That subject line/header is a lyric from “Los Angeles, I’m Yours,” by The Decemberists. The more evocative lyric from the same song is: “An ocean’s gargled vomit on the shore.”
I feel like I’ve never had anything good to say about LA, even though I’ve spent very little time there. So, that seems unfair. But I had to be down there this week – just a brief visit, less than 24 hours – and that didn’t change my impression of it much. I can only pretend to understand why people would end up there, but I guess my assumption is that there’s some kind of entertainment-industry-proximity that underlies the urge to be there. I mean, the place is built around the production of movies and television (at the risk of being reductive), and you can really sense that there – sometimes in subtle ways, too, like, the emphasis on entertainment stories in the local news (maybe). And maybe it just seemed like there were more movie/TV billboards than there would be in any major city… Neither of those things really tell me why people want to be there; I’m doing a lot of assuming.
I had a ton of time to kill when I got there on Monday afternoon, so I just drove around the San Fernando Valley – Encino, North Hollywood, Burbank, pretty much that whole area around 101, between 405 and 5. And sure, that’s not a huge sample of the general area – maybe this is like experiencing the Bay Area by driving through San Leandro – but it seemed like I got the gist. It’s a vast grid of post-war residential development, lined with strip malls. In a lot of ways it seemed similar to Phoenix, except that you’ll occasionally look up and go, “Oh, that’s Warner Studios.” In any case, it’s not a place for anyone trying to get somewhere quickly. There’s something so cramped about its surface streets, which seems strange, given the amount of real estate. But if you pass where you’re headed, it’s gonna be a minute to get yourself pointed back in that direction. I felt penned in, even though I had no agenda, and nowhere I needed to be.
In a lot of ways the experience was indistinguishable from playing the video game “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.” I don’t really know how to interpret that impression. Good job, Rockstar Games?
I saw a lot of post-production facilities, from the obviously budget, to the obviously upscale. I did wonder how this type of business is doing, given the advances in affordable production software, digital filmmaking, etc. Maybe it’s the 80’s facades on most of these places that made me wonder that. Maybe most of my impressions of LA are from watching Lethal Weapon. Who can say? But I did think about that recent Soderbergh rant/speech, about the increasingly concentrated focus of Hollywood production, and, seeing these places, I imagined LA as kind of a version of a rust belt city.
And it was hot. 103 degrees in Burbank at 3pm. But it doesn’t seem like LA is oriented toward an outdoor experience. It seems like an “I’m here now, and now I’m in my car, and now I’m at this other place” kind of place. Everything about getting between those places is probably a pain in the ass.
The guy that checked me in at the hotel was really cheery. But then I noticed a long scar on the knuckle of his left hand… (suspense cue!) I created this whole story in my head about him, that he punched a window in a fit of anger! (I guess that’s not much of a story). And I waited for him to write something down, to see if he was left-handed – is the scar on his instinctual punching hand? – but he didn’t need to write anything, so I guess I’ll never know… (again – suspense cue!)
On Tuesday, I met my boss for a work meeting (the reason for the trip) in Burbank. I bring up the meeting because it effectively reinforced certain things I would imagine happening at a meeting just like this that takes place in LA. In the (incredibly boring) movie version of this meeting, the people we were with would be played by David Cross and Dustin Hoffman.
After, they were kind enough to screen some stuff in their (very excellent) theater. The guy that was operating the equipment looked like a variation on someone I’ve seen many times – middle-aged, blondish feathered hair, in shape, tan, squinty eyes, square jaw. Like some anonymous heavy that Chuck Norris would have mowed down in the first reel of any equally anonymous actioner.
One of the things we watched was the trailer for the movie Elysium. The movie is a far-future, class-struggle story – in which the rich live on a space station orbiting a decimated Earth that is populated by the have-nots. The whole idea of this movie seemed resonant with the experience of being in LA – here is your $200M story of explosive class uprising. Eat it up! And who would you cast in the role of the protagonist, who (seems like) is outfitted with some kind of cyborg technology, and sent up to infiltrate (and overthrow) the opulent space station culture?! I’ll wait.
Did you guess Matt Damon? Would that have been in your first twenty guesses?
I feel like this is where I should say something profound about the nature of illusion and artifice, but I don’t exactly know what that would be. But I will say this: When the trailer for Elysium ended, and the screen faded to black – just before the house lights came up… I clapped. Right on cue.