The Austin Chronicle

Drastic Space: Part II

By Michael Ventura, June 6, 1997, Columns

illustration by AJ Garces

There's a glowing thing in the house. Turn the volume down and hear it hiss. You had your reasons for buying it, you have your reasons for submitting your time to it... but it's a powerful presence, takes a lot of attention. We say it's "entertainment," "information," "news." What clap-trap. It's a relationship. Anything you spend that much time with, so intimately, is a relationship. It's in your living room. Your bedroom. It's not just a piece of furniture. It talks. It expects to be responded to. It's a source of emotion. It's a relationship.

And most of it is generated (even when filmed elsewhere) in a Mojave Desert city called Los Angeles.

Funny name for a town. San Francisco, Austin -- they're named after people. New Orleans, Odessa -- they're named after places. Los Angeles is named after angels. Now, if you choose to believe in angels you're tolerated in literate society as long as you lace your belief with New Age hoo-hoo. But if you express your belief aloud, politely but insistently, to friends and family, educators and policemen -- well, you lose credibility. You're even apt to be put away. So Los Angeles was named after beings who don't exist but can get you in trouble.

All those frou-frou calendars aside, go back to your Bible and you'll see that when angels appeared to folks who really believed in angels, those folks hid under the bed. Even Moses' first response was fear. Jacob wrestled with the critter, and said, "I will not let thee go except thou bless me." They saw something threatening and challenging in the angelic. Those Biblical responses are a little closer to the feel of Los Angeles, where the glow and hiss originate.

A drastic place with a drastic mission. For it is a little drastic to have an entire industry devoted to hissing and glowing and speaking in our bedrooms, our living rooms. Especially when what we see is people shooting and raping and strangling each other, betraying and humiliating and uglifying each other, baiting each other, laughing not very mercifully at each other (all those stand-up comics who talk as though they never sit down), or being wheeled into hospitals with all manner of gaping wounds and horrific diseases. That hissing and glowing thing is a hysteric! Paranoid, schizophrenic, apocalyptic, messianic, dirty-minded. Foul-mouthed, lying, preaching, cajoling, hustling, huckstering, running around half-naked and puckering up to kiss practically anybody for any reason. Not many of us would let anyone else behave like that for very long in our bedroom. (Or would we?) It's quite a relationship.

What do you need it for? What do I need it for?

(Just thought I'd ask.)

And all the tomes and rants about the hissing-glowing-thing exhibiting these behaviors on a 24-hour-a-day, 100-channel-a-cable basis... all those commentaries, both semiotic and semi-idiotic, neglect to consider that much of that hiss-glow is generated in a specific place.

A specific space. A space which you've invited into your space. The way, when you play Country & Western music, you invite the South's denseness and the West's vastness into your space; when you listen to blues, you breathe the humid Mississippi Delta; when you listen to modern jazz, you feel the urban night of New York. (Texas legend James "Big Boy" Medlin once said he never understood Charlie Parker and John Coltrane until he tried to cross against traffic on Broadway & 52nd Street.) In just this way, that hissing and glowing thing, no matter what it pretends to be showing, is largely a product of L.A.

So what is this space, this L.A., this drasticness? Concretely, what do you drive through, what are you part of?

Let's say you've driven through the Mojave on Interstate 10 -- and for the sake of poetic license (if mine hasn't been revoked yet), let's say you're an artist, that is, one whose task is the recognition and expression of meaning (it's everybody's task really, or artists wouldn't have an audience, but let's just say...)

You are entering not a city so much as a dizzying discord of space. Get off at the La Cienaga exit -- it's the rebuilt overpass that collapsed in the Northridge Quake two years ago. La Cienaga means "the swamp": This area was once swampland. Under the pavement it's still swampland. Which means that in a big enough quake the ground could liquefy, and the buildings would sink and collapse. So, instantly, you're in earthquake space, because anywhere in L.A. you're within seven miles of some major fault. (Listen and you can hear that fact in the hiss of that glowing thing in your home. You can hear people choosing to raise their children in this disaster space, though the scope of the possible disaster is almost unimaginable.)

