'How Los Angeles Invented the World' with Wim Wenders, William Friedkin and Others: Is L.A. in a Cultural Adolescence?

A view of Los Angeles in 1940: five years before the creation of the art found in the exhibitions of Pacific Standard Time.
A view of Los Angeles in 1940: five years before the creation of the art found in the exhibitions of Pacific Standard Time.

If the movie people, radio hosts, ex-journalists, academics and cultural gadflies who convened at the Getty Center on Saturday for "How Los Angeles Invented the World" -- a daylong symposium organized by Zócalo Public Square for Pacific Standard Time -- are to be believed, then Los Angeles, long regarded as a young city, may be entering adolescence.

Pacific Standard Time has focused on the works of art -- and the images in mass media -- that broadcast L.A. art's rapid ascent to the rest of the world just sixty years ago. But what the eighteen moderators and panelists explained to us on Saturday is that the images from PST don't necessarily capture the lived existence of California. Instead, they portray a generation of imagemakers struggling, for the first time, under the weight of a cultural albatross -- the notion of Los Angeles of a simple binary, of life and death, sunshine and noir, dreams and failures, go big or go home -- and settling on a kind of navel-gazing ambivalence.

For many years, the image of Los Angeles as the ultimate, extreme version of the American dream was our primary cultural export. Now it seems the city has lost that kind of naïve exuberance that drew people here in the first place. No longer a baby enchanted by its own reflection, the Los Angeles born in the wake of the art of PST is more like a pizza face with issues of self-esteem, struggling with the consequences of a boom-bust hormonal rage.

In the movie Apocalypse Now, the surfboard becomes an imperialist emblem, transporting the California image into war.
In the movie Apocalypse Now, the surfboard becomes an imperialist emblem, transporting the California image into war.
Wikimedia Commons

While no other city might be able to pull off PST, this kind of self-congratulatory feat, with a straight face, Los Angeles is pretty good at making a case for the celebration of itself. First of all, there's a prevailing attitude that we have the balls and the brains to pull off whatever we put our mind to -- like, for example, the routing of the Colorado River and the creation of a harbor following the arrival of the Southern Pacific railway here in the 1870s. Second, living as we do on a fault line, we accept inevitable annihilation and thus indulge our vice for gambling -- seeking greater riches by selling half of the state to the same railway ten years later. In other words, we're a self-reliant tribe that's "very comfortable in making something of ourselves," no matter the context, says Jennifer Watts, curator of photographs at the Huntington Library, during a panel discussion of postwar nuclear fashions ("How Los Angeles Invented the Good Life").

Because the capricious disposition of the Angeleno just doesn't agree with the weight of history, we chose to understand ourselves -- or rather, see ourselves -- as people influenced by what is right in front of us. (As Joan Didion might caustically note, that means we're more a breed of nature people, affected only by the beautiful and heroic rebirths that come every season.) On Saturday, we learned that this surface-oriented interpretation of the city has long invigorated alchemists -- from D.W. Griffith, making silent street films in the early twentieth century, to the first generation California surfer dudes blithely lifting pachuco styles, like the Pendleton flannel, from the barrio in sixties, to more recently, a certain sinewy architect in striped socks.

Eric Owen Moss, "The Umbrella," Culver City.
Eric Owen Moss, "The Umbrella," Culver City.

"What's appealing about building in Los Angeles is that the city is blasé or oblivious to this idea of what the world ought to be," says Eric Owen Moss, sitting on a panel that attempted to explain "The Past and Future of L.A.'s Global Image." A native Angeleno, Moss has spent his career transforming the empty auto shops of Culver City into hubs of galleries and new media offices, essentially creating the post-industrial design paradigm now embraced the world over. He knows that in Los Angeles, your imagination is limited only by zoning laws. "You're not building next to Raphael's Palazzo," he says. "Building here doesn't obligate you, you don't have to conform in a way. If you can do it, then do it."

Because images, not stories, have long inspired us, it should follow that our common history is in fact comprised of old pictures. On Saturday, the audience chuckled at a picture of a racially homogenous brunch party from an old Sunset magazine. The fantastically Caucasian luxury on that cover is about as common in today's Los Angeles as an empty San Diego Freeway, and UCLA urban theorist Eric Avila called the image "about as historical as you can be."

But that severe interpretation of history -- that it's just another word for "stuff that we don't see here anymore" -- has strange consequences in today's Los Angeles. Fearing that our sources of civic pride -- like modernist architecture, public murals, and the environment -- may some day be consigned to the ash heap of images, many Angelenos choose to support preservationists like the Eames Foundation and the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), and environmentalists like the Sierra Club. And for those of us who resign ourselves to impermanence, we instead revere the filmmakers who shoot their movies in Los Angeles, thus creating for mini-museums of a now-extinct city.

On Saturday, To Live and Die in L.A. director William Friedkin was asked to explain the role the city played in his landmark 1985 film. Widely celebrated for the scenes shot in unusual or overlooked places, Friedkin says he shot in Wilmington, San Pedro, and industrial downtown to convey a "different sensibility." To his right, copanelist and CalArts film professor Thom Andersen is wearing a kind of defeated grimace and staring at the floor. "Slick, sun-bleached freeways, reflective surfaces, and nothing that had any kind of a permanent feeling to it, whatsoever," he says.

Andersen is outspoken in what he believes are the profound self-esteem issues that Los Angeles frequently evinces onscreen. In Friedkin's To Live and Die in L.A., for example, cops and prostitutes gaze longingly at the Vincent Thomas Bridge, the bridge that crosses that same port we created ourselves all those years ago. Rather than a symbol of the great technical achievements of the state of California, the bridge instead suggests life at the crossroads. You can go here or there, you can stay home or see the world, but either way, you're going to feel alone.

'How Los Angeles Invented the World' with Wim Wenders, William Friedkin and Others: Is L.A. in a Cultural Adolescence?
Vija Celmins: Freeway.

But maybe it's time for this moody city to grow up. Sitting between Moss and an aloof Wim Wenders on the day's final panel, essayist and critic Richard Rodriguez told the audience that Los Angeles can no longer afford to promote the types of self-critique -- you know, like this review -- that grew out of the art of PST.

Leaning back in his seat, Rodriguez shook his finger at a screen looming over the panelists. Above him was a projected image of a brand new and nearly empty San Diego Freeway, the pavement shiny under an oppressive sunlight. At first glance, Freeway (1966) -- the work of Latvian émigré Vija Celmins -- exudes the heady rush of the California of the immediate postwar era. But note the many framing devices this image of freedom on wheels passes through -- the window on the dashboard, the lens of the camera, the brush of the painter, and finally, situated as it is from the perspective of the viewer, your eye. This image is a story about the people who were forced to recognize the great distance between reality and their dreams.

"That picture is the fiction of Los Angeles that I was drawn to as a young man," blurts out Rodriguez, 67. "I've come here to tell you that the people who have described California through their dreams ... have forced us to drive down freeways congested with so many cars because there are so many dreams."

What worries Rodriguez is the conviction among Angelenos that the rest of the world still looks to them.

"When I walk down the streets of Los Angeles, the young people are not looking ahead, they are looking here." He pretends to stare at a video phone. "They are living in a kingdom of the imagination. And digital enterprise has so revolutionized the way young people look at a city -- at a globe, perhaps -- that maybe to even talk about a place, shows how old we are.

"They live on Pacific Standard Time in Las Vegas and in Redwood, Washington," he added. "For Los Angeles not to want to embrace these cities, that's when it starts to feel like San Francisco to me."

Full video from the panel is available online at Zocalo Public Square.

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