S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 27 July 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 
 


Hit & Run CCXXXVII

 

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Comedy giant Martin Lawrence spent part of last summer in a coma, after succumbing to heatstroke while jogging under eight layers of clothes. This summer, Charlie Rose's favorite funnyman is in Massachusetts, filming a comedy warily entitled What's the Worst That Could Happen? under the direction of career hack Sam (George of the Jungle) Weisman. If there's one thing Lawrence has an unrivaled ability to communicate to audiences, it's that comedy is not pretty. From Bad Boys to Big Momma's House, Lawrence has shown that the sweat and toil that alchemically combine to form the canned gas we know as boffo comedy should be right up there with the money — on the screen. Whether Martin Lawrence has been sexually harassing a co-star, breaking a bottle over a head at a bachelor party, or just doing a little stupefied, armed wandering in LA, moviegoers can be sure of one thing: Martin Lawrence will deliver top-notch movie laughs no matter what the cost to his own psyche or reputation. But how much should it cost his co-workers? A crew member in idyllic summertime New England spoke to Suck from the set of What's the Worst That Could Happen? — on condition of anonymity, of course.


Have any of the crew members had a chance to interact with the man Entertainment Weekly described as "closer to the spirit of Bozo than Peter Sellers?"

If you're working on a set, you know, the crew bumps into each other all the time. You're always in somebody's way, everybody's always all over the place, everybody has different things they're trying to get done in this one small area. So you're always excusing yourself, because it's just understandable that you might bump into somebody or something might happen. One crew member came close to bumping into Martin — didn't actually make contact with him, but someone from Martin's entourage came up and said, "You almost bumped into Martin." And he goes, "Oh, I did? I didn't know that." So the guy from the entourage goes, "Yes, you did and you're gonna have to apologize." He said, "I'm gonna have to apologize to him? I didn't even bump into him." "Yes, you're going to have to apologize." So then the crew member went to apologize to Martin. You know, just for the sake of his next paycheck, he swallowed all of his pride and goes up to apologize to him. And Martin puts up his hand and looks the other way, like, you know, "Talk to the hand," and doesn't say anything. Another time, we were about to roll, and someone in the camera department was putting the I.D. slate up in front of the camera and Martin was positioned underneath the camera and then there was a change and the director spoke and Martin went to face or look at the director and he hit his head on the I.D. slate, which was right above him. So for that, the camera department crew member was told that he had to leave the set. He had to go home for the day, and it was unclear at that point whether he was gonna still have his job or not. And then when they called him up and told him he could come back, they told him he's not allowed to be on set while Martin is on set at any time for the duration of the shooting.

What does he do, then, for his job, since he's in the camera department? Doesn't he need to be on set?

Someone else does his job and he has coffee.

So he's getting paid to linger and have coffee?

Right.

What happened when he accidentally bumped Martin with the slate? What did Martin do?

He had his script in his hand and the camera was rolling, and he gestured to the camera with his script rolled up tightly in his fist, and then he left, and he didn't return for four hours. At about 15-to-25 thousand dollars per minute to have a crew in one place and a set all up, that cost the production an incredible amount of money. And this is a frequent thing that he does. If he gets upset for any reason, he just leaves, and doesn't come back, and goes and plays basketball or hangs out in one of his trailers.

So Martin never talks to anyone on the crew, even when he's mad? He only talks to the director? Does he talk to the other actors?

He doesn't ever talk to anybody on the crew. I did see him sort of yukking it up with Danny DeVito.

He talks to DeVito when the camera's not rolling?

Yeah, but not to anybody else; unlike DeVito, who talks to everybody and anybody and wants to know people and have fun and stuff. After Martin left set that day for four hours after he hit his head, one of his entourage came back to the set and made a speech to the crew as everybody was sitting around for four hours waiting to work, and the entourage guy said to the crew, "We have to explain this to everybody: Martin is very approachable, but you can't talk to him." And then he went on and on about how you have to be careful and how difficult Martin's job is and how we must give him the room and space he deserves to do his job properly.

These entourage guys are not actually members of the crew — they're personal employees of Martin Lawrence?

