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Strikes and Gutters: Part Six
2004-12-06 13:05
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.

A Year with the Coen Brothers

Part 1-5

VI

Jeez, no matter where you are, February always turns out to be the worst. The struggle was in fighting the bitterness. I was up and down, up and down. I started painting each day, and when I wasn't working I drove around Santa Monica and enjoyed the local scene (and there is something to be said about chilling in a neighborhood during the day, when you'd normally be at the office). I found a studio that held cheap figure drawing classes twice a week, and to top it off I met a lovely young creature on Main Street. More than anything, she helped me keep occupied.

My friends at the Indian joint in West Hollywood were touchingly generous. They offered to feed me as long as I needed, free of charge. They even went out and bought me a dress shirt in Chinatown. As for Greg G., my sole source of support on that difficult night a few weeks earlier, he too was fresh out of work. Together, we adhered to a pretty strict drug regimen to keep our minds limber.

I wrangled some dollars from workers' compensation, and signed up for unemployment. I decided to keep the car, even if it set me back financially. All of a sudden, whenever I was driving around the neighborhood, I'd slip in the Chet Baker. With nothing much to do but suck on an Orange Crush soda, I was making the down-and-out-scene. As long as I could, I would hang on to that car.

Damn, maybe I was becoming one of them. Life was imitating art, and I realized that I had adopted the lifestyle and disposition of the Dude: mellow, unfazed and consistently ready to roll with the punches.

Model, pen on paper

If anything was a real struggle, it was keeping up appearances on the set. I knew it was important to stay in earshot of Lebowski, even if it was hard to swallow. Every couple of days, I called into Schoolcraft at the office, and followed that by trips to the set, where I had to strain every muscle in my face in order to keep the protocol grin intact. I pushed myself through this exercise out of faith in Joel and Ethan's word: I knew I would be with them back in New York, when all these hot-shit LA people, who I was pitifully spiteful about, were a distant memory. I knew if I did these simple acts to stay in touch, they would respect me more.

Slummin in Venice Beach with my friend Liz Weber

I made it through the first week with my pride intact. On the ninth day of exile I drove to the Hollywood Hills, where the casting director, John Lyons, was hosting a small cocktail party. John was pan of the New York contingency, so it was always refreshing to be around him. The house he was renting had been Marion Davis's greenhouse at some point. I parked just outside and sat in the car for ten minutes, virtually paralyzed. The notion of socializing seemed perfectly nauseating. And after only a half an hour of sitting in the corner like the party cripple, I thanked my host and headed home. Shit, at least I made the effort, but boy was I ever over the whole thing? When I got back to Santa Monica there was a message from Gilly Rubin to call her in the morning.

Nestled underneath my newfound toughness, some optimism and excitement fanned alive. I went to bed without breathing a word of it to anyone (a first for the loquacious Heb from NYC). Sure enough when we spoke the next morning, Gilly informed me that I was needed back at work. I returned with a whatever-whatever nonchalance, and was kept occupied by a series of high-security office duties. As fate would have it, the local assistant who had been hired, Lisa Mozden, turned out to be a great gal, who made me more than somewhat welcome in the cutting room to check out the dailies. I continued to concentrate on healing my foot and found myself back in the fold at the same time. Everything was working itself out. I was welcomed back with open arms by the production staff.

Towards the end of February, three weeks of night shooting began. It wasn't particularly easy for anyone working on set, especially since LA is inherently a day place. The Santa Ana winds were in town and were erotic and lovely. The moon was full when I popped by the night location, a bowling alley on Santa Monica Boulevard. I had been to the doctor earlier in the day and was pleased to hear that the cast was only going to remain for two more weeks, instead of the anticipated four. By this time I was doing tricks with the crutches and getting around with no problems. I saw Ethan wearing a hooded sweatshirt, holding a cup of coffee.

”God, I haven't seen you for almost a week.” He was warm and personable. As inconsequential as it may seem, that brief greeting let me know that all was well and indeed back to normal. It was a wonderful relief for me. (A week and a half later, when they were shooting about sixty miles north of LA, and were unable to screen the rushes, Ethan called me at home from the set asking how the dailies looked. He just wanted to know that nothing horrendous had happened, but it further demonstrated his trust in me.) It was funny to me that such a thing should be settled in such an unspoken manner. But though the boys were definitely Jewish, and most certainly New Yorkers, they weren't Jewish New Yorkers. There was no mistaking the Minnesota in them. They expressed emotions in non-verbal terms. The silences were as significant as any words they could use.

