Monday, February 27, 2006

urban fervor: the hollywood novel

Last week, I began posting excerpts from my dissertation every Monday. This second installation is from a chapter that takes a look at the role of alternative religion in the Hollywood novel.

Because dreams are considered dead in noir and the focus on material reality that much more predominant, there is not much room for the occurrence, much less exploration, of the kind of religious aspiration or symbolism we find in other Los Angeles fiction. Mike Davis explains that “1940s noir was more typically concerned with gangster underclasses and official corruption than with the pathology of the middle class” (City of Quartz, 41). However, David Ulin does see the noir genre and the Hollywood novel as “cousins” united in their “fatalistic cynicism” (xviii). He also credits Queer People with pioneering the Hollywood novel genre. In the beginning of this novel, the Graham brothers provide a twist on the imagination disclaimer usually found in the front matter of a novel.

The authors desire to assure the readers that all the characters (except for the liberties jocosely taken with prominent personages who are named) and events in this book are entirely imaginary. If resemblances to well-known figures in Hollywood life occur in certain passages, it is only because America’s fifth greatest industry has become so completely standardized that everybody resembles everybody else.

On the one hand, this proviso is a comically convenient way to bash the conformity of Hollywood and the studio system, but perhaps unintentionally, it is a comment on the genre of the Hollywood novel itself. Just like the Victorian novel often features governesses and repressed desire and the contemporary police drama often features mismatched buddies and charismatic crime lords, so does the genre of the Hollywood novel have its formula. Of course, a Hollywood novel would not be complete without the stars and starlets required to enact its dramas, either serving in principal roles or acting as a foil to characters of substance. Everyone must drink a lot and engage in one or more inebriated scenes, this as much a comment on Prohibition in the early years of the genre as its setting. People will describe hangovers in exaggerated noir language, such as “I have a taste in my mouth like a bag on a vacuum cleaner” or “the vague notion came to him that a complete printing press had been installed inside his skull while he slept” (Grahams, 23, 25). There must be characters transplanted from the Midwest who serve as a fresh eye on the locale. People will make sarcastic remarks about the sunshine. Everyone will have an impressive car, unless forced to walk everywhere like Arturo Bandini in John Fante’s novels or Ambrose Deacon in Carl Van Vechten's Spider Boy, in which case such pedestrian ways will inevitably lead to trouble.

There is often a requisite scene taking place on Hollywood Boulevard, either within or outside of an elaborate movie theater. Male characters will often take refuge at some point in a local brothel, and female characters will often find employment there. Studio executives will welcome people to their homes in architecturally schizophrenic neighborhoods, and the guests will be greeted by an Asian servant. Of course, the studio executive or those working close with him will be Jewish, and the novels themselves, if not written by Jewish authors, will often reflect the anti-Semitism prevalent in Hollywood at the time.

There is one more element these novels have in common: an underlying sense that there is some kind of spiritual enchantment occurring as films are distributed nationwide, and then worldwide. Sometimes this takes the form of a satirical deification of the studio head, sometimes this takes the form of a critique of the intelligence of the average moviegoer, and sometimes this takes the form of a true conviction in the power of Hollywood production. Eccentric young poet and evangelist Vachel Lindsay came to Los Angeles in 1912, where he witnessed the early days of the burgeoning film industry and found an outlet for his spiritual beliefs that mankind could be redeemed through art. David Ulin refers to him as “the proponent of a visionary populism of near-messianic proportions” (Writing Los Angeles, 47). Lindsay is thought to have pioneered film criticism with the 1915 publication of The Art of the Moving Picture, a work that explores changing human perceptions and envisions movies as a new language. “And the great weapon of the art museums of all the land should be the hieroglyphic of the future, the truly artistic photoplay” (17). Lindsay argues that the photoplay of Hollywood is about to rise to the same prominence as the literature of Boston, yet with more vitality because in California, the artistic and the spiritual traditions are developing in tandem. “Edison is the new Gutenberg. He has invented the new printing. The state that realizes this may lead the soul of America, day after tomorrow” (149). Aside from some strict admonishments that photoplaywrights and producers need to follow a higher path than they might be apt to choose, Lindsay saw much promise in delivering religion “through the eye” (177):

