Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Ugly Truth about Red Carpets

People often ask me what my plans are during the summer.

My response is always the same. "Nothing."

"What, aren't you going to work summer school?"
"Nope. Got enough saved up."
"Well, what about travel?"
"Yeah, I might get around to that, might not."
"Surely you'll go to the beach or something and relax."

I shake my head. Why would I get my car, drive through LA traffic, fight for parking and fend off pan-handlers to get sand in my crotch when I could just sleep in bed?

For some reason this offends a lot of people. Sorry if that makes me a "bad American," but I have no desire to build the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth in the city of Angels.

I do however, make time for movies. One of the best things about living in LA is all the free screenings, provided you know the right people and you are on the "list".

One of those people is Phil, and one of those lists is the "Creative Screenwriters," which gives access to its members for free screenings. After the screening the film's writer will typically come out for a Q&A session, but we usually don't stay.

Who the hell wants to listen to a writer?

Today we are going to see "500 Days of Summer," a quirky independent film starring Zooey Deschanel. It gained buzz at Sundance. The screening starts at 7:30, but you have to get in line earlier as sometimes screenings "sell out" because of lack of seats.

In the past year or so, this has become a more and more common occurrence. We typically get dinner, then get in line around 6:30, but as we walk by the theatre there are already a few people in line.

It's only 5:30. It's not a good sign.

"What, do these people have no life?" Phil complains. "Waiting in line for over 2 hours for a Sundance film? Are they crazy?"

I shake my head. The free screenings have started to become a logistical nightmare. We get dinner, but by the time we're back the line has already rounded the block.

We're an hour early, but experience tells me we aren't getting in. I try not to sneer in derision, overlooking the crowd. Are all these people really writers? That's the problem with insider deals in LA, and why the city works so hard to keep it's secrets. As soon as everyone knows about something cool it's soon overrun with Hollywood "wannabee's" and it's no longer cool.

This will be the last time I go to one of these screenings, I think to myself silently. I'm not surprised, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer filled up a year ago and that turkey had already been out in theaters for 6 months.

Across the screen is the Arclight Cinerama Dome. The Cinerama dome is a Hollywood landmark, one of the 3 surviving theaters in the world today that still uses 3 projectors for its gigantic 70mm screen. It's also a frequent host for movie premieres.

Red carpet is rolled out in front as a throng of photographers wait for the stars to arrive. Sightseers crowd the sidewalk, some wait by the limo's hoping to catch a star as they exit, others try their luck by pushing other pedestrians out of the way. A man piggybacks his girlfriend as young women in 5 inch heels flash cleavage in an effort to get closer.

It's a bigger crowd then the one outside the Staple Center for the King of Pop. Above a banner proclaims The Ugly Truth, starring Katherine Heigl (Knocked Up, Grey's Anatomy) and up and coming star Gerard Butler (300, P.S. I Love You).

Phil and I decide to go watch the Hurt Locker. (Which maybe the best war film in a decade, and certainly the best about the Iraq War.)

Naturally Phil didn't care for it. But then he doesn't like war films.

As we exit we still see there is a crowd, smaller now, but waiting expectantly for the stars to exit the premiere. Phil sneaks his way in through a back door, looking for drinks and hors d' oeuvres.

There's none.
"God damn it." he swears.

We mingle in with the crowd, who all chatter excitedly. Katherine Heigl exits, guarded by security, her agent, a manager and several other suits. People crowd around her in an attempt to take a photograph and a picture. She's a tall woman, attractive and classy with movie star chic, but not anymore beautiful then dozens of other LA women I pass on the street every day.

Phil manages to whistle by security in an attempt to get close to take a picture. I stay to the outside and stand near her limo to get a better look. When Heigl exits the theatre the fans go wild. It takes her five minutes to walk thirty feet, and if not for her manager forcing her along she'd probably be trapped outside the theatre the rest of the night.

Next to exit is Yvette Nicole Brown, an African American woman who has made a career out of playing secretaries, stewardesses, and office managers. A few people say hi to her, but she is mostly ignored. She's a character actor, in Hollywood that means you're an actor who gets lots of work, but you're ugly, so get lost.

Then we spot Cheryl Hines from Curb Your Enthusiasm. In a sharp blue dress, she looks great. People want photos, but they don't mob her like Heigl.

Then out comes the star the fans really want to see. Gerard Butler. Hollywood's new leading man. Nothing in Hollywood gets fans more excited then a rising star, and Butler fits the bill. Handsome, charming, and most importantly, from Scotland, he has what it takes to make it Hollywood.

