Fairfax and the Movies by Paul Pescador
This summer I did a screening in Los Angeles at Cinefamily, a movie theater on Fairfax between Beverly and Melrose which screens independent/cult films. (Paul Pescador, 1 – 9, 2011-2013, presented at CineFamily in cooperation with Human Resources, August 4, 2013) A few years back, before Cinefamily opened, the venue was The Silent Movie Theater, which would occasionally screen old silent films, oftentimes with a live musical accompaniment. I first heard the story about Silent Movie Theater a year ago from a friend over brunch.
She started the conversation with, “My friend was shot in the chest in that theater”.
I paused and looked up from my burrito.
“So my friend worked at the concession stand at the Silent Movie Theater, and the owner of the theater, who was secretly gay, his lover hired a hit man and tried to kill him off.”
“I guess he had a lot of money and wanted it. The theater was a fun side project for the owner, as he was incredibly wealthy. My friend was a family friend of his, she was in high school and would work the concession stands wherever they did screenings.”
“So what happened?”
“The lover hired a hit man. The agreement was that the hit man was to shoot the owner and take out anyone else who was close by, making it seem like a robbery. My friend was working the concession stand. She was shot, but didn’t die.
“What happened to the owner?”
“Oh he died.”
“Jesus! How did they tie it back to the lover?”
“Well, my friend was ok and was able to identify the hit man. The hit man told the police who hired him and it got traced back to the lover. ”
“So what happened to them?”
“They both went to jail, but then the lover placed a hit onto my friend from jail and she was put into a witness protection program for over two years.”
“Yea the most interesting thing I know that happened in high school.”
I am not sure of the full truth of this story. It’s an L.A. story, which has been passed along from person to person, and in each iteration the details have could have changed like a folktale. History told through one’s personal relationship to it, like where was I when River Phoenix died at the Viper Room, how was I affected by the 1992 Riots, where did I feel the Northridge earthquake or watch the OJ Simpson car chase. We hold on to these stories as part of cities, as a sense of grounding in order maintain a past.
“Do you remember the Tower Records on Sunset?”
“No I hadn’t moved here yet.”
“What about you?”
“What’s Tower Records?”
An extreme example of this might be L.A. Story (1991), a film created completely out of stereotypes of the city one after another. Everything that is “L.A.” is present; from palm trees and nose jobs to convertibles and sunglasses; the kitschy, early 90s art deco settings that once were ubiquitous; self-help regimens and California cuisine, easy poolside debauchery and earthquakes. The film is a parody of the city, a Woody Allen nightmare; it just needs a colonic and male ponytails. Oh wait, never mind, there is a colonic 40 minutes into the film.
Like most of my friends, I came to L.A., I wasn’t born here. Even though I grew up two hours away, my parents always thought of Los Angeles as a dangerous place, as somewhere you don’t visit. I remember going on a family trip and my dad accidentally getting on the wrong freeway and we ended up in Downtown. Even though it was the middle of the day, my mom was terrified and made my brother and me sit with our heads ducked down in fear that we were going to be shot. I remember when I finally did move to Los Angeles 12 years ago and that to me, everything looked like a Red Hot Chili Pepper video. In my mind, Los Angeles was trying to perform as the L.A. I knew from TV, similar to how Thomas Anderson begins his documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) with the quote “Living here gives me the right to criticize the way in which movies depict my city.” Anderson’s film explores how the movies really depict Los Angeles.
Doing the screening at CineFamily, I realize how much time, between the ages of 18 and 23, I used to spend on Fairfax. My first job after undergrad I worked as a host at Canter’s deli. Canter’s is an old fashioned Jewish diner, which is down the street from CineFamily on Fairfax. This job lasted two weeks, as I was fired for being not quick enough on the register and not helpful enough with customers. I remember getting a call from the manager, her thick New York accent, telling me to not come in that morning or anytime afterwards. Canter’s is the type of restaurant, where the waiters are grumpy and the customers are even grumpier. My freshman year of college, I used to go to Canter’s for blind dates. I would sit at my usual table, they would come sit down and I would smile. After a few minutes I would realize that their photo from gay.com did not match their actual face and I would slide the check over to them and leave. This dickiness on my part resulted in bad dating karma, killing my dating life for five years.
I remember being 19 and I tried to go the Tomcat (now under new management), which is a gay sex theater on Fairfax and Santa Monica but I chickened out and paced in front of the theater for ten minutes until a car pulled up and a man tried to solicit sex, assuming I was a prostitute. I ran to my car crying as he followed me for a mile, thinking I was playing hard to get. There was also the time I went back and was accosted by a much older man who tried to pull me into the bathroom to fuck me. I screamed. The house manager turned on all the lights and everyone scattered.
A few years after this event, there was the time I dressed up like a go-go boy in order to impress a younger boy who I was dating. I was 22; he was 18 and trouble. We were at the West Hollywood Halloween outdoor party. I wore only a pair of teal short-shorts with white plastic go-go boots that laced up the knee. Within an hour the teenage trouble ditched me in a crowd, and I had to walk miles home without a cell phone, my skinny little body freezing, trying to ignore the honking cars, and everyone laughing at the shirtless crying faggot.