Scenario writers, producers, photoplay actors, endowers of exquisite films, sects using special motion pictures for a predetermined end, all you who are taking the work as a sacred trust, I bid you God-speed. Let us resolve that whatever America’s tomorrow may be, she shall have a day that is beautiful and not crass, spiritual, not material. Let us resolve that she shall dream dreams deeper than the sea and higher than the clouds of heaven, that she shall come forth crowned and transfigured with her statesman and wizards and saints and sages about her, with magic behind her and miracle before her (186).

Lindsay was not alone in seeing film as a medium to unite the world in a heretofore unseen higher plane. D.W. Griffith, perhaps the first famous director and creator of Ku Klux Klan propaganda film The Birth of a Nation, was so impressed by Lindsay’s insights that he invited the poet to be a special guest at the premiere of his film Intolerance. The director himself believed that film was the Universal Language that could “restore mankind to its prelapsarian state.”

Urban Fervor: The Quacks & Charlatans School

Sunday, February 26, 2006

octavia butler (1947-2006)

I came home tonight to the sad news that singular writer Octavia Butler has died in Seattle at age 58 after a fall. She was the lone black female voice in the science fiction world for a long time, and if you haven't read her, don't wait any longer. The Seattle PI and the Chicago Tribune have more information.

the prophet sings her own praises

Kate Braverman took pains in this week's LA Times profile to send home the message that Los Angeles is not giving her the respect she deserves. While Palm Latitudes is a compelling and lyrical novel and her other books also have their own merits, you've gotta have a weighty set of cojones to declare yourself as having "the most literary stature, certainly, of any woman in Southern California" or that other writers in Los Angeles "wouldn't exist" without you. Braverman's other over-the-top claims are worth clicking through for, and they echo her bashing of the city in the San Francisco Chronicle, in which she describes herself as "a splendid mutation ... a female intellectual in a region that did not recognize this as a possibility." At least in her Bookslut interview, she only refers to herself alongside Didion and Bukowski as a "holy trinity."

Friday, February 24, 2006

the ecology of hollywood

Michiko Kakutani reviews The Selected Nonfiction of John Gregory Dunne:

Certainly Mr. Dunne, like Tom Wolfe, had an unerring feel for the telling status detail (that might reveal a person's background, pretensions or self-delusions) and the odd, ironic detail (that might capture a mood, a situation, a larger truth), and this volume is crammed full of them. He notices that the stretchers in the Los Angeles County morgue are Tiffany blue. He notices that during the O. J. Simpson trial, Universal Pictures moves an 18-wheeler truck, emblazoned with advertisements for its latest movie, to a spot outside the courthouse where it will appear in live news coverage. And he notices that Steven J. Ross, the onetime Time Warner boss, always signs notes "Love, Steve" — "even to people he might not recognize if he saw them."

big screen canada

There's adaptation afoot for Alice Munro. Sarah Polley will be directing Away from Her, based on Munro's short story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" from the collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. Next year, Julianne Moore will star in a production that takes its title from the same collection.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

lest I be considered self-important

I made the difficult decision to call in sick to work today (made slightly less difficult by the fever, chills, sore throat, and general delirium), so I was happy to see this post at that demonstrates I was being responsible rather than self-important.

Before I go back to bed, I figured I'd catch up on some lingering links:

  • Mayor Sam has a post up about Aimee Semple McPherson, which can serve as a good primer for the Urban Fervor excerpt to be posted a couple weeks from now.
  • Neatorama has an update on the Buddha Boy, the latest guru to make claim to divinity. He apparently burst into flames last month and remained unscorched.
  • The latest issue of New York Magazine is dedicated to an exploration of blogging.
OK, that's all I can manage.

