Maybe more than any other city district on earth, Hollywood conjures up pretty powerful images in the minds of people the world over; the glamour and glitz of red-carpet premieres, with wide palm-lined boulevards under clear blue skies.
In strictly geographical terms I live in Hollywood Heights in the foothills just north of Hollywood, on a single-track road, in a peaceful verdant canyon, yet just an eight minute walk from the Dolby Theatre (home to the Oscars ceremony).
Wanting to keep fit I frequently take an evening constitutional stroll along the famous Hollywood Boulevard where the Walk of Fame stars now extend for over a mile. To say that Hollywood is a place of contrasts would be something of a cliché. But, rather appropriately, it is.
The Boulevard, particularly the city blocks between La Brea and Highland, is a magnet for tourists to Los Angeles. Running east to west, the evening sun casts long shadows on the throngs of visitors soaking up the atmosphere. Some of the key attractions include famous movie theatres such as Graumann’s Chinese Theatre, the El Capitan, and The Egyptian. Graumann’s Chinese theatre is set back from the street, its large forecourt is paved with large concrete slabs set into which are the hand and shoe prints of some of Hollywood’s greatest stars. Stars also scribed their names and short messages to Sid Graumann, the Theatre’s original owner.
Between the theatres are other retail outlets and up-market fast-food joints to snare visitors, it’s not unlike London’s Piccadilly Circus in this respect. For those on a tighter budget there are the small (and illegal) sidewalk vendors, their tiny metal carts comprise an aluminium tray as cooking surface with a concealed gas cylinder and burner. Bacon wrapped hot dogs seem to be the top sellers.
Beyond ‘quick and dirty’ catering, the sidewalk is besmottered with all manner of other hawkers: Look-a-likes of varying veracity sporting costumes of often dubious quality; batman, superman, spiderman, then various iterations of Captain Jack along with a passable Marilyn. A rather grubby Spongebob rubs shoulders with various Disney rip-offs including the cast of Frozen. One of the more elaborate efforts is an 8ft tall transformer on stilts. Encased in bright yellow home-fabricated sheet metal, Optimus Prime employs a minder to help his ward maintain his balance. He also takes the money from passing tourists who want a family photo op., which is the basic business model for the myriad of would be doppelgangers.
Although the current Spiderman is ludicrously obese, and Chewbacca an infested health hazard, there are some good ones. Superman is quite close if a little jaded. He was once on the local evening news - someone had smashed in the rear window of a police 'black and white' Once the news camera was rolling Superman admitted to camera that it was in fact Darth Vader, and not him, who actually witnessed the attack. Here in Hollywood this seemed somehow less surreal. Later on I saw the same Superman taking a break, the caped crusader dragging on a cigarette was perhaps not the best image one might take back to Kansas or Kyoto.
Having walked this way countless times I now know when the steady flow of punters is likely to pull-up to a sudden stop, most noticeably it’s the clusters of Chinese punters who stop dead in their track when Bruce Lee’s star unexpectedly hoves into view. I know when to give space to prevent collision. There’s an immediate frenzy of activity to get the perfect souvenir picture. Rather like wedding photos it seems that all possible photo permutations must be captured. The crouching subject of each image squats to one side of the star whilst the camera touting persons charged with taking the picture stands to the other. This static group cases the relentless flow of pedestrians to part around them like a large rock dropped in a fast moving stream.
Amidst the colourful hustle and bustle, the balloon modellers, the street painters, and the human statues, move greyer and sometimes almost invisible figures, rather like dementors from the Harry Potter novels. Sixty thousand homeless people traipse the streets of Los Angeles. These drab grey figures also share the streets of Hollywood. These human tragedies in plain sight are so familiar that they go unseen, one becomes hardened to seeing doorways filled with crumpled bundles of humanity.
During Awards season, when the Oscars come to town, almost everyone finds themselves on the wrong side of the tracks. Fences with razor wire manned by militarised swat teams separate the city’s red-carpet entertainment elite from the hoi polloi.
One of the walks I make most is along to the Egyptian Theatre, the sister cinema to the Chinese but with a fake Egyptian facade that boasts Hollywood’s first premiere back in the '20s. The walk here is typically one of anticipation, the route is marred only slightly by the need to pass by the Scientology building, one of several in the locality. Her cohorts of uniformed and indoctrinated practitioners prowl the pavement outside for fresh meat, grasping coloured postcards promoting their bunkum religious cult. Any challenge to their approach is met by an unsettling and aggressive response. I am less troubled than most of the less purposeful visiting promenaders have mastered the scowl of a profoundly uninterested local.
The Egyptian Theatre is the Hollywood home of the American Cinematheque, as a member one is blessed with cast and crew screenings in a delightfully honest yet well-equipped viewing environment; Sylvester Stallone introducing ‘Creed', Cate Blanchett discussing ‘Carol', Warren Beatty pre-screening ‘Rules don’t Apply’, 'The Hateful 8’ presented in 70mm by its cinematographer Robert Richardson, and Martin Scorsese in conversation with Irwin Winkler all spring to mind… the list of such privileges goes on and on.
It is marvellous to see classic movies that my generation know more from television screened in the manner that their creators intended. The ultimate example of this must be Bergman and Bogart in ‘Casablanca', projected from the last existing 35mm nitrate print. Nitrate film delivers wonderful black and white images, but is highly flammable so was replaced with safety film. Nitrate films today require special (and expensive) fireproof projection facilities, The Egyptian is one of very few places where one can view such rare material.
Hollywood is, in reality, rather scruffy. But to me this is the patina of the real human stories that unfold everyday, the stories that go unrecorded. Working in the industry I delight in this heritage. I am fortunate to be collaborating with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (oscars.org) on a personal project, the restoration of my film The Troop which had Royal premiere at Bafta back in 1999. The Academy has chosen The Troop film to be its global case study for a new film to digital process that will be the basis for all movie restoration in the future. I hope, one day, to see it projected on the Egyptian’s massive 53ft screen and look forward to its acceptance into the Academy’s archive where it will live in perpetuity…. hooray for Hollywood!