Monday, February 28, 2011
The Last Oscars
February 27, 2011
I hesitate to write anything else about Hollywood. So much has been written already. Too much, some would say. Of course the word "Hollywood" stands in for many other things--Burbank, Studio City, Universal City, Beverly Hills and its outrageously affluent neighbors. It signifies the whole shmear that comprises what we think of as the movie and television industry centered in southern California, just as--on a grittier level--the word "Detroit" stands in for the auto industry that used to be centered in southeastern Michigan, even though most of the cars were being produced in other cities. Using stand-ins is a trick Hollywood has employed since the beginning. Sets inside gigantic studios stand in for apartments and homes, grand vistas, and city streets both exotic and ordinary. The California desert stands in for any place in the American west, or the world for that matter, where there are no trees to speak of. The suburbs of LA stand in for Anywhere, USA. Even human stand-ins are employed, to save the real actors from having to stand around while the lighting is checked and scenes are blocked out, and sometimes for the actors themselves in second unit long shots where you can't see the face of the star. When I was on the Queen Mary the other day the tour guide asked us to look out the porthole of the Churchill Suite and across the harbor to the skyline of Long Beach, glittering in the sun, its palm trees waving gently. "Anyone here ever watch CSI: Miami?" he asked. A couple of hands went up. "That," he said pointing out the window, "is the Miami you see in some of the opening shots on that program."
Hollywood. City of glamor and fame, of hopes and broken dreams, of romantic visions and ugly realities, of grand illusions and base trickery, of unholy cults and unvarnished greed.
In fact, almost the only element of life that Hollywood doesn't evoke in the popular imagination is religion. Unless you count Scientology, which I don't. You all know my feelings about religion in general, so if I call Scientology an elaborate con game and pyramid scheme that preys on the mentally and emotionally vulnerable you'll know I don't mean to elevate Christianity or Judaism or Islam or Buddhism to the realm of the legitimate, but only to comment on L. Ron Hubbard's cynical scheme to get rich by melding schlock science fiction with The Power of Positive Thinking. Like you, when I see the famous actors who espouse Scientology I'm tempted to think it might be just a tiny bit legitimate, until I remember how essentially phony all of Hollywood is, how often illusion stands in for reality, and how breathtakingly insecure, insincere, and self-deluded most of the beautiful people become, with their nips and tucks, their collagen lips, their silicone breasts, their elevator shoes, their theatrical trips to fur-lined rehab centers, their notorious and ill-fated forays into humility and self-abnegation. Their bodies, their very lives, are built on a skewed version of reality. Why not their beliefs?
I don't look up to the glitterati because of their fame and wealth, and I do my best--not always successfully--not to look down on them either. But the lure of Hollywood persists deep in the breasts of all of us who've spent our lives going to movies and watching TV. So when I was asked, half-jokingly, if I was going to be in Hollywood for the Oscars, at first I thought "Hell no!" then began to think "Why the hell not?" Hollywood isn't far, after all, and it might be fun to see a star or two in person, if I can get that close.
So today I am setting out from the motor home at about 11:30 in the morning on this impromptu adventure. It's Oscar night, which means, because of the time difference here in California, that it's Oscar afternoon. The Academy Awards are held at the Kodak Theater, at the intersection of Highland and Hollywood Boulevard in the heart of Hollywood. So I plan to drive to the park-and-ride garage in Pasadena, take trains into Hollywood, maybe snap a photo or two of famous people arriving on the red carpet, and generally do the whole tourist thing.
I arrive at the now-familiar Sierra Madre station in Pasadena, where I will ride the Gold Line into Union Station then take the Red Line subway into Hollywood. The trains run about half as often on Sundays as they do on weekdays, which is to say every twelve minutes instead of every six. Still pretty damn good service if you ask me. The mountains high above Pasadena--San Gabriel or San Fernando or San something--are snowpeaked at the higher elevations from the recent rains we've had here. It might get down into the high 30s overnight in the suburbs; ten degrees colder up there means snow instead of rain. When I arrived here I thought they might be covered with snow year-round, but in fact after a week or two of no rain the snow up there will be all gone. It takes much higher elevations to keep snow all year round.
One nice thing about purchasing train tickets through the machines here in the Metro--which, like slot machines, will take virtually any denomination of money they're offered--is that you get change from larger bills in the form of dollar coins. They have a nice gold color and a jingly sound that makes you feel as if you're carrying real money, in some old world sense.
