Books: Flying Visits: Postcard from Los Angeles - 2 : Even with Uncle’s Dogs |
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Postcard from Los Angeles - 2 : Even with Uncle’s Dogs

Crewed by my boy assistants Hector and Alphonse, the canary-yellow 1964 drop-head Cadillac delivered me at Carlos and Charlie’s restaurant on Sunset Stp. The doorman looked askance at the Mickey Mouse ears which I had acquired at Disneyland and forgotten to take off. Airily I removed them and tossed them behind me into where the car would have been if the car-hop had not already driven it away. Carlos and Charlie’s is currently one of the fashionable places to eat, if you discount the fact that by the time you have heard that a place is fashionable it isn’t fashionable any more. It doesn’t matter anyway. Good food is plentiful in Los Angeles. If you want to gawk at movie stars, you can always go to the movies.

Carlos and Charlie’s specialises in Mexican food. Presumably Carlos looks after the kitchen while Charlie counts the money. Mexican cuisine places a lot of emphasis on the heat factor. You take a hot tortilla, drop it, pick it up, fill it with assorted meats, top it off with various hot sauces, roll it tight, and bite one end of it while the contents fall out of the other end into your lap. Hector and Alphonse introduced me to a pepper called the habanero. No bigger than your little finger, it just lies there innocently like a failed gherkin, but it goes off in your mouth like a petrol bomb. I thought the sun was coming up in my throat. Citizens of Mexico who accidently eat a habanero plunge immediately into the Rio Grande and swim to the United States, slowed down only by the drag of their open mouths.

After I had been put out with foam I was loaded into the back of the Cadillac and driven through forests of neon to a disco called Osko’s. The Cadillac drew narrow looks of appreciation from the car-hops. But they still parked it around the back instead of positioning it prominently near the front door alongside the Rolls-Royces and Mercedes which had been chosen for that honour. Style counts, but the house has its prestige to think of. Hector and Alphonse bought the Cadillac from an outfit called rentawreck for less than the price of a new Mini. Cheap is cheap no matter how you polish it.

Osko’s was full of dark sound fighting to get out. Tiny bulbs set into narrow slits in the floor lit up in sequence, chasing one another like particles in an accelerator. An amplified combo stamped out a trip-hammer beat at a volume calculated to burst John Travolta’s pimples. You didn’t have to dance. The floor danced for you. It was on springs. Ladies were not allowed to wear open-toed shoes, lest their writhing partners descend from shoulder-height and flatten a pedal digit into something that could be presented in court as evidence of negligence on part of the management. But at least ladies were allowed to wear shoes of some kind. In almost every disco except Osko’s what you have to wear is roller skates. Cher Bono and other stars have their own roller disco every Monday night: Jon Voight is supposed to be the greatest thing on eight wheels. Tomorrow roller-skates will give way to skis.

Then it was tomorrow. In my motel, the Casa Nervosa, the TV set woke me up to tell me that Captain Video was dead. In the 1950s I had seen every episode of Captain Video, a movie SF serial with such a low budget that the hero and the heavy shared the same spaceship, only the nose and tail being switched to indicate the change of owner. Captain Video had been played by Al Hodge, who later on, as the newsreader put it, ‘had trouble getting parts’. Hodge had been found dead in a motel. Nobody came to claim the body. The announcement was a momentary acknowledgment of inexorable fate. Such lapses into gravity are uncommon in a city where the usual idea of tragedy is the hideous prospect of paying a dollar a gallon for gasoline.

Ever since Lana Turner was discovered engaged in the construction of a banana split, it has been axiomatic that any actor can get the big break. All she or he has to do is be in Los Angeles. The result is that most of the world’s actors are in Los Angeles. Actresses who take jobs as waitresses are far more likely to find themselves waiting on other actors than on producers. The actors will have their heads buried in magazines like Casting News, whose Actors’ Advice Column is hosted by Dennis Lamour. Q: if i’m in a scene how can i do a good job if the other person doesn’t relate? isolated, l.a. Dear Isolated: Use their impenetrability as a catalyst for your character’s underlying feelings. This could be anger, sadness, impotence, hatred, frustration, etc. A closed performance might mangle a scene, but your emotions, your work, your life, can still shine. In Los Angeles there are thousands of Isolateds desperately trying to make their lives shine while the other person goes on not relating.

For the actress, while she is still young and looks good, there is always another way out. It isn’t exactly theatre or the movies, but on the other hand it isn’t exactly pornography. female oriental models eighteen and over are needed for nude figure modelling for European publications. No porno. Experience not necessary. All sizes OK. Models will work directly with producers. Call Mr Pimpa, (213) 462-3455. Working directly with producers could mean anything but in this case it probably means what it says. As for Mr Pimpa, at least he’s got a telephone number.

