LETTERS AT 3AM: A Slight Silence at a Small Gathering
A casual lunch among friends and acquaintances at a cafeteria on a campus in Los Angeles. Two authors, a well-known editor, a sculptor and producer of commercials, a translator, a playwright, a young writer (slightly published) who is also studying to instruct the blind, and the playwright's friend -- don't know what she does because I hate the question "What do you do?", but she is clearly a person of hard experience and quick intelligence (a general description that would define all the people at that table, more or less). Good company.Some at that table know each other very well -- we've "stolen some horses together," as an Eastern European I know would say. A nice expression for a certain level of friendship. Some of us know only one other at the table. We are taking a break during a "literary event." I put those words in quotes because it's hard to say them with a straight face. The authors, one of whom, as you may guess, is me -- or is it, "is I"? I'm never sure, though as an author I suppose I should be... in any case: the authors have just spoken on a panel. Usually, when asked to speak, I thank the asker but say as kindly as possible: "It's my strong conviction that writers should write and shut up." But sometimes I break my rule, since it is also my conviction that I must, occasionally, break my own rules. People are building prisons fast enough, after all, and one must occasionally leave the prison one calls home.So we spoke at a panel, this other author and I. The subject was L.A.Los Angeles is always talking about itself. Cities always do. Athens was a favorite topic in Athens, Ur was probably a favorite topic in Ur, and the same has been true for every city since, big and small, really important or only self-important, from Baghdad to San Francisco, from Schenectady to New York City, from Tucson to Tucumcari to Austin. Cities are fascinated by themselves, as though they don't quite believe themselves, don't quite believe that anything holds them together but their self-awareness and perhaps a harbor or a railhead, or a bar and a redhead. Whatever.(In this, cities behave much like you and I, who also have a hard time believing that we are who we are, and who also always talk about ourselves -- if not to others, then secretly to ourselves. In many ways, this particular speaking, both the secret and the public, is the basis of all culture. Which is a way of saying that uncertainty about our very existence is at the root of what we call "culture"... but let's not get into that tonight.)So on the panel we'd talked about L.A. Riots, fires, earthquakes, mud slides, Hollywood, gangs, freeways -- the usual. Someone on the panel thought we should suggest solutions for the city, as though a city can be solved. I thought of saying that one generation's solution always (and I mean always) becomes the next generation's problem-to-be-solved -- but that might have sounded cynical, and I didn't mean it cynically, and I was too scattered that morning to say what I did mean: that life is too lively to be contained by any solution; life will always turn any solution inside out and make it challenge us again, threaten us again, for life always finagles a way to draw us out of ourselves, our assumptions, our beliefs, pulling us past our boundaries into the unknown so that we may really live.I don't call that cynicism, I call that faith. It's the foundation of every other thought I have. But I wasn't up to communicating it that morning.Anyway, the panel thankfully didn't last too long, and so our little gaggle of literary horsethieves ended up at a cafeteria among the student body (a phrase I've always found interesting) with time for a leisurely lunch. Reassuring things were said to the authors about how the panel wasn't so bad and what the authors said wasn't so incomprehensible or inconsequential. One likes to think this wasn't merely kindness, but most of it probably was. Our small gathering continued the talk about L.A., more forcefully, less politely, than the panel. The talk turned briefly toward that immense and baffling subject referred to generally as "Hollywood," and one of us -- either me or the playwright, both of whom have written more screenplays than is good for us -- mentioned someone like Michael Eisner.Or maybe Michael Ovitz. Or Jerry Katzenberg. One of those names that people in "the film community" (a misleading phrase if ever there was one) mention now and again.The young, slightly published writer who is studying to instruct the blind -- she gave me a look. Or was it that she directed a kind of silence toward me? A slight silence, yes. I noticed and then forgot it, the moment passed, and the discussion went on to more interesting topics and people.Later she asked, "Who is __________?" Whoever it was -- the Eisner-Ovitz-Katzenberg person.The question made my day. Because she's very well-educated, and has lived all her life in Los Angeles. She runs among intelligent people, she reads, she goes to the movies, does the sort of stuff that most of us more-or-less savvy bohemian types do. And she'd never heard of this Eisner-Ovitz-Katzenberg person! I felt both delighted and humbled. I had the giddy (and no doubt inflated) sensation that the entire city, the entire country, lo! the entire world, had asked me that question to put me and everyone like me in my/our place/places. She didn't know who these people were, and she didn't really care. Her question was the reflex of an intelligent person taking an interest in a hitherto unknown subject that had been temporarily important to some fairly nice people over lunch.I explained, at more length than she was probably interested in, who these people and their ilk are: The people who get to say what movies are and are not made, the people who determine the level and content of the world's most visible iconography, the most powerful people in the film business.She has a dark stare, this woman, and she fixed it on me and said: "Is that power?"The twists and turns of the discussion that followed came to this:The question is, in which direction is the power really going? And is the power in the people or the system? A Michael Eisner (the CEO of Disney) or a Michael Ovitz (used to be head of the CAA talent agency, now he's with some studio or other), have the power to make many second-and third-rate talents, and even a few first-rate talents, do their bidding; and their bidding consists of making technically proficient but otherwise vacuous films. The vacuity of those films definitely has power: Into their vacuum is sucked the sense of meaning of millions of people and whole cultures. For very few are independent enough to feel meaningful amidst this onslaught of meaninglessness. Stories unique only for their shallowness, images startling only by the loudness with which they broadcast their predictability -- these create an environment in which the expression of genuine feeling and subtle thought are driven to the margins of society.But if Eisner, say, wanted to change the system he heads; if he wanted to gear the tremendous resources at his disposal to make cogent films, films that both expressed and displayed the complexities and ambivalences of our lives, films that would mean financial risk -- more than an occasional one (as they all do, to justify the dreck) but a steady stream of them; then he wouldn't be the CEO of Disney for very long. He wouldn't be the CEO of anything. So his power consists of being the efficient, willing servant of a massive vacuity, a willful nothingness that attempts to eat every something in its path. He is only powerful so long as he serves that master.And what does the Massive Vacuity, the Willful Nothingness, serve? It serves the equally willful blindness of we who pour our money into its maw. For we are not innocents, we who buy the tickets. We know full well what we are running from when we rush to sit in front of that Dolby widescreen onslaught of triviality. We're running from ourselves, from the dilemmas and powerlessness of our daily lives. Seeking relief from our powerlessness, we give the Eisners power. And that's called Hollywood.And that is why the Eisners are so unimportant to my dark-eyed friend. That is why most of the four million people of the City of Los Angeles never discuss him, never think of him, have never heard of him, and don't care a lick. He administers, he doesn't create. He serves, he doesn't lead. Mediocrities do his bidding because he is the epitome of their mediocrity -- he and his kind. This is power of a sort, but it is not the power that ultimately counts: the power to change. Eisner can make Disney bigger but he can't make it different.No one has yet explained the power to change. No one knows why a people will suddenly attempt to free itself, or will sink deeper into bondage. No one knows why one generation will inspire a rich imagery in their popular culture and another will bathe in swill. There have been many attempts (most of them conflicting) to decipher these rhythms of humanity, but no one yet knows.But, dark-eyed or light-eyed, alone or in small gatherings or in crowds, sometimes we see through the artifice, see the imp in the one pretending to be king -- and remind ourselves that we are free, really, if we choose to be.