L.A.

1.

How can somewhere that has all the elements of a city — paved streets, traffic lights, freeways, skyscrapers, shops, offices, a population in the millions- still not be a city? This is the enigma of Los Angeles, where the different components that made up the classic 19th century city were disassembled the way the individual features of a face or a guitar were disassembled by the Cubists. Then, rather than anyone reassembling them, they were simply left, the pieces of a jigsaw spread out on a tabletop, to assume the form of the city’s historical successor, the suburb, under the sign of separation, isolation, provincialism, mobility and space.

So confusing is the result for visitors and locals alike that the most famous insult directed against L.A. is itself the result of a confusion (Gertrude Stein said “There is no there there” about Oakland and not Los Angeles). Famously, L.A. is a city built around the automobile. But not around the car as a practical necessity: around a car as an affordable indulgence. The first cars were bought for leisure purposes. Car-owners kept their cars parked on the street all week, only using them to take a a “weekend drive” out of town into nature. In Hollywood’s slapstick comedies, Laurel and Hardy or Buster Keaton or Mack Sennett “go for a drive” in this way even though, as the camera clearly shows, they are already surrounded by open space. They don’t need to leave the city to reach the country. They can escape from the city by driving around it.

These twin themes — the interpenetration of the city by the country, nurture by nature and the centrality of illusion (not to say self-delusion) — make up L.A.’s secret life that finds expression in the name given to those streets L.A. invented and dedicated to the automobile: its “freeways”. Freedom is the city’s real promise. The city’s first builders were the railways whose tracks, via the intermediate mechanical life-form of the streetcar , evolved into the freeways’ concrete spirals.The romance that clings to Los Angeles is the romance associated with taking a journey, the temporary, seductive freedom of being on the move. In their advertising campaigns, the railways attempted to freeze that freedom, which is dependent on movement away from a known past and towards the unknown future, and the transitory suspension of all fixed identities and landmarks in between the two, into the permanence of real estate. The means they used were Spanish-sounding names and a picture of an orange tree, as if they were advertising a holiday from, and for, life. At the end of the Southern Pacific’s line lay freedom- freedom from winters, from the Puritanism of the plains, from the tenements and ghettoes in the old Eastern cities, from poverty and hardship and want and cold.

In other words, Los Angeles was never a city so much as a property development, a subdivision in the desert whose lots were marked out with stakes. In Europe, cities grew: in the American West, they were plans before they were cities. People moved to L.A. as they did to any city anywhere, but in L.A.’s case they travelled hundreds or thousands of miles, not a handful, and their destination was a dusty vacancy, a blueprint stamped “under construction”. As soon as they arrived, they wanted to go on, to keep travelling as if the wish to leave cities had taken on its own fatal momentum and they had lost the instinct for human society altogether (the termini of this desire are the tarpaper shacks occupied by half-crazed eccentrics scattered across California’s deserts). Hence the freeways with their maze-like circular motion, fast roads out of town that go nowhere because there is no town to escape from, only the building sites that met the immigrants and greet newcomers to this day in ranks of pastel-coloured, flag-waving condos, windows glinting in the sun, marching across the barren hills of the Antelope Valley, because once the cities of the West began to build they couldn’t stop, as if the very lath and stucco had caught the fever for perpetual motion .

When nowhere is the city, the city ends up being everywhere. (If there is no there there, there is everywhere). Each of L.A.’s 7 million people secretly wants to be the only inhabitant, the sole survivor of an immortality machine whose motto reads “I will live forever but the rest of you will die”. Such is the logic of all star systems. Just as this aspiration dictates the city’s physical presence, its sprawling, many-limbed body, so the equivalent passion rules the city’s soul in the form of Hollywood, L.A.’s variation on the American Dream. The American Dream is to succeed but the Hollywood Dream is to become a movie star, which bears the same relation to success that the gods bear to ordinary mortals. Capitalism achieves its apotheosis in L.A. by selling not the fetishised commodity but the fetish itself as commodity. The billboards on the Sunset Strip advertise not products but dreams (which in Hollywood parlance, in an example of that magnetic attraction reality has for language, are called “product”). The giant billboards, as much a signature of L.A. as its freeways and designed to be read by somebody passing by at 35mph, are known to have no real commercial value. They get erected for the prestige and gratification of the people whose images they display- producers, directors, showbusiness “stars”. A local woman, Angelyne, has had her name, phone number and Lolita-like photograph on billboards around the city for 20 years or more without ever appearing in a film or showing any other sign of talent. Instead of a billboards advertising a famous individual, Angelyne became famous by becoming a billboard. No one has met her, no one has heard her speak; even her photo, peering over half-moon shades in a tight, Baby Doll sweater, shows a woman who must by now be 30 or more years older than the pose. In effect, she only exists as her own advertisement.

