Sunday, January 28, 2007

LOS ANGELES HISTORY, Part 2: Hollywood Babylon

My family is visiting L.A. this week, which makes me wonder: How long do I have to live here before I feel like more than a visitor myself? I didn’t really get comfortable in southeastern Virginia until I started learning about the local history… so I’ve already started digging into the history of Southern California, hoping that this will make me feel more grounded. My first history guide is an excellent (and, sadly, out-of-print) book by Carey McWilliams called Southern California: An Island on the Land.

McWilliams moved to Southern California during the population influx of the 1920s. For decades, “boosters” had been selling the image of Southern California as a permanent vacation spot… but it was not love at first sight for the author: “When I first arrived in Los Angeles, I hated, as so many other people have hated, the big, sprawling, deformed character of the place. I loathed the crowds of dull and stupid people that milled around the downtown sections dawdling and staring, poking and pointing, like villagers visiting a city for the first time. I found nothing about Los Angeles to like and a great many things to detest. Without benefit of chart or guide or compass, I had to discover the charm of the city and the region for myself (one reason, doubtless, why I like it so much today).”

McWilliams does his best to encapsulate the culture of the region – plowing right over the mythologized history of the Spanish missionaries, and exploring instead the conflicts between the natives and the Franciscans, Spanish rancheros and Mexican “immigrants,” pioneers and tourists, the wealthy and the working class. He argues that, just as Southern California is geographically isolated from the rest of the United States (making it an “island on the land”), many different communities have isolated themselves within the region (creating islands within an island). Consequently, there is not one Los Angeles; there are many: “Within the city limits of Los Angeles today are numerous areas that have many of the characteristics of distinct communities: definite boundaries, a common business or service district, and specific population characteristics, such as age levels, sex distribution, and so forth. There are also numerous ethnic colonies or communities. But the problem has always been to define the larger unit to which these communities are theoretically related. Where does all this bustling life center?”

Perhaps more to the point: What is it that truly characterizes the region, and continues to draw people to Southern California? I suppose I’ve always assumed that the main attraction is the entertainment industry – and, undoubtedly, this has been a major factor since the 1920s. Kevin Starr, author of Inventing the Dream: California through the Progressive Era, writes that Hollywood was born out of the Anti-Trust movement. Rogue filmmakers who didn’t want to give a portion of their filmmaking profits to the Edison Trust came to Los Angeles because it was close to Mexico, and far from East Coast lawyers. Starr writes: “Hollywood – as a concept, as an industry, as a mythic place – developed from an embryonic acting troupe pursuing its ancient bohemian lifestyle of itinerant performance, hostelry life, intrigue (sexual and otherwise), and improvisational creativity under the disciplining guidance of its troupe leader, in this case thirty-year-old David Wark Griffith, who, whether he knew it or not at the time, was setting in motion a process that would eventually bring the production of American film once and for all to Southern California.”

Within a few short years, a cultural symbiosis developed between the filmmaking industry and the West Coast Dream that boosters had been selling for forty years. D.W. Griffith, the godfather of American cinema, embraced the local history and landscape in more than a hundred films made between 1910 and 1916, culminating with the epic Intolerance – for which Griffith’s crew constructed a replica of ancient Babylon at the corner of Sunset and Hollywood boulevards.

Intolerance was a commercial flop, ruining Griffith’s career, and the three-story set was deemed a fire hazard: “The set, after all, despite its masterly design, was more illusion than architecture. Even as Griffith delayed its dismantlement, the set began to crumble. Soon weeds were growing in the place of Belshazzar and Hall’s mighty elephants were trumpeting over torn reliefs, collapsed stairs, damaged statues, walls where wood and cheap gypsum showed through a semblance of marble.” Sounds like the setting of a Nathanael West novel, doesn’t it? Or maybe Hunter Thompson: Hollywood was a creature too weird to live and too rare to die. This larger-than-life setting gave rise to larger-than-life celebrities, the embodiment of the 20th century American Dream: Theda Bara, Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Lionel Barrymore, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin.

