Tag Archives: hollywood

rules of the game 5In Jean Renoir’s 1939 classic, “The Rules of the Game,” one character sums up the problems of existence: “The awful thing about life is this: Everyone has his reasons.”

The film, which tops many lists as the greatest film ever made, has no heroes, no villains; it has no right, no wrong; no simple lessons to be learned, no closure. It is as French as it gets, and despite Hollywood’s penchant for remakes, it could never be made in America.

On the other hand, the 1980 “Star Wars” sequel, “The Empire Strikes Back,” has plenty of heroes and villains: It’s the quintessential American film; it could never have been made in France. “Horizontal boosters. Alluvial dampers? Ow! That’s not it, bring me the hydrospanner.” empire strikes back 1


The difference is more than merely language; it’s sensibility. Both excellent films, they sum up the divide between European cinema and Hollywood movies, a divide filled by more than the Atlantic Ocean.

One doesn’t have to take sides. There are great films from both sides of the pond. But it is important to realize when you go into the theater that there is a difference and which kind of film you’re about to see. If you’re looking for an amusement-park ride, European cinema probably will bore you to tears; if you want intense drama about the human condition, Hollywood films will feel trivial. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

This is not to dismiss American films. First of all, they remain the most popular films worldwide. Many countries, including France, have felt the need to restrict the percentage of American films available to their citizens, to subsidize the local product. Steven Spielberg would always sell more tickets than Jacques Rivette. It doesn’t matter where you go, American films remain popular.

Second, American films remain the major influence on world cinema: The tics of Hollywood become the universal style of everyone else, too. There are the editing rhythms, the lenses and equipment, the green-screen technology, the CGI — these are all the lingua franca of movies everywhere. Even a quiet film like Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s popular “Amelie” would not be possible without computer assistance: Most of its signature color was digitally added.

One should not forget that the inspiration for the French New Wave in the 1960s were the Hollywood films the movement loved. Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” is his take on American films, with their gangsters and girlfriends.breathless 2

We in the U.S. now are exposed to more foreign films than ever before. There are Hong Kong martial-arts films, Bollywood films, the emerging films of China and Korea, not to mention those from Iran, Israel and the Arab world.

All that is in addition to the many French, German, Italian and British films that traditionally have constituted the world of foreign films.

They’re not only in theaters but frequently available on cable channels, on DVD and from Netflix. Even Turner Classics has its percentage of foreign-language films.

It’s nearly impossible for the curious filmgoer to remain provincial in the comparative flood of world cinema.

It is true there are American indie films, but even those, no matter how gritty they are, tend to follow an American world view.

Americans see the world differently, so their films portray the world differently. We prize directness and informality; we despise hypocrisy and airs; we look for answers, not questions. We are fundamentally optimistic.

It is partly a matter of history. Because we have seldom suffered the devastation of war on our homeland, we have a different relationship with the past. Europe is haunted by history; for Americans, history is largely a matter of colorful costumes.paul schrader

The American writer and director with the most European sensibility is Paul Schrader, who wrote Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” and he puts it simply:

“American movies are based on the assumption that life presents you with problems, while European films are based on the conviction that life confronts you with dilemmas — and while problems are something you solve, dilemmas cannot be solved; they’re merely probed.”

The American sensibility demands we open the box to find out if the cat is dead or alive.

For American audiences, an unsolved story is profoundly unsatisfying. We demand closure.

It’s the Oprah in us.


cicero 1

Has there ever been a time that wasn’t the worst of all times?

Now the Old White Guard of the Republican party tells us that we are descending ever further into moral and social hell with things such as same-sex marriage, sex-education in schools, fluoridation and the scientific conspiracy against Christmas, to say nothing of the fact that Obama is in the White House, plotting to destroy everything our Founding Fathers originally intended when they hashed out their famous Compromise of 1787.

This has been going on for a while. In 1995, Sen. Bob Dole complained that Hollywood is turning out ”nightmares of depravity,” citing such movies as Natural Born Killers and True Romance.

Yeah, they were the final trumpet of the Apocalypse. Or were they?

It’s just like a conservative to complain about culture and the press ”pimping and pandering for all degrees of vicious taste, and gorging with coined lies the most voracious maw.”

But Dole didn’t say that. Charles Dickens did, in 1842.

If there is one constant in civilization, it is that civilization seems perennially near death, and what is more, is being done in by barbarians.

”Past, and to come, seems best; things present, worst,” wrote Shakespeare in Henry IV, Part 2.

One of the most compelling myths of society was first given definitive form nearly 3,000 years ago by the Greek writer Hesiod, who postulated that humankind had fallen from the perfection of its ”Golden Age” through the lesser, but still great, ”Silver Age,” and into an era of flawed heroes known as the ”Bronze Age.” Current humanity, he said, lives in an ”Iron Age” where the decline of human values is nearly complete.

In its elaborated form, it is a humanistic version of the Christian Fall of Man.

We always think the past was better: more civil, more intelligent, with higher morals and without the problems that plague us now. Of course, it is pure fantasy.

It is important to keep this in mind when thinking about the fogeys’ fusillades against Hollywood and American popular culture, which has always been one of the fountain-sources of increased tolerance and inclusivity. Elvis Presley Jailhouse Rock

Let’s not forget the hoopla that Elvis Presley caused when he first started gyrating before American teen-agers. The reaction of Rev. Carl Elgena of Des Moines, Iowa, was typical: ”The belief in unholy pleasures has sent the morals of our nation down to rock bottom, and the crowning addition to this day’s corruption is Elvis Presleyism.”

The good reverend averred that Presley ”is morally insane and by his actions, he’s leading other young people to the same end.”

