Welcome Gentle Readers

This blog tends to wander from its main purpose -- updates on my fiction. I do have updates and excerpts of my work. But I also write about my obsessions -- food, friends and pop culture and my weird life in Los Angeles. Enjoy!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Big Waves, Big Suds and Fun Food

Wacky Weekend
I woke up to find a Tsunami warning in my e-mail. The waves were due to hit beginning at 11:45 am. On the one hand, the warning said that it was unlikely that there would be evacuations. On the other had, the waves could be moving at up to 400 miles per hour and that we should be prepared to leave at a moment's notice. The whole morning was peculiar, weather -wise. It was sunny and pouring rain and then in was very dark and cold and windy. I was really puzzled that none of my local Dopplerganger weather folk were even on the air. There wasn't even a news ticker on the bottom of the major local stations with updates on the tsunami. I had to go to the Weather Channel for those. Thus, Jon and I were dressed and prepared to go to the police station down the street. I was listening for the alarm to sound. When I preferred lazing on the sofa. That was irritating. I did get some amusement calling friend and neighbor Garett who is my tsunami buddy. He never hears anything like this, so I call him to give him a heads up. His obliviousness is really strange as he lives mere blocks from the ocean and has a canal in front of his house. I usually get playfully harassed for my trouble and hang up laughing. Such was the case this morning. Still, I found the entire affair to be strange and irksome.

Diagnosis and Prognosis
I finally got to see an Oncologist last week. I am very happy to tell everyone that I am at stage one of my particular cancer. The head of the clinic that I am visiting is an expert in this cancer and has successfully treated it more than once. Best of all, I will not be going through weeks of chemo. The only downside is having to have another surgical procedure. After that, I will be closely monitored for years to come, but that's not bad at all. I'm in great shape for the surgery, but I have to get my iron levels up in advance of blood tests next week. More dark greens and a little liver pate should do the trick. The patients my doc has treated with this cancer are surviving and thriving ten years after their procedures. Thus, things look very good. Thank you to all who sent prayers and/or good thoughts. Keep them coming! I also accept rain dances and fan dances (those are a lot of fun).

In My Hood
Mar Vista is the red headed step child of neighborhoods in Los Angeles' privileged and entitled westside. It isn't as glamorous as Santa Monica which is home to movie stars, famous chefs and the Governator himself. It isn't as funky and eclectic as Venice whose freaky beach is an international tourist destination. Most, like me, thought of it as the space you pass through on the way to Culver City which is enjoying quite a renaissance of late. The only neighborhood more obscure to Angelinos is mine. Del Rey was named for the salt marshes near Ballona Creek. When I tell people where I live, most assume I have left off the word Marina. Alas, this is not the case. Marina del Rey is within walking distance to our humble home, but Jon and I don't have a yacht nor enough digits in our income to live there. We are Marina adjacent. But I digress. To my mind, both Del Rey and Mar Vista were places I passed through on the way elsewhere. This has been true even during the past three years of living here. However, I have been restricted in my movements of late. That has been fortunate in many ways. One of them has been having the opportunity to find some real gems hiding in plain sight mere minutes from my front door. This is the first review of such gems.

I am a tactile being. My love of food encompasses how it looks, how it feels in the mouth and how it smells as well as how it tastes. This trait makes me an absolute sucker for soaps and lotions and candles and perfumes. It was a very delicate fragrance of flowers and fruit and vanilla that drew me into a small shop called Soaptopia on Venice Boulevard near Centinela Avenue. Inside, I found a shop full of all things decadent and bath related and a kitchen where these products were created. The pots were enormous.

There were soaps like Aloe be Thy Name or The Grapefruit Gatsby. I was given four generous sample of soap with my purchases. I've only used Rozilla vs Dry Skinea, but I found that the others (She Uses Tangerine, Rose Patchouli and Mint Condition) all smell wonderful. The Rozila produced a thick, luxurious lather that rinsed off cleanly. I have very dry skin, so I'm drawn to body oils and thick lotions and creams. Soaptopia makes and sells a product called an Oil Slather that is used after rinsing from a bath or shower but before toweling off. It's an amazing oil, because it is an oil but doesn't feel greasy on the skin once it's toweled off. I tried Rosemary's Other Baby, but I sniffed almost all of the others. I want them all. Finally, I tried something called a 50/50 body balm which is described as 50 percent cream and 50 percent body butter. I tried Rozilla which was thick and creamy, but also not greasy. It left my skin very soft with the lightest of scents.

