Goodbye, California

Photo by Jeanne MaderoI finally saw this year's Pageant of the Masters, and it made me sad. Good sad.

I've been a grudging fan of the Laguna institution for years—a less conditional one of late because it is good and because in a time when we're chugging from one corporate pit stop to the next, when most movies are just one long explosion, I'm all for any entertainment that is locally raised and helps to slow you the hell down.

I could see a cockfight at the Pageant's rustic Laguna Bowl and it would slow me down. It's a great outdoor venue, built in and reflective of a time when California was . . . well, it was California. It was orange-shaped orange juice stands, the Hollywood Bowl, the Brown Derby, Watts Towers, Craftsman houses, the San Juan Capistrano mission, the beaches, Santa's Village, the Sequoias and Disneyland, with a hell of a lot of land between all of them. It was gorgeous land, often stingy with its wonders but always revealing enough magic to let you know that you were lucky to be here. It made you want to build stuff that showed you appreciated the magic.

In 1955, Walt Disney had to construct a fantastic world of fairy tales and futuristic wonders to lure Californians in from a place that was already close to paradise. Now the Disney monolith tries to entice us with its ersatz California Experience, because the experience ain't out here anymore.

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Go to the beaches and surf in shit. Scuttle from one garish money sieve to the next. Sit in traffic and stew. Watch every last parsec of the dirt that once made this place desirable become entombed beneath soulless development. We've taken the Coppertone Girl and whored her out.

But the Pageant just goes on. In recent years, it has endured abrupt staffing changes, rancorous board fights and recalls, battles with the city over rents, a related plan to move it to Dana Point, and, currently, a local citizenry divided over expansion plans. Big money, including Vegas and Disney, has come sniffing around.

But it goes on, seemingly heedless of the hubbub. Director Diane Challis Davy has done an admirable job of crafting an event that is consonant with past Pageants yet entirely different in that instead of just being an "oooh, pretty!" bauble for the Newport Depends crowd, it actually evokes feelings.

That is no easy feat for a curiosity like the Pageant. Its "tableaux vivant" shtick—getting real people to stand real still and look like real art—was once likened by a critic to the two-headed calves and other senseless novelties that one once saw at roadside attractions. I've ridiculed it in print a time or three myself, but then I started to like it, and I mean really like it, not just liking it in an ironic, kitschy sense. Repeat after me, kids: the ironic life is a tedious life. The ironic life is a tedious life.

What's to like about the Pageant? Well, along with it slowing life down to a canoe-like pace and the fact that its volunteers help make Laguna one of the few real communities left around here and that it's a source for arts-program revenues for the city's schools and such—besides all that, under Challis Davy, the Pageant has started to function like art. Though Challis Davy has, in this show and past ones, introduced Magritte, Picasso and Dali to the mix, the emphasis remains on mainstream figurative art that depicts a lustrous past. But now there is an evocative mood and atmosphere to many of the pieces.

Maybe that view of the past—of man in his place amid erupting nature, of explorers who still believed tomorrow would be better than today, of a singing cowboy on a rearing horse, or a couple enveloped in Parisian nightlife—has in itself become subversive now, when we are called upon daily to acquiesce to the murder of nature and the muting of the human spirit.

One of the ways Challis Davy has vivified the tableaux vivants in her six years as director is by introducing Pop Art elements, and this year they had renderings of '50s sci-fi movie posters from The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Invasion of the Saucer Men. The thing that really got to me was a touch the Pageant added to the Saucer Men piece: a tremendous special effect in which they had a big flying saucer hovering in the night air over the rustic neighboring hillside. It simultaneously looked as fantastic as those in any '50s film and as palpable as the rocks it rose above.

Did I feel pangs of longing, both for the mysterious future that vision presaged and the past it came from? You bet. That and other parts of the Pageant hurt the way hearing a Beatles song can hurt, for the reminder of the possibilities we let slip away.

But enough of that: the future is upon us. Remember how in The Day the Earth Stood Still, the aliens stopped everything from working: cars, telephones, factories, the whole megillah? According to the September 2001 Popular Mechanics, we don't need aliens for that anymore. It claims that electromagnetic bombs—a distillation of the destructive electromagnetic pulse discovered during early hydrogen bomb tests—can now be used to irretrievably whack out every electric-powered device modern civilization depends on, from jet engines to MP3 players. Our military is expected to test such a device next year. While they, naturally, are spending untold millions on an elaborate system, the magazine claims that any Billy Joe Jihad with $400 in his pocket can also build a unit capable of permanently shorting out a large area. For those who can't read so good, the magazine even has a cutaway diagram of the bomb. Hello, Stone Age!

Given that I recently saw Steven Seagal playing electric guitar with Toots and the Maytals, this may not be entirely a bad idea. (That was mean of me; Seagal is a far better player than he was five years ago, when he had that acting career thing going.) On the other hand, the late junkie novelist William Burroughs had a chilling take on all this: that because our brains are electro-chemical devices, the electromagnetic pulse of such an explosion would literally obliterate our souls. (If you'd like to hear Burroughs' craggy recitation of this—with a backbeat—check out "Soul Killer" on the 1989 Material album Seven Souls.) And on the third hand, 50 years ago, magazines like Popular Mechanics were predicting we'd all have flying cars by 1970, so who can say what's to be?

On the fourth hand—hello, atomic mutants!—there are some good people who are trying to help shape what is to be. There's Huntington Beach environmentalist Joey Racano, for instance, who protests daily outside the Orange County Sanitation District headquarters because, like most of us, he thinks dumping 243 million gallons of crap into our ocean every day is bad. Unlike most of us, he thinks he can make a difference. Joey actually attends all their plodding gray meetings, yet he has more hope than you probably do that we can change things for the better. He doesn't have a web page, but he e-mails surprisingly cogent and poetic missives to interested parties who e-mail him at

Eighty years ago, when ads in national magazines touted the wonders of California, no one could have imagined that our ocean would one day be a big toilet and our land given over to endless Spanish-tiled crap houses. How did we go from the golden California dream to a broken pyrite promise in such a short time? Why is the future so grim that even Disneyland has given up on trying to tout the appeal of a Tomorrowland? Oh, flying saucer, come take us away.

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