Highway 46 RevisitedBy D. R. Haney
June 22, 2012
I never thought I looked like James Dean, as people used to say I did, especially after I moved to New York to study acting. We shared the same coloring, but I was tall and lanky, while he was short and muscular. My face was round, and his was rectangular. Moreover, I strove as an actor to be as natural as possible, and Dean’s acting struck me as excessive, which is now what I most enjoy about it. His excess wasn’t of the soap-opera sort; it was quirkily personal, as when he rolls a cold bottle of milk over his brow to calm himself in Rebel Without a Cause. His character in Rebel is lacking the love—that is, milk—of his shrewish mother, and the symbolic way it’s expressed is one of many Kabuki-like gestures in Dean’s performances, particularly in scenes involving parents. His biography speaks to the reason. His mother died when he was nine, and afterward his father sent him to live on a relative’s farm in far-away Indiana.
Prior to discovering Dean, I was embarrassed by having come from a farming family. That was déclassé where I grew up, but if James Dean had been a farm boy, maybe it was okay for me to be one. Meanwhile, even though I wasn’t impressed with Dean’s acting, I was pleased to be told I resembled him, since he was a classic movie star, with the kind of arty pedigree I craved for myself.
And so, to coax further comparisons, I entered my James Dean phase. I slouched like Dean, and mumbled like Dean, and had my hair cut like his. I aped his expressions, and chewed the tip of my shirt collar, which Dean used to do, or so I’d learned. I also learned where he used to live—a garret on West 68th Street—and a couple of times I stood outside, staring up at the window, as if that could cause him to appear and provide pointers on how to better imitate him: “Okay, when you’re doing that thing with your eyebrows? Try to look hurt, not angry. Like this.” Bear in mind that I was still in my teens; and I personally knew a number of actors similarly obsessed with Dean. One of them was a roommate, and he relocated soon after his sort-of girlfriend announced that I looked more like Dean than he did.
Dean continues to influence actors, though those now in their twenties, disinterested in history, may not realize how much they owe him. His idiosyncratic approach to acting has never been replicated (despite, in some cases, considerable effort); it’s his image—the misunderstood, beautiful, sensitive yet dangerous loner—that goes on being recycled, as per Robert Pattinson, of the Twilight movies, and James Franco, who played Dean in a made-for-TV biopic. Dean was acutely aware of his image; he cultivated relationships with photographers who documented his every mood and move, and some of the results, such as Dennis Stock’s shot of Dean walking in a Times Square downpour, are familiar to people who’ve never seen Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden, or Giant. Even Dean’s final moments, on September 30, 1955, were caught on film. He was on his way from Los Angeles to a car race in Salinas, California (the setting of East of Eden), in a silver Porsche Spyder, and following in a second car, at Dean’s request, was photographer Sanford Roth. Dean wasn’t well acquainted with the Spyder, which he’d recently purchased, and the drive to Salinas was intended to prepare him for the race. He was ticketed for speeding near Bakersfield, shortly before he stopped for a Coke at a gas station called Blackwell’s Corner on Highway 466 (now 46). At the same time, Donald Turnupseed, a California Polytechnic Institute student, was making his way home from school. He struck the Spyder, which he later insisted he never saw, as he was making a left turn onto Highway 41. Dean, whose neck was broken, was photographed by Roth as he was being lifted into an ambulance, dying or already dead at the age of twenty-four.
My James Dean phase didn’t last long. I developed my own style as an actor, and if I passed one of Dean’s movies while channel surfing, I might stop and watch, but I rarely thought of him otherwise, especially after I moved to L.A., where I focused more on writing than acting. Every so often, if somebody asked me, I would do a part in a movie. I appeared in a number of experimental shorts directed by my friend Burke, once alongside our mutual friend Paul, who reminded me a little of James Dean. It wasn’t because of his looks. He had his Swedish mother’s features and his Filipino father’s dark hair and complexion, so that he was often taken for Hispanic. Still, his soulful intensity evoked Dean, if only, again, a little, and he was one of the best actors I knew, in spite of—or maybe, in part, because of—his indifference to acting. Like so many people, he really wanted to direct, and he was frustrated with his lack of progress in that way, and frustrated with his life in general. He had family problems—a religious upbringing, a disapproving stepfather, and so on—and he meantime felt he was being used by friends who sought his help with filmmaking projects of their own. There’s a lot of that kind of thing in L.A.—“Can you come down to the set and PA for a couple of days?”—and good-natured Paul invariably said yes, while resenting himself for saying yes, just as he resented those who asked for his help in the first place. It was a recurring theme in our conversations. He was giving all his time to others, which meant his own work would never get done, and he was soon going to turn thirty, with nothing to show for himself.
