In the words of a comedic band I didn’t want to admit were aging as I beheld their greying, mutton chop-less visages at the Oddball Comedy & Curiosity Festival, “The city is alive, the city is expanding, living in the city can be demanding.” I’m sure having travelled from the sheep-shearing, Hobbit-roving bliss of New Zealand to all the major cities of the United States, Flight of the Conchords delivers this message with the same heartfelt sincerity that every city dweller employs when they stick their head out a bedroom window and yell, “SHUT UP!” It’s such a commonplace notion that it’s hardly worth stating, but cities are loud and generally don’t come equipped with James Stewart’s euphonic pianist and soprano neighbors in Rear Window. On top of this corroboratory fact, city noise always amalgamates into the same nerve-wracking din no matter how disparate the individual components nor how varied the population size.
At 8 o’clock this morning, I was jostled from a sickbed completely surrounded by flu remedies (including DayQuil, NyQuil, Ricola, Emergen-C, and Sex and the City season 6) by a mariachi album set to full blast, a barbershop quartet of dogs who might have been hyperventilating through their barks, and a car alarm that could easily alert its owner from the middle of the sea. This early symphony–coupled with a daily opus of ever-celebratory fireworks, 2am basketball games, and rival ice cream trucks distinguishable only by their repeated children’s song of choice as they circle the block at least eight times a day–may be specific to my new neighborhood, but downtown Los Angeles is not alone in its incessant emanation of sound. Nor are LA’s outer boroughs, such as Culver City where my boyfriend’s next-door neighbors are constantly regaling the whole neighborhood with drunken arguments at the nightly parties they seem to throw and the entire family downstairs might be diagnosed with Tourette’s.
In a much smaller city on the opposite side of the country, the noise may come in a different flavor but barrages your eardrums with the same torrential force. During my last year in Savannah, Georgia, I moved from a quiet, woodside dormitory where the introverted inhabitants avoided eye contact at all costs, let alone uttered a peep, into an apartment that might as well have doubled as a palace compared to the cubby hole I occupy today. The only downside to Heaven on Montgomery was that it was on Montgomery–one of the busiest streets in town, especially when your block resided in “downtown.” Rather than illegal fireworks and ever-festive mariachi bands, this corner of Montgomery and Alice hosted a cast of noise makers that verify the zaniness John Berendt immortalized in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
First, there was the “Ey” Man, an older gentleman consistently dressed in what the 1960s would have deemed “the nines” who walked down Montgomery looking pleasantly dapper and intermittently calling, “Ey… Ey… Ey…” Then there was the late night serenader: a young man prone to slowly pacing up and down the street after dark, singing the latest R&B hits at the top of his lungs as if wooing the city itself or simply shouting to hear his voice over headphones. Along with these and several other vocal individuals like an infamously impolite mother, there was a weekly congregation of people who spent hours cackling at the tops of their lungs like a coven of witches while ironically mingling in a church parking lot. And we can’t forget the honk-happy populace eager to lay their entire body weight on the horn at the slightest hint of inconvenience, a far cry from the Oregonians who take extreme offense if you timidly tap the horn by accident.
Immersion in this incessant cacophony from the east to the west can make a girl miss her childhood home in the mountains, where yards that contemporary suburban developers couldn’t fathom separated everyone from even the slightest noises their neighbors might make and any hillbillies keen on disrupting the peace with a blaring horn were hindered by the shoddiness of their rusting trucks. After leaving this quiet respite at the age of nine, you’d think spending the majority of my life amidst the endless hubbub of sirens, babbling passerby, screeching tires, and Savannah’s garrulous night birds, I’d have grown fond or at least accustomed to the soundtrack of city life. But lately if there’s no Enya playlist to drown out the racket, all I can do refrain from leering out my window at the ice cream man is wistfully dream about pattering rain showers, ocean tides, or a future ranch in Montana complete with a team of middle aged corgis to keep me quiet company.
