Long walk in the bitter cold the other day with longtime acquaintance René, who is roughly my age (younger by two or three years) and grappling with Existential matters he has successfully held at arm’s length for a couple of decades. René was preoccupied with doing his best to “sell out” (his own words) since a year or two before the turn of the century, when he turned 39.
I met René in 2001, a few weeks after I’d returned to Berlin to settle permanently; we met on the premises of a so-called filmmaking academy that was actually a front for the dodgy activities of a wonderfully-named Brit called Vinny. Vinny slipped out of London and into Berlin with the canny sense that Berliners, in many ways so worldly, were also actionably naive when propositioned by certain capitalist fantasies.
I ended up at Vinny’s trendy Friedrichshain space (full of donated furniture, film equipment and computers) after spotting an ad in a newspaper in which scriptwriters were invited to join a collective at Vinny’s “academy”. I showed up, had a good chat with Vinny, noticed that the place was full of attractive women and arty buzz and ended up hanging around for a few months… until I began to get the feeling that Vinny was soon going to find himself in serious trouble. At what point does a story that amuses you with its audacity become alarming? Does laughing at the story implicate you later ? But it was orders of magnitude easier to get away with petty mischief like fraud, and dodgy interpersonal ethics, before September 11, 2001 happened; the summer of 2001 was the last uncomplicated summer of a culture that naively believed it had lost its innocence in the 1960s. Vinny got while the getting was good.
I recall clearly the day Vinny called me to come over to his (borrowed) flat, in a concrete cube of a building on Potsdamer Strasse, to discuss writing a proposal for EU funding for his “academy”. I banged the door until it finally swung open to reveal a grim little one-room efficiency furnished only by a violently unmade bed… toward which the uncapped lens of a professional video camera on a professional tripod was angled. Jesus.
After that little chat I remember hurrying a few blocks up the street and finding a payphone and calling René, whom I soon enough had laughing so hard, with my report, that he couldn’t breathe; it sounded like a pensioner trying to inflate a wet birthday balloon in an oxygen tent. I remember that moment, too, because while I was standing in the piss-reeky, mod-yellow phone-box making René laugh, I saw a girl I used to give all my drink tickets to, back when I worked in the nightclub Orfeuo, seven years before, a dark and lithe Chilean with heavily-lidded eyes who identified herself only as Amy, pushing a giant pram. Vinny and Amy: the beauty of these names! Listening to Rene’s helplessly wheeze while watching formerly-beautiful Amy pushing that monstrous pram away from the sun, wearing a very Berlin scowl, made me think what a great scene it would make in a movie. But was the movie a comedy or a drama?
Party for Sat 22nd is looking good on the chick´s front here at Tasdorfer…. ( had some nice actresses & singers in today ) the girls have kindly called it the ´´ Sexy Summer Wear Party ´´ and some very nice vibes about.
—-email from Vinny
When I first met René on the premises of Vinny’s miraculously fraudulent filmmaking academy, René impressed me by being adamant in his belief that anyone who had qualms about “selling out” was a sucker. All he wanted was the chance to make something… a film, a song, a book, a painting, a new kind of running shoe or a cafe… that everyone loved so much that it would make him rich. All you had to do was study successful things and you could make a successful thing of your own, he said. There’s a logical formula. René gave me a copy of his Sci Fi screenplay (it was exactly the 100-pages in length that many screenwriting how-to books of the era advised that one’s effort should not exceed): it not only sucked in concept and language but, back then, before advances in CGI, and barring a 300 million dollar budget, it was virtually unfilmable.
I told René, the next time I saw him, “It’s good but there are parts I’d change…” and we ended up having a long, sometimes heated discussion during which I delivered my theory that people, who write books or movies that everyone supposedly loves, are lucky enough to come built with an IQ which occupies the crucial sweetspot that is not much higher than the average. 105? 110? When they write populist crap of zero originality they’re not trying to “sell out,” they’re actually doing their best to make a masterpiece… whereas when more gifted/intelligent people write down to the audience, in an act of cynical premeditation, it shows and it usually results in laughable super-crap. It’s better/ more convincing if you really mean it, however tawdry the product is.
