Friday, March 13, 2009

Backgrounding For The Smell 2003

FROM THE ARCHIVES, MAR. 13 - This originally appeared in Punk Planet # 59. I did my best to purge this article of inactive verbs, but it was a long haul. Enjoy.


As an east coast immigrant to California, I still have a hard time thinking of film crews as a bad thing. And yet there they are, bad news indeed, clogging up streets and office lobbies and public sidewalks. I’ve had walks through Union Station where two completely separate film crews hogged up different parts of the building. A friend once showed me a notice left on his door, informing him that the neighborhood would be subjected to "full-load automatic gunfire". Driving home last spring, a cop stopped me at the intersection of Hope and 6th while a film crew detonated a fireball that climbed to eight stories - I counted windows - leaving flames quickly doused, as if nothing had happened. Under mayors Riordan and Hahn, filming has drastically increased in Los Angeles over the last decade. The exasperation factor has followed close behind.

So when my ex-employee Anthony asked if I wanted a one-day job as an extra, I was startled by my own enthusiasm. Through connections of his own, Anthony had brokered all his friends into a video shoot for rising Australian pop star Holly Valance. And it would all be for a good cause; the filming was to take place at The Smell, the exceptional L.A. nightclub shuttered for six months as a casualty of the post-Great White fire safety crackdown. Much drywall, plumbing, and painting had been done by friends and colleagues to get the place up to code. Being an extra seemed almost an extension of this labor, one final task to be performed before The Smell could reopen.

That Wednesday morning I paid for parking in the L.A. Times lot a block away. I was already down $8 for the day. In the concrete lot two doors down from The Smell, I greeted pals John Fones and Christina Billotte and Kelly Jenkins, the same way one greets friends outside a high school on the first day of a new school year. Christina and Kelly had just moved from the east coast, and I was able to view them as likeminded souls when it came to the mystique of filming. The lot had been filled with trucks and cables and lights and trailers. The theme for the day was “80’s punk".

A large canopy sat on the back of the lot, under which we joined a group of about 50 extras, half Smell regulars, half clients of an L.A. casting company called, sadly, Scotty’s Bodies. Lines were formed, contracts signed, Polaroids taken and costume tent triage performed on the basis of our 1980’s style. I wasn't surprised that John Fones made the cut. With his week-old flattop, upturned jacket collar and square tie, he looked like a Blade Runner impersonator, if there ever was such a thing. That I was deemed sufficiently "80's" seemed strange. I was wearing my lucky cowboy shirt, untucked, and the black frame glasses old age has forced on me. Over the course of the day I would be called many names - “Cowboy Bob”, “Buddy Holly”, “Drew Carey” – with no root in the 1980's. I noticed that women disappeared into the costume tent in a much higher ratio than men. Later, I noticed copies of Jim Jocoy’s We’re Desperate photobook used as reference by the costume department for a particular cheap and exploitative style.
Scotty’s Bodies were indeed desperate. To work in entry-level Hollywood with a straight face requires some stoic insecurity found in few other professions. When we discovered that we were not, for example, to be referred to as "extras" but as some even lower caste called “background”, only The Smell regulars groaned. When young Jeremy, drummer for The Wives, attempted to steal a whole pineapple off the catering table, Scotty's Bodies looked the other way, unwilling to acknowledge any risk to this nano-progression in their acting careers (I looked the other way too, but only because I'm paranoid about getting beaten by key grips).

After two hours of avoiding the sun, my and Christina's names were read off a short list by a crewhand, and we were discretely informed that we would not be offered any work that day, although we could audit the shoot for no money. In anger, I returned to the catering table and crammed as much fruit and goat cheese as I could fit into my mouth. Someone suggested calling Anthony, who was in New York. I did this. Anthony grew enraged, had me find the producer and put him on the phone. I watched this man walk around the set for what seemed like a long time, wondering at what point my life had jumped the tracks so radically that I was fighting to stay on the set. The producer returned and said we could remain. I understood the paradox I'd just set up. If Anthony was once my employee and he now had the power to keep people on movie sets... didn't this chain of command somehow grant me authority over the entire shoot?

