Saving An Actress

 

In my last blog post, from point four on the media, I explained how celebrity coverage is mostly a façade, i.e., that publicity agencies call the shots. You can now find that post here. And I will post my future mainly political or social criticism articles here.

It’s not that I have anything against celebrities. I just believe members of the public should understand the information they receive. Not everyone in the U.S. agrees or has historically agreed with this idea.

In this blog post, I wanted to show my more sympathetic side to performers. After all, artists, or more specifically here, actors, tend to have stronger sensitivities and empathy than the rest of the population (although, not always or necessarily). And I consider those to be among the best traits people can have.

Also, many of them (but not all) often support causes I agree with, such as better firearms regulations. You could argue that this is in their financial interests–they make more money if people aren’t afraid of getting shot in movie theaters, but so what? I think it could be both financial interests and a sincere concern, while it’s in the firearms industry’s financial interest to have more massacres in movie theaters and everywhere else, but that’s another post, though at this point I’ve lost a small percentage of readers.

Back in the late 1990s, when I was struggling to work my way up in the movie industry, I bugged a small production filming on the street to let me work as a  PA (Production Assistant, general go for) for them.

The director wrote the movie’s script that was autobiographical. He based it on the story of his former girlfriend, who had a heroin addiction and died. There was a side story on the couple where the boyfriend liked to put makeup on her to make it appear as if she had been murdered and then take pictures. So the makeup person put the lead actress — let’s call her Carrie — in some gruesome makeup for some of the scenes.

The payments that I managed to negotiate were so bad that with my fourteen hours or so every day with them, my hourly wage worked out to around a dollar, though I also received daily meals and snacks. I told myself, as everyone else on these jobs do, that I was getting the experience, so I would get better jobs on future movies.

However, I soon encountered an obstacle. Most of the production crew liked to both drink a lot of coffee and smoke a lot of cigarettes. You can’t smoke right on the filming set, but a lot of where I had to be was just off the set. And I would find this on many movie productions — my joke was that there should be a drink with very strong coffee and cigarettes mixed in.

When I tried to avoid one person’s cigarette smoke by moving away, the next person I was standing near would light a cigarette. Soon I had a bad cold, bordering on bronchitis, even though this was during the Summer. Every morning, and sometimes at later times, I had painful coughing fits that would last a few minutes.

Fortunately, I wasn’t always watching equipment, in front of the warehouse where we were shooting, near the water, in the neighborhood of Greenpoint, in Brooklyn. We had to pick up and drop off equipment and the guy in charge of the crew, Callum, who was from England, asked me if I had a driver’s license and could drive. I said I could and he rode with me. I drove us into Manhattan’s East Side near the UN and under the tunnel on the highway. He and others who rode with us seemed to be comfortable with my driving–I had spent many hours driving in Ohio, before coming to New York.

So then it became my job to drive the van and pick up some of the crew in the morning. Then I also had to take them home in the evening.

At the time, I was a boarder in an apartment with a divorced mom from Puerto Rico, her daughter, Grandma and another boarder (someone else in the arts), in a neighborhood way up on Manhattan’s west side, near Central Park, that could be considered “iffy” as far as crime. After dropping everyone off in the evening, I parked the van on the street near my apartment and got out. There was a guy sitting in front of his building who waved me over. He told me that if I left the van where I parked, I would get a ticket or it would be towed. I thanked him and moved the car.

I knew the deal–I had heard of this. He was probably a drug dealer, apparently later confirmed when the police busted a bunch of them in the same building. He didn’t want the police showing up while he was dealing. So this was in our mutual interest.

In the mornings, picking people up, I remember listening endlessly to No Doubt’s “Just A Girl.” In the evening on the way home, it was Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt,” playing from a couple of crew members’ favorite station. I also would go on runs in the middle of the day to pick up supplies. And one time I was confused which lane I was suppose to be in, so a traffic cop stopped me, but when I answered his questions on where I was going and said I was working on a movie, he let me go, telling me not to drive in the bus lane again.

Back near the movie set, I guarded equipment, kept people who weren’t part of the production from walking onto where we were shooting and helped keep the noise down, when possible.

As film shooting days passed, one of the producers showed up. She was concerned about going over budget. Soon, a lot of the shooting would be done in a single take. I jokingly called it an “Ed Wood” production.

At one point when I was working where they were shooting, Carrie was disputing the scene where she was wandering in an infamous area near Alphabet City. She wanted to know why her character was there. I had worked in low budget productions before and I hadn’t seen that kind of depth in trying to understand one’s character before. “She’s going to be famous,” I thought.

Another evening I was outside the warehouse with my walkie. Inside they were shooting a scene where the boyfriend becomes angry and starts throwing things. Then I saw Carrie walking out, with blood on her face, that I assumed was fake, and she was crying.

“Did the scene bring out some traumatic memory from her past?” I wondered. “She’s so good,” I thought. I asked her if she was ok and she didn’t say anything at first. It turned out the blood was not fake. When they were shooting and the boyfriend was throwing things, one of the items was plugged in and it whipped back, hitting her on her temple. She said she was crying because she was hurt.

We had to take her to the hospital. One of the crew members who I had known, who was nice but seemed a little off — he told me how he had been a drug dealer and lived on the streets — jumped into the car with Carrie, one of the producers and the director. Callum looked a little horrified as the car was peeling out. He asked the guy to get out of the driver’s seat and asked me to drive them to the hospital.

On our way, people shared stories. The director said, “this always happens to me–something always happens to me.” He said when he was a kid, riding in his parents’ convertible on the highway with the top down, something hit him. A guy sleeping on the bridge they drove under dropped a glass bottle he had just finished drinking from. And his parents had to rush him to the hospital.

