Background Chronicles Three.
I’m standing in a parking lot at UCLA and it’s about a quarter mile from the front of a line where two beleaguered Production Assistants check people out, sign off on their paperwork so they can get paid. When wrap is called for the day, you’ve got to go through this so they’re sure you’ve turned in wardrobe if there was any, not going to scarper with the high fashion Payless shoes they stuck you in at six in the morning although with a thousand extras they haven’t re-wardrobed too many people today. If they were dressed incorrectly they just sent them home. A thousand, a thousand and ten, nine hundred and eighty, it doesn’t really matter. Especially on this set in one of the college auditoriums. In the very back row of the balcony they used plastic silhouettes. They never cheered but they never went out to smoke a cigarette or use the bathroom. They stayed put.
It is raining as I stand by the overflowing latrines. The show is called “Glee.” I don’t know anything about it but that a lot of gay teenagers like it.
Wait, am I allowed to say that? Earlier on, about 14 hours ago although it seems like three days, I remember signing a non-disclosure agreement. What it is I’m not supposed to disclose wasn’t clear until about four hours ago. It is the result of a dance contest where everybody looks alike to me. I wouldn’t know one set of plucky teenagers from another.
Young, trained, agile kids dancing their asses off in some of the hardest work I’ve seen but after the first five go rounds as an audience member: parent, grandparent, supportive aunt, I just didn’t give two shits. I have been standing up, applauding, high fiving the person next to me, whooping and hollering all day, prompted and prodded and harangued for more enthusiasm then sent back to the holding area, a big white tent chock full of long tables and metal folding chairs, so many times the only thing I’m gleeful about is the fact that the latrine is not overflowing directly onto me.
It’s only water. Puddles of water coming from sky droplets running down my back, the sides of my face, taking gravitie’s orders as I step out of one into another and the line moves forward about a foot and a half. I’ve been standing still for ten minutes.
“There are only two people up there?” The girl behind me in a skimpy string dress and four inch heels eyeballs the scene then furiously text messages someone. Her downturned head keeps the rain from falling directly on her phone, for a second or two.
“Yeah, we’ll be here forever,” she says. It is ten-thirty at night and most of us have been here since five-thirty or six AM. The only people not completely exhausted are the ones on drugs. The west LA guy in front of me, in the pinstriped suit, yellow tie and car salesman’s hairdo, is here because he likes it, or did until about three hours ago. He liked being in the same room as Lindsey Lohan aka America’s Sweetheart. That’s how she was announced. She was one of the pretend judges as was a celebrity blogger with a square head, and somebody else.
“Why don’t they have more people?” I’m at the edge of despair. How it has come to this? A few years ago I was an upper middle class suburban mom married to a professional. I had status, class and enough dough that I never thought twice about things I considered necessities. Getting the dogs’ teeth cleaned, new clothes, buying a piece of silver jewelry simply because I liked it, buying two windshield wiper blades when only the one on the passenger side is shredded. Back in those days I wore shoes I was comfortable in and skirts? If I wore one at all it was one I could walk in without taking truncated medieval Japanese lady steps. My tight white skirt, tit accentuating sweater and jacket are all turning to mush now in the rain. In three inch pumps with off center heels I stopped feeling my feet hours ago.
The line moves forward a few more feet and I try to look at the bright side. Looking on the bright side is a religion in Los Angeles, born of a virulant new-ageiness insisting that you can will reality into being what you want via your thinking. Like Uri Geller’s spoon bending. They never figured out it was a hoax here. Having negative thoughts along the line of holy shit I’m standing downriver from an overflowing latrine, I can’t feel my feet and by the time I get home it will be close to midnight and they want me back at six in the morning all for eight dollars an hour, is wrongheaded.
Rain comes down in earnest now. I’m still new to this but some of the seasoned extras have umbrellas. They bring bags, suitcases containing every contingency they could possibly need.
