Walking to Hollywood by Will Self

In Empire of Their Own, a worthy, scrupulous and curiously dull account of how immigrant Jews founded the state of mind known as ‘Hollywood’— first in America, then latterly throughout the wider world — its author, Neal Gabler, glosses their Diaspora from the European ghettoes and shtetls, thus: Carl Laemmle, born 1867 in Laupheim, a small village in south-western Germany, ‘…prevailed upon his father, a penurious land speculator, to let him come to America to seek his fortune. He would eventually found Universal Pictures.’ Adolph Zukor, who was born in the Tokay region of Hungary and orphaned as a child, ‘…was bundled off to an uncle nearby, a steely, bloodless rabbinical scholar. Lonely, independent and unloved, Zukor, like Laemmle, petitioned to leave for America and a new life. He would later build Paramount Pictures.’ Then there was William Fox, also from Hungary, whose parents were the émigrés, but whose experiences of ‘hawking soda pop, sandwiches and chimney black he would… parlay into the Fox Film Corporation’.

And of course there was Louis B. Mayer, who ‘had forgotten exactly where in Russia he had been born and on what day,’ and whose voortrek took him to Canada, then to Boston where he made money in the salvage business, before heading west to found Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Benjamin Warner left his wife and children in Poland, worked as a cobbler in Baltimore, brought his family over to the new world, then ‘…For years, he roamed the East and Canada, peddling notions from a wagon before finally settling in Youngstown, Ohio.’ Here Warner raised the four sons whose purchase of a broken film projector set them on the road to become the eponymous Warner Brothers.

Gabler’s contention is that what typified all these Jewish men was ‘a patrimony of failure’, which led to an: ‘utter and absolute rejection of their pasts’, with a concomitant ‘absolute devotion to their new country’. With these luftmenshen in the role of Polybus, the founding Oedipuses of Hollywood took the road west, unconsciously intent on using the nascent movie industry as a means of storming the precincts of American ‘gentility, respectability and status’ that they were otherwise prohibited from entering.

So far, so lacking in contentiousness. This much we know: the white picket fences of the Andy Hardy movies, behind which Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland romped in pubescent faux-innocence; or the carpenter gothic that was the required framing for the ‘wonderful life’ limned in by Frank Capra at the behest of Harry Cohn — these were clever gestalts of Americana, fabricated in the central European Jewish psyche, then projected on to giant screens, so that the movie-going masses might emote, then cathect. This does not much interest me — it seems a given.

But what does grab me — worry me, even, a terrier at my imagination — is how Gabler’s account of this Jewish empire-building is so lacking in a spatial or geographic context.  Apart from the bald schema mittel-European plain – Ellis Island – Beverly Hills, and a few remarks on the condition of Los Angeles in 1900s ‘a primitive outpost…paved roads ended abruptly downtown… its main architecture small shacks engulfed by orange and pepper trees.’  There is only a nod to the topography we all know: ‘Hollywood…Twelve miles from the Pacific Ocean and isolated on a gentle swell,’ before the place itself sinks to the substratum of Gabler’s narrative of men, a handful of women and power.

If Los Angeles locations are scouted at all in Gabler’s 432-page history of the movies, it is only to furnish sets for a handful of scenes — such as the notorious ‘consultations’ by members of the House Committee for Un-American Activities at the downtown Biltmore Hotel in May 1947; or the meetings of the celebrated ‘comedians’ circle’ at the Hillcrest Country Club; or again, the vast mansions and fantastical estates created by the Hollywood elite in Beverly Hills and Bel Air, which, with their Cuisinart of architectural styles represented the dernier cri of pretension, certainly, but also of arrival.

Of course, it’s reasonable to ask: why should An Empire of Their Own concern itself with Hollywood and Los Angeles as places at all? Apart from the balmy climate, and the particular southern Californian quality of light that made it possible to film year-round without the use of costly Klieg lights, there was surely no greater geographic imperative that made this basin, the valley of the Los Angeles river, the cockpit of an entertainment industry; one which — I would argue — fed for the greater part of the twentieth century the entire globe’s insatiable appetite for narrative and image. Hollywood and movies are not, in this respect, like the Ruhr with its coal and iron, or the Ukrainian steppe wavering with wheat — the movies were not there already, waiting to be dug out of the ground.

