Monday, July 19, 2010
I swear this really happened. I was walking in Hollywood, heading north on Wilton Place, where it crosses the 101, right before Sunset Boulevard. in sight of The Home Depot. The day was hot, and I wasn’t moving very fast, and I’d slowed even more to look down at the traffic on the freeway below, when a car pulled up beside me and the driver got out and ran round the car to face me.
Now I’ve been in situations similar to this before and generally it hasn’t been the prelude to anything good, but this guy looked benign enough. He said he needed directions. He pointed at his wife who was sitting in the car and said she had some crazy idea that there was a place in Los Angeles where you could walk along and see the names of Hollywood stars set in concrete in the sidewalk. Was there really such a place? He himself seriously doubted it.
I still felt this might turn out to be a set up for something more dubious, but I took him at his word and explained how to get to the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Was it easy to find? Yes. Was it easy to park? Not especially. We talked a little more and I decided he was on the level. He had an accent I didn’t recognize so I asked where he was from, and he said Spain. By then he’d worked out that I had a non-American accent too, and I explained I was originally from England. “Ah,” he said, “mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.”
It’s not every day that you’re walking in LA and somebody quotes Noel Coward at you but then again, if you believe the legend, it’s not every day that anybody walks in LA, period. As is the way with many legends, this one has an army of debunkers, and when I arrived in LA about seven years ago I decided to join them, determined to maintain the serious walking habit I’d developed in London and New York.
Since I ended up living on the lower slopes of the Hollywood Hills, my first, not very well thought out, plan was to walk every Hollywood street in a systematic, regimented way. The gridded layout appealed to the minimalist-slash-conceptualist in me. But problems presented themselves immediately. For one thing, the exact boundaries of Hollywood are a matter of some debate: the tour guides, the cops, the onetime secessionists, all have competing beliefs about where Hollywood begins and ends. One popular notion is that Mulholland Drive is the northern boundary, and although I’ve walked sections of Mulholland, the idea of walking its entire length, with its blind bends and non-existent sidewalks, strikes me as simple insanity.
Another, problem was the 101, the Hollywood Freeway. Since it snakes diagonally across the grid, northwest to southeast, the Hollywood walker encounters it all over the place. You have to go under it or over it, and in the beginning both struck me as equally daunting. I’m no agoraphobe but there are certain bridges that make me feel quite wobbly. That spot on Wilton where I gave directions to the Spanish tourist used to have an incredibly low railing, not more than waist high, and you could easily have vaulted over it, to certain and unheroic death. They’ve now built the Helen Bernstein High School on that street, and a tall section of chain link has been added, so that the kids can’t throw themselves, or more likely each other, over it. The bridge over the 101 at Western still offers agoraphobic thrills however.
Walking under the freeway is no picnic either. The underpasses are usually what Rem Koolhaas has called junk spaces. You know that somebody must have designed, or at least engineered, them, but essentially they seem to be off-cuts of architecture, the bits and pieces that happen to be left over when more urgent structural concerns have been met. And even though there are sidewalks in the underpasses, they’re chiefly made for automobile traffic and it doesn’t seem that anybody ever considered what it might feel like to walk along them: generally unpleasant and sometimes downright scary. I’m aware of just one pedestrian-only underpass, connecting two sections of North Kingsley Drive, in the area between Santa Monica Boulevard and Melrose Avenue. It’s about as pedestrian-friendly as a snake pit: narrow, low-ceilinged, walls thick with textured paint and floor-to-ceiling graffiti. There’s light at the end of the tunnel but you wouldn’t get halfway there before the pursuing zombies had ripped your legs off.
Initially, when I encountered the 101 I was determined not to engage with it, or even see it. The areas around the freeway became blank spaces on my mental map of the city, and blank parts of my walking experience. But after a while I realized that simply wouldn’t do. I was enough of an urban explorer and a contrarian, to think that engaging the very thing you don’t want to engage with, was what the LA walking experience might ultimately be all about. I decided to embrace the freeway.
The first thing to notice is that intense life of one kind or another thrives around the freeway: all those houses and apartment blocks, even motels, that snuggle up to the freeway and have balconies with panoramic views of the traffic. Meanwhile, down at ground level, the off ramp seems a place to do business, not just the guys selling bags of oranges, but others, chilling out, playing guitar, holding up cardboard signs saying they just want to get a little money for a motel room. There’s also vigorous plant life; vines that creep up the concrete pillars and parapets and threaten to make the freeway look like a jungle ruin, even while it’s still in use.
