Citizens of L.A.! Weekly readers! You who rail at traffic, who curse the barista too slow with the morning latte, who claim to have no spare change when you simply wish to keep it, who fret over hairlines and vacuum the fat from your thighs, who covet your neighbor's donkey, squander your leisure on worry, your savings on flattery, you who are milk-fed and spoiled for choice, feng shuied and SUVed, personally trained and overmedicated, who think hunger is just what happens between lunch and dinner and have never slept outside but on vacation – you who have vacations – here is a brief remedy to your (our) inflated necessities and ordinary disasters. As with all TV, its substance is filtered and its effects short-lived – that's why you always need another hit, man – but for a couple of hours anyway, spent in the face of the modern world's actually unfortunate, you may see yourself to be as lucky as you are, and your life in something approaching proportion.
TBS's Dying To Tell the Story is a kind of portmanteau documentary, on one hand a general survey of war correspondents, their professional philosophies and the spiritual strain of a life led in the world's hot zones, tete-a-tete with the starving, maimed, dispossessed and dead – who get a lot of screen time here – and, on the other, the particular story of Dan Eldon, stoned to death five years ago at the age of 22 while shooting pictures for Reuters in Somalia, and whose mother, Kathy, is the executive producer of this piece and sister, Amy, its on-camera narrator and interlocutor. (And visual relief: She's stunning.) It does its work in both cases, though, to speak personally for a moment, I am more interested in the old-pro analyses than in the tale of the handsome Young Turk.
Talking shop with Amy – not a slick interviewer, but curious – are reporters and camerapeople including Martin Bell, late of the BBC (“We're licensed idiots who go out and stand in the line of fire and earn our living there”); photojournalist Donald McCullin, haunted by his own pictures; CNN's much admired (and recently married – sorry, boys!) Christiane Amanpour, kicking Bill Clinton's ass over Bosnia on live TV, and happy in her work; and South African photographer Peter Magubane, locked up and tortured for taking pictures of the usual daily shit of apartheid. Among the topics: disengagement vs. attachment (whether to shoot, or whether to help); the camera: shield or conduit?; and whether any of it does any good at all. (There is disagreement about everything but the desire not to get hurt.) They are as intelligent, well-spoken and, as a rule, attractive a lot as you could wish, if Ernie Pyle or Foreign Correspondent ever meant a thing to you, and it is comforting to know such people are around, keeping tabs on stuff I for one am not about to, attempting with occasional success to keep the world honest.
The thread that connects these interviews is Amy Eldon's intercontinental journey to make sense of her brother's risky life and sudden death, a hegira that ends on the site of his murder, with cameraman Mohamed Shaffi, the sole survivor, a moved and moving guide to the fatal day's events. Touching, I do not deny it, though to play out this private quest in public, in the invisible yet visibly accommodated, requested presence of a camera crew, does seem to me ever so slightly queer. As does the fact that although Hansi Krauss of AP and Hos Maina and Anthony Macharia of Reuters were also killed that day, Eldon has in death eclipsed them, thanks largely to the apostolic devotion of his mother, editor of last year's popular coffee-table picture book The Journey Is the Destination: The Journals of Dan Eldon and currently shepherd of a feature-film version (“in development” at Columbia, with the screenwriter of Shine attached) that will apply the final coat of varnish to the icon of prodigious genius and abbreviated potential her son has become – a photojournalistic Gaudier-Brzeska, Rimbaud, River Phoenix. Whether he might have been Robert Capa is forever moot; what he is instead is James Dean.
Still, it's a worthwhile show, and no slam against Eldon – who was, at the very least, energetic, engaged and visually acute – to note that his celebrity is predicated largely upon his demise. Nothing succeeds like egress. Or, in the words of bartender Pepe Ruiz, inventor of the drink known as the Flame of Love, “Nobody calls you when you're sick, but when you die everybody comes to the funeral.” Which brings us closer to home – right to the corner of Beverly Boulevard and Doheny Drive and the Hollywood-Georgian hulk of the famous restaurant whose own passing is recorded in Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen's, coming to Cinemax after a grand tour of the festivals. (For all that the Motion Picture Academy hands out Oscars for documentary films, TV remains the only place you're likely to see them.) This very small major tragedy in the life of a community a million miles in any important sense from Bosnia, Rwanda or Afghanistan is rendered by filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini in a manner amused but not mocking, poignant but not sentimental, sympathetic but not suckered. They have fashioned from the facts a bittersweet institutional comedy I can recommend without (tee hee) reservations.
Off the Menu is not so much a history (there is, for instance, no mention of the restaurant's main investor and unsilent partner, New Yorker founder Harold Ross) as an end-of-history, recording the death not only of a restaurant but of a generation, a way of life and a style of consumption. (The bistro's signature dish, Hobo Steak, was cooked wrapped in fat and sitting in half a cup of melted butter.) Chasen's fame devolved almost entirely from that of its clientele; if its chili was not the world's best – not while there's still a Texas – it was nevertheless the chili that Elizabeth Taylor had flown by the bucketful to Rome while she filmed Cleopatra. (What that added to the film's studio-crippling bottom line would be interesting, in the loosest possible interpretation of the word “interesting,” to know.) But in the end, an end one could not call untimely, the famous moved on – or rather, the senior famous died off and the junior famous didn't come, and all that was left were antiquities: the old serving the old, superannuating together, inseparable even unto death.
There are, of course, celebrities at the wake – the likes of Fay Wray (“I felt that dozens of red carpets had been pulled out from under me”), Jack Lemmon, Ed McMahon, Robert Wagner and Tom Snyder, along with some younger talent caught (by secret camera, it appears) at the restaurant's final, private, Oscar-night party. But the focus is on the restaurant's longtime staffers, who, perhaps through long association with actors, seem themselves to have arrived straight from Central Casting: Ronnie, Tommy, Raymond, Pepe (“the most important Hispanic in Southern California,” says one patron), each embodies his post, each has devoted huge tracts of time to serving the rich and famous, and gladly. Had the revolution come, it would have foundered here.
It is a shame that Chasen's is gone, just as it's a shame that the Brown Derby has disappeared (thrice over), and the Garden Court Apartments lie buried under a building my sensibilities are too delicate to describe, and the Parisian Room is a post office, and the Ambassador Hotel is decaying, and the hot fudge runs at C.C. Brown's no more, and that we every one of us in our turn must make way for newer models. It is true of every age that things are not what they used to be, and it is a pleasure still, after all, to sit in Musso & Frank, say, eating overpriced, underwhelming, old-fashioned food amid the dark wood, fading wallpaper and fading waiters, in a room patinated by eight decades of Hollywood blather. But time marches on: Tomorrow's trend is the quaint historical curiosity of the day after, and before long there will be not a soul alive who remembers eating at Chasen's – or can tell the real Dan Eldon from whatever actor will have been hired to play him on the screen. Only the movies, not even the memories, will remain.