Reading time: 10 minutes
Downtown LA, aka DTLA
“Welcome to Hollywood! What’s your dream? Everybody comes here; this is Hollywood, land of dreams. Some dreams come true, some don’t; but keep on dreamin.”
I know LA only through media; the sublime (Billy Wilder’s noir classic Sunset Boulevard, David Lynch’s haunting Mulholland Drive) to the ridiculous (genius 90s hit Clueless). I’m a devoted follower of James Ellroy, who wrote the searing LA Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential, White Jazz) and the LA memoir My Dark Places. There’s wild variation in these pictures, but I wanted to see it all. Even the grimiest depictions sound glamorous: Mulholland Drive. Hollywood Boulevard. Sunset Boulevard. Rodeo Drive. Santa Monica. The Valley. Venice Beach.
Santa Monica beach.
We allowed three weeks here to end our trip, wanting the chance to relax and explore these mythical places at leisure after barrelling down the west coast. After successive shocks to the system from snowy Washington, icy Vancouver, watery Oregon and foggy San Francisco, we cautiously got our thongs/flip-flops back out, ready to enjoy that famous California sunshine.
But you know what? We arrived tired. Too tired to give LA the same energy we threw at New York. And LA is a lot less user-friendly. It’s a massive, sprawling city. Yes, there are many cool neighbourhoods, but many dead, dirty, scary zones between, full of men who have a scary habit of lurching within inches of me when they see me, as though the zombie apocalypse actually happened while I was sleeping and I they can smell my tasty brain.
The parking and driving was terrifying here, so we returned our car to Enterprise and opted for public transport and walking instead. But even for committed walkers and train-catching cheapskates like ourselves, LA is HARD to get around without a car. The public transport system is perfectly fine, but the distances are just huge.
Thanks to all these factors, our LA story is partly about what we didn’t do. We didn’t drive to Palm Springs or Joshua Tree National Park. We didn’t tour Warner Bros or Universal. We didn’t do Harry Potter World Round Two. We didn’t go to Channel Islands National Park. We didn’t do Hollywood Behind the Scenes. We didn’t do a self-guided Clueless filming locations tour.
Outside TCL Chinese Theatre. Heaps of fun to look at all the stars’ signatures!
We did do SOME stuff. The Walk of Fame and TCL Chinese Theatre, the Hollywood Museum. We went and saw Tim Ferriss interview Terry Crews (star of Brooklyn Nine-Nine) live on stage – a major highlight for us both, since Stu is a big Terry Crews fan. We walked the Santa Monica Pier and then walked along the sand to Venice Beach. We hiked to the Hollywood sign.
We ate. Corn cheese (you heard me) and Korean BBQ in Koreatown. American treats we normally avoid: pancakes with bacon, fancy PBJs and grilled cheese sandwiches at Grand Central Market. Tacos Tumbras a Tomas and Salvadorean pupusas from Sarita’s (the setting of the first date in La La Land), also at the market. For our last night we have booked the Pacific Dining Car, as immortalised in Ellroy novels and in the movie Training Day.
An awesome moment. Just me, the open air and the smog.
And we lazed. We hid from our somewhat scary and ill-chosen neighbourhood and went on a cinematic tour. I know it sounds terrible, watching movies about LA instead of being out in it. But I swear it provoked thought. Hear me out.
We watched or re-watched Sunset Boulevard, Clueless, Speed, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, LA Story, Afternoon Delight, Training Day and, of course, Volcano, set in the streets not a 10-minute walk from where we were staying, near MacArthur Park on the edge of downtown LA.
It felt surreal seeing a tidal wave of lava pouring over streets we have walked now for weeks, in our local train station. I thought, people who live in LA see their homes in celluloid all the time. This is normal for them, to see their lives and landscapes, their train stations, their cafes, all represented, countless “what if” scenarios played out. I can’t help but feel there’s both advantage and disadvantage that a city can be this self-reflective.
The field of racial and “whiteness” studies says that for a race to be routinely represented in mainstream art forms gives that race a kind of validation, an acknowledgement of its existence within the culture, and by association gives it power.
