You can read Part 1 here.
… there were fifteen of us in the class. Our instructor was a novelist, married to an Oscar-nominated film editor, an old school, tough broad. Her syllabus was simple, elegant: finish a screenplay by the end of the semester. Pass if you do. Fail if you don’t.
Before the ubiquity of Powerbooks and PCs, if you wanted to write a screenplay you had to hunt and peck on a typewriter and before you could go ahuntin’ and apeckin’, you had to figure out how to create multiple tabs and to know when to use each for the various elements in your conceptual screenplay. It was, as I feared, going to be a lot of work.
If you were lucky you had an IBM Selectric that functioned (I did), and luckier still if you understood how to work the Sherman tank of typewriters (I didn’t). Staring at it made me swoon; it looked like the control panel on Rocketship X-M. It took me several minutes to figure out just how to turn it on.
I almost junked the class then and there.
It was at moments like this I mourned not being Keyes in Double Indemnity. Keyes believes in his gut instincts. It’s his gut speaking when he tells his boss that the company is on the hook for Dietrichsen’s accidental death.1 Even after the incompetent executive dismisses Keyes, his gut doesn’t let him be. When he finally figures it out over dinner, Keyes can’t wait to tell someone, so he goes straight to Neff’s pad and explains how the little man inside had to get to the bottom of it, and because of that he’d figured it out. Dietrichsen’s death was no accident, and it certainly wasn’t a suicide; it was murder, and in all likelihood it was the wife did the deed, probably with the help of some simp she could lead around by his dick. All the while Keyes has no clue that Neff is that simp and that the dame is right behind the door.
Even when Keyes was wrong, he was right.
I, unfortunately, was Keyes’s obverse. Even when I was right, I was wrong. I wouldn’t listen to my gut if it delivered Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, spoke in tongues, serenaded me with sad and soulful blues—the sky is crying, look at the tears roll down the street. Had I listened to my gut I wouldn’t have been sitting trying to figure out how I was going to pull off what seemed impossible to me, since my gut had very clearly tried to communicate to me this was the road that should not have been taken. There was no wiggle room here, just pure binary opposition—black/white, yes/no, pass/fail, life/death. Either I produced a screenplay or I was fucked.
It was beginning to look like I was fucked.
Before she sent us off to wrestle with an empty page, our instructor offered what to her were words of advice and encouragement: Write what you know.
It was a deceptively simple, deviously constructed formulation, a classic example of begging the question. It assumed in its proposition we knew something, and that that something was worth writing about. This kind of existential trap was not new to me. The simplest assumptions, usually accepted by others with little fanfare and less analysis, have often paralyzed me:
Back in that day when getting high had metastasized from the hood to the halls of higher learning, ruling-class culture had to come to grips with the best minds of a generation baked in a cannabis casserole. The act of getting stoned then evolved from the terrifying criminal degeneracy of the dusky other,2 to an innocent, rose-colored “experimentation,” as if we were now toddlers in a sandbox, hypnotized by new, shiny toys. And because boojie shekels were now in play, the quality of the supply went on the rise, and one’s stash was no longer a generic ho-hum, like Chicago Green or Mexican Brown, but bore the name of an exotic place and a regal color. On this one particular night when I found myself in a circle of lab rats with varying degrees of brain chemistry problems, we were passing around a pair of fatties rolled from weed grown near Acapulco in the Mexican state of Guerrero whose buds had a golden hue to them. This reefer was pure wacky weed, one-hit shit, dynamite, though that didn’t stop us from toking and toking and toking, because we had yet to realize that the solution had become the problem.3
George was a gnome in need of a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. But this was the sixties, not Futureworld; he was shit out of luck. So George was heavy into self-medicating—like the rest of us, more or less. When the joint circled back to him, he took a heroic hit, sucking in a forest fire worth of smoke. The active ingredient befogged his brain. His eyes bugged out. He looked like a Martian popping doll. He finally exhaled in an explosion of smoke and spittle. Then George took a journey to his very own heart of darkness and stayed there for what seemed like forever before returning to the phenomenal plane and sharing his pensée with the class—I don’t know where I leave off and everyone else begins.
Upon hearing this, we did the eyeball-on-a-swivel move, checking each other out, trying to come to a telepathic consensus on how to react. I took my cue from the three others because when you’re a young, callow, and feckless pothead, you must maintain some semblance of chill no matter what. It is always safer to laugh at than laugh with. George had made the mistake of getting real—real fucked up; it was best not to jump on that runaway bus.
And so when they began laughing, I began laughing too. If you didn’t know any better you might’ve thought we were all part of the same hive mind like in Attack of the Crab Monsters, where once you were devoured by the monstrously mutated decapod, you became part of its collective crab unconscious. Once he was a man; now he is a land crab.
