“Lost” in Translation
Remember the hit TV show “Lost”? I co-created it.
Okay, not really. But sort of really. Or maybe I did in a parallel dimension. I’m not sure.
This may seem an odd claim to make since I never actually watched “Lost.” Back in the mid 2000s, I was more of a Gallactica kind of guy. Don’t get me wrong, “Lost” seemed well produced and engaging. But I just never tuned in. Besides, I was busy.
Some of my friends from college weren’t buying the too-busy argument. The claimed that my refusal to watch had deeper issues. Plumbing the psyche kind of stuff. My good friend, Fred, laid into me over beers one night at St. Nicks, a dive bar for the perennially struggling in Hollywood.
“Dude, you gotta watch “Lost!” It’s amazing! That hard sci-fi stuff you love!” he practically shouted at me.
“Meh, I’m busy and it looks silly.” I responded quietly.
I looked down. A place of cold onion rings sitting on the table. It smelled like feet. I ate one.
“Besides,” I added, “It’s just Survivor with scary music and less boobies.”
“It’s not, dude, I promise. It’s seriously good storytelling. You’d love it.”
He poked at the ‘rings. He was having none of it. The rings, or my bullshit.
“Just not my thing.” I took a swig of Blue Moon. Could still taste residual ring slime.
“C’mon. We both know what you’re not watching it. It’s because of Damon.”
“It’s not because of Damon!”
“It’s all right, just admit it! You’re jealous of him.”
“I don’t care about Damon! I got my own life. And it’s good. I have things like… these onion rings. Onion rings are good.”
Onion rings are good. Even cold. I ate another one.
Fred looked at me and sighed.
“Dude, I love you like a brother. but you have issues.”
I do have issues. Fred was right.
Damon was one of my first friends and collaborators during my freshman year at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts film school. We became writing partners in two classes. We spent many days planning projects and riffing on our futures in Hollywood.
Watching Damon soar to success in Hollywood in the mid 2000s was a disquieting sensation that could best be described as involuntary anal pucker. I was a struggling screenwriter and post-producer building a mediocre career in commercial advertising. You know the talking blob of mucus in the Mucinex commercials? That was probably the highlight. When Damon’s career went nuclear hot, around 2006, I was living in a one bedroom apartment in Los Feliz, eating frozen dinners, and struggling to finish a screenplay I wanted to bonfire with shark laserbeams and a bag of flaming poo. I’d also just started a blog called “Hot Chicks with Douchebags” out a mix of sexual constipation and cultural rage. But that’s a story for another time.
Damon and I first met during freshman orientation at NYU in August of 1991. Both arrogant dickheads. Both obsessive film fanatics. Both thrilled to have been accepted to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Damon was from Jersey. I was from Boston. Nerdy Jewish movie-obsessed suburbanites filled with ambition in film school were not exactly rare in those days. We were similar. And so we bonded.
We met during some “Welcome to NYU!” freshman meet and greet when the dean gave us the lecture about how special we were to be there. My dorm roommate, a drama major named Chris Finnigan, was the only person I had actually become friendly with in the forty-eight hours I had lived in New York. Chris went on to become a highly successful comedian in film and television. But at the time, we were two dorky eighteen year olds, unsure of how the hell we’d ended up in New York or what to do next. But as much as I dug Chris, I knew was hanging with the drama majors was going to get me nowhere. I had to meet another film student.
Since it was 1991, I was wearing the requisite backwards baseball cap. Do not judge me. No seriously. For I will hunt down your school pics from 1991 and mock your ass as well. The backwards baseball cap was standard-issue to identify one’s self as a film major. Drama students wore scarves. Screenwriters wore tweed. But film students wore backwards baseball caps.
I noticed another freshman who had one on as well standing near me. He looked me up and down. Noticed my Red Sox cap, turned at requisite 180 degree angle, and shot me a question.
“Yo, you a film major?”
“The cap, right?”
“The cap. But what’s up with the Red Sox?”
“You’re in New York now.”
“Where you from?”
“Your cap says Yankees.”
“Jersey ain’t New York.”
“Touche, mon frere. I’m Ferris.”
