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Saturday, March 21, 2009
The Milky Way seen from Hawaii
Back on the home planet a few months ago, I stepped outside late one night and looked up into a wide open sky that was dark as sin, yet full of light. The pale ghost of the Milky Way floated high overhead: our own galaxy made up of a hundred billion stars bound together by the gravitational flux of a monstrous Black Hole, forming an unthinkably vast luminous swirl amid countless billions of stars stretching out into infinity. It was a breathtaking, humbling vista that pulled me one giant step back from my daily self to contemplate mankind’s grain-of-sand existence here in the great cosmic whole.
Yeah, I know -- that and five bucks will buy a nice triple-half-caf-no-caf-soy-latte-frappamochino topped with cinnamon-dusted whipped cream -- but still, it was pretty damned impressive.
Not once in thirty-plus years have I witnessed such a magnificent sight here in the Doomed City of the Future, where the megawattage of light blazing up from nocturnal Los Angeles overwhelms all but the biggest and brightest of stars. On a good night you can make out Orion, the Big Dipper, and maybe the Seven Sisters, but not much else. Blinded by the garish glare of our man-made incandescence, we’ve lost the celestial light-show that enthralled and mystified our ancestors, embedding so many myths and legends deep in our shared cultural DNA. Having traded all that for the Golden Calf of modern technology, we look inward now rather than out, staring slack-jawed into the flickering blue glow of the Cathode Ray Gun, mesmerized by the pale reflections of our own fantasies, fears, and vanity.
I don’t mean to sound overly critical here, nor bite the hand that feeds me. Not only do I watch the Toob like everybody else, I help make the stuff, which means my ability to pay the rent now and into the foreseeable future hinges on the continued popularity of television. Still, anyone trying to sum up the rat-race insanity of modern urban life – our disconnect from whence we came, loss of sense of place in the universe, and our all-too-human inability to see beyond the dull haze of our daily existence – would be hard-pressed to find a more apt metaphor. Over the long history of mankind, the stars have served as a nightly reminder of exactly where we stand in the universe. They guided us across the vast emptiness of uncharted oceans, seemingly endless deserts, and immense open plains. In a very real way, those stars grounded us – but now, for most urban dwellers, those stars are gone.
The best opportunity anybody has had to see the stars from the urban core of LA in the last thirty years came in the immediate aftermath of the Northridge earthquake, when the violent shaking abruptly knocked out the power and extinguished the city lights two hours before dawn. In that sudden overwhelming darkness, every star in the firmament blazed bright in the primordial darkness above.
It was an astonishing, overwhelmingly magnificent sight.... which I completely missed. Instead of staring skyward, I was busy running around my apartment picking things up, checking for gas leaks, cracks in the walls/ceiling, and any other damage to the building infrastructure. In my own barely-controlled panic, it never occurred to me to step outside and look up -- and by the time things had calmed down, the sun was rising in the east. Only later, after talking to friends who commented on those amazingly starry skies, did I realize what an opportunity I’d lost.
The other form of earth-bound star gazing has always been going strong here in LA, of course. Brittney and Paris and Lindsay, Brad and Angelina, and more recently, Mathew and the Surf Thugs battling the Malibu paparazzi. Ooh, there goes Nicholas Cage in the Mayfair Market! Hey, it’s Keanu Reeves at Honda of Hollywood! Sammy Davis Junior at Gelson’s! Crispin Glover down on Larchmont! And look over there in the granola aisle at Erewhon -- it’s Kramer from “Seinfeld,” a year before his legendary racist-rant comedy club meltdown.
OMG! Who can I text???
It’s pretty much impossible to avoid running into the celestial beings of Hollywood, since here They Walk Amongst Us, but you’d be surprised how different most of them look without the aid of camera-ready wardrobe and makeup. The only reason I noticed those listed above is because Sammy shamelessly mugged his way up and down every single aisle in the store for a good twenty minutes, Keanu Reeves happened to be right in my way as I headed for the racks of motorcycle oil, and Michael Richards has such a distinctively loony appearance that he couldn’t hide if he wanted to... which at the time, he didn’t. Nicholas Cage happened to be coming through the automatic doors to buy some groceries as I was heading out -- and even someone as oblivious as me can’t help recognizing an actor who bears such a strong resemblance to a lovesick goat, especially when he’s become one the most overexposed actors of modern times, with a new and cheesier movie coming out every other month.