Paul’s friend Jake was another actor with directing ambitions, and Paul had naturally agreed to help on a short film that Jake was planning to shoot in his hometown, Santa Cruz. Meanwhile, Jake asked if I would act in the film. I told him yes, as long as I didn’t have to drive to Santa Cruz, suggesting that I ride with Paul.
Then Paul backed out. Then he agreed to help again. Then he backed out again. And so on. I felt bad for Jake, who was a good guy in his own right, and one night I phoned Paul to press him for a final decision. He couldn’t go to Santa Cruz, he said; his car wouldn’t survive the drive.
“Well, you can ride with Jake,” I said. “I mean, you told him you were going to help, right? I think you’re kind of obligated.”
In all the time I’d known Paul, I’d never heard him raise his voice. Now I did.
“All right!” he snapped. “I’ll do it!” He was oddly subdued after that. He sounded half asleep when he spoke at all, as if sapped by his brief outburst.
Jake was driving to Santa Cruz a day ahead of the cast, and Paul was now going with him, so Jake arranged for me to ride with an actor named Howard, who knocked on my door an hour late. He was Chinese and sixty-five, at least, and holding a huge soft drink he’d stopped to buy on the way, being fond of junk food, as I was about to learn. I got into his car and had a look at the directions Jake had sent him. We would be taking Interstate 5 to Highway 46 to reach the 101; and as a touch of local color, Jake had noted the James Dean death site on the 46, as well as Blackwell’s Corner, where Dean stopped before the crash.
Like Paul, I’d had reservations about going to Santa Cruz. I was very busy, and couldn’t spare the time to work on a film for free. Still, once I saw Jake’s directions, I was eager to hit the road. I thought of the trip as a gift to myself as a kid, when I was at the peak of my James Dean phase. That kid would’ve loved to have seen the place where Dean died, and now, through older eyes, he would.
Howard was originally from San Francisco, he told me, and he worked for a long time in finance in New York, turning to acting late in life. We naturally talked about New York, as well as acting, while zooming past orange groves and fields full of sun-scorched weeds. We also stopped repeatedly for fast food, which Howard unwrapped and ate as he drove, sometimes removing both hands from the wheel, chomping loudly and looking out the window, looking everywhere, it seemed, except at the road. Wouldn’t it be funny if I got killed near the spot where James Dean died? In fact, it wouldn’t be. But the closer we got to that spot, the more I thought about the possibility of crashing, so that the next time Howard removed his hands from the wheel to snack, meantime doing eighty and staring at the scenery as the car edged toward the road shoulder, I said, “Howard, look out!”
“You’re going off the road!”
Of course he now looked at me, not the road. Then he looked at the road and set the car right. Then he unwrapped another snack, taking his hands off the wheel, staring at the snack instead of the road, again while doing eighty.
“Howard, look out!”
Jake called to ask about our progress. I felt like saying that he was soon to be short two actors and might want to think about recasting. Instead, I asked about the James Dean death site at the juncture of the 46 and the 41: was it easy to miss? It wasn’t, he said, and neither was Blackwell’s Corner, which had a huge picture of Dean outside it.
Howard was almost as interested in seeing the crash site as I was. Dean was “family,” he said, meaning he was a fellow actor. We watched for Blackwell’s Corner. We didn’t see it. We also watched for a sign announcing the 41. There were such signs, but then we were in wine country, with vineyards everywhere and signs foretelling the approach of Paso Robles. I had another look at Jake’s directions. If we were near Paso Robles, we’d long since passed the 41.
“Goddamn it!” I said. “We missed it!”
I wanted to turn around, but we’d gotten a late start, since Howard had stopped for fast food on his way to my place, and we’d also lost time due to our frequent stops for still more fast food. Howard said we could see the James Dean death site on the trip back to L.A. Then, spotting a Subway in Paso Robles, he stopped, and we went inside and ate—again.
