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THE NORTH HOLLYWOOD SHOOTOUT | Pulp Reality in L.A.
: ESSAY

When the Soundtrack Comes to Life

March 01, 1997|SHAWN HUBLER

In this city, more than most places on earth, art and life seem inseparable. Someone robs a bank in suburbia on live TV, and the collision is inevitable, an unclean segue between pulp fiction and truth.

The bad guys wore the requisite ski masks, the SWAT troops sported ball caps, the shrieking bank tellers holed themselves up in the vault. The police tape fluttered. The artillery was heavy. There were skycams and wounded bystanders on the curb. If you were watching it on TV, as virtually everyone did if they cared to see the mayhem du jour, you couldn't help but notice the influence of our local art.

But you also couldn't help but wonder about the inevitable, poignant entrance of life. At one point, shortly after the robbery, the police did a house-to-house search. Guns drawn, eyes peeled, they crept along fences and down alleys in search of fugitives.

But what was most noticeable was not so much the tension of it all, but the very ordinariness of the scene. The trash cans lined up for collection. The chinks in the pink stuccoed walls. The fragrant, wet laundry that flapped on the clotheslines of a yard where an armed and dangerous felon might be cowering, his mind racing, his gun heavier than you'd expect in one hand.

Did the robbers secretly wonder whether any of this would unfold in slo-mo? Did they imagine a soundtrack playing in their heads as they dreamed this all the night before? Did they think, as they strolled down the street, guns ablaze, that this was the way they did it in the movies?

And when there was no soundtrack or slo-mo, when it was just two men sweating under their dark clothing, struggling to see out of the scratchy holes in those ski masks--when the lights came up and the drama was still unfolding, how was it then for the human beings on the street below?

How did the asphalt feel against their faces? How did the glass from the shattered windshields crunch underfoot? Did they ask: How could I have gotten so out of touch with the truth of life?

More to the point: Did we?

It's so easy to reduce the news to something like a movie. You see a man's head being blown off, live, on a sidewalk and it crosses your mind that the director has shown remarkable restraint in filming this scene in long shot. You see a bank being robbed, and you think of all the glamour that has come to surround the genre--the physical beauty of the actors who played Bonnie and Clyde, the cool feel of the lexicon ("takedown robbery"), the disguises and masks and the swashbuckling attitudes.

It was like the movie "Heat," the television announcers told us, like an action flick with an exciting shootout at the end.

But it wasn't, not really, not even from the virtual peanut gallery of the skycam. For from up there, high in the sky, you could see the blood, and it wasn't bright or red or plentiful, the way it is on film.

It was only small and sad, like the strip of flesh that showed when the dead gunman's jacket rode up on his back as he lay on the street. The ultimate trick ending, as the broadcast cut back by midafternoon to Rosie O'Donnell and the Bugs Bunny show.

What does it mean, that this vicious burst of human frailty could have looked for all the world like entertainment? What does it mean for this city that our art and our lives have become so intertwined?

What does it mean, other than that the dramatized account of Friday's terrifying events will be coming soon to a theater near you?

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