The sun crept up and up, eating into our cramped shade. At some point a crew hand led Kelly away. By high noon the breakfast table was broken down and two caterers shoveled food into several oversized trash cans. A bum pushing a shopping cart down Main street halted and stared. Fresh watermelon and cantaloupe and oranges, steaming oatmeal, muffins, croissants, bagels and lox... all wasted.

"There go all the little boxes of Lucky Charms," I mumbled in grief to John Fones.
"They don't toss closed packages of cereal, idiot."
"You want to bet?"
He smiled. "Sure. $5. You have $5?"
We shook hands as the workers carefully bundled up the cereal boxes and returned to their truck. I handed over my last $5. In the distance, the leg-shaped wind sock on the roof of the Ronald Reagan building waggled down at us in mockery. We were to spend nine hours in this parking lot.

Here's what I did with my time: huddled in the shade of the producer’s Toyota 4Runner, read the first eleven pages of Red Badge Of Courage, discussed a one-act musical I want to write starring Bad Brains’ HR and Positive Force DC’s Mark Andersen, listened in to a pair of Scotty's Bodies debate file sharing, ate several hundred Red Vines licorice sticks, Read the entire L.A. Times from cover to cover, attempted to make a paper hat from the Sports section, tipped my chair back into the concrete, hard, smacking myself in the elbow and head for no good reason. Being an extra seems a lot like riding in a van across large states, in that it is very easy to have all motivation sucked from one's soul. It's also probably a lot like prison – long stretches of boredom interrupted by brief, intense spasms of violence. Only without the violence.

And with great food. At two, Background were allowed steaks, pasta, potatoes, Caesar salad, chocolate covered strawberries, fresh milkshakes and pretty much anything else we wanted. I'd seen these types of long tables all over the city, and it was with some sadness that I realized I was now too overheated to enjoy my inclusion. I ate in silence, trying to keep out of the killing sunshine. Kelly returned for lunch. "They wanted me to do a lesbian make-out scene" she said sadly. She'd been in town for than less three days and already the city had shown her its seedy underbelly.

By three, the sun was slanting along the far wall and I needed a vacation. There seemed to be no way for the crew to monitor our comings and goings. In front of the Main Street entrance to The Smell, next to a portable AC unit with its massive outtake hose snaking through the back doors, I saw two forlorn Mexican men selling flowers and eating spaghetti out of Styrofoam boxes. Overhead, pigeons flew in and out of the old Linda Lea sign next door. In the 1960's, the LL theater had been a Japanese Chambara filmhouse, and its faded beauty remains for the observant. Before the Smell's shutdown by fire marshals, plans had been drawn up to buy the Linda Lea theater, knock down some walls and triple The Smell's size, making it a central venue for independent music, film, theater and performance. Now the sign stood as another cracked and spattered relic of ancient Los Angeles, a marker of lost possibilities.

I walked around to the small alley that fronts the club's entrance. There was a lot of debris here. In the absence of clubgoers' urine, chest-high weeds had flourished along the walls. I remembered a day I'd spent working at the place in the spring, when Anthony and I had to access the roof. After hoisting a 100 pound steel fan on a cherry picker, gently pulling aside barbed wire and bridging a two foot gap, we stood for a moment admiring the view, men for a day. Just across Main Street, a billboard for "The Core" had shined at us, and it had been obvious that was where we needed to go next: The Core. This nice moment now seemed inverted in humiliation as I returned to the shady, condom-strewn grove I'd discovered between the catering truck and a brick wall. I realized I had no idea who I was working for.

"Excuse me," I asked a passing crew member. "What's the name of this production company?" The woman looked at me with the hateful disdain of Hollywood middle-management and said, icily, "What?"

At dusk we were herded into The Smell. I had been warned that the place had been made unrecognizable. A large fake aluminum light rig bordered the stage, and the walls advertised fake graffiti dada;


(much later I was to find out that most - but not all - of these slogans had been solicited from Anthony by the authenticity-famished production company; we both lamented that he hadn't slipped a "RAHOWA" on the list). Huge, red-gelled banks of lights pointed at the brick wall like space heaters, and within minutes all of us were dripping sweat. There was no respect for us background. Instead of even a “quiet on the set” - and when will I ever again get the opportunity to hear these words? - we were told to “shut the fuck up if you want to get paid”.

