Books: Flying Visits: Postcard from Los Angeles - 1 : No Stopping Any Time |
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Postcard from Los Angeles - 1 : No Stopping Any Time

Surfing in the jet stream created by the polar wind as it curved down across the Atlantic, my Pan Am Boeing 747 made landfall somewhere over Newfoundland, crossed into the United States over Minnesota and found clear air above the snowfields of Colorado. A storm took back the half-hour we had gained. We landed at Los Angeles just ahead of the rain.

I didn’t really want to get off. The in-flight movie had been California Suite, in which there is a scene where Maggie Smith, playing an English actress flying to Los Angeles for the Academy Award ceremonies in which she will find out whether she has won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, watches an in-flight movie about herself flying in an aircraft through a raging storm. For this very role, the real-life Maggie Smith had just been nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Flying along with earphones plugged into my head while watching Maggie Smith flying along with earphones plugged into her head watching herself flying along, I had suffered a partial collapse of the will to live. The twentieth century was getting too complicated for a simple soul to live with.

When I finally staggered off the plane and claimed my luggage, it seemed only natural that Bruce Forsyth should come running towards me in the reception area. I couldn’t remember what I had written about him that had been so bad, but in these days of instant travel there was no reason why he should not have chosen LA airport as the site of my execution. I shut my eyes and waited for the blow. When I opened them again, it was to discover that he had run past me and was embracing somebody else.

Los Angeles had been coming to me all my life, but this was the first time I had come to it. Prejudices are useless. Call Los Angeles any dirty name you like — Six Suburbs in Search of a City, Paradise with a Lobotomy, anything — but the fact remains that you are already living in it before you get there.

The city’s layout is a tangle of circumferences which have lost contact with their centres. It all makes sense as long as you can drive. Unfortunately I can’t. Or rather I can, but nobody believes in my ability enough to give me a licence. So instead of hiring a car I had to head for my motel by cab. On the San Diego freeway it was like stock-car racing. Pick-ups with flambeau paint-jobs, fat back tyres and bulges on their bonnets went past on either side like bullets, nose down with a gear to spare. Painted like one of Altdorfer’s blue night skies fretted with flames, a customised van overtook us, paused long enough for us to absorb the fact that we were looking at the back end of the mike vance creative thinking center mobile planning unit, and then zoomed away. Despite the comparatively low speed-limit, nobody seemed capable of going slowly. A minatory billboard loomed, ‘i tried four mortuaries — forest lawn was lower.’ mrs jackie mullins.

My motel, which I shall call the Casa Nervosa because I wouldn’t want you to come crashing in and spoil its exclusive atmosphere, lay on Santa Monica Boulevard, near where it bends towards Hollywood. Somebody had tried to make contact with the previous occupant of my room by kicking in the door. There was a swimming pool which by some fluke did not contain a floating body. This was the very motel in which Andy Warhol had filmed one of his nerveless epics. Not even the rain could completely eliminate the lingering aroma of Joe Dallesandro’s hair oil. As the sudden night fell, I waited alertly for the scream of Robert having his nipple pierced.

But there was no time to waste. Barely pausing to change, shave and order another cab on a telephone still hot from Sylvia Miles’s breath, I raced to Outpost Drive in Hollywood. Here I was to attend the small buffet supper marking the opening night of Gore Vidal’s newly decorated house. The concrete footpath was still drying when I arrived. Hysterical with jet-lag, I narrowly avoided falling into it and thus becoming the first total nonentity to have his entire body immortalised in Hollywood cement.

Ushered politely in, I leant weakly against the wall while vainly searching the magnificent interior for an unfamiliar face. Joanne Woodward, Paul Newman, James Coburn, Stefanie Powers, Anthony Perkins, Mia Farrow, Jean-Pierre Aumont and William Holden were all present. I was introduced to Paul Newman. Well, how else do you expect me to say it? That I was introduced to Paul Klutz? Newman looked at me with eyes like chips of frozen sky. He was fascinated. It had probably been twenty years since a face he didn’t recognise had got close enough to him for him to realise that he didn’t recognise it.

Desperately I hunted for someone obscure enough to talk to. There was nobody. Finally I settled for George Segal. Momentarily diverted by the novel experience of conversing with somebody he had never heard of, Segal listened amiably while I told him how the film on the plane had been about Maggie Smith watching a film on a plane and in this film on the plane she was watching a film about herself on another plane. Segal looked very interested, as if he were rediscovering something. Success had cut him off from this kind of boredom. Stardom can be limiting.

Next morning I was bowling along the freeway under a clear sky in a 1964 drop-head Cadillac chauffeured by Hector and Alphonse, two young men who until the day before had been working as carpenters in Vidal’s house but had now decided to start a new career as assistant journalists. Brilliantly overqualified for the task — Hector was a botany student and Alphonse a marine architect — they knew everything about LA.

