Friday, April 12, 2024

Taking a Leap with O.J. Simpson

 I once saw Orenthal James Simpson at Los Angeles International Airport, walking at a steady clip, suitcase in hand. The moment stands out for me because, at the time that I spotted him, the airwaves were filled with the famous Hertz commercials, in which O.J., clearly late for something important, dramatically hurtles over airport barricades to reach the car rental counter. That series of commercials (starting in 1975) struck a chord with the public because they captured what everyone loved about O.J. in that era: the remarkable football skills, the charm, the handsome face and resonant speaking voice.

 As a UCLA student I had plenty of opportunity to root against O.J. and his USC Trojans on the gridiron. Later, I was well aware that he’d successfully made the leap from running back to media superstar. Aside from his commercials, he did TV sports commentary, and honed his acting chops with memorable comic roles as a police detective in three Naked Gun films (from the guys behind Airplane!). Like the rest of America’s media watchers, I thought of Simpson as a big, strong guy with an endearing smile.

 That all changed in 1994 when Simpson was accused of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman. Like millions of others, I watched on TV part of the baffling low-speed White Ford Bronco chase, in which an apparently suicidal Simpson tried to avoid the L.A. cops sent to arrest him. From that point forward, it was hard for a West L.A. person like me to ignore what was going on in O.J.’s world. At the time, I was working for Roger Corman at Concorde-New Horizons Pictures, which had its grubby offices on San Vicente Boulevard in the L.A. suburb of Brentwood. A short walk away was the neighborhood Italian restaurant where Goldman had worked and where Nicole had enjoyed her last meal. It quickly became a media hot spot, but then went out of business. And my daily drive home took me past the infamous condo where the two were stabbed to death. You can imagine how much the location’s notoriety added to the traffic on that stretch of Barrington Avenue.

 Of course all the grim excitement came to a head when the case went to trial—a “trial of the century” that would last a full year. In the course of it, many of the participants became famous,  including defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran, lead prosecutor Marcia Clark, and even judge Lance Ito (who found himself subject to comic parodies, including “The Dancing Itos” on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno). Also on the defense team was Robert Kardashian, now better known as the sire of a  fabulously wealthy social media clan. What I remember best about the announcement of the verdict was my personal fear that L.A. might erupt in civil violence. Thankfully it didn’t happen, though in many people’s minds O.J. would never be fully clear of the murder charges, despite his eventual acquittal.

Now Simpson himself has succumbed to cancer, but I suspect his fame will linger on. Once a media star, always a media star, right?



Tuesday, April 9, 2024

“Getting to Know You”: My UCLA Students and Me

This week I begin, once again, teaching my advanced screenwriting rewrite course through UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program. I invented this course a decade ago, putting to use the story skills I honed in my Roger Corman days. The course is taught entirely online: I communicate with my 12 carefully selected students solely through the written word. Do you think, since we don’t meet in person, that they lose out on my up-close-and-personal attention? Think again!

 Because this course, like many offered through UCLA Extension, unfolds online, I interact with students from all over the world. Their work often reflects cultures far different from my own, and introduces me to corners of the globe I would otherwise know nothing about. There’s something unique about encountering a sex scene—well, a near-sex scene—featuring a Catholic priest on a mission to Africa, as written by a Catholic priest currently back home in Dublin. I’ve had students from China, several from Australia, and a number from India. Some have been trained filmmakers who are looking to polish material they can eventually direct. In one case, several years after a class was over, I enjoyed discovering what an Indian student’s script looked like when blown up on the big screen: it was about (yup!) an aspiring filmmaker from India who faces challenges galore when he comes to L.A. to attend film school. In no uncertain terms, lived experience was part of the script’s strength.  Another Indian filmmaker, who had already won a prize for his short film at the prestigious Venice Film Festival, took my class several times, struggling to expand his drama about Tibetan refugees in Dharamshala into a full-length feature. I can’t wait to see what becomes of this powerful project.