A city where everyone want to be the sole inhabitant and whose standard of achievement is immortality ought to be a black hole of neurosis. L.A. has that reputation but it also has the diamterically opposite reputation for being laid-back, La La Land. The temperate climate and efficient organisation make it the easiest of cities to live in on a daily basis, like living in a good hotel, Hotel California perhaps. Here all levels of society resort to hotel living, either full-time or, more often, for specific periods of time, from the film star who kept a permanent suite in the grand Beverly Wilshire for years to the drug dealers and pimps who operate out of seedy motels around Sunset and La Brea. Hollywood backroom workers regularly hire hotel rooms to use for everything from scriptwriters’ offices to party locations for drug binges to living quarters in between marriages or while going through a divorce. Actors give interviews to journalists in hotel rooms specially hired for the purpose, even though the actor concerned may live around the corner. Like city and country, hotels and houses, which are always called “homes” in L.A. as if four walls and a roof had to stand in for the complex of personal history and family ties that mean “home” elsewhere, meld together and take on the same temporary, rootless quality. Individuals set up home in hotels while the hotel ethic penetrates deep into the city’s fixed accomodation. When you make money, you buy a bigger home in order to tear it down (and build an even bigger one). Homes come with extra facilities like an hotel- a spa, a gym, a private screening room, and a guest bungalow, a home’s hotel. Everything in an L.A. home (including, of course, the home itself) can be rented, from the furniture to pictures for the walls to coffee spoons to corkscrews to the people living there who may be rented to “house-sit” your home.


2.

If driving fosters illusion and homes are stage sets, nature also appears in L.A. in its dramatic, theatrical aspect from the permanent sunshine to the equally permanent danger of earthquakes. Turn out of the river of cars on Sunset some night and drive for less than five minutes straight up and you find yourself in empty silence, in a well formed by the black silhouettes of hills under a vast Western sky. The desert gusts batter your ears and your torchbeam shows nothing but waving grasses, white on black like a photographic negative, and crumbling bluffs of scrub with stars peering over their lip. A chainlink gate belongs to the house, invisible from the road, where members of the Manson Family killed Sharon Tate, Jay Seebring and others in 1969.

During the day, condors ride the thermals, circling lazy and high above the Hollywood Hills alongside the 737s bending in to land at Burbank, as if they were drawn down some invisible beam. Coyotes regularly invade the city’s outer districts and overturn garbage cans looking for food, as does the occasional bear in winter. Once police shot a tiger in L.A. and it was hard to say what seemed most telling about the story- the fact that there was a tiger roaming the city; or the immediate assumption by reporters and neighbours alike that someone had kept the animal as a pet before tiring of it and turning it loose.

In the flatlands of West Hollywood and West L.A., where apartment blocks cluster so close together there are only a few feet of asphalt in between them, possums snuffle along fence tops and knock against air conditioners in the small hours, while squirrels tighrope walk along the cables. One afternoon, I was roused from my desk by a terrible screeching and thumping from the patio in time to see a kestrel, having misjudged the situation from its great height, dive down, try to grab a squirrel off the electric line, miss its prey, then find there was hardly space to fly free amidst the tangle of telephone poles, fences, wires, roofs and walls. In many parts of L.A., the sidewalks simply give up and give out or the roads turn into tracks or stop altogether, cut off by a the blank wall of a hillside or the lip of a canyon. Reading a map of the city can be like trying to interpret the hieroglyphs on some ancient parchment. The same street will appear marked in three or four different segments while its house numbers are continuous, so that to get from, say, no. 1347 to no. 1349 may demand a five-mile diversion around an intervening mountain.

