Friday, March 13, 2015

Yes, ANOTHER Robin Williams Story (cheerful)

YET ANOTHER Robin Williams story-
the Good Morning Vietnam
guy for those of you who are too young...
     Yes, it's another Robin Williams profile piece.  But I would like you to note I waited long enough after his tragic demise, until all the puff/questioning pieces had died down in the media.  And, yes, I did meet the great man, sometime around the time this poster picture was made.  Because this story is yet another part of the "Swimming to Cambodia" type saga from another viewpoint.
     Actually, this story, in true STC style, begins actually at an art school in California known as CALARTS.  It's a huge, nearly Pentagon-type structure in the Orange groves about 100 km north of Los Angeles, and is considered to be "the Harvard of Art Schools", though anyone who truly knows Harvard would question its use as a metric. (U of Chicago snobbery, perhaps).
     I had two filmmaking friends from my San Francisco days, one of whom, E, we'll call him, who was my personal instigator.  He had traveled in India and SE Asia in the seventies or eighties, and had made it his personal mission to get me on 'the hippy trail' , as he called it.  San Francisco of the mid eighties, where we met, was sort of a hippy museum; one could detect traces of hippies past, but there was no real juice or life left in the place, the same place that Keroac had described in such glowing tones (though I now understand that it could very well have happened for the Beats in just about any other town).
     E and Z (the other friend) were hosting my last night in the US, before the grand hippy tour I had planned out with E's assistance, and some cash I had scraped together from the summer of salmon canning in the panhandle of Alaska (another story in itself).  I was supposed to fly out the next night out of LAX, and when I left San Fran for the last time, my trusted VW mechanic and friend, Eric, had slipped a film cannister of dope into my pocket as a going away present.  Now, I wasn't such a big dope lover at the time (still aren't), it was more of one of those gifts you get which are magically easy and convenient to regift.
     So I thought I'd better get rid of the film cannister, didn't want my own Midnight Express happening in Los Angeles airport, so I dumped the contents into a Betty Crocker carrot cake mix.  To be honest, I don't even remember what brand it was, I just thought it sounds a lot more ironic if it were a Betty Crocker mix.  Now in my scant experience cooking with weed, I've found that it blends down ok into chocolate chip cookies, as long as butter is used to soak in the THC and the green bits discarded.  But with carrot, and possibly other 'orange' veggies, when you mix in the weed the resulting mixture tastes a lot like pumpkin bread.
     So that night we had a big party, the pumpkin bread was fresh and sitting out, we had warned everyone of its magic properties, and everyone was steering clear of it.  I ate the inaugural piece to hopefully encourage others, and managed to get about as much attention as a minnow jumping out of an abandoned pond.  So I ate a second, and third, and ....oh crap, there's just one piece left, and it DOES taste good, especially now that it's starting to kick in.
Karen Finley on stage two years later.
     How is this story ever going to link to Robin Williams?  Hmmm, it's fairly improbable, at this point.  So, in case you've never eaten it, weed takes a long time to show effects, and you may not even be aware of it, so gradual and hauntingly smooth is the effect.  I may or may not have been 'high' at the time my friends announced it was time to curtail the party and go see the big show that everyone had been talking about, that I simply HAVE to see while I have the chance :  Karen Finley , live, performing for the arts community at the school auditorium.  The way they spoke in reverent whispers made her out to be a kind of rising star in the art world, though if you know anything about performance artists, you'll know that using the word 'star' is a bit of a stretch.
     Anyways, at this point, the pumpkin bread is starting to make me a happy seven year old child, and this sounds like a good idea to me.  The plan is, to take me and all my luggage to the show, because after, they'll drive me to LAX and directly put me on my flight.  "See, perfect timing!, they say to the 7 year old, who nods his head slowly....
