Sunday, March 15, 2009

Leeches on the Ass of Humanity

I have been around rock and Roll. I have met governors and senators and presidential candidates. But I have never seen craziness like I did yesterday.

Yesterday Hanna and I worked as extras on “Salt”, the new Angelina Jolie film. Mostly, it meant standing around outside in the cold pretending to be part of a news crew at a state funeral, freezing my butt off (I was more poorly dressed than anyone else on set), getting a mild case of hypothermia and frost bite, and shredding my back. Good thing I had my new LL Bean boots to wear. Holding was in the Marriot on Lex. Checking us in and out was a chore, and we never got to go back to holding except for lunch. But it was fun!

There were 800 extras, including a military honor guard, pall bearers, mourners, spectators, news people, Secret Service, and cops. Liev Schreiber was in there somewhere, but nobody seemed to care. It was at St. Bart’s, right next to the Waldorf Astoria (the only time I ever get over to the Waldorf is during NASCAR week). The procession included three limos, a hearse, an SUV, six motorcycle cops, five squad cars, and the NYPD pip and drum core. There were also four mounted police moving around in the background. They had blocked off Park running North and were locking it down running south during takes. Occasionally some bozo would try to turn East on 50th right into the cops standing there, and honk, expecting them to move the hearse, squad cars, and horses blocking the road. (most of the time the road was open, but sometimes it was blocked and traffic was being directed to turn south onto Park). I saw one guy in a Mercedes get mad, flip the cop off, refuse to move, finally move, then come around ten minutes later and repeat the entire dance.

But the craziness came from the paparazzi. I didn’t even notice them at first, but as the day went on, like cockroaches, they started coming out. The paparazzi were supposed to be confined to a couple of pens set up by the police, but they tried as best they could to ignore that. The fake press (us) was placed on the two traffic islands in the middle of Park Avenue across from the hotel and the church on either side of East 50th street. Every once in awhile, paparazzi would try to come in and mingle with us. Nobody knew where Angelina was or what she was doing. We kept looking at the people in the limos, assuming she was one of them, and so did the paparazzi, but it became clear that she wasn’t. We were told no to let the paparazzi in and to tell a pa if any of them showed up. I told one of them who showed up that he wasn’t’ supposed to be here and he said “what, this is just for the legit press?” I realized he thought we were all real. “No, this is the fake press. We’re actors and you are standing in the movie set.” “Oh.” She smiled, and walked away. But I watched him all day and he was one of the pushiest around. I heard later he was from TMZ. At one point a paparazzi appeared next to me. I heard one of the other extras say “Hey, you can’t be here.” I turned around to find a paparazzi getting all up in his face. I said “He’s right. You can’t set up here.” The paparazzi got belligerent. He looked at me and said “What do you make? Eight dollars an hour? You take your job that seriously?” The PA in charge of us was waking by and we called for him. The other extra pointed the guy out and the PA said “you can’t be here.” The paparazzi tried to give the PA lip but the PA just threatened to get a cop (there were two cops there doing double duty—real cops in uniform working as extras).

Late in the afternoon things started to get noticeably more tense. More and more paparazzi tried to jump the police lines. The cop assigned to deal with them started shouting. Our PA came over to us and said “Ok, we’re about to bring out our star. Remember the focus isn’t on her it’s on the procession. She’s going to be across the street from the church. Ignore that. Just look over here. And don’t do anything to make her security nervous.” The paparazzi seemed to sense it, because they all started jockeying for position. Then a back SUV appeared, driving the wrong way up 49th street, having come from the Waldorf’s drop off bay. It parked right next to the director’s station and stayed there for twenty minutes. Burly security guard surrounded it. A couple of people went up and talked through the window to the driver. There was a delay while we got one of the fake news people back in position. When we were ready to go the door to the SUV opened and Angelina stepped out. She kept her head down and rushed to the set, surrounded by her security. Once in the crowd of extras she couldn’t be seen any more. We shot six quick takes while she was there (might have been five) of her watching the procession. After the first take an extra on the sidewalk in front of the Waldorf collapsed. All the paparazzi on that side of the street (there were probably fifteen or twenty), swung their lenses around and started snapping her. The crew brought an ambulance in, they loaded the woman up, and took off. It took just over five minutes to get her cleared. But it still made crowd (read paparazzi) control a bit harder. Some of the Paparazzi were crossing back and forth between the pen on the East side of the street to the pen on the West side of the street to get better shots. After Angelina’s last take they started to move her toward her SUV again and the paparazzi who were in the middle of the intersection rushed her car. The cops and security guards threw themselves in front of them. More paparazzi started to jump the barricades. The cops yelled “Clear the road!” and the SUV (which had turned around at some point), sped off down the hill with security running along side and in front, racing the 120 yards to the underground entrance to the Waldorf, where it turned in. All the while the paparazzi were going crazy. It was truly a feeding frenzy. A couple of them got arrested, one for climbing up on one of the fake news vans to get a better shot. A few extras were grumbling that Angelina keeps herself so aloof (I’ve actually only ever met one movie star who like to hang with the extras, that being David Warner, not an A-lister but a really great guy). Me, I felt sorry for her, and I totally understood why she had as much security as a pope or a president (she has been called “Queen of the World” recently, and you can see why). The fans and over eager extras would be hard enough to manage, but the paparazzi were insane. It is easy to hate them—and easy to see how they killed Princess Diana (and after yesterday there is no doubt in my mind who is responsible for that).

Our celebrity culture feeds on people. Fans develop deep emotional ties to people they have never even met, and emotionally they desire that to be reciprocated. They are often shocked when it is not—not consciously, but emotionally. Rejection is rejection. Others get jealous of wealth and fame. Most are simply adoring, Many love the spectacle and sparkle. Others worship. And all of these love a fiery crash. Either with outrage or joy they yearn for a scandal, a tragic death, they long to see the king fall. Maybe this is what Aristotle was taking about when he talked about catharsis. The pity and the terror of the celebrity train wreck. And the chorus in all of this is the paparazzi—they are our eyes and our ears, they represent us and our desires in our pursuit of fame. They are our surrogates, and their feeding frenzy comes from the money the magazines will pay for pictures that we will consume—feeding symbolically on the bodies of our idols, eating the flesh of our golden calves.


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