I’ve never known a land more idealized than California. It’s like the Promised Land of the Americas, and the way some 21st Century Americans interpret the Bible as speaking to their own time and culture, this may very well be Gospel. I was the worst mix of bi-polar, starry-eyed-meets-crippling-depression, white, lower-middle-class kid from the Midwest; I was an obvious target for California idealism.
It seemed like mass media had an agenda to sell me on the mythos of California, everyone from The Mamas and The Papas to my Xbox snowboarding game to, well, especially Hollywood. Everything could be fixed by traveling 2,406 miles to a distant land of perfectly sculpted people, sunny days, movies sets and the Pacific Coast Highway. And if I couldn’t get there, I could always go to the mall and buy surf-inspired designer fashion, you know, for when I wasn’t pretending to be a skater.
And it only took me about 21 years to get there. After reenacting the Back to the Future 3 train scene with my neighbor one too many times, I quickly set my sights — career path, when the American education system asked me to declare my life’s work — on being a Hollywood director. (Hollywood screenwriter was my backup.) The execution of this plan was three fold: writing sci-fi scripts at home and storyboarding them at school, making movies with my younger sister and enrolling in a small, Christian, liberal arts college with a meager communications department. They called it “Film Studies,” a combination of radio, broadcasting and some film criticism, which, oddly enough, paralleled the Youth Pastor and Worship Arts degrees because PowerPoint.
One of the top selling points that steered me from Hollywood and to an overpriced college in Michigan was the college’s Hollywood semester program, where you do a semester of intensive study in Los Angeles and intern in the industry. So after $60,000 worth of debt, a few general liberal arts courses and my heart freshly broken from an 18-month failed relationship, I finally set off for the land of milk and honey and movies.
This was supposed to be the most comprehensive semester of my college career. This was supposed to be the foot-in-the-door to Hollywood. Like much of overpriced higher-education, it was essentially a Community College course about movies that happened to take place in the city where movies are made. For instance, said film school decided we couldn’t handle live audio. They had some flimsy reasoning in that we needed to learn how to tell a story first without the crutch of sound, as film is a visual medium, which essentially results in 40-50 fourth-year film students running around Los Angeles making silent films.
But besides the disappointment in the program, I could see the superficial appeal to the land. Their fast food seemed better, and they had some awesome record stores. One time I think I saw Ryan Gosling leaving a parking garage, and my friend Stacie and I swore we saw Will Ferrell at an In ’n’ Out Burger. I had a stipend from the school, really them just allotting a portion of our tuition back to us in weekly increments. I don’t remember how much it was, but it was meager by any standards, much less enough to keep up with the cost of living in Los Angeles. In a typical week, it was an even split between groceries at the Mexican dollar store, Del Taco and Amoeba Records’ used CD section.
Used CDs typically went for just $2 (or buy four, get one free), and, after scrounging up some known titles, I would grab one or two based on the cover alone. One had a giant squirrel on the cover having just decapitated a businessman. It became one of my favorite Hollywood record store purchases: Hide, Run Away, the debut album from B.C. Camplight. It perfectly encapsulated the Hollywood allure. B.C. Camplight struck me as everything L.A. should be, or, more so, amounted to. It was piano-based pop (confused more than once for Ben Folds), but on further inspection, an obvious imitation. There are two great songs and about eight that are forgettable but completely charming, making for a wholly infectious disk that makes for a pleasant sunny-day revisit. Not much beyond that.
There’s a buoyancy to the outing with perfectly functional piano chops more vaudeville than Chopin, with all the whimsy of a mere perfunctory vocalist striving for equal ground with his playing and songwriting. Couple that with frequent duets from a bored female vocalist (she sounds like she’s checking her phone the whole time), and you have an album that feels right at home in Los Angeles — ignoring that fact the artist is from Jersey. Still, the band found fresh ears in a used bin in L.A. A rebrand. A bargain second chance.
There’s nothing like a fresh start, so I had decided to contact for the first time. I could reinvent myself. Ever an introvert, I could show up in L.A. as someone with something to say. Having left behind my bookish glasses, what if I could be average looking? All I had to do was stand out amongst a bunch of other film students. Easy, right?
By the end of my time there, I had effectively been sidelined from the entire program. Bear in mind this was an amateur program under the guise of prestige and banking on confusion with the Los An geles Film School. I was elected to direct one of the final projects, but then deemed too “un-teachable” by the “Executive Producers” — seriously, that’s what they made us call the professors. I was at odds with the Assistant Director on the shoot, who also happened to have a personal relationship with one such Executive Producer. For a program that prided itself on being a microcosm of the Hollywood studio system, I was fired in a matter unbefitting of any creative protocol: They took me off the final project just so that I wouldn’t be graded on the work. Instead, I think I was given a B for participating in three quarters of the semester. Maybe that makes perfect sense. The machine ate up the visionary, to forever be waylaid as an example.
I was decapitated and my head was eaten by a giant squirrel. I was left in a bathtub in my completely overpriced apartment, soaking my wounds and ego. Is the bigger joke the program or describing myself as a visionary? The last strike came when I was checking my email in the computer lab, and my home school said I couldn’t walk for upcoming graduation without paying an additional seven grand — money I didn’t have. I ended up taking out the worst loan of my life.
I left California. I returned to Michigan. It seemed fitting that the flight from Michigan to Los Angeles is only four hours there with the time difference; the return trip back ends up being eight hours. Even the plane was too tired to make up the time. I leaned my head against the window. “Hide, run away” was right; it was good advice. I had some amazing times in Los Angeles — ignorant of my tuition bill — but it was an imitation. I went to California dreaming. I checked off every box of some giant American media check list. And now, every time I cite my college major to (mostly) well-meaning acquaintances and they feel the need to tell me how their grandchild is making it in Hollywood or some friend of the family is a grip on some major movie set, I can always nod and remember that my soul is still intact. Wounded, but intact. I’m a used-bin soul.