The city had long ago come alive for me in Rayner Banham’s classic book Los Angeles, but not even Banham’s electrifying writing can give you a full idea of the sheer size of the place. Around the original Spanish settlement, the Pueblo of Our Lady Queen of the Angels, has grown up a city seventy miles square. You can stay on the freeway all day without retracing your tracks by even a yard, and not for a minute will you ever leave Los Angeles.

Over a period of less than a hundred years the city has been happening like a volcanic eruption that solidifies into people and places, but never quite stops moving. Los Angeles has an economy bigger than India’s. If California were to secede from the Union it would be the world’s sixth richest country. None of these statistics seems at all surprising when the inexhaustible productivity of the place is flowing past your shoulder.

The sources of wealth are all in amongst each other, as if the buried cities of Troy were all on the one level and still functioning. The oilfields are in amongst the original citrus groves. The dockyards are in amongst the oilfields. Within the city limits, there are as many airports as film studios. Aerospace and electronics industries that set world standards share security fences with service industries that launder roller towels. Restaurants look like car washes, car washes look like art galleries, art galleries look like war memorials, war memorials look like fire stations, fire stations look like churches, churches look like restaurants. Everybody has an idea to sell. ball park franks swell up when cooked. Some ideas look doomed to fail. dave’s accordion school.

Except for Simon Rodia’s famous towers, Watts is a sad sight. Watts isn’t even a ghetto. It’s nothing. The inhabitants of Chinatown, Little Mexico and Little Japan at least know where they live. But Watts is Little Nowhere. Yet even here the poverty is relative. Waiting around for some trouble to get into, the young blacks are sitting in cars only a few years out of date. There is land around the houses, and although all the walls are thick with aerosol graffiti the sidewalks are not much less clean than anywhere else in LA — which means, by British standards, that they are spotless.

The anti-littering law is backed up by a $500 fine and a famously gung-ho police force equipped like an army. The LA cops will body-search anybody whose name is already in one of their computers. If you try to double-park in downtown LA they will cone you with search-lights, drop on you out of the sky and stick their finger up your behind.

A few miles south of Watts and you are in amongst the biggest, richest port in the world. The oil pumps march straight through the harbour and out to sea. Oil refineries butt against one another like games of draughts that have only just begun. The docks are so enormous that at first the Queen Mary looks like a miniature of herself, but no, she really is the Queen Mary.

Before you drive north along the beaches, you have to circumvent Palos Verdes on a climbing, dipping and winding road. This is rattlesnake country. Now the Pacific horizon is high beside you on the left. Suddenly you are in the Slide Area. no stopping any time. At Portuguese Bend the road is like a Moebius strip made of toffee, daily getting further lost in its own contortions. Palos Verdes is still climbing out of the sea. Disaster movies like Earthquake are made from the heart. The whole of Los Angeles is built on top of a severe case of geological dyspepsia.

From Palos Verdes you descend to the beaches. Really they are all one beach, the Beach, running north in an unbroken sequence from here to Malibu. This is Beach Boy country, where the only challenges are to find the perfect wave and to stay slim. Onwards through King Harbour, Hermosa, El Segundo and Marina del Rey the signs unceasingly dare you to see how much you can consume and still float. beachbum burt’s casual cuisine (sunday champagne brunch). The season has barely begun but already the girls look good enough to eat. Despite its billing, so does the food. incredible edibles.

Santa Monica was the first stretch of beach the Angelenos ever colonised. Now it is a city of its own. This is custom-car headquarters of the universe. Bodyshops abound. Every kind of car ever made in the world can be seen in its original form on the streets of Los Angeles. Where the original has been lost, a ‘replicar’ replaces it. But in Santa Monica strange, twisted cars the world has never seen before are born out of troubled dreams. It must be the food. del taco drivethru hamburgers.

Beyond Santa Monica the Beach starts curving left at Pacific Palisades. By the time it gets to Malibu it is no longer for the general public, since the beach houses of the wealthy shut it off from easy access. But Pacific Palisades is also the place where Sunset Boulevard starts its long run inland. Now you are in amongst the hills and canyons where those who have really made it have their principal houses. In Bel Air and Beverly Hills those houses which are not completely screened by trees look like illustrations from a freshly printed encyclopaedia of every architectural style since the Minoan civilisation. Factory-fresh limousines and replicars are parked in the open, so that the sun can light them up.

