The Phantom of the Back Lot

FictionDeathMoviesEntertainmentNathanael WestRay BradburyRay Harryhausen

It was his ability to evoke a mood that first endeared Ray Bradbury to the public at large, after his beginnings in pulp science-fiction magazines in the 1940s.

"The Martian Chronicles" (1950) presented the colonization of Mars in the 21st Century as a retelling of the settling of America and destruction of the Indians, creating a paradoxical elegy for the future. The thing that dazzled in 1950 was Bradbury's poetic style. It didn't matter whether his fantasies made sense: Carried along by Bradbury's seductive voice, they felt true.

By the mid-'50s, his stories were appearing in Esquire, Gilbert Highet had called him "the finest living writer of fantastic fiction," and Bradbury, who had stood on his roller skates in front of studio gates in the '30s hoping to snag autographs, was a rising young writer on film projects ranging from "It Came From Outer Space" to John Huston's "Moby Dick."

"A Graveyard for Lunatics" gives us a nostalgic vision of the young Bradbury and the Hollywood he worked in. The two cities of the novel's subtitles are the Maximus Films studio and the Green Glades cemetery adjoining it.

On Halloween night, 1954, a young screenwriter finds the body of J. C. Arbuthnot, former head of Maximus, on a ladder, poised to climb from the cemetery to the studio. Arbuthnot has been dead 20 years. This grisly prank draws Bradbury's idealistic hero into the mystery of the executive's death, a tale that eventually turns into what might be called "The Phantom of the Studio," with a mysterious "Beast" haunting the back lots of Maximus, killing off anybody who knows what happened to Arbuthnot.

In pursuing the solution to this Hollywood Gothic, Bradbury's unnamed narrator--whose biography parallels Bradbury's own--introduces us to a host of colorful characters. These include Stanislau Groc, the makeup artist responsible for embalming Lenin; the brilliant expatriate German director Fritz Wong, transparently modeled after Fritz Lang; J.C., a womanizing alcoholic who has portrayed Christ in so many films that he has permanently adopted the role; Roy Holdstrom, a special- effects wizard based on Bradbury's friend Ray Harryhausen; and Constance Rattigan, a reclusive movie queen who retired from films in the 1930s at the height of her fame. We also are treated to a moody evocation of the last days of the big-time studios:

"Late at night a motion-picture studio talks to itself. If you move along the dark alleys past the buildings where the editing rooms on the top floors whisper and bray and roar and snack-chatter until two or three or four in the morning, you hear chariots rushing by in the air . . . or Niagara pouring itself down the studio towers into the film vaults . . . the night people keep working these shadowed hours because they prefer the company of Moviolas and flicker-moth screens and close-up lovers to the people stranded at noonday, stunned by reality outside the walls. It is a long-after-midnight collision of buried voices and lost musics caught in a time cloud between buildings, released from high open doors or windows while the shadows of the cutter-editors loom on the pale ceilings bent over enchantments . . . " "A Graveyard for Lunatics" is at its strongest in passages like this. Although the graveyard adjoining the studio--the city of the dead hard by the city of the living--presents a powerful image of the corruption underlying movie-magazine Hollywood, Bradbury still portrays that time and place as magic.

But there is a dark side to the emotional intensity Bradbury strives for in "Graveyard." Despite its virtues, the power of the novel is undercut by the holes in its plot, deficiencies in its characters' motivations.

About planning his fiction in advance, Bradbury wrote in 1966, "I must write the story in an emotional blaze . . . (The plot) cannot be imagined ahead of the event." Using this method, Bradbury wrote the first draft of "Fahrenheit 451" in nine days. "Only the fast stuff is good," Bradbury's screenwriting alter-ego in "Graveyard" tells a friend. "Slow down, you think what you're doing and it gets bad."

Any writer will attest to miracles that happen when one is charged up and writing fast, but "A Graveyard for Lunatics" shows the limitations of winging it as an artistic method. Its characters, so intriguing on first description, never develop any depth. Propelled by the rush of incident, too often they do inexplicable things for unfathomable reasons:

A room full of film professionals is unable to tell the difference between a stop-motion animation and a live action film of a man wearing makeup. A villain slams the door shut on three investigators of a crypt, thereby forcing them to discover the hidden passage that is his big secret. The scriptwriter leaves others to face death threats he knows are coming, only to return in time to find the bodies. No one ever calls the police.

The book is full of dramatic confrontations, but should the reader stop to think, the whole structure begins to look as rickety as the back-lot mock-up of the Notre Dame cathedral where the final revelation of the novel occurs.

As if aware that his story's architecture is shaky, Bradbury turns up the volume on his prose style. Scene after scene is composed of breathless one-sentence paragraphs, as when his hero discovers the body of Clarence, an obsessive fan who spends every day waiting outside the studio gates hoping to collect some glimpse of the famous:

"Clarence. "I turned round-about, wildly hoping to find a single clue to save for Crumley.

"The drawers to Clarence's desk had been jerked free and their contents eviscerated.

"A few pictures remained on the walls. My eyes roved and fixed on one.

"Jesus Christ on the Calvary backlot.

"It was signed, 'To Clarence, PEACE from the one and only J.C.'

"I knocked it from its frame, stuffed it in my pocket.

"I turned to run, my heart pounding, when I saw a last thing. I grabbed it.

"A Brown Derby matchbox.

"Anything else ? I gasped.

"Me, said Clarence, all cold. Help me .

"Oh, Clarence, I thought, if only I could !"

The novel does touch on some painful truths. When the narrator asks Clarence why he hangs around the studio gate, he replies, "I got nothing else to do." For a moment here the vision of emotional vacuity that Nathanael West's "The Day of the Locust" embodied in a similar character, Homer Simpson, yawns open before us. But West's Homer, treated dispassionately, is ultimately more moving than Clarence, whose death gets only sentimental reverence.

Bradbury's screenwriter hero, who used to stand with Clarence outside the gate 20 years before on his roller skates, seems occasionally aware of the grotesque ironies of his position, but he draws back from any such realization into an invulnerable innocence. This is the novel of a boy dazzled by the movies, whose contact with the harsh realities of their production has left him fundamentally unaffected. Constance Rattigan exclaims wonderingly, "You're a real case. You believe all this crap you write? Mars in 2001? Illinois in '28?"

"Yep."

"Christ. How lucky to be inside your skin, so goddamned naive. Don't ever change . . . We stupid damn doomsayers, cynics, monsters laugh, but we need you."

This is Bradbury's defense of emotion over thought, belief over reality, nostalgia over memory. It is in some ways a heroic stand. But it leaves him in a position where, since he rejects the cynicism of a Nathanael West, the baroque absurdity of his story undermines the sentimental truths he propounds.

In 1953, it was perhaps easier to believe in an idyllic Waukegan of 1928, or in a romantic Mars of the imagination. In 1990, we are further from both of those places.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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