Thursday, June 27, 2013

A Movie, A Few Years After the Beginning

I'm not sure if it still goes on, and I don't ever want to find out, but on Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings, if there were no sports to air and no reruns worth rerunning, CBS 2 in Los Angeles would air movies you've never heard of. It would be more expensive, I'm sure, to air the higher-profile movies, so we'd get movies like Mojave Moon, starring Danny Aiello, Anne Archer, Alfred Molina, and Angelina Jolie early in her career, circa 1996. All I knew about it when it aired one idle Saturday afternoon on CBS was that I liked the opening song, "Lavender," by Watsonville Patio, and wanted it on my mp3 player. I watched nothing more than those opening titles, those tracking shots through the desert in Palmdale, as I learned just a few minutes ago.

I've played "Lavender" over and over (Try it here), but never was curious about the movie until now, when I'm in the desert in Southern Nevada, when it's 104 degrees outside right now and expected to be 114 on Friday, 116 on Saturday, and 117 on Sunday. So why would I even be interested in a movie called Mojave Moon in the midst of this heat, which keeps me inside the house and unable to enjoy my city during the day? First, because it's called Mojave Moon, because it reminds me of the evening to come, the time of day I look forward to most during the summer because I can walk my dogs a longer distance and be able to have my desert back for a few hours. I know it's the desert and it's expected, but still being relatively new to Las Vegas over nine months now, I'm still getting used to it. And I will get used to it, but the surprise will take some time to wear off. Yes, surprise, and a little disappointment, even though this is expected.

10 minutes into Mojave Moon on Amazon Instant Video (I rented it), I like it so far because it looks at streets not always known in movies set in Los Angeles. But Mojave Moon isn't only set in Los Angeles. On IMDB, the sole filming location is Palmdale, where we went many times when we existed in the Santa Clarita Valley in order to go to the only Sonic near us, a 45-minute-or-more drive, but still going out to even further isolated territory. If Los Angeles wants to call itself the desert (and it's not because of what it's built and what it has become), they would have settled in Palmdale, and Palmdale would have been Los Angeles, and there they could have called themselves the desert and meant it.

I liked Palmdale to a degree. I liked that it felt more honest than Los Angeles. There's no bullshit in the desert, at least on the surface. With people in the desert, your mileage may vary, but I've met more nice souls here in Las Vegas in nine months than I had in nine years in Southern California, genuine nice souls, and not posing for some kind of advantage. But I think I'm also interested in Mojave Moon because I'm long gone from Southern California, because I never saw Southern California at the time this movie was filmed. That's why I want Buena Park to be the end of my first novel, why I want to write extensively about Anaheim for my second novel, because I don't have access to them anymore. I know them well enough from the dozens of times I visited, but now I can really think about them, what they meant to me, what they'll mean to my characters. I know Buena Park and Anaheim go on, that they may have changed in some spots after I left, but I think the general feeling remains the same, such as Buena Park remaining a quiet, small town next to Anaheim, that cares about its history, that wants people to know, and that's why the ghosts of its history hang heavily on it. Not necessarily bad history, just what it once was. That's why I always liked Buena Park.

And being nine months gone from Southern California, I can look at Palmdale in this movie and not have that little dread. I liked going to Palmdale, of course, for Sonic, and for the Walmart across from it that was there for you to get what you needed, and it had what you needed, and it had a hardy soul to it. Yeah, I know, Walmart with a soul. But in Palmdale, even the stores have little bullshit. But I've also never known a movie before to be filmed in this particular desert, so I'm curious about that, too. Even with it being 104 degrees right now. Plus, I've always liked Danny Aiello, and, to me, Angelina Jolie looks a lot more attractive here than she is today. But mainly, what do they do in a movie set in that desert? That's what I want to know.

