The plane descends through blue skies and cloud wisps. I’ve left the early autumn chill of the UK far behind, and I’m about to touch down in LA, the land of movies. The home of Hollywood, film stars, startling excess and, I later learn, pissed off terrapins. It’s late September, and I’m here to capture the hum of pre-release hype for Tron: Legacy, Disney’s revival of its almost 30-year-old computer age adventure movie.
It’s my first time in the land of the free, and I’m both excited and apprehensive. Excited at the prospect of seeing this sprawling place for myself, having grown up with images of US life since childhood, but at the same time I’m nervous that, as a dweller of villages and provincial towns, I’d somehow become swallowed up, lost forever in this cavernous republic.
Los Angeles viewed from the Hollywood Hills
I learn, as I spend almost two hours waiting to go through security and then a further forty minutes having my passport checked once again at the exit, that the land of the free has quietly morphed into the land of the paranoid.
Before I flew, I filled in my visa form online, which asked if I’d been a Nazi between the years 1938-1945, if I’d ever been convicted for the kidnapping of a minor, or whether I’d ever been to prison for making explosives. Then I filled in another form on the plane, where I certified that I wouldn’t attempt to smuggle any kind of deadly bacilli, raw meat, vegetables or snails onto US soil.
Having sat patiently on the hulking 747, an upended conning tower stuffed full of chairs and blankets, I staggered blearily into Los Angeles airport to be met with an unending conga line of the defeated and exhausted. This was homeland security, where each luckless traveller had to present their passport and various forms, before having various parts of their anatomy scrutinised, photographed and scanned.
After nearly 100 minutes of waiting in line, during which I listened to the bizarre ramblings of an Irishman who may or may not have been insane, I had the four fingers on my right hand scanned, then my right thumb. Then the four fingers on my left hand, then my left thumb. I then had my eyes scanned.
What do they do with this information? If one of the vast number of people streaming through LA’s turnstiles every day ultimately proved to be a mass murderer of some description, what purpose would a scan of their fingers and eyes serve?
But let me rewind a little bit, and return to the Irishman. Cheerfully corpulent, with ice cream hair and varifocal spectacles, he had a gentle, avuncular but only fitfully intelligible accent. At first, I thought I was mishearing what he was saying, as each utterance became more outlandish than the last.
First, he talked enthusiastically of his hatred for the Scottish. “They’re racist,” he said, with not a suspicion of irony. Then he talked about the castle he renovated, which had twenty rooms.
He told me of the magnet technology he and his company had invented, of the saucer-like, wingless aircraft he’d designed. It was revolutionary, he said. “Didn’t Skoda design one in World War II?” I asked. He hotly denied this.
Then he talked about an electric car he owned that was worth 800 million dollars (though, again, I’m sure I must have misheard this), a vehicle that had only driven for thirty miles before breaking down. This he followed with his list of houses: a flat in Wimbledon, another in Scotland, others in Europe and the US. And the castle? Sold, he said.
“But just because I’ve got all these houses and plenty of money, doesn’t make me special,” he said. “I still talk to ordinary people. Like you.”
While I stood wondering at this man’s extraordinary tales – and weighing up the possibility of asking him to lend me some money – it suddenly dawned on me that he’d somehow sidled in front of me in the queue. Part of me was incensed, but an ancient, working-class synapse in my brain fired and told me to wring my flat cap and let it go. He did own a castle, after all.
The Irishman had, between his tall tales, repeatedly told me that I probably wouldn’t be allowed through security, as I hadn’t printed my ESTA ticket. I replied that I’d paid for one, but simply hadn’t printed the receipt out – it’s all electronic now, isn’t it?
Having sneaked in front of me in the queue, he walked up to the security desk. But instead of having his fingers, thumbs and eyes scanned, the man behind the counter shook his head, and pointed to another queue some five miles away on the other side of the building. I’ve no idea what was said, but the Irishmen shuffled off quietly, until he was a mere dot on the horizon.
An hour later, and I’m out of the wretched airport, and blinking in the California sunshine. The air lies like a blanket, thick and almost unbreathable. I later learn that LA is in the grip of a heat wave, and that it’s roughly 35 degrees.
I slump into a taxi – a yellow taxi, like Travis Bickle may have driven – and notice that it’s a Tardis in reverse. Vast on the outside, cramped on the inside. As apparently huge and ungainly as US cars are, they appear to be all bonnet and trunk – there’s less room for the knees in here than in the back of a Peugeot 205.
