Why Los Angeles is the 20th century, manifest

May 23, 2019

You'd be forgiven if the headlines of the last year or so have turned you off of the idea of travelling to the United States of America. But you'd also be missing out. Despite the news, there's much more to the U.S. than contentious politics and civil unrest. In this occasional series, travel writer Bert Archer will highlight some of the reasons why a trip to America is worth your time and travel dollars. Here, why Los Angeles is, despite what you've heard, worth a walk around.

I wonder if airports really are reflections of the cities they serve, or if I’m making it up.

Toronto’s, for instance, is all grey and cold blue, unremarkable but way more efficient and workable than Torontonians give it credit for. Vancouver’s is gorgeous, and despite way more effort and money having gone into Doha’s and Dubai’s, Shanghai’s and Beijing’s, it effortlessly beats them all. Zurich’s is perfectly clean and plain, nothing much to see there, unless you know exactly where to go, in which case you find things like the Swissair lounge, where they have more than 150 whiskies, served by knowledgeable bartenders, for free.

And the Los Angeles airport, known universally by its IATA code, LAX, is a huge big mess. It is, like the city that surrounds it, just tragic. You may have to walk for close to an hour to get from one terminal to another, for instance, in the absence of something as basic as a shuttle. When added to American airport security systems, two-hour layovers can turn into mad dashes to make your flight. They recently opened a VIP terminal that essentially provides the sort of experience you get at a regular airport for the rich and famous who just can’t put up with the airport in its natural state anymore.

Los Angeles does that. It’s a wreck, just farcically bad by any metric a reasonable urban planner or city theorist or rational human being might use. A city that evolved in lockstep with the auto industry, it isolates its 9.5 million people in their cars spread out across more than 4,000 square miles, militating against the most basic aspects of what makes cities work, things like interacting, gathering, seeing each other and learning how to coexist. It’s not a coincidence that road rage was born here, little daily eruptions of fury like geysers that occasionally explode volcanically in Watts or South Central. If there is ever a revolution to overthrow the powers that underwrite that persistently injustice-riddled nation, it will likely start in this urban razor’s edge straddling that greatest of tectonic metaphors, the San Andreas Fault.

Except, boy, is it glorious. It’s a disaster like River Phoenix, who died on the sidewalk in front of the Viper Room on Sunset Boulevard, or Britney, who I once saw getting out of a cortege of Escalades with half a dozen businessmen walking her towards the Chateau Marmont. Jayne Mansfield, Charlie Sheen, Lindsay Lohan, Ramón Navarro, pick your era, this city has turned colloquially fabulous people into literally fabulous people for generations by just ruining them, and we can’t look away, because L.A. makes these human car crashes less like actual car crashes and more like J.G. Ballard’s Crash.

The first thing you notice about L.A., before you get anywhere close to the city limits, is that distance is measured differently here. You know how space distance is measured in the time it takes light to travel? L.A.’s like that, but with cars. I stayed at a motel on the Sunset Strip a few years ago, and finding out a friend of mine was in town at the same time. I called his hotel, and asked the woman who answered the phone how to get from where I was to where she was. “Oh, super easy. It’s just, like, two minutes down Sunset, turn left on Fairfax and follow it till it turns into La Cienega, turn right, and you’re here in 25 minutes,” she said. “Tops,” she said.

Now, I knew she was talking car, but in other cities where cars and people and feet co-exist, the directions she gave me would be roughly the same as walking from the Vieux Port to Laurier, Yonge and Bloor to Yonge and Eglinton, or the Village to the Upper East Side.

So I started walking at 10 a.m. I got there a little past 2 p.m. She was almost right about the directions — though I had to make a few alterations when she had me walking along the side of a freeway — but I’d failed to account for how fast L.A. cars go. Twenty-five minutes is 25 minutes at, I don’t know from miles or speedometers, but let’s say 55 mph. That’s 11 miles, or 18 km, or triple the distance from the Vieux Port to Laurier.

My friend was long gone, but I didn’t care, because the place he was staying was next door to Stoner Skate Park. I don’t skate, but I do like it when skater parks are called Stoner Skate Park. I like it a lot. I like it like I like the Museum of Death on Hollywood Boulevard that completely inexcusably features artwork made by serial killers. Or like the game Angelenos don’t even know they’re playing when I ask one of them how to get to a subway station and they, every single time, tell me L.A. doesn’t have a subway. They’ve had one since 1990, the system has 93 stations (Montreal has 68), and, sure, it’s got fewer riders per day in its entirety than go through Yonge-Bloor — one of Toronto's main transfer stations — in a day, but for these people I’ve asked not only to not know they have a subway, but to state, confidently, that they do not, that’s something special. You don’t get that everywhere. (Las Vegans also charmingly often don’t know they have city buses, but they tend to be a little less certain that they don’t have a transit system than Angelenos; my score in that game they don’t know we’re playing is 29-0 for me, btw.)

