Thursday, December 18, 2008

Apocalypse! And the Lambada!

Back in the early 90's I worked as a tour manager for charter groups to the Soviet Union. I remember one trip I worked for a Western Kansas radio personality and his farmer listeners. They wanted to witness the fall of communism firsthand.

Travel to the Soviet Union had been, until then, a very ordered and orderly affair. You got visas from the governments international tourist bureau, Inturist. You stayed at one of several hotels. You got on and off buses. You saw the Kremlin. You saw Swan Lake. You tried to keep tourists away from the prostitutes and vice versa. It was straightforward.

But chaos was descending. Inturist wasn't responding. There was some strange little company no one had ever heard of in its place. They had sent my visa but none of the other 72. Those were in an office in Moscow. This defeats the purpose of visas. We had reservations in a hotel no one had heard of. I was pretty much sure it was a scam.

We were on a one-day layover in Berlin, and the group was headed to Kiev, Ukraine. We were told that Ukraine was now an independent country. Americans don't need a visa. This was new.

We decided I would go to Moscow and try to score the visas and check out what was happening. The other tour manager would take the 72 farmers and the radio personality to Ukraine. I remember landing at the international airport in Moscow, and seeing no one at the counter where foreigners were required to check in. Some half-drunk meathead walked up to me and eventually took me to get the visas. There were no officials in sight. The airport was pure chaos. I asked him about the hotel, and he told me it was "almost finished".

The whole trip was like this. The government, which had provided everything, had basically vanished. Ukraine had declared independence, but no one really believed it yet. The Kansas radio personality droned on about capitalism and this and that. He wanted people dancing in the streets, and pronto. It's hard to dance in the streets when you don't know what money to use, or if your money actually means anything. It's hard to dance in the streets when you don't know what country you live in.

The trip was a seat-of-the-pants affair. We fed 72 tourists very well with a few dollars. We couldn't order tickets to the ballet from the non-existent government bureau. But we could scalp them for lunch money. The plane tickets from Kiev to Moscow never arrived, but we bribed our way onto the plane. The country was coming apart at the seams.

We ended up in Moscow, staying at a brand new hotel in the middle of an endless sea of mud. On the last night this strange little company put together a massive feast with endless vodka for us. We were their first customers. It's hard to express the desperation and elation and just overall weirdness of the time. No one knew what to expect. A young woman I barely knew proposed marriage to me. And that's when they started to play the lambada.

My coworker, Jennifer, looked over at me. She knew what the young woman next to me was saying. We'd both received a few offers in the past week. She pulled me to my feet, and we tore the place up as only two drunk gringos can. We couldn't believe we'd made it to this final day. Each and every day we'd been besieged with absurd and unimaginable changes in a familiar landscape. I looked out the window of this tacky Russian disco at the endless field of mud and realized I was crying. There's a point where you can't feel any more dislocated. There's a point when it really does feel like the end of the world. The lambada still means that to me.

What does this have to do with screenwriting?

How many movies will Hollywood make about the end of the world? Why does Hollywood make so many movies about the end of the world?

The first rule of storytelling is that the subject and main action has to be significant. And you don't get much more significant than apocalypse. It doesn't take a lot of explaining to get across the import. It's easy to tell a story about the end of the world. Throw in some CGI and Keanu Reeves and you've got yourself a movie. No matter that the first rule of storytelling is that the subject and main action must be significant relative to the context. The end of a marriage or a bank heist can mean everything in the same way.

We're suckers for tidal waves and alien ships and megastorms. We feel, on some level, that we deserve this. Or suspect we might deserve it. The tsunami washes over us and we're somehow cleansed. Some spark of humanity is all that's left, and that's enough to save us. We're new again.

But the end of the world isn't so neat and clean. There's a chaos and a dislocation that makes it difficult to tell the tale. There's no three-act structure. It's the absence of that structure. There are tinges of it running through American society right now.

I wonder how we'll tell tales about this period. I've been working on a script for a few months now. I feel the dislocation whenever I sit down to write. Last August was a different time. We've traveled farther than we know.

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