The driver – terse, sunglasses, the spit of Cheech Marin – drives like the forces of hades are at his heels. We hurtle between lanes, weaving in and out of Oldsmobiles, Chevrolet Corvettes (there are dozens of them here, all white) and lumpen SUVs. We approach red lights so quickly that it feels as though Cheech is thinking of jumping them, but then chooses the final terrifying second to change his mind.
American cars are as spongy and nautical as the movies would have you believe. Every petulant jab at the brakes from Cheech’s size six feet sends the taxi pitching forward, affording a glimpse of tarmac that fills the windscreen, before the vehicle flops back on its heels, providing a glimpse of clear blue sky.
It really is searingly hot. I look out of the window at streets that look like movie sets. There are stadium sized shops devoted to Halloween outfits, tiny Psychic parlours, fast food joints I’ve never seen, or at least was only dimly aware of: Taco Bell, Wendy’s, Jack In The Box. Women push shopping trolleys filled with tin cans (I thought this only happened in Death Wish movies) joggers huff through brutal California heat, their brows weeping with grief.
We hurtle past Electronic Arts, the video game publishing giant, whose building looks like the one Arnold Schwarzenegger blew up in Terminator 2. In fact, everywhere looks like Terminator 2. It appears that James Cameron simply turned up in LA with an Austrian, a small boy and a video camera, and recorded the thing like a documentary.
Forty minutes, thirty dollars and eight near-misses later, and we’ve arrived at the Sheraton Hotel in Santa Monica. Like all hotels, it’s not as good as it looks on the website, but there’s marble in the lobby, and Cheech could have parked his taxi in the lift.
My room is pleasant, in that beige, Stepford bedsit sort of way, and has air-con. It also has a television hidden in a big faux-mahogany cabinet, which isn’t something I’ve seen in over two decades.
A television. In a cabinet. In 2010.
American television is extraordinary. The ratio of advertisements to programme content is skewed heavily towards the former, to the point where it’s not clear what the programme between the adverts is even after twenty minutes’ viewing.
Thankfully, the adverts are like nothing I’ve ever seen. Adverts for pieces of plastic that save space in your closet. Five minute commercials about pressure washers. Anti-smoking advisories with big poisonous spiders.
Then the weather. It’s only now that I realise how extraordinarily accurate Steve Carrell’s turn as a weather man was in Anchorman. It wasn’t crass comedy, but an astutely observed docu-drama. The chap on KTLA (or KGB, or something) is warning of the possibility of flash fires and widespread death with the breezy off-handedness you’d expect from someone reporting mild rain.
Later, I meet with my fellow writers and friendly PR people, and we eat dinner at a dimly-lit Mexican restaurant. I ask for the marinated beef, and receive a platter of unidentifiable things which were various shades of grey, brown and green. Beneath the beef lay something that appeared to be pickled lizard skin, or perhaps a shower hat. I don’t know what it was, but it didn’t taste of much. In fact, nothing tasted of anything. The black beans were like textured water, the beef as chewy as a dog lead. I love Mexican food, but this was like eating a fax of a meal rather than the real thing – grey, chewy and as bland as an Ikea funeral.
It’s at this point that, if we were characters in a movie, we’d all be getting hideously drunk – there are approximately a dozen hacks, writers and bloggers here from all over the place (Russia, Mexico, France, Germany, the UK), and for most of us, it’s our first visit to America. Surely, we should all be drinking cocktails in one of those LA clubs I’ve read so much about.
Instead, we head to Santa Monica beach, now under cover of darkness, where something called a Glow Festival is in full swing. Or we assume it’s in full swing – it’s little more than a group of people standing in the blackness holding a glowstick. Where’s the hedonism? Where are the drugs? Defeated, we headed back to the hotel.
* * *
Sunday morning. Breakfast arrives at my door, which consists of two fried eggs, two pencil-thin sausages and a pile of something that I later learn is yam. The eggs are undercooked, and still have the unmistakable consistency of phlegm. The yam is more colourful to look at than eat – it’d look better in a bowl by the television, like potpourri.
I meet my fellow hacks in the lobby. It’s the Tron: Legacy press day, and there’s a palpable sense of excitement amid the pink eyes and jetlag.