But even as I was laughing I realized these are some very good questions. Where do I leave off? Where does everyone else begin?
Sixteen years might have passed but I was still the same metaphysically challenged dummkopf I had been back then. Write what I know. What did I know? How do I write about it?
The first of what were to be twelve sessions was about to end and all I knew was a script had a specific format and a specific length, usually somewhere between a hundred and five and a hundred and twenty pages. There were only eleven sessions left. If I were to cobble together a hundred-ten-page script, I would have to come up with an average of ten pages a week. This problem was beginning to take on the contours of a can of worms, threatening to become a quandary, from which it could definitely develop into a crisis.
Fretting, dithering, procrastination, these were things I did really well, things I knew really well. Could I write about them? Could I make a movie out of them? While I was certain that Bergman or Antonioni might be able to work with the holy trinity of work avoidance as their theme, I knew I couldn’t.
What kind of movies did I like? I had only recently come to realize that westerns could be more than Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, or the Cisco Kid. I had long been searching for a good war movie, but there were precious few of them around, and more to the point, I had spent that portion of my adult life coinciding with the Vietnam War actively trying to avoid it, going as far as signing myself into the bin in order to get a psycho-deferment, so war was something I knew nothing about. I loved the conventions of hard-boiled, down-these-mean-streets movies and the jet-propelled dialogue of screwball comedies.
But what I liked was not the same thing as what I knew, and what I knew seemed strictly limited to the formal rather than the experiential.
I was back where I started, not knowing what to write about because there was nothing I knew anything about. This deliberation got me so fritzed, smoke was coming out my ears. I decided it would be better if smoke went into my lungs, where chemical conversions I knew nothing about—a theme was beginning to emerge—would isolate the active ingredient, send it coursing into my bloodstream, thus into my brain, enabling me to relax and perhaps to then figure this shit out.
I opened my dark blue plastic stash box with a spaceship holograph stamped on the top and took a deep, satisfying whiff of the skunk weed within, pulled out my old school Bambus, and rolled me a joint. After the first toke I felt mind and body relax. A couple more tokes and the whole loft reeked with what Sgt. Friday4 referred to as the sickly sweet smell of marijuana, to me the perfume of the gods. I leaned back, closed my eyes, felt the beginnings of a smile. I began to make synaptic connections, logical leaps, mixing mental apples and oranges, when all of a sudden it snuck up on me like a strangler of Bombay, and before I had the time to scream Don’t jump in the snakepit, Guru,5 I knew the thing I knew, the thing I could write about: drugs.
Drugs by themselves do not a movie make. A story needs context. It’s not just what, it’s when, how, why, who, and where as well. If I say penicillin, the first response is not likely to be, yeah, man, penicillin, that would make a helluva movie. But if you take the wayback machine to devastated post-WWII Europe, adulterate a relief shipment of penicillin in order to make a killing on the black market, and in the process knock off a bunch of malnourished children, add Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton, get Graham Greene to adapt his own story and Sir Carol Reed to direct, shoot it verité-style on the streets and in the sewers of postwar Vienna (the Gingerbread Hell-House on the Danube), you’ve got The Third Man.
By the time I figured that out, whatever that was, I had pushed my overheated brain too far, too fast and ended up with a world-class headache. I took a couple of aspirin, closed my eyes, and kept repeating the mantra It’s beautiful when the pain stops until sleep chased me down like a bloodthirsty T-Rex. I soon found myself swimming through a dreamy cinematic soup—I was fleeing body snatchers down a freeway in California, escaping, only to be hunted by a giant crab, taking refuge from these monsters from my id in the barracks of Stalag 17, from which, having disposed of the rat in our midst, I escaped, finally finding myself seated at the communal table of carnival Freaks, a gleeful participant in the chilling acceptance ritual—Gooble, gobble; gooble, gobble. One of us; one of us. We accept her, we accept her; one of us, one of us.
My unconscious had given me a present and I now had a Mad Libs formula—if I could figure out how to fill in the blanks and untangle the knots, peel away the layers, follow the threads, and make sense of them, I’d have a story and could start writing my script. If drugs were to be my what, then the ‘60s had to be my when (which was fine by me, since my address then was Living in the Past, Regretsville, USA), and thirteenth-grade sleepaway camp my where.
But what about the who? Body snatchers and crab monsters were manifestations of enforced conformity, of going along to get along; they were one part of the Back in the Day dialectic.
When you boil down the ‘60s zeitgeist, it was all about questioning received wisdom, championing ambiguity, choosing shades of gray over black and white, widening the circles of confusion. Questioning cultural givens leads to questioning authority, this behavioral equation resulting in the then-shocking notion of respecting only those ideas and people that have earned your respect. Throw in the war, the pill, grass, acid, the Beatles and the Stones, and you had the makings of Kulturkampf, which gave me not only the who but the why of it as well.
