How To Beat Tribalism? Be Even MORE “Tribal”

Humans are tribal by nature; it’s a survival instinct. Since reproduction is one of our key “primal directives”, our genome has built into it behaviors that give our personal DNA every chance to create a next version of “us”. After our own precious ass, our family’s ass comes next in the pecking order. Then our extended family. Or, for some people, their friend circle. The block they live on. Their neighborhood. The school district they live in. The PTAs at their kids’ schools. The social issues that matter to them. Their city. The football or basketball or soccer or baseball team they love — and every other fan of that team. If you think about it, we form tribes with anything and everything we can — because we’re social creatures and this is what social creatures do.

White supremacists are no more tribal than anyone else. They just seem that way because they put all their emphasis on being in a limited number of tribes rather than as many as possible. “Jews will not replace us” — the rallying cry and tribal grievance of the Charlottesville Fascists Club — represents a particularly odd bit of tribalism. The whole “replacement culture” thing is bizarre because it assumes that those with the grievance are “replaceable” to begin with. Replaceable how exactly? In their jobs? In their marriages? In their lives? Being replaceable by “others” to whom you are supposedly “superior” is a strange way to think of yourself and your tribe. If your tribe excelled at something then that fact would make your tribe irreplaceable. Why don’t these “white supremacists” excel at anything other than having grievances? Why do THEY think THEY are replaceable?

In a competitive job market — in a competitive, capitalistic system — one MUST compete in order to stay in the game. Every group arriving here (aside from white people) have accepted that fact and worked their asses off to achieve some degree of success (and they’ve had to do that in the face of relentless white resistance). In that sense, EVERYONE is “replaceable” if they don’t continue to contribute to the group’s effort or hold up their end of the social bargain. Ah, but that’s where white privilege asserts itself. White people have gotten it into their heads that, since white men got together and wrote the Constitution – and framed it entirely to their advantage (as the “men” who were created equal”) – that this is set in concrete. That’s the whole point of “originalism” — to falsely assert that the flawed thinking of a group of (French) enlightened racists and misogynists is America’s bottom line. The country can only be exactly how the framers framed it.

Bullshit. The men who imagined this democratic republic made it changeable. They understood that this bold idea would need plenty of room around it to expand. They seemed to grasp, on some level, the incompleteness of their ideation — that “all men” was a bigger tribe than just white men. Congress approved of “E pluribus unum” as America’s motto (they put it on our Great Seal) in 1782. Out of many, one.

Out of many tribes, ONE TRIBE.

White supremacists can’t abide that. They think their TRIBE is replaceable. That, right there, is the problem.

I’m not sure there is a solution to white supremacy. Centuries of thinking one way about themselves versus everyone else has convinced white Europeans that their whiteness makes them superior. No, white people, it does not. White people are a minority of people on earth. If not for the greater lethality of the pathogens that evolved inside white Europeans over a thousand or so years (versus the pathogens evolving inside other human groups scattered across the globe), perhaps even their guns and steel would have faltered when they went exploring. A big piece of white people even thinking they’re “superior” comes from the relative ease with which white Europeans seized the Americas. The European colonizers told themselves their Christian faith — their god Yahweh — made them superior. Again, NO! Smallpox, measles and influenza — introduced into the Americas by European explorers — wiped out 90% OF NATIVE AMERICANS. If not for fleas — which carried the bubonic plague from China to Europe, bubonic plague might not have wiped out half of Europe in the fourteenth century. If not for Europeans and THEIR bugs, Europeans would have faced far more resistance when they landed on these shores.

How do we defeat tribalism? We don’t deny it; we can’t. It’s just too hard-wired into us. Why do you think there are soccer riots? Instead, we go at it, full bore. We make everyone “hyper-tribal” but not in that they see their exclusivity as a tribe. Rather, like two people who love the same song, they forget all their other potential differences and begin with that thing they have in common. Building from there (something as simple as a song), I bet those two people will surprise themselves with all their commonalities. Yes — there are differences. But, now there’s context for the differences.

Those two people might come to blows all the same; they just don’t like each other. But once you start talking together about how and why a song touches you, you will unlock pieces of your soul (such as it is) to that other person.

It’s a lot harder to feel tribally defensive toward someone whose soul you understand.

