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The Theory

Another week, another Owen story. If it weren’t for the fact that I’m already almost to the point of suicide, I’d try to get into some classes with him next semester just so I never run out of blog tales.

So last week, as we all know, the following things occurred:

  • Owen intentionally butchered a reading of another student’s treatment, in particular highlighting a few spelling errors by mispronouncing the words to match the inaccurate spelling
  • My friend Maria was assigned as his first reader
  • Owen made an enemy for life (i.e., me)

And this week came The Theory. While reading this, bear in mind that we screenwriters are unbelievable gossips. Actually, “gossip” is too light a word. We’re shit-talkers; I’ll admit it. Long before any of us ever make a sale to legitimize our cynicism, we take on the role of “jaded asshole who thinks he is better than everybody else.” We’re just preparing ourselves for a career of being the lowest person on the totem pole (we’re lower than PAs, for the love of God—at least Pas get to be on-set).

In addition to our shit-talking, we also have incredible, insane imaginations, because we’re hack writers. We understand the value of taking tiny snippets of disconnected information and turning it into cinematic gold! Or lead.

Essentially, in our off-time, we talk shit about everybody we know, and when we run out of shit to talk, we hone in on tiny details and use that to fuel fictional shit to talk. I make no apologies for this behavior. I know it’s wrong and that I, and all of my compatriots, are horrible monsters. Unfortunately, that’s not going to make me or anyone else not do it.

So during our class on Monday, Fellow, Maria, and I filled in another classmate on the events of Thursday. He was absent for whatever reason, so he didn’t know anything about Owen’s behavior. That’s when, after we spewed out all the details of the Thursday session, Fellow spewed out The Theory:

“I think he’s gay.”

Of all the people to pitch this concept, Fellow would be the one. He’s quite gay himself. Maybe he just understands the way homosexuals behave more than we do, or maybe he has a more finely tuned “gaydar.” Whatever the reason, Fellow blurted it out and then explained that on Thursday, one of the hotter days of recent weeks, Fellow came to class wearing a muscle shirt. He’s pretty pumped, so it wouldn’t be like, for example, me coming to class wearing a muscle shirt, where, after the horrified recoil and vomiting of my classmates, they will settle on merely averting their eyes for the duration of the class session. Women stare at Fellow. This is not his desired goal, of course, but I haven’t noticed any men staring at Fellow.

Of course, Fellow has noticed men staring at him. One example he gave: Owen, who apparently could not take his eyes off of Fellow on Thursday. I didn’t notice this, myself, but then again, I don’t generally pay attention when people (least of all men) check Fellow out. I notice a lot when women check him out, when I’m with him, because I’m all, “Ladies, he’s playing for a different team. Why not give Stan a whirl?” That doesn’t really go over well, and I get jealous.

My neuroses aside, Fellow pitched this idea, and we were all sort of reluctant to agree with it, although we wouldn’t necessarily rule it out. It was just an odd, random declaration, backed up with no independent evidence. I mean, we’re all unabashed shit-talkers, and sometimes we dabble in the realm of fiction in our conversation, but we at least have inscrutable arguments to back up our claims.

But Fellow’s theory started to take shape on Wednesday. As I mentioned last week, I have a class with Owen and Grey on Wednesday nights, and Owen has apparently taken it upon himself to enter the group, much to the chagrin of myself, Grey, and the two ladies we hang with before class. Now, awhile back, I bought a shirt from Glark that reads, “Seventies sci-fi was all about hexagons.” I should’ve known better than to wear it at a time when I knew I’d see Owen. He instantly honed in on the shirt, read it to me aloud (because I am illiterate), and then said, “I thought seventies sci-fi was all about men in knee-length tunics.”

What the fuck was he talking about?

“What the fuck are you talking about?” I asked. I’m too nice to embarrass other people* by making a scene, which is why I didn’t rip Owen a new asshole the instant he approached us, but I am not feigning niceness anymore. Not by a long shot. More on that in a little.

“You know how they wear those tunics, and they only go down to the knees, so you see their shaved, hairless legs,” Owen said. “It’s disturbing. I don’t want to see that.”

I’m sure Owen wasn’t making this up out of the blue, but I’ll be damned if I can think of a single example of ’70s sci-fi involving men with unshaved legs wearing tunics that look like women’s dresses. Plus, for somebody who doesn’t want to see that, he’s spent an awful lot of time considering it. I thought about The Theory, and it suddenly seemed like there might be something to it.

I wasn’t convinced, though. People say tangential, homophobic things all the time. It doesn’t mean anything. Or maybe it does.

On Thursday, our morning class was pretty much a blow-off. The prof was taking a trip to San Francisco, so she just spent half an hour teaching us how to use a budgeting program, then let us loose in the lab to do our budgeting. Instead of doing that, we all sat around shooting the shit. My friend Maria, Owen’s first reader, was trying to get her work done for our afternoon class. One of the assignments was to read his treatment and give feedback.

She let me read his treatment first, because she didn’t want to have anything to do with it initially. I have some minor nitpicks and some major nitpicks. The minor is that it’s not a treatment; it’s a short story. He’s all, “A long, black sedan drives down a desolate country highway, makes a right into the gravel-strewn parking lot of the store, and parks behind the building. Murton emerges from the vehicle, dusts off his pants, and slowly enters the store, which has a sign hanging above the door that reads JONAH’S HOUSE OF VIDEOS.” That’s not a treatment. A treatment is this: “Murton drives to the video store.” Visual, observable behavior, without any frills. Economy of phrasing is key, since most producers and executives will barely skim your shit anyway—it has to be tight, and it has to be short. I now know why his treatment was 10 pages when the rest of ours were three.

My other nitpick was that he wasn’t even finished writing the goddamn thing. A little more than halfway through, he has a little note saying, “Here’s where I changed the treatment, but I didn’t get to the end, so you’ll see some notable differences in subplots and secondary characters.” Which is fine, except for the fact that the story, which barely made sense to begin with, becomes completely illogical for the last four pages, because everything is completely different. It’s like Mulholland Drive, except unintentional.

But here’s the biggest problem I had with his treatment. After making such a big fucking juvenile stink about the spelling errors and lack of proofreading in that guy’s treatment last week—guess whose fucking treatment wasn’t proofread? Yes, he spell-checked it, but that’s only half the battle. He had more than one “problem” word on every page, beating the other guy’s one-per-page average by quite a bit. I got tripped up on the first fucking page, when he described a character as “a bard,” with “hair legs.” I assumed he meant “hairy” on the latter, but I was baffled by the “bard” thing. I figured it was some kind of British slang term or something, but later I found out he just misspelled “beard.”

And the grammar wasn’t much better. The last time I saw that many comma splices, I was reading one of my blog entries! And ordinarily I wouldn’t make a big deal out of it. Yes, it’s sad that both the screenwriting and fiction departments are filled with people who don’t know basic English grammar and think that a spell-checker will repair all their mistakes. They’re writers, for Christ’s sake. They should know it. But here’s the difference between all of them and Owen: they know they don’t know it. Every writer I know complains they don’t know grammar. They know how to spell, but they’re too lazy to proofread. Hell, most of them (myself included) are too lazy to even spell-check.

Plus, even if they do know proper grammar and spelling, everyone makes mistakes. Even in proofreading (especially proofreading your own work), you miss things that you know are wrong. Which, I think, is why we’re all (except for Owen) so lenient when it comes to errors in others’ work. In addition to the fact that it’s mean and humiliating, we know that everybody knows better, or at least they know they don’t know better.

So, when Owen started that shit up last week, he was a goddamn motherfucker, and because of it, he does not have a get-out-of-jail-free card. If he’s gonna be such an asslicker, he should have made sure his shit was immaculate. But it wasn’t. I pointed out the many errors to Maria and insisted she read it, write some constructive feedback, and be sure to own his ass on the fucking lack of proofreading. And she, as bloodthirsty for petty vengeance as I am, immediately agreed and ran off to read Owen’s treatment.

Later, as I was talking with some other friends, Maria approached me, claiming she had airtight, empirical evidence of Owen’s homosexuality. It was all in the treatment, she insisted, and while I agree she made a good case, I still was still not convinced.

Owen’s story is an ensemble piece. It has five main characters who are gay, one of whom is a repressed and angry (and unwilling to admit his homosexuality until the end) reverend, another of whom is hiding in the closet. The other two main characters are straight, and one of them is a woman. With that in mind, here was Maria’s point: we screenwriters are lazy hacks. We take the old, elementary school mantra “Write what you know” to a whole new level of bland storytelling. And most of us, especially since we’re still in college and pretty inexperienced as writers, have a central protagonist who is basically a gussied-up version of ourselves.

