Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Lotus Land

Monrovia, California

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Well, 11-11-11 at 11:11 has come and gone, and the world remains in existence and pretty much intact, at least here in what one of my friends recently referred to as Lotus Land, a longtime nickname for Hollywood. Several events were scheduled for that date and time in the LA area, sponsored by the usual soothsayers and wackjobs, which caused me to wonder, “11:11 in what particular time zone?.” By the time it’s 11:11 here, it’s already been 11:11 in most of the rest of the world. The rigid zones we have now only came into existence starting with the advent of the railroad, and in many places, such as Europe, weren’t fixed until after World War II. Before that it was whatever time the local clock, or town crier, said it was. More often than not sunrise was 6:00 a.m., and sunset was 6:00 p.m., give or take some allowance for the length of the days.

The trouble with reading too much of anything into a spot on the western calendar—or any calendar, really—is the inherently faulty nature of such measures of time. The year 2000, for instance, could easily have been off by two or three years either way, no one knows for sure, especially since it measures itself from the occurrence of an event that might or might not have happened and a person who might or might not have existed, in the corporeal sense, at least. (So the computer conspiracy theorists had to create their own version of the Year 2000 crisis—and made a ton of money from it to boot.) In any case, January 1st has only been recognized as the turn of the new year since the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, which in the Roman Catholic world occurred in 1582, when Pope Gregory XIII announced the adjustment for the fact that we’d had about ten too many leap years over the centuries. But the Protestant countries didn’t start to get on board until some time in the 1700s, at which point they had to skip thirteen days, not ten. The Russians didn’t make the adjustment until after the revolution of 1917. And that doesn’t include all the crazy regional variations along the way. The other thing that happened with that adjustment from Julian to Gregorian was the recognition that a year would start in January, rather than in March, as had previously been the case. Ever wonder why the last four months of the year as we now reckon it are based on the Latin words for seven, eight, nine, and ten, rather than nine, ten, eleven, and twelve? Under the old calendar, 11-11 wouldn't have happened until January.

The point is, with all this utterly arbitrary stuff in the history of the calendar and timekeeping, how anyone can get excited about the felicitous arrangement of the digits in any particular day, date, or time is beyond me. But it has created quite a cottage industry for mountebanks and crazies the world over. Of course there are the end-time Christians, about whom I've written before, whose methods of reckoning the second coming all seem to fall by the wayside. The touchstone of much of the buzz these days seems to be the Mayan calendar. Ah yes, the Mayans, the real smart guys of the world, right up there with the Tri-Lateral Commission and the Elders of Zion. And the aliens who built the pyramids.

I think whenever we come to some numerically catchy or portentous moment such as 11-11-11, or 12-12-12, we fall into a sort of willing trance of mass belief or stupefaction, which brings me back to Lotus Land. The reference is to the mythical island of the Lotus Eaters in Homer’s Odyssey, where a scouting party of Odysseus’s men went ashore, ate the narcotic food of the locals, which they called the lotus, and didn’t want to leave. When Odysseus went to investigate he found that the people were friendly enough, and had been more than hospitable to his men, putting them into a kind of mellow state where they forgot pretty much everything, including (and most importantly from the point of view of Odysseus himself) the purpose of their journey, which was to get back home to Ithaca so that Odysseus could resume his kingship. Odysseus had to force them bodily back onto the ship, restrain them, and row the hell away from Lotus Land. Obviously the sailors didn't have as much invested in their own return as Odysseus did. Their job, after all, was just to toil in the service of their leader. It makes you think immediately of the mutineers on the Bounty who, while they might have been staunch sons of Britannia, felt an even stronger desire to kick back and enjoy the tropical paradise they had already found in Tahiti rather than continue to labor under the lash of Captain Bligh. You can picture them balancing their options: Hmmmm. Work like a dog, eat hard tack and be whipped, or lie in huts all day with nubile young Polynesian women? Tough choice. Odysseus's men must have been going through a similar calculus.

This episode from Homer’s story has become a recurring theme in modern literature—the idea that we can get waylaid from our life’s plans by the lure of comforts and pain-killing diversions—that we pretty easily can be convinced to forget the Big Picture, which almost invariably has something to do with working hard for someone else, responsibility, pain and suffering, and cold weather, all followed by the possibility, but never the certainty, of a better life in the hereafter.

Three millennia after Homer, in the 1830s, Tennyson wrote a poem called “The Lotos-Eaters.” It’s about the same episode, but told more from the perspective of the men than of their taskmaster, with many of those questions being asked, such as "Why should we only toil?" So how does Hollywood fit into this metaphor? Well, I guess it’s the place where they grow the lotuses, and where people come and forget where they came from. Maybe. A century in advance of the heyday of the movie business Tennyson foretold one thing at least—the difference between the elite dwellers of the hills of northern Los Angeles, many of whom have climbed to the pinnacle of the movie biz and become its gods and goddesses, and the rest of the vast hot city and its ordinary, toiling population:

In the hollow Lotos-land to live and lie reclined
On the hills like Gods together, careless of mankind.
For they lie beside their nectar and the bolts are hurl’d
Far below them in the valleys, and the clouds are lightly curl’d
Round their golden houses, girdled with the gleaming world;
Where they smile in secret, looking over wasted lands
Blight and famine, plague and earthquake, roaring deeps and fiery sands ....

