Friday, February 26, 2010

The Weaker Half of the Serpent

The weaker half of the serpent is flailing about, trying to find the grasp it used to have on me, but it is now completely lost, only brushing against me every few seconds. I have only one more essay to write and then I delve into the rewrites, which are much easier because I get to play around with the sentences, use my trusted Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus when necessary, and finally have a little fun with this project. The fun actually begins with the final essay, about Paul Lynde. I interviewed Michael Airington on the phone, fully intending to use the essay to profile his one-man show and interject when necessary with further facts about Lynde, and that intention remains strong because Airington was a joy to talk to. I even told my parents to pick up the phone, and had Airington talk to them as Lynde. Mom said it was like Lynde came back. Out of the three books I bought for this project, "Center Square: The Paul Lynde Story" by Steve Wilson and Joe Florenski is the only one left, and the only one I'll be proud to skim through as I go through my notes while writing the essay, making sure dates and TV show titles are correct.

As it turns out, I managed to slice the serpent in half after I was done with my essay on Judy Garland, which was actually harder than the one on Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. Arbuckle was a silent film comedian, well before the studio system began. Garland was pulled through that hurricane, and had the concert tours and the TV shows, and the personal problems, and all of it wore me out when I finally finished writing it at 4:30 yesterday morning. Come to think of it, the Marilyn Monroe essay was easier too. And now, after my family and I move to Las Vegas, I can hang up my two framed Chris Consani prints of Monroe, James Dean, Elvis Presley and Humphrey Bogart without any regrets.

I have my Heath Ledger essay open right now. Two days ago, I found that I hadn't written any speculation about what he might have done in his career had he not died. It was a little intimidating then, but now that I'm down to one more essay to write, this is starting to get easier. Naturally, I'll still be insecure about what I write, but I have my notes, I have the article from L.A. Weekly about Ledger joining the Masses artist group, so I should be good.

I need to get all this done before March 12th, when my family and I go to Las Vegas. I want this to be a real vacation, truly away from everything.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

I Drove All Night to Arrive at a New Day

In April 2003, on an American Airlines 757 to Los Angeles from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, I watched "Brown Sugar," which had some actors worth watching, but it felt like it would never end. There was also the pilot episode of "Still Standing," starring Mark Addy and Jami Gertz. I think there was an episode of "Everybody Loves Raymond," too, but I mainly remember the silence throughout the aircraft, and toward the end of the flight, all the overheard monitors showing the music video for "I Drove All Night" by Celine Dion. It would just be something to remember occasionally during an idle evening, but never to dwell on. Earlier today, I dwelled.

Adding to a full Saturday (the library, to pick up a new tsunami of books waiting for me; eating at Wing Stop; some hours spent at Sam's Club, where I bought the paperback edition of the wonderful, wonderful The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister, and immediately handed it to my aspiring-chef sister as required reading), our Sunday included seeing Celine: Through the Eyes of the World, an affecting, at-times powerful documentary about the delightfully divaless Celine Dion's world tour, begun after she finished her run at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. The film began with her singing "I Drove All Night," and I realized: This is a major sign.

My family's flight neared Los Angeles with that song playing. And now, here I was in a theater at Edwards Valencia 12, six and a half years later, six and a half years older, remembering the newspaper I worked at for two years, remembering how I was at first fascinated with the valley, and the two most interesting people I met at the start (one, a backpacker who had stayed in Las Vegas for a time beforehand; the other an aging cleaning woman who could tell where each plane in the sky was headed), remembering all the taxing times I've had here, and all those days where I just relaxed, ignored everything there could possibly be to worry about. Overall, I've tolerated this valley. I've simply lived here. No real emotion toward it, no zealous support toward anything within it. So when it comes time for my family and I to leave Southern California and move to Las Vegas, I won't have any regrets. I won't want to stay for any reason.

This may be the year that we will finally get there. It's appropriate that I should hear "I Drove All Night" here in Southern California. I've heard it once or twice again before this, but not to the extent that I was actively paying attention to it as I was in the movie theater, as I was on that flight. That, to me, shows that Dad may be called soon for something there. On March 12th, we have to be in Vegas so he can take a law exam related to him becoming fully certified to teach business education in Nevada, but I think it will become more than that in the coming months. Something good may finally break through. We've waited enough years already, but this feels like the year. Finality may finally come.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


So far, on the book front, here's the score:

One essay, about Mexican actress Lupe Velez, is completely done. Maybe some very minor changes, such as rearranging movie titles so one paragraph doesn't look like such a know-it-all clump. Despite that, which isn't a big deal, I'm very happy with how it reads.

Two essays have not been written yet. For one, about John Cazale, I'm almost sure of how I want to begin it, I have all the information I can possibly get, and I got the speculation for it long ago from Richard Shepard, a filmmaker who made a documentary about his performances in movies such as The Godfather and Dog Day Afternoon. He's also directing the pilot of the Criminal Minds spinoff. For the other essay, I need to get on the phone with Michael Airington, who does a one-man show as Paul Lynde. That may be the most fun I will have in this project, as I intend to write that essay entirely as a profile of that show, inserting facts that may not be mentioned by him due to necessary comedic and dramatic momentum. I intend to get on that next week.

