Sunday, September 11, 2011

A TALE OF TWO COASTS: Charlie Sheen and 9-11.

"Life is so full of noise and speed, that any opportunity we afford ourselves to stop and think about deeply serious things is a gift, and we should take advantage of it." -- New Yorker editor David Remnick on NPR, 9-11-11. 
"Drugs couldn't kill me, sex couldn't kill me, the press couldn't kill me. Two and a Half Men couldn't kill me....I'm Charlie Sheen, and in here burns an eternal fire. I just have to remember to keep it away from a crack pipe." -- Charlie Sheen at Comedy Central Roast, 9-10-11. 
I knew I was in for a surreal experience when I scored a ticket for the taping of the TV roast of Charlie Sheen. But I hadn't fully thought through the stark juxtaposition with the national commemoration of 9-11 the next day, and the contrast it painted between the two coasts.

Both involved revisiting troubling sights and sounds that had dominated the news, trying to conjure symbols of resilience and and self-awareness, and a lot of handwringing about whether the revisiting was exploitative or fetishism.

So: On one coast they were reading psalms, names of the dead, and singing "The Sounds of Silence"; on the other they were making jokes about spousal abuse, drug abuse, violence against hookers, and Sheen losing custody of his children.
"Don’t you want to live to see their first 12 steps?" joshed Jeffrey Ross (dressed as Gaddafi). "The only reason you got on TV in the first place is because God hates Michael J. Fox," snarked put-down specialist Anthony Jeselnik.

The hot mess panel of roasters also included 80-year-old William Shatner, the incomprehensible Mike Tyson, and Jon Lovitz, who seemed to have been paid to accept jokes about his double chins, perennial unemployment and sexual deviancy.   

I was happy, in a way, not to be in New York and forced to relive the visuals of buildings burning and disintegrating, bodies falling, America shaken from its sense of security and primacy. But spending the weekend in a city that thrives on illusion -- and its own sense of primacy -- was disconcerting.

When I first moved west for a TV writing gig in June 2002, the TV and movie lots were under tighter security than America's airports. Guards inspected every car trunk, looking under the chassis with mirrors on long poles, so convinced were the studios that they were the obvious target for terrorists who hated everything about America.


I actually don't mind LA the way some New Yorkers do -- I have made my peace with the downsides (traffic, minimalls, the caste system) and concentrated on the upsides (weather, beach, living space).

But as I made my way into Stage 27 of Sony's Culver Studios, I realized the very public, packaged and perverse Charlie Sheen meltdown signified something troubling about the town, and about the country, that hadn't resolved itself for me. Imagine if his dissolution and implosion had happened in the weeks or months after 9-11. Would he have gotten the endless magazine and TV coverage (and coverage debating why there was so much coverage)?

Somehow in the ensuing decade, while losing our national upward trajectory and economic health, we chose to distract ourselves in celebrity foibles and talentless time-wasters like the Kardashians and Octomom.

I was happy to see that when Charlie came out on stage -- riding the front of a train with Slash playing guitar -- instead of looking like a wastrel at death's door, he seemed ruddy and together. Who knows how long it will last.  While some of the comedians gave lip service to the idea that the night was an "intervention," of course it was simply a chance to remind everyone that he'd called his Two and A Half Men boss a "Jew-Kike," given up a $1.8 million a week salary, and beaten up women.

The next morning was 9-11. I drove around listening to NPR's wall-to-wall coverage about the World Trade Center, people's experiences of the day, the lessons we have learned, and the lives and loss still echoing a decade later.

Emotionally exhausted, when I got home I decided to watch an escapist movie I hadn't seen since the 70's, the Robert Redford diamond-theft caper The Hot Rock. Of course, there's a crucial scene in the movie where the catchphrase is "Afghanistan Banana Stand" which no longer seems quite so comical these days.

But even more surprising to me was to see this helicopter sequence when the crooks are trying to land on the roof of a police station to retrieve the stolen diamond. Shot in 1972, it shows the World Trade Center still being built, at one point flying past the still-empty floors of one of the towers.

It reaffirmed for me that as much as we like to find escape in Hollywood, there are always reminders everywhere that bring us back to reality. Good luck, Charlie.


Beth said...

Nice. Thank you, David.

J. Devereux said...

Well said. Redford's anxious (queasy?) expression in the video seems like eery foreshadowing.

Sal Nunziato said...

Great piece, David.

David Handelman said...

Redford is freaked out because Ron Leibman doesn't really know how to fly a helicopter. You see him physically ducking to get them under the bridge. But yes it works that way.

Robert said...

Great post, David! You actually make a great case for living not in LA or NY but somewhere in the middle of the country where a lesser extreme exists. (not saying I actually wanna live there but you make a great case nevertheless)

Bob Busby said...

Very nice piece and I loved this movie when I saw it in the theater.