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August 21 2012


“Why’s this so good?” No. 55: Dave Gardetta, inside the Hollywood scene

Around the turn of the millennium, big changes swept Hollywood. Suddenly and as never before, screens were clotted with the teen-fodder likes of Scream and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Titanic and Dawson’s Creek. Where other journalists saw the business story in the pop-culture youthquake – an audience demographic shift, a celebrity trend – Dave Gardetta homed in on its civilian fallout, the influx of young women chasing their dreams of fame, often by dating Hollywood’s new generation of actors. And to portray that collision, aka “the L.A. Scene,” he told the story of two of those young women, in a Los Angeles magazine story called “Valley Girl, Interrupted.”


Rohini Reiss and Jessica Stonich met in a bar, we learn in the first sentence, “a long time ago for both of them – last year.” Boom: We’re in their world. From then on, Gardetta calls them exclusively by their first names, and that feels right, both because of their youth and because that’s how everyone in their milieu – the bar manager, the bouncer, the arm candy – knows each other. This is the Hollywood populated by kids from the wrong side of the Hills, extending high school indefinitely. The bouncers are “football players in suits.” Rohini and Jessica “don’t club in their spare time; they lead the rest of their lives in their spare time.”

Then Gardetta zooms out. The Scene may never have existed at this pitch, but it has always existed. This isn’t just the story of L.A. in 2001; it’s also the story of an older L.A., the promised land for Bonnie Lee Bakley, who had recently been murdered, and for an enduring template: “the women who date James Woods, marry Larry King, divorce Kelsey Grammer, or carry Jack Nicholson’s babies to term.”

Right there, Gardetta had me. This wasn’t going to be just a subculture story. It was more conceptual. Instead of the usual starting point – a famous person, a newsmaker, a dramatic incident – this one proceeds from the observation of a type of person, the young woman from nowhere who gets chewed up by Hollywood.

Gardetta aces the reporting basics: He chooses a pair of exemplary main characters who are individually compelling, true innocents at large but also precociously shrewd about the strange scene they inhabit, and positioned to infiltrate Gardetta, and readers, into some of Hollywood’s toughest rooms. He logs the hours. We see a hidden world from a rare vantage point. This is the Rosencrantz & Guildenstern view of Hollywood.

Part of the payload of this story, published years before Entourage debuted, is that it takes fame, almost always viewed either remotely through a paparazzo’s telephoto lens or with contrived intimacy in a glossy magazine’s coffee-at-Marmont blatherthon, and exposes the grim mechanics of how it really works. Here are the young actors masturbating in front of the girls while promising them stardom; “the packs in snakeskin and leather whose reptile brains are hardwired into the sex circuitry of the room, whose necks swivel simultaneously as if locked into the same reflex action, whose response controls are set on ‘stalk’”; cameos by the likes of Bill Maher, Kirsten Dunst, “Leo & Gisele,” Ashley Hamilton, Coolio. (This was 2001.) Here is Leonardo Dicaprio, described from feet away at a friendly weekend softball game hosted by Toby McGuire, as a “bearish boy figure” who “is beginning to look these days like our own Ernest Hemingway – with a ballooning chest and stomach and sweeping Mephisto chin beard.” You’ll never read that in InTouch or on Gawker or in a wrangled “exclusive” cover story.

Gardetta cuts seamlessly between glitzy Sunset Boulevard clubs and lonely single-mom Sherman Oaks condos, and one of the merits of the story is how it toggles between inside and outside, between close-up and wide shot. One minute we’re at street level, watching Rohini deflect a suitor by “acknowledging only the oxygen beside his ears.” The next we’re in outer space, looking at the big blue marble. “These were the children of apartments, kids who want to blow up big in rock, kids who wanted to blow up on TV, kids who wanted to blow up in heroin.”

That’s a great sentence. Here are some others I wish I’d written:

On the Standard club:

The arcing walls of the lounge are hung with purple glass rods that shimmer, giving the effect that one has been set down inside a bar that has been set down inside Neil Diamond’s shirt. 

On the people within:

Men and women seemed to conserve acknowledgement of others, expressions, and emotion as if stuck in a seven-year personality drought. 

On Jessica:

She was the shiny penny of a little exurb whose favorite adverb was like.

But let’s hear straight from her, as Jessica describes a blind date:

“And like we were just talking about everything and suddenly he comes in at 60 miles per hour and kisses me. And I’m like. And I just, like, froze up and I was just like and then he like backs up and he’s like, ‘What’s wrong?’ and I’m like, ‘You should know.’ It was just like. Nasty guy.”

