A less-than-"spotless" L.A. story
March 14, 2004 | An amazingly successful SimCity on the verge of spiralling out of control, Los Angeles at night on approach spreads out in every direction like a LiteBrite run riot, or an amazingly giant circuit board in a Douglas Adams/A.E. Van Vogt nightmare. The traffic looks pretty bad from a few thousand feet up, too. With twenty-one years left until the post-industrial wasteland of Blade Runner's City of Angels, everything appears to be coming along nicely. A pair of spotlights shot into the air most likely to announce the new Sizzler on Rodeo, but I imagined it was to herald one of those old newsreel, fur coat and spat premieres, right behind the barber college, maybe, that sits at the corner of Hollywood and Vine. Shoehorned into a coach seat over the wing of one of those airplanes that seats about a hundred people, I quaffed my Pepsi with the quick rabbit-swallows necessitated by the tiny plastic cup they offer to the undesirables, and thought about the wisdom of Focus Features deciding to fly me from Denver to The Four Seasons in Beverly Hills to attend the junket for Charlie Kaufman's bittersweet Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I wondered what I'd ever written to give them the impression that a junket and me would be a perfect fit. I wondered where I'd gone wrong.
A junket is a day spent in the company of cast and crew via press conferences, roundtables, and, if you're a member of a few select "prestige" publications (or any television program), the holy grail of a "one-on-one" interview. I'd requested a "one-on-one" with Kaufman about three weeks before--then again a week after that, then five days after that, four days, the day before, that morning, and that afternoon, each time to a chorus of vaguely condescending looks (make that vaguely condescending clucks over the phone) and that adorably insincere catch-phrase of cornered publicists: "If anything comes up, we'll let you know." Thing is that nothing comes up--nothing ever comes up: a junket is run with the military precision of an anthill with armies of incredibly attractive young men and women equipped with walkie-talkies and earpieces swarming through the dim, labyrinthine hotel hallways with a scary purpose. If anything unexpected interrupts the scent-trail, I imagine the hotel falls down.
These worker bees are never rude, exactly, but torn between their allegiance to whatever queen they serve and their tolerance of an increasingly dubious media. More, I think there might be a little bit of suspicion of the junketeers, these entertainment journalists who have made it a career to follow junkets around the country ("goodie-bag groupies" is a term I sort of like because I actually coined it), these slobs of the Dave Barry school of fashion (jeans and corduroy blazers and Hawaiian shirts open over white T-shirts), legends in their own minds, every single one of them, by circumstance and by dint of the ability to appeal to the imaginary Joe Lunchbox demographic. They are, after all, more powerful publicists than official publicists will ever be.
Disquieting side note, part one: there was a time when "favoured" critics would be offered a list of pull quotes from which to choose by the studios. "Mr. Lyons," in other words, "would you like to say that this film is the roller-coaster, edge-of-your-seat thrill ride of the summer, or would you like to say that this film is the first great one of the year?"
|"Kate" and "Jim" in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind|
So there's something like a one-upmanship engaged in by PR and press at these things, a subtle psychological warfare that revolves around the delay of distributing gift bags, flaunting the ability to order individualized meals that don't arrive over low burners (congealed scrambled eggs; later, congealed refried beans), the patronizing sympathetic mum that laces the declaration that "If anything comes up, we'll let you know," and, most common, the reference to all of their clients on a first name basis. "Kirsten isn't hungry right now. No. Not at all." "Jim is on his way, he'll be here in five minutes." "Charlie isn't going to give Mr. Chaw a one-on-one, don't even ask him." It's an ingratiating habit of overfamiliarity that infects the junketeers, too, and like aging hippies wearing tattered Grateful Dead tees to The Who reunion concerts, they escalate the name-dropping by comparing past and future junkets. "Were you at Hidalgo last week in Texas? Viggo was a doll," or, "Are you going to Alamo next week? I talked to Ron for Beautiful with Russell and he's just a doll."
Asked for his name, one semi-not-really-famous junketeer scanned the room for familiar PR faces, pointed over the head of the earpiece'd woman in front of him, and said, "He knows who I am" before brushing past her. It's surprising for some, I think, that sitting in a room with a celebrity and twenty other journalists doesn't make them celebrities, too, or even, in the final analysis, particularly recognizable. Maybe that's why so many carry metallic duffel bags from Thir13en Ghosts, wear ball caps emblazoned with Mystic River, and don too-big sunglasses with a tiny T3: Rise of the Machines stencilled along an arm--"Adore me, I've sat down with Nicole and Arnie." Sort of like, "I've slept with Warren Beatty." I mean, get in line.
