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Movieland - Chapter 3
Flash forward to 2010. Class is about to start.
With his immaculate, absurdly expensive black sneakers propped up on the row in front of him and his dark glasses halfway down his nose, giving him just the right shade of cool, Dante checked out asses as the students came into the theater.
It was an occupational habit. He had been in ‘adult films,’ as he unironically referred to the porn industry, for maybe ten years now. He had lost count. By age thirty-two, Dante Alessandro had made a million-three on amateur videos of ‘college girls’ (supposedly) behaving badly (definitely). Life as one long spring break with boozy bikini-less blowouts and horned-up ‘college boys’ dipping for jello shots off taut, tan tummies. He was bored now with endless spring break, which is why he sat in the Palatine Theater, waiting for the course on the films of Edward Thorncraft to change his life.
A year or so ago, in the jacuzzi, kicking back with Chivas and a spliff, the buzzed Dante got one of his inspirations. He conceived of a spin-off studio, one that would dabble in features— porn with plots! Why not? It was old school, but why not? He narrowed his eyes as he sucked in another drag, then stood up naked. The night air was damp outside of the heated whirling jacuzzi, but he was enamored of this latest ‘download’ — that’s how he referred to these sudden inspirations — and he dawdled in the chill canyon air, methodically wrapping himself in a hooded bathrobe. This was the way forward, he told himself. The wavy lights in the pool that lit the waters a vivid aqua seemed to nod yes.
Instead of just producing videos, as he had done for the last decade, sending out teams with handheld cameras to Cancun and Mardi Gras, he would for real direct films himself. He was always a lucky guy, the luckiest guy in the business, he’d boast, and just as this new venture was getting off the ground, he discovered the magic that would make it all work: a leggy Black girl with the nom de porn Stormy Rivers. She was going to make him a fortune all over again — and this one in legit entertainment!
And so he had checked into this course, which though intended for advanced students in UCLA’s film program, was opened also to “people in the industry.” That’s how the write-up in the L.A. Times put it in a splashy Sunday feature on the “phoenix-like resurrection of the Palatine Theater.” The fabled theater was being restored, and, though still in a half-finished state, would inaugurate classes with a series of lectures taught by “arguably the premiere Thorncraft scholar in the world,” Thomas Day. It was the way Dante wanted to start his own phoenix-like resurrection, with a first-class course in the films of a first-class master.
So here he was, slunk down in his seat in the Palatine Theater, the Spring Break King, dispassionately judging the buoyant buttocks through his dark glasses when a man who had just entered the theater, came to an abrupt stop at his row and gave him an ugly look. He pointed to the sneakers. Dante arrogantly stared back at him. This was Thomas Day, looking like his photo in the Times, tall, square-jawed, smart in his black-framed glasses. They held each other’s gaze for a long uncomfortable moment, the professor taking in the complete ensemble.
Dante, as was his wont, was dressed all in black, immaculate sneakers, immaculate chinos, trim sports jacket made of supple leather, but that wasn’t the worst part. Dante was sure he saw a smug look slacken the professor’s face. He could almost read his thoughts. All black … what a hipster cliche … but seriously, dark glasses! … dark glasses in a movie theater!
“Oh fuck it,” Dante grumbled to himself and swung his legs off the row. He was self-conscious about his glasses, which were actually thick prescription lenses. He pretended they were merely dark glasses that he was too cool to take off. The stand-off between the men was about to end when Dante’s cell phone emitted a series of coital moans, the opening bars of “Love to Love You Baby.”
The professor smirked.
Dante got to his feet and, to show he was not cowed, took his time strutting past the professor, Donna Summer orgasming away, turned with a hint of a swagger, and headed up the aisle, loudly helloing into the phone at his ear.
Tom watched the student in black make his way past the red rows and disappear into the lobby. So this was what it was going to be like, teaching at UCLA, to entitled industry types. You didn’t treat landmarks disrespectfully, especially not ones spruced up with plush new seats. Tom had grown up nearly fifty years ago in Chicago. The Palatine was one of those magical Hollywood names like Ciro’s or the Coconut Grove or the Brown Derby that spoke of movie stars at play in their off-hours. The theater was Greco-Roman in the same exuberant fantasy way that Grauman’s was Chinese or the Egyptian was Egyptian. But the Palatine was more than that, the fabled premieres with their one-night-only starry stage shows had made it more than that.
