Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Straight Outta Palmdale (From the Archives)

NOTE: I'm collecting some of my all-time favorite stories up here. One in a series.

[Satire, originally published in New Times Los Angeles]

How renegade movie makers in a desolate patch of Mojave suburbia are building a film empire--and making Hollywood drool about the Next Big Thing

THE CITY OF PALMDALE, by any definition, sucks.

It lies at the edge of northern Los Angeles County, a long 70 miles from downtown, even 30 miles past Santa Clarita, the outermost suburb that most people considered habitable. Those who live out here and work in The Big City spend at least four hours a day on the freeway. Those who don't commute spend 24 hours a day in Palmdale, which is worse.

Sure, the place has a mall and all the big releases play here, just like anywhere else. Sure, Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works will keep people employed building the next-generation space shuttle, the X-33, to be tested at nearby Edwards Air Force Base. And, at least, Highway 41 goes through town so the Denny's does OK. Oh, and there's a Metrolink stop.

But at its core, the town is a mistake, a clear argument that Los Angeles can and will come to an end. Less than a decade ago, city planners heralded Palmdale as the last, great frontier of Angelene expansion, the event horizon of growth, a place where a Ward & June could buy a chunk of America and settle down, a Mayberry in the desert, only hotter. But now the suburban dreamland boasts some of the nation's highest rates of domestic and child abuse, and ranks as the foreclosure capital of America. Entire developments of crisp, new tract homes lay vacant, like seas of silent orange stucco, and every half-empty strip mall has at least one storefront touting foreclosure auctions and HUD homes for a very enthusiastic "Zero percent down!"

To most of Los Angeles, Palmdale is a punch line, a big joke in the sand, which, some say, is what makes it perfect for a youth-born revolution in cinema.

And that's where the Biggs brothers come in.

* * *

The whisper begins near the back of the room, away from the band, away from the makeshift plywood bar, away from what everybody calls the "non-wall," the giant hole in the side of the boarded-up restaurant that opens into desert and clean, cold midnight air. Huge metal trash cans, alive with fire, battle the Mojave's sharp chill. The whisper spreads quickly from the table of cigar-puffing teenagers to the circle of breakdancers to the trio of men wearing dark-blue linen jackets and cautious, exploratory looks. The whisper passes the lips of other, more established celebrities here this night, about whom the crowd has already whispered, people such as Neve Campbell and Beck.

"They're here," says the whisper. "Check these guys out."

The hushed notice follows two young men through the dim smoky haze and thundering roots-rock noise of this thrown-together meeting place, an abandoned steak house that everybody now calls the "NonClub." The two make their way through the maze of sofas and bean bags, to a posh yellow couch outside, next to a smoldering barrel of fire. They seem not to notice the attention, the whispering. They act like just another couple of kids, hanging out, fending off the boredom of the collapsing last frontier of Los Angeles suburbia. They act just like everybody else here.

But they know better.

Hell, everybody knows who these guys are--everybody in Palmdale, anyway. Everybody knows the Biggs brothers, the brothers Biggs, Stephen and Duane, 26 and 24, cinematic prodigies and, if you believe the industry buzz, Hollywood's newest flavors of the month, the next Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. As the epicenter of the exploding film scene out here in the least likely of places, in a dying desert armpit of a city, everybody knows who they are.

Everybody knows that the Biggs brothers' new movie, The X Boys, made on a Discover Card cash advance, has caught the attention of culture scouts in search of the Next Big Thing. Everybody knows that a swarm of agents and well-groomed zeitgeist-chasers has descended on Palmdale, and that some have invaded the sacred NonClub tonight, looking for talent.

And, most important of all, everybody knows that they might be next.

Ever since the Biggs brothers' film started showing up on the five-minutes-into-the-future radar of indie-film hawks, the tales of Palmdale's booming cinema underground have risen to the surface and made the gossip rounds. Serious, quality movies, such as Jorge Alexis' moody immigrant fairy tale, Cacti, have some edgy producers drooling for more, and wondering why the kids won't sell the rights. Not a single Palmdale filmmaker has succumbed to a seven-figure offer, but Tinseltown doesn't give up easily. Which explains why the Third Annual Palmdance Festival de Film, or just "Palmdance," which began as a joke, as everybody knows, has brought Hollywood's best and brightest to town.

