Sunday, March 30, 2008

Cisco Pike: The Celluloid Time Capsule

Start thinking about the pantheon of great Los Angeles films—“Chinatown,” “L.A. Confidential,” “Boogie Nights,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Barton Fink”—and you’ll notice a collection of characters that are tied up in the past. How many of these films are about men and women who can’t come to terms with the fact that their surroundings have become foreign, that the City of Angels has wings, that they’ve been left with only memories of a faded reality?

On top of that, the filmmakers seem unable to address their heroes’ stories in the present tense. Name your favorite L.A. movie, and chances are it’s a period piece. As one more golden-hued reminiscence rolls into theaters—Robert Towne’s adaptation of John Fante’s depression-era cri du coeur “Ask the Dust”—it’s worth looking at Bill L. Norton’s 1972 hippie-burnout drama “Cisco Pike,” which promptly captured the schizophrenic Los Angeles of its own time, rather than allowing decades of mythology and nostalgia to freeze its world in amber.

“Cisco Pike” is the story of a one-hit-wonder (Kris Kristofferson, in the title role) turned drug-dealing frustrated musican. It is, most obviously, a document about the optimism of the 1960s slipping into the disappointing loneliness that the opportunity and sprawl of Los Angeles can cultivate like no other city. But Cisco's aimlessness has a silver lining: in a Los Angeles before cell phones, when the trek between neighborhoods was a leap of faith that might end with a missed connection, the only thing left to do is take in the city.

It’s a cruel irony that “Cisco Pike” sank without a trace upon its release, so concerned is the film with its hero's need for recognition and reward. While both a Marvel Comics character and a Chicago indie-rock band have taken the name Cisco Pike, the film has never—despite unforgettable performances by Kristofferson, Gene Hackman, Karen Black, and Harry Dean Stanton—had enough exposure to become widely known, even as a cult classic.

It struggled for its audience from the beginning: 27-year-old Norton first pitched the story (original title: “Dealer”) in 1969 to Columbia exec Gerald Ayres, who then left the studio to produce it. After countless rewrites and last-minute cast changes, the film finally was shot on location (for less than $800,000, with the smallest Hollywood crew Columbia had ever used) in late 1970. And then…nothing. In the time Columbia sat on the film, Gene Hackman’s star-making turn in “The French Connection” was filmed and released to theaters, and magazines such as Seventeen went ahead and published what were supposed to be tie-in profiles of Kristofferson. It was released to one theater in Los Angeles, where it played for a few weeks before closing. Norton couldn’t get work as a director until “More American Graffiti” in 1979 (the same year, coincidentally, that Charles Bukowski finally convinced Black Sparrow Press to reprint “Ask the Dust”). In the ’80s, the late Z Channel head Jerry Harvey, who’d resuscitated interest in other mishandled releases such as “Heaven’s Gate” and “Once Upon a Time in America,” was unable to convince Columbia to license the rights for broadcast. Never officially available on VHS, “Cisco Pike” has nonetheless circulated on bootleg videotapes, and has occasionally surfaced as part of various “great lost films” series at revival theaters.

It was finally released on DVD in January to little fanfare — so little that Norton himself didn’t know of the release until I contacted him. In a final indignity, the packaging was adorned with this supremely backhanded compliment from critic Leonard Maltin: “Surprisingly Good!”

The creation myths that have sprung up around the “Easy Rider”-“Raging Bull” era of Hollywood suggest a legion of film students storming the studio gates, armed with well-drawn characters, bleak narratives and ambiguous endings where none had existed. But the Los Angeles films of the late ’60s and early ’70s did not so much break new ground as reconnect to the alienation of Depression-era literature, and if “Easy Rider” fed on the apocalyptic rage of “The Day of the Locust,” the furiously thwarted striving in “Cisco Pike” is rooted in “Ask the Dust.” While Fante’s hero, the novelist Arturo Bandini, is haunted by the fleeting success of “The Little Dog Laughed,” his one published story, Cisco Pike can’t accept that 1966’s chart-topping “Breakdown (A Long Way From Home)” will stand as his only hit. Now he sends out demo tapes, collects rejection letters, and bitterly corrects music-biz slicksters on the trivia of his distant career (“I saw you guys at the Forum in, when was it, ’68?” “The Shrine ’67”). What everybody can agree on is that Pike is good at dealing drugs — but a recent bust and the pleas of his girlfriend Sue (Karen Black) have convinced him to quit.

Enter Sgt. Leo Holland (Gene Hackman), a narcotics officer whose health concerns and pension dissatisfaction drive him to a cannabis-unloading scheme: if Cisco sells 100 of Holland’s seized kilos in a weekend, Holland will throw out the case — and Cisco can keep whatever money’s left over after Holland gets his hundred grand. Along the way, Cisco keeps running into reminders of the past he longs for, like Rex (Doug Sahm), a former record-chart peer who’s still successful, and Jesse Dupree (Harry Dean Stanton), a junkie and former bandmate who has left his wife and children to return to L.A. Added to this is the indignity of making deals at the recording studios and rock clubs that used to invite him to play. Even rival dealer Buffalo (Antonio Fargas), whose scepter (adorned with the head of an African king), fur, and two diamond rings single-handedly anticipate the blaxpoitation aesthetic, rubs salt on the wounds: “I remember a couple years ago, you been selling them millions of records. Now you broke. Ain’t that a bitch!”

