I'm not surprised film noir is a California genre. The light is hard and bright out there—all key and no fill, as they say on the backlot—and the eternal sunshine makes the shadows as dense and black as an agent's soul. The Paramount Studios backlot butts back-to-back against the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, eternal resting place of Virginia Rappe and Lana Clarkson and Rudolph Valentino, and just in case you missed the point, scrawled on the wall outside the cemetery gates is this satanic graffito: "9/11 HA HA HA", the baroque strokes of the As jaunty like musical notes, left by some flesh-crawling sicko, perhaps in memory of those California-bound planes that never made it.
If you want to crash and burn, LA's the place to do it. And I mean that rigidly
metaphorically, since I’m talking about Paul Walker, buried recently not at
Hollywood Forever but at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in the Hollywood Hills, an
equally prestigious post-mortem address. Because I'm East Coast brutal but not
sick like the cultists John Waters describes in his book Crackpot, who
gather at Mann's Chinese at the crack of dawn to see the water fill Natalie
Wood's footprints when they wash down the Walk Of Fame. Because Paul Walker
was, by all accounts, an utterly decent human being, as measured by all the
metrics one usually considers when measuring these things—charismatic and
pleasant-tempered and competent at his profession and god-fearing and principled
and generous (spontaneously and humanitarian/charitably) and devoted to
a teenage daughter who is capable of stumbling upon
I have better intentions than that.
But now that we're clear about the civilities, we can address the elephant in the room, the same sardonic irony that also surrounded Mr. T when he announced he not only had cancer but T-cell lymphoma (I pity the fool): how we're supposed to feel when an actor known mostly, if not entirely, for a franchise of drag racing spectacles dies in a spectacular car accident. It's hard to think of a collision that incinerated foliage and blew debris into windows hundreds of feet away as tidy, but there is something pat and fitting and no-loose-ends about his demise. It's more than just the morbid clairvoyance that shades James Dean's "chicken" scene in Rebel Without A Cause or how Bruce Lee's final film was Game Of Death or Marilyn Monroe's final film was Something's Got To Give. It goes deeper than that, all the way down to the bones of Los Angeles and its heavy-laden fruit trees and eternal sunshine, where MGM bragged it had "more stars than heaven" but neglected to mention the first step towards heaven is death.
The job of being a movie star is demanding, not only logistically (prolonged location shoots, employment insecurity, punishing physical maintenance, loneliness) but spiritually, in that once you submit yourself to the intrusive machinations of 21st century fame, they will flay open any remaining sense of selfhood as an offering to the slobbering masses. Displacing one's ego five paces to the left so it can weather the slings instead of "you", if there's any "you" left by the time you get to the top, is really your only recourse, and it helps if there aren’t any relatives around to remind you of the sticky, pesky self you left behind. Lana Turner, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Charlize Theron: the people who can weather the work it takes to become a star often already have family trauma that makes it easier to flee their old life. It's like the Pony Express: orphans preferred.
When you're born into the machine, however, it's a different story. Walker, the son of a former fashion model, grew up middle class in the euphonious Sunland neighborhood of Los Angeles, and had been working steadily as an actor and model since toddlerhood: a company man making good in a company town. He was acceptably eye-catching on screen, but unmemorable—I confess that after a professional lifetime full of writing, thinking, and teaching about movies, I could never remember "that Fast and the Furious guy's" name until I saw the CNN scroll announcing his death. His stardom wasn't as transcendent as that of someone like River Phoenix or Heath Ledger, but someone was watching his movies: It's beyond me why they made five-going-on-six Fast And The Furious sequels, but they filled a need, and hundreds of drag racers held midnight rallies in honor of their fallen golden boy.
Los Angelenos live and die by the car. Nobody walks in LA, not even a Walker. The modern city was born around the same time as the automobile, and their shared adolescence shaped the city's sprawl. But surprisingly, for all the gridlock, drivers there are overwhelmingly well-mannered. You won't get cursed out or cut off like you might in Boston or New York. Your daily commute won't be slowed to a molasses crawl because of yet another clot of rubberneckers gawking at the latest smash-up on the Baltimore-Washington beltway. They're pros on the 405. And they have to be: the car and the city need each other, like those birds that roost on crocodiles and peck food out of their teeth. If the movies and a car are the two things that most shaped LA, it seems fitting that in 2003 Walker was awarded an MTV Teen Choice award for "Best Movie Chemistry" between him and his co-star, the Nissan Skyline GT-R he throttled in 2 Fast 2 Furious.
Walker wasn't a passenger in a Nissan Skyline GT-R on that fateful November 30th, but instead a Porsche Carrera GT, a notoriously treacherous make of muscle car. Maybe he and driver Roger Rodas were drifting sleek curves too fast (one theory) or maybe the car hit a coruscation in the road that made it jump out of the driver hands (the Walker family's theory). One thing's for sure, it was only a matter of time before amateur footage of the holocaustic crash site jammed itself next to our memories of Walker's movie crashes—a irreconcilable paradox made more discomforting by news replays of Walker's handsome face, a face that most certainly was not currently in the same fine condition. Do you know what happens when you burn? The soft fatty skin of your lips, unanchored to skeletal muscle, shrivels first and pull away from your teeth. Go ahead, feel inside your own mouth for the deep pockets that go down to the gums and imagine how a fresh skull looks with all that labial flesh burned away. Smile for the camera.
Paul Walker alive, dead, fiction, reality—it's a paradox, but it's only a paradox if we don't remember the town that birthed him. It's the land of decay and loss, of quick-blooming life and just as startling death, where no one ages and the seasons don't change and oblivion is quick. This is how a child of LA is supposed to die, in an onanistic immolation of a car crash that would do J.G. Ballard proud, cradled in the combustible engine's gasoline-fueled embrace. The City Of Angels still whispers its dream to millions of unhappy hopefuls: go on the big screen and you will become something more than your flesh. It's paradise, sure, but to placate the gods you've got to throw a virgin into the volcano every once in a while. It keeps Los Diablos happy. We shrug. It's Chinatown, Jake.
Violet LeVoit is a video producer and editor, film critic, and media educator whose film writing has appeared in many publications in the US and UK. She is the author of the short story collection I Am Genghis Cum (Fungasm Press). She lives in Philadelphia.