Roxie

roxieIn the canon of American literature of the last century, Nathanael West figures in a couple of times. Miss Lonelyhearts is considered his signature work–a novel of isolation and animal longing.

My favorite has always been The Day of the Locust, which ends with Hollywood burning to the ground amidst a savage mob running amok and devouring all that would try and halt it. It was made into an almost-good movie starring Donald Sutherland, William Atherton and Karen Black. The Day of the Locust has it all: artists, wannabe starlets, midgets, cockfights, cowboys, darkness, hunger and desperation.

It’s a great novel and a not great film with a couple of huge saving graces that compel one to see it anyway. A genuinely great performance by Donald Sutherland as Homer Simpson (yes, that’s the character’s name–no shit) and everyday schmoe businessman who is pining away for Karen Black’s Faye Greener, who finds him about as exciting as a vanilla milkshake.

Also interested in her affections is a not-very-talented painter named Tod Hackett who has an inflated opinion of himself. She is a little more interested in him, but mostly she’s self-absorbed, as are most of the characters in this sad and devastating story.

The novel introduces several hangers-on and down-at-the-heels characters–the cowboy who plays cowboy types in movies, a vulgar midget, a Mexican cockfighter–the seedy milieu completes a picture of the human afterthoughts of the American movie business.

Its finale is something right out of fire and brimstone biblical reckoning: Homer Simpson, defeated in love and languishing in a state of suicidal despair, is hectored and hit in the head with a stone by Adore Loomis, a child-actor and little shit of the first order. The child makes a fool of him and then injures him and he decides this is the last indignity he will suffer and stomps the kid to death in full view of the crowd at a movie premiere. The crowd then devours Homer who has gone quite mad and starts imitating the sounds of the siren as he is pulled apart.

Tod Hackett is witness to all of it and as the city starts to burn, he marvels at the similarity to a painting he has completed called “The Burning of Los Angeles.”  He is injured in the melee yet oddly, maddeningly, he seems satisfied.

It is a grim and despairing coda, reflecting what West thought of Hollywood–perversion, vanity, greed and glitter–a fraudulent place full of evil and venality. It is the garish flipside of the American dream.

It unfolds, rightly , in front of “Kahn’s Persian Palace,” an obvious stand it for Graumann’s Chinese Theater.

The movie also boasts the stellar cinematography of Conrad Hall–one of the greats–and also one of the reasons to see the movie. A lot of great work went into this flawed film. John Schlesinger could have used a little more restraint in his direction.  The film, at times, becomes the kind of lachrymose melodrama that the novel openly pillories

Karen Black chews up the scenery, as she is wont to do, and William Atherton is perfectly unctuous as an artist who has an immense opinion of a rather ordinary talent. The human comedy and tragedy is on full view in this marvelous novel and just-okay movie.

Whenever I think of it, I think of the doomed child stars, never to become fully formed people, wandering the world of adults as blind as kittens. It’s never hard for me to make the case that the reason Michael Jackson needed his own giraffe had a lot to do with what show business taught him to want. He seemed a fetishized object of perpetual childhood his whole life…a plaything for a culture just as ready to dispose of him.

Published in: on May 16, 2013 at 12:34 am  Leave a Comment  

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