Monday, March 15, 2004

No wonder they call it La-la land!

I can’t believe anyone wants to leave Hollywood EVER. Every day is more exquisitely beautiful than the last; the ocean is an impossibly aquamarine color and the air smells like hyacinths everywhere. We spent last week in Hollywood, California, a series of perfect days, of crazy cultural differences and kooky sights. On the first day, for example, we went walking on Melrose Avenue, off to the left from La Cienega (I never did learn where the accent was – it seemed to me like it should be over that final e, but the natives seemed to accent the first e for some reason). On this street are designer stores like Dolce & Gabbana and Fred Segal and others, but then further down, it becomes rougher, more goth…more piercings. Down there the crowds were nuts, like furious currents of people who moved at such a pace that it felt like we might be trampled if we stopped even for a second to eye a pair of boots or a t-shirt. It was more crowded even than NYC or certain parts of DC, strange, really. I’m not sure how one could possibly stop and look in such a crowd. The point seemed to be just to move, just to keep our place in the crowd, rather than really to shop or take in any sights. I wondered how the stores stay in business. Anyway, it was in this throng that we saw this guy, a white guy probably a little younger than me, who was holding a sign in magic marker written on cardboard, “KICK ME IN THE ASS $1.” I blame the crowd, then, for our not being able to stop and pay him a buck at least to take his picture. I didn’t really want to kick him, though I would have liked to see someone else do it. Margie observed that he would have to call it quits by about eight or so every night, since by the time people stopped drinking, things would almost certainly get out of hand. I was pretty sure he was a performance artist who was testing those limits. But who knows?

There’s so much to say about the place, about the way it looks. They say that when the Santa Ana winds are blowing, people act strange. I was always intrigued by that, that a certain wind might change one’s mind, an ill wind would blow no good. Indeed the winds did blow when we were there. I would think that the landscape alone might create a certain mindset, that great stretch of flat faced with the wall of mountains. Just the Hollywood hills, harrowing hills really, full of hairpin turns, roads with fatal turns. Everything about it is exclusive, temporary. Those houses built against gravity on the hills reminded me of the news stories one always hears of late spring in California when whole houses wash down cliffs. I have always thought those home owners foolish—why build a house on shifting sands, right? But then the sight of those hills made me think if I had a few million to spare, I would simply have to have one of those tile-roofed plaster villas with the manicured lawns and the exotic trees and the tennis court that juts out over a cliff, a horrific precipice looming over another exquisite paradise of a house below it. The very fact that it could wash away tomorrow makes it all the more appealing, really, because it’s so disposable, so wasteful. And the very road up there tempts fate. It is the kind of road that poor people can’t afford to live on. There would be too many late night deaths. This is the kind of road that no one drives home on tired. As I drove around on a glorious Sunday morning, I thought that the people who live here must have a driver who brings them home late after a play. Or if they drive themselves, they must not be so tired or distracted. These are not shopgirls who drive home drunk after a happy hour. That is one way the landscape can be exclusive. The very turns in the road can add up, like the sounds of a cash register at each spin of the steering wheel, where danger compounds interest in the bank account.

One funny cultural observation about L.A.: We met up with Margie’s old college friend there, who said over dinner that she thought East Coast people were just too intellectual for her, too intent on proving how smart they were. She had a degree in something called spiritual psychology but could never tell me what that was. The best example of the California intellectual aesthetic, though, was on the morning news, when the anchor commented to the woman doing the weather, “Well, this weather sure is like spring. Is it spring, yet, Debbie?” Then Debbie just stands there and says, “Uh…..” She finally said she just wasn’t sure yet. We just cracked up. Never, not even after a commercial, did they ever bother to cut in with the fact about March 20th. We kept saying that, had it been Washington, D.C., meteorologist Bob Ryan would surely have known it off the top of his head, and even more so after the next commercial he would have been back with the precise nanosecond that it would turn spring. In California, the attitude was sort of like, look man, tomorrow is going to be just as beautiful as today; why are you getting so excited? The speed and purpose of thought, I gather, are a factor of culture.

I didn’t expect to like the place so much, actually. While we were there we saw the taping of a sitcom with Andy Dick in it, Less Than Perfect—The show was forgettable, really, for the sitcom itself, but the interesting part for me was to see the rewrites of the jokes that went over badly on the audience (I might have suggested more rewrites, but they didn’t ask me). What you don’t know about sitcoms is how long they take or how many people they employ. For one, a comedian is hired to serve as the M.C., who narrates the activity onstage and keep the audience “fluffed.” Also, there’s a DJ, who plays music at top decibel when the comedian seems to be tired. Further, the taping of a thirty-minute show takes about five hours. At LEAST. According to the comedian, some perfectionistic shows (like Friends) take as much as ten hours. We got sick of it after about three hours and left. The problem was that the comedian kept saying that prizes were in store for the audience members who screamed and clapped and laughed the loudest. To my mind, it began to seem like a clapping monkey thing. I really, really wanted to hang out with Andy Dick, because I’m a big fan, but there was a big tour group of girls from Bryn Mawr, who were completely obnoxious, and also completely fantasy-land material for all the stage guys, including Andy Dick, so gigglng and screaming for this nearly 40 year-old lummox was futile.

We also saw a Steve Martin adaptation of a German play, The Underpants, which was entertaining, though sort of pre-production, and, to my mind, in need of much more adaptation. I wonder whether the mainstream audience would appreciate it more than I did; I am not often fond of the standard period piece. Somehow the jokes based on old morals just don’t send me giggling and holding my sides all over the place. This was no exception. On the other hand, the actors were very good. The cast was Dan Castallenta, who does the voice of Homer Simpson, among a good many other things. The blind guy from Curb Your Enthusiasm was there as well as Jeff Garlin’s wife from the same show. It was very funny and fun to see those actors In particular, the wife from Curb Your Enthusiasm played a completely different character, so different I didn’t even remember it was her until I saw The Apprentice later on.

Most of the rest of the trip was just driving around and exploring. I kept joking that I was a native; I could find my way around L.A. as though I had lived there before. It was positively uncanny, like I had lived in L.A. in another life and I knew just what to do. One thing is for sure, traveling across the country to L.A. is like going to another country. It is just far enough and strange enough to foreign, like another planet.