Que Sarah, Sarah

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Land of Reinvention

These excerpts are from two articles in the Los Angeles Times. The first discusses the history of Los Angeles and its inhabitants desire to reeinvent themselves. The article really resonated with me as the current generation of young adults who move to LA with big dreams are a bit like the second coming of the Gold Rush. I thought it might also interest those who, like me, are learning that failure must be merely "a delay on the way to success." The second is just an interesting look at the country's (mostly negative) view of LA...even those who live within its confines.

Patt Morrison

In 1510, a Spanish writer named Garci Ordóñez de Montalvo published a fantasist novel called "Las Sergas de Esplandian," about a golden island ruled by a dark-skinned Amazon queen called Califia. This book would end up giving California its name.

About a hundred years later, another Spanish writer named Miguel de Cervantes wrote a book about a character who happened to own a copy of that earlier novel — a character who was arguably the first modern Californian.

Cervantes' creation, Alonso Quijada, believed that he was not a prisoner of time and place and class but that he could reinvent himself as who he wished to be, and the man he wished to be was … Don Quixote de la Mancha.

Don Quixote, a Californian in spirit before any such name existed on the world's mental map. Was he an idealist or a delusionary? Does it really matter? You could ask the same question about almost every Californian, every ship-jumping, border-hopping newcomer, every small-town beauty queen with a one-way bus ticket to Hollywood, every garage-band musician and garage start-up computer geek.

To each of the multitudes of men who swarmed into California after the gold strike at Sutter's Mill, the 10,000-to-1 odds of panning himself a fortune meant only that 9,999 poor dopes would be out of luck. The one — well, that was always him.

Like the Magi, every nation, every culture, leaves some gift of itself to the world. California's is the gift of reinvention, the push to the next frontier, the break through the next boundary: the American frontier, the space frontier, the nano-frontier of science and technology, even the boundary of self. Here, we are all Eves and Adams, with no past, no class, no patterns to follow, the only limits the ones of our own making.

The celebrity is the ultimate incarnation of this ideal — the nobody who suddenly becomes everything the world desires and admires. But street by street and town by town, California is peopled with those who have done just as well. Their stories are fill-in-the-blank tales of triumph: I was born in poverty and decided that I could do better than I might have had I stayed. So I studied/worked/escaped to pursue my dream and found my way to California.

For a brief time during the Gold Rush, one in every 90 Americans was making his way to California. Like Quixote, they were idealistic or delusional, or perhaps they had run out of prospects and hope elsewhere and had nowhere else to run but to the end of the continent. The difference was this, as historian J.S. Holliday, the great chronicler of the Gold Rush, reflected to PBS:

"As nowhere else, you can fail in California. And I think the California Gold Rush taught people that failure was OK. And the reason being that everyone failed in California — everyone, every day. So failure was not a distinction, not a burden, not a mark, not a shame. Failure in Des Moines, failure in Youngstown, failure in Savannah, failure in Philadelphia, well, you'd hear, 'What's the matter with you? Your father's disappointed in you.' You don't want to fail at home. But you feel free to fail in California. The result is that people accepted failure — which is the equivalent of saying they are willing to take risks. And California has been the most risk-taking economy and society in the nation. Maybe in the world."

In California, then, there was no failure — there were only delays on the way to success. It is the single, shared, defining element of being Californian, the capacity for endless reinvention. Got something to sell? To create? To popularize? A gimmick, a diet, a school, a religion? Yourself? Welcome to California.

The young Carol Burnett was as broke as they come, living with a grandmother who pinched the toilet paper from the Hollywood movie palace where Burnett was eventually fired from her job as an usherette. She asked that her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame be placed smack in front of that theater. And in the fashion of these things, Burnett wound up buying the Beverly Hills home built by Thomas Thorkildsen, the "Borax King" who made millions with household cleansers, which were sold on television by Ronald Reagan, who fashioned himself into an actor and then a governor and president. Thorkildsen died a pensioner....

The nation sometimes finds us risible and slightly alarming, an invert of the natural order. A barely-year-old online venture called YouTube makes joint billionaires out of its 20-something creators. And an 89-year-old billionaire mogul grapples with a paternity fight. Age is stood on its head. Grow old with dignity? Who needs to grow old at all? Plastic surgery is only a means to make the face match what the spirit wills.

Even the deep, shuddering earthquakes and vast fires that the rest of the country smirks over — a proper chastisement for our ways, surely — are the kinetic landscape's means of doing what Californians do: renewing itself, shaking out, starting over.

Californians have a natural collaborator in their perpetual rewrites of themselves: the climate. In Southern California in particular, the endless, seamless flow of seasons makes time itself seem, if not to stand still, then to dawdle its way through the calendar. Here we don't feel the tightening cycles of years as people do in other, more immoderate climates. Look outside today, tomorrow, next week, to this changeless place; there's all the time in the world to try again, fail again, try yet again...

By Amy Wilentz

ONE morning not long after I came to Los Angeles, I was sitting in rush-hour traffic having just carpooled six children to school, talking on the cellphone to New York. My friend on the other end of the line was in Manhattan, on the Upper West Side. I told her that I was trying desperately to get to a yoga class.

"It's happening to you too," she said, after a dark, fraught silence. "I knew it would."

"What's happening to me?" I asked.

"You're becoming an empty-headed Californian," she said. "Soon," she predicted direly, "you'll be happy."

I often wonder how a place where Alfred Hitchcock and John Huston flourished, where F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote and Raymond Chandler found his great material has managed to maintain its status as cultural whipping boy to the world. How come everywhere, everyone is so glad to accept the idea of Los Angeles as a bland place full of stupid people with no cultural interests? Can it be that they are jealous of the weather? They think it never rains here.

