So, I’m going to let you in on a dirty little Hollywood secret:
In the first draft of every script ever written, especially the bad ones, there’s a character we writers call Sam the Explainer. Despite his gender-specific first name, Sam — or, when he’s away on location or in rehab, his cousin, Morris the Explainer — is a changeling. A chameleon. He can be a man, a woman, a child, an alien from outer space or even that lowest of Hollywood life forms (next to a screenwriter), a Voiceover. But you know who he is.
He’s the guy-gal-straight-gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgendered guy who stops the show dead in its tracks in order to explain just what exactly the hell is going on.
Sam the Explainer is a fixture in Euro-cinema; hell, in Euro-cinema, every character is Sam the Explainer. The cousin/cousine who explains at great length, over cigarettes and coffee, and entirely in the nude, why he/she’s sleeping with his/her father/mother/brother/sister/uncle/random stranger/the St. Bernard/the beach ball. The executioner who explains that he’s the executioner, and that what he does is execute people. The Nazi who muses that he’s a Nazi and that being a Nazi is what he’s all about, he can’t help it and besides he’s one of us!
American movies are usually not this bad, which is one reason ours sell over there and theirs don’t sell over here, but Sam is also an American an apple pie.
A good example is Argyle, the taxi driver who picks up Bruce Willis in the first Die Hard, who elicits all sorts of back story from Willis’ character, John McClane, as he drives our hero to his date with destiny at Nakatomi Plaza.
(One of our Tinseltown in-jokes by the way: “Nakatomi Plaza” is actually the Fox Plaza Building on Avenue of the Stars in Century City. It‘s located in what used to be the old 20th Century Fox back lot. Half the accountants in town are in Century City and now, even the major talent agencies, like CAA and ICM, are fleeing Beverly Hills for Century City, too.)
Among screenwriters, the Argyle-McClane scene is the ne plus ultra of explanation — what we sometimes refer to as “laying pipe.” Here‘s a sample of Argyle‘s Samitudinosity:
“So, your lady live out here?”
“Meanwhile, you still live in New York?”
“So, you divorced, or what?”
“So, why didn’t you come?”
(So, you’ll be amazed, when you start to listen for it, how many lines of movie dialogue start with, “So…” That‘s Sam talking.)
So, the point of all this interrogation is to establish that Det. McClane is estranged from his wife, lives 3,000 miles away and desperately wants her back, which is why he‘s flown all this way just to yippee-ti-yi-yay-mofo with Hans Gruber.
Now, there are a million ways the screenwriters could have conveyed this information, but in an action movie we want to get on with it, so why waste time showing Bruce Willis as a cop in New York, Bonnie Bedelia getting a job offer from L.A., them fighting, her leaving, etc.? Just tell it to Sam, er, Argyle, and be done with it.
Other times, Sam pops up to clarify a) the villain’s dastardly plot, b) the traumatic experience the lead suffered in his/her/its childhood, which is why he/she/it is depraved, or c) in the case of Martin Scorsese movies like The Age of Innocence, to tell you why you’re watching the damn movie in the first place, besides the food and the scenery.
So at this point I’m going to turn the column over to Sam and let him answer your questions about just exactly what the hell is going on around here, in re the Topic of the Day: the I-Man. In homage to the great Argyle, we’ll cast this in the form of really bad, pipe-laying movie dialogue:
ARGYLE: So Don Imus is trouble for doing what he always does, only this time to the young, mostly black, women of the Rutgers basketball team. Cardinal O’Connor, Cardinal Egan, Mike Tyson, Dick Nixon, General Patton, Alberto Gonzales, no sweat. This time, sweat. Is it the target? The principle? The implicit N-word? What gives?
SAM: Call it the Quentin Tarantino Memorial Double Standard. It all depends on where your heart is. Pulp Fiction, a great film, is a veritable orgy of N-words, half of them spewing from Tarantino’s own mouth as Jimmie in “The Bonnie Situation” episode, so it’s O.K. because he’s the director; the other half from the great Samuel L. Jackson as Jules, a Person of Color so it’s O.K. And, yes, “nappy” is now an honorary N-word. Just like “you people.”
ARGYLE: So, are you saying that Imus is a rabid, rabid, Elizabeth “send us your sympathy notes and we’ll hit you up for money” Edwards-fearing Republican/conservative/card-carrying member of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy?
SAM: What, are you stupid? Just because he publicly supported John Kerry in the last election, has called Dick Cheney a “war criminal,” and referred to Donald Rumsfeld as a “psychopath”? Look at the facts: Imus is a West Texas/New Mexico country boy/gun-toting ex-Marine/ former drug addict and alcoholic with residences in Manhattan; Westport, Conn.; and rural New Mexico, who once referred to correspondent Gwen Ifill as a “cleaning lady.“ Plus his wife, Deirdre, is a vegan. So what do you think that makes him?
ARGYLE: So, what happened to all those rabid, rabid, right-wing journalists and writers who appear regularly on Imus In the Morning? You know, Frank Rich, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Jonathan Alter, Howard Fineman, Chris Matthews, Mike Barnicle, Maureen Dowd, Jon Meacham, Sam the Explainer — you people. You’re standing up for him, for freedom of speech, and for the First Amendment, like you always do — right?
SAM: zzzzzzzzzzzzz. Huh?
ARGYLE: So, I’ve got a bad feeling about this script. Our main character, “Imus” is a wingnut cleverly posing as a moonbat, a mean-spirited bigoted racist homophobe whose radio show is predicated on equal-opportunity offensiveness, but the minute he crosses a line determined by Al “Tawana Brawley/Freddy‘s Fashion Mart” Sharpton and Jesse “Hymietown” Jackson,” he grovels like Little Egypt, recants like a defendant at a Stalinist show trial and gets a one-way ticket to Trent Lott Land. Whose sponsors pull out, who gets the boot from Keith Olbermann’s network and who’s left grasping at air like Hans Gruber after John McClane chucks him off Nakatomi Plaza?
SAM: And your question is?
ARGYLE: So, does that mean there are no principles anymore? Just situations? Invisible oxen just waiting to be, pardon the expression, gored?
SAM: Yes. That and $600 million in bearer bonds. Money talks, B.S. walks.
ARGYLE: So is Imus done?
SAM: Better ask my cousin, Morris the Explainer. I’m outta here.