Friday, December 21, 2007
Monday, December 17, 2007
Feel free to read the article, but there is one part that I would like to share with you all:
"But despite these successes, the neighborhood's promising economic rebound remains at risk in part because of the community's transient nature, community and county officials said.
Several priests and school principals who helped energize residents have departed or retired. As the school year began, Maria Ortiz saw experienced parents leave as well.
So she once again is hoping to hold more Civics 101 meetings in the community to teach others how to take control of their neighborhood.
"Each year," Ortiz said, "we have to do the same thing."
Even Barahona has moved on -- near La Puente -- to organize a similar community effort.
"The county is trying to de-fragment the community," Barahona said. "It's an L.A. story. I've been here three years, and I feel we're still scratching the surface." "
As I read this, I immediately thought of the class and how the dynamic nature of the city has resulted in difficulties managing these urban problems. The transient communities in the city create problems that are difficult to deal with because the needs of the communities are always changing and it's hard to keep up with them.
Have a great break!
Sunday, December 16, 2007
Arriving early, we picked up some Mexican food before the movies began. Even though the place was a chain, I would say that the chimichangas, black beans and rice were all pretty good. I would tell you the name of the restaurant if I could remember, but it eludes both Alex and me at the moment.
Upon entering the theater, I realized that the audience was primarily black, either African or African American. Clusters of weedy film students, mostly white and to which we seamlessly belonged, peppered the crowd as well. After finding our seats, we sat down next to a young couple (they both had nose rings if I remember correctly) and talked a little bit before the lights dimmed. All that comes to mind of our conversation was the discovery that Stan (Henry Sanders) from Killer of Sheep was regularly featured in Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (a Glassmann Family favorite) as Robert E. the Blacksmith.
The presenters gave a few words and acknowledged the cast members in attendance; shortly thereafter the movies were screened. Here are some of my thoughts:
Fragmentary Notes (Films Listed in Order of Appearance):
QUIET AS KEEP (2007) A short film about the everydayness of a dislocated New Orleans family in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Setting not given. Revolves around a broken down car and a family stuck in transition. Shot on digital. Funny and poignant both in minor senses of the words.
MY BROTHER'S WEDDING (1983) Set in South Central. Focused on family through the eyes of a black son. Shot on 16mm color. Composed of emotional images of the everyday. Bleeding light and blaring music. Beautiful because of its gestures and parts, not because of its message.
Intermission. I walked outside to get some fresh air. The main feature, the impetus of our journey, would start in five minutes.
Boy jumps over buildings in KILLER OF SHEEP
KILLER OF SHEEP (1977) Also set in South Central. Shot on 16mm BW. Tells a new narrative that reaffirms life in Los Angeles. It made me laugh, and I think it made me cry. SEE IT.
Here are some helpful links so you too can watch the film. If you don’t have one already, the first is for a BitTorrent Client (this is technically illegal but is in my opinion worth it); the second is for the torrent of the movie itself (free but also illegal); the third is to purchase it legitimately over Amazon (the DVD also comes with My Brother’s Wedding as an added bonus):
After the screenings, UCLA held a Q and A with members of the audience who were associated with the films’ production. Strikingly unhelpful from a factual perspective, no one seemed to remember the objective past; a friendly argument ensued over whether or not a screenplay ever existed. It was fun, though, and everyone seemed to enjoy reliving the experience of the movies through the respective standpoints of their own hazy memory.
On the drive back, the Los Angeles smog seemed to suffocate a little less, and it became easier to see outside the car windows. We both felt exhilarated, and upon our triumphant return to the Inland Empire, I might have proudly muttered to myself, “Fuck Didion and her LA”.
Saturday, December 15, 2007
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Since my trip to Los Angeles didn’t make it into my paper in any direct sort of way, here’s a brief reflection based on the experience of driving along Hollywood Boulevard and passing Grauman’s Chinese Theater a few hours before a movie premiere. This slightly-crooked photo was taken from the car as we were driving (notice the star on the streetlight).
Their boredom becomes more and more terrible. They realize that they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment. Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, wars.
—Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust
Traffic slows perceptibly several blocks before 6925 Hollywood Boulevard. The first star appears high up on a street light, marking the threshold of HOLLYWOOD with sparkling gold letters. The street narrows—on each side, crowds surge against each other, colliding, pushing in opposite directions. The streetlight stars come into view one after another now, announcing the location again and again to the crowds and the cars. The cement below echoes this proclamation. Lined with stars, it, too, signals place. This is hallowed ground. This is Hollywood.
Everything converges at 6925 Hollywood Boulevard—Grauman’s Chinese Theater—a spectacle of columns and minarets and stone lion-dogs stationed as sentinels to guard the front entrance. The red carpets have been rolled out onto the starry cement in preparation for tonight’s premiere. The fans have already begun to gather, forming a dense mass that will grow denser still. They are pent in by short metal gates. They press against the gates and against each other, straining to reach the edge of the red carpet, straining to see the stars who aren’t there and the commotion that has not yet begun. Now is the lull; for now, they jostle each other indifferently, carelessly, without malice.
In a few hours, the real violence will begin. This is, after all, 6925 Hollywood Boulevard—the location of Kahn’s Persian Palace, the setting for Nathanael West’s infamous riot scene—a place where waiting fans coalesce into a vicious mob, where the pursuit of leisure engenders savage violence. For now, though, they are just a group of people with cameras and posters, waiting for the show to begin, waiting for the thing that will save them from their terrible boredom.
Monday, December 10, 2007
For the first time, Maria attempts to separate herself from the present in order to ignore the reality that she is having an abortion. This is a significant event in Maria’s life because she makes a decision that alters the course of her future. While Maria has made an active decision, it is questionable whether she is acting as a personal agent. Who makes the decision to get an abortion: Maria or Carter? What does Maria truly want? Are there any past events that may have influenced Maria’s decision (inability to take care of Kate, Carter is not the father)? While Maria rarely speaks, in this instance she vocalizes her feelings; is she momentarily horrified, or protesting against her fatal decision?
When Maria watches herself on screen, she realizes that she is a passive observer of her own life. She dislikes watching Carter's first film, which depicts her daily life in Los Angeles, comprised of activities that fill her time but fail to make her happy. While the public observes the “essence of Maria,” Maria sees a shadow of herself. She constantly acts, but fails to ascribe meaning to her actions and experiences. The film demonstrates Maria as an inactive agent in her own life-- her identity is shaped by external circumstances.
In Carter’s second film, the character Maria plays is in control of her own destiny. She lacks control over her external conditions but does not allow these conditions to influence her perspective on life. She rejects the role of rape victim assigned to her, refusing to “play it as it lays.” Like this character, Maria is forced to play roles that others assign to her; but unlike the character in Carter’s film, Maria is haunted by her past and plays roles in attempt to ignore her past and future. At the same time, she is detached from the roles ascribed to her, and desires to take control over her future.
The LA Times' Homicide Map (accompanied by a blog).
Given that homicides don't usually make the news here, this is an interesting and useful map (and the blog, which gives a human dimension to all the numbers, is providing a genuinely important service, IMO)--it also gives you the ability to filter the map by various criteria, which is frequently (and dishearteningly) illuminating.
Sunday, December 9, 2007
Union Station map in hand, I quickly found my way to Olvera Street. I wandered through a small park and down an alley; the paint on the buildings had begun to peel and crack. The architecture had started to crumble from lack of attention. Clearly I was in the heart of El Pueblo. What remained unclear was whether the organ pumping life into this landscape was mechanical or natural. Was that paint really peeling? El Pueblo is not the town or any town, but the performance of a town. I wandered across the park, passing an “open market” which consisted of several booths resembling fruit-stands that sold El Pueblo souvenirs. What were the forces that were driving this performance— the forces that made a stage out of the landscape?
I kept moving. For most people in Los Angeles this means driving, means individually wrapping and importantly isolating themselves in two tons of steel. For me, movement meant placing one foot in front of the other on the cement sidewalk hugging Main Street. I looked up to my left. Plastered on the side of a modern grey building was a sign: NO SKATEBOARDING. NO BICYCLE RIDING. NO ROLLERBLADING. NO SCOOTERING. Of course I thought, looking back towards the traffic on Main Street, movement in Los Angeles means the movement of cars. I hadn’t recognized the full irony of the sign’s message until I examined the building itself more closely. This was not any piece of architecture; this was the California Department of Transportation— what I later realized to be the recently constructed Caltrans District 7 Headquarters.
