schtick, was so charmless, disbelief was never suspended, and at some points just you wonder why he decided to act.
The basic plot is that a small town Louisiana cheerleader runs away from home to New York City, where she immediately shacks up with the charmless Larry David who hurls continuous insults at her. He's so caustic, and is so misanthropic, especially towards her kind, why would a young hottie move in with hairy old that? It's just 90 or so minutes of mean spirited attacks on cardboard cut-out of a clueless middle-American Shiksa, as if some sort of Bush era lefty anger therapy session. Any humor or satire is short-circuited by bitter, blunt, witless insults. The coquettish "domolestic" scenes of the scantily clad blonde showing off her panties and cleavage while changing channels on the old man's couch, are just way too much information. Sooner or later the unfortunate image of wrinkly, charmless, hairy-necked LD struggling to achieve orgasm is gonna pop in your head, and no matter how hard you try to make it go away, it'll stick there like the old man splooge on her smooth, under-aged ass. If she were just tied up, beaten and raped mercilessly for 2 hours, it would have been more honest -- and at least it would have an edge.
But let's not blame everything on poor charmless Larry David. Evan Rachel Wood put on such a memorable (unfortunately), cloying southern accent throughout, within moments you just want to make her go away. It seemed she was playing her part slapstick, while Larry David was playing deadpan. In the end, they had no screen chemistry whatsoever. Just annoying verbal cacophony. Laura and I soldiered on watching gag after gag fall flat until...
I think the decisive moment arrived when Evan Rachel Ward went to see some sort of punk rock show with a guy she met on the sidewalk. The name of the band on the marquee was "Anal Sphincter." We both laughed.
"Nice zinger, grampa!"
"Maybe you audition for Regis and Cathy Lee!"
In the morning, after Laura left for work, I made breakfast and settled in front of the TV to watch the rest. Mainly, to see if perhaps I may have snuck on screen, egomaniac that I am, but also, just out of some sick curiosity about how bad it could get. At some point, you have to ask yourself, how hard is it to squeeze out a middle-brow, vaguely funny feature, anyway? Well, apparently, harder than one would imagine.
With my plate-full of eggs and potatoes, a glass of orange juice and my 3rd mug of coffee, I sat to watch the thing in its entirety. There was a scene in the apartment, where the ERW and LD were talking about fate, their differences etc., and it occurred to me that this was some half-assed attempt at a more comical Eugene O'Neill play. I never really was a fan of Eugene O'Neil, nor did I ever see the connection between WA and EO before. But now I do. This scene drew me in. Laura's comments about how this was nothing more than a pathetic old man's wet dream aside, these scenes with Larry David speaking to the camera were perversely fascinating. The didactic monologue. Left leaning philosophy-lite. The grimy urban texture. Stir in a quantum physicist's theories of Chaos, and you have nice cup of cinematic warm milk served by a teenage girl in panties. Larry David's wise old man character, said to have been nominated for a nobel prize, is saying stuff that stoned kids in a college dorm say at 4 am after a few hits of acid and a half-dozen joints. Only to their advantage, they have that sparkly patina of youth on their side to detract from the mediocracy of what is coming out of their mouths. There's no sparkle of any kind on Larry David. Just a cloying, dull curmudgeon that won't shut the fuck up.
Now if ERW, the young hottie were saying the same lines, which a kid from Louisiana who is adventurous enough to run away to New York City could certainly come up with -- perhaps after having first heard them from a Woody Allen Movie she saw on HBO when she was 12 -- it would have produced a modicum of sparkle power. However, her lines are dumbed down even dumber than the dumb "smart" lines of LD to the point of being simply unwatchable, and let me remind you: not funny.
One notable detail was that LDs apartment had a wall of empty barrister cases. I realize this may have been for visual effect, clean cinematic lines or some crap having nothing to do with furthering the character or story, but since when does a New York intellectual have a house full of empty bookcases? It could have been a funny plot twist (lord knows this film could have used one). LD could have had a tantrum burned all his books, SHE could have burned or thrown out his books, or better, HE could have burned them all after being converted to philistinism by young, fresh pussy. So, ironically, I was hired as an extra to play a bookseller in a movie that was censoring the portrayal of books.
