Cars, Wishes and the Apocalypse
In my larval, pre-blogging days, I always faced the back-to-school moment with abject dread. It meant returning to a program of the most severe, mind-numbing regimentation in the ghastly New York City public schools after a summer of idyllic unreality in the New Hampshire woods, where I went to a Lord of the Flies type of summer camp. And so here I am, many decades later, still uneasy as the final page of the August calendar flies away in a hot Santa Ana wind, and a great hellfire closes in on the far eastern reaches of Los Angeles, and the American money system falls into a peculiar limbo, and every fifth person is out of work, or going bankrupt, or glugging down the seawater of default, or being denied coverage by health insurance that he-or-she has already shelled out ten grand for this year, or getting shot in a trailer park.
I was in Los Angeles for a few days last week, as chance had it, marveling at the odd disposition of things there. I’ve been there many times over the years, but you forget how overwhelmingly weird it is. Altogether the LA metro area has the ambience of a garage the size of Rhode Island where someone happened to leave the engine running. To say that LA is all about cars is kind of like saying the Pacific Ocean is all about water. But one forgets the supernatural scale of the freeways, the tsunamis of vehicles, the cosmic despair of the traffic jams. The vistas of present-day LA make the Blade Runner vision of things look quaint in comparison.
You motor out of the LAX airport – personally, I love the name “LAX” because it so beautifully describes the collective ethos of the place – and you discover quickly that the taxi cab’s windows are not that dirty, it’s the air itself colored brown like miso soup. Going north on the 405 freeway, you see the looming Moloch of the downtown skyline through the brown miso soup. And you begin to understand why the products of the film industry are so fixated on the theme of machine apocalypse. Downtown LA looks like just such a gigantic machine as the FX crews would dream up, as if a day will come when those gleaming mirrored office towers will pull themselves out of the ground from their roots and begin lumbering, crunch crunch crunch, north toward the Hollywood Hills seeking to exterminate the vile humanity responsible for making the place what it is.
I happened to be camping out briefly in West Hollywood, in a scene-ster hotel where tiny bubbles of show biz mega-success wafted around amidst a background odor of failure, and an impossibly thin line was drawn between being pampered and being asked to go die in the gutter, please. The place is not without a certain decorum. I couldn’t help but imagine how lovely Hollywood must have been in, say, 1923, when 92 percent of all the hopeless crapola now on the ground there had not yet been built, when there were no freeways, and fewer cars than currently found in Lincoln, Nebraska, you could go out to the Pacific Ocean on a “Big Red” streetcar, and on a clear day you could see from La Cienga out to Mount Wilson, and the movie “industry” was like a college theater department. What a fabulous giggle it must have all been – apart from poor Fatty Arbuckle – in that romantic desert at the edge of the world.
The whole “Dream Factory” myth has become such an awful cliché, but what remains interesting now is how it utterly infected every other organ, byway, and lost corner of American life, to the degree that the life of this nation became little more than a “narrative,” a story-board, a montage of wishes superimposed over the harsher mandates of reality. Hollywood now is a mere cartoon of what Wall Street and Washington have turned into. We’re a civilization of fluff now, riding on a river of toxic sludge.
I found Hollywood utterly exhausting. On morning walks down in the buzzard flats below Sunset Boulevard you almost never saw a human being outside the protective carapace of a car. I think I was the only person who ever walked down Melrose Avenue this calendar year. There were a lot of fresh store vacancies in the endless one-story strips, as if the retailers had just packed up and left Dodge under the cover of night. There were obvious, if lame, attempts to pedestrianize the major surface boulevards with fancy crossing pavements, but traffic flowed on them at sixty off the rush hours, and you felt like a marmot in a buffalo stampede out there. For solace, I listened to Bruce Molsky sing “I Ride an Old Paint” on the iPod. The fiddle part is lovely.
The city of Los Angeles, indeed the whole state of California, seems exhausted too. Apocalypse is probably such a rich theme out there precisely because everything about that particular way of life seems to be nearing its end – whether it’s the fiscal fiasco or the water supply, or the aerospace economy, or the music industry, or the once-great university system, or the Happy Motoring fantasy of cruising for burgers in what Tom Waits called the dark, warm narcotic American night. I went to the movies there one hot afternoon – Tarantino’s latest, Inglourius Basterds, a completely crazy but enjoyable revenge romp against Hitler & Co. – and before the feature, they showed a “trailer” for Roland Emmerich’s forthcoming apocalyptathon. 2012, in which virtually every global landmark from the Vatican to the White House is destroyed, and mankind’s last hope is John Cusack riding a spaceship to worlds unknown…. If that isn’t shooting your wad as a movie-maker, I’m not sure what is. Maybe next time out, Roland will step back and make a movie about a puppy.
I had my fill of apocalypse by the time I left the place, only to find myself back in a real nation really dissolving into a puddle of goo. In the strange new ether of the Web, a consensus grows that we’re in for a rocky autumn, as if the signal event will be something like a hurricane of shoes dropping – bank failures galore, repudiation of US debt instruments by America’s former patrons, foreclosures to the farthest horizon, jobs and incomes terminated, and all the good intentions of the folks in charge coming to naught in the face of historic forces. We’re off to that kind of a start as I write this, with the Dow dropping eighty points and the news that Disney Inc has just paid four billion for the rights to the Marvel Comics posse – Spiderman and his homeys. As if America needs more childish fantasy.
James Howard Kunstler
September 9, 2009