It turned out that Paul had driven his own car to Santa Cruz, even though he’d said it wouldn’t survive the trip. I, meanwhile, was unconvinced that I’d survive another trip with Howard, so I asked Paul if I could hitch a ride with him after the shoot. Of course, he said, acting strangely. Jake likewise noticed that Paul was acting strangely. I didn’t know what he was supposed to be doing on the set, but I never saw him do anything except stand, with a vacant expression, beside the camera crew. At times, between takes, he and I would talk in the parking lot of the motel where we slept and worked (the motel, near the ocean, was the setting of the movie), and he appeared relatively lively. Then, the break over, he would stand again on the set, doing nothing with a vacant expression.
The morning of departure came. I hated to leave Santa Cruz. I had woken early every morning and walked to the pier, where I would watch sunbathing sea lions loudly quarrel. Then, backtracking, I would linger at the Spanish-style apartment complex where I pictured myself living. I could write such beautiful words there, I thought. I could be so happy.
I was insane, of course. I consider myself, more or less, politically progressive, but I could never be progressive enough for Santa Cruz. After a few weeks, people would storm my place with torches, like villagers in Frankenstein movies of yore. I returned from my final walk on the pier to the motel, where Paul was in the parking lot, zoned out as ever. What was wrong with him? He didn’t know, he told me. He hadn’t slept in days; he felt like he had a brain disorder. It sounded like he was depressed, I said; we could talk about it on the drive. He knew I wanted to see the James Dean death site; and since he, too, had missed it on the drive from L.A., together we would seek the juncture of the 46 and the 41.
We passed artichoke fields and stopped for tacos in a town that bills itself as the artichoke capital of the world. Paul seemed more himself again, and we discussed movies, our families, the people we knew in common—all our usual subjects—as wine country unfurled around us. There were fewer and fewer vineyards on the 46, and almost none by the time we saw signs announcing the 41—but which badly marked turnoff was the 41? Finally, convinced we’d just passed it, I asked Paul to go back. He did. The turnoff road was thin, with a fountain on one side of the entrance. A lush tree shaded the fountain, which advertised a winery, and the bleak fields in the distance were checkered with tiny houses. Nothing about this place recalled photos I’d seen of the crash.
Still, we parked and got out. Paul lay in the carpet grass beneath the tree, apparently napping, while I walked to the stop sign at the intersection of the 46 and the turnoff road, which I now suspected was not the 41. A car slowed and paused at the stop sign, a middle-aged couple inside the car. They were locals, I could tell, and I approached them and said, “Yeah, I’m looking for the place James Dean died?”
“Do you know his address?” one of them asked. “Hell,” I wanted to say. Hadn’t they heard the word died? Hadn’t they heard of James Dean? He was bound to figure prominently in regional lore.
I was too disgusted to ask again. The couple drove off, and I sat for a while by the fountain. The sound of trickling water was peaceful, offsetting the sounds of occasional traffic. Eventually, Paul rose from the shaded grass, and we continued on the 46, and five or ten minutes later, I saw a big green sign that read: James Dean Memorial Junction. Yes, here at last was the 41, looking exactly as it had in the photos I’d seen—how could I have missed it on the drive with Howard?
Paul pulled over, and I got out to snap a picture. I could easily envision the crash. I watched cars speed down the hill on the 46 where Dean had seen Donald Turnupseed’s car, about to make a left onto the 41, and said, “That guy’s gotta stop,” to his German mechanic, Rolf Wütherich, who was accompanying Dean to Salinas, and who was later killed in another car crash. He barely survived the crash with Dean. He was hospitalized for months, and his injuries, compounded by the hate mail he received from Dean’s fans, led to psychiatric problems that afflicted him for the rest of his life.
Paul and I drove on. We stopped at Blackwell’s Corner, where there was for a fact a huge picture of James Dean outside it: a color picture of his head and shoulders. Inside, posters and postcards of Dean were for sale, and the only two people present, aside from me and Paul, were bored teenage staffers. They, I knew, were locals who’d heard of James Dean.
It was dusk when Paul dropped me at my apartment. The whites of his eyes were alarmingly red, but he was in a good mood: I remember him laughing just before he drove off. Our adventure had made us better friends, I thought. He would go home and sleep. His depression would lift. He would embrace his stellar acting talent, as I would certainly encourage him to do.
