Charles Jensen

Spliced: Get Them to the Niche / Get Him to the Greek

Get Him to the Greek, 2010. Dir. Nicholas Stoller

FRIDAY

We approached the U.S./Canada border checkpoint. The human remains in my lap were concealed by an old blanket. I tried to seem casual.

Aaron Green has one job: get Aldous Snow from London to Los Angeles for a concert at the Greek Theater, with a quick layover in New York for an appearance on The Today Show. It sounds easy enough, except that Aldous Snow, sitting at the bottom of multiple addictions and the most devastating low of his career, is a walking, uncooperative id. This is the fundamental problem of Get Him to the Greek.

Aaron, a huge fan of Snow and his band Infant Sorrow, is over the moon to meet and spend time with his idol, until he’s spent literally one minute with the man. Aaron realizes anything that goes wrong, even direct results of Aldous’s decisions and actions, will be Aaron’s fault, and that Aldous will not only not listen to Aaron’s instructions, he will often do the opposite.

THE TUESDAY BEFORE

We met my uncle for breakfast the morning after we arrived in Port Huron, Michigan. He was impossible to ignore. At 6’5” with a thick frame, he entered any room like a planet, complete with his own gravitational pull. He stood with stooped shoulders, his blond hair flecked with orange. His speaking voice usually rasped with a whiskey huskiness to it, though he was prone to raising his voice into a boom that got everyone’s attention. Like my dad, he cleared his throat constantly, and any time he moved his joints, he would groan, or mutter, “Jesus Christ.” The last time I’d seen him in person was his wedding when I was 12 years old. When we reunited in Port Huron, I was 30 and gay; he was divorced, legally barred from seeing his children after threatening to kill his ex-wife with an axe, and living in an enormous house in Sarnia that was as cold and empty as his life.

He took us to the hospital. My grandmother lay propped up in bed in intensive care, a breathing tube shoved down her throat. She was conscious and responsive, but exhausted, overwhelmed. She could hear and understand me but couldn’t respond beyond a soft pat on my hand when I said hello and that I loved her. Her skin was thin and pale as airmail paper, bluish and translucent.

My dad and uncle spoke with the hospital staff. My uncle was convinced she had a good chance of a miraculous recovery. The nurses explained that was less and less likely with each minute that passed. Rather than improving, she merely held steady, almost entirely due to the machinery keeping her breathing.

A decision would need to be made. It was up to the three of us to make it.

We first meet Aldous at his London flat, overlooking the Thames and Parliament just over the river. As played by Russell Brand, Aldous is mercurial. When Aaron explains he’s arrived to take Aldous to the concert at the Greek, Aldous insists the event was scheduled for two months later and that Aaron himself has changed the date without telling him. Aldous’s mother, a quiet, birdlike woman, chirps back whatever Aldous tells her. Yes, it’s in two months. Yes, they changed it. Yes, you’ve been inconvenienced. Aldous’s brother echoes her, and it’s clear they both exist in Aldous’s world to reinforce the man’s delusions and enable his bad behavior.

Aaron wants to get right to the airport, but Aldous won’t be sidetracked. They end up at a pub, then a club, and then we see from Aaron’s POV in the quickfire editing of the rest of the night how discombobulated he’s become on the buffet of drugs and alcohol he’s fed by Aldous. They barely make their plane to New York. A time stamp tells us when they land they have less than an hour to make it to Aldous’s interview and performance on The Today Show.

A hair and make-up artist fluffs Aldous’s look in the car on the way to the interview. Aaron needs to keep him sober for the TV appearance, but Aldous, like a magician, keeps conjuring new controlled substances. Aaron isn’t accustomed to addicts or their tricks, so he does the only thing he can think of to keep the booze and alcohol out of Aldous’s body: he puts it into his own.

Undeterred, Aldous insists the car pull over so he can buy “a pretzel” from a man on the street and returns to the car with drugs. Aaron is drunk, stoned, and in a bad way, and they might not make it to the studio on time. Aldous’s narcissism prevents him from caring, convinced (and confirmed through lived experience) that nothing can begin without him. These characters, living at opposite ends of the economic spectrum of the same industry, stand in for something larger than themselves. Aldous’s race, wealth, and privilege mean he never faces consequences, partly because he does not acknowledge they can exist. All Aaron sees are consequences: what failure now will mean for his idol’s career, what getting fired will mean for him financially, for his own future.