Standing before the cold angled body of the building, something ugly began to crawl its way into my system. The irony I had recognized was purely symbolic. The sign’s demands were intended to control the use of the buildings’ stairs and entrance area—to prevent them from becoming Main Street’s new skateboard park. But in that moment, the intentions of Caltrans crumbled under the weight of the sign’s symbolic meaning. Too many limitations were being imposed on my mobility. The sidewalk felt claustrophobic, the landscape hostile. Interestingly, while the grey mass looming above me appeared windowless and uninviting, it was, in actuality, "Enrobed in a constantly changing mechanical skin that is alternately open or closed depending on the conditions of outside temperature and sunlight…. At dusk the building is transparent—textured and windowed everywhere to invite the voyeur—while at mid-day it is buttoned up against the sun, appearing to be devoid of windows entirely" (www.pritzkerprize.com).
But who was this architectural performance for? It wasn't for pedestrians like me. This was a show one could only appreciate from a distance— from a car. Walking along the side of the building, I encountered the same sign once more. This time however, below NO SCOOTERING someone had scrawled the words “Know Hypocrisy.” And as a pedestrian, I felt I did; a feeling of isolation and resentment wrapped itself around me. Whoever had altered the sign must have been feeling a species of the same frustration; they had disrupted the linguistic power and control of the sign— had disrupted the power of the building itself and its impressive performance. Perhaps the person had not been satisfied with his or her mobility in Los Angeles—with such limited access to and choice of transportation —and had identified architecture as an active participant in shaping that experience.
The negative commands on the signs had carved away many layers of mobility’s linguistic meaning; in telling me and other Los Angelenos what mobility wasn’t allowed to look like, they were also telling us what kind of transportation is valued. But it wasn’t just the signs that bothered me— it was the coldness of the architecture itself— that opaque expanse—and the harsh angles of the building’s design that made it difficult for me to find its entrance. The conflict between the signs’ message and the building’s purpose may have been symbolic, but the message that the architecture communicated was obvious and concrete. It said: PEDESTRIANS NOT WELCOME.
I don’t know how long I stood in front of the Caltrans District 7 Headquarters shaking my head, but when I escaped the landscape of my mind and returned to the physical streetscape, I decided it was time to move on. I had acquired a map and a corresponding list of historical sites of Little Tokyo at a public library downtown; but even with this map, navigating the commercialized landscape of Little Tokyo by foot was a challenge. This was a city designed for people who knew exactly where their destination was and who were, of course, traveling by car. Searching for a Buddhist temple, I ended up in the entrance to a parking garage. Attempting to find a museum, I found instead, The Little Tokyo Shopping Center. Frustrated, I stopped at a Japanese bakery and ordered a green tea cookie from the Spanish-speaking bakers behind the counter. I wondered—is this just another simulation—another Olvera Street performance? As I examined the map once more, I started to wonder whether the historical sites listed still physically existed downtown, or whether the map recorded the memory of a place. One of the historical sites I couldn’t find was a grape fruit tree from a citrus orchard that at one time extended all the way into downtown Los Angeles. I tried to imagine what the landscape must have looked like then; I wondered how healthy that grapefruit tree could be in its current environment. Did it suffer from the same nostalgia as the antique store in The Little Tokyo Shopping Center— appropriately but sadly named “Nostalgic Gallery of Fame?” Did people exploit the historic value of the tree in attempt to make a profit, just as the skateboard shop in little Tokyo had appropriated the name “Fish Market” for its business? I’m convinced that the places listed as historical sites do exist, partially because before leaving Little Tokyo, I found the Buddhist temple for which I had been looking earlier. It was crammed between immense skyscrapers on every side. The only access pedestrians had to the temple as far as I could tell, was a dangerous trek through a small but very active parking lot.
Riding the train back into Claremont, I struggled to make sense of my interactions with downtown Los Angeles. What was the relationship between Olvera Street, the signs at Caltrans District 7 Headquarters, and Little Tokyo? I looked at the landscape outside of the train as it rapidly entered and exited the frame of the window. Using public transportation was, in many ways, a very different experience than that of driving or riding in a car. Yet the experience, or rather lack of experience with the physical landscape through which one travels, is strikingly similar. In Los Angeles we’ve carved a landscape using fear as the force behind our chainsaw. In doing so, we’ve eliminated direct interaction—not only with our environment, but also with other people. We may have gained control over the landscape, social interaction, and public action (especially riots), but that control is locked to a feeling of loss and dissatisfaction. In a desperate (but failed) attempt to fill the void, we have resorted to simulating the experience that we crave.