Monday, February 20, 2006

urban fervor: the quacks & charlatans school

I am currently as deep in the dissertation as I'll probably ever be, so I thought, "Hey, why not drag the lovely people who visit here into my misery?" So starting today and every Monday following until I defend, I will post a short (I promise) excerpt from Urban Fervor: Los Angeles Literature & Alternative Religion. The inaugural selection comes from the introduction and gives a sense as to why I ended up here in the first place.

This project was conceived with three separate (though sometimes overlapping) audiences in mind. I am sad to say the first group includes some literary critics and scholars as well as your average reader. It is the group who, when presented with the idea of Los Angeles literature, asks, “There’s literature in Los Angeles?” In spite of and in service to the untutored, this project was begun.

The second audience was revealed a little further into my research. After reading the work of writers and critics I much admire, such as Mike Davis and David Fine, I was left with the impression that all we need to know about Los Angeles literature can be found within the pages of
noir classics and the occasional Hollywood novel. This project seeks to reach the audience of these imminent writers, those readers who acknowledge the merit of L.A. literature scholarship. However, we need to take this scholarship further.

The third audience is comprised of people like me: readers who know that a city of over three million people can and has produced literature of varying styles and strengths that goes beyond what has been studied thus far. In fact, opening the canon this way brings in so many texts that there was a need to focus the project in some way.

If you ask a random selection of readers what text comes to mind when they hear the phrase “Los Angeles literature,” they will almost invariably mention Nathanael West’s 1939 novel The Day of the Locust. The tragic tale of Hollywood dreams dashed seems to be the entry point into the city’s literature, and as we’ll see in Chapter Five, it is a bleak and violent entrance. In his characteristically cynical style, West provides various portraits of alternative religion in Los Angeles – miracle solvents, Dr. Know-All Pierce-All, the Church of Christ Physical, the Church Invisible, the Tabernacle of the Third Coming, the crusade against salt, Temple Moderne, brain-breathing, and “a crazy jumble of dietary rules, economics, and Biblical threats” (141). During my initiation to Los Angeles literature through The Day of the Locust, I was under the impression that this frantic bounty of religion was part of West’s feverish nightmare rather than an essential element of Los Angeles culture. As I expanded my reading, I discovered that time and time again, writing in Los Angeles about Los Angeles would echo West’s portrayals of this religious fecundity.

Surprisingly, there appeared to be a glaring lack of discussion about this constant theme running throughout most of the Los Angeles literature of the twentieth century: an obsession with alternative religion and its role in this particular urban culture. What discussion did exist was dismissive and derisive: the “quacks and charlatans” school of criticism, if you will. The proliferation of religious alternatives was not explored with any depth at all by the earliest critics of the urban scene. In a 1926 article for the Baltimore Evening Sun, it seemed as if H.L. Mencken were going to tackle the reason why so many Americans were drawn to the spirituality of Southern California in his study of popular evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. Alas, we are not so lucky as to receive any critical thinking on the subject:

What brought this commonplace and transparent mountebank to her present high estate, with thousands crowding her tabernacle daily and money flowing in upon her from whole regiments of eager dupes? The answer, it seems to me, is as plain as mud. For years she has been wandering about the West, first as a side-show wriggler, then as a faith healer, and finally as a cow-town evangelist. One day, inspired by God, she decided to try her fortune in Los Angeles. Instantly she was a roaring success. And why? For the plain reason that there were more morons collected in Los Angeles than in any other place on earth – because it was a pasture foreordained for evangelists, and she was the first comer to give it anything low enough for its taste and comprehension (65).

