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Architecture Review: The Elrod House

Evelyn Everlane

It was 2005, when the Department of Energy had just started the cleanup of the Columbia River Corridor. This was being touted as a triumph of American science, that the premier dumping ground for 20th century plutonium could be restored to its pristine early colonial destiny. This success was supposed to prove the safety of nuclear energy and pave the way for dozens of new projects.

But stoned as we were, we knew the nuclear empire was dying. Sure, they could build more reactors, but the wretched pretense that smashing apart little atoms and shit could be safely contained in a little concrete dome was over.

I knew all about concrete, and smashing, after all. I’d just been fired as a location scout for a southern California pornography producer called Massimo. He wasn’t Italian, though it’s not like any of us knew his real name. When the talent would arrive to meet him, they’d stumble over the name – Hi, Ma-ssi-ssi-mo – and he would beam. “Call me Max,” he’d say – keys jangling on his belt as he pumped a palm, one of those guys with a firm one-handed shake.

We were in the strange incubation period between the VHS boom and the takeover of the internet porn aggregators. Max said his films got packaged and sold worldwide on DVD, though I never saw a disc myself. My job was to scour the housing pages on Craigslist for potential shooting locations.

The week before a shoot, I’d call up anyone who posted a little nondescript ad renting their house for the weekend – old widows, gay couples who were off to see the opera in LA – and ask to come check it out. They’d be suspicious as I rolled up, a young kid in my little MG, probably suspecting I was some kind of spring breaker, even in September. Still, my austerely unfeminine appearance and flat talk was usually enough to get my way in the door, where I could look for "it".

“It” was concrete. Max loved concrete. He lived for it. His entire oeuvre could be summarized as an orgy of white sheets and white bodies on concrete. The actors were merely a stage for the concrete to act out its inner drama. If it was a concrete floor, we’d shoot the scene horizontal; if it was a wall, it’d be three hours of vertical fucking. This went unremarked by the entire crew, besides the actresses and actors, whose butts got cold. “Too bad!” Max would boom. “Look at that lighting! Look at that contrast! The saturation!” Seeing as I’d been recruited to this job from a one-hour photo shop, I was pretty certain he was just saying random words.

When I went to scout the locations, I’d peek under each area rug and scan the walls for any cold gray slabs that might have been left exposed. If I found it, the holy grail, I’d call Max.

He’d shoot over instantly from wherever the hell he lived in his little Chrysler TC (by Maserati, or so it said on the trunk), and introduce himself to the owners with a smile. “Call me Max.” Handshakes all around. He’d give me a slap on the back like I was a 12-year-old boy. “Glad you’ve had a chance to meet my kid.” Calling me his daughter would be too implausible. “Yes, the A/C’s just gone out at our pad. Hell of a shame. So me, the wife and kids are looking to do a little stay-cation this weekend, get out of the heat.” Wink, smile.

It always worked, somehow. Before you knew it, he’d have the spare key in hand and I’d be tailing him out of the driveway in my MG.

Max always seemed so at home in the desert.

My roommate, this guy I’d met at the college, once told me a story about nighttime raves deep in the flatlands. He came from a little further north, one of those unassuming exits off the 111 where there’s the little houses along the road, each surrounded by a wall of sunbaked cinderblocks and only dirt beyond. He told me how his sister used to get ready to go out, doing her hair, accessorizing with fluorescent bangles and paint. Then she’d set straight off walking into the darkness. Apparently, you’d find a scene if you walked far enough and followed the music.

When Max’s gleaming black Chrysler would appear on the horizon, tessellated by the heat, I figured he came from some place like that. He and the car should have long ago wrinkled, burnt, and been swept away.

The atomic future may never have materialized, but they sure came up with damn good car wax and teeth whitener.

***

It was the Elrod House that caused Max’s meltdown and cost me my job. At the time, I thought it was my coup d'état, something that might finally put Max and his films on the cultural map.

The Elrod House was like a giant UFO perched on a cliff overlooking Palm Springs. Its massive, sheer concrete planes were punctuated only by the dramatic rock formations that protruded inside. Most importantly, it was vaguely familiar to middle-aged men everywhere from its role in the 1971 James Bond film Diamonds are Forever.

The place had just been bought by this elusive investor, Michael Kilroy, who was trying to turn it, and a couple of other places nearby, into an invitation-only luxury club. He had borrowed a couple million to buy the properties, but rehabilitating them had turned out to be another matter. According to the local rags, he’d missed some mortgage payments and was in a bad way financially.

So, I looked him up in the White Pages and surprisingly, the number connected.

“You’re interested in renting the Elrod House for a weekend?” he repeated skeptically.

“Yes, sir.” I hadn’t meant to call him sir, but it felt appropriate. The man watched over us from a cliff. “It’s always been me and my family’s dream to go inside. We saw it in the movie–”

“Huh. I don’t think so. We offer tours once a year.” He hung up.

