Ostensibly, Echo Park is about the difficulties of living and working in LA, as experienced by aspiring showbiz types. In a city where every dog groomer or cop is really an actor or a writer, with their minds on something else, a lot of things are done differently than in someplace normal. Also, of course, the movie is about how your family is the people you find.
May (Susan Dey) and her son live in a rickety old house that’s been divided into apartments. So much of this is familiar to anyone who has been forced by economic necessity to find a housemate to share the rent. Who can forget the sinking sensation when you open the door to the first of a dismal parade of interviewees?
Eventually, Jonathan (Tom Hulce) shows up. May says, “I thought you were somebody else.” He says, “Even I think I’m somebody else sometimes.”
Michael Ventura wrote this movie, and that’s why it’s so good. It really is, though of course not everything is due to the genius of the script. Hulce, for instance. It pains me to bring in this cliché but he has quirky charm and to spare. Plus, he gets to do his maniacal laugh. This is a very funny movie with as much physical humor as great dialogue. Without being corny, it has a lot of heart. For instance, the easy way in which Jonathan befriends the boy Henry, by giving him a new name: Hank. What eight-year-old could resist?
May, unfortunately, has issues. She tells her girlfriend that Jonathan is “not the kind of guy I do it with. He’s nice.” The kind of guy she does it with is August (pronounced ow-goost) the body sculptor from Austria who already lives in the adjoining apartment.
Jonathan moves in with May and her son. August helps carry Jonathan’s stuff inside. At night, they’re all out on the steps, and May and August are playing footsie. To have sex, she brings him to her place. He mauls her around like a rag doll and my question is, after all that booze, why isn’t she throwing up? Meanwhile, poor Jonathan has to listen to this raucous carnival of carnality.
Jobwise, Jonathan ( who is actually a writer) drives a ridiculous pizza-mobile. His boss is cadaverously fearsome Vinnie, as portrayed by Timothy Carey. Although I always think he’s Harry Dean Stanton. Separated at birth? Check it out:
August has invented a device that taps the energy created by people working out at the gym, and stores it in batteries. He has kind of an orgone-ish theory of body building, A proponent of the “holy act of masturbation,” he discusses his philosophy unrestrainedly.
May finally gets an audition, which turns out to be for strip-o-gram dancers. Convincing herself that it will be a steppingstone to Hollywood recognition, she takes the job, and I’m not going to tell you any more than that. Except that my favorite scene is her audition, when the strip-o-gram entrepreneur (John Paragon) teaches her how to strip. It’s one of those immortal movie moments.
Related: Michael Ventura: An Appreciation
by Pat Hartman, first published in Salon: A Journal of Aesthetics
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