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A Los Angeles Primer

“Los Angeles does not get the attention it deserves — it gets attention, but it’s the attention that Sodom and Gomorrah have received, primarily a reflection of other people’s bad consciences.”

Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies

“Prejudices are useless. Call Los Angeles any dirty name you like — Six Suburbs in Search of a City, Paradise with a Lobotomy, anything — but the fact remains that you are already living in it before you get there.”

Clive James, “Postcard from Los Angeles”


In 1967, Dennis Hopper and David Hemmings had an idea. Hopper you already know all about; Hemmings you may remember as the troubled young photographer in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up. Together they schemed to introduce Los Angeles to the world. “London is supposed to be the swinging city,” a 25-year-old Hemmings told Roger Ebert, fresh off shooting there with the Italian auteur. “But Los Angeles has the opportunity to become the next great city of the world. What Dennis Hopper and I are going to show in our Los Angeles Primer is, we hope, an exhibition of what is happening in Los Angeles. Some of the artifacts that make the city a work of art. Cheap restaurant glasses that, in a century, will be collector’s items. Street signs. Buildings. And the people.”

“Will he and hopper use photographs?” Ebert wrote.

“Yes, where they are appropriate.”

“And the actual objects?”

“Yes, the actual objects in some cases. And the people, too, who are the real artwork of this city.”

“But surely you aren’t going to put people in an art gallery?

Ebert notes Hemmings’ enigmatic smile. “Just you wait and see.”

Conceived in the realm of the conceptual, the exhibition, alas, most likely remained there. 35 years later, Hemmings reminisced to Stuart Jeffries of The Age: “Once, Dennis Hopper and I proposed this wonderful exhibition called A Los Angeles Primer. We took two coaches of dignitaries from the Ferris-Pace gallery in La Cienega to Malibu and back. On the way, Dennis got out of the front coach and signed the Beverly Hilton and the Beverly Hills Hotel. At Malibu, he went into the water and signed a wave. And then the coaches were driven back to the gallery where, behind a huge screen, the Mamas and Papas played ‘California Dreamin’’ constantly. Cards were given to the dignitaries saying, ‘You are the art of Los Angeles. Look at each other carefully.’ Blank walls all around the gallery, of course, just music playing. That was the exhibition. And that was the swinging ’60s.”

“Did that really happen?” asked Jeffries, understandably.

“If you wanted to report that we did, Dennis would back me up.”

Both Hemmings and Hopper have gone, as has the Los Angeles on which they meant to prime us. Some saw the city of the late nineteen-sixties, that moment in which it may — may — have made sense to sign the ocean and play the Mamas and the Papas on loop, as a Los Angeles already gone sour. But then, every period strikes someone as prelapsarian. Many a current or former Angeleno has lamented their last great Los Angeles: sun-bleached twenty-minute beachward drives in the early sixties; paradisical quasi-suburban childhoods in the mid-fifties; punk rock and junk food in the early eighties. This holds especially true for Los Angeleses never actually experienced.

For all its qualities of art, Hemmings and Hopper’s Los Angeles surely bears little resemblance to the one I live in. Neither look much like the city Clive James alternately marveled at and ridiculed in his 1979 postcards for the Observer, or the one whose built environment Reyner Banham famously defended eight years earlier in The Architecture of Four Ecologies. And how much do any of them have to do with the setting of novels like like John Fante’s Ask the Dust, Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man, and Richard Rayner’s Los Angeles Without a Map? Or wherever it is David Hockney and Ed Ruscha have painted? Yet all these past or imaginary Los Angeleses have done their part to draw me to the current, real one. What’s more, each still bears its own peculiar relevance to existence here. A forty-year-old story, image, analysis, or exhibition by definition cannot depict Los Angeles as it is, but nor can it help speaking to whatever might constitute Los Angeles as it has always been.

No two people live, or have ever lived, in exactly the same Los Angeles. Sheer size has something to do with it, not to mention practical boundaries. Enclosing roughly 500 square miles and four million inhabitants within its wonkily delineated borders, the effective city expands grotesquely when you include everywhere someone might live when they say they live in “Los Angeles.” This far-flung dilution of residency results in a certain worsening of the city’s already checkered reputation. Ask someone who claims to hate living in Los Angeles where exactly they call home, and half the time it lays as far from downtown as Parsippany, New Jersey does from Manhattan.