Class was a few minutes shy of starting. Tom took the steps up to the stage and looked about him as he stood at the lectern, turning around to take in the theater’s magnificent scarlet curtain with its hem of gold tassels. Was this the way the Palatine had looked in the ‘40s, during the Golden Age of the Studio, when stars would get up on this stage and joke and tap dance for each other? … when there was a bar in the lobby, and the line between who you were and the roles you played grew wobblier as the drinks and the evening wore on?
Some of this slipping into character was for the fans in the balcony, some of it for the star-making publicity machine, but some of it, Tom suspected, was because actors were no different than the audiences who followed them.
Americans were believers in magical transformation. It was the American creed. In America you could shed the past, play at being anyone you wanted to be, and something in the American air would make you that person. And if you could shed the past under open skies and amber waves, why not go to Hollywood and shed reality as well?
Tom turned back and looked over the assembly of young and not-so-young students sitting in the rows below him. “I think we can begin,” he said into the lectern mike. The balcony above was lost in darkness. It was yet to be refurbished, and the bulging opera bays on either side of its horseshoe span caught dim reflected light, showing a jaundiced hue, in need of gold paint.
“We meet every Tuesday and Thursday during the semester.” Tom tapped the mike, which had cut out. “Can you all hear me?” He called up to the projection booth. “Kashi?”
“On it, professor,” a young voice replied from the high darkness.
The mike came up with a squeal.
“Better now?” Tom searched the class. “Great.” He took the mike out of its holder and stood to the side of the lectern. “So on Tuesdays we screen the movie; on Thursdays we discuss it in-depth. There is no textbook for this course. Though I have devoted several well-received books to some of the films we’ll be discussing, and I immodestly suggest my books to those who wish them.”
He turned around for a moment to take his measure again of the vividly scarlet curtain tasseled in gold. “Let me just say how thrilling it is to be presenting these films in a grand old movie palace like the Palatine. We will see these masterpieces as Edward Thorncraft intended. Big screen. Two-projectors. Film! We will forgo the rather marvelous digital restorations of Technicolor for the blemished purity of film stock. Film with all its glamorous imperfections. In black and white, smooth and silvery; in Technicolor, lush and saturated.
“And this is all thanks to Miriam Thorncraft, the director’s daughter. How many of you read the piece in the Times? Oh, good, most of you … all of you, it looks like. So you know Miriam Thorncraft has been the savior of our fast-vanishing Hollywood history. Of course, we all know Miriam from her memorable roles in her father’s films.”
“Small roles, please,” a jovial voice called from the back of the theater. The students turned. “Vanity parts, really.”
“Miriam please stand so the class can see you.”
Miriam stood, a matron with a pleasantly round face in a well-cared-for helmet of auburn hair. She bowed modestly and resumed sitting.
Tom shook his head. “Hardly minor, Miriam. Hardly vanity. Yes, class, we are honored to have the great and the good Miriam Thorncraft with us, to break the champagne bottle, as it were, over the maiden voyage of the reborn Palatine Theater. I think we will see over the course of this lecture series that Miriam Thorncraft made quite a mark in these films …much like her father whose silent walk-ons were a trademark audiences waited for. I’m sure we all have our favorites. He’d always come on in that proper bowler hat and black suit, doing something droll, carrying a Tuba, kicking a bus as it leaves without him, pulling an Ace of Spades from his cuff to win at cards. Catching the Thorncraft cameo was what you kids now call ‘an Easter egg,’ a bonus for the attentive viewer.
“My favorite was in the film Mayday. Mayday takes place on a lifeboat after German warplanes sink a luxury liner. Now how is the formidable Edward Thorncraft going to insert himself into a film shot entirely on the water, with a cast of no more than nine? Clever Thorn, brilliant Thorn … he shows up on the back of a newspaper in a Before and After slimming ad! And the joke is …” Tom began to chuckle. “The After looks exactly like the Before!”
Dante heard the lecture start while he was on his cell in the lobby. There had been a change. The recording studio would not be available until 10 p.m., much later than agreed. He needed to notify Stormy, but not wanting to miss any more of “arguably the premier Thorncraft expert in the world,” Dante quietly slipped back into the last row of the darkened theater. He’d call Stormy later. Was his phone off? His phone was off. He wanted no more pissing contests with the professor. He now gave his full attention to the man on the lit stage, who was pacing about the lectern, looking sturdy and intellectual in his glasses and tweed jacket.
“I’m beginning the course with Twisted, Thorncraft’s last film,” the professor announced. “His most controversial work, and as these things go, his biggest box-office hit. Is there anyone on this planet who has not seen this mega-famous film!”
Dante slunk down guiltily in his seat. Movies were not something he had paid attention to until he started making them.