For example, Maria tends to write about straight, single, white, suburban women in their 20s. Fellow tends to write about gay, single, black, urban men in their 20s. I tend to write about straight, single, white, suburban men in their 20s who jerk off a lot and live with their parents. It’s just a natural inclination, no matter how outlandish or unknown the subject matter is, to have a central character who is rooted exactly in something we know better than anyone else: ourselves. We’re hacks.**

Maria’s argument was that Owen, writing about not one but five gay characters, and the “central” character (yes, it’s an ensemble piece, but there’s still the one point-of-view character, through whose eyes we see most of the action) is the angry, repressed reverend who hides his sexual identity through random misogyny and homophobia that makes him feel like a “real” man. Sound familiar?

I immediately bought Maria’s argument, but after thinking about it awhile, I still wasn’t totally convinced. Writers do try to stretch their wings, especially if they’re really talented and experienced (or think they’re really talented and experienced). Owen’s the most arrogant person I’ve ever met, so it wouldn’t surprise me if he, perfectly straight and woman-loving, thought he could accomplish the task of writing five characters whose lives are completely unlike anything he’s ever experienced. It’s harder to do than it sounds, no matter how much research you think you can do on the subject. Even putting yourself into a different culture, sociologist-style, isn’t the same experience of living your entire life that way. There’s no way it can be, and no amount of interviewing, reading, or interacting will give you that experience. All we can do as writers is guesstimate based on what we’ve learned, and usually we’re pretty bad at it (see also: any female character in a David Mamet script).

During class, two things happened that pretty much forced me to believe The Theory:

  1. The coolest fucking thing to happen in a long time is that there’s a free screening of Baadasssss! on Monday night. This film, originally titled How to Get the Man’s Foot Outta Your Ass (which, seriously, is a million times better), was directed and co-written by Mario Van Peebles, in which he also stars as his father, Melvin (the other co-writer), and it tells the story of the difficulties he had making Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. And here’s the kicker: Mario and Melvin are both going to be there, and they’re going to do a Q&A afterward. Unbelievably awesome, and you better believe I’m gonna be there (and I’ll blog it!).

    Anyway, Fellow was the one who alerted the class to the screening. He found a flyer/ticket and passed it around and told us to pick up our own in the film office. After we basked in the joy and confusion of our memories of seeing Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song for the first time, Owen announced to the class, “You all know Mario Van Peebles is gay, right?” He didn’t say this in a homophobic way, necessarily; it was more a declaration of something we absolutely had to know if we didn’t already.

    After an awkward couple of silent seconds, Mark responded, “A gay man in the film industry? I don’t believe it.” He’s amusing, that Mark.

    But it made me think. Again, this isn’t the open-and-shut case Fellow and Maria think it is, but of all the people I know who are fascinated to the point of obsession about who’s gay and who isn’t, only two of them are straight. And I’d say I know about a dozen, so there’s a 17% chance that Owen’s straight.

  2. We had to do evaluations for this class. Normally, we’d be doing them next week, but our prof scheduled individual conferences, so that fucked everything up. We were given permission to do them early, but we were not given a TA to proctor. My prof sought me out Wednesday night and asked me to get the evaluations and proctor them myself. Yay for the fun.

    It wasn’t something I wanted to do, and I wanted to get it done as quickly as possible, because I thought we would be dismissed to go home afterward. It turns out we were not, which made me even more irritated, since it was getting close to the end of the session, and guess who was holding us up? Fucking Owen, writing a dissertation on the quality of our particular profession. Fucking Owen.

    We were all done, sitting in silence, and people started grumbling. Most were bad-mouthing Owen, which, I discovered, can be heard very easily from the front of the room. Our prof, I’m coming to realize, hears all the comments we make about him from the back. As does Owen, who sits right next to her so he can annoy her at close proximity.

    Finally, Owen said to me, “I’m probably going to need a few more minutes. Is there somewhere I can drop this when I’m done?” It was surprisingly conscientious, but still fucking moronic. Why? I explained it to Owen, so I may as well explain it to you, too:

    “No, there’s not. You know why? Because these things need to be put into the envelope by me, sealed, and delivered by me to the assistant to the chair. If they aren’t delivered by me, and if they’re not in the envelope, you know what they do with them? They throw them the hell away. You know why? Because anybody could have written them, or told you what to write.*** So if you want to waste your time filling the fucking thing out to have them throw it away, by all means, be my guest. If not, hurry the hell up, because we all wanna get the fuck outta here.”

