It’s clear that there’s little if anything natural about LA.
“Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyper-real and of simulation. It’s no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology), but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle.” — Jean Baudrillard, Simulation and Simulacra, 1981
You don’t have to be a French philosopher like Jean Baudrillard to grasp the unreality of LA. Indeed, the outlook that once belonged largely to Parisian intellectuals is now commonplace. “I don’t think anything in LA is real or natural,” quipped a young mother with a real baby in a real baby carriage. She and I were walking around the real canals in Venice, a short distance from the Pacific Ocean. I was admiring the arrangement of water and land and houses, too, that must cost a fortune. She was a stranger, at least to me, but she looked savvy so I couldn’t help but ask her about the canals.
To my naked eye they looked too regular, too predictable, and too shapely to be made by nature, but I wasn’t sure. Much the same might be said of LA itself, which strikes me as the capital of the artificial, though Las Vegas with its neon and glitter isn’t far away and offers stiff competition.
Near the end of winter, when the worst of cold weather was behind me, I spent three action-packed days in LA wandering across the urban landscape. Lawns were green and flowers were in bloom, thanks to water that’s pumped and piped from hundreds of miles away. Built on a desert, LA flaunts nature and defies the elements. Four million people ought not to live here, though they do.
My French friends, Jean-Francois and Virginie, were also in LA, along with their 14-year-old son, Ulysse, who was on his mobile device much of the time, even when I couldn’t get online. For the first day he didn’t eat, and then he ate up a storm: pasta and pizza. His parents had no trouble eating, though they’re also cigarette smokers and tobacco can kill the appetite. Virginie says she’s quitting. Jean-Francois says he won’t.
I have visited my French friends (hereafter known as MFF) in France about half-a-dozen times beginning in 2009. I have rendezvoused with them in Ireland, Spain, San Francisco, New York, and Paris, where they both work, though they live in a village called Saint- Sulpice which boasts great bakeries and great butcher shops. Whenever I’m in Saint-Sulpice I make a beeline for one of the butcher shops and one of the bakeries and stock up on pâtés and baguettes.
MFF are excellent companions of the road, whether by car, train, plane or on foot. They can walk for hours, seemingly without getting tired, while I drag myself behind them. MFF speak English as well as French; we often converse in a mix of those two languages, though my French is way inferior to their English. I try hard; they encourage me to speak French, though they don’t pressure me.
Our time in LA was as much about continuing our friendship and catching up-to-date on news of family and the world, as it was about sightseeing. They have published two of my books in French; they’re pushing a third one, my biography of Abbie Hoffman, in 2020.
I suppose you could say the trip was part business.
MFF and I seem to like the same kinds of food and drink. We share expenses and we both like to go to museums and places of “historical and cultural significance,” as guidebooks often call them. MFF usually travel without them, but they had a guidebook for LA with foldout maps, photos, and illustrations.
Three days in LA requires a map in part because it’s so spread out and so multi-faceted. You could get lost much more easily than in Paris, which has arrondisements and the Seine to provide a sense of direction, or San Francisco, which is smaller and which has many hills that serve as landmarks and suggest which way to go.
Jean-Francois, a quintessential Parisian, is an excellent map-reader with a near infallible sense of direction. He can practically smell north, east, south, and west. Virginie, whose mother is Vietnamese and whose father was a French army officer is one of the most agreeable travelers I have ever known and a great storyteller. During our three-day sojourn in LA, our days began at about 8 a.m. and lasted, at least for me, until about 8 p.m.
We only took one wrong turn and that was quickly remedied. And everyplace we ate, including a Thai place on Washington, turned out to be superb. Even the food at Grand Central Market on Broadway was tasty. There was Asian, Italian, German, and California cuisine to choose from.
At the Rose Venice, there’s an excellent breakfast burrito that has eggs, bacon, cheese, potatoes, avocado and salsa roja. I enjoyed the huevos rancheros with salsa verde. I’ve heard it said that the burrito was born in L.A., and while that is possible, I don’t believe it. I’ve also heard it said that the burrito was in S.F., but I don’t believe that either. I do believe that burrito was not born in Mexcio and that it’s a California creation. Some of my Texas friends think it’s an abomination. My Austin friend, Alice Embree, says, “Burritos are not legit Mexican food. They are not legit Tex-Mex either. The Brown Berets here (in Texas) say: ‘We didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us.’ I say: ‘with their damn burritos.’
We happened to be in LA for the weekend of the Oscars, though we only watched the tail end of the ceremony on TV in their motel room, just long enough to learn that The Green Door won for Best Picture. I had seen it and thought it was okay, though not outstanding.
During the middle of the day on Sunday we were caught up in the madness of the Oscars. Streets were blocked, traffic jammed, and an array of police officers patrolled the area around the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood where the ceremony took place. We couldn’t get close. No one could, unless they had a ticket to get in and a limo to bring them to the entrance. Chain link fences kept us away.
It seemed to me that a great many Los Angelinos didn’t care about the Oscars. They preferred to be in the streets and in the parks, enjoying the outdoors. That was MFF and me.
A Lyft driver from India, who offered his financial services, took us from the outskirts of Hollywood to Griffith Park. Once there, we explored the Observatory that boasts a bust of James Dean who died at the age of 24 in 1955, just as the Sixties were busy being born, thanks in part to him and his role in Rebel Without a Cause, which received no Oscars.
Tens of thousands of Los Angelinos thronged the Griffith Observatory — Anglos, Latinos, Asians, couples, families, and perhaps a few solo individuals, though it was difficult to know in that crowd that was remarkably quiet and self-contained, unlike the crowds in French cities where the “Gilets Jaunes” (Yellow Jackets) have raged against French President Emmanuel Macron and against Jews and against income inequality, too. MFF gave me the lowdown on Les Gilets Jaunes, who sound similar to many of Trump’s supporters: white people who are angry racists who feel alienated.
Los Angeles has to be experienced from ground level and on the street. It has to be lived on sidewalks, down back alleys, across boulevards, and along the canals of Venice. LA also has to be experienced from hilltops, rooftops, and the top floors of buildings like the art deco Pellissier at the edge of Koreatown that once housed the Wiltern, a grand movie theatre that’s now a venue for live music (like Van Morrison) which draws the kinds of crowds who once sat and viewed movies. All the old movie theatres, or at least many of them, are now relics of another age. We saw them and mourned the loss.
“It’s Netflix now,” Jean-Francois said.
At the Griffith Observatory, and from the rooftop of the Pellissier Building, we saw the bigness of LA that sprawls to the Pacific Ocean in the West, and to the San Bernardino Valley to the South. From above, it’s clear that there’s little if anything that’s natural about LA.
The canals aren’t natural, and the hillsides aren’t natural, either. They’ve been carved out and beaten down by developers and houses and roads. Much of the vegetation seems unnatural, or at least non-native, though the palm trees that dot the landscape look natural enough, though they require huge amounts of water, which isn’t natural to LA.
LA is a world of seems, a world of appearances and the make believe, though there’s plenty of reality on the 5, the 10, the 60 and the 101, the Freeways that slice through a city where the car is king and where pedestrians like me and MFF crossed streets at our own peril. We looked both ways and never dashed across a pavement, certainly not Lincoln Boulevard, where we were staying in a motel for about $125 a night and that might have served as a location for a “B” movie.
Much of LA feels like a movie set. Indeed, the city advertises its links to the movies and to movie history. When you go to the quirky Bradbury Building, which was built in 1893 and that’s on Broadway in downtown LA, you learn that some of the scenes from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner were filmed there, much as scenes in Rebel Without a Cause were filmed at the Griffith Observatory.