Those other young people, of course, are now respectable grandparents, in their turn lamenting gagsta rap.

Rock and roll frequently took hits from the cultural Jeremiahs. They complained that when teen-agers did the twist, for instance, that they wiggled around ”like Hottentots” and never even made contact with their dance partners.

That was an amusing complaint, considering that in the 1800s, the waltz came under fire for the opposite reason. elegant waltz

When the waltz was turning into a craze in Europe, one critic complained of the ”erotic nature” of the dance and wrote, ”The dancers grasped the long dress of their partners so that it would not drag and be trodden upon, and lifted it high, holding them in this cloak which brought both bodies under one cover, as closely as possible against them and in this way, the whirling continued in the most indecent positions. … Now I understand very well why here and there in parts of Swabia and Switzerland the waltz has been prohibited.”

As early as 1797, Halle Salomo Jakob Wolf published a pamphlet titled Proof That Waltzing Is a Main Source of the Weakness of the Body and Mind of Our Generation.

And when the same spit-gargling critics picks on Hollywood, it also has a familiar ring.

In 1936, the Hearst chain of newspapers decried Mae West as a ”menace to the sacred institution of the family,” and added, ”is it not time for Congress to do something about Mae West?” Ads for West’s film Klondike Annie were refused in Hearst papers.

In the ’30s, a rage for moral uplift swept through Hollywood, and Will H. Hays was hired to enforce a studio ”production code” that would prevent immoral behavior from being shown in films. The missionary fervor was intense.

”The potentialities of motion pictures for moral influence and education are limitless,” Hays said. ”Therefore, its integrity should be protected as we protect the integrity of our children and our schools, and its quality developed as we develop the quality of our schools. … Above all is our duty to youth. We must have toward that sacred thing, the mind of a child, toward that clean and virgin thing, that unmarked slate, we must have toward that thing the same responsibility, the same care about the impression made upon it, that the best teacher or the best clergyman, the most inspired teacher of youth, would have.” samson lamarr

It should be noted that the Hays office didn’t prevent Cecil B. DeMille from filming biblical dancing girls and love affairs between Samsons and Delilahs.

Another great crusade to save America came in the early ’50s when Fredric Wertham published his book, Seduction of the Innocent, in which he took to task the comic-book industry for the miserable moral state of the youth of America.

For Wertham, comics caused sadism, masochism and masturbation. They were filled with homoeroticism, racism, fascism and sexism. And what is more, they caused dyslexia.

”To publish crime comics has nothing to do with civil liberties,” he wrote. ”It is a perversion of the idea of civil liberties.”

You find in many places the same sort of concern for the morals of art and its effect on the youth of a nation. It runs through Confucius. Plato would refuse artists a place in his perfect republic.

It is the charge brought by Miletus against Socrates as a ”corrupter of youth.”

It is the lament of Cicero, who wrote, ”O tempora, O mores” — ”O the times, the customs!”

As far back as the sixth century B.C., the Greek statesman Solon warned us, ”Poets tell many lies.”

And around 2000 B.C., one anonymous poet wrote:

”To whom can I speak today?

”Gentleness has perished

”And the violent man has come down on everyone.”

Society is always at its worst moment. And if conservatives wants to pretend that it is any different today, well, then, we remember some other words of Cicero:

”Old men are garrulous by nature.”

Mt Whitney, Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine Calif

I first visited Lone Pine, Calif., in 1982, but I’ve known it by heart since the early ’50s. I didn’t know where it was, but I saw the boulder piles of its Alabama Hills in every B-Western I watched on TV. For a small boy growing up in New Jersey, the Alabama Hills was the West.

The tiny, dusty town lies directly under Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the Sierra Nevadas, and the the highest in the lower 48. The snow streaked arete forms an impenetrable wall to the west of Owen’s Valley, which Lone Pine sits in the center of. To the east, the impressive Inyo Mountains look soft and velvety in contrast to the hard, stony face of the Sierras.Hoppy Rocks Hiding

And the low, brown foothills of the Sierras were the location sets of hundreds of Hopalong Cassidy, Three Mesquiteers, Bob Steele and Tom Mix films. Whenever Hoppy had to evade the gang of bad guys chasing him, he’d duck behind the rocks of the Alabama Hills and watch them thunder by in a dust cloud. One such rock-pile is still known as the “Hoppy Rocks.”

It wasn’t just Westerns that were made in Lone Pine, though. The valley and hills stood in for India in The Lives of the Bengal Lancers, Kim, King of the Khyber Rifles and Gunga Din. For the last, a great “Temple of Kali” was built up in the hills.

It was also the location for Humphrey Bogart’s “Mad Dog” Earle in High Sierra.

Later, the terrain was the backdrop for The Lone Ranger, Wild Bill Hickock, Gunsmoke, Rawhide, Bonanza and Have Gun, Will Travel.

You can hardly watch a Western without seeing those great rubble-heaps of boulders catching the afternoon sun.AlaHills rocks

But for me, it is the silvery grays of the landscape, shot in orthochromatic film in the ’30s, that define what the West looks like. It is the scenery in every Hoot Gibson, Ken Maynard, Buck Jones and Gene Autry film.

You can drive down Movie Road, up the west slopes of the Alabama Hills, and see where the Lone Ranger was ambushed in the very first episode, see where John Wayne and his Singing Riders captured Black Bart’s gang in Westward Ho, and see where Gene Autry jumped from his horse, Champion, to a speeding convertible in Trail to San Antone.