How better to depict this drought of luck than by opening on Cisco, guitar case in hand, walking on broken sidewalks past the murky canals of rundown Venice? With its focus on neighborhood hangouts and desperate meet-ups, rather than the freedom of highways, Cisco Pike literally stays at the level of the street. And so we’re treated to a look beyond the postindustrial transformation that was well underway in the city — 1970 was, after all, the year that Joan Didion’s Maria Wyeth indulged her freeway-driving addiction in “Play It As It Lays”; within two years, the Riverside, San Gabriel, Ventura, Orange, and Antelope freeways also would be completed, and the Los Angeles Convention Center would open. And while there are plenty of generic locations befitting the rootless anonymity of a Los Angeles that architectural historian Reyner Banham termed "Autotopia" — a hotel entrance, a strip club, a studio soundstage, an abandoned parking lot — mostly Cisco Pike’s Los Angeles has a specificity that’s strikingly rare for films shot in its era. Even as Cisco laments the passing of the sixties, the audience is privileged with a close-up of what, in retrospect, seems like the lost city of Los Angeles.

In 1959, Venice already had faded enough from Abbott Kinney’s dreams of glory that Orson Welles chose it to stand in for a decrepit Mexican town in “Touch of Evil." The decay intensified during the next decade, with more than 500 buildings demolished in the early 1960s alone. The aging beatniks hung in before first losing the Gas House, and then the Venice West Café on Dudley. “Cisco Pike” captures the neighborhood less than a year after the first of several arson fires ravaged the Pacific Ocean Park pier (bankrupt since 1967); the script describes “a community of the young and poor. The now generation, now wasted on reds and wine, sit beside pensioners on the boardwalk benches.”

Cisco makes his home directly across Ocean Front Walk from the ruins of the pier, a constant reminder of what’s been lost in only a few short years. What had survived through 1970 was Olivia’s, the southern-food UCLA film-student hangout immortalized by the Doors song “Soul Kitchen,” and it’s here that Cisco meets Buffalo for a plate of greens, or maybe just to get one last look at the neighborhood.

By the time the film was released, the 18-mile bicycle path along Ocean Front walk had opened, attracting a new, distinctly Seventies crowd. In his 1973 novel “The Big Fix,” Roger L. Simon’s description of Venice betrays a shift from counterculture character to mere tackiness: the kind of place you’d go to ask a girl what sign she was: “the decaying monuments of another age soon disappeared, giving way to the pre-fab mausoleums of our own — low-slung motel structures with names like Neptune’s Kingdom and Tahitian Singles Village West.”

As Venice was finally rebuilt and gentrified, it was on the foundation of this homogenous seediness. Some might argue that when the artists were priced out, bohemianism was relegated to piercing booths and t-shirts for tourists. Olivia’s no longer exists — it has been replaced, irony of ironies, by the California Heritage Museum. The exterior of our hero’s boardwalk home, on Ocean Front Walk south of Ozone, is a high-end skate and bike rental shop, while the Main Street apartment where the interiors were shot now houses a designer denim store. South of Windward Avenue, the mural that Kristofferson walked by in the opening credits is gone; another building now covers the wall where it was (on the only part of the surface that’s still exposed, a familiar epithet has been spray-painted). The sidewalks are no longer broken, and the canals themselves were renovated in the 1990s. Lots along the canals, then priced at $25,000, have broken the million-dollar barrier. Not everything has gone upscale, though—the boatyard on the southeast corner of Abbott Kinney and Venice Boulevard, where Cisco made one deal, is now an empty lot.

“Cisco Pike” isn’t just about Venice — after all, it was envisioned by Norton as an American take on “La Dolce Vita,” a travelogue of urban vignettes. The decadence of Rome is supplanted by an earthiness more appropriate to L.A.’s post-psychedelic despair: where Fellini famously depicted a statue of Jesus airlifted over a city, Norton gives us canal-bridge graffiti that celebrates “the human race.”

Premium grass distribution — not tabloid journalism— is the hero’s occupational compromise, but Cisco's drug-delivery route does recall Fellini’s portrait of hedonism just beneath the surface of respectable society. And while most chroniclers of Los Angeles since Raymond Chandler have made the claim that sin lurks behind expensive iron gates, “Cisco Pike” blithely suggests that everybody is a dope fiend, from hotel doormen to hairdressers to country-club bluebloods. Part of this is an effort on Norton's part to normalize the idea of the pot-smoker, to acknowledge that the Summer of Love has forever changed something about America. Despite its dim view of Jesse's heroin use, the film is hardly anti-drug—even with its delayed release, “Cisco Pike” beat “Superfly” to become the first studio film with a drug dealer as its hero.
Even more extraordinarily prescient is the casting of these supporting players: Norton litters “Cisco Pike” with what would turn out to be era-specific icons. Who could have known that they would so powerfully conjure up the divide between the Sixties and the Seventies? You can almost imagine the Sixties-era cult heroes— Viva, hog-farming Woodstock emcee Wavy Gravy, and Tex-Mex garage band the Sir Douglas Quintet — standing still and waving goodbye, as the Seventies break free like a continental drift, to future icons Allan Arbus (“M*A*S*H*”), Antonio Fargas (Huggy Bear from “Starsky & Hutch”), Howard Hesseman (Johnny Fever from “WKRP in Cincinnati”), all on their way to Me Decade mass-culture recognition.

Waving goodbye to Cisco, meanwhile, are the musicians of the scene he once knew, already running away from countercultural ideals and toward cocaine parties and billboard ads. The record business has superseded Hollywood as the profitable center of the entertainment industry (even as “Cisco Pike” languished in Columbia’s vaults, Mayor Sam Yorty sounded the alarm that Hollywood might soon “cease to exist” thanks to shrinking audiences), and with that power surge has not only commodified music but drug culture as well, doubling Cisco’s pain. He insists to Merna that he’s not Rex's dealer, but his friend. And yet the facts tell a different story. “I’d like you to sign a little contract,” Rex’s manager says from behind his desk before buying grass, “that you, like, did some work for us, so I can deduct it,” a harbinger of the agents and managers who’d soon be working coke expenses into their artists’ recording budgets. The hippie dream has given way to commercial windfalls, and when Cisco leaves the studio, Old Hollywood will follow him out the door — the scene was shot at Columbia Pictures’ studios at Sunset and Gower, abandoned for the cheaper real estate of Culver City in 1972.

For the rest of the film, Cisco’s travels increasingly resemble a tour of last goodbyes for the viewer. He takes Merna to pick up her friend Lynn at Father Yod’s vegetarian restaurant The Source, on the corner of Sunset and Sweetzer. The Source’s cultish underpinnings were sufficiently cartoonish for Woody Allen to choose it for the breakup scene in Annie Hall, but Yod had by that time moved to Hawaii and died in a hang-gliding accident, and it’s now Cabo Cantina. A motorcycle cop pulls Cisco, Merna, and Lynn over at the Vine Street curb of Villa Elaine, where Man Ray’s studio was located until unaffordable rent drove him from Los Angeles. Across the street, off-screen, is the Hollywood Ranch Market, a 24-hour haven for insomniacs and freaks. There now stands an Office Max in its stead.

It was during a residency at the Troubadour that Kristofferson was given a copy of the “Cisco Pike” script by fellow musician Harry Dean Stanton, after the original lead dropped out two weeks before filming was to begin. And so when Stanton’s Jesse Dupree and Kristofferson’s Cisco wistfully visit the Troubadour, there’s a heightened sense that Cisco’s timing isn’t quite as good as Kristofferson’s. It’s almost comically bad, actually: it was at the Troubadour, the very autumn that this scene was filmed, that future Eagles Glenn Frey and Don Henley first discussed starting a band. They’d soon be playing here regularly. In other words, the club’s influence was just about to peak, and the music that would take it to the stratosphere was “that California stuff,” the kind that Cisco plays, the kind that Rex criticizes as passé when he shrugs off Cisco’s demo tape. But everything is fleeting: by 1973 new competition from the Roxy (opened by Eagles manager David Geffen with the single purpose of getting better booking deals for clients) began a decline that would continue for several years.

Before leaving, Cisco and Jesse reminisce about the Fred C. Dobbs Coffee House on Sunset. But Dobbs had been pronounced dead by Frank Zappa in 1967: “It used to be the best place to go to meet friends and dig the juke box until the heat blew it for us…or was it that bunch of outside idiots that started hanging around towards the end there, unable to maintain their coolness?”

Cisco Pike’s not the only anachronism in his world, but he’s the only one doomed to survive. After Jesse overdoses, Cisco brings his body to the Oceanside, and the breaking waves recall the suicide of Sterling Hayden’s obsolete novelist Roger Wade in “The Long Goodbye.” At least Wade got to wander into the undertow of beautiful Malibu; Jesse’s corpse simply slumps amidst the wreckage of an amusement park (now abutted by the Rose Avenue parking lot). Then Holland shows up, in a paranoid rage shoots an ambulance, and goes quite literally face-to-face with the future that will replace him: a police helicopter.

Does it matter what happens to Cisco? Several endings for our hero were entertained during the rewrite process: in one, Cisco kills a highway patrolman; in another, he and Sue embrace happily in a field of marijuana. But it’s the ending of the final version (filmed but ultimately discarded) that most resonates not only with Cisco’s problematic relationship to his adopted city, but with the other great L.A. stories about the failure to assimilate: driving through the Mojave Desert (where Fante left Arturo Bandini to rage over the loss of his woman), Cisco comes upon two men who’ve had a bloody accident on the highway (where Terry Southern left Wyatt and Captain America’s bodies). But they pick themselves up, set fire to their car, hop in Cisco’s Oldsmobile, and leave the Los Angeles of 1970 behind. And then, finally, we must too.

A shorter version of this essay was published in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, May 28, 2006.