I never got the chance. I only saw him once—briefly—after we returned from Santa Cruz. He broke contact with me and almost every friend he had, and his former roommate eventually sent me a message about him. Paul was now living with his mother, the message said, and when he left his old place, he left most of belongings behind. The message didn’t say if Paul was now happy; it only said that he was a completely different person from the person he used to be.
We all used to be different people: an actor with designs on directing; an actor who styled himself after James Dean; an actor who really was James Dean and became, in a flash, a memory.
A slightly different version of this piece appears in SUBVERSIA, published by TNB Books.
Glad to see this piece again, Duke. Hope Paul found himself in a life that made him happy. Certainly seems as if the figurative ghost of James Dean was haunting him in more ways than one.
I wonder how many road trips the Howards of the world have ruined.
Yesterday was my birthday. Was yesterday also your birthday, Matt? I definitely remember that you were born in June, but I’m less certain as to whether you were born on the 21st. Anyway, you were mentioned last night during dinner at Delancey. Yep, Delancey, where we once broke bread with one Brad Listi, to say nothing of Zara Potts, Lenore Zion, and Simon Smithson, and last night’s conversation at Delancey was, here and there, TNB-centric: a “Where is everybody now?” kind of thing.
I realize, of course, this piece is a rerun for those who read Subversia, which didn’t exactly match the sales figures of The DaVinci Code, so an online afterlife for the piece didn’t strike me as unreasonable. I’ve been thinking about James Dean for the last couple of weeks, first because his biographer, David Dalton, posted a self-interview here, accompanied by an excerpt from his new book about Bob Dylan, and immediately afterward, I saw a documentary about Dean’s friend Maila Nurmi, better known as the original TV horror host Vampira, at the L.A. Film Festival. I saw the documentary for research purposes — I hope to write not just one but two books (the first a novel, the second nonfiction) in which Maila remotely figures — but, again, it had the effect of reminding me of my James Dean phase and this piece, and I still had these photos from the road trip, which weren’t included in Subversia, and I thought they might be of small interest even to those who read Subversia.
I don’t know that Paul was a Dean fan, but I do think there was a touch of psychic overlap in Dean’s drive on the 46 and the drive I made with Paul. A shift occurred, though of course the shift in the latter case wasn’t nearly as dramatic as the former. There have been sightings of Paul by mutual friends since I wrote this piece, but I don’t think any of us know how he’s doing; the sightings have been just that, with little interaction, as I understand it. But I thought very highly of him; he was, and I’m sure still is, exceptionally kind and sensitive and talented, and I’ve missed him having him around, as I hope comes through in the piece.
I don’t think Howard ruined the trip. Of course I was apprehensive, in (large?) part because of the superstition factor, but if it had been smooth sailing, so to speak, it might never have occurred to me to write about it. In retrospect, it all worked out perfectly. I emerged with what I, at least, regard as an interesting story: a funny one for the first leg, and a sad one for the second. And I’m glad you’re glad to have seen it here, rerun or not.
Oh, and happy (belated or early) birthday.
Holy crap, it’s Matt. Hi, Matt.
I love this piece.
And the resemblance is uncanny.
You, Zearuh, with your broken-hearted tornadoes, I love that you love this piece. I have some affection for it myself, because, as I see it, it’s a combination of the factual and the mysterious — that is, I know exactly what happened event-wise (as far as my usually reliable memory allows), yet I have no idea as to what happened spiritually. I embarked on a trip with a friend, and we never argued, there was never rancor of any kind, yet when the trip was over, we were no longer friends. It was like an early mid-life crisis, the kind that occurs in one’s late twenties or early thirties, sped up over the course of a few days, with the specter of someone admired in (my) youth hanging over it — what role, if any, did that play?
I’m still vain, or dopey, enough that I can’t help but be flattered if you or anyone else thinks I once looked like…you know. But when people started saying as much, I started playing it up, and that photo…by then, I was very aware of my angles and shit. So it was canny more than not. But I thank you nonetheless, Zearuh, you with your broken-hearted tornadoes.
I’m glad you live my broken hearted tornadoes as much as I do.
We’re you an actor by chance?
