Chairman Gulager Is Clueless Hero For Clutzy Era

Attention, all of you out there with Adjustment Problems, with Bad People Skills. Bring me your tired, your Poorly Adjusted, all you with Serious Attitude Problems and Persistent Authority Issues. You who don’t play well with others. I won’t say our time has come, but I’m sensing the signs of a culture shift. That’s my optimistic (though self-serving) interpretation of the Gulager phenomenon.

I don’t think it’s just me. I thought it was a propitious sign that American popular culture was embracing Gulager when “Uncle Grambo,” the proprietor of whatevs.org, the popular, pop-tart-obsessed Web site whose judgment has a kind of vox populi pop-culture street cred, interrupted some posts on Amanda Bynes and the like with the flat-out statement: “Gulager rulez!” And later posted a perceptive and even touching tribute to Gulager:

“Hands down, by far, without a doubt, dude …. the best show on tellyvision … it’s truly been amazing to watch the transformation that Gulager has been through this season. He went from an oddball outsider with questionable bathing habits and even more questionable nepotistic tendencies to an endearingly patient and curiously intriguing talent … from someone you laugh at to someone you pull for.”

“Who’s Gulager?” many of you may be asking. Well, he’s the first-time director chosen for the third season of Project Greenlight’s nine-episode movie-making reality show, and he represents the rare appearance on a reality show of a real American character, a complex, difficult character, not the usual reality-show freaks who look like they’re already auditioning for their stint on The Surreal Life.

Instead, John Gulager comes across as the real thing, a far more recognizable (but rarely seen on TV) character, the iconic embodiment of the abrasive misfit loser. Not a funny, lovable, self-congratulatory Seinfeldian loser-no Bart Simpson charm, Holden Caulfield naïveté, not even geek appeal-but an irritating, sullen, self-satisfied loser.

Come to think of it, there is one other character on TV whose Irritating Bad People Skillz evoke a similar kind of empathy or pity: Kevin Dillon’s great touchy and resentful second-banana brother, Johnny Drama, on HBO’s Entourage. True, he’s a fictional character and Gulager’s real, but I feel a trend coming on.

Regardless of how the movie he made turns out, Gulager has a chance to become a kind of catchword, a personality-type name-check. After all, just about everyone has a clueless Gulager within, and I have a feeling calling someone “a Gulager type” will become a recognized descriptor among a certain subset of the culture.

Probably a subset similar to those who felt that Sam Lipsyte’s new novel Home Land spoke to them, with its hilarious celebration of the Poorly Adjusted and their Attitude Issues, and its protagonist, “Teabag,” a Poster Boy for Bad People Skillz. Not surprisingly, it’s a cult favorite among writers (including me) for just these qualities.

Gulager isn’t as caustically, bitterly witty as Mr. Lipsyte’s protagonist, but he shares his contempt for suck-ups; he exemplifies the attitude of those who would rather be a Fuck-Up than a Suck-Up (in the Manichean classification system of my colleague Phil Weiss).

Anyway, for those who missed the series, Gulager was living the all-too-real life of a loser schlub when he won the Project Greenlight directing contest and got a $3 million budget to make a genre horror script called Feast.

So he became the hero-well, hero isn’t the word I want; the butt, for the most part-of the third season of the series, which has moved from HBO to Bravo. As you probably know, Greenlight is the Matt Damon–Ben Affleck production that chronicles the trials of the contest winners as they struggle to make their movie. While the first two seasons of the show were, to my mind, excellent TV storytelling, the characters-and the movies that resulted-were a little tepid, not nearly as interesting as the show made about them.

But this season, while they chose a standard horror script for the project, they chose a decidedly nonstandard type to direct it. Enter Gulager, a pale, pudgy, redheaded guy who, at 47, was scraping by making wedding videos and doing some freelance editing and camera work. He was the son of veteran genre-picture actor Clu Gulager. L.A. was his hometown, but he seems not to have picked up either the street smarts or the people smarts of the town. You could call him clueless Gulager.

But there was something appealing about his dorky insouciance. After being lectured by producer Chris Moore about the value of making human connections with his film crew-whose feeling for him could make or break the tough moments in the filmmaking process-Gulager seemed, at least at first, to ignore any collaborative instincts for the sake of “protecting his vision,” which he always seemed to feel was threatened, although he never seemed to make clear to anyone what that vision was.

He really looked like he didn’t care what people thought about him. Unfortunately, he acted that way, too.

The real drama of the third season of Greenlight was whether or not Gulager’s People Skillz learning curve would overtake his Poor Adjustment and Bad Attitude before they undermined his “dream.” A situation some of us could relate to.

Anyway, that’s how the Project Greenlight series shrewdly set up the dramatic arc of the episodes-which, it must be admitted, may have been given a more pronounced shape in the editing room.

Still, one has the feeling they weren’t inventing Gulager’s Bad Attitude out of thin air. You just couldn’t make that stuff up. Gulager immediately distinguished himself by his self-destructive, passive-aggressive posture, lack of camaraderie and collegiality, his complaining, suspicion, paranoia, whining, self-subverting actions and other poorly adjusted, antisocial behavior. Gotta love it.

Actually, it was a little uncomfortable for me, because after a while, you couldn’t help wondering if his maladjusted-loner attitude had something to do with his being-like me-a redhead. Or with the utterly unfair myths and prejudices that redheads have to deal with. Especially redheaded men.

True, there are some myths about redheaded women. I remember a gun-toting D.A. in Tyler, Tex. talking about redheaded women while showing off the submachine gun he carried in the trunk of his Camaro. He always liked to put redheaded women on death-penalty juries, he told me. “They’re mean!” he stated emphatically. (Not true, I feel compelled to say, of my two redheaded exes.) And for the most part-“scarlet woman” stereotypes aside-redheaded women have it better than redheaded men. They’re seen as “Pre-Raphaelite,” prima-ballerina types, ethereal, aesthetic and regal rather than mean.

But redheaded men …. You know, of course, that in the medieval Passion Plays and in Shakespeare’s time, both Judas and Shylock were played with red wigs, the scarlet color betokening their Luciferian nature. It hasn’t gotten much better since then. We’re either bad or crazy like Van Gogh. I don’t think Eric Stoltz evens things up. Redheaded women may get called fiery and passionate; redheaded men, just bad-tempered.

Frankly, for all the conscious and unconscious prejudice we suffer, we deserve, if not minority status, at least handicapped parking spaces.

And now there’s Gulager, who embodied all the most irritating traits that inevitably would be added to the ledger in the case against redheads, I thought.

The guy walks around muttering self-pitying asides to himself-just about the only person he talks to. He thinks the casting director is going behind his back (she is), but in a passive-aggressive way he waits till what she’s doing is a fait accompli and then throws a loud sulk. Meanwhile, he tries to hire no less than three members of his own family (and his girlfriend) for the movie.

He has a sullen standoff with his director of photography, climaxing in the following childish spat: Gulager asks the D.P. to get “coverage”; the D.P. asks him how he wants it done; Gulager says, “Just do it”; the D.P. says, “Tell us how”; Gulager says, “Just do it, smarty-pants.”

Cringe.

In addition, he’s a fount of low self-esteem. His best mood is sullen. Most of the time, it’s self-pity. Here are some inspirational quotations from Chairman Gulager:

“It’s a sad day in Gulagerville when things go wrong.”

“I just feel like a complete failure …. I’m full of self-doubt, and all I can think of is, ‘You let everybody down.'”

“I was really worried. I fell into a funk.”

“Sometimes I get really bummed out.”

“I’m [doing it my way], even if it sinks the fuckin’ ship.”

Great leadership abilities, Chairman Gulager! Great motivational skills! He’s the Tony Robbins of Low Self-Esteem; he’s the guru of the Seven Bad Habits of Self-Destructive People.

He doesn’t get much better. He seems like the type who can make even an easy task hard for everyone around him, but he keeps on stumbling forward with the film, and the various producers eventually begin saying they like what they see in the dailies. He gets a little better in dealing with people-but not much. He seems to believe that having independent creative vision and being aloof and off-putting are inseparable.

Which, of course, raises an important question about the relationship between art and life. Is it necessary to be obnoxious to pursue one’s “vision”? Or does that just obtain in Hollywood?

There’s a fascinating life issue here. As someone who’s quit three good jobs because I couldn’t contemplate getting along with a new boss (or out of loyalty to an old boss), I’ve thought a lot about people skills. That doesn’t mean I’ve developed them, but I’ve thought about them.

Actually, watching Gulager, it occurred to me that while I’ve at least sought to develop the rudiments of them, Gulager didn’t seem to know they existed.

It seems to me there really is an area between Suck-Up and Fuck-Up. That going a bit out of your way to get along doesn’t necessarily make you a suck-up, and that standing up for your vision doesn’t necessarily condemn you to being a fuck-up.

But if it comes to a showdown, I’ll still root for the fuck-ups, the Gulagers of the world, over the suck-ups and the smooth operators. After all, America was founded, the continent was explored and populated, by gnarly individualists who didn’t play well with others. And I’m still such a sucker for the romanticism of the Beautiful Loser that I’ll even find a place in my heart for an ugly, pudgy loser like Gulager. Although God help us if he turns out to be a winner.

And then you begin to wonder if Gulager is playing a “deep game.” That he’s not risking his 15 minutes of fame on some schlocky gorefest horror movie, but on establishing himself as a personality, a star. The Omarosa strategy, perhaps? Or maybe he’s deliberately seeking to teach us Zen lessons: Obi-Wan Gulager!

And then there’s the even deeper question: What part of his bad personality is due to his redheadedness, what part is due to looking like a fat loser, and what part is sheer orneriness? And perhaps most important of all: Does he actually have the talent that (sometimes) barely excuses bad attitude and self-destructive behavior?

I almost don’t want to know. I kinda like the mystery that the series leaves you with (his movie, Feast, isn’t scheduled to open until December, so we won’t know till then, if then).

But I like the fact that people like Uncle Grambo can relate to Gulager. I think he appeals to the vast, unspoken contempt that most of working America has for the suck-ups and smooth operators of the world. Appeals to all the people who get called abrasive because they can’t conceal their contempt for the ass-kissers among them. Sure, he goes too far to the opposite end of the spectrum. But better an abrasive redhead than an all-too-slick brown noser.

Bravo would be crazy not to rerun the whole series.

Gulager Fever: Catch it!