Sunday, March 26, 2006

LA, from pop culture to real life

I love movies and television. I love travelling. I live a three-hour plane ride from Los Angeles. So now I'm wondering what took me so long to finally get there.

I recently made my first trip, a short one, and there's so much more I want to see or do. Go to some great theatre. Catch a taping of a television show. Visit more of the tourist landmarks, like Mann's Chinese Theatre and the Hollywood sign. Go to the beach, see the Santa Monica pier. Win the lottery and actually shop on Rodeo Drive, instead of pressing my nose against the windows after the stores were closed.

So that's what I didn't do, and must plan for next time (especially the lottery part). What I did do was get that thrill from seeing pop cultural touchstones become actual personal memories, not just memories once removed through the collective memory of film and fiction. I walked down Rodeo Drive. OK, the shops were closed, but I was there. I saw Sunset Drive, Santa Monica Boulevard, Wilshire Boulevard, the Hollywood Hills, drove on a little slice of Route 66. All these names I've had in my head since childhood, because movies and television put them there, and now I have actual personal associations with them, too. We passed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences building – it's fairly hideous, but c'mon, they're the Oscars people.

This trip brought back memories of my one-and-so-far-only trip to New York City, back in 1993. That was when I learned Times Square isn't really square, and, driving down from Quebec in order to get there, that Rhode Island isn't really an island (before you point the finger of stupidity at me, Americans, think for a moment about the brainiac who named the state). My friends and I arrived two days after the World Trade Centre had been attacked – as I have to say now: "you know, the first time" – and there it stood before us like the evening news.

The Empire State Building conjured up images of King Kong and other films ... and little else, since fog obscured the famed view of the city. There was the Statue of Liberty, a real, concrete statue, not just an image on celluloid. I was thrilled to listen to David Letterman's monologue in person, even though his guests were the unimpressive-to-me Raquel Welch and Nigel Mansell. I sat in a darkened theatre watching a mediocre play and felt excited and privileged because it was Broadway. These were concepts that were more familiar to me than some cities I'd lived in, because I'd seen them all so many times onscreen.

And there were the people. It's always about the people. The rude, obnoxious New Yorkers, who always noticed the mystified tourists peering at the subway maps and kindly helped us find our way, who were eager to recommend good places to eat and drink and see and do. The snarky bartender who ridiculed us for our naiveté of all things New York, but gave us extra drinks just for being the only three people in the bar who weren't middle-aged women wearing spandex leggings and rhinestone-encrusted sweaters (a Barry Manilow concert was about to begin across the street).

We met two stereotypes, cops from Brooklyn whose banter seemed rehearsed from a bad buddy comedy. "Indiana" Jimmy Jones and "Dirty Harry" Bob Callaghan asked with disgust why nice girls like us would want to visit such a vile city. They actually said: "Be careful out there." Yet there was pride in their voices as they talked about the excess of everything in New York. Thirteen years later, I suddenly realize maybe they were flirting with us a little bit, too.

And 13 years later, I finally got a glimpse of that other American city of movie legend, Los Angeles, and the people in it.

I've already written about the highlight of the trip: seeing the House session at the William S. Paley Television Festival. Even though it was a treat to see an upcoming episode in a theatre setting and get some insight into the show, it was all about the people, too. Obviously they were still on the job, so maybe they were only acting like they liked each other, but it was nice to see the cast as human beings with an easy camaraderie between them, and not as their characters. Much as I admire Hugh Laurie, I was happy to see the entire panel getting to contribute funny and insightful answers to questions that ranged from fangirly to thoughtful. Plus the writer I'd interviewed months before was warm and generous and, of course, funny when I approached him after the session, instead of politely dismissive as I half-expected.

My friends and I learned that not everyone in the city aspires to show business by chatting with Mike the Getty Centre security guard, who wanted to take advantage of their employee scholarship program and study for an art conservation degree, and Minilik the cab driver, who had moved there from the east coast to study for a business degree.

Yet we joked about the pervasiveness of the star culture, with one friend proclaiming how weird it was to think of the people living in these mansions, doing regular things like bringing their kids to school and going to the grocery store. At a little martini bar called Lola's in West Hollywood, we had a waitress who looked like Julianne Moore's little sister. After she left us our drinks, I whispered to my friend: "She's really beautiful" (because it's bad to let someone hear you complimenting them? What can I say, it didn't seem like the thing for a straight woman to blurt out to her waitress). "Yeah, I hope she makes it," my friend whispered back.

The charming Giuseppe at the Enoteca Drago restaurant in Beverly Hills treated us like guests in his home, even though we were not part of The Beautiful People crowd. After exhausting our ideas for what appetizers we wanted to share, but not our hunger for more, we put ourselves in his hands and he brought us delicious item after delicious item. He bonded with my oenophile friend who took charge of ordering the wine, to the point where I was afraid she might prefer his company to ours. After the wine glass incident, I'm not sure I'd blame her ... though it was partly her fault.

At one point, our other friend tried to shush our passionate but ridiculous conversation, which had been fuelled by a couple bottles of wine. She put her glass down emphatically as a gesture of exasperation – a little too emphatically, crushing the stem to her horror and embarrassment, but, as she happily pointed out, not spilling the wine. Without batting an eye, but with a gleam in them that expressed "you girls are troublemakers" as clearly as any words, Giuseppe had the mess cleaned up and the glass replaced without wasting a single drop. He even made a hilarious show of bringing her the sturdiest, stemless-est glass he could find for a subsequent drink. If he had show business aspirations, they didn't interfere with him being the best waiter ever.

Adam, our sardonic tour guide at the Warner Brothers studio with the purposely affected enunciation, was obviously hoping to make it in the biz. He'd taken performing arts at an Ivy League college, and slipped in and out of voices and attitudes on a whim. He either loved or hated the three of us, but we all seemed to embrace the concept that a mutual exchange of insults is a sign of affection. "I'm a stripper by night," he joked in some context I've mercifully blocked out of my mind. "Thank god we're here during the day," I replied.

His quirky personality was only a small highlight of the tour, as he showed us exactly what I was most excited to see – the Hollywood magic. Off-screen, of course, it's just as fake as a magic act, too.

He showed us the street that was Paris in Casablanca, and I could picture Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman standing there. We saw the iron stairs that were the scene of the upside down kiss in Spider-Man, and it looked so much smaller than the image in my mind. We saw the exterior of the ER hospital and Doug Ross's apartment, the preserved Central Perk set from Friends, the soundstages of Two and a Half Men and The Gilmore Girls, and, from a distance, outdoor filming in the town square of that show's Stars Hollow, where the trees, Adam told us, had silk leaves, because the real ones had been pulled off for previous winter episodes and hadn't grown back yet. He didn't seem to be joking. As appalled as I was for the poor trees, that's Hollywood, right? I was even thrilled to be appalled.

I've heard the complaints: Los Angeles is a giant parking lot with psychotic drivers, presided over by yellow skies and snooty people. But my experiences of any place are always about the people who fill it, and in the case of Los Angeles, it's not just the Rick and Ilsas, the Doug Rosses and the Phoebe Buffays who will fill my memory, but also, now, the Giuseppes and Adams.