Even more pressing is that there was some kind of Irish movie, or near Ireland, that was released in 1996, and involved children, with some kind of math thing, that aired on CBS 2 one late Sunday morning, and I can't remember the title. I keep thinking that Colm Meaney or Aidan Quinn was in it, but no luck through IMDB. It may come to mind one day, but not today. Today is for the desert in Palmdale, for Mojave Moon.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Only in Words and Photos

On Friday, my sister had a job interview at M&M's World on the Strip that turned into two, which is a good sign. They liked her enough during the first interview that they had her do a second with someone else higher-up there. Or at least that's what it sounds like.

The directions given to Meridith for this interview said to park in the Showcase Mall parking garage. Obviously, not only because it's right there, attached to the building that houses M&M's World, but also because we couldn't park in the garage at New York-New York and walk across the street, or park in the garage at MGM Grand and walk through the casino to that sidewalk and then walk the length of the sidewalk. It was way too hot, and it was even hotter yesterday at 115 degrees.

It costs $3 to park in the Showcase Mall garage, and that may be the reason it's so clean. Few people park in there because the Showcase Mall isn't the only place they want to go. You only park there if you want New York-New York and MGM Grand and Monte Carlo at the same time, with the parking garage a central location facing all of those. If you want to walk even further, you can reach Aria and the Cosmopolitan. In cooler days, that would be reasonable. Not that day, or rather not for us. The tourists were out and about anyway, no matter the heat. Can't waste time when you're on vacation.

We parked on the fourth floor of the garage, the top floor I think, because M&M's World reaches the fourth floor with a full-size NASCAR car and various merchandise. It's a quieter floor than any other there. Meridith had to be on the fourth floor because that's where the interview would take place. When we got inside M&M's World, and Meridith asked an employee standing near a costumed red M&M character, she was told to wait on the left side, near the door marked "Authorized Personnel Only." Even with how compact the Showcase Mall appears to be, with a smaller Coca-Cola store and a Half Price Tickets kiosk, there's still room for offices in the back. Amazing.

I thought the big thing for me during this visit would be the free 3D movie, "I Lost My 'M' in Vegas," shown in a tiny screening room on the third floor. Not so. We parked and walked to the double doors that were an entrance to an enclosed walkway that would lead us to M&M's World. We opened the doors and I found the cleanest, the most peaceful, and the most low-key walkway I've ever seen in Las Vegas. White tile flooring, framed posters of upcoming movies at the entrance to the walkway and at the end of the walkway, courtesy of the nearby United Artists theater, and above, a wavy metal ceiling structure with small holes all throughout, and above that structure, wavy red neon lighting embedded in the ceiling. If there is a Heaven after this life, this is the walkway that I hope will be there. But more than that, I knew right away that I had to use this walkway in my first novel. And things changed because of that.

Originally, I wanted my two main characters to go to the Buena Park Downtown mall after eating at Po Folks, a Southern restaurant I grew up on in Florida, which had only one branch this far out, and it closed some time ago. But in my novel, it's still open. Now, I loved Buena Park Downtown, with its slight gloom, its gray color scheme, its mostly low ceilings because it felt like it had history, it had a semi-lived-in feeling, and it seemed to keep memories of those who walked through and who worked there. Not necessarily in soda stains, but just the feeling of the place, like if you stared hard enough at a wall near the entrance to the Walmart there, you could actually see who was there before you. Something like that.

The scene at Buena Park Downtown would have involved the duo going down to the first floor, to John's Incredible Pizza Company, where there would be a frantic search for the rare pinball machine on the massive arcade floor, a fervent belief that it's there. But after finding that walkway, and considering the information that my characters would be given along the way, across the country, in this search, wouldn't it be enough that the final piece come from the source they meet in this walkway? I'm not going to reveal why this source is there, but I like how it may play out. And because of that, because they can just go right to where they need to be after eating at Po Folks, it makes Buena Park Downtown an extraneous scene. It adds nothing to my story. But I feel ok about it. No regrets about not being able to use it. The story leads.

I was thinking about all this while watching an indie film called Littlerock on Amazon Instant Video. A brother and sister, two Japanese tourists, wind up in a Southern California desert town called Littlerock after their rental car breaks down. There is nothing to do in this town, and as Atsuko (Atsuko Okatsuka) observes, the stores are so far away. I'm trying to watch it, and it's not that it isn't good. It captures that disembodied atmosphere perfectly. But I'm not as interested in it as I originally hoped. I want to keep in mind Buena Park, Anaheim, Baker, and San Juan Capistrano. I need the first three for my writing, and the latter for my own memories. But the rest of Southern California, such as Victorville, Palmdale, and other places that mirror Littlerock? I don't want them anymore. I don't think I ever wanted them, but I needed them for nine years, to know them a little bit, for survival, to keep my head on straight during those nine long years. Now that I'm here in Las Vegas, they fade. I'm glad they do because I have so much here to fill me up, so much to explore every day. It's not that bad memories come to the surface during Littlerock, but the question of why I'm watching this when I've left it all behind. That's not my desert. It never was. Originally, I think I wanted to see Littlerock because I wanted to see how a filmmaker saw what I had known for all that time. Could they find some new revelation in it that I hadn't known? So far, no. It is what I once remember. Same as it ever was.

And yet, I have King of California in my DVD collection, and that's set in Santa Clarita, though it wasn't entirely filmed there. Why that? Why a movie that's meant to represent a valley in which I existed for nine long years? That's different. King of California is a Quixotesque story that is only partially about place. It is mainly about a frantic search for buried treasure. And it moves. It never dwells too long. Plus, it's not the actual Santa Clarita I knew, because there's no Santa Clarita Department of Mental Health. Plus it serves as one of many blueprints for my novel.

I don't read anything about Southern California anymore that's not research-related. I spent more than enough time there. But what I do read, if it's a novel to inform my own novel, or a book about, say, Anaheim or some aspect of Anaheim, I can handle that. I don't mind that. I think it's because for me, words don't take as much time as some movies do. Granted, Littlerock is only an hour and 23 minutes, but a chapter in a book about Anaheim would take far less time to read. I can get the information I need and move on and that's all I have to know about Southern California until I need something else, or something else comes up in my reading that I want to include in my work. It's the same with photos I find online, of Baker, of Buena Park. I can look at them for a minute or a few minutes if necessary and then move on. I don't need the atmosphere anymore. It's lodged in my memory for when I write about it. I don't need that mess of mountains and freeways. I don't even need the trains because our future apartment complex is located near the railroad track and I can have those trains. To watch Littlerock and be back in Southern California like that is too long. Maybe for me it's the kind of movie to watch in pieces, to fast forward, watch a few seconds, see where it leads, and go to another section. I got the gist of the movie in the first five minutes, so anything else to come would not be anything so new to me that I'd have to go back to previous scenes, scenes that I possibly hadn't watched, to know what's going on. Nine years is a long enough time that pieces of Southern California will always be with me. If not in my work, then the rare pleasant memories I had there, such as that day of research at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills. But it doesn't mean that I want to dwell, as Littlerock would have me do. Though that's not the actual purpose of the movie, it's what I take from it from my own personal experience. And yet, when I write the Buena Park section of my first novel, and write extensively about Anaheim in a later novel, I will be dwelling. The difference is that I don't mind being in either city in my mind. I don't need what doesn't matter to me anymore. Let it remain distant as it has for these past eight months and counting. As I watch Littlerock it's a reminder of what I'm glad to have left behind. After those nine years, to the point where I was trying not to lose hope of ever getting out of there, I made it out. In that way, perhaps Littlerock is a victory lap for me. I can watch what I want of it and it doesn't affect me like it used to. I've completely detached myself from it. For that, I'm relieved. It'll always be in me, but it's not me.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Changing, Permeating, But Never Disappearing

Every time we drove back to Santa Clarita from Burbank, from IKEA, or Ventura from Ventura Harbor Village, or Buena Park from Po Folks and Buena Park Downtown and Anaheim from Downtown Disney, I was always deeply disappointed and even a little down because my reason for living that entire week, to reach that day when we could go to those places, was over. We were going back to where there was nothing to do, nothing to connect to, nothing to want to think about in relation to the area, such as its history or its weaving roads. I experienced all those and it was time to move on from them as Santa Clarita approached. Not forget them, of course, but not think about them as much because there was the next day. What the hell was I going to do with the next day?

