The Reading Life: The City as Itself


I don’t understand people who don’t like to go to the movies alone. I try to do it as much as possible. To explain why I like it so much, I would have to make a list of every time it has made me feel better (or, more accurately, made me feel something instead of something else), and that would be a very long list, a maddeningly digressive list that would have no argument or arc, no single thread or lesson. It would be my diary, and no one should read my diary.

The last movie I went to by myself was Los Angeles Plays Itself, a video essay that chronicles the complex relationship the city of Los Angeles maintains with the film industry and its output. Having to condense three hours of footage and narration into a short summary for this essay is somewhat painful. I’m leaving too much out. For instance, Los Angeles Plays Itself produces a vertigo effect that is just as remarkable as the film’s educational value. When you are watching an older studio film, for example, maybe a Western set in the desert or a romance in the swamps, you do your best not to pay attention to the fact that you are actually seeing Death Valley or Calabasas, parts of Southern California you wouldn’t travel to on purpose. But this film makes that intention moot. California is unique in its ability to stand in for anywhere and everywhere, and living in a repertory company of locations and objects can feel both false and true, although to what it would be false or true is anyone’s guess. Some people hate it. I left, but that doesn’t make me one of them.

After the movie, I looked through piles of books for my copy of City of Quartz, Mike Davis’s landmark exegesis of Los Angeles. If you have any interest in California, its politics, film, or literature, you must read it, even if it’s in need of a good fact-checker. Davis is passionate like a beloved college professor; imagine elbow patches and a beat-up shoulder bag, and I’m sure you’re not far from his look. Years ago I had underlined passages, surprising facts, and these stirred me again as I flipped through, skimming for something new.

But it was just a stirring. I wasn’t moved like I had been, when I thought I wanted to move to the city because I was in love with it. Norman Rush, in his novel Mating, has a good definition of that type of love, and even though I sort of hate that book, I’ll pillage it for this piece. His nameless narrator says:

For me love is like this. You’re in one room or apartment which you think is fine, then you walk through a door and close it behind you and find yourself in the next apartment, which is even better, larger, more floorspace, a better view. You’re happy there and then you go into the next apartment and close the door and this one is even better. And the sequence continues, but with the odd feature that although this has happened to you a number of times, you forget: each time your new quarters are manifestly better and each time it’s breathtaking, a surprise, something you’ve done nothing to deserve or make happen. You never intend to go from one room onward to the next — it just happens. You notice a door, you go through, and you’re delighted again.

This description was meant for a person, not a city. But it feels fine enough as a way to talk about this kind of joy, a joy in something that feels endless, like you won’t stop learning from it.

I’ve known only one person whose shelf contained the complete works of Mike Davis. She is the aunt of an ex-boyfriend; my relationship with him was the kind that produced multiple others, like a starfish growing more and more arms. We met one another’s families, spent time with them, grew attached. We’d get on a train and go up to Rhode Island for the weekend, to the house his aunt was living in—her house, basically, but it belonged to the family as a whole—and we’d drink bottle after bottle of wine, talk about politics, watch movies, and fall asleep to the sounds of a choppy bay. Before these weekends, I thought of Rhode Island as the setting of my college years, and with that distinction came a lot of angst and anxiety, memories of papers and traumas that seem now like they are the issues and work of someone else. But now that we had graduated, now that we were over it all, the place had assumed a new role. It was more familiar than it had been when I lived there, and it was new, too. I was delighted.

My ex-boyfriend’s family lives mostly in New England, so I saw them more than my own when we were dating. His aunt would visit us in New York for day trips, and we’d go to the theater. We sat in front of Laurie Anderson one time at St. Ann’s (we both love Laurie Anderson, because who doesn’t), and we saw a puppet show by one of my old professors, who was coincidentally one of her old high school friends. It was like that: everything connecting to everything else. Saying we’d see each other soon never felt like a pleasantry, because it was a plan. Every time we saw one another seemed like a page of a letter that would ultimately be read all at once.

When he and I broke up, it meant the end of that version of my friendship with her. That sort of thing, the severing of multiple ties instead of one, made sense to me more as an abstraction than as a reality.

She wrote to me last July. She had watched Pépé le Moko and thought of me. If you haven’t seen it, it’s about a gangster living in exile in the Casbah of the city of Algiers and running from the police. He comes out of hiding because he has fallen in love. It inspired The Third Man and countless other noirs like it, including many films analyzed in Los Angeles Plays Itself for their treatment of nostalgia and its effect on a city’s history. Nostalgia’s presence, the film argues, in any work of art signals that enough time has gone by, not just to address what made something good or bad, but also to understand what makes it worth contemplating at all. That something still holds power at all is mystifying on its own.

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