An admitted dolt in the realm of pop culture, I am not one to devote two hours of my innately fickle attention to a show that awards celebrities for their societal merit, and MTV’s Video Music Awards are definitely no exception. But when the chaos of the proceedings catch the attention of my boyfriend, the diners seated next to us at Phở Show, and the old lady who rings a loud bell as she pushes her cart of purchasable goods down our street every day, I figure there’s no use fighting the tide of insignificant viral knowledge and succumbing to a few recaps. Specifically, the award ceremony’s shocking crème de la crème in the form of Miley Cyrus.
In keeping with the pop culture ignorance that replaced the actor idolatry of my youth, I don’t really know anything about Miley Cyrus beyond the fact that she used to wear a wig on TV and mesmerize kids with a proclivity for hero worship; those of us wrought with country music ineptitude consider her father an achy-breaky one hit wonder; she starred in some movie filmed on Tybee Island while I attended class completely unawares only 18 miles away; she may or may not have married the arguably less attractive Hemsworth brother; and her sexually suggestive shenanigans have been curdling PTA member’s breakfast milk for the past several years of her waning adolescence. On top of all that, I know that she’s the same age as my younger sister–born only a few days prior–and having been around both my sister’s crew and whole troops of them back in my college days, I know how 20 year olds act, and can only imagine how the constant accompaniment of a blinding limelight would amplify said behavior.
Thus, I find it hilarious that a celebrity like Miley Cyrus can get so much opprobrium for parading around in feigned nudity and conducting lewd, embarrassingly uncoordinated dance moves during her VMA performance, but the backup dancers who successively march out to the beat of a sex-driven drum in cliché, skin-tight spandex can go virtually unnoticed. Yeah, yeah, Miley Cyrus was a child role model–I remember how excited my young cousins were to unwrap Hannah Montana paraphernalia at Christmas. But we sure are quick to forget that Britney Spears was a Mickey Mouse Club member (along with Justin Timblerlake and his jheri curls) whose first album beguiled the nation’s youngins, and look where she ended up–a fact that Trey Parker and Matt Stone already equated to Miley Cyrus long before this public debacle. Is this recurrent trend not a blatant sign that we as a society keen on the scandals splayed across People Magazine are culpable for the shocking behaviors of our young icons? If we weren’t a species akin to the Ashleys of Recess fame (crying, “Scaaaandalous!” at the slightest inkling of amorality), then those young superstars we love to distract our kids with might keep their pants on for a change.
As it is, pop culture has always been a game of one-upping the last controversy to obtain some free publicity. You need to be brash to sell tickets to a society that claims to have seen it all, and if standing out means upsetting the mothers who once called you adorable, then by God, the increased attention is worth a clumsy attempt at half-nude twerking. Especially when your competition operates under the moniker “Gaga,” serves as a gay bar icon second only to Cher, and constructs her public persona from Madonna hand-me-downs, Harajuku fashion, and what must have been the deranged visions of an acid trip.
Ironically, the polls say young Miss Cyrus and her unremitting penis innuendos trumped Lady Gaga’s bug-eyed, postmodern nun, Bauhaus-ish choreography, and tacky shell bikini, a feat that even Madonna herself couldn’t pull off when she abandoned the hippie phase that produced Ray of Light, filled in her gap, donned a faux British accent, and attempted to regain popularity by enlisting the aid of M.I.A., Nicki Minaj, and some pompoms. Misinformation or not, however, according to The Slatest, Lady Gaga still managed to perturb Will Smith’s family with the nutty schtick the masses are beginning to deem passé, so perhaps there’s hope for her next public stunt yet.
Overall, the whole Video Music Awards ordeal is a silly affair sprung from a Victorian era affinity for scandal. We the people of the United States of Rabble-Rousing fuel the raunchy flames of fame crazed twenty-somethings by making a big fuss over behaviors that attention-seeking young adults conduct for small beer pong audiences on a weekly basis. The controversy we engender is the coal that keeps this monkey train rolling. Lose the voracious appetite for muckraking, and maybe we won’t have to watch girls the same age as our little sisters defile the innocence of teddy bears and #1 foam fingers with their bad dance moves and flesh-tinted ensembles.
