Joe Mathews: In California, vampires aren’t just in the movies

Ana Lily Amirpour receives the breakthrough director award from the The Independent Film Project in New York on Monday for her recently released low-budget film, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.”
Ana Lily Amirpour receives the breakthrough director award from the The Independent Film Project in New York on Monday for her recently released low-budget film, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.” The Associated Press

Sure, California has everything. But where would you find a murderous, Farsi-speaking, chador-wearing vampire riding her skateboard around an oil city?

Kern County, of course. If a place could win an Academy Award for acting, I’d nominate Kern for an Oscar.

A young director named Ana Lily Amirpour – who grew up in Bakersfield, a child of Iranian immigrants – recently released a low-budget but critically acclaimed film, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.” In addition to being the first Persian-language vampire Western in movie history, it might prove to be the California movie of the year.

Crucial to the film is how the small Kern oil town of Taft – 30 miles southwest of Bakersfield – plays a presumably Iranian city named “Bad City.” Kern County is the perfect setting for a Bad City because the place is so good at being bad. Its agribusiness uses lots of imported water. Its music, from Merle Haggard to the metal band Korn, celebrates being bad and defiance of opinion (the chorus of “The Streets of Bakersfield” begins: “You don’t know me but you don’t like me”).

And then there’s the other kind of blood – oil. While much of California is on its way to becoming an ecological preserve, Kern remains an unapologetic center of oil and gas production – and that’s been good for the place. Bakersfield in particular feels like an island of prosperity in struggling inland California; its unemployment rate, at 6.5 percent, is below the state average and 2 percentage points below Los Angeles. In this state, it can be good to be bad.

Of course, the worthies in California government, business and civic circles will tell you that they’ll fix Bakersfield, and the whole state, with high-speed rail and alternative energy. But can you trust them when they are so bloodthirsty themselves?

The vampires in Silicon Valley are sucking all the personal data they can out of you. Hollywood just bit its fangs into more than $1.5 billion in state tax credits. In Sacramento, public employees are talking about fiscal responsibility while spiking their own pensions, and politicians never cease the hungry hunt for campaign donors.

In today’s California, who among us is not a bloodsucker?

Certainly, the heroine of “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” is one. This vampire walks the streets of Kern County – OK, Bad City – after dark wearing a chador and sensible shoes. She encounters players in the local drug and prostitution economy and dispatches them with the bite-to-the-neck efficiency of Jerry Brown handling a Republican challenger. But alas, this girl meets a guy, a dreamy James Dean type with a druggie dad. They fall in love over music – Lionel Richie’s “Hello” being a touchstone among the Persian vampire set.

This may sound campy, but Kern County, as its bad self, grounds the film. Taft, like any movie star (the town’s oil patch has appeared in other films, most notably “Five Easy Pieces”), plays a character without losing itself; lights and Farsi signage were added to some of Taft’s less leafy streetscapes.

The director Amirpour has been coy about where Bad City is supposed to be. “Did you think it was supposed to be Iran?” she asked one interviewer who assumed as much.

My own take: Bad City is both California and Iran. The movie’s romance has to do with that fluid sense of place. Bad places offer us blank slates to write new stories. Coastal California, once so full of open land that movie producers could set whatever they wished there, is now so cramped you need to go inland to find anything resembling a frontier. A big Bollywood production, in search of empty vistas, filmed in Tulare County earlier this year.

Near the end of “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” the vampire confesses her badness to her love interest, and they drive off, happy, into the emptiness of the San Joaquin Valley. Maybe that’s because Proposition 47 reduced some of her felonies to misdemeanors. Or maybe it’s because regardless of whether you’re in a theocracy, like Iran, or a place in love with its own regulatory goodness, like California, being bad can feel like freedom.

Joe Mathews is Innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.