Malibu Ranch is where the anonymous actor Maria sleeps with takes her. In the middle of the night, she steals his car and uses it to drive to Las Vegas. Even more so than her drive to Baker, her drive to Las Vegas in the actor’s car symbolizes a regression for her. Taking the car would appear to be a rare moment of action for Maria, but in doing it in the middle of the night, and as a way of avoiding an uncomfortable situation, rather than confronting it, Maria, in typical fashion, attempts to escape her problems. She tries to flee to her hometown in order to visit her parent’s graves, and when she gets caught, she is picked up by a friend who treats her like a child. For Maria, literally as geographically westward as she can go, and figuratively on the edge of her emotional capacity, her only options are to drive in a circular manner, which gets her no where, or drive eastward, which takes her into her past—neither of which are healthy. In one she is in an emotional stasis, and the other has her rehashing the past (not even coming to terms with it and moving on, but reliving it).
Saturday, December 8, 2007
Maria’s driving gives her a sense of purpose and freedom (when in reality her driving is actually purposeless in that she drives only for the sake of driving rather than going somewhere or accomplishing anything). What Maria’s driving represents is an attempt at escape from her haunting past and depressing present—when she drives, she only thinks about driving, and afterwards, she doesn’t dream. No matter how far Maria drives though, she ends up at the same place at the end of the day, and never gets herself out of the rut she is in. For her, it is a way to mindlessly fill her time, but for readers, it represents how little meaning is in Maria’s life.
“Maria found herself in Baker. She had never meant to go as far as Baker, had started out that day as every day, her only destination the freeway. But she had driven out the San Bernardino and up the Barstow and instead of turning back at Barstow…she kept driving” (30)
While Maria’s driving is an attempt to flee her past, it is also a return to it somewhat. As Maria drives east, toward Baker, she is on the road back into Nevada—where she was born. In a later passage, Maria steals a car and tries to drive it to Tonopah, near her hometown of Silver Wells. By driving eastward, does Maria actually regress?
The fact that Maria “found herself in Baker” shows just how little agency and control Maria has over her own life. She is surprised at how far she has gone, even though she is the one doing the driving. Even in her driving, which should give her a sense of control, she seems to be guided by outside forces and to lose her sense of self.
“Maria stood in the sun on the Western street and waited for the young agent from Freddy Chaikin’s office” (140)
Didion’s calling Western Ave. “the Western street” is highly symbolic for Maria. In attempting to meet with her agent, she is trying to move her life forward, with “west” representing forward and progressive movement. Yet, like her similar attempt to contact Les Goodwin (and thus make a positive step in her life), she is foiled. Her agent does not come, and his underling offers her a low-quality part. Is Maria self-destructive, or are external sources keeping her from moving forward, or both?
Thursday, December 6, 2007
“The town was on a dry river bed between Death valley and the
What parallels can be drawn between Maria’s emptiness, the shallowness of Carter, Helene and company’s lifestyle and the desert landscape? The desert is Maria’s home (she is both “at home” in the empty landscape, and it is her literal homeland), yet Maria seems more isolated here than anywhere. Could this relate to her feeling present in her past, but not able to access it (disconnect to her family—human connections)? BZ’s death could be a possible rewriting of her mother’s (where she lacked closure). How does BZ’s death affect her? Is it the closure she never had with her mother, or a continuation of the cycle?
Are the people that Maria associates with part of what makes her so self-destructive? Do they offer her real help, or are they too superficial to help make her better? Do they genuinely want to help her or do they feel obliged? Do you see Maria as ungrateful, or does she somehow know better than to maker herself vulnerable to her “friends”? Maria can play along for a while, but at a certain point, she is not able to sustain the lifestyle maintained by Carter and Helene. Does this make them resent her? By resenting her, does that make her even more repressed, or is that self-generated? Their lifestyle is supposed to be a remedy for her depression, but it seems to only make it worse.
