Dinner at Martha’s? Talk about L.A.! Here’s How

Your diarist is filing this dispatch from Los Angeles, where I’ve started to worry that I have officially overstayed my tourist visa. My fear isn’t that I’ve gone native: So far, I’ve still managed to resist the primordial L.A. urges to surf, get the car detailed and abuse screenwriters. But what concerns me is that I’ve spent so much time out here lately that I may actually be starting to understand the city itself.

So if you find yourself at a swanky dinner party this weekend, and have absolutely nothing to add to the conversation about Martha Stewart-or if you find yourself sitting next to Martha Stewart, or if you are Martha Stewart-here’s some of what they’re talking about on the West Coast, other than whether Glenn Close will star in the CBS/Lifetime movie Serving Time in the Big House: How Martha Stewart Changed the Lives of the Women in Cell Block C Through Discipline, Macramé and Insider Trading. Or as Martha herself might put it: “It’s a time-off-for-good-behavior thing.”

1) Secession: At the Nov. 6 polls, Los Angelenos will decide whether the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood can break away and form independent cities, reducing the physical size of L.A. by almost 60 percent and the population by a third. The issues are taxes, services and whether the city is just too damn spread out. To pass, a majority of voters in the would-be new cities must vote in favor of secession, as must a majority of voters in the parts of L.A. that will be left behind. (Sort of like both sides agreeing on a divorce.)

The mayor-a man I suspect 10 out of 10 Los Angelenos couldn’t pick out of a police line-up-is against it. Ditto the Los Angeles Times , which seems to have only recently discovered that the “predominantly white” Valley is, in fact, 59 percent black and Latino. (I’m sure this has nothing to do with the fact the L.A. Times is one of the only newspapers in America to lose circulation since Sept. 11.)

My bet? Say goodbye to Hollywood and the Valley, as the establishment gets defeated by the pan-Pacific ethos that’s been drawing people here since before the state was founded in 1854: Change Is Good .

2) The Kodak Theater. In March, they were passing out Oscars inside the new shopping mall next to the Chinese Theater in Hollywood proper; by May, it was blame, recriminations, and huge rent cuts as the upscale mall failed to live up to expectations, and the city suddenly realized that the $80 million it had spent on a parking structure to entice the developer would never recoup its investment.

The idea here was based on the rejuvenation of our own Times Square. But somehow, it seems no one actually stood on the site, at the corner of Hollywood and Highland, and scanned the surrounding skyline before breaking ground. There are no giant office towers. No Condé Nast, no New York Times Company, no Bertelsmann, Viacom, ABC or Skadden Arps-meaning no captive office workers who might buy some Ralph Lauren cashmere during lunch. Watch for the T-shirt shops to move in. Hollywood has always been a destination of the mind, not someplace to buy a Rolex.

3) Shoplifting Winona. The thing that makes no sense in Winona Ryder’s decision to go to trial in her shoplifting case is that either way, she’s going to end up in the same place: If she’d copped a plea six months ago, citing an addiction to pain killers, she would have been sentenced to celebrity community service. Now, if the jury finds her guilty, she’s still going to end up with some kind of celebrity community service.

In the meantime, everybody already knows the “arc” of this story: 1) Rehab. 2) The outpouring of Hollywood support (see Robert Downey Jr.). 3) Stunt casting on a David Kelley TV series. 4) Tragedy, as Ms. Ryder is arraigned for shoplifting again. Can’t we just cut to the Connie Chung interview?

4) The Sum of All Hollywood Fears. Curiously, the main place I’ve been running into racial profiling these days isn’t at airports, but at the movie studios-specifically, in terms of the villains, plots, settings and threats in action movies that are being developed. It’s almost as if a new set of guidelines has been issued: no Arabs, no nukes, no bio-weapons, no terrorist plots set in New York, as “the city now carries too much baggage.”

To some extent, this explains how the filmmakers ended up with neo-Nazi villains in The Sum of All Fears . (Although the film was shot before 9/11, sensitivity to Arab stereotypes predated the World Trade Center attacks.)

I’m sure that the reticence to set certain kinds of films in New York will pass. And since The Sum of All Fears nuked Baltimore with no material effect on the box office, I’m also sure that other, larger cities are in line to receive the same treatment.

Recently, I had dinner with a well-known, highly influential, ultra-visible Hollywood figure who spent 40 minutes pounding the table in a restaurant, lecturing that “Everybody out here knows the Saudis are the real fucking villains. We ought to nuke the fucking Saudis right now.”

Years ago, I might have found this Hollywood take on world politics vaguely amusing, in much the same way I’ve always rolled my eyes at the specious “If we can build a Trident nuclear submarine, why can’t we solve world hunger?” L.A. Democratic fund-raiser tautology. But this time, I found the bellicose rantings sad-a sort of sorry display of impotence.

As he continued ranting, I began to daydream. And I suddenly realized how to pitch the ultimate politically correct big-boy fantasy action film this year: Drooling, psychopathic Al Qaeda members nuke Riyadh, taking out the duplicitous, corrupt Saudi royal family. (Think Shah of Iran scenario. Think stolen French nuke.) Now, a few good American Men-a Southerner, a black, Tom Hanks … oh, screw it, the whole cast of Saving Private Ryan -join up with a half-dozen bronzed and buffed Koran-pumping American Muslims. And next thing you know, bam! They pop in, kick ass and make the world safe for Martha Stewart .

Maybe I’ve been out here too long. But I think you could sell this baby in a heartbeat. Which may explain why I’m working on a romantic comedy-and an exit strategy.