Yo, Nick! A word of advice: I appreciate that a guy’s gotta put food on the table, but dude, give it rest. In your case, absence might not make the heart grow fonder, but it could help cool the smoldering fires of contempt fuelled by such an overabundance of on-screen familiarity. I’m just saying...
As for Crispin Glover – believe me, a guy that weird stands out in any crowd, even amid the human zoo that is Hollywood.
I used to date a woman who had an almost supernatural ability to pick celebrities out of the crowd. With the night vision of a big cat, she could spot even a minor movie star at three hundred yards. At close range -- in a theater, bar, or restaurant -- it was no contest: any celebrities present would light up her star-seeking radar like a Christmas tree. We’d be sitting over drinks and appetizers, talking about something-or-other, when her gaze would suddenly freeze as she locked-on a human target over my shoulder.
“Who is it this time?” I’d sigh.
“Rosie O’Donnell” she’d reply -- then get up to interrupt Rosie’s dinner and tell her how wonderful she’d been in “A League of Their Own.”
It was hard to believe this woman hadn’t just rolled off a hay truck from Palookaville, but actually grew up here in LA. What at first seemed like her charmingly star-struck naivete got old in a hurry, though, and a few years later, she married some guy with a lot more patience than I could muster. Hey, good for her and good for him -- I hope their kids grow up to watch lots of television, and thus help keep me employed.
There are at least two schools of thought on the matter of celebrity recognition in public.
1): Celebrities desperately want to be recognized, which is why they were driven to do whatever it took (and it usually takes a lot) to become “celebrities” in the first place. According to this theory, gushing over them in public is a symbiotic indulgence feeding the needs of fans and stars alike -- it’s a win/win situation, so go for it.
2): Like Greta Garbo, film and television stars want to be left alone. Famous people can’t go anywhere in public without being harassed by swarms of paparazzi, fawned over by clueless idiots, and having their lives/drinks/meals/haircuts interrupted by rabid, mindlessly mewling fans clawing for a piece of something they can’t have. To interrupt their privacy in public is rude and unseemly -- so show a little class for a change, sit tight, shut the fuck up, and be content with stealing little sideways glances.
I suspect there’s truth on both sides. Celebrities are caught in the push-pull dynamic of need-it/hate-it/can’t-live-without it, and like the rest of us, they want to have their cake and eat it too – but we can’t, and neither can they. Life just doesn’t work that way.
Truth be told, I don’t pay much attention to my fellow Angelinos as I fight through the herd in this ever-more-crowded urban labyrinth. I spot the attractive women, of course, but probably wouldn’t recognize Anne Hathaway, Kate Winslet, or even the lovely Scarlet Johansson if I bumped into her on the sidewalk. It might dawn on me a day or two later who I’d collided with, but in real-time, I’m pretty much clueless about such things -- which is just fine, since those of us who work in the biz see plenty of actors every day at work. With a few notable* exceptions, the stars overhead are a lot more elusive and impressive than those working under the hot lamps on set.
And on that note: the best night of real star gazing I ever experienced here in LA was close to twenty years ago, during the Persiod meteor shower that hits every August. Late one Saturday night, I drove my dusty old Camaro way out into Soledad Canyon, then lay on the warm hood and leaned back against the windshield to watch the fireworks. It was a great show, too, with a brilliant streak of celestial lightning ripping across the dark heavens every two or three minutes. Every so often, really big one would light up the entire sky, trailing iridescent smoke from one horizon to the other.
It was an amazing night, and all in all, considerably more dazzling than anything -- or anyone -- to be seen back down on the grimy, broken dream-encrusted sidewalks of Hollywood.
*I'd walk a long country mile for the chance to talk to Nancy Travis, one the nicest, warmest, and most appealing actresses I've ever had the pleasure to meet...