Hooray for Hollywood

Los Angeles may be the ultimate American city: sprawling, polluted, ceaselessly bustling, capitalism distilled to its highest degree. Unlike Las Vegas, which is fun to visit, but you’re always grateful to leave, Los Angeles is a chore, but a strangely seductive one. The cause this time was ScreamFest, a horror movie festival in which Cradle of Fear was screening – we (in our role as American ambassadors) were there to flagwave, pick up the print afterward, and hopefully sell the theatrical rights to Miramax for $3 million.

Step one on arriving at LAX is always: hire a car. Los Angeles has a public transport system befitting its role as the quintessential American metropolis, i.e. it sucks. On a previous trip, we naively tried using it to get from the airport to Hollywood Boulevard. This is not a mistake we will repeat, after a tortuous, lengthy, tense journey through some highly scenic parts of South Central LA, during which this poor, transparent-skinned Scot (a veteran of 10 years on London Transport) felt particularly touristy.

While waiting for your courtesy bus to the car hire place, you can admire the ‘Theme Building’, an unimaginative name for a bizarre architectural feature which dominates the centre of the airport. Rising on spidery buttresses 135 feet off the ground, it resembles something out of Thunderbirds, or perhaps the lair of some Bondian supervillain, cunningly hidden in plain sight at an international hub – there being no dormant volcanoes to hand. No surprise the architect’s brother was art director on War of the Worlds; it’s now a space-themed restaurant.

Once automobiled, you then have to cope with LA’s notorious traffic, and you begin to see why…well, why you can’t see, the Hollywood sign being invisible from downtown due to a haze of smog. Even the carpool lanes are choked more often than not, and at times the traffic approaches London standards of sloth. Which is akin to blasphemy in a city – and indeed, nation – dedicated to cars with such zealous ferocity, that our daughter believes it is her constitutional right to be given a car on her 16th birthday. You could kill the time by listening to the radio, but LA radio is about one-tenth as diverse as here in Phoenix, unless you’re a devotee of thirty different flavours of Mariachi music.

We spend most of our time up near Hollywood, as that’s where most of the stuff we’re there for (concerts, film festivals, etc.) takes place. Accommodation-wise, there are two kinds of hotels to be found up there: extortionate, and recently condemned. The latter are perhaps more fun: not to occupy, heaven forbid, just to poke your head round the door for a look-see. There are places which look like the DEA will be storming in any second now. There are places which look like the DEA just left, and didn’t bother to tidy up after themselves. Others aren’t so well-kept.

Shining out like a beacon among all this is the oddly-named Farmer’s Daughter – which made more sense when we realised it’s beside the Farmer’s Market. We never actually stay in any hotel much – what’s the point of travelling if that’s all you’re going to do? So the Daughter has everything we need in a hotel room – a bathroom (for Chris), a TV (for me) and a bed (for both of us) – without requiring co-funding from three major film studios to stay there.

It also had the advantage of being just down the road from the ScreamFest theatre. Though we didn’t spend much time there either; despite the fact we had paid out of our own pockets to have the Cradle of Fear tape FedEx’d there, the reaction we got was of the “air-conditioning on full” version. We were grudgingly added to the guest list…for our own movie. Whoopee. Took a program, to see if there was anything we wanted to pay them $10 to see, but it was entirely devoid of information on the actual films. The organiser did devote half a page to her own biography, however, which probably says more about things than we should. The movies we had heard of, were either elderly (The Hills Have Eyes) or sucked (Kolobos – a film which had already been stinking up Blockbuster shelves for a year before the festival showed it!).

Fortunately, what ScreamFest lacks in friendliness, information and good movies, the rest of Hollywood has in abundance. Well, except for the friendliness bit, perhaps. Phoenix may be the sixth-largest city in America, but there are maybe a dozen screens that aren’t devoted to Hollywood blockbusters. Everything plays in Los Angeles – even if it’s only for a week. Where else can you get to see bizarre Japanese horror-musicals on the big screen? Pick up one of the free papers, such as LA Weekly for full details, and to mop up the drool.

Certainly, as cinemas go, the Cinerama complex on Sunset Boulevard is impressive, albeit one of the most expensive – $14 for a Sunday lunchtime screening! Seen in the pic as it was in its heyday in the 1960’s (it opened with the premiere of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World), it’s now the focus of an arthouse multiplex, where you get the feeling they take the “art” part Very Seriously – it’s one of the very few cinemas I’ve been to in America which has assigned seating. Over-loud confectionery crunchers are likely taken outside and summarily shot, but you’ve gotta love a place which warned us sternly that if we were five minutes late for the movie, we wouldn’t get in.

