RAYMOND CHANDLER PROBABLY SAID MORE THAN he knew when he declared that Hollywood “worships death.” What would he say if he saw the crowd that gathered Saturday night at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery to see Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, a film for which Chandler wrote the screenplay's first draft? Whatever the post-postmodern intentions of Cinespia, the nonprofit group that sponsors this summer series, watching a black-and-white film like Strangers in this place is a latticed experience, to say the least: Farley Granger and Robert Walker face off over their scotch-and-waters, framed by Hitch's camera, in turn framed by the blank, white wall of a mausoleum, in turn framed by tall palm trees jutting out above the audience like enormous sprigs of wheat, in turn surrounded by gleaming, glittering, impeccably kept gravesites and memorials awash in ice-white moonlight. Practically everyone in the film is now dead yet still frozen in youth (with the possible exception of Leo G. Carroll); everyone on the lawn was wishing they were frozen in youth too.
It really hasn't hit them yet, has it? Anyone who has ever wandered a graveyard looking for the plots of their loved ones (“I thought it was right here . . .”) can attest to the similar feeling of stumbling through a dark theater, or across this very lawn, looking for the one holding your spot (“Laura? Colin? Helloooo?”). Hitchcock's paranoia is infectious in this place. How many people sitting in their camping chairs or spread out on their blankets, picking at their salami and cheese and crackers, smoking their cigarettes and sipping their champagne, are envious of — hell, actually feel sorry for — Robert Walker's foppish, childish Bruno?
Granger's square, moralistic tennis player, we know, is closer to us — and we don't like it. When Bruno intones, “I think a person should do everything before they die,” this gets the biggest response of the night. “Everybody is a potential murderer,” Bruno goes on to say, and one wonders of all the perfect murder(er)s that lay under our cabana chairs and blankets: Marion Davies, who perhaps knew the real secret to how Thomas Ince died on Hearst's boat; Bugsy Siegel and Harry Cohn, gangsters of different stripes but of twin hearts; Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, who was shot to death in a fight over a $50 dog reward; Colonel Griffith J. Griffith, who blew a hole in his wife's head after accusing her of conspiring with the pope against the U.S. government; Virginia Rappe, violated by a Coke bottle that punctured her bladder during a party in Fatty Arbuckle's suite at San Francisco's St. Francis Hotel; and director William Desmond Taylor, next to the Black Dahlia perhaps Hollywood's greatest unsolved killing.
When Bruno admits to his “silly” plot to blow up the White House, the perfect autumn murder of 3,000 comes to mind — like those onscreen and underground, the young lunatics who flew those planes may have died, but they did “get away with it,” eternally young in the blast of an instant.
Had he been sitting next to me on the lawn, Chandler might have to amend: “Hollywood worships death and youth so closely that they become interchangeable.”
There seemed to be no neutral ground as people slowly dispersed to their cars at the film's end. Not all of them may have made it home, either.
RECOVERY: Pins and Needles
OF THE ROUGHLY 20 PEOPLE SEATED IN A SEMIcircle at the Casa de Rosas women's shelter in South-Central, all but three are middle-aged black women. All but one are struggling with addiction issues — crack, heroin, methadone, methamphetamines, alcohol, marijuana — and are either in active detox or extended recovery. Yet it is the last one — a white, male journalist rendered suddenly useful as a makeshift guinea pig — who now sits with clusters of needles protruding from both ears, as the others marvel at his apparent stamina. For all practical purposes, he looks like the guy in Hellraiser.
“Who knows what acupuncture is?” asks Erin Holloway, a licensed practitioner and instructor.
Candy raises her hand tentatively. “I think it involves needles, which control the nerve endings, which control sensors, which control things that we need to control.”
Everyone, Holloway included, agrees this is a reasonable explanation. And although the ensuing lecture involves “freeway meridians” and the flow of chi, or energy, and close readings of the Serenity Prayer, these women have come here out of desperation, and are willing to take the explanation on faith, since they've tried everything else.