And now it seems that everybody knows that Palmdale, a shitty little town of 114,874 in the middle of nowhere, on the lonely edge of L.A. County, is the Next Big Thing. In fact, the fever of interest and the sheer volume of cinematic art brewing in the city may redefine the entire concept.

"I've never seen anything like it," says Stephen Pevner, a relentless trendspotting producer who helped discover, among others, Richard Linklater (Slacker, The Newton Boys) and Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse). "I never thought I'd say this, but I almost wish I was young, desperate, and living in Palmdale."

Sure, the Biggs's breakthrough film is about, as Duane puts it, "the very stinking core of human boredom," but that's what life's about when it takes an hour to drive anywhere. That's what Palmdale's all about, they insist. And the Biggs brothers want to keep it that way. They see the city as a clean slate, a pile of sand that can be shaped into anything, a place of infinite possibilities, where inspiration seeps from a suburban lifestyle that's been stripped to its core. They don't want their art diluted by the ever-quickening machinery of mass culture. They don't want to sell out. Everybody knows that.

"It's sort of like Hong Kong out here, except not owned by the French or whatever," explains Stephen Biggs. "It's this tiny little place living in the shadow of this massive civilization, only it's got its own culture, its own people, its own scene."

And, as happened in Hong Kong, the Palmdale scene flourished for years, becoming nearly complete and self-sufficient, before Hollywood noticed. A growing circle of friends and artists kept running into each other at Denny's, and, eventually, took over an abandoned restaurant on the edge of town, knocking down a wall and importing every spare sofa they could, and then molding the essence of their life, the stuff of their art. At the core of the Palmdale film scene, and America, explains Sarah Englewood, the pensive, pierced-all-over 24-year-old novelist and playwright whose Gas, Food, Hell will be published next year by Simon & Schuster, is boredom.

"It can be more powerful, more soul-carving, more, um, deadly than even love," says Englewood, a longtime FOBB (Friend of the Biggs Boys). "No sadness and no joy can compare with the pure aching hole in your heart created by what I call profound boredom."

Leaning on the NonClub's back wall, sipping a Super Big Gulp, Jorge Alexis, 21, tells Pevner about his film. Traci Aquino, the writer-director of a sarcastic love story called Planet Miscellany, twirls like a Dead-head through the weekly gathering of the desert's artistic elite and hangers-on. The band on stage, the retro-roll quartet Duffel Bag Residue, or DBR, according to the omnipresent bumper stickers, hasn't been signed yet, but they think they're next.

Outside, on the "Joshua sofas," Aquino, wearing cutoffs and a sweater, plops down next to Stephen Biggs, her on-again-off-again boyfriend and, she admits, her mentor. "Those Hollywood guys are all over the place," she whispers, echoing the feeling of the room. "It's creepy, creepy, creepy."

"There's nothing we can do," says Stephen, smiling into the darkness, his goatee seeming to dance in the firelight. "Palmdale has changed forever."

* * *

To understand the phenomenon behind Palmdale, and hence, The Next Big Thing, it is necessary to meet the Biggs brothers, who do not really look like brothers.

Stephen, the older one, resembles, for lack of a better stereotype, a screenwriter. He's hairy, sometimes sporting a goatee, sometimes a beach-bum beard or hair down to his shoulders. He always wears jeans, and usually a Duffel Bag Residue T-shirt. Duane, however, looks vaguely dangerous, shaving his head as he does and sporting, always, a black Nike cap, just like Tiger Woods. According to their movies' end credits, Stephen writes and Duane directs, but it seems that they do most things together, in tandem, one cleaning up after the other. Duane drinks Dr Pepper, Stephen drinks Mountain Dew. Duane routinely throws fits, yells, and insults pretty much anybody they meet, and, so, naturally, Stephen does the talking.

"I know it sounds trite and all that, but I don't think we'll ever leave this place," says Stephen, during a rare tour of their residence/studio. "I went to Burbank last week to pick up some film, and I sort of freaked out. I can't handle being surrounded by all that city."