Between screenings, we like to spend our time in Amoeba Music, a cavernous second-hand media store on Sunset Boulevard. Particularly fine is the upstairs selection of DVDs, though you have to watch your shins. Bin after bin of sub-$10 discs lurk on the floor, and you must gingerly pick your way past the other browsing shoppers sprawled down there. Better yet, join them…


Also worth a visit are the La Brea Tar Pits, still sucking in local fauna (and getting a nod in Ice Age). If, like us, you’re a fan of Miracle Mile, you’ll probably just want to meander around the area, sobbing gently to yourself about diamonds. The diner from the movie is nearby, on Fairfax, but is no longer open – one of my treasured possessions is a menu from when it was still functioning, albeit without a phone booth outside.

Man cannot live by film alone, however. Getting sustenance can be a time-consuming task, with one place quoting us a ninety-minute wait for a table. Even the Bar-B-Q establishment next door quoted us 45 minutes, but that was nothing a couple of alcoholic beverages couldn’t handle. One rule we liked was that all restaurants must post their health inspection scores in the window: A, B, etc. Keep an eye out, see if you can spot any D’s…

7th Los Angeles Film Festival

Hollywood, Los Angeles, April 20-28, 2001

You know you’re in California when every piece of electrical apparatus, from automatic doors to lifts, has instructions on it detailing what to do when the power fails. Fortunately, the Los Angeles Film Festival was mercifully spared any of the rolling blackouts which been all too common in the state recently – the thought of projecting movies by pulling the film past a candle really doesn’t bear thinking about.

This year, the film was incorporated into part of the Independent Feature Project/West, a strangely named group looking after indie film-makers and cheerleading for their movies. One was left to contemplate the significance of the logo – as seen at the top. This portrays someone desperately pushing a film reel up a very steep slope, which is a good enough metaphor for the process of movie-making by all accounts. The fact that, at the top, there appears to be nothing but a precipice is presumably a good enough metaphor for the eventual fate of most non-studio product. Is that a Blockbuster video card lurking at the bottom?

This CD will self-destruct in 5 seconds

The nine day festival had over ninety films, but due to time constraints we could only sample a few, opting (as you might expect) for the ones that didn’t involve powerful coming-of-age sagas, poignant and sometimes hilarious stories about what happens when life moves on, or fresh takes on the subject of sex and the single girl. [All three could be found in the festival program] For what’s the point of being independent if you’re going to churn out the same kind of thing as a mediocre movie-of-the-week on a mainstream cable channel? Thanks, but we’ll pass.

Most of the screenings took place at the Directors’ Guild of America headquarters on Sunset Boulevard. Naturally, I took the chance to play at being Spielberg, striding into the building, barking loudly into a cellphone about weekend grosses and pay-for-play deals. I think my poor mother was very confused by the end of the conversation, but never mind. The screening rooms were fine, if a little spartan – I mean, no drinks-holders, and while they sold food in the foyer (this being California, it was sushi and cappucino rather than popcorn and Coke), they wouldn’t let you take anything into the screens. So much for the cinematic experience. Still, nothing that couldn’t be solved, thanks to a capacious hockey-shirt, capable of holding an entire picnic in its sleeves.

The LA Film School and the Laemmle Sunset 5 also provided venues, though we never got to the latter, presumably because it was playing the kind of fodder appropriate to its multiplex nature. The Film School was further along Sunset Boulevard, with the cinema tucked round the corner in a low-key manner inappropriate for anything to do with film schools, but we did discover a really decent BBQ joint up the street which helped keep those of us less keen on sushi nutritionally sustained.

The big buzzwords at the festival appeared to be “digital video”, with several of the screenings coming off this medium, yet looking barely inferior to regular projection. People like Bernard (Paperhouse) Rose are extremely enthusiastic about its possibilities, and with good packages available for just a few thousand dollars, it does seem to offer low-budget film-makers a great deal of flexibility and possibility. Disturbingly for those in the business, it may eventually also mean an end to the need for special lighting, cinematographers and a lot of the other paraphenalia traditionally associated with “movie making”. We script-writers, however, should be safe. 🙂 For an example of the possibilities, check out www.filmisdead.com.

But enough of such technical issues! Film festivals are, after all, about the films. So, without further ado, I’ll point you in the direction of the reviews, while I keep on trying to discover how I can get a Trash City star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame…

Festival Reviews