If Stanley Kubrick had been forced, at gunpoint, to make the lucratively shitty Naked Gun films, or Home Alone, instead of the hacks who actually made them, those blockbusters would have been the biggest bombs of the year. Kubrick was lucky enough to have come along when a highly gifted director might do his/her best to create a masterpiece and not be punished savagely for the accomplishment. Gifted people, I cautioned René, are doomed by current conditions to toss their glittering offerings into the abyss as a sacrifice to unmentionable gods. Actually, what I really told René was “good luck”.
I sent him a link to a mind-punchingly bad piece of music once and the next time I saw him he said, “Actually, I can’t tell the difference any more. I hate listening to music now like I hate reading poetry.” He shrugged. “I don’t miss it, to tell you the truth.”
I joked, “You hate music because it’s a painful reminder that you don’t have sex any more,” and he surprised me by saying “maybe”. I had expected him to correct me by detailing one of the improbable and/or revolting sexual adventures he used to like to detail (René’s gimmick being that he never cared how attractive a potential sex partner was or wasn’t; he was a gourmand, not a gourmet, and would therefore never starve the way a gourmet might starve if a gourmet were locked in a McDonald’s over night: my rebuttal had something to do with being able to wait a whole night before eating, if it meant not eating shit). I went home that afternoon feeling guilty about my careless “no sex life” faux pas and emailed René:
“Remember that meeting they held at Vinny’s academy to come up with a suitably impressive name for the academy? It was Vinny and all those actresses and those two guys who thought they were going to be the German Spielbergs. Everybody at that big table some sucker donated. You weren’t there and it was hilarious. The irony is that if we would have been filming the whole thing, like making a documentary about Vinny’s Berlin Film Academy 2001, it would have been a hit like Spinal Tap. Do you know what name they finally voted on? I shit you not: all those creative geniuses and students of film voted unanimously to christen Vinny’s film academy…. drum roll… UNITED ARTISTS.”
There was another alumnus of Vinny’s academy, a mutual friend I now call Buck, a pleasant-looking guy almost ten years older than I am. Buck Fujimoto, whose claim to fame (besides the legend about him fucking a whole family once in 1972) was that he’d been an extra in a Clint Eastwood film, Paint Your Wagon, in 1968. The first hour I knew him, Buck told me his famous story from the time he spent making this Eastwood flick.
“Clint was a beautiful guy,” said Buck, gesturing with a free bottle of beer towards Vinny, who was in an intense conference with a Swedish actress in the corner, gesturing broadly and making his eyes wide, every couple of minutes, for emphasis.
“I drove down there with a buddy of mine who was a real cowboy, he wanted a job as an extra, but they saw me leaning against the car and said, we want that guy. They wanted me to play a Chinese Coolie. I’m Japanese, but that didn’t make any difference to them, so, next thing you know, I’m dressed up in these black silk Pajamas… this Coolie outfit… and hanging out with Clint Eastwood.”
I was struck then, and continue to be struck, by how easygoing Asians can be about the racial affronts they suffer at the hands of blue-eyed devils; this may be the key to their disproportionate degree of success as first, second, third and fourth-generation immigrant populations in blue-eyed devil countries.
“My big scene came. This old wooden bridge leading into town is rigged to collapse one log at a time as I’m running over it. The director took me aside and told me, all you have to know is that when I yell action, get your ass lickety-split over that bridge. Now,” added Buck Fujimoto, after a smiling beer-swig of pride, “I was a track star in High School…. and if there was one thing I could do, my friend, was run. The hundred-yard dash was my specialty.”
Buck mimed the perfect form of a track star executing a flawless 100 yard dash: chin up, elbows high, hands like blades. I can see him in those black silk Pyjamas and the inverted-wok hat, going for the gold, doing his best, reasoning that if he nails this scene, that’ll mean bigger and better jobs… as Coolies running… in the next Sam Peckinpah, or Sydney Pollack, or Stanley Kubrick…
“Anyway,” said Buck, “I blew the take. Everybody was pissed at me… they had demolished a whole bridge for the sequence, so it was only a one-take deal. Director comes running over and screaming at me. My big scene ended up on the cutting room floor.” Buck took a final gulp of the dregs of his beer and we started heading through the front door of Vinny’s academy to find kebabs in the neighborhood.
