Saturday, April 30, 2011

Santa Clarita Films

This year the Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival offered a new event - the SCV (Santa Clarita Valley) Film Tour.

Santa Clarita Valley, on the outskirts of LA, is like Hollywood's back yard. It has been used for films since the beginning of the film industry in Southern California. Some have even dubbed this area "Newhall-ywood". (Newhall is one of the several towns that make up the city of Santa Clarita.) The 55 of us who had booked the tour met at Heritage Junction, the old Railway station. There we watched a few clips from movies filmed at the station itself (e.g. Frank Sinatra in Suddenly, Charlie Chaplin in The Pilgrim and John Cusack in The Grifters) as well as scenes from the surrounding area. The most popular clip was that of Kirk fighting a Gorn at Vasquez Rocks, from a Classic Star Trek episode, Arena. After the clips, we filed out to the waiting bus, popping our tickets into a spittoon & getting a brown bag snack in return.

Our guide was E.J. Stephens, a knowledgable and enthusiastic lecturer from the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society. We spent an hour at the NCIS set at Valencia Studios then another two hours driving around the hills while E.J. pointed out features of interest.

Here are fifteen fascinating facts I learned from the tour:

1. Apart from Melody Ranch (the venue of the Cowboy Festival) there are dozens of other film ranches and studios dotted around Santa Clarita: Valencia Studios, Blue Cloud Ranch, Sable Ranch, Disney's Golden Oak Ranch, Firestone Ranch, to name a few. Many residents are totally unaware of their existence.
2. NCIS is filmed at Valencia Studios. Set designer Lynn Wolverton Parker generously spent an hour showing us the sets and props, which was fun for fans of the series.

3.The final sequence in the very last silent film was shot on the Sierra Highway: Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard walking into the sunrise in the film Modern Times.

4. The hit TV series Justified is not filmed in Harlan County, Kentucky, but right here at Santa Clarita Studios.

5. The high school in Pleasantville is Valencia High School.

6. James Dean possibly ate his last meal at Tip's Restaurant (now Marie Callender's)

7. Some scenes of Twilight (those meant to be Arizona) were filmed in and around the Hyatt Valencia.

8. The Halfway House Cafe (halfway between L.A. and Palmdale) has appeared in so many films that they have a whole page of film clips and stills on their website.

9. The Birds actress Tippi Hedren has a big cat sanctuary called Shambala in the hills. Sometimes you can catch a glimpse of lions on the metrolink train just before it gets into Palmdale.

10. The famous Vasquez Rocks are named after a bandit who hid out there for a while. He was later hung.

11. The man in the Gorn suit is named Bobby Clarke and still lives in Santa Clarita.

12. There is a gibbon preserve up in the hills near Vasquez Rocks.

13. Steven Spielberg filmed most of his first movie, Duel, on the roads around Santa Clarita Valley. At the end of the film, the demon truck falls over dramatic cliff at Mystery Mesa on Agua Dulce Movie Ranch.

14. Mystery Mesa has also featured in Iron Man, Thor, etc. According to E.J., it was saved from development thanks to the presence of "sea monkeys", an amazing type of brine shrimp that can lie dormant for years until water is added and they revive. If a film-maker ever needs a handy cliff, that's the place to go.
15. Beale's Cut (above) was is a deep cut in a pass made by Phineas Banning in 1854 as part of a road he built to provide service to Fort Tejon. Originally made for real stagecoaches, it appears in the 1939 John Wayne film Stagecoach and many others. Today it is on private property. 

Thanks to E.J., his wife Kimi, Lynn Wolverton Parker, the organizers at the Cowboy Festival and the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society for a great tour!
Richard and Caroline at Valencia Studios

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


This is my Western decade, and I'm embracing it in every way I can. That's why my ears pricked up when I heard one of my favourite film podcasters praise a documentary about sheep farming in Montana. Then last week I went to the Renoir Cinema in Bloomsbury to watch Meek's Cutoff and they showed this charming trailer for the film that had piqued my curiosity last year: Sweetgrass.

The scenes in the trailer are the opening scenes of the film and that is what brought me back to the Renoir three days later for a screening of Sweetgrass followed by a Q&A with one of the filmmakers. Lucien Castaing-Taylor is a thoughtful, bearded Englishman now based out of Harvard. He introduces the film by warning us that we are in for two hours of sheep with no talking. In fact the film is well under two hours and there is plenty of dialogue between the two main shepherds. But yes, it is mainly watching sheep from the time of shearing through lambing through taking them up into the mountains for the summer and then bringing them back to a holding pen near the train tracks, so they can be shipped off for slaughter.

One of my favourite scenes can be seen in the trailer. In the farmyard, the shepherd rises up on the horizon and calls his sheep. They slow down, turn, one or two of the most clued-up start towards him. Soon a great, woolly, bleating, adorable mass of them flock after the shepherd. Ah. Bless. They know his voice. Just like Jesus says: "My sheep know my voice." Oh, wait. There's a tractor behind them, urging them in the right direction. Lol.

As they swarm after him, the sheep baa enthusiastically and loudly. There is something wonderful about the sound of sheep. They say "Baaa!" but they say it just like a human. It is comical and endearing.

It's no wonder that in the New Testament, 23.5% of Jesus's parables (my guestimate) have to do with sheep. We identify with them. We like them. They are woolly headed, thick and usually hungry. They like to clump together. But they can be ornery critters and spread out, when the mood takes them. Just like us.