“Everything Maria could think to do in the town she had already done. She had checked into the motel, she had eaten a crab at the marina…After that she had walked on the gravelly sand and she had driven aimlessly to Port Hueneme and back to Oxnard and now she sat on a bench in the downtown plaza, watching some boys in ragged Levi jackets and dark goggles who sat on the grass near her car” (129-130)
“When she opened her eyes again the boys in the Levi jackets seemed to be rifling the glove compartments of parked cars…She would tell him she could not wait. She would tell him she was sitting in a park watching some hoods rifling cars and she could not wait” (130)
“The boys in the Levi jackets were all watching her now, because they were standing around her car, they knew it was her car, they had watched her lock it. They were trying various keys. They were watching to see what she would do. As if in slowed motion she began walking across the grass toward the car, and as she got closer they melted back, formed a semicircle. Abstractly, she admired the way that she and they together were evolving a choreography, hearing the same silent beat. She kept her eyes steady. Her pace even, and when she found herself unlocking the car under their blank gaze it was with extreme deliberation. As she slid into the driver’s seat she stared directly at each of them, one by one, and in that instant of total complicity one of them leaned across the hood and raised a hand in recognition of what had passed between them, his palm out, inscribing an arc in the still air. Later those few minutes in the plaza in
“At two o’clock they met Carter and the lawyers outside the courtroom in
Maria is a passive agent in her own life. Her story is told for her, as things happen to her, rather than by her. At the same time though, the story is a false one—Maria is constantly playing a role due to the artificiality she is surrounded with. While Maria is letting others dictate her life, all Maria is capable of is movement, and lacks the ability of speech (articulating her needs, wants and emotions). Thus, Maria is an underdeveloped person, in that she exists, in a semiotic (pre-verbal) state, rather than a symbolic (her hypnotist, for instance, says she wishes to return to the womb). By lacking speech, and relying solely on movement for self expression, Maria drives. The movement, however, is into the past and lacks any real development.
George's exhilaration in merging onto the freeway expresses a rare moment of his cohesion with others. On the freeway, he is successful by blending in among cars, not by distinguishing himself from others as he does at the college. The casual fluidity of his driving allows him to retreat into his subconscious as the "chauffeur" in him unconsciously controls the car. George's participation in this aspect of normal city life is remarkable in contrast to recalcitrance elsewhere, but remains characteristic because his subconscious is his favorite focus throughout the novel. Even in driving among a horde of other cars, George is barricaded by the protection of his own car and remains very much within himself and isolated as he drives.
The sensation that George has is one that I've frequently experienced myself, which suggests that isolation and marginalization are definitely inherent in L.A. everyday life. How truly can one "merge" with others within the daily stream of life, anyway? Isherwood suggests that, really, not at all. The phenomenon of daily isolation in cars that still demands that those driving behave as a whole unit, following the direction of traffic in a uniform manner, is mind-boggling. We are part of the herd, yet enclosed in the hectic struggle of our own schedules and personal insecurities. Collisions in morning "merging traffic" are the sole contact between humans in modern L.A. society, the only way to deviate from the normative. Isherwood presents as George as someone who unsuccessfully strives towards a collision throughout the entire narrative; it is as though he wants to test himself against the merging stream of human-looking, Coke-drinking "American" robots whom he encounters.
A photo of the L.A. freeway system...really quite a scary, futuristic image of what we are dealing with. Definitely looks like a wasteland to me.
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
This "deconstruction-reconstruction-deconstruction" represents George's observation of the gentrification occurring in the San Gabriel Valley where apartment buildings are built as quickly as possible. George points out the irony of each building's unique title; they lack any other individuality. This links back to George's disdain for the new families in his neighborhood with their homes' quaint names. Although George worships the speed and swiftness of the freeway system, he marks with abhorrence any renewal or damaging of the Los Angeles landscape.
George's position as English professor at a state college places him on the outskirts of society, which is ironic, as the college itself is located in the interior of L.A., in what is now a fairly affluent place. George's fear and reluctance to identify with the normative make his whole-hearted engagement in this part of L.A. an impossibility. He must reconstruct his own "I" in order to participate in this society, reborn out of the strange conflation between destruction/reconstruction. George's power to create his status in front of his students every day indicates that Los Angeles is a place where identities are constructed and destroyed daily, all due to the great sense of isolation between communities and its "single" men and women.
