Monday, February 19, 2018

Fire and Fury (book)

Light (before) reading.
I was sitting at breakfast in Orlando, on the third day of the new year, when I discovered and then read those first, tantalizing excerpts from Michael Wolff’s now-notorious book on the first few months of the Trump presidency, Fire and Fury.

Wolff has had the advantage of being first, if not the most accurate, chronicler of the current unpleasantness. Like many who are appalled by the current occupier of the White House and his entire cast of unsavory characters, I looked forward to buying the book when it was released, if only as another sign that the status quo was unacceptable and that we will never stop making it clear that it is.

Interesting that Wikileaks would release a PDF of the entire book the day before its release. I remember when Assange pretended to promote transparency in all governments, instead of transparency only for those he has decided are his enemies. Violating the copyright for an entire written work is not the same as releasing the Pentagon Papers, it’s just a crime, and one obviously intended to drive down sales.

Why am I writing about this now, when Fire and Fury is last month’s news? Well, the fact is, I hoped to read the entire thing in just a few day and write about it then, but I got through a few chapters and it just languished on the pile.

The fact is, it’s a bit dry. The book succeeds primarily for being first. It made the President very angry, but he’ll be angry again, and many times over, as each subsequent book is written, by journalists, his former colleagues, and his countless accusers.

Following the initial “Oh, boy!!!” factor of reading about Election Night, and how terrified the Trump camp was coming to terms with that fact that they had actually won, I realized something very basic about this book which has also tamped down my interest in reading to the end.

We know all this. We have known all of this. There is nothing in this supposedly explosive book that is a revelation. I have been saying for the better part of a year that everything that has happened makes complete sense when you consider that absolutely no one in Trump's campaign, including the man himself, thought he would win.

That’s why they were unprepared to govern. That’s why they front-ended accusations that the election was rigged -- to slander the presumptive victor, Hillary Clinton. And that’s why they blithely committed crimes against the state which would pay staggeringly great dividends -- political and financial -- after their loss, and go entirely uninvestigated. It all makes sense, and this book simply corroborates what was and is clearly evident.

It is all obvious, it has always been obvious, and it is all true. Doesn’t matter how the author presented himself to his subjects. They told him their version of the truth, and it was the same stuff  that was coming through their official channels, their constant leaking, and the president’s uncontrollable need to tweet.

As a preemptive defense, Wolff restates, again and again, how everyone in the White House desperately wanted to talk. And not just to him, every member of the staff -- not the White House staff, not underlings, but Trump’s own advisors, his inner-circle, even adjunct members of his own family -- talked, all the time, to everyone, about everything. Wolff is not presenting himself as some kind of insider with exclusive knowledge. He was just smart enough to be there and to make sure everyone had his cell number.

One of the most satisfying pleasures (if you can call it that) of reading Fire and Fury is knowing what happened immediately after its release, and that was the humiliation of Steve Bannon. A reprehensible turdshirt whose photographic image emits a discomfiting pong, his name is all over this book, his quotes are most-attributed. This man, who delighted in his own ability to send liberals to the fainting couch, proved himself to be an over-confident clown whose belief in his own magnitude left him confident enough to speak on the record, and at length, about absolutely everything.

Either that or he's so insecure he needs to constantly let everyone at the party know that he's someone. The most intimidating villains are the quietest. It's the difference between Bob ("Twin Peaks" reference) and Windhom Earle. One is scary, the other isn't. You talk too much, Windom. You never shut up.

Bannon lost his position, he lost the president’s confidence, he lost his job at Breitbart, and he lost his sugar mommy. He made a comic mistake and has paid a steep price. We feared him when he was in the Oval Office, and justifiably so. Bannon is an embittered, creepy, right-wing opportunist with angry, racist tunnel vision, and he had the ear of the President of the United States. It was awful.

Now, we can’t hope he’ll go to prison, because he's probably the only person associated with Trump who hasn't actually broken a law. But he's out, out of everything. Who can trust him? He’s a joke.

There’s one thing he did say, however, it’s a quote from the book, and it gave me a great deal of clarity and hope in this difficult time.

So Bannon’s at this dinner party (yes, thrown by Michael Wolff himself, very clever) going on about what he, or rather Trump, needs to do to roll back the tide of international American permissiveness. Halting immigration, pulling out of treaties, abandoning influence in the Middle East -- letting them just kill each other. More walls, stronger borders, America first. Yadda yadda. He mocks Obama. A lightweight, a fool.

"I don't know what Obama does," Bannon said. "What has he accomplished, what does he do?"

What does Obama do. This man, Bannon, who had a hand in electing the new president, admits ignorance as to what Obama did, what Obama does, about who Obama is, about what Obama represents.

It's not that he dismisses Barack Obama and that sizable percentage of Americans who admire him and were and are affected by Obama's Presidency. It's that Bannon doesn’t get it. He doesn't see it. He sees an America he wants to create, but he has absolutely no idea what America actually is.

Steve Bannon and his kind fear a future they cannot fathom nor comprehend and are certainly incapable of altering or controlling. That is why they are dangerous. It is also why they are doomed to failure.

Happy President's Day.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Venice Diaries (1991)

First floor apartment on Elkgrove Circle

For two months in spring, 1991, I lived in Los Angeles. That’s it, that’s the longest I have ever lived anywhere that is not in Ohio. I was basically a squatter, sleeping on a couch in Venice. My best friend from college and his best friend from high school had an apartment on a cul-de-sac, and my best friend’s best friend was supposedly moving out soon and I’d take his room but I didn’t even last that long.

In spite of the fact that I never found a job, and in spite of the fact that I never made any new acquaintances, and in spite of the fact that I was only there, as I said, for two months, I managed to keep very busy. Early on I determined that if I was to survive, in a mental-health sense, I would not eat fast food, I would not drink before sunset, and I would not watch any television alone.

Thank goodness, this was before the internet.

Also, shortly after I arrived, a small cohort of Cleveland expats took to driving to the Santa Monica Mountains every single day at 6:30 AM to hike and run in the hills. After, those of us without regular work would get coffee at the Rose and spy on stars and other writers.

This is what I thought worth writing down.

April 5, 1991 Within an hour of moving into Rich and Adam's place I visited an L.A. emergency room after popping the nail off my left big toe in what can only be described as a freak domestic accident.

April 10, 1991 I spotted Christopher Mulkey from "Twin Peaks" at the Rose Cafe!

April 11, 1991 Apparently Chris Mulkey stops in at the Rose every morning.

April 17, 1991 I applied for work at three different places today; two restaurants and a strip mall bookstore.

April 19, 1991 We went to the apartment of some friend of Adam’s to watch the Holyfield vs. Foreman fight.

April 20, 1991 Betsy, Rich and I went to see "American Splendor" at Theatre Theater, starring Dan Castellaneta and Siobhan Fallon. Understudies went on for both Dan Castellaneta and Siobhan Fallon.

April 21, 1991 A couple of us went see "The Object of Desire." We’ve seen three movies this week and they all have that song by Enya.

April 22, 1991 Elvis Costello is going on tour, and we waited in line at Tower Records to get tickets for the show at the Wiltern on May 26th. Betsy convinced me to buy a half-dozen tickets, that we'll be able to convince more people to come with us.

April 23, 1991 I had a dinner date with a friend from high school at some chain Mexican restaurant.

April 25, 1991 I had a mad impulse to return home to visit my ex-girlfriend because I heard she was seeing someone else. I found round-trip tickets to Cleveland in the L.A. Times and bought them with cash from some guy in El Segundo.

April 27, 1991 Rich and I stalked a site where Aidan Quinn and Isabella Rossellini are making a movie. Quinn paced the parking lot, smoking constantly. He’s not very tall. Rossellini stayed in her trailer until it was time for the shoot, and then walked past us very fast.

April 28, 1991 We headed to the Third Street Promenade for a date with that same high school friend and her roommate. We met at a bar that only sells frozen alcoholic beverages, a “squishy” bar. After, we all went back to our apartment for a couple hours of small talk when I finally said, "Ok, it's late. If you're not staying we need to walk you back to your car.” We walked them back to their car.

May 8, 1991 One of Rich’s co-workers attends Santa Monica College and needed assistance with an in-class performance that takes place in a max museum. I stood in one place for 10 minutes, with a mask on my face, dressed as a Canadian Mountie, in a Mountie's hat and a wool Mountie coat, while she ran her hands over my motionless body. I sweat a lot and almost fell over.

May 11, 1991 Rich, Adam and I created a short film on video in which he prepared to ask a woman out on a date, only he really was asking a woman out on a date, someone he’s met at the local video store. Where the film went depended on whether she says yes or no. She said no, so the film ended with Rich taking off all of his clothes while walking down Fourth Street.

May 12, 1991 We discovered the porn flick, "Still the Brat," which is hysterical.

May 13, 1991 Pete works in a record store, and after work he brought over "Mighty Like A Rose" which will be released tomorrow. About four songs in I started to doze off.

May 14, 1991 We’re thinking of starting a newsletter to send to our friends back home called "Notes from L.A." I completed an article called "The Nowhere Generation," my first Gen X manifesto. I showed it to Rich but he says he doesn't see the point.

May 15, 1991 Tomorrow, Rich is supposed to take his final exam to be a server at T.G.I.Friday’s. Apparently, everyone cheats on the exam but he doesn’t think that’s right. Unfortunately, he doesn’t drink and doesn’t know or much care how different alcohols are different, which makes the drinks part of the test impossible.

May 16, 1991 Rich failed his final exam at T.G.I.Friday's.