Carrie told us about an incident where she was walking down the street when a woman jumped from the top of a building to her death, landing just in front of her. She told her boyfriend when she got home and he didn’t believe her.

We walked her into the emergency room, checked her in and were told to wait. One person with us expressed surprise that that it was so quiet, unlike the shows that were popular at the time. I sat next to Carrie and looked at her. She still had a long streak of blood running down her face and neck. I told her and she went into a bathroom, washed up and came back.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Iowa,” she said. She told me the town in Iowa, but it was some place I had never heard of.

While we were waiting, I remembered a story my mom told me when I was younger. Before I was born, a little girl, who was cousin of mine, was playing when she fell from a chair and hit her head. She said she wasn’t feeling well, but she tried to watch some TV. Later she felt worse, so her parents took her to the hospital, and she died from brain injuries. I cried when I finished hearing the whole story with all its details that my mother recalled. Hearing about something so mundane as my cousin hitting her head and watching some TV, trying to feel better, made me feel like I could almost hear her talking before she died.

Sitting in the emergency room, I wondered if this kid, really (as she appeared to be in her twenties), who came from some obscure place in Iowa to New York with big dreams would see everything end today in this hospital? I was angry at the unfairness. Maybe she would have made it big, but instead she was dying before her hopes were realized, and so young.

I lightly brushed my hand on her side and tried to comfort her. Then I thought that I might have gone too far. I told her I was trying to comfort her.

The waiting started to bother me more and more. I went to the window where a nurse sat. I explained we have someone with a head injury. The nurse asked me to go back to my seat and someone will see her shortly. After waiting a while longer, I started to grow more concerned. I wondered if we were running out of time. We didn’t know until someone examined her.

I explained the urgency again, this time more angry and alarmed. Then a doctor finally came to see her and took her to the back. She had to have stitches.

Before we left, the nurse and her staff came out to compliment me, saying, “You were really good!” I was startled by the whole thing, as if actors who were playing villains had just stepped outside their roles. All I could guess is that their hands were tied and my behavior gave them an excuse to bring a doctor to her faster.

As we drove away from the hospital, she talked about how glad she was to have had the chance to work with an actress who was somewhat known. I made some comment about how the actress she mentioned had put on an enormous amount of weight. I probably shouldn’t have said that.

When we made a stop and Carrie and I were alone in the car, I said to her “don’t you ever, ever let them put you in a dangerous situation like that. You have a right to tell them no. Do you understand?!” She agreed that was probably a good idea.

When Carrie went home, she had a friend wake her up every few hours through the night in case she had a concussion.

The next morning I had a card that I asked everyone to sign for Carrie. Some of the crew seemed oblivious to any problem, but some signed it anyway. I gave it to Carrie and she said “thank you, Michael.” She wasn’t supposed to think it was just from me. Anyway, it was good to see she was going to be ok, but she would probably have a scar.

Before the shooting ended, there was a scene where the makeup person had her looking like a corpse. I said, “You look like you’re dead — the makeup person is really good.” Carrie laughed.

Ok, so the name of this actress wasn’t really Carrie. Her name is Calista Flockhart. The movie I was working on is called Pictures of Baby Jane Doe, directed by Paul Peditto. The movie she was talking about in the car that was later released is called The Bird Cage, and she was so happy to have worked with Diane Wiest. She went on to star in the show Ally McBeal, that I still haven’t seen. But I remember hearing about people walking out from a play she was in that was a little dark–they were upset that Ally McBeal was behaving that way–it might have been Bash: Latter-Day Plays. I thought that was unfair — I knew her dark side, and from what I’ve heard about Ally McBeal, she is not like that person, though she must have found a part of herself to play her.

So she went on to big success in acting. However, I believe her career’s been restricted by her prior success and the public’s inability to see her in other roles, once again, an illusion preventing people from seeing.

I lost contact with most (but not all) of the people involved in working on that movie.

 

 

 

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The 11 Inconvenient Truths You Should Know About The Media

I’ve decided to use my writing for what I believe is indispensable in making informed decisions at the voting booth. Most of us base our voting decisions on the information we receive from the news media. However, “the medium is the message,” so shouldn’t we have an understanding of the media?

You can find the rest of the story at the following link:

https://www.slantnews.com/story/2016-03-16-the-11-inconvenient-truths-you-should-know-about-the-media

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What you should know about the media

I’ve decided to use my blog for what I think is indispensable in making informed decisions in the voting booth. Most of us base our voting decisions from the information we receive from the news media. However, “the medium is the message,” so shouldn’t we have an understanding of the media? My points here include a few things I’ve learned from my own glimpses on the inside.

One landmark case from the Supreme Court was New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, from 1964, protecting speech from libel on public figures even when the statements are false.

 

  • News agencies are often for profit, meaning they serve their shareholders.

While some news organizations may talk about a Chinese wall between the business end and the news end, many still have to make money for their shareholders. This means budgets will be cut on things to save money, even if those things are important. Consumers of such news media need to remember this–sometimes, for example, a news organization will cut its overseas staff.

 

  • Rupert Murdoch’s empire is a different beast.

News outlets, such as Fox “News,” The New York Post and Murdoch owned media in the UK will slant coverage to bring in support for the politicians who are considered friends. The New York Post has operated at a loss.

 

Sometimes publicity agencies will dictate exactly what a magazine will say about a well-known person who is their client. The reward is access to that person, whose image on the front cover can help sell magazines. The punishment for not falling in line is losing access. Obviously, media outlets have more room to report negative press on a celebrity when a scandal breaks–not reporting on it only shatters the façade of presenting real news.

