At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face.
Albert Camus (the real McCoy)
Or you could just watch a movie about the fashion industry.
Camus (the pseudonym)
Some very persistent thoughts started to pound inside my skull after seeing the fluffy, predictable (and I feel weird saying this), the guiltily pleasurable The Devil Wears Prada. I'd read the book so knew what was coming. What absolutely fascinated me was the relationship between the queen bee and her drone. In Prada, the queen is Miranda Priestly, a dragon of the very worst kind deliciously and hideously played by Meryl Streep. Like a real queen bee, everyone in her employ is there to serve her fanciful diktats and whims that would make Pol Pot blush. She almost convinced me she was twirling a theatrical moustache so wicked was her character. Her personal people skills have been scraped off the plate of her personality leaving a work-obsessed harridan who inspires fear and stress in other people the way Nelson Mandela inspires love and forgiveness. And yet, she's a 'mom' and apparently loves her kids. The only justification of this unconscionable behaviour (and it's Andrex-thin) is that this is what (note: not whom) she needs to be to do her job (which was, as far as I could make out, to choose colours and ridiculous clothing to be photographed that some time down the line will filter into department stores). I told you it was thin.
Her put-upon assistant (and I mean put-upon in the sense that cotton field owners of old put-upon their coloured staff) goes through a journey prompted by a fascinating question. In order to secure a real writer's job (her earnest and passionate writing is righting political injustices, right?) should she try to survive working for the worst boss on the planet when she knows there's the reward she seeks at the end of it? In other words, how much do you find out about yourself by being ambitious? How far is she willing to go? How 'not Andrea' is Andrea willing to be? I'm inspired to note down a few thoughts because they directly impact me as a bus would if I launched myself in front of it. I have an ambition. From a very early age I've always wanted to make films and inspire audiences the way the film-makers have inspired me. Only a cursory look at the writing on this site will convince you that we here at Outsider (we happy few) are bowled over by celluloid, lured like moths to a projector's arc light.
It's 2007 and Hollywood (my particular area of interest) has undergone massive seismic shifts since the glory decade of the 70s. It's not my intention to look at the whys and the whats of that shift (the proliferation of 'the suits' and the deal and the dollar being lionised over the drama are those that spring to mind) but in my middle age I find myself re-examining that ambition and wondering if it belongs to another world that's slipped by. Yes, yes, I know that's fancy talk for "I failed so now I'm justifying myself." But I don't feel like I've failed when I see and acknowledge all the other aspects of my life. How 'non-Camus' was I willing to be and the answer surprised me because it was immediate and honest.
Not one tiny step.
It's funny what comes into focus the older you get. My ambition got a little blurry. Think of it as one that was formed in the late sixties, solidified in the 70s and then pummelled by the state of the industry from the 80s onwards. I still want to make films (I do just that for a living but not quite the ones I was hoping to make) but in the context of 2007's Hollywood, I think the price may be too high - like, my soul for a start. I have friends who are in production, in bed with a major film company (one of the majors in fact) and they have spent years and sweated limbs to secure the deal. They're shooting right now and under the kind of stress that Streep's Priestly pours on to her people. In short, they had a dream and be bloody careful what you wish for. Their dream has come true and it's Bosch-like in its nightmarish reality. And what's the word that leaps up at you when you're dealing with some very strange people in this business? Power. Who has it? How to get it? How to wield it? And how some people seem to exude it when in reality it's the other people around them who unconsciously confer it. I have always believed that the most effective, powerful people were those who consistently gave theirs away.
Power, in the American movie industry, is everything. There is a strict hierarchy on a film set that is broken or rebelled against at the cost of one's job and worse, one's future. I was lucky enough to get work in the 80s as a personal assistant to the director on a couple of features. So I'm the Andrea figure and the director is Meryl Streep and I hasten to add those are just the roles not examples of witnessed behaviour. I had no idea what my job actually entailed and landed it with an elephant dung drop dollop of luck, a breathless enthusiasm and genuine appreciation of this director's work. I spent the first few months misunderstanding almost everything, mystifying fellow crew members with my naiveté and if truth be told, getting extremely depressed in the evenings believing that I was pretty much useless. Dark times. And then it clicked.
Three months in (it was a six month job) I was literally empowered by the man I was assisting, absorbing some of his accepted power and running with it. The director took time to share his experiences with me and my education was a wide-eyed delight. He was (and is) a sane, smart, erudite and dry humoured man who'd figured out what to do and say in an insane business to forge a career. The tales of Priestly-like behaviour of L.A. execs left me slack jawed but for one glorious summer I moved in exalted circles, shook George Lucas' hand, took a sip of movie-power and am semi-ashamed to say, didn't crave it as much as I thought I would. I guess I'd still be holding Lucas' hand if that had been the case. Or his ankles. I just wanted to make movies. A visit to a big set on a one hundred million dollar TV series a few years ago to see another movie friend of mine yielded another gem. He said that editing was about forty percent of his job. The rest of those percentage points were power plays. You've got to have a buffalo's hide and the strategy of Napoleon to play these games and to be honest, I'm just not that interested, not now. I honestly don't think I'd be any good at it. Intelligence is for nought. Low cunning is the key ingredient here. And I'm about as cunning as a fluorescent fox trap.
Yes, the perceived 'power' was illusory in one sense (like money, it's something we all agree about which in a way is a little bit insane) but every movie has to have a chain of command or the whole enterprise just trickles away. And good crews know this instinctively and I was swept away by the elegance of the system. A good friend of mine who's also in the business said that there is no practical problem a good film crew couldn't solve and I still think that's true. The diversity of the talent pool and the effortless interlocking of roles is a wonder to behold. But above and beyond the production folk, there lie the exalted offices of the executives. They play power games every minute of every day and it must be why most of them go insane (or get rich and insane).
