Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Stone Cold Stupid-May 30, 2005

Do you sometimes feel like you have to be careful talking to your neighbor about, say, the stray dogs in your neighborhood. It sounds crazy I know, but think about it. Mutt talk could lead to a discussion of cruelty to animals, which could lead to talk about the God-given Rights of Strays, which could lead to talk about human rights. The next thing you know, you’re debating such riveting topics as Dan Rather and the flushing of a toilet in Cuba. Soon enough, one of you will say the other is worse than Five Angry Hitlers and the other will be accused of wanting America destroyed. There goes the annual neighborhood hoedown.

That’s why I try to limit my conversations to things like Krispy Kreme donuts. In all the conversations I’ve had on the topic, no one’s had anything negative to say about Krispy Kreme except the fact that they wish they could eat more without turning into a tub. In fact, I dare say everyone in America agrees on at least this: if Krispy Kreme donuts were calorie-free, I’d eat them like Tic Tacs. Alas, perhaps in the next world.

This week, though, I came across something else that should bring all Americans together and bridge some of the nasty issues that divide us.

Oliver Stone is a jackass.

I’ll admit I’ve had it in for him for a long time. I was having a celebratory dinner in a restaurant in Santa Monica a few years ago with a big group of friends from business school. We had just graduated that day and were feeling pretty good. Someone mentioned that Oliver Stone was a regular haunt in this place, and I scanned the room with my eyes looking for him. I let it be known that if anyone saw him, they should report his odious presence to me immediately. I probably even offered a reward. I vowed that if I should come across Oliver Stone that night, I would provoke him with insults until he felt obligated to punch me. At that point, my plan would be to give him a sound thrashing in retribution for “Any Given Sunday,” which came out that same year. Anyone who could make a movie about pro football starringAl Pacino, Cameron Diaz, LL Cool J and Jamie Foxx and still manage to make it both stupid and boring deserves a trip to the woodshed. I’ll admit, this wasn’t the best thought out plan in the world, but fortunately (for him), crisis was averted because he apparently found other amusements that particular evening.

Nevertheless, people from all walks of life have good reason to chase him out of other eating and drinking establishments across the land. I can’t be everywhere you know. Whether it’s calling Democratic President Johnson a murderer in “JFK” or making a whole movie about Republican President Nixon for the sole purpose of making Tricky Dick look like a mean old jerk (sure, he probably was a mean old jerk, but why make a movie about it?), Stone’s got everyone covered. His back-slapping friendship with Super Villain Fidel Castro doesn’t exactly win him any friends either.

This week’s news that Stone was arrested in Beverly Hills for drunk driving and drug possession didn’t come as the world’s biggest shock. Note also that so far, no fellow celebrities have risen to his defense or protested that he’s been framed. The Beverly Hills Police Department doesn’t have the toughest beat in LA. Theoretically, if they wanted to frame somebody, they’d have spare time. After all, their primary responsibility is scouring the streets of Beverly Hills, pulling people over who don’t look rich enough to live there.

Framing Stone doesn’t make a lot of sense. After all, his career is on the wane. He may have invented the phony documentary genre, but others have taken it to heights of deceptiveness and falsehood he could only have imagined. It’s akin to the way abacus salesmen must have felt after the calculator was invented.

So chances are, Stone was busted legitimately. How does a wealthy, famous 59 year old man get himself into a situation where’s he caught driving drunk and transporting illegal drugs across Los Angeles? Where was his chauffeur? Couldn’t he have called a cab? In a pinch, why not just pay 8 or 10 people on the street $500 each to sherpa you back home on their shoulders rather than driving drunk in the middle of the night. It’s either because he’s got a problem in the substance area or because he’s such an ego-inflated blowhard that he figures he can get away with it. I’m guessing it’s a little from Column A and a little from Column B.

Once it’s all over, he’ll make a movie about it, undoubtedly. Brad Pitt will star as him, and instead of driving drunk and carrying drugs to his mansion on the west side, he’ll be driving back from a 24 hour toy drive-a-thon at the orphanage with a heavy cold. President Nixon will be the arresting officer, out to get him because he’s young, handsome and popular. President Johnson will be the judge who sentences him to death before Fidel Castro parachutes in to rescue him.