There are more sites up Tuttle Creek Road, including the “Hoppy Cabin,” where William Boyd lived during the shooting of the Hopalong Cassidy films. The cabin is still there. You will recognize it from other films it’s been in.hoppys cabin

Over the years, many sets have been built in the hills, but except for the Hoppy Cabin, they are all gone. The Bureau of Land Management, which administers the area, has dedicated nearly 30,000 acres as the Alabama Hills Recreation Area and plans to preserve the Hills in as close to a natural state as possible.

The hills, by the way, were named at the time of the Civil War by a group of Southern-sympathizer miners, who were looking for gold among the rocks. When the Confederate cruiser, C.S.S. Alabama, wreaked havoc on Union shipping, they named their claimsite after the ship.

In retaliation, 15 miles to the north, Union-sympathizing miners named their claim “Kearsarge,” after the Yankee ship that sank the Alabama. That name remains on a mountain peak, a pass and a town east of Independence in the Inyos.AlaHills medium view hiding place

wm mulholland opening day

”There it is – take it.”

At the time, before talkies made Hollywood America’s Bartlett, those were the most famous words ever spoken in Los Angeles.

The city’s chief engineer, William Mulholland, addressed a full one-fifth of the city’s population at the lavish opening ceremony for the aqueduct he built. It was 1913, Los Angeles was a small, drought-plagued city. The sluice gate opened, the water rushed into the canal. LA aqueduct opening day

”There it is — take it!” he said to the assembled 40,000 Angelenos.

And as I was driving down Cahuenga Boulevard, I saw the sign for the road that is the city’s only remaining prominent memorial to Big Bill Mulholland, the man who made Los Angeles possible.

In another of his grand projects for the city, he built a road along the ridge of the Santa Monica Mountains from Hollywood to the ocean, a kind of scenic drive for picnickers and tourists. I saw the off ramp: ”There it is — take it,” I thought.


Mulholland Drive Scenic Highway runs 55 miles, on and off, east and west, through several diverse visions of Los Angeles, from the ritziest of exclusive neighborhoods to the most desolate wilderness. It begins in the hills above the Hollywood Bowl and ends at the Pacific Ocean just short of the Ventura County line. mulholland house

Once, the road was nicknamed “Bad Boy Drive” because it was home to such actors as Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty and the late Marlon Brando. There are still celebrities who live along Mulholland, but now, you are more likely to find the grandiose homes of producers and agents.

Among those who live, or have lived on this famous windy road are Madonna, Arsenio Hall, Molly Ringwald, John Lennon, Roman Polanski, Ida Lupino, Joan Fontaine, Mary Tyler Moore, Faye Dunaway, and Bruce Willis and Demi Moore (remember when they were the hot couple?) And, of course, Vanna White. But you shouldn’t expect to find their names on their mailboxes by the road. The only names you will see prominently mentioned on signs belong either to real-estate firms or home-security agencies.

Every fifth car you pass seems to belong to a private security agency. They patrol the neighborhoods just like city cops.

Although to call this a neighborhood, is like calling Aztec gold ”a chunk of dirt.”


The homes are huge: One mansion-size house just being built turns out to be only the top level of a two-level complex. You can see the second level down the side of a canyon that becomes visible only after you turn a corner. There must be 40 rooms to each section. A six-court tennis compound is built on a platform that juts out over the declivity below. Like much in the first 10 miles of Mulholland Drive, it is a monument to human excess. house on mulholland

It probably will be bought by a Hollywood producer.

As for turns, the road has a million of ’em. It twists and winds its tire-squeaking way along the narrow ridge crest, with views of Hollywood on one side and the San Fernando Valley on the other.

On a clear day — admittedly a rare occurrence — you can see all the way to the Santa Susanna and San Gabriel Mountains to the north, through which Mulholland dug his epic ditch.

Standing on one of the neatly manicured scenic overlooks, you can spot the distant reservoirs that marked the terminus of the 233-mile Los Angeles Aqueduct.

It is an impressive view of an impressive project.


But then Mulholland was an impressive man. At 6 feet tall, with his walrus mustache and hale physique, he was the perfect model of the American self-made man. Wm Mulholland in folder

He was born in Belfast, Ireland, in 1855 and worked as a day laborer and sailor before settling in California at the age of 22. His native energy and drive elevated him from a zanjero, or ditch digger, to the head of the city water department, where he became chief engineer. LA aqueduct inverted siphon

In the early years of this century, he conceived a plan with former Los Angeles Mayor Fred Eaton to bring water to the parched land by diverting the Owens River through a 233-mile canal — including 53 miles of tunnel and 12 miles of siphon pipes — to Los Angeles.

The project took 10 years to finish and claimed five lives, but it brought the single commodity the city most needed — water.

The story of the corruption and greed that attended the canal is told in fictional form in Roman Polanski’s classic film, Chinatown. It has the decade wrong and the personality of Mulholland wrong, but it has the greed and corruption right.

But although everyone around Mulholland seems to have cashed in on the land boom, from Eaton to newspaper publisher Harrison Gray Otis, Mulholland never showed any interest in money or politics. When at the height of his popularity he was touted as a possible mayoral candidate, he replied, ”I’d sooner give birth to a porcupine backwards.”


The scenic overlooks are a little different from those along other scenic highways in America. Their names give them away, for one thing. mulholland view hollywood bowl

The first is the Hollywood Bowl Overlook. There are familiar put-a-quarter-in binoculars on pedestals along its edge, but the sights are pure L.A. Point 21 on the compass is the castle that used to be Madonna’s house, and as so many, now owned by a Hollywood suit.

The next pullout is the Universal City Overlook.

The road twists its way as you head west, from the luxury homes to those that are merely outrageously expensive. Outside each house are multiple trash bins for various recyclings. There are also several parks in the canyons lined with brittle yellow shale and Russian thistle.

