Positing Posterity

Bonehead.I used to worry about posterity. Since my early teens, I’ve kept, and occasionally updated, what I only half-jokingly refer to as the “Smithsonian Box.” I once imagined the tattered cardboard carton as a repository of a burgeoning arts scene helmed by my cronies and me, eventually to be bequeathed to the institution for the benefit of future generations. Ambitious, sure, but the fuel of youth is naiveté and I had enough to power a perpetual-motion machine.

As the years went on, only a few of us remained in the game; some matured enough to get out while still relatively sane; others died from cruel absurdities too sad to tell. Consequently, the archive has grown slowly this past decade, as fanciful notions like “making it” have gradually given way to “making do.” Yesterday, I made a wistful visit back to the box, if only to see if the sense of nostalgia I had anticipated had borne out. For the most part it has – Joan Didion wrote in her essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” that writers are born with a “pre-sentiment of loss, which is really just nostalgia dressed in pale blue. The excursion made for a rueful afternoon that brightened slightly with the arrival of the daily mail. Amongst the clutch of bills and adverts was an unmarked letter, wrapped in Mylar and bearing no return address. The crisp letter inside read:

“Dear Mr. Howell – Greetings from the future. Given your present place in the space-time continuum, this letter may seem premature since your era has yet to perfect time-travel, but be assured the acquisitions staff of the Smithsonian Institution is pleased to express our gratitude for your generous (eventual) contribution to our collection. Though your archive is a complement to our cache of related matter, we believe it in the interest of both the collection and you that measures be taken to improve the contents of your donation. To this end, please consider producing more work of general import. The inclusion of ‘Nomaville: Volume One,’ is a wonderful start, but would you consider supplementing it with a second volume? Ditto your so-called ‘Rapture and Woe’ feature film “trilogy,” which lamentably only contains two installments (and the second one is clearly cobbled to together from outtakes of the first). The various bundles of reporter’s notebooks might seem to someone in your century candidates for our institution, but, in fact, they are not. The illegibility of your handwriting is a stumbling block on par with the Great Wall of China (now dismantled to buttress China’s east coast since the melting of the polar ice caps – so get that hybrid you’ve been mulling). Moreover, you’re simply not important enough in our era to merit inclusion of these materials. There is still time to address this situation – namely by firing your manager Kit Fergus. Through our causal-recalibration technology, it has become widely accepted that Kit Fergus’ refusal to take your 23rd phone call of July 21, 2009, a teaspoon purposely dropped by a woman named Paige and a particularly malodorous meadow vole in Malta lead to circumstances which coalesce into World War III. Your career is already riddled with negative associations; you don’t need another. You might also consider getting a haircut, seeing as your ‘modern village minstrel’ look is quite outré in our century and has made you the subject of some ridicule in this office. Thank you for your time. Best regards, LEN-E655321.”

I folded the letter back into its shimmering envelope and filed it in the Smithsonian box.

All the President’s Mensch

Wormwood and BarnstormWhen I was a small-town reporter on the eve of a five-year stint in the Hollywood trenches, I used to fret about the motion picture of my life. How would the cast and crew behind my own personal biopic bridge the continental divide between my years as a newspaperman and those I foresaw as a mogul? Fortunately for the History Channel, I never became a mogul as such – despite my time skulking the back lots, enduring pitch meetings and suffering the remonstrations of my agents, manager and attorney. This merry band, I now recall with a modicum of hmmph, represented a 25 percent interest in my paycheck. The fact that much of this work was written with a partner meant that after our split and our reps’ fees, we were both left with about 30 percent of the pie, half of which went to taxes. It soon became clear that we should forgo the Herculean effort of writing and simply become agents ourselves. Our reasoning was that we would make the same and like everyone else in Hollywood, we could take credit for the work regardless who had labored on it. My partner and I set up shop as a literary management company but, in time, grew resentful doing other writers’ legwork. In the end, we convinced one of our clients to rep us and now he gets 10 percent of our take and we get 10 percent of his. That this client is my partner is only mildly confounding, but no less absurd, I suppose, as underwriting my writing career with a day job as a writer.

Indeed, I’ve long endeavored to braid the wisps of my professional pursuits into something more substantial than so much macramé. How does one unite the disparate lines of filmmaker and newspaperman (the Contessa made me quit the “international playboy” gig – must have been the commute)? The facile answer has always been “be a film critic.” Alas, my film reviews were rife with phrases like “This is what I would have done,” which my editors thought too telling.

“Damn right, they’re telling,” I’d retort. “I’m telling them how to make a movie.”

“And who are you to presume how to make a movie?”

“Trust me, I’m right.”

“Okay, Mr. Right, go rewrite your review. This time in third-person. And by the way, no one cares that Han Solo should have died in ‘Empire Strikes Back.’”

“Lawrence Kasdan cares.”

“Lawrence Kasdan doesn’t read your column.”

(Whether or not “Empire” screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan reads my column could not be verified by press time.)

At first glance, making movies about the newspaper business seems an apropos alternative. The relative dearth of such flicks, however, suggests that audiences respect the genre as much as canaries do cage-liner.

I asked managing editor Tim Omarzu, “Which newspaper movie do you prefer, ‘All the Presidents Men’ or ‘Fletch?’”

“I never saw ‘Fletch,’” he responded. “But I saw ‘Caddyshack’ a bunch of times. In terms of getting the most for your entertainment dollar ‘Caddyshack’ is way better than ‘Lost in
Translation,’” he said sagely. “It’s got great social commentary about class struggle and…”

“Dude, we’re talking about newspaper movies, man.”

“Yeah, but remember the Baby-Ruth in the pool? Comedy gold, my friend.”

I actually began writing a newspaper movie, but due to my yen to explore the interiority of the characters, it amounted to a bunch of people sitting at desks staring at computer screens under a heap of voice-over. I’ve since reshaped the project as a novel, which has led to some social unease between my colleagues and me – especially when I try to capture their snappy repartee in my notebook and ask them to repeat their better lines.

An actual exchange:

“I’m saving my money for when the revolution comes, man.”

“I’m hoarding cigarettes. After the economy collapses, tobacco will be worth way more than your paper money.”

But what does a filmmaking newspaperman horde for the revolution? A sap would say “moments,” a realist would say “cigarettes.” I’m inclined to think I’d be part of the revolution or, on the flipside, one of its casualties (guys like me are usually rounded up at the start of such endeavors) so I’ll leave the hoarding to my newsroom pals. And take a 10 percent commission.