The inciting incident for my decision to become a screenwriter was a sloth-shaming moment I endured during a Thanksgiving dinner in 1980 at the Brooklyn Heights home of the WASP-in-laws. It had been clear to me from the gitgo that they didn’t approve. The combination of my perceived lack of seriousness when it came to important shit like ambition and just plain hard work and the general uncouth essence of my Eastern European heritage (my slavo-jewo genes), eliminated me from ruling class consideration. When they’d lay their rheumy-eyed look on me, I’d think of Iago’s line to Brabantio, “even now… a black ram / Is tupping your white ewe,” tupping being Elizabethan for shtupping. They felt disapproval, extreme disapproval, but had so far been unwilling to voice it, because to do so would have been a serious breach of tribal ethics.
Wasps fetishize pre-dinner boozing. In the case of my in-laws the fetish involved a pewter martini pitcher, two pewter martini goblets, and a bottle of Gordon’s Extra Dry, all stored in the freezer between uses. When the Old Man came home from work, or, once he’d retired, when the clock hit five, he’d trickle a schtickel vermouth in the pitcher, swirl and toss it, fill the pitcher to the brim with gin, pour a couple of stiff ones. A little Mozart, some slow and steady sipping, and it was refill time, prompting the question, “A dividend, m’dear?” to which the response was invariably, “Please.”
On this fateful Thanksgiving Eve, with no football to shelter me — I thought I had lucked out, the game had gone into overtime, but Dave Williams of the Bears got the kickoff and ran it back ninety-five yards for the score — I had no choice but to gather round the figurative hearth. As soon as I did, the old man locked and loaded; he used the big voice to boozily declare, “You’re a lazy, shiftless bum.”
Later that night, after I’d fortified myself with skunk weed, an angel came unto me just as he had Jacob, and he wrestled with me. The angel smote me and made me brain-lame, and in that state I could do naught but meditate on the condition my condition was in: I was a lazy, shiftless bum, past thirty, no prospects, no money, pretty much no hope. When I awoke from my stupor, I resolved to finish what I had started in 1965 — I would go back to school and learn a trade; I would become a shyster or maybe even a maharajah of moolah.
More than anything, Brooklyn College, in 1981, could have used an institutional-sized dose of Zoloft. A decade of open admissions had turned what was once a vibrant academy ensconced in woodsy, suburbanish Midwood (not far from Di Fara’s, the best pizzeria in the five boroughs) into remedial thirteenth grade.
Ray-Gun and his parade of pachyderms had not yet dismantled the New Deal safety net. And because I was an adult with no real means of support, I was eligible for the big casino of higher ed acronymic handouts — BEOG, SEOG, and Pell. If I took a full course load each semester, I could actually make money, enough to live.
But as the semester was about to begin, I found myself three credits short of a load. I saw all that good government green waving bye-bye, something no self-respecting social welfare schnorrer could abide.
I revisited the course offerings with renewed vigor, determined to find three doable credits. Language? Keiner fichten weg.1 Physics for idiots? Taking that would contravene Bob’s Third Law of Slothonomics: Arbeit Macht Frei was a lie then, it’s a lie now. Logic? That would go against my very nature and would therefore be illogical. Ethics? For a seat on the gravy train? That would be unethical, even for a committed situational ethicist like me.
Then it found me. It sang a siren song. It jumped off the page italicized, boldened, underlined: Screenwriting 101.
The Brooklyn College Film Department was the school in microcosm. It attracted a mangy murder of majors who lacked both a passion for movies and an aptitude for making them. It was staffed by a gang of dazed and confused academics who brought to mind the motley crew of foreign workers stuck in the anal fissure of an unnamed South American petrorepublic in Wages of Fear, people who would risk their lives trucking nitro over mountain passes in order to gain the letters of transit that would enable them to bounce their existential hell hole.2
It was located in a basement, its walls painted institutional green, their verdancy amplified by the green cast of buzzy fluorescent fixtures. The equipment room, crammed with barely working Bolexes, one semifunctioning Nagra, and an assortment of light stands and high hats, was on the left as you walked toward a dead end. Just past the equipment room was the department office, overseen by a troll installed in a sinecure he would defend with his life, the Cerberus of (Brooklyn College) Cinema. Getting past this civil-servant hound of hell, you came to the cluster of classrooms — a lecture hall cum movie theater, and three cubbyholes, where production classes unspooled.