 As you can tell, I like to follow my students’ progress, when I can. Of course, some students apply for my course mostly to challenge themselves, without serious hopes of starting a new career. A few are determined to put on screen some of the traumas they’ve faced in their own lives: this is a tricky business, because art requires a certain distance from one’s personal woes. But using life as the source of art can also make it memorable. Next time I’m in Ojai, California, I plan to go to the local library and take a gander at a certain mosaic armchair. The chair, made and donated by a prominent local family, reflects a tragic mother-and-sons story told, with great poignance, in the script of a student who lived it.

 Happily, my students tend to be interesting people doing remarkable things. Just days ago I checked in on a former student, originally from Texas, who now makes his home in Taipei. His scripts (I’ve read several) lean on his longtime experience working at local radio stations. I’m also in touch with an Hungarian who, when not writing charmingly eccentric screenplays, runs an eccentric café outside Budapest. And this past weekend I grooved to the sounds of a former student who, aside from winning a number of screenplay competitions, also performs around town as part of a very cool jazz and pop trio known as Guys & Doll.

 Ah, but you’re probably wondering if any of my students have made the big time. Some, over the years, have worked hard and found their own niche in the film industry. I’ve got to mention with great pride Shiwani Srivastava, whose  Wedding Season, was a Netflix hit in 2022. When I first encountered this romantic comedy with its Southeast Asian twist, I knew Shiwani had what it takes. And now – onward and upward! 

 Dedicated to Dominique Merrill, who knows as well as I do that (as Oscar Hammerstein once put it) when you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught.


Thursday, April 4, 2024

Helen Mirren Slams The Door Shut

My women’s book group has recently been bypassing American pop novels (see, for instance, the enjoyable but thin Lessons in Chemistry) to focus on complex works by female authors like Maylis de Kerangal (from France) and Jenny Erpenbeck (from Germany). Of course we’re reading in translation, but the works of these women open up to us worlds we may never before have contemplated. I was particularly taken by Erpenbeck’s Visitation, an eerie recap of recent history, as seen from the perspective of a luxurious lakeside house deep in the German countryside. I had never previously heard of Erpenbeck, who’s considered a prime candidate for the Nobel Prize for literature. No question: her canon is worth exploring.

This past month, the book on our reading list was The Door, a newly translated 1987 short novel by veteran Hungarian author Magda Szabó. The narrator, a middle-aged Hungarian author much like Szabó herself, has moved to a small town, where she and her husband teach and pursue literary goals. In need of housekeeping help, the narrator approaches Emerence, an ageing woman who has accepted  household chores for a number of neighbors, while also taking upon herself the thankless drudgery of sweeping snowy sidewalks with a broom. It’s soon crystal-clear that Emerence has a mind of her own, accepting only those clients who suit her and being quick to voice opinions (usually negative ones) about the neighbors’ life choices at every turn.

I bring all this up because in 2012 the internationally acclaimed novel was made into a film which I recently watched, just after reading the novel on which it was based. Though the director, the screenwriters, and the vast majority of cast members are Hungarian, the film was shot in English. Partly this was (I assume) to facilitate international distribution; partly it was also a way of accommodating its star, the formidable Helen Mirren. Mirren, whose father was Russian-born, seems to have a real affinity for eastern European roles (see such films as White Nights and The Last Station, in which she plays the wife of the ailing author Tolstoy). And surely it takes someone with Mirren’s charisma to hold down the role of a woman who is proudly cantankerous,  as well as anti-intellectual and anti-social. The crux of the film is her give-and-take relationship with the narrator-figure, named Magda after the novel’s author. Magda, over the years, comes to appreciate the generosity behind Emerence’s tough exterior. She sees how much of herself Emerence gives to those in need, and appreciates in particular Emerence’s almost mystic bond with animals. Still, she can’t easily swallow Emerence’s unrelenting sense of her own rightness on every issue. She can’t bear dealing with a woman incapable of seeing herself in the wrong. Gradually, Magda comes to understand Emmerence’s inflexibility better and is able to see her forbidding nature as evolving out of the slings and errors of the history she’s endured. Still, the relationship remains a troubled one, even unto death.

