I already had a headache from fretting about the ballot measure to split California. Who gets the water? What happens to Prop 13? Where’s Yosemite? Can we still repeal the gas tax? Are the prisons in one state, the criminals in another? What about the bullet train? How do we divvy up Jerry Brown’s legacy?
Then I came up against a bigger worry: Who gets the movies?
I don’t mean the studios, such as they are in the 21st century. Those are mostly in Los Angeles, so they would be in the rump “California,” not in the newly named “Southern California,” which would include some inland counties and everything south of L.A. (including San Diego Comic-Con), nor “Northern California,” which gets all that stuff above a line that runs roughly from Monterey to Fresno.
And there’s no point quibbling about the tab for film incentives. It’s just a renegotiation. Those happen in Hollywood every day.
But who gets custody of California’s screen image, an intricate (and valuable) myth that was crafted in hundreds of films set and shot here over more than a century?
Clearly, plain old “California” — the Los Angeles part — gets to keep some of my favorite chunks of the mythos. The Long Goodbye, Magnolia, To Live and Die in L. A., Hickey & Boggs, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Short Cuts, Welcome to L.A., Chinatown — those belong here. They tell the story of a gloriously dysfunctional urban sprawl, and you can’t have them.
But I’m really going to miss films like Petulia, Bullitt and The Conversation, which belong to urbane San Francisco in “Northern California.” And I’m wondering if we can’t cut a deal for Dirty Harry. Maybe swap at least one of the series for Play Misty For Me, which, with Clint Eastwood, sits on this side of the line, up in Monterey County.
“Northern California” also gets Lady Bird and Fat City, in the upper part of the Central Valley. But “Southern California” keeps most of High Sierra, including Mount Whitney, and the weirder pieces of Zabriskie Point, particularly Death Valley. It could also make a claim to The Grapes of Wrath, which was shot all over the map but tells a story of Okies who worked the middle and lower Valley fields, as did the later wave of migrants portrayed in Cesar Chavez.
But what gets complicated is sorting out movies that have seen California for what it actually is: One, enormous, tarnished golden promise in which the parts, often broken, depend on each other.
In The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman finds his soul on the highway between silly Southern suburbs and cultural chaos in the North. In San Andreas, Dwayne Johnson of the Los Angeles Fire Department points his rescue copter toward Coit Tower in San Francisco, and gets help at a shopping mall in Bakersfield along the way. (Like it or not, we’re all on the fault line.) In There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day-Lewis channels oil wealth from Kern County — by pending statute, in “Southern California” — to a gloomy mansion in Beverly Hills, still here.
That’s the movie myth. Split it, and something dies. I think I’ll vote “No.”