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The Eternal Power of Allure

A Newcomer to Hollywood Learns Why the Town Still Beckons

August 08, 2004|Mark Wasserman | Mark Wasserman is a screenwriter and poet who lives in Hollywood.

Up close, the stars on the Walk of Fame--faded pink and marbled by white nuggets--resemble alarmingly fatty cuts of salami. That, at least, was my initial impression upon moving to the neighborhood. It's not that I didn't acknowledge their power. How could I not, faced with a ceaseless stream of tourists snapping pictures, erecting shrines or weeping uncontrollably? I, too, would occasionally find myself pausing reverently over Rod Serling, swooning sadly over Ann Sheridan, or smiling diabolically over Richard Widmark. But for those first few months, that lunch-meat image came to embody the queasy essence of living in Hollywood proper--a place both nutritious and nauseating, a place that manages to simultaneously feed your dreams while making you sick to your stomach.

Probably it was the endless exposure to illusion that did it. Nowhere are things less what they seem than in Hollywood. As most Angelenos know, on a typical stroll down the boulevard one can spot unknown actors costumed as movie stars; movie stars disguised as nobodies; drug deals finessed as handshakes; strippers dressed as coeds; coeds dressed as strippers.

To this daily masquerade add a newcomer's sense of disorientation and a dose of unemployment blues, and I soon felt at a triple remove from the world. Never mind trying to feel at home. I was busy trying not to dematerialize altogether. I needed to take a drastic measure. So I did what any out-of-work writer would do: make one of my short scripts into a film. At least I could actualize something in my life. It was a decision born less of artistic ambition than existential angst.

I didn't have to look long, or far, for a location. My old Art Deco building seemed perfect. In no time, I was building a fake wall in the middle of my studio apartment, haunting garage sales in search of props, considering my lighting options. As if on cue, all the everyday furnishings of my life seemed to call out for their close-ups--the rattling, octogenarian elevator with its diamond-shaped windows; the long, flowing hallways that almost narrowed to a vanishing point; even the evocative, dimly lit dumpster area. I was making a movie. Fun, stressful and illuminating, the filmmaking process itself began to seem like the only substantive part of my life.

At the same time, I began to sense the grind of living in Hollywood. I'd gotten over my nausea, but in its place I felt helpless before the ever-invasive entertainment industry. It was like the Blob, encroaching on life in so many ways: conjuring tedious traffic jams that gridlocked the streets for blocks and poisoned the air for hours; summoning hellaciously loud helicopters to thunder over my building; instilling flint in the eyes of a million creative types who hadn't yet caught a break. And those were the lucky ones. Maybe that's why, after five months of walking over the stars on the Walk of Fame, my sense of them began to mutate into a more potent image. I now viewed them as a collection of personalized ninjas throwing stars. Sharp enough to puncture one's dreams--or pierce one's chest.

But I kept making my little movie. When shooting wrapped, a number of the props and pieces of equipment lingered mysteriously in my life. A hook light became my permanent reading lamp, negating the need for a cumbersome night table. A corny chiming clock with musical instruments on its face (perfect for my clarinetist character, but not for me) had earned the right to keep telling me time, if only in the bathroom. A phony doorknob remained, simply because it amused me. Implausibly, my apartment, by becoming more stage-like, began to feel more homey. It was as if the more unreality I incorporated into my real life, the more grounded I felt.

At the same time, Hollywood itself began to feel like home. Slowly I felt a measure of contentment at living there. At night, as I gazed from my fire escape at the faded green towers and turrets of the Magic Castle, I had to smile. How many people even had turrets to gaze upon? I felt a kind of watery bliss at the limitless fantasies churning outside my window, an appreciation for all the dream-weavers around me. They do their jobs well. Their hard work and relentless imagination pumps life and money into the community. Their efforts feed not only their own families and those of thousands of industry people, but the dream lives of innumerable movie lovers the world over.

This understanding--or sustained delusion--keeps me going, as it does for many. Last week the fellow who plays Superman on the street told me he planned to audition to play the Man of Steel in the next cinematic version. This, despite whispered worries in the industry that the role was cursed, tragedy having befallen nearly every actor to take on the role. But when I mentioned the curse, this Superman merely grinned, revealing tiny teeth that seemed a little too rodent-like for Clark Kent, his sideburns a bit too long. But his eyes glowed with L.A. confidence. "I think I'd be perfect for the part," he announced, nodding more to himself than me.

Then we looked down the boulevard. And as my gaze fell again upon the Walk of Fame, I felt it shift once more. Now--beneath the oceanic neon lights, the passing waves of traffic, the tides of tourists--those plaques suddenly looked to me like starfish. They clung steadfastly to the bottom of the neighborhood, too stubborn to let go.

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