Books: The Blaze of Obscurity — 14. The House has the Edge |
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The Blaze of Obscurity — 14. The House has the Edge


But there was no point going wide if you didn’t go deep. Our Las Vegas movie was closer to the mark because I knew what I thought about gambling. Brought up within earshot of the Australian two-up schools and poker machines, I already had my underlying idea for a commentary that would hold the footage together without sounding preachy. It would have sounded preachy if I had set out to condemn the gambling as an unforgivable extravagance, an insult to the world’s poor, etc. But my own conviction was that these were the world’s poor, and were proving that if the poor had enough money they would cease to be materialist. It only sounds like a paradox. Las Vegas is high culture for people who have no other culture but kitsch. They really do think that a hotel shaped like a pyramid outranks the pyramids in Egypt because it has twenty-four-hour room service. As long as you bring your money to town, you are welcome to explain why they are wrong and why that matters. As so often in America, the amount of mental energy being put into the worthless was a marvel. The smartest man we met in Vegas was a security director in charge of the large staff watching from the ceiling of the casino in one of the biggest hotels, on the lookout for cheats. He showed us how cheating was done. Not only could he deal any card he wished from any part of the deck, he could neatly explain why the trick had taken half a lifetime to learn. He could also explain why the odds were better if you were the man in charge of security rather than the world’s most skilled cheat. I could have listened to him for hours and I knew our audience would feel the same. But we still wouldn’t have had much of a movie without the fast cars.

Louisville had taught us a lesson. It helped if you could pin the visit to an event. There was nothing else in Louisville except the pageant so the stratagem had been compulsory, but even in the big cities there was a risk of disappearing in several different directions if there wasn’t a central happening. So we had timed the Vegas trip to coincide with one of those rare American flirtations with Formula One motor racing. The Americans are never going to get the point of F1 because the cars rarely race beside each other, so where’s the race? This is a question that only a petrol-head can answer. That year, however, the managers of Caesar’s Palace Hotel in Las Vegas played host to a Grand Prix on a track laid out in the hotel’s car park. If that space seems insufficient at first thought, remember that an American hotel’s car park is usually a hundred times the area that the hotel itself stands on, because even though the people who have checked into the hotel don’t mind being arranged vertically, they prefer it if the cars they arrived in are arranged horizontally. Many acres of tarmac were available for concrete boundary walls to be laid down in the requisite pattern, and the whole occasion was done due honour, with nothing skipped. Caesar’s Palace, after all, had a distinguished association with motor sport. It was in the forecourt of Caesar’s Palace, in the long driveway leading up to and away from the porte cochère, that the great Evel Knievel had jumped the fountain on his motorcycle. Or rather, he had failed to jump the fountain, descending at the wrong angle and breaking, yet again, bones that had already been broken many times, and were held together with metal pins. At Caesar’s Palace he broke the pins.

It could be said that an international Grand Prix had inherently more dignity than a lonely madman in white leathers soaring on two wheels into the jaws of death, but I, for one, was honoured to eat in the same hotel whose fountain had made rainbows in the tent of light through which the daredevil had once plunged, ringed with chromatic mist, to yet another disaster. The Grand Prix would have to be going some to top that. Eager to do so, the whole travelling F1 circus came to town and started providing us with footage, not all of which we could use, for legal reasons. My compatriot Alan Jones was World Champion at the time and he gave himself a champion’s traditional reward. One of his mechanics, in uniform and tight cap, had strangely little to do except stand about, but was suspiciously well developed in the area of the chest. From close up I recognized the actress Susan George. Similarly, one of Alain Prost’s mechanics filled the uniform too well. It was Princess Stephanie of Monaco. It was hell leaving that sort of thing out but the actual racing gave us some valuable action to set off beside the gambling, which was all psychology. Globular people ingesting carbonated drinks from huge paper cups marked GULP while they crank their money irretrievably into slot machines might be ravaged by interior tragedies of an intensity unknown to Aeschylus but it doesn’t photograph. I didn’t find gambling in the least interesting — when I was young I had too often seen my admirably thrifty mother in tears at not having won even a token tenner with her single, dearly bought ticket in the Opera House lottery — but I found the way it was organized in Vegas fascinating. The people running the place knew all there was to know about how the gamblers’ minds worked. In the big hotels, a tinge of baby powder was pumped into the air-conditioning system because older people gamble more when you evoke their infancy. Did you know that? Neither did I.

