Photo by Wild Don Lewis
Desert deep: Visual poet Jorge Alexis, whose immigrant fairy tale Cacti defines the arty edges of the Palmdale scene.
Duane kept staring at the road, and said, "What if it was?"
And that was it. The brothers had the heart of a movie, a haunting, sweeping story that could make them very, very famous. They thought about it for a while, and then, as always happens when you're on an intellectual roll, Duane had to piss.
"So I pulled over here," he says, yanking the Volvo onto a dusty shoulder and throwing open the door, "and pissed on that telephone pole. That very fucking pole."
And there on this brown column of creosote in the absolute middle of nowhere, inscribed at eye-level and illuminated by Swedish high beams, was a message: "Lost. Seeking fun, meaning, anything. Call The X Boys."
"Fuck if I know what it means," Duane explains, "but I saw that, and I knew we had to fill in the gaps. I knew we had our title, our plot, our movie."
"Experts warn that too much speculation about Hollywood interests in Palmdale could send real estate values plummeting again, but signs of an invasion are keeping hopes elevated all over town."
-- from the Antelope Valley Press (Palmdale's hometown paper), March 5, 1998
Ask real estate developer Gus Austin what he thinks of the exploding "Palmdale scene," and he'll tell you the same thing he tells everybody: "It's bullshit! Plain and simple. Right there on the ground by your feet. Bull. Shit. You want me to spell that?"
The tub-stomached property mogul moved to the desert as a construction foreman in the late '80s, but saw the coming boom and quickly started his own company. He's now responsible for nearly a quarter of what he calls the "happy households" in Palmdale, and he insists that the town never dived into depression, that it merely "dipped," and has plenty to teach Los Angeles, and Hollywood, for that matter.
"We're still one of the fastest growing cities in America," he explains, "and I'll be goddamned if a bunch of skate punks and slackers are going to take the credit." Austin's window overlooks miles of desert, much of it sectioned off by barbed wire as the future home of "Sandy Acres Retirement Community." He's just getting started.
"Out here, this town is building the Palmdale International Airport. Skunk Works just secured a mega-billion-dollar NASA contract for new space shuttles," he continues. "Palmdale's on the rise, and it's got nothing to do with some kids and their movies."
Despite Austin's influence in town, others in the power structure recognize the source of drastic changes, perceived and real, these past weeks. People out here, it seems, know something's going on. It's in the air. Rumors of film-driven expansion in the area, fueled by enthusiastic articles in the Antelope Valley Press, have driven up real estate prices. A few fly-by-night post houses have already leased space in the nearly vacant Lancaster Outlet Mall, a few miles up the road. The Palmdale City Council has even introduced an ordinance making it possible to change the city's name. Suggestions presented at a recent public meeting included "Palmwood" and "Hollydale" and "Palmdalewood." And some locals, especially the kids, have started calling their town Palm Kong.
"We're even bigger than Hong Kong, man," explains 14-year-old Matt White, a weekday regular at the Antelope Valley Mall and self-described John Woo wannabe. "This place is the next Austin."
"Naw," adds his buddy, who simply goes by Tre, "it's like Austin, wrapped in Burbank, all shot up with Silver Lake and then motherfucking smothered in Hong Kong, like fucking pancakes and shit."
After years of dominance by covert military aerospace projects at Skunk Works, many in Palmdale would support a new king. Excited rumors surfaced last week, even, that DreamWorks SKG has purchased a few million acres of former government testing grounds, and plans to build a City of the Future out there in the void, a work of imagination so grand and strange that it can only fit on the edge of L.A. County.
"DreamWorks sees their own version of Celebration, Florida, only much, bigger," says a source inside the studio, referring to Disney's experimental Southern white-picket town, a hybrid of suburban living and a theme park. "They've been looking for a perfect place to put the thing, and now they're talking Palmdale. I've seen small-scale models of a domed city, with solar panels and geodesic houses and monorails coming out of it. Crazy, crazy shit."
"Chew the desert dry, my thirsty gecko baby.