The playful product names match the friendly service. Browsing and questions are encouraged. They even offer classes on fragrance making. There are modestly priced small sizes of most of the products, so you can find the one that suits you best. I plan to do a great deal of experimenting.

There are other gems in Mar Vista that I plan to explore very soon. There is a Farmer's Market and a couple of restaurants and specialty grocers that have caught my eye. Stay tuned.

What's Cookin'
Processing the groceries from the past week was my goal by Saturday. I've largely succeeded. I turned the two roast chickens that I bought on deep discount a week ago into the final left over: a chicken pot pie with a fresh made crust. I made four pies and froze them for after I get out of the hospital and am unable to do much cooking. I turned the pulled pork into a burrito filling (made four of those. I'll freeze one) and a meat smothered with gravy seasoned with Herb de Provence that can be paired with rice or potatoes. I plan to freeze some of that as well. To cover my Lenten seafood selections, I made and am freezing crab cakes and zucchini pancakes. The only soup I managed to finish this week is a cream of asparagus. I had wanted to do the Mediterranean fish soup, but my shopping was thwarted by a number of things. I want to try again this week.

I have some cooking notes that I've posted on Facebook this week. For those who've read them, see you next week. For the rest, enjoy!

What's Cooking in the Wee Small Hours (Feb 23, 2010)
I have to get up in four hours, but I'm wide awake. I'm having the long awaited Oncologist appointment which is probably why I'm wide awake. The scent of roasting pork isn't helping matters either. There was a massive pork shoulder on sale at the market today. It was under ten bucks for something that looked like Fred Flintstone's dinner. I grabbed it, oiled it up, rubbed it with a mix of Herb de Provence, garlic powder, onion powder, salt and pepper then threw it in the oven on low for about eight hours. It should be fork tender by the time I leave. I really love pulled pork, but decided I wanted it without the barbecue rub. The Herb de Provence rub was what I came up with in its stead. The result is quite lovely. Alas, I will have to leave the succulent pile of pork having had just the the tiniest taste. It does give me something to look forward to when I come home. I will have to make a stop at some point during the day for a suitable bread or bun to hold those tender morsels. Or I may just shovel it in my mouth by the fistful. In the privacy of my kitchen, who's to know?

Friday Night Snacks (February 26, 2010)
There are a lot of things I still miss from Philly (where are my pretzels, brother dear). Among the things I didn't expect to find is a really good bagel. My standards are high as I worked in New York City for a year. Luckily, there is a company out here called Noah's Bagels that has some real New Yorkers making things. Luckier still, Noah's provides bagels for our local Costco (we get a dozen fresh baked bagels for $.99). I like the everything bagel (onion, poppy seeds, sesame seeds). Jon likes cinnamon raisin. Anyway, my favorite bagel snack is something I picked up from one of the crew guys on "Demon Under Glass.' He liked his bagel toasted with a nice layer of cream cheese with a slice of tomato on top. My variant is that I chop the tomato then gently press it in the cream cheese so that it stays put. I sprinkle a little bit of salt and pepper on the tomato. I love the arm crunch od the bagel with the softness of of the cream cheese and the warmth of the bagel against the cool of the cream cheese. It's just a great combination, And, as a snack, it's not that unhealthy (I only have a half a bagel-tomato at a clip). As for the other things I miss from Philly? I do fairly well making steak sandwiches (steakums on a supermarket French baguett is really good. I make mine with garlic infused olive oil on the roll instead of mayo). And I've just found a recipe for soft pretzels that's really easy that Jon and I will probably try next week. And I even found a recipe for scrapple that is probably a lot healthier than the real thing (it uses pork shoulder and fresh hocks cooked with corn meal rather than snouts and offal). It may not tast as yummy though. Still, I'd like to give it a try. More cooking later. I hope to have a report from the nearby farmer's market as well.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Woes and Joes and Julia and Cassadines