In fact the intersection of straight streets and diagonal freeway creates strange little pockets of unused land, many of them roughly triangular, and greenery thrives there too. Some of them would allow you access to the freeway, but access is usually denied by high fences and locked gates, and although not strictly impenetrable, these things deter the casual trespasser, which is probably no bad thing. It’s probably best not to let pedestrians wander onto the freeways.
On the other hand certain areas are completely accessible. On Van Ness someone has adopted a patch of ground between the off ramp and the parking lot of Tommy’s and turned it into a flowerbed complete with euphorbia and variegated agaves.
Other, larger areas are put to less decorative uses. There’s a large thin slice of downward sloping land on the south side of Sunset next to a Saab garage, that anybody can walk into and obviously many have, me included. In the daytime you’ll usually find nobody home, but there’s always plenty of evidence of habitation, blankets, old clothes, the occasional mattress, even pages torn from a bible, tarot cards, the odd battered teddy bear. The prop department has been busy if not especially inventive.
I sometimes talk to homeless people, much the way that I talk to anybody else out walking. I try not to condescend, try not to turn them into writerly “material” but occasionally I meet someone so compelling and dramatic that I can’t help wondering about, maybe even constructing, a back story. A couple of weeks back I saw two homeless guys lurking in the fenced off area under the freeway bridge at Franklin and Argyle, one of them stripped to the waist with a tattoo of a leafless tree covering the whole of his back. I sopped for a moment, hung about,, wondered if I could naturally fall into conversation with them, but it was hard to know where to start. They were some distance away, the tattooed guy seemed to be washing his armpits. Yelling out, “Hey man, nice tattoo. How do you feel about living under a bridge?” I had a feeling no good could come of that approach. Simultaneously I realized William T. Vollman would have no such inhibitions.
There used to be a nice painting of a robot or space alien up on the stanchion where the two guys were hanging out, but that didn’t stay long either. It soon got painted over, which I suppose is a good thing, though I’d have thought there were more pressing acts of public beautification you might want to perform around LA. Of course the real eyesores, the tags way high up on the parapets, stay where they are, presumably because it’s too difficult to get up and obliterate them.
I’ll leave it to somebody else to define at what point graffiti become a mural, but right there at that crossing of Franklin and Argyle you have some of my very favorite LA murals, adorning the walls of the wonderfully named Hollywood Bowl Self-Storage. There in the gloom under the freeway are giant depictions of, among others, James Dean, Liz Taylor, Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in Gone With The Wind, and there’s also John Wayne and Crazy Horse. The artwork’s a little clumsy, the likenesses are recognizable but the eyes and the facial proportions are significantly off, though I’m not complaining. The paint has recently been refurbished, the colors made brighter and more intense and there have been one or two changes. There used to be a speech bubble coming out of John Wayne’s mouth that said, “The chief up there wants to be president.” That’s gone now, and I can’t decide if it’s been done in the name of political correctness or because the painter is convinced we’re living in Obama’s post-racial America.
I’m not really in the business of recommending walking routes, but I have been known to take people on walks to show them the “other” Hollywood. And if that’s what you want we could start right there by those murals and head up Vine Street on the north side of Franklin. Most people don’t even realize it is Vine at that point, because it’s a steep, narrow, curving street that for a short while runs more or less parallel with the freeway. If you walk up and look back across the lanes of traffic you’ll see the towers of downtown, and if the light is right it looks a lot like a golden city to me.
As Vine flattens out we might take a left into Vedanta Street, home of the onion-domed Vedanta temple which according to the books is sometimes called the “little Taj,” though I’m not sure by whom. The temple looks a fine and spiritual place, but even so it’s jammed up against the freeway, with only a concrete wall (though one free of graffiti) to protect it.
From Vedanta we could make another left down Ivar, Nathaniel West’s old street, which he called Lysol Alley, though he was talking about the section below Franklin, and he certainly had no freeway to contend with. Walking down Ivar takes us through one of those junk spaces I talked about, a curious, lightless, claustrophobic underpass, only slightly brightened by its lining of white tiles that come up to about head height. At least it’s short.