I recently re-watched the film L.A. Plays Itself (1972) Fred Halsted’s classic, a two-part pornographic experimental film. The second part begins with images of the city. We see a man in a leather jacket sitting in traffic among the signage of billboards and sex theaters. Driving down Sunset Blvd or it could be Santa Monica or Wilshire, it’s hard to tell; everything looks so similar and familiar. The film cuts between shots of the street and two men having sex. A voice-over provides the story. One of the characters just came to Los Angeles from Houston, and seems naïve and young. He’s an All American blonde boy. He takes off his clothing and goes upstairs, we watch him and a dark figure fuck. Their relationship is vague as their sex is rough; we can’t tell if it’s pleasurable or he’s being abused. We see fisting and licking of boots. The voice-over tells him to be careful who you mess around with, as he is “just a kid.” Is their sex a representation of a sinister Los Angeles which lives right below the surface of billboards and traffic? We see the blonde tied up and thrown into a closet and as the dark figure cums for the camera, the classic “money shot”, we are shown a newspaper reporting a kidnapping and a dead body.
Another film I watched recently, Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1963), is a thirty-minute experimental film about men and their motorcycles. We watch them work on their bikes over the soundtrack of 50s pop songs. “Fools rush in, where wise men never go”. The film cuts against their bare torsos creating an overlap of their bodies. “Wind me up. I’ll come straight to you”. Los Angeles is shown through images of Hollywood, James Dean and Marlon Brando, the fantasy of the movies. Similar to L.A. Plays Itself which begins with the implied innocence of boys playing with their toys, Anger’s film quickly grows darker; skulls and neo Nazi imagery predominate, the mood grows more and more intense as someone is tied down by a group of men and mustard is poured all over his body. He is stripped down and screams as images of Jesus and swastikas are juxtaposed and, like Halsted’s L.A. Plays Itself, this film ends with death.
I think of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) a film which shows Los Feliz and what appears to be the suburbs adjacent to the Hollywood lights. We are not shown Hollywood in this film, instead we see the planetarium at Griffith Park, the local police station, the science center and neighboring high school; and yet despite its absence, Hollywood feels so present. Perhaps because Rebel Without a Cause looks like what a Classic Hollywood film is supposed to look like: an imagined life shot in Technicolor, with everything super bright and shiny. This film almost requires the context of history to be appreciated. Each of its famous young stars had their lives cut short: James Dean died in a car accident, Natalie Wood drowned in a disputed fall off her yacht, and Sal Mineo was murdered right outside his West Hollywood apartment. Like the characters they played in the film, teenagers attempting to find their way in this world, through car racing, getting drunk and running away from home as an escapism for their misunderstood lives, the actors can be seen as misunderstood, and possibly as running away from something.
Boyz N The Hood (1991): at my college graduation from film school, director John Singleton spoke about receiving a USC education while growing up merely a few miles from the campus in South Central Los Angeles. The film focuses on three teenage boys as they finish their last year of high school and attempt find their role in their surrounding neighborhood. Boyz N The Hood is made right before the Rodney King Riots, a time where West Adams was plagued by neighboring gangs and even more dangerous police officers. There is a scene in which Cuba Gooding, Jr., the protagonist, is pulled over for no specific reason only to be held up at gunpoint by a local black police officer, who screams nigger. Similar to the white teenagers of Rebel Without a Cause, who feel victimized by their surrounding environment, the black teens in Boys in the Hood desperately try to find themselves, either through football, fast cars and guns, or through schooling. The film doesn’t fixate on the generational gap of the boys to their parents, which was the driving force of Rebel; instead Singleton’s film finds tension in the alliance of a community which attempts to survive against gentrification, drive-by shootings and the brutality of local police.
Watching these films I consider my own relationship to race and queerness, and I wonder, as a Latino gay man growing up in a suburb how does my identity align with these youth. This question started me writing this text and yet, having written, I still don’t know.
Across the street from Canter’s was an Out the Closet (which is no longer there), I remember wandering down to that location as well as many other Out of the Closets, throughout my twenties. 80s fashion was in and I thought I could pull off garden gloves as mittens and would wear them with kids softball pants, a yellow plastic belt, and kids t-shirt that had kittens kissing on it. I would wear this tacky attire with a miscellaneous set of dumb body piercings from 0 gauge earrings, a lip ring, and tongue ring. These mouth piercings combined with my natural gay lisp made it impossible for my friends to understand what I was saying. At that age, I remember wandering into Canter’s or Mr. Pizza at late hours, drunk after clubbing with a group of friends, and falling asleep at the table. “Can I have your house Pinot Grigio and a grilled cheese?” Thinking about it now, it was working at Canter’s that forced me to take out those piercings. My boss wouldn’t let me work with them on; I took them out the first day and never put them back in, thus ending my early 20s.
Paul Pescador, http://paulpescador.com/