After leaving San Tomas State, George visits Doris at the hospital. She is obviously dying ("She is a different creature altogether..." p 94), and George spends his moments with her remembering the time that Jim cheated on him with Doris. He is repulsed by her current state, and is sure that Jim would have avoided her if he had known she would end up like this. Still, George had employed Doris--as she is marginalized and isolated in the hospital--as a site for a trip down memory lane for George. When he realizes that she is on the edge of death, George loses his spite toward her and thus another link to Jim.
George's attitude toward Doris in the hospital shows that her closeness to death and isolation are the factors defining her marginalization. As she nears death, the ultimate marginalizing factor, George is able to release all of his emotions toward her and leaves the hospital in a neutral state--no hatred, but no sympathy either. While at the hospital, George gives into a strain of fatalistic thinking as the words "This is the end of the road, folks" (94) rush through his head. Thus, the hospital serves as a reminder of utter mortality, where the ultimately marginalized reside - George shares more than he would like to admit with the patients and Doris herself. The discourse of his subconscious suggests that George is himself close to at least a spiritual death; his potential "replicant alien" life span is running out.
Tuesday, December 4, 2007
Her house is high up on the hillside, at the top of three flights of lopsided rustic wooden steps, seventy-five of them in all" (Isherwood 117).
Charlotte's house is slightly farther from the ocean than George's house is, suggesting that their marginalized status is a reflection of their positioning to the ultimate zone of marginalization, the boundless water of the Pacific Ocean, or vice versa. Charlotte herself offers an interesting portrait of another individual who is on the boundaries of traditional, normative society. There is also a strange sexual tension between Charley - who bears a man's name in George's eyes and disrupting traditional notions of heterosexuality - and George, specifically when they share a sensual kiss and she addresses him as "Geo darling."
"Soledad" means "sunshine" in Spanish, and it is ironic that Charley inhabits this physical space that, one would suppose, would carry with it connotations of happiness. Charley, however, is deeply depressed, which is yet another indication that Isherwood's novel disrupts the normative, things-are-as-they-seem way of thinking and addresses the needs of the Other. By giving Charley and George voices, Isherwood creates an intriguing dynamic of the Other - perhaps all too similar to the replicants of "Blade Runner" - that attempts to re-claim itself through mutual support.
George's residence is in the suburban exterior of Los Angeles, close to Santa Monica, where Isherwood spent the latter part of his life. We placed George's home in the area of Palisades Park in terms of proximity to the ocean, to the freeway, and to the suburban idyllic community that George describes in Isherwood's novel. The "colony" allows George to maintain bodyless status, not truly engaged in the daily life of "the occupying army of Coke-drinking television watchers" (18). George's house, then, is an escape for this single man, yet the exterior of the home places him in an extremely marginalized position as the Other, the strange deformity that Mrs. Strunk and other neighbors pretend to accept.
The name of "Camphor Tree Lane" is intriguing, because Isherwood's choice of "camphor" implies that there is something to be soothed and hidden in this quite neighborhood surrounding Los Angeles. George's sexuality is ready prey for this secretive tendency. There is the suggestion that George's "condition" is viewed as an unnatural medical phenomenon.
The Starboard Side has been here since the earliest days of the colony. Its bar, formerly a lunch counter, served the neighbors with their first post-prohibition beers, and the mirror behind it was sometimes honored by the reflection of Tom Mix" (Isherwood 147).
The Starboard Side is the bar where George has spent much time with Jim in the past, an old haunt of his. This is also where he and Kenny meet at the end of the novel - a significant spot in determining the ending of Isherwood's text. The meeting at the bar leads to George and Kenny's experience in the waves of the Pacific Ocean, a time when both are able to feel free and escape for a few moments the feeling of marginalization. Their quasi-union also leads to Kenny's trip to George's house, where the text may culminate. The fact that the Starboard Side is located right next to the ocean, on L.A.'s margins, runs parallel to the idea that George is able to attain the greatest degree of freedom and personal agency as a marginalized figure precisely in this place.
