This piece originally appeared in print inSo It Goes Issue.3, Spring 2013.
Of all the wretched things about Los Angeles, people often overlook the most wretched of all – its reputation. Sure, there may be tens of thousands of us Brits living there, all poor dental hygiene and endearing politesse, but these emigrés are treacherous and not to be trusted under any circumstances. How dare they forsake our grey, sceptred isle? The City of Angels is a godless upstairs- downstairs collection of seventy-two suburbs masquerading as a city. The upstairs sipping on luminescent kale juice on their way to get their labradoodle botoxed, the downstairs segregated in gang-ridden South Central and toxic Skid Row. The place is superficial and artificial, cultureless and polluted. It’s Scientology and strip-malls, neon and narcissism. The ghastly traffic jams are the size of Belgium and the only way to get across the road “is to be born there” according to Martin Amis’ limey narrator in Money. In short, it’s terribly un-English to like Hell-A, and if you’re going to do so, you bloody well better not do it having ‘centered’ yourself while chewing on a goji berry.
Unsurprisingly, I too was told I’d hate LA. God knows, I thought I would, influenced as I was by these same tired, lazy clichés trotted out to me by friends, acquaintances (half of whom had never been anyway) and the worldly British media. And yet, the pages of this magazine have afforded me the chance to visit many times over the past two years. I have gradually location-scouted my way into knowing and loving parts of the city. I’ve salivated at the freshness and imagination of its food, and been taken aback by the friendliness and creativity of its people. This is, of course, despite having had to deal with acid-tongued film executives, stolen wallets and fifteen-dollar ‘oxygen appetisers’ along the way. Stereotypes seldom exist without a kernel of truth but this piece is written in defence of Los Angeles. Don’t compare it to New York, London or Paris. There’s just no point. LA is a unique city, and for what it is, it’s quite extraordinary.
My first encounter with the city was, of course, everything I was told it would be. LA truisms don’t come truer than a car being as essential as a bulging Rolodex, and not being in possession of a driving licence soon be- came a blindingly obvious problem. My first of many cripplingly expensive cab rides took me to an interview with a young British actor at a well-known West Hollywood restaurant. Nervously preparing my notes, I couldn’t help but notice an infamous Hollywood producer seated directly to my right. Cowering next to him was a fresh-faced, wide- eyed assistant, sweating bullets. Having been one myself in a previous life, I eavesdropped intently as the conversation rapidly devolved into the stuff of parody.
The bearded monstrosity cursed, threatened and frothed his way into a state of apoplectic fury. Flashing back to my own such experiences, I physically absorbed the underling’s palpable sense of panic and dread, just waiting for her titan of industry to have an aneurysm. The phone conversation (if you can call it a conversation) soon climaxed with a furiously rendered “FUCK YOU” as the producer, without pause or explanation, flung his phone theatrically into the air for his assistant to catch, harrumphing out of the restaurant with not another word spoken. It was a scene I felt I’d read in books and seen on screen countless times, but never so perfectly rendered. Welcome to Los Angeles, where the over-worked, under- paid, much-abused graduates toiling in the mailrooms of Universal, Disney, CAA, WME and countless other temples of doom have Harvard MBAs. I’m sure this girl was no different.
The abominations of the film industry are, however, well documented. Yes, each issue we lock horns with individuals versed in the darks arts of Machiavellian spin and nefarious Hollywood bullshit. It’s rarely fun and occasionally rather unpleasant. Look beyond the ‘business’ however and Los Angeles’ odd peculiarities are where the real seduction lies. Consider for a moment the lack of public transport a blessing. Human interaction does not rudely manifest itself with an armpit in your face on the Circle line or on the top deck of a night-bus where gangs of eleven-year-olds chuck their Wotsits at pensioners. Unlike almost every other major metropolitan city, LA’s chronic failure to provide its inhabitants with a decent public transit system breeds an odd sense of freedom. See people when you want to, plan whom you want to see.
The pressure to homogenise and fit-in, in a city where outward appearances are everything, is a fallacy, for LA’s sense of individualism is, in many ways, like no other. For all the posturing producers leasing Porsches they can’t afford, there are beatnik writers living in tree houses in Laurel Canyon and designers and photographers growing chillis and pomegranates in their front-yards in Loz Feliz, Echo Park and Silverlake. There are the skaters of Venice and Huntington Beach, the Downtown artists, the USC academics. Did I mention the sprawling Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Korea and Armenia and the deeply rooted and hugely influential Latino communities on the East side? This is but scratching the surface of the city’s unfathomable melting pot.
Such a giddy array of communities comes to the fore at events like the annual LA Art Book Fair at MOCA’s Geffen Center. Visitors from every walk of life converge on a space ten times the size of the Turbine Hall to leaf through a jaw-dropping array of contemporary and historical zines, prints, erotica and fiction showcased by a host of established as well as avant-garde publishing houses. Take a day to get lost in the vastness of it all and another just to people watch. The LAABF and events like it were, for me, eye-opening demonstrations not only of the cultural richness of the city-with-no- culture, but Petri dishes showcasing the collision between every conceivable stratum of LA society. Is it the sight of pink-haired Tank Girls tattooed within an inch of their life sharing a discussion about self-publishing with entertainment lawyers that makes us British uncomfortable? Maybe it’s that. Or maybe it’s just the weather.
Southern California’s ever-present blue skies may just be it. It’s simply too pleasant and unnatural, like being suspended in a balmy Truman Show-esque geodome where the thermostat is permanently set to ‘agreeable’. Once you get over that, realise that such ubiquitous loveliness allows for an all-year-round exploration of the nature in and around the city. Take in the sweeping views of the Los Angeles basin, the skyline of Downtown and the hazy San Fernando valley from any number of beautiful walks in the hills criss-crossing Griffith Park Observatory, Hollywood, Loz Feliz or Altadena. Drive out to the deserts of Death Valley, beaches of Malibu and national parks of Yosemite and soon realise that the seedy noir-ishness of Raymond Chandler’s LA is only part of the story.
Woody Allen once rhetorically asked, “Who would want to live in a place where the only cultural advantage is that you can turn right on a red light?” You see, in many ways battle-hardened New Yorkers share our suspicions about Los Angeles, wary and envious of its overly appealing lifestyle and white-toothed veneer of perfection. My advice would be this: don’t fear reprisal and listen to your curmudgeonly friend or cantankerous British newspaper. Don’t even listen to Woody Allen. Be it through the prism of your movie-going youth, or with unsullied eyes, just see it for yourself. Realise that Los Angeles wears its stripes subtly and to uncover its true potential requires time, exploration and an open-mind. Be forewarned, however. Hell-A is a blue-skied, blue-eyed, 25-degree vortex of seduction and before you know it, it might be you sipping on wheatgrass and living in a pastel-pink Spanish hacienda in Silverlake. And remember, that’s just fine.
Words and photos by James Wright