Los Angeles Dossier
by DURGA CHEW-BOSE
Flanked on four sides of a kitchen island in West Hollywood, friends were exchanging details about a serial arsonist on the loose in Los Angeles. Copycat fires had been reported; revenge or thrill-seeking were pinned as possible intent. A description of the suspect had been released by the LAPD: male, heavy-set with a receding hairline and ponytail, driving a white and tan mid-90s Lexus sedan. It was New Year’s weekend, eighty degrees and sunny, fifty-some fires and counting. It was also my first time in L.A.
News of the arson spree was being tossed around between bites of tortilla chips, riffs on Noomi vs. Rooney, and fanciful guesses as to how the Mayan apocalypse would hit. One girl in red polka-dots shared her excitement about the Rose Bowl Flea Market in Pasadena. I would miss it having returned to New York by then. At one point Dion’s “The Wanderer” came on and everyone fell into a brief stupor, twisting slightly and opening new beers.
Growing up on the east coast and having attended college in Westchester, pictures of friends bunched in kitchens, leaning against and perched on counters, gabbing, had swept — much with my affection for the Dunnes, both John and Dominick, any picture of Robert Evans, noir Los Angeles, and Ice Cube’s Raiders hats — into a vague notion of images that were “very L.A.” It was an indefinable place despite countless landmarks and friends who called it home. Its celluloid portrayals caused it to unnaturally ooze thrill and ease for someone far too impressionable like myself.
L.A. wasn’t real, real. “Some of these buildings are over 20 years old,” Steve Martin points out to Victoria Tennant in his satire-celebration, L.A. Story. Mailer called it “a constellation of plastic.” Of course Andy Warhol loved it for that very reason. “It’s redundant to die in Los Angeles,” Capote deadpanned. Dorothy Parker said it was “seventy-two suburbs in search of a city,” and Kerouac rued “the loneliest and most brutal of American cities.” Saul Bellow wrote that “in Los Angeles all the loose objects in the country were collected, as if America had been tilted and everything that wasn’t tightly screwed down had slid into Southern California.”
Frank Lloyd Wright echoed Bellow’s sentiment: “Tip the world over on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles.” Fran Lebowitz compares it to a “city-like area” that surrounds the Beverly Hills Hotel. And Montell Jordan testified that “South Central does it like nobody does.” To me, Los Angeles was counterfeit. I hadn’t grown up with winds or fog or earthquakes. Seasons were dependable. And yet, entirely wooed, arson and apocalypse aside, in that moment with my forearms resting on cold tile, like Brenda Walsh or Annie Banks might, I too felt for the time being, merrily very L.A.
I stayed with my friend, Zoë, who up until recently had been living in New York. My vacation coincided with her renewed appreciation for Los Angeles. She was once again a California girl. Even her ponytail, which always flops to the side of her head, seemed to spring and twirl better with Pacific air.
She bought sunglasses like the ones Woody Harrelson wears in Natural Born Killers while I tried on bigger ones like the pair Gena Rowlands wears (and does not take off at dinner) in Minnie and Moskowitz. Most days Zoë wore her mother’s red corduroy zip jacket that she rolled into wide cuffs. It matched the red beams at LACMA where I took a picture of her near the re-created Charles and Ray Eames living room. I only now just noticed that that particular photo never developed.
At the tar pits adjacent to LACMA, my attention was stolen by a white vertical tower. Thirty-one stories tall in a district that upholds a seven-story height moratorium, the Variety skyscraper on Wilshire Boulevard is a stark giant crowned by its name in red lettering. Its stature is somehow comic, especially in Los Angeles. It appeared oversized; as if it was a spoof building, a prop, a facade, a mirage?
Designed by William Pereira, it boasts three hundred and sixty degree open views of the city. Didion might describe its lines as “alienating” and its build thick like an upright block of butter wrapped in wax paper. Jerry Bruckheimer, if he hasn’t already, will use it for a heist helicopter landing in one of his next productions.
In the car, Zoë and I listened to the radio or the Boogie Nights soundtrack. More and more, my adolescent habits seemed to spark as if willed alive again by K-Earth 101 and one night, I spoke on the phone to a friend for over two hours. I haven’t done that in years. Ann-Margret in a yellow shirt lying on pink sheets with a teal blue phone. Sally Field as Gidget. Dionne and Cher.
We spent a lot of time going places to hang out. We climbed up a hill on my first night — the first of many views — and ate graham cracker flavored frozen yogurt the next day while we talked and scraped the bottoms of our Styrofoam cups while staring out at a parking lot.
The sun warmed through my jeans — in January! — and struck me dumb. Nobody believes they are as invincible and the day infinite as a teenager on vacation, and that’s exactly how I felt. Even now, writing about the sun — and the sunsets too, which are an entirely different kind of spell, and that cruelly or precisely, no picture can ever capture — I feel foolish. From the car one evening as we drove through Silverlake, I stared at the sky’s airbrushed pinks, peaches, and lavender, only to look away because I only had one day left in L.A.
There’s a great picture of Ronnie and Phil Spector where he’s posing in the background holding a microphone stand while she’s in the fore, charming the camera with her attitude. He looks half her size. I always turn up the volume dial for The Ronettes — a regular occurrence during my stay. Nowadays it’s Phil’s trial pictures that are most vivid: his freakish wigs and chilling, googly stare.
Celebrity trials are another spectacle here. The wood-paneled court rooms, the lawyers, the lawyers’ families, the media circus, the outfits, all of it. In college, I remember my friend Akiva, who grew up in Beverlywood, told me that his brother recorded on VHS tapes every item broadcast of the O.J. Simpson murder case: a plenary account of television segments and updates. Los Angeles media experienced a coup d’état of celebrity trial magnitude. A black leather glove.
Retention and analysis of proceedings, exclusive interviews, and tell-alls, create a specific type of mania spurred only when celebrity, power and privilege cross the judicial system. As Camille Paglia put it, “Television is America’s kingmaker.” And as Akiva put it in a recent gchat, “OJ is LA.” I recently learned that Joan Didion was given press credentials and an opportunity to write a book about Kobe Bryant’s 2003 rape case. She turned it down after the first day of trial. The cover art alone, in serif purple and gold, DIDION, KOBE, might have been the most L.A. gospel ever.
While Jacques Demy’s only English language film, 1969’s Model Shop, is not a great, it tempts. It ambles from Hollywood Boulevard to Santa Monica, from Beverly Hills to Malibu and loafs from a girlfriend’s apartment to a car garage, from a pink plush Rent-A-Model to band practice. “You don’t buy a $1500 car just ’cause you like it. You don’t have a cent and you don’t even work! You get a skateboard!” a girl scolds her boy at the start. Conversations move in and out of burnout meters, never quite changing our protagonist, George — a ne’re-do-well who is about to get drafted. He meets a mysterious French woman Lola, played by Anouk Aimée, and seeks out one last human bond, if that.
What Demy does so masterfully is capture LA’s devil-may-care lure. Undoubtedly he was smitten with the city’s airy and delayed character. After all, the very first image is a blonde in bed, sleeping in. Her room is a mix of beach and artifice, bohemia and Barbie: piles of records, hanging stockings, a wig on its stand, an orange bra, a striped towel, neutrals and neons, both. Los Angeles is the film’s most palpable antihero. Los Angeles is the slacker, the layabout, the intrigue and the crush.
Demy splits the screen in two: sky and road. Pale blue and pavement. Billboards, Standard Chevron signs, palm trees and cars. It does not impose itself on anyone. And as I experienced it too, the faraway beach or winding hilly roads, there is something incredibly tacit about Los Angeles’ strangeness. It courts you. It’s still too new to simply exist — the trivia, infinite amounts of it, is what sustains the city.