OK, I'm getting too worked up here, but at the 47 minute mark (I took some notes over my eggs), the film is flying high with its Eugene O'Neill philsophe remarks, the grimy urban texture, empty bookshelves, etc. Suddenly, the mother, played by Patricia Clarkson appears out of no where portraying an 1850s lilly-white plantation heiress! Oddly, everything else is so joyless, she brightens up the screen immediately with the sweet relief of non-sequitor physical comedy. But whenever the camera is not fixed on her, the dull charmlessness, which is the expected texture of this film now, takes over.
At nearly exactly the one hour mark, is my scene. Sadly, you can only barely see the back of my folding shelves behind the two actresses are walking through the flea market, but at a point when the main male love interest is talking to the Evan Rachel Ward character in the flea market, I clearly saw my profile, my head of salt and pepper disheveled hair disappear behind the actor for a split second, then I am magically photoshopped out of the scene. There is no "Joe" coming out the other side of the actor's head. I'm certain it was because I was looking back at the camera and probably fucked it up... I don't know. Anyway, whether or not it I fucked up, I was in one of the worst movies ever made, but at least I was in a Woody Allen movie.
I have more notes, but let me just summarize:
Lilly-white Baptist Patricia Clarkson, although she is two-dimensional, her slapstick approaches watchable. For her to accomplish watchable in this movie, she must be a genius. So... Lilly-White, the first chance she gets, turns into a polyamorous avante-guard photographer after getting laid by a guy who tells her pretentiously that he writes, "on the aesthetics of photography." I mean, give me a break! Who says the AESTHETICS of photography, unless you're a complete pretentious douche. At least not in conversation.
At some point, Ed Bigley Jr., playing the father literally barges through the door of the set in his first scene appearing as if he hadn't been given any direction at all. He continuously flip-flops between comedy and drama. Not as if he's blurring the line, but simply as continuity problem. His character is so unreliable, it doesn't allow other actors to bounce ideas or textures off him. He's a dramatic sink. To make matters worse, his character, a Bible-thumping jock from the south suddenly confesses to being gay over the briefest of conversations at a bar. Its like an overheard party conversation where someone says, "Yeah, those football jocks with their tight ends and such are just a bunch of closet cases. The first chance they'd get, they'd probably go gay..." Yeah, right. And that's the whole pathetic level of this movie. A bunch of really simplistic assumptions about middle Americans, and dullard's fantasies about what one does when exposed to the likes of New York fuckin' City. Rather than cutting through and illuminating bullshit, it simply piles on another layer. And lest we not forget Whatever Works is a comedy...that's just not funny.
You'd think there'd be someone pre, during, or post production saying, hey, this sucks, but apparently there wasn't. Laura and I had a lengthy discussion more recently wondering how a director who made Vicky Christina Barcelona the year previous, could follow up with Whatever Works? Was W.A. now senile? (I'm sorry, that's a terrible thing to say, but seriously...). Was it acting out to dissolve an unwanted contract? Was it a pay-off to unions to film one in New York? Close. I just read, for the purpose of writing this piece, that he was looking for a quick script to dig up during the writers strike that was happening while this film was in pre-production. He had originally written this script in the 70s for Zero Mostel. But with the strike, he needed a quick scipt to work on and drug this gem into the open air. So basically, this film could be crucial evidence of how important well-seasoned writers are. I can see it now in history of film classes in the NYU MFA dramatic script writing program for generations to come as the prime example that the film is only as good as the script.
But what about all that hub-bub in the Hollywood take-over of St. Marks Church, or anywhere else around town WASP may have filmed? All that movie magic that went to my head during my 4 hour stint as an extra? The lovely extras, famous director, the stars? Well, I now know first hand, it doesn't amount to anything. It all just boils down to the quality of artistic intent. I'll take my oddball Richard Foreman production, and second tier poets at the Wednesday night St. Marks reading series over "Whatever Works" any day. I'm sorry Mr. Allen. At least you know your next film's gonna be better.
Adieu, Joe Maynard
PS. I forgot to say, Scarlett Johanssen was never in it. (other Joe, you liar!)