Donald Trump has been considered an entertainment figure, whose personality and comments get a lot of attention, thus boosting ratings. This can explain why news organizations have been delighted to have him on while asking softball questions.

 

  • Politicians need the media.

The relationship between politicians who are not entertainment figures and the media is often the reverse. They crave coverage.

As an example, when I was on my college paper as a photographer, the attorney general of the State of Ohio waited for me to finish eating my lunch before starting his press conference.

 

  • News reporters will often make agreements with the people they cover for greater access.

Sometimes a reporter won’t disclose something that could be damaging or an item remains secret, as background material for their stories.

 

  • A lot of news is made quickly, under tight deadlines.

Deadlines have superseded accuracy or a better understanding of a story. People have ascribed more malicious intents from our news media when we often get the news we consume because reporters are under pressure to rush a story out.

 

  • Reporters are often lazy, using spoon fed stories.

A lot of news items are simply press releases, some person with some position saying something. Sometimes reporters don’t dig very much beyond that, sometimes because of deadlines, sometimes because of budgetary limits and sometimes because of laziness.

 

  • “Live” doesn’t always mean live.

I remember working the teleprompter for BET, after Viacom took the network over. For the show 106 and Park, we would shoot several episodes to cover a block of time. AJ and Free would give the respective date and the audience went along. Exceptions occurred when something unusual happened, such as when Lisa Left Eye Lopez and Aaliyah died and they had to call us all in at the last minute to do a show on days we weren’t scheduled to shoot.

 

  • Reporters are often compromised from the special access they get

I have to admit I saw this happening to myself. People in the media are often given special access when they cover events. That can include access to the sports clubhouse, when covering a sporting event, for example, with free meals, etc. In such a situation, it’s hard to say anything bad about the people who have just treated you.

 

  • While the Internet offers new opportunities, it’s also a source of unsubstantiated and misinformation.

Not to bite my own hand, but we often don’t know who’s behind information we encounter online. This means less accountability. It can be easy to spread lies online.

 

  • People tend to consume media that reinforces their pre-existing beliefs.

Study after study, of the ones I’ve looked at (ha-ha), show that people rely on news media that confirm their pre-existing beliefs and avoid media that don’t. The Internet can make this tendency worse. But please let me know if you find a study suggesting otherwise.

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Tonya and I

Years ago, when I was still somewhat new in New York City, and I still saw worlds of opportunities (and looking for work), I went to the NBC building in Rockefeller Plaza to make sure my application to the NBC Page program got to the right place. Being from Ohio and used to some Winter storms, I wasn’t deterred by the storm that was starting. Once I had arrived, it was clear it was starting to get more severe, and the NBC building was emptier than usual.

After I had found the place to turn in my resume, I was riding down the elevator with a young woman. She smiled and what I thought she said was, “Should I be on Donahue?”

For the younger readers, Donahue was a talk show that had started in the 70s. The revolutionary idea was for the host, Phil Donahue, to get the audience heavily involved with questions and comments to the guests. At one point, many saw it as the most important show in the country. Although I define myself as a liberal, Phil Donahue often represented to me that branch of liberalism I disagreed with, that I thought was BS. I remember seeing part of one show where they were saying we’re all being brainwashed to take on gender roles by society. I didn’t see any evidence to back that up. I had always believed that is something we inherit, though some girls may inherit more male tendencies and some guys may inherit more female tendencies. It seems more recent news items have suggested my disagreement there correct. But I didn’t always watch the show, so maybe it wasn’t always like that.

In response to the woman on the elevator, I said, “I don’t know. Sure. Be on Donahue.” Then she said, “I said, do you want to be on Donahue?”

I thought for a moment and then said, “ok.” I figured I wasn’t doing anything else. Maybe it would be fun. Apparently, many of the people who were supposed to be in the audience that day hadn’t been able to show up because of the weather.

She escorted me to the studio and I was added to the list. Before taking a seat in the audience, I had to use the men’s room. As I was peeing, I told a guy, about my age, peeing next to me, that I was just there by accident. I said, “my sister really loves this show. I call him Dil Phonahue.” Then we both laughed.

After I sat in the audience, it seemed clear that Phil Donahue was a really nice guy. He didn’t seem preoccupied with himself before the cameras went on. He looked at us and said that he loved the “youthful energy from this audience.” I felt a little bad about what I had said in the men’s room, and hoped he hadn’t heard me–probably not.

Our topic that day was the Tonya Harding – Nancy Kerrigan affair. It was on the eve of the 1994 Winter Olympics. A guy came to where the figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was practicing and whacked her on the knee. Some believed that her rival, Tonya Harding, had something to do with it.

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Tonya Harding’s coach, Diane Rawlinson

Today’s guest on the show was Diane Rawlinson, Tonya Harding’s coach, who had taught her how to perform the triple axel jump.

As the show started, Phil talked about the incident with the suspicion that Tonya Harding had something to do with this. As usual, he took questions and comments from the audience.

It looked like fun, so on a whim, I decided to say something that I had been aware of from my studies in cinema, the Kuleshov Effect.

I raised my hand and Phil said “yes, you,” to me. I said, “It’s easy to see anything that she says as incriminating.”

Then Tonya Harding’s coach responded, “Yes, Tonya has a tendency to talk too much.” That double-edged sword I had just handed to her, it could only have been my subconscious at work, if it was by any design. But there it was, and then she reacted as if she had said too much herself.

