Week 7 – Palm Noir

Week 7 – Palm Noir

This is the city, Los Angeles, California… they make movies here, …I live here.

I don’t work in the movies, but like most of us, I have worked as an extra, to help with the setting of the story – in the background. Sometimes this was planned, sometimes you were just caught in the background of a shot, other times they crop us out, seal us off, so that, Los Angeles’s identity is masked and can stand in for other places. 

There is no permanence in Los Angeles, not even for me even after all these decades, we are all moving, growing, looking for our next move. Being rooted in Los Angeles means having peripatetic roots, the merciless change of this city means that once desirable neighbourhoods now lie decrepit and dilapidated, others have temporarily taken the opposite trajectory, while others still have vanished entirely. They paved the garden of Allah, won the Batte of Chavez Ravine, razed Bunker Hill, eradicated Surfridge, and moved Angels Flight.

But all of that came later. First, there was empty scrubland, a dry, arid unwelcoming place. Then came the first Christian missionaries, bringing with them religion, disease, and religious iconography. Like the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem when palm branches were placed in his path, these missionaries laid down similar paths encouraging the soon-to-be first Angelenos to follow them.

I started life in the wilds, east of the city in what are now the sprawling suburbs where the lights extend east to the horizon. I still have family there, who can watch the mediocrity so closely that they pick up on the dark underlying quiet, the haunting desperation and the dreams that have long since gone up in smoke drifting into the warmly stained sky like a weekend backyard barbecue. 

But I was moved to what is now Little Tokyo, although back then it wasn’t. There had been no Manzanar, no camps, no resettlement. Much like these Angelenos, I too am the offspring of immigrants. Like them I was born and raised here, Like them, I too was moved when it suited the city.

Mythmaking was always a major component of Los Angeles’s recent history, the missionaries were some early users, but the Boosters also employed stories and myths of a paradisical garden on the West Coast to promote immigration. Soon I moved closer to the then main train station and became an unofficial greeter to this city. That was my first taste of being part of the myth, part of the promotional machine that sold this city to immigrants who sought, like me, to become part of the fabric or maybe to stand out. First is was the promise of riches, then it was reaching for the stars, then being a star.

With electricity came neon lights, this means that in this city, capitalism never sleeps. Where once a dark sky greeted me at night, now it is a horizontal Milkyway of competing signs and advertising that keep the city bathed in electric sun after the city’s natural light has faded into the Pacific. Sunset Boulevard has no sunsets any more, it is a mere transition from a natural to manmade light. This is a city of light and moving lights, the sunsets, the movies, the projections, the cars, and the advertising. All this artificial light tries to illuminate a darkness that lies just beneath the surface and runs deep into the soul of this city.

Lucifer is the bringer of false, light, we need to be shrouded in the darkness of truth, this is not the place to step back, and reflect, it is to step above and look from afar. ‘Los Angeles is the most beautiful city in the world…provided it’s seen by night and from a distance.’ No one in their right mind is ready for their close up and for good reason, this is a city that celebrates distance physical, personal, and metaphorical

Yearning for more than earthly meat and drink, it is a Faustian pact, and there are a lot of crossroads and intersections here. The impermanent rewards slip through our hands like the polluted sand next to the Santa Monica Pier, and soon we are on our way out of the city. Cut down in our prime, or slowly weakening from disease and parasites from the insides. Few of us are remembered and even the memories and histories are fictional. Carefully crafted adaptations to fit the continuity of a story. Even in death, we are supposed to provide an entertaining story.

The first movies were made in Edendale, which has long since disappeared, the growth of Los Angeles actually destroying Eden.

There was nowhere left to go. This was the last stop for some, the last chance to reinvent themselves under sunshine and ocean breezes, but this wasn’t the city of angels, this more a city of angles, perpendicular angles of the stark grid of the early roads, and camera angles of sleazy directors and photographers. This was what the Chumash called iyáangẚ, the Poison Oak Place, or alternatively The Valley of Smoke. And as these ingenues and pioneers merged into the city, they would soon discover that both names were appropriate, a basin of poison, smoke and mirrors, which only seemed to get worse as the decades wore on. The city around me stayed low – as I grew up, it grew wide, a vast, beige sprawl, crisscrossed by grey ribbons of concrete, some of which were once actual rivers. 