There was even a juicy cherry planted atop my ‘60s sundae—the Rat. In order to live happily ever after within the confines of Stalag 17, the good guys had to uncover the Rat and dispose of him, which they do, with a flourish, at movie’s end. That would provide my screenplay with a through line, getting to the end of which would therefore be the how.
It was Sunday evening, dinner was done, the dishes were washed, ten pages were due on Monday, and I had run out of excuses. I put a joint in my mouth, a blank sheet in the Selectric, typed FADE IN.
The title was Freaks Like Us. The story was Animal House meets Kiss Me Deadly meets Stalag 17. There was an evil Dean, an ambitious Pol, a Rat, and a tortured love story climaxing at an ROTC breakfast where the Tang’s been spiked with acid. In the first act our Hero makes himself scarce after nearly getting popped in a drug dragnet, crashes with friends back home, falls for a chick he runs into, a chick he had known in his sandbox days.6 Reenergized, he returns to the scene of the crime, with the Girl, determined to wreak vengeance on those responsible for the busting of his pothead friends.
In the second act he puts his plan into action: he gaslights the Rat and destroys the career of the Rat’s handler, a DA eyeing a vacant seat in Congress. A series of escalating pranks sends the Rat into a paranoid tailspin, rendering him fear-filled and pliable; in this condition the Rat is easily manipulated into unknowingly becoming the inciting incident of the climactic lysergic lunacy.
Blackmailing the DA proves to be more complicated, requiring more planning, more technical support, as well as the cooperation of a hot and willing chick, in this case his newfound, long-lost love. Although she agrees to help, the Girl suffers an alienation of her affection, setting up the inevitable second part of the romcom triad.
My template for the romance was Mike Hammer and his secretary, Velda, in Kiss Me Deadly, the hardest of hard-boiled dick movies, a meditation on nuclear madness with gumshoes, gangsters, femme fatales, and a super-suave, hyperliterate villain, Dr. Soberin (Albert Dekker), who drops in references to Cerberus, Medusa, and Lot’s Wife; he even lectures the movie’s Lilith on the perils of Pandora’s box, since in this case the McGuffin is an outsized hatbox made out of lead that, when opened, unleashes a screaming, fiery apocalypse upon the happy seaside town of Malibu.
Hammer is a bedroom dick; he makes his money blackmailing philandering husbands; Velda is his honey trap. But when he tells Velda to drop her seduction of some simp husband: We’re going to steer away from these penny ante divorce cases for a while. I got a line on something better—she gets pissed, though not angry enough to not do it: Why don’t you leave, Mike, before I change my mind. Besides, I’m gonna need all the rest I can get if I’m gonna have any strength to fight off my newfound, my bosom friend.
Velda is the only character in the movie with anything resembling a moral compass. And although it’s compromised by love for her brutal, narcissistic boss—she switches her situational ethics gyro on and off as she needs to—she never fully abandons a fundamental understanding that right and wrong exist and are relevant, even within, especially within, the murky universe she and Mike inhabit.
And in the end Hammer, savage and soulless as he might be, risks all to save her; or as Dr. Soberin puts it, Sentiment will succeed where greed failed.
Kiss Me Deadly was not a run-of-the-mill black hat/white hat morality tale where the lines in the sand are really yawning canyons dividing good from evil. It was an investigation into moral relativity. Hammer was on a continuum with Soberin and the femme fatale. The line in the sand here is merely intimated by the pinky toe of a lightfoot, in a desert, during a sandstorm.
Freaks like Us was to be a comedy, its apocalypse a messed-up ROTC parade in which all the officer candidates become Sergeant Sunshines from unknowingly drinking bug juice spiked with Owsley Purple Haze. But it was meant to share a shades-of-gray moral palette with Kiss Me Deadly. Here the rooting interest is a guy who deals dope, pranks a guy into a psychotic break with reality, and blackmails one of our legal guardians by pimping out his main squeeze.
The romance had to be the heart of the movie (this much I knew). Our Hero is so intent on revenge he almost loses sight of the thing most important to him, and almost blows it.
In the penultimate shot, our Hero, Bolex in hand, records for posterity the psychedelic pandemonium, then loses interest in what he has wrought, preferring to put the Bolex down on its side and cheerfully walk off arm in arm with his main squeeze. We then cut to the Bolex’s POV of the chaos on the quad, sideways to gravity, a vertiginous image of zonked-out weekend warriors in training in danger of falling off the edge of a flat earth. The film in the Bolex runs out, and the movie ends in a cascade of self-reflexivity—sprocket holes, film tails, edge letters, and dust-encrusted white light.
