by Michael Reiss
Ted leads an ostensibly decent life and visits his two kids on weekends, when he’s given his time. He’s been divorced for four years now, not for being an asshole, marriage just ended when the sex dried up. What Ted hates most are bitter crew members (“they should be grateful, very grateful, for their opportunities”) and people who speak ill of celebrities, especially speaking ill of celebrities who can’t handle the pressure.
But Ted hasn’t been making any inroads in his spiritual/personal progress “on the path” and blames “stupid people” (who are this nameless amorphous mass) for not creating the right vibrations on Earth and thus chaining him to a lower form of existence and less happiness. (Ted is paid quite handsomely for being a famous game-show host and actually donates money, through his accountant, to good causes – comes to a small percentage of his net and is tax-deductible, looks good, etc. The old story, gets his name on a plaque or a bench somewhere – a bench that has a bar in the middle, so it can’t be “napped on” by someone “temporarily unhoused” – Ted seems, at first glance, like a philanthropist and, well… )
Ted is not necessarily full of crap nor is he necessarily a coward. Just making a living. It’s just business. An honest living. “I’m not naïve,” he likes saying. “I plan for the future.” And he likes quoting famous and heroic politicians, especially the ones who’ve been martyred. “It’s not that I always have to look good, “ Ted says. “I just think that…” the future this and the future that. He speculates. Ted seems pretty cool and believes that there still might be communist plots. Is he flawed? Aren’t we all? Sure. Gosh, we all act like “real jerks” every now and then and say things we don’t mean. “I even used the N-word in anger once,” Ted admitted at a drunken lunch. “It’s not that I really hated the black person I called “N——“, I just kind of got a little possessed – I think I had food poisoning and might even have been in a black-out when I said that. It was all very confusing.” But this was before the fame and the big money.
Ted calls himself an atheist and a liberal but does believe somewhat in Buddhism, claiming he thinks that on a good day we’re all pretty connected to the “guru upstairs”. Ted even collects statues of the network of Buddhist and Hindu deities that he really hopes in his private moments are “out there somewhere” and he collected so many that he confuses the deity ornamental collectible statues, forgets which are Buddhist versus which are Hindu.
Ted’s prized friend is a sophomoric goofball named Adam Ranser, who makes wildly successful political comedies that are actually crude, offensive, and xenophobic and that’s just the good news about them. Adam’s films are filled with his ridiculous borderline talented cronies and mostly use toilet humor, especially farts and some kind of back-handed, distanced coprophilia to generate impulse laughs from the dumbed-down audiences who have nothing else to laugh at. Adam and Ted agree that Adam is highly talented, however. Ted is pissed that Adam is a Republican (albeit a secular Republican) and “razzes” Adam when the chance arises, usually ending in some kind of merriment or grab-ass.
Adam compares himself to Chaplin and Keaton and thinks the critics, the good ones, who sometimes waste their time panning some of his more noble efforts, are just jealous, disenfranchised socialists who want to discredit him because he’s a billionaire. Some people in the industry feel that Adam really didn’t formulate this opinion himself, perhaps, they say, it was derived from his agent or Ted or someone a little more sophisticated. Ted agrees with Adam about the critics but knows that some of these critics, from the N.Y. Times, etc. are actually “pretty smart.” He doesn’t voice this knowledge to Adam because Adam has been known to be prone to violence when his passionate hatred of critics is disavowed in his presence and former friends of Adam (from the satirical TV show where he got his start) fear his brutal outbursts and stay away from him as a general rule. Adam does have a crew of loyalists, most of whom are established but not legitimate talents. Needless to say, the network of entertainers is complex and paradoxical, they protect their own, when not eating them alive. But there are the periodic ritual career sacrifices of untouchables, even and, especially, when there is no apparent reason.
Ted is just glad he hasn’t accidentally pissed Adam off being that Adam is considered to be a national treasure by some, largely due to American vastness as a culture and, well, huge, outrageously huge, box-office results. Adam’s attempts at art-house movies, numbering three, all resulted in lukewarm to poor reviews and all featured Adam as “angry” and “misunderstood” and usually quite “eccentric”, which helped make the murmurs of his being a secular Republican seem all the more eccentric, once again, and almost hip. In fact, Adam had some questionable ties to politicians, Republicans all, who were becoming increasingly unpopular despite millions in PR and other misleading propaganda and were somehow protected by powerful interests and “international appearance” vanity, immune to due-process. There was a strange and unspoken bipartisan consensus that most national political figures should not be imprisoned for legitimate legal issues or crimes because it would just disgrace our national image abroad.
Meanwhile, Adam and his Republican connections were the laughing-stock in Europe, in Asia, and in Israel, especially, being that in these countries they were all intelligent enough to see through the transparent political stunts, and that American films, especially Adam’s (and his attempts at having political and social subtext), and other entertainers’ films also, were as crude and misguided as were the politics and policies of Adam’s Republican idols. Adam and Ted both secretly harbored political aspirations but both knew inside that they had too little on the ball to really handle “responsibility”, as such. They continued to convince themselves internally and very deeply that they could probably do a good job, if elected. No actual campaigns would ever emerge from these plaintive and narcissistic hopes. For either of them. But the money kept rollin’ in. It sure did.
Ted has more enemies than he realizes. Adam would have had more enemies but for the fact that even the Muslim Jihadists and various other extremists of which he sometimes makes fun in his films think he’s an American idiot, not smart enough to score on the infidel gauge and too pathetic and sad of a creature to need to worry about killing him. Adam and, well, all Americans, don’t know these things but, and this is true, it has been uttered that bin Laden himself thought actors like Adam and Tim Robbins and other overly passionate overly zealous brats were more likely to harm themselves on lawnmowers or overdose at a party than do any damage at all to the cause of the Jihad. The Jihadists were certain that some other and better American entertainers and others of other nationalities were actually quite politically and comedically astute and/or dangerous to the Jihad. But not the “stupid Jewish idiot” as they laughed, “not stupid Jewish New York idiot Adam Ranser”. Ironically, they were very accurate in their observations, other than that Adam was not and never had been Jewish. But the Jihad carried on, as the impoverished and distracted American film audiences had enriched Adam at the expense of their own standards and intelligence and, you could say, future, by falling into the Hollywood hole, which was making films bigger and dumber than ever. Some blamed Spielberg for the shallow offerings in Hollywood (sometimes even Spielberg himself blamed Spielberg), but Spielberg was a man many Jihadists actually respected for his phenomenal stature and almost religious cultural impact internationally, but, yes, it was the jackasses like Adam who had reduced art to a commercial pabulum that had no exit. Decent intelligent films would suffer for decades to come.
Mostly, Ted had a mildly satisfied demeanor, especially as he was so fond of the career and finances he had made for himself. Somehow he had rid himself of any and all apparent vulnerabilities, although his “spiritual path” felt thwarted and he couldn’t seem to make a move, consoling himself with entertainment friendships and money.
Adam, although more socially powerful, somehow, and certainly wealthier by a considerable amount, still made Ted feel better about himself, for although Ted’s personal development was stalled he was still bright enough to know, deep down inside, when he was being truly honest with himself, that Adam was a racist, homophobic sociopath who had somehow been given a free pass in life to act like a buffoon. Most entertainment critics merely thought of Adam as an unfortunate barnacle or footnote in an otherwise degenerating industry that had lost all direction and focus and fostered sub-par actors like Adam because of it’s inherent need to infantilize talent that then spun out of control like so many monsters or golems. This was, largely, the state of things. And yet there were still some entertainment pundits who felt that this condition was almost acceptable and criticized those who skewered American culture, labeling them jaundiced, bitter, and/or nihilists.
Of course, the truth of the matter was that the beautifully constructed American juggernaut was sinking quickly into an ocean of self-saturation, multi-platform overkill, poverty, and a new reputation as unreliable and actually being surpassed by the 99%-slave-state of China and their singular Asian variety of Orwell. Whether or not talent, the popular talent, like Ted and Adam and others, could steer the popular imagination back to the zeitgeist of political renewal and social progress was dubious. Looming large on the horizon were massive upheavals, social splintering, rising tribalism and intolerance, and resource shortages. Apathetic politicians and corporate players, who had labeled themselves “patriots” regarded most people, silently and sometimes even publicly, as “cannon fodder”, quite literally, and were ushering in an advanced stage of malignant disempowerment and disenfranchisement, the foundation for a new and dangerous empire unconcerned with civil liberties or progressive values.
Meanwhile, Adam had just released his latest foul offering, a film in which he portrayed a boyish spy who had a super-powered right arm, largely due to his character’s frequent and extended masturbation, as the film’s first act detailed, and it went straight to number one at the American box office, raking in around 80 million dollars in its first weekend. The worst of the critics, the ones with studio money around them in bundles, who were the usual suspects in helping spread the “good word” about poor films, applauded it as being daring, inventive, and bold, as well as “fun-filled” and “wonderfully charming” (for example) and secured a second and third weekend at the top of the box office for Adam. The film, “The Spysturbator”, was filled with Adam’s usual racial slurs, homophobia, and sexism (even having a scene where Adam ejaculates comedically onto an Arab terrorist’s face and another scene where Adam seduces a woman with potato chip dip on his nipples – the film’s idea, apparently, was that this was enough to let her guard down). The film, thankfully, was lambasted by the N.Y. Times, the L.A. Times and other periodicals, prompting Adam to proclaim at the world premiere in New York City that America was “being ruined by stupid, prejudiced, anti-creativity, stupid critics” who were “stupid jerkoffs” and he then proceeded to invite any women who weren’t convinced of his genius to return to his lavish New York apartment for “a night of pleasure and Mel Brooks”, Adam thinking that he was being charming, funny, and honest and that Mel Brooks films were a way to lure and seduce the fairer sex, not really totally clear in his head that Mel Brooks films were all about, quintessentially, the male teen masturbatory fantasies and with special attention to the male funny bone that responds uniquely to the sound of human gas or bodily functions thereof, rectal sounds, mostly, and the sight of naked breasts. Mel Brooks films also represented the dawn of the new era of filmmaking, Ted thought, and saw a unique pseudo-progenitor to Adam that night, a very special predecessor, a kind of godfather of slapstick. Adam seemed to think the humor in his films was ambisexual, which was clearly not the case. Ted knew, either way, Adam would get some pretty hot chicks into his apartment, be they nitwits or be they some other kind of evolved species.
Ted knew Mel Brooks wasn’t a bad guy and maybe not as sexist as Adam, just crude and disgusting, but Ted kept people in a positive mood that night at the premiere by disspelling talk of Adam as the hellish by-product of Mel’s sensibility and the petrification of American entertainment taste buds. Sometimes things went up; sometimes things went down. Mel and Adam were the down part, Ted thought, but okay.
Ted laughed heartily at the tasteless and inane humor in “The Spysturbator”, mostly because he was seated next to Adam and Adam’s youngish unapproachably attractive fiancee, as well as some Tribeca film icons who grimaced during most of the film, sitting through it because Adam would be their cash-cow for an upcoming A24 release. The A24 film, Adam’s fourth arthouse release, would perform poorly, but Adam’s other silly films continued, predictably in America’s current desperate climate, to break box office records and a multi-picture deal with Netflix was imminent.
The next day, Ted and Adam attended that year’s NYU graduation ceremony, where Adam was feted with an honorary degree.
“Instead of essence of peach, why not just make it peach?!” Adam exclaimed. “What, you think I’m just a bad boy of celebrities and that I’m asking for something that’s way out of reasonable?” Adam smiled, not so much in a hostile way, but in a mildly confrontational way. If it were to continue, Adam was just getting started.
Ted suggested “Adam, why don’t you just have a diet pepsi with me and we’ll go get some soup and sandwiches over at Forkie’s, huh? Yeah?”
Adam paused, contemplated whether it was worth getting steamed over the beverage, and realized he was hungrier than he was angry. “Well, I could do that, Teddy. Yeah. But… ah, you know how it is. I never want this to happen again, see? Once is enough. No more of this essence shit,” he addressed the poor schlub at the food counter. “Make it peach next time. Got it? Okay.” The kid at the counter was feeling pretty betrayed by one of his former supposed heroes, Adam, and would never again regain that long-held respect. As for Ted, he was easy but didn’t like having to play the middle-man in this kind of dispute.
It was enough that he had to see Adam upset but it was worse to have to lower his standards to Forkie’s, not quite a quality establishment, not quite a place to go to, to spend money worth spending. Ted was magnificently wealthy, but he still watched every dollar, not liking wasting his money for any reason. Adam, on the other hand, could spend money any way he chose and still kept getting richer off investments, interest, and, well, the dumber and more desperate audiences. The films just kept rolling out box office receipts that were obscene and no one was getting wise to it. Adam’s agent was a multi-millionaire and the inner circle did quite well around Adam but the drop-off was steep after that. Somehow, certain people were gathering larger and larger fortunes while Adam’s fans could only afford his movies (and other weekly cinema extravagances, for them), while Adam and the big stars, the Brad Pitts, whathaveyou, were travelling the world first-class, getting free gifts and swag wherever they went, living charmed, magical lives. Most of the rest couldn’t even find themselves, being so caught up in desperation and the financial traps set everywhere.
Sub-mental sports players, and Adam was friends with quite a few, were also jet-setters somehow, some not capable of composing complete sentences or interesting thoughts. Role models were very few and far between these days, far from some of their counterparts in years gone by. These men were what Ted figured to himself were “borderline retarded” and, from Ted’s personal experience, couldn’t hold any meaningful or intelligent conversations. But the country rolled on, one and all compromised and sold wholesale for these illiterati to hold court.
And now we get to the real source of this morass: mayors and senators and the other jackals. There, you see, we have corruption, avarice, and cowardice of the highest order. People who were given these accidental mandates in these dumbed-down times. So you had politico-cultural criminals and the like, who were performing vivisection on the country’s future and turning America into a teetering and dithering country, bringing the slave-planet further and further away from the freedom promised. Certainly, it was bizarre that ghouls like these political oafs and elected handmaidens were so influential and successful in shredding freedom, but, somehow, Ted thought there would be a way out. Was it still a matter of waiting? Or was it simply a death-march into oblivion. Was the waiting leading to a certain date with the gallows?
Nobody was quite certain, but they continued to wait.
Michael Reiss has been writing for 30 years and has also worked in the film industry. He lives in Rochester and has a weekly radio show on WAYO.