I have just spent a few days in Los Angeles, a city that seems to run on bravado and gasoline. Everybody is always ‘on’ in LA, because everybody is looking to get famous (at least that’s what movies tell me). You get the feeling that every waiter, every shop attendant, every valet is an actor, musician or writer patiently waiting for their breakthrough.
That sense that a breakthrough is always imminent is infectious. I daydreamed about a producer slowing down alongside me in his Ferrari, Bluetooth earpiece affixed to his head. “Excuse me,” he would say, “I couldn’t help notice your translucent complexion, frail physique and boyish appearance,” before asking “How would you like to play a foulmouthed, terminally-ill child in an upcoming romantic comedy starring Adam Sandler and Rashida Jones?” In my mind, which readily believes whatever movies or TV tells it, that’s how people get discovered.
On my last night in LA I had the random fortune of having dinner with some people, among them a gregarious writer and his savvy agent.
With their combined knowledge of literature, film, television and theatre the writer and agent possessed such a dizzying amount of erudition it made my brain bleed. At one point in the evening I overheard the agent say, “I believe it was Rousseau who once said…” She said this to add to a point she was making and not just to give the impression that she had read Rousseau (which is the only reason I ever invoke dead philosophers… or living philosophers… or anybody).
They rattled off insider gossip, discussed the technical prowess of certain filmmakers, the acting abilities of certain actors, the reasons why so-and-so’s is a better writer than so-and-so. I sat there, sweaty hands gripping my pants, terrified that I would be called upon to give my opinion on these matters. But at the same time I realized that this could be that breakthrough moment that I had spent the last 48 hours dreaming about. I had no choice, I had no idea what they were talking about, but when my number came I would have to do the Hollywood thing. I would have to bullshit.
The moment arrived at the end of our starters. The agent, who had been having a lighthearted debate with another diner, turned to me, “So, Rupert, what about you? Do you prefer Ibsen or O’Neil?” I blanched. My mind scurried about frantically looking for something that would help me understand what the hell she was talking about. It came up empty. I composed myself, turned to her and attempted to bullshit, “Well I haven’t played either of those, but my personal preference is for Fender.”
“I’m talking about Henrik Ibsen and Eugene O’Neil.” She said. This cleared up precisely nothing for me beside the fact my guitar guess was wrong. “Oh, Henrik Ibsen and Eugene O’Neil,” I repeated back to her, leaving an expectant silence. I added nothing more, just stared absently into the middle distance until they moved on.
A little later, the writer turned to me, “So Rupert, you mentioned you do some writing?” I nodded. “So, what did you think of Jonathan Franzen’s last book?” This time I knew what he was talking about, but, beyond the endorsements on its cover, I had not read Freedom. Miraculously, however, my mind managed to recall one of those endorsements. Without thinking, I bullshitted, plagiarizing the endorsement verbatim, “Franzen’s latest work is elegantly crafted, subtly plotted and, as a woman, I found the gender-commentary particularly compelling.” As I realized what I had just said I let out a defeated little sigh, the filter between my brain and mouth had failed me once again. “Excuse me?” The writer asked. I had to run with it now, “Oh, I identify as a woman. Because, well. Well, it’s a post-gender thing.” I took a long drag of my drink, before reverting to my coping mechanism and staring blankly into the middle distance.
Mercifully, they turned the conversation away from me and towards film. The agent was saying with a sense of nostalgia, “I still think that watching Mickey Rooney is a true joy, a pleasure.” The writer and other dinner guests nodded in agreement. My brain lit up, Mickey Rooney? Yes I definitely know who he is. Okay, time for your comeback Rupert. I jumped in, “I agree, I really enjoyed his performance in The Wrestler.”
“No, Rupert,” the writer went to correct me, “You’re thinking of Mickey Rourke,”
“Baseball?” I tried again.
The agent cut in, “I’m sorry Rupert but do you actually know anything?” The rest of the table sat quietly, waiting for my answer. “Well,” I cleared my throat, “I believe it was Sophocles who said ‘I know nothing’.” Touche, Rupert, I thought to myself, pleased with my little riposte.
The agent sat for a moment, staring into the middle distance. Then she turned to me and said, “It was Socrates who said that.”