I suppose it’s precisely because it was Hollywood that shaped and defined our perception of the greater Los Angeles area that the jibe between reality and representation looms so much greater in these parts than anywhere else in the Western world. Let me elaborate: I take it as a given that the technological advances in mass communications and transport that typified urban development in the twentieth century have resulted in the detachment of human from physical geography. We can point to the covering over of the Fleet River in London as the locus in quo of this new epoch. Henceforth neither physical features — rivers, hills, ravines — nor physical limitations — the traction of men and beasts — would define the urban landscape: cities would come, increasingly, to conform to Guy Debord’s formulation of the ‘society of the spectacle’, places shaped by economic imperatives, and even seen within the framing of work, entertainment and consumption.

What makes Los Angeles so special in this regard is the id of Hollywood itself. When Tod Hackett, the art director protagonist of Nathanael West’s great Hollywood novel The Day of the Locust comes upon the jumble at the back of his studio’s lot, he pushes his way through ‘a tangle of briars, old flats and iron junk, skirting the skeleton of a Zeppelin, a bamboo stockade, an adobe fort, the wooden horse of Troy, a flight of Baroque palace stairs that started in a bed of weeds and ended against the branches of an oak, part of the Fourteenth Street Elevated station, a Dutch windmill, the bones of a dinosaur, the upper half of the Merrimac, a corner of a Mayan temple, until he eventually reached the road’. (Incidentally, in case you’re wondering, the Merrimac referred to is almost certainly the USS Merrimac, the first ironclad built in the Civil War, so West juxtaposes eras, built environments with their pockets of herbage and modes of transport.)

Hackett, confronted with this ‘final dumping ground’, thinks of Janvier’s story In the Sargasso Sea, a history of civilisation encapsulated in the form of a marine junkyard. As an evolution of this, the studio’s back lot is, he realises, ‘a dream dump. A Sargasso of the imagination.’ Moreover, it is a dump that continually hypertrophies, for ‘there wasn’t a dream afloat somewhere which wouldn’t sooner or later turn up on it, having first been made photographic… Many boats sink and never reach the Sargasso, but no dream entirely disappears.’

Is it significant that West, a satiric writer and himself Jewish, was the first to grasp this particular aspect of Hollywood’s psychogeography? Probably. West understood that the process whereby cities are cut up by the economic imperatives of production, then re-edited by those of consumption, would reach its apogee in Los Angeles. The Day of the Locust, written in the mid-1930s, is less well known for its bucolic scenes — campfire picnics in the canyons of the Hollywood Hills — than its justly celebrated climax: a hideous riot by crazed fans outside a movie premiere being held at a thinly veiled Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, ‘Kahn’s Persian Theater’, on Hollywood Boulevard.

Now that the narrative cinema that Hollywood dominated for almost three-quarters of a century is moribund, its celluloid body gnawed at by the microscopic, digitised parasites of television and the Internet, we are left with a Sargasso Sea of an imagined Los Angeles, for never before in the history of humanity has a city been so relentlessly depicted and yet so little comprehended. Frame, zoom, pan, track, wide-angle or close-up, how many tens, hundreds, thousands, even millions of views of Los Angeles have we been sold, without ever seeing the whole picture? Is it fanciful to suggest that this slipperiness, this ungraspability of the sprawling conurbation, is itself a correlate of those other cities — from ancient Rome to modern London — that have been constructed from plaster and lath on the back lots of Paramount, Universal, MGM, et al.?

I think it worth swimming some more in West’s Sargasso of the imagination, because while he was the first to nail down its implications, the authors of two other important Hollywood novels were also notably taken by the spatial incongruities of the studios’ back lots. Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? was a cause célèbre when it was first published in 1941. In part this was because Schulberg was himself a Hollywood princeling — the son of Paramount production head B. P. Schulberg — in part because its depiction of a ruthlessly ambitious Hollywood producer was seen as inescapably anti-Semitic, but mostly because Schulberg’s privileged access to the imperial secrets made him able to lay bare the oedipal rage that Gabler characterises as the driving force of the moguls.