     What can I say about Karen's show?  Really, it was probably not so shocking by today's standards, and if I had been in my right mind, it may not have been as shocking.  After all, I was no longer a virgin, and no stranger to women's bodies by that point.  But still, I found it incredibly 'culture shocking' (to my OWN culture) to hear her go into this harangue, in the persona of a male Texan in full southern accent, about how her ass reminded him of a can of candied yams.  "I shore would like to get me some yams, uh-uh" and so on, and while she carried on this one-sided sexual harassment against herself, all the while opening a can of candied yams.  After a few minutes of this, and holding the can of yams in front of her, she hiked up her skirt and started jamming the contents furiously up her womanhood, in plain view of the audience.  The effect was A. to put us off vagina  B. to put us off Candied Yams and C. to put us off our screwed up ways of thinking.  At any rate, that's the effect it had on me, and as we drove to LAX, I kept getting flashbacks over and over.
     Where is Robin Williams?  If you really have lost patience with me, I promise he's coming. But not yet.  The weird thing about the pre-9-11 era is that people assume airport regulations were tighter than the age of hijacking (a period of about seven years) of the seventies, but they really have no idea of how many irregularities.  How else can I explain that I'm by this point, so high I can barely stand up, so my friends were able to take me all the way to the gate (also allowed) supporting me between them.  I can't even imagine how many people would try to stop us, for how many different reasons, today.  All I know now is that I found my seat, or had it found for me, and then collapsed after sitting down.
    "This is your Pilot speaking.  We are now making our final approach to Bangkok International Airport, where the local temperature is 95 degrees Fahrenheit....."
     It was winter of 1987.  I was in Bangkok, with a wad of travelers checks, a rudimentary backpack with camping gear, and was wearing a turtleneck polypropylene shirt, perfect for California winter weather, and I had two important pieces of information about Thailand in general and Bangkok in particular:  Bus number 57, and Khao San Road.
     The former was the 5 cents bus from the airport, to the latter location, which is now a mecca and hub for travelers, though now the description includes surfers, divers, beach bums, tattoo punters, sex tourists, freaks, heroin junkies, Israelis just after military service, and now increasingly Korean tourists.  In other words, the kind of place that Keroac would have described in loving tones.  Of course this was 1987, so the same sorts were all there (except the last two), but they all sort of looked the same, like a nondescript traveler with a backpack (short hair hippies, I like to think of it).
     The first thing I noticed is that my polypropylene turtleneck shirt, being dark blue, was soaking up the sun like a solar panel, only instead of outputting electricity, it was outputting rivulets of sweat under my arms.  I was on bus 57, and the strange foreigner was attracting a lot of side glances and otherwise polite attention.  Everyone was smiling, but no one except me was in serious sweat distress. The bus had no aircon, just a rattling old cage of metal and rubber hurtling down a road that looked like all others.  I could be totally on the wrong bus, but these people's reassuring smiles were telling me otherwise, that they had seen shorthaired hippies on their way to Khao San.  After about an hour I started getting antsy and anxious, but looking around me I could tell that they were going to make it all right.  I waited a few more minutes, sweating, until a man tapped me on the shoulder, saying something in Thai, I motioned to the door, and he nodded.  It was like the Jumpmaster in a plane telling me it was time to make my way to the open door and do my skydive.
     Outside the bus, the world looked for a few moments what it must be to some autistic children, who are so sensitive to input that all the world comes rushing in their heads, unfiltered, causing them considerable pain.  95 degrees in the shade, of which I could find none, my shirt screaming at me to rip it off, I looked around at traffic surrounded by black clouds of diesel smoke, people hurrying hither and thither, scanning for street signs (for I understood that Khao San was the name of a street), I discovered that  there were signs in English, only they were five meters off the ground and printed in what appeared to be a font size reserved for the small print in unfavorable contracts.
     I ripped my shirt off, my body screamed relief, though that was soon quelled by all the skin cells that were soon to die from solar radiation.  More urgently, I now discovered that a lot of people around me appeared to be smiling to the point of a fabulously funny joke.  I was that joke, apparently, though I didn't realize that smiling (especially back then) was a dangerous sign that you have trespassed on the cultural norm, a sign of embarrassment (or more properly, of cringe), and my shirt soon went right back on.  I would find this magical street called 'khao san', I would get a hostel , and relieve myself of this horrible wardrobe mistake.