Twenty minutes later, my cell phone rang. “This is Kilroy. Are you still interested?”

Normally, Max would meet me at a location to negotiate a price and get the keys. But he said he couldn’t make it today, and I should just meet him on the way. I was on my way to becoming one of his longest serving associates – such was the turnover on his sets – and this was a high level of trust for a man who had little to give. I waited for him at the 7-11, where he gave me some cash and a brief directive: “Offer half this much.”

Of course, Kilroy got the whole wad. I had prepared a script for a desperate playboy, but Kilroy was bone-thin and pale. His blue eyes shone widely through wire-rimmed lenses, balanced awkwardly upon his small nose by greasy pads. He wore an ill-fitting beige polo – the sweat wicking kind. He barely spoke, except to demand as much money up-front as possible, and then to get my – or, rather, Massimo’s – scribble on a questionable form that said we would pay for any damage to the property. Thankfully, I didn’t see any restrictions on using his architectural landmark as the backdrop of a mediocre adult film.

I told Max he should get his best actresses and actors together for a marathon weekend of shooting. “You could do an HD feature film.” “It’s a mansion, Max –  there’s like 5 sets in one.” “Remember that guy James? He was quality. You ought to call him out.”

The guardbooth operator looked at us with knowing eyes when Max and I arrived at dawn on Saturday – backseats of the MG and Chrysler-Maserati crammed full of tripods, decades-old lighting equipment, and extra bedsheets.

When the two engineers arrived, Max pounced on them before they could finish their coffee. He darted manically around the home like a twenty-year-old speedhead, physically framing each scene with his body. He thrust his body to the ground and walls, undulating like the stars would in the throes of passion. “Here!” “No, here!” “Come here –  no, here! Get this, but crop out this fucking carpet!” “I want this saturation! Can you get this saturation?” While the camera crew planted their tripods in one spot, he would run to another. “Guys, come the fuck over here! Check this out!” He kept glancing up at the ceiling – a massive disc comprised of angled concrete slabs – and shaking his head.

Max barely acknowledged the star, Gloria, when she arrived; nor did he acknowledge when she had been ready for an hour and he still hadn’t settled on a scene. Gloria sat parallel to me, on the opposite end of the living room’s massive couch – a custom furnishing of the original designer – watching Max pace and snarl around the circular grounds. Even though the actress was usually the only other woman on the set, we rarely talked.

“Can you catch this little beam of sunlight on the wall here?” Max shouted to the cameraman. “That’s the fucking money shot!” He was audibly panting. “Ok, hold it there. You know what, let me call up Susie, I want to get another girl here and do a girl-on-girl type of deal– That’s the angle I’m fucking talking about, man! Where was that half an hour ago?” He let out a moan of frustration, collapsing against the thick slab of a beam.

Up in the hills, the wind can get pretty serious on a gusty day. The living room’s sliding glass panels were cracked open, and I could see Gloria’s eyes watering from the draft. While I wore no makeup, her eyeliner was starting to run around the edges. She didn’t seem to care. Hours had already passed since we were supposed to begin. It was mid-afternoon.

I was staring at the shadows as they began to spill onto the mountains when I heard Max’s faux-Italian accent abruptly crack. He let out a wild scream.

I always thought if I saw trouble coming, I would spring into action. Instead, I just raised my head slowly and looked over to see Max shriek, rip the camera off the ground and slam it against the wall. The plastic met the unflinching resistance of the concrete and shattered. The lens cracked off, and cheap-looking computer chips and sensors fell to the ground. He screamed, and took up the tripod like a spear, sweeping Kilroy’s crystal vases and reading lamps to the ground. “The fuck out of my way,” he growled at the sound engineer and came for me.

Gloria shot up with a squeal of alarm, while I crouched awkwardly and let him lunge at the air. “You want me to go crazy? What the fuck is wrong with you? Bringing me to a place like this, where there’s no good angles! No goddamn contrast! No goddamn SAT-UR-ATION!” He emphasized each syllable. Another stab of the tripod.

I got my shit together and started for the door, which was really just a slab of concrete on a hinge. “What the hell, Max.”

“I can’t believe I wasted money on this horrible place! You rented me a fucking prison! You’re dead to me, bitch! What kind of a place has so much concrete” – he spat the word –“but a goddamn prison?”

“Actually, it’s considered one of the most beautiful homes in the country.”

“Go fuck yourself. You piece of shit.”

I was already at the carport. Gloria had gotten dropped off in the morning, so I offered her a ride home.

As we set off, she tugged down the visor and started wiping off the remainder of her makeup. We drove with the windows down.

“So what are you gonna do now?” she asked after a time.

“I don’t know. My cousin lives in Washington. He says there’s a lot of jobs cleaning up some old nuclear plant.”



[Any references to real people such as Michael Kilroy is entirely coincidental]