But the people in charge of Las Vegas know everything like that. Their founding father, Bugsy Siegel, was an expert in the uses of fear. His descendants are experts in the uses of desire, including the desire to return always to the comfort of a fresh new nappy. Armed with such knowledge, they would probably get your money anyway, even if the odds weren’t rigged in favour of the house. By nature averse to having my mind read, I was glad to get out of there. We got some watchable interviews. The best of them was with George Hamilton, an actor I had always admired, not least because he was too cool to care about his career. I talked to him in a sky lounge and had the sense to tell him, before the camera turned, that I thought his Evel Knievel movie and Love at First Bite were both wonderful. I wasn’t lying and he could tell I wasn’t, so he opened up. Quite often, when an actor does that, you wish he hadn’t. But Hamilton was enchanting. As well as being hilariously full of showbiz lore, he looked like a million dollars, with a Palm Springs tan that might have been designed to go with his tuxedo. The camera ate him up like a crème caramel. There was also a dazzling few minutes with a blackjack dealer who could talk like your basic American dream girl: sassy, wise and quick. But even she was part of the apparatus. She taught me how to bet big only with the house’s money or I would never beat the grind. The expression ‘beat the grind’ is still among my favourite expressions today, but I knew even at the time that the grind of Las Vegas was unbeatable. From all directions, like a hydraulic effect from the lower reaches of Dante’s Inferno, you could hear the soft roar of the cataract as money poured from the pockets of the punters into the maw of the system. Under that kind of pressure I would have tunnelled out of Alcatraz with a spoon.

Alcatraz sat in the middle of our San Francisco movie like a cliché aching to be filmed. Every steep hill with a trolley-car heading upwards was screaming for a line about Steve McQueen’s Ford Mustang heading downwards. Golden Gate Bridge? Very long bridge. I could have talked for an hour about the secondhand bookshops at Berkeley but nobody would have watched. Without a central story we would have been flailing. But a year of diplomacy had secured access to the San Francisco football team the 49ers, coached by the legendary Bill Walsh. Like the legendary Tom Landry of the Dallas Cowboys, his rival for the title of most legendary football coach in a country where all football coaches are legendary, Walsh was legendary for keeping the media at arm’s length. Luckily the 49ers’ press office was sufficiently impressed by the BBC logo to lower the barrier. They would not guarantee, however, that Mr Walsh would speak to us for longer than half a minute, or indeed speak to us at all. We still would have got the movie without him, because the footballers were good material. The star quarterback Joe Montana was out of action through injury at the time but he was still on the scene. Worshipped by all, he was universally congratulated simply for being alive. ‘Way to go, Joe!’ Looking rather like Barry Manilow on a quiet day, Montana spoke with similar straightforwardness, assuring me that a positive attitude was better than a negative one and that it was the team that mattered, not the individual. These impeccable sentiments were in no way undercut, of course, by the fact that he earned ten times as much as anyone else in the team. Since they all earned millions, there was no warrant for envy. One of the tight ends — how I would like to have been, or even to have had, a tight end — had a personal collection of aircraft. Not model aircraft: real ones. As I recall it, his name was Scott Clark, or it could have been Clark Scott. He was as tall as Charlton Heston but looked like Tom Selleck. We filmed him climbing into his navy blue Hawker Sea Fury and taking off to do stunts. His girlfriend, who was studying for a Ph.D. in comparative community relations, or perhaps comparative related communities, assured me that Scott, or Clark, favoured a positive attitude over a negative one and believed that it was the team that counted, not the individual. While she was enunciating this principle, her tight-end hero passed low overhead at about five hundred miles an hour upside down, riding in a clap of thunder. After his return to earth he strapped me into a parachute and boosted me into the front seat of his Stearman two-seater biplane trainer. Noisily we gained altitude. All the bay area was there below us. The camera was in another plane and pointing at us when my intrepid pilot turned the plane on its back. All the bay area was there above us. This guy simply loved being upside down. I liked it much less but tried to smile into the slipstream because I knew that the camera was on me.

