Friday, December 30, 2011

The National Film Registry: Saluting Movies that Made the Cut in 2011

‘Tis the season. In the mail yesterday I received a fascinating handmade what-is-it? from some good friends in Georgia. My email inbox contained a less tangible gift for me and my fellow film buffs: a list of the 2011 selections for the National Film Registry. Annually since 1988, the Library of Congress has chosen twenty-five films of cultural, historical, or aesthetic significance it plans to preserve for future generations. As always, the titles on the list vary widely, from silent comedies (1912’s A Cure for Pokeritis) to landmark social-problem films (1945’s The Lost Weekend); from classic animation (1942’s Bambi) to sci-fi epics (1953’s The War of the Worlds). Documentaries and experimental films are also represented, along with Hollywood blockbusters (1994’s Forrest Gump) and such oddities as the tapdancing Nicholas Brothers’ family home movies.

Naturally, I couldn’t help scanning the list for movies with a Roger Corman connection. Roger himself made the cut in 2005 with the first of his Poe films, House of Usher. (I personally had the pleasure of giving him the good news.) Among the 2011 entries, the unofficial Roger Corman Alumni Association is well represented. One honoree is Norma Rae, the inspirational 1979 drama about a young woman coming into her own as a union activist in a Southern textile mill. Norma Rae may best be remembered for Sally Field’s Oscar-winning performance, but the film was produced by two women, Tamara Asseyev and Alex Rose, who earned their stripes on such Corman exploitation fare as Sweet Kill.

Also on the 2011 list is a great 1981 horror-fest, The Silence of the Lambs. Of course it was directed by Jonathan Demme, who began as a Corman publicist, then quickly moved into screenwriting, and almost immediately won the chance to direct a women-in-prison flick, Caged Heat. I well remember Jonathan wandering the halls of New World Pictures. In those days his hair was shaggy and he favored brown-and-white saddle oxfords. He has since improved his sartorial taste, but he continues to be grateful to the man who kickstarted his career. In fact, Roger appears briefly in Silence of the Lambs as the head of the FBI. And Jonathan has entrusted him with other roles too, including a featured appearance as a crafty businessman who takes the witness stand in Philadelphia.

I mst admit, though, that I was most tickled by the naming of one of my favorite small films, 1975’s Hester Street. Made on the proverbial shoestring, Hester Street is based on an 1898 short story by journalist Abraham Cahan that chronicles the sometimes painful adjustment of Eastern European Jews newly arrived in America. Filmmaker Joan Micklin Silver shot in black-and-white on the streets of New York’s Lower East Side, using actors who learned Yiddish to play their roles. Cleverly Silver shifted the focus of the story from the assimilated husband to his greenhorn spouse, thus highlighting the way an old-world wife must evolve to become acceptably American. With Carol Kane exquisite (and Oscar-nominated) in the central role, the film is a treat. And for every American who comes from immigrant stock – and hey, that’s most of us! – Hester Street may be as close as we’ll get to knowing what it feels like to be just off the boat.

How do National Registry films get chosen? The American moviegoing public can help suggest future candidates by going to a special Library of Congress site. Maybe if there’s a groundswell of popular support, Roger Corman classics like Little Shop of Horrors, The Intruder, The Wild Angels and The Trip might get the recognition they so richly deserve.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Jim (Sorority House Massacre 2) Wynorski Finds Love

With the holiday season winding down, I’m thinking of one of my favorite elves, Jim Wynorski. Jim, who’s directed dozens of Roger Corman movies since Chopping Mall in 1986, has something of the girth (as well as the beard) of Santa Claus, and no doubt could do a great Ho-ho-ho. But Jim, for all that he’s pushing sixty, remains at heart a fifteen-year-old boy. That means he loves movies that are naughty in an adolescent way. His aesthetic, as he once boiled it down for me, is simple: “Big chase and a big chest . . . If you put those two ingredients in a movie, you’re going to have a good time.” Still, though he’s made films with titles like The Devil Wears Nada, Jim retains a youthful naïveté that helps him grasp a child’s-eye view of the world.