“Ferris? As in Bueller.”
“It’s my nickname. Got it in high school. Everyone said I was just like Ferris Bueller.”
“Okay then, Ferris it is.”
From there it was film school simpatico. We bonded over a love of Star Wars and The Coen Brothers. And swore we would own Hollywood someday.
On my second or third night in New York, Damon invited me to join him at a screening of “Barton Fink” at small art cinema on 8th Street. A number of film freshman were there. Sizing each other up. Who was the competition? Who were the serious filmmakers? Who were the wannabes?
Even in those first days, we were hyper-aware that some of us would go on to unbridled glory, fame and success. Others would drop out of the Movie Lottery and reenter the real world. This was long before the mid-1990s indie film fantasy sold fraudulent KevinSmithitudes to every schmoe in range of a video camera. We were still exclusive. The youngest of the Star Wars generation to make it to college. To be a film major was to take a flying leap into the unknown. Massive rewards. Huge risks. Glamour. Hot actresses. A time when film was still film. And video was for pussies.
There wasn’t even a Tarantino yet. Just Scorsese. And Spike Lee. We were at the same school they went to, so we were next in line. Star Wars had marked the beginning of our lives, since we were four years old when it came out. Goodfellas marked the bookend. Goodfellas was the dream.
As we came out of Barton Fink, a film we quickly agreed was a masterpiece, the pop culture references riffed among us like freestyle rap. We were on a collective rush. We were eighteen-year-olds on our own for the first time, steeped in the VHS pre-internet movie subculture that only the most encyclopedic of film-nerds could keep up with. It was a climate of intense competition mixed with unbridled teenage ambition. All stirred by the cocktail of life in the still-dangerous city of Manhattan.
We went for burgers and fries at some greasy diner on 8th street. I asked Ferris to be my partner for Sound Image, a radio drama class we were both taking in the fall semester. Ferris agreed.
And so I’d found my first professional partner in the film industry.
Our biggest collaboration for Sound Image was a project we wrote together called “Go To Hell.” A six or seven minute “apocalypse” comedy, the plot was unusually ambitious for a medium without images.
The preamble begins with a nuclear holocaust accidentally being launched from a nuclear silo by two bumbling lieutenants (voiced by Damon and myself). We then cut to an underground submarine vehicle able to tunnel through pure rock. It’s heading for the center of the earth. On the ship, we meet three men, the last three survivors on earth. They’re being led by a blind Messiah, Judah, and his seeing eye dog. Judah had a vision that he must build his “Ark” and lead the last survivors on earth to tunnel to Hell. Once there, Judah senses that a major event will take place.
We then meet God and the Devil. God has the voice of a sexy woman, as it should be in a just universe. The Devil, of course, was German.
A falsetto-voiced creature, Goblin, appears as Satan’s personal assistant and groveling creature of the underworld. Or something. Goblin explains the premise of the entire universe. God and the Devil are engaged in a competition to win the most souls. Whomever has the most souls at the end of civilization wins the universe. Then they create a new universe, and the game starts all over again.
As our three souls reach Hell, we reveal that the Devil is up by one soul. The fate of the three men will decide the “game.” But their choice has to be voluntary. And so the courting begins.
That was the premise. We wrote it in a haze in Damon’s dorm room one afternoon. But the piece went over extremely well, and our professor even entered it in a radio competition of some sort. Although I never found out if we won.
Here’s a very poorly mixed version that I dug up recently. Listen for yourself. It runs about 7 minutes:
Damon and I are the voices at the beginning of the piece playing Lieutenants Frost and Allen (named after two of our professors at NYU). It was Damon’s idea to start with the biting of the apple (the fall from grace), and then he and I toss the apple back and forth before starting global thermonuclear war. Later, Damon also voices David, one of the followers of Judah, the blind prophet who leads the expedition on the rock-tunneling ship to Satan’s underground dwelling. We never explained how one of the lieutenants who started the war got there. Did I mention we were eighteen?