Wednesday's Child
Oh, woe was me this past Wednesday. The day began beautifully. The weather was really great – it was sunny and not too warm. I got out of the house and stretched my legs by taking a trip to the library to get a card. I hadn't had one in years, because I would just order everything from Amazon. But we don't have the space for tons of books in the apartment, and giving them away is a hassle with our schedules. I got a card then had lunch at Taco Bell (I know, bad girl eating food like that in your condition). But I hadn't had food from there in a very long time, and I'm still under doctor's orders to gain weight. After lunch, I explored a part of our neighborhood I seldom see. There, I found a shop called the Curious Palette. It's essentially a deli with a small gourmet grocery area that boasted French-style jam made on the premises. They also had Tapenade. I'm planning on sampling their wares and writing about it for my foodie sites. This was a great find. I also discovered that there is a weekly farmer's market, Mar Vista Farmer's Market, that I knew nothing about. This was detailed in a quarterly neighborhood newsletter I'd never seen before. The writers even had intriguing recipes in the newsletter that used products sold at the farmer's market. I plan on sampling the wares there as well. Finally, I stopped by Mitsuwa Marketplace for some pantry items. I managed to do all of this and catch a bus back without a long wait. I was very happy.

The woe began with a call from my surgeon. I had called her the day before to report some symptoms she'd told me to look out for. Her call scared me enough to immediately contact my Oncology Docs to see if my appointment for chemo had been set up. It hadn't. I was caught in a bureaucratic nightmare at a monolithic health care facility overloaded with requests for free treatment. A note on why I need free treatment. I am one of those Americans sans health insurance, because the plan offered by my employer was really expensive (it nearly rivaled the cost of our rent) but didn't cover very much. It was, in fact, fortunate that I didn't have any insurance when I was diagnosed. That status made me eligible for aid that would cover everything instead of the catastrophic debt we would incur trying to cover bills our insurance wouldn't cover. The trade off for this aid is steering through a massive county and state bureaucracy. One of the two things that made getting an appointment 4 weeks instead of 8 to 10 was the rarity of my cancer (it is very rare though it has a high survival rate). This makes me very attractive to a teaching hospital. The second was I found some super nice and empathetic office workers at that hospital. They really went above and beyond for me. I have so many thank you cookies to make.

The woe in waiting even 4 weeks is that the surgery didn't get every bit of the tumor out. There are tiny ones that aren't visible to the naked eye growing again. These cause the symptoms I'd been told to look out for. Thus, I found myself in General Hospital in a 17 hour long queue waiting for treatment. I'm serious, that building is the building used in ABC's long running soap opera, General Hospital. I didn't see Luke or Laura or find any Cassadines or their weather machine. All we had was a cavernous waiting room with naught to entertain us but the craziest LA denizens and dreadful programs on the CW Television Network. Sorry fans of Supernatural and the Vampire Diaries. This stuff was truly abysmal. And the leading men all looked the same. Jon thinks they were all the same tall, dark haired, dead-eyed guy cloned over and over. I'm not sure about that. All I know for sure is those scripts were just dreadful, and for some reason Chad Everett had bangs.

My woes ended Friday afternoon when I was released from the ER. I was determined not to be stuck in the hospital again just after Tiger Woods came back into the endless news cycles. Though I found that beyond the endless wait, County-USC boasted state of the art facilities and a knowledgeable, caring staff that were pleasant to interact with, I wasn't into a prolonged visit. I had spent all of December trying to avoid that coverage in the hospital. But since I wasn't in any immediate danger, and I was seeing the oncologist early this week anyway, they let me leave. The upside of the ordeal was finding out that I wasn't in any immediate danger, and I got some tests done that gets me closer to starting chemo. That was worth the woes.

What's Cookin'
This week's soup was split pea with ham. It was a first time recipe for me and born of a sale on whole hams at my favorite market last week. Aside from lots of lovely meat, there was a dandy bone from which to make tasty stock. I made the stock on Mardi Gras and the soup on Ash Wednesday. That was a naughty no-no as I had to taste something meat based on a day I was to have no meat. I only had a teaspoon full, I promise. My bigger sin involving the soup was on Friday. I tend to do the meatless Friday thing during Lent, but I was coming home after the never ending ER experience. The only thing that would fix that experience was really good meat and lots of it. I plan to repent later. The other recipe of the week was Sole Meunière a la Julia Child. There was Dover sole on sale at the market last week, so the choice of fish for Ash Wednesday was easy. I didn't take photos because the dish itself was not pretty in its platting. The sole fillets were thin and broke on me, but the meal was very tasty. The delicacy of the fish married well with the rich brown butter sauce and lemon. Even Jon enjoyed it. I will certainly make it again, and then there will be pictures. This week, my goal is Mediterranean Fish soup. I failed at it in spectacular fashion last year, but I have a far simpler recipe this time and more experience with seafood stock. I'll have photos of that as well (hopefully).