How did Buck fuck the take? What did he do that so enraged the crew, and the director, and Clint Eastwood himself, that they showed Buck nothing but screaming red faces as he emerged like a bullet from the rumbling dust cloud of the collapsing bridge? What actorly failure of nuance destroyed Buck’s career?
“I didn’t run like a Coolie.”
Over the years, René went from trying to sell out as a filmmaker, to trying to sell out as a songwriter, to trying to sell-out as a writer of how-to books. Then he mastered his German and studied both German law and medicine for a while until he ended up with a part-time job in a daycare in good old Kreuzberg, a job he has had ever since.
Hi S 11/06/02 at 10:01 PmI left a couple of messages on your mailbox. Maybe,for some reason, you didn´t get them. And I lost thatother no. you gave me….I arranged a meeting with Cynthia ( theenglish-american director I told you about) fridaymorning at 10 or 11 o´clock in a café onPaul-Linke-Ufer. Now I don´t know if it´s good foryou. Please let me know….or we will try to findanother time to meet…….—-email from actress met at Vinny’s Berlin Film Academy 2001
René’s big break came about five years ago when he met and married an older Berlin native with a job much better than his own. While courting her, René sent me an email with pictures not of his bride but of his future-parents-in-law’s northern property and I pretended to be impressed (while also wondering how René believed I believed that his wife’s parents’ material accomplishments added luster to his own); I’ve never met René’s wife nor have I yet seen a picture of her. I get the sense that when René prefaces a complaint with, “You know what sets my teeth on edge about people?” he’s talking about the mystery woman. Especially the time he said, “You know what sets my teeth on edge about people? How they don’t even bother to change the toilet paper roll after using one up…”
The perkiest I’d ever seen the late-model René get was the time I inadvertently gave myself severe problems with my sciatic nerve by drinking too much of my favorite tipple, which being pineapple / orange juice. Pineapple / orange juice (my version of heroin) is a diuretic, and by causing me to piss too much, it also caused the discs in my spinal column to shrink to the extent that a lower vertebrae started pinching a nerve. The result was agony; groan-inducing lightning bolts from my lower back down my left leg. I had had the problem the second time in 1999, in San Diego… the month (as I later figured out) I had taken up the drinking of pineapple / orange juice, again, after ten years of not touching the stuff. The sciatic problem hit me four times over a period of thirty years and each time faded after a few months (as I began to tire of pineapple / orange juice, as it happens) of agony, like an unpredictable visitation from an Old Testament punishment. Absurd, no? In any case, the last time it hit me, before I figured out the source of the problem and its easy cure, was four years ago. I was forcing myself to walk despite the pain.
“Getting old, eh?” quipped René.
(And what a joy it is, by the way, to live without any form of chronic pain. Joy, I feel, is merely the absence of pain… no bells and whistles, no gilded lilies dipped in chocolate and dipped in sprinkles, necessary. )
Dear S 09/14/01 at 4:35 PMI would also like to thank you (and to welcome you) for your collaborationto the project. I really did enjoyed the meeting with you and the new spirit, energyand ideas that you bring with you to the project, I am very curious to see the results of this new collaboration ..At the end I would like to inform you that I had today a telefonconversation with the film fund, which had financially support the scriptwritting, and they told me that it is possible to pay some extra money foryour work in the script. That is why they will need from you a filmographybevor they can send us the agreement, which has to be signed directly by youand them. Give me a call to give you the necessary details.best regardst k
Dear S I would like to assure you that everything is ok! 12/17/01 at 7:17 PMmaybe I sound stressed but in reality I am notregarding the 214 page “first draft” i also don´t see it as a problem. I knew from you that you already cut scenes. And also you are right! there have been very beautiful scenes on it. After our meeting with Petra I have to admit that we had a very good feeling, concerning your flexibility and ability to “cut” and further develop the script but also the way you have responded to our critic: very openly and very constructive, which is really a charisma.Concerning deadlines, as you know everything changes: so if filmboard (the berlin film fund) changes its deadlines we have also to follow them meaning by that their money! that´s why would be very important if you could deliver the 1st draft on January the 10th at the latest. Do you think is possible??best regardst—-emails from actual film producer regarding a script I doctored, then re-wrote and sold an option on for good money
Five years after his wedding, René and I still go, though rather less frequently, for these long walks, and all we talk about, of substance, are the broader social or political topics bumped against by the peripheries of his familiar gripes; fine with me, as I use some of these dialogues in my novels. Books/ films/ poetry/ music/ Art (topics I find interesting) are too touchy for René to deal with; if I want to chat about Art, I find, I have to walk with my younger friends, an unfortunate reality which constantly reminds me that the only problem I’ve found with aging, thus far, is that my old friends are aging, too.
(Too often it’s like watching a time-lapse film of spiritually desiccating fruit in a bell jar. It’s up to us, folks, to keep our lives alive until our bodies check out. If you need a little twist or jolt to keep your avidity sharp, juggle light bulbs on the courthouse steps or masturbate in a lift at the Aquarium. Whatever it takes, no? No prizes for proving, for the Nth time, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Life is horrid. )
“How’s it all going to end?” is one of René’s signature refrains, like Vonnegut’s “And so it goes.”
“Shit is so fucked up. How’s it all going to end?”
Haven’t they told him?
ADDENDUM: EXCERPT OF THE SCREENPLAY I SOLD AN OPTION ON (for a record-breaking amount) TO A GERMAN FILM PRODUCTION COMPANY (a Cold War “comedy of eras” set largely in the 1960s, tagline: “When the Cold War got Cool”)
INT. DAY: POPOV’S FLAT
Popov’s flat is large but not sumptuously furnished
It gives the impression of restraint: this is a man with expensive tastes, but his acquisitions are being housed safely elsewhere
There are tastefully framed photographs of a political nature on the wall: Trotsky, Marx, Kruschev (autographed), Valentin Terashkova (first female astronaut), Eric Hoenneker (also autographed), etc.
There is a framed placard that reads:
Von den Sowjiet Union lernen, heisst siegen lernen
There is a wall dedicated to Frau Popov’s numerous athletic trophies (the super-abundance of these is highlighted for a comic effect): karate, fencing, track and field; horsemanship; swimming; tennis; skiing, etc.
We PAN all this as we follow Dean, Irina, and Anatole towards the dining room, where Popov is standing at the head of the table; his left arm is in a sling
Popov gestures for them to take seats at the table
Dean sits at the opposite end of the table, Irina at his right and Anatole his left
Can I get anyone something? Glass of wine? Cheese? Piece of fruit?
Raises her hand
Waiting for her to specify
And… so …some … fruit?
like a diner in a restaurant
And wine. And cheese. And have you bread as well? Fresh bread?
To Dean, lowering his voice
I can’t read him. Is he going to say yes or no?
To the budget or the trip?
I can’t tell. He seems kinda weird today.
Popov returns pushing a cart piled with food and beverages
Nodding to his arm in a sling
You will understand if I allow you to serve yourselves.
Irina gets up and busies herself with the food
gesturing at Popov’s arm
How’d that happen, man?
On ski trip.
I didn’t know that you ski!
I do not. My wife does. But let’s get to business at hand.
Taking his seat at the head of the table
First, Popaganda approves of kamarad Irina… West… as female lead in movie. Screen test was good. Second…
At this moment we hear the front door open and close; loud echoing boot steps slowly approach the dining room; Popov becomes visibly anxious
…second… the… uh… the budget for… the budget…
Frau Popov enters the room
She looks simultaneously magnificent and sternly terrifying, dressed up as an English-style Equestrienne, slapping a riding crop in her hand as though she is longing to strike someone with it; she has obviously just come in from the stables; in her riding boots she is well over six feet tall
Frau Popov approaches Popov and he shrinks back from her as though expecting a blow; instead she greets him by kissing both his cheeks
Well, well, I see that my husband is giving a party and I wasn’t invited.
I got all the way there before discovering that I’m not in the mood for riding today.
To Dean, coldly
Irina and Frau Popov exchange peculiarly hostile glances, as though they are already acquainted
Petra, we are only discussing …
Frau Popov. This is my friend and Assistant Director Anatole Kant… and this is…uh… this is…
Your wife and co-star Irina Janek.