But seriously. This is a great piece and I am glad to see it resurrected here so that people who aren’t lucky enough to own a copy of Subversia will get to read it.
Your words and your stories and your experiences are second to none.
*love* not live. Duh. Stoopid phone.
I feel a strong urge to advise you. Possibly in the matter of your phone.
Has your phone ever been broken-hearted during a tornado? If so, you shouldn’t call it stoopid. Nor should you call it stoopid if it hasn’t read Moby-Dick. Which I would advise it to read. Otherwise it’s stoopid.
What the hell am I talking about? And why am I laughing so hard?
You’re the best, Zeriah. I am now going to write you a letter signed by you but written by me and it will be about you but really it will be about me. Because my heart was broken by a tornado.
Private jokes. Oh, shit. I’m sorry. I’ll stop now. I’m so stoopid.
But, seriously, to repeat myself, I couldn’t be more pleased that you say what you do about the piece.
Should I bother with my pdf version of Subversia, or will I eventually get it all again here? I know I enjoy every piece I read.
I mean, it’s not Banned for Life, but it’s still really good.
Yeah, I did post two of the new pieces from Subversia. But they won’t all end up here. And of course I appreciate the good word about Banned, that poor book.
I’m just staggering home from an all-nighter that included the closing party for an art show, curated by James Franco, built around James Dean. Actually, according to this, it was built around Rebel Without a Cause:
I don’t know why the hell I mention this in reply to your comment, Art, except for the liquor, and that it was weird to have ended up at this thing right after posting the James Dean piece. Meanwhile, on arriving home, there was a package from Powell’s on my front stoop, and then I turned on my computer and discovered your comment, so it’s like there’s a bit of Portland synchronicity to accompany the James Dean synchronicity.
I love packages from Powell’s. I live here, and I still love packages from Powell’s.
Thanks. It’s my first-ever package from Powell’s, so I had never until this morning seen the way they package books, and I must say, I understand completely why you love getting packages from Powell’s. No more Amazon for me! It’s Powell’s from here on out.
One of my favorites. I think I remember, when I interviewed you for the SA Current, yammering on about my obsession as a kid with Dean & Rebel Without a Cause in particular — so I’ll refrain from doing so again here. I love revisiting this one and admiring anew the sublime way you weave everything together and end with that gut punch of a last line. Do I remember reading that you have a new novel in the works? You better have!
Oh, come on, Cynthia, there was no “yammering on,” and I liked hearing about your (erstwhile) Dean obsession.
You may remember my having mentioned Jerry’s video store in “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth,” and at that store, Jerry also sold movie memorabilia, including photos of actors, and he told me once that James Dean was one of his top sellers, if not the top seller. He said a lot of stars had a very specific fan base–female, male, young, old, straight, gay, etc.–but there was no distinct pattern with Dean; all kinds of people bought his stuff, which I found interesting.
I also found this interesting. It’s from a thing called “Some James Dean Shit” by James Franco, which was included in the program, I guess it is, from the James Franco art show I attended last night (as I mentioned in my comment to Art):
I went to Dean’s death place on September 30, 2005, the 50th anniversary of his death. It was horrible. I wore a baseball cap so that I wouldn’t be recognized. There was a group of his fans in Porsche Spyders driving around in a group. Or maybe they were imitation Spyders. Dean died in a Spyder. There were people there for the anniversary, but not tons. There was a man in his forties dressed in a red jacket and jeans and a white tee shirt, Dean’s outfit in Rebel Without a Cause. People took picures with the forty-year-old Dean, who looked like Dean if he was a deadbeat dad, trailer park lothario. It felt like the low-rent Universal Studios.
Some people sold photos out of a barn, but there it wasn’t anything you couldn’t get on Hollywood Boulevard. I don’t know why these people liked Dean. It seemed like all they knew about him was that he did a movie with a drag race in it. It made me hate Dean. It was cheesy to like Dean.
I suppose Franco’s art show could be read as a kind of inverted version of the event he describes here — a corrective, if you will, put together by cool people for other cool people who may not even know that Dean did a movie with a drag race in it, but they’re at least not cheesy, thank God, as cool people never are. Oh, and they could have their picture taken against a white wall with the red word REBEL written across it, which might be the equivalent of yokels having their picture taken with the forty-something, trailer-park Dean imitator.
