I’m watching a French film in an arthouse theater in Beverly Hills. And I’m feeling good about the world and my place in it. Seriously, check me out: does human existence get any fancier or more sophisticated than getting to hang in an air-conditioned theater during a heatwave and seeing Charlotte Rampling deliver a deadpan verbal thrashing to another character in French in a movie theater with an actual 90210 zip code? If I were drinking my fountain Coke from a silver tea service and sharing my popcorn with Yves Saint Laurent maybe, but still, in this moment I’m close to the top rung of awesome.
The ugly world is locked outside. I’m temporarily separated from the social depravity of my chosen home, Los Angeles. That is, I’m separate until the old man to my left begins chatting to his viewing companion in a barking voice I can only politely call a Not Whisper. And then the old woman a row in front of me begins to text-message someone. I didn’t know old people knew how to text. I give the old man my best sssh. He waves me off with a crusty “Ehh!” So I bark back, “Look, mister. You’re old enough to know how to behave in a movie theater. So shut up and do it!” I win this battle of wills.
I have to see “John Tucker Must Die,” the weak teen battle-of-the-sexes revenge comedy. It’s my job, that’s why. And I have to go on opening day to file my review. I choose a local mall called The Grove, the most banal, awful place I can find to see it, in the hope that I’ll have an authentic teen experience — the last time I could do that and still call myself youthful was when “Sixteen Candles” was in its debut summer at theaters — and all of my expectations are met.
The pre-show clip requesting cell-phone silence is ignored. It’s the modern equivalent of a “don’t-freak-out-on-LSD” educational film starring Sonny Bono. They might as well save their production money. No one cares. No one’s allowed to tell anyone what to do. Phones ring and sing their presence for the entire 100 minutes of “John Tucker Must Die.” Text-messages glow like a dozen little flashlights. A woman in front of me with six young children at the PG-13 film allows the tiny monsters to climb all over the seats and run in the aisles. I just watch and observe, counting the tiny blue screens and different types of ringtones, numbed by the onslaught of bad manners.
Driving in cars with sociopathsI’m driving my used Mazda in the Valley. A guy in a Hummer behind me starts honking because I’m not making my left turn fast enough for him. He’s already on my hate-list because he’s in a Hummer. And now he’s honking at me too? I flip him off. And soon I learn that this is a mistake. He barrels through the light after me and begins to chase me. He pulls up on my right and slows down too, neck and neck, yelling at me. He wants to fight now. What if he has a gun? He already drives a Hummer, so it’s not like he’s not a sociopath. I should have thought that part through first. At the next available left turn I swerve into it and lose him. But I’m a little shaken up. And I come to a decision: it’s better to stay alive than be right.
Of course that feels like giving in. Ceding ground to the creeps. Just telling everyone to live it up, cut in line, talk during movies you arrived late for, treat waiters and oppressed minimum-wage employees like dirt, check your email at the funeral. But I’m through swimming against the rogue wave of rudeness that’s capsized public life. It’s too depressing to fight anymore. But I’m not through blaming the instigators: celebrities.
Celebrities reign in the art of rudenessLindsay Lohan is as good a place to start as any, really, so why not? Now that her formerly behind-the-scenes misbehavior has come to light — and I’m not talking about rampant partying, either. She’s 20, for crying out loud. It’s her job to party. I’m talking about professional disregard for others on sets and reports of her treating nightclub employees badly — in the form of an open letter from the producers of her latest film, we can use her as a lesson in what we’ve all become.
Not that she was the first. She learned at the feet of her pal (former pal? It’s so hard to keep up) Paris Hilton. Who was merely the latest Jennifer Lopez, herself a neo-Faye Dunaway. And don’t think for a second that women are the leaders of the jackal pack. I witnessed with my own eyes a despicably-behaved Tommy Lee Jones at a Texas film festival once back in the ’90s, not believing an Ivy League-educated man could be so ill-mannered. I was naïve then. That was before I moved to Los Angeles and came to realize that the city’s biggest cultural export isn’t popcorn movies, it’s boorish behavior.
Hollywood has finally steamrolled over everything, making everyone in America want to be rich and famous by any means necessary. I mean, yeah, we’ve always wanted to be rich and famous, but there was a time, before I was born — and I’m 42 so this was a long time ago — when wanting to be rich and famous also meant wanting to be “classy” and at least fake-refined. The not-rich aspired to be perceived as well-bred, even if they knew they’d never have truckloads of money.
Heiresses weren’t running around with their own TV shows devoted to how ugly they could behave on camera or to the pursuit of mocking as many working-class people as would sign release forms. But now, after decades of conditioning, we’ve consumed the priorities we were told to consume and fed them to our children on top of that. The numbers of people wanting to study science and math at universities? Down. Guess what’s up? That’s right, the number of people moving into my neighborhood who want to be stars.
The culture of entitlement
And because celebrity news is maybe the only thing we all have in common now, and because celebrities-behaving-badly is the most fun version of that news, and because in the media grinder it all winds up weighing and tasting the same, we get used to it. And getting used to it means eventually enjoying the taste. To aspire to be Halle Berry, to desire the glamorous life, to live above your station, is also to aspire to be alpha dog, to be first in line, to not have to pay attention to anyone else’s rules. To do whatever you feel like doing as long as you get your way. It now goes hand-in-hand with being able to walk into Barney’s and not check the pricetags.
It’s a stupid trap and we all fell for it. But there’s a way out. My run-in with the possibly murderous Hummer jerk — who wasn’t famous but whom I’ll call Busta Rhymes because Busta recently publicly mistreated a gay fan for no good reason — convinced me to start on a new path, one advocated by syndicated columnist Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners: be the politeness you wish to see in the world. It’s the least I can do.
I’m not going to run around trying to fix the awful people, upbraiding wrongdoers like a one-man clean-up crew. No more righteous indignation, no more flipping off selfish drivers, no more yelling at old guys bugging me while I’m trying to get my art-film-snob on in Beverly Hills. It’s bad for my blood pressure. And it only serves to make the Lindsays of the world more angry and likely to drive head-on into you.
So I’m going to observe the speed limit, I’m going to alert the usher, I’m going to say “Oh by all means, you go first,” when very important nobodies barge into line at the supermarket, yammering into their Motos about all the important nothing they have to say. I’m going to quietly resist the culture of entitlement but I won’t let it get me down anymore. I’ve got too much classy living to do.
Dave White is the author of “Exile in Guyville,” a memoir about learning to love everything wrong with Los Angeles. Find him at www.imdavewhite.com.