Yeah, that's me face down in the swimming pool. Like most struggling screenwriters, I used to dream of the day I'd be floating fancy-free in my own pool, though I never thought that when that day came I'd be wearing a ruined kimono with three bullet holes in its back. And I never thought I'd be sharing the pool with a lot of ornamental carp, either. But that's Hollywood for you. It's changed since the old days.
When I first got here in '90, for instance, I used to hang around with a bunch of other broke writers at the water bars on Wilshire. Those were the days, slugging back Evian all night -- Pellegrino when we could get it -- and dreaming of the good times to come. Well, the water bars are all gone now. All you hear about out here these days is rice. My favorite water place became a rice house a while back. Schwab's Rice Bar serves 37 different varieties of the stuff, each kind with its own relative status. Well, that's always been the story, hasn't it? Status is a function of power, and out here, power is a wholly-owned subsidiary of money. Anyway, if it's water I want, I got all I can use here in this pool, don't I?
The pool I'm floating in belongs to one of this town's faded glories. Norma-san was a big star when Hollywood was an American town and reflected American values. She starred in some real classics: She was strangled in the fifth "Halloween," decapitated in the ninth "Friday the 13th" and disembowled in the eighth "Nightmare on Elm Street." She once told me, "Joe-san, back then we didn't need anybody's yen. We had razors."
Norma-san bought a big place on Sunset with the money she made. But then the parade passed her by. Not that she ever stopped waving at it. Even though you-know-who had bought the town and changed its style, Norma-san was always plotting her comeback. She'd been working on a script.
That's where I came in. I pulled into her driveway with a flat tire on a day when the cherry blossoms were just bursting into bloom, and she thought I was the gardener come to rake her sand into evocative, wave-like patterns. She even demanded to know why I was so late. I recognized her the minute I saw her.
"Hey, I know you," I told her. "You used to be big."
"I'm still big," she told me testily. "It's Hollywood that got small."
I let her remark slide. Anyway, I lied to her about being a big-shot writer.
"I do software," I told her during the tea ceremony. "Feature-length action-romance software."
"Huh?" she said.
"Movie scripts," I explained. I could see she'd been out of the action for a long time, as if the Lincoln Town Car I'd seen on blocks in her garage hadn't already told me that. In fact, I'd sold a piece of software once. It was a romantic comedy when I started working on it, but my agent talked me into making some changes. He said if I made the guy a Sumo wrestler, and turned his girlfriend into a kickboxer with a fatal disease, that the new bosses would love it. Like a lot of people, he was wrong about how the town was going to change. But then, he was just a 'salaryman,' with no imagination. In those early days, most of Hollywood lacked haragei, the art of understanding what other people are thinking. The place had no subtlety early on, just the usual vulgar Western exploitation; one of L.A.'s big bestsellers back then was a book called "Lose Weight Through the Art of Japanese Flower Arrangement." Well, you can't do business without haragei anymore. Still, Toshiba did option my Sumo wrestler story for six months.
Well, Norma-san figured that since I understood how the new game in town was played, maybe I could take a look at her script. Why not? I needed the yen, and I figured she was good for a few bowls of rice. I moved my stuff in.
The script was awful. Norma-san was trying to relive her glory days. Her story was about a maniac at large who's fixated on her. He chases her with an ax, extracts her teeth, that sort of thing. He usually catches up with her while she's having gratuitous sex. She must have seen me grimacing as I read through it.
"You think it's too violent, don't you?" she said, and I could almost hear the pride in her voice. "You can't take it because you've gone delicate and subtle. You've lost your guts, like everybody else in this town. Well I haven't, and neither have my fans. They've never forgiven me for abandoning them."
"Actually," I told her, "the violence is fine. We can even use more of it. But we'll have to make some changes. What's wrong with your script is, it's got no sense of purification."
I could see she didn't know what I was talking about. "Norma-san," I said, "I'll bet you haven't been to the movies in quite a while. Let's take the Town Car down off its blocks and go to the show. I think you'll learn something."
It was a Friday night, and Hollywood Boulevard was jammed with people who wanted to take a communal bath, play pachinko or go to one of the new karaoke bars where the customers get drunk and sing into microphones. Lots of people were waiting to get into the more exclusive rice bars. I could see them whiling away the time in line by comparing the custom-made chopsticks they'd picked up on Rodeo Drive. Chauffeur-driven Infinitis were double-parked in front of some of these places, while crowds of tourists hoped to catch a glimpse of the hot new Hollywood talento's, as the stars have come to be called. There were also roving gangs of Top-Knotters, as the new gangs from south-central L.A. are known (after their hair-do's); you want to be careful around them.
The first theater I tried was showing the latest Super Mario Brothers feature. After Sony and Matsushita bought into the studios for software purposes, Nintendo decided it didn't want to be left out, and picked up a studio and theater chain of its own. They program a lot of interactive stuff; each seat has a joystick, and it's interesting to see how the people in the audience fight to control the action. A number of "bashers" -- that's what they call critics of the new Hollywood order -- have warned that this kind of thing subverts traditional Western individualism in favor of a kind of emotional "group-think." I'm not so sure. It can be fun, but I didn't think it would do Norma-san much good.
The next theater I checked out was still playing "Red Sun," a '70s movie that featured Toshiro Mifune as a Samurai warrior in the old American West. People forgot about it for awhile but now they think it's a classic of prescience; it's lately been remade more times than even the ultimate Japanese film, "The Loyal 47 Ronin" -- which they've remade maybe 20 times. The original "Red Sun" has been running at the same theater for the last six years.
