My hometown is much maligned by rural America as somehow not being America, and not hardworking. People from my home city get called “elitist” — even if we can’t afford our rent or are working three jobs to make ends meet. Even when we’ve couch-surfed to finish a semester or lived in our cars while auditioning for our big breaks.
For some reason our work is not work to rural America.
When I lived there, I knew students — who lived entire semesters in sleeping bags and libraries trying to get their education between jobs. When I taught at Los Angeles City College, students had all sorts of crazy predicaments that made me admire them. Like a girl from Uzbekistan who was stranded on an expired student visa, when civil war broke out at home, and she came to school, worked and ate Top Ramen for three months while living in the closet of someone else’s house. She was a film student.
We Angelenos are also told we have “no family values.”
It always strikes me as kind of odd that we are so disparaged. This has been on my mind since New Year’s Day when I celebrated the holiday by participating in one of the traditions of my town — paying homage to the industry that makes our town thrive. Cinema.
I made my annual pilgrimage to the now TCL Chinese Theater (it’s always Grauman’s in my heart) to see Star Wars: Rogue One for the matinee (IMAX 3-D).
It’s customary to see something big with explosions and wonder on New Year’s Day on a giant screen. Also? There was a red velvet rope around Debbie Reynold’s foot and hand prints out front and a shrine to Carrie Fisher inside as well as costumes from past Star Wars movies.
They do movies correctly at the Chinese. The curtain comes all the way down and opens for trailers, then closes again and reopens for the feature. The audience is respectful and never talks during a movie and stays through to the end of the credits and leaves nothing sticky on the floor.
You commune with other Angelenos. You may know someone who worked on the movie you are watching. Someone’s sister or dad or uncle. Or maybe you. We smile with pride; sometimes we shake our heads. But our films are a collective effort. They are our stories.
In this respect Hollywood and Los Angeles in general (because really Hollywood is half a state of mind and half unincorporated city) is no different than any other company town. We create stories, we create empathy and we break barriers. In the best of times, we make art. In the worst of times, we just make product.
In Plumas County, we once mined and logged and still ranch and mind the forest. It’s hard work too.
My mother raised me to respect all work and to not create hierarchies of one person’s work being better or lesser than another. I live by that. Hollywood employs both the well educated and the barely educated, and like any other place in America, it rewards hard work and perseverance (and sometimes just a pretty face). Much like everywhere else.
I often think people have no idea that there are animal trainers on set (friend of mine), set dressers (two of my husband’s cousins do that). There are production assistants (I’ve been one!) and creative services and countless other small jobs that make up the economy of southern California.
It is an odd thing to grow up in Los Angeles. We don’t see film the same way you do. My daughter used to see her “grandpa’s beach” in films and never realized it was famous. We don’t gawk at celebrities or selfie with them either. My home suburb of Whittier was often used as a stand in for the Midwest. The tunnel next to my first job has been in countless car crash scenes. Our local mall parking lot was used in “Back to the Future.” Film for me feels personal and describes my memory as much as it describes the stories it tells. I once skipped school to put flowers on Marilyn Monroe’s grave. I’ve seen as many as three different endings for films as producers were testing endings.
I’ve been thinking these thoughts a good deal lately — why do I and other southern Californians put up with being so maligned? We aren’t bad people.
Imagine my surprise to be thinking of such things and then bam! The Golden Globes. I’ll let you in on a secret. Angelenos get dressed up and have parties for such things. I always feel ashamed if I’ve put no effort into dressing for the occasion be it the Globes or the Oscars — even if I’m just home with the cats.
And then Meryl Streep gave her speech and I started to cry. She nailed the vilification. We are told to hate Los Angeles and Hollywood. We are told to be weary of foreigners. And these days we’re told not to trust the press. It is completely opposite of my nature to hate my hometown, foreigners or the press. I just don’t know where to go with this misrepresentation.
Streep spoke of the art of making stories.
“An actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us and let you feel what that feels like,” Streep said. Empathy. I think of that a good deal as a writer. Getting into the shoes of characters — finding their humanity. I strive to do that every day. I also am a news junkie.
“We need the principled press to hold power to account, to call them on the carpet for every outrage. That’s why our founders enshrined the press and its freedoms in our constitution,” Streep said toward the end of her speech. I am right there with her. Freedom of the press. Period.
They say you never really know a place until you leave it and come back. I never understood how American I was until I lived abroad. I never realized how much I love words until they were threatened. I never understood how Angeleno I am until now.
I left Los Angeles in 1994 and headed north. I wanted to live near my mother (up here), I wanted to not sit in traffic. And because I’m a bit of a loser, I didn’t want the pressure to constantly perform. I’ve put up with a good deal of people making fun of where I’m from — but I’ve decided enough is enough. I come from hard working people who create things. I do that now myself. That’s something to be proud of — my America.
Oh and Northern Californians? You just don’t know how to watch movies.