By 1926, “Hollywood” was the fifth largest industry in the United States. It continues to dominate today, as a psychological influence as much as a financial one. But it’s interesting to note that the “boom years” in California began forty years before the film industry moved in. One historian writes that the mass exodus to Southern California in the 1880s was “based on the simple fact that hereabouts the good lord has created conditions of climate and health and beauty such as can be found nowhere else, in this or any other land, and until every acre of this earthly paradise is occupied, the influx will continue.” McWilliams agrees – he delights in pointing out the ridiculous exaggerations of early settlers about Brobdingnagian fruits and vegetables, and the restorative powers of the climate… but it seems as if he’s just as captivated by the landscape as any tourist:

“When the sunlight is not screened and filtered by the moisture-laden air, the land is revealed in all its semi-arid poverty. The bald, sculptured mountains stand forth in a harsh and glaring light. But let the light turn soft with ocean mist, and miraculous changes occur. The bare mountain ranges, appallingly harsh in contour, suddenly become wrapped in an entrancing ever-changing loveliness of light and shadow; the most commonplace objects assume a matchless perfection of form; and the land itself becomes a thing of beauty. The color of the land is in the light and the light is somehow artificial and controlled. Things are not killed by the sunlight, as in a desert; they merely dry up. A desert light brings out the sharpness of points, angles, and forms. But this is not a desert light nor is it tropical for it has neutral tones. It is Southern California light and it has no counterpart in the world.”

Hollywood pioneers were just as entranced. Director Cecil B. DeMille writes: “To the north rose primitive, desert mountains, unchanged for centuries; green in February and March, but burning a russet brown through the arid summer heat. A few steps outside of town and you were in desert country. Sitting in the patio of your home after dinner you could hear the coyotes howl as if they, too, felt the romance of the place.”

My girlfriend says that Southern California already feels like home to her – that she is no longer enchanted by the sight of the mountains on the north side of the San Fernando Valley. But I’m still awe-struck by the unreality of this landscape. I’ve heard it suggested that it takes anywhere from five to ten years for the land to make a native out of a newcomer. Longtime residents say that a person only becomes a true native once the novelty has worn off. At that point, a person may begin to take for granted the unreality of the landscape. The scenery can even become tiresome. Ditto for the “monotonous” weather.

There are those who say that the culture of Los Angeles, at its worst, can be equally tiresome. McWilliams talks about the “informality of existence” in Los Angeles, explaining that “social neuroticism is a distinct phenomenon” here. This is hardly surprising for any city where so many people from different parts of the world are gathered. Since the 1880s, expansion has been the defining business of the region and, in order to maintain its allure as a new and exciting place to live, Los Angeles is constantly re-inventing itself. It’s not just the home of the Hollywood dream machine – the city is a product of the dream machine. Before I moved out here, a friend who spent several years here suggested that it’s important to feel “grounded” somewhere else… because it’s impossible to get grounded in L.A. I think it’s safe to assume that many people are unable to get beneath the slippery surface. It’s easy to drift in Los Angeles – easy to get lost.

But among those who stay long enough, there are some who begin to see the subtleties that define the region, and fall in love with them. Take, for example, McWilliams’ observations about the weather: “Most people believe that there are only two seasons in Southern California: ‘the wet’ and ‘the dry.’… Actually, Southern California has two springs, two summers, and a season of rain.” It breaks down like this: The first spring – the premature spring – follows closely on the early rains in late fall. In November, the dry season begins to bear down. Then come the first rains – “the little spring,” “like a baptism.” These are followed by the “real rains” in January, February in March. A “second spring” or “aborted summer” comes in April, followed by the desert winds. Afterwards, June is cool and gray, with day-long mists. July presents the full blaze of summer, followed by the oppressive, desert-hot spell of August. Then the whole thing starts over.

It’s raining today in Los Angeles – a rare lazy day for reflection. So far, it’s not difficult for me to understand why some people think of Los Angeles as an island, a world apart. The city itself is impossible to define. That makes it potentially exhausting... but endlessly fascinating.

A modern-day Babylon, at the corner of Sunset and Hollywood.

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