Not asked for but demanded: "I need notes for Eternal and Ned." There is in the air a sense of desperate entitlement and soul-weariness. The Four Seasons this weekend is also hosting junkets for Ned Kelly ("Naomi isn't here, I heard she's in New Zealand") and Agent Cody Banks 2, which explains why I saw Heath Ledger in the bar late Friday night when I tumbled out of the airport cab in a cloud of artificial pine scent undercut by something unidentifiably biological and into the impossible lobby of the hotel. (I also saw the guy who played the father in Fargo and someone resembling Beverly D'Angelo.) I made flight arrangements a week ago and finally received an itinerary the night prior to my departure--on this form was a $71.00 "service fee" and the declaration that I needed neither a hotel room nor a rental car. A panicked call won me reassurance that I wouldn't have to pay the fee and a different phone number that in turn yielded me three opportunities to leave a message on a voice mail. A call to the Four Seasons to check if I'd magically had a room reserved for me despite the evidence of my itinerary revealed that I was, indeed, a complete surprise, and then inspiration as I called the hospitality suite for Focus Features and located the woman who makes boarding arrangements.
"We were told you didn't need a room."
"We can do that."
"I'll do that, you're all set."
"Okay, great, thanks and sorry, and how do I get there from the airport? Is there a shuttle?"
"(long pause) Maybe. You could just take a cab and we'll reimburse you."
"Oh, great, how does that happen?"
"There's a form you can fill out. Okay?"
"Right, okay, sorry."
So now, roughly twenty-nine hours later, in the impossible lobby of The Four Seasons (filled with impossibly beautiful women, movie stars, and I think the Russian mafia), I talked to the charming Stefano about my reservation. Sporting a battered green Jansport backpack only slightly worse for wear than I was after seven years of crippling-debt encumbering, otherwise worthless and slightly embarrassing higher education, I was looked over more than once by six-foot blondes in mini-skirts walking tiny dogs (at 11:00pm...in a hotel lobby) doing the silent calculus of whether I was so rich that I didn't care what I looked like or was just a scumball trying to get a room for one night that would cost me, generously speaking, about a month's salary. A man with an evil Slavic accent berated the night manager to my right, and Stefano nervously scanned his screen, doing his own silent calculations of whether I was rich enough to cause a scene when he told me that I wasn't in the system. Calls were made, platitudes offered, and the solution was for me to pay for my room and maybe Focus would reimburse me maybe in the morning but more likely someday if anything came up, they'd let me know. Not fond of my options (pay for a room at The Four Seasons so I could sit in a press conference and a few roundtables in the morning and then fly back to Denver, pr sleep in the street), I called an old friend now in L.A., arranged a couch, and regretted the fact that I really liked Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and so would probably appear to have been bought by a coach ticket and a great big privileged hassle.
Beverly Hills is a giant strip mall, an Epcot Center gone more wrong as famous sites wrestle with Staples SuperCenters, Denny's, and empty storefronts. The Hollywood sign is tiny, Graumann's Chinese Theater is smaller than you'd think, Michael York has a star on the Walk of Fame (you can buy a star on the Walk of Fame for forty grand), and the Kodak Theater where the Oscars have been held the last couple of years is no more distinctive from the outside than a Karate studio at the local plaza. The place where Schwab's used to be is razed in preparation for Neo-Schwab's, and the corner of Hollywood and Vine doesn't even have the decency to be decorated by hookers. I thought the Miracle Mile would be longer, that the L. Ron Hubbard museum would be smaller, that Flynt Publications wouldn't be the other dominant force in the city next to Scientology, and that Whiskey-a-Go-Go was in Detroit. It would be better if mimes stood on the stars and acted out famous moments from the actors' careers, if Star Maps peddlers didn't wander around not cleaning windshields with their spit, and if the T-shirt and disposable camera vendors flanking the Chinese Theater weren't starting fistfights with one another. I wanted to steal the street signs--I felt like they were mine.
Back at the hotel in the now-open hospitality suite, which is packed with junketeers and a few sad-eyed, rumpled folks like myself who are there either by order of a job with which they're becoming increasingly disillusioned or, like me, by some sort of bookkeeping error and mortal curiosity. Checking in at "The Table," I'm handed a manila envelope with my name on it (spelled correctly) and my affiliation (spelled incorrectly (Surprise, surprise - Ed.)) that seems suspiciously thin in comparison to my colleagues' CD presskit-and-schedule package--no notes, no confirmation of a "one-on-one" with Charlie Kaufman.