You could argue, the way cinephiles do about Hemmings himself, that Los Angeles failed to deliver on its complexly youthful promise. How many modern, developed-world destination cities have been so often described not like hell but as hell? A decade before creating The Simpsons, Matt Groening put out a comic book called Life in Hell. He meant, as Hemmings and Hopper optimistically did in the late sixties, to introduce Los Angeles to outsiders — albeit reflecting the very different level of optimism of the late seventies. “I got here on a Friday night in August,” he once told Playboy. “It was about a hundred and two degrees; my car broke down in the fast lane of the Hollywood Freeway while I was listening to a drunken deejay who was giving his last program on a local rock station and bitterly denouncing the station’s management. And then I had a series of lousy jobs.”

Like nearly all my peers, I grew up watching The Simpsons with near-religious devotion, but I like to think my Life in Hell readership set me apart. Growing up, as Groening himself did, in the Pacific Northwest, I couldn’t follow the strip as it appeared weekly in the Los Angeles Reader, but I could pore over its collections published in book form. I did so in the Seattle of the nineties, a city then dosing the national zeitgeist with equal parts Nirvana, Microsoft, and Starbucks. The town had turned high-profile, in the process becoming “young,” “high-tech,” “edgy,” “hip,” and “livable.” Los Angeles was, well… hell.  Yet as much ire as Californians raised by making fashionable pilgrimage to the Emerald City, the waves of voluntary transplantation to Los Angeles from every other city in America — from nearly every city in the world — never seemed to slow. A place so openly loathed yet so obviously attractive had to have something going for it, and something highly unusual indeed.

New Yorkers famously complain about their town, but with a proud masochism that recalls Churchill on democracy: sure, New York is the worst city, except for all those others. Angeleno gripes, by contrast, intrigued me with their lack of pugnacity. In its place I heard a strangely promising resignation. Tales of the city’s infuriating traffic, semi-breathable air, and mindlessly grasping population, no matter how despairingly told, invariably arrived at the same unspoken conclusion: but it’s not like we’re going anywhere. Rattle off, bemoan in detail, and even exaggerate the depredations of Los Angeles life if you must; they all turn instantaneously trivial in the glaring light of a complete absence of apparent intention to escape or even avoid them.

Many craft their own private hells here, to be sure, an opportunity the city unhesitatingly allows. You can see this in the eyes of anyone making three hours of daily commute to and from one of the Sisyphean lower tiers of the entertainment industry. I think of James M. Cain, in “Paradise,” his harshly optimistic 1933 judgment of Southern California, indicting “the piddling occupations to which the people dedicate their lives.” Less depressingly, this same void of expectations made possible the architectural mulligan stew that triggered the gag reflex of so many East Coast and foreign observers over the twentieth century. “There is no reward for aesthetic virtue here, no punishment for aesthetic crime,” wrote Cain. “Nothing but a vast cosmic indifference.” Making best use of Los Angeles requires first making peace with this indifference, and I would submit that the city offers no comfortable place to anyone who can take seriously the concept of “aesthetic crime.”

But for every Angeleno living in hell, it seems to me that many more live in, if not heaven, then at least somewhere considerably more interesting than a pit of fire, brimstone, and torment. Even the world of that poor sub-Hollywood gofer has its pleasures, and for me personally, it has the fascination of foreignness. He lives not only in a socially, industrially, stylistically, psychologically, and even linguistically different Los Angeles than I do, but a geographically different one. They simply don’t overlap. Despite our both holding driver’s licenses that read “Los Angeles,” I may set foot in the coastal and northerly realms his city comprises as rarely as he does in the dense central ones that comprise mine. Even my immediate neighbors, for the most part permanent or temporary immigrants of varying documentation status from Korea, Mexico, and Central America, experience a different city than I do. To the extent that we bear an unwillingness or inability to visit each others’, so much the worse for all of us.

These countless and multiplying subjective Los Angeleses, mine as well as everyone else’s, make for an infinitely richer subject than could any single, objective place. It certainly compensates for the city’s tendency, in every dimension one can easily describe, to move the target. Best of all, it legitimizes my own compulsion to write about Los Angeles. A San Franciscan friend told me that, if I tried to say anything about his city after only a year there, the backlash would come swiftly: a tide of locals of thirty, forty, fifty years’ standing, rising to demand to know where a Johnny-come-lately like myself gets off making so much an observation about their hometown. Yet in this city, the words of a disoriented arriviste and a native hardened by decades of sun and hundreds of thousands of  freeway miles stand on disconcertingly equal footing. They each have their own Los Angeles, as I have mine, and as you have, or will have, yours. If any piece of understanding makes the foundation of a Los Angeles primer, there it is.

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