By way of the media-sharing, social networking, and stalker-encouraging faculties of a little web sensation known as Facebook, my attention was recently directed to an article written by author Sophia McDougall for NewStatesman entitled “I Hate Strong Female Characters.” Initially perceived as an odd subject for a woman in full advocacy of female heroism, the article reveals an author’s vexation with the fact that the few female characters Hollywood’s male-dominated industry engenders these days are whittled down to mere “strong” women.
As if to pacify the contemporary consumer’s deterrence from the antiquated “damsel in distress,” screenplays today produce a myriad of women who not only serve as the male protagonist’s necessary love interest, but who also pack a punch. To illustrate the media’s attempt to reverse the princess hype of bygone eras, McDougall cites kung-fu-savvy Fiona from Shrek, trigger-happy Peggy Carter from Captain America, Buffy of vampire slaying fame, and Black Widow from The Avengers (am I sensing an anti-Joss Whedon trend here?), all of whom resort to violence to establish their auras of sexually intriguing power. While there’s no denying these kick-ass women have right hooks and roundhouse kicks in heels down to a T, McDougall’s article surmises that this modern cinematic woman may be nothing more than a convenient rouse to keep the idolatrous masses at bay–to paraphrase Walter Benjamin. In today’s big Hollywood blockbuster, women have to be purveyed as strong in order to receive the respect their male counterparts garner, even though a man can be prone to addictive neuroses à la Sherlock Holmes, and still be considered a hero. Ultimately, McDougall asks for equality between male and female characters. Instead of one gal and five guys in a super hero posse, why not level the gender playing field? And instead of emphasizing nothing beyond that one female character’s strength and sexual magnetism, why not add the dimensions of reality afforded to male protagonists like Spider Man, Hamlet, and Daniel Craig’s James Bond?
After reading this opinionated plea for equality (akin to the egalitarianism my inner, scale-toting Libra is always intent on), I got to thinking. On the one hand, I could rabble-rouse this cinematic platitude as reverse discrimination: a Hollywood ploy so keen on eradicating the helplessness of damsels past that it’s catapulted the blockbuster heroine into a predictable facade of strength, as if to suggest that while men are expected to be strong and therefore require ulterior characteristics to be captivating, women are expected to be weak, and therefore easily transition into compelling characters when caustic gun-wielding comes naturally. But is The Avengers’ Black Widow, with her monotonous, expository lines and repetitive harnessed flips, actually a compelling character?
On the other hand, I realized as I pondered this crux, that I myself am at fault for the fact that the sheer number of male protagonists–be it in The Avengers, Inception, or even The Smurfs–tend to exceed the number of female characters. I haven’t written recreational fiction in years and have honestly evolved well beyond the anti-feminist, male idolizing yahooligan of my youth, but back when I was able to document the adventures of my imagination on a daily basis, I was undeniably responsible for the adolescent egocentrism that results in one primary female character and a horde of dudes. Yes, there was the Holes fan-fiction from middle school that introduced a cast of female equivalents for each of the male Green Lake inhabitants, and yes, the three women featured in my story “Pampa” outnumbered the two men, but generally, my writing enveloped a sole heroine based off some constituent of myself and a host of male characters based off of other personal facets. Blame it on latent, inapparent tomboy-ism, but as a girl who found herself easily relating to a male mindset, it just felt more natural to translate my sardonic voice through a male medium and reserve my sense of teenage trepidation about body image, boys, and school for my female characters.
But just because the men outnumbered the women in my writing, didn’t mean my female characters ascribed to classic Hollywood’s helpless maidens or today’s revamped sword-brandishing pseudo-mutes. My characters may have been uncertain about a lot of the things life presented them with, but some of them certainly emanated natural strength, a couple of them had pulled through harrowing circumstances hardened but notably wiser, many of them could riposte circles around their male companions, and all of them had individual perspectives, experiences, and a distinctive voice of their own. None of them used kung-fu to merit respect (in fact, one character hid her penchant for violence as a hired gun in order to assimilate into the new identity she’d devised), and while a couple of them (my sister’s analog in the Holes fan-fic) had the men drooling, most of them deviated from the stereotypical sex symbol that makes a female character profitable in the eyes of Hollywood.