“Twisted is sometimes called a horror film. Don’t believe it. Twisted is a bold twist on the haunted house genre, updated with grisly crime-story touches. Certainly, it was shocking for 1967 and can still shock, even though its most notorious scene, the murder on the stairs, is now a favorite film trope, recreated in many films as a tribute to Thorncraft. The great art of that scene is that the killing is never directly shown, only suggested through fast edits. The knife slashes down but never cuts; the screaming Lee Saxon, who, of course, plays the victim, bleeds but is never wounded. It’s all done by gestalt. The attack takes place in our uncensored minds. It is murder by cinema… rather than by knife, for it is the savagery of the abrupt edits flashing before our eyes that makes us experience, not just witness, but feel the brutal —but, ah, justly lauded — ‘Murder on the Stairs.’
“Some things to look for: The house on the hill, where invalid sister Ruby ‘lives in the attic’ (the professor made air quotes) is a straight-up California Victorian in distressed shingled wood, with gingerbread fringe and a foreboding attic tower where Ruby’s oval rose-window is always dimly, eerily lit. The house is meant to look conventionally scary and inspire conventional expectations that are about to be subverted and overwhelmed. Yet, it is not the house that is haunted but our main character's mind. This is a Freudian haunting, and the only ghosts in the film are the ones shuffling around the unhinged psyche of the Fireside Cabins’ proprietor, Raymond Shepard…”
Dante kicked the empty seat in front of him. Was the professor going to spill the whole damn plot! Dante happened to be one of the anybodys on the planet who had never seen this “mega-famous” film. He stood up in the dark and hurried along the last row. He was annoyed. He should call Stormy anyway. It was nagging him.
Out in the lobby, he found the sweet spot where reception was best, near the entrance, and tapping out the number, glimpsed the sunny pavement of Pineapple Street through the plate glass doors. He got the answering machine. Stormy’s taped announcement, typical of her, was to the point: “Leave a message at the beep.”
“Storm—um, Pauline,” he hastened to correct himself. Real friends, she had told him more than once, called her by her real name. “Pauline, there’s been a change. Mandrell has another gig. He won’t be in the booth until ten.” These record producers were worse than fluffers. “No worries, we have the studio for the night, and the music tracks are all laid down … chunky and funky. Just bring your righteous soul voice and your —oh, call the backup chicks; they're your girls, right? Tell them not to show up at the Gower studio until ten. Excited, babe? I am! Tonight we begin our campaign to conquer Hollywood!” He clicked off.
How quickly life had found an exciting new edge when he met her! She was just Pauline Charles then, showing up at his office in a soggy raincoat, a leggy Black girl from Inglewood, with a funny face and a funny way with words, who had grown up knocking around between a Baptist choir and reform school. They called her "Swifty" on the street for her light-fingered expertise but "Miss Pauline" in the choir where her voice soared over the heads of the congregation, right out onto Imperial Highway. Yet for a long time, Dante knew nothing of the voice.
She had come to him because she had done the math: she could make more money in porn films than humping it on her back at ‘Mayfair,’ an escort service whose fake gimmick was that the girls were all "starlets." Thing is Pauline Charles was serious about the starlet bit.
Dante never did get the story straight. Some do-gooder, a social worker or counselor, had turned Pauline around in reform school, made her believe all things were possible. She began to take screenwriting courses at a community college, and when she started doing his scripted features, freely ad-libbed her own lines, hilariously. Dante knew just to stand back. This was the real thing. She invented her own screwball character, “Goldilocks" — a sassy Black chick in a big crazy Dolly Parton wig —who was a huge hit. The ad-libbing, wisecracking Goldilocks attracted a devoted cult of young and old men, who stood in lines, three or four across, to get her autograph when they went to the Adult Film Conventions in Vegas.
It was while driving back from a convention one night, the top down on his brand new silver sports car, a Porsche Boxster, the radio playing softly, that Pauline picked up on Aretha and woke Dante out of his highway-driving trance. Hers was a strong contralto with a harsh, ripped-up edge in the manner of gospel shouters.
Oh my god, he said. She … they … were wasting their time in porn! They had to make an album. He'd back her. And here was the inspired thing, his great “download.” They wouldn't hide her porn career, they'd cash in on it. She became very excited as they rode through the high desert, coming up on a clear western morning, the sky as bright as their fevered talk about how she'd be the new Millie Jackson, the new Andrea True, girls who had made it with a porned-out dance hit. Better than that, she … they … would create their own movies. She'd write them … like, like…who was that dame? Built like an hourglass. “You know, from like, forever. Come up and see me—“
"Yeah, her!” He was going to learn as much about movies as he could, and then they were going to really show this town what Stormy Rivers was all about!