Alpha Dogs Don’t Have To Be A-holes

Scott Rudin

Larger-than-life show biz alpha dog SCOTT RUDIN announced publicly today that he’s “stepping back”, having suddenly realized apparently that decades of acting like the biggest asshole in every room he was in has a downside. In my 35+ years in the show biz trenches, I’ve worked with and for many creative people equal in stature to Rudin — both as producers and as creatives. While writing and producing “Tales From The Crypt” for HBO and Fox, two of my executive producer bosses were action movie producer JOEL SILVER and genius director ROBERT ZEMECKIS. Both Joel and Bob are alpha dogs but very different kinds of alpha dog. Night and day. Joel was very much an alpha dog from the same part of the kennel as as Rudin — these guys are screamers. They’ve gotten it into their heads that they can say whatever they want to whomever they want without fear of consequence. They don’t need to show another human being an ounce of respect — but every other human better look at them with not just respect but fealty. That’s the alpha dog as asshole — the kind of alpha dog we expect. But Bob Z’s alpha-ness was just as apparent — even more apparent in many ways — because, when working with Bob, one felt his “alpha-ness” without Bob ever seeming to project it. Bob Z’s alpha dog is what actual leadership looks like.

My partner at the time Gil Adler and I took over “Tales” at the end of its second season on HBO. The third season, it was understood, was going to be the show’s last; everyone from HBO to the executive producers believed the show had run its course. Gil and I didn’t agree. I especially didn’t. I was a fan of the whole EC Comics world — Mad Magazine’s predecessor — since I was a kid. One of my biggest thrills ever was getting to meet EC’s & Mad’s publisher and organizing spirit William F. Gaines on set of Lethal Weapon II. After our first season running Tales not only turned the series around but gave it a future — HBO ordered two more seasons — our executive producer Joel had invited Bill Gaines out to LA to talk about a whole larger arrangement between the Crypt Partners and EC — and Joel graciously invited Gil and I to meet Bill in Joel’s trailer on the LWII set while he and Bill had lunch. This is the thing about Joel — he could absolutely be as mean and heartless as any ratty alpha. He also had grace and generosity within him. I personally experienced it. Joel may not be facile with these things — but has at least some semblance of these elements in his emotional makeup.

That’s what makes his acting like the other alpha so head-scratching. In the long run, being a screamer has not benefitted my old boss. Pissing people off and alienating them eventually makes your world teeny-tiny. Joel’s world got so small, he was forced to cohabitate with some very unsavory types — like Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman.

Joel Silver (on the left) w Ari Emmanuel

Alpha dogs in the Joel vein create a culture around them that mirrors their exact alphaness. Alphas like Joel find that appealing — and, so, endure the pettiness, abuse and tyranny because, in their minds, some day THEY will rule over a fiefdom just like this — in just this way.

On the other extreme was my executive producer Bob Z — the antithesis to the asshole alpha. I’ll get to Bob momentarily. In the middle was my EP Richard Donner, his company and its exec assigned to Tales SCOTT NIMERFRO. Scott was both a cynical studio creature and a true artist. I had the pleasure of working with both up close. A mid-westerner with a deliciously twisted, Coen-Brothers type sense of humor (they, too are mid-westerners), Scott loved, celebrated, mocked and used as inspiration that oddly mid-western way of seeing things. He loved bowling culture. Same goes for Bingo game culture. Scott hosted Friday evening “get togethers” back in the day where a bunch of us would suddenly “descend” like elite locusts on a bingo parlor out in the San Fernando Valley. It was incredible fun — if mildly disruptive for a night to the regulars. I wrote a bunch with Scott — loved every second of it — and I miss the guy; Scott died in 2016 from angiosarcoma, a rare kind of cancer.

Bob Zemeckis is every bit the alpha Joel and Scott Rudin are. Bob owns every room he walks into. Except Bob isn’t trying to do that. He’s just walking into the room. His alpha is confident in its own alpha-ness. It has no need to denigrate others to feel alpha. Bob’s a collaborative alpha whose own success rests on his ability to marshal others’ work and passion toward something he’d like to do. The trick is to make others take ownership in what you are doing. It’s Me vs We. Bad alphas turn everyone around them into variations of them all focused on “me”. Good alphas make everyone part of their “we”.

Bob Zemeckis

It was a pleasure working for and collaborating with Bob in part because of the kind of alpha he is but also because Bob loves to challenge those who work with him. Bob’s always looking for ways to tell stories filmicly in ways that haven’t been done yet because they haven’t been imagined. Remember “Forrest Gump”? Intermingling film characters from two different places has been going on from film’s beginning as an art form. The trick is integrating them seamlessly so you can’t see how they’ve been integrated. Woody Allen (whose films sadly are now dead to me) did it in “Zelig” in 1983; his Zelig character seems to interact with historical figures in newsreel photos. There’s a bit of interaction but it’s all physical. There’s no dialogue.