In fact, as I pondered the subject further, I realized that even though hero movies (generally inspired by comics made by men and produced by men for men) have created the Disney princess foil via their violent, “strong” female archetype, women have come a long way in the media. Just look at Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, idolized for their hilarious goofiness and witty intelligence without having to step into a leather catsuit or be raised by a pulley to conduct Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-esque combat. And even in the realm of tough cookies, Arya Stark combines the honest vulnerability of youth with an adult desire to aid her family and fight because it’s inevitable, not because it’s sexy. While these multidimensional women offer hope to irritated consumers like McDougall, I won’t deny that they’re a long ways off from representing the schema perpetuated by our summer blockbusters–that of the disposable, hyper-sexualized Bond girl or the infamous “strong female character.”
I suppose that when you reside in a country where female politicians still don on pantsuits to be taken seriously, it’s no wonder Hollywood imbues strength in its female characters to elicit respect. While rugged gals can punch a chauvinist into silence or shoot their loved ones with fifty arrows out of unverified jealousy, you know our blockbuster screenplays have a few reality checks in order when the closest fictional woman I can relate to for her perseverance is Liz Lemon (that, or I just really like ham).
I’m a proud proponent of the fact that Hollywood has come a long way since Snow White lay in entombed waiting after a gullible run-in with an apple, but I can also recognize the validity in McDougall’s sentiments. Hollywood seems to be opposed to the notion of a female hero chartering her own film (and headlining a movie poster rather than standing behind Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Hemsworth) because, quite frankly, they haven’t figured out how to make her compelling enough yet. Personally, I don’t want them to make that movie until they learn to do it right–two hours worth of Scarlett Johansson’s blank expression while she pulverizes villains with the powers of… karate would make for a sure-fire box office flop. Perhaps the secret lies in employing female writers, girls who, like my adolescent self, dreamt up women who equalled men in battle but possessed senses of humor and honest queries about life to boot. Maybe Hollywood just needs to hand over the reigns to the female script writers and guys in tune with their feminine sides, thereby enabling those underused artists to revel in a little geeking out of their own.
While watching the Savannah College of Art & Design’s reputed fashion show last Spring–and wishing they’d attribute the work to the artists so that I could compare the outcomes to the conceptual catalysts of samurai armor, muscle tissue fibers, monsters found in children’s imaginations, Inuit culture, and DaVinci’s anatomical drawings (none of which was identifiable)–something happened that would unbolt a whole new entryway into my persona. With each wardrobe change, the DJ would seamlessly meld a new track into the electronic du jour, and midway through the production, the tempo slowed, the treble chimed in, and a virilized Destiny’s Child classic contributed to the androgynous dubiety of digital music.
That’s how I discovered Cyril Hahn, a Vancouver-based, Swiss producer with a knack for slowing down pop and hip-hop hits and turning them into something light, ethereal and far from the banality entrenched in the originals’ lyrics. Not gonna lie, Hahn’s tendency to turn vocalists like Mariah Carey, Solange, and the aforementioned Destiny trio into contralto men was a large temptation on my behalf (a fact that might stem from my long-standing membership to the RuPaul’s Drag Race fanclub), but for anyone seeking meditative music that blends the soft din of a sea breeze with recurrent percussions and vocals that could double as the bass, Cyril Hahn is worth a listen… And in honor of LeVar Burton stint on Reading Rainbow, you don’t have to take my word for it:
Before discovering this hermaphroditic opus, I was bred into an eclecticism so quintessentially meta that I’ve never once been able to answer the survey question, “What’s your favorite music genre?” Therefore, Hahn’s induction into Emily Moon’s idées fixes means his oeuvre is now conglomerated into a categorial soup so diverse it gives the melting pot of Los Angeles a run for its money. While I have the ability to fixate on one artist at a time, repeating their canon with the same broken record finesse my dad used to drive us insane with, my ears refuse to hunker down with one genre for more than a day, and thus, I always choose to answer that dreaded question with an explanatory list.