Make a right on Dix Street, and if you’re in the mood we could take another right on Holly Drive which would bring us back under the freeway again, through a much longer, far more gloomy underpass, though one that’s shaggy with overhanging greenery that almost covers up the sprayed words “bullets and octane” which for a while (call me a fool) I thought was someone’s urgent street poetry but of course turns out to be the name of an angry punk-metal band.
If you didn’t want to head up Holly I’d understand, and I’d understand even more if you did want to head up North Cahuenga Boulevard but I’d say wait, we’re saving that for later. I’d recommend we go all the way to Highland, turn right and walk as if we were going to the Hollywood Bowl, but before we get there we’d hang a right on Odin Street. Odin, top deity of Norse paganism, father of Thor, god of war and death, poetry and wisdom: it’s worth walking there just for the name, but in fact it’s one of those underpasses where the necessities of road construction have created a surprisingly attractive, curving space. There’s something cinematic and widescreen about it, its mouth surrounded by palm trees that tower over the freeway, in some cases seeming to grow out of it. Its walls also bear a mural, hard to see because it’s so dark in there, called the Blue Moon Trilogy by Russell John Carlton for the Aids Project Los Angeles. According to a serious-looking metal plaque on the wall, the work’s a triptych, “Eve of Conception,” “Dawning Of A New Age” and “A Glorious Revelation.” This frankly seems a bit grandiose for what are three very modest murals, blue, green and red stripes, triangular shaped pine trees and blue moons that look like stuffed cocktail olives.
When we emerge from the underpass we’ll be on Cahuenga Boulevard which veers ahead of us toward the 101 and the Cahuenga Pass, but we don’t want to go walking up there alongside 12 or 16 lanes of traffic: even I’m not that nuts. Instead we should follow the road around to the right and eventually we’ll be heading downhill to the North Cahuenga Boulevard underpass, which is journey’s end (of a kind).
If you drive through that underpass the experience is nothing at all, but on foot it’s definitely something. The bridge supporting the freeway is broad and gently arched and when you stand under it you see that overhead, the freeway is divided into separate northbound and southbound lanes, with a gap between them, and filling that gap is a long, narrow skylight. This isn’t in the usual sense “stained glass” though there’s certainly plenty of staining; inky blues and earth browns caused by who knows what -- oil, carbon, decomposing vegetation, road gunk, maybe road kill. Even so, the light that filters down is eerily appealing. It’s not exactly like being in a cathedral but you’re definitely standing in a strange, compelling architectural space. People on foot just don’t belong there, which is a large part of the attraction. I can stand there for long periods of time, looking up at the light, hearing the noise of the traffic, basking in the weird, brutal, accidental elegance of it.
I’m not one of those people who revels in Los Angeles’ capacity for apocalypse and my understanding (I mean, I found it online) is that there’s been some “seismic upgrading” of the concrete in the bridge to increase its “flexural capacity,” but even so this is the kind of place you really wouldn’t want to be when the earthquake hits. It’s all too easy to imagine the fragmented glass, the pulverized concrete, the falling cars coming down, and there we are below, defenseless, out of place, a couple of pedestrians who wouldn’t stand a chance.
I’m sure one or two people must have seen me standing there, gazing up, taking photographs, and they’ve probably thought I was a weirdo, but as yet nobody’s ever stopped their car to talk to me. Nobody there has ever accused me of being a mad dog or an Englishman.
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
Right before we finally signed the deal to buy the house we now live in, my wife and I did a walk through which the vendor, and he pointed at various things, saying, “I’m taking that, but I’m leaving that” etc. Generally, of course, he was leaving the things we didn’t want, taking the things we did.
And at some point we came to the wall above the couch, on which was a signed poster of Man Ray’s “Observatory Time: The Lovers,” signed by the artist.
“I don’t suppose you’re leaving that behind,” I joked.
And the guy was taken aback, and said, “Oh my, so you’ve heard of Man Ray?” Apparently he didn’t meet many people who had.
I asked how he came to have the signed poster and he explained that Man Ray had been a friend of his mother. And when he was a kid she’d regularly taken him to Man Ray’s studio in Hollywood, and each time, before they set off, he was given a stern talking to and told he absolutely mustn’t touch anything when he got there. He’d always behaved himself, he said, but it hadn’t been easy. Man Ray’s studio had been like a toy store, absolutely full of small found and created objects that any kid would want to grab and play with.