Mencken was not alone in his condescension and superficial analysis. Bruce Bliven also uses a cattle metaphor to describe Los Angeles in an article for The New Republic in 1927: “Here is the world’s prize collection of cranks, semi-cranks, placid creatures whose bovine expression shows that each of them is studying, without much hope of success, to be a high-grade moron, angry or ecstatic exponents of food fads, sun-bathing, ancient Greek costumes, diaphragm breathing and the imminent second coming of Christ” (cited in Ulin xv). In his 1932 autobiography Laughing in the Jungle, Slovenian anarchist and immigrant Louis Adamic provides a tally of his L.A. periodical reading:

On Saturdays, I saw church advertisements in the
Times and the Examiner announcing sermons apparently by the leading preachers in the city on such topics as “What Would Jesus Do if He Were a Great Movie Director Like Cecil de Mille?” or “– If He Were President of the Advertising Club?” One minister was self-described as an “ex-gambler, now a mighty hunter before the Lord,” and his subject one Sunday was “Who Killed the Dead Sea?” An evangelist advertised himself as “a drunkard, gambler, pimp, and outcast for twenty years; five times around the world as a hobo; now a miracle of grace.” Still another contended that “millions now living will never die” and that the Second Coming would soon occur in southern California “because here the climate is just like that in the Holy Land” (208).

Why did these writers not ask themselves, if there were thousands of people desperately seeking something in Los Angeles every day, what might this say about America? What might this say about the twentieth century? What might this say about Los Angeles?

Friday, February 17, 2006

on the pleasure of reading

I first came across the Penguin series of Great Ideas while window shopping at Skylight Books. The shop had dedicated a revolving display tower to the collection and I was immediately smitten. I treated myself to the whole kit & kaboodle (Montaigne, Nietzsche, Orwell, Machiavelli et al) in anticipation of the time I am able to return to ideas that don't need to be shaped and squeezed into a dissertation. Powell's blog and the Guardian can tell you a little bit more.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

hot young sects make trouble

I've got sects on the brain, so I was interested to see this dispatch from Adam Gopnik on Shaker style.

Weary old faiths make art while hot young sects make only trouble. Insincerity, or at least familiarity, seems to be a precondition of a great religious art—the wheezing and worldly Renaissance Papacy produced the Sistine ceiling, while the young Apostolic Church left only a few scratched graffiti in the catacombs. In America, certainly, very little art has attached itself directly to our own dazzling variety of sects and cults, perhaps because true belief is too busy with eternity to worry about the d├ęcor. The great exception is the Shakers, who managed, throughout the hundred or so years of their flourishing, to make objects so magically austere that they continue to astonish our eyes and our sense of form long after the last Shakers stopped shaking. Everything that they touched is breathtaking in its beauty and simplicity. It is not a negative simplicity, either, a simplicity of gewgaws eliminated and ornament excised, which, like that of a distressed object found in a barn, appeals by accident to modern eyes trained already in the joys of minimalism. No, their objects show a knowing, creative, shaping simplicity, and to look at a single Shaker box is to see an attenuated asymmetry, a slender, bending eccentricity, which truly anticipates and rivals the bending organic sleekness of Brancusi’s “Bird in Flight” or the algorithmic logic of Bauhaus spoons and forks. Shaker objects don’t look simple; they look specifically Shaker.

Yet what the Shakers thought they were doing when they made their boxes and ladders and clocks, and why we think what they did was so lovely, remains something of a mystery, despite a booming market and the books to go with it. How did a sect so small make objects so sublime? Did they know what they were doing when they did what they did? Or were they doing something else, and doing this other, better thing on their way there?

Wednesday, February 15, 2006


Jason Roeder addresses a serious international problem: the terrible grammar in spam.

Formal quotations cited as documentary evidence are introduced by a colon and enclosed in quotation marks.

Hey, bob_r_mail0899, the New York Times' said this to me: "bob_r_mail0899 has lost his hair and is unsexy now to his wife!"