At Laurel Canyon Park, everyone using it seems to have a dog on a leash. Maybe that is to protect them: A sign on the chain-link fence reads, ”Warning: Mountain Lions.”

Also on the fence is a bulletin board filled with homemade lost-dog notices. LA from mulholland

Twelve miles from the beginning of Mulholland Drive, you cross the San Diego Freeway (Interstate 405). Two miles later, and the ride begins to get rough.

At Encino Hills Road, the pavement gives out. Cars no longer can ride the gravel road: It’s a hiking path now. It’s a tricky turn because there are no clear road signs telling you which way to go, but Mulholland is the cow path to the left with the deep gullies in it.

For the next eight miles, Mulholland Drive is a primitive dirt road, through the heart of what might be called the Santa Monica Mountains wilderness, if only it weren’t for the litter alongside the road and the high-tension lines that cut across the spine of the mountain chain.

Mulholland, himself, hit some rough road. At the height of his success, having built the canal and a dozen dams and reservoirs that allowed Los Angeles to grow from a sleepy little town to one of America’s major cities, his bubble burst.

Or rather, his dam burst.


A few minutes before midnight on March 12, 1928, the St. Francis Dam gave way, pouring 12 billion gallons of water down the narrow San Francisquito Canyon and killing 500 people. st francis dam day after

A wall of water up to 100 feet high tore through the valley and obliterated all signs of human habitation. It left parts of Ventura County under a 70-foot-thick blanket of slimy debris. Fifty years later, bodies still were being dug up.

Mulholland views disaster site

Mulholland views disaster site

Mulholland was ultimately held responsible for building the dam on a site that was geologically unsound. He always believed the dam was the victim of sabotage by farmers from Owens Valley, whose water he had taken to satisfy Los Angeles. There had been many bombings on the aqueduct. This was merely the worst, he believed.

All evidence was destroyed by the torrent of water, so to this day, there is no certain answer for what caused the dam to break, but Mulholland was the man in charge and he suffered the consequences. Public opinion turned. Mulholland Dam and Reservoir was renamed the Hollywood Reservoir.

The dam had broken, and so had Mulholland’s spirit.




Before that section of the road was closed to automobile traffic, I had the chance to drive the entire route. On the part now closed, all dirt and gravel, the car bounced mercilessly over the ruts, past San Vicente Mountain and a city park that now is boarded up. It was too remote to patrol, and vandalism and graffiti disfigure even the fence around the former parking area.

Through most of the unpaved section of Mulholland, I could not drive faster than 10 mph, but the views were stunning.

You could also spot a car here or there parked, with a man scanning the brushy hills with binoculars. They were part of L.A. County’s volunteer Arson Patrol, keeping a lookout for miscreants vile enough to set fires in the city’s vulnerable wilderness.

At Topanga Canyon Road, the pavement picks up again, and the character of the road changes once more. mulholland highway vista

For the next 30 miles, the road — now called Mulholland Highway — is a comfortable rural byway through tiny communities, such as Calabasas, alternating with the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

There are camping, hiking and horseback riding to be had at such National Recreation Area sites as Rocky Oaks.

At the turn of the century, Rocky Oaks was a farm. It was hit by the usual California catastrophes of fire and flood. The Agoura Fire in 1978 destroyed all buildings, and the land was finally bought by the National Park Service in 1980. Its hiking and bridal paths take you through riparian forests to brushy mountain peaks.

At Saddle Rock, Mulholland Highway turns toward the ocean.


Nine months after the collapse of the St. Francis Dam, William Mulholland retired. He was 73 years old and had worked for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power for 51 years.

He lived out the rest of his life in bouts of depression and increasing Parkinson’s disease. He died in 1935 at 79. He was not forgotten, but the luster of his years of civic service had been tarnished.

But that slowly changed, and by 1992, after 20 years of citizen effort, the Los Angeles City Council adopted the Mulholland Scenic Parkway Specific Plan. It established the parkway as a memorial to the ”chief engineer” and a review board to shape the environment of the parkway’s unique features and resources. mulholland vista with ocean

The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, along with the Los Angeles Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority and the California Resources Agency, maintains the overlooks and informative plaques that tell the story of Mulholland and the natural features of Los Angeles, the Santa Monica Mountains and the San Fernando Valley to the north.

And if Mulholland’s end wasn’t the crowning glory that his regal life deserved, the end of Mulholland Highway is.

As it dumps out onto the Pacific Coast Highway two miles from the Ventura County line, it meets the Pacific Ocean at Leo Carillo State Beach, one of the most beautiful beaches in a string of state beaches along the Pacific Coast Highway. leo carillo state beach

I parked the car and walked to the shoreline, passing a brown thrasher nesting in the dune shrubs. I held still as she flicked her tail up and disappeared into the twiggery.

Along the surf, I watched pelicans, dowitchers, sanderlings, gulls and terns.

Out in the water, wrapping themselves with kelp were a pair of otters. A pair of fishermen stood on the rocks above the water, their long poles out over the foam, and the redwings chirped their ”ooklaroo” behind me as the sun set over the horizon.

It is 55 miles back to the buzz of the city from this spot. It might as well be 55 centuries.

forest lawn 3

Some people lament the passing of the old Hollywood. Others put it on their vacation schedules.

For the old Hollywood may be dead and buried, but it’s not gone. It is still there under the loamy earth of Los Angeles.

You can visit Cecil B. DeMille’s burial plot, Peter Lorre’s crypt site, even the final resting place of Hopalong Cassidy’s horse, Topper.

Lest you think this too ghoulish, I should mention that there are tours and theme parks devoted to the dear departed. You can find full-color tourism brochures at hotel check-in desks. Tourism is encouraged at some (though not all) celebrity graveyards.

