Book 14: High Concept, Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess by Charles Fleming

February 4, 2009 at 2:01 am (Review) (, , , , , )

That Don Simpson embraced excess till it killed him seems to be the central thesis of Charles Flemming’s biography which is a pity since it misses some of the more intertesting elements of his life as a result. The least interesting things about Don Simpson are that he took the motherload of drugs and had a major thing for highly kinky sex with hookers. It was the 80’s and given the extensive lists Flemming provides of other players doing one or other of those things it was clearly pretty common. Famous people’s ‘this one time I took a ton of drugs and had a blast/bad trip’ stories are just as dull as anyone else’s. 

A more interesting element is what drove Simpson to this excess. It is clear that he was a man haunted by some spectacular demons. Flemming touches on his shyness, self loathing and fundamental narcicism. I have some sympathy for Flemming here in that he was clearly a complecated character and none of his close associates were going to co-operate with this biography (most remain to this day some of Hollywood’s most powerful). Which means that the psychological detail is sketchy at best. It’s clear that Simpson was highly unpredictable, poring scorn and vitriol on some while lavishing gifts and gandiose largess on others. He also had all the outward signs of a supremely confident narcicist but was papering over the cracks with coke and hookers. All of which can be hard to communicate but if you are going to try write a biography of a person like this you just have to. We needed to know more about where he was from who he really was but if Fleming knows he’s not telling us either. 

I found this a disconcertingly difficult read, the endless listing of excess just became really depressing. It’s hard to read about someone who should be living the dream (and who may have seemed to be), who is so obviously miserable. You want to shake him and tell him to grow up and cop on. All of which is made worse by the fact that I didn’t want to feel sorry for him. He started High Concept and now all Hollywood output is secondary to the big summer movie and the winter Oscar movie and there is so little of interest in between and I wanted to loathe him for his part in that. I love films and I like many hold him at least somewhat responsible for the mess they’re in but, in what make up some of the better passages of the book, Fleming covers Simpson’s moves around studios and difficulties with other producers and makes it clear that in the end the money guys didn’t get him or his style of film making any more than they get any other kind of film. The monster he created ate him too. 

While Simpson definitely had some problems with the studios it is clear that Jerry Bruckheimer helped him clear the path. It is in how this relationship developed and how the summer blockbuster came to rule the studio roost that I had hoped the bulk of the book would lie. They didn’t start it after all (we have Speilberg and Lucas to consider for that particular prize) but they did play a major role in manufacturing it’s current ubiquity unfortunately Fleming just occasionally touches on it rather than really getting in to it. Bruckheimer is the major hole in this book refusing then as I believe he still does to talk about Simpson’s life and I perhaps you can’t really understand any of that without him. Which begs the question why bother? 

Having finally finished this I closed the book dissasitfied. It told me plenty of what I already knew but little of what I wanted to know. If you want interesting Hollywood insider information read Peter Biskind.


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The Goonies

January 5, 2009 at 1:03 am (Film, Review) (, , )

***SPOILER ALERT** If you have not seen The Goonies what the hell is wrong with you? Go watch it it and for Gods sake do not read the following.

I am assured that I was brought as a small child to see The Goonies in the cinema. I don’t have any recollection of that what I do recall is rainy Saturday afternoons spent engrossed in it. The digression from the focus of this blog is prompted by watching it on TV today despite the fact that I own it. I even missed the very start because I was having dinner. 

The Goonies is the filmic incarnation of the dream we all had as kids that we would save the day and prove ourselves to be the adventurers that we pretended to be in back gardens, playing fields, fields, abandoned building sites, playgrounds and forests (depending on where you happened to have grown up). It represents when you believed that kids could gang together and foil master criminals and your daydreams were really practice runs for when your time came. It’s the perfect adventure. 

The Goonies are a group of neighbourhood kids the likes of which (if you were lucky) you probably belonged to as a kid. A round up of misfits who were friends firstly because they lived close to one another and then because they’d been friends forever. The warmth and mockery between this group is lovingly created and rings completely true. They are awful to one another and blindly loyal at the same time.

The adventure is driven by Mikey (played by an alarmingly young Sean Astin) who insists they investigate a treasure map found in the attic of their home. He sees it as the only way that they can save their homes. He is assisted by Data, whose lunatic inventions are exactly the kind of thing you’d have tried to make as a kid. They have a wonderful Acme kit feel to them, Wiley Coyote would have ordered them (in fact I think he did have oil slick shoes). There is Chunk the fat kid, Mouth the mouth, and the older brother (played by an also alarmingly young Josh Brolin, is it ok to perv on him now when I’m older if still do now and did in a ‘he’s ever so dreamy’ sort of way when I was younger?). There is also the cheerleader girl (as there always was in the 80’s) and the nerdy best friend played with humour and just the right amount of scarcasm by Martha Plimpton, and who I wanted to be when I was younger. 

Peril in this movie comes from two directions. The first and the most frightening is the aforementioned need to save their homes. They are all going to have to move to new towns because the local rich guy has bought up all the mortgages so he can develop the lands their homes are on. There is no horror close to the thought that your parents are helpless when you are a kid. The Goonies parents can’t stop the destruction of their families’ lives. No amount of goodwill or good parenting can save them from moving out of their homes and leaving their friends. This is a less terrifying thought as an adult but The Goonies can certainly make you weepy for the time when it was the worst thing you could imagine. 

The other is the Fratellis a criminal gang headed by their mother. A truly reprehensible distortion of the mother figure if ever there was one. Responsible for the terrible damage done to Sloth, who develops a bond with Chunk and who you will love unless you are the living embodiment of brain freeze. Ultimately  they are cartoon villains and and so lack the real world threat of being made leave your home and friends. They’ll be vanquished by our plucky heroes, you know that as surely as you know the Famous Five, the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew will win. 

I have to mention the design, the booby traps set by One Eye Willy, the pirate whose treasure they seek, are blessedly rickety and look so authentically home made that as a kid they feel utterly real. The pirate ship is much cooler then anything you’ve seen in Pirates of the Caribbean, with skeleton’s of dead pirates and one or two remaining traps. It makes me wish that sometimes film makers these days would give up on their dependance on CGI and just build some cool stuff. 

As you can probably ascertain this is a film drenched in nostalgia for me and, I suspect, for many people my age. I think you can only love it a certain way if you saw it at the right age and believed it was true. I’d like to give it out to kids of 7 or 8 and make it mandatory viewing. In the world of Hannah Montana and (God help us) High School Musical this is the real deal. A proper adventure, one worth having and one worth believing in.  

The Truffle Shuffle

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