When it came time to write my essay, I struggled a lot with the question of how Los Angeles is remade by its literature. While I thought it was a really interesting question to explore, I had an impossible time applying it to the texts from class. As a result, my paper ended up being a fairly standard literary analysis. However, I did not want to overlook the initial question. So, I wrote up a short piece addressing that question. Ultimately, my response to the question only really circles around it. I have no idea how Los Angeles gets remade by its literature, but I attempted to come to an understanding of how one might do that kind of theoretical work. Anyway, I thought that perhaps others might have had the same problem, and I am posting this on the blog as an opportunity for people to pose their questions too (or answer mine!) should anyone else have found themselves in same situation.
December 3, 2007
More Questions Than Answers About LA Being Made and Remade in Its Literature
In a 2004 article titled “Exiles, Natives and (Mis)Representations),” J. Scott Bryson describes Los Angeles as “so buried under layers of representation and simulation that it is hard even to discuss such a phenomenon as a real Los Angeles.” In a similar statement, David L. Ulin, in the introduction to the literary anthology Writing Los Angeles says “if LA has often seemed like a city without history it is perhaps because so much of its history has been recycled into myth”(Ulin xiii). Clearly representations of a place are not necessarily accurate reflections of it, however, it would seem a stretch to say that representations of Los Angeles in literature have no reflection whatsoever on the “true” nature of the city (what ever that may be). As far as Los Angeles, or indeed any city, being remade by its literature is concerned, what it appears needs to be considered is less the ways in which the city has the potential to be reinvented through its literature, but rather the space between representation and reality. This space consists of representations of the city, and reactions to those representations, from both native and non-native Los Angelinos. By understanding the gap between representation and reality, and how closely or distantly they are related, it allows then for an understanding of how likely and possible it is for literature to affect a change in a city, regardless of whether or not a change actually occurs.
Urban theorist Kevin McNamara discusses the idea of “signifiers [the representations of the city] threaten[ing] to run away from any sense of the signified [the objective state of the city]” (Greenstein). The question, then, is how far representations of the city have strayed from the reality of the city. Furthermore, if Los Angeles is being reinvented from literature, is it the literature that adheres closely to the “original” or is it literature that is based on the “myth” and if it is the myth, is it a rewritten and reengaged version of the myth? This is addressed at length by Bryson.
Bryson talks about the two voices in Los Angeles literature: exiles and natives. He says that much of L.A. literature, particularly earlier work, was written by “transplants.” He describes it as “a city of immigrants and émigrés…the Los Angeles literary scene [is] historically peopled by transient writers living in Los Angeles” (Bryson). About these writers he explains that most of them arrived in the city with certain preconceived notions about it (myths based on propaganda from boosters and the like). Thus, when the city failed to deliver what was promised in advertising, and as these writers failed in the entertainment industry (as many of them were in L.A. to write for the motion pictures), they became “disillusioned with Los Angeles and nostalgic for their former homelands, which they identify as deeper and more meaningful and write as exiles highly critical of their new home” (Bryson). What is developing is a view of the city that is at first idealized by boosters, and then consumed by outsiders and then rejected by the outsiders when they arrive and are disappointed. These disillusioned writers then start a new mythology, which is consumed by new outsiders. One way of looking at this is to see how far removed from the original source (the city itself) the literature has become, but that seems to somehow say that the experiences of, and consequent literary interpretations by, the exiles is somehow false, when that is certainly not the case.
As for the native writers, some address, problematize, complicate and expand on these myths, while others start fresh, ignoring its literary predecessors, and writing about their personal experiences and “reality” of the city. Of these authors, Bryson says “for them, Los Angeles is not an exotic, aspatial other-land, but rather a homeland” and “in presenting these alternative, homegrown visions of the city, native writers present a firsthand perspective of Los Angeles that is contextualized by the myriad social problems and issues that often haunt the city to which they belong” which, it is implied, is unmediated by literary representations of the city (however, if literature really is influencing city life, than the two are inextricable—but whether or not that is true is not currently being debated). Bryson continues, saying that “native perspectives on the city allow readers to witness the multiplicity of the real Los Angeles” but the phrase “real Los Angeles” seems problematic. Who dictates whose experiences are “real” and whose are not? Certainly natives offer different perspectives from the “transplants,” and perhaps one that is more in direct communication with the original “text.” What can be said about the difference between the transplant and native authors is that they tend to have different concerns and focus on different thematic issues. For instance, natives’ writings will often focus on things such as “racial and class-based discrimination, ecocatastrophe…[and] geographic, cultural, moral and ethnic boundaries,”—topics not typically addressed by the transplant authors. But to place a higher value on their accuracy as reflections of Los Angeles, or their engagement with the city at all, is troublesome in the way it privileges the natives’ narratives. Furthermore, to say, as Bryson does, that “exiles, whose knowledge of Los Angeles is to a significant extent necessarily mediated by different representations of the city” is to imply that natives are somehow impervious to representations of their city and take no notice of them. While some native Los Angeles writers seem to bypass the “mythological” texts, others confront them directly, and in so doing, reappropriate and rewrite those myths.
Not all native authors address these “native issues,” and clearly there is a strong presence of Los Angeles born and bred authors dealing directly with the “myth” texts. Bryson describes these texts, such as the novels of Mosley and Ellroy, as “revisionist and often postmodern mythos” that confront and “correct” the works of their predecessors. Here, yet another layer is added, as the city becomes represented by boosters who attract authors who write critically of the city and years later (after those representations have been, to a certain extent, normalized) get taken up again by contemporary authors engaging with the new myths and either demystifying them, or in fact creating new myths of their own. Rather than becoming more apparent, it becomes increasingly difficult to figure out how place is shaped by literature, when the literature fluctuates so drastically in its distance from the source. Theorist Julian Murphet confronts this problem directly when he explains that “representation ‘has had a seminal place in the production of Los Angeles literature from the outset’ and that now ‘the ideal of a clear distinction between “real” social life on the one hand and cultural figuration on the other is more or less untenable” (Bryson). Thus, when the representations become “reality” it is too elusive to pin down what the “reality” “really” is. Additionally, critic Roger Keil believes that when these representations dominate the literaryscape, “the ‘real L.A.’ of everyday struggles vanishes from sight” (Bryson). While it may be true that many of the hardships of the people of the city get overlooked in this genre, the use of the term “real L.A.” speaks to the mindset that those representations are more valuable and more accurate reflections of the city than the ones that are generated by the original myth creators and those responding to the myths (“myths” at this point has gone beyond the typical meaning of the word to include realities of the city that are addressed and created in a particular fashion and by a particular group of authors).
Bryson concludes his essay asserting “more and more contemporary critics are pointing out it is intellectually and even morally irresponsible to allow these representations to overshadow the actual Los Angeles made up of real people.” While it is still unclear how L.A. is remade from its literature, a statement such as this closes the door to even the question of whether or not L.A. is remade from its literature. It states quite clearly that Los Angeles is not accurately portrayed in its representations, and that the citizens of Los Angeles are somehow separate from the representations, rather than intertwined. Clearly there is a gap between the signifier and the signified, but to say for certain that none of the L.A. natives understand the city in which they live as a version portrayed in literature seems entirely unlikely. While their day to day experiences may not be affected per se, there is a mindset about the city that, for many (though granted not all), must be inescapable. It is this separation (of signifier and signified) that needs to be understood, before an investigation into how Los Angeles literature shapes the city can get underway.
Bryson, J. Scott. “Los Angeles Literature: Exiles, Natives and (Mis)Representation.”
American Literary History 16 (2004)
Greenstein, Michael. “Book Review.” Rev. of Urban Verbs: Arts and Discourses of
American Cities by Kevin R. McNamara. MFS Modern Fiction Studies. Summer
Ulin, David L.. “Introduction.” Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology. Ed. David L.
Ulin. New York: The Library of America, 2002
Ganim, John M.. “Cities of Words: Recent Studies on Urbanism and Literature.” Rev. of
The City in Literature: An Intellectual and Cultural History by Richard Lehan,
October Skies: The Redevelopment of Urban Literature by Carlo Rotella, Apartment Stories: City and Home in Nineteenth-Century Paris and London by Sharon Marcus, White Diaspora: The Suburb and the Twentieth-Century American Novel by Catherine Jurca. MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly. 3 Sept. 2002: 365-382
McNamara, Kevin R.. “Book Review” Rev. of Literature and Race in Los Angeles by
Julian Murphet. MFS Modern Fiction Studies. Summer 2003: 370-372