Somehow the punctuation, those periods instead of ellipses or commas or em dashes, rescues the quote from the potential cruelty of verbatim reproduction and makes it instead an empathic depiction of the processes of her mind. If it reads mean out of context, it doesn’t in the piece, where Gardetta recounts it in the tone of a befuddled adult, a dork anthropologist; one of the secondary pleasures of the piece is its thread of light comedy, of this older outsider guy trying to understand an adolescent girl’s world:

“Right – got it,” I said. I had no idea what I was talking about.

Elsewhere, Gardetta tries to muddle through the many conflicting, overlapping, confusing definitions of “hooking up.” His own awkward relationship with his subject subtly echoes the story’s theme of inside-outside.

This is a story that threatens an unhappy ending. Rohini and Jessica are ultimately, among other things, “elements of a financial strategy,” the young and beautiful bait used by promoters to bestow ephemeral hotness on their clubs of the moment. They are on a road, Gardetta notes, that ultimately leads to “L.A.’s more sordid stations of the cross: the May-November pickup scenes at the Peninsula Bar of the Four Seasons, the trophy-wife luncheons at the Polo Lounge, the Beverly Hills escort services.” But his sympathy is always with the girls, and he ends with Rohini’s sunny expectation of “one day leaving the scene,” and finding a nice boy like the ones she used to hang out with when she was a tomboy teenager. “I just love innocence. I do,” she says.

I couldn’t resist Googling to see what became of Rohini and Jessica. Jessica seemed to have vanished into the ether, perhaps into a life of such hoped-for normalcy. Rohini had changed her last name and was turning up on Page Six, ten years later, as a “friend” of Sumner Redstone, who had given her Viacom stock and installed her in a P.R. job at Showtime.

Benjamin Wallace (@benjwallace) is a contributing editor at New York magazine and the author of The Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine.

For more installments of “Why’s this so good?” see our archives. And check back each week for a new shot of inspiration and insight.

April 12 2012


The best magazine features of 2011: an ASME sampler

National Magazine Award judges have a tough job this year as they choose a winner in the features category. There’s the sobering story about a corporate attorney’s mysterious death in Guatemala; the bizarre tale of a pair of young international arms dealers; the moving account of two dozen strangers braving a massive tornado; a fable-like piece about a man who rode out the Japanese tsunami on the roof of his house; and a high-larious (pardon us) story about a darker side of Disney World.

The American Society of Magazine Editors will announce the winner on May 3, but until then here’s a sampling from those five fine finalists, written by some of the top names in narrative:

Luke Dittrich* of Esquire. From “Heavenly Father!…”:

Tinkerbell is squirming and twisting in Michaela’s arms, trying to look up at the widening holes in the roof. The tornado, unlike the storm clouds that shrouded it and concealed its approach, is not entirely dense and black. Dim, green, aquatic light, like the light scuba divers see, brightens the cooler a bit even as the cooler is being torn apart.

The tornado stretches twenty thousand feet into the sky. It is three quarters of a mile wide. It is not empty.

It is carrying two-by-fours and drywall and automobiles.

It is carrying baseball cards, laptop computers, family photo albums.

It is carrying people, as naked as newborns, their clothes stripped away like tissue paper.

It is carrying fragments of the Walmart where Carl and Jennifer met, of the church where Donna worships, of three of the nursing homes where Lacey works.

It has traveled six miles through the city, and now it is carrying a great deal of the city within itself.

Michaela pushes Tinkerbell’s head down, but she can feel her squirrelly little neck straining against her hand, wanting to look up, wanting to see.

David Grann of The New Yorker. From “A Murder Foretold”:

Initially, Rosenberg spoke slowly and stiffly, but then his hands began to rise and fall, along with his eyebrows, the power of his voice growing—a voice from the grave. “I don’t have a hero complex,” he said. “I don’t have any desire to die. I have four divine children, the best brother life could have given me, marvellous friends.” He continued, “The last thing I wanted was to deliver this message…But I hope my death helps get the country started down a new path.” He urged Vice-President Espada whom he described as “not a thief or an assassin” − to assume the Presidency and insure that the guilty parties wound up in jail. “This is not about seeking revenge, which only makes us like them,” Rosenberg said. “It is about justice.” He predicted that the Guatemalan government would try to cover up the truth, by smearing the Musas and inventing plots. “But the only reality that counts is this: if you saw and heard this message, it is because I was killed by Álvaro Colom and Sandra de Colom, with the help of Gustavo Alejos.” He concluded, “Guatemalans, the time has come. Please it is time. Good afternoon.”