Which led him to make Munchie, a kid-friendly trifle about a magical creature who brightens the life of a lonely young boy. Because I was deeply involved with the film’s screenplay, Jim invited me to show up at the Concorde studio, with my family in tow, to take part in a major sequence. We were to play guests at a wild and crazy party thrown by the irrepressible Munchie (voiced by Dom DeLuise). “Wild and crazy” in this context meant a lot of oddly assorted guests dancing around young Gage’s living room in colorful costumes. My husband took a day off from work, and my children were released from school to participate in this “educational” experience. Having been on movie sets before, I knew there’d be lots of waiting around before we were needed. So I didn’t try very hard (shame on me!) to get the gang to the Concorde lot at the assigned call-time. To my chagrin, Jim was running ahead of schedule, and we were whisked through wardrobe and onto the set before the hair-and-makeup department had a chance to grab hold of us. Jim positioned us in a prominent spot, and filming began.

The sequence took most of the day to shoot. During the lunch break, a crew member flagged me down. I was wearing a rather sexy harem girl outfit, but my hair was short and my face was bare. In a few moments I was tricked out with lipstick, rouge, eye shadow, and a glorious cascade of chestnut locks. If you chance to see Munchie, look for me on the dance floor, just behind the main actors. Magically, from shot to shot I go from short hair to long and from paleface to glamour girl. Fortunately for my reputation as a Hollywood extra, Jim Wynorski has never been obsessed with detail.

What he is obsessed with is eye candy. He filled his cast with voluptuous women (including Loni Ackerman as Gage’s good-hearted but definitely hot mom and Wynorski’s sometimes-squeeze Monique Gabrielle as a classroom teacher). The script also called for a cute little girl to catch Gage’s eye at the party. Jim being Jim, he was determined to come up with a young actress whom a preteen boy would find enticing. He chose an adorable thirteen-year-old with a dazzling smile. Her name was Love, and this was her first film. Today she’s a TV star: Jennifer Love Hewitt.

The following year, Jim starred her in a variation on It Happened One Night, featuring a poor little rich girl and the gruff private detective (Howard Hesseman) assigned to track her down. Little Miss Millions, originally called Home for Christmas, is the most innocent and charming film in the often-lurid Jim Wynorski canon.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Artist: Silence is Golden

For all the joy it brings, the best film of the year may be The Artist. At least, this was the movie that gave me the most personal pleasure. I regard The Artist as a splendid holiday gift, reminding me of the delights of the motion picture medium.

So old it’s new, The Artist uses tricks from cinema’s early days to tell a familiar story, one that melds the romance-between-unequals from A Star is Born to Singin’ in the Rain’s fascination with the impact of talkies on the silent film industry. Cleverly, The Artist does all this by calling upon the conventions of silent film: the actors’ broad gestures; the black-and-white cinematography; the carefully-worded title cards; the musical score that clues us in on the emotions behind the matters at hand. In its way, The Artist is saluting the whole history of film. It’s no accident that Jean Dujardin, who plays silent-movie star George Valentin, is almost a dead-ringer for Hollywood legend Gene Kelly. Though we first see Valentin emulating a Douglas Fairbanks-type swashbuckler, the expansive way he flirts with his adoring public closely parallels Kelly’s style as a similar character in Singin’ in the Rain. No surprise, then, that -- for Valentin as for Kelly’s Don Lockwood – the divide between silents and talkies is finally bridged when the dueling cavalier becomes the dancing cavalier.

In fact, famous film moments abound throughout The Artist. The increasingly strained relationship between George and his wife is wordlessly conveyed through a series of breakfast-table scenes that reminded me of Citizen Kane. Then there’s a loyal manservant, a breathless chase to the rescue, and a heroic little dog. And, yes, I’m sure there are specific references I missed, at least on first viewing. I do know that the score is a brilliant pastiche of riffs from classic films of many eras. This is a movie I definitely hope to savor more than once.