Zemeckis goes much further in integrating Forrest’s world and our world. In 1988, Bob integrated a fully-functional animated world into ours in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”. I’m proud to say that Bob fine-tuned the integration he had in mind on “Forrest Gump” when he prepped for “You, Murderer”, the last episode of Crypt he directed. I won Bob’s trust toward the end of my first season on Crypt — the one that was supposed to be the show’s last. AS Crypt’s final episode (that wasn’t in the end), the Crypt Partners (Joel, Bob, Dick Donner and director Walter Hill) and HBO had agreed to splash out on something epic. Bob wanted to pay homage to one of his favorite movies ever, Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths Of Glory”, a World War One story starring Kirk Douglass.

Bob wanted to shoot a World War One story also starring Kirk Douglass. The trick: getting Kirk Douglass to do this episode of Tales From The Crypt. There’s a lot to balance here: Kirk Douglass was at the tail end of an illustrious film career. He was a true Hollywood God. Bob was A Hollywood God with the whole Back To The Future franchise to his credit. Crypt was a show that had made a big splash with big names (Arnold Schwarzeneggar had directed an episode, his first time behind the camera) but those days seemed well behind the show — which HBO was ending anyway. Like all our episodes, “Yellow” was based at least loosely on a comic from the EC canon. The story in “Yellow” was based entirely on the comic book’s story: a WWI general is forced to court martial and condemn to death his cowardly son whose cowardice killed a good soldier. The problem: the teleplay that had been written by the normally reliable Thomas Brothers was one-dimensional. It couldn’t update its way of thinking from the 1950’s source which made the script feel, well, dated. The trick with a franchise like Crypt is to keep all the good, nostalgia-inducing qualities while mitigating the bad. Bob knew he could never get Kirk Douglass with the script we had. He turned to me to fix it — as I started on Crypt as the story editor.

Most TV shows have a staff of writers. Up until the very last season (the one we shot in London) where we finally had ONE writer on staff (Scott Nimerfro), Crypt had never had any writers on staff. There was no writing staff except for me (though his name is on many scripts, my friend Gil did not actually write anything; do not get me started on how dumb I was out of friendship and loyalty). I wrote a bunch of my own scripts for the show and rewrote everyone else’s until it was camera ready. Except for Nimerfro’s. After the first time I tried to re-write Scott (he disabused me of that quickly) — and I understood that Scot got the show in the exact same way I did — I’d simply ask him how many episodes he wanted to write at the beginning of the season. He’d write them and essentially produce them. Scott’s episodes are easily some of the series very, very best.

My revision to the script got us Kirk Douglass. It got me a fan in Bob Z. So — when, many seasons later, Crypt contemplated ending its run again, they turned to Bob Z to direct the finale. Side note: news of our demise had, yet again, been premature. Crypt ran for one more season which we shot in London. Bob had chosen a comic story as source material: “You, Murderer” — a very noir murder tale told entirely from a subjective point of view — all the characters treat the reader as a character in the piece. As with every episode, the source comic was good for a title (mandatory), maybe the story idea in broad terms. Most likely the twist ending. Crypt stories are all little morality tales where, most of the time, the bad guy gets his comeuppance in the most graphic, horrifying, literal way possible. The guy who kills everyone else to be “head of the company”, say, will end up with his head on a spike outside the company’s HQ. Frequently however, aside from the title, the comic was utterly useless (with even the title feeling dated). All we could really take was the anarchic, laugh in your face, EC Comic sensibility. So — when Bob set up a lunch to discuss his final episode, I honestly had zero idea where he might take the comic.

I drove up to Bob’s Montecito estate (this was in 1995). We had lunch. We pushed the dishes aside and Bob looked across the table at me with a smile.

Now, here’s where working with Bob Z gets good. It’s the moment where he poses an impossible question but asks “How’re we gonna do this?” In every piece Bob ever makes, there’s at least one moment that — unbeknownst to the audience — is filmicly impossible. The shot or shots either cannot happen or cannot happen in any produce-able way — at least, that’s what we think watching the scene: how the hell did they do that? Every creative partner in the process was asked the same question at whatever point they entered the creative process — seeing what Bob wanted us to achieve, “how were we going to achieve this thing?”

