Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Mick Jackson | L. A. Story

mining for love
by Douglas Messerli

Steve Martin (screenplay), Mick Jackson (director) L. A. Story/ 1991

Mick Jackson’s L. A. Story is primarily a vehicle for Steve Martin and Victoria Tennant, and its humor, like Martin’s own stand-up comedian quips and his other writings, taking easy pot-shots at contemporary culture—in this case, Los Angeles-based—often falls flat. Yet his story of a “wacky” TV weatherman—since real weather seldom occurs in the sun-filled temperate L.A. basin, meteorologists often serve the dual role of on-line jokesters—Harris K. Telemacher (Steve Martin), a reference perhaps to Odysseys’ son, a man attempting to discover patriarchal news) whose girlfriend (Marilu Henner) is in search of a journey up the social ladder. Clearly bored by his relationship and the attendant luncheons and dinners he is forced to attend, Harris is quickly taken with the strangely gouache Londoner who appears late at a L. A. luncheon party, Sara McDowel, who has traveled to the US, apparently, to reconcile with her slightly snobbish and—as it later becomes apparent—gay (he conjures up Troy Donahue while having sex) ex-husband, Roland Mackey (Richard E. Grant). Her opening comments reveal everything:

                      Roland: Sara just got off a plane from London.
                      Trudi: Oh, you must be exhausted.
                      Sara: Yes, I’m shattered, but it’s nothing that some sleep and
                                a good fuck wouldn’t cure, as my sister used to say. Ha
                                ha ha. [Everyone stares]
                      Roland: You’ll have to forgive Sara.
                      Sara: Oh, it was just…a figure of speech. I’ve been on a plane
                               for twelve hours with a crying baby.

Drink orders, soon after, demonstrate the flat jokes of Martin’s Los Angeles satire:

                      Tom: I'll have a decaf coffee.
                      Trudi: I'll have a decaf espresso.
                      Morris Frost: I'll have a double decaf cappuccino.
                      Ted: Give me decaffeinated coffee ice cream.
                      Harris: I'll have a half double decaffeinated half-caf, with a twist of lemon.
                      Trudi: I'll have a twist of lemon.
                      Tom: I'll have a twist of lemon.
                      Morris Frost: I'll have a twist of lemon.
                      Cynthia: I'll have a twist of lemon.

      The story that follows, filled with a talking freeway sign, an hilariously empty-minded, Venice-inspired L. A. stereotype, SanDeE* (rambunctiously celebrated by Sarah Jessica Parker) whom he meets at a clothing store, and numerous cameo roles by other comedians, matter only as distractions to his growing infatuation with the tuba-playing journalist, Sara.

     Just as in most of L.A. films featuring rebels, Sara is a true eccentric in a world of innate outsiders who define themselves most notably by trying to “fit in,” parroting the inanity of a culture that has few true insiders. A bit like Woody Allen, Martin scatters his L. A. snipes in all directions, including Harris’ attempt to get a reservation for the outrageously pricey restaurant, L’Idiot, where he is told he must wait days for a 5:30 dinner, and, questioned by a Maître’d, a banker and others, is allowed only a few choices from the menu.

                                     Harris: [calling the restaurant] Hello, L'Idiot? Yes, I'd like to
                                     make reservations for two for Friday. Saturday? Sunday?
                                     Ah good. Eight-thirty. Five-thirty or ten-thirty? Um,
                                     five-thirty. Visa...I'm a weatherman... yes, I'm on TV!
                                     Renting... I just sold a condo... yes, in this "soft market"...
                                     well, I don't see how that's any of your... the low fifties.

When Roland later suggests the same restaurant, he is able to obtain a reservation for the same night.      

     At moments, Martin actually reaches into the heart of the culture, suggesting the complexity and difficulty of mining a world that is so resplendently deserted.

            Harris: There's someone out there for everyone—even if you need
                        a pickaxe, a compass, and night goggles to find them.

     Compared with those around them, the wacky journalists are models of sanity, as they ridiculously attempt to hook up with the wrong people, the interfering and bag-pipe loving freeway sign offering advice and moral insight. And why not? Hasn’t it been created to tell the masses what to do—to slow down, to take alternate routes?

      If Los Angeles is a paradise for outsiders—with little of permanence at its core ("Harris: Some of these buildings are over 20 years old.")then it is natural that Harris and Sara were meant for one another, true Angelenos unable to fit into anyone’s definitions of whom should love whom and how life should be lived. Off-screen Martin married Victoria Tennant in 1986, a relationship which ended, eight years later, in divorce.

Los Angeles, June 8, 2010
When we arrived in Los Angeles in 1994 the comedian Steve Martin, also a serious art collector, had already become involved in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, joining the Modern and Contemporary Council of Art and, later, becoming a trustee of the museum. Accordingly, after moving to the city, my companion Howard and I met Martin on several occasions. I think, at one point, Howard and he, along with Martin’s then-wife Victoria Tennant had lunch. The most memorable occasion with Martin that I had was a long conversation with him at the house of Richard and Dee Sherwood in Beverly Hills, I believe after the death of the noted lawyer, Dick.

     We talked about a great many things, but what I most remember is how basically shy and self-demeaning this audacious comedian was. On screen and television Martin seemed totally nonplussed, a man who could dress up as King Tut (a skit, in part, based on a LACMA show), put an arrow through his head, become a swinging Czech brother, or dance outrageously in a satiric homage to Fred Astaire. But in reality, he was a quiet, thoughtful man, more interested in discussing art and ideas than in drawing attention to himself. Our conversation on that one afternoon was, for me at least, a totally pleasant one, he standing in front by a huge silk Indian cloth that Dee had hung upon the wall, while Howard and I shared a friendly discussion with him. Unfortunately, we never encountered him after that.

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