The caroming dialog about Los Angeles bounces along from 1884 and Helen Hunt Jackson's laments in Ramona . . . to 1910 and the shouts of hucksters who sold the city into existence . . . to the 1920s and 1930s and the arch putdowns of Robert Benchley and Nathanael West . . . to the 1940s and 1950s and the bleakness of film noir . . . to 1971 and Reyner Banham's celebratory Los Angeles The Architecture Of Four Ecologies . . . to 1990 and Mike Davis' baleful City of Quartz . . . and on to the industry of L.A. Studies that has developed since.
The talk about L.A. is caustic more often than not.
David Ulin, the Los Angeles Times book critic, recently offered a prime example of elegant flaying in James M. Cain's essay "Paradise," published as the lead piece in H. L. Mencken's American Mercury magazine in 1933.
Mencken promised to reveal "What Southern California Is Really Like" in Cain's "Paradise" by debunking the central themes of the sales pitch that brought so many middle-class Midwesterners here: the landscape isn't a garden; it's a dun colored desert . . . the local exoticism is a thin as a coast of whitewash . . . once you've seen the ostrich and lion farms, there's nothing to do . . . not joy but ennui is the general mood of the place, poorly papered over with glad-handing and boosterism . . . and Angeleños unfortunately are merely nice (that is, while they're not the uncouth proletariat that Mencken disliked, they're the charmless booboise he hated).
The core of Cain's essay (apart from its militant elitism) is the city's past and present inauthenticity as a place. Everything about Los Angeles, except its future, is suspect.
Cain's remedy for the phony Los Angeles of 1933 was its very businesslike Chamber of Commerce. In a way, Cain proposed what so many have suggested since - because Los Angeles is so insufficient as a place and its people so inept, the best alternative would be turn the place over to some efficient operators to do the job right.
Which is exactly what the Chandler family and its allied business interests were doing, to their benefit and the continued infantalization of the city's civic life.
Gregory Rodriguez and Zócalo Public Square picked up the conversation about Los Angeles recently (as part of the Pacific Standard Time program at the Getty), turning to other interpreters to poke again at the city's disturbing qualities.
For movie directors William Friedkin, John Singleton, and Wim Wenders, the documentarian Thom Andersen, and film critics Richard Schickel and Kenneth Turan, it's not the lack of sophistication that Cain indicted but the perverse and dream-like qualities of Los Angeles that make this city so bewildering.
For Singleton, Los Angeles is "manufactured, but it's also real." For Wenders, "Los Angeles is about stories and fiction and dreams." Added Richard Schickel, "Face it. Los Angeles is an incredibly unstable place."
Nearly eighty years on, and the city's unreality - its essential inauthenticity - remains the cause of wonder and unease among the city's interpreters.
Is that what the immigrants came for? Did they come for the chance to be radically inauthentic (softened to a positive sounding "re-invention")? And when they stayed, raised families, and saw their grandchildren grow up, did the stain of inauthenticity still cling to them, preventing them from ever being native to this place?
Millions longed to come here, and they did, gaining and losing something in the process of translating themselves into Angeleños. But gains and losses - including the fantasy of authenticity - are true of every American place, not an exception for Los Angeles.
Exceptionalism still rules our common imagination, however, in which Los Angeles was once an imperfect paradise and is now a perfect hell. Longing and loathing still shape our conversations about Los Angeles.
D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.
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