Wednesday, March 23, 2005The Thing About LA
My vacation is gradually coming to a close -- in another couple of days I have to pack myself back up and take the drive north again; I'm spending Easter Sunday on the road. I know the blog's been pretty inactive, but the break's been good for me. Still, having spent the last two weeks very consciously avoiding discussion of that story (which is mostly over now), it's just about time to get back to business.
I have theories about Los Angeles. I've considered blogging about them before, but never seemed to have an excuse; my experiences there were negative enough that the subject was always a bit raw, which made it easy to put it aside. But it's been a little more than two years since my brief California odyssey ended, the rawness is past, and somebody recently expressed an interest -- and that's really all the excuse I need.
When I was growing up -- especially after I decided I was interested in filmmaking -- I toyed with a vow to never, ever set foot in LA. My rationale was based on the city's ubiquitous presence on television and in the movies; along with New York City, LA is an extremely common setting in popular entertainment. New York itself is a strange place -- visiting NYC for the first time is a bit like seeing a famous person on the street: you recognize it instantly, but in a strange, unfamiliar, detached way. LA, on the other hand, having no easily-recognizable cityscape, feels almost mythological, a golden city full of gorgeous, rich people doing things that nobody does in the real world. Somewhere along the line that notion developed into an irrational inner conviction in my mind that Los Angeles was, in fact, a storybook place with no actual earthly presence. (To clarify, yeah, I knew it was really there, but there was a part of my mind that was left unconvinced. For corroboration of this idea, see Black, Frank: Los Angeles.) So the idea of going to Los Angeles was a bit like the idea of going to Atlantis or Mount Olympus: great for the movies, but not something actual people actually do. And anyway, if you're in a mythical city -- well, what does that say about your own existence, eh?
Ironically, it's probably much easier to pursue a film career in the United States without setting foot in LA now than it's ever been before (though admittedly still tricky beyond a certain level), but there's so much work there and so much money, more than enough to go around to anybody who can make themselves useful. So I went.
I originally went out of confusion about what I was supposed to do next. I'd returned to Memphis immediately upon finishing up at film school, had spent some time there, and felt that there weren't many options in town. (I still feel that way.) I had a couple of close friends from film school who'd already made the transition -- one attending the AFI, the other attending another school to study CG effects and animation and that sort of thing. I had a third friend from London who had gone to a make-up effects school and had worked on a couple of our student films; he was a very charming, engaging guy, but there had been some tension at a few points in our collective association-- it doesn't bear going into much detail; pretty boring stuff. But he was eager to make the move to California, and it sounded like an ideal situation to me: a ready-made roomie, and two other people I adored and trusted there to meet us, give us temporary shelter, and show us around.
The trip out was fantastic, and the first few weeks in LA were great. I got my first studio gig (on a series of Denny's Restaurant commercials, still the most money I've ever made) within three weeks, and finished the job on the day before my 27th birthday. I was working with two documentary directors (one of them a recent Sundance winner), and while neither of them were paying me, they were both hooking me up with paying jobs to keep me alive while I worked on their films. I was meeting people, and found that getting connected wasn't nearly as difficult it's made to sound. Had I been able to sustain myself out there, I think it actually would've been quite easy to support myself (even by LA standards), and by now I'd probably be fairly prosperous and working my way up some ladder or other. The irony of my situation, as I see it hindsight, was that I'd moved out there in a desperate attempt to sell out, and the professional side of things worked out quickly and easily. It was my personal life -- the part about which I had complete confidence -- that went to hell.
I was sleeping on an inflatable mattress on the floor of my film school buddies' floor (the make-up guy was on the sofa), and was assured repeatedly that this was not a problem, even though our supposed-to-be-brief stay had become rather extended. I knew it wasn't realistic to think that they didn't mind a semi-long-term guest at least a little, and I was trying to get us out of there, but make-up guy proved to be rather reticent to take any work but film make-up work, which wasn't so easy to come by. He was also stalling to accomodate the arrival of another potential flatmate, some guy from Iceland, while I got more and more stressed-out. I was out looking for apartments every day (the rental market in Los Angeles is fucking fierce), first for three people, then for two, and eventually just for myself alone. Alas, it was not to be -- my last-ditch prospect fell through after I arrived at the open house 45 seconds after a pair of would-be Coen brother-types from Maine, and I was left with a choice: start living in my car, or go home.
So I headed home full of intentions to save up another couple of grand and try again, ashamed of my failure to get a foothold (and bemused that the failure had been related to the aspect of my life I was most confident about), and sick and exhausted from stress. (I've honestly never been that strung-out from stress before in my life -- I was constantly nauseous, over-emotional, and my whole head hurt from grinding my teeth all night long.) I was chagrined when I returned to discover that Memphis had utterly no work to offer me; saving money was all but impossible. Then one of my film school friends decided she'd been angry all along after all, demanded retroactive rent and bill payments (which I paid in full, plus some, in an effort to salvage the friendship, alas all in vain), and the make-up guy ultimately (though charmingly) refused to let me encamp at his new apartment because his new flatmate wouldn't like it. I was pretty bummed; I dragged myself through much of the following year and gave up on Los Angeles.
I did enjoy the city while I was there. It's so dynamic, so overwhemingly full of different kinds of people, folks coming from all over the world to try their luck at various grand schemes; the average transplanted Angeleno has huge balls to try whatever it is they're working to accomplish. I lived in a patch of land situated squarely between the hipster paradise of the moment, one of the largest Orthodox Jewish districts in the city, and Little Ethiopia; we were adjacent to the tar pits, on land once lorded over by wooly mammoths. And unlike London, in LA there was light and warmth and greenness everywhere. There was a church not far away that, I swear to god, appeared to have a stained glass window of an ant carrying a giant egg sac over the front door (those crazy Episcopalians.) Ron Perlman interrupted me at the bank while I was trying to open a checking account. The ocean was right fucking there, and it was unspeakably, amazingly beautiful. (I admit that sometimes I drive along the delta bluff here in Mississippi and try to remember what it was like to drive the Pacific Coast Highway, imagining that the ocean lies beyond the drop-off instead of cotton fields.) Going up to the Griffith Observatory on a clear, cool night ranks among the happiest experiences of my life. The freeways weren't nearly as bad as I'd been led to believe, at least as long as you stay off 'em during rush hour. And the access to goods was phenomenal -- Book Soup, Amoeba Music -- and the video stores, sweet Jesus, the most amazing video stores. I'm telling you, within a couple of months I was talking about saving up to make a down payment a house and staying forever.
But Los Angeles, as I've said before in conversation with close friends, is a bitch goddess. She offers you everything you've ever wanted, there for the taking, and asks in return only that you give her everything you have. When you come with nothing -- as I did -- it looks like a good deal; then you start losing things (much-loved friends, your artistic standards, good respiratory function) that you'd kinda forgotten you possessed. Had I not been forced back, I'd have stayed anyway... who knows what the cost would've finally tallied up to.
But it's still an interesting place, metaphysically speaking. A city of 14 million people that really shouldn't be there at all, forceably wrenched from the desert and founded on an industry that's essentially all about making things that don't exist look appear to exist. Let me emphasize that point -- the primary economic goal of the people of Los Angeles is to sell images of people and places and events that have never existed in the real world. Their main industry -- and it's a huge one -- is creating illusion.
That's pretty weird when you think about.
And appropriately, the city itself is as fragile as an illusion -- one good shake and LA's done for. The people are made of plastic (have you ever seen one of those Beverly Hills girls up close? From lips to tits to artificial toenails, there's hardly a thing on 'em that wasn't bought after-market and attached by a surgeon.) Relationships are defined by falsehood. A religion founded by a science fiction author is one of the most powerful social forces in the city. The whole place is built on, by, and for artifice; Los Angeles is a postmodern abomination.
"Sour grapes?" you ask. Maybe. That's possible. I'd be more likely to buy it if I'd failed professionally -- couldn't hack it in Hollywood, eh? -- but if my sojourn in the valley of the plastic people demonstrated one thing, it's that, actually, I could hack it there just fine. I don't know what would have been left of me after a whole career of it, but still, the in was secured and my foot was on the ladder. Instead, interpersonal miscalculations sent me home to Memphis on a Greyhound bus to start over as a would-be DV revolutionary, broke but rich in artistic integrity. "You could do it," life seemed to say to me, "but you won't." |