     I stopped a few friendly looking sorts (they all looked friendly, just some less busy than others) and repeated, in that stupid-tourist-louder-than-life stage voice (they aren't deaf, they just don't understand your babbling, silly) "Khao San?  Where?  Khao San?".  After one or two of these encounters, I got someone pointing down a nondescript street, where to my shock, I saw English signs along both sides.  "Hello cafe"  , and the "Good Morning Cafe" and the "Happy Cafe", all of which were advertising 'European breakfasts"
     After stopping another friendly hippy (short hair), I got a recommendation for a place behind the temple, a place called Apple Two.  I sauntered into the back alley behind another alley behind the buddhist temple, and saw the sign pop out from a row of non-descript (except they are possible to describe, being a typical working class thai urban house, but I don't have room) houses in this tiny, dark alley.  It was actually a cheerful place, tiny little box rooms, but clean, and a big space in the middle with couches and chairs where all the hippies were hanging out.  I soon made the best of friends, and rum and coke appeared, and we were all chatting and stuff, and before I know it, they are all saying that I HAVE to go and see this show, that it's the ultimate, that I'll hate myself if I don't.  So we all scramble our stuff together, boys and girls and fill up two taxis, who take us to this neighborhood downtown, someone is in charge, not sure who but he seems to know the ropes.  Next thing I know we are going in a nightclub, there's a doorman, I hear him clearly say "Fuck you" and give us all the biggest, politest smile, and I know we are in for an experience.
     I then watch the infamous ping pong show, only for me it's not the ping pong show, I'm flashing back to Karen and all of the inappropriate yam jamming, as balls and darts and all kinds of even more inappropriate things are going in and out of orifices, and before I know it my head starts to spin in that backwards way, a special kind of headache that only extreme double reverse culture shock can bring you.  And so it was, that I saw the ping pong show on both sides of the Pacific, in a way, within twenty four hours of each other, though interpreted through different filter.
     The next morning, I slept in, trying to forget all the cultural compression and decompression of the previous week, and was just hanging around the open living room of the hostel, and the phone rang.  No one picked it up right away, for the family was away, and the rule there was that the guests could answer it, and try to take a message for another guest, or give out information, or whatever, since it was usually another traveler on the end of the line.  I was closest in the living room, so I picked it up and spoke gingerly to the unknown caller: "Hello?"
     "Good Morning! sang a distinctly American, somewhat impatient female voice on the other end.  "Is John X there?"   "John!"  I shouted to the two or three people in the living room, for it was emptier than I had realized.  Blank stares came back at me, perhaps the people were trying to figure out which language I was blathering in.
     "I'm sorry" I apologized to this stranger. "I think he's out.  Can I take a message?"  Then the stranger spoke four words that were to change my destiny, at least temporarily.  "How tall are you?"she intoned rather seriously.  This was not a joke.  I was going to take John's job, whatever that is.  "About 5-11" I said, hoping it wasn't a casting call for a basketball team or something.  "What color are your hair and eyes?", she asked, perhaps afraid she was talking to an Asian person.  What I was to learn later is that Hollywood is at the very epicenter of racism and all kinds of bigotry, which is perpetuated through the typecasting of villains, good guys, and especially extras, now known in doublespeak as 'background actors'.
     I told her basically what she wanted to hear, that I was caucasian (though it turns out they were also casting blacks), and she gave me a set of job descriptions and directions to follow to get myself into this movie thing they were shooting down in Phuket.  The pay was forty dollars a day, a fortune in 1987 Thailand , since this hostel itself was actually 2 dollars a night.  The bus fare was paid already, I would sleep in paid accommodation there (it turned out to be very similar to Apple 2, actually).  So when I realized I could stay an entire month in Apple two from just three days work, I needed no more convincing.  I was in.  I left that night.
     I arrived late night at Phuket, stayed in the hostel, and the next morning they came and drove all us extras to the set.  It was really early so this part is a bit fuzzy, still groggy with sleep they were shoving rifles and army uniforms at us , we got into the togs and grabbed the guns and jumped on these big transport trucks, and started winding up this jungle hill in the middle of seemingly nowhere- though probably that site is now all condos as far as you can see.
     It occurred to me, looking around at all the fresh faces, still half asleep, all the other young white and black American looking G.I. types, that this experience might not be much different from actually being drafted.  I mean, we were all here on this 'adventure', and what not, but who's to say, that if another army with a different uniform were to appear on the crest of the hill and start shooting at us, like real bullets, with people getting hit left and right, that you might not fire back, in fact who's to say you couldn't get into a real 'fake' war this way; by the time the extras had figured out they'd been tricked, it'd be far too late, you'd have to fight if you wanted to see the light of the next day.  So in a way I was sort of dreaming Tropic Thunder (minus the Simple Jack part, of course, I wasn't going full retard)- but I can't have been the only fake soldier to have done so.
     In fact, it prompted me to more carefully examine my helmet, which seemed unusually heavy to me. I had in fact just come from India where I had lost 45 pounds and nearly my life, leaving me a skinny little runt to the point where I thought it was my skinny little neck having a hard time holding up the scant weight of a fake plastic helmet.  But this thing in my hands was a big, old chunk of metal.  I looked inside and found markings.  THIS WAS A REAL HELMET FROM 'NAM.  Holy shit, the whole Tropic Thunder thing seemed to reverberate when it sunk in that I was WEARING A FUCKING HELMET THAT MAYBE SOMEBODY DIED IN.
    I looked at the gun they had given me.  I remember that as soon as the guns were handed round, a whole bunch of the meathead extras (I heard that they had combed the beaches of Phuket, and had rounded up an annual gathering of Canadian firefighters) started immediately pointing the guns at imaginary targets, in some cases each other, and going 'click' with the trigger, while childishly mouthing the sound 'pow'.  At the time, I had thought nothing of it, since I assumed that any Hollywood production would just use made-for-stage rifles, or else 'formerly' real ones with muzzle and breach blocks to prevent any real ammo from going in or out of the machine.
     Not stupid enough to actually look down the barrel of my own gun, I contented myself with the knowledge that this was a safe gun, no problems with accidental live rounds or what not, and the fact of the real helmet just sat in the back of my head, nagging me while I quietly put the other thoughts away.
I'm pretty sure it was one of these earlier models, not the M16s
you normally see in closeups of "Full Metal Jacket" etc.
     I think it was on the second take going up that hill, a big take, since it involved about five troop transports , a couple of jeeps and a helicopter or two all kind of synching together, before long, we had stopped halfway through the take.  I looked over at the helicopter, since that would be the most logical snafu that would require rewinding the scene.  it was in the same place it had been on the first take.  Not long after I had these thoughts, a jeep pulls up, only this time, instead of extras in costume, it had an ashen faced props manager, in civ clothes.  "Hand down your rifles" he barked, almost as if he was in character for a Sergeant.  We dutifully handed them down, and he immediately jerked open the bolt and peered into the chamber with one eye cocked, then handed them back one by one.
     "What's this all about? " I stammered, suddenly not caring if I lost my precious forty dollar job, since my life had to be worth at least twice that.  He reached into the floor of the jeep and brought up a big army ammo can, which he shook vigourously, so that we could hear the four or five shells inside of it.  "I found these inside the other guns" he said, and we all turned the same color as he was, thinking about those Canook beefheads and their idiotic antics with point and shoot.  One of us could have been killed on the set that day.
     The third day was a bit dolorous, not just because we had escaped death by bullet, death by repeated takes over and over of the truck scene (which got cut down to a 1.5 second establishing shot; my truck got completely cut out of that), not just because we had been eating bland Wonderbread fucking mayonnaise and some mystery lunch-meat sandwiches on set the whole time (Seriously? That's the only food you could rustle up in fucking Thailand?),not just because the day was a bit overcast and gloomy, but because most of us were at the end of the extra shoot and would be losing our sweet forty dollar gig.
     Some of the extras had wormed their way into 'permanent' temporary positions, like driving a jeep, looking extra 'soldiery', etc.  I had to laugh at this one guy, who had apparently grown up with WW2 movies, cause he was a living breathing stereotype of the fake heroism macho bullshit of that era, a cigarette butt dangling at an angle out of his chompers, the sleeves rolled up with a cig pack in it, helmet askew with chinstrap dangling down as if he didn't give a good goddamn.  I halfway expected John Wayne himself to come up and congratulate this man for giving his soul to the devil of Hollywood.  Yeah, I'll admit it, we all hated him cause he had made big bucks by having got there early; he was now in his third month of filming.