The Sammy of the title, Sammy Glick, is a second-generation American Jew whose steely nature is tempered in the forge of Manhattan’s lower East Side, and by his hatred for his frum father, a failed patriarch who, unable to earn a living in the New World, davens behind a handcart. Glick’s unwilling amanuensis, Al Manheim — significantly from a kindlier, reformed, small town Jewish background — discovers where Glick (né Glickstein) comes from: ‘Between a synagogue and a fish store, in a tenement laced with corroded fire escapes and sagging washing lines. It looked as if one healthy gust of wind would send its tired bricks tumbling into the narrow street. The hallway gave off a warm, sweet and infinitely unpleasant odor of age, of decay, of too many uncleaned kitchens too close together.’

Equally significant, to my way of thinking, Manheim has walked to Rivington Street in the East Village, downtown from Central Park. His 60-block traverse has afforded him the opportunity to meditate on ‘the irony of the fascist charge that the Jews have cornered the wealth of America, for here, where there are more Jews than anywhere else in the world, millions of them are crowded into these ghetto streets with the early American names’.

On the West Coast, the Hollywood inhabited by Glick, Manheim and the other characters is still recognisably the enlarged village that Gabler describes; the same faces are seen again and again at Hollywood and Vine, while all the major players can be witnessed, any evening, at the Brown Derby or Musso’s. However, Al Manheim and his lover, the wiseacre — but presumably gentile — screenwriter, Kit Carter, take this promenade upon leaving a meeting of the nascent Writers’ Guild: ‘We walked out past the sound stages and the machine shops and the labor gangs to the back lot. We walked past the New York street and up through the Latin Quarter of Paris until we came to a South Sea Island with a little beach leading down to real water. We crossed a little bridge to the island and sat down on the sand in front of a native hut. The hot April sun was just what the set designer ordered. I dug my hands into the warm sand and lay on my back, looking up through a palm tree supported with piano wire, at the cloudless sky.’

So far, so Nathanael West — and again, note the significance of walking — but the scene then opens out into another: the lovers leave the Sargasso of the imagination and drive west along Sunset Boulevard ‘past Westwood village, the home of UCLA, which is either the model for Hollywood’s version of campus life or vice versa.’ Then to the sea, where they visit Julian Baumberg, the creative nebuch, and then north towards Malibu. On the coastal road Kit remembers a real beach where she’s really swam, and they make their way down to it. Manheim remarks: ‘I almost broke my neck on the jagged path that angled down to the little beach that lay concealed and virginal below. Natural hydraulics working overtime for a couple of million years had scooped it right out of the cliffs.’

Schulberg thus tries to place Hollywood’s ingurgitation of the wider world within the context of a spatial awareness of Los Angeles, its guts and its flanks. When we pull back further from the cannibalistic tale of Sammy Glick eating his way to the top, we can appreciate that Schulberg — a native Angeleno — understands the physical geography of southern California perfectly. Throughout the novel Manheim, Glick and company shuttle back and forth from east to west coasts, by train, by car, by train again. Manheim says of his train flight from Sammy Glick: ‘It was consoling to lean back and let the distance between us widen tie by tie.’ What is underscored here is that Hollywood is integral to the western expansion of American civilisation, remaining then, now, and — if recent events are anything to go by — always at its final frontier.

F.  Scott Fitzgerald is the bridge between West and Schulberg spatially and metaphorically. Schulberg was his neighbour in the writers’ building, and the older author was one of the important champions of What Makes Sammy Run? Schulberg returned the compliment by writing The Disenchanted, an account of a great alcoholic novelist washed up on the desert island of Hollywood. West, bizarrely, died in a car accident on his way to Fitzgerald’s funeral. The Last Tycoon, Fitzgerald’s Hollywood novel, was published posthumously, also in 1941, although its action takes place in 1935. The familiar motif of the Sargasso returns this time described by the narrator, Celia Brady: ‘Under the moon the back lot was thirty acres of fairyland — not because the locations really looked like African jungles and French chateaux and schooners at anchor and Broadway at night, but because they looked like the torn pictures of childhood…’

More laboured than West or Schulberg, I’m sure you’ll agree, and arguably in Celticising his female narrator (who was in fact based on David Selznick’s wife — and Louis B. Mayer’s daughter — Irene), Fitzgerald suffered from a certain cowardice in the face of the actualité: Hollywood was never an Irish empire. However, there is much The Last Tycoon has to teach us about the psychogeography of Los Angeles. Kathleen, the love interest of Monroe Stahr — the novel’s protagonist and the fictional alter-ego of the great producer Irving Thalberg — arrives when the Sargasso of the imagination is flooded: ‘On top of a huge head of the goddess Siva, two women were floating down the current of an impromptu river. The idol had come unloosed from a set of Burma, and it meandered earnestly on its way, stopping sometimes to waddle and bump in the shallows with the other debris of the tide.’ When Stahr makes his move on the young woman, it’s during an industry function at the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard.