That — right there — is Bob’s alpha dog genius. It’s where we can see that his focus is “we” and not even remotely “me”. An example — in “Castaway”, Tom Hanks’ Chuck Noland has been stranded on the deserted island he’s on for a while before finally climbing the island’s central hill in order to survey both the island and the reefs that surround the island. As Chuck climbs the hill, the camera “perches” just behind, following. It uses the side of Chuck’s face, his neck and his shoulders as a kind of framing device. The camera keeps Chuck in the shot the whole time. At last, Chuck reaches the summit — a very, VERY narrow piece of real estate hardly big enough for Chuck to stand on as he slowly (his face, neck and shoulders still very much in the shot) turns, surveying the island, its reef and his chances of getting past the reef to rescue.

Here’s the problem: that’s a great shot but who shot it? This was well before the all digital Red Camera was invented. Bob was shooting film, not video. 35 mm film cameras, by comparison, were behemoths There’s nowhere for the crew to be and without the crew, Bob can’t get this amazing shot. So, to put it simply, where’s the damned crew? Where did Bob hide the crew that got this amazing shot? Nowhere as far as we can “see” — which makes the shot impossible. Which means, at some point as he first described to his collaborators the very cool, never-been-seen-before shot in his head, Bob asked them all “Guys, how’re we gonna do this?” Now, Bob wasn’t asking the question like a tourist to the set. He’d already thought long and hard about it.

Bob had some answers of his own. But, Bob also knew his might not be the best answer. The best answer might be someone else’s but Bob knew how to get other people to not just give him their ideas but insist he have them because whatever Bob was doing was what they were now doing too.

“All I really know,” said Bob, as we contemplated the comic’s title, “You, Murderer”, “Is I want to do a completely subjective single-camera camera point of view.” That’s already a challenge if the goal is stay inside that single-camera point of view. That means we won’t shoot the show how we normally would — master shot plus coverage for emphasis as needed. In a single camera point of view, there IS NO coverage. There are no other camera angles to consider, only the one. That meant there’d be nothing to cut away to. If the episode felt draggy, there would literally be no way to fix it via editing. What we saw would be what we had.

Bob added the first complication. The guy whose point of view we’d see the whole episode from? He’s a dead guy! And part of our story will be how he got to “be” a dead guy. Cool concept but how does one tell such a story? Never mind that — here’s one more creative complication: the dead guy? Bob wanted Humphrey Bogart to play him. To make that work, Bob had identified about a dozen places in the script where the “dead guy” passes a reflective surface — and sees himself — and then says something out loud. Bob was already well down the road to doing “Forrest Gump”. To Bob — who was using the Crypt episode to experiment — these little set pieces were the whole point of the exercise.

On the first day of prep — with the whole crew at his disposal (a thing that never happened because no director ever got the crew when they were prepping because the crew was too busy shooting the last episode), Bob invited the entire crew onto our “four wall set”. Most sets are three walls — with the fourth missing because that’s where the camera and crew are theoretically. But, because Bob wanted to have a subjective camera, the camera had to be able to look anywhere at any time — as if it was a corpse being dragged around, trying to figure out how to intercede on its own behalf. Walking from place to place, kneeling occasionally, Bob described how he saw the scene — and its one shot — unfolding. From one side of the set to the other and then back again. It seemed utterly impossible.

Of course it did! Bob chuckled delightedly as he looked out at our crew, ready to get to work. “Guys,” he said, “How’re we gonna do this? How’re we gonna get this shot?” The gantlet was thrown. It was up to us as a unit to rise to the challenge. Getting people to rise to a challenge instead of having a challenge imposed upon them is far healthier and far more productive for all concerned.

The truth is, guys like Joel Silver and Scott Rudin are physically incapable of treating others with the respect due them. Is it nature or nurture that makes them this way? I’m much more inclined to say “nature”.

Songs People Get Wrong

We all know those song lyrics that people have famously gotten wrong — “Scuse me while I kiss this guy” instead of “Scuse me while I kiss the sky” (Hendrix) or “Like a virgin, touched for the thirty-first time” instead of “for the ‘very first time’,” (Madonna) or “Hold me closer, Tony Danza” instead of “tiny dancer” (Elton John). But, what of the whole songs people get wrong? The classic example is the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” — which some people play at their weddings. I guess if you quit at the title and never actually listened to the lyrics, you might think obsessing on every breath the object of your desire takes is, um, romantic. The song’s about a stalker. That doesn’t require a whole lot of “textual analysis” to get to.

