Autumn, 1986. New York. Early into my senior year, I was walking east on 86th Street one day after school. I walked past a movie theater.
I can’t recall where I was going. I was on the north side of 86th, so I wasn’t headed towards the Lexington Av. subway station. I wasn’t on my way home. Maybe I was in search of a slice, a gourmet hot dog at Papaya King, or perhaps I was in search of an Upper East Side bar with a progressive attitude towards carding teenagers. Who knows? After three years of high school, I had finally gotten over feeling intimidated by New York City and would wander when I could…
The chances are excellent that as I passed the theater, I was listening to the Beastie Boys’ “Licensed to Ill” on a Sony Walkman the size of a dictionary…*
*Nah,checking Wikipedia, that seminal album wasn't released until November. Suspend your disbelief for the purposes of this essay, please. Ooh, ooh, let's say I was listening to their pre-"Ill" single "She's On It"! That works!
Anyway, as I passed by the movie theater (United Artists? Those are gone, yes? That one is, I know) on 86th just west of Lex, I noticed a television mounted on a tall stand playing in the outside foyer. On it was a tiny, black man wearing a Georgetown Hoyas tank top, gargantuan Cazale glasses that made his eyes seem huge, and a bicycle hat, bill turned up. He was sputtering patter rapid-fire. “Do you know? Do you know? Do you know?” the man repeated, bobbing his face close to the camera lens. It was a commercial, a minute or so long. I watched it again; the man’s name was Mars Blackmon. He was promoting a movie. Mars was a character in the movie. The film, like the commercial, was in black-and-white, the footage crisp, Mars’s patter braggadocios and hilarious. It was 1986. I was a suburban white kid. It’s fair to say I had never seen anything like what I was watching on a loop. I watched it three or four times. I decided to go in and check out the movie the man was selling.
Ninety minutes later, I emerged from the theater with a new dream.
The man hawking in black-and-white was Spike Lee. The film I saw was SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT. And the dream was that perhaps one day I too could make a movie.
After I had seen the movie three or four times at that same theater, I read up on SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT. Spike Lee made the movie for approximately a nickel and a dime and with fifteen cents spawned the independent film boom.
SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT was like being shown the world was actually possible to me. Up until then, movies were either summer blockbusters with spacecraft and Muppets or abstract puzzles inaccessible to me that starred David Thewlis. SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT was different. It was a beautiful, funny film about people who you didn’t see in movies back then. It’s revolutionary in that respect, and I recognized it at the time. More importantly to me, though, it was about things I could relate to, things I was interested in, made by someone who liked what I liked.
As a teenager, I somehow felt I might want to be an artist someday, but wasn’t positive I had the resumé. Artists were from exotic lands with tortured backstories. Artists were Truman Capote or Edith Wharton or Ralph Ellison or Pablo Picasso. I figured artists weren’t kids who grew up in suburban New Jersey following college basketball and whose biggest pain was having parents who didn't believe in Atari.
I wasn’t sure I had PERMISSION to be an artist.
The Beastie Boys began to change that assumption in my mind. They made funny lyrics about TV reruns, Budweiser, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. They created art that was entertaining, significant, GOOD, and they did it with material that was pedestrian and every day and LIKE ME. “Licensed to Ill” holds up today; it’s undeniably revolutionary*. It’s a classic piece of art that talks about things that existed in my world. (goes to iPhone, puts on “New Style”)
*Except “Fight for Your Right (To Party)”. That song sucks and always has.
SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT doesn’t quite hold up for me now. I watched it a year or so ago, and it’s still funny but the performances aren’t great and it's a little retrograde with some of its ideas. (I understand the same could be said about “Licensed to Ill, ” but people who do are ignoring the parody aspect of it, and should kindly shut up) In 1986, however, SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT not only entertained me but gave me the notion that a typical guy with common interests could create art that showed those common interests in a meaningful way. The photography is fantastic, the subject matter is one I’d never been exposed to in 1986, and it is still funny. The movie is cinematically unique and groundbreaking, but it also has a scene where people play Scrabble and another where two characters argue about the relative merits of Larry Bird. I played Scrabble. I hated Larry Bird (in 1986, I did).
Wait, I asked myself at seventeen-years-old. Were you allowed to create art about that shit?
It’s not a stretch to say that Spike Lee and the Beastie Boys somehow gave me the permission I needed to WANT to be an artist.
Now. It took a long time from wanting to be an artist to putting in the work, discipline, confidence, and tenacity to BEING an artist. Perhaps the jury’s still out on that one. I still struggle with saying, “I’m an artist.” I’ve written some plays and a novel, and periodically I catch myself and say, “Oh, yeah. I’m a novelist.” During that progression, however, my inference from Spike Lee and SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT has been borne out. Being an artist doesn’t mean having to have some esoteric, exotic background or any one-in-a-million heartbreak and pain. Any background can be mined for art, and any heartbreak or pain will do. I’ve written some things, I’ve acted in some things, and I’ve written some more things. I like to think I’ve developed a voice, and a style, and a skin tough enough to endure the invariable heartbreak that continues when you put your art into the world. But I’d never tried to make a feature film.
Monday morning I begin production on ONE HOUR OUTCALL, an independent feature film whose screenplay I wrote. I am co-producing it. I will also be acting in it. I would argue that this is coming way too late in my life if there is such a thing. But for whatever reason, be it laziness, fear, distraction, I’m trying to do it now. I’m nervous, anxious, terrified, and convinced that any expression of confidence would be hubris. But I’m also excited.
We’ll see what happens. ONE HOUR OUTCALL may not work. It may never be finished. It may be finished and then disappear. Whatever. I love the cast and crew we’ve assembled, and I enjoy doing the work. It’s hard. It’s often frustrating. It feels right, however.
And while I wouldn’t be opposed to one day hawking it on a television commercial outside a theater, it’s enough to me now that I feel permitted to try to do it at all.
Wish us luck.