Even the most visible of these houses, however, is equipped to resist uninvited entry. Here the name Charles Manson is not a joke. Gates have guard-houses and electric locks. There is closed-circuit television in the shrubbery. Lawns have spring-up spikes like a Vietcong ambush. These defensive measures should be kept in mind when you lay out two dollars for map and guide to the fabulous homes of the stars and discover that elke sommer lives at 510 n beverly glen, bel air. Try walking in on her unannounced and you are likely to be greeted by an anti-tank missile coming down the driveway at chest height.

By now it was time to stop, before I became like the dazed heroine of Joan Didion’s marvellous novel Play It As It Lays — the girl who drives on the freeways endlessly. We came home to Hollywood along the Sunset Strip, which is really just a stretch of Sunset Boulevard that has let down its hair, not to say trousers. For a few strident blocks, the only totally nude live stage show on the strip vies for custom with male exotic dancers. As S.J. Perelman deathlessly put it, De Gustibus Ain’t What They Used To Be.

Blotto from having driven most of the day, we arrived back at Vidal’s house to find a gigantic white Bentley clinging to the near-vertical driveway. Dudley Moore had come to assess the Yamaha piano for tone and tune. In England he used to drive a blue Maserati which he tended to leave undusted so that girls could write we love you dud on the roof. He played beautifully then and he still plays beautifully now. High from having just seen the rough-cut of his new movie, he filled the evening air with sweet melancholy. Perhaps he was just delaying the tricky moment when he would have to back the Bentley down the driveway. It was like the launching of the Great Eastern.

Los Angeles might be impossible without a car but there is nothing to stop you from going for a walk in Hollywood itself. There are footpaths, traffic lights and other useful pedestrian aids. It is true that William Faulkner once got arrested for walking but that was at night. Hollywood Boulevard is a good place to go in search of breakfast. The Chinese Theatre is still there, with the stars’ names and handprints frozen into the cement outside the foyer. The handwriting is almost invariably huge and illiterate, like a child’s drawings, while the handprints are the true signature. The movie industry was built by people who came up from nowhere.

Despite rumours to the contrary, the studios have never stopped growing. Most of the television programmes that stop people going to the movies are made in the movie studios. All television ever did was shrink the demand for ordinary movies. The demand for extraordinary movies increased. If any one thing is wrong with the movie industry today, it is the unrelenting effort to astonish.

The standard tour of Universal Studios is well worth the trouble. The place was a chicken farm when Carl Laemmle took it over in 1912. Now Universal City has 470 acres of tight-packed production facilities, including a back lot through which your tour tram climbs, dives and tunnels, while houses burn around you and bridges collapse beneath you. The tour is unflaggingly cute. I would have liked to spend more time in the props warehouse, where five million props are classified in racks and shelves. Instead we had to watch a demonstration of the superhuman powers allegedly wielded by Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman, both of whom stem from Universal. So does the Incredible Hulk.

So, once, did the Creature from the Black Lagoon, who used to emerge from one of the ponds on the back lot and press his rubberised attentions on Julie Adams. From Frankenstein and Dracula through to Jaws and Battlestar Galactica, Universal has always been a hot studio for monsters and special effects. I enjoyed my tour but often felt that I might as well have gone to Disneyland.

So I went to Disneyland. Fleeing south-east on the Santa Ana freeway, the Cadillac ate the miles. The sun was bright and once again there was stock-car racing taking place all around us. A topless Volkswagen Beetle with a Chevrolet V-8 motor and wheels off an F1 racing car went past us like a low-flying aircraft, its driver scanning the sky for police helicopters. The freeways distort time and space to the point where Disneyland, when you arrive, seems like reality. Hector and Alphonse knew the place inside out. They pronounced Pirates of the Caribbean to be the best ride.

Bobbing in a boat through tunnels and caves, you pass through mock sea-battles and watch mock towns being mock sacked. Mock pirates chase mock wenches. What will happen to the wenches when they are caught? The question is never asked. Totally innocent purpose is combined with infinitely elaborate execution. In the Haunted Mansion the hologram ghosts sing and dance around the graveyard while a hologram severed head speaks to you from inside a crystal ball. The technology is post-Einstein, the psychology pre-teen. There is a connection: only a thumb-sucker could ever have dreamed such things were possible.

Hector and Alphonse persuaded me that without a ride on the Matterhorn my life would be incomplete. The Matterhorn is a high-speed switchback that loops around, when not hurtling through, an artificial mountain. Strapped into a drop-tank capsule I tried to think of other things while the G-force successively pushed my head through my collarbone, pulled it out again, and turned it back to front. Miraculously my Mickey Mouse ears stayed on, but I didn’t dare open my eyes, lest something worse than what I was imagining was taking place. When I finally drummed up the courage to take a look, we were heading back in the Cadillac for dinner at Carlos and Charlie’s on Sunset Strip. Plastic ears humming in the wind, I was ready for the heavy action.

— June 16, 1979