They Have It In For us

Let’s face it: New York City has it in for us. They have a strange vision of the city that includes only the crescent-shaped area linking downtown, Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Westwood, and Santa Monica. That’s only a tiny slice of LA. The whole country has a population just over ten million people, most of whom do not surf, eat granola, work in the film industry, or belong to a cult.

Over the years, we’ve taken quite a beating. It was William Faulkner who said:

Everything in Los Angeles is too large, too loud and usually banal in concept… The plastic asshole of the world.

Of course, that didn’t stop him from writing screenplays over a period of two decades. In the Wikipedia article on him, it says:

As Stefan Solomon observes, Faulkner was highly critical of what he found in Hollywood, and he wrote letters that were “scathing in tone, painting a miserable portrait of a literary artist imprisoned in a cultural Babylon.” Many scholars have brought attention to the dilemma he experienced and that the predicament had caused him serious unhappiness. In Hollywood he worked with director Howard Hawks, with whom he quickly developed a friendship, as they both enjoyed drinking and hunting. Howard Hawks’ brother, William Hawkes, became Faulkner’s Hollywood agent. Faulkner would continue to find reliable work as a screenwriter from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Although Faulkner did not particularly like Hollywood, he participated in the production of some great films which bear his screen writing credit: Air Force (1943), To Have and Have Not (1944), and The Big Sleep (1946). Not coincidentally, they were all directed by Howard Hawks.

If you see Los Angeles as essentially Hollywood, you will be unhappy here. I was for many years until I saw beyond all the la-la-land rubbish. This is a particularly difficult city for New Yorkers to wrap their heads around. Perhaps it’s because they cannot find egg creams here, whatever those are.

The New Yorker Gets Him Right

That Has Been My Viewpoint Ever Since He Got on That Escalator

If we ever get through this presidency in one piece, we will look back on the cover art of The New Yorker as representative of the way that thinking, feeling people reacted to our 45th President. (As to how his supporters feel, I could care less.) I have been reading the magazine on and off for over half a century. In the end, what I remember most are the covers. There are a few stories that I will always remember, such as the issue that contained the whole of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

I will always remember Election Night 2016 as the worst night of my life. I was in Quito, Ecuador, watching the results coming in on CNN. As the night went on, I was feeling sicker and sicker. The next day, I was to fly back to the U.S., which I suspected was about to be changed forever—for the worse!

He Never Did Clear the Swamp, Did He?

He always presented himself as smart, handsome, and rich. It has become grotesquely apparent that he is dim, ugly, and corrupt. As to his handsomeness, there is this cover:

Yeah, Well, the Emperor Has No Clothes


Cities That Are Hard To Read

Los Angeles: A City That Is Hard To Read

The New Yorkers are at it again. In the pages of the New York Times, two reporters—Tim Arango and Adam Nagourney—referred to Los Angeles as “A City That Never Quite Came Together.” That reminds me of that old chestnut about Los Angeles being seventy-five communities in search of a city.

From the time I heard I was accepted by the UCLA Motion Picture History and Criticism graduate program, I scoured the Cleveland Public Library for books about Southern California. One of them wrote at great length about mudslides along the Pacific Coast Highway (California Route 1) in Pacific Palisades and Malibu, and posited a fictional type of super-salesman called a “Pro-Cal,” who regarded L.A. as the best of all places—diametrically opposed to the boo-birds from the East who were intent on digging up dirt about the Golden State.

This kind of thinking negatively affected what I thought about L.A. when I first moved here in 1966. All those stucco apartment buildings painted in pastel colors struck me the wrong way. Why couldn’t they use good red brick, like we had in Ohio? Then I endured my first earthquake in 1971 and understood why they used stucco: It was the brick buildings that collapsed. Only in the 1970s that I began to actually like California. The fact that that coincided with the way I felt about myself was no accident.

My friend Lynette—who was born in California—sent me a reference to a Los Angeles Times article published on February 8, 2018  and written by Christopher Hawthorne. In it, he compares L.A. to Houston, Texas:

If I had to put my finger on what unites Houston and Los Angeles, it is a certain elusiveness as urban object. Both cities are opaque and hard to read. What is Houston? Where does it begin and end? Does it have a center? Does it need one? It’s tough to say, even when you’re there — even when you’re looking directly at it.

The same has been said of Los Angeles since its earliest days. Something Carey McWilliams noted about L.A. in 1946 — that it is a place fundamentally ad hoc in spirit, “a gigantic improvisation” — is perhaps even more true of Houston. Before you can pin either city down, you notice that it’s wriggled out of your grasp.

People who are accustomed to making quick sense of the world, to ordering it into neat and sharply defined categories, tend to be flummoxed by both places. And reporters at the New York Times are certainly used to making quick sense of the world. If there’s one reason the paper keeps getting Los Angeles so spectacularly wrong, I think that’s it. Smart, accomplished people don’t like being made to feel out of their depth. Los Angeles makes out-of-town reporters feel out of their depth from their first day here.

