Copyright 2001

[ December 1st 2001 ]

After Sept. 11, the Justice Department warned movie studios that they're potential targets of terrorist attacks, and announced that Los Angeles probably has terrorist cells. The studios have been hunkered down ever since.

As everyone knows, the Taliban banned movies from Afghanistan, along with everything else remotely capable of offering relief from their joyless tyranny. They outlawed lipstick, which made watching any movie by Angelina Jolie a double abomination punishable by being put to death twice.

Down here the studio gates are Checkpoint Charlies. You can't enter anymore without an employee ID or a confirmed appointment. Parking passes carry a time limit. You must wear a visitor pass, not pocket it, as do those reluctant to be identified as supplicants rather than players with offices on the lot. I observed this when I drove to a studio for lunch with a friend, a lawyer in its legal department. I found him slumped in his office chair, checking online war news.

"Why do they hate us so?" he asked. He scanned the parking lot below. "Look at all those vans! Any one could be carrying a fertilizer bomb."

Keep turning out such crummy movies and raising ticket prices and you can count on it."

He stared off, shaking his head miserably. "We're just trying to bring a little mirth to the world, is all."

"'Just trying to bring a little mirth to the world?' Oh please!"

"You commie writers resent capitalism."

You're a greed-crazed toady sell-out."

We're good friends, as you can see.

He's a churchgoer, a fair-minded Minnesota Lutheran, which makes his job as a studio enforcer morally conflicting. When this happens, he prays for guidance. "We're surrounded," he groaned, pushing a document at me. "Look at this." It was an essay attributed to one Steve Myers, published in 1996 in Exegesis: A Compass For Moral Excellence, and reprinted online at

Meyers came to L.A. in the late 1980s to minister to lost souls. It didn't work out -- no one listened to him, he says - and he left in 1994. I knew we were in trouble when I saw the title: "Los Angeles: A Blissful Eden or La-La Land ?" "Spiritually," writes Meyers, L.A. "is a delusion, an Egypt not an Eden, a place of frustration where reality is suspended, where rich trample on poor, where crime does pay, where wrong is right, and where evil triumphs over good."

People who should know better (myself included) often generalize about L.A. in an attempt to get a handle on it. It's mainly word tricks, though. The writer's pleased, but the reader's cheated. In the Sept. 30 New York Times Book Review, for example, a reviewer described Dana Spiotta's novel "Lightning Field" as "taking on the commodification of the soul in Los Angeles and the scripted quality of life in that city of silicone-breasted angels."

People "perceive a land of sunshine, sandy beaches, palm trees, perpetual music and fun," says Meyers, "but Los Angeles is far from the idyllic oasis of their dreams. The sunshine is often hidden by thick, brown smog, the beaches and the ocean are tragically polluted, and the fun is often interrupted by natural disasters and rampant crime."

(Memo to Steve: L.A. hasn't had any thick, brown smog in years. Crime rates are lower than ever. Our last quake was in 1994.)

Steve's "12 plagues of Los Angeles" include "earthquakes, brushfires, floods, riots, vagrants, unpunished muggings, carjackings, thefts and murders" and "racist, poorly-trained and incompetent" police who "laugh in your face" when you report a crime ... officers in sunglasses, happily munching pizza, listening to the radio and chatting about their weekend plans when they ought to be catching criminals."

L.A.'s "eclectic cultural mix," says he, "makes it resistant to the moral standards that the rest of America struggles to meet," and a "crucible of social trends, from seat belts to the despised backward baseball caps."

My friend couldn't read any more.

"If an American Christian feels this way, imagine what they're thinking in those terrorist cells out there," he said, indicating the rooftops of Culver City.

"Aw, to hell with it," he said. "Let's have lunch."

We got to the foyer of the executive building. Outside the sun was bright, the sky blue, palms rustling in a fresh breeze. No thick, brown smog. No suicide bombers. The head of the studio was getting into an armored Suburban flanked by bodyguards. My friend stopped at the entrance.

"You go first," he said. "I'll cover you."

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