Towards the end of John Schlesinger’s film version of Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust a group of extras dressed as Napoleonic soldiers charge up a hill, cameras rolling. They don’t know that the set they are on has not been properly constructed until it begins to collapse under their feet. Some of them plunge through the “earth” to the studio floor 30 feet below. A scene of real carnage caused by an attempt to create a scene of faked carnage.
A perfect metaphor for California, maybe just for Los Angeles, maybe just for Hollywood, maybe not a metaphor that holds much truth in it at all, but a damn fine scene none-the-less. Certainly a preview of the movie’s finish, which does come from the book, when the crowd at a movie premiere turns into a murderous mob.
There’s long been something apocalyptic about California. Is it associated with the end of the world because it’s the end of the trail, as far west as the country could go without a boat? The late James Garner’s television series Rockford Files ended with the title character trying to sell the trailer where he lived on the Malibu beach, failing to make the sale three times, once due to the riots that rocked the state after the verdict in the Rodney King beating case, once to the Malibu Fires, finally to an earthquake. In the end, Rockford’s trailer simply collapsed in on itself while he watched from the parking lot. (A brilliant piece of writing if you ask me.)
Kevin Starr address this dark image of California in the section of chapter 11 where he discusses the state’s contributions to American literature. Mr. Starr is as in love with hard-boiled detectives and film noir as I am. California can claim a founding contribution to the hard-boiled detective genre since both Dashell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe lived and worked in California. To Hammett and Chandler add James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, Nathaniel West, John Fante, Aldous Huxley, John Steinbeck, through screenplays add William Faulkner and you have the groundwork for detective stories and film noir that will march forward in a straight line to Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins and the Los Angeles novels of James Ellroy. And of course to Jim Rockford.
How did things turn out so dark when everyone moved here for the light.
Maybe John Fante got closest to the heart of this question in his 1939 novel Ask the Dust:
You’ll eat hamburgers year after year, and live in dusty, vermin-infested apartments and hotels, but every morning you’ll see the mighty sun, the eternal blue of the sky, and the streets will be full of sleek women you will never possess, and the hot tropical nights will reek of romance you’ll never have, but you’ll still be in Paradise, boys, in the land of sunshine.
There’s more to California in art and literature than this of course, but this section is the part that had me keeping a list of titles for further reading. In literature at least, California has long been a utopia and a dystopia, often both existing on the same set of streets.
It’s a phenomena that has produced some wonderful books.
Just about all of The Rockford Files is currently available on YouTube. You can see the episode I mentioned above, “I Still Love L.A.” guest starring the fabulous Joanna Cassidy as Rockford’s ex-wife Kit here.