"There is no maxim in my opinion which is more liable to be misapplied, and which therefore needs elucidation than the current one that the interest of the majority is the political standard of right and wrong...." ~ James Madison
Educating Oscar: Snakeheads at Starbucks
'It's not barbaric,' I insisted, 'not when viewed through the prism of Arabic culture.'
A breeze rustled through the branches of a potted palm on the outdoor patio of the Starbucks at the corner of Sunset and La Brea. The palm fronds swayed with the wind as if leaning closer to our table to eavesdrop on the charged conversation.
'If cutting off someone's head on video isn't barbaric, then I'm way out of touch with what's barbaric. And when that happens I'm out of a job,' Oscar said with a thin smile.
I hesitate to call my coffee companion a colleague. Oscar Lindquist is a studio development executive and I am a screenwriter, natural born enemies who depend upon each other for survival in the Hollywood food chain. We were meeting to discuss my new spec screenplay but when Oscar leafed through my seven-inch thick portfolio and noticed all the Op-Ed pieces I've penned, he suddenly wanted to talk current events.
'Beheading and stoning are acceptable forms of execution in Arabic cultures,' I explained. 'It pisses me off when the media pundits in this country start calling the perpetrators 'savage' and 'barbaric.' It's just a different culture.'
I asked Oscar if he remembered the controversy over Old Sparky, the infamous Florida electric chair that, until discontinued, was subject to frequent malfunctions that often sent sparks and flames shooting through the skull of the condemned prisoner.
'Anyone watching that,' I said emphatically, 'watching the executioner pull the switch on that, could just as easily scream savages and barbarians.'
'There's a world of difference,' Oscar stubbornly insisted. He took another sip of his latte and gazed at me beneath hooded lids, daring me to prove him wrong.
'Where do you live?'
' Mount Olympus ,' he said blandly.
Mount Olympus is an exclusive enclave in the Hollywood Hills, an architectural nightmare of Romanesque columns and Greco statues stuccoed onto palatial homes squeezed togther like hunkering white dominoes on the sloping hillsides.
'I live in Glendale ,' I said. 'It's probably the most Blade Runner-esque city in L.A. White people, and by that I mean white like you and me kind of white, are the minority there. I'm surrounded by Armenians, Koreans, Russians, Iranians and Iraqis.'
He looked at me like I had just described his vision of hell.
'Living in Glendale ,' I elaborated without mention of the fact that I live in a residential hotel like some character in a sequel to Barton Fink, 'has made me appreciate different cultures. You have to in order to get along.'
His eyes were glazing over like all development exec's eyes are prone to do when the writer takes too long to get to the meat of the pitch.
Last week, I said, the feds arrested a Korean grocer in Glendale for importing snakehead fish. The snakehead is a curious little freak of nature. It can walk on land, breathe air, and preys on native fish and birds around its habitat. Because of their ability to breathe air, the snakeheads are easy to import.
Koreans have a passion for live fish--and we're not talking about stocking the home aquarium here--so a snakehead is considered a pretty cool find. Maybe they let the kids play with the little walking fish before they slice and dice it and drop in into the wok. I don't know. It's not of my culture. It's just . . . strange.
The Korean grocer, Sung Chul 'Daniel' Rhee, imported snakeheads, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service alleges, in several shipments by hiding them in larger shipments of sea bass and freshwater fish. In less than a year, he made a hefty $23,000 in sales of the scary snakeheads to his hungry Korean customers.
'It's freaky, but what's the big deal?' Oscar asked. 'What's the point?'
'The point is that, yes, it's freaky, to you and me, because it's not of our culture. And the snakehead is dangerous because of its unique abilities. They have no natural predators. If one of the little suckers gets dropped into a local stream or pond, it'll just start eating away at all the birds and fish until it completely takes over.'
Oscar's eyes became wide, electrified ovals. He was seeing a movie in this.
'It's been done before.' I cut him off before he could speak. 'Anaconda and movies like that. Gators in the New York sewers.'
'What does cutting off the head of an American - on video - have to do with walking and breathing fish?'
'Everything. Cultural differences. You don't see it yet?'
A beautiful Iranian woman breezed past us on her way into the brightly-lit Starbucks. She was garbed in the best Rodeo Drive fashions and the scent that lingered in the air long after her probably cost a couple of hundred bucks an ounce. Oscar's eyes fixed on her like heat seeking radar.
'They're prone to being hirsute, you know,' I informed Oscar. He had never heard the word in his life.
I tried another approach, an approach that might both broaden his horizons and get the subject back to the matter at hand: I needed to sell a story to his studio and fast.
'Have you considered making a movie about Adan Sanchez?' I asked.
'Who the hell is Adan Sanchez?'
NEXT: THE BALLAD OF ADAN SANCHEZ