In the Q&A after the film, Lucien is his own worst critic. He says the first 20 minutes of the film are the best. They are, but there are some gems in the following hour or so. He says the sound is too rich, dense, textured and dramatic. I think he's wrong on that score. The sound is wonderfully done. Especially when he shows us stupendous wide angle vistas but we can hear John grunting, muttering and urging his horse Jake to "watch your step". And the intense sounds put us right there in the Beartooth Mountains.

In a throwaway comment, Lucien mentions that the shearing scene is distressing for the viewer. Again, I disagree. You can clearly see that the sheep quietly submit to the firm, confident grasp of their shearers. There is something wonderful about seeing the shaggy outer layer sheared off; each swipe leaves a textured track and the sheep look like courdouroy when they're pushed out into the watery spring sunlight. Then the filmmakers poignantly cut to a shot of the newly-sheared sheep standing miserably in a spring snowstorm and the camera holds on them for several minutes. They do not complain, but one of them looks accusingly out at us. That's the distressing scene.

Some of the questions the audience put to Lucien were about the two main shepherds, craggy old John and peevish Pat. Lucien almost batted aside the question, saying he wanted the focus of film to be on the sheep, not the shepherds. I'm with the filmmaker on this one. The humans are prosaic. It's the sheep that are poetic.

People don't usually identify with cattle (unless we're on a crowded tube train) but we do identify and empathise with sheep, and this gives the whole idea of a Western "cattle drive" a new twist. Instead of identifying with the "cowboy" we identify with the critters they are herding. We are the flock being driven, trusting that our shepherd will be patient and loving like Jesus, not angry and frustrated like Pat, who at one point descends to a profane rant that would have Deadwood's Al Swearengen blushing. Pat is tired and bored and sick of sheep and his knees are giving out. At one point this middle-aged man makes a mountaintop phone call to his mother and nearly dissolves in tears. It's not pure self-pity: he's upset because his beloved sheepdog has bleeding paws and his horse is nothing but "ribs and bones".

The myth of the Western is the myth of freedom and choice and the loner riding off into the sunset. And as you watch Sweetgrass you realize that's just what it is: A MYTH. This compelling film shows us that the reality of herding cattle or sheep (or whatever) is that it is a kind of prison. You can't just take off and ride west when you're looking after a flock of critters who depend on you. Sometimes you can't even get a phone signal.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Dirty 21-Mile House

In 1852 a man named William Host built a tavern on the stage route from San Jose to Monterey. The same year he sold it to a certain William Tennant, and he became landlord of the 21-Mile House, so-called because it was 21 miles south of San Jose. You can find a marker of this historic site on the NW corner of Tennant Ave and Monterey Hwy in Morgan Hill. According to the plaque:

This famous tavern and stage stop was located 21 miles from San Jose on the road to Monterey. The 21-Mile House was built in 1852 by William Host beneath a spreading oak that later was called the Vasquez Tree. The house was sold to William Tennant in November 1852. Now destroyed, this stopping station was a place where horses could be changed, fed, and stabled, and where tired and hungry passengers could refresh themselves.

One famous visitor who refreshed himself at the 21-Mile House was William H. Brewer (right, in the chair), a California state geologist who went up and down California recording details of life and landscape between 1860 and 1864. His journal is called Up and Down California in 1860-1864; The Journal of William H. Brewer.

Brewer and his party stayed at the 21-Mile House three times, each time camping out rather than staying inside the tavern. Brewer's entry for a blistering May evening in 1864 reads:

We got to the 21-Mile House and camped under the old oak trees. We had camped there before, once in ‘61, and again in ‘62. The spot seemed familiar and awoke pleasing memories, and that night, on the ground under the trees, sweeter sleep came than had for many a long night before...

Another visitor, Alf Doten, was less impressed. Arriving one October night in 1862, he and a friend dined and slept in the tavern. The next day, Doten gave it a scathing review in his private journal:

Oct 3 1862... got there at sunset - put up there – got a dirty supper – served up in a dirty manner, on a dirty table, in a dirty house, by a dirty waiter – when bedtime came, we turned in to two dirty little beds, in a dirty little room & slept cold, not having enough bed clothes, & fleas & bedbugs giving us Jesse – waked up an hour or two before daylight from the cold – some ½ doz other travellers there, all in the same uncomfortable fix - all got to shouting to each other and "carrying on" - no more sleep...

Oct 4 1862 ... Rose very early - after dirty breakfast, paid our dirty bill of $5.00 & left - won't stop there again, I guess...

But in April of 1863 Alf was passing through again, and had no choice but to give it a second chance. Apparently his experience this time was more pleasant, probably due to the fact that his musical talents were appreciated:

April 29 1863 ... After breakfast I started for Fred Lucas's - rode Kit with banjo rolled up in my overcoat & lashed behind saddle, carpet bag ditto - led Georgie ... couldn't ride Kit very hard on account of her being heavy with foal - stopped occasionally on the road to let her have a bite of green grass & cool off - at 6 PM I arrived at the "21 Mile" house & put up for the night... after supper, at request of Mr Tennant, the landlord - I gave them some banjo and songs in bar-room...

April 30 1863 ... My bill was: horses 75¢ each - $1.50 and 2 meals $1.00 & a bed 50¢ - Total $3.00 - left about 8 1/2 oclock...

But in May of the same year he found things 'dirty' again:

May 9 1863 ... at 2 PM arrived at 21 mile house - got dirty dinner, served up in dirty manner by Miss Maggie Tennant in a dirty dress & frowsy hair - knew me - Had quite a chat together - Took me into parlor - got me to write off the words of "Open thy lattice to me" for her - I rode on... 

A Starbucks now stands in the place of the tavern.