It will, of course, be classified as a documentary.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Come to the Dark Side of the Sidewalk-May 23, 2005

Making fun of Star Wars geeks is a lot of fun. It’s like playing “Doom” in invincible mode in that it’s just a matter of walking into the room, unloading all the devastating ammo you’ve got and watching the victims whimper helplessly in your destructive wake. Really, anybody over the age of nine who carries a lightsaber had better be either (a.) at Toys R Us buying a gift for a child or (b.) named Mark Hamill and on a movie set. If you’re neither of those, you really need to put the plastic toy down and accept the fact that lightsaber technology does not exist. Plus, if it did, you would still have been the last one picked for the lightsaber fighting team back in school.

Unfortunately, with the new Star Wars movie out, there’s a lot of geek-bashing going on, which means that it’s probably getting a little tiresome. I knew a bully once in elementary school who would pick on a kid for some particular thing (for example, because he wore the same checkered pants every few days or could read) and then keep it up until it wasn’t fun anymore. We might have reached that point with Star Wars fans.

On the other hand, some people can’t just tape themselves into a cardboard Stormtrooper costume and go down to the first night midnight screening at their local multiplex with the rest of their junior college friends. (I was wrong. It’s still fun.) Some people insist on looking unexplainably bone-headed in addition to being socially hopeless. It’s a special combination. But it’s one that a hardy band of losers in Hollywood have achieved. Before you get the idea that I’m talking metaphorically about “the Hollywood elite” or something poetic like that, you should know that I mean it literally. There’s a group of people in Hollywood, actually on a sidewalk in Hollywood, and they’ve been there for almost two months, waiting to see the new movie.

Some are dressed are Darth Vader, others as Wookiies, and Jedis and some as the guy who walked through the background in the scene where Luke Skywalker was gassing up his landspeeder and buying an ICEE in Episode Five. They’ve been waiting with psychotic patience to be the first ones in line to see the very first showing of Star Wars Episode III last week at the famous Mann’s Chinese Theatre.

Unfortunately, Mann’s Chinese isn’t showing Star Wars.

Hanging around for two months to see any movie is tragically demented. Mann’s Chinese could have actual newly-discovered footage of Elvis supervising alien spaceships building Stonehenge, and I’d still wait for the DVD rather than leave the comfort of a roof and plumbing and head out to Hollywood Boulevard to see it. Still, at least there’s a logic to waiting two months outside a movie theatre if you’re actually going to see the movie. Sure, it’s the kind of logic that leads a person to put combination locks on his dry goods or to try to decode the secret message that Nanny 911 is sending him by the way the show alternates Nanny Stella and Nanny Yvonne on dates ending in 3, but at least there’s a logic.

What kind of special crazy potion does it take for someone to sleep on the street outside a theatre where the movie’s not showing? In premieres past, Star Wars has launched at Mann’s Chinese, but for some reason, this time it’s going to the Arclight, a few blocks down the street. The group knew all this, but claimed they didn’t like the Arclight and would therefore wait at Mann’s Chinese. They thought George Lucas would intervene on their behalf, like the Great Pumpkin rewarding Linus for having the Most Sincere Pumpkin Patch. After all, these guys (definitely guys) really prefer Mann’s Chinese to the Arclight…why should they have to travel a few blocks just to be in a place where the movie was actually showing?

Which leads me to the key difference between the original line-standers of the Star Wars movies of the 70s and 80s and these phonies. People stood in line for those old movies because the theatres were packed, and if you didn’t stand in line for a few hours, you weren’t going to get to see the movie. Eventually, somebody thought ahead and brought some jerky or popcorn, possibly even a beer or two, and yes, a lightsaber (toy). The time passed a little bit faster and some of the Hollywood Boulevard transients probably thought alien construction crews had landed and stayed clear. There’s an upside to that My family drove 40 miles to Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, because our 3-screen little town probably had “For the Love of Benji” on two screens and “Walking Tall” held over for the 13th week in a row. I don’t know. I was 8 years old and had never considered the possibility that I could use the Force in any way up to that point, so it seemed worth the drive.

For these guys, though, it’s not about getting in to see the movie. It opens simultaneously on about 200,000 screens across the country. Your last name doesn’t exactly have to be “Skywalker” to get a seat. I walked up on the first weekend and went right in, but then, that’s the point, isn’t it? Star Wars isn’t just a movie they want to see; it’s who they are. The fact that they’re at the wrong theatre just makes them more like Luke Skywalker going through his training on the swamp world of Degobah. If you don’t suffer, the rewards just aren’t as great.

Or do it my way and if you see any line at all, just buy a ticket to “Monster-In-Law” playing in the same theatre. You can pretend Jane Fonda is Anakin Skywalker slowly turning to the Dark Side and becoming a hideous fiend bent on destroying the forces of good.

It won’t be that hard.

Monday, May 16, 2005

We Won't Always Have Paris-May 16, 2005

Paris Hilton.

See, for some reason, just reading the words “Paris Hilton” makes me laugh, and since this column is supposed to be funny, I put that out there assuming I’m not the only one who cracks up thinking about this dingbat. Others of you, I’m sure, will have a different reaction to those same words. You don’t have to be the Church Lady to think Paris isn’t that special. She’s a wreck, really. Even those who’ve been fooled into thinking a curveless ferret face like Paris is a sex goddess would have to admit that. There’s a reason that your fantasies of her end with a tetanus shot, and that’s just not normal.

What’s sad about Paris’s short trip through our collective consciousness is that generations of good breeding, fancy education and billions of dollars have, sadly, failed to produce a decent human being. As a chimpanzee, she’d be doing fine, but not as a person. The Hilton family, strangely, seem like good old fashioned preppy blue bloods with a sense of civic duty and Brooks Brothers-style. Yet they have kids Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne would ground. What’s happened in our society where everyone knows about the immoral train wreck lives of the children of the rich? Didn’t they used to be able to cover up family embarrassments like this? If Joe Kennedy had had a daughter like Paris, she’d have been locked up in an Irish nunnery after that first tape came out.

Not only is Paris an unfortunate stereotype of the result of bad Hollywood parenting, she’s also one of the stars of a movie that came out last week called “House of Wax.” I haven’t seen it, but I’ll give you the premise: a group of sexy young adults wander into an abandoned, rural town where two brothers kill anyone they meet and dip them in Wax to decorate their House. Some die, and some don’t. You get the idea.

Although all of the posters for this movie include a picture of Paris Hilton’s face covered in wax in a ghostly green light (reminiscent of a certain video you might have heard about), there are some that have what I think will be a very effective marketing slogan on them: SEE PARIS DIE! I predict this will sell a lot of tickets to an otherwise pointless and stupid piece of work. (True, I haven’t seen it. It could be another “Citizen Kane” for all I know, but I’ll let you risk your $9.50 to find out.)

Some might think that the drawing power of Paris’s on-screen death has to do with envy. She’s young, rich, allegedly good-looking and can do whatever she wants. All true, but there must be something else. Brad Pitt is all those things, but you won’t get a round of applause in a movie preview by announcing that he’s going to get dipped in wax in his next picture. She’s different. We want her dead so people can stop talking and thinking about her. Of course, when I say “dead,” I don’t mean gone on to her Eternal reward (or whatever.) I mean dead in the Hollywood sense, a fate worse than merely expiring in the flesh. Hollywood dead means no one cares if you lose your cell phone and no one is willing to pay to watch you milk a cow. It means that if you have trouble controlling your various bodily functions, the only one looking at the film is a radiologist, not a worldwide network of teenage boys stealing their dad’s credit card to get a peek on the Internet.

Let me be the first to announce that Paris’s amazingly uninteresting career at the top of the celebrity pig pile has already started in the direction of a Zsa-Zsa Gabor kind of future. Actually, I’m sure I’m not the first to say that, because I don’t care anywhere near enough to check in on her more than once per icky scandal. Of course, even if she drops out of the limelight, she’s got enough money to keep herself in trucker’s hats and thongs until way past anyone cares to know about it. She’ll move from “hot” to “out” to “creepy old lady” in a lot less time than you’d expect. And if you think that’s bad, imagine how Nicole Richie will feel. She’s what Ringo was to the Beatles, except she’s not funny, can’t play the drums, nobody likes her, and instead of being the least important member of the world’s greatest rock band, she’s the most annoying sidekick of the world’s trampiest heiress.