With the winds blowing, and everyone dressed for a chilly night, I was privately overjoyed. I asked if he was looking forward to the Oscars, knowing full well he was dreading it like an eight-year-old hates being forced into a suit and dragged to another bar mitzvah. He told me, “No, it's gunna be fun,” but I saw right through it like the standard line it was to a question he'd been asked ad nauseam.

His eyes lit up “I'm ‘A-List’ though,” he boasted.

”So, what the hell is that?”

”It means that if we ever went out to eat, we could get a good table.”

”Shit, I told you this place wasn't half bad after all, man.”

One of the ADs beckoned him over and he drifted. I continued over to a row of director's chairs, where Tricia, Joel and Cameron sat. I'm grinning and Cameron smiles back.

”Good to see ya, Chester,” he shot at me.

It was always great to see Tricia, who was all snug in her pea coat, and I slid into the seat next to her and hung out for a spell. Fran showed up for a visit after a spell and she was a live wire of energy. She was carrying a portfolio of possible outfits from Calvin Klein.

”Are you going to wear any of them,” I asked.

”No,” she said with a wink, “but I could use the fabric!”

Frances, whether she liked it or not, was the centre of attention wherever she turned. It was impossible to escape in this town, and I could see that it was grinding her down. There was a charge about her and it looked like she needed the energy just to fight off the people at Grammercy, who were pushing her to promote her chances for the Oscar. Nothing about the town was private or normal any more, and she longed to be home in New York. I didn't envy her.

Each night I went home and hung out with people who had nothing to do with the movie business, but for Franny the town was nothing but showbiz glare (Joel and Ethan kept themselves shielded as best they could. I'm sure it's easier if you are not an actor).

”You know, they want me to do Letterman,” she was saying.

Tricia leaned forward and prodded, “Are you gunna do it?”

Fran was incredulous. “No! I think it's so embarrassing. Even when people are good on those shows, it's embarrassing. Thinking, I'm sooo important. No, no, God I hate it.”

”Yeah, that's Eth's thing. You get nominated and if you don't play along with the whole game, they think you’re an ungrateful asshole.”

”It's a catch-22.”

More than anything I think the guys were irritated by the hoopla because it distracted them from Lebowski. They were not ones to bitch and moan on the job. Things went along so smoothly that it would have been a surprise to learn that they even knew about the circus, much less that they were one of its focal points. But we were still making a movie. Deakins's photography was saturated with warm yellows and oranges, especially in the night scenes. It was hard to have a sense of what the overall “look” would be, but the colors reflected what I had been exploring in my painting, so I felt in sync with what they were going after.

Watching Bridges was a textbook lesson in screen acting. He was incredibly focused and eager about the whole filmmaking process. The Dude gets his ass booted around throughout the picture, but apparently Bridges never complained about anything he had to go through. I watched John Turturro playing his scene in the bowling alley one afternoon; his character is angrily confronting Bridges, Goodman and Buscemi, who were off-screen in the shot. But the three hung around, instead of their stand-ins, and sat next to Roger Deakins, who was operating the camera, and they ran the scene. As Turturro did his best impression of a Mexican, I saw that Bridges was nodding his head, following the flow of what Turturro was saying and I realized he wasn't Jeff the actor, he was the Dude. It was uncanny.

Not long after my cast was removed, I enjoyed taking my first unadulterated shower in six weeks. I remained on the sticks for a few days, and then graduated to a spiffy-looking geriatrics cane, and began physical therapy. The cast never did get wet, and the damn thing never caused me any problems. About a week after it was cut off, Ethan had minor surgery on an old knee problem. The fellas from the prop department supplied him with a cane. I looked forward to heading over to the set after work—they were shooting the interiors at the bowling alley and laughing at his ass. Gimpy La Deuce.

