An example. I’ve taken to having lunch once a week at the Panda café on Sunset. It’s a long, hot walk south of Franklin – the road that cuts East to West and divides rich and poor from North to South. There are few people down there, no Caucasians for sure, only a handful of Hispanic men with moustaches hanging around on street corners selling manual labor. Wealthy white men drive slowly past, wind down the window, and ask for the time of day.
“What you looking for, senior?”
“Depends on what’s on offer.”
“Lawn cut, $20. Roof tiles, $50. If you want me to do any heavy lifting, you have to clear it with my pimp first.”
The Panda is a part of a grisly chain of Chinese restaurants that serves irradiated chicken and something they claim is rice but is palpably not. The rule of thumb for Chinese restaurants is to dine within only if both the waiters and the customers are Chinese. In Panda, everyone’s Mexican. I go there because I’m hooked on cheap crap and I enjoy the fiesta atmosphere of lunch break for the DIY guys. Sometimes the nannies bring their little white charges in, and there’s something reassuring about the future generation’s bilingualism.
I was leaving Panda yesterday, bloated by three rounds of “Chernobyl chicken” and a man and a woman stopped me in the street. They were fairly well dressed and a little sun burnt. They both had the vague stare of the crack addict.
“You got any spare change buddy?” the man asked. “We lost our hotel key and we’ve been sleeping under the freeway.” Whether it was the saddest story of accidental tourism or the lamest lie ever told, I gave him a five. His wife was astonished. She shook my hand.
“Thank you, sir,” she said. “I had a sandwich, but someone stole it.”
[Pause for a moment to reflect that none of this would have happened in England. We’re so conditioned to fear other people in London that even walking on the same side of the road as this couple would be regarded as reckless. But it was the tone of the conversation that was uniquely American: the naïve sense that we might enjoy each other’s company if we only tried.]
“How on earth does someone steal a sandwich?” I asked.
“Are you Australian?” she replied, nicely deflecting the question.
“No I’m from England.”
“O, you’re from England? Say, is it true that Prince Charles killed Diana?” Thirty minutes later and we were still talking. Or rather, the lady and I were still talking: the fellow just kept staring at the sun and scratching his neck. He really wanted to go spend that $5.
So it is in the area of sociability that I’ve gone American, and it’s something I’ll dearly miss. I don’t think that living here has made me a better person, but the conviviality of Hollywood does give that false impression. If life were – as it is here – a long round of fundraisers for congressmen and rock concerts for dolphins, then we’d all feel permanently really, really good about ourselves. But I’m conscious that all the love is unstructured and useless. The obsession with telling good personal stories means that charity is atomized (“I personally, like, believe, you know, that education is so important … and that’s why I, like, read books.”) When asked what he does for a living, one man told me earnestly, “I fight poverty.” The how, when, and why were never followed up, but he seemed very sincere about it. “I’m building a website. To fight poverty.”
That might be one reason why Buddhism is so popular. It’s all about personal narratives – one man’s voyage from ignorance to enlightenment. And I’ve heard many, many of them. One Buddhist lady told me at a cocktail party that, “We don’t judge or evangelize; we are all on our own journey”. But for faith to transcend personal therapy, it relies on externals – doctrines, churches, monks, priests, communities. No one in Los Angeles, I sense, exists for other people. How can they, sitting as they do on their yoga mats in perfect isolation from one another – colliding only at vegan picnics to save the white tiger? Everyone out here is very friendly, friends even. But for relationships to have value there must be flickers of love and hate. Where else do memories come from? In the purple light of the Pacific Ocean, everything in Los Angeles is Zen.
And I think that’s one reason why conservatives don’t often flourish in this town. There’s been a lot of literature (chiefly by James Hirsen and Andrew Breitbart) about how conservatives are locked out of making movies by their politics. But Hollywood doesn't work by censorship. This town is all about business, and that business is driven by a free market of ideas. For anyone to exclude any idea on the grounds of ideology would be stupid – it would lose the viewership of at least half the country. And the vast majority of movies do conform to a fairly conservative view of human nature: families, ambition, violence, faith, and patriotism are generally encouraged. There are exceptions, but the comparative success and failure of pro and anti-war movies is indicative of how the market moves (compare Lions for Lambs with Saving Private Ryan).
No, the problem that the conservative faces isn’t intellectual, it’s social. Conservatism tends to be raw and unfiltered. In conversation, it punctures the Zen equilibrium that sustains everyone in Los Angeles. The industry works by networks and anyone who can’t sustain a long conversation about the importance of raw carrots and natural fibers to the functioning of Yin and the flowing of Yang won’t fit in. One writer told me that following 9-11, he found work dried up. There was plenty of interest in his output (he’s a very good writer) but when it came to small talk before pitches, or the gossip at the writers’ in LA Farm, he was immediately frozen out. “People would open with, ‘Isn’t George Bush a moron?’ And I would say, ‘No, I voted for him.’ And I could feel I was losing their respect.”
True, this suggests that Hollywood cleaves to the left. But I suspect the real problem with what the writer said wasn’t the content but the act of disagreement itself. Hollywood conversations deal in hyperbolic affirmations: “You’re amazing. That pitch was the best ever. You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met. Adam Sandler really is funny, isn't he?” Disagreement and contradiction are acts of verbal rape.
Why is Hollywood so sensitive to criticism? Because it’s a town motored by untested ideas. If we were to tell everyone who came up with a new plot line or concept for a commercial that it sucked (and 9 out of 10 of them do) then nothing would get done. If you were to tell that idiot on the street corner strumming a one-string guitar that he sucks, it would spark an industry-wide crisis of confidence. Writers, actors, and directors are sensitive people. They need to know that everything they do and say is “Fantastic - the best!” The cynical, minority-reporting lash of conservatism doesn’t fit. Why, if that is true, did Ronald Reagan flourish here? Because he was very, very nice. He was, by all accounts, the actor's actor and in conversation he deflected controversy with quips and annecdotes. Ronald Reagan was the Zen master of rightwing charm, and it's the ability to avoid controversy that marks success from the failure in La-la Land.
It is in that last, important regard that I have truly become Californian: I’ve caught its obsession with fantasy. I can’t wait to return to England to be reminded that nothing is possible and that thing the Americans call ambition is really just naiveté. Home is where the heartless are.