Jeeping into my consciousness, there now, aha...
Who's the lizard, baby, lizard of your love?
Running green crazy, sand in my feet
-- lyrics from "Love Among the Sand People," by Duffel Bag Residue
Palmdale Boulevard, where most of The X Boys takes place, needs no description. You already know what's on it. Strip malls and fast food, just like everywhere else. You know how much a Sourdough Jack costs, and you know what's playing at the Valley 8. That's part of the charm and originality of Palmdale cinema: It's familiar.
The brothers Biggs and Traci Aquino and Jorge Alexis and the others have captured, on film, how it feels to be left alone on the edge of a city, in the shell of a suburb, artistically unexplored territory eerily similar to your own neighborhood. What you won't recognize is how the sky looks in Palmdale, how infinite and lonely it appears, the way it outlines the sign for 98-cent gas at the Ultramart and the public-service billboards, which line streets all over town, featuring the word "HATE" crossed out inside a red circle.
"Some skinheads thought it'd be a good idea to terrorize some black guys with machetes," explains Stephen, who has regained control of the Volvo for a tour of Palmdale Boulevard. "Machetes! Can you believe that shit?"
Duane agrees. "Fucking idiots. Who uses machetes?"
A mile further down the street, another sign reads, "Your American Dream Straight Ahead," and, shortly after that, Palmdale Boulevard ends, or rather, becomes barren, fades away. Stephen turns south onto Sierra Highway and floors it past about 15 housing developments with names like "Rancho Valley" and "Sunnyvale." He crashes across a set of railroad tracks and stops abruptly at a small trailer park filled with classic ranch-style double-wides and smooth stainless-steel Airstream RVs.
Nearby, a sign reads, "Welcome to Palmdale." The edge of town.
"I was born here," he says, seriously. "In one of these."
He then turns around and talks only about the movie. Questions about his childhood, about Stephen's relationship with Traci Aquino, about Duane's relationship with anyone, are avoided. The movie, they say, is all that matters.
And so. The movie.
The X Boys takes place during the last night of summer, and follows the adventures of two "reckless teenage philosophers" who, for a lack of anything else to do with the rest of their lives, decide to rob a bank and skip town. The only problem is, as Stephen puts it, "you can't leave Palmdale. It turns out that it's the only place in the world. Literally. They drive and drive and end up back here."
The heroes, played by two dewy-eyed, tough-guy buddies of the Biggs, become intertwined in an ever-tightening kaleidoscope of seemingly unrelated plots and superintellectual characters circling and circling Palmdale, or, rather, the world. Truths are revealed, firearms discharged, and love ignited, all in a tight 116 minutes and with an open-road, truckin'-right-along soundtrack from DBR.
"It's sort of like American Graffiti," suggests Stephen.
"Yeah," says Duane, "with guns."
The relationship between one of the main characters and his girlfriend, played by Aquino, takes the classic conflict of any high school couple on graduation night -- "What's next?" -- and applies it to all of America. And, while things spin out of control and eventually become vaguely cataclysmic, the landscape and characters seem as familiar as a neighborhood oak tree, one you've never quite noticed before. The careful juxtaposition of the ordinary and the surrealistically ultraviolent brings the film into focus. This is not a crazy world on the edge of collapse. It's yours.
Duane credits a few of his directing tricks as "easy Scorsese rip-offs," such as the mesmerizing 12-minute tracking shot (anyone who's seen the movie will mention it) that follows Aquino on a solo trip around "the world," during which she convinces herself, and the radio, that she does, in fact, love her boyfriend. A desert drag race sequence rivals the tight action pacing of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Hard Boiled. And the one shootout scene, though stocked with oversized guns, builds with such deft subtlety that you could expect the same thing to happen in your neighborhood.
The brothers know how good it is. They know how well it captures something nearly intangible about American life. They know how big it can be. But the two won't talk about their plan to distribute the film themselves, or whether any of the thugs at Sony or Miramax or New Line have started to get through to them.