Tonight is the first night of an eight-week, three-times-a-week “acudetox” program of auricular acupuncture, which employs five pressure points in each ear. The program is administered on an experimental basis under the auspices of Yo San University in Marina del Rey, a four-year, nonprofit, accredited facility for training healers in the art of Chinese medicine. At the end of the eight weeks, in September, the university hopes to attract a third-party institution such as nearby USC to replicate the study and corroborate the anticipated results, with the findings to be published in a reputable medical journal. From there, a standardized drug-detox program could proliferate as far and wide as our Starbucks nation.
The program is the brainstorm of brothers Daoshing and Maoshing Ni — Dr. Dao and Dr. Mao to their followers — the 38th generation of a family of Chinese healers that stretches back roughly a thousand years in their native China. Their father, Hua-Ching Ni, a recognized Taoist master who has authored over 50 books in Chinese and 40 more in English, immigrated to Los Angeles in 1976. His sons joined the practice in 1983. Aside from having established the university (Yo San was the name of their grandfather, who was forced to give up his own medical studies in 1966 in the wake of the Cultural Revolution), the brothers also operate a much tonier private practice, the Tao of Wellness, which caters to a decidedly more upscale clientele. Dao is one of the premier fertility experts in Los Angeles, and is rumored to have been responsible for any number of celebrity births, although he is discreet to a fault and cannot comment.
A thin, elegant man with fine gray hair and a cultivated Western air, Dao sees this program as a natural outgrowth of the university's low-cost community clinic and outreach programs at the Venice Family Clinic and for HIV patients in West Hollywood. “Chinese medicine, in this country at least, is used largely by the more educated, the well-to-do,” he says. “For reasons of education or economics, it's the underprivileged who have the least access to what we offer. And yet Chinese medicine is a folk medicine, so any culture with a history of herbal remedies can perhaps more readily relate to it. That's certainly true of Latino cultures; if you boil up some herbs and make it into a tea, certain people may have less resistance to the concept because it reminds them of something their grandmother used to do. And African culture, even black culture in the early centuries of this country, has very much the same heritage — even if much of it has been lost. We would like to re-establish that connection.”
The Casa de Rosas center, site of this trial run, is a sprawling 28,000-square-foot compound in the heart of the West Adams Historical District. Established by Sister Essie West, a radio evangelist and understudy of Aimee Semple McPherson who purchased the grounds and buildings for $4,000 in 1941, it is the oldest women's shelter in Los Angeles County, and now provides 17 beds for single women over 18 without children, as well as 55 units of low-income housing. The shelter turns away seven to 10 women a day, according to executive director Stephen Knight, due to a ä lack of bed space. “Women and children are very sexy, in terms of attracting funding,” he says, “but single women is a growing population that is underserved.” As such, the center does what it can to subsidize its private and government grant funding, including renting itself out as a movie location — look for it in the upcoming Steven Spielberg period drama Catch Me if You Can.
“The kind of medical challenges that indigenous inner-city populations face,” says Bidhan Roy, a British ex-ITV journalist who is spearheading the effort, “are exactly the kind of things that herbal medicine is good at addressing: addiction, nutrition issues, psychological abuse, general environmental abuse. If you add up the cost to society of addiction, just in social services alone — methadone programs, often crime and prison terms, welfare costs, the frequent recidivism — it can easily reach between $300,000 and half a million dollars per person. A holistic approach is just infinitely more cost-effective. Our proposal doesn't just substitute one addiction for another, like methadone treatment; it solves the problem at its root causes, and at a fraction of the cost.”
Shelter residents must ideally be drug- and alcohol-free, but a cumulative 90-day grace period is designed to transition candidates into detox or recovery programs, including the Yo San acudetox treatment.
Back in the semicircle, the specter of seeing a perfect stranger skewered with needles in front of them results in plenty of high spirits and open anxiety. But the effect of the treatment is definitely soporific, and as Holloway makes her way around the circle with needles, the jokes and vocal camaraderie soon fall away. Candy chants quietly to herself, others meditate or repose on couches, as the tidal rhythms of the surf find their way 15 miles inland to the unlikeliest of neighborhoods.
“Usually, our mornings are filled by who got in a fight with who last night, and how we're going to preserve our fragile peace,” observes Knight, as he watches one woman after another wander off to be alone or return to their rooms. “I don't think we're going to have that problem tomorrow.”