5/28/09

I Love Larry

Because it's true
Curb Your Enthusiasm, the new series from Seinfield co-creator Larry David has the familiarity of a strange, looping dream. Larry David himself was the basis for Seinfield's character of George Costanza, played by Jason Alexander, and both men (or should we say, all three) share the same owlish stare. David is as tall as Kramer and stands with a similar stoop and when he speaks he sounds like Kramer or Jerry. When he shouts, it's impossible not to think of George. When he whines, you can hear Jerry with an Elaine rising.

The similarities between David and his co-creations becomes both the premise and the challenge of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Jason Alexander appears in the debut episode as himself ("a great actor") discussing how audiences still see him as George. "They think I'm the schmuck, the idiot, the jackass!" Alexander smiles, ignoring his mentor's crushed expression. Larry David is hurt, of course, because if the fictional character of George is seen as the schmuck then the real George - Larry himself - must be seen the same way.

The joke is delivered fast, mumbled so quick that you could miss it. Like Seinfield, it's up to you to keep up with the rhythms of neglect, bitterness and insensitivity. David is a writer first and performer second. His best Seinfeld teleplays were simple expressions of complex characters trapped by their own psyche - tragedies, in fact, were they not so funny - and he has an ear for phrases that inspire the giggles. In tonight's episode when his on-screen wife Cheryl Hines dismisses a twittering noise as "a house sound" you're smiling before he picks up on it. "A 'house sound'?" David says with his eyes sparkling. "What's 'a house sound'?" By the time he's finished repeating it over and over, the term is immediately consigned to the lexicon alongside "spongeworthy," "bubble boy" and "close talker."

Curb is produced by HBO, the subscriber network behind The Sopranos and Sex and the City, and the emerging creative force in mainstream television. Tonight's episode kicks off the second season: a third is underway in the States. David is philosophical about its success. "When you're not concerned with succeeding, you can work with complete freedom," he says.

Filmed as a cheap reality show and ad-libbed by its celebrity guests, the show pokes fun at fame and the cruel reality of its passing. The fact that Seinfield has finished and its magic has been dismantled might seem like a good reason to avoid its stars and its co-creator but this depressing grimness is part of the series' bite. Even the show's title - "Curb your enthusiasm, folks!" - is an old stand-up dig at an audience that isn't clapping. Larry knows you're not expecting to enjoy his new show, but this is why you may.

(NZ Herald, 2002)

LA Stories

Miles Millar is a British screenwriter working in Hollywood. A poster for Kurosawa's Ran hangs on his office wall. David is a Hollywood agent. A poster for Batman hangs on his.

David says he sold the script for Batman. I'd be interested to know which one since the screenplay went through 10 drafts in as many years before being mostly ad-libbed on a sound stage, but I don't doubt his word. As the Italian saying goes: success has many fathers, but failure is always a bastard.

Writing is a group activity in Hollywood. Everyone does it - or rather would if they weren't so busy doing other things like producing or acting. I think Joan Didion said this - or perhaps it was John Gregory Dunne. Anyway, I'm saying it now in this review – and getting paid for it. See? That's how "writing as a group activity" works.

To receive their credit and a six-figure cheque for Lethal Weapon 4, Miles and his writing partner Al had to arbitrate with the Writer's Guild and pitch over the phone to Mel Gibson. In the premiere press line, the documentary crew ask Mel if he remembers Miles. Mel's handsome forehead jumps. He doesn't remember, and dollars tick behind his eyes as he calculates the time wasted answering the question. Lethal Weapon 4 had more writers than he has children.

Writer Simon Kelton and fellow expatriates play cricket in the Hollywood hills and go hunting, complete with horses and red coats and beagles happily bouncing through the scrub. They aren't hunting an actual fox, Simon smirks -- thus missing the deeper irony that, therefore, they aren't actually hunting.

Simon's is one of four 'LA Stories' in this documentary, and knowing how they end makes it no less enjoyable. Anyone with a working set of eyes will see it coming.

Tina Jenkins' script is about a man who turns into a cat. A newcomer to Venice Beach, she has mastered the language but not the lingo. She says "lorry" and "green-lit" instead of "truck" and "green-lighted". She borrowed £10,000 to come to LA. Guess how well she does.

"Nobody knows who writers are," Miles says gamely. It must be difficult coming up with what he originally describes as "a fresh idea" when your career path is already written for you.

The grim reality is that working Hollywood is as predictable as its product. If you like shouting down the phone, you could be a producer. If you like sitting on the other end of the line, then writing may be the way to go.