1 In context Keyes and Neff are called into the office of a paper pusher wanting to welch on Dietrichsen’s double indemnity accident insurance policy. The exec proposes that it was no accident that killed him, it was suicide killed the beast. Keyes doesn’t even try to mask his contempt, as he tells the schmuck like it is in the greatest cerebro-hardboiled monologue in the annals of noir, delivered by Little Caesar himself (Could this be the end of Johnny Rico?), Edward G.: You’ve never read an actuarial table in your life, have you? Why, we’ve got ten volumes on suicide alone. Suicide by race, by color, by occupation, by sex, by seasons of the year, by time of day. Suicide, how committed—by poisons, by firearms, by drowning, by leaps. Suicide by poison, subdivided by types of poison, such as corrosive, irritant, systemic, gaseous, narcotic, alkaloid, protein and so forth. Suicide by leaps! Subdivided by leaps from high places; under the wheels of trains, under the wheels of trucks, under the feet of horses! From steamboats! But Mr. Norton—of all the cases on record, there’s not one single case of suicide by leap from the rear end of a moving train. And do you know how fast that train was going at the point where the body was found? Fifteen miles an hour. Now how can anybody jump off a slow-moving train like that with any kind of expectation that he would kill himself? No. No soap, Mr. Norton. We’re sunk and we’ll have to pay through the nose, and you know it!
2 “Most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, jazz musicians, and entertainers. Their satanic music is driven by marijuana, and marijuana smoking by white women makes them want to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and others. It is a drug that causes insanity, criminality, and death—the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.” — Harry J. Anslinger
4 The TV series Dragnet starring Jack Webb as Sgt. Joe Friday, Badge 714, had two incarnations—black and white in the ‘50s, color in the ‘60s. Each episode, in which only the names have been changed to protect the innocent, was a true crime story featuring Webb’s patented clipped narration and flat affect acting as he led us through the sketchy underbelly of sunny La-La Land; in the two iterations of Dragnet, there were at least three episodes about dope, each a cautionary tale, each ending with the death of a kid, each one more absurdly chilling than the last. In The Big Seventeen (1952) Friday and his partner Frank Smith head to a neighborhood movie theater where a riot had broken out—a bunch of hopped up teens got rowdy, then violent, breaking the place up. Friday is given a cardboard pillbox with a couple of joints in it, setting him off on a crusade: busting kids, grilling them, getting them to give up the name of the dealer, who turns out to be a kid so depraved he beat his connection to death in order to steal the guy’s stash of heroin, shit so powerful its distribution was certain to leave the bodies of teens strewn throughout Gidget-ville. This intel forces Friday into further acts of crusading, this time to try and forestall the potential drug holocaust. It leads him to the first victim of this smack scourge—the perp himself, OD’d on his own medicine, an object lesson to anyone considering trying the evil weed, a sure gateway onto a literal dead end. The Prophet (1967) starts with a space cadet, half his face painted blue, soliloquizing psychedelically: My hair’s green and I’m a tree… if your body dies your mind will live on… Brown, blue, yellow, green… I can hear them. I can hear them all. The episode then turns didactic with a short history of acid: Hoffman, hallucinations, potency (one kilo of acid can yield five to ten million doses), followed by this factoid: LSD is so potent that a single pound of the preparation could turn every person in Los Angeles County into a total psychotic. The population of the county: seven million people. If one kilo produces five to ten million hits but one pound is enough to render seven million people starkers, the shit’s not only dynamite, it’s magical. LSD is so potent it can even fuck up the immutable laws of math. (If a train full of acid heads journeys eastward at the speed of light while a cattle car full of psychos moves westward at ramming speed, when will the world end?) But in Dragnet-world someone must pay for their sins with their life. The sacrificial lamb is Blue Boy, whose death (a miraculous OD on acid) so infuriates Friday that he spits out this gateway drug formulary: marijuana was the flame, heroin was the fuse, and acid was the bomb. In The Big High a pair of phi beta kappa suburbanites with an upscale shack in Sherman Oaks and a toddler gurgling in its playpen prison, initially engage Friday in a Platonic dialogue on the pros and cons of pot; they then get high, totally fucked up, forget about the baby, who, voo denn, pays with its little life, drowned in the bathtub, leaving space mama a mental wreck, Friday’s sidekick Gannon hurling his breakfast burrito, and Friday literally holding the bag—a lid full of weed—close up to the camera, wacky womb weeping in the background, the heartbroken cop finally crushing the deadly herb in his helpless hands.
5 For the provenance of the phrase see Chance Is a Fool’s Name for Fate: Part 2: In All the Towns