Los Angeles makes movies, of course. It’s pretty near a company town. I was printing something in an L.A. Kinko’s once (they still have them there) and noticed the person at the computer next to me was working on their headshot. Cool, I thought. That’s so L.A. I looked at the computer on the other side of me: headshot. Then I looked around the little room with computers and printers, and found I was the only one not working on a headshot or script. But though L.A. makes movies, and sometimes even sets them there, their movies rarely are about LA in any significant way. Period pieces like LA Confidential don’t count. LA Story gets it right. The 1991 Steve Martin movie is putatively about a weatherman whose job, in L.A., is so predictable he is able to tape his forecasts days in advance. But underneath run beautiful streams of order and chaos, beauty and ugliness, happiness and emptiness, a little like Down and Out in Beverly Hills five years earlier, but with less Bette Midler to leaven the flatness that has to be a character in any L.A. movie. Martin’s character, Telemacher (a delightful if not obviously apposite reference to Odysseus’ son), develops a relationship with a traffic alert sign, for instance, which is perfect given Angelenos likely spend more time in traffic than they do with any given loved one. But even before I started thinking of cars as enemies of the planet, the scene that stayed with me was the one — it probably lasts five seconds — in which Telemacher walks from his front door to his car, pulls out of the driveway, and drives next door.

Illusion of convenience? Power of habit? Good sight gag? Whatever the it was (and I’m guessing it’s all of that), it also gets to an hilarious truth about the city I experienced first-hand on my own Odyssey that day. Modifying my route to stay away from the freeways took me into some residential neighbourhoods, which struck me immediately for the fact that they did not have sidewalks. While I walked sometimes on the side of the road, sometimes across the bases of people’s lawns, I started to notice cars would slow down as they passed, and the people would peer out their windows at me.

At first I thought they were concerned that I was a criminal, the way people sometimes are when I walk through the sepulchrally quiet streets of Forest Hill in Toronto. But their faces were wrong. They were worried, but not for themselves: For me. Only one actually put down his window to ask me if I was okay, but all their faces said the same thing. The only reason anyone would be walking here is that their car broke down, or they were in some sort of physical or mental distress. When I told that one driver that I was fine, just walking to Sawtelle (the Stoner Skate Park neighbourhood), he seemed no less concerned when he rolled the window back up.

Steve Martin has written wonderful things about L.A. — jokes and short stories in addition to that screenplay – but if I had to nominate a filmmaker laureate for Los Angeles County, it would have to be Gregg Araki.

You’ll be forgiven for not knowing who he is. He’s self-consciously art-house. His third and first widely distributed movie, The Living End, was a self-consciously activist movie about two guys on a road trip to DC to inject the first President Bush with HIV-positive blood. So he’s had a self-limited audience his entire career, which he seems perfectly fine with.

But maybe watch one of his Teen Apocalypse Trilogy movies from the '90s (Totally F--ked Up, The Doom Generation, Nowhere) before going to L.A. The fact that Chicago’s Roger Ebert so utterly misunderstood these movies, hating them to the point of viciously disparaging Araki, is proof that American cities can be more like nation states than mere population centres. Ebert used to pride himself on getting foreign movies, and did a lot to help the rest of his countrypeople get them, too. But L.A. proved too foreign for him. For instance, he insisted on seeing style and story as two different things, and thought Araki favoured one over the other, but anyone who has spent any quality time in a Valley mall, a Balboa Island craft shop, or in front of one of those Lautner houses should know that in L.A., they are very much the same thing. (It’s funny, Ebert loved Clueless, and its writer-director, Amy Heckerling, is as philosophically close to Araki as one side of a coin is to the other.)

Araki’s movies are aesthetically flat and portray a morally flattened universe, where evil is pressed so tightly up against good and ambivalent that monsters — actual monsters — pop through into high school locker rooms and cars where teens are making out. They kill people, or they don’t. Sometimes they scare people, sometimes they don’t. Araki makes it clear though that living in L.A. and dying in L.A. (to paraphrase the title of another good L.A. film) is pretty much the same thing, meeting points on the same sort of circular continuum as fabulous and boring. (You can take a tour in a hearse through all the coolest death stuff the city has to offer if you like.)

It’s easy to misunderstand L.A., but if you’re there, and feel like you are, that you’re maybe agreeing with Roger Ebert and Woody Allen and all those other foreigners who instinctively hate L.A., walk out onto a main street anywhere in the county — Hollywood, Anaheim, it makes no difference — just as the sun starts to set. They call it magic hour everywhere, but in L.A., there’s an orange-purpleness to it, a scent — moist, warm, and I’m going to stop trying to come up with images like soot on an aloe vera frond or lilacs through a charcoal screen and just say its indescribable, but that it comes from the same place as the tigertail sky, and the feel the air has, a heaviness, but like one of those weighted blankets, it’s a heaviness that makes you feel good, not taken care of, but like you don’t need to be taken care of, that it’s all taken care of. All of it comes from the same place: the air quality here is atrocious. But gorgeous. Like a Haitian sculpture or shokushu goukan, the dirt, the horror, the sheer ludicrousness of it all is the point.

You’ll be tempted to give up — on travel, love, hope, life itself — as you try to make your way through any of the nine terminals at LAX, one of which, inexplicably and against international standards dictating that airport terminals are numbered, is called the Tom Bradley International Terminal. But don’t. It’s the 20th century rendered as the world’s biggest piece of installation art.

And it’s got good tacos.

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