So now that I’ve predicted the slow and painful death of Paris Hilton’s celebrity (except for the ironic, pitiful part of it), I’m willing to back up my words with actions. From now on, don’t talk about Paris Hilton. If you even start to think about her, stop yourself and picture instead a cartoon cow dancing to “Turkey in the Straw.” At least you’ll get a chuckle out of that. Ok, so starting now, never talk about Paris Hilton again. Dagnabit, I said “Paris Hilton” after starting the moratorium. Let’s start again. Never talk about Paris Hilton again…starting…NOW!

I’m holding you to it!

Monday, May 02, 2005

Hell, No, We Won't...What was it Again?-May 1, 2005

I once heard it said that when somebody tells you “it’s not about the money,” you can be 100% certain it’s about the money. I don’t remember who said those wise words, unfortunately. In fact, I briefly considered taking credit for it, but in an age when anything in print or on the net can be fact-checked mercilessly by jobless geeks with expensive degrees and nothing but time on their hands, I decided against it. Maybe it was Mark Twain who said it or possibly Puff Daddy. Anyway, whoever it was, thanks a lot. Don’t expect a royalty check anytime soon.

Twain and Diddy aren’t the only ones not collecting any dough this week, though. In a story reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, way up north in Humboldt County, seven protesters who chained themselves to the office of a logging company to protest, well, logging were each awarded $1 in damages from the Police. Back in ’97, the police couldn’t get this group of latter-day hippies to leave, and knowing that these broke stoners probably had no life in particular to go back to and could therefore stay for quite a while, the police decided that a little pepper-spray in the eyes might change their minds. Being latter-day hippies, though, the seven didn’t just pack up the Mystery Machine and head out of town. Instead, they filmed the whole episode and took the cops to court, asking for $10,000 to $100,000 each. That buys a lot of Scooby Snacks.

The police in that part of the state say the standard procedure for getting rid of hippies who are chained to something is to cut the chain. In this case, they claim it would have been dangerous to them and the hippies, thus the pepper-spray, which was a lot safer, especially for the police. I just think it’s funny that hippies chain themselves to things often enough for the cops to have a standard procedure, but this is Humboldt County, a perfect place for the chronically out of touch with reality. In fact, the word “Humboldt” is practically a synonym for a certain spacey plant that hippies like these are partial to. Some uses of this meaning of “Humboldt” include: “I just got some Humboldt. Want to come over to my apartment and order a pizza?” Or, “Let’s take that Humboldt left over from the weekend and go chain ourselves to something.”

So perhaps Spring Lundberg, 17 at the time of the incident, and his friends didn’t think their little protest all the way through. (Yes, his name is Spring. He never stood a chance in life, did he?) They saw themselves as the one courageous man standing in front of the tanks in Tienanmen Square, but in reality were more like the weirdo who stands on a busy street corner wearing a fake gas mask, warning people that the CIA has infiltrated K-Mart. In fact, nowhere in the news reports does it even mention whether their protest was successful in any way, which goes to show you how extra-losery this group comes off. Not even the Chronicle, a paper that is sure to sympathize with the futile and boring point these geniuses were trying to make, entertains for a moment the concept that the seven could achieve anything.

Reportedly, the protesters jumped from their seats with joy and began hugging each other when the verdict and the award was read. “Righteous bucks!” one of them said. “$1…each?” said another. It slowly dawned on the group that if they pooled their windfall, they could almost get that pizza they had been talking about. Meanwhile, their lawyer sobbed quietly in the corner. Breaking from normal practice for paying penalties of this kind, the lawyer defending the police took a $10 bill out of his pocket, balled it up and skyhooked it across the room at the plaintiffs, saying “dive for it, long hairs!” At least, that’s how it should have happened.

And that’s when Spring said, “it’s never been about the money. It’s always been about the principle.” This is especially true now that he’s not going to be getting any money, of course, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. What’s the principle, exactly? If you feel like shutting down a private business and resisting arrest, the police should let you stay there as long as you want. Yep, that’s practically written in the constitution. The hippies’ lawyer told the Chronicle that this whole thing is a “profound experience that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.” Of course, he was giggling at the time, knowing that not only was this whole silly tale miles from profound but that most of his clients routinely mistake episodes of Seinfeld for things that actually happened to them and their chance of even remembering the trial past next week are barely 50/50.

So maybe I was wrong. Maybe it wasn’t about the money, but the principle, and the principle is just a different one than I originally thought. Maybe the principle in question is more like this:

Dude, as long as we get enough dough out of this to get pizza on the way home, I’m cool with it.

Now that’s profound.