Hollywood's Last Picture Shows

CALIFORNIA was the last stop for those pushing West. On they came, dreamers, and drifters, the ones who just couldn't make it somewhere else, the men who had watched too many trains go by and the little girls who had spent too many nights gazing at the moon. On they came, running, arms outstretched--and pulled up short at the sea. They had to stop--they weren't lemmings, after all--and most found, to their bewilderment, that things were about the same here, at the far western edge of the continent, as they had been back on the prairies, in the hills and among the city's canyons. They looked at their hands, turned them over and over, touched their bodies uneasily and they spent long hours examining their faces in countless mirrors, gazing painfully into dream-dimmed eyes. And finally they knew--they were the same, the same here as they'd been there.

There are different ways of dealing with disappointment; in California, this choice was often dictated by geography. It is a passionate, varied land, strongly suggestive, capable of forcing a man to a course of action he might never have realized alone. So with the hoards of disappointed. Some stumbled into a rough port surging up and down hills overlooking a beautiful bay. The tranquil sweep of water had a civilizing effect, and in the aftermath of earthquake, the community drew solidly together: out of the wreckage of the Barbary Coast grew a city sophisticated by disaster, as elegant and corrupt as the lost metropolises of the East. Others, wandering into the rich central valleys just off the coast, felt an echo of what was lost to them--the fertile plains of the nation's heartland. They scooped up the dark loamy earth, letting it run through their fingers, they drew deep lungfuls of the jasmine-scented air, they looked long on the green velvet of the hills, the gold velvet of the fields, and they stayed to farm. Still others bitterly surveyed the salty flats of the great desert, the bare sands bleached bone-white, and in their bitterness found a kinship with the arid landscape. They settled at scattered desert springs and on scrappy desert fringes, somehow eking out an existence, comforted only at sunrise and sunset by the wash of crimson and mauve over the rippled sands.

BUT THERE WERE still others among the disappointed who found themselves in a place which spoke of nothing so much as madness. Los Angeles. Set by the sea, it was ringed and scored by hills, pitted with valleys, scaled with patches of desert. Its vegetation was alarmingly bizarre: palm trees reared up jaggedly, scruffy heads balancing precariously on long puny trunks; huge crepe-y hibiscus opened scentless blooms like red mouths; moon-pale magnolia flowers mingled their perfume with that of bougainvillea growing in thick purple mats over whitewashed walls--sickly sweet, heavy, overpowering. Disasters plagued the place: in summer, the hillsides grew dry as dust and would explode in flames, the fires often raging for days; in winter, rain came in torrents, churning the canyons into rivers of mud and washing whole hillsides into the sea. The threat of earthquake was constant and no one knew when the killer wind, the Santa Ana, would blow up over the hills, scraping the sky a raw blue, killing the mind, heating the blood.

And yet, in spite of its violence, its schizophrenia, its bewildering flux and perpetual unease--in spite of all this (and perhaps, to a certain extent, because of it), the place had an allure. It was a challenge to the imagination and to the will. And in many ways, it was strangely beautiful. Even now, if you look beyond the gray tangle of freeways, past the checkered patterns of tract houses, through the brown veil of smog even now, some of the beauty remains. In the dawn, the air is pale and still; only the eucalyptus trees stir, their leaves flickering silver high up in the new light. With the sun warm at your back, you can look to the east and see snow glinting white on the distant mountains. At dusk, the hills lie gentled, their smoke-blue folds growing slowly deeper with the lapse of light. And the sea always has its magic, especially at night, when the beaches are deserted and the sand runs cool beneath your feet. The waves roll in, sighing at last up the shore. The sky glows faintly overhead and darkens at the horizon. At certain seasons, schools of tiny mad fish called grunion fling themselves on the sand to spawn; they come in shimmering silver waves and are decimated by grunion-hunters who scoop them up into buckets, alive and writhing and unsatisfied.

TO ALL THIS, to a landscape which spoke of violence, to a place where the very earth seemed insane, came people grown bitter in their disappointments who themselves bore an aura of insanity. There was nothing here to take the place of lost dreams, no outlet for frustrated energy. In fact, the savagery of the place would seem an encouragement to madness. It would not be difficult to imagine the crowds of disappointed, realizing their own sameness and faced with flaming hillsides and flooding canyons, leaping like lemmings into the sea.


Most of them, however, did not, Something in them resisted overt madness, subverted it. They would not so easily let a dream go. The dream was not of reach, it is true, but these disappointed and half-mad men never lost their lust for it. Instead, they dwelt on it, their imaginations fed by the strangeness around them; they colored the image of the dream with the violence and exageration and passion of the landscape, and somehow, the dream became Realer than Reality, Larger than Life. They took the dream, and played with it, investing it with all the glamour and naive idealism, all the basic honesty and secret corruption, all the hope and disappointment that was in them or that they could imagine. In short, they made movies.


