Saturday, May 12, 2007


Although it does not hold up as well as some of his films, Orson Welles's Force of Evil nevertheless ranks as a film classic. Featuring Welles as a kind of inflated parody of himself, pitted against Charleton Heston, dreadfully made up to give the effect of his being of Mexican descent, this film was made on the cheap in the back alleys of Venice, California, alleging itself to be in a fictional town bordering California and Mexico.

The much-beloved television series, Northern Exposure, purports to be set in Cicily, Alaska, a place that does not exist at all. The series was filmed in Washington State.

William Faulkner's famed Yoknapatawpha County exists not in the State of Mississippi, as Faulkner suggests, but in Faulkner's mind.

A number of Anthony Trollope's novels are also set in a mythical shire in England; the very late, much lamented Dennis Lynds wrote a series of mysteries set in Buena Costa County, California, which does not exist, and Ross Macdonald, whom many of us continue to lament, set many of his Lew Archer private eye novels in Santa Teresa which, much as it may resemble Santa Barbara, exists only in its creator's mind.

You will correctly surmise from these examples that I am leading up to something. When any of us sets pen to paper, we turn our characters loose in a landscape which we try to make as real as possible, attempting to grease the skids of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Willing Suspension of Disbelief concept. Whether the story is set in Los Angeles or New York or San Francisco, we are chosing a portion of the real landscape and mingling it with out own landscape.

The fact that I was born in the Los Angeles area is no guarantee that my L.A. will be any more convincing than the L.A. written about by you, who have never even set foot in the place. I may hoot and holler that some of my great triumphs, defeats, disasters, and wasted hours on the Santa Monica Freeway, eastbound, were all in L.A., but this does not give me exclusive rights either to expect that I can convey my intended landscape or that you can't do it better.

I put in a good number of hours at Spider's Pool Hall on Santa Monica Boulevard, ate too many of his sclerotic hamburgers, sank too few of his eight-balls in the called-out pocket. No matter if I have to argue with you about it; no matter if you don't believe I was there.

Arguments work in courtrooms and debating societies, belief comes from a sense of trust in character and place that transcends the rational or irrational argument and resides in observations about the conditions and traits inherent in character and place.

Because motion pictures have frequently suggested to us that we are in a particular place at a particular time, we tend not to see past the false fronts of their sets, suspending our disbelief that such a place can and does exist, even though a part of us may know that we are being ushered down the garden path from, say Ojai (which is about forty-five minutes south of where I am) into the fabled kingdom of Shangri-La, or from Vasquez Rocks (not too far from L.A. ) to Fort Zeiderneuf, which figures big time in the film, Beau Geste.

The real landscape and its certificate of authenticity resides within our imagination. We can be persuaded to believe but we cannot be argued into it. The journey to creating plausible characters and places, ones that will stand the test of cynicism for the years to come, begins with our own charting of the emotional landscapes within ourselves, journeys of discovery we must make in the same way some of the renowned cartographers of the past drew their accounts of discoveries on what were then undiscovered shores.

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