"Hi, hate to bother you, can you tell me if I've got a one-on-one with Mr. Kaufman? I put in the request weeks ago."
"What's your name? Spell that...mmmmmmmrrrrrrrmmmm...No--sorry, didn't go through, and Charlie's very busy--it's tight...tight. If anything comes up, we'll let you know."
Jim Carrey press conference in the Burton Room on the second floor. Packed, people plugging in their tape recorders to a central sound system, publicists buzzing around. I hear the name of the woman who was to have booked my room last night and we look at each other as strangers who wonder if they should know each other and whether one of us is important enough to bust a nut over whatever it might be that the other one is torqued off about. It looks to an outsider like two dogs who've heard a new noise. I say nothing. A junketeer razzes another junketeer for taking over two seats with his equipment. "I'm just joking with you man, HEY, I'm just joking with you, man." To wit, "I don't care." It's tense in here, and hot--old women syndicate critics with their desiccated husbands on their arms like masquerade ball Norma Desmonds with their pocket von Stroheims wander into a garden party. And then Jim arrives. I ask the third question:
"Any truth to the rumour that you might play Tiny Tim in a biopic?"
"I've never heard that before in my life. It's true that I'm interested in a project involving the life of a real person...but I'm not sure I'm ready for anyone so deep."
There's a lot of laughter. I like Jim, he seems like a nice guy, especially by the tenth time someone asks him about his love life, his most treasured memories of romance, and what he's looking for in a woman. He's also gracious in answering what it's like to work with every member of the cast and crew. A Japanese woman asks in halting English if his character in the film has taught him anything about his life, and a fiftyish Finnish woman from the Foreign Press says something that I recognize as English but don't understand just the same.
The downtime between the press conference and the roundtables (a medieval practice where the star sits at a table occupied by a dozen idiots with tape recorders asking him/her the same questions that they just finished asking at the press conference) is spent standing in front of the hotel in another beautiful L.A. day. The parade of cars rolling up comprise the GNP of Namibia: I see my first Rolls Royce in person, enough Porsches to gag a sultanate, and on the low end of the spectrum, racy Beamers and Benzes--the only place that I've seen more organization than in the PR hive is the choreographed scramble of the valets. Larry Flynt departs, Linda Hamilton arrives (to Larry: "Mr. Flynt, I really admire what you stand for;" to Linda: "Ms. Hamilton, I'm really sorry about James Cameron"). Conversations overheard: "I'm hoping to get points on the option for that screenplay," and, "Dmitri, haf you taken are uff de ting wit Sergei?"
Disquieting side note, part two: The Hollywood Foreign Press Association is comprised of folks who, for the most part, don't write for a paper but rather for what's the equivalent of the Penny Saver pamphlet. I've heard tell of a man who was rejected membership for being from too reputable a publication.
Back in the "hospitality" suite and it's beginning to feel like a sauna in here. I ask one last time if I can get a one-on-one with Charlie, just for the absurd Beckett-ness of it before asking one of the publicists guarding the room with the Goodie Bags if I can have mine.
"We're passing those out after the roundtables."
"Right, well, I'm done, could I have mine now?"
She makes a calculation. "Um...okay."
It's a giant metal Cranium game and a soundtrack for the film in a Focus Features paper shopping bag. It's heavy and I wonder if it's going to cause me problems going back through customs.
I have the valets call me a cab, this one driven by a Russian national and smelling like a bubble-gum air freshener dipped in vomit. Still, I prefer it, I realize, as well as sitting at an airport gate for a long time, to the experience of being oublietted in a room with Charlie Kaufman and several of my colleagues as they pepper him with questions about his love life, what it's like to work with Jim, and if he'd ever consider writing a biopic of Tiny Tim's life. I adore Mr. Kaufman, I think he's probably the most important American voice (love him or hate him) in the cinema since Orson Welles, employing the same kind of sprung narrative, the same sort of theatre-fuelled abstract aggression, and now, with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the same kind of deep black love. He's an intellectual and he's rock-and-roll, and I'd rather meet him somewhere outside the shark tank--maybe next year, at the next junket, with me wearing my twenty-pound Cranium game around my neck on a chain.-Walter Chaw