I gotta admit, I’m a total sucker for feature articles about nobodies who are on the cusp of becoming somebodies or just don’t quite make it and remain, well, nobodies.
I could live a long and happy life If I never read another Vanity Fair cover story on Gwyneth Paltrow again, but it would be a depressing life if I could never read another article like Dave Gardetta’s Desperately Seeking Spicoli in the new Los Angeles Magazine.
The story of aspiring actor Zakk Moore‘s journey from John Deere country (Quad Cities, Illinois) to minor “surfer dude” character actor in the town known for its love of John Deere trucker hats (Hollywood), Zakk’s saga is the same one we’ve heard a million times before.
Will he wind up on VH1‘s Driven like Iowa’s own Ashton Kutcher, or will he be the next Courtney Gains doing regional theater and straight-to-video? Only time will tell.
The pleasure of these sorts of articles comes not from laughing at the subjects’ penny ante aspirations, or wincing at their foibles, but in the very real connection between them and the journalist. When you read a big celebrity profile in a glossy magazine, the relationship between the star and the writer is a purely top-down affair: with the star (or, more accurately, the star’s manager, publicist, and the media company releasing the star’s movie/album/TV series) holds all the cards. During the thirty or so minutes the writer gets with his or her subject, everything is strictly prescribed in advance. That’s why they all read like the same article with different names, movie titles, and product placements dumped in Mad Libs-style.
Anyone who’s ever read any magazine knows the tamplate: Subject and writer become friendly while doing some highly-choreographed bullshit symbolism-laden activity like shop for an antique vanity for the star’s new apartment (“her first major purchase with her first big-time Hollywood paycheck”) or get tea in plain sight at a major hotel lobby (“dressed down in a Ralph Lauren blazer over a faded sweatshirt, he exudes none of the leading man magnetism we’ve come to expect: in fact, he’s fairly anonymous amid the business travelers and middle American families here for a fun-filled weekend at the National Holocaust Museum…”), etc. We get a few sensual details (“she orders a cheeseburger with extra fries, but eats it with dainty little bites, ladylike…”) and strategically-placed “too much information” moments destined to be reprinted mina bird-like by Page Six and Liz Smith (“He contemplates for a moment and then says, ‘I guess it would be cool if I could clone myself. If I had a clone of me, I could make love to myself. I mean, if the clone were a female version of me….'”).
Zzzzzz…. I’m sorry, where was I? Zakk Moore. That’s right.
Dave Gardetta’s article is great precisely because his subject—and his brief, journalistic relationship with his subject—isn’t protected: it’s celebrity journalism without the net. (Add your own snarky zinger about ‘celebrity journalism without the celebrity’ here, funny guy.) Zakk’s just being himself, or at least the self that he knows he’s supposed to be: “The thing is… if I go out for an Italian hit man role, I’m not going to get the part. I can’t play that type and be believed. But the smart-dumb-stoner-surfer-comicky guy? That I can do.”
And that ‘smart-dumb-stoner-surfer-comicky guy’ role has a pretty decent legacy. Why, Sean Penn, whose surfer-stoner Jeff Spicoli’s name appears in the article’s headline, is nominated for an Oscar this year. (His fourth nomination to date!) As Gardetta tells us with hilariously anthropological exactitude:
Within the character phylum of the American teen movie—which contains subgroups like dumb jock, stuck-up cheerleader, and nerd—there exists an entire genus devoted to the surfer dude. Its variants include the skater dude, the stoner dude, the slacker dude, and the surfer-skater-stoner-slacker dude. For instance, in Clueless the actor Breckin Meyer plays a stoner-skater, whereas Keanu Reeves‘s character in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure would be hard to classify as anything more than a slacker. The surfer dude role has spawned some success stories. Beginning with Sean Penn, whose Jeff Spicoli in the 1982 film Fast Times at Ridgemont High is the originating Pantagruel of the form’s slovenly stock character, there have followed performances by Reeves, Brad Pitt in True Romance, Nicolas Cage in Valley Girl, Mike Myers in Wayne’s World, and Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber. (If Wayne’s World is Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure filtered through the basement cracks of an Illinois rumpus room, then Dumb and Dumber is Wayne and Garth filtered through the overcooked minds of the Farrelly brothers.) Even Jeff Bridges, as “the Dude” in The Big Lebowski, has played the role, updated into middle age by the Coen brothers.
Dude, good luck!
There’s some great writing in this article, but I’ll let Zakk have the last word, since he’s destined to get a media handler who’ll beat the candor out of him when he’s famous: “I just want people to know who I am… ‘Oh yeah, that’s Zakk! Oh yeah—surfer guy! Right there. Call in Zakk. Oh yeah. We got a great role for him.'”
Related: Also in this month’s Los Angeles Magazine, a piece from LAObserved‘s Kevin Roderick on mayoral adviser Doug Dowie.