Desperately Seeking Relevance
by James Killough
As an aspiring narcissist, I’m not one for watching sports unless it’s something I’ve practiced myself, which limits me to swimming and boxing. I am glued to the TV when the Olympics roll around for the former, and will watch the latter on the rare occasions I’m in a sports bar and it happens to be on. The third sport I’ve participated in from time to time and play reasonably well is a good ol’ film industry smackdown, and none was more amusing to watch than the epistolary dustup between Mel Gibson and writer Joe Eszterhas this week.
What happened is the highly overrated, long-standing joke Eszterhas—the screenwriter behind Basic Instinct, Flashdance and, most notoriously, Showgirls—mouthed off in a nine-page tell-all email to Gibson after Eszterhas’ script for The Untitled Maccabee Project was rejected by Warner Brothers. Of course, he leaked the email to the press, most notably to The Wrap, an industry website that appears to have taken his side, presumably in the hope of getting all of those “exclusives” from Eszterhas, which kept popping up as alerts on my BlackBerry as the whole silly saga unfolded.
I pay attention because this resembles some ghoulish sideshow to an MMA main event featuring two tired, batty old men slugging it out in slow motion, one a burly delusional Hungarian, for whom the Worst Screenplay Award at the Golden Razzies was renamed The Joe Eszterhas Dis-Honorarial Worst Screenplay Award, and the other a wee Australo-American rageaholic with a case of Tourettes that seems to be worsening in direct proportion to his deepening Catholicism.
Maccabee was supposed to be a Gibson passion project, “a Jewish Braveheart,” which he says he has been developing for eight years, pre-dating his well-recorded anti-Semitic tirades over recent years. Eszterhas maintains that the project was really Gibson’s attempt to tidy up his “anti-semitic [sic]” image, but that he is too anti-Semitic ever to have been serious about it, which is the real reason the script was rejected.
In the middle of is the hitherto silent Warner Brothers, which nixed the script because it lacked “feeling” and “a sense of triumph,” according to studio production head Greg Silverman. You have to wonder why Warners wanted to get involved with this to begin with, and why they hired Eszterhas of all writers. Perhaps it’s because no decent Jewish writer worth his salt would touch it with Gibson attached.
Gibson replied to Eszterhas’ email with a far more level-headed open letter, in which he admitted to losing his cool after Eszterhas delivered an inferior script fifteen months after first securing the job:
“Both Warner Brothers and I were extraordinarily disappointed with the draft. In 25 years of script development I have never seen a more substandard first draft or a more significant waste of time. The decision not to proceed with you was based on the quality of your script, not on any other factor.”
Feeling that he was being called a liar, Eszterhas replied by saying he has a tape of Gibson ranting in Costa Rica about John Lennon deserving to be assassinated and how he wants to kill his ex-girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva. What the tape has to do with being fired for a bad script is a connection I have yet to understand; it certainly doesn’t bolster Eszterhas’ case, just makes him someone you wouldn’t want as a houseguest.
In a video segment for The Wrap taped with Howard Kurtz, editor-in-chief Sharon Waxman calls Eszterhas “a great writer,” which even a cursory glance at Eszterhas’ letter to Gibson shows that Waxman and I have different standards of “great” writing; his reputation as one of the worst screenwriters in the business aside, Eszterhas’ grammar is not only dodgy, he doesn’t seem to know that Semite is capitalized, something the automatic spell check of any word-processing program will flag.
The hidden subplot in all of this is Sharon Waxman’s attempt to become the preeminent source of “insider” industry news over Deadline’s Nikki Finke. Waxman has been obtaining exclusive after exclusive from Eszterhas, whereas Finke has wisely chosen mostly to ignore the story. As the true insider, Finke knows it’s a joke and has obviously thought better than to shine a spotlight on what amounts to tantrums in the children’s sandbox, an hourly occurrence in Hollywood.
A favorite industry quotation in these situations is Russell M. Foster’s about justice: “Every story has three sides. Yours, mine, and the facts.” While Gibson is clearly mentally unstable—in fact, let’s award him Schizo of the Week, even though my remote analysis is he has Borderline Personality Disorder—he is also an accomplished, daring filmmaker. Eszterhas, on the other hand, is a king of crapmeisters whose script was turned down by a Jew at Warner Brothers. The tape of Gibson’s rants has no more bearing on the assessment of Eszterhas’ inferior draft than The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s public request for Warner’s to shelve the project. With Gibson’s recent film Get the Gringo going straight to VOD, and with Jodie Foster’s Beaver having so underperformed, all of this is a fairly academic business decision on the part of the studio.
As for Gibson’s career, don’t forget that he isn’t just the director of one of the domestic top-grossing domestic films of all times, The Passion of the Christ, he was also its producer and financier through his Icon shingle. Even if he doesn’t ever get his star back up in the firmament, he’s had a very good run.
Excuse me for a second while we admire the French for this ad campaign for Diet Coke, with bottles designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier. (Thanks to our friends at Ohlalamag.com for bringing this to my attention):
In honor of the female version of the bottle, I shall share with you a ditty a fashion editor I worked with back in the day used to sing:
Ta ra ra Gaultier!