Since childhood, I’ve been raised on an assortment of music ranging from the Irish wail of U2 and the soul of Buena Vista Social Club, to the anarchic shrieking of Bow Wow Wow and the utter nonsense of The B-52’s. My pops had a collection of CDs he recycled through with regularity and when I wasn’t manning the sound system with Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” and Now That’s What I Call Music, Vol. God Only Knows, my dad was instilling in me a nostalgic fondness for Peter Gabriel, Fleetwood Mac, P.M. Dawn, The Police, Seal, and Simon & Garfunkel. Meanwhile, my mom introduced me to classical singers-turned-alternative like Paula Cole and Sinéad O’Connor, Californian favorites from her youth like The Beach Boys and Dick Dale & The Del-Tones, and never-stale oldies like Smokey Robinson & The Miracles and Marvin Gaye.
Along the way I picked up quite a few of my own arbitrary additions to the eclectic mash-up pre-programmed in my brain. Included in this assortment was my middle school fixation on Damon Albarn’s brainchild the Gorillaz (and all things Jamie Hewlett); a sixteen-year-old infatuation with industrial German band Rammstein, which occurred in tandem to my classical singing education and resulted in some atypical harmonizations during my drives to class; my teenage liaisons with Björk’s melodramatic gobbledegook, Kanye West’s catchy complaining, and Joshua Bell’s violinistic prowess; “scooping up coconuts” to my favorite dubstep hailstorms in college; and finally my recent surrender to the oxymoronic mainstream-hipster tunes I refused to listen to while dating an indie ex. But I cite these artists and genres as mere highlights in a longstanding courtship with music: a simple answer to an unintentionally difficult question. For while I inadvertently learned temperamental German listening to Till Lindemann roar his lyrics and “danced this mess around” at Kate Pierson’s behest, I never stopped listening to absolutely everything else. Patsy Cline, Enya, The Coasters, Rodrigo y Gabriela, Elvis Presley, Hawaiian slack key guitar, Ella Fitzgerald, Flight of the Conchords, and all the classic Disney soundtracks–you name a genre, and I’ve probably listened to it twice in the past week.
So welcome, Mr. Hahn, to the euphonic jambalaya that makes succinct answers to that age-old question near-impossible.
Yesterday, as I was sitting on Venice Beach too far from any blog writing implements to adhere to my daily quota, I noticed a bizarre phenomenon: there were more lobster-hued beachcombers than I’d ever witnessed in one vicinity and, for once, I wasn’t one of them. In fact, the sea of red working to overwhelm the aquamarine ocean parallel to it made Lilo and Stitch‘s interpretation of tourism look like a scientific compendium.
Usually, Venice’s sideshow is reserved for the esplanade, and on my first non-gondola jaunt back in the seventh grade, I witnessed this exhibition firsthand. Packed in with the assemblage of typical street performers, activists, squealing zip-liners above, and market stalls pushing everything from hemp attire to photo shoots with men in plastic Halo armor, there are an array of locals who’ve inadvertently secured Venice’s fame. Among these eccentric personalities are scores of vagabonds bearing signs that compete for the surging passerby’s attention, and as Venice’s tourist industry has proliferated, these drifters have had to amplify their creativity and don the advertising gusto of agency copywriters. Thus, signs have evolved from, “I will work 4 marijuana,” to “Parents devoured by velociraptors: need money for vendetta ammunition.” One can hope that this imaginative approach has resulted in a lucrative endeavor, but with penniless thirteen-year-olds prowling the promenade for free souvenir photos, these entrepreneurs have their work cut out for them.
On an entirely different end of the eccentric spectrum, there are the Muscle Beach patrons. Even if you aren’t standing directly outside their fenced-in compound of lifting equipment, gawking with the rest of the average Joe’s, you’ll see these enormous masses of flesh stretched over bouldery muscles and nonexistent necks effortlessly strutting their way through the parting crowds down any stretch of the Venice boardwalk. Sporting short-shorts as tight as their triceps, these mobile brick walls glisten with oiled tans even when they haven’t been working out, and make Venice a veritable nirvana for beef enthusiasts.