Two months ago, Meridith won tickets from Sunny 106.5 to see Shania Twain at the Colosseum, choosing May 31st, yesterday, as the evening to see her. I had been following news of her show back in Southern California, when it was a rumor at first, and now I was going to have the chance to see it for myself. I was excited, I was looking forward to it, but I wasn't breathlessly anticipating it as I did a day trip to Burbank or Ventura or Buena Park or Anaheim. They were all day trips. It took that long to get to each. There were other things to do in Las Vegas leading up to the concert, such as my weekly library visits, and subbing as a library aide at various elementary schools, and reading, and writing, and visiting casinos, and visiting Henderson, and going to a buffet (the one at Terrible's lately), and grocery shopping, and so much else that never disappeared like those days did. They last. They become part of my own personal universe here, what makes me what I am in Las Vegas, and what I feel about all of it.

Even when there are places we haven't been to in such a long time, I always remember the first time I was there, such as with Caesars Palace when we went last night, our first time since we were tourists. When the elevator doors to the casino floor opened, we were overcome by the Cher Army waiting to get to the parking garage after leaving the Colosseum. Cher's show was over, so they were invading. This was in May 2010, I think, and I remembered Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill being a lot smaller. And wasn't the entrance to the Colosseum much bigger than that? Maybe Cher's glassed-in costumes at the entrance made it seem bigger. I think Bette Midler was there at the same time, part of the Colosseum rotation, which now features Celine Dion, of course, Shania Twain, Elton John, and Rod Stewart, with one-night-only dates from Jerry Seinfeld popping up occasionally. Those are the major players, as well as Luis Miguel every September to celebrate Mexican Independence Day, which is great for us for tourism.

This time, when the elevator doors opened to the casino floor, no Cher Army. She left in February 2011. And then when we saw the entrance to Mesa Grill, I thought that it had been smaller. I was sure of it. But things always seem bigger, grander, awe-inspiring when you're a tourist. That's not to say that Las Vegas isn't awe-inspiring for me anymore. Going to Caesars Palace last night was walking through another dreamworld. There's a lot of those here. Sights you'd only expect to find in dreams exist here. Seeing Shania Twain in concert might well have been in a dream because if Meridith hadn't won those tickets, I'm sure it would have been another two years before I would have been able to see her. We can't readily afford those tickets. It would have taken a lot of saving.

After seeing the Shania store (which rotates the merchandise depending on the act. Her merchandise was front and center and then after her final show tonight before she leaves for the summer, the store will close briefly and Celine Dion's merchandise will be placed front and center and more prominently throughout the rest of the store, with Twain's and Elton John's merchandise threaded throughout), and having dinner at the Cypress Street Marketplace food court, the nicest food court I've ever been to, Meridith and I left Mom and Dad and went inside the Colosseum, taking an escalator to the second floor, to our seats, which were still first-floor seating, but rising way up near the back, one row before the seats against the wall in the back. Row O, seats 425 and 426, and center-stage for us.

There are all kinds of dreams to be experienced in Las Vegas and this one began with strips of curtain that had a forest digitally projected on them, in which fireflies appeared and a black horse appeared and then faded out. It was such a beautiful scene with the appropriate forest sounds and flute music to match. And then the show began with a video of Shania Twain on a motorcycle, riding in the desert toward a tunnel and once she reached the tunnel, the real Shania Twain was lowered from the ceiling on a motorcycle, the motorcycle steering to match the motion onscreen and then she finally landed gently to begin the show, to huge applause. I don't remember what song she started with, but I was still floored that I was here, seeing Shania Twain live.

There was an outdoor Western set, as well as a Western bar set for a few songs, and besides watching Twain perform, I like watching all the behind-the-scenes business in action, such as the changing of the sets. I probably pay closer attention to this than most, and I enjoyed watching special effects end and begin according to the song. My favorite part of the concert was on a campfire set, with dry ice fog simulating a campfire, with a gentle fake flame in the middle, and rocks around the campfire for Twain and randomly-selected audience members. Before this, during two songs separated by another song, she walked off the stage to the bottom sections closest to the stage to meet and greet the audience while she sang.

Then for the campfire set, she chose a girl who was there with her mother for her 18th birthday, a couple from Brazil who had seen her in London in 2004 when they were dating, an enthusiastic Brazilian guy who looked like he was wearing his country's flag as a shirt and a beanie hat, and most touchingly, a girl possibly younger than the 18-year-old one, 16 or 15 it looked like, who was overwhelmed and started tearing up on stage because she had been singing Twain's songs since she was 5. Twain had just finished tearing up reminiscing about her late mother and the greatest gift she gave her, her sister Carrie-Ann, and she started all over upon meeting that girl. She had the birthday girl and her biggest fan sit next to her on stage and there were two acoustic songs sung. Twain's love for her audiences is genuine. She is so appreciative of her good fortune in being this major star performer, and despite it being her second-to-last show before she leaves for the summer (her final show is tonight and then she's back in late November), she gave it her all for the entire show.

The final third of the show began with her singing "Still the One" to her white horse on stage, and then "From This Moment On," closing the show with "Man! I Feel Like a Woman." I loved the entire show, but I was especially fascinated by the musicians, the harmonica/piano player, the electric guitarist and the other musicians, because they were clearly in their zone. They have a plum gig with this show and they know it and they love performing as much as Twain does. The harmonica player in the song on the outdoor Western set became the piano player in the Western bar set, and he was jumping around while he was playing the piano. They clearly love what they do.

I was disappointed that "You've Got a Way" wasn't in the setlist, but that was tempered by the Colosseum being the crown jewel of Las Vegas. Meridith said that going to the Colosseum to see a show should be on everyone's bucket list. But I amend that to limit it to those who live in Las Vegas and who visit Las Vegas. She's right. It was built in 2003 solely to entice Celine Dion, and it has become a mega-entertainment venue. It's rightfully celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. I've been to a few showrooms in Las Vegas, with many more to come for sure, and I don't think any can type the Colosseum for class, for beauty, for gentle history. Everyone at Caesars Palace involved with the Colosseum take such loving care of it and it shows.

Now it's 5:09, the next afternoon. Michael Bolton is performing at Eastside Cannery at 8:30 tonight, and Mom and Meridith will be there since Mom won tickets for it on Sunny 106.5 on Thursday. I'm not thinking as much about Shania: Still the One beyond what I wrote, but living here, it'll always be in mind in some way. It colors my view of Las Vegas being a continuous waking dream. It makes me wonder more about those musicians, about what they do for work when Twain goes back home to the Bahamas for the break. I'm sure they find work somewhere, but do they already have it lined up or are they waiting until after the final show tonight? And where do they store those sets at the Colosseum? Do they truck them off to a nearby air-conditioned, climate-controlled warehouse, or is there plenty of room backstage? How does that work?

This time, and in previous times, I'm not disappointed that the experience is over. I'm still here, and will always be here, so it's still here. No matter how many years down the road Twain performs until she decides to leave, it'll never leave. I like that. For once, it's not about having to go back to real life as defined like it was in Santa Clarita. It fits squarely in my memories, in my imagination, and that's important to me. I can look at the Colosseum and know I was there, and also wonder what will happen next. Elton John is coming back to the Colosseum in September and October, and I'm hoping Sunny 106.5 gives away tickets. Because it's him, and after being at the Colosseum, I'm going to bang the phone away for those, trying my damndest every single time they're announced. But hopefully not every single time. I hope I win them the first or second time.

I know that it's partly because I'm local and not having to go through mountains and freeways that the show will never leave me, that I can always reference it any way I need to in heart and mind. But it's also because I'm finally home that I can do that, that I care enough to remember, and without regret, as it was for all those years, regret at having to leave pleasure. Here, it's always mine. That's how it should be, and I finally have it.