Uri Geller was a fake and reality is a steel hard non-malleable Great Wall of China. Rain is wet, shit and piss stinks, flesh balks at abuse. The front of the line is a hundred miles away and I will be in this line forever. It’s a level of hell I’ve been relegated to for sins I can’t remember committing. It will go on and on. The texter gets a reply. The West LA Lohan guy can’t keep his hair together. Suddenly the line is broken in half, couple of soaked PA’s attempting to herd us like livestock into lines half as long. Apparently, another checker outer has materialized. People from the longer half try to dash the short half, get rebuked, pretend they don’t understand or have been misunderstood. The floodlights illuminating raindrops, dropped trash, disillusioned hipsters and me shine more brightly as another flap of tent is pulled back. Fuck it. Charge. The crowd surges forward as individuals try both to better their positions and get out of the rain. Couple of PA’s look to each other worriedly. They may be facing a situation they cannot control. Like cattle with bad breath from smoking too many cigarettes.
Fourteen plus hours ago everybody was much more cheerful. “Glee” is a big show and Eric Stoltz, the guy from Mask, is directing. All the movers and shakers are on Glee and the craft services prove it. Real waffles, cereal, fruit and of course coffee, plenty of coffee. On any movie or TV set the background artists are kept segregated from both the crew and the “talent,” and sometimes the food is substantially worse. But not here. Fourteen hours ago we had waffles and everyone was full of piss, vinegar and maple syrup.
By the time I get to the sign out table I’m not feeling much of anything anymore. I’ve been thinking about John Paul Sartre and something he said about choice. Even with a gun to your head you have a choice. Philosophically, I’ve wondered whether that’s really a choice. If I’m a Nazi officer and am given the order to shoot a bunch of people or eat my own gun, the moral choice, Sartre would say, if he was in the mood to speak of such things, would be to dine a la Walther, thereby not committing an atrocious act. But when your choice is to live with the fact that you’ve committed atrocities or not live at all, is that really a choice? Wouldn’t a real choice be more along the lines of having the option not to shoot anyone, including yourself. Doesn’t reason dictate anything anymore?
“I-9, where is it?” says the shagged out bedraggled slightly unnerved and really crabby PA. She went to college. She has dreams and aspirations far beyond herding a bunch of minimum waged losers around a collage campus parking lot cum show set. She is beginning to suspect nobody cares. An I-9 form is the one that says you’re a US citizen or have a legitimate reason why not. You can be a convicted felon, sex offender, drug addict, alcoholic, barely functioning over-medicated mental patient, a non-medicated mental patient, a thug, reprobate, high school drop out tweaker on his downtime and still work as an extra. But you got to have the I-9 filled out and filled out correctly. She doesn’t much care for mine and once I’ve fished it out of my bag I get an eye roll. “Just for future reference, your driver’s license number needs to go in the first column and social security number in the second.”
“I can never remember. Different on every show.”
I walk across the parking lot, then through another and around the corner towards the one with my car. There was a shuttle bus filling to take people back but I estimated, rightly it turns out since when I drive off I can see it under the sodium vapor lamp still idling, that it would be quicker to walk. The vision of my car, my little spacecraft that is going to wind its way somehow to the freeway and eventually to my driveway, is better than having spotted an old friend. I’m not much of a smoker but I rifle the glovebox for a cigarette; I usually have some stashed for emergencies. It won’t necessarily make me feel better, but feeling something is better than nothing, even if it’s something bad.
The rain has let up. I can barely see it. The parking lot exit is bottlenecked but nobody’s acting out from behind the wheel. We’re all way past that.
I’ve thought a little about a lot of things and not a lot about one thing, which is why I’m here today doing this. One of the things I’ve thought about is why people want to be on TV. The first time I thought about this was when OJ Simpson was in his white Ford Bronco running away from the police. I was in Aspen, Colorado and the vision on TV of all those police cars aligned and strung out a respectful distance lest OJ do something rash, was surreal enough. But the number of people cheering him on from the freeway overpasses took it over the edge to bizarre. Some of them, the ones who habitually run from cops, clearly wanted him to get away; some probably didn’t care, they were just in the neighborhood and it seemed like a thing to do. But as I sat there watching from the safety and calm of a mountain condo, it occurred to me that the majority of people cheering from the sidelines and overpasses simply wanted to be on television.