After the show, I had a chance to talk to the coach, who was still seated. She told me she hadn’t liked Tonya’s new boyfriend, Jeff Gillooly, that they “hadn’t seen eye to eye.” Another guy stood next to me. He suggested that they might have to have worry about a similar incident at the Olympics. She started saying how it would be so tight there it would be impossible, but as she spoke, she looked more and more nervous, until she virtually ran out of the studio.

After the show was over, I went downstairs to ground level, where I found a nice bar to have a drink. I sat there and in walked this woman with this guy who looked a lot like Brooke Shields. She had the same eyebrows. I laughed. What a day I’m having, I thought. She was with a man in a suit who had a shaved head–must be her bodyguard, I thought.

As they stood next to me, I said, “You look a lot like Brooke Shields.” She said she wasn’t, but that her job was to sell wine to different stores and restaurants. The guy said he had to use the restroom.

“Oh, I said, well, I remember all the fuss about Brooke Shields in the 80s with the Calvin Klein Jeans commercials.” Then I proceeded to imitate Brooke Shields. “The only thing I let get between me and my Calvins is nothing.” I laughed and recalled all those angry mothers. I said, “my mother wasn’t so offended, but she said you could get a rash.”

When the guy came back, he said, “you’re not still talking about Brooke Shields, are you?” I told him we moved past that.

This woman I was talking to seemed intelligent and charming and a little flirty. Her hair hung down past her shoulders in curls.

I told her I was just on the Donahue Show.

“What did you say?”

Smiling, I told her, “It’s easy for people to see anything she says as incriminating,” my magic sentence.

“Do you think she’s guilty?”

“I’ll say what my father, who’s a lawyer, will often say. I don’t know enough about the case to have an opinion,” I said, being careful.

The Michael Jackson controversy was going on at the same time. I did have an opinion on that, however. I had just finished Dostoevsky’s Notes From The Underground, which reminded me of something a film teacher in college told us about. I said, “I heard there’s a story, I think by Dostoevsky, where a man thinks of the most awful thing he could do and rapes a child, in an attempt to hear God scream at him. I think that might be what happened with Michael Jackson.”

She laughed and said she thought it was funny the way I had said “Dostoevsky.” Maybe it was my Ohio accent. I smiled.

She made the situation sound Kafkaesque, that the police were after him. I laughed and suggested that was silly. Was this Brooke Shields?

The conversation shifted, and I spoke about coming from Ohio. There was an African American executive at NBC. He heard me and said that I should go back to Ohio and add to my resume there before coming to New York. That was unbearable for me to hear. I didn’t often feel that I fit in in Ohio, and when I had left, no one was offering me any real opportunities.

I said that I studied Philosophy with a minor in Cinema, to this woman–we’ll call her Brooke. I said maybe I should have studied something more practical, like being a wine seller like she was, but I didn’t know why I didn’t. It had been unbearable to me at the time in college to study something more ‘practical.’

She smiled.

As we had been speaking, I had two drinks and a salad with chicken–this was before I became a vegetarian. When it came time to pay, I gave the man at the bar my credit card. He came back and said it was declined. I laughed, thinking, my card is getting declined in front of Brooke Shields. I gave him another card that went through.

Brooke and the guy in the suit with the shaved head had to go. They had both been really nice and interesting to talk to. They said, “good to meet you.” He shook my hand. I said “good to meet you two, too.”

Some time later, I recognized the guy from pictures. That was Andre Agassi. I don’t watch as much sports as most guys. Anyway, the last picture I knew of him he had hair.

This is the funny part. I must have been thinking too much about Brooke Shields at that point. Or I don’t know why, but somehow, I forgot to tell anyone in my family that I was on Donahue.

My sister in Columbus, Ohio was watching TV the next morning with her husband when she saw me answering a question. “That’s Michael! Turn it up!” she shouted. Her husband accidentally turned off the TV with the remote, instead of turning it up. By the time they got the TV back on, my question was over. Luckily, my parents in Toledo could watch the show when it came on at a later time. So they videotaped it.

When I saw myself, I was a little surprised. That’s me? I thought maybe I could lose some weight. I wasn’t sure if I liked the sweater I was wearing. This is from the pre-Facebook days. So it was strange, because everyone you ever knew your entire life might see and recognize you when you’re on TV. It turned out that a kid I hardly knew in grade school, who knew my sister better, said he saw me on TV.

Shortly after the show aired, Tonya Harding could be seen with a shirt that read “No Comment” as the members of the news media followed her.

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Tony Harding: No Comment

At this point, it was too late for her. The FBI had people locate, from the city trash dump, the torn pieces of paper she had written on at McDonald’s where they planned the whole thing. Her notes mentioned how they could disable Nancy Kerrigan.

Sometimes I fantasize that my question helped, since I like to catch bad guys. I could see some special FBI agents.

Agent One: Have you seen this? Take a look at this.

(Both agents are watching a video taped show of Donahue. I ask my question and Diane responds.)

Agent Two: I think we’ve got something here. Looks like she’s trying to protect Tonya.

A couple of years after I was on the Donahue show, other talk shows, like Oprah, surpassed Donahue in ratings, even though Oprah’s show owed a lot to Donahue in the audience involvement that he pioneered. And the Phil Donahue show went off the air.

 

 

 

 

 

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How I Moved to New York

When I was just finishing college in Columbus, Ohio in the early 90s, my life was contrasts. One evening I was covering a story on a forum between former statesmen Oscar Arias, Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Henry Kissinger for my internship at a public radio station and the next day I was shoveling human-feces-based fertilizer for an apartment landscape. However, I could find no long-term career options, as I was finishing a degree in Philosophy with a minor in Cinema.