Needless to say he took his poster with him.
I knew that Man Ray and Juliet Browner, eventually his wife, lived in Hollywood from 1940 to 1951 and I’d always read that their place was at the corner of Hollywood and Vine, which seemed a slightly surprising location for a major artist to hole up, but what did I know? Once in a while I’d wondered what the exact address was, but I hadn’t really bothered to find out. But last week I looked it up online and of course found the address in about 20 seconds flat. The Man Rays had lived in the Villa Elaine, an apartment building at 1245 Vine Street: they were in apartment 10, I decided I’d have to walk down there one of these days.
During the first month I lived in LA, I was taken to meet Ed Ruscha at his studio, a former beer warehouse, in Venice. I’d written an article about his “palindrome paintings” for Modern Painters magazine, and Ruscha had been persuaded by the editor – Karen Wright - to judge a readers’ palindrome contest. This didn’t take long.
As with Man Ray’s old place, there were a lot of things in Ruscha’s studio that caught the eye and that I wanted to pick up and investigate, but there weren’t many paintings on display. I guess he can sell them as soon as they’re finished. The few that were there looked like this:
And of course even as a new boy in Hollywood, perhaps especially as a new boy in Hollywood, I felt the resonance of those words Sunset and Vine. My conversation with Ruscha was brief but he did say that for a long time he’d had a studio on Western Avenue, in sight of the Hollywood sign. He’d get up in the morning, look out in that direction, and sometimes he’d see the sign, but because of air pollution, there were many morning when he couldn’t see it at all.
I didn’t ask the address of where he lived, but now, a few years later, a minimal amount of research again revealed the exact location: 1024 3/4 North Western Avenue. Sources say Ruscha “maintained this address” for 20 years, from 1965, which I assume means that in the beginning he lived and worked there, but once he’d made some money he moved somewhere better and kept that place as a studio.
I decided I’d walk to Man Ray’s old place, and then walk from there to Ed Ruscha’s old place. They were no distance away from each other, scarcely more than a mile.
Man Ray enjoyed his time in Los Angeles. “I explored the town. It was like some place in the south of France with its palm-bordered streets and low stucco dwellings … More cars of course … And I seemed to be the only one on foot, sauntering along leisurely, avoiding the more populated districts. One might retire here, I thought.”
The Villa Elaine is indeed on Vine Street, but it’s some way below Hollywood Boulevard. It’s below Sunset Boulevard too, for that matter. And if you were giving somebody instructions on how to get there you’d say it was at Vine and Fountain, but I can see that’s an address that lacks pizzazz.
The Villa Elaine is a big, solid, red brick apartment building, with a handful of stores and cafes at ground level, and a central, arched entrance gate, that leads into a central courtyard, with the apartments up above. Man Ray wrote, “I was taken to the end of the court and shown a beautiful apartment on the ground floor, a high-ceilinged studio, den, dining-room, kitchen and loggia with bedroom and bath, completely furnished. I couldn’t have imagined anything more perfect.”
When I was there, a big sign offered apartments to rent, and I did think of pretending I was looking for accommodation, but that seemed a bit creepy, and I thought they’d see right through me. Instead I went through the gate into the gorgeous courtyard, a tall, thin space, with palm trees soaring up to the roof level, and in places there was so much greenery you could barely see the building. Why wouldn’t Man Ray have been happy here? Why wouldn’t anyone? I walked among the plants, looking around and taking pictures. There were lots of handymen and gardeners who ignored me completely and there were some young hipsterish types, the residents I suppose, who looked at me with suspicion. I reckoned I had a pretty good explanation for my presence, though I wasn’t sure how many of them would have heard of Man Ray. But in fact these hipsters were far too cool to ask who I was and what I was doing.
These days the Villa Elaine is situated opposite the Office Depot, a place I’ve been known to buy my ink cartridges, but back in the day it was opposite the legendary Hollywood Ranch Market, a place that seems all the more legendary now that it no longer exists. It appears on the album cover of Zappa’s Freak Out! as a “Freak out! Hot spot.” Bukowski wrote a poem about it. James Elroy describes it as a “homo heaven,” though it also seems to have been a big hit with the kids, since it had small fairground rides inside. Even so, it was a genuine supermarket, frequented by oddballs, who after Man Ray’s time turned into hippies, druggies, groupies and whores; but Lucille Ball was also spotted there once or twice.
I liked the idea of Man Ray strolling up and down Vine Street, but in fact he hadn’t lived long in Hollywood before being a pedestrian got to him. “I began to develop an inferiority complex. I went out shopping,” he writes and he came back with “a beautiful, streamlined, metallic-blue car.” Here it is: a Graham “Hollywood Supercharger.”
If you’re walking from Man Ray’s place on Vine, to Ed Ruscha’s place on Western, the chances are that you’ll go along Santa Monica Boulevard, so that’s what I did. There’s a strange and wonderful strip mall on Santa Monica that may once have been a row of ordinary stores, but now all the businesses there are related to the automobile: Economy Auto Care, Fred’s Machine Shop, King Bear Autocenter, Manuel’s Tires. I’m especially fond of the muffler man at Hollywood Mufflers.
The strip itself is inevitably a bit grubby and workaday but behind it you can see what looks like a grove of palm tress, and among them is a grand gold and black dome. The trees and dome belong to Hollywood Forever, a cemetery, “the final resting place to more of Hollywood’s founders and stars than anywhere else on earth,” as they proudly claim.
I go there once in a while and walk around, it’s exotic and a little bit kitsch, some of the monuments seem a bit “excessive”, like the one above featuring the Atlas rocket to symbolize the achievements of a graphic artist named Carl Morgan Bigsby. And there’s this one (below) of Joey Ramone.
And certainly this is the only cemetery where I’ve ever seen free-roaming peacocks, but it’s still very peaceful and pleasant, and there are generally a few other people walking around contemplatively, taking in the sights, and one or two people sitting on benches reading. Hollywood Forever is what passes for a public space in LA.
And it isn’t just a resting place for celebs. It’s very much still in business and there are plenty of ordinary people buried there, and increasingly the style seems to be to have a portrait image etched into your marble headstone, something based on a photograph. This always strikes me as odd. It takes maybe a sixtieth of a second to create a photograph. You looked like that for a tiny sliver of time and now you’re memorialized looking like that for all eternity.
You’d think a photographer, of all people, wouldn’t want something like that on his headstone. Imagine my surprise then to discover that the grave of Man Ray and Juliet in the Montparnasse cemetery in Paris bears a photograph of the couple, although it’s on her headstone rather than his, and I don’t know if either of them was personally responsible: it may have been relatives or fans. On the other hand, that line “unconcerned but not indifferent” on Man Ray’s headstone is an absolute winner. Anyone in Hollywood would be proud of that.
I went to Hollywood Forever as a tourist long before I lived in LA, and my impression at the time was that the streets around it were a bit scary. Now I don’t find them scary at all. I realize they’re simply Latino, and I’ve learned that in Los Angeles, things Latino are generally not all that scary. Certainly as you walk from Hollywood Forever toward Western Avenue and Ed Ruscha’s former studio there are sections that feel like a part of old Mexico.
There’s an interview with Ruscha that appeared, improbably enough, in People Magazine in 1983, that describes his place as “seedy pseudo-Mission-style building on Western Avenue, in the middle of an adult movie strip.” Lord knows there are very few adult movie theaters left in LA, but Stan’s Adult Super Store survives half a block away on the other side of the street. Otherwise the adult movie strip has been replaced by a bicycle repair shop and a law office (I think) that offers “professional consultations.”
I’m not sure I could recognize pseudo-Mission-style architecture, and I’ve also reached the point in my life when I’m no longer quite sure what “seedy” means, and I definitely don’t know if it’s a criticism. I think there are many people in the world, many people in LA, who’d think Ruscha’s old place was a decent enough place to live, a series of one and two-story structures, with open staircases and arches, and a small leafy courtyard at its center. It wasn’t nearly as lush as the one at Villa Elaine, but then few are. And here the gates were locked to keep out people like me, and people worse than me too, and the doors and windows that opened to the street had iron bars on them. Hipsters may very possibly live there but I didn’t see any of them.
If you stand right outside the gate there’s no way you can see the Hollywood sign: there are too many people and things in the way. But if you go up to the southeast corner of Santa Monica and Western and look northwest you’re in with a chance. I did my Man Ray-Ruscha walk was one of those June-gloom days that we get in LA, grey, overcast, sunless, but even so the sign was just about visible, above the traffic, the people, the buildings and the haze.