We’re piled into a van that looks like the one out of The A-Team, but without the stripe. Again, there’s a mysterious, claustrophobic air to its interior, and we’re jammed in, my fellow hacks and I, knee to knee. We’re driven down cracked streets already dusty with heat, past laundromats and pawn shops and secondhand car dealerships. Could this be where John Carpenter shot Assault On Precinct 13? I hope so.
We’re on our way to visit Digital Domain, the special effects company currently putting the finishing touches to Tron: Legacy, and given the difficult task of creating a convincing Jeff Bridges with an Amiga and a copy of Deluxe Paint.
The unassuming exterior of Digital Domain HQ
As we pull into the car park, we learn that Digital Domain is located in the warehouse out of Reservoir Dogs. It’s low-key, and faintly scruffy on the outside. Inside, there are exposed ducts and cubicles where the staff do things on computers. There are model skyscrapers and scale planes hanging from the ceiling. There’s a miniature Titanic somewhere, and posters of the films the company has worked on over the last 17 years. These include True Lies, Apollo 13, Star Trek: Nemesis and Transformers.
There’s Tron: Legacy stuff everywhere. There’s a life-size Light Cycle, a glowing Program suit, little scale miniatures in a glass cabinet, and odd bits of merchandising: glowing Wii and XBox 360 controllers, light-up PC keyboards and meeces, a shiny Light Cycle belt buckle. Two models (the human variety) stand on a dais, wearing figure-hugging Tron outfits. They look bored enough to die.
But before we can look too closely at anything, we’re crowded into the screening area, where fold-up chairs are arranged in the darkness.
Inside Digital Domain
We watch 25 minutes of unreleased, unfinished footage. It’s very shiny and loud. We’re all quite impressed. Later, we’re split into groups, and engage in carefully managed interviews with Legacy cast and crew. We speak to Steve Lisberger, the director of the original Tron, who has grown into handsome old age. He has long hair and a beard, and looks as though he should be able to perform miracles. Lisberger is opinionated, sharp, funny, and quite wonderful.
Later, we meet Olivia Wilde, the actress who plays a feline, wide-eyed computer program in the movie. She sits with a little cellophane-covered plate of nuts, berries and raw vegetables, which she doesn’t eat. In the background sits her assistant, who looks the same but smaller. Ms. Wilde is articulate and intelligent, and mentions philosophy and Joan of Arc. After the interviews are over, we’ll later see her playing Tron: Evolution on an Xbox 360. Then she leaves, still clutching her uneaten plate of nuts and berries.
We’re ferried back to the hotel in the A-Team van. Once again, we’re all knackered – the flight, time difference and almost eight hours of interviews have taken their toll, and many of us are too tired to leave the hotel. I eat a burger, knock back a beer and three or four double gins, and return to my lodgings, where I fall asleep to the sound of pressure washer commercials.
* * *
Monday. I awake to the sound of pressure washer commercials. I head to the lobby, where two of my fellow UK writers are loitering with their bags. There’s about five hours until we get back on a plane to England, and we’re anxious to see a little more of LA before we have to head off home.
A helpful chap at the concierge desk books us a driver to chauffeur us around, a friend of his, he says. Twenty minutes later, and a black Mercedes arrives outside, hazy in the morning heat.
Our driver is tanned, with incredible teeth and hair. “I’ll show you stuff you won’t see on a normal tour” he drawls, before taking us off down a busy highway. The car slows down outside an anonymous collection of hedges and palm trees in a quiet suburb. It’s where, the driver says, OJ Simpson’s wife was killed.
Later, we arrive at what at first appears to be a car park behind a huge collection of skyscrapers, including the shadowy Oppenheimer Tower. As we emerge from the Merc into acid sun, we realise it’s a graveyard. The grass is weird – crispy, yet still fluorescent green, like astro turf. The names on the stones are all familiar: Jack Lemmon, Truman Capote, Dean Martin. The late comedians have humorous things etched below their names; Billy Wilder’s says, “I’m a writer, but nobody’s perfect.”
View from the cemetery
The driver ushers us to a quiet corner of the cemetery, where a great marble wall stands in the sunlight. There are plaques arranged on it in a grid, like a filing cabinet of the dead. One of the drawers says, “Marilyn Monroe 1926-1962.” There are coins balanced on the plaque, and flowers suspended in a little vase.