Coming back from one failed job interview, I heard The Call’s “I Still Believe” on the car radio, and I knew I must make a change for something better. I had wanted to work in movies or TV, but I knew enough about LA that I didn’t like. I thought New York City—a place I had visited when I was fourteen to perform, a soloist for my older sister’s high school choir—was smarter and might be a good place for non-conformists like me.

 

In the Summer, I made what I called a scouting trip to New York City. My sister gave me a ride to the the Columbus airport and told me I was going to get mugged. Waiting for the flight, I saw a woman waiting who appeared to be in her mid forties. She had a tough, yet sophisticated look, that I attributed to New Yorkers. “Excuse me. Do you live in New York?” I suddenly asked her. She told me she was a podiatrist in New York, coming back from a visit to a boyfriend in Columbus. I asked her if she liked New York. She said she had complaints, but that she wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world. She gave me her business card and told me about the 92nd Street Y, that she said would be a good place for me to stay, which is where I did end up staying, instead of the Youth Hostel up on Amsterdam Avenue that I had been planning to go to.

 

The buildings on Lexington Avenue on the Upper East Side reminded me of Sesame Street. I went to the corner, to a place called The Bagelry, and in one bite, I knew I had been lied to my whole life. No bagel I had ever tasted in Ohio compared to that.

I made a trip to the Guggenheim Museum, to see some of the world’s best art, but then I also happened to notice the visitors, some of the most beautiful women I had ever seen.

 

I walked to Central Park to the first time, and I was struck by its landscaped beauty, but also its energy, with all the people running around the reservoir. It made me feel like running. I hadn’t seen such energy from so many people where I lived.

 

I scoped out some job prospects through ads in the Village Voice, and ended up meeting a few people involved in low budget film production. I also took a walk to Washington Square Park—there was a group of young people sitting under some trees and one of the women was topless—I have to move here, I thought.

 

My last evening before I had to leave, I called my parents and my father said he was watching TV let me know that Pavarotti was currently singing in Central Park. I walked up the street to the park where I heard the music and saw the scene of people camped out on the Great Lawn on blankets with small picnics and wine bottles, which surprised me. I asked someone about it and he told me that people are allowed to drink wine in the park. Again, I thought, I had to move to New York, no matter how difficult it might seem.

 

When I returned to Ohio, I told people of my plans to move, but few people believed me. After all, many people I encountered in Columbus would say that they were going to move and get into big things.

 

The radio station manager, with whom I had become friendly, told me he knew I would never leave. A girlfriend of a friend I knew from the alternative people’s bars said if I moved to New York I’d either end up “on the street, dead or in a mental institution.”

 

I was more determined to move successfully, as I made my plan and I gathered a budget together by selling my car and scraping together some money from my various part-time work, such as delivering pizza, offering samples in the supermarkets and telemarketing for Time-Warner Cable.

 

The morning I left from the house where I grew up, in Toledo, was the saddest part. I had been through many arguments with my parents from my teens and twenties, and I was determined to live a life very different from theirs, but they were always there for me, even when I wanted them to go away, and so with all the fights we had gone through, saying goodbye was still hard.

 

Although my father had told me he was against my going and that it was foolish, he insisted on buying my airplane ticket. From the Detroit airport, an hour’s drive away, for the flight to New York City, they put us on a turboprop plane, that didn’t seem to be flying as high as jets. I could easily see Lake Erie on my left and Cleveland down below.

 

I flew into the city looking down over the Bronx projects before landing into LaGuardia, then taking a shuttle to Grand Central. I remember a woman staring at me with my giant suitcase. “Yes, I’m new here,” I thought and smile.

 

The cab driver I ended up with was an older gentleman, who sounded like he might have grown up in the Bronx or Brooklyn. When he saw my bag, he said “What do you have in there—a body?”

 

My bar friend back in Columbus knew someone who was looking for a room-mate, so I read out the directions I had written down. “First stop in Williamsburg,” I remember. We drove near the M train into Williamsburg. At that time, to a kid from the suburbs, it appeared seedy and a little scary. A woman in her early 30s crossed the street in front of our cab and I noticed a long scar near her neck. “Did someone give that to her?” I wondered.

 

The driver asked me, “Who told you about this place?”

 

“My friend,” I said.

 

“The next time you see your friend, kick him in the balls!”

 

If the cab driver also thought the area looked bad, that couldn’t be a good sign.

 

We left the area and I went to another place I was told about: Hotel Riverview. On my way to my room, people in hallways looked strung out.

 

When I left the hotel the next morning, a tall man in a suit with a Haitian accent helped me with my bags. “He’s being nice to someone!” his friend said surprised. It made me wonder whom he had killed.

 

That was over twenty years ago. Now I’ve built a stable life here with friends and family. I wouldn’t live anywhere else.

 

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How I Got in a Michael Jackson Video

The last blog entry was about meeting Martha Graham, who, I think, was part of a wave that made the post-war U.S. a cultural force for the rest of the world. I can almost hear the yawns.

Today’s post is how I got to be in a music video with another modern dancer, and a well-known singer, ‘King of Pop,’ Michael Jackson. If I mention this bit of history from my life (or should I type “HIStory?”) to people, they can’t seem to get enough –“Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough!” Right?

Before you too get all star-struck on me, my part was mostly just showing up. And I almost didn’t do that. Still, I do think I have a good story.

Here’s some background.