There is money in it. Hollywood makes less than 200 scripts into films each year but many thousand more are optioned so someone's getting paid.

Even fewer films are being made about Scottish hairdressers but one, The Big Tease is going into production as LA Stories begins. Co-writers Sacha Gervasi and Craig Ferguson say the film was green-lighted (sic) because of the success of The Full Monty. But don't worry - if it bombs, the credit will be all theirs.

(NZ Herald, 2001)

Star Trek: Voyager

The Mutual Respect Boat
Voyager is the fourth installment in the Star Trek legacy and deserves more success than it has enjoyed. The series boasts the franchise's most romantic theme and its sharpest ship. Trek's traditionally male audience is treated to three original female leads and the crew is journeying through a lush and uncharted region of the galaxy.

Logically, Voyager should be compelling and different but for all the good choices the series' writers have made, they consistently avoid the dynamic. They prefer stories to plot, narrative to intrigue. The characters are fine variations on a theme rather than bold contrasts. Janeway is isolated, B'Elanna Torres is angry and Seven of Nine is very isolated and very angry. Tuvok is detached while the Doctor is detached, fussy, isolated and sometimes angry as well. Paris and Kim are the disenfranchised frat boys Wesley Crusher probably grew up to be. Chakotay is the sex symbol female fans would wish on Janeway but again the writers hold back, directing him instead to meditate.

The crew all talk too much. No stone is left unscanned for traces of nucleogenic particles. We could do with more action and a little more amore, even if the days when a Captain could drop-kick the bad aliens and kiss the pretty ones are well past.

Maybe the writers are confounded by the Trek mythology and the nit-picking fan sites. Maybe their work is being spoiled by TV's many cooks who change the flowers in Janeway's cabin and make teenage passengers appear and disappear from week to week.

Season six of Voyager is making a better start. In the second half of 'Equinox' Janeway finally popped a hatch and tried to hunt down and kill another Federation ship. She had no real reason to do it but at least she was doing something.

This week Seven bumps into some old friends in a grim Borg flashback. The suspenseful story includes a decent reason for Naomi Wildman even if the moral is dispensed with too quickly.

And B'Elanna confronts her Klingon self in the 'Barge of the Dead', a good idea that opens and closes on the right note. The following week the Doctor takes command of the ship for an extremely funny second run at 'The Corbomite Manoeuvre'.

And visually the series is a delight. The crew quarters look better than the apartments on Coruscant. There are probably paper wrappers around the toilet seats and mini-bars loaded with Saurian brandy.

Gene Roddenberry wrote the first draft of Star Trek in 1963 using a manual typewriter and the high-minded premise that humanity would evolve into a better species in order to reach the stars. Voyager is true to that vision. Instead of a bang or a whimper the Trek universe is ending with a luxury, mood-lit cruise.

(NZ Herald, 2001)

Slo-mo

That woman's a robot
The irony of old action series is their inaction. Mainstream television sped up after the advent of music videos but prior to that things were pretty casual. With her shapely bionic limbs The Bionic Woman Jaime Sommers can run as fast as a car and wrestle hefty military personnel in the same wrenching slow motion as her predecessor, Colonel Steve Austin. Slowing down the film in The Six Million Dollar Man empowered Lee Majors as if his lifts and sprints were an incremental release of inner rage but Lindsay Wagner running frame by frame simply looks fetching, like a romantic commercial.

Jaime also has a bionic ear that allows her to hear more than normal women. (Insert your own joke here.) Again, it's somehow less exciting than Steve's bionic eye jerkily focussing on objects less than a stone's throw away. She is assigned wholesome and mildly exciting missions by Oscar Goldman, a Washington operative who sports soulful suits and the high colour of a man who enjoys a good scotch on the sunbed. In the 70s, a tan really was a tan.

Knight Rider is likewise gymnasium-free. Behind David Hasselhoff's high-waisted denims you can see a Shatner just waiting to happen. As Michael Knight, he solves crimes by using a car named KITT, a Trans Am with a ratty black finish and a sarcastic onboard computer. KITT's roof is very low, forcing David to fold his waxy bouffant down while he is driving, like Marge Simpson. KITT is also large - about the size of a car, in fact - which prevents them solving crimes indoors. And so each week Michael fights injustice on the roads, freeways, lanes, bridges, parking lots, runways and pitted dirt plains of America.