Time and memory have blurred the names of most of the classmates we cast in the other voices in the piece. Especially the hot blonde girl we cast because Damon and I were obsessed with her hotness (neither of us got anywhere). I have no memory of who played Judah. The voice of Satan was a German student named Oliver that helped us write the piece. A fellow student named Carlo Martinelli was the voice of Paul, the other follower of Judah, and Paul Hough played Goblin.
I voiced the dog.
Obviously, this silly, amateur radio drama made by a bunch of teenagers played no real role in Damon’s “Lost” odyssey. I call this the “Lost Demo” purely facetiously. I claim no connection or role in Damon’s success. He earned that on his own merits, and he deserves all the success he has found. But I’ve been told there are vague allusions to God and the Devil playing a temptation game on the island. So I got that going for me, along with total consciousness on my death bed.
When an oral history of “Lost” appeared as an article on Grantland in November, I read it with bemusement. I’ve long since processed the volatile mix of emotions that greeted me when I first watched Ferris/Damon win the Golden Globe for season one. Now I follow the guy on Twitter and he’s genuinely hilarious and self-deprecating. Any bitterness faded with my own career that popped up unexpectedly in the past few years.
What doesn’t come through in articles like the one on Grantland is the burning fuck-you ambition we all had back then. Once, when Ferris and I were eating lunch in Washington Square after class, he announced to me, out of the blue, “You know I love you, bro, but I’d fuck you over in a heartbeat if it’ll help my career. I just want you to know that now so you’re not mad later.” If you think that was a dick comment, it wasn’t. It was how we all felt. By Any Means necessary, as Spike Lee had written in his book, and my personal bible at the time, “Spike Lee’s Gotta Have it.” By any means necessary.
By Sophomore year, Damon befriended actor Jerry O’Connell and was on his way. We didn’t talk much over the next few years. After film school, I learned he was working in the mail room at a major talent agency. I always thought he’d have made a great agent.
Now I guess we can look back at “Go to Hell” as an audio curiosity of the early 1990s arcane.
An immature, silly piece of trifle made by kids.
But for me, it is a token reminder of that heady cocktail of potential and New York a-go-go. When the future was full of potential rocking chair sunsets on the kickass path to cinematic fame, glory, and hooking up with Winona Ryder. The internet wasn’t yet a pixelated glint in the digital pie. Cell phones were some jerkoff Jetsons fantasy. All we did was watch movies, hit on hot chicks, and play the film school lottery. Times were good.
Fare the well, Ferris. You’re a multimillionaire and an enormous success, and you deserve it. But at least I got to mock douchebags on MTV. And I discovered Snooki.
Crap. Maybe that radio drama was the highlight of my career.
The Death of the Nerd
Chris Hardwick is a nerd institution.
Or so he tells me.
In the last two years, the unholy Wonderbread known as the Nerdist Podcast has exploded in popularity. The format is perfect for Hardwick’s brand of next-gen Dick Clark genericism. Each podcast features hour-long interviews with everyone from cast members of Star Trek to A-Listers like Tom Hanks and Bryan Cranston. With free-flowing banter, the podcast creates the feeling of a warm, intimate, casual conversation between friends.
That’s the good part.
The bad? Everything, and I mean everything, is super awesome awesomeness. Unadulterated ass-kissing superlative puke.
And it works.
Hardwick has nearly two million followers on Twitter. A ridiculously hot girlfriend. And various pilots, scripts, stand-up specials, and other sundry Hollywood baubles handed out in service of a youth market demographic.
Central to Hardwick’s address is a recent phenomenon that can best be described as a shift in understanding of what celebrity represents. This self-reflexive performance can be thought of as the Proxy Fan. The Proxy Fan reformulates celebrity away from an us/them understanding of media culture and towards an us/concentrated-us relationship.
The proxy fan is the “us” who has become a celebrity, yes, but denies all celebrity claim. It’s a fraud construction, of course. But it works.
Hardwick’s Proxy Fan persona operates as a condensed, singular version of the masses of fanboy/fangirl Comicon fantasy. The fictional audience. Those who cheer and celebrate the variety of mass entertainment as it comes off the Hollywood assembly line. The proxy fan claims to be a stand-in for pop-fan culture, nothing more. But the Proxy Fan is a carefully calibrated carnival pitch-master. Selling. Always selling.
