Friday, September 16, 2011

The Final Destination

Southern California

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

In traveling 3,339.6 miles, I have walked, literally and figuratively, in the footsteps of many thousands of people, and I have walked millions of steps. Since coming back to California I’ve tried to make observations about the state of things out here as much in the vein of the original blog as I could. In most respects Californians look at life exactly the way people elsewhere around the country do. But there are subtle differences.

Perhaps one of the characteristics of Californians that sets them apart is that they tend to accept whatever comes their way with something like equanimity. People who visit call this a “laid back” attitude, but I think there’s more to it than that. The key, in my opinion, is that people who are out here (or up from south of the border) are determined to make this as much of a paradise as they can because, really, there’s nowhere else to go. Maybe they could go to Hawaii, but that’s an expensive and rather unrealistic proposition for most people. California is pretty much it, within the United States. If you arrived in heaven and found that the streets were dirty, what would you do—move to hell, or look around for a broom? Okay, sure, some celebrities go off to ranches in Montana and Wyoming and Utah as a way of getting clear of the congestion of the southern part of the state, which, let’s face it, is packed. But most Californians can’t afford that; they’re where they’re going to be for the duration. When they plan for retirement, it’s not to some far-off place. It’s maybe out to Sun City or down to Palm Springs, where they can shake and bake and prep for the only slightly higher temperatures of hell.

One way to think about California is that almost everyone considers it a final destination. In the east, folks have always talked about going somewhere else to live, usually somewhere warmer like Florida or Arizona, which is understandable, or somewhere perceived to be filled with opportunities, like southern California. “Hell with all this snow and ice, this dusty rocky soil, these filthy factories, I’m going to …. (fill in the blank).” Hope springs eternal, and all that. So when you’ve actually arrived at the far edge of the continent you’d damned well better learn to make the best of it, even though it’s seldom what you imagined it would be. Either that or start swimming.

My favorite cheap horror movie series is the “Final Destination” films. There have been five, though I haven’t yet seen the most recent one, which just came out this summer. In all of them, dating back to the first in 2000, one of the young core of main characters (high school kids or twenty-somethings) has a premonition of a horrible accident in which many people are killed, including him and all his friends. In the first movie it was a senior trip plane that crashed on takeoff, in the second there was a massive auto wreck on the freeway, in the third a major malfunction at an amusement park, then a crash at a stock car race, and the latest one features, I believe, the collapse of a bridge. In each case the person with the premonition acts on it and saves himself and his friends. But of course they have only delayed the inevitable, and Death stalks them throughout the movie, taking them one by one in ever more gruesome and imaginative ways—beheadings, falling objects, flying lawnmower blades, weird impalements, etc. The fun of watching the movies is anticipating when and how each person’s death will occur, and whether Death will perhaps spare one of them until the next movie. Sometimes characters will have the false hope or hubris to imagine they have escaped—that Death has decided to skip them. Wrong, of course.

Though Death is not personified in the movies, there’s usually a character who functions as a sort of seer or commentator, like a one-man chorus in a Greek tragedy. This person is always black, which is Hollywood’s way of killing two birds with one stone—first by creating a part for an African American actor in an otherwise pretty much all-white movie, and second by reconfirming in us our stereotypical supposition that nonwhites are more in touch with the supernatural because they are, let’s face it, closer to death on a regular basis, and also more in touch with their primitive pre-modern roots than are the well-off and well-meaning coeds and slackers who make up the rest of the cast of characters.

I freely admit this is all cheesy B-movie fare, but even a gourmet (which I’m not, in any case) has his secret junk food cravings. It's unlikely that you'll catch David Denby or Anthony Lane reviewing a Final Destination film in The New Yorker. Nevertheless these movies carry the crucial and unavoidable message that death, in whatever form, comes to all of us (sparing us the stentorian cornball voice-over of “Citizen Kane”), that it’s our Final Destination. But if that were the only point to be made the series wouldn’t have become a minor franchise. It’s the gruesomeness of the deaths that compels and repels its viewers. And as terrible as the original deaths might have been in the premonitory opening scenes, the actual ones that follow are even more so. The lesson isn’t simply that death is inevitable. Hell, a child could tell you that. It is that narrowly escaping one fate launches a person into uncharted territory fraught with even more uncertainty and perhaps more dire consequences than having incurred the original one. It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.

So many people have come here to southern California to escape things—the harsh weather of the east, the violent criminal and political turmoil of other countries, the maddening sameness of life in a small town in the middle of nowhere--in fact, the whole painful litany of which Hamlet complained:

…the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes…

All the bad stuff, in other words. I wonder sometimes, with the arrival at the end of this rainbow, in many ways so full of energy and sunshine, if there isn’t a sort of perpetual forgetting of the crucial thing Hamlet lost sight of, namely, that the choice of whether “to be or not to be” was never his to make in the first place. In any case, among California’s many sterling statistical superlatives is the fact that Rose Hill Cemetery in Whittier is the largest graveyard in the whole damned country.

Well, this is verging on serious, and I don’t want to do that. Leave such things to the philosophers and poets. I'm not trying to make a big deal out of the basic facts of life and death. But there is something out here that seems to invite people to try to turn back the hands of time, or at least arrest them, sometimes with ugly Dorian Gray-like consequences. Plastic surgery comes immediately to mind, but there are so many other forms of self-delusion. California is a place, after all, where dreams of all kinds have been for sale for the better part of two centuries, from the promise of land and gold and silver to the promises displayed on the silver screen. And here, indeed, if you stick around, the ultimate promise is always fulfilled.

No comments: