In Hollywood the line between the living and the dead is permeable and many screenwriters exist in a zombified state, souls long gone, boney fingers tapping on keyboards as if guided by some unseen force, cranking out screenplays about zombies, something they know well.
Guys like John Fante, Jim Thompson, and Horace McCoy are good examples of cool novelists turned into Hollywood zombies. Booze, bad times, and producers stole their souls. Finally, a sense of artistic waste washed over them like listless waves carrying spent condoms sloshing ashore on the sands beneath the Santa Monica pier, dazzling lights spinning in the dark above.
Everyone’s favorite Hollywood zombie-writer is a fictional character in a film, a poor sap who ended up face down in a swimming pool. It’s not often that films are narrated by dead men, but in Sunset Boulevard, a zombified screenwriter tells the tale of how his last drops of precious bodily fluid had been drained by the flashy fangs of a zombie-vampire Hollywood actress demanding yet another rewrite. The next stop was a coffin shared with a dead pet monkey.
Billy Wilder co-wrote and directed Sunset Boulevard,which some argue is a horror film, not a film noir, and he also directed Double Indemnity, a true classic noir. Not one but two great writers contributed to the final product on that film, though one of them felt the other’s prose had a bad odor. Screenwriter Raymond Chandler, a brilliant but somewhat fussy man, wrote in a 1942 letter to the wife of his publisher, Alfred K. Knopf:“….Hammett is all right. Igive him everything…. But James Cain – faugh!Everything he touches smells like a billygoat…. Such people are the offal of literature, not because they write about dirty things, but because they do it in a dirty way. Nothing hard and clean and cold and ventilated.”
Hard, clean, cold, and ventilated is not what zombies like. They prefer stuffy, stinky, hot basements and box canyons where they can corner you. L.A. inspires tales of seediness and collapse because it’s a smelly, brutal, unventilated place where the air is only cold and clean way out over the ocean—offshore.
Writers tend to be thoughtful, quiet, reserved sorts, but L.A. is great for loud hustlers. You gotta be tough, fast, and vicious; and willing to suck ideas from the brains of writers and claim them for your own. It’s a city of mirrors, and illusions, and lies, where the best bullshitter wins if he doesn’t lose himself the way Chaplin does in the film The Circus when he runs into a funhouse room full of mirrors. (Welles used the same imagery in the super-sleazy noir, The Lady from Shanghai.) To make it, many have to be willing to hustle and steal like Sammy Glick does, lead character in What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg.
Oh, and don’t try to laugh Hollywood away once it’s zombified you. It’s the city where Jim Belushi died of an overdose in a bungalow at the Chateau Marmont while in the midst of writing a screenplay for a film he was calling Noble Rot; where Richard Pryor caught on fire while freebasing; where Fatty Arbuckle worked as a director under another name after his career was ruined by a false accusation of murder; where Chaplin went through a miserable divorce from his teen bride Lita in which her lawyers did all they could to destroy his character.
The Los Angeles resident Aldous Huxley predicted a brave new world in which a wonder drug called Soma will make everyone zombie-like but mellow. Turns out that blockbuster film spectacles are Soma for the masses. Everyone is put to sleep by the razzle-dazzle of a thousand CGI deaths that sooth the savage souls of the zombies in the audience, all chuckling at decapitations, auto crashes, and exploding blood packs.
Literature is all about the importance of the individual soul, something zombies lack. Yet even great writers like Burroughs and Borges and Baudrillard say that in the labyrinth of the garden of forking paths of the book of sand of simulations of reality there is no reality, no soul, no individual– only the map, the simulation, the replica, the replicant. L.A. is where many thousands of people are engaged in creating seductive and entertaining simulations about zombies and replicants shuffling around, hungry for brains and souls. It’s a metaphor for real life in the modern world. It’s also a metaphor or working in Hollywood as a screenwriter.
The odd thing is, the more sleazy and horrific the whole thing is, the better the films about the place are. Here are some wonderful dark visions ofL.A.: Chinatown by Roman Polanski, Collateral by Michael Mann, Day of the Locust by John Schlesinger, The Big Lebowski by the Coen brothers, Ed Wood by Tim Burton, Mulholland Drive by David Lynch, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie by John Cassavetes, Pulp Fiction by Tarantino, Boogie Nights by Paul Thomas Anderson, Short Cuts by Robert Altman, and Bladerunner by Ridley Scott.
Los Angeles is bulldozed at night so a new movie set can replace it by dawn. You can run from your fate as a zombie but you can’t hide from the fake reality that L.A. has created for you that has replaced your own life by infiltrating your dreams, taking over your imagination. Don’t fight it, surrender. You’ll feel so much better once you’ve lost your soul and begun shuffling toward the cineplex or your computer keyboard, thinking only of zombies and longing for brains.
Bio: Matt Dukes Jordan is the author of a forthcoming novel called Dance, Hollywood Monkey, Dance, written with his fictional cohort, Ron Jon Bone. Jordan is also the author of Bukowski’s L.A., 2008, and Weirdo Deluxe, 2005. His book Weirdo Noir is due out in the fall of 2010. His short story Sunset Boulevard Escort Services can be found in the brand-new anthology of LA fiction, Sleeping with Snakes: Notes from the Los Angeles Underbelly. He shows art at Hyaena gallery (see Hyaenagallery.com). He’s lurked around L.A. on and off since 1990. He has also lived in London, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Key West, and various other places.
He is also the film guy at Pulp Metal Magazine.