An Angeleno’s Angst: Red-Hot Temps, Pink Slips

As I sit down to write this diary, it’s been 103 degrees in Los Angeles for six days running.

The sky is yellow; the wind is hot; a fine white ash from distant brushfires has begun falling—like summer snowflakes—on cars left outside to broil in the sun.

The power grid has been pushed to its limits; the city has issued a warning to keep the elderly, children and pets indoors. And the night brings no relief: only the flash of distant heat lightning, and the promise of rain that never comes.

On the far fringes of the AM radio dial—past the chatter about Hezbollah and Israel, past the stations broadcasting in Chinese, Korean, Spanish and Farsi—the airwaves reverberate with the talk of the End of Days.

“Praise God, the end is upon us,” a female radio host sings out in an Alabama-laced falsetto from a station in downtown L.A., citing scripture about the Israelites and Armageddon. “Make peace with your maker, accept his salvation. For the earth is on fire, and the apocalypse is here.”

Los Angeles is a city where it’s easy to feel disconnected from reality. We smile, beaming with encouragement, and tell each other that the script is great, the performances were wonderful, the movie is going to be a hit. We avoid the unpleasant truths. But beneath the palm trees and the bougainvillea, there’s an underlying anxiety that reaches right down to the bedrock. We hide it, we bury it, we cover it up. But the real fault line that threatens life in L.A. is rooted not in geology, but the terrain of the human psyche.

In this summer of unrelenting heat and unmoderated war—with Israel fighting as our proxy against Iran, and pink slips falling at talent agencies and movie studios—Hollywood feels more disconnected and anxious than ever.

We muse about the box office; we speculate about the effects of iPods, Mobisodes, MySpace and YouTube; we still blame Bush for every human misfortune and continue to laugh at the same old punch lines—“Cheney,” “Rumsfeld,” “Truthiness”—but the knowing smiles seem somewhat forced these days.

In murmurs and asides, we wince at John Kerry’s tin-eared assertion that the current crisis in the Middle East wouldn’t have happened “if I’d been elected President.” We’re annoyed, because we know that a leading man never makes those kinds of claims. Think Clint Eastwood. He shrugs, he squints: “The President’s doing the best he can. But I’ll be there when the time comes.”

We hold our tongues, in silence, for the things we don’t want to acknowledge or admit to these days: There is no plausible explanation—except for the worst one—for Mel Gibson’s outburst against the Jews. The shooting spree at the Jewish Federation offices in Seattle may well be a harbinger of worse things to come. The Islamic fundamentalists really do want to kill us, and no amount of dialogue or process or negotiation is going to appease them.

So yes, we cheer on Israel—but we do it privately, quietly countenancing things like the military censorship of the press that would have us rioting in the streets if the Bush administration tried the same thing in Iraq. We know there’s no such thing as a measured response when you’re fighting for survival, and asymmetrical war is dirty by definition. But from the phrase “You’ll never work in this town again” to the hiring of thuggish detectives in the normal course of business, Hollywood itself has never shied away from the disproportionate response.

At dinner parties in Bel Air, we ridicule the rubes calling for treason charges to be brought against The New York Times for revealing our financial intelligence operations; but later, as we stand in the street, in twos and threes, waiting for the valet to bring the car, we confess our worries that our security has been compromised. And that’s when we snicker at the editor of the Los Angeles Times for claiming that his paper has no agenda to get George Bush. We’ve been to film school. We understand subtext. And we know that those words belong in the mouth of a character who’s dissembling.

In this summer of angst in L.A., there’s no shortage of local causes for concern: With the consolidation of movie studios and Disney’s decision to cut back on film production, there will be less work for writers and actors; less need for agents and producers; fewer jobs for development executives—not to mention real-estate agents, Pilates instructors and car detailers. In our trickle-down economy, the faucet is about to be tightened.

Still, we drive out to the studios to pitch our projects and tell our beautiful stories—right after we reassure the executives that the villains won’t be Muslim or Al Qaeda. The Sean Hannitys of the world complain that this is due to a lack of patriotism in the movie industry, but they’re wrong: It’s about global consumerism, and the ownership of studios by multinational corporations. “I’m not going to take the hit for losing a single sale of any one of our products anywhere on this earth,” an executive declared recently, ticking off a list that could have included plasma TV’s in Pakistan, theme parks in Asia, cable rights in China or power plants in Dubai. “I’ve got a better idea,” he offered brightly. “Why don’t we make the bad guy an American?”

On the way home in the car, we chat on the cell phone about the waning influence of movie critics. We don’t actually read them any more; we go to rottentomatoes.com for a statistical overview. And as the phone disconnects, we begin to wonder whether movies—like music—have lost their role in driving American culture.

We know the 1960’s are over, and the days of movies like The Graduate or Easy Rider are gone. But there’s a larger, more inconvenient truth that we don’t want to discuss: Six months after we proclaimed that Brokeback Mountain would be the end of homophobia in America, gay marriage is on the verge of being outlawed. And for all the forests that were pulped to promote Al Gore’s film, less than four million people have seen it.

We tell ourselves movies still matter. And then quietly wonder if they don’t. Still, we tell ourselves it’s all going to be all right.

On the weekend, we wipe the ash off the car and drive out to a cocktail party in Malibu, where we muse about box office, avoiding the conversation about Hezbollah, the aggressor as victim and disproportionate response.

In the silence, we gaze out at the Pacific Ocean.

The sunsets are beautiful out here, aren’t they?