I don’t want to spoil any surprises, but two examples of Michel Hazanavicius’s filmmaking smarts linger in my mind. One is from the very beginning of the film, where we are drawn from watching the silent-movie-within-the-movie into the realization that even when off-screen these performers will not be speaking aloud. It’s a graceful segue, designed to soothe modern viewers who expect that their movie tickets will buy dialogue and noisy sound effects. Then, at the film’s dramatic climax, Hazanavicius allows an ambiguous title card to fool us into momentarily reaching the wrong conclusion. When the truth was revealed, the audience who shared the film with me let out an audible gasp, a tribute to the power of the written word to manipulate our emotions.

In fact, though this is a silent film, language can be regarded as one of its central subjects. Although The Artist has a Belgian pedigree, and its two headliners are French-speakers, an American audience can enjoy it without language barriers getting in the way. It’s proof, if proof be needed, that cinema is truly a universal language.

A final note: it’s a pleasure to see a movie that treats vintage Los Angeles with such affection. Movie palaces like the Orpheum Theatre and architectural gems like the Bradbury Building are displayed with loving care. I especially enjoyed the glimpses of Fremont Place, a once-exclusive gated community which gained notoriety in the 1950s because singer Nat “King” Cole was not white enough to take up residence. In the era depicted in The Artist, it bore no such obvious stigma, and I loved seeing it looking so ready for its closeup.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Ding Dong, Kim Jong Il is Dead

On Sunday I glimpsed, by chance, a televised airing of The Wizard of Oz. The Wicked Witch of the West, perverse and dangerous, was terrorizing the Munchkins, not to mention Dorothy and her friends. Monday morning I read in the L.A. Times about the death of Kim Jong Il. Though glorified by the North Korean propaganda machine as the people’s “Dear Leader,” Kim too was both hated and feared by the subjects over whom he ruled with an iron fist. The Wicked Witch may have had her secret sorrows (hey, it’s not easy being green!), but she dealt with them by gleefully inflicting torment on those beneath her. From what we know about Kim’s repressive regime, he wasn’t so very different. Extremely short, unattractive, and by all reports desperate for love from the despot father (Kim Il Sung) who preceded him in office, he literally starved his people while personally enjoying sumptuous gourmet meals. He also locked his countrymen up by the thousands while he himself gallivanted through life, enjoying romantic flings and hobnobbing with celebrities. And, most seriously as far as the world is concerned, he spent the bulk of his nation’s limited resources on developing a nuclear bomb, a far more dangerous prize than the ruby slippers.

Wouldn’t you know it? Kim Jong Il was a movie buff. That puts him in the same camp with other totalitarian leaders determined to mold their people’s outlook through the motion picture medium. When cinema was still a young art form, Stalin used the work of Sergei Eisenstein and other brilliant filmmakers to build support for Marxist ideology within the Soviet Union. And Hitler's propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels enlisted filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl to rally the Germany people to the Nazi cause. Her Triumph of the Will (1935) masterfully made Hitler into a larger-than-life hero. Kim Jong Il apparently hoped for some of the same movie magic. He even wrote a book on the subject, espousing the idea that movies and other “revolutionary art” could inspire a nation. In 1979 he went so far as to kidnap a prominent South Korean actress and her director husband, forcing them to work in the North Korean film industry for eight years, until they managed to escape.

Though Kim Jong Il maintained a personal library of 20,000 movies, including many American classics, the average North Korean could be sent to prison for watching U.S.-made films. It’s clear that Kim realized how powerful movies can be in showing a repressed people what the wider world looks like. I’ve run across countless stories about individuals in faraway lands whose lives were forever shaped by what they learned through American movies. The movies taught them about personal choice, and about the right to pursue one’s dreams. And Hollywood movies also showed them a lifestyle that a poor North Korean or South African or Eastern European couldn’t hope to emulate. For the price of a ticket, movies provided far more food for thought than Kim Jong Il could ever permit his countrymen to taste. And so he kept his movie collection -- his treasured copies of The Godfather and Gone With the Wind -- to himself.

Today’s headlines remind me of the dangerous power vacuum now left by Kim’s death. And photos of grieving North Koreans send me back to John Donne’s timeless message that “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” Still it’s hard to feel sad that the Wicked Witch of the East has now gone where the goblins go . . . below, below, below. Yoho!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Susan Gordon: A Child Star Makes An Early Exit

How sad to learn that Susan Gordon has left us. Susan — who as a child played Danny Kaye’s daughter in The Five Pennies, starred in a memorable episode of The Twilight Zone, and became a fantasy object for ten-year-old males in The Boy and the Pirates — grew up in my neighborhood. Of course I was aware of Susan’s celebrity, which made me feel slightly jealous. How did this little blonde girl get to make movies?

Years later, I spent an evening with Susan, discussing her life as a showbiz kid. She had taken a brief holiday from her husband and six children to enjoy a whirl of reunions and nostalgia events. She was petite, pretty, and very serious as she explained how her career began by accident: “My parents never wanted any of us girls to be in movies. They thought Hollywood was the wrong place for a child to grow up.” Yet her parents were movie people themselves. Her father, Bert I. Gordon, made low-rent movies in the Roger Corman mold. In 1958, he was shooting Attack of the Puppet People, which contained a small role for a young girl. Though Susan coveted the part, he hired a professional actress, then invited Susan’s Brownie troop to be extras in the scene. When the young pro fell ill, Susan stepped into the breach: “I did the scene, one take—and history began. . . . When the film was released, we got some calls from agents. And finally my parents said, ‘Susan, if you’re really interested. . . .’ But they set some ground rules.”

Rule #1: she was not to make her sisters jealous. Skimpy costumes were out too. And her father announced, "The day that they say, ‘There goes Susan Gordon’s father’ is the day you quit the business." He was joking, but he didn’t want his daughter to outshine him. Years later, though, his pride in her achievement was unmistakable. Still, this was not a case of stage parents pushing their darling toward ever greater success. It was drilled into Susan by both elder Gordons that Hollywood flattery should not go to her head. In protecting her from unrealistic expectations, they helped stave off the despair that hits many child actors on the inevitable day that “you don’t have this adoration any more. You’re off of the pedestal and your balloon is deflated.”

But Susan was so careful to keep her accomplishments under wraps that she ended up short on self-esteem. She told me about a long-ago playground incident: a close pal confided that “when I first became friends with you, it was because you were in the movies, but now I really like you.” Said Susan, “Although I’m sure she meant it as a compliment, it shattered my world.” Her voice dropped low as she recalled thinking, “Well, does everyone — all my friends — want to be friends with me because I’m in movies? What about me?” At this point in our conversation, her eyes filled with tears.

Susan was once up for a film with William Holden that would have taken her to Africa. As always, her parents warned her not to raise her hopes. Her own attitude was different: “Let me dream about it. Let me dream I’m going to be in Africa. And then if it doesn’t happen, . . . . at least I’ve had that moment of being in it.” She added, “I feel that way basically about life. Looking forward to things.”

I’m grieving now that cancer cut a good life short. Susan Gordon, alas, can’t look forward to things any more.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Descendants: No Small Parts, Just Small Actors

The Descendants is not my favorite movie of the year. I found it somewhat predictable, and missed the creative energy of such previous Alexander Payne films as Election and Sideways. Still, there’s much to like, including a spot-on vision of Hawaii that meshes sun-kissed tropical vistas with aging white men in bermuda shorts and flipflops.