The brothers live and work together in the house, a clean, Spanish-tile, split-level number with plush cream carpet and a kitchen island and a two-car garage, just like every house in Palmdale. It's nestled in a dense stucco-and-tile neighborhood called "Sun Villa Canyon," and they own it outright. The Biggs's father, whom they call "Mr. Shitface Bastard," gave Stephen the house for his 18th birthday and then, a few days later, split town without a trace, never to be seen again.

"It's not that unusual," says Stephen, lounging full-length on a sofa in the editing studio, located where most people would put a living room. "A few other kids got houses for their birthday. The things can almost be cheaper than cars out here, if you go to the government auctions."

Duane and Stephen have lived in four-bedroom-three-bath comfort ever since, taking odd jobs, devouring movies every night and, eventually, making their own. In 1995, they filmed a play Stephen wrote in high school called Late Fee, which takes place entirely inside a Blockbuster Video, using a Hi-8 camera and a couple of ancient video decks. Stephen now describes the love-triangle-gone-violent as juvenile, gory, and "basically retarded," but the brothers went all out with it, renting space down at the mall megaplex, inviting their friends and calling the screening "Palmdance." As the only entrant, they awarded themselves the "Palm Door."

"Pretty fucking funny," says Duane, snorting. "Nobody got the joke, but it was pretty fucking funny."

But it turned out that Duane had a genius, a keen eye for visual story and human interplay. Directing also tamed his violent streak; he hasn't been in jail since he started making movies. So Stephen wrote Exitville, the story of a mysterious traveler in post-apocalyptic suburbia, and took out a second mortgage to buy better equipment. Duane wanted an Arriflex SR2 camera, modified to fit Super-16 film, the cheapest way, he says, to simulate the "35mm feel" of big budget movies. By the following spring, the Biggs brothers had made a stunning, funny sci-fi epic, and a dozen of their friends had followed their example.

Palmdance II lasted an entire weekend. Only locals showed up, and the heart of "the scene" more or less congealed at the festival, manifesting itself as a true force of culture, a wave that has not yet quite broken.

"We hit on something. All these people were saying they had all these stories and dreams," Stephen says. "I was like, 'Tell them. Make a movie.' "

The brothers helped everybody who asked, loaning out their camera and editing bench. Their split-level tract home became a studio, a post house, a creative biosphere strewn with empty In-N-Out Burger bags and ratty futons. Aquino moved in, Alexis would stay for weeks at a time. It was a life right out of Party of Five, right out of television, Stephen says, only more intense.

Talking about this, Stephen gets visibly excited, running his hand through a mess of stringy black hair. He then starts to explain what's really important, about how he and Duane have plans to distribute the Palmdale movies themselves, to "go Miramax on everybody." Waving a stale french fry as he speaks, Stephen offers a wry, entrepreneurial grin. He wants to emulate the renegade indie studio before Disney bought it, when it scouted for young punks like himself, when it could recognize an underground movement and deliver it to the masses.

"It's not just a movie or two. The Palmdale thing, it's a whole philosophy," he says, explaining why he resists his suitors from the city, why he and a band of friends have organized their own Non-Hollywood, incorporated, and started a search for capital. "This is a whole new world here, and I'm not going to sell it off bit by bit. Palmdale has got to survive."

He distrusts the glowing urban megalopolis to the south, and fears the agents and producers wooing him and his brethren, throwing money around, hoping to buy their art and release it into the atmosphere. Stephen wants more control than that. He can't sell out. Talking about this gets him excited. You can tell. He drops the fry.

"Fuck this," says Duane, "let's drive."

* * *

"Man, give it up. The only road out of town ends in San Bernardino. We'd be better off taking our chances here."
--from the Biggs brothers' movie, The X Boys

To understand why Tinseltown talent scouts have latched onto the idea behind the brothers Biggs, it's necessary to understand the concept of the Next Big Thing. And in order to grasp that, you need to eat breakfast at Denny's, off Route 14 in Palmdale, a few days before Palmdance III.

On this day, the manager has the overnight waitresses stay for a double shift, as every booth and stool cradles the ass of a slick city powerbroker. Normally, there's five or six people here, and none of them carry cell phones or drive Land Cruisers or wear sunglasses indoors.