I believe so, yeah. They stay with him all the time, I mean all the time. They must be his employees, although I'm not sure where their paychecks come from.

Do they have any role in the actual filmmaking?

Well, they do the jobs that you're supposed to do whenever you have to interact with Martin. Instead of you doing it, they will do it. So instead of the prop person handing Martin Lawrence his props and explaining to him anything he might need to know — like in the last scene, what was he holding and which direction the bag was facing — the prop person explains this to someone from his entourage, who then hands Martin the prop and explains to Martin what the prop person has just said to him.

Does the entire crew have to speak to Martin through his assistants?

Anyone at my level, anyone under the level of the director. Even the assistant director speaks to Martin through someone from Martin's entourage.

What about the hair and makeup people? Does he talk to people who actually have to touch him?

The assistants talk to them. The hair and makeup people actually do work on him, but they were told that they're not allowed to be on set when we're shooting. So, like, when you prepare for a scene and before the first take is shot, they could be there, but as soon as shooting begins, they're supposed to be off set, and they're not allowed to be fiddling with him or touching him between takes, which is very unusual.

Normally, the hair and makeup people will interact with the actors between takes?

Yes, because if the actor is acting and moving and during that time he rolls up his cuff or changes the length of his tie or tugs it, then you have to get him back to Position Number One so that everything starts as if it's the beginning of that scene and continues smoothly from the last one, which may have been shot two days ago or whenever.

So can we look forward in this film to a lot of continuity errors that'll make fans of the Internet Movie Database's Goofs section happy?

It's a possibility.

How does the entourage protect Martin on a typical day of shooting?

It's announced that Martin is coming to the set in the next few minutes — I don't know what we're supposed to do, we're just supposed to be aware that he's coming — and once he and his entourage appear on set, there's this vibe like God has just appeared. It's him and his group of seven or eight people who surround him at all times. Some walk in front of him to make sure that there's nothing he can trip over, to make sure that a path is cleared, and the rest of the entourage just kind of mills about and they keep him surrounded.

What are the people in the entourage like?

I haven't had too, too many direct interactions with them. They say, "Excuse me, we're coming through now" if you're up ahead of where Martin might want to walk.

Is the entourage treated well on the set?

His entourage has a trailer of their own. Martin has four trailers. Most $20 million actors have one trailer. He has four, and he's the executive producer and he's getting paid I think between $14 and $16 million. His entourage has a trailer, he has a trailer, he has a trailer that's a workout room, and then he had a fourth trailer added just so they could enclose an area completely with trailers so that they could put a basketball court up, and so that they could play basketball in-between shooting while the crew is setting up. So then they had the grips go over and flag off this area with opaque cloth flags so that people going by wouldn't be able to see what's going on through the corners where the trailers meet. These four trailers are squared off to each other.

They're just playing basketball?

They're playing basketball, but they don't want anybody to see.

Why do you think Martin's so sensitive? Is it just because he's a comic genius? Is he a method actor who can't break character?

I think it's because he's not a comic genius. But he wants the power of a comic genius, so he's sort of creating this facade. He looks like a Nation of Islam minister, with all of his entourage all around him, but really, you know, I've worked with tons of actors who just come to set and it's no big deal. They're just coming to work like anybody else. But he's creating this huge facade, like it's empowering or something. It makes him feel good, I guess. The character he's playing is dressed very fine, and he is just so immaculate in every detail of his appearance. But once we're set up and we're shooting, and we take the first take, often the director of photography at some point will notice that something will be better if he changes the angle or the light, or puts a filter on, or does, you know, what his job is, which is to make sure everything looks photographically correct as far as lighting goes, by, you know, industry standards. But when Martin's on set the d.p. is not allowed to change anything or take any time between takes to change any of the lighting positions, and so this causes a lot of tension and it's a big deal because it puts a lot of pressure on everybody, so there's always tension between the director and the director of photography.

Does Martin talk to the director of photography?

