J.P. Morgenstern, the studio CEO, tapped his pencil anxiously on the table while looking out the window at the “Hollywood” sign in the distance. “Well, folks, that’s the story, pure and unvarnished. You’ve seen the numbers and now I’m looking for a reaction. If we suck wind with one more flick, we’ll all be down at Nabisco punching assholes in animal crackers. I’m looking for some ideas to save our butts. Let’s go around the table and get some input. Don’t be bashful―nothing is too ridiculous as long as you can make a case. As they say in advertising, let’s run it up the flagpole and see who salutes. We’ll start on my right with Larry.”
Larry, the bean-counter, looked around the room nervously and opened with “The trades say that science fiction movies made from comic books and video games generate the greatest return because robotics and animation are relatively cheap. Use of sleek, cutting-edge technology can create screen sizzlers. Maybe we should take an animated approach to Joan where she’s a cybernetic warrior encased in iron armor that’s thrown into the middle of a war between France and England in the post-apocalyptic, dystopian, twenty-second century. She creates an army of android humanoids that can time-travel and use sophisticated LASER weaponry and supreme intelligence that attempt to destroy the English machine-soldiers in a futuristic Armageddon. Following the original story, we can have Joan lose the encounter between intergalactic forces, captured, and sold out to her enemies where she is zapped by an atomic disintegrator.”
J.P.’s head snapped back and he groaned. “What did they get in exchange for her―a case of motor oil? Larry, I don’t want to stifle input by being negative right out of the box but that idea borders on incredulity for a couple of reasons. First, the world already had an Iron Maiden―Margaret Thatcher. Second, what does your machine woman do for pleasure―get nailed by the Tin Man from Oz? Gordon, what do you have in the way of an idea?”
Gordon, who still had some cocaine powder stuck to the side of his nose, said “Here’s a novel approach that’s never been done, at least in a quality version―a porno version of Joan of Arc.” Half the people around the table lower their heads in their arms and quietly giggle.
“Hey, I’m serious!” Gordon exclaimed. “A good porn flick is a guaranteed cash cow. We could have Joan, a farmer’s daughter, working in the garden pulling weeds when a column of English soldiers passes by. They are enamored with the scantily clad beauty and force her into the barn and ravish her repeatedly over a bale of hay. This is why Joan hates the English so much and continues to curse them while burning at the stake. Then comes an espionage part. Joan assumes a disguise and infiltrates the English military officers’ quarters where, in exchange for strategic information that will enable her to plan a defense for the Siege of Orleans, she hikes her hem, bends over a table, and writes down the intel she’s acquired while the officers pull a train.”
There was a prolonged silence during which people struggled with whether to offer a rebuttal or let the idea suffocate under the weight of its own fatuousness.
“Here’s the best part. The raunchy apex comes when Joan’s been captured and confined in an English prison. The English jailers try to get Joan to renounce her faith so they subject her to sexual debasement using torture equipment in vogue at that time. She refuses to surrender to their perverse activities so they finally say ‘to hell with it’ and bang her eyes out.”
Finally, J. P. spoke up. “Gordon, I have two questions regarding your proposal. The first is―what is the title of this flesh fest of yours. Joanie Does Jacksonville? The second is―have you ever tried getting some back-door coochie wearing a suit of armor? I think you need to switch to designer drugs and quit buying your California cornflakes in the Walmart parking lot. I’m reluctant to ask, but are there any other suggestions?”
Angie, an intern who received a degree in Digital Filmmaking from The Los Angeles Film School, raised her hand. J.P. looked at her with some hesitation but against his better judgment acknowledged her desire to speak.
“Why not feature Joan in a horror movie? They bring in big audiences in our target demographic and they can be filmed on the cheap. We’ve seen an unprecedented burst of horror movies in recent years. Zombies, vampires, and werewolves run rampant on the screen and tube. Serial killers and supernatural depictions have their own syndicated shows. Look at all the horror movies on the SyFy channel that have a high viewer rating. Scary and creepy are the new buzzwords to people trying to decide where to spend their entertainment dollar. We need to cash in and give the public blood and guts and plenty of it.”
J.P. frowned. “This sounds like a different project to me. How could the plot in Joan of Arc possibly be enriched by introducing monsters and malevolent spirits?”