I wasn’t a huge fan of Michael Jackson’s music. I know there are his fans out there who would have killed to go in my place. But from the mid-80s, I couldn’t stand the non-stop airplay of all the songs from the Thriller album on the radio and MTV. The last Michael Jackson song I liked was “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.” In college, bands like The Cure, early U2, The Smiths, Echo and the Bunny Men and the later Beatles music reached me a lot more.

Then there were the child molestation charges. To me, it seemed strange that he had all these little boys coming to his home and ‘sleeping over.’ And I couldn’t understand, or at least appreciate, how any parents would have allowed that for their kids. It looked to me like Michael Jackson was trying his wealth and fame to get away with something terrible.

It repulsed me beyond belief hearing people take his defense when I think the same people would probably say his behavior with little boys sounded a little strange if it were anyone else.

In the nineties, I had been doing some extra work and auditioning for small parts and commercials in New York. Stanley, my agent, had all kinds of people coming into his office and all sorts of people’s headshots on his walls, absolutely desperate people and people who were getting casted in big parts on TV or in movies. I talked to people on the West coast who said they heard of him, and maybe a lot of people knew him. Over the phone he sounded intimidating. He would answer with a firm voice “Stanley.” I might say, “Michael Chabler, checking in.” And he might say, “Call me later,” unless he had a job that might fit, where he would ask me questions, such as “Do you have a police uniform?” In person, he was a big guy with with horn rimmed glasses and scraggly hair and the kindest person you could talk to.

Some days before he sent me to the Michael Jackson video, I was over at Stanley’s office/apartment. His son, who was around eleven, had spent the day dancing in a video shoot with Michael Jackson and he asked for him to come back the next day. I think Stanley heard me express my wariness of the situation.

So when a week or so passed and I asked whether there were any jobs, he told me there was a “Spike Lee video,” and I showed up for the shoot, along with a couple hundred other extras, at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, where I found out I was going to be in a Michael Jackson video, that Spike Lee was directing. Maybe we weren’t supposed to know until we showed up or maybe Stanley tricked me or maybe he just called it a Spike Lee video because he was the director–I’ll never know. I needed the money at that point and I couldn’t just walk off and expect that Stanley would ever book me again if I did such a thing.

And I guess I thought this was going to be interesting.

Being an extra is sometimes a little like being in the army, at least because you’re often part of a large group, and they’ll tell you where to go and where not to go, how and where to stand or where to sit and what to do while sitting. If you’re an extra, you’re the background colors on someone’s canvas.

After organizing us and briefing us on what would be happening, the choreographer came out to go through the movements. She was a slightly petite, attractive, fit and shapely, African American with hair like Beyonce´’s.

She went over the clapping, turning our heads and raising our arms we were supposed to do during certain words from the song’s chorus:

All I really want to say
Is they don’t really care
About us!

As she went through it with us again, she said, “This is some deep shit Michael’s saying.”

A little later, a few people laughed about that, repeating, “deep shit.” This was, of course, from Michael Jackson’s HIStory album, in response to the child sex abuse allegations that he had just finished going through.

Soon Spike Lee and others were sitting in front of us, watching us rehearse. One guy, an African American, started saying “Uh-huh” and “Hey-haw” the way Michael Jackson sang with his high pitch while moving his buttocks away from the rest of the body, then saying with his right arm and fist moving up and down in the air, “everybody,” clearly mocking Michael Jackson.

Mr. Spike Lee was watching everything and clearly not amused, with an expression of anger, apparently thinking, “Who’s this clown?”

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Jackson and Lee on set

Then a large, muscular African American guy said, “Ok, we’re all going to all have fun and respect each other. But if we hear any ‘hey-haws’ from anyone they’re going home. Do you understand?”

We all said “yes,” and that was the end of Michael Jackson impersonations.

 

They took us to a changing room where the wardrobe people fit us into prison clothing and the checked in our personal items. Then they took us to the large room that was supposed to be the prison mess hall. We sat at metal tables where we each had shiny metal trays. We continued to rehearse.

Then they brought in the stand-in for the rehearsal, an African-American guy that they splashed a bunch of white makeup onto. We all thought it was a strange site and quietly talked about it to each other at my table.

I made some jokes about being one of the token white guys with the other people at my table and had them laughing.

Then some people came around with the “food” for our trays, that we were to leave alone until shooting started. I think I made some jokes about our delicious dinner, but I also worried. “Would there be meat on the tray — would I have to eat it?” I wondered. I had already been a vegetarian for a few years and was committed to not swallowing any meat. Sure enough they had something with gravy and some kind of meat.

Meanwhile, they started preparing us for Michael’s entrance.  The stand-in went away and Spike walked next to Michael with his arm around him protectively. When Michael walked on his own, there seemed to be a nervousness. We were watching him and he was like the shy, new kid in class.

His face was pale and his nose was thinner than a pencil. I later, perhaps cruelly, joked privately to a friend that Michael went to the same plastic surgeon as The Joker.

During the shoot, I directed my jokes toward the people’s reaction. We went through some run-throughs and Michael got on top of the table in front of mine to do a little dance. There was a guy at the table whose face turned to stone, as if God had just danced there. We had to stop and God (or Michael) went through the dance moves a few times again.

I said, “Look at him,” pointing out the stone faced guy. People at my table started laughing, but they tried to do it in a controlled way. The guy next to me said, “Oh Lord help me!” as he continued to laugh as quietly as he possibly could.

When the shooting started, we had to eat our “food.” They told us that we’re supposed to be really hungry. I thought, “Ok, I’m not that prisoner. I’m a little disturbed and rebellious and I hate the food, and I’m a little like an animal.” So when I shoved anything with meat into my mouth, I spit it back out rapidly, in a cannon blast. I noticed that one of the cameras was near me. I hoped that was going to be ok.