L.A. has been hated and disrespected for a long time, publicly and privately, by people who live here, by people who visit, by newcomers and old-timers, by writers and commentators and immigrants and transients. For a city that has produced so much art — in film, painting and literature — it remains the place, as Woody Allen famously noted, whose "only cultural advantage is that you can make a right turn on a red light."

This is our gift to the world: Everyone needs someone to despise, and as a city we are always available. After all, Los Angeles — though self-conscious — is not shy. Over the years, it has offered itself up almost shamelessly to be examined, and then rejected. Nathanael West was perhaps the greatest of the Los Angeles haters, and his vituperative "The Day of the Locust" is still the classic apocalyptic indictment of the city. (Los Angeles hated him back and meted out his fate in classic fashion: He died in a car crash with his wife after running a stop sign in El Centro.)

Even Carey McWilliams, the great chronicler of Southern California who eventually came to love the region, admits to having undergone a long bout with the illness I call anti-Angelenism before his attitude about the place turned around. "When I first arrived in Los Angeles," he wrote in 1946, "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 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."

L.A. has long been viewed as an embarrassment by America. Because it is the city at the end of the continent, it is commonly regarded as the newest, freshest, best thing the country has to offer, so its every flaw is interpreted as a sign of our collective national failure. As McWilliams writes, "What America is, California is, with accents, in italics." Europeans — among them De Tocqueville, Trollope and, more recently, Bernard Henri-Levi — look to the West and see Americans as uncultured, loutish, self-indulgent materialists. And Americans do the same: In Los Angeles, they see what they take to be a more babyish, dumber version of themselves and they shudder.

Because of its early history, L.A. has had to live up to some very high expectations. From the start, the town was touted as a paradise, and people came in droves. Much of the boosterism was true, or based on truth. Los Angeles was set in an exquisite landscape — warm, breezy, tucked between an ocean and purple mountains. (Even now, having lived here for four years, I can't believe it when I look up from traffic on a clear day and see not just the lovely Hollywood Hills but the San Gabriel range in the distance, behind the shopping malls and billboards.) The climate was healthful, dry and pleasant. Fruits and vegetables, although not of the Brobdingnagian size advertised by pamphlets and brochures, did have a longer growing season.

Still, once the crowds settled in, they noticed that Los Angeles was not paradise. Hardly anyone was a native, and hardly anyone who came here had time, before the next wave of humans landed, to establish a mark that could endure. There were too many people, and the new arrivals were always searching for Los Angeles, for some kind of meaning or significance or heart, and not finding it. They wanted to know where they had washed up, but in truth, there was no there where they were.

In a very real sense, Los Angeles has always been occupied territory. It was occupied by the Americans while it was still part of Mexico. Today, many occupiers come from the East Coast (though in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the deluge was from Iowa). Often, they are Hollywood people.

Hollywood people are always coming from somewhere else: The actors, of course, who arrive from that special nation called the Land of the Good Looking, but also the producers and directors and writers. They have their own peculiar state within a state here, although at the same time, they are visible nationally and internationally. I hold them accountable for a lot of L.A.'s bad press, both as local setters of ridiculous trends — dogs in bags, knitting as a lifestyle, the 2-inch jean zipper, Restylane — that are mocked but followed by the rest of the world, and as the biggest of the L.A. denigrators. They always like to tell you that they get only the New York Times. They're always raising money for candidates who are running for governor … of New York.

L.A.'s bad reputation has been oddly long-lived, but then, what would the world do without a place it could despise? In every century and culture, I would argue, there has been a place upon which opprobrium could be heaped, usually for cultural reasons, or out of jealousy and fear. This locus of loathing, I would argue further, will always be a place where the dominant culture has established its final triumphant outpost. (In the 1700s and 1800s, New York and Boston served this function for England and Europe; since the turn of the last century, Los Angeles has provided it for America, as well as the rest of the Western, and possibly Eastern, world.) It's necessary to have a yardstick against which one can measure one's own standing, and the culture of the last outpost will always challenge the received wisdom, much as a child challenges his or her parents. The older culture will seek to suppress the younger, but the younger will inevitably survive, to vanquish what came before.

So will there ever be a culture Los Angeles can look down on?

Well, I wonder, what would happen if there were one day a settlement on the moon.

"Ah," Angelenos might crow. "She's from the moon. I mean, come on. You can't expect her to be normal. Everything's so easy there, in the bubble. I mean, you're weightless, for heaven's sake. You don't ever have to lose a pound…. And it never rains."


Blogger Ryan said...

damn girl,,im trying my hardest here to get you to the superbowl....i have a ticket for you....what more do i need,,,,

1:42 PM  
Anonymous jr said...

Have you ever read Mike Davis? He's a sociologist from LA who's written extensively about the city and southern California in general. I highly recommend City of Quartz. The first part of the book discusses the various generations of artists/art movements that have expatriated themselves or emigrated to LA.

I don't, I'm also an expatriate Chicagoan, but I live in the (infinitely superior, sorry) northern half of California and to me LA and it's monolithic sprawl are pretty much the antithesis of Chicago which is extremely tangible and real whereas LA is about repackaging reality and selling it as dreams. I also hate LA (especially the fucking Los Angelos Angels of Anaheim) but what do I know? Oh, good luck getting to the Super Bowl...I'm pretty nervous but I think the Bears have a great shot if they come out swinging and never let up...

2:49 PM  
Blogger Peter Richardson said...

So glad to see the reference to Carey McWilliams ... I hope your visitors will check out his amazing work, which is also admired by Patt Morrison and Mike Davis (among many others).

4:57 PM  

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