The level of intelligence among the players was even more startling than the level of wealth. You soon cease to be amazed by squadrons of American athletes all driving Ferraris but when they start talking in epigrams it’s hard to get used to, because elsewhere in the English-speaking world it just doesn’t happen. Australian cricketers can quite often be funny but they wouldn’t send you rushing to write down what they say. One of the defence team (playing in the position of secondary half-back if not half-track) gave me two minutes to camera about knee injuries. You could have put it on television as a fascinating little medical programme all by itself. ‘A lot depends on the surface you’re playing on. If you’re playing on grass and your knee gets hit from the side, your foot will skid. If you’re playing on carpet, your foot will stick. The lateral pressure has to go somewhere. If you’re lucky it cracks the bone. A bone can heal. A displaced muscle might never come back.’ His name was something like Brick Loadstone, he was about seven feet tall with a neck the size of my waist, and he could talk like Oscar Wilde. He took us to see the therapy pool. On the way he explained that he was only just back on the team after an injury, and that he was replacing a colleague who had suffered a similar injury. What I hadn’t counted on was that the colleague who had suffered injury was also a replacement for a colleague who had suffered injury. Stretched across the bubbling surface of the therapy pool was a whole line of half-tracks the size of Brick. In the reverses on my face I had no trouble looking stunned. There was something frightening about the degree of specialization and duplication. The 49ers had tiny men, barely my size, who could run fast; they had large men who could stop small men; and they had men the size of dump-trucks whose job was to run a single yard at the crucial moment through the massed bodies of the opposing team. There was a man who rose from the bench only to kick goals; there was a man to replace him if he got tired of sitting down; and there was another man to replace the replacement. There was probably a man with two heads whose only job was to count the rest of them. He would have needed a computer. People who could grow a team like that could grow an army. The 49ers’ star wide receiver, Jerry Rice, was a multimillionaire. Looking at his magnificent black body as he took a shower, I thought: ‘Well, there he is, the white man’s nightmare.’ It didn’t occur to me that he might be the black man’s nightmare too, because if equality depended on inborn ability, then it was all a lottery. He was rich, respected and adored because he was a weapon.

The warfare metaphor was my way into a conversation with Bill Walsh. One of the ferrets had unearthed — without benefit of Google, remember — an article about Walsh’s interest in the American Civil War. Walsh owned a library of books on the subject. I didn’t, but I had read the whole of Shelby Foote’s three-volume treatise, which counted as a library in itself. A man of classic military bearing whose alert features gave him a striking resemblance to Admiral Nimitz, Walsh sat behind the rosewood desk of his large office as if he were the CEO of a large company, which was indeed true. With our camera behind me I sat looking at him, and while we were still fiddling with the preliminaries I mentioned how the Civil War generals had dealt with the concept of a war of attrition between two equally balanced forces. Instantly Walsh was off and running. With the camera turning, I got a perfect interview which I wish I could screen as a separate programme even now. Walsh explained why a strong running game was basic to the passing game, because if you were forced to go to the air, instead of choosing to do so, the opposing team would still be too strong in the pass-rush to allow your quarterback his freedom. He even dealt with the tricky subject of injuries. He said they were bound to happen and that the certainty was reflected in the pay-scale. I asked him whether that idea wasn’t ruthless, like saying that Hollywood studio heads got paid so much because one day they were bound to get fired. Walsh said there was a difference between ruthlessness and realism, and that the difference could be expressed by the result. ‘A coach who cares too much about keeping the players from getting hurt will never reach the Super Bowl. A coach who cares too little will never even reach the play-offs.’ Something like that, but better. Only a few minutes of what he said got into the movie and I can’t bear to think of all the rest that didn’t. But we included enough to show America’s central paradox in a nutshell: the ingenuity and energy it could afford to lavish on what didn’t really matter.

