Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Hollywood North?

When I was growing up in Central California, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a film festival. That was something I discovered after I had moved far away. Over time, I became aware of the famous, prestigious film festivals, like Cannes or Telluride or Sundance. Then I discovered there was a dandy film festival right where I was living, in Seattle. Then it seemed as though film festivals of all shapes and sizes were popping up regularly in big cities and small towns everywhere around the world. After a while it seemed as though there was hardly any place anymore that didn’t have some sort of film festival of its own.

So it seems appropriate that things have gone full circle. I have recently become aware that the place where I started out has had a film festival for two years already. While on a recent visit home, I was perusing the daily Bakersfield newspaper and stumbled across an advertisement proclaiming the third Kern Film Festival, scheduled for January in the historic Fox Theater in Bakersfield, California. It turns out that there is even a Kern County Film Commission.

To people who know Bakersfield only as the butt of jokes by comedians from Los Angeles and Las Vegas, it might seem unlikely that the city would have its own film festival. But, as the film festival’s web site points out, Kern County, north of Los Angeles, has a long history of providing settings and/or filming locations for Hollywood. Films set in Kern County range from The Grapes of Wrath (the fields of the San Joaquin Valley) to The Right Stuff (Edwards Air Force Base) and Ron Shelton’s autobiographical sports comedy The Best of Times (the town of Taft). Early on, Hollywood used Kern County’s desert terrain for location filming of westerns in the 1930s, including The Red River Valley, The Plainsman and Stagecoach. In 1948 The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (or at least a bit of it) was filmed there, and in 1959 the famous bi-plane scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest was shot near the town of Wasco. The area has stood in for other locations more recently in such films as Thelma and Louise (the pair robbed a grocery store just a couple miles from where I grew up), Jurassic Park (Red Rock Canyon), Speed (Mojave), Wag the Dog (Buttonwillow), The X-Files (California City, Boron), Dinosaur (Ridgecrest) and Erin Brockovich (Boron). Someone I’m personally acquainted with even made it on-screen in the Pauly Shore comedy Son-in-Law, which was also filmed in Wasco.

The Kern Film Festival web site even lets you vote on which of the many movies associated with Kern County you would like to see included in the 2003 festival. For me, there is one that I would vote for above all the others. That would be another Hitchcock film, Psycho. That was the first film that made me aware that cinematic fantasy could overlap with my own reality.

Now, to explain this, I will have to discuss the plot of Psycho, including a major spoiler. So, in the unlikely event that you have never seen Psycho but plan to someday and want to be surprised, you better not read any further.

When my best friend Eric and I were just little guys, we went on our own to see Psycho at the movie theater in our little town. I had no idea what it was about, and I asked Eric what he knew about it. His friend Chris had already seen it, and he gave Eric a succinct summary of the plot. Now, he could have said something like, a woman embezzles some money and something happens to her while she is on the run. Or, people start myseriously disappearing around a creepy old motel. But, no, he told Eric (who repeated it to me), it’s about a guy who dresses up as a woman and goes around killing people. This was my first major encounter with a spoiler. The funny thing is that this information did not make the movie any less scary or make us jump any less in our seats at all the right spots. And, when we got the scene in the fruit cellar, well, we totally lost it.

But something else strange happened while we watched the movie. As Janet Leigh went on her fateful drive away from Phoenix to meet her boyfriend, the scenery behind her car seemed awfully familiar to me. “Psst,” I whispered to Eric. “I think she’s driving through Bakersfield.” “Nah,” said Eric. But I was sure I was right. I was convinced that she was driving up the Porterville Highway and that the Bates Motel was somewhere in the Sierra Nevada foothills, not too far from where we lived. This made everything that happened afterwards even more unsettling. It was practically in my own neighborhood.

After the movie, Eric and I had a great time talking about the movie and reliving how much it had scared us. I continued to insist that all the homicidal action had taken place in Kern County. Eric was doubtful. Since this was before there was an Internet Movie Database (or even an Internet, or even personal computers, for that matter), I had no easy way to find out where the movie had been set and filmed. I spent many years wondering if I was right about the Kern connection or if it was my own paranoid delusion.

A mere two decades or so later, I had satisfaction. In 1983 I attended the Seattle International Film Festival for the first time. One of the films I got the chance to see was the long-delayed sequel to Psycho, imaginatively titled Psycho II. I wasn’t even thinking about the old Kern question when I settled in to my seat to watch the film. Imagine my delighted surprise when one of the first establishing shots showed the familiar Kern County Courthouse, with the words “Kern County Courthouse” clearly visible on the side of the building. Norman Bates was having a hearing to see if he was fit to be released back into society in a building that I had passed by many times in my youth. My impression of two decades was finally confirmed. Not only had the infamous Norman Bates been living just a few miles from my childhood home, but now he was getting sprung back into the neighborhood.

Of course, devout readers of these weekly musings will recall that I actually met Norman in the flesh, three years later, in the very same movie theater where I had seen Psycho II. He had followed me from Kern County to Seattle. It’s probably just as well I won’t be able to attend the upcoming Kern County Film Festival. I’d be a little nervous about whom I might meet there.

Oh, and by the way, everyone, Merry Christmas!

-S.L., 19 December 2002

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