TUESDAY EVENING

We got the call that my grandmother was in her final hour while we ate dinner at a Canadian Chinese restaurant. We rushed back to the hospital to be with her, and I sat by the bed holding her cool hand in mine, her skin eerily smooth as vellum, as she labored to pull each shallow breath into her body. I was there when she took her last.

My dad went quiet. My uncle paced like a caged lion. “C’mon, Ma!” he yelled at her. “Wake up!” He huffed and moaned and sighed as he stomped around the room. I sat by the bed, tears leaping from my eyes. “Wake up, Ma!” he yelled again.

His shouts alerted the nurse, who swept through the curtain like a breeze. “Why don’t you give me a few moments to get her ready,” she suggested, her tone practiced. We moved into the hallway to wait. My uncle, still raging but now in silence, gave off beams of energy that electrified the entire ward.

When the nurse rejoined us in the hallway, she explained a funeral home was en route to collect my grandmother and prepare her for what was ahead. Her demeanor was so kind and loving. What would it be like to work this way, family after family mourning a loved one? I appreciated her even as I shrank from my embarrassment of my uncle’s performance of grief.

There was nothing more for us to do that night, but we waited for them to arrive, and my dad and uncle watched the workers put my grandmother’s body into their car. My grandmother had requested this act of her children. She always thought morticians were scam artists.

Aldous makes it to the studio with mere minutes to spare, completing his interview with Meredith Viera as Aaron scrambles to find a sheet of lyrics to the singer’s disastrous, career-ruining single “African Child,” whose words and music video seem to lampoon war, famine, poverty, and racism, often in the same breath. But at the last second, Aldous performs his classic cut “The Clap,” announcing the anniversary concert at the Greek before he rushes off stage. Aaron needs to get them to LA.

The next sequence firms up Get Him to the Greek’s unexpected thematic undertone: family ties. At the airport, Aldous throws another curve ball: he’s taking them to Las Vegas first because he wants to visit his father (and former manager), whom he hasn’t seen in years. Aldous is estranged from nearly every family member who doesn’t suck at the teat of his success. On top of his father’s reticence, Aldous has been abandoned by his pop star wife Suzy Q and their young son Naples. For his part, Aaron, too, is staring down familial issues. Shortly before departing on his odyssey, Aaron’s girlfriend Daphne tells him she’s gotten a once-in-a-lifetime career opportunity in Seattle. Aaron wants her to be excited that he gets to meet his idol Aldous, but Daphne’s excited about her own opportunity. They can’t seem to support one another in that moment and, when the fight continues, they break up.

THROUGH WEDNESDAY NIGHT

The next day was an indistinct blur. I remember most of what we did, though not necessarily the order of each event.

At the funeral home, we watched the undertakers put my grandmother’s body in the hearse.

We followed the hearse out of town, into a woodsy area of winding two-lane roads. No other cars.

The crematorium appeared in the middle of nowhere, a dirty steel industrial building passersby would assume was set free against the ravages of time. Corrugated metal roof. Ominous smoke stacks. Huge doors wide enough to accept an automobile.  We watched them pull her body from the hearse, carry it to the rolling track that led into the oven, and we waited as she made this final journey toward the fire. The door to the oven opened; she passed through. “Okay, she’s in,” my dad said. He turned to leave.

We drove to the bank, closed her accounts, which had already been placed into a trust.

We wrote and sent an obituary to the newspapers.

At her assisted living facility, we packed up all the loose items we could: artwork, clothing. The remaining pieces of her Danish porcelain figurine collection. I collected her coats from the closet, each one black with faux fur necklines, oversized buttons. We moved everything into my uncle’s SUV. It only took one trip.

We took her things to his house, a McMansion overlooking Lake Huron in Sarnia. He lived alone. Behind the house he had a warehouse where he ran his business—I didn’t know what he did, but the warehouse was packed to the gills with junk. Junk on shelves. Junk on walls. Junk in piled up boxes. Danish pride was everywhere: Danish flags, renderings of Viking ships in red and white.

There were so many things, it was like my uncle had found a way to ensure there’d be no space for people.

Aaron’s boss Sergio, the brash music executive who communicates mainly through barks at his staff, tells us early in the film that everything he does, he does for his family. All the money he makes, all the time he has outside the office—that’s for his wife and their six kids. We’ll see him talk with Aaron by phone from Sergio’s house; between advising Aaron on how to motivate Aldous to comply, Sergio and his wife yell back and forth about where a specific snack is in the fridge. Of the film’s three main men, only Sergio puts family first. It’s likely no surprise, then, that he is also the most confident, composed, and effective character in the film. He knows who he is and what he wants. Aldous and Aaron, despite the gap in their celebrity, lack this same conviction.

BACKSTORY

My uncle owned a series of niches in a memorial wall at a Danish retirement community not far from where he lived in Ontario. My great-grandparents, my grandparents, my father, and he would all have their own final resting places for the ashes, plaqued with a ceramic memorial with their names, the years they lived, and the Danish flag. The problem was that three of them had been inurned in Southfield, Michigan, for decades. We’d need to claim their remains, transport them, and inurn them again.

The reunion between Aldous and his father Jonathan is bittersweet. As they talk, they untangle the mess of years between them: the good years, the difficult years, the silent years, the wistful years. Aldous’s stepmother does her best to keep peace, foster good vibes between them. It isn’t until his dad breaks a guitar over Aldous’s back in the midst of an explosive argument—over creative authority and who is responsible for Aldous’s success—that the two men finally see each other, really see each other.

The act sets off a raucous fight that ranges all over a suite where they’ve thrown a party. Before long, broken bottles, panic, and even a little fire have broken out. This reflects our cultural expectation of straight white men when they have no other option but to express their emotions. It’s devastating for them, and worse for everyone else. White masculinity’s primary toxin is just this: the inability to relate emotionally to other men. Violence becomes their means of expression. Aldous’s resentment has been forged by years to become an explosive weapon.

THURSDAY

“These guys are going to try to fuck us.” My uncle parked at the cemetery and took a deep breath, pulling on a US Coast Guard hat he kept in the center console. “Let’s see how they deal with an injured veteran.” He pulled a metal crutch out from under his backseat, then steadied himself with it as he walked toward the administrative offices. His limp was exaggerated and comical, but his commitment to the ruse was written all over his face, swirled into a grimace.

My uncle was a veteran, yes. He’d served in the Coast Guard in his twenties. But he was not disabled. Why he had a crutch in his car, set exactly to his height, was a mystery to me. Then I realized: this wasn’t the first time he’d engaged in this particular ruse.

I wanted to dissolve into a pool on the asphalt and rush away from all of this.

The cemetery director was a middle-aged African American man. His support staff included just a single receptionist. She greeted us when we walked in.

“We need to claim the ashes of our parents and grandparents.” My uncle leaned heavily on the crutch as though it were the only thing between him and a spectacular fall to the carpet.

The receptionist let us in to speak with the director. He wore a clean white shirt with shiny cufflinks and an austere tie. My uncle lumbered into the room like a bear, trying to appear unsteady and uncoordinated. “How do we retrieve ashes?” he asked the man.

“We can just go pull them,” he told us.

“Oh,” my uncle said.

“But you can’t take them out of here without the certificate of cremation,” he went on.

“Where do we get that?”

The director nodded to a series of filing cabinets lining one wall of his office. “They’re in there. What years were the deaths?” My uncle rattled off the dates. The director sighed. He called to his assistant. “Get the boxes,” he said.

My uncle got suspicious. “What boxes?” He tapped the crutch on the ground.

“Records that old are in deep storage,” the director explained. “Not a lot of demand for them. But by law we have to keep them. So we keep them in boxes.”

The assistant walked in, carrying two or three small rectangular storage boxes each time. In all, there were about fifteen boxes.

“Also, they’re…not well organized,” the director said. “This is going to take a while.”

Each of us took a box to a chair, flipping through every single piece of paper inside. Certificates of cremation looked like little handbills, featuring the deceased’s name, years of life, cause of death, and the location of cremation, along with a permit number. All of the records we reviewed were completed by hand or by typewriter, and the deaths ranged in years from the 1940s to the 1980s. We were looking for three needles in these haystacks: Oscar, Thea, Svend. There were so many names that weren’t theirs. I picked up a bill, checked the name, and then turned it face down in a pile on the chair next to me, moving through a box from front to back until I was sure the certificates we needed weren’t in there.

It took time—hours—but we found them, one at a time. Each discovery was met with cheers as though we’d found one of Willy Wonka’s Golden Tickets. But each certificate meant we were that much closer to getting the ashes and getting out of there.

The columbarium that held my family’s remains was in a shaded part of the cemetery, near a winding water feature and some rolling hills. It looked tranquil, exactly the kind of place you’d want your loved ones to spend eternity, if you believed in that sort of thing. The wall of niches was unremarkable. Marble faces held the names and years of life for the occupant of each niche in gold letters. My great-grandparents shared one, while my grandfather’s looked only half-occupied, with space for us to install my grandmother’s name and her years of life beside his.

The cemetery director opened the niches and handed us the small cardboard boxes that held their remains. Now four generations of my family were together again, half living, half dead. My uncle tried to bribe the cemetery director with some cash, but he kindly refused the offer. My uncle didn’t know how to receive this. He was partly relieved and partly offended. In the end, he took his money, his crutch, and his unconvincing limp back to the SUV with the boxes of remains. He wedged them into a banker’s box in the back.

Aldous and Aaron split up in LA. Aaron needs to triage his relationship with Daphne; he’s been unwittingly butt dialing her every time he’s in a compromising position with another woman. Aldous seeks reconciliation with Suzy Q, even as she snuggles in bed with Lars Ulrich, real-life drummer of the band Metallica. When Aldous opens his heart to Suzy and tells her how much he misses her and her son, Suzy reveals a long-held secret: their son Naples was the result of an affair Suzy had with a photographer while doing a photo shoot in Naples. Aldous is rocked by the news. The one relationship he thought was completely unshakable—that with his son—vanishes.

Aldous shares a quiet moment with his son. “Call me Aldous,” he tells the boy. Naples says, “But you’re my dad.” Naples has known no other father; Aldous is the only one he wants and needs. Despite the child’s insistence, Aldous can’t let go of the betrayal. He goes to Aaron’s apartment, where he and Daphne are mid-conflict. Aldous floats the idea of a three-way and everyone is just desperate enough to feel something that they all agree to what ends up being an awkward encounter. Aaron loses it and tells Aldous off, severing their bond.

THURSDAY NIGHT

En route back to dropping us at our hotel, my uncle took us to an Olive Garden. It was the first break we’d had, the first moment we weren’t actively wrapping up the loose ends of my grandmother’s life or trying to liberate two generations of my family from a marble wall in a Southfield cemetery. Once we were seated and placed our order, my uncle turned his attention to me, asking me all about my life, my job. I filled him in with the short version of all the stories, not sure how much detail was actually desired.

He took a sip of water. “Do you have a…” He paused, thinking of the phrase. “Special friend?”

I wasn’t there for euphemistic bullshit. We were going to call things by their real names. “You mean a boyfriend? Yes.”

My dad put an arm around me. “Charlie’s had a tough year in the dating department,” he said. “But things are looking up.”

My uncle wanted to know what happened. This was definitely not a story I wanted to tell—not now, not to him, not as I was actively working to forget what had happened. I didn’t want to tell again how in love I’d been, how much I dreaded reaching my thirtieth birthday, and how it felt when the birthday collided with an out-of-the-blue breakup that sent me to karaoke, where I dedicated a slurred rendition of “Tainted Love” to the guy who touched me and tainted me, and after, how I begged a man at the next bar to go home with me, just so I could prove to myself how over it all I was. Though he’d turned me down, we’d gone on dates, many dates, and I realized you don’t get to choose when the good guys show up, but you do get to choose if you let some jerk wreck you so much you won’t take a chance. The short version, the one I shared, was simple. “I got dumped out of the blue and it was hard.”

“Now, I can’t believe that.” My uncle’s face wore an incredulous expression. “A handsome guy like you. He must be an idiot.”

He was an idiot, but only I got to say that. However, I wanted this conversation to end. “It’s complicated.”

“I don’t know why,” my uncle shot back. He gave me an evaluating look, taking in my appearance. “If I was gay, I would go for you.”

I choked on the bite of food I’d just put into my mouth. I glanced at my dad. The comment hadn’t registered. It was just me, alone on my island of cringing discomfort. I wasn’t sure if this was a compliment or conspiracy to commit a crime, so in true Midwestern fashion, I addressed it all by changing the subject.

“When do we pick up grandma?” I asked my dad.

“Tomorrow morning.”

I focused on my meal, the first thing I remembered eating since the Chinese restaurant. I tried not to think about anything else.

Desp