This is not a city on a hill, such as can be found in Tuscany. You can’t just take it in at a glance and say, “Yeah, this is Los Angeles, all right!” I like to surprise visitors with forays to ethnic enclaves like Koreatown, Little Tokyo, and East Los Angeles (or “East Los”). Then there are mountains within the county boundaries that are two miles high. The fact that there are mountains here at all is a surprise to most people.

L.A. no longer wriggles out of my grasp. I recognize it as a conglomeration of landscapes, cultures, and even architectures. So don’t think you can spend an afternoon on the Sunset Strip or the Bel Air Hotel and think you’ve scoped out the city: You haven’t even begun.



The Smugness of The New Yorker

Postcard from Los Angeles

I have always loved reading The New Yorker, but I continue to be dismayed at the peculiar relationship The Big Apple has with Los Angeles. It grates me like that scene in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) in which Allen is ordering lunch at a Sunset Strip eatery: “I’m going to have the alfalfa sprouts and a plate of mashed yeast.” Another line from the same movie: “I don’t want to move to a city where the only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn at a red light.”

We know that Woody Allen doesn’t like Los Angeles, and the feeling is more or less mutual. It tends to be shared by The New Yorker, which seems to include half a dozen articles each year that come under the heading of slumming in the sticks. Witness the following, which is shown on a hand-drawn cartoon of an L.A. postcard:

Greetings from Los Angeles, California. Come for the sunshine, stay for the dream that may or may not happen, but feels as if it’s going to happen like … four years in, when you score that big meeting and everyone says, “This is it—don’t blow it!!,”  but on your way there there’s a huge backup on the 5 and you’re forty minutes late so they never call you again.

Oh, come off it! This is that same Annie Hall Los Angeles that consists of the film studios and the Sunset Strip, leaving out EVERYTHING ELSE. It’s as if they’re still stuck on that Nathanael West image of The Day of the Locust.

IMHO, if you miss that big meeting, you should have gotten on the freeway earlier. No biggie! Get there early, have a coffee, arrive relaxed. Leave your Gotham edginess in the trunk of your rental car.



Eustace Tilley’s Last Stand

New Yorker Cover Commemorating the Magazine’s Move to the World Trade Center

New Yorker Cover Commemorating the Magazine’s Move to the World Trade Center

For half a century, I have loved The New Yorker. I remember learning about REM sleep from reading the magazine on a long train trip between Cleveland and White River Junction, VT (I was attending college in nearby Hanover, NH.) Then, in the late 1960s, there was a pioneering article about Magical Realism in Latin America: That started me on Jorge Luis Borges, who in turn led me to hundreds of writers whose work has become precious to me.

It was responsible for publishing Jorge Luis Borges, John Cheever, Roald Dahl, J.D. Salinger, Joseph Mitchell, Haruki Murakami, Philip Roth, Vladimir Nabokov, James Thurber, John Updike, Shirley Jackson, Eudora Welty, and Truman Capote.

But now, alas, I am thinking for the first time of not renewing my subscription when it expires later this year. The New Yorker has survived Harold Ross, William Shawn, Tina Brown, and David Remnick as editors. But I don’t think it can survive continuing ownership by Condé Nast Publications with its focus on the super-rich. Although the magazine has broken its long-standing policy of not endorsing a presidential candidate, it went for John Kerry and Barack Obama in the last three elections.

My bet is that the magazine is veering to the right. It takes its advertising revenue very seriously, and this has slanted its editorial content to fashion-conscious CEOs who are more likely to buy the ridiculously priced merchandise. There are still short stories by world-class writers, but not so often as before. And it seems that the farther The New Yorker goes from Manhattan, the less trustworthy are its articles. They have a particular problem with Southern California: It seems that they haven’t developed any further than Nathanael West, author of Day of the Locust.

Particularly dismaying are the endless bios of CEOs, a subject not dear to my heart.

Oh well, sic transit gloria mundi. I am more likely to get my info from The New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement from London.

The New Yorker Scores Again

A Great New Yorker Cover

I don’t always like The New Yorker, which I slavishly continue to read every week. There are far too many detailed biographies of boring national business figures and other thieves whom I would consign to the lower circles of Dante’s Inferno. (Witness, in particular, the October 8, 2012 issue, which on one hand kisses up to the top 0.001% and on the other attempts to maintain its Liberal editorial policy.)

The September 24 cover, however, which is shown above, is a classic take-off on an America which I no longer profess to understand. It’s not that I’m a Socialist or even necessarily a Liberal. But most certainly I am not a flag-waving motherhood and apple pie type. Whenever I meet some Tea Party type, I usually prefer to think of myself more as a Hungarian-American rather than an American—just to distance myself. (Though, God knows, there are as many if not more horror stories connected with my Magyar antecedents.)

It is always surprising to me to fight Right Wingers in other countries, yet they are there. In fact, they are everywhere.

Will I ever come to terms with them? Probably not. At best, I can co-exist with them, and not always peacefully. I am always amazed by the disconnect by these people, who usually profess to be such good Christians, yet are so hateful toward the unfortunate, in direct opposition to Christ’s teachings. Trying to reconcile one’s beliefs and make sense of them does not appear to be part of the American way.