Friday, September 04, 2009

Where Michael Lieth

I, your host, have indeed stood in the Court of Honor, deep inside the Great Mausoleum in fabled Forest Lawn (Glendale), in the year of David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust Tour.

While that was many a summer ago, I still have the eerie, unsavory, and unclean feeling of that experience, which, out of sheer common sense, led to quiet mockery on the part of myself and the two friends who accompanied me on that edgy expedition.

There, above us in the so-clean-it's-sterile but so-icky-it-can't-be-ignored environment of expensive stone from quarries around the world (despite the fact that much of the building's jumbled and incoherent exterior is covered in standard LA stucco, with sober Gothic accents tacked on for propriety's sake) was the candy-colored and sexed-up rendition - in stained glass - of Leonardo's 'Last Supper', for all those who would never bend their steps to Milan, to wonder at.

Aggressively regarded as a sacred trust, the management (hereafter referred to as 'The Builder' - the avatar of 'Dr.' Hubert Eaton, the all-but-canonized godfather of the empire that became Forest Lawn) obviously feels that this stained glass masterpiece is more better than the original, because it's new and improved, and it lights up at all hours. Quality-wise, it's a conventional exercise in Middle American small town churchiness, but there's a kind of comic book vividness to it that's more Archie & Jughead than Classics Illustrated.

Anyway, it's this Last Supper mixing bowl that serves as lobby for the nether galleries that house some of the VIPs of our cinematic lore, and there are some dandy ones there. I can't help but think though, that thank God Gable & Co. aren't alive to see the package that contains them.

Of course, I'm pretty much odd man out in my tastes. People seem to be duly impressed, and feel confident that Forest Lawn 'does it right'. America is a democracy, but most everyone wants a royal monument to themselves. They at Forest Lawn can give you just that. (e.g. Do it not for yourself, but for your family! Our Wide Range of payment plans can be readily negotiated by our alert team of Councilors, housed in the sinister Vaguely Tudor offices next our heavenly front gates...!)

I must say, the bread-and-butter stretches of Forest Lawn Glendale, with the mandatory flat markers, are pretty tasteful and routine. Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills, with its rather well thought-out 'patriotic' American theme works much better; Old North Church knockoffs in the hills are reminiscent of a movie set - most appropriate for cinematic Hollywood, instead of the botched and bilious Christendom of Forest Lawn Glendale... But alas, the Hills are not secure enough for Michael...

Back at Glendale, the climax features crown the hill, like the Great Maus, Das Wee Kirk 'o the Heather (Ronnie's knot-tying #1 site; Nancy would NEVER have chosen such a ghastly concoction...), and, most troubling, the Hall of the Crucifixion/Resurrection, which looks like Sister Sharon's doomed tabernacle in 'Elmer Gantry'. In the latter are housed two mega-paintings, 'The Crucifixion', a worthy work by Jan Styka, in Cinerama proportions, which is the best thing about the Glendale site (at least it is a work of academic competence) and 'The Resurrection' by '?', (no artist credit was given when I was there), a really awful panorama of sickening colors, not even worthy of a fourth-rate Sunday School circular. The worst Brigade Painting from the Stalinist era has more comfort, more character...! Anyway, you sit in a vast auditorium while these paintings are presented, with full narration, instructive tips, and musical cliches: I ask you, what else would/could accompany the unveiling of this 'Resurrection' painting than Handel's 'Hallelujah Chorus'? A bit of muffled stage machinery operation was heard as the set changes occurred. I think that the big Vegas showrooms studied here for automated stagecraft tips.

Let us hasten back to the Great Maus before things really get out of control. Even the Columbarium at Paris' Pere Lachaise cemetery, itself a disturbing contrast to the surrounding lively and varied tombs overground that positively throb like one big jabbering conversation, is downright homey compared to the tedious and disappointing galleries that extend past the Last Supper's public point. Like the Closed Stacks of an elitist library, those privileged enough to access their Loved Ones back in there can shed uneasy tears amidst the brain-dead aesthetics designed to impress. Oh, how one pines for a country churchyard under sweeping skies and fresh air!

But no, the Loved Ones here are supposed to conform, like good little shades crossing the River Styx in orderly fashion. Yet there is no mythos, no Poe-poetics, not even any cinematic qualities present. Why, given the opportunity, Tim Burton could really make something cool out of this depressing repository!

The bottom line resources for any sane overview of Forest Lawn and its kind remain Jessica Mitford's 'The American Way of Death' and, most rewardingly, via satire, like Evelyn Waugh's 'The Loved One', brought to the screen in perfect fashion by Tony Richardson, Terry Southern et al, and starring everyone from Jonathan Winters to Bob Morley to Ayleen Gibbons (as Mom Joyboy!) to Liberace (as Council Starker) to Ed Reimers. It is a masterpiece of a film, and it brings us back to earth with a refreshing and satisfying belly laugh.

But right now, this is about Michael Jackson, you know. Yesterday he entered unto this exalted but disquieting environ, shut away from the palm and pine in the mellow smog-tinted LA sun...

Yet! A cinematic - if not apocalyptic - backdrop to the King of Pop's wrapup: the tragic and malevolent doomcloud of the Station fire, which has been raging in the further hills these many days! A sign - of farewell and disapproval for the King's untimely and now homicidal departure?

Not to compare this procedure with the recent and very great loss of Ted Kennedy, but how appropriate, inspiring, and classy was the farewell to the great man of the Senate, from Hyannisport to the JFK Library, to stately Arlington. The American way of death can still be noble and well done.

But I did compare the two, didn't I? Well, Arlington is East Coast and Forest Lawn is West Coast. No further explanation is necessary. Condolences to all. Requiescat in pace.

I can only wish anyone who interacts with Forest Lawn well, for if they are comforted by such an environment, and they think it's right for their Loved Ones, so be it. Because, when you get down to it, Forest Lawn themselves make no bones about what's up with their scene. Their motto (at least when I visited) ran: FOREST LAWN SERVES THE LIVING. Fair enough. After all, the Dead have gone on before us. What care they for the earthquake-proof halls and The Builder's Creed? Michael can lie in private, with the rest of them, and shall tread in Neverland nevermore. I never knew the guy, but I hope it all turns out okay...

(Hollywood Gothic can really hook one, can it not?)

I can only end by paraphrasing Mark Twain's wonderful maxim concerning dogs: 'If there are no dogs in heaven, I'm not going.' (My puppy loves that one, too!)

Thus, if paradise be Forest Lawn Glendale, I'M NOT GOING.

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