The film version of The Door strips out some major plot details from the novel. And the key moment when Magda feels impelled to force open the door to an ailing Emerence’s flat doesn’t linger in the mind the way it does when we read about it. By way of compensation, the film makes many of the circumstances of Emerence’s past more compelling, especially those presented through vivid flashbacks. There’s also a small but key change at the film’s conclusion—the arrival of a long-sought visitor—that leaves us with poignancy but not anguish. The film’s worth recommending, though it’s not an easy journey.

A one-day-early salute to my former boss and biography subject, the ageless Roger Corman, on his 98th birthday.

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Remembering the Revenge of the Nerds

The Urban Dictionary defines a nerd as someone whose IQ exceeds his weight. Note the gender implied by the pronoun “his”: the assumption here is that nerds are males, though wimpy ones. They’re smart, particularly in the so-called STEM fields, but not socially adept, and hardly of much interest to the opposite sex. For a recent example, see Sheldon (played to a T by Jim Parsons), the awkward young physicist on the twelve seasons of TV’s The Big Bang Theory. But do note he eventually managed to find true love with a female of the species, neuroscientist Amy Farrah Fowler (Mayim Bialik).

 In 1984 the term “nerd” was in only limited use. But Hollywood studios had recently enjoyed major success with such rowdy campus comedies as Animal House(1978) and Porky’s (1981). And Twentieth Century-Fox, flush with cash from its Star Wars franchise, decided it could gamble on a tax write-off with the low-budget Revenge of the Nerds. This sweetly raunchy romp, which pulled in a nice chunk of change for Fox, makes its beleaguered nerds into campus heroes. That’s not how they start out, however. Lewis (Robert Carradine) and Gilbert (Anthony Edwards) are thrilled to be matriculating at Adams College, supposedly the best computer-science school in the nation. This is hardly Caltech, though, where big-time sports and female students remain almost non-existent. Adams College (played in the film by the University of Arizona) is pretty much run by its rah-rah football coach (John Goodman in an early role). And the campus is swarming with jocks and sexy coeds, all of them affiliated with Greek houses. Because of careless, nasty pranks pulled by frat boys, incoming freshmen like Lewis and Gilbert lose their campus housing and must sleep on cots in the gym. For self-preservation they band together with other frosh nerds (like a frizzy-haired violinist, an innocent from Japan, a stylish gay guy, and a boy genius) to form a fraternity of their own.

 The nerds end up shaking off the schemes of the jocks and using their own offbeat smarts to win the Greek Games and carnival. No one in this film ever seems to do something as mundane as attending classes. Education comes by way of social interaction, even with girls. Though the nerds do connect with a campus sorority made up of awkward and unattractive female outcasts, their biggest pleasure comes from electronically bugging the Pi Delta Pi house, then watching over video as its cuties casually disrobe. (One later exclaims, in horror, “A nerd saw me naked!”) At least one nerd later puts his knowledge to good use, proving himself to be a surprising stud with the most bodacious young woman on campus, who happily gives up her handsome blond quarterback boyfriend for him. So there!  

Most of the tricks played by the nerds on their tormentors are funny rather than disgusting, though they do resort to dousing the jocks’ jockstraps with liquid heat. By the time they stage a razzle-dazzle musical show for the student body (complete with fireworks, rock violin, electronic effects, and breakdancing), we’re firmly on their side, and glad to respond to the campus cry that “We are all nerds!” while Queen’s “We are the champions” blasts out on the soundtrack

  The DVD I watched included a jubilant reunion of most of the cast, including star Robert Carradine (who in real life responds far more to race cars than computers). The two biggest names in the production, John Goodman and James (back then Jamie) Cromwell, didn’t show for the taping.  But I suspect a good time on set was had by all.