Villages looking for a city, they say, but no local here is looking. It is the outsiders who, confused by this place, are looking for a city, those of us who have been here, know to accept it as it is and be prepared for it to change, this is not a city, this is an experiment, a last roll of the dice, and a collection of dreams and nightmares that play out in high drama and then fade into oblivion as no-one is left or cares to remember.

It is a city of tourists, some stay for days, some for the rest of their lives, but few can claim to really be locals, in the sense of belonging to the land. We have no roots, and if we do, they are easily dug up and moved, and each time you might grow them a bit deeper if you are moving in what you think is the correct direction, but they can still be easily boxed and moved. A few or many blocks depending on your luck. We are all peripatetic in Los Angeles, even the earth itself. We all know there will be a seismic event strong enough to bring it all down, but the eternal optimism fuelled by natural sunshine and the bright lights of the city blind our rational senses. We don’t live for the moment, but for the next stage of our individual moments. This is, after all, a giant film set, and we are all on page 30, ready for our challenge, denouement and our happy ending, or perhaps we know that there’s no absolute moral compass, that everything is ambiguous, that winning and losing are two sides of the same coin, and each flip of it is 50/50 in our favour. We don’t have jobs here, we have careers – or arcs.

Too eclectic and too uniform, uniform in its eclecticism. This is what tourists say. They find it eclectic as they don’t think to look at the commonality of the buildings around them, and they don’t see the uniformity due to the focus on the exceptional. Exceptional is what Los Angeles is about. More actors work as extras, as bit-part actors in commercials, the great unseen, but it is only the bonafide movie stars that they look to.

From the midcentury modern and optimism and the ranch houses, the stucco boxes, and mansions, the brick bathhouses at the beach, the Mayan revival of Frank Lloyd Wright, the optimism of speed and technology seen in Googie after the Second World War are now the exceptions. They are not what Los Angeles is; it is the low duplexes that covered most of the basin giving it a low profile both physically and metaphorically. While in many ways they are the opposite of me visually and philosophically, I feel a kinship with these small unseen buildings. No one stops to look at one, Barely anyone notices them, but as a group, these single-story buildings make up the vast majority of the sprawl. Ironically, a remnant of the era that also gave us Googie as an exception, these became the norm, being built quickly for servicemen returning from the war in the 1940s, who came here for the promise of a well-paying job in the skyward facing aerospace industry. Everyone comes for improvement.

The varying terrain and topography and the lack of a cohesive architectural style while perhaps not intentional, has meant that Los Angeles could play many different locations, could be different things, to different people and it became strangely schizophrenic instantly recognisable and yet anonymous and generic.

The city remains flat, the people here strive to reach metaphorical heights, not physical ones. At first, they came for the newness, the oil, some for gold and farming; this was where they would start again, reinvent themselves, then came the movies, 

And those are the only stars one can see, dust, smoke, pollution and lights block out any celestial versions, so we make do with human ones, and those change quickly too.

There is little constant in Los Angeles, the only consistent is merciless change. Real nostalgia is not a trait to be found much in Los Angeles. Life is for the living, the old is made new through whatever means necessary – a mantra that will soon probably also claim me. I too, will be replaced and eventually forgotten – something newer, younger, more contemporary will replace me.

Los Angeles is not a melting pot, it is Thunderdome, pure Darwinism. The city is not a home for ethnicities and nationalities of the whole world, it is not a melting pot or benevolent egalitarian new Eden, it is a stadium, a colosseum of gladiators, all of them trying to move up to leave the anonymity behind, in search of privacy. The earthquakes are not the only faultiness, there are plenty others between the separate communities, and too often have I seen human-made fires spreading throughout the city towards me. Fires were once part of a natural cycle, destruction and rejuvenation of the land; this cycle still exists, but it no longer just fires that are the triggers of destruction and rebirth.

While further North the Summer of Love was placing an undeserved focus on hippies and their concepts of love, we were burning our streets for the civil rights of minorities and disenfranchised Americans, we kept growing. Navel-gaze at your own peril, because when you are looking down, I am looking up, we all hate this city, we unsettle in its basin and then strive to escape it, some strive for the hills, some for the beaches, others are expectorated to a place beyond the mountains. Some, for whom moving is more difficult, reach to the sky. We push on because that is what life on earth is about, growing, progressing, multiplying. At least we do until we become redundant. The city’s no culture beyond that of its inhabitants. As they change, it changes. Much like they are not stuck in traffic, but in fact make up the traffic, the culture is in flux geographically.