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

national single awareness day

While helping a friend prepare an anti-Valentine's day exercise, I came across an Onion classic:

Girlfriend Stops Reading David Foster Wallace Breakup Letter at Page 20

Thompson said pages 4 through 11 of the letter chronicled the deterioration of the relationship "fairly well." She specifically cited Item 64, on page 7, from the section, "How I Can Tell Things Have Changed":

"It used to be that if you were away from the table or in the next room or otherwise unable to witness this admittedly unsavory and wholly intrusive activity on my part, in little spasms of unhealthy obsession I would peek into your Day Runner Personal Planner so as to gauge how much together-time we would have during the upcoming week at a glance; lately, however—if you are at all able to move past this revelation of my no-two-ways-around-it unforgivable and unjustifiable invasion of privacy and on to the rather telling point—I have found myself either viewing the week-at-a-glance in actual anticipation of our time apart or, even when opportunities for unfettered peeking presented themselves, ignoring your Day Runner Personal Planner altogether such as just last week when, stooped in rummaging position, I opted to remove from your bag and guiltily read cover-to-cover a copy of Fine Cooking magazine, therein choosing to glean particulars about the cultivation, culinary traditions, and preparation of white asparagus over those of our precious little time together."

In addition to compiling the many reasons why the relationship was no longer working, Wallace's letter featured sections on "Why We Could Never Grow Old Together," "Ways It—Us, The World, And Everything—Has All Changed," and "Things I've Never Told You (That Will Certainly Change Your Mind About Me)."


Sunday, February 12, 2006

note to self

Do not:
a) date a "rock musician" with a secret longing for a book/movie deal
b) bear his child
c) share his desire for our artistic work to be "acknowledged by a wider audience"
d) indulge my unhealthy obsession with Dennis Cooper and notoriety in general
e) engage the boyfriend as my business manager in a literary hoax involving the fake memoirs of a junkie prostitute
f) allow his sister to dress up like said junkie prostitute and pose in creepy homoerotic pictures with her
g) end the relationship, leaving a damn good tale for him to tell at the custody battle

Friday, February 10, 2006

her dashing playmate in short shorts

Ken & Barbie have reunited following their 2004 breakup, but not before Ken upped his hip factor.

Ken, heartbroken, traveled the world in search of himself, making stops in Europe and the Middle East, dabbling in Buddhism and Catholicism, teaching himself to cook and slowly weaning himself off a beach bum life.

During the news conference this morning, timed to the opening of the American International Toy Fair in New York on Sunday, the new and improved Ken will emerge, restyled by a celebrity primper, Phillip Bloch, who has dressed Pierce Brosnan, Johnny Depp and Sean Combs.

Gone are Ken's outdated swimming trunks and dull T-shirts. Ken's new wardrobe will include cargo pants, a fitted suit with peak lapels and a motorcycle jacket. A facial resculpting, as Mattel calls it — Ken's first in more than a decade — will give him a more defined nose and a softer mouth. "It's Matthew McConaughey meets Orlando Bloom," Mr. Bloch said in an interview.

(Thanks to SGM for the link.)

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

but the one variable they forgot was love

More fun from the film trailer mash-up world:

Brokeback to the Future (via Rockslinga)

The Fight Club: A Romantic Comedy (via Boing Boing)

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

get thee to the cineplex

The Coen Brothers will be adapting Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, joining Billy Bob Thornton in the ranks of those who have tackled McCarthy's style-heavy prose.

First-time director Danny Green has adapted Bernard Malamud's The Tenants with Dylan McDermott and Snoop Dogg as down & out dueling writers in a Brooklyn tenement.

Monday, February 06, 2006

in gratitude and mourning

Betty Friedan (1921-2006)

"The problem that has no name — which is simply the fact that American women are kept from growing to their full human capacities — is taking a far greater toll on the physical and mental health of our country than any known disease."

Wendy Wasserstein (1950-2006)

“Don't live down to expectations. Go out there and do something remarkable.”