“Hollywood is an idea,” Franco, in collaboration with another artist, writes elsewhere in the program (and in a piece that appeared in the show). “Movies won’t be around forever.” Neither will the human race, I almost wanted to say out loud, and all that separates the “horrible” anniversary event from Franco’s conceptual art (he showed up last night in a baseball cap, incidentally) is an “idea.” But I’m going to assume he knows that.
Thanks for what you say about the structure of the piece. The weaving-together thing was the hard part, and I could only hope that it came off. I am thinking about a new novel, but it’ll be a while before I can begin work proper on it. Galley slaves don’t get a lot of down time, you know.
Dig this. Is Greg Sal Mineo? Can I be Elia Kazan? I hate to admit how much I actually want to be Vampira.
Don’t worry, Sean; there are plenty of others who have no trouble admitting how much they want to be Vampira.
The Corey Allen slot is open, if you want to grab that. Oh, and Dennis Hopper and Jim Backus. But I don’t think Greg is a good fit for Sal Mineo, and I’m sure his schedule wouldn’t allow for it anyway.
Now I’ll probably have to go and contrast this with the print version of this piece that I read last year, though maybe there are better things I could be doing. Maybe.
I’m glad you posted this after your comment on David Dalton (and not just because I was the one who snagged that particular nonfiction feature, and not just because Dylan sang in a coat he borrowed from James Dean, as they say). But these photos alone are worth the online version, from your surprising resemblance, to Dean himself looking like two separate actors with the same milk bottle, to the forlorn memorial by the Texaco.
I’ve been working on a piece about LA, one that happens to involve a car crash too, but one which was thankfully non-fatal. I’ve been giving up and then returning to the draft in intervals for months and months now, because I sometimes want to bury the idea that the stardust of the city and the world of film legends and old idols haunt me in a meaningful way. Or that I want them to haunt me and I’m trying too hard, or that chasing a Hollywood of your own invention is a lifelong pursuit that we never fully give up on once we’ve started, wherever we go and whoever we later become.
Not that this is exactly what you’re talking about here, likely I’m reading too much into it. But I see the parallels, large and small, that you setup and the idea of being and chasing James Dean and can’t help confusing my own kind of silver screen fantasy for the real thing, at least until I resign to abandon it again and attempt to become my own different person.
All that is to say- you always explore these ideas with honesty and sharpness. Or maybe you’re just a damn good actor. Either way, it’s motivation to finish my own piece, as you’ve inspired me to do before.
I’ve mentioned before that you’ve inspired me, Nat, so, if it’s ever worked the other way, that makes us even. And of course the David Dalton appearance here was the catalyst for my posting this piece online, so thanks for that also. But I didn’t know that Dylan had ever worn a coat owned by Dean. Did you know Dylan was in the audience during Buddy Holly’s last performance, hours before The Day The Music Died? That fairly blew my mind when I was told about it recently.
The differences between this version of the piece and the one on paper are slight; just a few small changes in phrasing and punctuation here and there, and a correction of the only typo, I think, in the book: a single letter, “o,” which should have been an “a.” I can’t believe it wasn’t caught, as much proofing as there was by numerous parties. But the photos were the big addition, of course; I’m glad you mentioned them. It’s true that he looks like two different people in the milk-bottle screen captures.
About being haunted by movies, I by and large thought I was done with all that when I began to write “seriously,” but at some point I realized it wasn’t so. Of course literature has its own mythology, which isn’t finally that dissimilar from the mythology of movies: I was as influenced by the legends of Kerouac and Hemingway, for example, as I was by the legends of Brando and Dean, and I don’t think I’m alone; you can substitute the name of any writer for the names I mention here. Most artists of any kind begin by chasing admired phantoms. But do they ever give up the chase? Not if my experience is any indication. The people who interested me as a teenager continue to interest me. Even if I lose interest for long periods, they return, if only so that I can reinvestigate why they interested me in the first place. It seems there’s always something new to be learned from them, some new insight into how I became who I am, for better or for worse, and they’re likewise windows into the culture, a way of comparing then and now.
