In the movie The Omega Man (1971), Charlton Heston is the last man on Earth and living in Los Angeles, which makes sense because presumably after the apocalypse the rents will have come down. In the opening sequence he drives along a tumbleweedy Wilshire Boulevard into the empty downtown in a red convertible, enjoying the sunshine and listening to Max Steiner’s quite delightful theme from A Summer Place on the 8-track in his car. He’s on his way to a cinema to stretch out and watch a free movie. Later he’ll do some free shopping for a new safari-suit jacket.
It doesn’t seem so bad being the last man in the world in 1971. Sure, there are murderous albino mutants lurking in the shadows and the only movie available seems to be the concert film of Woodstock, which was an ordeal to watch even once, but the weather’s good and there’s no social media.
There’s a long overhead tracking shot of the car driving through the deserted city centre, and you think. “How did they close the whole city?” It turns out that when the film was shot in 1970, suburban flight was so bad that they didn’t have to close the streets at all – they just filmed early in the morning on a Sunday, when there wasn’t a soul to be seen.
I went downtown this morning, hoping to feel like Charlton Heston, but it’s a more salubrious place nowadays than it was then and there were too many cars and sidewalk strollers to truly feel like an Omega Man. I was the Sigma Man, at best. Okay, the Lambda Man.
LA is an odd place to be right now. Bars and sit-down restaurants are closed, as well as the movie and TV studios that are the only reason this place exists, but the psychics and the weed stores are still open, and judging by the odours drifting out of every window in West Hollywood, Angelenos working from home are doing it through a thick haze of hydroponic self-medication.
I’m interested to see what happens. Los Angeles is a city of unending, compulsory, perma-positivity. Being anything less than excited and upbeat marks you as a loser, therefore someone who can’t help anyone with their careers, therefore a pariah. You’ve just been fired? Your pitch was turned down? You have five socially acceptable seconds in which to frown thoughtfully at your shoes before you bounce up and say, “Every step I take is toward the mountain, and this just means there’s a better way to get there”. Someone actually said that to me.
It’s tricky for someone like me, who’s more comfortable with self-deprecation than tooth-gleaming self-belief. When an executive asks, “So, is your script amazing?”, it’s not possible for me to wink confidently and give the thumbs up, rather than say what I did say, which was “Well, I wouldn’t say amazing, exactly …”
Angelenos wear a mask – not a medical mask but a personal one, one that lets them pretend to be happy – and it’s a good mask, a productive mask, and other than hollowing them out so they come home each night empty, angry and alienated from themselves, there are no downsides to that mask, but on the day after the mayor shut down the city, the mask slipped. Smiles disappeared, grocery cashiers were tense with customers, customers snarled at each other. You saw, just for a moment, the skull beneath the skin.
This is a weird and half-dangerous city, and you feel a kind of centrifugal death-force in it, a death wish, an over-readiness for end times. South Africans behave badly and bitch and moan and expect our cut-rate Armageddon around every corner, but you never doubt we’ll keep going. We want to see tomorrow, or most of us do. Not the EFF, obviously, but the rest of us. Over here you get the feeling there’s a frightening dark urge in them to throw their cards up in the air and break out the leathers and armour-plated beach buggies and set off a nuclear bomb and go full Mad Max.
What is happening in the world is extraordinary and it’s awful, but it’s also fascinating, because I don’t think things will be quite the same when this has passed, even if we do all somehow avoid another 1929-style global economic depression. None of us knows anything about what’s going to happen, what will rise and what will fall, what will go away and never come back, what will be born, which fresh futures are being made. But we are being revealed to ourselves right now. The moment of self-revelation is at hand: how we behave now is who we are. This is an opportunity to be better than we feared we were. This is an opportunity to be brave, and kind, and to think of ourselves as part of a whole. This is an opportunity to make a community bigger than ourselves, bigger than our families, bigger even than our neighbourhoods and WhatsApp groups. We are all in this, but all of us. Everyone in the world. It may not be happening to us in equal degrees, but it is happening to all of us. And we’ll survive, but the question is: who do we want to be afterwards?
Times, 18 March 2020