I've never seen him talk to him. Martin has alienated the crew whose job it is to make him look good and help him make a funny movie. He's really shot himself in the foot here. It's like he doesn't understand that he's pissed off the camera people, who can do their best to make him look good, or, you know, not. The rumor on the set is that he has a contract that guarantees any blemish that appears on his face has to be digitally removed, or his looks have to be enhanced digitally if he doesn't think he looks good. So maybe he doesn't care. I mean, the camera assistant he had banished is like the most competent camera assistant on the crew. It's like Martin Lawrence is King Ludwig. He's a combination of Joan Crawford and kind of a second-rate Puff Daddy. It's really embarrassing. He has a little video-viewing area that's flagged off just for him, too. No one else is allowed to watch the takes in his little area.

 
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Bush 2 may hate it when you call him Junior, but his choice of staid, mature, dull, Dick Cheney (Bush père's secretary of defense) as a running mate shows that the drip doesn't fall far from the oil well. Even Bush 2 couldn't deny that Cheney represents something other than hard numbers, cracking wise that he certainly didn't pick Cheney to sweep the three electoral votes in the former Wyoming congressman's home state. Cheney is there to offset Bush's status as a Rich Boy With The Keys To Daddy's Caddy. Certainly the five-time Vietnam era draft deferee brings both stature and credibility to the Bush campaign — provided all the excitement doesn't bring on his fourth heart attack. But to the untrained eye, the juxtaposition of the two looks remarkably like a boy driving with his learner's permit in the company of one of his dad's creepy business partners. And if modern campaign logic involves offsetting the candidate's personality deficiencies rather than his political ones, where does this leave the staid, mature, dull, Gore? We're guessing he's still fuming that ABC beat him to Dennis Miller, but that he'll find someone soon.

 
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There are many reasons for Susan Sontag — the skunk-streaked author of Against Interpretation who's been called everything from "the lovely brave Minerva of a genuine new underground/avant-garde" to "the Mary Baker Eddy of intellectual chic" — to be miffed about the new, unauthorized biography Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon, by the husband-and-wife team of Baruch college English professor Carl Rollyson and freelance helpmeet Lisa Paddock. The couple dredges up every girl-girl sexcapade they can before settling in to harp for page after page about the long-term liaison between the "Dark Lady of American Letters" and Absolut Vodka Celebrity Series photographer Annie Leibovitz; they endlessly enumerate "the glib bootlegger of French modernism"'s countless dullsville contretemps with other writers during her PEN presidency; they imply that the relationship between "the sibyl of Manhattan" and publisher Robert Strauss isn't quite on the up-and-up; they paint both her ex-husband and her son as, respectively, a button-down blowhard and a foppish one; they relentlessly attempt to protect themselves from lawsuits by pointing out how many times "the belle dame sans merci of the literary world" defended freedom of expression against anyone who would malign it; they imply that, glamour-wise, her screen test for Andy Warhol just wasn't up to the level of Baby Jane Holzer's.

The biggest insult, however, comes in both the book's award-list intro and its appendix — a Walter-Benjamin-by-way-of-On Photography collection of stray remarks about "the Pasionara of the Left" that gathers one-liners aimed her way by everyone from Stormin' Norman Podhoretz to Kathy Ack-Ack-Acker. (And despite naysaying writers like those, we, with Carlos Fuentes, will always think of Sontag as "Our Erasmus.") Rollyson and Paddock start and end their tell-all with a few lines of dialogue lifted from that sub-Frank Tashlin, twilight-of-the-'80s, Spielberg-produced puppet show Gremlins 2: The New Batch:


The niceties, the fine points, diplomacy, standards, tradition — that's what we're reaching toward. We may stumble along the way but civilization, yes, the Geneva convention, chamber music, Susan Sontag, yes, civilization.

These lines, spoken by a super-genius gremlin in the voice of Tony Randall, are evidently supposed to legitimize Sontag in the mind of the kind of person who'd bother to pick up a beach-read biography of the culture critic and much-maligned novelist. The percentage of such people who have seen Gremlins 2 is no doubt small; for them, the citation will seem frivolous, if not downright pointless.