You want to see Tyrone Power’s grave? Hollywood Forever Cemetery will give you a map to the tombstones of the famous dead.

Forest Lawn even has a gift shop.

So if you are tired of all the usual destinations in Southern California or if you want an offbeat vacation, try visiting some of these sites.

It works best if you have a sense of humor about it. But it should be a quiet sense of humor. These are working cemeteries and although they welcome visitors, rowdiness and impertinence — to say nothing of loud radios and beer drinking — can wind up in your being asked to leave.

Enjoy the peace and solitude but no picnicking.

forest lawn 1


The largest and most famous cemetery in the Los Angeles area is Forest Lawn. Actually, there are five Forest Lawns, with sites in Glendale, Hollywood Hills, Cypress, Covina Hills and Sunnyside. Each has a different organizational theme.

But it is the original location in Glendale that should be visited first.

”So much to see for free!” says the memorial park’s brochure.

”Imagine, in one afternoon you can see exact replicas of Michelangelo’s greatest works … Leonardo da Vinci’s immortal Last Supper re-created in brilliant stained glass … two of the world’s largest paintings … original bronze and marble statuary, rare coins, valuable 13th-century stained glass, Old World architecture.”

And several suits of armor, to say nothing of a stone head named Henry from Easter Island. Forestlawn mosaic

The exhibits mix high art with religious kitsch and naive patriotism.

The Court of Freedom, for instance, includes a 20-foot-high mosaic of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, flanked by tablets engraved with selected highlights of the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence.

And make sure you get a copy of the event schedule at the gate so you don’t miss anything.

One season, Forest Lawn featured concerts by the Valleyaires Barber Shop Singers, the Burbank Chamber Orchestra and the Notre Dame Irish Knight Band.

”It’s Showtime!” the leaflet says. ”History comes alive at Forest Lawn.”

Sample shows include ”A Visit with Michelangelo,” with an actor impersonating the famous sculptor, and similar events with visits with Lincoln, Washington and Montezuma.

Each of the locations hosts a million visitors a year. mystery of life forest lawn

Forest Lawn probably could not have happened anywhere but Los Angeles.

The vision for Forest Lawn came to a former cowboy and miner named Hubert Easton. At age 31 in 1912, he came to a 55-acre cemetery in Tropico, now Glendale, as sales manager.

He found the cemetery business too dreary and decided to eliminate tombstones and add lots of rolling lawns, statues and fountains.

”Forest Lawn will be more than a cemetery,” he wrote. ”It will be a memorial park, a place for people young and old to visit and enjoy … a place where not only will the sorrowing be comforted but the spirits of all who enter will be uplifted.”

He also figured out that he could sell burial plots to the living in anticipation of later need — a revolutionary idea at the beginning of the century — and he added a working mortuary to the grounds on the principle that people would be attracted to one-stop shopping. Forestlawn David

His ideas caught fire. His sales jumped 250 percent the first year alone.

Over the years, the property was decorated with a huge quantity of art, mostly reproductions of famous pieces. Most of Michelangelo’s best-known statues can be found on-site.

Perhaps the most memorable art is not the most famous. What you never can forget once you have been through the memorial park is the incredible number of maudlin and sentimental statues, Victorian kitsch of angels protecting unbearably innocent little babes or mothers standing protectively over their children or faces of white-bread Sunday-school devotion.

They are everywhere in the park, which also is divided into sections with names such as Slumberland, Lullabyland and Inspiration Slope.

In many portions of the park, there is a continual murmur of devotional music, the kind of Mantovani Londonderry Air that makes the park into something very like a perpetual car dealership commercial.

The kitsch reaches high dudgeon at the Hall of the Crucifixion-Resurrection, which houses one of the world’s largest paintings, Polish artist Jan Styka’s 195-foot-long Crucifixioncrucifixion theater forest lawn

It dwarfs an IMAX film screen and shows a Victorian vision of the death of Christ with a cast of thousands. It is presented in a huge, very dark and reverent theater, complete with theater seats and a recorded narration that leaves you walking out of the building to the sounds of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.

The building also shares its space with Robert Clark’s Resurrection, which makes the Styka painting seem low-key and tasteful in comparison.

I am in no way intending to make fun of anyone’s religion. The reverence anyone feels toward these spiritual events is noble and understandable. It is the aesthetic garishness of the paintings that makes me turn my head in embarrassment.

Yet they must be seen. For to understand America, you must understand Hollywood, and to understand Hollywood, you must come to know Forest Lawn.

Hollywood Forever Cemetary02


Forest Lawn takes itself very seriously — I suppose it should.

But management there is reluctant to tell visitors where celebrities are buried. It is the final resting place of such Hollywood luminaries as Clark Gable, W.C. Fields, Nat ”King” Cole and Jean Harlow, but you will discover the grave sites only by luck.

At the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, 6000 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, stop at the front office to get a photocopied map marked with many of the celebrity graves.

The atmosphere is very different from Forest Lawn. Gone is the grandiosity, gone is the perfect manicure. The graveyard is falling down and not always perfectly mowed. Many headstones are tumbling over, and even the larger monuments are looking kind of sad.

Yet it is the place to go to see Rudolph Valentino’s final resting place, a shoulder-high drawer in the Hollywood Cathedral Mausoleum. The famous ”Lady in Black” no longer visits, yet on the day I visited, there were fresh roses ornamenting the plaque.

