I was preparing my response to a Craigslist ad for a receptionist position at a private detective agency in Chicago when a friend called to ask if I’d like to work in the art department of a studio comedy filming in Los Angeles. I had a farewell breakfast with my best friend at Lou Mitchell’s, and two weeks later I pulled into the parking lot of the Santa Monica Pier. It was the beginning of summer 2009, I was 23 years old, and I was going to see where movies are made.
I sublet a one-bedroom apartment in Venice, a short commute to the Sony lot in Culver City. My roommate had a few issues that, had I been aware of them earlier, I might have identified as red flags. For one thing, he was a DJ. For another, he was a retired child actor. He appeared in several scenes that I can vividly recall: as an earnest heartthrob’s baby brother in an archetypal teen romance, and as the child of star-crossed outlaws in a celebrated auteur’s Palme d’Or-winner. I was visibly delighted as my roommate told me this, and he was flattered by my enthusiasm. As he continued to regale me with his credits, I interjected in earnest, “Hey, were you in Kindergarten Cop?” (I love Kindergarten Cop.) His countenance dropped.
“Oh, I just wondered, were you in Kindergarten Cop?”
“Why would you ask that?” he snapped.
I struggled to respond. “I just thought—you know, you were the right age, and that was the same time as you were in those other movies, and it has a lot of kids in it is all.”
“I had two callbacks,” he said. From that moment on, our relationship soured.
I made no friends this summer, drifting instead through a series of bizarre and vaguely unsettling episodes. On one particularly blue night I went to get a taco to make myself feel better, and the taco truck was attacked by molotov cocktails after I had paid but before my order came up. A rival taco truck, LAist reported. I consoled myself knowing I was lucky it didn’t explode.
In the mornings I’d go carousing for the city’s best pancakes, and every night I’d see one or two movies in the theater, more on weekends. Retrospectives of Roberto Gavaldón and Nagisa Oshima made huge impressions. One night, at the Hammer Museum, artist Francesca Gabbiani curated one of the most inspired programs I’d yet seen: Dudley Murphy’s phantasmagoric silent dance films; a 1928 German smut film depicting a ritualistic satanic orgy; Kenneth Anger’s Invocation of My Demon Brother; Carl Dreyer’s macabre, state-sponsored road safety film They Caught the Ferry; and Federico Fellini’s eerie, high-octane masterpiece Toby Dammit. The selection was conceptually brilliant, playful, transgressive, sophisticated, and unpretentious—a formative moment in terms of my thinking about the relationships between narrative, experimental, sponsored, and orphaned films.
Eventually summer neared its end, and the production headed into wrap. I had three options: I could attend NYU’s shortlived, vaguely scammy Film MFA program in Singapore; I could take a production accounting job in New York; or, I could tag along with some of the LA crew to Fast Five. (Had I known how good that movie would be, and what it would mean for the franchise, cinema, or the culture writ-large, my life might have been different.) But one day, as I considered buying a gym pass and later found myself calling my confused and disconcerted father for advice about buying a motorcycle, it occurred to me that the rays were starting to get inside my head. I took my Corolla in for an oil change and prepared to head east.
I went to see a final movie, Night and the City, showing as part of a Jules Dassin retrospective at the Aero in Santa Monica. Richard Widmark is Harry Fabian, a smalltime American con in London. Fabian has integrity, charm, and fire, but he’s a preternatural fuckup. But there’s a force of imagination behind his get-rich-quick plans, so we want to believe in him. Fabian stumbles into a real scheme: one that will work if he can just scrounge up 200 quid and gain the confidence of esteemed Greco-Roman wrestling trainer Gregorious, whose gangster son Kristo controls the London scene. If Fabian can convince Gregorious to put his disciplined fighter, Nikolas, in the ring with Kristo’s vulgar exhibitionist The Strangler, it’ll be the biggest ticket in town.
Of course, he is going to fail. As Fabian has been manipulating his every known contact to bring his plan to fruition, the underworld’s keenest minds, some of whom have kept Fabian closest, have been sharpening their knives against him. He’s useful to them as a con man—someone who can convince a guy to buy a cigar, have another drink, take a girl home—but not a competitor. And there is yet another, greater adversary: his fate as a born loser. We’re in a gathering maelstrom that will suck us inexorably toward tragedy.
And then it hits.
Fabian arrives at the gym as Gregorious and Nikolas train. Ringside, The Strangler plows himself with liquor and taunts them. The mind games Fabian exercised to ply him into the fight have pushed him too far. More words are exchanged, Gregorious spits in The Strangler’s face, and a fight breaks out between the two men. A storied, undefeated champion of an ancient artform is in the ring with an arrogant,
There is no music, only the dull sound of bare knuckles landing on flesh. Shuffling feet. Silence dotted by short grunts skirted with heavy breathing. Sweat. Gregorious bear hugs his rival, whose fingers plunge into his aged face like clay. Attempting to asphyxiate and elbow each other, it seems impossible that they both can remain standing. But just as Kristo walks in, Gregorious reduces his opponent to a limp body held in his arms, and turns to his son: “That’s… what I do to your clowns.”
Gregorious steps out of the ring—and then himself falls lifeless into his son’s arms. The plan is ruined, a noble and honest man is gone, and now Harry Fabian is desperate: a dead man walking.
And at that exact moment, as I sat in the Aero theater, the ground began to shake. I looked around. There were maybe six other people in the theater. I couldn’t tell if they felt the earthquake, but it hit me at my core.
LA can fall into the ocean. I left the city with virtually no fond memories other than this one. And it made the summer feel all right. •
Jon Dieringer is the editor and publisher of Screen Slate and a media art conservator.