This intrusion of original nature into the heart of the city gives L.A. its touch of wildness, as if the ghost of an old mountain man or frontier scout was peering over the unstructured shoulders of television producers and political wheeler-dealers. I used to see the ghost in human form in the homeless man who strode back and forth between La Cienega and Crescent Heights on Sunset, tall and gaunt with a flowing beard and often barefoot. He walked at great speed, without glancing right or left, as if he knew exactly where he was going although he was going nowhere. He looked like Leatherstocking or Natty Bumpo, driven crazy when he discovered himself two centuries out of time and living in the middle of the metropolis rather than the forest wilderness.

To the stranger’s claim that L.A. has no seasons, merely constant sunshine, Angelenos reply, there are two: the fire season and the mudslide season. In fact there are others: May, when the city bursts into a riot of brilliantly coloured flowers, like the desert it would revert to without water; or late August or September when there are two or three weeks of furnace heat and hot Santa Ana winds funnel through the canyons; or November to January when the rains come. You haven’t experienced L.A. until you’ve been there when a gathering storm sucks the air out of the streets for hours. A creeping sepulchral mist advances to the tops of rooves, wraps the trunks of palm trees and mingles with the steam from the heated pools. There’s a hush like a vacuum: even the traffic noise is muffled with expectancy. Finally, when the tension has become unbearable, the storm breaks and the rain starts to fall with tropical intensity that continues for a day or two or more at a stretch, choking the culverts, swirling in tidal fans across the surface streets and flooding the Santa Monica Bay with sewage.

Although it rains during the same months every year, each time the locals are amazed, as if they too believe that the sun always shines here. Every storm brings a flurry of fender-benders and freeway pile-ups since no one knows how to drive in the rain or would dream of reducing their speed. Only in Los Angeles can “It’s raining” become news story. During an exceptionally heavy storm, by the second or third day, every TV station in L.A. will switch to reporting the rain non-stop for ten or twelve hours at a stretch. Scores of television reporters, faces no one ever sees on screen under normal circumstances, appear on half a dozen channels simultaneously, scouting across the basin to record flooded homes, uprooted trees and people rescued from raging rivers that are trickles for the rest of the year. This massive display of professional expertise and technological resources treats the weather as if it was the outbreak of war.

From the fires before the rainy season and the mudslides after it, together with the ever-present threat of earthquake, come L.A.’s apocalyptic imagery- the city’s own idea of itself as paradise about to be lost- Sodom and Gomorrah on the eve of destruction. A moral instability supposedly accompanies the geographical kind, partly due to the age-old association of showbusiness with immorality. But L.A. is also a company town and, like all company towns, devoted to business, even if the business of Hollywood is basically a form of gambling and the “whole equation of the movie business” Monroe Starr kept in his head was of the same order of complexity as the ones kept by punters who study form at the racetrack or those who follow arcane systems at roulette. Anywhere gambling is the prime activity, other appetites, including sex and drugs, tend to be suppressed. L.A.’s reputation for debauchery is primarily a form of publicity, that local substitute for oxygen, while most successful players are identified by their ability to do without it (the publicity if not the debauchery). The A-list stars all retain publicists whose job is to refuse journalists, threaten editors and keep their clients names out of the papers..

The free drink brought to your table or the hooker delivered to your suite are the perks of high rollers in a gambling casino. Like the takeaway meal ordered when working late in an office, they are ways of taking care of bodily functions so that the player can continue playing. The only people who indulge in them wholeheartedly are the losers who are trying to forget their losses. The same applies to Hollywood- L.A., which forms two separate and distinct societies. The above-ground society, based on mainstream TV and moviemaking, conducts itself with rigid propriety. Then there is an hidden underworld of self-destructive drug-taking, prostitution and pornography. The separation (as well as the secret overlap) between the two groups is Victorian in its absoluteness and its hypocrisy. Whenever a scandal emerges or a member of the first society is seen to have slipped into the second, he or she is immediately shunned, his very existence denied as if he was the carrier of a fatal, infectious disease.