Cecil B. DeMille’s plot is suitably gaudy, and Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s grave has a reflecting pool although the water is rather murky. And both Darla Hood and Carl ”Alfalfa” Switzer are found here. Among the other celebrities are Edward G. Robinson, John Huston, Eleanor Powell, Janet Gaynor, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Adolphe Menjou, Paul Muni and Woody Herman. mel blanc grave

If you are a real Hollywood buff, you may notice the small, bronze plaque for Virginia Rappe. She was the unfortunate starlet who died in the Fatty Arbuckle scandal.

Someone besides me remembers, for the small cypress tree above the plaque was adorned with several red ribbons and there were flowers on the nameplate.

And Mel Blanc’s headstone actually says, ”That’s all folks.”

In all, about 400 celebrities are buried there.

The Hollywood Forever Cemetery was founded in 1899 and originally consisted of 100 acres. It has shrunk considerably and is backed now by a factory of corrugated tin.

Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park


”It’s sad, but Rudolph Valentino’s dog’s grave is better kept than his own,” says the woman at the Los Angeles Memorial Pet Cemetery in Calabasas.

Valentino’s Doberman pinscher, Kabar, is only one of many celebrity pets buried on the hillside next to the U.S. 101 freeway. The cemetery is immaculately well-kept. It was not always so. Kabar headstone pet cemetery

The park opened in 1928, and among the 30,000 or so animals interred there are the pets of Jimmy Durante, Mickey Rooney, Humphrey Bogart, Angie Dickinson, Bud Abbott and Eddie Fisher.

But by the late ’60s, the family who owned the cemetery no longer could keep it up and donated it to the Los Angeles Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which also found it too expensive and difficult to operate. They were in the process of selling the land to a developer when a group of the pet owners banded together to save the place.

In 1986, the consortium of pet lovers bought the land and managed in the process to persuade the California Legislature to pass a law declaring that all pet cemeteries must remain so in perpetuity, so no dog lover should worry that someday his Fido’s grave will be bulldozed over for a 7-Eleven. topper headstone pet cemetery

The entrance to the cemetery is obscure, and you must drive through some nasty industrial roads to get there, but once inside the gates, everything is sunlight and green hills.

There is a fountain and a statue of St. Francis, and you can tell that the non-profit S.O.P.H.I.E. Inc. (Save Our Pets’ History In Eternity) that operates the park really cares about the animals in its charge.

It does not encourage tourism and doesn’t want to be seen as a freak show, but it will accept visits from anyone interested in what it has been doing.

And perhaps you may find the grave of Hopalong Cassidy’s horse, Topper, or the modest plaque above the final resting place of Petey, the ring-eyed dog from the Our Gang comedies.

LA freeways

An awful lot of bull hockey has been written about Los Angeles: It has been called the ”City of Dreams” and ”the world’s storyteller.”

But I am not interested in that part of the city. You can keep all the actors (save those still waiting tables) and keep all the studios. Underneath and beyond is a Los Angeles that I love. It is the city of smog, freeways, barrios and signs written in Korean and Armenian. It is a city so alive that it actually buzzes.

When I tell my friends that I love LA, they look at me funny. But it is true. I love the traffic. I love the commercial clutter. I love the bad air.

The traffic gives me time to listen to music on the radio. The commercial clutter turns into poetry if read in the right mood, and the bad air diffuses the naked sunlight to bathe the city in a brilliant glow that makes house paint seem incandescent.

I’m not sure I would want to live in the city, but once or twice a year, it is good to visit the City of Angels just to have the voltage increased in my neurological wiring.

Just what is LA?

According to one writer, it is ”mudslides, fires, earthquakes, Santa Ana winds.” And to another, it is ”falafel joints, collapsible apartments, visible air.”

And for performance artist Ann Magnuson, it is ”cheap pedicures, perpetual sun, guilt-free careerism, seeing Vincent Price at the 7-Eleven, having a back yard, no cockroaches, true love and Disneyland. Every day is like Saturday.”

It is a city that looks like a living hand-tinted postcard. LA panorama with snowcaps

Of course, Los Angeles is more than Los Angeles. It is in Dorothy Parker’s words or H.L. Mencken’s — the saying is so apt, any wit might well have said it — ”27 suburbs in search of a city.”

From San Bernardino to Calabasas, from Costa Mesa to the Santa Clarita Valley, it is a sprawling, throbbing, thriving endless urban glory.

It is strip malls with Korean groceries and underground parking, and it is great Indian restaurants.

Or as demographer Kevin McCarthy puts it: ”Los Angeles is the new Ellis Island.”

And that means that you can find things in Los Angeles. Ethnic food isn’t confined to Chinese and Thai. You can find Armenian food, Sri Lankan food, Honduran food, and I have no doubt if I looked hard enough, I could find a place to eat the cuisine of the Fiji Islanders.

I can find books in any language, recordings of any music, clothing of any national origin.

Los Angeles is genuinely cosmopolitan; I feel there as I must likely have felt in Amsterdam in the 17th century or Venice in the 16th century. I cannot remain awake and self-satisfied at the same time.

Of course, when something is cosmopolitan, that means it includes a great deal we might feel uncomfortable about.

Mystery writer Walter Mosley wrote, ”It’s a land on the surface of dreams. And then there’s a kind of slimy underlayer. The contrast of beauty and possibility and that ugliness and corruption is very powerful.”

You ride up over Sepulveda Pass on the 405 and spread out before you is all of the San Fernando Valley, one vast Vaseline smear of suburbia and middle-class values — and you know that this is the world capital of porno films.

As George Will put it, ”Some Americans despise Los Angeles, just as some Europeans despise America, and for the same reason. Los Angeles, like America, like freedom applied, is strong medicine — an untidy jumble of human diversity and perversity.”

It is also hazy sunlight and palm trees.

”The light in Southern California demands strong colors,” wrote Postmodernist architect Michael Graves. ”Here the sun plays a major role in modeling the texture and surface of buildings, making them sparkle and dance.”