Of course George Clooney is wonderful (who doesn’t love George Clooney?), but for me the very best part of the film lies in director Payne’s work with featured players. He is, it seems, a master of casting. Sideways worked so well partly because its central foursome was so deftly chosen. Paul Giamatti became a star through his portrayal of the hangdog wine aficionado, Miles. The soulful Virginia Madsen was perfection as his sadder-but-wiser leading lady. Thomas Haden Church, previously known as a TV actor, gained a whole new career after appearing as everyone’s favorite horndog, Jack. (I’ve heard that George Clooney himself campaigned for this role, but Payne turned him down, probably guessing that Clooney’s star wattage would have thrown off the delicate balance he wanted.) And Sandra Oh, who at the time was Mrs. Alexander Payne, was an unusual but effective choice as the ready-for-anything Stephanie. Still, part of what made Sideways work like gangbusters were the small roles that gave the film texture. I remember especially Marylouise Burke as Miles’ cheerful but somewhat addled mother, Missy Doty as the chubby waitress charmed by Jack’s tableside repartee, and M.C. Gainey as Cammi’s Neanderthal spouse, not at all pleased to find his wife in flagrante delicto. Browsing the credits, I was also tickled to discover that the telephone voice of Miles’ New York agent was supplied by Toni Howard, doyenne of Hollywood casting circles and possessor of a distinctive cigarettes-and-whiskey alto.

The Descendants – a story of love, loss, and family inheritance -- works similar magic with its minor characters. I’ll remember Beau Bridges as a Clooney cousin whose laid-back Hawaiian folksiness can’t entirely mask a greedy streak. Then there’s Judy Greer, as a loyal wife who comes unglued at the worst possible moment. Some young actors playing Clooney’s daughters and a goofy sidekick do great work too. But for me the performances to cherish come from Hollywood veteran Robert Forster and the completely unknown Barbara L. Southern as the parents of Clooney’s dying wife. Forster once lit up the screen as the enigmatic nature-boy in John Huston’s 1967 Reflections of a Golden Eye, then returned to the spotlight in Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 Jackie Brown. Here he is the very epitome of tough-but-tender. Toward son-in-law Clooney and almost everyone else, he’s angry, bitter, even vengeful. But when his wife is helped into the room, he turns gentle. She is clearly in the throes of Alzheimer’s disease, and the love he lavishes on her somewhat redeems him (in my eyes, at least). It’s a gem of a characterization, and it’s matched by that of Southern. When she appears on the screen, well-dressed and carefully coiffed though she may be, it’s immediately evident that something is very wrong. As a woman so disconnected from the here-and-now that she misinterprets her daughter’s fatal accident as a visit from the Queen of England, she is heartbreakingly convincing.

Back in my high school drama days, we were told (endlessly) that there were no small parts, just small actors. This old bromide was supposed to make us feel better when we were cast in lousy roles. Still, there’s truth in it – and Alexander Payne knows as well as anyone in Hollywood how to combine small parts into a big, beautiful whole.

Friday, December 9, 2011

A M*A*S*H-Note for Harry Morgan

I miss Harry Morgan already. Yet I’m sure I’ll be seeing him around for a long time to come. Morgan, who just died at 96, was one of those invaluable character actors who add credibility to every film they make. It’s amazing how often I’ve seen him pop up in classics, like The Ox-Bow Incident and High Noon. He played the judge in Stanley Kramer’s fictionalized rendering of the Scopes Trial, Inherit the Wind, and a lawman in John Wayne’s last film, The Shootist. With his flat Midwestern voice and rough-hewn features, he represented Americana in all its permutations. Over the years, soldiers and sheriffs were his specialty.

I first got to know Morgan’s work in easygoing 1960s sitcoms like Pete and Gladys. He was Jack Webb’s acerbic sidekick on Dragnet too. But his chief claim to fame was his role as Colonel Sherman T. Potter for the last eight seasons of M*A*S*H. On M*A*S*H he had the unenviable task of following McLean Stevenson as the commanding officer of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, located near enemy lines in the thick of the Korean War. Stevenson’s Lt. Colonel Henry Blake had been a lovable goofball, oblivious to army protocol, and his departure from the show had been one of its most indelible episodes. But Morgan, as Colonel Potter, brought into M*A*S*H a new gravitas. As a regular-army officer who respected military life but never lost sight of war’s human face, he helped the show move from the anarchic zaniness of the Robert Altman film on which it was based into something richer and deeper.