“If she were still alive, she’d be 84 now,” the driver notes, philosophically. “Man, she was hot. I would have banged her for sure.”
We all stand thinking about this for a moment, until we notice our skin begin to simmer in the blistering Californian sun. The driver notes this, too, with a comment I don’t recollect. Faintly wounded, we pile back into the Mercedes.
We head down Trenton Drive, a corridor of scorched palm trees. We see Sunset Boulevard, full of expensive-sounding shops: Jimmy Choo, Lalique. The driver assures us that we’ll see “Muchos chicks”, but the streets are deserted – no doubt due to the oppressive heat.
The driver applies foot to accelerator, and the Hollywood hills loom up in the distance. Over his shoulder, I see the Hollywood sign on the arid hillside, as white as Californian teeth. We’re taken high up into the hills themselves, where we see Los Angeles spread out beneath us. It’s a weird place – surprisingly quiet and ominous. I begin taking pictures of sweating buildings, the Hollywood sign, before a man comes out of a shed and tells us to fuck off.
The Hollywood sign, taken shortly before we're told to fuck off
We drive down into Hollywood Boulevard. Like typical tourists, we get out and take pictures of Grauman’s, the famous Chinese Theatre built in the 20s. There are handprints in the concrete – the cast of Star Trek, John Woo, C3PO out of Star Wars. Mel Gibson. I’m surprised his hasn’t been dug up yet.
Then there’s the walk of fame – a breadcrumb trail of stars. James Cameron. Donald Duck. The real and the fictional intermingled, as though they’re interchangeable. In Hollywood, they probably are.
Back in the Merc, our driver points out the flat where John Belushi died, and the nightclub where River Phoenix breathed his last. The recession has left its scars here. Shops are boarded up, streets cracked.
We’re also, the driver tells us, not far from Leimert Park, the place where the horribly mutilated body of waitress Elizabeth Short was found dumped in January 1947. Short was nicknamed Black Dahlia by LA journalists, who depicted the 23-year-old as a temptress in “a tight skirt and a sheer blouse” who “prowled Hollywood Boulevard.” Her immoral lifestyle, the papers claimed, “made her victim material.” Short’s killer was never caught.
The driver’s taking us to the last stop on our tour – Greystone Mansion, a 55-room mock-Tudor pile that squats high up in Beverly Hills. In what appears to be a repeating Hollywood pattern, the building’s history is a murky one.
Four months after its wealthy owner, Ned Doheny, moved into Greystone, he was found dead in his bedroom along with his secretary, Hugh Plunket. Years later, the house fell into the hands of the City of Beverly Hills, and has since become the go-to location for filmmakers in a hurry. Greystone has appeared in dozens of television shows, movies and music promos, including Spider-Man, Rush Hour, Murder, She Wrote and my personal favourite, The Big Lebowski.
Greystone has the vague air of a classic country mansion, but even from a distance, there’s something not quite right about it. Something strange about its proportions. Appropriately enough, it looks like a film set. At close quarters, you can see the joins: Greystone isn’t built from stone, as it first appears, but from concrete.
In the garden, there’s a large pond filled with koi carp. Rocks jut out of the water, upon which sit a brace of pissed off looking terrapins. In the febrile heat, they observe me coolly.
On our way back to the airport, we’re driven past the vast homes of Bel-Air – Denzel Washington, Julia Roberts – almost invisible behind high walls, hedges and electric gates. There are security cameras mounted on every corner, staring anxiously down at the road. Truly, these are the houses of the paranoid.
There’s an empty, inert feeling throughout Hollywood, like a mausoleum. Even in the heat, its buildings are cold, sterile. There’s the atmosphere of an industrial estate, or an ant farm.
Before we get back on the plane, we stop off for burgers in a diner with polished floors. I think about Hollywood and its weird, heightened state of existence. It’s a place of insane wealth and fame, but also death and bizarre violence, too. A place of vast mansions with towers like a German castle, cemeteries with filing cabinets of the dead, famous names scrawled in wet cement, pissed off terrapins and weird, unsolved crimes.
An hour later, and I’m back on a plane, and ascending back up again, up through blue and cloud wisps.
Los Angeles disappears far below in a shimmering haze of cash and silent madness.
Here they are: the pissed off terrapins of Hollywood.