Somewhere over Las Vegas, my plane eases into a shallow dive towards LAX, coasting into a city that is practically known for just that. Every break I head back to Los Angeles, and some new curiosity makes itself apparent, emerging from the patchwork quilt of a city with many identities. Yet I constantly have to defend Los Angeles from the criticism of my friends, who do not see eye-to-eye with me on what makes L.A. great.
Weather so good to the point of being boring (70˚ winters), In-n-Out, and a relaxed culture are all hailed as L.A.'s strong points. Celebrities are normal people, like you and me. You might even spot a few. Yet L.A.’s art sscene is constantly viewed with disdain. Why? Maybe because the scene is as unique as L.A, and no other city lacks cohesion like L.A. does.
Staring out the window of an airplane, it is impossible to miss things for which L.A. is known. It would be impossible to overlook the freeways, those two-way blood vessels clotted daily with traffic and accidents when it’s barely raining. Randy’s Doughnuts and its famous doughnut shaped building might be the first architectural and artistic oddity you see, but surely not the last. In L.A., the lot you own is your personal canvas. This architectural freedom carries over into other arts as well; maybe it's an attitude.
Reyner Banham, author of Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, says this: “Overflying such a spectacle, it is difficult to doubt that it is a subject worthy of description, yet at ground level there have been many who were ready to cast doubt on the worth of such an enterprise.” New Yorkers constantly write off the city. Undergrads studying planning will tell you that Los Angeles is blighted, the end result of years of unfettered expansion into the desert.
At times it can seem like L.A. is a disaster occurring in slow motion. Grinding traffic makes a 15-minute drive into a two hour nightmare. Last December, an arsonist set 49 separate fires around Hollywood, sending the city into paranoia and choppers circling above with searchlights trained upon possible targets.
Even worse, L.A. depends on a massive film industry facing declining profits from shrinking box office sales. The infinite sequel and $15 tickets aren’t helping matters. Neither is the fact that the film industry is aggressively lobbying for SOPA and PIPA, to the displeasure of the Internet. But why pay for a boring movie when you can get it for free online?
Just as L.A. depends on the arts, the arts depend on L.A. Utilizing local talent could help revitalize film, which has become a stagnant and boring export of the city. Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop artfully documents a thriving L.A. underground arts scene, one that risks devolving into self-congratulatory hipster-ism if left unchecked. Why let it come to this? Studios have a cheap local labor force at their doorstep begging to apply their talents in creative ways. Most are turned away because their projects do not appeal to traditional market categories or appear too obtuse. By abandoning some of the dogma around Hollywood filmmaking so that more ambitious and risky projects might receive funding, studios and audiences may find the originality they are searching for.
For a city that was the birthplace of The Doors, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sublime, gangsta rap and the Pharcyde, to name a few, Los Angeles has dwindled in its ability to produce solid musical talent. The shifting nature of modern music may be to blame, but not entirely. L.A. public schools are notorious for a lack of music programs due to funding issues; a new focus on the arts in schools would be beneficial to the city in the long run.
L.A. rarely gets the love it deserves, except from those who live there. As Ice Cube attests in a recent YouTube video entitled Ice Cube Celebrates the Eames, “Who are these people who got a problem with L.A.? Maybe they’re just mad cuz they don’t live here.” It just takes a bit of local experience to see the core of the city that lies beyond the strip malls and smog.
“This sense of possibilities still ahead is part of the basic life-style of Los Angeles. It is, I suspect, what still brings so many creative talants to this palm-girt littoral - and keeps most of them there,” says Banham. This semester I hope to bring a little bit of my hometown to Ithaca through this column, and advance the discussion of our generation and the arts. And just as Los Angeles will continue to get better with time, I hope we can find a clearer notion of what we’re looking for in today’s culture.