The other business that exists in L.A. on a bigger scale than other cities is fortune-telling. Pyschics set up shop all over town next to the McDonald’s or the shoe repairers or the florists. Fortune-telling is the science of gambling. Being a psychic or an astrologer are both considered legitimate professions here. while fads for pyramid games and cults of what could be called spiritual finance regularly sweep through the community the way fashions for music or clothing styles do in other cities. The games and the cults are always different but always involve the same elements- religion, gypsy luck and salesmanship- in different combinations. Devising a new one is the same as devising a hit movie: it’s the art of giving a new twist to an old formula. That formula can be summed up as “praying (or chanting) for a Porsche” and represents the traditional American blend of Puritanism and self-salesmanship, to which the uncertainties of careers in the movie business give an extra edge. People in L.A.are only willing to confess their sins as a prologue to affirming their worth; modesty on the other hand is taken as an admission of worthlessness.

3.


An invisible line dissects the city from north to south. Its exact location moves over time, but at present it runs straight down Western Avenue. To the west of the line is the white, affluent L.A.; to the east is the city of minorities, predominantly poor black and brown. Whites cross the line eastwards only to work in the downtown office towers; blacks and browns flood west every morning to serve as maids, cleaners, handymen, delivery drivers, car mechanics and telephone engineers. Except in their role as servants, it’s rare to see a black or brown face in West L.A., making it among the most segregated of US cities. The local economy depends on combining and mingling different lifestyles and cultural habits to create new trends that are then taken up around the world, yet the city keeps its various peoples totally segregated. The prevailing mode of production imposes a geographical division of labour. To drive along one of the great boulevards like Sunset or Wilshire that stretch all the way from the Pacific to downtown means passing through not one but through a whole series of L.A.’s, cities like Russian dolls or Chinese boxes, including the largest Korean city outside Korea, an Iranian quarter, Hispanic barrios and so on. Los Angeles thinks of itself as the capital of the Pacific Rim, embracing Asia, but also as a melting pot constantly threatened by fracture or apocalyptic destruction. When it dreams of the future it dreams of Blade Runner. But L.A.’s reality is the opposite on both counts. More extension of the Midwest than Asian capital, L.A. is already fractured and its nightmare is of being healed, of the poor east end uniting with and overwhelming the rich west. During the 1990s L.A. riots, which began in the black ghetto, Westside residents stood on their porches and balconies watching the arson fires advancing slowly towards them from downtown like the fires of a barbarian army marching to the sea, until they stopped, symbolically enough, in Hollywood.

On a spring morning in West L.A., you can wake to the sound of your neighbours quarrelling. Since houses and apartments here are built close together, of breeze block and chipboard, and windows left open in the warm air, everybody can hear everybody else’s business. Voices escalate. Words like “whore” and “kill” ring out like alarm bells. But before you reach for the phone to call for help, you realise that certain cadences, then certain phrase recur. There’s a repetition and a ritual to the melodrama. What you’re hearing are two actors rehearsing a scene.

Similarly, Sunday mornings in L.A., rather than being filled with the sound of church bells were filled with the sound of electric typewriters (in the days before computers) since everybody spends their leisure time writing film scripts in the hope of breaking in to the Hollywood . Even the police are aware of the demand for crime stories and try to shape their best cases into showbusiness calling cards. The city itself subliminally encourages people to see themselves as writers, imposing a kind of writerly monasticism, an isolation in rooms behind closed doors, since the streets here are full of cars but empty of people. Distances to anywhere are too great for walking and besides the sidewalks are cracked and uneven, when they exist at all, nor is there pleasure in strolling inches beside a deafening torrent of rubber, steel and gasoline fumes, all moving at 30 or 40mph (Conversely, nothing could be easier than crossing a street in L.A.. Simply step out into the road, regardless of whether or not you are at a junction or traffic lights, and four or six lanes of hurtling traffic will glide to a halt without complaint to let you cross).