This was a 1993 or 4, before every friggin’ thing anybody did was digitally recorded somehow by someone so the opportunities aren’t what they are now. But the conclusion I came to all those years ago has never changed. People want to be recorded on film, video, digitally or whatever because they are not sure they exist.
The philosophical origins of this problem go back centuries but the guy who put it most succinctly was the 18th century philosopher and dedicated sitter by the Dutch Oven because everywhere else in Europe in the 18th century was fucking cold, Rene Descartes. Decartes wasn’t sure he was there or the only time he was, was when he was thinking something. He’s came up with, “Cogito ergo sum,” I think therefore I am, meaning that as long as he was thinking he was sure he existed. He had to do a lot of thinking after that. Talk about pressure.
But then other philosophers too numerous to list here but among them a Bishop of the Catholic Church called Berkeley—the hippie town in California is named for him—said, “now hold the bus right there, Rene. Maybe you only think you exist. Reality might be one big illusion and nothing you said proves otherwise.” Berkeley, being a man of the cloth decided that it was God’s thinking, not any individuals’ thinking, that held reality up. Then a Scottish philosopher called David Hume came along and knocked the shit out of that. Prove to me there’s a God, he said, and I’ll take your point. Nobody could.
Nobody is really sure they exist. The reflexion in the mirror? Who is there to witness it but you? Someone might come into the bathroom and go, “hey, I see you too,” but what’s one person, even two? They might simply be part of your delusion. What you need is consensus. Numbers, Dammit. This is a democracy and everything’s up for a vote. If millions of people view an episode of CSI and you, as a Featured Extra, get to be a corpse on a slab, all your friends and a bunch of people you don’t know and have never heard of will be sure in that brief time, that you exist. Well, ish. You are after all, a corpse.
Being a corpse on a slab is something that almost all background artists aspire to. Featured Extras get more money or a “bump.” The bump is coveted and can bring your daily take into the hundreds of dollars. But very few background artists do it for the money. It’s the glamour. The makeup people who generally don’t notice if you live or die—you’re expected to show up to every shoot, “hair and makeup ready,” fuss over you, manicuring your “Y” incision, applying all that make up so you’ll look as if you really have been the in the Hudson Bay for 24 hours. Just the coloring and the bloating takes forever. And if you’re a female, chances are they’re going to show you almost naked—maybe a cloth draped over your pubis—and that is what’s called “exposure.” Not only are millions of people going to know you exist, with a little luck they’re going to realize that you’ve got a great, albeit cold, set of tits.
You can record the episode and watch it over and over again. It’s the Norma Desmond Syndrome writ small. In the movie Sunset Strip, Gloria Swanson played an aging silent film star who never went anywhere except chauffeured by Otto Preminger in a vintage twenties car. She spent almost all her time sitting in her living room watching her old films not only to prove to herself that she HAD existed, but that she still did. Inference is a big deal in the whole existence thing. For instance, if I see a pile of dog poop, no one would argue with me the fact that at some point a dog has been on the lawn.
In the name of full disclosure I must state that I never reached the pinnacle of being a corpse on a slab, but I’ve talked to people who have. The heartache comes in the fact that no matter what the emotional/artistic cost, no matter how much of your true self you put into being the corpse that’s been in the Hudson Bay for 24 hours and no matter how good a job you do, chances are you are not going to be called back to do it again. In a normal world there would not be legions of individuals who have made it their mission in life to point out the fact that the same corpse was on the coroners’ slab in both CSI and Murder Incorporated, albeit months apart, nor would they have written and installed their own computer program called, provisionally ,”Identistiff.” But this is not a normal society. It doesn’t matter if you were the best, deadest, non-accidentally grabbing a gasp of air during a take and blowing the whole illusion corpse ever, somebody is going to notice, tweet and blog about it. You may get a bump in pay for the day, but it is not going to launch your Hollywood career.