These tourists are the frenzied stalkers of the Next Big Thing, keen-eyed hunters in search of not an art movement or an expression of inner torment or some nicely shot sequences, but a product. They scour the Earth in search of intellectual property that hits a nerve, causes a stir and, thus, can be exploited to no end: sequels, clothing, action figures, spin-off videos, CDs, slick behind-the-scenes trade paperbacks, video games, subversive-looking bumper stickers. Titanic's over. Dawson's Creek never really happened. The whole indie-film thing has started to lose its vibe and street cred. The big studios can't create a phenom by themselves anymore. What's next? Could it be Palmdale?

"I have no idea what their film is about," admits a representative from New Line Cinema, talking about the mysterious Biggs Boys as he shovels a $2.99 Super Slam breakfast into his mouth. "But if we don't make a go for it, we're screwed."

He doesn't need to explain that Hollywood always needs a piece of the Next Big Thing, whatever it is, and there's a new one every year, every season, every week, it seems. And whoever finds it first, gets rich. Stephen and Duane, at the moment, without question, are it. Their vision of overcast suburban optimism, which has been described as a sort of "Planet Party of Five," has more potential for intellectual property exploitation than anything in years and years. Maybe since Pulp Fiction.

"You have to understand something," explains producer-agent Pevner, who last year sold In the Company of Men, which became a Relatively Big Thing. "Once the buzz gets started, people can't settle down until a lot of money changes hands. All that matters is that they're hot, and that you have them."

Pevner has seen The X Boys (a few bootleg videos are circulating), and recognizes something enduring and original in it. He only wants to help the kids get, as he tells it, "a fair deal" for what they've discovered.

"It's not your average suburban-slacker-with-a-gun flick," he says. "They take it further. So far that...hmmm...how can I say this?" He pauses, sips from a tiny Denny's glass of Dr Pepper. "It's metaphysical. Spiritually moving, you know? Maybe they are finding God out there, like that Englewood girl says. Who knows?"

He eats alone, and watches the rest, noting a few faces he recognizes from Le Deux or The Little Door. The spindly, graying game-show producer Albert Moon is here. So is the tan-and-firm Andrew Mendel from Miramax, who has spent the most time in the desert, some say, in secret talks with the brothers Biggs.

"I've never seen such a vibrant scene," he says, feigning excitement. "Silver Lake never had this much energy. Austin, maybe. Seattle in the early '90s, I'll give you that. But, good God, these Palmdale kids have got the future written all over their faces."

Sitting with him is Gina Billmeier, well-known L.A.-based literary agent and new best friend of Sarah Englewood, and another woman from Disney, both of whom understand the meaning of the Next Big Thing, how long it lasts, how fast it usually burns out, and how much more potential the Palmdale scene has, much like Hong Kong a few years ago.

"This out here, this is better than a roomful of Matt Damons and Ben Afflecks. It's like a six-pack of Kevin Smiths and a big bag of Kevin Williamsons, all delivered to your house by a guy named Quentin," says the woman from Disney, who won't give her name. "That's what I've heard, anyway."

She says this with a straight face. She means it. Mendel, with a subtle wrist flip, waves her aside.

"The problem with Hollywood," he explains, "is that we've forgotten what America looks like. And that's what they've found out there in the desert: America."

* * *

"Death will come slow for you, like serum from a snake bite winding its way from your toes to your fingers to your heart, bypassing your head, bypassing your soul and your history."
--from Jorge Alexis' film Cacti

Stephen drives. Duane stares out the window, brooding and occasionally changing stations in the aging green Volvo. That's how it works. Stephen drives, Duane stares. They stop at the Circle K, just over the county line on Sierra Highway, about 12 miles north of Palmdale proper. It's officially nowhere, which they consider important. The brothers wrote, shot, and edited The X Boys while covering each other's night shifts at the store. They quit a few weeks ago, the day the first producer called out of the blue, the day they had a decision to make and a future to plan.

"People don't get this place, this city," says Stephen, flushed with fluorescence, a Slim Jim tucked behind his ear, his hand reaching beneath the soda fountain to twist free a 44-ounce cup with a lizard on it. "But it grew up with us. When I was born, Palmdale hardly existed, and the place matured as I did. That's pretty cool."