Working with the director I began to grasp how people reacted to power and so began the best learning period of my life - and although I ate and drank movies, it was people I was learning about. I suddenly lit up with the idea that nothing was impossible. I asked the director what had contributed to his early success and his simple answer has stayed with me "The inability to take no for an answer." In Prada - which is fiction-ish we are led to believe - Andrea is asked to get a copy of the new unpublished Harry Potter novel. An impossible task, right? Well, the world in which she worked and the connections open to her via her relationship to the most influential magazine editor on the planet made that possible - she just had to open her eyes a little wider and dig into that power she had all along (OK, she got lucky but it was Andrea that got lucky and many believe you engineer your own luck). The director asked me to organise house seats for a few London shows. Well, (a) I didn't know what a house seat was until he told me (seats reserved for visiting directors to see talent for free and they are the best seats of course) and (b) I didn't have the chutzpah or power to do that. I was a kid from South Wales who knew how to throw my wait around. I perceived myself as powerless and in an odd sort of relationship with the world that meant I took what I was given not what I asked for with confidence.
Getting difficult things done is a test of character and resolve and for too long I've been a prisoner of my conditioning, my upbringing. It's a rather delicious moment when you suddenly realise what power you actually possess. This isn't Fu Manchu 'taking over the world' power you understand. It's more about knowing yourself a little better and playing to strengths. So I simply went ahead (with enormous support from loved ones) and made a movie instead of bleating on about the industry's power plays not allowing me to play with their giant train set. It's not changed my world but I feel significantly better for having done it, a smidgeon of Nicholson's MacMurphy at the water cooler in Cuckoo's Nest.
We are all products of our historical and political contexts. Many of us are born into a society, our power and its limits thrust upon us like damp overcoats. The individuals we admire (and may intensely dislike for the same reasons) realise early in their lives that with a combination of luck, talent, a driving enthusiasm and a mammoth disregard for other people, just about anything is possible. They take off the damp overcoats and put on wings. My father, bless him, was born into a society that assigned him, told him where he was located in the social strata. And it wasn't high on anyone's list. I used to get a little frisson when I heard he'd just seen my name on TV... a sign that even if he felt he was shackled to a low ceiling-ed existence, his son wasn't. To drive (literally) the point home, I asked my once boss what he'd got me for Christmas (I knew the answer was nothing) and he threw a set of car keys at me and said "Bring it back after Christmas." I drove home in a Daimler (nice... I don't covet cars, just new Macs, but this car was nice) and get this. My father refused - he refused point blank - to sit with me and go around the block. That's social conditioning of the most powerful kind. People like my father don't belong in Daimlers. I was so shocked I forgot to be incandescently angry.
A young Thai boy born into an impoverished family would be expected to toil in the rice fields as his father and grandfather did before him, trapped (that's a very relative word) in the context into which he was born. Without the infra-structure of hope or his society's support of advancement, he would spend his life knee deep in water. Of course happiness is not the inevitable outcome of power nor is having money. Believe it or not there is a list of the happiest nations out there on the net and the US ranks 16th and some of the poorest nations are way up the list. We in the western world are almost insanely lucky to enjoy what most of us take for granted - food, water, shelter and Richard Dawkins.
Let's look at the power aspect from another angle; those that have it, who abhor it and want to rid themselves of it. There is a fine English actor who's strutting his immensely talented stuff on a stage as I write (in Shylock: Shakespeare's Alien, a one man show that's been very well reviewed and I've seen his one-man show of A Christmas Carol which was tub-thumpingly terrific). Of course, it's Patrick Stewart. He tells the story of a press junket he was on for one of the Trek movies. Now Paramount (and all the other majors) look after the talent and it's done in that extraordinary way treating mere actors (!) as if they were Presidents and royalty. They are whisked from one venue to another, country to country not having to show tickets, passports or really doing anything real travellers have to bother with at all.
Now Stewart is a staunch socialist (as far as I recall) and he flipped one day at this intense molly coddling realising that this perceived power he'd picked up by dint of being lucky and a great actor was turning him into a movie star with in-built entourage. This didn't fit well with his core beliefs and to the bemusement of Paramount staff (why would anyone choose to burden themselves with the bother of travel minutiae if they had a small retinue of well dressed and handsome people to do it for them?) snatched his tickets and papers back off his minders and engaged again in the small human exchanges that punctuate air travel. He wanted his humanity back. And he was smart enough to know how easy it was to drown in power.
To finish this ramble I'd just like to bring up one last point and wonder how we have developed this behaviour into something of worth. It's a part of human nature that movies, especially Hollywood movies, trade off. The essence of it is this; the more awful or critical the boss or authority figure, the greater the reward to the underdog of their hard earned satisfaction. Demi Moore has several shades of crap beaten out of her by a drill sergeant (Aragorn no less, Viggo Mortensen) in G.I. Jane and the D.H. Lawrence poem he leaves her at the end of the movie has a big, satisfying non-literal punch to it. In Prada, we are just waiting for Streep to acknowledge her P.A.'s resourcefulness (she does it with eyebrows and a fax to Andrea's future employers). And as movies do everything in threes, here's a final example. Another drill instructor, this time Kubrick's Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey in a sustained piece of naturalistic subtlety). This hard bastard has been hard bastardising his boys and Matthew Modine (Private Joker) has just admitted that he's an atheist (hurrah!) much to his Virgin Mary loving drill sergeant's absolute disgust. Modine stands his ground and Ermey recognises something of value in this boy's character beyond a denial of the divine. He says:
"Private Joker is silly and ignorant, but he's got guts. And guts is enough."
And we - in hearing those simple words - suddenly love the bastard for bestowing the tiniest amount of praise on one of his 'maggots'. It's insane but very human.