    I am aware, of course, that if I hadn’t grandstanded, he would’ve been able to finish the evaluation that much faster, but the dude just pisses me the hell off, and I needed to vent. And nobody seemed to mind, since they all agreed with me, and since I’m one of the very few who pointed out how fucking stupid he is despite his guise of tortured brilliance.

    Owen, who looked all stone-faced and stoic (though his eyes betrayed his shock and horror), said nothing and continued with the evaluation. A few minutes later, he quietly slid it across the conference table to me.

    “You wanna give me the fucking pencil, too?” I asked. We’re given little, cheap golf pencils because, for some reason, nobody uses number-two pencils at my school. Since they’re such cheap pieces of shit, and there are millions of them, I wouldn’t have cared if it was anybody else. It was Owen, though. I had to give him as hard a time as possible.

    Owen handed me the pencil and said, jokingly, “Maybe I should stick it up your arse.” He tried to fake a British accent and failed spectacularly. Then he giggled, very much like Robert Carradine in Revenge of the Nerds. “I bet that’s what you want, anyway.”

    At this point I had the door open to leave with the evaluations, but I turned around and was going to make a comment when I saw the look in his eyes. The tone in his voice, and that look. It both disturbed me and convinced me, now and forever, of his homosexuality.

    Because, you see, it wasn’t what I wanted (and even if I did, Owen would be the last person I would ask to perform the chore)—it was what he wanted. That’s what that really fucking weird, suggestive tone in his voice told me. Although most of what convinced me was in his eyes, which were, quoth Eric Carmen, hungry eyes. With that one look, he cannot disguise that he feels the magic between he and I.

So what does this mean? I was last to leap aboard The Theory man-train, but now I’m convinced. But what’s the point of it all? He’s gay, he’s apparently repressed and masks his real feelings through a mixture of homophobia and misogyny. Added to his ordinary attention-whoring and misguided obsession with British culture, it makes him the worst human being I’ve ever personally met.

But, if The Theory is true, it almost makes him a real, human person. He’s not some walking, real-life stereotype of The Prisoner-loving, J.G. Ballard-reading, British spelling-using, opinion-screaming, it’s-time-to-slay-the-dragon-playing über-geek. He’s a guy with a problem and a secret and what he obviously considers a flaw, despite the fact that at an art school, being straight is considered more of a social taboo than being gay.

When I think about it that way, it makes me want to make fun of him less. But then, he says anything at any time, and not only do I want to mock him until the day he dies, but I also want to say horribly mean, abusive things to him and beat the shit out of him. Because, flawed human or not, he’s still the worst human being I’ve ever met, and I just. Don’t. Like. Him. At all.

*Not to mention myself. When I get angry and start yelling at people, I tend to get really incoherent. It’s a trait I inherited from my father, who has been known to spout more puzzling phrases than Darren McGavin. [Back]

**Which is not to say we only write through those characters. No, they’re just the main characters. Not every person in everything I write is somebody just like me, but there’s usually at least one thinly-veiled Stan trolling the story for some loose women or free coffee. [Back]

***This sounds like a logical fallacy, I’m sure, and it is. Usually students don’t proctor the evaluations; it’s either done by an impartial faculty member or an equally impartial TA, but here’s the thing about humanity: nobody’s impartial, so we’re pretty much on the honor system. I’m on my honor to seal that envelope, not look at what anybody wrote, not change what anybody wrote by filling out blank evaluation forms, or to say to the students, “Hey, everybody, let’s all write that she’s a bitch!”

I could do all those things, but they’re trusting me not to, and for the most part, proctors respect the rules. Most of the time they are impartial or simply apathetic, but if a faculty member is proctoring, they are sometimes competitive with others, and if a TA is doing it—well, they’re students, and they may not like this prof and try to influence us against her. I’ve never seen that happen, but that’s not to say it doesn’t. [Back]

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  • Re: Van Peebles – I was a buddy of his in 1978 (we both worked for NYC Office of Management and Budget). He lived in a 1-br apartment on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village and was always trying to get me to stay the night. I was pretty clueless then about homosexuality. Never did stay over.

    Glenn W 14 years ago Reply Link

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