Moving and Shaking
I am cleared for exercise now. I'm starting with walking at least a half an hour as briskly as I can manage. For toning my thin but wiggly arms and to shore up the parts that have fallen down with the sudden weight loss, I have chosen the Bollywood Dance Workout with Hemalayaa. The series runs on one of my many cable channels sometime after the informercials. I've watched several in a supine position and now feel that I may have to actually do something the next time they air. I'd really love to have the outfit to go with the routines, but I shall muddle through nonetheless. There will be no photos of that, but here is a video of Hemalayaa in action.

A Tale of Two Women
Julie & Julia was an interesting experience for me in that I was actually interested in the Julie Powell part of the film at all, and that I found the women had a lot more in common than cooking. There were so many wonderful things in the film for me that I find it hard to pick a place to begin. Why did I find the terrifying? Was it the lobster trying to escape its fate? No, lobsters don't move fast enough to terrify me. My father and I have been chased around a kitchen by Maryland blue crabs. Now, that was exciting and kind of funny, actually. The cat was chasing the crab which was chasing us. It was all very silly, but it ended deliciously. Serendipity made Julie and Julia terrifying for me. SPOILER ALERT for the books and the film.

Julia Child spent many years working on Mastering the Art of French Cooking endlessly testing and improving the recipes and the verbiage. Yet the book only saw the light of day because of a few random acts like writing a fan letter about knives resulting in a connection with an American editor who was obsessed with Paris after a series of unlikely events. Any wrong move during those years could have easily resulted in Julia's book never seeing the light of day. Likewise, Julie Powell had spent many years studying and toiling to become a published writer. Yet it was making an exercise in personal growth public that gave her the path to realizing her creative aspirations. A random decision made on a whim and boom, there's your career. Write a fan letter on a whim and that leads to becoming a legend. Planning be damned. That is terrifying to me.

The only thing that either woman had any control over was their on perseverance. Had they not done the work diligently, there would have been nothing to show when an opportunity presented itself. Though terrifying, Julie and Julia was a reminder that we always have to be ready to explore any avenue toward our goals. Reading My Life in France reminded me of that last month. Thus, I got my act together and submitted that memoir into competition. Seeing Julie and Julia reminded Jon and I not to pass up any opportunity – no matter how remote. So when Ralph calls and says that there is an A-List actor that we can get a script to directly, I pushed past my initial reaction of 'there is nothing we have that he has ever played before' and sent something that is an interesting part even though it's a long shot. Who knows? We may catch him on a day that he wants to go into a different direction. Or he may know another actor who has always wanted to play this sort of part. Or he may like our writing enough to hire us to create something else. It costs us nothing to respond, and it's a potential connection we certainly can't ignore. It's hard to keep up the energy necessary to act on opportunities. Each one needs to be embraced and sent out with enthusiasm and confidence. After all, if you don't feel that way about the material, who will?

But beyond the terrifying serendipity, Julie and Julia was about the two women, their aspirations and their relationships with their husbands. Now, I'm a big believer in girl power, and I'd like to think that these women would have found a way to press on with their writing on their own. However, I know how hard it is to keep motivated in the face of setbacks and everyday adversities. Even with having a supportive husband who is a creative partner, I find myself reaching out to friends and occasionally relatives and in really dire situations, perfect strangers, for validation. I am very fortunate to have a circle of friends that I can lean on for encouragement. Julie Powell and Julia Child found success in large part because they had wonderfully supportive husbands and great firends. Watching these relationships – particularly the Childs' – made the movie a delightful. Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci were marvelous protraying a couple that was lusty and fun. As a film fan, I thought Julie and Julia is well worth watching. As a writer, I found the film to be an inspiration.

Go Joe!
This will sound strange, but Julie and Julia had something in common with GI: Joe The Rise of Cobra (TROC), the other film Jon and I watched last weekend. Both are film adaptations of well established published materials. In the case of GI:Joe, there was also a popular cartoon series to live up to or get around, depending on your opinion of said series. I thought the series was a lot of dopey fun. That's somewhat inexplicable for a fan of Anime which was working at a far more cophisticated level of story tellling (even in shows that were based on toy lines). Thus, I was not disappointed by this film. It was certainly dopey, but it was a whole lot of fun. The script managed to work in phrases like 'A real American Hero' and 'Go JOE!' without making it look like they were squeezed in with a crow bar. The 'Go JOE' line went to Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje whom I adore as Simon Adebisi from OZ. At any rate, the only element missing from the film that was a regular part of the series were the moral lessons tacked on at the end of each episode. These PSAs were common in cartoons from the 1980s to make up for the fact that many of these shows were sponsored by and made for toy companies. There are many parodies of these PSAs on Youtube.com. I chose this parody because it captured the spirit of the others without being obscene. Hasbro Toys was listed as one of the production companies behind GI: Joe TROC. I think a feature version of one of those PSAs would have been awesome.

That nit pick aside, GI: Joe TROC offered some surprises along with the exploding mayhem it so generously served up every few scenes. As I mentioned in the last blog, this film managed to degayify (I still say it's a word) this film. Oh, there were still lots of well-built guys hanging out together and working out together. But there was a lot less shirtlessness and a lot more females hanging out as well. I think the reason this film seemed less homoerotic is that the female characters were credible hanging out with the guys. I think this speaks well for female action characters in general. Film and TV have come a long way from female characters of yore. They weren't dreamy-eyed girls with crushes on the leading slab of man. They are real partners who can really kick ass. They can watch the lead's back as well as any dude. And they can usually rescue themselves. As fellow soldiers, the action chick gets to hear all of the secrets and builds that bond that brothers at arms have for millennia. GI: Joe had two action chicks – one was a hero (Scarlett) the other was a villain (The Baroness ). Both were credible partners to their counterparts while being hot females. Their presence really cut down on the manly men who like hanging out with manly men thing the cartoon had. GI: JOE TROC had a great sense of humor that was not dependent on Marlon Wayans' Ripcord. I found myself laughing out loud at appropriate points in the movie. Overall, I found the film to be a fun, popcorn eating treat.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Tigers and Souffles and Plots, Oh My!

Gong hei fat choi!
Happy Year of the Dragon and Happy Valentine's Day! And as if this week can't begin any more strangely, Tuesday is Mardi Gras. For now, I'm only dealing with these two. Our romantic dinner features homemade potstickers and chicken friend rice with a chocolate souffle and some bubbly for dessert. The souffle is an amazing recipe from America's Test Kitchen that can be made ahead and frozen. I've shown a photo of it from when I made it during the summer. It's fairly easy to put together as well. I made the dumplings during the Super Bowl and froze them. And fried rice is easy to put together. Thus, it will be a no fuss but lovely and, hopefully, romantic dinner. That will bring us luck during the new year. Who knows? It's worth a shot. I had some ambitious notions of cooking duck breast or Peking Duck (duck being both a staple of romantic meals and important Chinese feasts). But I've cooked it exactly once, and that was an ordeal and a half. Since duck is neither bread or noodles, Jon could care less if it appears on his plate. Thus,I thought it prudent to wait until I have more energy. There is less likelihood of disaster that way.

The Super Bowl was fun. I didn't have a preference for a winner, so I think my biggest reaction during the whole time was 'Abe Vigoda is alive?' Though the game and the ads were really good, I found myself preoccupied with cooking prep for the big pot of chili (no beans) and the slab of sweet cornbread and the potstickers. My friends and colleagues are benefiting greatly from my food therapy. Now, they're sending supplies my way with requests. I'm needing a bigger fridge or an supplemental fridge. That's especially true when I'm doing the juicing thing. To have enough produce to make juice means there is just bushels of stuff to go through. But I digress. I want to thank all of those sending me their recipes and suggestions for warm and comforting meals last week. I'm going to try some of them very soon.

Writing Roadblocks
I wanted to get more writing done, but the week was rough where concentration was concerned. My characters were speaking, but I couldn't focus enough to filter it through to my keyboard. My script outline was stymied by the realization that I had to do a great deal more research on one of the main characters. I thought I had the correct thread, but when I pulled it, I was lead to a lot farther back in his life than I first thought was relevant. That was a fascinating if terribly inconvenient development. That biography is nearly three inches thick and quite heavy. I really didn't want to tote that to and from my appointments. Ah, well. The upside is that the research is riveting. I find myself losing a lot of time reading the biography and, of course, the short fiction mentioned therein. (I can't do that when I'm on the road as I am without a laptop. It would be too unwieldy in a waiting room. Jon is predicting that this script will likely producer – egads – an academic paper or perhaps a course.

