This being New Year’s Eve, this will be the last post of the year on The Golden West Review. I am spending the New Year’s Break finalizing plans for the next twelve months.
In our first eight months, we posted 67 articles and photographs. For 2013 we already have 153 articles planned, not including the timely stuff that pops up and the odd photograph. With a new job, our return to California after nearly two decades in China, and four other blogs to run, needless to say this is looking to be a busy year.
Just a quick heads-up: because of problems accessing our servers from China, there will be times where we will be posting by e-
mail. This will mean fewer photos and less links, so bear with us as we wrestle with the Great Fire Wall off and on during the first half.
Please accept my best wishes for a happy, healthy, and prosperous New Year to you and the people you care about. And keep the comments and emails coming!
Yesterday I questioned why The Golden West Review had never delved into California’s alternate futures. Surely, I thought, this might be an interesting line of thought that would intrigue our readers.
Yet as I started outlining a handful of articles about the subject I started to realize why this might take us down a bad track. First, when you walk down any Boulevard of Broken Dreams, the tendrils of depression and hopelessness start wending your way into the writing and into the cerebral cortices of the reader. This publication has many goals, but serving the Prozac-industrial complex is not one of them.
Second, Many of those imagined futures we no know to be based on assumptions that were either wrong or no longer apply. Pereira and Luckman’s original concept design for a grandiose terminal and control tower at LAX, for example, is a relic of an era where air travel was the privilege of an elite few and South Bay real estate was cheap. Frank Lloyd Wright’s monumental plan for the Los Angeles Civic Center was, given the fragmented land ownership in Downtown Los Angeles, impractical from the start. And Frank Lumsden’s Santa Monica Bay Village plan, proposed in 1968, was ill-fated in an era of environmentalism and an activist California Coastal Commission.
Yet the factor that finally made me decide against a series on California’s lost futures was the memory of a superb short story by the author William Gibson called “The Gernsback Continuum.” In the story, Gibson’s protagonist, an architectural photographer, is hired to travel around the California and record the more prominent examples of Streamline Moderne and other features of the human landscape that were relics of early-mid 20th century modernism. In the end, the protagonist discovers that the future we have – as dystopian as it may seem in comparison to the vision embodied in Disney’s Tomorrowland – is in its own way the better future.
On reflection (and without going all Candide on this), I tend to agree.
So, if you don’t mind, we’ll stick with the real past, the good in the present, and a future worth creating.
I spend so much of my time searching for the remnants of California’s history and the green shoots of its future that I’ve completely overlooked an entirely different Golden State: the California that could have been.
Thanks to everything from property developers to city planners to science fiction writers, there is no shortage of what we could call the alternate futures of the Golden West. Of all places in California, Los Angeles is probably best endowed in this area, thanks to the land speculators, railroad barons, and boosters who financed the envisioning of a future City of Angels.
Some of those visions are returning to the light of day, thanks to curators Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin and their exhibition Never Built: Los Angeles, which is scheduled to open at Los Angeles’s A+D Architecture and Design Museum this spring (and which I will miss because I’ll be in China for the duration of the exhibit.)
I can think of a lot of reasons going to an exhibition like this would be hard: nobody likes to look at inspired designs and wonder, in frustration, what forces of unenlightened self-interest put an end to these ideas?
What I hope Lubell and Goldin do instead is focus not on the missed opportunity or the laughable utopianism embodied in the unconstructed Los Angeles, but in how those visions provide grist for a new generation of planners, designers, architects, and developers. As Los Angeles lies perched on the cusp of a new, uncertain future, this is an ideal time for a new vision for the future of the Southland.
In an essay included in the new Folio Society edition of James M. Cain’s classic noir novel of Los Angeles, The Postman Always Rings Twice, film critic Steve Erickson examines the significance of Cain’s novel the context of its time and genre. It was a racy book on a racy shelf, one that common sensibility prevented from being fully translated to film for five decades.
There is good reason behind all of this. As Erickson pithily observes, “Noir was to cinema as punk was to rock and roll.” Noir was where you felt for the ragged edge of literary (and cinematic) tolerance, that point where art was an inch away from becoming pornographic. Postman was the literary Piss Christ of the 1930s.
Unfortunately, an otherwise brilliant review is undermined by an irritant: either knowingly or otherwise, Erickson buys into The Noir Fiction: it wasn’t just people that were bad in the stories of Cain, Chandler, and others. It was the place.