The A-Team are four Vietnam vets turned mercenary after a tour of duty in which they lost the use of their full names. Doc, Face, Hannibal and "B.A." Barracus don lame disguises and hit people in order to fix problems the real authorities can't fix, tied down as they are by pesky laws and notions of just cause. The four friends tool around in a customised GMC van and build gadgets that defeat the bad guys and distract viewers from the boring storylines. One week they used plastic bags and an electric hair dryer to make a hot-air balloon that lifted George Peppard over a prison wall. Back on the ground George lumbered along at the same speed as Lindsay Wagner but his progress was a result of lifestyle choices rather than a trick of the camera. If you own a hair dryer powerful enough to lift him, don't point it at your head.

All three series are filmed with bright lighting and wide angles that make the stock Hollywood back-lots appear uninhabited. The clearly labelled military bases, convents and fairgrounds seem desolate, as if the audience has abandoned them and left the heroes behind. Why they have done so is no mystery, but it's still a loss.

(NZ Herald, 2002)

1980s: a photo-essay

It was a late afternoon in August and they were strolling towards me along K Road and I recognised them instantly. We'd been clubbing at A Certain Bar and seen Danse Macabre in Parnell and the Screaming Blam Matic review at Mainstreet and sunk martinis at Le Bom. Except that my memories were more than twenty years old and the group of kids filling the sidewalk would have barely been born. They only looked like they were there at the time, with their RayBans and fluoro and small feet and big hair. They were perfect reproductions: they'd just dialled the look up. Mine was a disconsolate double-take. The 1980s were over. The 1980s were back.

So did we not look stupid then? Because the fashions look brilliant now and the rehashed blippy pop sound has saved the dance floor now that rap has wrapped and the oonst has run out. Miami Vice has been remade and Brideshead Revisited has been revisited. The music industry is once again threatened by copying technology (having survived, er, cassette recording). Global warming is poised to destroy the world that the nuclear arms race did not. And now, perfectly, the stock market has once again gone up like the Hindenburg. This isn't a revival of the 1980s: this is a re-enactment.

The 1980s was an era of extremes in that things were either taken too seriously or not seriously enough. Historians point to the era's tumult (Springbok tour, Queen Street riot, political correctness) but my memories are nothing but frivolous (dance mixes, nightclubs, cocktails the size of a lamp). The 1980s were up and funny because ignoring reality was the point.

There was a lot of it to be ignored here. Week nights were boring. Villas were old. City living was for eccentrics. You couldn't buy a drink on a Sunday. But for a moment the aesthetic of wealth was easily faked. Our Pacific locale was chic. Decor that cost a fortune to staple up in Trader Vic's was a bob a penny at Cook Street market. Duran Duran blew millions filming the videos for Rio actually in Rio. Sucked in: we could just hire the Spirit of Auckland. We were close to the sea and credit cards didn't need to be paid back.

I can see why kids are mad for the 1980s. They see it as a time of style, colour, brightness and energy. They are wrong, of course. We had to wait for music to be freighted in while they can download the very same tracks with a click. We queued to flick through month-old copies of the NME in Whitcoulls while they can Google articles for free. Anyone who says victory is sweeter for being harder won never had to secure a postal money order in Sterling to pay for a Rough Trade single. That's all really good music, by the way: the heavy, squarish stuff gathering dust under the bed.

A question, then, for the generation born after Return of the Jedi: will you ever experience such nostalgia? Floating on social networks, with your digital images and your social sites maintaining every moment on artificial life support, your youth has the potential to remain constantly accessible. How will you miss it if it never goes away?

My 1980s have been fading with the media I'd stored it on: Xerox photocopies and mix cassettes. The only moments that were truly preserved were the photographs, which I planned to get around to some day but never did. It was only after my brush with my not-friends shambling along the sidewalk that I realised now might be the time.

Digging out the old negatives and scanning them, I counted three formats (126, 110, 35mm) and four stages of nostalgia:
1. Thinking you were cool.
2. Realising you weren't.
3. Realising you were, kind of, but not for any of the reasons you imagined.
4. Realising it's gone.

I'm currently locked in the fourth quarter. I should be making fun of such easily mocked images but the memories they provoke are paradoxically distant and comforting and more than a little melancholy. I didn't even think I was old but I guess by definition I must be. Damn.

Much later after these images were taken the buildings we lived and partied in would be knocked down and we would peer through the gaps and see, finally, how small and crappy things really were. But that was later. Now, strolling past in the opposite direction, the 1980s look pretty good.

(Sunday magazine, 2008)