Guy Lawson of Rolling Stone. From “Arms and the Dudes”:

To get into the game, Diveroli knew he would have to deal with some of the world’s shadiest operators – the war criminals, soldiers of fortune, crooked diplomats and small-time thugs who keep militaries and mercenaries loaded with arms. The vast aftermarket in arms had grown exponentially after the end of the Cold War. For decades, weapons had been stockpiled in warehouses throughout the Balkans and Eastern Europe for the threat of war against the West, but now arms dealers were selling them off to the highest bidder. The Pentagon needed access to this new aftermarket to arm the militias it was creating in Iraq and Afghanistan. The trouble was, it couldn’t go into such a murky underworld on its own. It needed proxies to do its dirty work – companies like AEY. The result was a new era of lawlessness. According to a report by Amnesty International, “Tens of millions of rounds of ammunition from the Balkans were reportedly shipped – clandestinely and without public oversight – to Iraq by a chain of private brokers and transport contractors under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Defense.”

This was the “gray market” that Diveroli wanted to penetrate. Still a teenager, he rented a room in a house owned by a Hispanic family in Miami and went to work on his laptop.

Michael Paterniti of GQ. From “The Man Who Sailed His House”:

This force is greater than the force of memory, or regret, or fear. It’s the force of an impersonal death, delivered by thousands of pounds of freezing water that slam you into a dark underworld, the one in which you now find yourself hooded, beaten, pinned deeper. The sensation is one of having been lowered into a spinning, womblike grave. If you could see anything in the grip of this monster, fifteen feet down, you’d see your neighbors tumbling by, as if part of the same circus. You’d see huge pieces of house – chimneys and doors, stairs and walls – crashing into each other, fusing, becoming part of one solid, deadly wave. You’d see shards of glass and splintered swords of wood. Or a car moving like a submarine. You’d see your thirty pigeons revolving in their cage. Or your wife within an arm’s reach, then vacuumed away like a small fish. You frantically flail. Is this up or down? Something is burning inside now, not desperation but blood depleted of oxygen. What you illogically desire more than anything is to open your mouth wide and gulp. You scissor your legs. In some eternity, the water turns from black to gray, and gray to dirty green, as you reach up over your head one last time and whip your arms down, shooting for the light.

John Jeremiah Sullivan of the New York Times magazine. From “You Blow My Mind. Hey, Mickey!”:

“I always figured you were doing brownies,” I said.

“I do do brownies,” he said. “I have brownies. But, you know. . . .”

I did. Edibles are good, and wise heads move toward them over time, to save their lungs, but there’s something about the combination of oxygen-deprivation and intense THC-flush that comes with smoking and in particular from smoking joints. There’s no real substitute, for the abuser. A brownie can alter your mood over hours, but a joint swings a psychic broom around you – it clears an instant space.

“I actually saw this thing on the Internet,” Trevor said, “where people were talking about getting high in the park.”

“At Disney World!” I said, as if I hadn’t been listening.

He led me back inside and quietly cracked open his laptop on the kitchen counter. “Check this out,” he whispered. Only the two of us were awake.

I dropped into one of the swivel stools in front of the bright screen. I was reading before I knew what I was reading, but it was like a chat room. Or a forum. “Forum” is the better term. A motif of cannabis leaves and naked women holding glittery buds ran down the left margin: a pothead forum. Trevor scrolled it down to a posting, the subject of which read, “Re: Hello from Disney World.”

An anonymous person, evidently the veteran of a staggering number of weed-smoking experiences in the park, had done a solid for the community and laid out his or her knowledge in a systematic way. It was nothing less than a fiend’s guide to Disney World. It pinpointed the safest places for burning the proverbial rope, telling what in particular to watch for at each spot. Isolated footpaths that didn’t see much traffic, conventional smoking areas with good hedge cover, places where you could hide under a bridge by a little artificial river – those were its points of interest. The number of views suggested that the list had helped a lot of desperate people.

In other finalist categories you’ll find equally terrific pieces, including Mark Bowden’s “Echoes from a Distant Battlefield” (Vanity Fair), Natasha Gardner’s “Direct Fail” (5280) and Mike Kessler’s “What Happened to Mitrice Richardson?” (Los Angeles).


*Coming Friday: Dittrich recently visited the Nieman Narrative Writing class, where he took us behind the scenes of reporting and writing the Joplin, Mo.,
tornado story. Check back tomorrow for that conversation.

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