Down among the real pornography, names and addresses are harder to trace. For 50 cents I bought the entrée into the hard-core section of a big bookshop on Santa Monica Boulevard. The stuff on the racks had to be seen to be believed. Once seen and believed, it quickly numbed the senses. I found it more difficult than ever to understand Lord Longford’s agitation when faced with evidence of the tawdriness of human dreams. My own reaction was an overwhelming desire to lie down on the floor and go to sleep. virgins for the cardinal. slut for the crusaders. slave to the sadistic woodsman. even with uncle’s dogs. nazi file (Forced to submit to the Nazi dogs!) nazi torture shack.

Literature for male homosexuals varied in tone. At one end of the scale there were Gordon Merrick’s ‘stories of Pete and Charlie’. Shyly equipped with titles like The Lord Won’t Mind and One for the Gods (‘A novel of Charlie and Pete — once more and forever!’) these featured pastel cover illustrations of clean-cut young men holding hands. At the other end of the scale naked bruisers in steel helmets and hob-nailed boots were jumping up and down on each other’s faces. For studs, there were magazines showing prostrate ladies being penetrated at all points and attempting to indicate gratitude with their eyes.

It might sound like paradox-mongering to say so, but there is something innocent about the supposition that happiness can be found by gratifying the body’s wishes. It is certain that misery is to be found by not gratifying them, but beyond that nobody except a child can be sure. The Angelenos seem sure, and therefore childish, but it must be admitted that they have good excuse. Living in the climate and circumstances of Eden, they can be forgiven for behaving as if Los Angeles were the only reality and the rest of the world a dream.

In that sense Los Angeles is the world’s biggest provincial town. But the sophisticate’s confident scorn tends to become muted with proximity. You can’t be in town two days without feeling the urge to take better care of yourself, drink more orange juice, run five miles before breakfast, do something about that wilting bicep, live for ever. It is but a short step to your first face-lift. Suddenly it seems a crime to be unhealthy. In his first enthralling book Arnold: the Education of a Bodybuilder, Arnold Schwarzenegger quotes Plato on the subject. ‘Plato wrote that man should strive for a balance between the mind and the body.’ There is something to it even if you can’t help wondering what Arnold’s mind must look like if his body is balanced by it. Plato would have jumped out of his sandals at the mere thought of a human being ever looking like Arnold — i.e., like a brown condom full of walnuts.

To Stone Canyon for lunch with Ken and Kathleen Tynan. It was through country like this that Philip Marlowe drove Lindsay Marriott to his appointment with death in Farewell My Lovely. The canyons were lonely in those days. Now there is no real-estate left to sell. But there are still plenty of trees. The Tynans served lunch al fresco. I eyed the Mexican salad warily, in case a habanero should be lurking incognito behind a lettuce leaf. But everything tasted delicious. The soft breeze took the sting out of the sunlight. The talk ranged far and wide. I could stand a lot of this. I started to be a bit sorry about having to go home. It was easy to see why the Tynans had settled in so well. It would have been no use pointing out, for the hundredth time, that what the London theatre needs more than anything else is for Kenneth Tynan to go through it like an avenging angel.

The awkward truth about LA is that although it dares you to laugh at it, you can’t. No free person can afford to mock Los Angeles, since liberty is its primary impulse. Not even Forest Lawn is beneath contempt. everything at time of sorrow. There are in fact two main Forest Lawns, one in the Hollywood Hills and the other at Glendale. The one at Glendale is crazier. People of a literary turn of mind have always found the place easy to satirise, principally because the Builder had a unique touch with the English language. It is hard to remain unmoved when reading the Builder’s Creed carved in immortal stone. forest lawn shall be a place wher lovers new and old shall love to stroll and watch the sunset’s glow. Such prose shall turn the unwary reader’s bowels to water.

After your first few minutes in Forest Lawn you find yourself solemnly vowing never to be seen dead here. Plainly The Loved Ones was not a novel but a straightforward documentary. Before you pull your coat over your head and run for the exit, you simply must see the ‘Last Supper’ window. ‘Located in the Memorial Court of Honour in the Memorial Terrace of the great Mausoleum, this radiant glass re-creation of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece is shown with a dramatic narrative daily on regular schedules.’