Duane buys a hot dog and a thirsty lizard cup filled with Dr. Pepper. He's hyper today, drumming his fingers on every surface, taking his hat off, putting it back on, that sort of thing.

"C'mon," he says, heading for the car, for the driver's seat. "You gotta see something." Last year, he explains, the two got an itch one night after work, and they started driving. Duane drove, for once, which shocked them both. He drove north and then east, into the Mojave, away from Palmdale, away from Los Angeles, toward the dawn. They took the same route Duane drives now, in the bright haze of a spring afternoon.

"I had to drive, you know, had to. So we just motherfucking drove," he explains. After an hour that night, after staring at the stars and listening to the insane AM-radio ranting of Art Bell, Stephen had a thought, one we've all had.

"God, it seems like this is the only place on Earth," he said, dreamy, drowsy, not even sure if he had spoken or simply thought the idea.

Duane kept staring at the road, and said, "What if it was?"

And that was it. The brothers had the heart of a movie, a haunting, sweeping story that could make them very, very famous. They thought about it for a while, and then, as always happens when you're on an intellectual roll, Duane had to piss.

"So I pulled over here," he says, yanking the Volvo onto a dusty shoulder and throwing open the door, "and pissed on that telephone pole. That very fucking pole."

And there on this brown column of creosote in the absolute middle of nowhere, inscribed at eye-level and illuminated by Swedish high beams, was a message: "Lost. Seeking fun, meaning, anything. Call The X Boys."

"Fuck if I know what it means," Duane explains, "but I saw that, and I knew we had to fill in the gaps. I knew we had our title, our plot, our movie."

* * * 

"Experts warn that too much speculation about Hollywood interests in Palmdale could send real estate values plummeting again, but signs of an invasion are keeping hopes elevated all over town."
--from the Antelope Valley Press (Palmdale's hometown paper), March 5, 1998

Ask real estate developer Gus Austin what he thinks of the exploding "Palmdale scene," and he'll tell you the same thing he tells everybody: "It's bullshit! Plain and simple. Right there on the ground by your feet. Bull. Shit. You want me to spell that?"

The tub-stomached property mogul moved to the desert as a construction foreman in the late '80s, but saw the coming boom and quickly started his own company. He's now responsible for nearly a quarter of what he calls the "happy households" in Palmdale, and he insists that the town never dived into depression, that it merely "dipped," and has plenty to teach Los Angeles, and Hollywood, for that matter.

"We're still one of the fastest growing cities in America," he explains, "and I'll be goddamned if a bunch of skate punks and slackers are going to take the credit." Austin's window overlooks miles of desert, much of it sectioned off by barbed wire as the future home of "Sandy Acres Retirement Community." He's just getting started.

"Out here, this town is building the Palmdale International Airport. Skunk Works just secured a mega-billion-dollar NASA contract for new space shuttles," he continues. "Palmdale's on the rise, and it's got nothing to do with some kids and their movies."

Despite Austin's influence in town, others in the power structure recognize the source of drastic changes, perceived and real, these past weeks. People out here, it seems, know something's going on. It's in the air. Rumors of film-driven expansion in the area, fueled by enthusiastic articles in the Antelope Valley Press, have driven up real estate prices. A few fly-by-night post houses have already leased space in the nearly vacant Lancaster Outlet Mall, a few miles up the road. The Palmdale City Council has even introduced an ordinance making it possible to change the city's name. Suggestions presented at a recent public meeting included "Palmwood" and "Hollydale" and "Palmdalewood." And some locals, especially the kids, have started calling their town Palm Kong.

"We're even bigger than Hong Kong, man," explains 14-year-old Matt White, a weekday regular at the Antelope Valley Mall and self-described John Woo wannabe. "This place is the next Austin."

"Naw," adds his buddy, who simply goes by Tre, "it's like Austin, wrapped in Burbank, all shot up with Silver Lake and then motherfucking smothered in Hong Kong, like fucking pancakes and shit."


After years of dominance by covert military aerospace projects at Skunk Works, many in Palmdale would support a new king. Excited rumors surfaced last week, even, that DreamWorks SKG has purchased a few million acres of former government testing grounds, and plans to build a City of the Future out there in the void, a work of imagination so grand and strange that it can only fit on the edge of L.A. County.

