I love LA.
Not many admit to such a thing. It is orthodoxy to hate Los Angeles north of the 405 and east of the 101. I saw Joni Mitchell at Dorothy Chandler in March of 1974, with Tom Scott, Max Guerin, Robben Ford and Max Bennett. Joni confessed her love of LA and from then on it was okay with me.
I qualify this love geographically. My Los Angeles extends from East LA to the Pacific, from Manchester north to Mulholland, or on a generous day, Ventura Boulevard.
If I could afford it, I would move back, buy a restored bungalow up Beachwood somewhere, near the market of the same name, and rarely leave my neighborhood. I’d watch classic movies from the forties and fifties on Channel 5 or 9 or 11 or 13, if they’re still broadcasting. Perhaps I’d start smoking again. Buy a convertible Karmann Ghia. Keep the jalousies cranked tight against the hazy, corrupted LA sunshine. Only go out at night—Musso and Frank’s for a cocktail, now that the Formosa is gone.
This attraction comes partly from having read every word of Raymond Chandler and mind melding with the crime noir literary genre. Part of it comes from watching so many TV shows and films set in LA, particularly on the Westside.
As a flower delivery guy, I got to explore the bleached streets and winding hillside lanes of Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Carthay Circle, Fairfax and Brentwood. I stood on Canyon Drive and watched Polanski shoot a scene for the film Chinatown at Khan’s house. I spotted Lennon on an RTD bench across from Tower on Sunset. I waved. Local lore held that Fitzgerald lived around the block from my place, decades before, on North Laurel. Downtown on Figueroa once, a car zoomed by with a guy pointing a revolver at me.
The most impactful LA influence was the entré my family gave me. This family of ten cousins and two wise and unique elders moved to Valley Oak Drive in the Hollywood Hills, walking distance from the American Film Institute (which was then Immaculate Heart High School) and Hollywood Boulevard. Will Durant’s and Diane Keaton’s homes were on the same road. The Turtles and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band lived across the canyon. My family being easterners, they nonetheless embraced LA in the early sixties like it was a masters thesis, or like they were a modern day Juan Cabrillo. Later, they passed that familiarity to me.
I learned the best route to LAX during rush hour, where to go for Mexican tile, where you could pick up the first edition of the Sunday Times on Saturday, how and why to eat a falafel at Café Tel Aviv, who the old people on Fairfax were with the tattooed numbers on their delicate wrists and that there are a dozen or so parking spots behind Pink’s, if La Brea was crowded.
I read all the LA history I could find. I knew where the bat cave was they used on the TV show. I learned that Tommy’s on Rampart was open at 2:00 am, even on Christmas Eve. Especially on Christmas Eve. I learned that Rampart was an LAPD district designation, courtesy of Joseph Wambaugh. Rampart was a troubled station, and it provided endless material for crime writers.
But that isn’t what I want to tell you about.
James Ellroy is one of my favorite writers that I do not want to emulate. Ellroy is a master craftsman of the roman noir style, though not its progenitor. That person would be subject to some literary debate. James M. Cain surely would rank, along with others. Before Ellroy, Chandler’s and Hammett’s stories, with the help of Bogart, John Huston and Howard Hawks, broke this style wide open on the 70 mm big screen.
Ellroy is obviously their spawn.
Ellroy was downstream from Chandler and Hammett, being born in 1948, not much older than me. He mastered—and certainly embellished—a dialog approach that was like a machine gun—fast, clever, shocking, confident and nasty. His intimacy with LA was native. His understanding of a period in time when he was too young to know was studied. Meticulously so.
While not the godfather of roman noir, other crime fiction and noir writers would surely credit his influence on them. He sits in that esteemed second generation group that includes John D. MacDonald, Ross MacDonald, Robert Towne, Elmore Leonard and Dennis Lehane. And probably Carl Hiassen too.
I say I do not want to emulate Ellroy, even if I could. Despite his brilliance, after a couple hours letting his words enter my brain like some creature from the sewer, I feel I need a shower or a Catholic confession.
This is Ellroy introducing himself before a reading:
“Good evening peepers, prowlers, pederasts, panty-sniffers, punks and pimps. I’m James Ellroy, the demon dog with the hog-log, the foul owl with the death growl, the white knight of the far right, and the slick trick with the donkey dick. I’m the author of 16 books, masterpieces all; they precede all my future masterpieces. These books will leave you reamed, steamed and dry-cleaned, tie-dyed, swept to the side, true-blued, tattooed and bah fongooed. These are books for the whole fuckin’ family, if the name of your family is Manson.”
