The Books: After Henry, ‘Los Angeles Days’, by Joan Didion

Still on the essays shelf with another essay from After Henry, by Joan Didion.

‘Los Angeles Days’ is another one of Joan Didion’s multi-part multi-topic montage essays. I love when she goes at a topic from all angles, without coming to any rigid conclusions. She does explain Los Angeles quite well, but that is not her goal. Her goal is to examine all of the different aspects of tiny slivers of activity in the community, and how these things have ripple effects moving outwards, or how these things really do explain the town, but you have to put them all together. You can’t just look at one aspect. It’s a collage. Los Angeles is a complicated place, but, Didion suggests, it is also very simple. It’s an “insider” town, for sure, and anyone who visits there for even a brief period of time can feel that. It’s palpable. One example, from my own experience: I drive up and down the East Coast all the time, using giant roads such as 95. 95’s exits are clearly marked and also clearly anticipated, up to 2 miles down the road. You have time to prepare. The road is not designed for people who live there. It is designed for people passing through, who need to know what is coming and need time to prepare. Contrast to LA Freeways, where the exit signs have almost no warning in some cases, and – and this is key – the fluorescent lettering is not as blindingly bright as it is on the 95 signs. I actually have to squint to READ the signs on the LA freeways when I am driving home at night. The lettering does not flare out at you, you have to READ. Basically, they don’t give a shit that I’m not from there and I need to see those signs. The freeways are designed for people who already live there and don’t NEED to read. So if you don’t know that Cahuenga is coming up right around the bend, you’re shit out of luck. I can’t tell you how many times I have catapulted past exits in Los Angeles because there’s no warning and I can’t get over 2 lanes in time. These are roads for insiders. (Didion has written in a far more compelling way about the Los Angeles freeways, devoting entire essays to the topic. So don’t take my word for it. Even a Californian like Didion recognizes that these monstrous loops and swirls that keep Los Angeles moving are a shrieking nightmare for those “not from round those parts”.) There’s also the fact of Hollywood. Los Angeles is an industry town. Similar to the giant mill towns on the East Coast, like Lowell, or Peace Dale. Places that were built on one industry alone. Obviously people do other things in Los Angeles, in the same way that there were lawyers and school teachers and, hell, probably violinists, who lived in Lowell, Massachusetts. But that diversity is irrelevant in the face of the one industry that keeps the town afloat. So when you are in Los Angeles, you hear people talk about “the business”. There’s only one business in Los Angeles.

These “quirks”, shall we say, obsess Didion. And she was a true insider, having been born and raised in California, but also being part of “the business” or “the industry”. Being an insider or a local can sometimes blind you to the character of the place you live in, but that is usually not the case with good writers. The most “local” of writers (James Joyce, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor) are those who are so obsessed with the region they came from that ultimately it is their only topic.

‘Los Angeles Days’ opens with a piece about earthquakes, the reality of them, and what that makes it feel like on the ground in Los Angeles. The second piece is about real estate, a topic Didion revisits again and again in her books. Continuing on the real estate theme, the third piece is about the home Aaron Spelling was building with his wife Candy. A gargantuan mansion that attracted crowds during its construction, to Didion it represented the sometimes hostile divide between television and movies in that one-industry town. People in television, like Aaron Spelling, make more money than people in movies – but people in movies have higher “status”. There’s a lot of resentment. Didion, as a writer for movies, and a member of the WGA, found that fascinating, especially when combined with real estate and what that said about the “industry”. And this leads to her final essay, which was on the massive Writers Guild strike in 1988, the longest strike in the WGA’s history. It lasted seven months. The issue on the table was mainly residuals for television shows (which could, conceivably, amount to millions of dollars for those fortunate enough), but there were other issues, too: more creative control, etc. But it was the residuals that got the most pushback. Hollywood came to a standstill, proving the writers’ mostly unspoken point that they were very important to the business, even though they were on the lowest rung (not only financially, but socially. People are embarrassed by writers. People think anyone can write. Anyone who writes who has actually produced something has had someone say to them, “I could write a novel if I only had the time.” Uh-huh. It’s TIME that’s the issue. Would you say, “I too could split the atom if I only had the time”? That disrespectful attitude was a huge part of the 1988 writer’s strike. “Who do these writers think they are? They should feel lucky we allow them any control at ALL.” Etc.)

Television shrieked to a halt. Scripts stalled. Series suffered (Moonlighting never recovered). Re-runs took over the land, as well as political programming (it was an election year), and the audience plummeted.

Didion goes into all of the different issues, and what it says about Hollywood, and ends with a powerful anecdote from the DNC which describes to her “why writers strike”. The piece is a rousing defense of what the writers were asking for, but she goes into why. Not just financially, but culturally. “The industry” is a clear totem pole, or a ladder, and you know your status in a way that is crystal-clear. Didion defended the writers’ positions, but also defended the feelings behind those positions, of feeling used, abused, disrespected, disregarded, and dismissed. It’s in the culture of the industry. And that was why they struck. The essay also deals with the changing of the industry, in terms of leadership. Good stuff.

I’m from good union stock myself (my father’s office at his library had a big STRIKE sign on the wall from a huge strike that went on when I was a kid), and belong to a union myself. These fights are important.

Here’s an excerpt from the essay about the WGA strike. Note her devastating use of quotation marks. I love it when she does that.

After Henry, ‘Los Angeles Days’, by Joan Didion

I heard repeatedly during the strike that I, as a member of the Guild “but an intelligent person”, had surely failed to understand what “the leadership” of the Guild was doing to me; when I said that I did understand it, that I had lost three pictures during the course of the strike and would continue to vote against a settlement until certain money issues had been resolved, I was advised that such intransigence would lead nowhere, because “the producers won’t budget”, because “they’re united on this”, because “they’re going to just write off the Guild”, and because, an antic note, “they’re going to start hiring college kids – they’re even going to start hiring journalists.”

In this mounting enthusiasm to punish the industry’s own writers by replacing them “even” with journalists (“Why not air traffic controllers?” said a writer to whom I mentioned this threat), certain facts about the strike receded early into the mists of claim and counterclaim. Many people preferred to believe that, as Tom Shales summarized it, the producers had “offered increases”, and that the writers had “said they were not enough”. In fact the producers had offered on the key points in the negotiation, rollbacks on a residual payment structure established in 1985, when the WGA contract had been last negotiated. Many people preferred to believe, as Tom Shales seemed to believe, that it was the writers, not the producers, who were refusing to negotiate. In fact the strike had been, from the Alliance’s “last and final offer” on March 6, 1988, until a federal mediator called both sides to meet on May 23, 1988, less a strike than a lockout, with the producers agreeing to attend only a single meeting, on April 8, which lasted twenty minutes before the Alliance negotiators walked out. “It looks like the writers are shooting the whole industry in the foot – and they’re doing it willfully and stupidly,” Grant Tinker, the televi sion p roducer and former chairman of NBC, told the Los Angeles Times after the Guild rejected, by a vote of 2,789 to 933, the June version of the Alliance’s series of “last and final” offers. “It’s just pigheaded and stupid for the writers to have so badly misread what’s going on here.”

What was going on here was interesting. This had not been an industry unaccustomed to labor disputes, nor had it been one, plans to hire “journalists” notwithstanding, historically hospitable to outsiders. (“We don’t for strangers in Hollywood,” Cecilia Brady said in The Last Tycoon; this remains the most succinct description I know of the picture business.) For reasons deep in the structure of the industry, writers’ strikes have been a fixed feature of local life, and gains e arned by the writers have traditionally been passed on to the other unions – who themselves strike only rarely – in a fairly inflexible ratio: for every dollar in residuals the Writers Guild gets, another dollar goes to the Directors Guild, three dollars go to the Screen Actors Guild, and eight or nine dollars go to IATSE, the principal craft union, which needs the higher take because its pensions and health benefits, unlike those of the other unions, are funded entirely from residuals. “So when the WGA negotiates for a dollar increase in residuals, say, the studios don’t think just a dollar, they think twelve or thirteen,” a former Guild president told me. “The industry is a kind of family, and its members are interdependent.”

Something new was at work, and it had to do with a changed attitude among the top executives. I recall being told, quite early in this strike, by someone who had been a studio head of production and had bargained for management in previous strikes, that this strike would be different, and in many ways unpredictable. The problem, he said, was the absence at the bargaining table of “a Lew Wasserman, an Arthur Krim”. Lew Wasserman, the chairman of MCA-Universal, it is said in the industry, was always looking for the solution; as he grew less active, Arthur Krim, at United Artists, and to a lesser extent Ted Ashley, at Warner Brothers, fulfilled this function, which was essentially that of the consigliere. “The guys who are running the studios now, they don’t deal,” he said. “Sid Sheinberg bargaining for Universal, Barry Diller for Fox, that’s ridiculous. They won’t even talk. As far as the Disney guys go, Eisner, Katzenberg, they play hardball, that’s the way they run their operation.”

Roger Fisher, the Williston Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and director of the Harvard Negotiation Project, suggested, in an analysis of the strike published in the Los Angeles Times, that what had been needed between management and labor in this case was “understanding”, the very qualities that natural selection in the motion picture industry had tended to eliminate. It was in fact June of 1988, three months into the strike, before the people running the studios actually entered the negotiating session, which they referred to, significantly, as “downtime”. “I talked to Diller, Mancuso, Daly,” I was told by one of the two or three most powerful agents in the industry. He meant Barry Diller at Twentieth Century Fox, and Frank Mancuso at Paramount and Robert Daly at Warner Brothers. “I said look, you guys, you want this thing settled, you better indicate you’re taking it seriously enough to put in the downtime yourselves. Sheinberg [Sidney Sheinberg of MCA-Universal] and Mancuso have kind of emerged as the point players for management, but you’ve got to remember, these guys are all prima donnas, they hate each other, so it was a big problem presenting a sufficiently united front to put somebody out there speaking for all of them.”

In the context of an industry traditionally organized, like a mob family, around principles of discretion and unity, this notion of the executive as prima donna was a new phenomenon, and not one tending toward an appreciation of the “interdependence” of unions and management. It did not work toward the settlement of this strike that the main players on one side of the negotiations were themselves regarded as stars, the subjects of fan profiles, pieces often written by people who admired and wanted to work in the industry. Michael Eisner of Disney had been on the cover of Time. Sidney Sheinberg of Universal had been on the cover of Manhattan, inc. Executve foibles had been detailed (Jeffrey Katzenberg of Disney “guzzled” Diet Coke, and “sold his Porsche after he almost killed himself trying to shift gears and dial at the same time”), as had, and this presented a problem, company profits and economic compensation. Nineteen-eighty=seven net profit for Warner Communications was up 76.6 percent over 1986. Nineteen eight-seven net profit for Paramount was up 130 percent over 1986. CBS was up 21 percent, ABC 53 percent. The chairman and CEO of Columbia, Victor Kaufman, received in 1987 $826,154 in salary and an additional $1,506,142 in stock options and bonuses. Michael Eisner was said to have received, including options and bonuses, a figure that ranged from $23 million (this was Disney’s own figure) to more than $80 million (this was what the number of shares involved in the stock options seemed to suggest), but was most often given as $63 million.

During a season when management was issuing white papers explaining the “new, colder realities facing the entertainment industry”, this last figure in particular had an energizing effect on the local consciousness, and was frequently mentioned in relation to another figure, that for the combined total received in residual payments by all nine thousand members of the Writers Guild. This figure was $58 million, which, against Michael Eisner’s $63, made it hard for many people to accept the notion that residual rollbacks were entirely imperative. Trust seemed lacking, as did a certain mutuality of interest. “We used to sit across the table from people we had personally worked with on movies,” I was told by a writer who had sat in on negotiating sessions during this and past strikes. “These people aren’t movie people. They think like their own business-affairs lawyers. You take somebody like Jeff Katzenberg, he has a very ideological position. He said the other night, ‘I’m speaking as a dedicated capitalist. I own this screenplay. So why should I hand anybody else the right to have any say about it?'”

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1 Response to The Books: After Henry, ‘Los Angeles Days’, by Joan Didion

  1. Dan says:

    In no way related to the topic at hand, but have you seen this tumblr?

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