"DreamWorks sees their own version of Celebration, Florida, only much, bigger," says a source inside the studio, referring to Disney's experimental Southern white-picket town, a hybrid of suburban living and a theme park. "They've been looking for a perfect place to put the thing, and now they're talking Palmdale. I've seen small-scale models of a domed city, with solar panels and geodesic houses and monorails coming out of it. Crazy, crazy shit."

* * *

"Chew the desert dry, my thirsty gecko baby.
--lyrics from "Love Among the Sand People," by Duffel Bag Residue

Palmdale Boulevard, where most of The X Boys takes place, needs no description. You already know what's on it. Strip malls and fast food, just like everywhere else. You know how much a Sourdough Jack costs, and you know what's playing at the Valley 8. That's part of the charm and originality of Palmdale cinema: It's familiar.

The brothers Biggs and Traci Aquino and Jorge Alexis and the others have captured, on film, how it feels to be left alone on the edge of a city, in the shell of a suburb, artistically unexplored territory eerily similar to your own neighborhood. What you won't recognize is how the sky looks in Palmdale, how infinite and lonely it appears, the way it outlines the sign for 98-cent gas at the Ultramart and the public-service billboards, which line streets all over town, featuring the word "HATE" crossed out inside a red circle.

"Some skinheads thought it'd be a good idea to terrorize some black guys with machetes," explains Stephen, who has regained control of the Volvo for a tour of Palmdale Boulevard. "Machetes! Can you believe that shit?"

Duane agrees. "Fucking idiots. Who uses machetes?"

A mile further down the street, another sign reads, "Your American Dream Straight Ahead," and, shortly after that, Palmdale Boulevard ends, or rather, becomes barren, fades away. Stephen turns south onto Sierra Highway and floors it past about 15 housing developments with names like "Rancho Valley" and "Sunnyvale." He crashes across a set of railroad tracks and stops abruptly at a small trailer park filled with classic ranch-style double-wides and smooth stainless-steel Airstream RVs.

Nearby, a sign reads, "Welcome to Palmdale." The edge of town.

"I was born here," he says, seriously. "In one of these."

He then turns around and talks only about the movie. Questions about his childhood, about Stephen's relationship with Traci Aquino, about Duane's relationship with anyone, are avoided. The movie, they say, is all that matters.

And so. The movie.

The X Boys takes place during the last night of summer, and follows the adventures of two "reckless teenage philosophers" who, for a lack of anything else to do with the rest of their lives, decide to rob a bank and skip town. The only problem is, as Stephen puts it, "you can't leave Palmdale. It turns out that it's the only place in the world. Literally. They drive and drive and end up back here."

The heroes, played by two dewy-eyed, tough-guy buddies of the Biggs, become intertwined in an ever-tightening kaleidoscope of seemingly unrelated plots and superintellectual characters circling and circling Palmdale, or, rather, the world. Truths are revealed, firearms discharged, and love ignited, all in a tight 116 minutes and with an open-road, truckin'-right-along soundtrack from DBR.

"It's sort of like American Graffiti," suggests Stephen.

"Yeah," says Duane, "with guns."

"Big guns."

The relationship between one of the main characters and his girlfriend, played by Aquino, takes the classic conflict of any high school couple on graduation night--"What's next?"--and applies it to all of America. And, while things spin out of control and eventually become vaguely cataclysmic, the landscape and characters seem as familiar as a neighborhood oak tree, one you've never quite noticed before. The careful juxtaposition of the ordinary and the surrealistically ultraviolent brings the film into focus. This is not a crazy world on the edge of collapse. It's yours.

Duane credits a few of his directing tricks as "easy Scorsese rip-offs," such as the mesmerizing 12-minute tracking shot (anyone who's seen the movie will mention it) that follows Aquino on a solo trip around "the world," during which she convinces herself, and the radio, that she does, in fact, love her boyfriend. A desert drag race sequence rivals the tight action pacing of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Hard Boiled. And the one shootout scene, though stocked with oversized guns, builds with such deft subtlety that you could expect the same thing to happen in your neighborhood.