Water and fire, one is unnatural, one inevitable. I look good against an orange glow in the distance. When the Santa Ana Winds blow in from the east carrying with them the dust and ash and smell of fires is when I thrive. That is when I love Los Angeles the most, that is when it seems perfect for me. You can’t brace against the wind, you can’t stop a wave, and you cannot stand in the way of progress. You either adapt, bend, or get swept or blown away.

It is the opposite of a bonfire of the vanities. The Occasions of sin are not burned, they are only destroyed by replacement, destruction as creation, creation as destruction. Ironic, that it was catholic missionaries that founded this place and brought me here.

In order to survive, you have to be flexible, you have to look good in the heat and the sunshine, you have to be able and quick to move locations, but the best survival tactic is to always grow, not age, grow. Grow more beautiful, grow more bankable, grow richer, grow away from the low lying city and reach for a place above it. And look useful while being decorative. Once your decorative power disappears you become useless, Usefulness in Los Angeles is being decorative, because decoration means beauty and beauty means youth, and youth means far from death. Death is not tolerated here. Earthquakes, tsunamis, drive-bys, fires, these all happen to other, less fortunate members of our family. The problems are not any different than anywhere else, but they are played out in front a more beautiful backdrop, take that backdrop away and there is no point to this place.

And because the backdrop and lighting are so good, it does attract more of those seeking to dilute their personal ugliness. But it is fleeting, few things age into more beauty, certainly, humans seldom do, the combination of the frustration of a lack of superficial beauty only exacerbates any bitterness and ugliness that was latent beneath the veneer. And then this too is purged and replaced by newer and younger. This is the new natural cycle. Nihilistic and merciless, but these are the rules that we agreed upon when we came here. Be useful in your attractiveness, or be prepared to be replaced,

There is nothing as consistent as the money being made by creating entertainment in this city, and in most of it, in the background omnipresent and otherworldly, palm trees stand as silent, mute witnesses to the inevitable demise of what was once the acme of current culture and capitalism.

The dark satanic mills were and still are the studios that churn out movies and spit out humans. Those that don’t make it there, end in a different type of entertainment beyond the hills in Chatsworth, where the churning and is more accelerated and the exploitation even greater, and those that wash out of porn often find themselves below me waling the streets below me at night, but they never stay long, for most, this is their last stop.

Much like the shiny objects made on the backs of uncompensated labour, the shiny new movies externalise their costs on the inhabitants of this city.

As the individuals of Los Angeles seek for heights of fortune and an escape to the hills and beaches, it is money that keeps the buildings low, and the advertising signs high. Escaping the smog is impossible, so it is celebrated. Twilight reveals the cities transient beauty by the city lights coming alive to fend off the nearing darkness of night. The brutal light of the day is lessened, the buildings begin to shimmer, and the rooftops reflect the atmosphere above. It is a brief faux serenity.

Even the police here have their motto in quotation marks, “to protect and serve”, I could say that too, as I do neither, but just like with the police, no one notices and no-one attempts to change me or the police, I look reassuring without doing anything to benefit most of the inhabitants.

There is no more beautiful city in the world provided it is seen by night and from a distance, I am over 100 ft tall, I am in the middle of the city and I can see it up close and from a distance.

And sometimes, we are so unseen, we need to just drop something, throw something to the ground, let the wind carry away the old, washed into the sewer of a river and carried out to see hopefully to not wash up as debris on the beach. 

After a storm, the beaches tell the story through the detritus of that wish has been washed away from the whole city

My own arc is drawing towards a final sunset, my own myths of Saturnalia and Egyptian roots that sounds so exotic now as I stand in a city that not only never slows down but seems to be accelerating, though it is unclear to me and those around me towards what. But the stories from implanted memories of others about our roots in Oases, and exotic foreign locales on the Mediterranean now have become my internalised memories.

Call me solipsistic, but palm trees have been the only constant, gently, swaying and slowly growing, getting taller. Attempting to escape from the low-lying streets of Los Angeles, while increasing visibility from afar, meant increased screen time too. The perfect immigrants, we didn’t find an enclave and stay close, we spread, not absorbing the culture, but becoming its icon, its visual representation. 

Not palms on an island, two little friends huddled to gather in a dialogue with the wind, no we stand tall and individual, apart from each other, looming figures in judgement of what is happening below us, measuring sticks for the smog, more ominous than sultry, the sentinels of impending doom with no ability to forewarn, not watching over you, but simply watching. And always providing the perfect backdrop for your dramas.

This isn’t America, Jack. This is L.A. 


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