The Critics: Film Studies

I'd like to offer a short story in this column - not a commentary on a movie, but an account of things that could happen in Los Angeles, or anywhere else that movies apply. It's made up, yet that's not to say that hundreds in LA won't think it belongs to them. Instead of to all of us.

Rick has been in the picture business for several years. His name never gets on the screen. But he is a mid-level executive, and he has worked for a couple of studios. He has helped get some pictures made - even if he was not decisive or vital. He chafes over that status. He would like more power, so he might "express" himself. But he is waiting, he says, paying his dues.

We were driving together in LA on one of those days the city does not boast about. It was a complete overcast, with clouds - mauve, or pink, sometimes, but always grey - piled into the canyons. There was lethargy and dread on Sunset, and the traffic was worse than ever. Year by year, in LA, you add a few minutes to the time it takes to drive from Fox to Universal, or from Santa Monica to Paramount.

We were both late, and we had traded jokes about that, so I was startled when Rick began weeping. He was going to drop me at the Chateau Marmont on the way to Santa Monica to see his son. And he realised he wouldn't make it in time for the parent-teacher conference. This wasn't the greatest problem, but it broke him down. I had to tell him to stop. We changed places and I tried to handle his car.

Rick married a dozen years ago. He had a son by the first wife, but he was by then already having an affair with another woman. The son was born, and soon thereafter Rick moved out and set up with the second woman. Rick is good-looking and he likes secrets. There was a divorce, of course, and he was heavily into alimony and child support. In California, people are free to do what they want, if they can pay for it. Rick felt guilty about leaving his young family. No matter that he married the second woman - loved her, I'm sure, I saw a lot of it - and had a daughter by her, three years younger than the son. He felt so bad that he went into therapy: that's a couple of hours a week to be fitted in with visitation rights when your two children live 20 miles apart in LA's slowing traffic.

The second wife was a bright, anxious woman. She loved Rick, and wanted him, but could hardly avoid the betrayal that had established her happiness. So she began to be suspicious about Rick, to wonder if he might do the same again - might need another secret. In a year or two, she was in therapy - and then the first wife had insisted that her son deserved treatment, too, that Rick had to pay for. The son had "rage", and so there were more trips through the overcast, and less chance for Rick to notice LA's lovely days.

The day we had to change drivers he told me he had just left the second wife and the daughter. His explanation was that the second wife's failure ever quite to believe in him had brought on the thing she most feared. He was with another woman, he said, though he didn't expect that to last long.

Now, I don't know if you can understand this if you haven't been in therapy or been a studio executive, but there are ways in which the chatter of script conferencing and the hours of self-examination are alike. They use the same kind of motivational language. You get into a way of seeing yourself as a movable character, a variable, and not just your sad, solid self.

Rick is broken up, and there are at least two women and two kids damaged or enraged, or whatever, because of him. And while Rick reckons that he was in "a situation", I'd guess the others feel they are his victims. It's a matter of how you tell the story - you can be ironic about it, or you can see the heart of darkness. It plays either way.

As your story-teller, I don't know what tone to take. Is Rick Tom Hanks or Sean Penn? I know most of these people pretty well, and like them - I could yet find myself as their stricken go-between. Nor is this anything as simple as a warning against divorce or broken homes. Every business has those now, after all.

But here is why I am telling you the story. Rick is a picture person. He loves the movies - he hates them too, of course, for he has had to observe the dire ground in which they grow. But he wants one day to make some astonishing dream for all of us. He believes in the dreaming. And somewhere along the way that urge for fantasy has come into our genes or our sense of secrecy, and it has meant that we believe in love, happiness and liberty yet hardly see the ways we hurt those things.

"I just want to be there," Rick had roared, pounding his wheel, furious that LA's transport system could not cut as quick and clean as movies do.