The following afternoon they rendezvous there again, and Stahr drives her west along Wilshire to Santa Monica, their progress — into infatuation — mirroring the expansion of Los Angeles itself. This is the road that exemplifies the city’s capitulation to the automobile, with its Streamline Moderne office blocks and apartment buildings, and its department stores purpose-built to be accessible by car. Like Al Manheim and Kit Carter, Stahr and Kathleen are an interfaith couple heading via one of Los Angeles’ human ecologies — Autopia — to another — Surfurbia. When they make love in Stahr’s half-built beach house, they are indulging as much in topic miscegenation as racial. No wonder the fog is so thick that they can’t see where they are: they are violating the utopia of Los Angeles by being anywhere at all.

So, there it is, whipped out in the open — the phallic car. In The Last Tycoon Celia Brady, all of twenty, turns on the car radio and accelerates up Laurel Canyon, describing herself thus: ‘I had good features except my face was too round, and a skin they seemed to love to touch, and good legs, and I didn’t have to wear a brassiere.’  You may have noted my insistence on the pedestrian in my consideration of The Day of the Locust and What Makes Sammy Run? And some of you may have been thinking: what’s this walking got to do with Hollywood or Los Angeles at all?

It was the architectural historian Reyner Banham, who, in his seminal 1971 study Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, defined those ecologies as ‘Surfurbia’, ‘Foothills’, ‘The Plains of Id’ and ‘Autopia’. Banham certainly ceded great significance to the car in his consideration of the built environment of Los Angeles, noting — for example — that ‘in (some) areas… the banks and cuttings of the freeways are often the only topographical features of note in the townscape.’ Banham also posited that the relationship between the Angelenos and the freeway system involved ‘a deep-seated mystique’, and pondered whether or not the horror stories routinely told concerning freeway driving were not intended ‘to prevent the profanation of their most sacred ritual by the uninitiated’.

However, when it came to what he termed ‘the common misconception that everything in Los Angeles is caused by the automobile as a way of life’, he was blunt: ‘If there has to be a mechanistic interpretation, then it must be that the automobile and the architecture alike are the products of the Pacific Electric Railroad as a way of life.’ I don’t have the space here to take you through the elegant circumambulations of Banham’s thesis on the built environment of Los Angeles, but let it suffice — for my argument — to give his punch line: ‘The houses and the automobiles are equal figments of the great dream, the dream of the urban homestead, the dream of the good life outside the squalors of the European type of city… Los Angeles cradles and embodies the most potent current version of the great bourgeois vision of the good life in a tamed countryside.’

Except for post-Marxist theorists of Los Angeles — for whom Mike Davis’s City of Quartz is Das Kapital — Banham’s dialectic would seem to be a truth universally acknowledged, with this proviso: if the thesis is a unitary, cubic instantiation of this ‘vision’, then, in the absence of any but the bare minimum of strategic planning — the antithesis — synthesis is effected by two modes of seeing, both of them screens. I would argue there is no real difference between Autopia and the utopia of Hollywood: they are both framed within a screen, they are both the means to the same end, a non-locatable vision of the good life, as experienced by the voyeur, who is static but presented with the illusion of control, either through his or her choice of what movie to see, or which freeway to take.

Of course Los Angeles antedated Hollywood by a long way, and even by the 1900s there were novelistic accounts of its peculiar human ecology, its domestic architecture of rampant individualism, its polymorphous hucksters and perverse boosterism. The film historian David Thomson, in his book The Whole Equation, theorises that perhaps the movies arrived in Hollywood too late. This is a mere trope, of course. The truth is that the Eastern European Jews arrived at exactly the right time to take part in the second great creative syncretism of American culture, the first being the collision between the traditional English ballad form and the eight-bar blues, which resulted in rock ‘n’ roll.