     So it was with no small surprise that, when they called a few of us (meaning less than 20 out of the 100 something that we were) out to the 'set' and had us sit around on stumps around this campfire pit (not lit of course, cause temps were still in the high 30's) and make like we were R and Ring or whatever it is that soldiers are supposed to do in  Nam in their free time (minus the 'me love you long time' part).  No small surprise when Robin Williams rolls up to the center of our little gathering and starts doing an impromptu stand-up set.
     "This is the Reverend Squirrely Bush!" he boomed in his fake Radio Evangelist voice, with no mike in sight, in uniform.  I was taken completely by surprise, not even realizing that the cameras were rolling now, for they had sort of wanted to get us reacting like humans would.  Maybe I had been given this honor because of all the extras there, I was having the hardest time, still suffering from Dehli Belly in the worst way, and having to often dash off to the loo in between takes.  In fact, their advisor, a black vet, had patted me on the shoulders and said, "Great!  You're the most authentic of all!  We were always shittin' our brains out back then"
     I had missed seeing Robin live not four months earlier, back in a little comedy club called The Other in San Francisco, where he was quite famous for popping in unannounced and jumping on stage to do an impromptu act, often in tandem with who ever happened to be up there.  Just a couple of weeks earlier I had missed one of these legendary moments when Dana Carvey was up there, Robin shows up, jumps up and they started doing some sort of comedy duel to the death.  I knew a waitress there and after she told me that story, she slipped me in the back door so I could  watch Dana myself (though with no Robin).  Now here he was , standing up directly in front of me a few meters away!
     Dudes were cracking up all around me, but I was so shocked I literally couldn't pick up my jaw from the ground where it had lain all this time.  I still see some of those 'professional laughers' cause one or two of them made the final cut - the irony is that in the movie, they are listening to Robin on the radio, when they were actually just a farting distance from the real dude.
    The shoot finally wrapped up, I got over my shock, and we all began walking to the lunch tents, where as I already knew, extras go to one tent and eat fucking Wonderbread, and every one else goes to another tent and ate, I don't know, chicken or something.  I wouldn't be able to schmooze with the big man once we split to our tents, so I started walking alongside him, there were actually just two gawkers already there, they were even more awed than I.  He was continuing to tell jokes!  In fact, for him the cameras had not stopped rolling!  What I mean is, in a nice way, he needed an audience- and for now he needed us, desperately , to laugh at him.  He was seeking our approval.  I thought back to all the funny amazing comics I've known in my life and not one of them was not without a dark tragic side.  They had all filled that void with humor, and here was the biggest black hole of them all, a dark genius.  That truly filled me with more awe than anything, than being shot out with fake guns which turned out to be real, than all the rest of it.
     We were nearly at the tents.  I've always been a timid sort, so much so that nearly all my girfriends have made the first move, so much so that I voted against myself as fourth grade class president.  So I don't know what prompted me to be the first extra that dared do anything besides laugh at the great man.  I said "So, do you still go to the Other sometimes?"   He looked at me in shock, as if I had punched him and knocked the wind out of him.  "You've been to the Other?" he said, in disbelief, suddenly being transported to home, to the thousands of people in the Bay who loved and supported him even before his television career.  "Yeah, I saw Dana Carvey, but I was kinda bummed that it wasn't the night you showed up" I said.   After that it was a little awkward, cause I could tell he had granted me special status as a fellow SF person, not just a normal fan or extra, but now it was time to go to our special tents, perhaps he would shake hands in the other tent and then do his trailer to be alone, who knows?  Of course we also saw him later with this gorgeous woman in her late twenties, the rumor spread that it was his affair of the moment.....
     Sorry to make you wait so long for the Robin Williams part, it was a bit devious of me, but it just seemed wrong to cut out parts of the experience which were really integral to it.  Years later I was to return to the 'Vietnam set' in Phuket as an extra, with the great Werner Herzog, who was even more charming, humble and personable than I could have imagined.

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