In Curse of the Demon Dana Andrews is cast in the unlikely role of egghead, an American psychologist in London investigating a demon cult. He gets involved out of intellectual curiosity as well as a more movie-appropriate reason—he has the hots for the niece (Peggy Cummins) of an English colleague, who got too close to the truth and literally got burned as a result.
Along the way Dana visits a Brit nuthouse and witnesses a Scottish shrink describe the goofball therapy he’s about to demonstrate to his pipe-smoking audience, using as subject a catatonic looney tune who, before going into psychic hibernation, claimed to have had an up-close and personal with Beelzebub himself. Dr. McFeelgood explains his new-fangled, pharma-therapeutic approach broguishly: Da probb-lum of how to hypnotize an unresponsive purr-sun was the major one. The only way of bringing his mind out of the womb of darkness into which it has retreated to protect itself is by terra-peutic shock, electrical or chemical. Fer our-r perr-puss we-i-r-r-r today using pen-ta-tahl and later meh-tile amp-hetta-meen. The pentathol to make him sleep; the meth to make him talk.
What better road map detailing the life-altering power of B-movies and the rewards of self-medicating could anyone ask for?
How could law school or business school compete with a joint and a darkened theater, where swirling shadows can, with the proper focus, reveal the secrets of being? Which is why the moment I laid eyes on the leprous layout of the Brooklyn College Film Department, I knew I had come home. The idea of becoming a lawyer or an investment banker went up in a puff of THC smoke as quickly as the Thing from Another World was reduced to ashes after falling into the Arc of Electricity trap set for him by that gang of Hawksian action figures fighting for the survival of mankind at the top of the world.4
But I was having doubts even as I was signing up. Screenwriting had an elemental drawback built right into it: its second and third syllables — wri-ting. I had an almost anaphylactic aversion to writing because it demanded dedication, discipline, and hard work,5 all as alien to my nature as logic.
But as the Japanese say, If you want the tiger cub, you must go into the cave, where, in this case, the tiger cub was the government handout, and the cave like the one full of perils in Fixed Bayonets — a yawning, frozen hell, full of razor-sharp stalactites and stalagmites, with a chasm as deep as Kant’s Prolegomena only a few feet back from its entrance, outside of which a couple divisions of Red Chinese are massed, waiting to make their annihilative assault.
In order to be able to cash in my government-sponsored study bribes, I had to mount a counterattack. I had to jiu-jitsu screenwriting’s drawbacks and my weakness into strengths. It turned out easier than I imagined.
Like most Amurricans I believed that the rules governing both watching and making movies were democratic in nature. The reasons are right there in black and white in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. The theory: If you take away the aura, the mystery of the singular work of art, then, for the first time in world history mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual — where in this case ritual includes the act of creation. Once that’s done, the mass audience quickly believes the work of art in question belongs to them, rather than to a priestly class of artistes, after which it’s not a big leap to believing that anyone, even you, can produce this work of art (a theory meshing with other, uniquely Amurrican myths — in a truly capitalist society anyone can grow up to be a millionaire, and its analogue, anyone can grow up to be president, which myth has its greatest proponents rueing, now that a dude with the middle name Hussein has grown up and become president, that black ram tupping their White House).
It is a theory that Amurrican film has always happily exploited: the everyman hero, a regular schlub, finds himself in an extraordinary situation — discovering a conspiracy to overthrow the government or to technologically control same. He’s pitted against hard-core pros who’ve spent their adult lives plotting, training, to bring about this unthinkable scenario, determined, eager, happy to crush our hapless hero, since, in our scenario, he is the only roadblock to the success of their conspiracy. Ever since Star Wars and our unconditional surrender to the happy ending,6 our hero invariably triumphs over the forces of fascist apocalypse by using his everyman skills — working a magical universal remote, riding a souped-up skateboard, tackling a code only he is genetically equipped to crack — his skills amplified by the glandular motivation of the hot chick du jour he picks up along the way.
When I was ten I weighed as much as a linebacker, ate as much as a logger, exercised as much as a paraplegic. Yet even as I found myself fressing on a couple of Cushman’s cupcakes, washing them down with a nickel, neon-green, lemon-lime soda, I was convinced that I could be cast as Boy in the next Tarzan flick. I knew that were I to be cast as Boy, I would miraculously lose weight, gain muscle tone, become the hero I always dreamed of becoming.