Angie thought for a second. “We could have Joan and some French soldiers get lost in the fog after a battle and stumble across a deserted haunted castle. The soldiers begin getting picked off one by one. Frankenstein could be hiding on the roof and grab a soldier walking along the parapet, crush his head like a grape, and toss him over the wall into the moat. In another scene Dracula rises from his crypt after dark and, along with his female minions, descend upon a couple of soldiers wandering around looking for a place to pee. They spy Joan but are scared off by the cross around her neck and the cloves of garlic hanging from her bra. The vamps drain the soldiers of their blood and dump the bodies. However, zombies show up and launch into a cannibalistic orgy. After the clock strikes midnight, it is Friday the thirteenth and Jason appears. He catches a soldier, impales him with a pitchfork and hoists the body on a chandelier. Another soldier is jumped by a werewolf who dismembers him with his claws and teeth. In another scene, we could have paranormal apparitions….”
“Thank you, Angie. Further exposition is unnecessary. That’s an interesting concept. I don’t think it meets our needs at this time, but feel free to shop your idea around to the other studios.” J. P. is temporarily frozen in a state of suspended disbelief but gradually recovers and weakly asks “Does anyone else have a recommendation?”
A woman with spiked hair, a pencil behind her ear, and reading glasses perched on the end of her nose offered “How about a musical?”
J.P. rolled his eyes and asked condescendingly “Another novel concept. And how did you envision a happy musical being made of such an intensely dramatic tragedy?”
“You can make a musical out of anything. Look at Springtime for Hitler. I think it could work. Everyone loves singing and dancing. Some of the biggest grossing films in history have been musicals. After the movie’s run its course, it could be re-released as a Broadway play.”
“I’ll probably regret this, but give me a little more insight into your proposal.”
“A great scene has Joan in the dungeon with her fellow prisoners who are all men chained together. They’ve been starved and beaten and wallow in abject misery as they sit on the cold stone floor. But Joan jumps up and breaks out into a little ditty like I Don’t Wanna Be Jail Tail followed by a rousing This Maid Can’t Be Made. The other prisoners are inspired by her vocals and jump to their feet and form a conga line around Joan. This is a high-impact scene. These songs acknowledge her sexual identity but establish that she is chaste because of her higher calling and resistance to temptations of the flesh.”
J.P. is quiet but says softly “I suspect Cole Porter is turning over in his grave right about now. Do you have other songs in mind for this merry musical romp through the torture chamber?”
Spiked Hair isn’t too quick on the uptake and continued her spiel as others in the room began to slide under the table. “The really big scene is at the end when Joan is being burned alive for heresy. She tugs our hearts with a sad ballad like Gimme a Break, I Don’t Want the Stake. The English soldiers in contrast are in a circle dancing around the bonfire waving their torches and doing fist bumps as they celebrate her betrayal by her French countrymen with Kiss the Snitch and Burn the Bitch.”
J.P. is almost apoplectic but managed to exit with “That’s indeed creative, but I don’t believe they had rap and hip hop in the fifteen century.” His head snapped back over the chair as he asked weakly “Does anyone else have a proposal for group think?”
Their audition went as might be suspected. The sisters clearly had no audio or visual talent and those Screen Gem reps that didn’t fall asleep covered their eyes and visibly groaned at the theatrical debacles. Prince Charmaine put his head in his hands and groaned. Gabriella and Isabella were still shrieking their lines as they were physically dragged out of the building with no invitation to return.
The staff was still shaking their heads and laughing as they piled into the conference room to debrief. The critique of the sisters’ performance was not kind.
“No wonder California women are so attractive. After these two were born, all the ugly was used up.”
“They should have been wearing shirts from a pest control company. They could get jobs sitting on kitchen floors at night keeping cockroaches behind the walls and off the linoleum.”
“God messed up big time. You would have thought He’d have closed the birth canal after the first one shot out the chute.”
“I’ll bet the obstetrician who delivered them is still suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.”
“They looked like bookends on the shelf at the satanic library.”
“These sisters are living proof we need a ballot amendment forcing insurance companies to include exorcism as a maternity benefit.”
“Those babes were ugly enough to turn a freight train up a dirt road.”
“I think these sisters were playing blackjack at the Ugly-Ass Casino and doubled down.”
“The two looked like death taking a dump.”
A half hour later they completed their drive through the north side of San Pornando Valley’s Hollywood Hills and pulled up in front of an unidentified warehouse in relative close proximity to monochromatic, cookie-cutter residential subdivisions.