But maybe those aren't the people Rollyson and Paddock included it for. Future historians take note: Gremlins 2 is a well so deep you can drop your career down it and never hear a plunk. Formerly known only for its laff-riot criticisms of big business, the mediascape, and the mallification of downtown work spaces (and for being Zach Galligan's last stop before big-screen oblivion), Gremlins 2 now reveals itself, through the work of Rollyson and Paddock, as a motherlode text of cultural biography. Researchers on everyone from Donald Trump and Ted Turner to Sylvester Stallone and Leonard Maltin will want to dig with both hands into this side-splitting Joe Dante romp for the rich vein of cultural history that lies buried and forgotten there. Investigators dredging the culture for Al Lewis references and scholars of the early work of Julia Sweeney will not — we repeat will not — be disappointed. Gremlins 2 doesn't ignore those potential W.W. Norton & Company biography subjects, either.

A fresh viewing of the sequel that firmly lodged Gizmo the mogwai in the heart of our culture clearly reveals why Gremlins 2 leapt to mind as a kickoff and wrap-up point for the Sontag biographers: Phoebe Cates, with her cute black bob and smart, sci-fi tour-guide uniform, bears an uncanny resemblance to the Sontag of mid-'60s book jackets and Mademoiselle spreads (done at a time when Sontag was known affectionately as "our unofficial hostess of letters"). An extra interpretive layer is added if the viewer mentally substitutes Sontag for Cates throughout the movie, whether the scene features a gremlin throwing mashed potatoes on her blouse or a flustered Cates caught in a German Expressionist spider web. What else can the scene with Cates trapped in a plummeting elevator be a reference to other than Sontag's novel Death Kit, where a suicidal narrator is trapped in the dream-catacomb of the last minutes of his own life? How did Rollyson and Paddock miss this? And how did they miss that Sontag reference in The Simpsons, when Sideshow Bob — in the Tony Randall-esque voice of Kelsey Grammer — reminds us that "you don't have to be able to read to enjoy The Springfield Review of Books. Just look at these amusing caricatures of Gore Vidal and Susan Sontag."? What kind of academic knows Gremlins 2 but spaces on The Simpsons? We, with Our Erasmus, can only wonder, and chalk it up to sic vivitur.

 
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Every summer the Sucksters — mindful of the value of your entertainment dollar — try to recommend one motion picture to our readers. This year, we've been all but stumped by a dismal line of prosthetic romps, pseudo-histories and sons of Jesus. Most painful: a raft of allegedly state-of-the-art special effects that look dated before the credits have ended. The Perfect Storm's widely-praised oceanic vistas look to our weather eyes slightly less convincing than the Claymation sea in Mad Monster Party. And as for X Men's stubborn refusal to consign morphing to the dustbin of movie history, well... does any effect scream "1991" quite as embarrassingly as morphing? It's truly dispiriting to consider how many currently eye-popping effects extravaganzas will in ten years need to be re-released in analogue-remastered form.

Thus it's probably appropriate that the only movie we can really get behind is the one that's consciously aimed at four-year-olds. Thomas and the Magic Railroad has it all: a solid plot, Alec Baldwin's best performance since Glengarry Glenn Ross, a prominent (but alas, too brief) role for Russell Means, almost-Maoist exhortations on the importance of being useful, thrilling audience interaction, and best of all, the courage to stick with the Méliès-era anthropomorphism effects that help make the TV show Shining Time Station an enduring if inexplicable favorite among still-drooling viewers.

Our critical search for the key to Thomas's distinction led to the film's credit list, where we found Harvard's Dr. Ron Slaby listed as a "Child Psychology Consultant." Dr. Slaby, a child development specialist who helped develop the PBS show, allayed our one concern about the movie's sources of inspiration.


The movie's plot has Mr. Conductor (Baldwin) going through what seems like heavy withdrawal — getting antsy, falling asleep by the side of the tracks, basically turning into a bum — after he blows through his stash of "Magic Dust." Given the way Teletubbies was criticized for being a favorite of ravers, are you concerned that this will be interpreted as a drug reference?

I don't think young children will be thinking of that, and if adults are thinking that they're stretching. The magic dust is a magical force of vitality, not anything he ingests or eats. It's a life force, meant to represent in a visual way something that feeds your spirit, gives you confidence, gives you special ability and esprit de corps, if you will. So it's clearly not intended to connect with that, and if people see it that way it's a stretch.

There you have it. Safe for the kids, and highly recommended.

 
courtesy of theSucksters