Forgetfulness of things past
Copyright © 2020 Nat Segaloff
New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael famous said that anybody who writes about Hollywood is automatically writing satire. Kael, who was not known for a sense of humor, got this one right. In fact, she unwittingly proved her own statement whenever she tried to write about the mechanics of the industry that feared, needed, and catered to her in equal measures.
When most critics write about Hollywood – and by “Hollywood” I mean the American film industry in both its actuality and its sensibility – they don’t know what they’re talking about. Some of this comes from their own ignorance but a fair amount comes from their editors who don’t want them to use technical terms for fear that their readership, viewership, or listenership won’t understand and can’t be educated. This doesn’t apply just to using Panavision over CinemaScope or IMAX over OmniMax. I had to fight at my newspaper just to include the screenwriter’s name in my reviews. Hollywood craps on writers all the time, but you’d think that a newspaper would at least recognize that they exist.
Example: One of the best inside jokes in the film community is when the Academy Awards® telecast shows examples of the work of nominees for Best Cinematography. There follows a montage of sunsets, landscapes, and vistas. The joke is that those images are generally shot by the second unit camera crew, not the Director of Photography who’s up for the award.
When you hang around movie sets you hear stories like that. No, let me correct myself. When you hang around the crews on movie sets you hear those stories. Most visiting press are escorted to the director, producer, or actors to do an interview. The smart ones stick around afterward and pay attention to the grips, juicers, teamsters, prop men, makeup, craft services, and other “below the line” people. These are the hard-working, unsung professionals whose names roll by on one side of the end credits while everybody but you is watching outtakes on the other side. For a movie reporter like me, the crew provides the best stuff. But first you have to break the code by learning something about their profession.
Another example: There are always movies being shot on the streets of LA and New York. Local residents hate this, not so much because of the noise but because it screws up parking. Seeing the equipment and trucks, a passerby will walk up to an Assistant Director (the one who wears the headset and walkie-talkie) and ask, “Excuse me, what’s the name of the movie you’re making?” Unless it’s a Steven Spielberg film where secrecy verges on paranoia, the A.D. will answer with the title, say, “The Get-Even Guys.” Invariably the passer-by will be disappointed that they haven’t heard of the film. Of course they haven’t heard of the film; they’re still shooting it. One Assistant Director I know has solved this problem by answering whatever hit movie happens to be in current release. The tourist then says, “Oh, wow, hey, that’s a great movie” and walks away happy, not realizing until they’re a block away that they’ve been had.
Film crews are like a family, especially on location where they are usually billeted together. Any motel hungry enough to rent rooms to a film crew becomes an instant frat house. This isn’t to say that film crews are rowdy, just lonely and exhausted.
Little of this is witnessed by the purported experts who cover movies for the major networks, publications, or websites. This is partly because they are shielded by publicists from seeing any of the good stuff, partly because they know their ass would be fired if they ran it, but mostly because they don’t have the knowledge or experience to notice it. That’s probably why they’re hired; inexperience reporters seldom get their bosses in trouble.
Yet another example: When I was a critic I used to haunt the projection booths and ask the projectionist to please focus. My fellow critics used to make fun of me, but it was always needed. The reasons are obvious but seldom addressed. First, no matter how big the theatre is, who is the one person who is farthest away from the screen? Right: the projectionist. Not only that, but of all the booths I have visited, I have never, ever seen one with a pair of binoculars in it. I rest my case.
I’ll add to this blog from to time to time whenever I want to vent, have news to pass along, or recall a story that I can’t fit into a book. Thanks for navigating here and please check out the other pages on my website. All the links were active when I put them up, but stuff on the Internet has the permanence of a fart, so please forgive any that lead to a 404. What can you do?
NOTE: The title of this entry is with acknowledgment to Harlan Ellison
I don't write on spec, but every now and then something gets me fired up and I can't stop my fingers from hitting the keyboard.