Los Angeles is the most verbal city I know. Signs are everywhere and prodigiously redundant.

For Los Angeles, more than any city I’ve ever seen, is a city of small business. Sure there are chains and franchises, but butted up against one another like soup cans on a grocery-store shelf along any major street are small shops selling everything imaginable: shalom hunan

Teriyaki burritos — Shalom Hunan, Kosher Chinese Restaurant — Modern Prosthetics.

The smallest corner minimall has a rack of signs along the street with something like 25 small logos plastered on it. Then the stores themselves have signs over their doors and windows, and finally there are broadsheets taped up against the glass. It is an alphabetical bombardment:

Any plain garment cleaned and pressed $1.25 — 100 percent human hair and wig sale — Two-Star Bakery — A-1 Smog, pass or don’t pay — Tabu Tattoos.

What do you make of “Donuts and Chinese Food”?

They all add up to a kind of commercial poetry.

When I’m in LA, I cruise up and down Wilshire Boulevard, enjoying the Deco Moderne architecture; up and down the Sunset Strip, looking at the storefront restaurants; and up and down La Brea Avenue, looking at the art galleries and antiques shops.

I take La Cienega Boulevard over the Baldwin Hills, Mulholland Drive past the homes of Madonna and Jack Nicholson.

But most of all, I take the small streets with unremembered names past the one-floor houses with their front lawns and front porches, the tiny, unglamorized neighborhoods of the city — California bungalows and stucco homes on hillsides. calif bungalow

Children play in the streets, cars sit in driveways outside garages too stuffed with dunnage to be driven into, and on the corner a Burger King with exactly six (already full) parking spots.

It is the city’s great cosmic joke that everything depends on having a car but nowhere in LA is there available parking. It is like musical chairs. You can circle a block 10 times waiting to pull up to the curb to get your morning bagel.

Of course, there is that other LA, the one we know from television and the movies. That is the city where all the starlets have day jobs and the men all wear shades to protect their eyes from the shine of their own smiles.

You find this LA, too, in the trendier restaurants, where you can overhear people say things like: ”I’ve done a lot of second A.D. work” and ”My boyfriend keeps buying properties and he wants me to produce them.”

But that’s not the LA I’m talking about.

I’m talking about the Los Angeles River: All the city’s riverbeds are concrete troughs. You drive over them on bridges from the 1930s and see under you broad, dry expanses of concrete, with narrow sluices in the middle filled with flowing water — or is it sewage? The riverbeds are so evocative they’ve shown up in films ranging from Terminator 2 to Them!, in which giant ants live in the city’s underworld.

I’m talking about the cemeteries: Los Angeles graveyards are filled with stars. And Forest Lawn, the most famous, is filled with music. Smarmy string orchestras play Danny Boy over loudspeakers so that you feel like you are stuck in an eternal Lawrence Welk show. At the Hollywood Memorial Cemetery, you can find the mausoleum with Rudolph Valentino’s ashes. At the L.A. Pet Cemetery, you can find the plot of his dog.

Oh, and then, there are the freeway flyovers: Traffic whirls around like a video game, up and over. Driving under the overpasses, you have a great sculptural, architectural sense of the space dissected by concrete. Driving over them, you have views of the city and its mountain borders. You are flying.nat hist museum

And there are institutions, like the Museum of Natural History. At Exhibition Park, it seems the badly-cared-for 80-year-old Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History is always under restoration. Whole wings are closed off for repair. But every time I visit the city, I have to go to see the great taxidermy and diorama halls of North American mammals. You stand in the darkened hall and imagine yourself at Yellowstone looking at moose or in Virginia looking at the possum.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And don’t forget the La Brea Tar Pits. There is a very good museum at the tar pits, which will explain all about the saber-toothed tiger and the dire wolf. There are mastodon skeletons and a working lab you can watch. But I just like to walk around the surrounding fields and watch the bubbles blurt up through the goo and smell the petro-stink. Once in a while you find a bird caught dead in the tar at the bottom of a small steaming pit. It tells you at least as much about the power of the tar as the museum exhibits.

Most tourists visit Hollywood Boulevard, and the walk of stars. But I like the Baldwin Hills. In the 1940s, a low-cost housing development modeled on a New Jersey project was built on the hills south of Venice Boulevard. It is 80 acres of one- and two-story homes with gardens and sycamore trees. It is one of the most pleasant neighborhoods to drive through when you feel the need to get off the screaming meemies of La Cienega Boulevard on your way south to the airport. It is bordered by fields of petroleum pumps, dipping their beaks up and down.

Tourists like the Santa Monica Pier, and so do I. The arch over the pier says ”yacht harbor, sport fishing, boating, cafes,” but this pier is better visited for skeet ball and cotton candy. There is a carousel and always dozens of people hanging over the edge with fishing lines. Underneath, the surf washes up on the sand and sunbathers stretch out on terry cloth. There is a seedy quality to it, which brings it to life, where many more modern and clean amusement parks feel synthetic.watts tower

There is great art at the LA County Museum of Art (LACMA), but there is also the Watts Tower. In 1921, Italian immigrant Simon Rodia began building a monument to trash. Using any scraps of pottery, glass, steel and concrete he could find, he put together LA’s answer to the Eiffel Tower. He worked on the tower for 33 years, and it rises nearly 100 feet over the neighborhood. Of his life’s work, he said, ”I had in mind to do something big, and I did it.” It is one of the world’s greatest pieces of folk art.

That’s Los Angeles. It is sui generis, and, if not always a delight for the senses, it is always a ripe and luscious source of sense data.

As Raymond Chandler said, ”Anyone who doesn’t like it is either crazy or sober.”