THE PARAMOUNT STUDIO has a marvelous main gate, imposing and familiar: you've seen it in dozens of movies about the movies. But behind the ornate baroque swirls of its iron facade lies a studio much like any other. Anonymous administration buildings, tacky writers's bungalows, and the looming shapes of the sound stages, lofty and featureless as airplane hangars, all stand on the sandy lot divided by wide dusty roads, baking silently in the heat. There is something hallucinatory about those roads, white and glaring, always seen through a quivering haze of dust that hangs hesitantly in the air, as if great troops of extras had just passed through, or perhaps a star in her limousine, followed by her entourage of beasts and heroes. And yet these roads are always empty now, the heat shedding a terrible silence over their glare; walking through the dust, you make no sound, no sound at all.

It's relief, then, to enter one of the sound stages, to slide open a heavy iron door and step into cool darkness. The gloom is thick, palpable, and you are aware of vast spaces above you. Gradually, as you become accustomed to the artificial dusk, it takes form. Cables as thick as your arm snake over the floor and up the walls, black and viny. High up, just below a barely discernible ceiling, banks of unused lights cluster like hard dark fruits. And you are aware that this shadowy jungle is alive; figures appear and disappear, slipping swiftly through the darkness, deftly dodging the coiled cables.

Sometimes a face will swim up out of the gloom, pale, frightening and familiar--a star--and you are turned to stone before your own image. The jolt of recognition; it is not for him, but for that self of yours that he has incarnated, that large other you that has blazed up so often in the dark before your tiny, fascinated gaze. But most of the faces in the gloom are anonymous and alike in their intensity. Even the ones who seem idle, the dozens who, as you draw closer to the center of activity, you notice lounging in chairs, on boxes, on the floor--even they have tense, strained, expectant faces. And all these faces are directed towards the one spot of bright light in the dark, a spot whose neatness and order and placidity are emphasized by the chaos of cables and cameras and crewpeople surrounding it. It is the eye of the hurricane, calm and bright and perfect, and it is out of that calm bright perfection that a movie will blossom forth.

ORDER OUT OF CHAOS, light out of darkness: you can't help thinking of it that way; it's irresistably symbolic, really heavy-handed. If you love the movies, though, this doesn't bother you; it seems appropriate, in fact, this mythic aura. Popular terminology is revealing: it is all light--the silver screen, the cinema firmament, stars. And deep down, we all feel the mythic proportions of movies--remember that waiting moment in the darkened theater when you are nothing, and then light is streaming down from obscure heights in a dense particled beam that resolves itself "before your very eyes" into life. You are born out of the darkness into that bright life, sucked up into the light. It's mythic all right, and it seems quite right that it should be that way.

But the truth is that is isn't often that way anymore. It is with the small production unit that the future--unromantic but highly efficient--of film rests. Where they have not been taken over for television, the studios are falling into disuse, mere relics of a fabulous past. Those empty staring studio roads, shimmering with heat, shrouded with dust, are more truthful than the occasional bustling sound stage you may stumble into. Most of the sound stages lie as empty as the roads, but more silent still--and their darkness is total. The studios--once collectively turning out 500 pictures a year, now making maybe 150--sprawl silently, thick with the dust of their roads, under the whitish sky of Los Angeles.


MOVIES, most everyone agrees, are and will be better for the death of the studios. You still hear the old stories in which the studios figure as greedy, depersonalized monsters, feeding off creativity and destroying it in the process. They are legion: stories of actors locked into wretched contracts, used physically and emotionally; stories of writers slaving over their pictures, only to have autocratic stars change the sweated and bled dialogue on whim, backed up by the studio's full consent; stories of directors's painstakingly crafted films cut and reassembled so as to be unrecognizable. A great cry of "Cheat!" hovers in the dusty air.

The stories are true, undeniably. And loving movies, you cannot help but be angry with a system under which such atrocities were perpetuated, and glad for that system's demise. It is all to the good that the field is now more open, that creative people are no longer so often slaves to the system, to the Mom-ism of a Louis B. Mayer or the sexism of a Harry Cohen. The production head's wife isn't automatically given plum roles any more, and there seem to be more and better opportunities for new, unknown talent, both on and off screen. Writers may more often direct their own pictures and directors write theirs; or the two--writer and director--may work in close collaboration, the result being, ideally, a tighter film, with a more unified vision.

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