Monday, May 13, 2013

Downton Blabby

I’ve been watching “Downton Abbey” the last few weeks, and I’m frankly amazed at how much I’m enjoying it.  Not because there’s any problem with the quality—quite the contrary—but because, if someone described the show to me two years ago, I’d probably have rolled my eyes and shuddered at the thought of such torture.  Of course, the me from two months ago wouldn’t have believed I’d be enjoying watching “Rev” with Jeff, about the day-to-day struggles of an English vicar in the 21st century.*
Oh, I digress.  What I was going to comment on, and try hard not to relate it to the current tug-o-war about gay marriage, is at how the lifestyles and attitudes of the characters on “Downton Abbey” are so very alien to my modern eyes.  Having grown up in America, the very concept of nobility and class is as foreign to me as hookahs and forehead dots.  It’s been an American tenant for a century, “that all men are created equal,” but it’s fascinating to see a glimpse of what I assume to be realistic English life and attitudes from a hundred years ago.
To think of yourself as lower than another because of your job or poverty is understandable, I guess, but to think of other people as simply better than you because of their parentage or title or social circle or opportunities is harder for me to grasp.  The hateful-yet-lovable character of the Dowager Countess is a staunch advocate for tradition, to the point of dismissing the possibility of women getting the right to vote as radical nonsense.  It never occurred to me that there would be any women who didn’t want suffrage, or could think equality was a bad idea, and that’s been something that I’ve tried to get my head around.  “That’s just the way it is,” isn’t an American attitude, or rather, maybe it’s just not a white male American attitude.

Wait a moment, maybe I can understand it, to a certain extent.  You see, I have a unique-ish perspective in that I have made my living as a television and film extra, and observed the way extras are treated (and indeed, considered) by most productions.  In the last production I worked on, it was lunchtime, and the cast and crew were all broken at the same time, and bussed back to base camp to eat.  The extras, of course, had to wait until all the others had been loaded up and shipped to base before they could climb aboard the shuttles, but if there was an empty seat, they might get to go with the last group of crewmembers.  Once at base camp, the extras were lined up outside the tent, waiting for actors, grips, filmmakers, producers, costume and makeup, even stand-ins, to eat their lunch, before they could join in and have their lunch.  We stood there, in suits and jackets, as the sun beat down, knowing that we were to wait because the rest of the crew was simply better than us.
It was the lead actress’s birthday that day, so cake was brought out, and the whole crew sang “Happy Birthday” to her.  We were not allowed to participate, and one of the guys in our group said, “They could let us in there to join in the singing, but then we’d only be able to pantomime.”  If you’ve been an extra before, that might make you laugh.
It was Cinco de Mayo, so there was a pretty wondrous Mexican feast prepared.  Once the crew was done (and there was no cake left), the A.D. told us we could line up, and that there was a taco line and a burrito line, and we could choose.  I, and three others, got in the taco line, only to find that there were two tortillas left.  The first extra in the line took both.  We slinked back to the burrito line, and I was prepared to be upset when I wasn’t allowed back in line, but the extras around me let me back in my place.  There was little complaining, and except for the actually-pretty-hilarious earlier jibe, no one questioned whether it was fair or right.
Extras are paid little, and sometimes—not always, no, there were several productions were people were kind and appreciative, and Sam Raimi even thanked us and shook hands with the extras—treated like little more than animated furniture.**  To some, it’s infuriating, and they didn’t last long as “background actors,” which is the lovely P.C. term for extra.  To others, it was simply the way it was.  My attitude was that it was a fairly easy way to make a paycheck, and I got to be around film sets, which is where I wanted to be anyway.  My attitude was, nobody is forcing me to do this, and there are worse things to be in this city.
One more digression: Shortly before I moved to Los Angeles, there was an extras union, that looked out for the interests of those doing that job, tried to make sure people got paid for anything they did above and beyond the typical applauding and crossing, and probably wouldn’t be amused that the tacos were all gone.  But that particular organization got swallowed up by the Screen Actors Guild sometime before the turn of the new century, and things changed, though for the better or worse I don’t personally know.  But since moving away from Hollywood, I’ve seen what non-SAG sets are like, and that is, for the most part, a bit more of a “that’s just the way it is” way of making a living.  To see children working out in the elements at eleven o’clock at night, or have babies on the set for twelve hours, does, in retrospect, make me miss the regulated ways of California.

Anyway, I didn’t mean to go on this long.  I just wanted to express that, as much as I love watching “Downtown Abbey” (there is something elegant and thoughtful about it, but also very human and relatable),  I struggle to understand the way no eye contact could be made with "a better," one must always use a title rather than a familiar name, and respect didn’t need to be earned when it could simply be born into.
And yes, there was that one time when I was around Paris Hilton, when people said, “Nobody approach her, do not speak to her unless spoken to,” that should inform me that that sort of thing has managed to hang on, even in a land far, far away.

Rish Outfield, Cowager Downtess 
*I don’t know why I so thoroughly love “Downton Abbey” but so thoroughly despise the works of Jane Austen.  It’s possible it’s simply sexism, or maybe Austen’s writings were about a slightly different era and/or locale, or it could be that DA is intended for a modern audience, and “Pride & Prejudice” was intended for the audience of its time.   Dunno.

**Oh, and there were opposite examples to my SPIDER-MAN experiences.  One TV show, in particular, was so notorious for mistreating their extras, that on my very first day in orientation, we were told, if anyone didn’t want to work on that show, they’d make a note of it and we’d never have to worry about getting booked on it (and perhaps called cockroaches by the lead actress).

No comments: