Los Angeles Plays Itself

Still from Mulholland Drive dir. David Lynch (2001).

Originally published in City by City, out now from n+1.


In Los Angeles the freeways have definite articles, like rivers: the 10, the 110, the 101, the 405. The only one that doesn’t is Pacific Coast Highway, or PCH, the segment of California State Route 1 that begins in Dana Point, just south of Laguna Beach, and winds up to the Oxnard Plain before turning due north to Mendocino, where an estimated two-thirds of the economy is based on the cultivation of marijuana. Approaching PCH from the 10 West, you must pass through McClure Tunnel in Santa Monica, a quick elbow that, despite frantic signage, cars fly through too fast. That tunnel spits you out onto PCH, and suddenly after so much concrete—the ocean. It’s so bright you understand why even the least pretentious people here wear sunglasses. I’ve ridden this stretch of highway thousands of times since childhood, but it still feels like a small miracle every time, like the conversion of Paul.

After about a quarter mile, you hit traffic. If you’re lucky, you stall somewhere with a nice view of the beach. If you’re not, and it’s June, you wait in a drab overcast, no view to speak of, and wait for the light at Sunset to change.

City boundaries are, to me, fuzzy. To know technically for sure, I have to look them up. From above, the mass of the city looks arbitrary, as if someone flung paint at a map and said, “That’s L.A.” A blob, with one skinny line dripping all the way to San Pedro. My sister lives in Westwood, with the UCLA professors and yoga teachers. Her boyfriend lives in the Valley, one of the nice parts. She refers to their relationship as long-distance. It takes her an hour to get to where he lives, so she stays for three days at a time, then comes home for one or two.

The most famous intersection in the city is a four-tiered overpass called “the stack,” where the 110 meets the 101. There wasn’t enough room to build a cloverleaf interchange, so the planners just piled the ramps on top of one another, like in the more boring, transitional parts of a roller coaster. Opened in 1953, it was the first such intersection in the world. If it wasn’t the inspiration for the streetscape in Blade Runner, it could have been.

Traffic is a perennial struggle. In 1976, Caltrans, the state agency in charge of all transportation planning, introduced a program of “diamond lanes” to cut the number of cars on the Santa Monica Freeway by 7,800, a model for high-occupancy vehicle lanes that screwed up traffic forever. Joan Didion wrote about it in an essay called “Bureaucrats”: they painted the lanes; the municipal engineer of L.A.’s surface streets was pressured to make traffic worse and force people onto the freeways, where they would be disciplined by traffic into carpooling. Accidents tripled; angry drivers scattered nails on the HOV lanes in protest. Diamond lanes were introduced to other major freeways anyway. In 2009, the city approved a $1.1 billion project to add, among other things, a ten-mile diamond lane on a stretch of the northbound 405 called the Sepulveda Pass Improvements Project. It’s a kind of concession, half 1950s-era highway expansion and half 1970s-era environmental constriction: a new lane that only carpoolers can use. In 2011 and 2012, significant stretches of the freeway were shut down, and the radio DJs flipped out, saying it would be a CARMAGEDDON. They scared everyone off the road for two weeks. A record number of people took the Metro, though most stayed inside, as the Los Angeles Times had advised them to. As a result, traffic was lighter during the Carmageddon than usual. Air quality improved dramatically in minutes—83 percent better than usual, according to one study by UCLA environmental researchers. “The air was amazingly clean that weekend,” said a leading professor on the study. “Almost below what our instruments could detect.”

In 2011, my friend Matt, a reporter for The Huffington Post, dug up a report from the Brookings Institution saying that Los Angeles gives people better access to public transit than any other city in the continental United States: 99.1 percent of no-car households have access. In the nation, only Honolulu is better. This seems unbelievable. Of course the commute, once accessed, is lousy: few people get to work in under ninety minutes. I recently watched the Blue Line, which runs from Long Beach toward downtown, pass through Watts; it was only three cars long. It looked kind of like the Franklin Avenue shuttle in Brooklyn, if the Franklin Avenue shuttle ran on the A line from Far Rockaway to Ozone Park and never touched a rich neighborhood.


To be in L.A. without a car is to be at the mercy of whoever will give you a ride. In this way, it both is and isn’t a teenager’s town.

Nobody knows where to go; it’s not a city designed for accidental social discoveries. You think of a place, you look it up, you go; you look up the way back, you go home. I was always terrified to go too far. My little brother had his adolescence after Google Maps, so he went anywhere with a sense of ease and entitlement I found both repulsive and enviable. He could never get lost. I wasn’t brave, but neither is he; I at least had to ask leering guys in academic Spanish how to get back to the 10. I asked my brother what he did with his freedom: Valley parties, he said.

All I ever did was drive the familiar loop of surface streets I knew, smoking cigarettes, blasting the heat with the windows down on winter nights. I drove from the Starbucks to the Coffee Bean where Perez Hilton wrote his celebrity gossip blog, to the other Starbucks and the other Coffee Bean where the girls in my class smoked Parliaments with homeless Vietnam vets as part of their Method acting research for the school play. We ate frozen yogurt for lunch and also for dinner and smoked and drove until we had to go home.

The other thing we did was drive up steep streets to look at the city from above. To the top of the Hollywood Hills, to the top of the Santa Monica Mountains, to Mulholland, to the Westridge fire road up the street from where Kobe Bryant’s dad supposedly lived, in the house Kobe bought for him. There were rumors that the ceilings and appliances were built extra tall to accommodate him. From the fire road we could see the whole city, from the Pacific Ocean all the way past downtown, and on a clear day to San Bernardino and Catalina Island.

I mostly remember growing up as a series of establishment shots, like this one. There’s not a lot of romance in ripping up Joshua trees and pumping water where it doesn’t belong, but the result does look majestic at night, dense with lights as clear as the sky must have been before light pollution. This view is our compensation for smog, for never getting to see any real stars. (The star maps advertised on sandwich boards propped along Sunset Boulevard are not, as I thought as a kid, for astronomers.) Meanwhile, the smog, like the airborne toxic event in White Noise, creates vulgar, beautiful, sorbet sunsets.

It was reported that the city’s most devastating wildfire, in 2007, was caused by a combination of drought, snapped power lines threaded through Malibu, a rogue pyromaniac, and a ten-year-old boy left alone with a box of matches. Before this was consensus, I was told that some teenagers hot-boxing a cave in Malibu left a joint burning: it caught a straw of dry brush and in days lit half the coast on fire.


The weed here is not for lightweights. I can’t smoke it at all. The last time I tried, I drooled uncontrollably for several hours and couldn’t stop touching my hair. Our brothers had club cards for “migraines,” or our parents had them for cancer, which meant legal access to marijuana was easy.

Dispensary offerings have the stupidest names: Blue Dream, Berry White, Chocolope, Shark Shock, Sour Diesel Reserve, Super Lemon Haze, Green Crack, Cadillac Purple, OG Kush, Be Real, L.A. Confidential, Diablo OG, Girl Scout Cookies, Jedi, Skywalker, Yoda. On this dumb-named stuff you can get high just being in the room.

But you better have a club card. The L.A. County jail system is the largest in the world: eighty-eight municipalities, seventy-four law enforcement agencies, thirty-some criminal courthouses, and eight jail facilities. It houses an estimated 20,000 people a year. Between 2004 and 2008, nearly 40 percent of arrests were for drug–related felonies or misdemeanors. Of those arrested for marijuana possession, only 23 percent were white, according to the FBI. But the FBI undermines its own data, lumping Latinos with whites where the LAPD doesn’t. (“Latino” is an ethnic, as opposed to a racial, category, a distinction honored more in statistics than in everyday policing.) Although blacks make up a little less than 10 percent of L.A. County’s population, they constitute 30 percent of marijuana arrests.


Actors and immigrants come here to have their speech scrubbed of regional inflection. Signs stapled to power-line poles say vocal coach and speak english perfectly and get rid of your accent and list a phone number. People like to say that everyone in Los Angeles is an arriviste or an immigrant, but that’s no more true of L.A. than it is of any other big city. What is true is that the city does not aggressively remind you of its history.

I think vocal fry was invented here, that kind of sour, elongated, throaty way of talking that makes a long a sound slide into a long i sound, swaps “uh” for “ah,” and nearly drops the long e altogether (as in “which wahy to the beach?” and “yer harcut looks rahlly good, whair’d you get et?”). Frank Zappa’s 1982 song “Valley Girl” put L.A. speech on the map when his fourteen-year-old daughter, Moon, sang-spoke the lyrics “Like, oh my God, like, totally.” This was notable. In L.A., people are supposed to sound like they’re from nowhere, in order to sound like they’re from anywhere: a central casting accent. The new vocal fry is like the Valley Girl sapped of enthusiasm: poolside, on Klonopin, constrained to the lowest register.

Los Angeles Plays Itself

The landscape, too, has the ability to self-erase its particularities and become mutable. For decades, it has been forced to play other cities in movies.

In his incredible 2003 documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, the filmmaker Thom Andersen chronicles every city Los Angeles has played in the history of American cinema. A video essay splicing together scenes from other films, famous and obscure, the movie draws out the city’s architecture as a character. “Again and again it has played a city with no name,” the voice-over says. Shots of nondescript nighttime scenes in front of hotels and movie-theater marquees loop again and again. “Its landmarks are obscure enough that they can play many roles.”

In 1942, the Bradbury Building downtown played a Mandalay hotel in China Girl. In 1944, it played a London military hospital in The White Cliffs of Dover. It was the office of a New York publisher in Wolf in 1994. It played the future, most famously, in the climactic rooftop scene in Blade Runner in 1982. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Mayan-revival Ennis House in Los Feliz, built in 1924, “transcends space and time.” Andersen cites seven films in as many seconds: the Ennis House “could be fictionally located in Washington [Timestalkers, 1987], or Osaka [Black Rain, 1989]. It could play an ancient villa [Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewolf, 1985], a 19th-century haunted house [House on Haunted Hill, 1958], a contemporary mansion [The Terminal Man, 1974], a 21st-century apartment building [Blade Runner, again], or a 26th-century science lab [Timestalkers, again], where Klaus Kinski invents time travel.”

It’s not that the buildings are indistinct. They look unlike anything else, which makes it even weirder that they’re swapped in like it’s no big deal; nobody would ever let the New York Public Library play a building in another city this way. What’s made them interchangeable is the cultural dominance of Hollywood. Hollywood has denied Los Angeles the ability to be particular. We have monuments, but nobody knows what they are, except for the Hollywood sign. What says “Los Angeles” more than the Hollywood sign? Or rather: Does anything else say “Los Angeles” but the Hollywood sign? It’s the only distinguishing symbol you’ll see on souvenir key chains at LAX. You could get the one with palm trees, but then you may as well be in Florida or Hawaii.

Andersen observes that in movies villains often live in high-modernist International Style apartments, with living rooms enclosed in glass and cantilevered over a wide valley. The glass is an invitation for ejection: someone unfortunate will fly through it, grip the ledge of the building with a bloodied hand, and to the sound of screeching strings fall into the obscure mountain brush, never to be seen again, at least until the sequel.

Some of these houses for villains still stand. Richard Neutra’s Lovell Health House in Los Feliz, made for a naturopath in the 1920s and reconceived as the home of a pimp in L.A. Confidential, is a favorite of architecture tourists. Many of the fakes, the prefab reproductions perched on the bluffs overlooking Pacific Coast Highway, detached and slid down the cliffs during the 1994 earthquake. Some have been rebuilt.

Herr Schmidt

Whenever anyone condemns the cultural vacuity of Los Angeles, defenders bring up the famous German émigrés who moved there during the war: Adorno, Horkheimer, Mann, Brecht, Neutra, Lang, Schoenberg. In The Rest Is Noise, the music critic Alex Ross describes a scene between Schoenberg and the wife of the novelist Lion Feuchtwanger at the Brentwood Country Mart, a grocery store with an outdoor fire pit where my parents used to take my sister and me to get fried chicken. Marta Feuchtwanger is handling some grapefruit when she sees the composer, wild-eyed, coming at her. “Lies, Frau Marta, lies!” he screams. “You have to know, I never had syphilis!” Since upgraded to an upscale shabby-chic boutique complex, where the General Store sells bubble mailers and Lacoste polo shirts, the Country Mart is now home to the Goop pop-up store, a physical-reality version of Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle website.

Bertolt Brecht, who was famously miserable here, wrote a poem about L.A. called “Contemplating Hell,” after Shelley’s “Hell is a city much like London.” Hell, wrote Brecht, “must be even more like Los Angeles”:

In Hell, too,

There are, I cannot doubt, these luxuriant gardens

With flowers as big as trees—which, to be sure, wilt

Without delay, if not watered at great expense.

And fruit markets with huge piles of fruit, which nonetheless

have neither scent nor taste. And endless trains of cars,

Lighter than their own shadows, faster than

Foolish thoughts, gleaming vehicles in which

Pinkish people, coming from nowhere, drive nowhere.

And houses built for the fortunate, which therefore stand empty

Even when inhabited.

The houses in Hell are not all ugly, either.

But the worry of being thrown onto the street

Consumes the residents of mansions no less than

Those who dwell in the slums.

He was wrong about the produce, but right about the houses.

There were other Germans. Three miles or so from Brecht’s house on 26th Street, tucked into the Santa Monica Mountains, stands Murphy Ranch, a fifty-five-acre compound built in 1933 by a small group of Nazi sympathizers. According to the sketchy historical record, they were also mystical cultists under the sway of a charismatic German, “Herr Schmidt,” who claimed to have supernatural powers. The ranch was enormously extensive: there were plans for a mansion; a timed irrigation system for sustainable agriculture; a water tank and a power station. Hikers in Will Rogers State Historic Park still stumble upon the concrete infrastructure of their aborted fascist utopia. Now, though covered in graffiti, it’s a nice place to walk your dog.


Thomas Mann used to love getting his hair cut in Westwood. “Gone to Westwood for a haircut,” he’d write in his diaries.

I went to driving school in Westwood, but before I could drive, I had to beg my parents to take me there; they confused it for East Hollywood, Inglewood, or somewhere else. This was when in Mid-City and South Central L.A. there were three gang-related killings a day. The fact that they were nervous about Westwood, a UCLA candy land with two movie theaters and a California Pizza Kitchen, says something about how scared people were then, or about how little people left their own neighborhoods in L.A.

In memoirs, in documentaries, in conversation, people often describe pivotal, fear-triggering events as having “changed Los Angeles overnight.” After Sharon Tate was murdered by the Manson family, people in the city started to lock their doors “overnight.” I was at a Christmas party when someone said to me that on the eve of the O. J. Simpson ruling everyone in Hollywood became a gun owner overnight. Nothing in Los Angeles happens overnight, but this is how people like to talk. Why, I don’t know, but I think it has something to do with wanting the city to be either a dream or a nightmare, like in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Psychologically, there are two L.A.’s. One is where Naomi Watts gets to be the sunny aspiring actress Betty and have beautiful teeth and a gorgeous lesbian relationship with an amnesiac Laura Harring. The other is where Naomi Watts is Diane, with fucked-up teeth, an unrequited romantic obsession, and a bullet in her head. They’re both the same movie, and none of it makes any sense. But it says something about how the city sees itself: things are one way, or suddenly another.


Growing up in L.A. taught me that beautiful people get away with practically anything: it is an aesthetocracy. To be beautiful is to transcend, to move through the world frictionlessly, as consistently pleasant as the weather: temperate, no clouds, photo ready. I no longer believe this is true. I don’t live here anymore, but when I visit, I see many good-looking people getting in and out of cars in workout pants, going to and from spinning or the farmers’ market, or driving to the outdoor staircases they will run up and down ten times before getting back in the car to drive home, where they will draw the blinds on the sun they moved here to see. I wonder if their lives feel easy or strained, if they’re blissed out on endorphins and vegetable juice or if they hate themselves, only working this hard to remind themselves they have a body when the air offers no resistance. It is possible to become so healthy that you become sick. This way of life is kinder to the men than to the women, who are still promised more for physical perfection—a career, a love, a future. But the men do it too, pouring all of the energy and passion of a human life into their bodies, including the ones who have already won everything there was to win. It’s a paradoxical lifestyle, self-improvement as an ethos. It demands one remain just shy of perfect, leaving some room to improve.