A final seafront patron of note, and my personal favorite, are the retired Muscle Beach habitués who’ve since adopted an entirely new, groovy hobby. If you see these men coming (and yes, they’re almost always fifty-year-old men), they won’t notice your gaping jaw because they’re too busy enjoying the greatest hits of the 80s on their antiquated Walkmans. You best move out of their absentminded way though because they’re on a mission to dance a path down the esplanade and back in four-wheeled rollerskates. While wearing leopard-print Speedos. For me, these characters comprise the heart and soul of Venice as they boogie circles around tourists without missing a mobile beat.
In order to witness these wonders, you have to forgo the beach and peruse the boardwalk, and you have to go in the summer when the esplanade is far from desolate and $20 parking has an hourly limit. However, should you decide to venture past the graffitied skatepark and the platform where they erect elephantine shrines for the Hare Krishna Festival of the Chariots in August, you may find yourself privy to the startling scene I beheld yesterday: a red beach out of the Coppertone girl’s nightmares or an Aloe Vera executive’s burning jackpot, and whole hell of a lot of people who probably kicked themselves when they made their limping, pained way to a mirror last night.
This morning, I woke up naturally at 7:30, blindly snagged myself on my boyfriend’s fan, woke the entire apartment complex when it came crashing down, and got to thinking about decades.
Thus far, I’ve only lived through two full decades, but in that short twenty-year span it’s insane how many things have evolved (and not just the things attributed to Steve Jobs’ tyrannical ingenuity). Since the 90s, cell phones have diminished in size from the hulking Monarch brick Agent Dana Scully had to pull a 3-mile antennae from before she could address her urgent callers, to the boxy Nokia that went off in my fifth grade class with no penalty (because my sister and I were the only children in the country who had cell phones in 2001), and finally to the streamlined smartphone in every modern four-year-old’s Gymboree shorts (although, if the increasing size of the iPhone is any indication, looks like we’ll be right back there with 90s FBI setbacks in a fortnight). CDs swept in to antiquate cassette technology and just as quickly yielded their lionization to MP3s. Pig tails, butterfly clips, and crimpers dissipated with the stardom of Sarah Michelle Gellar and Melissa Joan Hart. Britney Spears riled up mothers about teen inappropriateness, shaved her head, and sought out Autotune to salvage her career, and the formerly hirsute Hanson became a symbol of ignominy that those of us over twenty continue to joke about in embarrassment. Pop culture drama morphed from Corey and Topanga’s relationship to Camille Grammer’s Real Housewives divorce, and lovable little Nano Pets segued into some really angry birds.
So many definitive constituents seem to be jilted with each passing decade that one can only wonder what will characterize our current decade for future generations. Will the ever-increasing speed of technological advancement continue to make things passé so quickly that we’ll hardly retain anything to attribute to this decade? And what will people even call this time period? The teens? We certainly haven’t made things easy for ourselves, a fact that might explain why contemporary pop culture seems so keen on reincarnating the past. We move with such rapidity toward an indiscernible future that we practically necessitate the familiarity gleaned from Kanye West’s 80s riffs, period pieces like Madmen and Downton Abbey, and the Cary Grant chic channelled by Justin Timberlake and pre-Don Jon Joseph Gordon-Levitt. With all our forward progression, it seems we just can’t resist the urge to look backwards.
Personally, despite the groans of protest from both my boyfriend and my mom, I would have loved to have lived in the 80s. In lieu of the spiraling 90s, the 80s were a time period that granted you the freedom to wear your hair as big and as teased as you wanted without being compared to Snooki, a larger Bono and B52s fan base to network with and firsthand access to Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” music video, and the ability to attend beach pier parties featuring shirtless, long-haired saxophonists akin to Timmy Cappello in The Lost Boys. I would have danced my way down city avenues Cyndi Lauper-style, River Phoenix’s portrayal of Chris Chambers would have stolen my heart (as if it didn’t in this day and age), and I’d never leave the house without a pair of tri-colored legwarmers to accompany my white Nikes. I would have been as excited about Tears for Fears’ upcoming album, trippy surrealist films (The Heathers, anyone?), and the Rubik’s Cube craze as all those arcade mongers who got to experience the Pacman beta.
