Jewz by Da ‘Hood

After copping a quick degree in a jackpot, giveaway, draft-dodge of a Masters program in Radio/Television at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications in 1966, I piloted my VW beetle to California for what I expected to be a visit of three weeks.

At the time there were only about eleven people in the whole state.

Somehow toward the end of those three weeks I fell into film school at USC and never looked back. I’ve decided recently to give Los Angeles another forty-four years, and if it still hasn’t worked out for me, I’m heading back to The Apple.

It seems everybody in California comes from someplace¬ else. So many of my fellow refugees lost touch long ago with the people they knew prior to their migration west. I am fortunate, however, in having kept close relationships with a substantial group of pals from back east. We all grew up together in the same neighborhood in Queens. We were classmates and pals from first grade through high school.

Two of them live near me in Southern California, and we get together every few weeks for dinner. Moreover, once a year, somewhere in the country the three of us join a broader group for a long weekend. In addition to the three from Los Angeles are representatives from Seattle, Austin, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, and Chicago.

Wild and crazy weekends? Hardly. This is an embarrassingly tame selection of humanity. Picture eight old Jews in a rented ’98 Dodge Omni minivan cruising the Vegas strip at 4:30 in the afternoon, clutching our cans of Diet Pepsi, wondering what time the casinos open.

One year on one of these trips we were wandering around San Francisco’s China Town in search of a restaurant. Through the plate glass windows of a particular eatery we noticed that not only the staff but the entire clientele were Asian. This struck us as a good sign. Here, clearly, was no mere tourist trap. If Chinese were themselves patronizing the joint it must be an authentic establishment serving truly fine food.

We wallowed in self-congratulatory satisfaction and smug self-righteousness. We were not rubes from Pig’s Nipple, Iowa but NYC born and raised sophisticates, marinating in the sweet, fresh juices of our superiority.

After dinner we went to a comedy club to see Bobby Slayton.

Slayton opened his routine, astonishingly, by saying something like this: “You know how some people see a Chinese restaurant filled with Chinese customers and figure it must be a great place to eat?”

Had he been following us around town?

“Just imagine two Chinese guys looking for a worthy American restaurant,” Slayton continued. “They look through the window of a Denny’s. One says to the other, ‘Look at all the white people in there. This must be some fine restaurant.’”

We laughed ourselves sick, but privately it got me also to wondering, just what is an American restaurant? Precisely what constitutes American cuisine? Whatever it is, surely you will find it at a Denny’s. If we can’t qualify the cuisine at Denny’s as quintessentially American, what other restaurant could possibly fit the bill?

Let us take a look, therefore, at a Denny’s menu. Among the pages of offerings one will find: French toast, Canadian bacon, Mandarin chicken salad, Greek salad, Spanish omelet, an entire page of Mexican selections, and an array of items from other countries scattered across the globe.

What’s any of this got to do with screenwriting?

Exactly as American food is world food, so also is American film world film. Among films made outside the United States only one in ten will be shown outside the country of its origin but all–all!–American films are shown outside the country of their origin. Indeed, some American films are only shown outside the country of their origin, as they can’t win domestic theatrical deals, and so they are released directly to cable, as DVDs, and Internet downloads. They win theatrical distribution deals not at home but abroad, as there is a craving all around the world for American film.

Why is that?

I suggest that it has to do with the vast diversity of our American nation. Aren’t we all immigrants or the descendants of immigrants? Wasn’t everybody on the Mayflower an immigrant, indeed, an undocumented immigrant?

American public and popular culture reflects the nature not of an isolated region but the world. American films confront issues that are not American alone but also, perhaps first of all, human. I posit most respectfully that this is the reason audiences across the globe find meaning in American fare. Even if the story is about a kid from, say, the district in Detroit known as Eight Mile, isn’t it also about any kid from any neighborhood in any city worldwide struggling to lift himself up by his bootstraps, confronting poverty, oppression, heartbreak, creativity, and liberation?

In my new book Essentials of Screenwriting I argue that American film is both an agent and a product of diversity and assimilation. It is a product of assimilation in that a diverse group of artists and craftspeople and business executives–writers, actors, directors, carpenters, electricians, painters, costumers, hair dressers, makeup artists, designers, accountants, lawyers and more–collaborate in the creation of an enterprise–a movie–that for all its parts and by all appearances seems nonetheless seamless and whole. Is that e pluribus unum or what?

American film is not only a product but also an agent of diversity and assimilation. The worldwide distribution of American film impresses viewers from across the globe with the power of bourgeois middleclass American values. I mean this by no means to be pejorative. I am someone who believes that bourgeois middleclass values are the hope of the world. Precisely what constitutes such values? Undoubtedly a certain materialism is part of it. What is materialism? Food, clothing, and shelter. Until the basics are assured, there is no freedom. Rather, there is the full-time scrounging to feed and clothe and house oneself and one’s family. Under such circumstances there is no room for luxuries like creative expression, including among other forms also movies.
What should screenwriters take from this? Embrace the people in their screenplays as above all else human. Let their stories relate to the human condition as a whole. Let their stories resonate with that thing called the American Dream.

What precisely constitutes the American Dream? It is the notion that through hard work and education people can rise above their station. Many people–even some teaching at universities–tell us that it’s a myth, a hoax. It is designed, like state lotteries, they aver, to quiet the peasants by providing them an unrealistic modicum of a chance to break through.

Cynics assert that success in Hollywood is all about connections. It’s all about schmoozing up the right people at the right parties. I’m here to tell you this is bunk. I know wretchedly well connected people who cannot get arrested in the film business. On the other hand, at UCLA’s film school I see newcomers break through everyday.

From my perch in Westwood I see proof-positive that the American Dream is alive and well. I see writers achieve vast success purely on the basis of their talent and, most especially, their discipline. What counts above all else in this dodge is the ability ceaselessly to toil, to learn, and–the hardest part of all–to be patient.

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