The brothers know how good it is. They know how well it captures something nearly intangible about American life. They know how big it can be. But the two won't talk about their plan to distribute the film themselves, or whether any of the thugs at Sony or Miramax or New Line have started to get through to them.

"We might be happy just showing our movies at Palmdance year after year," says Stephen. "The others won't, of course. Some others may all have to leave Palmdale to find what they're looking for, whatever that is."

On the night of Palmdance III, a clean-headed preteen in Wrangler jeans and Caterpillar T-shirt holds court outside the Antelope Valley Mall. The NonClub regulars know him as Atom, a tattooed, Uzi-mouthed spoken-word auteur. "Old school, old school," he is saying, pacing, flat palms pounding on his chest. "I was fucking Palmdale before Palmdale was shit, my man, my gentleman."

While he faces three big-haired high school girls sitting against the wall, his intended audience is clearly the line of Hollywood heavies filing into the megaplex for the night's screenings. He wants Kevin Smith and Demi Moore and that Austin Powers guy to know that some people aren't happy with all the attention. He wants Gus Van Sant and Robert Altman to know, too, but he doesn't recognize them.

"I know you from way back," he says, suddenly spinning to face Billy Bob Thornton, who, in his suit and ball cap, actually looks like an aging Palmdale golden child. "Back in the day, man, you and me, you and me. You. And. Me."

Thornton doesn't know what to say to this, and so makes a two-finger peace sign, hesitates, and then says, "Word." Atom, who has tattoos all over his head, smiles insanely and nods quickly.

"You all right," he says, turning again to the girls on the wall and adding, "for a bitch." Thornton, apparently, does not hear the remark. The crowd continues to build, a healthy one for awards season, too, and a huge one considering it's only days before the Academy Awards. Sean Penn arrived earlier, and now Sandra Bernhard follows Cameron Crowe who follows Skeet Ulrich, Jennifer Love Hewitt, and, for some reason, Dweezil Zappa.

"I think the nuclear imagery," Zappa is telling his date, "is too masterfully subtle to be tacky."

And while the limos unload, most of the local talent waits patiently to make their stylish, late-desert-bloom of an entrance. They gather at the NonClub, as usual, to quietly celebrate something that will soon pass, something that has already become a former lifetime. A bong in the shape of a Super Big Gulp cup makes the rounds, from hand to hand.

"It feels like the last day of high school, or like graduation," says Aquino, in heavy blue eye shadow, taking a hit and watching the sunset from what she considers the best view in the city. "I feel like I should be giving a speech or something."

The day before, she accepted a three-picture deal. She sold out. The first to go. She hands the Gulp to Stephen Biggs, who cradles her on the outdoor sofa. A few others lounge about, postponing their entrance to Palmdance, their arrival at something now much bigger than themselves.

"This," Stephen says, dreamily, eyes on the horizon, "is going to sound trite."

"Say it," somebody says.

"We all worked our asses off out here for three years," he says, slowly, "but it never once felt like it. I want it to stay that way."

"None of it counted, really, and we could do anything we wanted," says Aquino. "Now, it's like, I have to prove myself for real. I have to, Stephen." She feels that she must move to The Big City, and, perhaps, enter what they call "development hell." Fine. Her philosophy doesn't match the fierce independent boredom of Stephen's, and she can't stay and fight the good fight. He knows that. She has to graduate from Palmdale and bring as much of it as possible to Hollywood.

"You fucker." She smacks him, playfully, as a cat would. "You did all this."

Her first big film will be about him. He knows that, too. Hell, everybody knows that. As they watch the sand go from gold to rose to mauve to gray, Stephen wonders aloud where his crazy-ass brother is with "the fucking Volvo," and a guy named Jake, the DBR front-man, strums and hums to himself on a stool.

The air gets cold, but nobody lights a barrel. It's time to go.

Eventually, Duane shows, the NonClub is vacated, and a ratty green car full of kids in jeans and T-shirts descends on the mall, into a sea of tuxedos. Moments later, after the whispers ("They're here! There they are!") run from the back of the room to the stage and then subside, an emcee announces the "world premiere" of The X Boys, and slowly, slowly, the heavy red velvet curtain rises on Palmdale.

No comments: