What’s in a name?
Shakespeare was dismissive of its contents, ignoring vowels, consonants, root origins, foreign derivation and the like.
In Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend an unseen man inquires of the heroine, “What is your name?” She replies and he counters, “No, that is your husband’s name.” She answers again and is told, “No, that is your father’s name.”
Perhaps, Shakespeare was wrong, or, at least, his Romeo was errant.
A name, particularly one that is selected rather than assigned, is a statement.
Take, for instance, “below the line.” On the surface it is simply a term that people accept as a reference to the film crew. The clinical definition strays somewhat from what’s become accepted or employed within the film industry. And pursuing this “line,” there’s all the baggage that has become associated with something that began as a boundary point on a movie’s budget.
In a speech presented at the IATSE convention almost two decades ago, the late Oscar-winning cinematographer Conrad Hall had this to say about the subject: “Below the line. I hate the term. It sounds like something that could make you go blind. Below the line, below the belt. Beyond the pale. Beneath contempt. Below the line. It’s a mean, cold, rotten expression, and it stands for a rotten idea. If you didn’t know any better, you’d naturally assume that whatever took place above the line was righteous and above board, while down below the line was the realm of the devious.”
Hall’s anger at that moment was tempered by a wild rumor circulating at the confab. Delegates were buzzing on reports that Steven Spielberg had divvied up the profit points on his latest release, E.T. ,Extra-Terrestrial, not only among the “above” liners but also throughout the “below” ranks (note: the film had opened a few weeks earlier and was a summer smash but still light years away from becoming, at the time, the biggest grossing film in history). Though it would later prove to be untrue, that bit of news galvanized the assembly. Members viewed it as a momentous gesture of redress. And, as it was made by the reigning box office auteur, the action was almost certain to become an industry standard.
The Spielberg rumor has evolved into an oft-repeated, evolving and mutating urban legend. Most recently stories misidentified the partial repayment of wage deferrals to the crew of the independently produced feature Tadpole as profit-participation checks.
In its worst light, “below the line” is a furrow drawn in the sand that creates an “us” and “them” virtual environment. I put the stress on “virtual” because if such a climate of strife were pervasive on a film set, the cameras would never roll. Nonetheless, in the quiet moments technicians and craftspeople have to ask themselves about the nature of a collaborative art form in which their participation is considered vital and significant at the outset and rapidly evaporates once the film begins to generate revenue. At that moment the Chicken Little equation sets in with the so-called creatives taking the spoils. However, the analogy doesn’t square with the children’s classic. The crew, after all, helped make the pie and, if the story is to be believed, should therefore be able to enjoy a slice.
Like so many things in this company town, tradition prevails over reason. The studios have continued to cede large chunks of profits and revenues to the directors, producers, stars and, occasionally, writers of motion pictures to a degree that sometimes infringes on the ability of those below the line to do their jobs.
Traditionalists take the stance that the barn door’s been left open and it’s too difficult to round up the cattle. Well, you can’t run the farm without the herd.
Resetting the balance won’t be easy…it may not happen at all. But a new examination of what goes into making movies and who receives the rewards for their success is long overdue.
What’s in a name?