Around mid-morning a rumor started spreading around the office: Goodman had injured his foot. Some said he broke it—the same injury as mine. Speculation started running like wild fire. They still had to shoot his bowling scenes; was this going to fuck everything up? By the time I got to the set, I was tickled pink ‘cause I was the gimp on the mend, and there’s Gimpy La Deuce, wearing overalls, moving around with the cane, but hardly using it. Goodman has his boot in a cast and had crutches, though he was hardly using them either. That man must’ve been on some serious horse pills. No way he has the same injury as me, I thought, otherwise he’s superman. (As it turns out he just tore some ligaments, and they only had to reschedule one day of shooting.)

I was disappointed to find that the set was as calm as normal. Cameron and Gilly were the exception, working the cell phones, looking a little panicky. The guys were milling around like usual.

Joel, with a cup of tea in his hand, came up to me and says, “You heard what happened to Goodman?”

“Yeah…how are you feeling?”

“Good. How are you feeling?”

That was it. So much for hysteria. He shrugged and said, “You know, what are you gunna do? We gotta wait and see how bad it is, but what can you do?”

A few days before the Academy Awards, the co-star of their picture having just potentially seriously injured himself, made this moment ripe for theatrics at the very least, but for Joel and Ethan, it was all in a day’s work.

My boy Joey La P was in town visiting on Oscar night, and he made his grandpa’s famous pasta fagioli as we suffered through the usual hamminess offered up. It was nice to see the guys win [Best Original Screenplay], if only to see them squirm before the masses; the real delight, though, was when Franny, as expected, took the Best Actress award. Her speech was sweet, but really turned me on was the strut to the podium. That was strictly New York, baby.


Joey La P

I also liked catching Joel and Ethan in the interview room after the show. They were stuffed all fancy-like in their best bar mitzvah threads, sheepishly answering questions. Joel did the talking.

At one point there was a question concerning their artistic passion. Ethan stepped forward and started chuckling to himself, his shoulders bouncing. Joel looked on, clearly uncomfortable, waiting for his brother to share what was so funny with everyone else. Ethan kept on chortling and then managed to say, “Well, you know, you come in to work each day...some days are good, some days are bad…” That was all he could articulate, so he continued laughing. Joel, perhaps looking to cut any confusion this answer may have generated, leaned in and said, “Eth's the passionate one.” Franny then came on stage and saved the day before it got any more painful.

But what Ethan said essentially hits their creative process on the head. It's the work, and the working-stiff approach they carry towards the work, that has made them successful. I suppose he laughed so much because it is such a simple answer to a question that inspires the most pretentious explanations. Strikes and gutters. Ups and downs. 'Nuff said. There were still a few weeks of shooting left when I packed up and made my way back to New York. I had done well with the rehabilitation on my foot and was ready for the ultimate test: the pavements of NYC. {1 had tested it out OK playing volleyball on the beach, and not only did it feel much improved, but I was all sandlot honorable mention out there.) I had completed roughly a hundred small paintings and felt it had been the most liberating work I had ever done; there was a playfulness in exploring the rich color fields of the region that became infectious, and it was as happy a time as I've ever had painting.


Schooly D and me with the statues

The only rub to saying goodbye was breaking the news to Sree. I had started to brace him weeks earlier. I knew he was wise beyond his years, but he was still a child. The day I left, we were hanging out on the comer, and I was taking some last pictures of him. He kept pulling on the camera, and coercing me to pose for just one more shot. We both knew what was happening, and I think he understood the sadness that we may never see each other again. Even if we did, it would be altogether different. But there were no tears. I told him, “Hey, cockarovich, you take care of your family now. Your brother and sister too, even if they are a pair of knuckleheads. And hey, Sree, listen to me, hey, look at me: don't you take no shit off nobody, OK? OK, then.”

He looked up at me obediently, and then ran off fast, dirt kicking up behind him.

With that I said goodbye to Sree Batchu Harry Laxmie Naraniea. Both Joel and Eth were jealous that I got to go home first and although I was sad to say to goodbye to some folks in LA, boy, was I ever ready to return home to the fold.

I left California--the sunsets and the driving; the bleach blondes with their cell phones in their red cars, and their lightly moussed boyfriends--knowing that in a weird way I would miss it all in the months (and years) to come. Ah well, I suppose the grass is always greener.


Exit Santa Monica, Gouache on Cardboard

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