60 Miles to Studio City

What’s with the photos? Well, My City Paper review of the Belfast-set Kenneth Branagh play Public Enemy ran yesterday. It’s a confused and often confusing show, a very uneasy meld of character study and political parable. While writing about it I thought back to when I visited Belfast in May 2007.

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These political murals fascinated me. They were not subtle. The painting was often crude, the messages cruder. They were heartfelt as a heart attack, and they were everywhere.

The rabble-rousery of the street art paled compared to what I heard from the cabbies. Separate taxi companies for and run by Catholics and Protestants, of course. Oral accounts of the last several decades vary wildly depending on whose cab stops for you. That’s why three of my traveling companions (at left) look so skeptical while being educated by our driver. The one in this photo was a Catholic who put an (Irish, obviously) Republican spin on things, regaling us with horror stories about decades of killings and coverups by “the paratroopers” and the Unionists. As soon as he dropped us at Ulster University, one of my companions, a journalist in Belfast who’d endured the lecture through gritted teeth, told me the IRA has killed and tortured far more people than the Protestant/Unionist paramilitaries have. I got to know the journalist at least well enough to trust him more than some random cab driver who told us he’d never been out of Northern Ireland, but each side holds fast to its version.

The other show I review in this week’s CP theater column is Dan LeFranc’s 60 Miles to Silver Lake, about a divorced dad and his son, each trying to reconnect. It’s very good. It reminded me of a funny, sad thing that happened to me a few years ago:

(No, I did not survive a nightclub shooting spree by a registered sex offender. It was a different kind of funny, sad thing.)

So this guy, seen here in The Terminator, is Michael Biehn. He’s been showing up in mediocre-to-unwatchable action flicks and TV shows since the early 80, usually as a Navy SEAL (in Navy SEALs and The Rock) or a psychopath (in The Fan and The Lords of Discipline, among others). In The Abyss, he played a psychopathic Navy SEAL. Range, I think that’s called.

But he was in some good films — future Avatar director/ Earth Day speaker James Cameron’s, mostly. Those two had a whole Scorcese-DeNiro thing going in the 80s. Maybe it was more of a David Lynch-Kyle MacLachlan thing. Before Cameron cast him as the bad guy in The Abyss, Biehn played Kyle Reese, self-sacrificing, savior-siring hero of The Terminator in 1984, and had a big hero part in Cameron’s next movie, Aliens, two years later.

Both films, but Aliens especially, were unusual in the Reagan era for the brawny resourcefulness of their ladykind protagonists. Biehn was just the dude who helped them embrace their inner Calamity Janes, leaving most of the actual ass-kicking to the ladies (though Linda Hamilton had to wait until Terminator 2 to start packing heat and smashing noses).

Anyway, once those movies hit home video,* Biehn quickly elbowed aside Harrison Ford as my personal cinematic embodiment of unflappable manliness. Notice, ladies: In an era when Sly Stallone and Chuck Norris were taken seriously as models of masculinity by a lot of my preadolescent peers, to say nothing of ticket-buying, VHS-tape-renting America, I idolized the guy teaching the women to fight. I was evolved!

Look, here’s Sigourney Weaver getting a sexually charged marksmanship lesson from him in the deep-space future as seen from 1986. Those’re some bragging rights, right there, to be the laconic space-Marine who taught her how to shoot! Because you’ll recall that Sigourney shoots the gooey, acidic shit out of some bugs at the end of that movie, while Biehn waits outside in the car — er, spaceship. She got an Oscar nomination for her trouble.

So fast forward (no chapter-skipping on VHS) to 2005. I’m living in Los Angeles, working as a personal assistant. I’m broke, but also blue, so I don’t decline a friend’s invitation to meet for dinner at the Goucho Girll on Ventura Boulevard after work one Friday evening. Our margaritas have barely arrived before a cat whom I recognize instantly as Michael fucking Biehn strolls in and is seated with a kid of maybe 13 or 14 at the outdoor table right next to ours.

Biehn was never an A-list star. He’s probably wasn’t a C-list star at this point. (The next time I saw him after this was as the crazy sheriff in the Robert Rodriguez-directed half of Grindhouse, about a year-and-a-half later.) Doesn’t matter. I am, once again, 12 years old. I keep cool, keep chatting with my friend, but I am fairly losing my shit.

Have 20 years gone by since he knocked up Sarah Connor? You wouldn’t know. He looks just like he did in those movies. Combat-ready. Calm but alert. He is Kyle Reese. He’s Cool Hand Luke. He’s Steve McQueen. He’s…

…having a deeply personal and excruciating conversation with the kid, whom I infer from their pained discourse to be his estranged son. A conversation I am suddenly embarrassed to be overhearing.

I won’t repeat what I remember of it. Nothing scandalous, just ordinary, heartbreaking family stuff. I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop. I didn’t seat them at that table. And of course I know, and probably knew at age 12, the difference between an actor and a role. It still bummed me out, absurdly, to learn that this fearless fighter of cyborg assassins and interstellar roaches, this advocate of gender equality in sci-fi ass-kicking, was as vulnerable to the problems of family life as anybody else.

*The Terminator and Aliens were rated R, but the video store I biked to let me check them out, no problem. We had a beautiful patron-proprietor relationship until my Sigourney Weaver crush took hold, and the video clerk refused to rent 12-year-old me Half Moon Street on the grounds that “she’s naked for half the movie.” My protest that I was picking up the flick for my parents fell on unsympathetic ears. To this day, I’ve never it.

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