That paradox arose in more awkward form when we flew to Playboy Mansion West in Los Angeles to interview Hugh Hefner in situ. It might have been more instructive to interview him in flagrante, even though, in that earlier phase of his dotage, he was sleeping with his ‘ladies’ only one at a time, instead of, as later, by the bunch. In the course of his career, Hefner had been notable, among his fellow entrepreneurs of soft-core pornography, in having done more than all of them to raise the status of their field to that of a corporate business — and, beyond that, to a Philosophy. When a football coach talked about his ‘philosophy’ it was usually a matter of how he rationalized, often with daunting articulacy, the necessary balance between physical aggression and mental finesse. But Hefner’s Philosophy was meant to be the full, capitalized thing. Over the course of hundreds of monthly issues of his magazine, he had expounded, in his editorial column, a Philosophy of hedonism that took in every pleasure, including his pleasure in printing the latest work of Vladimir Nabokov and Mary McCarthy. (Very few writers, no matter how exalted their names, could resist the sort of money Playboy offered: an instructive example of the sheer power of the cash nexus.) But the Hefner Philosophy, multiform in scope though it was, depended on his basic notion of absolute sexual freedom. If you thought, as I thought, that no such thing was possible, the Philosophy was simply bound to fall apart. I thought that Alan Coren had said all that was necessary about Hefner’s promotion of sexual freedom: it advertised something that was not for sale. The neat shape of Coren’s remark was still in my mind later on when I defined religions as advertising campaigns for a product that does not exist — a crack that is still widely quoted, although not always by people I approve of. Just because I don’t like militant believers doesn’t mean that I find militant unbelievers palatable. But Hefner’s central belief, the motor of his extravagant life, I found impossibly solemn even in its moments of humour. I have to admit that I arrived on location with this prejudice in mind. The ambience of Hef — everyone, down to the Mexican gardeners, called Hefner ‘Hef’ because this wasn’t just a democracy, it was, to use Hef’s favourite word, a ‘family’ — might have been designed to show me that my prejudice was antiquated.

If that was the aim, it failed. Hef’s feudal estate was indeed teeming with voluptuous young women, but they were vacuous almost without exception, and never more so than when they effervesced, each striving for individualism as they trilled variations on the theme that a positive attitude was better than a negative one. The dining room where free hamburgers were available twenty-four hours a day was indeed impressively populated with Hollywood male notables who had been given the run of the place because they were ‘family’, but it was sadly apparent that most of them were superannuated lechers. The film director Richard Brooks was typical. He hadn’t directed a film in decades, and one of the reasons was that he had been here, chomping the free hamburgers while he eyed the women. He had written Elmer Gantry, he had directed The Brothers Karamazov, he had married Jean Simmons, and now he was in Hef’s Hamburger Heaven, sizing up the poontang on his way to a final resting place in Hillside Memorial Park. This being America, there was plenty of conversation to be had, and it was all fluent; but, this being Playboy Mansion West, none of it was interesting, except when they talked about something else. All the women saw a future for themselves in the movies and of course none of them had a chance, simply because residence at the mansion was the principal item on their CV. The lucky ones got to be Playmate of the Month, and one of those married Jimmy Connors, but none of them was going to be a film star, not even the innocently pretty Dorothy Stratton, who caught the eye of my friend Peter Bogdanovich. I can’t blame him, but she would have had little chance as an actress even if her jealous ex-boyfriend hadn’t murdered her. Hanging around Hef’s playground was bad training for any serious activity. In days gone by he had worked hard for his first hundred million bucks, but now he was resting, and he wanted everyone else to be resting too. The work ethic was entirely absent. For most of the younger female inhabitants, getting up in the morning was an obstacle course. Under their compulsory ebullience, they were somnolent by nature, with dialogue to match. The veterans, mainly men, had been burned out for years. Some of them had good war stories but they might as well have just handed you the script, and none of them had anything gripping to say about Hef.

