Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, March 31, 2019

It's a Jungle Out There

                                                 "Nature red in tooth and claw..."

Los Angeles is an urban desert hopelessly overpopulated by people and their vehicles. If aliens from another world were to land now, they might well assume that cars are the dominant life form here, with pavement their natural habitat and human companion-animals to serve their needs. Once a dusty little backwater, the megalopolis of LA is bit like ancient Rome, now a highly artificial construct able to exist and thrive thanks only to water brought in from afar.*  

Still, vestiges of the natural world survive right under our noses amidst all this automotive and human chaos.  Despite us -- and in some cases, aided by us -- these animals go about their lives unnoticed by so many who remain oblivious to anything that doesn't light up the screen of a smart phone.   

But if you pull your head out of your digital ass, look around and pay attention, you'll see them -- skunks, possums, and raccoons checking out garbage cans for a meal, coyotes trotting back into the hills at dawn, and red tail hawks circling high above. Occasionally an LA homeowner will discover a bear in her swimming pool, and mountain lions are making their presence known.  Ever since an initiative banning the hunting of these lions was passed back in 1990, the big cats have expanded their range into the suburbs, with one -- the iconic P-22 -- now alive and well in hills of Griffith Park overlooking LA.

I never saw a bear or mountain lion during my forty years in LA, but working on location took our crews into the realm of other wild creatures. While working on a highly forgettable low budget feature early in my career, we were filming night scenes with Joseph Cotten in the deserts north of LA. There are few activities less natural and more artificial than making a movie, but reality intruded shortly after midnight when a chorus of high-pitched howls from a nearby pack of coyotes stopped all work for a few minutes -- not out of fear, since there was nothing to be afraid of, but from a sense of wonder. It was a hauntingly beautiful moment.  

Most of my encounters with the wild came in the form of birds. While filming a commercial in the wealthy neighborhood of Hancock Park, we were rehearsing a dolly shot by a backyard swimming pool when a little bird rocketed in out of the blue with a small hawk right on its tail, matching it move for move.  Around and around the pool they went, until the bird made a desperation dive straight at the camera where the operator, assistant, dolly grip, director, and AD stood, eyes wide. Seeing all those people, the hawk peeled off and vanished, the little bird safe for the moment. This quick, intense life-and-death drama caught the entire crew by surprise, and left us shaking our heads.

Another avian close encounter happened while filming at a park in Orange County, where I was manning a reflector one hot summer day when I saw a hawk fly in amidst the branches of a huge tree, then emerge a few seconds later with a baby bird in its claws.  The hawk landed twenty feet away, then proceeded to eat that doomed chick as the mother squawked in protest from above.  

Nature is a cruel mistress, allowing only the fittest - and luckiest - to survive.

The first Peregrine falcon I ever saw in the wild had nothing to do with filming or work, but was right outside my apartment in LA.  Heading out for a walk one afternoon, I noticed a pile of small feathers on the hood of my car, then saw more drifting down out of the sky.  Following that river of feathers back to their source, I spotted the Peregrin high up in big pine tree, picking apart the body of a hapless dove.

I got an up-close view of a Peregrin in downtown LA while we were filming another commercial nearly fifty floors up in a building still under construction.  During a lull in the action, I wandered over to a window to admire the view, and there on the ledge just a few feet away was a gorgeous falcon, surveying its realm -- and doubtless searching for a pigeon dinner -- from this man-made urban cliff five hundred feet in the air.  After a few minutes it spotted a target and took flight, dropping out of sight in seconds.

Later that night, I observed another form of urban wildlife in her decidedly unnatural habitat. Gazing up at what was then the tallest skyscraper in LA (more than twenty stories higher than my perch), I spotted a female executive in workout leotards, perfectly framed in a big picture window, grimly churning away on an elliptical trainer as she stared out at the cityscape below.  

It was an oddly voyeuristic moment.  Although she was much too far away for me to discern her features, I was watching unbeknownst to her -- or maybe she thought the entire city was watching, and fantasizing... and perhaps she liked that notion. It wasn't exactly a Citizen Kane, woman with a white parasol thing, but still, I've often wondered who she was and what became of her. Did she managed to claw her way all the way up the corporate ladder, or eventually hit the glass ceiling?  Did a husband and children interrupt her climb, and if so, does a small, never-to-be-confessed part of her regret that choice?

I'll never know, but will always wonder. 

My last Peregrin sighting in LA came on a blustery spring afternoon while taking a walk around my neighborhood.  Halfway up the block, lost in thought, I was suddenly brought back into the moment when a falcon landed on the parkway grass ten feet ahead of me, a headless pigeon in its claws. The bird glared at me with fierce brown eyes, then flew into a nearby tree to wait for me to leave. I inspected the pigeon's remains, the head nowhere in sight, it's neck a jagged, bloody crown.  

Tennyson knew what he was talking about when he wrote the line, "Nature red in tooth and claw." 

So whether you're working on location or just out for a walk on the urban sidewalks, suburban boulevards, or rugged hills bordering LA, put the smart phone away and keep your eyes peeled. You never know when something wild will appear, animal or human. 

It really is a jungle out there.

* As the justifiably angry residents of the Owens Valley can attest, at great cost to the areas supplying that water...

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