Friday, February 03, 2006

this week's netflix

Head-On (a.k.a Gegen die Wand): Credited by some critics as contributing to a revitalization of Turkish cinema, this film follows two young Turks in Germany who marry to escape their own individual demons. Sibel wants to get out of her oppressive household and Cahit needs someone (whether he realizes it or not) to help him clean up his act. Oh so tragically, they learn that involving the other complicates the situation rather than aiding in their salvation. The film is compelling, horrifying, heartbreaking, and definitely worth renting. (Side note: For some reason that is unclear, at one point in the film, Cahit begins speaking in English and suddenly, I had a completely different impression of him. It was the first time I realized that watching foreign films doesn't allow for the viewer to assess the nuances of a character's intonation and how important that aspect of language is to fully understanding someone.)

Overnight: Ah, can only take you so far. This documentary of the rise and fall of momentary Hollywood player Troy Duffy is painful and fascinating to watch. Duffy went from a bartender to Harvey Weinstein's golden boy "overnight" and the film shows how his overwhelming arrogance and aggression may have caught the eye of the film magnate, but they eventually alienated him from every single person in his life. Throughout the entire viewing, I just wanted to yell "Shut the f*ck up!" both for his own protection and mine.

Broken Flowers: Jim Jarmusch's most recent film casts Bill Murray as an "aging Don Juan" who learns he has a son conceived 20 years before. The presumably retired computer exec, with help from a sidekick played charmingly by Jeffrey Wright, goes on a cross-country visit to locate the four women who may possibly be the mother. One of my favorite aspects of the film is that we see Don board a plane and debark in the next location without indication from Jarmusch as to where he may be. The drive from the airport to the maternal candidate's home is lovingly chronicled as neighborhoods in Anywhere, USA pass by outside the rental car windows. Once Don arrives at each destination, he finds Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, and Tilda Swinton - all portraying rich female characters despite their brief appearances on the screen. Their complexity highlights the empty shell in which Don lives. The premise is excellent - I spent much time imagining visits to lovers from my past and gauging what my reaction would be if they showed up on my doorstep.

Good Morning (a.k.a Ohayo): Yasujiro Ozu's 1959 film plays like a Japanese version of an episode of Bewitched (with flatulence instead of twitching noses). Two young boys refuse to speak after an argument with their parents in which they demand a television. I felt extremely ethnocentric in that I didn't get a lot of the jokes and then guessed that it might have been that, as an American, the joke was on me. One thing I did learn is that the suburban tract home ideal was apparently universal in the fifties.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

writers in the ring

If I could have a book as my sweetheart, it would still be David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, the winner of last year's Tournament of Books sponsored by The Morning News. Well, the 2006 Tournament has begun with a posting of the contenders. I'm going to put my money on Veronica. Ishiguro has to be stopped.

lessons from rome

If last night's state of the union got you down, you can always read Gore Vidal's instead.

I had a piece on the internet some of you may have seen a few days ago, and there's a story about Tiberius, who’s one of my favorite Roman emperors. He's had a very bad press, because the wrong people perhaps have written history. But when he became emperor, the Senate of Rome sent him congratulations with the comment, “Any law that you want us to pass, we shall do so automatically.” And he sent a message back. He said, “This is outrageous! Suppose I go mad. Suppose I don't know what I'm doing. Suppose I'm dead and somebody is pretending to be me. Never do that! Never accept something like preemptive war,” which luckily the Senate did not propose preemptive wars against places they didn't like. But Mr. Bush has done that.

So this is a sort of Tiberius time without, basically, a good emperor, and he was a good emperor in the sense that he sent back this legislation, which was to confirm anything he wanted to have done automatically. And they sent it back to him again. And then he said, “How eager you are to be slaves,” and washed his hands of the Senate and went to live in Capri, a much wiser choice, just as we can send this kid back to Crawford, Texas, where he'll be very, very happy cutting bushes of the leafy variety.