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The Director’s Apprentice
By Dave Shulman
First published in L.A. Weekly, July 25, 2003.
Peter-Anne Cornwallow was once a famous and powerful director of motion pictures, a man who still has at his beck an army of Century City entertainment attorneys capable of suing the bloody hide off any uppity mammal in Los Angeles. This is why his name, for our purposes and perhaps forever after, must remain the conspicuously fictional Peter-Anne Cornwallow.
I was a member of Cornwallow’s small, coherently abused team of $5-an-hour personal servants. Most of our servitude involved errands — hauling food, drugs and pieces of film and paper from Burbank and Hollywood to the Cornwallow estate in Bel-Air and back. Between bouts of sleep and crosstown traffic, there was House Duty: sitting or standing in various parts of the estate as instructed, or shadowing Peter-Anne around the house from a distance of three to five paces, waiting for the Master’s voice to reprogram us to execute such important tasks as bellowing the roar back in the fireplaces or rotating the swimming-pool thermostat dial to 93.
Peter-Anne demanded a lot. Not only of mammals but of insects and inanimate objects. The kitchen table, for example, was certainly flat and sturdy enough to support a simple bowl of fresh fruit and a cup of coffee in accordance with the fundamental traditions of gravity, but after a full minute of silent, contemptuous observation, the director found the table’s graceless functionality offensive.
“It just sits there!” he barked, refocusing his stare at me. “Take it! Take it away from me!”
“What — the fruit, or the coffee?”
He couldn’t bear my stupidity, and so turned to spew at the chandelier. “All of it! The fruit, the coffee, the table — everything must go!”
“Where,” I replied, for the chandelier was speechless, “would you like me to store the table?”
“Out back,” said Peter-Anne, facing me again, now whispering like a knife. “Out back in the carriage house, with the rest.” He pushed a finger into an overripe red banana, pulled the finger back out, brought it to his nose and inhaled deeply. Then, exhaling luxuriously and extending his arm to offer the banana finger to my nose, he spoke in his Normal voice, his confident, controlled, stoned-out-of-his-mind Hollywood singsong. “Do you see this?”
“Yes,” I replied, meeting his blank gaze with one of my own. “Yes, Peter-Anne. I do.”
“This,” he repeated, plunging his finger back into the banana again, for emphasis: “This.” Plunge. “Is.” Plunge. “Old.” Plunge, plunge, plunge.
I nodded and sighed as any $5-an-hour servant might nod and sigh at any $5-a-pound banana being tormented by any $5-million-a-picture director. Peter-Anne huffed and scowled and stormed out of the kitchen and across the living room, hopefully to go upstairs, wash his finger, smoke some pot and down half a jar of Xanax.
Like many obscenely rewarded directors of Hollywood-style motion pictures, Peter-Anne enjoyed observing things almost as much as he enjoyed documenting the findings of his observations by emitting sounds at the nearest wife, producer or servant. “Look at those ants,” he said one late morning, standing in his bathrobe and peering at the grout between the porcelain countertop and the stainless-steel sink. I’d had the misfortune of attracting Peter-Anne’s attention by making a pot of coffee and hanging out in the kitchen, rummaging through his mail, waiting for the precious beverage that would provide me with the wherewithal to continue my $5-an-hour life.
“Look at them, David. Have you ever really looked at ants? They’re so . . . tiny! And so dark! They look like . . . like people in airplanes! Tiny, dark, little . . . ant-shaped airplane-people! Yes — write that down!”
I snapped my pen and notebook to attention. “Ants . . .” I repeated, “. . . tiny . . . dark . . . people . . . airplanes . . . ant-shaped airplane-people.” I scribbled quickly. “Got it.”
Peter-Anne had arranged for romantic photographs of himself to be taken by the fireplace in the late afternoon, photographs that were to include images of T.P., his 14-year-old wife, cuddling up beside him on a stack of pillows that had a combined resale value beyond the sum total of my lifetime income and the incomes of everyone in my family for the past three generations. (According to Peter-Anne, this is what made them comfortable pillows.)
T.P. had taken Ecstasy and then sprayed her normally droopy blond Farrah-mane into a big shiny yellow plastic mess.
“Beautiful!” said Peter-Anne.
“Gorgeous!” said the photographer.
“Stunning!” said the defeated makeup artist, for personal reasons.
Everything was perfect until Peter-Anne found an unauthorized wrinkle on his sleeve, causing him to break out in a sweat and pace. “This is a disaster!” he shouted, his wild arms conducting some absent mambo orchestra. “This is utter tragedy! I’ll not have pictures taken with wrinkles! Everyone leave!” And with that he ran — ran — upstairs.
He returned a few minutes later, apparently stoned and awaiting the first wave of Xanax, wearing an identical but different, wrinkle-free shirt. Peter-Anne had the biggest closet I’d ever seen — bigger than my apartment, and set up to resemble a Rodeo Drive menswear boutique. Overpriced button-downs folded and boxed, distressed jeans and woolen slacks steam-pressed with equal care and at equal expense; duplicates and triplicates of practically everything.
T.P.’s closet was even bigger, with easily twice the ingredients, many items — boots and jackets, especially — still bearing price tags.
“Beautiful!” said the photographer, upon Peter-Anne’s return.
“Gorgeous!” said the makeup artist.
“Stunning!” said I, because someone had to, and I could, because, as was often the case when I was on House Duty, I had nothing else to do. Peter-Anne scanned my post-stunning! facial expression for signs of facetiousness, his brow knitting into meaty ridges of disgust to match his permanent frown. But he didn’t know that I was a trained professional, a licensed deadpan artist, and I showed blank. So for a moment, for a change, it was almost quiet. Only the fireplace roared as everyone stared at Peter-Anne, as Peter-Anne stared at me and I at him. And somewhere both near and far, in a shallow but ancient cavern of sophomoric glee, I basked in the rarefied luxury of being a snotty little fuck, undercover and undetectable, at large in the Master’s house.
“Thank you, David,” said Peter-Anne at last, unlocking our eyes and taking his place between wifechild and a quarter-million bucks in pillows. “I’m so terribly glad you approve.”
Stare Down Sally!