Every move you make
Every vow you break
Every smile you fake
Every claim you stake
Ill be watching you

Every vow you BREAK? Every smile you FAKE? Wait — isn’t this a wedding song? “I’ll be watching you” sounds a little like the character in Randy Newman’s song “You Can Leave Your Hat On”. Although at least that guy seems to have a modicum of consent on his side.

Since you’ve gone I been lost without a trace
I dream at night I can only see your face
I look around but its you I can’t replace
I feel so cold and I long for your embrace
I keep crying baby, baby, please…

Relationships are tricky things, true, but, surely people understand the difference between a guy suffering an emotional breakdown with a groom. In a similar vein — where people find something in a song that the song’s writer never put there — Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. Now, “Hallelujah” also gets dragged into solemn occasions and weighty moments with religious overtones. It was used repeatedly during Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremonies. But that’s really only because of the song’s title (and its chorus): “Hallelujah”. If you read the lyrics, it’s right there — what the song’s about — and it’s brilliant.

“Hallelujah” is the best song ever written about the agony and ecstasy of love. The song flirts with the darkest cynicism about love — and it’s the religious framing that makes it work so brilliantly. Love is like a religion. REM’s equally brilliant “Losing My Religion” goes right at it — the feeling of being spiritually lost when love falls apart. We build temples around love. We ache for its transcendence but settle for its quotidian challenges. Love (like religion) can make one cynical. In fact, when Leonard Cohen first recorded the song, he made the song’s tormented cynicism crystal clear — listen to how he performs the song’s very first line, especially the question “Do ya?”

Also confounding people — and giving them the impression the song’s somehow “religious” — Cohen uses Biblical words and references; he alludes to the Biblical King David obsessing over Bathsheeba — bathing on the roof, overthrown by her beauty and the moonlight.

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew her
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

Then, mixing in a little Samson & Delilah, Cohen ties the lover to a kitchen chair, totally powerless. The “Hallelujah” she draws from his lips may be ecstatic, but there’s agony on the horizon. And, as we all know, the agony parts always last way, way longer than any ecstasy parts.

Baby, I’ve been here before,
I’ve seen this room, I’ve walked this floor.
I used to live alone before I met ya.
Well, I’ve seen your flag on the Marble Arch,
And love is not a victory march –
It’s a cold and it’s a broken “Hallelujah!”
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah…

“It’s a cold and it’s a broken ‘Hallelujah’.” Wait, didn’t I see that once on the back of some divorce lawyer’s business card?

The Daddy of all “Songs People Get Wrong” is Randy Newman’s iconic “I Love LA” which, ironically, LA has embraced though — if you read the lyrics — they shouldn’t. “I Love LA” is not a love song to the city of angels. It’s poking fun at us, at how shallow we are.

Yes, there’s this part of it — which is all sweeeeeet! —

Rollin’ down the Imperial Highway
With a big nasty redhead at my side
Santa Ana winds blowin’ hot from the north
And we was born to ride

Roll down the window, put down the top
Crank up the Beach Boys, baby
Don’t let the music stop
We’re gonna ride it till we just can’t ride it no more

From the South Bay to the Valley
From the West Side to the East Side
Everybody’s very happy
‘Cause the sun is shining all the time
Looks like another perfect day

But, the punchline to all the sweetness is this —

Look at that mountain
Look at those trees
Look at that bum over there, man
He’s down on his knees
Look at these women
There ain’t nothin’ like em nowhere

Century Boulevard (We love it)
Victory Boulevard (We love it)
Santa Monica Boulevard (We love it)
Sixth Street (We love it, we love it)
We love L.A.

Wait, wait? How can we focus on all the good-looking women with “bums” in our field of vision, down on their knees, in homeless camps that grow larger and more ubiquitous daily? How can we focus on streets as banal and characterless from one end to the other as Century Boulevard or Sixth Street when we’re worrying about someone else’s human plight? Trust me, everyone who isn’t an Angeleno, there’s NOTHING to love about any of the streets mentioned in the song. THAT’S THE JOKE!

Alas, even most Angelenos don’t “get” the joke. Oh, how Randy Newman must chuckle at us (Angelenos) as the money for that song keeps pouring in.

All the people in New York City may “dress like monkeys”, but it’s we Angelenos who act like monkeys as we cheer ourselves to that song.

And, while we’re at it? Newman’s “Sail Away” covers American racism from the other side. Think of the lyrics as a wry commentary on racism — how a racist slave trader might try to pitch slavery to potential slaves on a recruiting poster.

“We’re just gonna sing about Jesus and drink wine all day… It’s great to be an American!”