“Are you sure this is the right place, Sebastian?”
Sebastian kept a straight face. “This is the address you gave me. Why don’t you go on in while I gas up at the station on the corner?” This didn’t feel right to Cinderella, but she walked to the door and pushed the buzzer. She was challenged by a voice and entered after identifying herself.
The interior confirmed her suspicions. In the center was a soundstage flanked by themed rooms―a shower, exercise room, sexual torture chamber, bedroom, living room, and sauna. That day’s scene had already been set up and was ugly even by adult movie standards. The colors of the walls and furniture fabric were noisome and ranged from split pea soup vomit to dog poop brown. The paint on the walls had split and chipped and the laminated wood floor was scuffed. The framed artwork appeared to have been torn out of a magazine and was compatible with the fake flowers.
The equipment needed to make a low-budget film was already in place. There was a digital camcorder, lighting equipment on stands and gels, electric and cabling, and dolly and grip equipment.
The male lead was already on the set but apparently having a wood problem. “You must be the new fluffer,” a man with a pot belly and skinny legs said after noticing Cinderella. “Get over there and get Long Johnny Jameson ready for the next scene.”
“Get him ready? What is it you expect me to do?”
The man looked at Cinderella as if she’d just walked out of a cabbage patch and gave her a visually graphic description of her job duties. A blush the shade of bright crimson covered her face and she weakly asked “This isn’t Magnum Screen Gems Studio?”
The man was taken aback but then burst out laughing. “Somebody musta put you up to this. Was it my ex-wife?” Cinderella remained stunned in silence. “I guess not,” he said after a pause. He took a longer look at Cinderella’s face and figure as he circled her appreciatively. “Forget about the fluffer position. We’ll put you in the starting lineup. You wanna be the next adult video diva? Do you do women and men? Could you use a thousand a day? All the men wear condoms now per city ordinance. Go in that room and strip and let’s see what you got.”
Cinderella slapped him and stormed out of the building.
Prince stepped out of his car and looked around the parking lot to get the lay of the land. There were only a few cars there and they looked like they had been abandoned during the Roosevelt administration. He looked at his Ferrari and acknowledged that it was decidedly out of place. Raymond Chandler would have said it looked “as inconspicuous as a tarantula on an angel food cake.” The exterior was otherwise deserted except for one guy sleeping under a tarpaulin in the alcove by the vending machines.
He walked into the shabby motel office. Condom machines of different brands lined a wall touting their different shapes, sizes, and colors and guaranteed ability to prevent STDs. Returned checks stamped “Non-Sufficient Funds” in red ink were thumbtacked to a bulletin board on another wall. Next to it was a calendar with an auto parts pinup displaying her naked charms on the hood of a Dodge Charger LX. Beneath it was a rack of X-rated eight tracks for rent. There was a young girl sitting behind the desk with green and blue spiked hair wearing nose, lip, tongue, and eyebrow piercings. She looked like she emerged through a time warp from the 1970s. She was attired in a long-sleeved go-go dress with an eye-numbing swirling psychedelic pattern. Her outfit was accessorized with a matching fabric headband and ring belt. She glanced up, dropped her petulant bored look, and froze. She recognized Prince Charmaine, cinema stud muffin. Her jaw dropped and she openly gawked. Prince flashed his signature celluloid smile.
“Somethin’ tells me you’re not here to pound your pork, are you?”
“Not today. Hey beautiful, can you tell me who’s in room eight?”
She cleared her throat and managed to stammer, “I can’t give out that kind of info, man. If I did, I’d get my ass totally and seriously fired.”
“What’s the downside of that,” Prince asked. “Working here has got to be grody to the max. Worse than doing prostate checks on Great Danes. Worse than spearing trash by the roadside. What do you want for that information? I’ll tell you what I’ll do. Give it to me and I’ll fork over twenty bucks and an autograph and you can take a selfie with me.”
“Tripendicular!” the freak show hostess shouted as she pocketed the double sawbuck, slid a sheet of paper to him for the autograph, and ran around the counter clutching her iPhone. She jammed her face next to his and took a photo. Satisfied with the results, she returned to her chair and opened the guest register. “The guy that signed the book was gag-me-with-a-spoon material. I thought he was totally gonna barf me out. He gave his name as Benny Greaser like whatever. He tried to put the make on me but I told him to bag his face and eat my shorts. He signed in a Ricardo Del Muerto, another barf bucket. I’d bet the farm those names are bogus. Last week we had two George Washingtons and four John Smiths in here.”