And, despite all the work I have on my plate, I've allowed myself to get distracted by a bit of experimental script writing. Jon and I both have scripts knocking about that we know are going to be difficult if not impossible to produce, but it's an itch that we need to scratch. It's like having to solve a puzzle. In my experiment, I believe I have solved the problem that this sort of material presents for film makers save for no one would fund it and casting would be a bear. Thus, it's not something that I want distracting me right now. Although past experience has taught me that I find my focus on one work while distracted by another one. I suppose, I can just let this go where it will for the time being. It is a very fun script for me to write. I'm taking what could have been a 1950s era romance between the powerful scion of an industrial family and a lady business executive and turning it on its ear – Big Time while still having an Eve Arden character.

I must digress here to register a strong protest about an upcoming remake of Mildred Pierce. I adore Kate Winslet, but that is a film that is very much of it's era. I don't think any film maker today has the sensibilities to re-make it and not get it wrong. Why do I have an itch to upend 50s romances while objecting to a re-make of an iconic film? Well, first, I'm not re-making anything specific. I'm using a fun and familiar template to push drama in a very different direction. It's part of my need to rehabilitate erotica in films. Too much of it is bad. Most of it manages to make sex boring (I give you Eyes Wide Shut). And film erotica is almost never romantic. And when the characters in such films do fall in love with each other, it's almost always a toxic sort of relationship. And these films never have a sense of humor. This is a tough nut to crack in a script that isn't 400 pages long. And even if I manage to write something that moves crisply and has highly engaging characters (and I'm onto something with the 50s romance template), there is still the issue of writing it in such a way that it could find a big enough audience to attract funding. It's quite the puzzle.

CSI: Miami Fun
One of the commercials that really amused me during the Super Bowl was for last week's CSI: Miami. It featured a death that appeared to have happened in outer space. At the end of the ad, there was an image of Horatio Caine's (David Caruso) glasses floating owner-less in space. The episode itself was quite amusing in spots. It even featured physical comedy by two of the CSIs in a vomit comet. Youcan see footage of the plane in action HERE. Though the plot pushed credulity to the very limit, the episode was highly amusing. I'm really enjoying this season, and I'm very impressed with Caruso's sense of humor about his alter ego and his show. He's been promoting a Horatio Caine impersonation contest (the contestants are at the bottom of the page), and because of him, I was introduced to the extremely amusing Black CSI: Miami. These clever shorts feature such over the top dialogue as 'Black Eric, what do we have?' 'Well, Black Horatio, I'm processing this pitcher of Kool-Ade.' And the Horatio is really spot on. Good show, fellows!
One More Doppler Jab
I know I promised no more making fun of weather forecasters, and I'm not (for those who may have missed the reason for this promise, please check out the nuttiest of all the Dopplergangers Snowpocalypse Forecast). I do, however, have to share Stephen colbert's version of the Doppler craze with his Dopplerest 9000 coverage of Snowmaggeddon 2010. See We're Off to See the Blizzard. Enjoy!

Film vs Book
Well, not just books but also comic books and/or cartoons. I finally saw GI: Joe The Rise of Cobra and Julie and Julia. So, next week I'll talk about the difficulties of going from one media to another and where both films were successful or not so much. I'm also still puzzling on how the film version of GI: Joe managed to completely de-gayify (that's a word or it is now) the cartoon series. That was quite a feat. And I know you all think I see the homoerotic everywhere (or choose to), but, in this case, I'm not the only one who did where GI: Joe was concerned. On the left you have a Joe character on the right, the Venture Brother's version. I love the whole squad on Venture Brothers, they shamelessly resemble the Village People. But I'm digressing, and this is for the next blog.

Stay tuned!