The list of crimes against the Metro for which you can receive a $250 fine and 48 hours of public service is extensive: entry without valid fare, littering, eating or drinking, smoking, spitting or chewing gum, using gas-powered vehicles (whaaa?), engaging in loud or rowdy activity, rollerblading or skateboarding, and the playing of sound equipment. A long list of traps for the unwary, if you ask me. I suppose fear of the enforcement of these prohibitions, random as it might be, is what keeps the riders in line. And yet that doesn't fully explain it. There's a strange tranquility, even on the trains that run through the most notorious parts of the city, that mystifies me. It's as if people have been struck with the wand of the Golden Rule in some dewy ceremony presided over by Tinkerbell herself. Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining, exactly. Just wondering at the lack of unruliness. If random acts of rowdiness and vandalism herald a deeper unease within society, we must be quite at ease with ourselves these days. We coddle our children, accord our cops and our soldiers of fortune the status of heroes, heed the outlandish exhortations of our preachers, worship the rich for their wisdom, and despise the poor for their cluelessness. And we do it all with almost dutiful insouciance, clothed in overpriced garments advertising the names of outfitters and effete designers. Hollywood would pitch it this way: Stalin meets the Mall Rats. Orwell would be scared shitless. Long buried is the spirit of our revolutionary ancestors, who like Diderot called us to arms with exhortations such as "Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest."
At Union Station I switch to the Red Line, and in not much time at all I'm at the Hollywood and Vine stop, climbing the stairs into the cool cloudless afternoon. Hollywood on this Sunday is buzzing with anticipation. The stars on the sidewalk, repeating the names of the famous, seem a little more relevant today. The huge Church of Scientology building looms over the street, a reminder that there's no place on earth where the winners and losers alike are more at war with the truth than right here.
I head for the Kodak Theater at the corner of Highland and Hollywood. That's where the attendees of the Academy Awards ceremony will alight from their vehicles, perhaps nod and wave, and proceed inside. I'll try to get as close as I can.
Along the way I stop to have a conversation with a disheveled bearded guy pushing a small grocery cart from which juts a large sign declaring that it's only 93 days until Armageddon, and 99 days until the end of the world, May 30 and June 5, respectively. I ask him if it applies to me, because I came down from Mars with Question Mark of the Mysterians, and we have been living in disguise in Michigan. He searches my face for a telling sign of ridicule, but I betray none. I haven't spend years working in nuthouses for nothing. He tells me, "You have been deceived by many," and there's no life anywhere except on earth and in the Heavenly Realm, which, by the way, is somewhere between Jupiter and Saturn, beyond the meteor belt. Who knew? I like the guy. He's eager to talk, and very sincere, and it's a respite from the other types of craziness that abound here in Tinsel Town.
After that conversation I go into one the many souvenir t-shirt stores along the boulevard, looking for one that says "My Dad Was Taken Up In The Rapture And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt." But there are none to be found, so I settle for some more conventional ones, having to do with Hollywood and Beverly Hills and the like. People do like souvenirs.
I'm looking for the Armageddon Dude again, though, because I've run into another couple, appearing a little less like they've slept under a bridge, bearing a sign saying the world is coming to an end in 84 days. I tell them about the guy who says it's coming to an end in 99 days, and the man answers, predictably, "There are many false prophets." At the bottom of the sign it says "84 Day's." I mention that there's no apostrophe in "days" in that context, and they profess surprise and thank me. I tell them that as long as we're all going to go, they might as well improve their English and go out with a little class. Who knows? God might give points for things like that.
Eventually I get as close as I'm going to get, about a hundred fifty feet from the Kodak Theater, pressed against a chainlink fence amid a host of Germans and Asians, stuck in a horizontal Tower of Babel, wondering if I'm going to get to take a photo of anything but pigeons. Probably not. Finally I edge my way to the fence itself. In front of me is the fabled red carpet and a long line of people waiting to valet park the cars that are arriving from the east down Hollywood Boulevard. I'm marveling at how many people drive themselves to the Oscars, in cars ranging from Mercedeses down to Hondas, then get out and retrieve their formal jackets from the back seats or smooth out their long formal gowns. Vainly I search their faces. They all look vaguely familiar, but in the end I don't know them. Only one do I recognize, the actor David Morse. At least I think it's him. Others around me wonder the same thing about everyone. "Who is that? Is it somebody?"