“What was the girl’s name?”
The desk clerk smirked. “You gotta be kidding. The thong crowd don’t register at the Passion Pit since they’re usually hired street trade who don’t stay very long after the guy’s popped a nut. I didn’t see a working girl with him but if I did I wouldn’t have asked for a handle.”
“Look, miss, there’s a girl with them and I have every reason to believe she’s in danger. Can you call the police? Now would be better.”
“Take a chill pill. I’ll make the call but you oughtta know it may take two spins of a sundial for a responder to show up since smoke signals from the Passion Pit have an ‘in another life’ priority with the local shields. They’ll respond to a littering complaint at hobo haven before they’ll swing over this way.”
“In that case, do you have a weapon I can borrow for a few minutes?”
“You kidding? I wouldn’t be working at a rear-door rodeo like this without some major firepower.” She pulled out a 9 mm Glock 17, a twelve-gauge Remington shotgun with an open choke, and an M-16 semi-automatic and told him to take his pick. Prince charmed her out of the pistol, took the safety off, and loaded a bullet in the chamber.
“Hey, Prince. You ever need any movie extras?”
“Possibly. If we ever shoot a slash-and-gash vampire gothic, I’ll keep you in mind.” He headed for room eight and knocked on the door.
Benny Greaser and Ricardo Del Muerto spent the night in the holding tank after being strip-searched, photographed, fingerprinted, and issued their blue scrubs which had recently replaced the orange jumpsuits in the Los Angeles County Jail. The next morning they were escorted to the interrogation room where they were met by two men. The first was a short heavyset man with a broad nose and heavy eyebrows who had run a background check on the duo. Looking at their records had given him the confidence of a man fed the ball for an easy slam dunk over a midget center. The second man at the table had light wavy hair and black horn-rimmed glasses that matched the stubble on his chin. He looked as disinterested as a museum guard in a gallery full of abstract paintings. The Greaser and Del Muerto remained in handcuffs and were slammed into chairs at the table.
The heavyset man opened “I’m Detective Brancuso. I’ll be handling your intake today.”
“I wanna see my mouthpiece,” Benny declared with a touch of attitude. “I don’t want no interview with a guy. I wanna Dickless Tracy.”
“Yeah, me too,” echoed Del Muerto.
“You want an attorney, douche bag?” the detective said with a smirk. “You’re looking at him,” he said pointing to the man with the thick glasses. “This is Mr. Henderson. He’s been appointed by the Public Defender’s Office to represent you. He’ll try to stay awake during this proceeding. I couldn’t get a female deputy to do your interview―they were afraid of picking up some STD or terminal skin rot just by being in the same room with you two lice traps.
“Well, pond scum, it seems you bought the farm this time. Let’s see what we’ve got―kidnapping, assault, battery, possession of a stolen car, no auto insurance, no driver’s license, possession of a stolen cell phone, violation of probation. Your new charges take up an entire page. And many of them are Class 1 Felonies. And these lapses of moral judgment are on top of your priors which date back twenty years and take up another folder. You dirt bags ain’t ever going to get out of Tehachapi to see the light of day. I was looking forward to beating a confession out of you with an L.A. phone book or water boarding you in a bucket of warm spit, but we got statements from the victim and a good citizen that apprehended you in flagrante delicto.”
“In what?” Benny asked.
“In flagrante delicto. That’s Latin for ‘You’re screwed.’ ”
“Hey shyster! Ain’t you gonna say nothing?” Benny pleaded while looking at his public defender.
Shyster looked at him, yawned, and said “Objection overruled.”
“I may be able to get a couple of these charges dropped, but that’ll depend on how well you two turkey butts cooperate.”
“Whaddaya say, shyster? You gotta opinion or you gonna sit over dere wid your law book up yo’ ass?”
“I would recommend you accept any offer the state is generous enough to extend. Your bargaining position is weaker than a forty-nine cent margarita.”
Benny and Ricardo looked at each other and sighed. “All right, dick, whaddaya wanna know?”
“Marguerite Rockingham, you’re under arrest. You’re being charged with extortion, a violation of California Penal Code 519, and kidnapping/abduction, a violation of Code 207. You can expect other charges to be added once the DA’s office reviews the arrest file.”