Transpose that idea to not a race but a city identity like “Angelinos”. They sure are getting represented, validated, afforded power in a global context by the sheer amount of representations getting pumped out into the world. So when does this become something not just empowering but navel-gazing, something that shuts them off from seeing the rest of the world and just permits them to continue their lives unchallenged by different ways of living and seeing? I thought NYC was an insular culture; surely this is too. It calls to mind recent social commentary that Facebook has an unhealthy way of feeding us all stories it knows we will like and agree with, thereby leaving our minds fat and lethargic. Is it healthy, in other words, for LA to get fed so much pure LA?
And is it healthy for the rest of us to get fed so much LA? Are we deficient of home nutrients? I watched these movies as a kid thinking “this is what a city looks like,” not questioning that city, its reality, its demographics, its very physical being.
It’s only now that I can see it’s a real place. Not only a blank canvas for a movie but the weirdest, most intense, most unbalanced city I have ever seen. It’s so far apart from my home, despite the thin veneer of sameness of all Western civilisation, that I feel like it’s really another planet. And yet I have I have grown up on their cultural products, not my own.
That feels a little odd to realise, and a little sad. That Perth, such a beautiful place, with an ancient Aboriginal history as well as a much shorter European history, doesn’t get represented to the world. We let Tim Winton do our heavy lifting, and I fucking love Tim Winton, but we can’t just leave it all to him.
I know we have more good writers. I know we have good independent films and many excellent musicians. Perth is bursting with creative people. But there’s no denying that Perth bleeds artists to other cities and countries where their voices are heard more easily. Sometimes people, including me, forget to encourage these voices with cold hard cash.
We pay for stories from all over the world, for meals out, for coffees, but begrudge money for local movies and festivals and music. It’s a luxury to have this access to cultural products from elsewhere, but it’s maybe a loss, too, of connection with our own place. They might not be the same brand of sexy as LA stories, but they’re ours, and I have promised myself to think a bit harder about how I spend my entertainment dollar.
A beautiful scene, apart from the rotten brown haze
There’s more to LA than movies, by the way. There is a vibrant food and wine scene and exciting cultural diversity and some progressive recycling and renewable energy programs. It’s just as well – I have never seen anywhere dirtier, including NYC, and while I have read pollution has loosened its grip on LA in recent decades I was horrified at the great stripe of smog we saw blanketing the horizon as we looked towards the city from Burbank Peak.
It’s a lot to get your head around, and my thoughts are increasingly drawn to home. Wonderful coffee. Starlight. Supermarkets that make sense. Farmers’ markets that make even more sense. Toenail polish. Coloured clothes. Beer and wine and water coming in real glassware. Clean, safe, quiet streets. The Swan River. Within minutes of leaving the house, beautiful, unfenced, pristine parks everywhere you turn. Grass gently yellowing in dry December heat. Parks with gas barbecues cooking, not shrimp, but simple, classic Aussie beef snaggers. See you soon, Perth!
- Gus’s drive-in has the best BBQ bacon cheeseburger in all the land.
- $20 all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ is a cook your own adventure of epic proportions.
- Who knew: When Max Factor originally introduced makeup to the common (ie non actress) woman, wearing it represented liberation for women and they protested to be allowed to wear it.
- Squirrel + avocado diet = gigantic squirrel.
- Terry Crews has a remarkable message about going for what we desire most.
- Driving in LA is scarier than driving in the snow.
- Why have I not tried Ramen before?
- A hike to the Hollywood sign means you can see the back of some of the letters.
- I wanted to steal Milla’s red dress from Resident Evil #prollyworththejailtime.
- I saw the shoes and wand that Harry, Ron and Hermione used to imprint cement then I saw the imprints in the cement.
What we’re reading
Man’s Search For Meaning, Victor E Frankl; The Course of Love, Alain de Botton; Mr Mercedes, Stephen King
Evidence of some progressive attitudes towards reduction of waste and pollution. This was a good idea, I thought.
A sign in the bathroom at Koreatown institution Dan Sung Sa. Hee!
Hats amazing! On the the Santa Monica Pier.
Us super excited about to see Tim Ferriss and Terry Crews! (it was a sellout; we were just dorkishly early).
Don’t take your guns to school, kids; how you know you’ve picked an AirBnB in an up and coming area.
Cool tree at Echo Park.
Us pre-LA at Golden Gate Bridge, San Fran – relaxing with my mum for company.
Stu walks among the coastal redwoods on our way in to San Fran.
Em communing with a redwood.