The Austin Chronicle


Reviewed by Sarah Hepola, March 30, 2001, Books

Below the Line

by J.R. Helton

Last Gasp, 203 pp., $14.95 (paper)

J.R. Helton's tell-all book might more accurately be called Below the Belt -- that's where the author directs most of his hits at Hollywood. A set painter who worked on a string of Texas films both classic (Dazed and Confused) and forgettable (The Last Prostitute Who Took Pride in Her Work), Helton is a bitter man (his constant griping prompts one colleague to comment, "I'm gonna have to start calling you guys the cynic department instead of the scenic department"), and to some extent, this account of working "below the line" explains why. Helton's job seems to consist of tedium and abuse and small, small brushes with celebrity. He creates sets meant to be destroyed, weathers humiliation and bad working conditions, and toward the end of the book, describes his day-to-day thusly: "work, dope, beer, dope, dinner, dope, beer, sleep."

Along the way, Helton dishes on plenty of his co-workers in the industry, but since he works mostly with unknowns, the Hollywood dirt here just can't compare to genre classics like You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again and Hello, He Lied. Those who have been chewed up and spat out by Hollywood, however, may find themselves cheering for Helton, the man who dared to talk back (R. Crumb liked the book enough to contribute the cover illustration). But Helton takes too many cheap hits and slams directors and actors he barely works with, far less knows. Peter O'Toole, Robert Duvall, Richard Linklater, James Caan -- they all fall victim to Helton's sideways glance and ear for hearsay and rumor.

Helton is rightfully sick of being judged by higher-ups based on superficial things like his blue-collar job. But then he turns around and critiques these men (and it's mostly men) based on the most surface encounters -- a handshake, a walk through the set, a grumble at a party. I didn't sympathize for the author much by the end of the book -- and perhaps that's intentional. Perhaps we're meant to dislike him, to see his self-destructive and bilious behavior as the result of his demoralizing life "with the carny," as Helton describes his itinerant movie career. But it's all so unpleasant. "I felt that night, and on many others, that somehow life was somewhere else," Helton writes. And after reading this book, I couldn't agree with him more.

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