Location Location Location

You don’t write a story based on a location, or do you?

I’ll never forget the day I was having bagels with two friends, one a producer and one a director, and talking about story ideas. The producer had access to a college campus in the Caribbean – we could have free reign over it, since a family friend of his was the president or provost or something. He kept bringing story ideas around to the campus. “Y’know, if we set that at the college…”

Nor will I forget the sunken look on his face when I finally told him to lay off the Caribbean campus ideas. If  we wanted to make a film on a college on an island, we’d be better off shooting in Puerto Rico or the D.R. where flights from New York are relatively cheap. The location is the easy part, I told him, let’s write the best story we can.

I stand behind that, and yet locations have a way of inspiring. Of bringing joy, or creeping out. Last week I was up near the Vermont border and took a walk up Presbytery Lane, where the Presbyterian Church has a camp it is trying to sell. It’s full of weird vistas like this:

If these lawns could talk.....

If these lawns could talk…..

I thought about a young couple going to ask one of their fathers for money for their wedding and finding him on retreat with a bunch of Christian Brothers, telling them “No,” they can’t have an advance on their inheritance, and a tailspin of a plot that ends in a standoff with a hunting rifle. Also maybe a shaved-headed cult leader who welcomes visitors to stay in the one building but, whatever they do, don’t go talk to the people up the hill!

Both of these notions suit my long-term obsession, stories set in tourist destinations in the off-season. But notions don’t inspire. Visions do. Smells do. Cicadas do. Shadows do. Cheap but beautifully dated architectural flourishes do. Creepy old Protestant ghosts do.

It’s still a good idea to write the story first, but half of writing is dreaming.

Olympic Sadness

No doubt there are many sad kids around the world this weekend, since the Olympics are ending Sunday. The Olympics make me sad too. Sad for the eight-year-old whose heart broke when Waldemar Sierpinski beat Frank Shorter to win the marathon in 1976.

More so, I get sad for the 16-year-old track star – “Star”? No, I was an enthusiast, a year before becoming a quitter – who watched Carl Lewis grab a car-dealership-sized flag after his victory in the 100 meters in 1984, and recoiled at his ostentatious patriotism. Mostly, though, I’m sad for the city of Athens and the people of Greece, whose Olympic stadiums twelve years later expose the business of the Olympics for what it is, a scheme to harness idealism and public spending for private gain.

Carl Lewis

Los Angeles, 1984.

I was lucky enough to attend the games in Athens in ’04, working for a video company from L.A. Among my athletic feats, I learned Excel, so I could compile spreadsheets of the crew’s spending. On the plane ride there, I handed everyone index cards with “receipt, please” in Greek spelled out phonetically: “Ah-PO-deek-see, para-kah-LOW.” Everyone promptly discarded them, but I had a blast.

I loved Greece more than the games, which seemed like a bunch of Australians and Americans drinking massive quantities of bottled water to avoid sunstroke. My loyalties really shifted the night the USA men’s basketball team, which included Carmelo Anthony and a very young LeBron James, played the Greeks and narrowly beat them. I could see the rapt faces watching the screens around Omonoia Square, hoping for a miracle for the Greek team, a “Miracle on Ice” in reverse, and I thought of the new friends I’d made, what it meant to them. There was already talk that the Olympics were a disaster for the Greek economy; wow, how a victory in that game would have taken some of the sting out.

Days later my boss scored us tickets to see the Americans play Lithuania, another close game. This time the Americans lost. During the second half, I couldn’t contain myself anymore. “Do you realize there are only two million people in Lithuania?” I said to my coworker. I kept imagining the ribbon-cutting ceremonies for rec centers named after the Lithuanian players in their hometowns, and the palatial homes of N.B.A. players, and couldn’t help myself.

We were sitting in a section that NBC had reserved, tickets to be given out as favors, and were surrounded by Americans. Word spread from one seat to the next, that Charles is rooting for the Lithuanians, like I was the elf in the Christmas special who doesn’t want to make toys.

Did the Cold War spoil the Olympics forever? Turn it into grotesque patriotism? Do the games need another millennia-long period of dormancy before it comes back better? We can’t afford to wait that long.

Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do.

athens 2014

Athens, 2014. Gaia is taking it back.


Captain Fantastic

One of the few must-see films in theaters this summer was Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic. A drama about an off-the-grid, beyond-hippie dad whose abilities as a parent are challenged by his wife’s absence to battle an illness, the story eventually becomes As I Lay Dying in reverse- and I’ll leave it at that.

Ross wrote a very original script, and Viggo Mortenson is getting praise for his performance as the dad, and rightfully so, but the kids are moving too. Still, any time an indy film like Captain Fantastic strikes a nerve – and it ballooned in July from four screens to over five hundred, before deflating again this month – I wonder why. Why this film? Why now?

Capt F

Thrift Store Olympians Unite! Viggo Mortensen and (half) his brood in “Captain Fantastic.”

Well, the psychological journey in Captain Fantastic is remarkably similar to the Bernie Sanders moment in American politics. For millions of idealists it was the month the bill came due, the season of acceptance and resignation.

In any case, the arc of the hero’s journey here is remarkably inward-looking. It’s the dad’s struggle to keep fighting or to relent in the face of his father-in-law’s overwhelming case for why the kids should leave their revolutionary upbringing behind. It’s a beautiful, elegant script, to have so much action, but the heart of the drama spinning around the axis of a person’s decision whether to keep on fighting.

If anything, I’d say Ross the writer plays too many cards to prove his point. The scene in which eldest son Bo mangles his first romantic tryst with a girl at a campground by breaking down and proposing marriage to her drives the point home far enough – that these kids are truly not prepared for life within cell phone range – we don’t need the wrenching dialogue scene that says so. Likewise the family’s acoustic version of “Sweet Child of Mine”: tear-jerking to some, cheeseball to others.

It took me some time to adjust to the scale of the plot as I watched this film. The very first scene, in which Bo kills a deer in a gruesome fashion during a family hunt, and his father anoints him a man for doing so, creates the expectation that we’re going to see something more epic and violent, some independent film iteration of Gangs of New York even. In retrospect I suppose he was merely establishing that this family was beyond Mendocino, this was not a lifestyle revolution, but a revolution-revolution.

My friend Joe Krings edited Captain Fantastic. I know he’d be upset if I said how superb the editing is. Editing, like funeral attire, should never call attention to itself, and that’s more than a passing compliment. I’ve always thought editors are like morticians or maybe taxidermists: Once it’s shot, it’s dead, and it’s up to the editor to make it look alive. Ideally you don’t notice the editing, and that must have been difficult achieving just that with all the multiple-person conversations, and hand-held cameras, taking place.

It’s heart-breaking watching revolutions die out, and watching the smug get smugger. Kudos to Frank Langella (as always) for bringing some humanity to the villainous father-in-law. It’s no laughing matter, not this summer.