His writing is by no means this harsh or rat-a-tat-tat all the time. He is a master craftsman of the structure of his stories, character development, and managing the drama. So much more than just snappy, period repartee. But you get the flavor. Picture Jennifer Jason Leigh as Amy Archer in The Hudsucker Proxy. Dialog that pops like Mandarin firecrackers. Or oozes like Danny De Vito’s Sid Hudgens, conspiratorially whispering, “Off the record, on the QT and very Hush Hush.”
One critic referred to his style as “telegrammatic” and “a heightened pastiche of jazz slang, cop patois, creative profanity and drug vernacular.” Genius.
Ellroy said of his approach, “…a direct, shorter-rather-than-longer sentence style that’s declarative and ugly and right there, punching you in the nards.”
I am sure I am mistaken, but I cannot shake a belief that everyone was like Ellroy characters after the war, especially in LA. I know this is fantasy, but even though I came along a bit later, during McCarthy’s heyday, I am obsessed with America after the war. I need to sort out those influences on my parents and their peers and on my character and my generation. What about how they were made me how I am?
Or, less nobly, I may just be indulging mental moving pictures.
Like in Billy Wilder’s iconic Sunset Boulevard, Ellroy exposes the rot, corruption, addiction and madness behind those Hollywood mansion walls, with their doped up matriarchs, mobbed up producers and yes, Black Dahlias. I had the perverse pleasure of passing behind hundreds of those walls, albeit into the service entrance. I was “help”, and thus invisible, a distinct advantage for a cultural voyeur.
The easiest access to Ellroy is through film, mainly the near-perfect Black Dahlia and the essential LA Confidential. (Other great pictures in this oeuvre, not by Ellroy’s hand, are Chinatown, of course, Gangster Squad, True Confessions and Mulholland Falls.)
For the readers among you, the Ellroy books behind those two pictures are great, along with The Big Nowhere, White Jazz and the more recent Perfidia, which could be Ellroy’s magnum opus. (Ellroy also did a masterful trio, using his unique style, but more focused on JFK, the mob, Castro, racist G-men and conspiracies: American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand and Blood’s River. Highly recommended).
My LA contains this fantasy underlayment where gumshoes foul the crime scene and private dicks sleep in yesterday’s suit in seedy offices in Gower Gulch. Where Mr. Fire and Mr. Ice really boxed at the Olympic. Where there are likely rotting corpses in the vacant lots along Franklin and in Chavez Ravine, or wired to a refrigerator at the bottom of Silver Lake. Where the Pig ‘N Whistle is my go-to lunch spot. Where there really are bad guys like Eddie Mars and Sean Regan and that slippery collector, Geiger and dames like Vivian Rutledge, Evelyn Mulwray and Lynn Bracken, who was “cut to look like Veronica Lake”. Where people say “dames” and “gams” and “gat”. Where it’s the west coast but too many have east coast accents. Where one guy is “wise” and the other a dope. Where everyone smokes, all the time and any office meeting is cause to share a drink, poured from a cut glass decanter always at the ready. And always rye. Where zoot-suiters huff giggle smokes and hop-heads make smut films in cheap motels. Where bad cops are on the take and “boy scouts” wind up stuffed in a trashcan behind the Pantages.
In brief passages, no longer than a two-hour picture, I like Ellroy’s LA.
The weather is also nice.
Greg Thomsen says
Great writing Geoffrey! Loved reading this piece. Keep up the good work!
Rich Compton says
In all seriousness, I swear your writing has been moving up to a new elevated terrain with each passing month. It is as good as any I have ever had the pleasure of reading.
Outstanding. That’s great work.
I grew up in Michigan, knowing I was born in LA County and when I finally learned it didn’t snow there, it blew my mind. I was looking through photos and my folks said that was me, a baby, outdoors in January without a hat and gloves or a fuckin’ coat! Blew my mind. Never knew there were places it didn’t snow. They would return to Michigan the summmer of 1968, before I developed any memories of California.
Years later, my dad took a job in San Diego. I was bummed it wasn’t LA. I didn’t know shit about San Diego. Who did? And once I arrived, I learned, right away, that I was supposed to hate Los Angeles!
San Diegans hate, hate hate Los Angeles. It’s our past time. We think we’ve got it better down here and LA is fake and dirty and rude and arrogant and we bitch every time we have to venture north of Pendleton. I bought in for a while, but it didn’t take. I came to realize San Diego actually harbors some smaller sibling-city resentment and a resulting inferiority complex, if a city can have those.
So I went back to loving LA and I do so unabashedly. It’s where dreamers, artists, crooks, surfers and stars all hang out and if you don’t wander the streets there, half-waiting to be “discovered,” you’re not doing LA right!