In fact, there is now a school of "Red Sun" scholarship, very hot among cinema professors who know which side of their film the emulsion's on. They analyze movies like "The Magnificent Seven," the American remake of "Seven Samurai," and "The Outrage," the American remake of "Rashomon," with the kind of hindsight that enables them to perceive a pattern of cultural borrowing that presaged the current state of things. To the extremists among them, Kurosawa's 1957 movie, "Throne of Blood" is an advance on its original, "Macbeth." Anyway, I didn't see how this would help Norma-san either.
The third theater was a benshi house. Cultural snobs love these places because, they claim, they're so pure and uncommercial. Benshi movies feature a commentator standing beside the screen explaining what's going on, as if you couldn't figure it out for yourself. (Okay, sometimes you can't.) The technique was borrowed from Japanese theater when movies were just starting in Japan, but even the Japanese stopped using benshi commentary many decades ago (a good thing, or they would never have developed continuity). Now benshi is considered very cool in Hollywood's avant-garde underground. Go figure out snobs.
I was beginning to despair. Oh, Universal Studio's "Gaijin Dolls" was playing, but that was a musical. So was a musical from Columbia Studios, "I Can't Get Noh Satisfaction." Nor did I have much heart for "Godzilla Meets the Hole in the Ozone Layer." There was an interesting "basher" play being staged, "What Makes Sony Run?" but I wanted to show Norma-san a movie.
Finally I found one. Grauman's Japanese Theater was running a political film series, featuring an actual Japanese movie from 1966 called, "When the Fetus Goes Poaching." I thought this might open Norma-san's eyes about how Hollywood was changing. It was a lurid choice, I admit, But then, what else would Norma-san understand?
In "Fetus," a guy who runs a department store has eyes for one of his salesgirls, and lures her to his place. As soon as she gets there, he puts on a pair of white gloves, ties her up and starts to torture her: razors, whips, the whole thing. You think you won't be able to stand any more of it, when suddenly one wall of the room turns into this big womb, and the guy gets sucked in. "Mother!" he shouts. Then the girl, even though she's a mess, starts to sing the guy a lullaby, and he falls asleep like a baby.
Norma-san didn't have much to say as we headed back out Sunset. "Is that typical?" she finally asked.
"No," I said while easing the big car around a curve, "they make all kind of movies over there, just like anybody else. It's just that they approach some things from a different perspective. Your stuff is too American; it's all random thrill stuff. You want post-buyout sex and violence, which is different. You want your character 'defiled.' Make her innocent at first, a girl scout or something. When the maniac comes along, her body betrays her innocence. She becomes 'polluted,' and can't help herself anymore. The rest of the story is a route to her purification. Purification is really important these days."
"I don't know," she said. "That sounds like a lot of trouble."
"Well, here's an alternative. Make the victim a mother who spent her whole life sacrificing for her children. The maniac is her ungrateful son."
"It's a stretch, but it could work. Mothers are very big under the new regime, especially when they've given up everything for children who later reject them. nowadays, you just can't overestimate the importance of mothers. We used to do those kind of tearjerkers, too. Remember 'Mildred Pierce'? Think it over: This has become an important genre since the buyout.
"I'm not going to do 'Mildred Pierce' with an ax."
"How about if the maniac thinks his victim is his long-lost mother?"
"Suit yourself. One last try: Make the guy on the loose a samurai."
"You mean give him a sword instead of an ax? I like it. At the end, I can cut off his head with it."
"You're missing the point. A samurai story at its best isn't just swordplay, it embodies seishinshugi, the victory of the spiritual over the material. That goes for the real martial arts stories, too.
"Does that mean I don't get to cut off his head at the end?"
"You can if it's with a good, spiritual hack."
"Of course," I mused, turning into the driveway, "you could do all of these stories at the same time. You know, the guy thinks he's dealing with his mother, the woman sees it as purification, the guy's mother thinks he's living by the code of the samurai, and the cops regard him as a maniac. Come right down to it, your script is almost like 'Rashomon.' In fact, the major difference between you and Kurasawa is cultural perspective.
"The fact of the matter, Norma-san," I said while shutting off the engine, "is that you're just not ready for prime time. You've got no inner sense of what's right anymore, no kan. You've got too much giri -- a sense of what you owe yourself -- but no sense of ninjo -- the stuff we owe to others. How can you write the new software? Where are you going to find dramatic conflict? Norma-san, the town's passed you by. I should have taken you to see 'The Loyal 47 Ronin.' You'd have learned something about group heroics. That's really hot. But the only version playing was the animated one with the 47 dogs, and I just saw it for the third time last Tuesday. Well, next time."
I started to get out of the car when I heard her icy voice. "Whadya mean I got no culture?" she said.
"That's not what I said."
"I heard you. My fans would have torn you to pieces for that."
"Fans, Norma-san? You've got no fans. They're probably all at a communal bath tonight. In the same tub."
"I still get letters!"
"Good. Then you don't need me. I'm going back to my place," I said. Then I saw the gun in her hand.
"No class, huh? With a list of credits like mine? You think I've been sitting on Sunset hugging my memories all these years so that you can come along and treat me like this? Anyway, you've still got a flat tire."
"No problem," I said with an empty smile. "I'll walk." I was backing away from the car, looking for something to hide behind.
"You want a victory of the spiritual over the material, buddy-san? Or how about a little purification? What do you think? Or maybe you just want your mama?"
I turned to run, but it was too late. Three shots exploded, and I tumbled into the pool.
Well, this is about where you came in. The cops fished me out in the morning. Funny how gentle people can be with you once you're dead.
As for Norma, the whole thing had unhinged her. The TV news video cameras gave her the idea that they were filming her awful script, and that she was on the set. "I've killed the maniac," she told a reporter. "This is how the story ends. I'm ready for my close-up now." Charles Paul Freund is an Outlook editor.