Monday, July 23, 2007

Happy Trails

Someone asked me this week what I’m trying to accomplish with this blog. It started out, a little over a year ago, as a genealogy forum – a way to share photos and information related to my own family history. Within a few months, I had pretty much exhausted that subject. Around the same time, I took a trip to New England to do some genealogy research, and visit sites associated with some of my literary heroes. When I got home, I posted photos from the trip. Since then, this has become mostly a travel-blog, with occasional detours into movie geek ranting. In October, I charted my cross-country move to Los Angeles. I’ve been writing about Southern California ever since. I am continually fascinated by the overlap of fact and fiction in Los Angeles, and I’ll probably keep blogging about it until my site-meter tells me that nobody cares anymore.

This weekend was another reminder of why I love this city. On Saturday morning, we went to Malibu Creek. This state park was one of our first stops when we visited L.A. last August. We made the mistake of starting a hike to the old M*A*S*H shooting location in the heat of the day. On Saturday, we started out a bit earlier and followed a different route to another famous filming location: the Rock Pool.

Along the way, we stopped by the Visitor’s Center, where we found information on hundreds of films that have been shot in the park since 1927. At that time, the land belonged to the Crags Country Club, but 20th Century Fox bought 2,000 acres in 1946 and turned it into a backlot. The studio built a Welsh mining village on a hill near the main parking lot for John Ford’s 1940 Oscar-winner “How Green Was My Valley.” The parking lot didn’t exist at the time. It was created as downtown “Pleasantville” for the 1998 film of the same name. And before it was Pleasantville, it was the ranch in Elvis Presley’s feature film debut, “Love Me Tender.”

Malibu Creek was also home to the original “Planet of the Apes.” Along the main path to the Rock Pool (Crags Road), we passed a climbing wall. In his book Hollywood Escapes, Harry Medved points out that “this is where Charlton Heston, Linda Harrison, and other humans are caged in the first Apes movie. The wall itself is visible in the last Apes movie, where Claude Akins tries to take control of the simian forum.” The Rock Pool appeared in “Planet of the Apes” (when Charlton Heston and his fellow astronauts go skinny dipping), “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” (the final scene), and the feature film “Logan’s Run” (when Logan and Jessica see the “real world” of the 23rd century for the first time). I also remember it from Disney’s “Swiss Family Robinson” – one of the first movies my family owned on videodisc. Further up Crags Road is the original site of the Apes Village – one of the cages is still there. The M*A*S*H site is about a mile beyond that. Sadly, none of the sets survived a 1982 fire that wiped out 42,000 acres in the park. All that remains are the charred husks of a jeep and an ambulance.

After our hike, we decided to take it easy and go to the movies… at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. For six summers now, a group called Cinespia has been screening movies on the wall of a large mausoleum near the graves of Hollywood legends like Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino and Cecil B. DeMille. Every week, the event draws about 2,000 people, who arrive with blankets, pillows, and all the essentials for a late-night picnic. When we got to the cemetery – an hour and a half before the film was supposed to start – there were already hundreds of people lined up to see Dario Argento’s “Suspiria.” Personally, I can think of no better way to see this film than on the side of a mausoleum in a dark cemetery. It gave me chills to hear the pulse-pounding Goblin soundtrack echoing off of the tombstones, loud enough to… well, you know.

I could tell by the laughter and the gasps in the audience that quite a few people were seeing the film for the first time, which made me remember the first time I’d seen it. I first ran across the name Dario Argento in Dennis Fischer’s book Horror Film Directors, 1931 – 1990. That volume, more than any other individual work, introduced me to international horror cinema – from the gialli of Mario Bava and Dario Argento to the Euro-horror of Lucio Fulci, Jess Franco and Amando de Ossorio. Though I’d read all about it, that first viewing of “Suspiria” blew me away. Never had I seen a horror film that looked so exotic, or heard a horror film score that was so unrelenting.

A few years ago, I had the same reaction to the first fifteen minutes of Argento’s film “Sleepless.” Unfortunately, the rest of it didn’t live up. The director’s films are, admittedly, hit and miss: they feature some of the horror genre’s most memorable set pieces, as well as some of its most ludicrous plot devices. I haven’t seen his two most recent films (“The Card Player” and “Do You Like Hitchcock?”), but they’re in the Netflix queue… and I’m eager to see the conclusion of the “Three Mothers” trilogy that began with “Suspiria.” It’s supposed to be released in Italy on Halloween.

Last night, we went to another location that’s far too beautiful to avoid Hollywood cameras. The beginning of “Grease” and the end of “True Romance” were shot among the rocks at El Matador State Beach, up the coast of Malibu. We had planned to stay until sunset, but a serious-looking fog bank rolled in. And if there’s one thing John Carpenter has taught me…

Malibu Creek State Park (view from the parking lot)

How Green Was My Valley (not very)

Malibu Creek in the foreground, Rock Pool gap in the distance

Planet of the Apes wall

Rock Pool

M*A*S*H jeep

M*A*S*H ambulance

Century Lake

Hollywood Forever

El Matador

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