He made that bustier
I wore out yesterday
Ta ra ra boom de yay.
At best I am extremely ambivalent about Quentin Tarantino, a stance that isn’t popular with our contributors Chris Cramer and Eric Baker, who love him. I have to admit that I really like the teaser poster for the upcoming Django Unchained, which will be released this Christmas. This is probably not the final key art, but QT does understand his historical graphic design, which was evidenced in the iconic poster for Pulp Fiction, which my friend James Verdesoto was responsible for when he was creative director at Miramax.
One of my problems with QT and Inglourious Basterds in particular is the revisionist approach to history. I just didn’t get the need to rewrite World War II when there were so many millions of true stories that emerged from that cataclysm that could have served as great cinema. Cramer tried to explain it to me, but I remain unconvinced. I’m fairly certain that if there were a legitimate point to Tarantino’s revisionist narratives, I can grasp it on my own, but I just can’t see one.
It would seem that the plot to Django, which was partially revealed yesterday, is likewise “epic” and probably once again revisionist, this time about slavery in America. A bounty hunter played by Christoph Waltz, who deserved the Oscar for Basterds if only for his fluid command of so many languages, acquires a slave played by Jamie Foxx, whom I like very much, to help him track down a pair of murderous brothers. Along the way, they end up at a plantation owned by Leonardo Di Caprio, who grooms slaves to battle each other for sport.
I have to admit that this last detail piqued my interest because it sounded like the blurb on the back of a Titan Men BDSM porn DVD, which I would probably watch with unconcealed fascination. I shall be on the lookout for the subliminal homoerotic dom/sub themes in Django, Quentin, don’t you worry.
I have a soft spot for the Barnes Collection, not because I’ve ever been down to the burbs of Philly to see it, but because I was supposed to spend a romantic weekend there a couple of years ago and see it in its original location before it was moved into the city itself. The romantic weekend never happened despite many promises from my intended, which is sort of symbolic of the whole tawdry saga of the collection itself.
I finally saw the documentary The Art of the Steal this week, and at times I felt like switching it off because I just couldn’t watch this inevitable miscarriage of justice unfold. For those unaware of what happened, early in the twentieth century a doctor named John Barnes, who made a fortune in pharmaceuticals, amassed what is arguably the finest private collection of post-Impressionist and early Modernist paintings in the world. Somewhat of a curmudgeon, he loathed the WASPy Philadelphia establishment and went to great lengths in his Will to prevent his collection from ever being moved from the site he built for it in Lower Merion.
Despite peeping through my fingers as one horror after the other marched across the screen, I began to feel that to some extent the bad guys—namely the Annenberg and Pew Foundations, and the City of Philadelphia itself—were right. The collection needs to be moved for its own sake, not to mention the fact that it would better serve Dr. Barnes’ own goals, which was to preserve it intact for educational purposes.
The single reason the champions of keeping the collection in its original place gave throughout their battle in the courts is that moving it went against what Dr. Barnes would have wanted and firmly stipulated in the Will. That and the fact the courts, the foundations and the government were breaking the explicit terms of a trust. However, by the end I couldn’t help but think that the terms of the trust were based in a sort of misguided vindictiveness, particularly towards the Annenberg family, and that does little to benefit the art itself beyond the lifespans of the original players involved, all long dead.
The collection is currently valued at between twenty-five and thirty billion dollars. The argument is that Dr. Barnes owned the pieces and that his Will, however elitist and exclusionary, should therefore continue to enforce his desires. But I’m not sure that is a valid point any more. Who really owns art, particularly after the person who purchased it passes away? And if Dr. Barnes were still alive, how can we be certain he wouldn’t have changed his mind under evolving circumstances, especially if he knew just how badly the beneficiaries of his estate, a small black college called Lincoln University, would bungle it?
The collection moves to its new home in a few weeks. I have to say that the new building isn’t bad, given the restrictions placed by the court on architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien that the collection be hung exactly the way Dr. Barnes spent years perfecting, in rooms that exactly replicated his in the old building in Lower Merion.
At the end of the day, I suppose I rule in favor of moving it, as much of a horrible philistine that makes me in the eyes of purists, a word that means much the same as ‘conservative’ to me. Never mind: it’s not like I’m getting to Philly any time soon regardless of the easier access, although I would be curious to hear what our resident art historian Eric Baker has to say about it; apparently Pennsylvania is quite near Jersey.
I did come across a colorful character today near the Hollywood Schizo Epicenter on Santa Monica and Highland. He was barefoot and barechested, carrying his shoes and his shirt and singing, “I love my cock because it’s a beautiful cock! Boom, shaka laka, boom!” However, my expert opinion is it’s Sunday and he’s tweaking his tits off on meth, probably going since last Thursday, so I’m not sure there’s any mental illness there other than chronic exhibitionism. We’re sticking with Mel Gibson for the prize.
So I’ll leave you with one of the more striking images I came across this week. It’s of PFC’s dear friend and supporter Diane Pernet, who will be awarded Spain’s prestigious FAD Medal at a ceremony in Barcelona on April 26. I think this looks like a still from a modern opera directed by Robert Wilson: