The first few exits on the freeway, once entered, sprint by. Perhaps it’s the distractions of merging, or the performance rituals of driving in your mid-twenties (rolling down the window, finding the right music, ticking things off an unending to-do list), or maybe it’s the distance between where you are and where you are going—in both a metaphysical and geographical sense. In those brief few meters, I enjoy, if not intrinsically, the sensations of what it must be like to live in Los Angeles—its smoky wind, its autumnal sun, and its noise, welcomed, of course, to steal away precious years from my ignorant, youthful ear drums.
I came to Los Angeles by necessity—which is what I imagine a lot of people say when they don’t want to admit that they like it here. I don’t like LA. Its decay, its intolerable hatred of its own history, its meaninglessness leaves me for wont of inspiration and, at times, severely depressed. This is a dangerous state of being for someone who calls herself a writer, as I’m already tussling with the struggles of my own neuroses—let alone the shackles and sweaty desperation of making ends meet. My drug, if you will, the thing that pulls me up from the dregs, or perhaps in reality shoots me through an escape portal, is comedy. So, one fateful evening of too much light beer, I planned an all-day Steve Martin festival amongst friends. Let me pause to explain the subtleties behind the decision: it’s Steve Martin.
Waiting For the Light to Change
The festival was held at the apartment complex of my friends Matt and Amanda—both former film students, which means (if you, too, are in the industry) that they have probably called you, gotten you coffee, or shared a night with you in a sticky dive bar and judged as you complained about your unemployment check. They live in the valley, which for some reason is likened to a leper colony. As I waited at a light, somewhere near Van Nuys Blvd, I noticed a man in his sixties walking on a raised cement platform above the sidewalk. He was wearing Dockers, a cotton shirt that was too big for him, and, of course, the uniform watch that all men in their sixties wear. Eyeing the curb that separated his cement path and the sidewalk below with the youthful delight of someone three-quarters his age, the man, arms extended, balances himself and walks, placing his feet strategically. Then he tumbles. And the light turns greens. I drive past, having been the sole witness to the scene despite the seven bus patrons waiting at a nearby stop. Last I saw he was crawling on the sidewalk.
Capitalism: A Love Story
I arrive at the apartment an hour late, which in Los Angeles, of course, means I’m on time, and I find Matt and Amanda embroiled in Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story (the perfect appetizer for a night of comedy.) One more festival-goer was yet to come, the much-reputed Mike Birkhead—a friend of a friend whose exploits in comic books and
cynicism were larger than life. I wait, toying with Steve’s autobiography Born Standing Up (unwilling to give it back to Amanda who had let me borrow it a week or two before.) “I’m not sure what I meant, but I wanted to use the lingo and it was seductive to make these pronouncements,” I read. “Through the years, I have learned there is no harm in charging oneself up with delusions between moments of valid inspiration.” Genius. That Steve can pen such haunting prose makes him the Bob Dylan of fart joke peddlers. Mike arrives and breathes the first words I’d hear. Anticipation sets in—what will the demi-god say? “I’ll take a whiskey coke.” Genius.
St. Louis? No, Navin Johnson
One of the most intricate elements to Steve’s autobiography was the regretful, intimate, and romantic way he talks about the women who have graced, and truly they have, his life. (Ammunition, I imagine, that makes for a successful wanderlust.) “Mitzi was simply too alluring to be left alone in a foreign country,” he wrote, “and I was too hormonal to be left alone in Hollywood.”
As the festival commenced, with a showing of The Jerk, I learn that Mike, newly unemployed, intends to break up with the girl he has been dating—the girl he, and we, affectionately call ‘Mexican’t.’ Through the movie he wonders, aloud, if he should do this over the phone or in person:
SM: “Lord loves a workin’ man, don’t trust whitey, see a doctor and get rid of it.”
Matt: “Words to live by.”
Amanda: “So are you going to go?”
Mike: “I don’t know.”
Me: “Why are you breaking up with her?”
Mike: “Because I’m unemployed.”
Me: “Well, what if she says that that doesn’t matter?”
Mike: “I don’t give a fuck.”
Me: “Steve Martin has very dark hair.”
Matt: “What? He’s got the whitest hair I’ve ever seen.”
Me: “Well, he’s a silver fox. But, no, look at his body hair to hair ratio. It’s off.”
Mike: “He’s a silverback.”