I never met Harry Morgan. But I was lucky to spend a day on the M*A*S*H set, while researching an article for Theatre Crafts magazine. In exterior scenes, Korea was played by Malibu, California. (Hikers at Malibu Creek State Park still enjoy coming upon prop ambulances and signposts left behind when the series wrapped in 1983.) The bulk of the show, though, was shot on Stage 9 at Twentieth-Century Fox, and that’s where I went to talk to gaffers, makeup artists, and prop people about the challenges of re-creating the Korean War era. The episode before the cameras on the day that I visited showed Morgan’s Colonel Potter became entranced with a visiting USO cutie, a not-so-young chorine played by Bob Fosse’s favorite muse, Gwen Verdon. I recall her teasing a beaming Colonel Potter with a fluffy hot-pink boa, a far cry from the olive drab uniforms that were the mainstay of the M*A*S*H wardrobe rack. Though devoted to his wife and kids back home, the good colonel seemed fated to succumb to this adorable hussy. (Body chemistry: these two ageing but attractive people had it – in spades!) Still, for all its artistic originality, M*A*S*H was not about to alienate its core audience. The writers found a way to get Colonel Potter out of this sticky situation with his honor intact.

During my day on the M*A*S*H set, I got taken to lunch by crew members. No hoity-toity studio commissary for them! Instead, we drove to a beer-and-ribs joint that filled their need for a hearty meal. One thing I love about crew folk: they speak their minds. All were happy to have steady work, and they approached their on-set duties with total professionalism. But none of them seemed to grasp that they were part of a series that was truly groundbreaking television. Hardly starstruck, they regarded M*A*S*H as just another job. Harry Morgan was a great actor, but also a down-to-earth kind of guy. I think he would have understood.

(I can't resist sharing a post that brings to light another aspect of Morgan's life. Just this morning I was told on good authority by a fellow biographer that he was a mean drunk. Very sad.)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Loretta Young and the Basketball Hottie: Thoughts on Motherhood in Hollywood

I’ve become obsessed with the passing of Judy Lewis. It’s not that Lewis’s twenty-year career as a TV actress much interests me. Rather, I became intrigued when I discovered her bloodlines.

Lewis grew up believing she was Loretta Young’s adopted daughter, plucked from an orphanage at 19 months by a star beloved for her good-girl roles. Meanwhile rumors swirled that Judy was in fact the byproduct of an affair between Young and the very married Clark Gable. The story – not confirmed until the publication of Young’s memoir after her 2000 death -- was that the two screen icons fell in love for real while shooting romantic scenes in the forests of Washington State for 1935’s The Call of the Wild. Young’s trip to Europe concealed the pregnancy from public view, and Judy was later born in a Venice, California cottage rented by Young and her mother, before being quietly whisked away. As Judy approached school-age, her oversized ears (reminiscent of Gable’s Dumbo-worthy ones) were so alarming to Young that she dressed her little girl in bonnets until the doctors finally scheduled corrective surgery.

Somehow Judy intuited none of this, though she always felt great tension between herself and her “adoptive” mom. The subject didn’t come up between them until 1966, when Young finally confirmed the deception. Young’s reasons for concealing her daughter’s parentage were straightforward. Stars like herself and Gable were bound by morals clauses in their studio contracts. Any hint of sexual impropriety could destroy their careers. Beyond this, Young was a practicing Catholic who took very seriously the notion of sin. The ultimate victim, of course, was poor Judy . To her credit she went back to school, emerging in 1992 as a credentialed family therapist. Fittingly, she specialized in issues relating to adoption and foster care. In 1994 she published her own memoir, writing that “it was very difficult for me as a little girl not to be accepted or acknowledged by my mother, who, to this day, will not publicly acknowledge that I am her biological child,” Once the book came out, mother and daughter did not speak for three years.

