Swimming With the Sharks Up the River Styx: A Skeptic’s Vision of an Artist’s Afterlife
A major part of my morning routine - other than reading the news, snarling at the sorry state of humanity and guzzling a tureen of high-octane java juice to throw open the sluices of my neural floodgates - is to play what I call the “What-If Game”. Before the onslaught of the day’s complications interfere with and bog down my thinking, it’s the time where I entertain and intuitively assimilate, correlate, anticipate and make connections between otherwise disparate, unrelated data, unlikely juxtapositions and remote associations. In other words, before I sally forth into that big, bad world as an adult with all its attendant responsibilities and encumbrances, I set aside for myself the air and the space to play with ideas as a child would with a penny in his pocket. It’s really much more than a mere indulgence of my whimsy - it actually produces some of my more original concepts and insights, stuff that enriches the quality of my work (thus proving that the boundary between play and work is artificial at best and a total lie at worst - yet another misguided hangover from the Industrial Revolution).
Of the many ponderables that are routinely fed into the hopper of my wood-chipper of a brain for processing are the various and sundry absurdities of the human species. Take for instance, the belief in an after-life in general and a belief in a Christian one in particular. When I was twelve, I’d already arrived at the conclusion that this belief system is little more than a vain, self-serving delusion created and perpetuated by a fear of mortality and a need for pro-survival social bonding. The Christian version of the after-life, with its emphasis on judgement, damnation and reward, has always exhibited glaring inconsistencies. A Christian after-life just doesn’t cut the mustard, logically and ethically speaking. Besides, isn’t beating the billion-to-one odds of even being born enough? Isn’t beholding this universe in all its mystery and majesty during the course of one lifespan enough to instill an overwhelming sense of gratitude without an insatiable hankering for an extension to it? And let’s not forget, the people who desire an eternal after-life often have squandered their potential the most in a material world that rarely affords us second chances at all.
"But what if you're wrong, Curt?" my “good Christian” fundamentalist critics would howl in an ecstasy of delicious Schadenfreude, drooling at the prospect of seeing my soul roil in shrill, shrieking agony for eternity whilst they sit perched contently on the edge of Paradise looking down, taunting me with: “HA, HA, HA! WE TOLD YA SO, ASSHOLE!” How very Christ-like of them. Who’d want to spend eternity with such self-righteous buzz-kills like them anyway? God save me from “good Christians”.
But for the moment, let’s entertain the premise that their cosmic vision is correct and mine is wrong; that there is a supreme master intellect, a Divine Watchmaker who created the Known Universe . . . . and whose own springs are wound just a bit too tight. That supreme being - who suspiciously reflects the anti-social personality disorders of his followers - is a petty, paranoid, sadistic, vindictive and arbitrary bully; a deity of love and mercy who keeps an enemies list that would be the envy of J. Edgar Hoover and enjoys nothing more than sending tornadoes down to flatten trailer courts in Kansas and watching little children die of stage four leukemia.
So, yes . . . . let’s follow this premise through to its logical conclusion with the same ruthless zeal and merciless logic that Sherman’s army employed in their march to Atlanta! Let’s play the “What-If Game” - the Scorched Earth Signature Home Version!
My favorite adage from Carl Sagan’s "Baloney Detection Kit"- an indispensable guide to detecting con jobs, logical fallacies and poor critical thinking - is: "Extraordinary Claims Demand Extraordinary Evidence." If a statement can't pass this criterion, then it doesn't get further consideration from me. It gets filed under D for Drivel and skewered in a Curt Chiarelli Theater of the Absurd production of Mephistopheles Meets Franz Kafka and the Three Stooges on Their Way to an Evil Dead Film Festival. The aisle seat awaits you, Dear Reader . . . .
Okay, so I receive the worst review of my career from the Big Arts Critic in the Sky and I’m cast into Hell. It follows, of course, that all the other skeptics will be down there - and you couldn’t find a more motley bunch to spend your eternity with too - slaving away in a sleazier, lower-rent version of the Hollywood nightmare factory. President Calvin Coolidge was wrong when he quipped that the business of America is business - the business of America has always been business-as-usual. So it goes in this life, so it goes in one that follows. I have no doubt that the similarities between the City of Angles and The Inferno will be so striking that most long-time L.A. natives will make the transition between this plane of existence and the afterlife without a hiccup. And I’m not even talking about the effects of global warming either.
As a case in point: someone forgot to tell Frank Sinatra that you're not supposed to have a swinging good time in Hell. Old Blue Eyes and his fellow charter members of the Rat Pack have started a Vegas-style night club and casino called Circle Nine. There, the booze flows freely, like the morals of the bouffanted and beehived succubae who vapidly loiter at the bar. (Ring-a-ding-ding, baby!) Everything is teal and glinting chrome, Swank cuff-links, skinny ties, gin martinis, Brylcreem, tensile wit and hard-boiled banter. Sammy Davis, Jr. and his band kill every night, the Steak Tartarus is to die for and everyone chain smokes like a chimney thanks to Hell's relaxed import restrictions on Phillip Morris products.
Predictably, where Frank goes his Mob connections follow. The black-market is thriving and Sam Giancana, being the good free market capitalist that he is, is working overtime to meet the demand: racketeering with the Teamsters Local #666 and providing all the old, familiar vices at new, extortionate prices. The Mafia's only competition for a total monopoly on vice in Hell is the "legit topside” corporations like Microsoft, Amazon.com, Disney and the Vatican. They can afford larger bribes to Hell's power brokers to gain union concessions and rubber stamp new gaming licenses. In a supreme irony, the King of Corruption's own realm has now been corrupted and subverted by its own inmates. The Lord of Flies has finally confronted a force more evil than his own: neo-liberal economics. Now, ain't that a kick in the head.
Meanwhile, back at Hell’s première movie production company, Screwtape Studios (its slogan: “Combining Bad Citizenship With Even Worse Production Values”), Ernest Hemingway is put in charge of supervising the Writing Department and keeping the writer's bungalow fully stocked with reams of foolscap, cases of red litho crayons, typewriter ribbons, cigarettes and contraband premium spirits. Gore Vidal hits on F. Scott Fitzgerald, but Fitzgerald is too preoccupied trying to get validation from William Faulkner who's off on a bender with Christopher Hitchens and is so bombed out of his skull that he couldn't give a shit about anything. While Dalton Trumbo sits naked in a bath tub filled with Benzedrine tablets doing fuck-all, Norman Mailer spends his time being chased around the lot by Sonny Liston. (Tough guys may not dance, but they do run like a motherfucker.) Alarmed, head of production, Irving Thalberg tries to micro-manage his department and Hemingway responds by punching him in the mouth.
The chief executive apostates, tired of listening to Michael Medved's incessant kvetching about the injustice of being condemned to Hell for white-washing America's abysmal record on slavery and racism, hand him a soporific to get him out of their hair: he is assigned to head up a censorship task force to restore decency and wholesomeness to the film industry. The vaults of Hell ring with ironic laughter. Censors create a respectable career out of psychosis by confusing ideology with reality. For Medved, Hell now becomes a career psychotic's vision of Heaven. His natural talent for being an obtuse, anile prig quickly makes itself felt in Hell's expatriate film community when he agitates for a “less controversial, more wholesome sitcom remake” of Pollyanna. As a result, the gluttons in Hell's Third Circle are sent spiraling into a diabetic coma as Walt Disney’s cryogenically frozen head whizzes around spewing a stream of invective that would blister the neck of a Marine Corps drill sergeant.
Not content to create his own projects, Medved devotes most of his time and energy towards destroying the work of other artists instead. As a case in point: Rod Serling, Paddy Chayefsky, Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont and Harlan Ellison have written one hundred seasons for a new Twilight Zone series reboot. A sublime, startling and towering achievement in the history of the art form, its courageous and penetrating insights into the human condition inflame Medved’s pinched, parochial sensibilities . . . . and his envy. Using an incantation given to him by the poltergeist of Anthony Comstock, he causes the ink on the pages of their manuscripts to disappear as soon they’re typed. This stunt proves to be his undoing. While Rod, Paddy and the rest of the staff writers simmer in a stew of bitterness and betrayal, Ellison goes full-tilt boogie ape-shit. Swearing vengeance, he goes on a rampage, breaking into Medved’s censorship office and dismembering the legion of blue-pencil mummies who staff it with a McCulloch chainsaw, spewing plumes of gray dust everywhere. When he finally catches up with a whining and squealing Medved, he decapitates him and shoves his head up his own ass. He is seen wandering around for months afterward in this state, begging for someone - anyone! - to extract his head from the declivity of his posterior. No one obliges him, of course; instead, they merely guffaw in passing.
And Hemingway responds by laughing his ass off and handing Harlan the gasoline can while Sonny Liston chases Norman Mailer around the lot.
Orson Welles will be there on the lot too, making a sprawling, multi-generational epic that goes grossly over budget and ends up wrested from his control. You can hear his booming, basso profundo voice echoing down the corridors, bickering with his assigned producers - the shades of William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies - over rights to the final cut. On set catering is provided by Orkin Pest Control (the Gotham sewer rat shish kebab glazed with honey mustard strychnine and the German cockroach praline are particular favorites amongst both cast and crew) with libations offered courtesy of Paul Masson wine . . . . all of which were served well before its time. In the middle of the shoot his lead actor, Joseph Cotten is snatched away by a winged serpent and replaced with William Shatner. Several complex tracking shots are ruined by rolling blackouts, provided courtesy of Ken Lay and his crack team at Enron who are now manning the power stations down in the Nether Regions.
If production was a trauma, then post-production is a travesty. Editing is performed by Ed Wood, Jr. He is an eager, good-natured menace and Orson's degraded three hour masterpiece is whittled down to a half hour running time. Adding insult to injury, Ed tries to flesh out the plot gaps in this now-disemboweled narrative by inter-cutting a U.S. Army V.D. training film into the footage. Bernard Herrmann's magnificent score is swapped out with a soundtrack featuring the “vocal stylizations” of Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber. The dialogue recordings are re-dubbed in an obscure Slovenian regional dialect with vintage 1932 Westrex mono sound equipment and the unconformed negative is transferred to nitrate stock and left, decomposing and forgotten, next to an ammunition dump just outside of Fallujah at the height of summer.
Joseph Goebbels and Edward Bernays have been put in charge of the film’s marketing campaign. As a publicity stunt, they hire “contemporary artist” Damien Hirst to create an installation “piece” in the movie theater lobby for the film’s première: a diamond-studded, 24 karat gold-plated turd floating in a ten thousand gallon tank filled with toxic run-off from the Love Canal super fund site. The “piece” is unanimously embraced as a “work of supreme genius” and stimulates a lively discussion in hushed, reverential tones . . . . even as the metaphor it makes soars right over the heads of the wealthy celebrity guests invited to this gala event.
And Hemingway responds by punching Goebbels in the mouth and shooting Hirst in the chest with a Greener harpoon gun while Sonny Liston chases Norman Mailer around the lobby.
The crowning indignity to this whole debacle arrives when the local field office of the I.R.S. audits Orson for tax evasion. He is forced to hire the staff of Price Waterhouse as his tax attorneys.
Elsewhere on the lot, Morgan Freeman will be working on another shoot, doing take after take of reading the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area Telephone Directory. Since this is Morgan Freeman we're talking about, he can make even this exercise in sheer, skull-numbing ennui as spellbinding as any thriller, but there's a big fly in the ointment. Or, rather, a small one with a big chip on both shoulders.
As the cast and crew are about to discover, the meanest things come in the smallest packages. Morgan’s director (surprise!) is a lesser demon of Hell with a greater Cecil B. DeMille complex. Even though he wears lifts in his riding boots, he measures in at only four foot, nine inches tall. Inversely proportionate to his height, his ego has more than a few unsettling similarities to the Hindenburg: both are Leviathan-sized, fragile and inflated with hot, combustible gas. One hundred thousand, nine hundred and three takes and gallons of Pepto-Bismol later, Freeman still fails to satisfy our Panavision Napoleon's arcane quest for the unobtainable and is fired. Because our peerless leader is now in a particularly foul mood, he has his phalanx of attorneys sue Freeman for violation of contract and emotional distress. He is then replaced with George Clooney.
Clooney wants profit points on the gross and a more collaborative relationship with our Little Corporal of Celluloid and he, in turn, is summarily (and literally) shit-canned in favor of Bill Maher who just wants to kick back and smoke some reefer with the crew. Fed-up with this arrogant control freak's tantrums, he tells the director to go fuck himself and Maher is turned into a smoldering lump of pumice. In a rage, the director lobs Maher's remains across the soundstage and accidentally knocks over one of the flats, which triggers a domino effect that collapses several other sets, throwing off the shooting schedule by two centuries.
"I want the fucking Wrist! Get me The Wrist! Where is that tweedy, shit-spackled Muppet fart? Get his miserable motherfucking ass down here, fucking PRONTO!" the director barks at an even-lesser demon of Hell, his “personal assistant”; his combination drug dealer, chauffeur and all-around henchman.
(Never missing an opportunity to find new expressions of contempt for its artists, a “wrist” is one of the more demeaning bits of demotic coined by the film industry. It denotes the lowest members in the hierarchy of the production designer's team: the pre-production illustrator and storyboard artist. The received wisdom in Tinsel Town is that a hack who draws pictures for a living is not only a lower form of life, but a fraction of one. Thus, diminishing and reducing an artist’s humanity down to a portion of their anatomy that serves a soulless, prostituted, mechanical function is akin to calling a porno actress a cunt. The analogy is a perfect one. The insult becomes even more pungent when you realize that I'm actually the production designer assigned to this Sunday night, Disease-of-the-Week, Movie of the Damned. What can I say? There's No Business Like “Ho” Business.)
After my morning routine of balancing the department budget and dumpster-diving to economize on building costs, I arrive on set just as our glorious vest pocket auteur is finishing up his orgy in the port-a-potty with a bevy of Silent-Era vamps, amongst them Clara Bow, Theda Bara and Louise Brooks, while snorting lines of cocaine off the caterpillar eyebrows of Joan Crawford. Barging through the door with veins pulsing in his bull neck and sparks snorting from his flared nostrils, he tears up the twenty-five set designs I slaved over the night before and then pisses on them. His urine is concentrated sulphuric acid and my artwork dissolves into a puff of acrid smoke. “Hey, pencil dick, you call this steaming mound of monkey turds art?! My familiar could do a better fucking job with a fucking brush shoved up his ass and his sphincter controlling the fucking brush strokes!” After I'm tasered, beaten with rubber truncheons, dragged off the set by a squad of imps and thrown into a lake of hyena vomit he quietly tells the production manager to use his black arts to reconstitute my drawings, build the sets exactly as I designed them and then have the original art matted, framed and hung in his office by the end of the next epoch. My signature is erased and replaced with that of the director's and the pieces are later sold at Sotheby's for a handsome price and to great acclaim.
And Hemingway responds by punching me in the mouth while Sonny Liston finally catches Norman Mailer and pounds his head into the lot.
The more things change, the more they stay the same - in this life or the next. Still, things could be worse. I could go to Heaven and be trapped for eternity as a guest with Jerry Falwell, Tiny Tim and Zsa Zsa Gabor on a celestial re-run of The Merv Griffin Show. It makes the prospect of rotting away quietly in a pine box seem preferable by comparison.
Copyright 2018 © Curt C. Chiarelli