Gradually it dawns on me: These people are driving themselves to the Oscars. In their own cars. What's wrong with this picture? I look over to my left at the entrance to the Kodak Theater and see a procession of gleaming black limousines coming up Highland, stopping and disgorging their passengers to screams of recognition. I realize the people in front of me here are the B-listers, or worse yet the writers, the assistant directors, the cinematographers, the gaffers, the best boys, the key grips, or maybe the anonymous money men. Short stocky grey-haired guys who resemble me more than they do movie stars. No wonder I don't recognize them. I understand, as I often do at the grocery store, that I'm in the wrong line. But there's no way I could have gotten any closer to the intersection without losing my place on the fence and having to stand behind a pack of people who are taller than me. So I stay put, hoping to see a star emerge from one of the distant limos. And I do. One solitary star, who, as it turns out, is just the one to have seen--none other than Colin Firth, destined to win the award for Best Actor, and his movie, The King's Speech, the Oscar for Best Picture. No time and too far away for a decent photo, but I see him clearly.
It's getting cold in the late afternoon an hour later as I finally give up my spot and back away from the fence. The procession of unknowns in front of me is slowing as the time for the opening of the ceremony approaches. These are not the people who can afford to be fashionably late. One more brush with fame awaits me, however, as I turn around to see, at the door of McDonald's, a guy who looks just like Jackie Chan. He's not, of course, but he's enjoying the recognition in a casual if slightly exasperated way. I snap a couple of shots of him. I can add them to the Superman and Batman I saw on my way up the street.
I start back toward the subway station with the nagging feeling that the next person to arrive after I leave will be some Hollywood god or goddess, and I'll miss it. On the way I run into the Armageddon Dude again. I just have to stop and chat. I tell him I saw some folks who said the world was coming to an end in 84 days, not 99 days. "They implied that you were a false prophet," I tell him confidentially. Without getting annoyed he replies, "Well, if they were from some church, that's the tell right there. The churches are all full of false teaching." I'm liking this guy more all the time. Maybe he's not so crazy. "So you're not a false prophet?" I prompt. He levels his gaze straight at me, his blue eyes piercing the crisp late afternoon. "I am the Only Begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ, made flesh." Make of that what you will, but I can tell you this. God did not provide his Only Begotten Son with a dental plan. And I'm guessing it's too late now.
We continue to chat. I try as sincerely as I can to get him to elaborate on what will happen in the six-day interval between Armageddon and the End of the World. Plagues, it turns out. Hail, fire and brimstone, the rivers turning to sulfuric acid. A bad scene all around. Something out of a Hollywood movie, in fact. I can tell he's happy to be talking to someone who isn't challenging him or dismissing him out of hand. Finally he puts a stapled sheaf of papers in my hands. It's a photocopy of a thirty-page hand-written manifesto, headlined The Final Prophesy Countdown to Armageddon The End of the World is Here!!! "Finally." As we talk I idly flip through it. At the top of page 2 my eyes rest on this passage:
"And he prophesied the will of God to make war upon the earth in the flesh of men; and his enemy was SATAN the DEVIL whose name in the flesh of a man was GEORGE W. BUSH."
I look up into the bearded face again. This guy is getting smarter by the minute. He goes on, quoting scripture--the Gospels, Thessalonians, Revelation, etc. I turn over a couple more pages and spot this excerpt:
"For GOD put it in the hearts of America to agree to give their nation unto those whose names are not written into the book of Life of the Lamb in heaven. For they are the spirits of SATAN the DEVIL and his ANGELS of the Bottomless Pit and their given name (Political name) is the REPUBLICAN PARTY."
That does it. I don't care what else this guy has to say, he's now officially my main man. I, who have been preaching the same thing for years, have met a kindred spirit, nay, a greater spirit. Could this indeed be the Son of Man standing before me? He's telling me that he usually charges five dollars for the pamphlet, just to cover his costs. I ask him, "With so little time left, can't you just turn the money changers out of the temple, or something?" He says no, that's not his style. He doesn't steal. Fair enough. Then he tells me that since I appear to be a believer (he really can see into my heart, I'm thinking) he'll give it to me. Shamed by his generosity, I compromise, pulling two shiny gold dollars out of my pocket and placing them in his blackened upturned palm. I have to go. What do you say to Jesus Christ? "God bless you" doesn't quite cover it, and isn't my style. "Good luck" hardly seems appropriate. I settle on "Goodbye" and wander down the street.
It's been a long and revealing day. With so little time left before the end of the world I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to be in Hollywood on this one last Oscar night. And as for A-list celebrities, who cares? I've have been privileged to look into the weatherbeaten and somewhat grimy face of God.