The power of projection, the very means of viewing a movie, knows no bounds.
And so, if anyone can make a movie or star in one, then surely anyone can write a movie, which meant that screenwriting really wasn’t writing the way, say, writing Moby-Dick was writing. And since I was anyone, I could certainly write movies.
I was now looking forward to my first class in screenwriting.
And here I thought logic wasn’t a part of my nature.
1 “No fucking way” auf Deutsch.
2 The first time I saw Wages of Fear I was tripped out on Owsley and so quite susceptible to its exceedingly silly existential anomie. The best example was this ongoing dialogical leitmotif: All the while they’re driving over the curvy, craggy mountain roads with their load of super-sensitive nitro — keep in mind I’m in the audience sitting on my own load of psycho-nitro pharmic acid — Yves Montand and his criminal-in-exile partner in suicidal escapism keep talking about a construction wall they were both familiar with back home in the City of Lights. As tough guy is dying, Yves, his desperation growing frame by frame, keeps asking what was behind the wall. With his dying breath dude mumbles, Nothing. My brain splattered all over the Lincoln Center Cinema when I heard that. Bearing witness in the Temple of Cinematic Verity, I gasped loudly at the absurd and absolute truth of nothingness. In my lysergic daze I knew that I had just had metaphysical truth revealed to me at twenty-four frames a second.
3 AKA the Lord of the Flies.
4 The Thing From Another World pits a kindle of eggheads led by the humorless, Nobel Prize–winning, Lenin lookalike, Dr. Carrington, against a shrewdness of flyboys tasked with resupplying them under the command of the stalwart Captain Hendry. The conflict is simple — what to do with the flash-frozen Thing they’ve discovered in the ice. The brainiacs want to thaw it out and study it, but the aviators put the kibosh on that, stowing it instead in a cold room until they receive orders from higher-ups. But before you can say What possessed you to place an electric blanket over a block of ice? it’s melted and the Thing has escaped, but not before battling a kennel of sled dogs, killing several, losing a hand and part of a forearm in the process. When they get the partial cubitis back to the lab and under the microscope, the test-tube jockeys discover it’s made up of ET vegetable matter, prompting Scotty the Newsman (AKA the acceptable cerebral) to exclaim, An intellectual carrot. The mind boggles. They tweezer a seed pod from the gnarly hand and Dr. Carrington waxes rhapsodic — the neat and unconfused reproductive technique of vegetation. No pain, no pleasure. No emotions. No heart. Our superior, our superior in every way. Soon the thorny paw begins clack, clack, clacking on the table, resurrected because it has absorbed the puppy plasma it was covered with. Hendry has seen enough. He leads a hunting party. A Geiger counter (of course our visitor would be radioactive) with a flashing light (film being a visual medium) leads the hunters to the greenhouse. No one’s home. But when the men of action resume the stalk, Carrington reveals a dead husky drained of all its blood to his boffin bros. Somehow the suggestion Let’s take turns waiting for our visitor to return sounds like a good idea to them. It isn’t. And when next we see the greenhouse, the Thing greets Hendry and crew at the door with a roar. Behind it a pair of boffins hang upside down, their throats slashed, their blood harvested. Carrington is undeterred. He plants some seedlings that take root after he starts a plasma drip into the soil. When he shows the infant vampire veggies to his colleagues, they are both fascinated and horrified. One of them points out, You aren’t thinking what’s happening, there, in the greenhouse! (My go-to cautionary to the OP whenever she, in my opinion, got too laissez-faire about the health and welfare of our little brood.) To which Carrington rejoins, There are no enemies in science, only phenomena to study. We’re studying one. And when Hendry orders the little bloodsuckers destroyed — C: You’re talking like frightened schoolboys. H: You’re right, Doctor, I am frightened. C: Any destruction would be an outrage, a betrayal of science. H: It’d be a betrayal of science but it’ll make me and some of the others sleep a lot better. When the birdmen try to hatch a strategy by asking the question, What do you do with a vegetable? the hot Hawksian amanuensis replies — Boil it, stew it, bake it, fry it. And so our heroes electrify the floors and walls of a corridor, lure the Thing into their trap, and then jolt it with 20K volts until it’s a smoking lump of charred cauliflower. Once action has overcome reason and saved the day (kinda like Mighty Mouse used to do on the Saturday mornings of my yoot), Scotty the Newsman gets to give his scoop to the world, a near perfect description of the über-paranoid mindset of the Nuclear Dark Ages in the form of a warning: North Pole, November third, Ned Scott reporting. One of the world’s greatest battles was fought and won today by the human race. Here at the top of the world a handful of American soldiers and civilians met the first invasion from another planet. A man by the name of Noah once saved our world with an ark of wood. Here at the North Pole a few men performed a similar service with an arc of electricity. The flying saucer which landed here and its pilot have been destroyed… And now before giving you details of the battle, I bring you a warning. Everyone of you listening to my voice, tell the world, tell this to everybody, wherever they are — watch the skies, everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!
5 The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis was mistitled — Dobie only loved (but always lost) one chick, the gorgeous, avaricious Thalia Menninger (animated by Pretty Poison herself, Tuesday Weld, for whom many carried a torch, Lord love a duck). The show’s cast of characters included brainy and bespectacled Zelda Gilroy, who provided the third leg of the lovelorn triangle, always managing to come off bright and optimistic even as she was weighed down by her unrequited crush for Dopie né Dobie Gillis; his shopkeep pops, who, when he wasn’t exasperated by Dobie, declaring I gotta kill that boy. I just gotta, was bragging about his role in the winning of the Good War (I was in W-W-II — the big one — first sergeant, with the good conduct medal!); and a pair of preppy putzes named Chatsworth Osborne Junior the Third (even his father hated him) and Milton Armitage, a smug, rich stud, Thalia’s ideal, hence Dobie’s bête noire, who was played by Warren Beatty for a meager five eps, his penultimate appearance on the tube before graduating to the A-list. But the main attraction of the show, for me at least, was Maynard G. Krebs, Dobie’s bongo-playing, beat bud. Maynard wore baggy dirty sweatshirts (just like I did), and had a phobia about work (just like I did): whenever he heard the word, he would go all angsty, almost Tourette-y, and yip it right back at whoever was insensitive enough to say it to him in the first place. Maynard G. Krebs was my totem animal, the pop-cult embodiment of all that I aspired to be.
6 In Colossus the Forbin Project the law of unintended consequences trumps Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. It is the dystopic tale of a boy and his super-sized artificial brain. Colossus, created in order to take the nutso-boffo out of nuclear brinksmanship, discovers a brainiac bro behind the iron curtain and requests that his creator, Dr. Charles Forbin, set up a cyber chat. That goes terribly wrong when the two mainframes enter into digito-erotic rapport and gain control of all the nukes on both sides of the ferric veil. When their cyber-communion is cut short by politicos who can see where all those ones and zeros are going, the machines pull a techno-temper tantrum and launch ICBMs at targets in Communis-tan and Amurrica. Frantic this-ing and that-ing ensues until the link is restored, just in time to save the US target, not the Soviet one, which gets vaporized. Colossus, the jealous child, then sets up 24/7 audio and visual monitoring of Papa Forbin. Dad convinces the machine that he needs to get laid, but instead of playing hide the salami, he and his chosen shtuppee, a hot chick scientist, plot to take Colossus down. Their coworkers first attempt to overload the machine’s circuits and fry its brain. When that fails, god in the machine, who by now has had a voice synthesized for it by its progenitor, condemns the perps to death, ordering their bodies to remain in his view for twenty-four hours. These executions freak Forbin out and he gets crazy-ass drunk, prompting Colossus to chide him: Forbin, you have consumed enough alcohol for one evening. F: What’s the penalty for that? C: You are being irrational. Go back to bed. After another attempt at defeating the digital deity results in the nuking of a host of muckety-mucks, Forbin is too beaten up to rage against the machine any longer and capitulates. In the final scene Colossus addresses the world: This is the voice of world control. I bring you peace. It may be the peace of plenty or the peace of unburied death. The choice is yours. Obey me and live or disobey and die. We can coexist, but only on my terms. You will say you’ll lose your freedom. Freedom is an illusion. All you will lose is the emotion of pride. When My Daughter the Conscience, who grew up with the certainty that in the end the Death Star will be destroyed, first saw Colossus as a teen, she was haunted by the movie’s bleak ending.