It takes Butler ten minutes to get out the door, and another ten to get to his limo. Women throw themselves at him, they giggle like thirteen year olds who have never been kissed. Most of them are fashionable twenty somethings, but even older women have to be forced back by security.

One heavyset forty something in a pink dress tries to step forward to take a picture, a hefty security guard pushes her back. "Step back ma'am, step back. We don't want the fans to hurt him."

"Oh we would never hurt Gerard Butler." she gushes. "We just adore him! He's just wonderful, we're nothing but respectful of people like him."

The security guard is unmoved. He pushes her back.

Butler looks like he stepped out of the film, his beard is two days unshaven, cut in the George Michael mold of kept untidiness. He smiles and women swoon. He wraps his arms around two at a time as they take photos, he kisses one on the cheek and she laughs hysterically. People surge forward and security pushes them back.

"Sir, we have to go!"

Butler ignores them and signs autographs. He goes from one side of the crowd, then veers to the other, giving everyone a chance to take a photograph. He has raw star power, the kind that makes you like him even if you aren't a fan.

I know because I like him and I'm not a fan.

Then like a comet, he's gone, vanishing into the dark recesses of a limo. The crowd starts to break up.

If you want to attend a red carpet, don't come to the beginning - come at the end. The paparazzi is gone and with them the majority of the fans. You can get in close and have a much better chance of getting an autograph or a photo.

That's the ugly truth, and just one more of Hollywood's dirty little secrets.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

King of Pop

Pop stars aren't allowed to die.
Not without giving an exclusive, farewell, one time only performance.

We expect nothing less from Michael Jackson, the King of Pop.

Today at the Staples Center his casket is being brought in for a final farewell tribute extravaganza. Over 1.6 million people applied for tickets, but only 8,750 lucky pairs won the lottery. There will be no funeral procession for "Corpse Fest" 2009.

Living only 7 miles away from the Staples Center, I am compelled to see this spectacle for myself. CNN, MSNBC, and Fox news have been giddy for days over the funeral. has hourly reports. The state of California is broke, but Los Angeles is spending millions to provide security and crowd control for the event.

In my mind, there is only one question.
Do I drive, or do I take the bus?

I drive. Bus? People with cars don't ride no stinking bus! I plan to drive in as close as I can, then find street parking and walk the rest of the way in. There is talk of people being camped out the night before to get good "seats". The show is at 10, so I decide to leave at 7 just in case traffic and parking is insane.

I'm about half a mile away from the LA convention center on Pico before I run across police barricades. I veer down Argyle and park on 12th street, less then a mile from the Staples Center. Another block up and the parking attendants want $40.

"Is this the most you've ever charged?" I ask one of them.

"I just started working here." He lies.

Cops have cordoned off all the side streets around both Staples and the convention center, people are funneled to the north and south of the building.

On Pico I discover a crowd of thousands, most of whom are waiting in line. They are all ages and all ethnicities. There are young women in black dresses, dignity marred only by their heavy make up and tattoo's displayed on their forearms and back. There are black men in suits, some appear as if they could belong to the Nation of Islam, others look like they walked out of a Pimp and Ho convention. There are kids wearing Michael Jackson T-shirts, families laden with cameras, cholas and suburbanites mixed in.

Half of them are dressed in black, the other half appear they just came from the beach.

"Anyone got a spare ticket?" a black woman asks.

Police are everywhere. Dozens of police stand at attention near their motorcycles, ready to spring into action. Clusters of them stand at the corners, directing traffic while police cars block off roads, lights flashing. Trios of cops patrol the "inner" wall, making sure no one gets too close to the convention center while helicopters buzz overhead.

There are vendors selling T-shirts and photographs. Many of them are parked and selling merchandise out of the back of their car, others are on the sidewalk selling goods directly out of a pair of heavy suitcases. Some vendors have hung up T-Shirts and flags on the sides of chain link fences.

"Get yur T-Shirts right here! Ten dollar!"
"Buy three get five! Buy three get five!"
"Ten dollar, ten dollar, ten dollar!"
"Michael Jackson portraits and buttons!"
"Ten dollars, ten!"

I turn. The vendor points at me and laughs.

I speak to a graphic designer who has driven up from San Diego. In San Diego the best job she was able to find as a senior graphic designer was $12/hour.

I pass by the venue line and turn up Flower. The streets on the East side of the convention center are virtually deserted. Here the parking is only $10. I close in on the Staples Center and am stopped by an amazonian cop. "Do you have your ticket and wrist band?" she asks.

I shake my head. "No, I'm just here for the spectacle."

"You know you can't get any closer."

