Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Hollywood on the Elbe


I had a very strange dream the other night. Having gone on foot too far south, or else having missed a bus or metro stop (it was not quite clear), I found myself walking by my old school, Virgil Junior High http://www.virgilms.net/. It was after Midnight, not a very good time to be in that neighborhood. Indeed, in my time we had more stabbings than any other school in the City, and it has been a fitting scene for such films as Halls of Anger and American History X. In any case, I was wondering how best to get to Hollywood, and kept walking south on Vermont, coming to a rock and rubble strewn alley that does not exist in the waking world. Stepping into it, I was confronted by a very strange old hag, who was plaintively calling “Lauriiieeee…Laurieee.” Presuming that she was calling after a lost cat or some such, I was torn between wanting to help her, who should not be alone in such a place at such a time, and fear that she was a vampire, zombie, or some other unearthly visitant. The latter impulse won out, and passing her by, I came to what appeared to be an old and disused warehouse, only to see a young blonde girl talking on a cellphone pass inside.

Going to the doorway, I saw her walk up a flight of stairs, still talking. I called up to her, “are you Laurie?” She nodded, kept moving and speaking on the phone, and out of my view apparently opened a door from which sounds of singing and laughter emerged. Following in her wake, I entered the room myself. There, in a large studio were a great mass of people, some quite normal looking, others very odd, but all having a good time. The place was shabbily furnished as such abodes often are, but in the middle, seated behind a desk, was a very old white-haired man holding forth to a bunch of admirers. This being a dream (although he does not exist in the waking world), I knew who he was.

The ancient before me was in fact an old and once very famous German film-maker, friend and contemporary of such as Wilder, Lang, and von Stroheim, who like them had come to Hollywood to escape from Hitler. Now he was the last of his kind, and I was amazed to see him alive, let alone so spry and vibrant. To my delight, he recognized me, saying “Ah! It is Charles Coulombe, the writer!” Speaking to a tall and rather stupid looking young man who was standing nearby, he said, “Clear the books off that chair for him to sit down!” As the seeming dimwit did so, the old director told me in confessional tones, “his forte in writing is really light comedy, so I have been having him read Wodehouse, Thorne Smith, and the like. He is actually quite brilliant.” The tall fellow replied, albeit in a voice as stupid sounding as his appearance, with a witticism which (although I cannot remember it) was horribly clever and set us all off laughing wildly. The old man beamed at his disciple, and then at me, and said, “you see!”

Speaking to me, he switched to rather an odd German, partly Berliner, partly Wiener, with a touch of Yiddish (my own German in response was better than it has been in years). He told tales, recited rhymes and sang nursery songs, most of which I have not heard in ages. Herr Direktor then opined, “no matter how we may try to escape them, the earliest influences stay with us always!” The conversation went on to various other channels, and I awoke in a very cheerful mood.

Now, while a Jungian might declare that the two ladies in the dream were expressions of my anima (and feminists and wiccans note that the matron was absent, although the crone and the virgin were there), it was the figure of the old man who claimed my attention. While he was no one I have met in real life, he was in fact a composite.

Back during the mid to late 70s, Los Angeles was still home to the aging remnants of the wave of Central and Eastern European immigrants that had sought refuge there throughout the inter- and postwar periods from various revolutions and dictators --- generally noblemen, bourgeoisie, or artists. Russian, German, Czech, Pole, Lithuanian or Croatian, they had all sought in the Big Nowhere a place where they could reconstruct their lives as well as possible. Their clubs, churches, and restaurants allowed them to gather and relive les bon vieux temps passé. In dusty, tchotchke-filled eateries like the Little Prague and the Paprika, the hum of their conversations cast quite the spell on your correspondent as he blundered through his teens. To see such folk on the RTD bus lines, holding themselves erect and alert amidst the students and street people was an inspiration.

Were you fortunate enough to know any of these folk personally, their often dingy little apartments, hung with scenes from the motherland, black and white photos of grim or happy folk in elegant though far outdated finery, and pictures of long dead or deposed emperors and kings transported you from the grimy L.A. streets of the 1970s to an unconquerable Ruritania of the mind. Given a sympathetic audience, they would tell amazing stories of horror and escape, and bring out treasures --- a medal, perhaps, or a piece of jewelry or porcelain --- that they had managed to rescue from the wreck of their lives and fortunes.

Now, what impressed this writer with these people was not simply their nostalgia, enjoyable as it was. It was their verve, their joi-de-vivre. They had looked upon horror; some had been tortured, all had lost friends and relatives to unspeakable fates at the hands of the minions of Hitler, Stalin, or both. Yet here they were --- haunted by such a past, but not destroyed by it. As the decades had passed, the pleasanter memories of their pasts, the effort to build new lives here, and their ongoing interests in the arts, politics, religion, or whatever it might be, allowed them not merely to carve out pleasant niches for themselves. These things also helped them pass on what they had learned of endurance with grace to folk who had never endured such hardships.

When an American looks at a Western European over the age of 60 --- or an Easterner over 40 --- he is looking at someone who has lived through the unlivable: things beside which the Great Depression that bedeviled our people seems almost pleasant. It is certainly true that those horrors gutted Europe as a society. But some individuals came through it with their interiors intact, and more than a few of those came here.

Whatever difficulties may face these United States in the future, if something of the brave spirit and love of life that powered those exiles of my youth can be passed on to at least of some of the young of today, what lies ahead of us may not be utterly unpleasant. Who knows? It might even be worth seeing!