Three essays are partly done. I'm not finished writing about Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Mabel Normand or Judy Garland. A few days ago, the Garland essay had been a big headache because of how big a career she had. Not that I'm disparaging it, but I worried about the page limits for each essay, as set out by my writing partner: 2-8 pages for biographical material, and 2-8 pages for speculation about what each actor's life and career might have been had they not died. However, early yesterday morning, my essay on Marilyn Monroe ended at 12 pages. 11 biographical, and 1 for speculation. I'm not so worried about it. I'll look it over again later. As it turns out, the Arbuckle essay is giving me the biggest headache because of the three trials Arbuckle went through under accusation of manslaughter. I want to point to the two biographies about Arbuckle that obviously provide the best information about the trials (one reprinted transcripts from the trials; the other took a more narrative tack), but I know I have to give something. The real interest is not so much in the case, which was a wash anyway and was cooked up even more by an overeager DA looking to become governor of California with this, but in the media reception and the outrage by women's groups, and the relentlessness of William Randolph Hearst, who let the story go on in his newspapers as long as it possibly could, killing Arbuckle's reputation in the process, even though after the third trial, he was deemed innocent, and the foreman of that jury read him a written apology, which is what the 11 minutes in deliberation had been used for.

Hey, that sounds like a good start. Easier to write it in this blog than in the essay so far.

For the essay on Mabel Normand, I only need timeline guidance, and I have it from a website I partly used for research. I'm still having trouble with an opening for it, but I do have the speculation from an expert on Normand, and it's wonderful stuff, thoughtfully considering whether Normand could have truly overcome her illness and what would have been ahead for her. As it turns out, not much, not with the film industry changing to sound production.

13 essays are nearly done. I want to reread all of them. For the essays on Brad Renfro and Chris Farley, I need to slightly rewrite the openings. Both began to sound similar, me delving into pieces of my childhood for when I first noticed both of them, and I worried about whether I'd have to dump both openings in favor of something entirely new for each. However, for the Renfro essay, I only have to pitch the last sentences in the last paragraph of the opening, and write a new sentence that'll make it different from the Farley opening. I still need to rewrite the Farley opening to make it more organized, but now I don't have to do as much work.

For the other 11 essays, I have to revise the speculation. I'm speculating on my own for five actors, including John Belushi, and my words have to read better. Plus, I haven't yet finished the speculation on Heath Ledger, Brad Renfro and Chris Farley, though for Renfro and Farley, and especially Belushi, I really have to think about whether they would have been able to kick their drug habits. Farley really wanted to try, in light of being told that he would not be insured for a Fatty Arbuckle biopic unless he was clean and sober for a year or so. But I wonder if he would have had the strength to not only overcome his addictions, but to also keep them away even after that film had been made. That one film would have changed his life and his career, guaranteed. I truly believe he would have been seen as a dramatic actor. There was a moment in Tommy Boy where Tommy Callahan (Farley) sits forlorn and alone on a loading dock at his deceased father's auto parts factory. Right there, I was sure that he would eventually have his The Truman Show with that Fatty Arbuckle biopic. Unlike John Belushi, who bet his entire image on that fast-burning, funny madman, Farley took in moments of reflection. Continental Divide and Neighbors didn't work at all for Belushi because people were expecting Bluto Blutarsky in many other forms. Farley still had a shot to create a new shade of his image.

I don't think I will miss this project when I'm done. I've enjoyed parts of it, and other parts have been incredibly taxing and monotonous. I'm not ramping up my excitement over seeing my name on the cover of a book until these essays are completely done. I have to wait until likely before January 2011 anyway. But I know one important thing: No more writing for others. I don't want to be part of something, a cog in something. I don't mind that in my eventual commercial aviation career. I'll see lots of airliners, and I'm happy about that. But for writing, I want only my ideas, my concepts. I'll adjust them as necessary to make them better or when something inspires me (there's a lot that does), but I want me. Just me. This book was fine. An outstanding start, and an opportunity I'll probably never have again, where I didn't have to do the gruntwork of finding a publisher, writing a proposal, any of that. My writing partner came to me with the project and asked if I wanted to join him. That was it. That's why I took it. But now I want to find out what would make me excited to sit in front of a computer for even more hours, to flip through other books for research, to find characters and ideas that give me a purpose in words. It's finally time for that.

But first, this book. No rush. I need to make this one look good. Back to work.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Battle Rages

While some might believe it's easy to simply sit in a chair, face the computer screen, and type an essay, a novel, a book of short stories or poetry, it's a hard, ongoing battle. I'm facing one, trying to prevent the serpent looming over me (a.k.a., a forthcoming deadline) from dragging me underwater and holding me there. I'll be back when I've sliced it in half and have only the weaker half to defeat.