There was a good reason for that, as I was about to discover. None of the attendant bores was quite as boring as Hef himself. He gave me a lot of his time, and I have to say he spoke honestly. We filmed for hours and I never caught him fudging an issue once. I had a key question: if this wasn’t commodified sex, what was it? He had the right answer: everyone was a volunteer. But even when he spoke a useful and subversive truth, he had a way of putting it that sent you to sleep. Uniquely among all the American talking heads I ever interviewed, he couldn’t say the simplest thing in a way you could remember. You couldn’t remember it even while he was saying it. The middle of the sentence had already left the beginning of the sentence lost in the distance, and the end of the sentence was slower to arrive than a school holiday. We were in desperate trouble. This interview with the proprietor was our main event, and it was dead on arrival.

The only way to save the movie was to up the emphasis on the local colour. Hefner’s current ‘lady’ took us to the gymnasium to show us how she stayed in shape by working out. She ran slowly for two minutes on a treadmill. She lifted a couple of tiny barbells. Hefner, in a silk robe, was in attendance to tell us she favoured a ‘positive attitood’. Struck by a frightening burst of clairvoyance, I could see our audience falling senseless out of the couch as if their television sets were emitting nerve gas. Thus it was that I dived into the giant outdoor Jacuzzi to join three of the Playboy gatefold girls for an en masse interview that yielded almost no verbal information beyond the fact that they were almost as harmless as I was. On top of that, or rather on top of those, they were wearing both halves of their bikinis. One of the three was quite bright, with a sardonic streak. By no coincidence, she came from England. Even she, however, was keen to point out that it was the team that mattered, not the individual. The whole aquatic encounter couldn’t have been more anodyne to the ear. To the eye, of course, it looked as if I was offending against the most cherished tenets of a whole swarm of male television critics, paragons dedicated to the defence of civilization against the rising tide of frivolity. I was no longer in business as one of those, but there were plenty of hungry young men who were, and when they saw the finished movie they combined to give it a drubbing. I had spent the whole movie arguing that Hef’s dream of sexual liberty was irredeemably childish but here were the pictures to suggest I shared it. The sequence was used as a stick to beat me with for years afterwards. My only defence was that I had thought the whole notion of joining a trio of Hef’s glazed inflatable nymphs for a pointless plunge in the bubble-bath to be self-evidently ridiculous. When they saw the programme transmitted, even my family agreed with that. One at a time and in unison. Of all the Postcards we ever shot, this was the one most patently short of material, and we would have been better off scrapping it before it left the editing room. But that option was never open. Too much money had been spent going in, so it was just too bad if I looked stupid on the way out.

I shouldn’t give the impression that everything we did happened in Postcard form. There were other formats asking to be developed. One of them was the star interview special, filmed abroad like a Postcard, but on a far smaller budget. It was a logical development, springing, as developments so often do, from lessons taught by an earlier project that had gone wrong. While at LWT we had done a Postcard programme about the opening of a new resort called Sanctuary Cove, in Queensland. The show had been mostly a dead duck, a condition proved by the only part of it that came alive. Frank Sinatra had flown in for the opening-night concert and I had briefly interviewed him. Access was tricky. It would have been a lot easier to approach Colonel Gaddafi. Sinatra’s lawyers checked out every item in a contract an inch thick. There was a clause saying that the red carpet between Sinatra’s Portakabin dressing room and the stairs to the back of the stage had to be fastened down with fasteners not more than six inches apart. One of the lawyers got down on his knees with a ruler. My job was to do the public-address announcement just before Sinatra went on. After hours of drafting, I had a brilliantly compressed and poetically cadenced couple of paragraphs ready in which I evoked his stature and significance. Another of the lawyers read my document, handed it back to me, and then handed me a piece of paper. ‘Say this,’ he said, ‘and only this.’ There was a single typewritten line. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Frank Sinatra.’ (The lawyer was right, incidentally: as I found out much later, a solo performer, if he is introduced by an enthusiast, is robbed of the opportunity to start at his own pace.) But before I said my line I was granted entry to the star’s dressing room for an interview which, I was told, would last exactly five minutes. It was a daunting prospect but I asked him the right opening question. ‘The words of the songs have always mattered so much to you. Is that why you don’t sing many of the songs being written now?’ He said, ‘Good question,’ and he was off. It was the right five minutes and it turned the rest of the movie to dust.