I’m not talking about psychological insecurity here but Ontological Insecurity. It’s a huge problem.
As is the, being in on something interesting, problem. Whether OJ Simpson was burned in a fiery crash that day, shot by police, taken out to dinner and served Blue Whale sushi or arrested that day, everybody on the bridges who watched him pass under would have been able to tell the tale and the part they played in it. Even, and this is a big even, if there was none.
As far as I can tell, celebrities are made of the same stuff my dogs, me, all my friends, every squirrel in the trees and rat in the rafters is made of. Flesh, bone, and blood. The difference is they’re famous flesh, bone and blood but you are not. If I tell the story of tending bar and almost spilling a drink on a handsome guy because he’s so startlingly handsome, some of my friends might laugh a bit but mostly because they’re my friends and think I’m amusing or they want to punch my emotional card or whatever. But if I am in a room full of people talking about the fact that I was pretending to tend bar on the set of Californication, and I almost spilled a drink on David Duchovney’s lap because he’s so startlingly handsome, everybody’s ears perk up. Is David Duchovney that handsome? Sure, Agent Mulder has something but we all thought people like Brad Pitt define “handsome.” Duchovney, if you take all his features individually is not classically handsome. But if Catherine thinks he’s handsome, and most people who know me know I’m a hard sell, then he must have a certain special something and that’s interesting. Now they can say to their friends, I know someone who says David Duchovney is handsome, or exaggerate slightly and who would blame them—name dropping in this town gets you more attention than cocaine, well, almost—and say they know somebody who met David Duchovney’s handsomeness and now you’ve got something. Now you’ve got something to talk about other than the fact that the front rotors of your brakes are down to dinner plates and do I know anyone who will replace them on the cheap?
This is all innocuous and really, who gives a shit? The problem comes in on the human being as trainwreck side of things. Many people simply love the idea of being in on a human trainwreck. Glee and Lindsey Lohan for example.
It wasn’t just the guy next to me in line in the rain had gotten off bigtime on being in the same room as Lindsey Lohan, lots of people did to the point of dropping her first name only. I heard Lindsey did this or that, that she was up partying all night and “Eric” (the director) is mad because she was late and so and so said she didn’t even make it to the set yesterday and they had to shoot around her. Whether any or all of these things are true who cares? The point is, there is a very high probability that a celebrity like Lindsey Lohan is going to go down at some point. She gets arrested, goes to rehab, shows up somewhere with her goofy mother who wants everybody to think she’s really her sister. People who act this way don’t have long shelf lives especially in Hollywood. I don’t know much about the lass-- I stopped following celebrities around the time I found out Harrison Ford is a Republican—she might be the most talented actor in the world but obviously the poor little thing is not doing well and waiting around for her to finally collapse into herself and die because when the day does come you can name drop to your friends, is fucking macabre.
“Oh, yes, when I saw Dean Martin he was drunk. Oh yeah, when John Lennon was on heroin I was one of his roadies and saw him puke into a bucket. Oh, yes, when I was on the set of “Glee,” Lindsey didn’t look so good. It’s all the same shit. It’s all slowing down and watching the trains telescope into each other and watching for blood leaking out the fissures.
Did I mention David Duchovney is attractive? I knew there was a reason I watched the X-Files all of those years even when the stupid black goo and bees came into it.
I’m standing in the living room of the house where I live. The white walls blanch whiter, my makeup feels heavy and like there are ball bearings in my eyes. My dogs get up of their beds to greet me but barely. It’s past greeting time and what am I doing getting home so late anyway? They got past wanting their biscuits hours ago.
Tomorrow, I will get up and do it all over again. I will try to remember to bring an umbrella.