One of the vernacular building styles houses cars at ground level and their owners above, thus bowing to the reality that you visit someone in L.A. by driving off the road into their garage rather than walking up a path to knock on their door. As a result, on many residential streets you can imagine you were in a city that is home to cars and not to people. Angelenos live with the paradox that they spend more hours each day outdoors, moving around in public, than the inhabitants of many other cities, but because they are driving and their public spaces are the freeeways, they are much more isolated and encounter their fellow citizens far less often than people do elsewhere. Traffic replaces the crowd; shopping malls stands in for piazzas or the High Street. Perforce, malls attract social functions that traditional cities delegate to other spaces, such as parks. A mall may open in the morning with fitness classes and mall-walking for senior citizens; provide a playground with slides and a carousel for mothers with young children; have a community room for a lunchtime Alcoholics Anonymous meeting for local office workers; find teenagers from the nearby high school “hanging out” in its fast Food Court in the afternoon; and bring their parents back at night to its movie theaters and “fine dining” establishments.

An atomised city of isolated individuals, sealed in their vehciles that en masse obey the statistical laws of traffic flow while its public spaces are subsumed under the rubric of shopping. If there was to be a modern version of Capital, Marx would not have to write it. It would be enough for him to point to Los Angeles.

4.


At various intersections in L.A. one comes face to face with giant moving billboards, neon advertising movies or TV shows reduced to their essence- the commercial. The sheer size of these billboards and their blazing hyper-realistic style gives them their impact. Advertising is built into the city’s fabric as it is into American life in general: the two things that most distinguish US cities from their European counterparts are the amount of advertising they contain and the amount of lighting they have at night. Many people find L.A. ugly because of its miles and miles of straight streets- as if someone had laid out a grid system but forgotten where to stop- lined with rows of featureless, flat-roofed boxes, the homes of small businesses, shops and workshops, each festooned with phone and power cables like a parcel tied with string. Everything would be grey and white and utilitarian without advertising, which gives the streets their colour and variety. So deep-seated is the commercial impetus here that people communicate with one another via advertising slogans in the form of bumper stickers on their cars or phrases embroidered on T-shirts. A thriving source of income for the state comes from Angelenos buying license plate letters and numbers that advertise themselves- ROCK STAR or LA SUE. These can then be advertised and sold on through small ads in the newspaper. One can stand on a street corner, at La Cienege and Olympic or Sepulveda and Santa Monica or elsewhere, and experience L.A.’s history in layers of advertising, the way archaeologists experience ancient settlements as layers of ruins- from a light plane trailing a banner overhead to giant billboards on rooftops to neon signs and posters on individual stores and businesses to placards and illuminated panels on bus stops and the backs of benches to a shop window full of TV sets screening multiple commercials to buses and coaches airbrushed with a technology that wraps the whole vehicle in the advertising image while still allowing passengers to see out. In vast paintings on the sides of buildings can be seen the original nexus of advertising, graifitti and Hispanic mural art. In the cluster of dark brown metal boxes on the sidewalk lie folded copies of today’s L.A. Times, filled with full-page ads taken by the supermarkets and department stores advertising this week’s sales and special offers, while other boxes contain “free sheets” made up entirely of ads, whether for porno or property.

Disneyland, situated in a suburb 45 minutes south on the San Diego Freeway, is the ultimate product of this passion, being the city reproduced as an advertisement, free from crime, traffic, pollution, ethnic minorities and poverty. In Disneyland, the advertising has swallowed the city to produce a place that exists solely to advertise a single product- namely itself. But even in the real Los Angeles., advertising is so central to its look and feel that people use adverts to orient themselves while driving around town rather than other kinds of landmarks. In areas that don’t have so many neon signs or billboards, where there are more office buildings, say, or more condominiums, everywhere can look identical, especially at night, when whole sections of L.A. are virtually deserted after dark. Even long-time residents have found themselves driving down some empty nightime boulevard for fifteen or twenty minutes, becoming increasingly disoriented and worried that they are heading east instead of west, or north instead of south, but having no easy method to determine whether or not they should turn around and drive back in the opposite direction.

5.