Invariably when we think of Hollywood we think only of the few who have made it to the top. They are its representatives and its ambassadors. They are all we really know or wish to know of the business. But very few who seek to reach the Olympian heights of the elite club of hill dwellers actually get that far. Entertainment is after all a business, first and foremost, even if its product is escape and dreams and the making of something out of nothing. True, here is where they grow the narcotic food, but the lotuses are exported everywhere and eaten by people in every living room and theater in the world. You can’t escape from Hollywood by rowing hard in the opposite direction until it’s out of sight like Odysseus and his men did.

Here it should be noted that “Hollywood” is and pretty much always has been a code word for a larger and more far-flung media production region comprising much of the City of Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, and other outlying towns and cities. In that regard it’s similar to the way “Detroit” as the symbol of automobile production stands for not just the Motor City itself but an archipelago of industrial towns outside its confines—Pontiac, Dearborn, Warren, Flint, etc. The something that’s made out of nothing hereabouts is what fills most people’s TV screens and imaginations all day everyday, just as the cars made (or formerly made) in the industrial centers of southeastern Michigan fill the highways of the country. People like to think in generalities, so they are inclined to use terms like Hollywood and Detroit in their larger historical senses.

Real or imagined glamour aside, Hollywood and the movies and TV are in many ways simply the local business. That’s why I make the comparison between Detroit and Hollywood. For every slick movie or TV show or commercial, and for every shiny new Cadillac, there’s a lot of really unglamorous labor involved, performed by people who don’t make a hell of a lot of money. In the end, the production of things for us to watch on screens, large and small, is to this area what automobile making is to the Detroit area. Flashier maybe, but essentially the same. The local television newscasts and the business section of the LA Times, for instance, are filled with statistics about movie grosses, movie deals, production companies, and so on, just as the Free Press or Channel 7 in Detroit would feature stories about hybrid cars, GM bailouts, and automotive purchasing trends.

At parties and in casual gatherings in southern California you’re as likely to chat with someone who is involved in some small and by no means glamorous way with media production as you would be to talk to a shop rat or an automotive engineer in Michigan. In just a few months I’ve met a camera operator, a sound production engineer for a reality TV show, a makeup technician who had just made a string of latex ears for an actor playing a Vietnam warrior to wear around his neck, and someone whose son is a gaffer. People know people who have been extras or have had small parts. The streets of the small all-American-looking outlying towns of LA County are routinely blocked off while crews shoot exterior footage for commercials or movies or TV shows. These are people who work for a living. Maybe they’re a little like the poppy farmers of Afghanistan or coca farmers of Peru, making something that makes everyone dream dreams, while they do the hard work, albeit often under the influence of the very drug they manufacture.

Just as you and I knew very few if any automotive CEOs when we were growing up, very few people around here have seen in the flesh the various figures we read about and see so often, despite the fact that they live only minutes away, just as did the denizens of Bloomfield Hills who ran the industry of the land of our youth.

The fact that stuff produced in Hollywood gets broadcast and spread all over the country is pretty much what you’d expect from the products of any industrial center. Chevrolet trucks and Fords and Chryslers go all over the place, too. People put their asses into them just as much as they put them in couches in front of TV sets and in movie theater seats. And as with Michigan and cars, there are other places, far away from here, where they make movies and TV programs, and in some peoples’ opinions make them better and more cheaply than they do here. But here is where the infrastructure and the technology and lots of the talent reside, and here is where the power, and the heady symbolism of the business, will always reside.

As a postscript to this ramble, I should mention that there is a botanical garden called Lotusland, up the Pacific coast in Montecito, near Santa Barbara. It was begun by a Polish-born woman named Ganna Walska on her estate in 1941. Ms. Walska lived from 1887 to 1984, and was married to six wealthy husbands along the way. They included a Russian baron, a New York endocrinologist, a carpet manufacturing heir, and an English inventor. The most famous among them was Harold Fowler McCormick, to whom she was married from 1922 to 1931. McCormick was the son of Cyrus McCormick, inventor of the mechanical reaper, and became chairman of the board of the International Harvester Company. (His first wife, whom he divorced, was the daughter of John D. Rockefeller.) When McCormick married Ganna Walska, he tried to promote her career as an opera singer, despite the objective fact that she had a terrible voice. Orson Welles said that he modeled the similar situation in Citizen Kane on the relationship between McCormick and Walska. But it was Ganna Walska’s sixth and last husband, whom she married in 1942, a man named Theos Casimir Bernard, who apparently inspired her to create Lotusland. Bernard was into yoga, and that’s him pictured above, in a version of the lotus position. At first Ganna Walska intended to use her estate, called Cuesta Linda, as a retreat for Tibetan Buddhist monks, but because of the war the monks couldn’t get visas. After divorcing Bernard in 1946, she renamed the gardens Lotusland in honor of the favorite flower of the Buddhists. Ganna Walska remained husbandless for the last forty years of her life, devoting her time and money to the nurture of the botanical gardens.

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