May 17, 1991 We went out with some friends from Athens who came back to our place and wouldn’t leave. I have totally not gotten used to the time change and always feel like it’s three hours later than it actually is. Of course, I also got up at six o’clock this morning.

May 18, 1991 We went to this place at the beach for framed posters. Rich got Béatrice Dalle, I got Isabella Rossellini.

May 20, 1991 Rich and I moved furniture for Victoria Williams. She is a folk musician who was on Carson a few weeks ago, and Rich had met her when she last passed through Cleveland.

May 23, 1991 I stayed up late to watch “The Moderns” for the first time. I didn’t like it as much as I thought I was going to based on the soundtrack. In the morning I’m flying home to spend the weekend with my ex-girlfriend. I'm going to miss the Elvis show. No one wanted those extra tickets.

June 2, 1991 Back in L.A. Drew a nude portrait of my ex-girlfriend from memory. I think it's really good. Actually, we're dating again.

June 4, 1991 Rich and I are driving back home tomorrow. Tonight, Adam and I met Gary Marshall. He was hosting the final exam films of the Masters class in Film making at USC. Adam and I had a bet as to whether Penny Marshall was his sister or his daughter, and we walked with him to the parking garage asked him about it. I lost the bet.

SNL Oct. 8, 2016

Thursday, February 1, 2018

"The Mysterious Affair at Styles" at Chattanooga Theatre Centre

Poirot (Patrick Brady) & Hastings (Evans Jarnefeldt)
Chattanooga Theatre Centre
Photo by Brad Cansler
My stage adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles was first produced as an outreach tour six years ago, and published by Playscripts, Inc. a short time later. Since then it has been produced at a few high schools, college and community theaters, and most recently in a production at the Chattanooga Theatre Centre in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

An interview on WUTC 88.1 FM (Chattanooga's NPR affiliate) was broadcast yesterday, a conversation between host Richard Winham and Steve Ray, head of the Theatre and Speech Department at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and the production’s director. I am not so widely produced as to be in any way accustomed or even prepared to listen to people with whom I am entirely unfamiliar discuss my writing thoughtfully.

One element of interest during their ten-minute discussion, one point which makes this book -- Christie’s first book -- different from the rest, is that it is her "Great War" mystery. It takes place during the war, not after, which required me, when writing it, to have a crash-course in history of that period, and the many ways the war affected all aspects of British life.

In particular, the character of Hastings -- the narrator of the novel and my adaptation -- is an outsider. Not only is he new to Styles, but he is also a soldier, the only one in the story who has witnessed the horrors of the trenches first-hand, and for him very recently.

In the WUTC interview, the director Steve Ray comments:
“There’s a couple of moments that ... you see that this family in the manor do not get what Hastings is going through … And one moment where it’s kind of up-front, where a character makes a kind of off-hand comment about the war and it just takes Hastings off-guard.”
Though I haven’t read the play in years, I knew exactly the moment he was referring to. What I could not remember was whether it was an exchange taken directly from the novel, or one I had created on my own. I discovered to my delight that it was the latter.

Mary (Courtenay Clovich) & Evelyn (Dana Cole)
Chattanooga Theatre Centre
Photo by Brad Cansler
Here is the passage from the novel which inspired that moment:
“The papers, of course, had been full of the tragedy. Glaring headlines, sandwiched biographies of every member of the household, subtle innuendoes, the usual familiar tag about the police having a clue. Nothing was spared us. It was a slack time. The war was momentarily inactive, and the newspapers seized with avidity on this crime in fashionable life: 'The Mysterious Affair at Styles' was the topic of the moment." 
- The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Chapter VIII: Fresh Suspicions
And here is how I represented that moment in the script:
JOHN: ...Ghastly though, the papers. Headlines glaring, “Mysterious Affair at Styles” and all that. Rubbish. Makes you wish the war would pick up.
HASTINGS: No. Not really.
JOHN: Hmn? Anyway.
Not to pat myself on the back too hard, I am also aware that I stole Hasting’s reaction from the first episode of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
FORD: Six pints of bitter, and quickly, please. The world's about to end.
BARMAN: Oh, yes, sir? Nice weather for it. Going to the match today, sir?
FORD: No. No point.
BARMAN: Foregone conclusion, then? Arsenal without a chance?
FORD: No, it’s just that the world's about to end.
BARMAN: Oh, yes, sir. So you said. Lucky escape for Arsenal if it did.
FORD: No, not really.
What Douglas Adams wrote as an affectless observation I reinterpreted as an understated reaction to a thoughtless remark, and I am totally cool with that.

Listen to the complete interview, "Chattanooga Theatre Centre Presents Christie's 'The Mysterious Affair at Styles'" by Richard Winham, WUTC 88.1 FM (1/31/2018)

"The Mysterious Affair at Styles" continues at Chattanooga Theatre Centre through February 16, 2018.

My stage adaptation of "The Mysterious Affair at Styles" is available through Playscripts, Inc.