Later in the shoot, we were supposed to get up. Michael was on top of one of the tables right near me. I could see a look in his eyes, as if he thought he was a messiah leading all of us. Our eyes met. I looked at him thinking, “you’re not a messiah–you’re totally delusional and nuts!”

Later we were dismissed and went to dinner. I remember the food being very good with a lot of variety, some things probably a little expensive. It was catered from some service in the area. They picked some people to do another scene and dance with Michael, but I wasn’t one of them. Then the people who were doing the additional scene joined the rest of us for dinner.

After the shoot, I didn’t hear much about this video for while. I heard that they shot something down in Brazil for this song. I started to worry — did I screw this up? I could just see Spike in the editing room looking at footage. “Look at that guy. Do you see that? We can’t use that footage,” he could have said. ”

I found out later that there were two videos for this song, one they shot in Brazil and one they shot in Queens, where I was. I hope that had nothing to do with me!

Years later, I was working a teleprompter operator. One of the guys I worked with told me he did a job with Michael Jackson. He said that he had a whole bunch of toys and board games in his dressing room, like a kid might have. Then before the shoot, Michael asked a group of people how he looked. They all went gushy and told him he looked “fabulous.”

It was clear that he was surrounded by people who always flattered him. It sounded almost sad. But I wondered what anyone could have said. Who could tell him there was something wrong with the way he looked?

When I heard he had died, I strongly suspected he had a doctor who wouldn’t say “no” to him, even when he should. And I told people I thought that, before he was in criminal trouble.

I had disliked Michael because I thought he molested children and for his bizarre behavior that followed the video shoot, when he dangled his son from a Berlin hotel balcony.

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Michael Jackson dangles his son from a Berlin hotel balcony in 2002

But after he died I wondered if he didn’t have the same understanding of reality as the rest of us. That doesn’t excuse what he did, or make it a good idea.

I remembered that before I had lost my virginity, I thought it was no big deal to sleep in the same bed with a few female friends I had, where nothing sexual would happen. I wondered if Michael Jackson was a virgin when he died. A few others have wondered the same thing.

A few years ago Rabbi Boteach appeared on news shows with his recordings of telephone conversations with Michael. He shared a lot of personal information with this friend. You

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Michael with Rabbi Boteach

can hear him talking about all the abusive memories with his father. Did his father screw him up and his fame and wealth enable staying or being more screwed up?

Did his father’s abuse turn him into a child molester? Or was he stuck in childhood with a distorted view of reality, where his relations with little boys were more innocent? Maybe that’s a naive thought, but we might never know.

As I told someone, “it’s one thing to hear about someone you never met who’s died. But if you stood in front them, as close as I am to you, and looked them in the eyes, you can’t help from feeling a little sad.”

His death probably leaves many of us with conflicting feelings and judgements about him and the public when he was alive.

Note about Stanley: He had an office near the World Trade Center. He’s been out of contact. Last I’ve heard is that he’s been sick.

 

 

 

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Meeting Martha Graham (and what the famous owe us)

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 8.34.38 AMAs best I can remember, it was probably December 1989 when I found out that Martha Graham’s dance company would be coming to my university, Ohio State, in Columbus, Ohio, to perform in the new Wexner Arts Center.

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The Wexner Center at Ohio State University

The school was proud of this collage of brick and white metal beams that criss-crossed at angles. It was supposed to be a piece of avant garde architecture to put Columbus, Ohio on the cultural map. Les Wexner, owner of The Limited stores, had donated a huge sum to the school to make it possible.

I had a position on the university paper as a photographer and spoke to someone who was organizing the event over the phone. I met him in person and he provided me with two tickets to the show and a press pass for the afterward events.

He asked me to comply with one condition: no pictures of Martha without her permission. He said she had this Egyptian image that she wished to maintain. “It’s all fake–just an image?” I thought. As part of the deal, I gave him my word.

I was in love with that picture of her with her palm just above her forehead. I wanted to make my own updated portrait.

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“Letter to the World”

I knew she was in her nineties, and this would be my chance to make something for the world to see, much like the photograph that Edward Steichen made of Alfred Stieglitz a few years before he died.

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Alfred Stieglitz, by Edward Steichen

I took a date with me to see the dance performance. My date had to leave when it was over. With my press pass, I was invited to a celebratory dinner. I went backstage and down the escalator.

Columbus, Ohio’s elite were dressed in their finest as wine and appetizers were being served. The same guy who gave me the press pass accompanied and assisted Martha Graham. I knew she was extremely old, but I hadn’t been ready, since I still had the image from “Letter to the World” in my mind. Her lower jaw stuck out in an exaggerated underbite and her dark makeup emphasized her bony features. I was twenty-one years old, and to me she looked like she was sitting up from her coffin half-dead. I was so used to staring at the picture of her, where she couldn’t look back. She glared back at me to show she didn’t appreciate the way I was looking at her. Oops!

Columbus, Ohio, at least back then, was like a small town, though it has around a million people. And like any small town, it had its village characters. There was a line of well wishers there to chat with her, and I spotted a woman who was well-known on campus. Talking to her immediately showed her intelligence. She had a PhD in cinema. But she also suffered from schizophrenia, so her intelligent conversation could suddenly turn to talk about extra-terrestrials watching us. She was saying something to Martha in her ear. It was clear from her body language that she meant well and came to her as a friend, but the look on Martha’s face also showed exhaustion–it was clear that whatever this woman was telling her had turned into something absolutely crazy. I felt bad for her to have to meet some of our crazy locals.