Head north. There's the Carls' Jr. where those boys massacred all those people not too long ago: murder space. Then you cross Pico Boulevard, where people burned a lot of buildings on a recent April 29th: riot space. To the west, on your left, are the skyscrapers of Century City, built on the old 20th Century-Fox backlot, skyscrapers in which the big Hollywood lawyers and agents do their deals. (A bigwig agent at CAA, the biggest agency, had in his office Andy Warhol's portrait of Mao. That says it all, but exactly what it says I can't rightly say.)

What's left of the Fox studio is behind those towers. So you're seeing: Fantasy space, greed space, lawyer doubletalk space, the high featureless buildings that are the true face and space of the power of money. The power that thinks it controls our glow and hiss. But it doesn't, really. You do. I do. We could turn the fucking thing off. We choose not to. The agents in that Century City skyscraper don't make that choice. We do. (What could we possibly be thinking of?) The "power" those bigwigs have is only the power to work 16 hours a day -- they do work hard -- to create mediocrity. (If they insist on quality they don't last.) So who in their right mind would call that power? What a drastic illusion. Thus: drastic-illusion space.

So what kind of space is that? Perhaps it's less a space than an anti-space. Anti-space, that's it. You can hear it in the hiss, see it in the anti-moonlight of the glow.

It is the space of what I call: moral insanity. For there are 200,000 millionaires in this Los Angeles. The densest concentration of wealth on earth. It is a moral insanity to bask in so much luxury while so many, a short drive away, are suffering in want. These are the people who determine the programming on that hiss-glow thing. Yet this is what we've invited into our homes and refuse to shut off. I can't get over it: We welcome this heartlessness into our homes.

Oh well.

We are driving north on La Cienaga, crossing San Vicente, past the Beverly Center, a tower of fashionable shops, and across the street on our right another mall of theatres and shops and a Good Guys electronics store open 24 hours (in case we wanna buy a hiss-glow-thing or a beeper at three in the morning): It's not consumer space, not really, it's a space for a restlessness, a gnawing nervousness, expressed and relieved through the spending of money -- relieved 'til tomorrow or next week, when the restlessness sends you into that space again. For nothing bought really matters; it's the buying that matters. A restless, anxious, voracious space that is never filled. A space duplicated in every mall now in America, the space most shared among us -- except for that hiss-glow-thing, which is shared to an extent impossible to accurately conceive.

And all this time, heading north: the sexiest billboards in the country, young women and men hardly clothed at all, some buck naked, with what Marilyn Monroe called "the private area" concealed only by a bend of the body, and all these young people radiating the cold intensity of love-for-sale sexuality that sticks to everything in the city like an invisible sweat. For sex in all its forms is an open space here, harsh as the desert, sticky and gritty as smog.

You're crossing Santa Monica Boulevard now, the west end of West Hollywood where it abuts Beverly Hills, where there are some of the only (openly) gay billboards in the country: queer space. (The radical gays here prefer the word "queer," they like how it makes folks queasy.) A space to challenge all assumptions of who you may or may not be below the waist.

Sexual ambivalences shimmer in the glow and hiss in the hiss. Who can be sure anymore of the authenticity and source of their desire, straight or gay, male or female? (I don't say that's a bad thing. There's paradox in every lust. It's about time we invited that realization into our bedrooms.)

La Cienaga dead-ends into Sunset Boulevard. You're in the Hollywood Hills. You can see for miles. Autumn desert winds will change these hills into fire space. Winter rains will make them mud space. Some rich houses on these slopes (status space) will burn or slide, and all will fear that burning and sliding. Mud, fire, riot, quake, all spaces combine to say that nothing can protect you here, not even money, so in this sense the city is: vulnerability space. And what else is life about, in the end, but vulnerability?

Yes, you can see for miles, but one fine day you'll face east and be surprised: There are mountains out there! Snow-capped! You can live here years (I'm serious: years) and not see them. Then suddenly: You look up and there they are. So this is a space where mountains appear and disappear on the horizon. Like everything else.

(to be continued)

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