No, what I love is to walk along the grass on the beach side of Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica and smell the heady combination of salt spray and bus fumes, watching the sun expire into the hazy horizon, knowing I’m on my way to a great souvlakia. Skateboarders squirt past and retirees sit on the benches and read newspapers. The hotel signs begin to light up and you know that the city doesn’t close down, it just puts on its night face. LA griffith observatory

solomon and sheba lollabrigida

The problem with reading history in books is that there are never enough dancing girls.

We can sit in silence with our Gibbon, Prescott or Tacitus and turn pages like a hermit, one after the other, but nothing makes history come alive like Hollywood. No footnotes, no pesky scholarship, no long sentences and paragraphs, no boring analyses: Hollywood gives us the battles, the orgies, the casts of thousands, the costumes and the lack thereof.

It gives us Victor Mature, Gene Tierney, Yul Brynner and all-time champ Charlton Heston.

It gives us Cleopatras, Caesars, Delilahs, Mata Haris, Lucretia Borgias and Genghis Khans.

They wear togas, tunics, buckskins, goat-skins and mastodon skins. They bring with them plagues, wars, dynasties, lust and ambition. They speak in a language with no contractions and in ponderous formalities and utter such memorable lines as ”Harness my zebras, gift of the Nubian King!,” and ”War, war! That’s all you think about, Dick Plantagenet.”

Or ”Take a letter. Mark Antony, The Senate, Rome . . .”

Or ”This Tartar woman is for me, and my blood says, ‘Take her!’ ”

Yes, Hollywood has a certain way with history. When director Alex Korda was told he needed six demurely dressed vestal virgins, he snapped back, ”I want 60, and I want them naked!”

Or, as James Thurber once remarked after seeing Cecil B. De Mille’s Ten Commandments, ”It makes you realize what God could have done if he’d had the money.”

History continues to inspire Hollywood execs, from Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln to Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. We even get a history lesson from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and Brad Pitt’s Troy (2004). Not to forget the forgettable Gladiator (200), with Russell Crowe killing the Roman emperor, Commodus in the somewhat historically questionable coliseum.

But the heyday of historical dramas came with the studios, and the sword and sandal epics, with their “cast of thousands” before CGI made such a claim unnecessary.

kitschy posters

This all comes up because that megaturkey epic, Cleopatra (1963), with Liz and Dick, has been issued on Blu-Ray. All 243 bloated minutes of it. Stilted dialog, purple eye shadow, togas out the wazoo, to say nothing of barges on the Nile. And Rex Harrison as Caesar.

Hollywood is always historically accurate, at least in so far as there actually was a Caesar. After the establishment of that fact, all bets are off. Hollywood has made many Cleopatras, but I wouldn’t try to look for any fact larger than a mouse in any of them.


But accuracy is overrated in history. Some of the greatest artistic successes make for questionable history, such as Shakespeare’s Richard III or Oliver Stone’s Nixon.

The facts may be in question, but you nevertheless feel this is the way it should have been.

It’s like the dictum from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: ”When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

And if there’s not a legend, let the publicity department invent one.

What’s the point of reading all those scholarly books if, once you put them down, you can’t remember anything in them? On the other hand, who can forget Claudette Colbert as Nero’s wife in The Sign of the Cross, bathing in asses’ milk?

sign of the cross colbert bath

So, Hollywood provides us with a history that sticks to the brain like used chewing gum.

Think of your video store as a university.

It begins with prehistory.

raquel welch

Your main problem will be in choosing which movies to watch from the riches available: Do you want Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C. (1966) , Darryl Hannah in Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) or Rae Dawn Chong in Quest for Fire (1981)?

I always go for the last. I tell people it is because of the clever artificial language created by linguist and novelist Anthony Burgess, but it is really because Chong takes her clothes off. Several times.

quest for fire rae dawn chong

When it comes to pharaohs and Caesars, the film world is immense. There must be thousands of movies featuring Romans, from 1908’s silent Julius Caesar to 1980’s Caligula, by Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione, which wouldn’t shut up.

It is interesting: Hollywood loves Ancient Rome, but it ignores Ancient Greece. As I look down the long list of history, I can’t help but notice that every time civilization reaches an apex of intelligence and literacy, Hollywood grows mum. We have lots of gladiators, but few philosophers onscreen.

The pattern holds up in later history, too. It’s hard to find a good movie that takes on the Enlightenment or the Reformation. But give us revolution, debauchery or intrigue, and the cameras start spinning.

You’d think there would be something to film in the 18th century: Perhaps Hollywood has not yet discovered the Duc de Richelieu, who invented mayonnaise in 1756 and was notorious for holding nude dinner parties. I’m sure the two things must be related in a way Hollywood can use.

But there is something about knee-britches that puts Hollywood off. For all the films on the Civil War, there are darn few on the Revolution. Lincoln shows up over and over, but George Washington might as well never have lived. I guess Hollywood thinks he looks too foppish in that satin and wig.

To do their patriotic duty, Hollywood has managed two films on the Revolution. It tried to tart it up once in 1776 (1972) by turning the war into a musical; the next time, it thought it could make Al Pacino sound like an 18th-century Bostonian in Revolution (1985). Both films are predictably awful.


An entire history curriculum could be devised from Hollywood films, matching titles with history’s centuries and movements.

As with any course of study, there are crib notes for those who cannot take the time for the whole thing.

You can get an overview of history from these three films:

1. D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance.

2. The Story of Mankind, with the Marx Brothers.

3. Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part One — ”It’s good to be da king.”

I can’t give you a diploma for completing this curriculum, but I can promise that you’ll have as good a grasp on history as the average American student.