Will we "always have Paris"?
I have been given an office to die for in the Research Centre at the Getty Villa. Visiting scholars working at the Getty are divided between two locations. Most are based in the vast modern hilltop complex, of Museum and Research Institute, designed by Richard Meier. But if you are a classicist, you work in the “old Getty”, by the ocean – where the Pompeian-style Villa houses the classical art collections, and the “Ranch House” (where Mr Getty himself used to live) houses the library and scholars.
My office is directly off the library. It has a balcony which looks over the Villa and its new Greek theatre, and on to the Pacific Ocean. It’s hard not to feel very lucky indeed.
But, despite all these attractions, I left the office behind for a day last week to do some LA sight-seeing. First stop was to be a movie studios.
There are a good number to choose from, but the reviews on the web of the various tours offered suggested that most involved several hours of walking between sets that were generally underwhelming. The best was supposed to be Warner Bros “VIP tours” (there is no category below VIP), where, for $42 a head, you are at least taken round the studios in a shuttle bus.
. . . and where – this was the draw for us – you can still see the French Street from Casablanca, and the restaurant where Bergman and Bogart lunched before she did her runner.
When we turned up, it was all a pretty seamlessly efficient operation. After a ten minute orientation movie, we met our guides in groups of twelve and climbed on board the little shuttles. Our man was called Gabriel and he started by giving us a briefing, rather as if at a zoo. As we drove round the site, he explained, we might possibly spot a celebrity. Please don’t scare them by shouting or yelling – they are timid creatures, but if handled right they might come close and wave, even talk. (Actually they were all hibernating, or whatever, on our trip.)
The other lesson was about photography. It was only allowed in certain areas (and definitely not where any celebs might be wandering in their natural habitat). In fact a good 20 minutes of the 2 hour plus tour was taken up by the ritual of locking and unlocking the storage area on the shuttle where the cameras were put away out of our reach.
Sadly, what we saw didn’t quite live up to the preparations. There were a few highlights. I was rather taken, for example, with the jungle from Jurassic Park -- and was pleased to discover that all water scenes which look as if they are in close to zero temperatures are actually played in water nearer to the heat of an average bath. There were a few more curious little inside snippets. Every prop, down to the smallest plastic bagel, is apparently bar-coded, so you can tell at the click of a bar-code reader exactly what shows it has appeared in. And what we learned about “product placement” taught me that any time anyone on TV or the movies picked up a can of Pepsi or a jar of Marmite, the chances were that a considerable amount of cash had passed between manufacturer and producers.(Was I so naïve as ever to have imagined otherwise?)
But the truth was that the studios were not exactly throbbing with activity. And what activity there was revolved around television not film. We saw (a re-creation of) the Friends set, and the outside of the hospital from ER. And we learned some “secrets” of how to turn Mediterranean LA into windy and snowy Chicago: a large fan, plus bags and bags of white plastic chippings, unsurprisingly enough. But the only filming that was actually going on was for a soap called the Gilmore Girls. This is obviously a staple of American TV (and maybe British too, for all I know) – of which we thought it prudent to conceal our ignorance.
So when we came to the tour’s finale in the French Street, its sad decline was all too predictable. True it had remained European in its way and the French-style mansard roofs were still there. But the little bistro where Bergman and Bogart had had their last lunch was almost unrecognisable. Given an American make-over, it was now a café in the Gilmore Girls’ town of Stars Hollow.