The Hollywood Jews found the expansion of the Los Angeles aqueduct, a colossal land-and-resource grab, orchestrated by the Chandler-Otis dynasty centred in downtown LA, whose chief propagandist, Charles Fletcher Lummis, walked all the way to southern California from Ohio in 1884. Colonel Otis, the then owner of the LA Times, was so impressed by this 143-day odyssey that he made Lummis the City Editor. Lummis went on to found a literary salon, the ‘Arroyo Set’, which synergised the virtues of open-air living and revivalist domestic architecture, in much the same way their contemporaries, the pre-Raphaelites, jammed together guild socialism and the neo-gothic.

But why — I hear you think — the preoccupation with the novel, specifically with novels about Hollywood? Surely with this extreme plethora of visual representation to choose from, prose fiction is the least effective means of understanding the psychogeography of Los Angeles? Lummis walked to Los Angeles — he therefore knew exactly where it was. His was an eotechnic grasp on the tyranny of distance; all subsequent Hollywood imagineers came by rail, or train, or road. And, as Rousseau observed, we think at walking pace, while we conceive of prosody in terms of metric feet. When writers describe Autopia their prose becomes necessarily filmic, like this from Joan Didion’s 1970 Hollywood novel, Play It as It Lays: ‘She drove the San Diego to the Harbor, the Harbor up to the Hollywood, the Hollywood to the Golden State, the Santa Monica, the Santa Ana, the Pasadena, the Ventura. She drove it as a riverman runs a river, every day more attuned to its currents, its deceptions, and, just as a riverman feels the pull of the rapids in the lull between sleeping and waking, so Maria lay at night in the still of Beverly Hills and saw the great signs roar overhead at seventy miles an hour.’

Would it be stretching an analogy too far into a methodology if I were to suggest that the only way to discover the psycho-spatial relation between Los Angeles and Hollywood was to re-enact that great syncretism with my own person? I had walked to New York in partial emulation of my maternal grandfather, Isaac, son of the Rabbi Yehuda Zalkind, whose bald account of his emigration to the new world in the 1890s was scrawled in the back of his prayer book thus: ‘I left Romshishiak Falk Havana on September 11, 1888. I came to America November 26, 1888 on Wednesday.’ A bald progression of places: Romshishiak — Falk — Havana.

When I say walked, I had, in point of fact, walked from my house in Stockwell, south London, to Heathrow, then flown to JFK, then walked into Manhattan through East New York and Brooklyn. Nevertheless, such was the primacy of muscle fatigue over mental conception, and so much of a jump-cut is intercontinental jet flight, that when I arrived I felt as if the two landmasses were one.

Like the Hollywood moguls, mine would be a quest in search of the movies; however, while they hurried to attend its birth, I would be in search of the deathbed of cinema. By covering every inch of ground between my home and Heathrow, then eschewing wheeled transport for the entire duration of my week in Los Angeles, I would be able to throw off the banjaxed topography of the cut, pan, zoom, track, close-up and wide-angle, whether of camera lens or car windscreen. I would be able to encounter Baldwin Hills, Crenshaw, West Adams, South Central, Downtown, Echo Park, Wilshire Boulevard, Melrose, in 360-degree surround sight, sound, touch and smell, arriving in Hollywood footsore but possessed of an insight not privileged to anyone since Charles Foster Lummis presented himself to Colonel Otis.

And then I would press on, into the Hollywood Hills, along Mullholland Drive, down Laurel Canyon, along Sunset Boulevard, through Beverly Hills, past Hillcrest Country Club down to Culver City and the MGM Studios. And on to Santa Monica, and thence Venice, before traversing the Boleno wetlands, until eventually I regained the airport. In all, a 120-mile circumambulation of the Los Angeles basin, taking in all of Banham’s four ecologies, and ritualistically emptying out the Sargossa of Hollywood’s dreams as only a wandering demi-Jew could.

And I did. What was it like? Well, you’ll have to wait for the main feature to find out, when my account of the walk is published in book form next year. This has only been the trailer.

Will Self is the author of seven novels (the most recent of which The Butt is published in paperback in May), five collections of short stories, and three novellas. He has contributed extensively to a plethora of publications over the years, and four collections of his journalism have been published. He lives in London with his wife, the journalist Deborah Orr

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