Still just a euphemism for Hollywood, Los Angeles was Cain’s natural habitat more than he knew, teetering between the transcendent and the tawdry, swarming with the forsaken, disenchanted, and besotted, among them fugitives from Hitler’s coming holocaust. Centerless and gravityless, Los Angeles was the Elba of Entropy for exiles like Cain who, writing scripts within a martini’s throw of Faulkner and Fitzgerald, honed self-loathing into an aesthetic.
That reads pretty well, doesn’t it? It should. It could have come out of a Cain story, or a Chandler novel, or an early treatment of the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink. There is something wrong with L.A., something fundamental that is missing, and that either screws up the good people who come to the city or attracts all of the nasty elements.
This is the unspoken conceit that underlies noir fiction and film. You read it in Dashiell Hammett, Horace McCoy. You see it in Chinatown, in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, in L.A. Confidential as the two good-but-damaged people leave L.A. for, of all places, the corrupt company mining town of Bisbee, Arizona. Better to live at the whim of the strike-busting Phelps Dodge Corporation, the filmmakers are telling us, than to live in a dysfunctional shit hole like Los Angeles.
Just in case we missed his point, Erickson delivers it at the end, this time in a tighter wad than before.
James M. Cain left Los Angeles in the late 1940s and his fiction was never the same. It wasn’t so much that he belonged in Los Angeles: the whole point of Los Angeles is not belonging there; it’s a city for people who don’t belong anywhere.
I have lived in L.A. long enough – and been away from it long enough – to know that there are people for whom this is profoundly true, and there are Angelenos who know that this is pure slander. For some of us, there are times in our lives where it rings true, and others that prove its falsehood. When I was young, I loved this town and it ripped the guts out of me and spit me out in a way no native son should experience. Now I’m older, and things are different, and the place seems to be returning what was once unrequited. Yet I also know now that it never was the City. It was always me.
The Noir Fiction that L.A. is broken, a silent malevolent force, is an artful projection, a conceit, a device. It is a way of assuring readers that there is nothing wrong with people, really, it is just time, place, and circumstance that screw us all up. Nothing wrong with that, as long as we recognize that this device so freely shared by the guys in the back room at Musso and Frank was less a true description than an artistic tool.
Erickson seems to adopt this hyperbole, this shot-glass of Chandler dripped on one’s shirt, as the truth without reflection or examination. It is fashionable to do so. How could so many of the great L.A. authors have written about the city in that way if it all weren’t true? Conveniently, it serves the purposes of the legion of literary wanna-bes locked up in rent-controlled fifth-floor closets in Manhattan who slip six times on the ice on the way to their miserable day-jobs. L.A. isn’t a place. Manhattan, on the other hand…
The literary trade is most susceptible to the Noir Fiction. After all, its what the elite have told themselves for decades, and to be from L.A. and gain access to the halls of literary respectability, you must repeat the Noir Fiction like the Boy Scout oath, a credo: L.A. is not a real place, and nothing good emerges from it without influence from elsewhere.
Erickson, whether he believes the Noir Fiction or not, is paying his fraternity dues. That doesn’t mean we have to. We can instead recognize Los Angeles for what it is: a neutral place that has brought out the best in some (Cain and Erickson among them) the worst in others, and in the shadow of the long, slow decline of Hollywood has become the heart of a new capital of literature, arts, and culture that rivals Manhattan and Paris.
And, more prosaically, it is a place where a lot of us belong, where we feel an attachment to the people, to the place, to the very earth even when it quivers beneath our feet. We know, to borrow a line from Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, that L.A.’s not bad: it’s just written that way.
Borrowing an old phrase from my dad, if I had a nickel for every film review website out there, I could retire. All any of us needs to become an ersatz Roger Ebert or Pauline Kael is a pair of eyeballs and a blogging account.
So it was a delight to stumble across a site written by a film lover that is pithy, erudite, and often right on the money. Andrew Moss, a London-born, San Francisco-based writer with deep roots in the movements that wracked the Bay Area from the 1960s forward, has taken time away from meaning-filled pursuits to share his views on film. And it’s a good thing.
Moss has only been at it for a few months, but his Ramparts roots show. Not only is he engaging, he also has a way of gently dismembering a film for egregious failings without being dismissive or seeming to turn red in the face with rage. His scalpel is subtle but firm – deftly juxtaposing Leni Riefenstahl with Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow better underscored Bigelow’s artful avoidance of issues in a political thriller.
The other joy is his scope of interest. He doesn’t feel obliged to review every piece of bubblegum that makes its way into the multiplex. Moss is a discriminating filmgoer, and the list of films he bothers to watch is turning into my filter. I can see things getting to a point where if my spouse, progeny, or id are not dragging me to the theater, I’ll only watch what Moss suggests. His reviews thus far include The Master, Johnny Guitar, Vertigo, Argo, Lincoln, Hitchcock, Life of Pi, and Back to 1942.
Add SanFran Cinema to your movie review lists, Californios.
“Bloom Town: The Wild Life of American Cities”
Maggie Koerth-Baker NYTimes.com November 27, 2012
Confession: I love my lawn. But I feel guilty about it.
My homeowners’ association says I have to have grass, and it has to be green. That doesn’t break my heart. I confess that there are evenings when, even in our mild Southern California winters, I will walk shoeless out my front door, risking the ire of my spouse, simply to experience the sensual pleasure of walking barefoot on grass that is just catching the night’s coastal dewfall.
Yet I know that same patch of grass is responsible for the majority of the water consumed by our three-person household. I know that somehow it is wrong, even if it feeds the Audobon’s Cottontails that in turn feed the hawks in our neighborhood, and even if it helps employ my irrigation guy and my landscape maintainers. Lawns are water-sucks.
In an article in the The New York Times, BoingBoing.net science editor Maggie Koerth-Baker explains that in places like Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Miami, up to 80% of the urban space is natural surface, and that means that what we grow in our gardens collectively alters ecology.
Koerth-Baker is not calling for a wholesale change of lifestyle or human geography as much as she seems to want us to cultivate gardens made up of indigenous flora, like many people in Phoenix do with their desert-like front yards. This practice, called “xeriscaping,” seems to have great benefits. While much lighter on water requirements, the xeriscaped gardens appear to capture more carbon and absorb more heat than their natural counterparts up the road.
I’ll confess I’m not thrilled at the idea of giving up my lawn for the kind of natural ground cover I see growing on the dunes behind our house. But I can see the virtue, and I’ll bet our homeowners association will start to agree in ten years as the cost of the water to irrigate our common areas becomes our most expensive outlay.
The future of the California yard is, thus, California. We should welcome that, and, rather than fighting for our grass, start figuring out ways to make our California yards more appealing.
“T. S. Eliot and Anti-Semitism”. Gregory S. Jay Journal of English and Germanic Philology 1997
The more you flip through the history of belles-lettres, the more the anti-Semitic cockroaches scuttle out from behind the pretty facades of literary celebrity. Gregory Jay’s superb review of Anthony Julius’ 1995 work T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and the Literary Form manages to stomp on a fair handful of fine English writers. While Eliot, as the most open Jew-baiter among the Victorian scribes, is the focus of the book and the review, he was by no means alone. Jay points out that Charles Dickens, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and Paul de Man each had to use “a different strategy to mitigate or evade his own anti-Semetic writing.”
Outing anti-Semites is all good sport, to a point, but if all we do is wave a flag around and say “hey, these guys hated Jews (or women, or African Americans, or Chinese),” we’ve accomplished nothing more than to soak another hate-filled artist in his own bile. In order for these outings to have some kind of meaning, we have to contend with two related questions.
The Hate-Filled Artist As A Young Man
First, we have to ask whether the art can be judged in isolation from the artist. There is a school of literary theory that supports this point of view, and that in turn has led to the canonization of writers like Dickens and Pound (not to mention Henry James and H.L. Mencken.) What is important, we are told, is not that these men were prejudiced and full of hatred-deftly-concealed. What is important is to judge these works independently of the failures of the artist, and indeed without reference to social and political issues.
To their credit, Julius (the author) and Jay (the reviewer) both question this thesis (what Jay calls “aesthetic objectivity,”) suggesting that instead the artifact must be examined in its context. They do not call for the de-canonization of the authors or their works. Rather, what I believe they seek is an examination of the works and their authors in toto, an act which I suspect will cause us to lose the taste for some yet gain interest in others.