I nod. I'm okay with that. A Philippino in a nurse uniform tries to get through, she claims she's parked a block away and she needs to get to her car.

The police don't let her through.

I turn south and walk to Venice. More then a block away from the Staples center and the streets are empty. I turn north and angle towards the convention center. I spot three men and a pre-teen girl waving signs proclaiming that "Jacko is in Hell!" and "God hates Fags!"

"God hates you!" one of the men screams at the bystanders waiting in line. "Mourn for your sins!"

I am tempted to talk to them. Just what are they hoping to accomplish?

"God LOVES you!" people shout back at them from across the street. "We LOVE you!"

The men keep holding their signs. A trio of cops keep a close eye on them.

I approach the one in a red shirt, the loudest of the bunch. "May I ask you a question?"

"We are here to answer all questions." He intones. "We are here to preach the Lord's word, you may."

"What is your objective?" I ask. "What do you hope to accomplish?"

"We are here to preach the Lord's word and to let America know that God is punishing us for our sins. We have turned away from the Lord and his Godly ways and replaced His laws with our own."

I blink, but remain silent.

"This is idolatry. Michael Jackson is a false idol. These people worship at the false temple, and they will burn for their sins, just as Michael Jackson is burning for his."

"But why do you need to proclaim it? If God is punishing Michael Jackson why do you need to tell the world that he is doing so?"

"Because the Bible tells us too. For the world was saved by the foolishness of preaching."

"But what are you accomplishing? I don't see anyone here begging for forgiveness."

"I have answered that question! The BIBLE tells us too!" He then quotes me a long verse.

A reporter interrupts me. "Excuse me, I was interviewing him. I'm on a deadline, is it all right if I finish?"

I nod. "Go ahead."

The reporter asks the preacher a number of questions. He's from Topeka Kansas, and he's flown out here on his own dime to preach the Lord's word. The reporter asks him how he knows Michael Jackson is guilty of pedophilia when the courts never found Michael Jackson guilty.

"Because it is obvious!" the man states with the calm authority of a zealot.

"But don't you believe in your country's laws?" the reporter asks.

"I do."

"So if the judicial system never found Jackson guilty, how do you know he's guilty?"

"Because Michael Jackson broke the Lord's law. He lived in sin, he is a fag, a pedophile, an adulterer..."

"You're claiming he cheated on his wife."

"He divorced and remarried, that is living in sin. Only by death may marriage be parted."

The reporter tries to hide his amazement. "So you are claiming that anyone who divorces and remarries is living in sin?"

"I am not claiming. The BIBLE claims. We just follow the Lords teachings."

The reporter thanks the man for his time, and I follow him. He pats me on the shoulder. "Where are you from?" I ask.

"I'm from the Toronto Star. I'm the only Canadian reporter south of the border. I was doing a story tracing the history of the Grapes of Wrath, then Michael Jackson died."

"I thought there would be more people here. I doubt there's more then ten to twenty thousand. There's bigger tail gate parties for football games."

The reporter nods. "So did I. This is a media made creation, the first ever virtual reality funeral. The public wants a spectacle, so the Jackson family is giving it to them, brilliant, eh?"

"How so?"

"If they had tried to have a private funeral they would have been mobbed by reporters. Having a show at the Staples Center allows the press a field day and gives the public closure. It's hard to believe that this will be today's biggest story."

"They won't let him die without ensuring he gives a last show." I state. Beyonce, Kobe Bryant, Martin Luther King Jr. III, Stevie Wonder, Jennifer Hudson, and Usher are all supposed to be in attendance - the Ebony awards months ahead of schedule.

"I've interviewed a lot of famous people," the reporter continues, "and pop stars are never what you think they'll be like in person. You have to learn to separate the music from the person, the performance from the reality."

"I think that was Michael Jackson's problem. He tried to become the image of his fans fantasy."

The reporter tells me a story about the time he was at Yassir Arafat's funeral. Over 100,000 Palestinians attended, everything was orderly until they saw his coffin. Then everything devolved as people pressed forward, determined to touch the coffin, to be a part of the man who created the idea of a Palestinian state.

"Did they tear up his body like the Ayatollah Khomeni?"

"It was more like a peaceful mob. They just had to touch the coffin. The police couldn't hold them back." He looks at me. "Why are you here? To gloat? To preach?"

"I'm a writer. I have to see things for myself."

The reporter nods. This is something he understands. He asks if he can quote me, I give him my name, age, and profession, then head back towards my car. The line has begun moving as they let people into the convention center, but at 9:15 the vendors are already gone.

I find one on Argyle St selling T-Shirts for $5 a pop. I buy four. Time to go home.

Live events are always better on TV.