Other Proxy Fan celebrities include new-media superstars Kevin Smith and Wil Wheaton. Each are famous, successful Hollywood success stories who resist and reject the codification of their idenity with other, more easily understood classic-era celebrities. Instead, they appear at Comicon as moderators. Commentators. They speak not as a performer/creator but as a fan-boy privileged to also act, direct, and appear in pop culture artifacts.
But the clearest distillation of this formula remains Chris Hardwick.
In Hardwickland, everything is amazing. The word “super” is dispensed with the pathological regularity of a Woody Allen stutter. Everything from comic books to bland comedies to sci-fi pseudo-drama to cartoons are lauded in the same geekgask expression of joy. But by making everything cool, Hardwick makes nothing cool. He is a pitch man carnival huckster. Billy Mays for the Treme set. Hardwick may self-consciously lay claim to the redemption of the 1980s geek/nerd/fanboy. But Nerd, as the formula now goes, is the new mass effect.
This is how Hardwick puts it on the website:
Nerdist is a place where we nerds come together and share the nerdery that we find. It’s also my home to various elements of the Nerdist Empire. You might recognize me from TV. You don’t realize that’s where you know me from, but it is. You think you went to college with me or I look like your cousin’s friend, but that is not the case. At one time or another you stumbled upon me on your moving picture box in such cerebral gems as MTV’s “Singled Out” and Noam Chomsky’s “Shipmates.”
The blending of pop-culture high brow referencing via the Chomsky is interesting. It tries to position Nerdist as willing to engage in a cerebral reference framework that mainstream pop entertainment would not. It is branding by way of exclusion. Nerdist is not The Tonight Show or E Entertainment.
But even the most casual perusal of the site realizes this is a fraud.
Nerdist is simply a rebranded version of E Entertainment for the Comicon target audience.
Harwick’s interviews perform Geek Ryan Seacrest as kabuki theater. Ass-kissing interviews with the entertainment industry as the center of the universe. Hardwick refuses to dislike anything at all and speaks of comedy and pop culture as the pinnacles of creation. Even D-list celebrities such as Brian Austin Green are heralded as icons of mass consciousness, and lauded for their work no matter how crappy the venue.
It is no surprise, of course, to discover that the Nerdist Podcast is recorded in the E Building.
Removed from the equation, of course, is the dark side of nerd culture.
Worst. Episode. Ever.
The anger, resentment, judgment, and parsing of media by nerds resulted in the small pile of isolated texted proclaimed “genius,” and the massively large pile of mainstream suck.
This is what nerd culture is and has always been.
Harwick is nerd culture as castration. His “no balls” geniality creates an illusion of nerd culture but without the bite that might limit marketability.
This, of course, has never been true. Opinionated celebrities do not suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous non-bookings. Even the great Joan Rivers called him out on this on a recent podcast, asking him to name one celebrity who was a pain in the ass to interview. Hardwick, naturally, couldn’t name anyone.
For the ad wizards of Madison Avenue, the question remains: How to sell something to an audience by inverting the desire formula? How to push something but creating the illusion of demand? Find the proxy “fan” and endow him with mimetic association. The “fan” stands in for the masses. Speaks for the crowd. The “fan” then seemingly organically demands the product you are selling.
Hardwick is that stooge. For there’s money to be made in them there role playing games. Hollywood ain’t stupid.
Of course, subcultures always break down and sell out, by their very nature.
That is how it should be.
No authentic and organic creative movement, created in that heady and uncertain way, can ever sustain itself. The seminal rock band The Who made this very point in 1967.
Nor was nerd culture ever a coherent concept.
The idea was already a cliche by 1984. Nerds were computer, math and science based subculture. Geeks were sex and horror obsessed juveniles, the kind that ultimately led to movies like this and this.
So it is perhaps unfair to say Hardwick has stolen from and misappropriated a subculture in service of his own ambitious desires to become Comicon Seacrest. But it is important to note that whatever authentic pleasures remained in nerd/geek subculture, the profit motive and the exploitation of mass media comic book dazzle has sucked it dry. Hardwick is the symptom. But not the disease.