Then she said something to all of us there, thanking everyone. There were other press photographers standing next to me taking pictures.

“I promised not to take pictures, unless I get permission from her,” I said to a guy standing next to me.

“I’m taking pictures now. Looks like that’s going to have to be ok,” he said.

I wanted to make sure my word was worth something. And I was going to make my portrait that would be better than the current setting. Instead, I turned around and snapped pictures of the crowd, that included the elite from Columbus, press members and company dancers.

Then I sat and had dinner with some of the dancers.

“I’m just discovering that photographers are the scum of the Earth,” I said to one woman sitting at the table.

“A lot of them,” she replied.

When Martha Graham was leaving the room, I went with her and the guy who gave me tickets. The three of us were in the elevator.

“I’d like to make a picture of her,” I said to him, in front of her.

“She’s old!” he said.

I looked at her as if to tell her she looks ok. She looked back. I left the elevator and the two of them went on their way.

Back at the dinner table with the dancers, I told one of them how I would like to make a portrait of Martha. She said I should talk to her, and she might like that. I said that I would.

As they were all leaving, I remember a guy from my table taking a last swig of red wine before turning in. I snapped a picture of him and got his name, which I can no longer remember.

I also had a pass for a performance the next morning. I would get my picture then.

In the morning, before I left for the performance, my father called me from the suburb of Toledo where I grew up, two and a half hours away, to tell me my mother was in the intensive care ward of the hospital with pneumonia, that she came close to dying during the night and that I should come quickly to see her.

I was ready to start driving, but I went to the performance to get a picture before I left, since I knew my mom would be so proud and so happy that it would help her recover.

I went backstage and spoke with a guy who was probably only a little older than I was and I told him with a smile that I was with my school paper and wanted to make a really nice picture of Martha Graham. He said that she wasn’t there yet but would be there soon. Then he would ask for me.

He said I could have a seat and watch the performance while I waited. I wasn’t sure if I could do that–I kept trying to balance the waiting time versus seeing my mom. But I figured I could wait a little.

When she was due to be there, the guy came to me and told me she was on her way but had trouble in traffic, and he gave me a revised time estimate. I said “ok,” hoping it wouldn’t be much longer.

Again, when it was about time for her to be there, he told me she was still running late. I had to gauge whether I could still wait and said “ok.” I wasn’t sure whether I should leave. I wasn’t sure if I would see my mom again, but I also hoped getting this picture might help save her.

Finally, the assistant came to me and told me that her answer was “no.”

After waiting for so long and risking never seeing my mother again, I was furious. I went to the payphone backstage and made a call to the paper before leaving. As I stood on the phone, Martha was walking by.

In that moment, I was full of rage and looked straight at her, thinking, “It should be you instead of my mother!” She looked afraid of me. Then I tried to calm down and just looked at her thinking, “you’re a pathetic, old woman,” starting to feel sorry for her at the same time.

Then I made the two and half hour drive to the hospital where my mom was. She was recovering. I stuck to telling all the amazing stories I had to tell and about the evening I had before. I left the part about not getting the picture out.

Some months later, after my Mom had fully recovered, I told her the full story, and she asked me why I didn’t leave right away. She was a bit upset with me when I told her I tried to get the picture before leaving, that I thought it would make her proud and help her recovery.

Over time I changed how I viewed what happened with Martha Graham. Are famous people obligated to cure the sick or raise the dead? Do we put too much on them, simply because we like something they do? I remembered one of the essays from my Ethics class about a famous violinist and abortion, but I turned it around and thought about whether we are expecting too much from the violinist.

After a little more than a year, I saw in the New York times that Martha Graham had died, of pneumonia, after traveling with her company China. I said “I killed her,” to someone I knew and she laughed, assuring me I was absurd, but I couldn’t help from feeling guilty for the way I looked at her and what I was thinking and when she walked past me. Although, if I had been given a chance to sit and chat with her, I would have told her not to go to China–my grandma had trouble with pneumonia and her doctors had told her not to travel to China because of the dust.

As far as famous people and what people expect from them, I think we live in a time where people are extremely preoccupied with fame. People can be famous for being extremely stupid, and that is not the sort of fame I would ever want.

Many people do something, such as performing, and when they perform, they belong to us. They share a part of themselves with us. That is one of the beautiful parts of the aesthetic experience. However, I think there have to be limits from both sides. Sometimes famous people expect too many perks and sometimes people infringe on famous people, virtually, if not literally, ripping at their clothes, when they are no longer performing for us.

Living in New York, I’ve seen and spoken with a few famous people. What I’ve noticed is that some of them, unfortunately, suffer from social anxiety and awkwardness, perhaps from being deprived so long from “normal” social interaction. A lot of “normal” people want to be famous, but a lot of the famous people and their families crave normalcy, even if they want to enjoy some their perks.

Some time after my experience with Martha Graham, I became aware how complicit most of the news media are in perpetuating the myths of famous people, on behalf of their their surrounding organizations. I had hoped the Internet would be the great equalizer, in clearing through some of the misinformation we receive, sometimes about crucial issues, but I see unchecked misinformation circulating more efficiently through the Internet. And I’ve seen how people have been able to threaten people or hack into their privacy–it’s become a revolution I want no part of. But that’s another story.

As to why she said “no,” maybe the way I stared at her didn’t help make her feel comfortable with that idea. Maybe she didn’t want people to remember her the way she looked at that age. Maybe she preferred people to remember her by “Letter to the World.”

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