While the radiant stained glass re-creation waits patiently behind plush curtains, the dramatic narrative is imparted by a disembodied, sepulchral voice-over of teeth-rattling resonance. The dramatic narrative consists of a long and involved story about how Dr Hubert Eaton enlisted the talents of every glass-stainer in Europe. At first everything went well. But then there was a hitch. Three times the image of Judas refused to form. Dr Hubert Eaton was on the verge of scrubbing the whole deal. But then word came through from Europe. Judas had jelled! Iscariot was intact! The stained glass re-creation of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece was at last complete! At this point in the dramatic narrative the dramatic narrator pauses dramatically. The plush curtains roll back, revealing a stained glass re-creation before which Leonardo himself, were he still with us, could do nothing but set fire to his own beard in silent tribute.

The same chapel that houses the stained glass whatsit is also a repository for copies of almost every statue Michelangelo ever carved. Before being outraged, you need to take stock of what you are being outraged at. The copies are micrometrically perfect. Only their clean finish serves to distinguish them from the originals. What is ridiculous is the way they have been torn from their historical context and placed in another context which has no history at all. To see sculptures by Michelangelo lovingly deployed against a background of such transcendental hideousness is enough to make you burst out crying. But what kind of tears? In part they are tears of annoyed envy that anybody could combine so much technical know-how with so much crassness. What incenses you is the airy thoroughness with which the old world has been plundered of its images and left behind. Forest Lawn is the clearest proof that Los Angeles is the whirlpool of the world, a geopolitical jacuzzi, a maelstrom in which all the styles and cultures have come to drown in one another’s arms.

Nobody can defy death and stay sane. The biggest tombs in Forest Lawn house the embalmed corpses of plastic surgeons who got rich by encouraging people in the mad belief that time can be stopped. Yet in Los Angeles even that delusion becomes understandable. Life is so good that nobody wants to leave. The hidden assumption behind all the mockery that has ever been aimed at California is that existence is not meant to be that easy. The sophisticated Europeans who were exiled to Los Angeles — Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Brecht, Renoir, Ophuls and scores of others not much less exalted — often sneered at their new life, or other people sneered on their behalf. But in the countries they came from they would have been doomed, and in the place they had come to was a new energy. It was vulgar, but new energy always is.

By now the scornful visitor is a rarity. Europeans react with open admiration. John Boorman making Point Blank and David Hockney painting bigger and better splashes are only two examples of British artists responding to stylistic chaos with vigour instead of condescension. Even more indicative, the New Yorkers, once so quick to scoff, are becoming increasingly slow to go home. In the 1930s it was taken for granted by the writers from back East that they came to Hollywood only under financial duress; that what they wrote would be travestied before it reached the screen; and that their lives would be distorted if they stayed too long. Dorothy Parker, S.J. Perelman and the other New York wits never thought of veiling their contempt. Robert Benchley lamented his screen successes. But Scott Fitzgerald talked himself into a love affair with the studio system and in The Last Tycoon celebrated the very forces that helped destroy him.

Fitzgerald was romantic but it was he, and not the realists, who got it right. Despite all its absurdities, the movie industry really was as important as he thought it was. Even more important, Los Angeles was not going to go away. Since the war, during which the economy of California doubled all over again, everything not nailed down has come West. Johnny Carson’s Tonight show, which initially was based in New York, came to LA each year for its annual holiday. In 1974 it forgot to go home. When the Dodgers sock the ball out of the park, it lands in Los Angeles, not in Brooklyn.

On my last night in LA I dined with Joan Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne at their house in Pacific Palisades. His-and-hers twin Toyotas stood nose to nose in the driveway. Mexican food was served. Both writers unashamedly thrive in Los Angeles. Dunne’s excellent long article about California in New West for January 1, 1979 is an unbroken paean, while even Didion’s famously mordant title essay in Slouching Towards Bethlehem is written more from fascination than from fear.

Both writers make their money from writing movies and use the money to buy time in which to write their books — a system pioneered by William Faulkner. Both writers know in advance that scripting the remake of A Star is Born for Barbara Streisand must inevitably entail a certain literary contribution by Ms Streisand herself. They know exactly what the difference is between compromise and capitulation. If two people so intelligent can live in Los Angeles on their own terms, then the place has become civilised in spite of itself. I enjoyed their company very much and did my best not to let them know that I had swallowed a habanero. They probably thought my muffled sobs were due to homesickness.

At midnight Hector and Alphonse fetched me away up through the hills to Mulholland Drive. From a look-out high on the ridge I could see all the way down the coast to Balboa and inland to the Sierra Madre. Turning around, I cold see the whole of the San Fernando Valley. It was all one sea of light. This is where the first space voyagers will come from. When our children leave the Earth and sail away into relative time, they will have the confidence of naïvety. They will have forgotten what it is like not to get anything you want just by reaching out. In a way the Angelenos have already quit America. Suddenly I felt compelled to see more of the land they have left behind. In the morning I cancelled my flight to London and caught the train for New York.

— June 17, 1979