There are obviously two schools here: judge the art by itself, or judge it in light of the author and his or her context. You could make an argument that the former school offers a chance for more unadulterated judgment, and you may be right. For me, though (and I’m probably showing my plebeian roots, here,) purity comes at a cost of completeness. My wife and I bought a painting from an artist in his Santa Barbara gallery about a year ago. We loved the painting for itself, a simple California landscape rendered in the style of 19th century English plein-air landscapes: Santa Barbara county with a Cornish feel. What made it more appealing, though, was learning of the artist’s English provenance and training. Here was California rendered through the eye and the hand of a Briton. For us, as Californians returning to our home state after decades abroad, the joy of the painting was thus deepened.
Vincent Van Gogh is not a lesser artist because of his madness, nor is Pablo Picasso for his womanizing. Yet the knowledge of those facts about these painters adds something essential to our appreciation of the art. Artists and theorists may not like that truth, but they cannot change it.
Knowing an artist’s bent and learning of its origins, I have an opportunity to appreciate the art through a filter. This fellow didn’t like Jews, this is why, this is how it shaped his writings, and now I can evaluate the work in that context. With Eliot, knowing his background, we recognize the anti-Semitism spewing out of poems not as an artistic depiction of someone who hates Jews, as the creation of a passion unshared by the artist to offer a portrayal (which would be high art, indeed); but as mere vitriol in verse. Spewing hate in iambic pentameter doesn’t raise the hate to art: it lowers the art into the gutter.
Dickens and other writers who attempt to contain their prejudices, by contrast, offer us a different opportunity. Is there hatred built into these works, however subtly? Is it of a piece with the thinking of the day? Or has the artist managed to expunge prejudice from his work, and to what end?
What Then Must We Do?
The second question follows from the first. Knowing that these authors are flawed in their hatred and prejudices, do we then read them? Or do we shun their works is inherently flawed or diseased? When is it acceptable to read the works of someone deeply, irredeemably prejudiced against you, and when is it appropriate to scorn them? And when is it appropriate to toss the book aside and spend time reading something else, canons be damned?
I have struggled with this question for years, and the best answer I have come up with is this: read it all, let your brain sort it out. I’d read Eliot in a heartbeat, just as I read Voltaire, Jack London, Charles Dickens, H.L. Mencken, Malcolm X, Karl Marx, Adolf Hitler (Mein Kampf), Mao Zedong, and the works of dozens of other less-well known writers with prejudices against me. We are intelligent beings, capable of holding a thought in our head and following its logic, even if we disagree with it, and in the end not be unduly influenced. This is what it means to read critically, and it is just as important to know why you disagree with someone as it is to know that you disagree.
At the same time, following on from the first question above, we owe it to ourselves to be informed about the authors whose work we read. To be erudite, after all, somehow implies we are not duped through ignorance. It is our very need to read widely that makes knowing the author and his/her context essential.
Read Eliot. Know he is a man of virulent hatreds. And then ask yourself – “how does what I know about the man change the way I see his art, and why?” If it makes no difference, then it doesn’t matter. If it makes a difference, then it is essential to the appreciation of the form.
For those of us who love movies and fancy ourselves as “writers,” there is something mysteriously alluring about screenwriting. Essays are hard. History is harder. Novels are a stone bitch. But what can be so difficult about the mechanics of plot, dialogue, and stage direction? “Surely,” one thinks, “I could write a better script than half of the idiots doing so for a living.”
Obligingly, a small industry has emerged designed to help the cinephile scribe get his scriptwriting thing on. For those of us hovering on the edge of writing our first treatment, Jonathan Zimmerman offers a warning that is at once delightful and foreboding: don’t even go there.
Leaving aside the possibility that Mr. Zimmerman is simply trying to limit his potential competition, there is something that rings true in his gently recounted frustration with the modest-sized shelf of books he has devoured about the screenwriting craft. This is not a success story – yet. Mr. Zimmerman is still writing “spec” scripts, cranked out in the hopes that someone will buy them or, seeing a talent in the words, hire him for some paid work.
I am pulling for Mr. Zimmerman to succeed. Even though it is a fickle business and the screenwriter is as dumped on by the literary establishment as by everyone else in the Hollywood food chain (from the studio heads all the way down to craft service), the work is underrated. My favorite films are the well-written ones, and I have a gut feeling that Hollywood’s competitive future depends more on great writing than anything else.
What I am not sure is that certificate programs at UCLA, seminars at The Writer’s Store, Final Draft 8, and a shelf of how-to books are going to get us there. We need something more.
The question is “what?”
Meanwhile, I’m back to work on my treatment of a Miami Vice-meets-China pilot.