I thought of Judy Lewis this past weekend while at my gym. Somehow, channel-surfing on the TV set connected with my treadmill, I happened onto a talk show called Basketball Wives, in which some leggy young lovelies (including several actresses and wannabes) gab about their love life. A ravishing creature in blue spoke feelingly about how she’d just separated from her jock fiancé, after a six-year relationship, in order to move out on her own. After all, she’d been with him since the age of 20, and now sorely craved a more independent lifestyle. Mentioned in passing was the fact that this relationship had produced two children. But while she and her supportive circle of lady-friends happily clucked over her new living arrangements, her career aspirations, and her sex life, no one returned to the subject of those apparently discarded kids, whom I suspected were suffering from their mother’s determination to put her personal needs first.

Loretta Young, hampered by the puritanical moral code of her times, put herself ahead of her daughter. (Clark Gable, of course, did the same.) The blithe young “basketball fiancée” can publicly admit to her sexual urges in a way Young could not, but she too – like many in today’s Hollywood -- seems to be putting personal gratification ahead of her obligation to the children she’s borne. Call me old-fashioned, but I worry about the kids. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Speed – The LAX Version

Returning to Los Angeles International Airport, known to frequent flyers as LAX, can be a daunting experience. The other day, I boarded a shuttle that was supposedly heading to my off-site parking lot. Instead I was stuck in airport limbo, on what looked to be a bus to nowhere. After what seemed like hours, the situation became clear. L.A. had been deluged by rain earlier in the day – almost two inches! – and so the airport was in chaos. The tunnel leading to my lot was flooded, and because I was in a bus, not an ark, the going was slow indeed.

That’s when my imagination kicked in. Hey. I teach screenwriting, so shouldn’t I be thinking like a screenwriter? And, given my Roger Corman experience, it was only natural for me to adapt our situation as a low-budget thriller, perhaps a sort of Speed in slow motion, with a villain holding a small cluster of travelers hostage aboard an oversized van. I studied at my fellow passengers, and decided I’d hit the mother lode. Across from me sat a very Hollywood young couple, both of them tall, slim, and casually but expensively dressed. She was blonde, and a little bit pregnant. With elegantly tapered fingers (one sporting a large diamond) she kept delicately patting her belly. They were perfect, the two of them, as my leading man and lady.

Then I spotted an Asian-American man with an amiable, amused face. Yes! Here was my salt-of-the-earth character, who would warm hearts with his wit and wisdom in the face of danger. Unluckily for him, I saw a sudden death in his future. He was just the guy to ramp up the viewers’ emotions with his dramatic demise. My husband and I would serve as the comic-relief older folks, prone to bickering as the tension rose. Since the casts of today’s Hollywood movies skew young, we two would naturally be incapable of heroics. Instead we would merely be hindrances to the good guys’ efforts, earning ourselves a few sardonic chuckles. (Of course, Shelley Winters helped save the day in The Poseidon Adventure, but swimming was never my strong suit.)

That left me with some slightly more enigmatic characters. In the very back of the van sat a young man of uncertain ethnicity. Who knew what was going through his head? Was he a political terrorist? An ex-military man gone rogue? Or just your common-garden-variety demented killer? And then there was our driver: competent, quiet, polite . . . or was he not what he seemed? Was there, in fact, a conspiracy afoot?

That left me with only one more passenger, and I came to see her as the key to the whole story. She was a mousy young thing, slight of build, wearing a ponytail and thick horn-rimmed glasses. What fascinated me was that throughout our ride to nowhere, she was deeply immersed in reading a book. I caught a glimpse: it was a fat library copy of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Aha! I didn’t spot any tattoos on this young woman, and she certainly didn’t sport thick boots and a mohawk, like Lisbeth Salander. Still, who knew what she was capable of? I suspected that at the first sign of danger, she’d fling aside her glasses (a disguise, of course) and show her true colors. Then – watch out! (Just the role for a young Sandra Bullock.)

Fortunately, when I was at this point in my story, the shuttle arrived safely at the parking lot. Everyone emerged, unscathed, and I went back to being a mild-mannered blogger with a rampant imagination.