Sniffing the air as though suddenly becoming aware of an odor
I have to go clean the horseshit off my boots. Please get on with your meeting.
She marches out of the room
Regaining composure; counting off points on fingers
So. Second, Popaganda also approves proposed budget for hiring scorer to transcribe orchestral arrangements for songs. Third, Popaganda approves budget for shooting specific scenes on location in Mexico. But…
Popov leans forward on table towards Irina
Irina West is not to be allowed travel visa for purpose of filming. Her scenes can be filmed on soundstage in Babelsberg.
I’m afraid she is not allowed to leave DDR.
But she’s my wife, and the goddamned love interest of the film! What kinda crazy shit is this? How are we gonna shoot in Mexico without her?
It is not up to me. A committee has decided.
A committee has decided what?
Honestly put? Your wife is a security risk. We have reason to believe that she will defect at the first opportunity that arises.
Defect? Are you kidding?
Looking at Irina, prompting her
Tell him how much you love it here, honey! Tell him what you were telling me just the other day…
Tell him what? That I hate this fucking backwards village that pretends to be a nation?
That I hate the smug hypocrites like this stuffed shirt who stinks of French cheese and caviar and has the nerve to tell a bunch of peasants who have to wait in a queue half a day for toilet paper that scratches your ass like it was made from the bark of a tree…he has the nerve to tell them that their sacrifices are for a noble cause! If I were a man…
If you were a man…you’d smash his smug face for him!
For Chrissakes, honey!
Folding arms over his chest and leaning against the wall
No, please, let her continue.
But she doesn’t mean any of it… she’s just …she’s just drunk!
Of course she doesn’t know what she’s saying!
To Anatole, in rapid German, so Dean won’t understand
Shut your trap you big sausage or no more blow jobs!
To Irina in Russian so neither Dean nor Anatole can understand
You slut! Even I’m surprised!
To Popov, sarcastically, in Russian, in response
Did you think that this mouth was made only for apparatchiks to fit into?
Confused by the languages
What the hell is everybody talking about?
Frau Popov suddenly re-enters the room
To Popov, in Russian
Let the tramp defect, Nikolai!
Petra, please, this is not your business!
In French, to Frau Popov
Who are you calling a tramp, you lesbian?
Who’s the bigger dyke, the one who licks, or the one who takes the pleasure? It might as well have been a poodle’s tongue, as far as I’m concerned! Just be grateful that I recommended you for the job!
What are you two talking about? Why are you speaking French?
You didn’t recommend me for the job, you stupid Viking! I was sucking off your husband before the two of you met! He’s the one who set me up with the American, in order to punish you!
Will somebody please speak a language that I can understand?
To Popov, in Russian
Nikolai, let the bitch go. The DDR is well rid of her! If you don’t let her go, I won’t let you film me fucking any more! And then what will you jerk off to?
Defensively, in Russian
I don’t make those films for my own personal pleasure! I make those films for the Regime!
To Popov, in Russian
Perhaps I should explain to our American friend here that you spied on his cock for two years for the sake of denouncing him later! Then let’s see if the movie comes in under budget!
In German, to no one in particular
I am not a naïve man, but what I can make out of what I am hearing… it shocks even me!
To Anatole, rapidly, in German
That’s life: men have the luxury of being shocked! Women are well acquainted with the dirty Truth from a very early age! I was a prostitute for The Party before I learned to ride a bicycle! Thanks to me, my father is the only man in our village to own a television, you see? That’s how it goes.
To Popov, in Russian
This discussion is unnecessary. I have photographs of your superior, Genosse Vanya Wakov, a married man, the supreme functionary of Popaganda and a personal friend of Nikita Kruschev, with his cock in my mouth. More importantly, I also have photographs of Wakov with another man’s cock in his mouth. My visa will be approved. This conversation is finished.
To Frau Popov, in French
By the way, Dean told me about the time that you farted in bed and tried to cover it with a moan of pleasure, and he pretended not to hear it. But he did.
To Dean, in English, smiling sweetly
Let’s go, I want to go shopping for our trip.