Wandering around LA, I had the feeling, oddly enough, that it’s as a tourist, rather than as a traveler or as a native, that one sees the real LA. A tourist sees “the real” LA more readily than the resident of LA, who has often lost the ability to go beyond the familiar and the habitual. A tourist hunts for places off the beaten track. A local follows the same old paths.
In the 1980s, I spent a lot of time in LA with two movie producers, Bert Schneider (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces) and Mark Rosenberg (Bright Lights, Big City, The Fabulous Baker Boys). Both were Jews, but they didn’t attend a synagogue. LA boasts the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, a Moorish-style building from the 1920s. Rosenberg, who was an SDS member, died at age 44 in 1992 of heart failure on a movie set in Stanton, Texas, during the filming of Flesh and Bone. Mark lived and died for the movies. When he died I lost a good friend I knew from the 1960s when we rioted together in the streets of New York. Bert grew up in the movie industry, made money fast, supported the Yippies and the Black Panthers, and escaped the wrath of the #MeToo Movement. Bert is the only person I knew who smuggled marijuana into Mexico.
He died in 2011 at the age of 78.
In the 1980s, I would also occasionally visit the screenwriter, Naomi Foner (Running on Empty) and her then husband Stephen Gyllenhaal, a producer and director, and their son and daughter, Jake and Maggie.
When Jake was 14, I offered to be his agent. “I already have one,” he said. “But thanks anyway.”
I fell for Bert’s LA and Mark’s LA: sexy LA, wealthy LA, glamorous LA, patriarchal LA, but now I like grubby LA, the city of old men and old women who live in the battered downtown hotels, like the Hayward, that opened in 1925 and that has more than 500 rooms for rent. The Hayward might be a movie set, but it’s too down and dirty for Hollywood. On the morning of our last day, on the way to LAX with MFF — who were off to Tucson to visit their son Désiré, while I was off to Santa Rosa — we listened to Mike, a Lyft driver from a Nebraska farming family as he talked about scenes from Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Mike had not wanted to farm or live in a rural environment. Now he’s a man who knows the streets as fields he knew as a boy in Nebraska.
Mike and I traded lines from Polanski’s movie, such as “my sister, my daughter,” and “Forget about it Jake, it’s Chinatown,” which sounds more racist now than it did in 1974 when the film was released.
I’m sad that Bert and Mark are gone. I loved the LA that I knew at their homes: Bert’s in Beverly Hills and Mark’s in Pacific Palisades. Yes, there were women in that LA. Bert’s wife, Greta became a monk. Mark’s wife, Paula, is still in the movie biz, but she moved to New York.
Greta and Paula were talented and creative, but they were largely faced with the male movie empire. I’m not sorry that the world I experienced with them is now off limits to me. Mark’s house was torn down. Goldie Hawn bought it. She also bought the house next door, tore down both houses and then built a new mansion that straddled both properties.
I don’t know what happened to Bert’s estate in the hills, though I still have his home phone number — 213. 273. 3820 — and his address on Oak Pass Road in my old address book. They remind me of the unreality of his own life that he produced as lavishly as he produced Five Easy Pieces and Easy Rider and that made him a multimillionaire who gave his money away to Huey and Abbie, and helped keep them out of jail, but couldn’t save them from themselves.
By air, LA is close to Santa Rosa where I live, but it also feels far away. In many ways Paris feels closer to home than LA. C’est la vie. At LAX, Jean-Francois said, “I hope to see you in France next time. Maybe you can stay for a month.” I said, “C’est très bien” and made my way to Alaska Airlines and my flight back to Sonoma County where the Russian River had flooded, again, where much of Sebastopol sat under water, and where people had to evacuate and seek higher ground.
This article copyright 2019 by Jonah Raskin. It was first published by McAuley & Co. in booklet form, and is printed here by permission of the author.
[Jonah Raskin, a frequent contributor to The Rag Blog, is the author of For the Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman and American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and the Making of the Beat Generation.]