Los Angeles is a strange place I’ve been trying to understand for ten years now.
Across that decade I’ve been to the city – I’ve just checked in the two passports I still have handy from my last visit – nine times. Each time, something happens to my understanding of how Los Angeles works – who lives there, how the different concentrations of people coalesce, how the city functions.
My first ride from LAX into the city, all I can remember is driving over a storm drain on the freeway and thinking about Terminator 2. This is in February 2005, on a trip that also took in New York, a city I understand much better, and primarily through these cinema screen references.
New York is a condensed grid of angles and architecture that, when you are inside it, looks like it does in the movies. It’s compact enough, within the rigid borders of Manhattan island, to feel recognisably like what I feel a city should be: a layered, designed burst of too-much-humanity.
Los Angeles isn’t like this. That snapshot feeling (I actually got my camera out, if I remember rightly) happens once every few miles, not every few blocks. Most of Los Angeles is made up of a material and a living experience I can’t comprehend. What are these boulevards that stretch for miles with plant shops and tyre workshops and taco stands? And what pattern of life would bring anyone to them, in this unwalkable cross-section of endless sprawl, to buy anything in particular?
Over the years I’ve gotten to know small areas of the city. I started with Santa Monica which, despite being surrounded on all sides by either more of the city or the ocean isn’t really part of the city at all, only the county of Los Angeles. Santa Monica has landmarks – primarily the pier, which was in a film with Judge Reinhold – and shops that are arranged all together on both sides of the road in a way Santa Monica itself calls a Promenade but I would describe as a High Street.
I’ve stayed up on Sunset Boulevard, which is a mile or so of things that look like they were put together on purpose. I’ve enjoyed the faded art deco grandeur of Hollywood and the old theatres downtown, a style that always strikes me as the native architecture of the city – a city built upon an industry of illusion – and which always restores me after miles of gaudy haphazardry.
Recently, after years of crawling along at ground level and peering out of cab windows, I’ve had added new perspectives on the city. I’ve cycled from Santa Monica up to Mulholland Drive – a Lynchian pilgrimage, and the more I ponder the city, the more appropriate I think it is that it ended at a road rather than a place, and so didn’t really end at all. I’ve continued up to the Griffith Observatory in the Hollywood Hills, from which on one side I saw the Hollywood sign, as close as I ever will, and the other an aerial view of downtown Los Angeles, a ripple of rise at the end of a flat, wide expanse.
Finally, on my last trip, I ventured up one of those high rises, the US Bank Tower – three elevators to the 72st floor, like a vertical tube journey – and saw everything at once, from the mountain to the oceans, miles of stretching nothing and whatever stretching up to grey smogged borders that made it feel as though we were trapped in a huge baking snowdome, the edge of our universe clear and manifest.
All of this means that Los Angeles is at once a bitter disappointment and an object of endless, perfect fascination. Two years ago I visited the Walk Of Fame for the first time, moving past the costumed street performers and tracing the stars for names I knew for two blocks, three.
Then, suddenly, the glamour was gone and the streets, still studded with stars and undimmed memories of the screen, were dirty and bare, the tourist nexus dissipating into endless sub-suburbia. That this can happen within sight of the city’s bustling glow seems totally apt, somehow: the immaculately dressed set just a stride or a shift of perspective away from image-shattering reality.
I guess what I’m saying is that I have tried – am trying – to understand Los Angeles as a place that lies for a living and lies to itself. Its natural resource is light, and you can read for years about Hollywood being an industry of light, of images and ideas, without ever taking in what it means to be stood on a street corner in cloudless, unflickering day in the middle of what should be a desert, and to be struck by the somehow solid near-tactile ubiquity of this resource.
Los Angeles is luminous in a profane way, that makes it necessary to wear sunglasses if you want to see, and that makes the air smell of burning on your hotel roof at midday. It’s a place made possible by stolen water and diverted rivers that specialises in a culture of self-deluded surface. Nothing there looks like the movies, really. The city is one giant, rolling backstage.
The thing that makes me think I’m wrong about Los Angeles – that there must be something here other than a trail of empty promises – are the people. The work that brings me to the city means the people I meet there fall into two main camps: unnervingly clean and symmetrical would-be actors working in hotels and restaurants, and cab drivers with humbling life stories and more perspective than can be snatched in a decade of detached bemusement.
This year the cabs I travelled in were driven by a man from Ethiopia who was thrilled when he realised he’d visited London before I was born (“1976!”) and sad when I said I didn’t believe in God (“You lose nothing”). A Korean guy in his 60s drove us from downtown to Sunset, and was delighted that we were British because the woman who taught him English – very well, it seems, in Canada in the 1970s – was also British.
And, in a discombobulating twist as I was preparing myself for the foreignness of the city, the very first cab we got into at the airport was driven by a terrifically English man from Basingstoke. He told us about a youth spent riding his motorcycle knee-to-knee around the ring road roundabouts, so that when he got to Los Angeles and up into the mountains, “Nobody could touch me.”
These cab drivers, and all the cab drivers who drive me on these hour-long jaunts through a city I can’t understand, have a few things in common. They’re always men, they’re always in their 50s or older. They’re never from the States, not originally, and they unfailingly remember the year they arrived. Most confoundingly they’re always happy – about the weather I can’t live with, about the years they’ve spent driving cars in a city throttled by traffic, about whatever promise Los Angeles delivered to them that I can’t perceive.
And though I like to think about this as a city of untruth, the centre of an industry of make-believe manufactured using illusory raw material, I’m willing to concede that Los Angeles might not lie to everybody.
Nathan Ditum writes about films and games. This post originally appeared on his blog, Film Forum.