But for all the griping I do about my actual childhood era, I can’t deprive the 90s of all merit. Yes, the platform tennis shoes, leopard-print pantsuits, and hair wrapped to look like horns on a Visigoth helmet resulted in one of the most vomitrocious band wardrobes ever assembled, but I certainly wouldn’t be the harmonic woman I am today without the guidance of the Spice Girls. And once you get past the teen blarney of Saved By the Bell and the childhood trauma instilled by X-Files episodes your parents shouldn’t have let you watch, you realize the 90s hosted some TV gems: the enduring hilarity of Seinfeld, The Simpsons in their season 7 heyday, Mr. Not-Yet-Big grilling suspects in the original Law and Order, Patrick Stewart charting our course in Star Trek: Next Generation, all the donut-fueled madness of Twin Peaks, and, of course my new obsession, The X-Files, from which “Bad Blood” and “Humbug” are writing genius.
In summation, I rescind my previous sentiments. I suppose without any personal 80s anecdotes to regale my peers with, the 90s aren’t such a bad time period to look back on in this present, indeterminate decade.
Besides, we all know the 1940s Sam Spade era is really where it’s at.
Los Angeles is an ugly city. Sure, Beverly Hills is prime, swank real-estate, the lush, green neighborhoods around UCLA are undeniably gorgeous, and the permanent postmodern exhibit that comprises every beachfront’s residential promenade could double as a high brow architectural installation at MoMA. Unfortunately, the LA you see splayed in every movie that doesn’t take place in New York, is a small, glistening segment of a larger picture, and driving down the 110 from Cesar Chavez Blvd to Culver–parallel to the cityscape and a slew of rundown buildings no abandoned building junky would ever photograph–is one of the ugliest routes you might ever take.
To make matters worse, LA’s legendary traffic utilizes this thoroughfare as one of multiple premiere runways, resulting in exasperatingly long exposure to the unattractive setting that defines downtown.
When stuck in this logjam and conversation begins to run short or iTunes Shuffle keeps producing songs you don’t know the lyrics to, the only alternative to gazing out at the unkempt urban landscape is to revive a childhood compulsion and start observing the passerby, all inching along beside you in the thick interstate pile up.
Yes, I’m that uncivilized girl.
What my slightly unsubtle observations have rendered is not only verification of LA’s status as one of the most teeming melting pots in the country (rife with endless people-watching opportunities), but also that despite this populace of diversity, we are becoming an increasingly sequestered culture.
Back in the 90s, an age that some in my generation deem “golden,” observing passing faces from the car always garnered a lot of attention in return, as people looked back with equal unrestraint. Back then, everyone seemed to agree that cars were akin to travelling exhibitions and all the physiognomies of the world were up for complimentary display in the Turnpike Gallery. Today, if anyone accidentally locks eyes with another human–mobile or otherwise–stomachs start tumbling like Russian gymnasts and eyes are quickly reverted back into the safety of our personal bubbles. While I’ve succumbed to this phenomenon of gaze-reversion for fear of offending and therefore can’t blame anyone for antisocialism, I can at least recognize that these walls we keep mortaring ourselves into with our incessant texting, social networking “friendships,” and self check-out lines at the grocery store are beginning to climb to ridiculous heights.
I don’t know why, but I’ve always had a hyper-compulsion to greet people I pass in the street, and in this day and age of physical and technological isolation, committing this act anywhere other than Savannah, Georgia, with anyone under 40 seems to startle people into horrified taciturnity. It’s so bizarre that the inhabitants of this planet are obviously hellbent on exponential reproduction but simultaneously insist on creating more tools to easily avoid all those 7.057 billion other people we currently reside with. Does this trend suggest that we as a species are inherently antisocial? Or is a history of welcoming strangers into the neighborhood with pies just waiting to repeat itself, the way fashion and music can’t resist looking backwards? I’m no anthropologist and can’t provide any data to back up these meanderings, but who knows, maybe one day soon every passenger on the I-110 will be hollering at one another just like the cast of American Graffiti.