At a certain time of year in L.A, generally around December, the sunset over the ocean turns the sky a deep orange and purple colour, against which the silhouettes of palm trees and buildings stand out like those black filigreed paper cuts that preceded the invention of photography. Such sunsets are the natural equivalents of the town in Orange County which stages an annual festival recreating Old Master paintings as living tableaux, when its citizens dress up and pose in the exact same arrangement as the painting (Rembrandt’s The Night Watch is their perennial favourite). At the other end of the day, every morning in Los Angeles is like the dawn of the world. The sun rinses the asphalt better than any municipal water truck. The air is fresh but with the promise of future warmth. To wake up in it is as refreshing as finding yourself swimming in an azure, southern sea. Books have been written to describe the extraordinary quality of L.A.’s light, whose scientific basis is the stillness of its atmosphere, created by the city’s famous geography as a desert basin surrounded by high mountains and bordering the sea. L.A.’s light is at once sculptural and veiled, hard and soft, tropical in its clarity and northern in its mildness, and brilliant without dazzling

The light brought the movies here, and the movies in turn made the city into a brand name, or series of brand names-L.A., Los Angeles, Hollywood, the City of Angels. What the names conjure up, for those who have never visited, is not a place so much as a style. Oddly for such a photographed city, the setting for many more films, fashion spreads and photo shoots than anywhere else in the world, there are no iconic images that sum up L.A. the way the Eiffel Tower stands for Paris, the Houses of Parliament or the Tower for London, and the Empire State for New York. L.A.’s name is its own image, one that everyone interprets in his own way, and the city’s subsidiary motifs, the props for the legendary “California lifestyle” like a surfboard, a cherry-red convertible, or a blonde beach babe, are only metaphors, stickers you can peel off and substitute with your own symbols of dreams come true. It’s no accident that, phonically speaking, “L.A”., “la-la”, “land” and “Shangri-la” are harmonious. L.A.’s best-known business is selling dreams because the city was, and remains, a dream in itself whose citizens were sold it when they came here and now sell it on to others, one of the few examples of repeating something often enough until it became true. All cities have their mythical as well as their material side, but in L.A. people live almost entirely in their heads and the city itself is so featureless because nobody really cares what they see around them, so concentrated are they on the L.A. they hope to buy for themselves- the star’s mansion, the pool, the servants, the good life. Even those are as much psychological standards of success as they are objects to be enjoyed. As a popular bumper sticker in the 1990s read, “when you die, the one with the most toys wins.”

Like everything that takes place mainly in the mind, life in L.A. is subject to extremism, especially when it collides with reality. Joan Didion called California as a whole “a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekovian loss meet in uneasy suspension”. But this is just the human condition stripped of its customary accretions and distractions like historical routines, family ties and a settled culture, reduced to the dream of life we all have and all know can’t be fulfilled (or is fulfilled and turns out to be empty).

Hence the sense of despair and barely repressed violence just below the surface of California, and this negative side of the city is subject to the same process of commercialisation as the bright side. What else is film noir but a dark mirror in which L.A.’s ambition and energy are revealed as greed and corruption, its creativity as addiction, its innocent optimism as cynical despair, its societal relations as gangsterism, and its sun-struck days as rain-filled nights? Noir often mixed up its plots and characters with Midwestern or Northeastern conditions familiar to the filmmakers who, like most Southern Californians, originally came from there. They used elements that didn’t exist in California like bootleggers, Catholicism and pedestrians but this very confusion unconsciously dramatised California’s other description (also by Didion) as the place where the arid Puritanism of the plains meets the hedonism of the tropics.

Two recent L.A. trends that spread around the world were drug abuse followed by “rehab”. If the city had a cultural charter rather than a constitutional one, on one side would be inscribed a Hollywood balance sheet (notorious for their fake accounting) and on the other side AA’s Twelve Steps. The Los Angeles Central Offices of Alcoholics Anonymous is the busiest of all its offices around the world. The most public-spirited Angelenos may be its recovering drunks and addicts since their programme helps temper the prevailing selfishness. Otherwise, the civic leaders and the rich and famous are given to extravagant dinners and balls honouring each other for their charitable donations, like some ancien regime aristocracy whose Almanac de Gotha is a medical textbook and whose titles are taken from the names of rare and obscure diseases..

dwmbygrave@icloud.com. All contents mike bygrave 2014