"We might be happy just showing our movies at Palmdance year after year," says Stephen. "The others won't, of course. Some others may all have to leave Palmdale to find what they're looking for, whatever that is."
On the night of Palmdance III, a clean-headed preteen in Wrangler jeans and Caterpillar T-shirt holds court outside the Antelope Valley Mall. The NonClub regulars know him as Atom, a tattooed, Uzi-mouthed spoken-word auteur. "Old school, old school," he is saying, pacing, flat palms pounding on his chest. "I was fucking Palmdale before Palmdale was shit, my man, my gentleman."
While he faces three big-haired high school girls sitting against the wall, his intended audience is clearly the line of Hollywood heavies filing into the megaplex for the night's screenings. He wants Kevin Smith and Demi Moore and that Austin Powers guy to know that some people aren't happy with all the attention. He wants Gus Van Sant and Robert Altman to know, too, but he doesn't recognize them.
"I know you from way back," he says, suddenly spinning to face Billy Bob Thornton, who, in his suit and ball cap, actually looks like an aging Palmdale golden child. "Back in the day, man, you and me, you and me. You. And. Me."
Thornton doesn't know what to say to this, and so makes a two-finger peace sign, hesitates, and then says, "Word." Atom, who has tattoos all over his head, smiles insanely and nods quickly.
"You all right," he says, turning again to the girls on the wall and adding, "for a bitch." Thornton, apparently, does not hear the remark. The crowd continues to build, a healthy one for awards season, too, and a huge one considering it's only days before the Academy Awards. Sean Penn arrived earlier, and now Sandra Bernhard follows Cameron Crowe who follows Skeet Ulrich, Jennifer Love Hewitt, and, for some reason, Dweezil Zappa.
"I think the nuclear imagery," Zappa is telling his date, "is too masterfully subtle to be tacky."
And while the limos unload, most of the local talent waits patiently to make their stylish, late-desert-bloom of an entrance. They gather at the NonClub, as usual, to quietly celebrate something that will soon pass, something that has already become a former lifetime. A bong in the shape of a Super Big Gulp cup makes the rounds, from hand to hand.
"It feels like the last day of high school, or like graduation," says Aquino, in heavy blue eye shadow, taking a hit and watching the sunset from what she considers the best view in the city. "I feel like I should be giving a speech or something."
The day before, she accepted a three-picture deal. She sold out. The first to go. She hands the Gulp to Stephen Biggs, who cradles her on the outdoor sofa. A few others lounge about, postponing their entrance to Palmdance, their arrival at something now much bigger than themselves.
"This," Stephen says, dreamily, eyes on the horizon, "is going to sound trite."
"Say it," somebody says.
"We all worked our asses off out here for three years," he says, slowly, "but it never once felt like it. I want it to stay that way."
"None of it counted, really, and we could do anything we wanted," says Aquino. "Now, it's like, I have to prove myself for real. I have to, Stephen." She feels that she must move to The Big City, and, perhaps, enter what they call "development hell." Fine. Her philosophy doesn't match the fierce independent boredom of Stephen's, and she can't stay and fight the good fight. He knows that. She has to graduate from Palmdale and bring as much of it as possible to Hollywood.
"You fucker." She smacks him, playfully, as a cat would. "You did all this."
Her first big film will be about him. He knows that, too. Hell, everybody knows that. As they watch the sand go from gold to rose to mauve to gray, Stephen wonders aloud where his crazy-ass brother is with "the fucking Volvo," and a guy named Jake, the DBR front-man, strums and hums to himself on a stool.
The air gets cold, but nobody lights a barrel. It's time to go.
Eventually, Duane shows, the NonClub is vacated, and a ratty green car full of kids in jeans and T-shirts descends on the mall, into a sea of tuxedos. Moments later, after the whispers ("They're here! There they are!") run from the back of the room to the stage and then subside, an emcee announces the "world premiere" of The X Boys, and slowly, slowly, the heavy red velvet curtain rises on Palmdale.