I don’t know how much of a walker Ed Ruscha was or is. That People magazine article said he owned a house out in the desert in Yucca Valley and I can’t believe you can live in the desert without going out and doing some serious walking once in a while. And if some further proof of Ruscha’s walking credentials were required, here’s another of Ruscha’s painting, from 1985, the year he finally left Western Avenue, titled “Man Walking Away From It All.”
Thursday, June 3, 2010
In general I like to have a destination when I walk, even if it’s only the local book store or supermarket. But since I lead a sedentary life, working at home, once in a while I step outside my front door and simply walk around the neighborhood for half an hour or forty five minutes, for the sake of a break, and in the belief that walking is in itself an inherently good thing.
As I was growing up, whenever my dad or granddad or one of my uncles went out for no apparent reason, my mother or one of the other female relatives would always ask where they were going and why. More often than not, the reply was, “There and back to see how far it is.” This meant, essentially, “Mind your own business.” But it’s a phrase I often find myself using, and in my own case it means that I’m going out walking for the sake of walking.
To some limited extent this is what the psychogeographers mean when they speak of “locomotion without a goal.” I don’t have a route planned, and I don’t have a destination in mind, beyond the fact that sooner rather than later I want to end up back where I started.
I like to say I live on the “lower slopes” of the Hollywood Hills, hilly for sure but not those vertiginous crests and canyons you get up in the heights, and it’s undeniably pleasant, but I’m sure some of my higher altitude neighbors would think I lived in a slum. The houses tend to be quirky because they’ve been shoe-horned into quirky bits of land, and there are all the usual Hollywood Hills features, palm trees, banks of bougainvillea, the occasional and always empty swimming pool, the not quite convincing security signs that say “armed response,” though you wouldn’t want to put them to the test.
Having lived in the same house for seven years or so now, I’ve walked and continue to walk all the streets in the immediate vicinity, but I don’t walk them all “equally.” There are certain streets I walk all the time, certain streets I go along only once in a while. And there are certain streets I walk hardly at all, for perfectly good reasons, because they’re so steep, or because there’s a blind corner and no sidewalk and I don’t want to get run down by some twerp in a Range Rover who’s on his cell phone, wheeling and dealing while he drives. Or because the houses have vicious dogs in their yrads, and OK, the dogs are behind fences or railings but some of these beasts look like they could chew through chain mail. Who needs it? On the other hand, I don’t want to feel I have to avoid certain places in my own neighborhood, so I walk along these dodgy streets once in a while, climbing one in three gradients, risking vehicular death, with Hound of Baskerville-style howls echoing after me.
One of the pleasures of walking the same route regularly is that you observe how things change. You see trees and plants growing, coming into flower, fading, maybe dying. You notice that somebody’s got a new car, a new fence, a new spouse, a new baby. You see that a house is being refurbished, and then you see it go up for sale. And then somebody moves in, then a year later it all happens again.
Of course there are some spots that I always hit, view points, scenic overlooks. One of them looks west over the Hollywood Freeway, toward the ocean, though from that particular place there are mountains blocking the sightline. And sometimes the air itself is a blockage.
Another one looks east, through somebody’s euphorbia and cactus garden to give a hazy view of downtown. From there you also see Western Avenue, running due south, dead straight, as far as the eye can see, further than you’d ever want to walk.
And when I walk with other people, I always take them past the Samuels-Navarro house, designed by Lloyd Wright in 1928, and later owned by Diane Keaton and Christina Ricci, among others. I regard people’s reaction to the house as a kind of a Rorschach test. If they say, “What a great house,” I know they’re part of my tribe. If they say, “What’s that weird ugly monstrosity?” then I know they’re not.
This being the Hollywood Hills I only see a very few fellow, solitary walkers. It’s rare enough that we always nod a kind of greeting but I’ve never had a conversation with any of these people, whereas I chat all the time with people who are out walking their dogs. I learn the names, the ages, the personalities, the frailties, of the dogs, but never anything at all about the owners.
I don’t usually carry my camera with me, because it seems to get in the way, both of walking and observing, but as you see, once in a while I do take it, and sometimes I’m very glad of it, when I see that impossible to repeat moment: a blimp, a deer, an inflatable dinosaur, the smoke from a fire in Griffith Park.
Heraclitus says, and I believe him, that you can’t jump in the same river twice. By that token, I suppose you can’t walk in the same street twice. So I also wonder if you can ever go home twice. Or once. By the time you get home from a walk, home is no longer precisely what it was when you left. While you were out walking, the butterfly of chaos theory flapped its wings; the universe, and your home, will have changed forever. Of course this is no reason not to go walking: since all is flux, the butterfly would have flapped its wings in any case. And for that matter, the very act of going for a walk will (in however slight a way) have changed you too. That’s a very good reason to go walking.
Friday, May 21, 2010
A recently published book, Beckett: Photographs by François-Marie Banier, had its origins in 1978 when the photographer happened to be on vacation in Tangier and saw Samuel Beckett, the great dramatic poet of angst and stasis, walking along in shorts and sandals, carrying a shoulder bag and heading for the beach.
At first it seems that Banier more or less stalked Beckett, like a paparazzo, but somewhere along the line they became friends, and the book also contains photographs from the late 1980s of Beckett in Paris, in which Beckett is more complicit.
Those beach pictures do seem genuinely startling. We want to imagine Beckett, like his characters, in some small dark room, suffering for his art, or perhaps just suffering, certainly not going on vacation and sunning himself. And, of course, this is pathetically naïve of us. Many of those pictures confirm, what I suppose we always knew really, that even the greatest, most unworldly writers, spend part of their lives doing the same perfectly ordinary, mundane things as the rest of us.
In the end, however, I don’t think Banier completely demystifies Beckett. In pictures like the one above, Beckett shows, or at least the photographer reveals, that sometimes when he walks he does a pretty good job of looking like an authentic Beckettian figure.
And if Beckett looks a little tense and tentative in his walking, well perhaps he’s remembering the night in Paris in 1938 when he was walking with a group of friends and was approached by a pimp, offering his services. Beckett declined, in some insulting way it seems, since the pimp was so incensed he stabbed Beckett in the chest, perforated a lung and very nearly killing him. The pimp, called Prudent, went briefly to jail, but Beckett didn’t press charges, and by some accounts he later turned the events of that night into a comic anecdote.
James Knowlson, author of the Beckett biography Damned to Fame, recounts that well over 30 years later, he and Beckett were walking in the street near the old people’s home where Beckett was then living, when a man with a camera leapt out and took a couple of photographs of him. Beckett reacted as though he’d been stabbed.
Of course we don’t look to Beckett’s writing for tales of vigorous hiking and wanderlust and yet, poet of stasis as he may be, a couple of Beckettian walking moments spring immediately to mind. A late work for the stage called Quad I and II (above) consists largely of synchronized walking, performed by hooded, robed figures who create patterns as they move rapidly around a square, illuminated space.
Another occurs in Film, in which the protagonist, played by Buster Keaton, scuttles (I think that’s the right word, it’s rapid and shambling but it’s definitely a walk rather than a run) alongside what seems to be the longest, highest, most featureless wall in all of New York City. It was demolished shortly after the movie was made.
Keaton, rather proudly, used to claim that he never understood what the movie was about; then again he never asked. But it hardly matters. Given his onscreen persona: stone-faced but far from inexpressive, suffering, stoical, much abused, he was a “natural” Beckett hero.
In his own movies Keaton does plenty of walking that might well be thought of as Beckettian – “you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on.” But my favorite bit of Keaton walking occurs at the start of The Navigator. Here’s Keaton’s own description of it, from a 1958 interview with George C Pratt, ‘The opening gag … is one of the most stolen gags that ever was done on the screen. I think I knew at one time of twenty-seven times it had been done by other companies. With us, the gag was to establish the fact that I was so helpless, that I went to call on the girl, and I came down and got in my car with a chauffeur and a footman. The footman wrapped a blanket wound my knees – a big, open Pierce-Arrow Phaeton – and drove across the street. That’s all. I got out to call on the girl. I asked the girl if she’d marry me and she said, “No,” and I come back down (to the car). The guy opened the door in the car for me, and I said, “No, I think the walk will do me good.” So I walked across the street with the car followin’ me, makin’ a U-turn.’
Keaton was an extraordinary physical actor, fascinated by what the body can do, and passionately interested in making it do all kinds of things it was never meant to. He was also intensely engaged with the relationship between bodies and machines, cars, boats and of course the locomotive in The General.
The picture above shows Keaton walking along a railroad track, and this being Keaton, and the movie being a comedy, we know that a train is about to come along. The picture below shows Harry Dean Stanton in Wim Wenders’ movie Paris Texas, and because this is a serious, glum, Germanic movie we equally know that a train won’t be coming along. I assume Wenders is well aware of the similarity of the two images.
I suppose one of the problems most of us have with real life is that we’re never quite sure whether we’re in a Buster Keaton comedy, a Wim Wenders existential road movie or, for that matter, a piece of Sam Beckett philosophical minimalism. We walk along not quite knowing where we’re heading, nor what, if anything, is about to hit us, but when something does, whether it’s a train, a bout of Germanic weltschmerz, or the realization that our mothers gave birth astride a grave, well, which ever movie we're in, it really doesn't come as much of a surprise.
Thursday, May 20, 2010
I may be a Hollywood walker, but the fact is, I walk wherever I am. And when I’m in a new place, say Guadalajara, having been invited there for the Book Fair, and have a few hours to spare, I set off walking, with only the vaguest idea of where I’m going or where I’ll end up.
I guess this is what top psychogeographer Guy Debord called “locomotion without a goal,” abandoning my usual walking habits and letting the environment draw you into what he calls the “unities of ambiance” that ripple through any city.
I never think this is as fancy as it sounds. You walk down the street and come to a junction where you have to turn left or right. You look in both directions and you take the one that draws you. As for what draws you, well, it may be an interesting piece of architecture, a fine old tree, an open space, maybe a bar. Now, as readers of my books will know, I'm at least as obsessed with Volkswagen Beetles as I am with walking. So when I see street that has a Volkswagen Beetle in it I head right for that unity of ambiance.
In my native England, Beetles are close to extinction. Even in Los Angeles, my current home, you see fewer and fewer all the time. But in Mexico, where they continued manufacturing the Beetle (or vocho as it’s known locally) until 2003, there are still plenty to see. And so I walked the streets of Guadalajara guided by the presence or absence of Volkswagen Beetles.
I found myself in an area of the city called Jardines del Bosque: literally Forest Gardens. I didn’t know it at the time, but the layout of the neighborhood was designed by the great architect Luis Baragan. There were inevitable planning problems and the full extent of his design was never realized. Even so, to walk these streets is to find yourself in a wonderful mid-century suburb, or perhaps a theme park: houses with flat roofs, hints of streamline moderne, marble tile and walls of gorgeous, vibrantly colored stucco. And in front of some of those houses, fine Volkswagen Beetles.
I suspect I walked the streets with an idiotic grin on my face, drinking it all in, so many streets, so many curious architectural elements, so many Beetles. And the streets had amazing names: La Luna, Nebulosa, Atmosfera, Cometa, Orbita, Astros. I thought how impeccably cool it would be if people asked you where you lived and you could say, “At the corner of Astro and Orbit.”
The Beetles were amazing too. Some of them were old, verging on classic, a few were customized, one or two were absolutely pristine; but the vast majority were workaday cars, and really not that old. Even so, it is in the nature of the Beetle that however similar they may all look, no too are ever precisely the same. This is their glory.
It’s always hard to know how to end a walk. You feel you need a climax, a resolution, a journey’s end, a perfect moment. But these things don’t occur to order, and nothing’s worse than trying to force it and falsify one. So in this case, after a couple of hours walking I decided I’d had enough fun and headed back to the hotel by the most direct route. But then, as I was getting close to the hotel I came across a small, slightly shabby, but stylish apartment block: white painted brick, stone facings, balconies with angular wrought iron railings. Right away I noticed there was a cool red Beetle parked in the street out front; but then I saw there was another one inside the yard of the apartment block, a faded yellow one. Then I spotted a black one up on blocks, and another that had started out bright orange and was now multicolored as various panels had been replaced.
I was in a kind of ecstasy. I hung around for a while hoping the owner of the cars might appear, although I wasn’t sure I’d have said him other than “Vochos hermosos.” He never did appear. Only a ginger tomcat strolled languidly between the Beetles, and soon enough I went on my way. Even so, there’d been a moment there when I’d had the sense that the streets of Gudalajara, maybe the whole world, had been arranged specifically for my benefit and pleasure. And even though I knew it hadn’t, to have that feeling, however briefly, is one of the things that makes walking, and life, worthwhile.