I once saw Paris Hilton walk, in person. I was at the Grammys. She was late and walked around the front of the pit to her seat in the first row. Even when hardly more than a silhouette, she has an incredible walk. There’s a real thrust to it; it was impossible to look away. I later learned from an MTV special that Paris wasn’t always good at walking; to improve, she took lessons. Her how-to-walk-and-pose-in-photographs coach was interviewed for the special. A lot of three-quarter angling and triangle arm, that thing women are told makes their triceps look skinnier: one arm down, one hand on the hip, wrists turned in so the thumb digs unnaturally into the lower back.

I saw the special around the same time I was reading The Magic Mountain and had mono, and I read it as an L.A. parable: a perfectly healthy Hans Castorp plans a brief visit to his tubercular cousin in a sanatorium but stays for seven years, improving his own lungs, perhaps unnecessarily. “And life? Life itself? Was it perhaps only an infection, a sickening of matter?” Hans asks himself. Here, as in the Alps, self-betterment is a way of life. His permanent convalescence felt familiar.


Slightly north of downtown, beside the L.A. River, sits Marsh Park. It is beautiful, but underneath the roped-off sections of grass are high levels of toxic chromium. My friend used to work for the Parks Department and told me she wanted to host an event there until she saw the reports about the soil. She says it’s still bad: “Erin Brockovich bad.”

Still, she says, the future is the river. Fifty-one miles long, the L.A. River is in most places just a concrete trough, fit for a car chase. If it were not fed with wastewater, it would be full only one or two months a year. But there is much talk of “greening” the river, replacing the concrete with a soft bottom, and developing the land that runs alongside it.

Downtown feels fake because it is; not many people go there. Earlier improvement schemes have swept away affordable housing, and now all you see are mirror-paneled buildings that fling the wink of a merciless sun back into your eye. The people you do see downtown are taking a break from work at the Westin Bonaventure or one of the many $10-an-hour parking garages. Or they’re visiting the library, or homeless.

The week of Thanksgiving, I decided to drive through to see if it had changed. The five-block area east of Main that forms the heart of Skid Row was packed with people. Blue tarp tents rigged with plastic string, grocery carts, and crates lined the rows of low buildings on either side of the street, as if everybody were waiting for something. Between three thousand and six thousand people live here. Its sudden appearance, as I drove east through downtown, came as a shock. One block, deserted but clean downtown shopping streets, maybe a nice new bookstore. The next, hundreds and hundreds of people, families and junkies, crouched next to everything they own.

For years I heard about “sweeps” of Skid Row, periodic raids in which the police threw everyone’s stuff indiscriminately into the garbage. In 2011, eight residents sued, and now there’s a ban on the illegal seizure of homeless people’s property that’s left unattended on sidewalks. It makes sense: you can’t take everything with you when you go to the bathroom or duck into a shelter for a shower. In 2012, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ban under the protections of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, against unreasonable search and seizure and the promise of due process. The difference on the street between before and after the ruling is huge, and illuminating. It’s easier to ignore the existence of thousands of people when you’re constantly erasing their traces, throwing away their belongings. Let them live there, and you really see them.

When I got home, I checked Google Maps to see what Skid Row looks like on Street View. I was stunned: block after block, nothing. Almost no people, and not a trace of debris—just pavement, drab buildings, a man with a blurred-out face frozen in the crosswalk, holding a bouquet of red roses to sell at the intersection for $5 each. I looked at the time stamp, which says the photographs were taken in May 2011—just before the ban. I wonder how long they’ll keep it that way.

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