The movie ends. The festival is off to a knock-kneed start, which I imagine gives it the righteous, comedic reputability it needs to be taken seriously. Mike absconds to Amanda’s room to break up with Mexican’t over the phone. Matt pours another round of whiskey for the festival-goers and puts a few pizzas in the oven (inspired by ‘Pizza in a Cup,’ naturally.) After five minutes, Mike returns to the festival space with the worn, but giddy look of a man who got away with murder. “Sixteenth girlfriend done,” he says, taking a sip from his replenished drink. I feel a pang of guilt for observing, and even promoting through my presence, trespasses unto my kind—which I reconcile through beverage and the comforting thought that this woman has been freed to find someone who wouldn’t break up with her over the phone. I am Susan B. Anthony once again.
Our festival continues in chronological order with The Man with Two Brains, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, My Blue Heaven, and LA Story. Drinks also continue with feverish propensity, which makes for a very uninteresting and improperly documented blog. Suffice it to say, the haze that was the next few movies, and tiresome hours, can only be recalled through the few notes scrawled into my notebook at the time:
Mike: “For Christmas my friends got me a sweater…but what I really wanted was a moaner and a screamer.”
Amanda: “Don’t do that. Wait until I swallow.”
Me: “Christ! Guys! Steve Martinis! How did we not think of this before?”
“Amanda has jungle fever. Mike also has jungle fever but insists it’s not gay…even though he has it for Isaiah Mustafa.”
Cocktail recipe: Scotch and apple juice
Steve Martin blog idea: Men who wear concealer (how deep.)
As the night tears on, I realize, or maybe it’s the self-deprecating writer-character I wear as an accessory who realizes, that I had not accomplished what I had hoped for in this festival. Having found recent employment outside Los Angeles, I suppose I had wanted Steve Martin night to be a valentine to the man who writes valentines to the city—avoiding the unpleasant reality that I might actually miss Los Angeles. Honoring by proxy. As with any moment with promise in meaning, all that I had hoped to infuse or extract that night floated effervescently around and through me.
Rules for a Sgt. Bilko Drinking Game:
Admittedly, our top five movie choices for the festival did not include Sgt. Bilko. It’s a rather lackluster Steve Martin film, despite its funny moments. Still, it was one of few selections available to us on short notice. And being the reckless, half-inebriated, post-collegiate group of adults who threw together a haphazard film night that we were, we decided to turn the viewing into a drinking game. The rules, as forged by us (since an internet search proved fruitless), include:
Drink whenever Steve Martin is in a robe
Drink whenever you find Steve Martin sexy
If Matt finds Steve Martin sexy drink twice (Matt must drink three times)
Drink whenever Chuck Berry is referenced
Drink whenever a military theme is referenced in the score
Drink whenever the unit dupes its superiors
Drink whenever you see Rita Robbins
There are a few missteps to this game. First, contrary to the film’s marketing, Steve Martin appears once in a robe through the duration of the film. Second, that we would punish Matt for his homosexual inclinations runs counter to our real political beliefs—and I’m pretty sure it trudges upon the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. (Mea Culpa, Matthew.) Third, my contribution to the game rules involving the film’s score was tragically underused (punishment for being a band geek.) Composer Alan Silvestri references themes used in other military-inspired movies, but does not directly reference military themes in his score. We got around this with incidental music like Taps and other such revelry.
Taking a Bowfinger
Twelve hours, a package of veggie dogs for me and hot dogs for my compatriots (a reference to Father of the Bride), and Reese’s peanut butter cups (a reference to The Three Amigos) later, we rounded the corner to our final film: Bowfinger.
“You know she’s supposed to be Anne Heche,” Amanda tells me of Heather Graham’s character. As the plot unfolds, and we see young Heather, or Anne as it were, take feminism (as it is imagined by Steve Martin) down a few pegs, a noticeable, heavy weight is placed on the viewers. We’re disinterested, tired, and sober—waiting for the film to end. (Sorry to spit upon everyone in Matt and Amanda’s industry who worked on the film. Sometimes art consumption is as troublesome as art-making.) The movie ends. I manage my goodbyes and drive home.
It takes me a couple days to navigate my feelings on the experience—jostled, too, by more pending deadlines and the insufferable pings of an ice cream truck playing demonically below my window. “Twopence halfpenny and a Joey-twopence halfpenny,” I think, referencing Orwell. “His mind was sticky with boredom. He couldn’t cope with rhymes and adjectives. You can’t, with only twopence halfpenny in your pocket.”
I recreate the drive home in my mind. It is a dazed, blinding, twinkling whir of city lights (easily ignored by the speed in which I moved—both metaphysically and geographically.) My quick year residency has finally given into a fine layer of spiritual calluses. It prevents me from seeing the absurdity, the glamour, and the chaos of Los Angeles at night. My drive happens around me. And I think, “Thanks a yahoo. I’m getting out of this town.”