One of Holly Valance’s body doubles came out for light checks. The backup band had been carefully arranged onstage. There was the Fred Durst guy on guitar, the black bassist with dreadlocks and a Motorhead shirt who actually practiced his chops between takes, the butch lady keyboardist who seemed unhappy. Holly arrived to pooped applause. We'd seen her briefly after lunch, good-naturedly bantering with an interviewer at a catering table with a prop bag of fast food. On stage, she appeared nearly naked, an unripe android wearing only a skimpy miniskirt with a sleeveless, braless Ramones shirt slit down both sides. This would be her "punk" video. Staffers kept her breasts concealed with doubled sided tape.

Director Jake Nova arrived. Nova is know for having directed Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love “video, and this shoot was to be the same type of needlessly slutty affair. With one notable difference; Beyonce's song is exceptional and Holly's song is a piece of thudding ass plop. Jake waved his arms a lot and said things like “Ok people, I want to see lots of that crazy, rock-punk energy, wild, wild, wild… just keep moooving” He struck me as one of those fellows about whom it is impossible to tell if they are Australian or British. Smoke machines spewed. Fake set lists were scrawled. With the crew high on stress and the background high on heatstroke, unreality set in and leapt and careened to the cheap music.

The song stopped for a few minutes while technicians frantically checked light levels. I scanned the walls of this now unfamiliar room with a heavy heart. The last band to play the club had been The Whip, four months before their drummer Scott Jernigan was killed in a boating accident. Fire inspectors had arrived after their set, the wages of more tragedy in Rhode Island. This whole video shoot seemed terribly disrespectful to the chain of events that lead to its happening in this building in the first place.

Things went ugly during the “mosh pit” scene. Background were arranged in a circle around a writhing Holly. Stagehands sprayed Holly's arms and face with glycerin for a postcoital sheen, the song was again pumped and we all jumped and surged like morons in a music video. At some point I slipped into the Frankenstein dance. I don't know what this involved, and I haven't been able to replicate it for friends. I think I was on the verge of a stroke at that point, I'm not sure. I do know that I wasn't very happy with the way my life was going at that moment. After the first take I was yanked by an angry cameraman. “We ‘ad our lit’le chat about those lights, din’t we?” he said mysteriously. Not yet knowing that my favorite shirt had been ripped, I felt some relief. More than 1/800th of a second's exposure was more participation than I wanted. Suddenly Jake Nova parted the crowd, pointing at me. “you... Cowboy Bub!" My smile wilted. "Ay... like... yer... ENAGY! Back in!”

After a second dance of doom, this one with Holly Valance wrapped around my leg, Background was allowed backstage. We were greeted by the other end of that lifesaving air conditioning hose I'd seen a few hours earlier. Kelly and I sat, depressed. Scotty's Bodies cheerfully discussed their upcoming gigs.

Afterwards, waiting for our checks, I made a move for a final fistful of catering cookies. "Actually," the woman of hateful professionalism told me, "those are for crew." I collected my $125 check and wrangled an additional $30 from a bald man carrying an impossibly large bankroll, reimbursement for my destroyed cowboy shirt. I did some math. $125 (pay) plus $30 (shirt) minus $8 (parking) minus $5 (wagering) = $142. At thirteen hours, that gave me $10.92/hr, probably union wages in Iowa. So why did I feel dishonored? As if sensing my confusion, a crew member, an American, yelled at me from across the thinning lot. “Holy SHIT dude, I can’t wait to see that fuckin’ Frankenstein dance!! Man your eyes were rolling back in your head bro!”

Postscript: I've since seen the video, and my dance has been recorded, although I'm on screen for less than 24 frames. I can also safely say that the video is misogynist, misanthropic, and the crummiest crumb of crap ever to have tumbled from God's ass. Jake Nova and Holly Valance and myself and all of humanity should be deeply embarrassed.

Except that I am now pulling my Good Deed card. The Smell made almost three months rent. This one goes down as a positive mark on my permanent record.

Plus, it's only being aired in Europe.