Here’s the thing about period-piece nostalgia films.
They are never about the year they are set in. They are always about the year they are made.
Lucas’s American Graffiti was about the trauma of the Vietnam generation trying to evoke the time of innocence that was 1962. Linklater’s Dazed and Confused was about the uncertain confusion of identity in the early 1990s, not the mid 1970s.
Nostalgia, as Freud taught us, is rooted in melancholia. The inability to move on from the past to the present. We seek in the past the tools to resolve the present. We evoke the phantasms of the constructed origins of our traumas in the hopes that by replaying them, we can heal them.
Freud’s middle name was Schlomo. No, I’m not kidding.
And so it goes with the crappy films, too.
For some reason, I found myself watching 200 Cigarettes on HBO the other night. A large ensemble film about New Year’s Eve, 1981, but made in ’99, the film is supposedly a comedy. Instead it is a confused mish-mash of barely funny character stereotypes wandering around the East Village.
They do nothing. They say nothing.
And then the credits roll.
The ensemble cast is, however, if not impressive then certainly notable. Dave Chappelle. Janeane Garofalo. Paul Rudd. Ben Affleck. The younger Affleck with the high voice. A horrifically drugged Courtney Love (is that redundant?). Bob Sugar from Jerry McGuire. And the Goldie Hawn daughter right before her one-hit-wonder role as Penny Arcade in Almost Famous.
There were about ten other famous or mildly famous actors putzing around. Lost in a maze of New York Locations. Wandering by the camera desperately in search of a punchline.
No script for you.
The smelly putridity of the post-Clerks/Slacker indie walkabout permeates the stench of a lost 1990s malaise/slackerdom that, in the context of the decade that followed, stirs melancholia nonetheless.
Which is what gives the film a metatextual pathos.
Watching a collection of famous or soon-to-be-famous actors and comedians in the do-nothing 1990s desperately trying to invoke the post-punk dust of the Reagan revolution crisis of 1981 creates a doubling. Two layers of cultural reflection. One intentional. One acquired simply by the passage of time.
The title’s self-conscious stinkiness is the cherry on the cocktail of indiefilm New York rich-kids-with-too-much-time Gen-Art pablum.
Those brief years after 1996 are a fog. Like people in the generation before me describe the early 1980s. A time when Sundance became the hot topic, New York the hot city, and all the cool kids wanted in.
Crime dropped. Rents went up. And Ethan Hawke moved in.
It was the time when the authentic New York became smothered in a bum rush of morons who intended to embrace it. Goose, golden eggs, some sort of analogy like that applies.
Narcissistic indie yak spittle like Next Stop, Wonderland and when Lucy Fell became celebrated by a group of post-teen wankers already cashing in on the internet bubble and seeking to prove their DIY bonafides.
And yet, somehow on watching it again, 200 Cigarettes held a certain sort of nostalgic warmth. Like a shitty childhood blanket, now ratty and worn. It never really kept you warm. But the idea of it did.
Even with lines as toxic as the following, I still enjoyed it.
“Did you know that cigarettes are a shield against meaningful interaction with people?”
“In life, sometimes you’ve got to stay still to move forward.”
“Even when you go to a party, you don’t just meet people. You stand around talking to the ones you already know.”
It was awful. And yet strangely reassuring.
Maybe because I was living in NYC at the time it was being filmed. In fact, I walked through the set while they were filming it numerous times. A key scene with Wednesday Addams was shot in front of my apartment. My misanthropic existence hoping to find 80s New York, and receiving 90s New York instead was somehow inscribed in the film.
Maybe I sucked at the time as much as the film did, and that’s what connects us. My whining was insufferable. Bemoaning the shite pile of the Giuliani years and the influx of buttlickery brought about by the online revolution. The Amazons and Yahoos who wandered the East Village like hi-def pixelated ass turds come to life.
Once at a bar in ’98 or ’99 I met a tool who had just been hired at a company called “Razorfish” to be their I.P. chief. He’d taken one HTML course. His starting salary was 250,000.
Cultures get the movies they deserve.
And our bankrupt pre-9/11 slumbing wasteland deserved 200 Cigarettes.