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Delay of Game

I've had a hard time of things last week. It's nothing serious, all things considered, but I am left with less energy than in previous weeks. As those of you who have found me on line in the middle of the night can attest, sleep is proving to be elusive. Thus, the blog may not pop up for a few more days. Or I may wait until next week. Meanwhile, tell me what you're cooking for those cold snowy or rainy nights? What did you have for the Super Bowl? As for me, stay tuned.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Why James Cameron is My Hero

It's not just the magic he puts on screen. Nor is it that I found him to be among the best customers I've ever helped while toiling at Boders Books and Music. And he was a stellar customer on a very busy Saturday night. In a field of celebrity customers at the now defunct Santa Monica store who proved to be too irritating to live at times, he was a polite, gentlemanly standout. But that is not why I deem him worthy of heroic status.

A recent Businessweek magazine illustrates my reasons quite succinctly. While marveling at the success of Avatar, it noted that the film boasted no major stars as leads, it was not a sequel, it wasn't based on a bestselling novel or the Bible. And what does that title mean, anyway? Yes, the success of the film is astonishing. What flummoxes me more is How in the hairy heck did Cameron pull off getting it funded???!!!

Yes, yes, popular wisdom posits that the astounding box office from Titanic. And I am certain that the suits who green lit the project are now smugly pointing to the obvious wisdom of their decision and further obscuring the reality of the process. But funding this juggernaut was not such a sure thing a few years ago. And while I personally found Avatar to be the embodiment of why I go to a theater to see a film, I fully understand why.

Funding a film is a daunting, frustrating, sometimes soul crushing process run with mercurial individuals and entities and ruled by serendipity. No one who wasn't involved entirely believes how we got our first film funded. Looking back, I have trouble believing it myself. I know we could never replicate the circumstances. Since then, my partners and I have had dozens of meetings with funding sources from all walks of life. My personal favorite for bizarre was the chap with the enormous pentagram on his chest and the giant painting of Satan looming behind him. I still think that his terms were the most honest and above board. And yes, I have had meetings with studio suits. Satan dude didn't want to direct, nor did he have a significant other who always wanted to get into acting. I think that deal fell apart on points or a goat sacrifice. I can't recall now.

But I digress. A financially successful film is not a guarantee that funding the next film will be easy. And despite all the glad-handing and back slapping going on with the suits behind Avatar right now, getting that film funded was not an easy road for Cameron. Businessweek quotes him admitting to using $12 million of his own money in developing the film. I have a close friend who worked in a Special FX cubical farm at the Playa Vista location a few years back. He witnessed a number of suits from various studios and other sources touring the facility trying to grasp what Cameron was creating. Their checkbooks weren't automatically open despite Titanic's success. It may seem unimaginable that a man with that kind of lucrative film run would have to give tours and show off his wares in the hopes of attracting a deep-pocketed backer, but there are a number of factors at work against any film maker, even James Cameron. There's the 'but what have you done, lately?' issue. In LA, if you are out of sight, you are truly out of mind. Years spent doing things like undersea documentaries puts a filmmaker completely out of mind.

And then, there is the concept. It's original. Even the most casual movie goer will note that Hollywood's output has been a little thin where original concepts are concerned. If it's not a sequel, it's a re-make. On the film horizon, we have Clash of the Titans (with Avatar's heroic Sam Worthington) and the A-Team. In the case of Spiderman, we have a case of a sequel that turned into a remake. Of late, studios aren't know for spending huge bucks to step out on a limb creatively. And this is what makes James Cameron my hero. I can just see him explaining to the sort of suits more inclined to fund something with the word Sqeakuel in the title that for 3/4ths of a very long film, his leads (that most people had never heard of) will be animated ten foot tall blue people with tails and loincloths. But wait, it gets better. The stalwart marines are not the good guys. The film will be made to be best viewed with a technology that may or may not be in enough theaters to begin to make the money back. And the film will need more money than has ever been spent before in history. Though if inflation is factored in (and everyone insists on doing that with Avatar) the prize for spending still belongs to Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra. And though I love that big, cheesy film, I'm sure that no film wants to be considered in the same sentence with it. And the core youth audience Avatar is aimed at (the only people who understand what the title means) were little children when Titanic was released. I bet crickets could be heard at the end of that pitch. How many of these meetings ended with the suits beating a hasty retreat for the parking lot?

I suppose it doesn't matter how many meetings ended badly. Somehow, Cameron got through where it mattered. But what did he say, and how did he say it? It must be some super hero power that can make studios take a big risk on a wholly original concept. He gives me hope to keep pushing. For that, James Cameron is my hero.