“I neither confirm nor deny these ridiculous allegations,” Marguerite said in a huff.
“Mirandize her, Dano.”
Moran stepped forward with an index card and began reading. “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do can and will be held against you in the court of law. You have the right to speak to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you. Do you understand these rights as they have been read to you?”
“Up yours, flatfoot. The thing I understand is you two clowns will be walking a beat on outhouse row in Compton. You’ll be patrolling graveyards to keep people from stealing floral arrangements. You’ll be guarding bedpans at the old age home. You’ll be…”
“I got it already, lady. Here’s a news bulletin for you. You’ll be washing toilets in the big house. You’ll be running for your life from cellblock dykes who chase you around like a farmer after a chicken for Sunday dinner. You’ll be on the prison farm scooping up horse hash for the compost heap. Your conjugal visits will be with prison guards during bedtime cell checks.”
Marguerite spit at Brancuso and tried to kick Moran. “And we just added resisting arrest and assaulting an officer of the law.”
After the court proceeding was opened, Mandelbaum’s defense of his client was launched into overdrive and highlighted by his usual theatrics and posturing. “Your Honor, if it pleases the court, we respectfully request that my client, Marguerite Rockingham, be released on her own recognizance. Bail of any amount is quite unnecessary since she is hardly a threat to the community to which she has strong and longstanding ties. She has no criminal record other than a couple of non-moving traffic violations. Her leadership and involvement in charitable activities are too numerous to mention and I will therefore abstain from a lengthy recitation of them in respect of the court’s time.”
The judge looked at the prosecutor and asked “Mr. Mason, what is the state’s response to this request?”
Assistant DA Mason rose to his feet chuckling. “It’s always a pleasure to welcome Mr. Mandelbaum back to these hallowed chambers. He can invariably be counted upon to light up the courtroom with his histrionic oratory and masterful ability to trivialize the serious or make it disappear in its entirety. He once defended a coal mine responsible for the deaths of thirty-two miners by challenging the toxicology reports. He claimed that black lung disease was little more than ‘respiratory irritation.’ I have no doubt the esteemed practitioner of legal legerdemain could get a genocide charge reclassified as critical systemic populational pruning to restore the delicate balance between man his environment.”
“Objection, Your Honor. While I’m flattered by the prosecutor’s recognition of my considerable legal expertise, it has no bearing on the matter before the bench.”
The judge was enjoying the characterization of attorney Mandelbaum but tapped his gavel and opined “Objection sustained, albeit reluctantly. Continue Mr. Mason.”
“We vehemently oppose a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card being issued to the accused. Let’s examine counselor’s statements in more depth. He cites her unblemished arrest record which contains a citation for a non-moving traffic violation. It is true her vehicle was not moving once it stopped on top of the body she negligently ran over. She avoided a manslaughter charge by settling out of court for a substantial sum of money to the injured and to the court for costs. Mr. Mandelbaum also cites his client’s extensive charitable activity but provides no corroboration of this statement. May I remind the court that dropping coins into a Salvation Army Christmas kettle and purchasing Girl Scout cookies hardly propel Mrs. Rockingham into Mother Teresa category. We will support the request for bail but insist that a substantial financial guarantor of her future appearances be levied. We feel our request is in order since her considerable wealth gives her the monetary wherewithal to make her a flight risk.”
“Mr. Mandelbaum, I see your client has been charged with a number of other offences in addition to the major felonies of kidnapping and extortion. She appears to have been rather unruly and uncooperative when arrested. Let’s see, we have third-degree assault, second-degree harassment, second-degree menacing, resisting arrest, fourth-degree criminal mischief, and second-degree obstructing governmental administration.”
“―and a partridge in a pear tree. Your Honor, the DA has taken a minor disagreement over arrest procedure and turned it into a major global conflagration. The number of charges heaped upon my client defies rational examination. He could take a lustful glance at a neighbor and turn it into a violation of all Ten Christian Commandments, the Five Commandments of Islam in the Quran, the Ten Grand Buddhist Precepts, and The Five Principals and Ten Commandments of Hinduism.”
It was the DA’s turn to stand up. “Your Honor, esteemed counsel left out the ability to walk on water and feed the multitudes with five fish and two loaves of bread. Can we get counsel to dispense with his protracted puffery and return to the subject at hand?”