Tired and high from a long convention as they were, this might have been just talk. But Dante was beginning to see that he and Pauline were well suited for each other: they were ambitious and clear-headed about that ambition in exactly the same way. She was always on time, and so was he.
Dante went back across the Palatine lobby and cracked open the auditorium door.
“… ’ripped from the headlines,’ as they say in cheap trailers.” The professor was in full flow. Dante stood at the door, listening.
“Like Andy Warhol’s muddy silkscreens of the New York Daily News covers, Twisted is Thorncraft’s psychological take on the tabloids. It’s why he used black and white when everyone else had moved on to color. Black and white has the look of inky newsprint, the feel of tabloid headlines. But here’s where Twisted cuts deeper. Tabloids seek to titillate us with leering reports of murder sprees and boy-next-door maniacs — “monsters” as they call them. Read between the lines, as Thorncraft does, and you find the tabloids write about all this with a prurient relish, a coarse delight that they try to hide behind moralizing hogwash and professions of outrage.
“Twisted pulls away the veil,” the professor contended. “Twisted makes us aware that the very act of movie watching is a transgressive act of voyeurism, bordering on the perverse. We are made to anticipate each fresh murder as if we are tingling for the next plunge of a rollercoaster. That is Thorncraft’s special genius. Why we call him the Master of Suspense. He doesn’t jolt us with a shock out of the blue, he teases it, shows the mounting fear of the victim, the shadowy figure coming down the stairs, makes us wait as the knife rises, long for it to slash down, to relieve the tension. Thorncraft shows us that anticipation is more powerful than surprise. That the wait, the foreplay if you will, is perversely more thrilling than the act.
“Through his manipulation of first-person shots, Thorncraft puts us in Raymond’s shoes, makes us want what Raymond wants … not because we’re monsters, but because we’re thrill seekers, amoral to the core. Rather than shield us from Raymond by making him safely the Other, Twisted drags us down into the wild realm of his unconscious where, with a startled gasp, we recognize that the wooly impulses on screen — sex, murder, even transsexualism—are our own.”
Dante had no idea what the professor was talking about, but one thing was clear, spoilers were a-flying. After all, everyone on the planet …
Dante pulled back, shut the auditorium door. It was then he noticed the sign.
Eye-catching, it was propped on an easel. A famous detail from the Sistine Chapel, two fingers about to touch, God and man’s, under which was the caption. “Please Forgive Our Appearance. Even The World Took Seven Days. ”
Another sign hung from a sagging velvet rope that spanned the grand staircase. “Balcony Closed”
The provocation was irresistible. Lured to the steps, Dante swung his leg over the rope and headed toward the landing, catching for a moment the ghostly whiff of decayed flowers.
“Am I late?”
He turned around to see a nose-jobby girl with blonde streaks, very Beverly Hills, hurrying into the lobby from outside. “Did he start?” She had a cell phone cupped to her ear and a bottle of Alpine Premium Water in her hand.
He smiled wryly with the smallest nod of his head and continued upward.
She paused at the easel. “You’re not supposed to go up there.”
“Yeah… but I’m that guy.”
Taking his time, falling into an arrogant strut, Dante set foot on the forbidden balcony level. He turned now to get a good look at Miss Rodeo Drive. She was hastening toward the auditorium doors, a brown Vuitton bag slung from her shoulder. Tight butt, toned bod, running late from some flush-faced Pilates class.
“Rules were made for other people,” he called after her.
She shot him a grimace, long enough to catch his dirty smile. “Douche,” she muttered, but this only amused Dante. He lowered his dark glasses with one finger and peered over the rims. This made everything blurry, but the gesture was effectively sarcastic. Then to annoy her more, he extended an outrageous hand and beckoned her to join him. She scowled, yanking the auditorium door open with more force than necessary, leaving Dante alone on the balcony landing.
It was the dark glasses, she would say later, those Wayfarer Ray-Bans, and the black John Varvatos hoodie under the black trim-waisted Hugo Boss leather blazer (she had been a buyer at Neiman’s before Hollywood and was fluent in the vocabulary of brands), and, of course, those obnoxious Tremayne Weeks signature sneakers that made her peg this guy immediately as a total dick. The girl with the blonde streaks and the impossible ski-jump nose would be the last person to see Dante in the theater.
Preview: A corner where there should be no corner… a door where there should be no door.
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