What’s funny is that I’ve lived in L.A. and worked in the movie business for quite some time, and the “real” L.A. is very different from the way I used to imagine it, and so are the people who make movies, but I nonetheless can’t shake my old perceptions. I never saw them as glamorized, because I was interested in the dark side, the noir side, the underbelly, and just the quotidian thing of getting up in the morning and driving to the set and wolfing down bagels while driving nails and dragging lights and so on. And that reality still exists, just as the underbelly still exists, and so does the noir side of L.A. and the movie business, of course, though none of it looks the same, but there’s something in me that still seeks the old mythology, even though I should know better.
Ah, it’s hard to put what I want to say into words! An essay, written over the course of weeks or months, would be necessary. But I hope you’ll finish yours. And if Paris was ever a moveable feast, Hollywood is a moveable trough, though here and there I suppose it can seem a feast, even when you’re in France, where the food sets a world standard.
How to put what I want to say into words…this is exactly where I am. I never managed to wedge myself so deeply into the business out there, holding a handful of bottom-feeder posts that gave me just enough of a glimpse from several angles to remain a close observer and understand descriptions like “jealous bitch goddess” and “high school with money” (or my now new favorite “a moveable trough”). But yes, the underbelly and the ghosts you’ve written about are the most fascinating along with that mythology that persists even from a place like France, where the ghosts have been around so long their haunting has grown dim and bureaucratized. I’m sure I deliberately don’t want to shake my illusions about L.A., all the while having trouble getting beyond the second act of most films I sit down for.
On another note completely, Dylan has an uncanny knack for being present for key moments, like his album “Love and Theft” getting the release date of 9/11/01. But he’s another obsession for another discussion.
I’m really lacking in the Dylanology department, although I once read a book about him. I know something about the Dylan of the sixties but progressively less of Dylan afterward.
I’m glad you agree with me about the underbelly, etc. I think a lot of my fascination with L.A. has to do with the combination of documentation and mystery — that is, every time I watch an old movie, I find myself staring at the faces of people whose names I don’t know and never will, and I wonder what brought them to L.A. and how they ended up as extras or bit players and what their lives were like and what became of them. My ideas — or fantasies, I should say — tend toward the Nathaniel West sort, if not the James Ellroy, though I know the truth, in the overwhelming majority of cases, was far less sensational.
Of course, in terms of interest in this sort of thing, the French can’t be beat. They’ve tended to value historic Hollywood far more than Americans ever did. So, spiritually, you’re in the right place.
By the way, I don’t think I ever told you that, last summer, I phoned Andrew McCarthy while fundraising for the American Film Institute. I was going to ask him, as per my instructions, if he would renew his AFI membership, but the second after he answered the phone with a curt hello, he hung up on me. Possibly it was a different Andrew McCarthy, but I don’t think it was. I mention this, of course, in reference to your piece about living in L.A., in which Mr. McCarthy figured. I read somewhere that he works occasionally as a journalist, so maybe an AFI membership is now beside the point.
Andrew McCarthy, journalist? Sounds like he needs to be brought on as a TNB contributor. If you ever have him on the phone again, Duke, tell him I’d forgive his outstanding debt on my Blockbuster card.
He would never let me get the words out. I’d be like, “Hey, asshole, my friend Nat — ”
Of course I might have a better result if I didn’t call him an asshole.
Hi, Duke – I finally took the time to finish this essay, and I’m glad for it. The pictures really make the piece more amazing. Somehow, I’d never seen any of them. I’m sorry to hear about Paul. You definitely make me want to know more about him – about what happened and how he is now. Also, I just did that drive through Paso Robles a few months ago, so I could completely envision this whole road trip as you wrote about it.
Happy birthday, Duke. 🙂
It returns to me now that you were in Bakersfield in January or February; is that right? Nick Belardes invited me to come up to Bakersfield while you were there, but I was back east at the time.
Anyway, only one of the pictures was included in Subversia. I’m glad, like Nat, you mention them; they were an important consideration when I was debating with myself as to whether to post the piece.
I have theories about what happened to Paul — what prompted his nervous breakdown, if you will — but that’s all they are, theories. He allegedly lives now right up the street from a mutual friend, and as a matter of fact, tonight that friend invited me to a barbecue at his place, but I haven’t seen Paul there or anywhere else in over three years. He’s become a bit mythical since he disappeared from the lives of those who used to know him, so that reported sightings feel almost, to me at least, like ghost stories.