Friday, July 17, 2009

Tom's LA: The Colour and the Taste

In movies, LA is yellow. (If you say that in the right accent, can it be a nifty rhyme? The stereotypical Australian may, if trying to make a song work, say "yellow" to rhyme with "LA", but it's a stretch. However, as has been discussed in more depth than the issue requires, statements are not required to rhyme in order to be true; and this one is true).

Movies tend to depict America as outdoor-stock blue-white in the upper regions - the cold crispness of an Insomnia, the white-balanced snow-tones of a Fargo - moving into warmer tungsten-grades as you move down the country. (It's a shame Dorothy Gale's Kansas wasn't depicted in the lurid tones of Oz, as its position in the exact center of the whole affair ought to mean that no other state would be as gorgeously technicolour-realised. The only recent movies I can think of set in the American heartland are true-crime stories like In Cold Blood and The Laramie Project, suggesting that the Flyover States aren't really interesting until someone gets killed there in scandalous circumstances).

By the time you reach movies set along the bottom of the States, the palette has gone out the freaking window for warm tones. Miami is required by law to be depicted as swaying between blood-red and neon-flamingo-pink; Texas is all red bricks and Presidents' brains; to my (lack of) knowledge there are no buildings in Arizona, just majestic and forbidding geological structures, looming into a background offset by a solitary cow-skull and/or rattlesnake in FG.

However, while lots of things in movies aren't true, it certainly is true that LA is yellow. Not only the light, but every window of every transportational vehicle I have been in is yellow. Looking out the window as you pass by the various suburbs, it looks almost like everything's under the honey-toned filter from the opening of Zabriskie Point; but on foot, the effect isn't much less. Yellow and impossibly bright. Step out of a doorway and your retinas blow out like 9mm film; it takes some time before the glow of yellow sunlight on white objects isn't an act of ocular aggression. As the sun sets on the Hollywood Hills, the Valley divides into the orange light and purple shadow that, my host points out, form the LA Lakers' team colours.

Cinematographers ought to welcome this violently bright light, as it should mean they could close the aperture right down and see for miles; however, the other thing that is a true truism about LA is that the smog is ridiculous. On the ground it serves as a diffuser - sending ubiquitous yellow everywhere, be it sunlight or street-lamp - but get up out of it, on Mulholland Drive or the Getty Centre or Griffith Observatory - and it's almost hard to credit so damn much smog. My host tells me that LA is sometimes actually rated the cleanest city in the US in terms of air pollution. This strikes me as a bit like how people with nits always say only people with clean hair get nits. (My host does not have nits).

On my first day here, I do not wear sunscreen. I forget; halfway through the day, I think to myself, "oh, well, the hole in the ozone layer back home is what makes the sunlight so deadly; I'll be fine here". I am not fine. On my second day here my face is more sunburned than it has ever been. I look like Freddy Krueger. I don't blister, because that would imply that the edges of some of my skin are healthy; I just melt.

Many clever locals carry umbrellas to combat what I am experiencing. I have never seen people carry umbrellas when it's not raining. (This is odd because I am from Wellington, where if it isn't currently raining, it was two hours ago). Curiously, the areas where people are cleverest w/r/t umbrella-carriage are Koreatown and South Central. White people don't seem to be clever enough to work out that an umbrella can shield you from the sun. White people tend to be either utterly obsessed with matters dermal (moisturiser, shaving balm, insisting they don't notice skin colour) or utterly oblivious (carrying an umbrella when it's sunny).

The neighborhood I'm staying in has Gungans, but not many white people. Having lived in Christchurch, I know what white people look like and how bad they can ugly up a place, whereas Hispanic folks make a fairly good go of carving a decent enough suburb out of the solid yellow smog-and-sunlight miasma.

Whereas I come from a country with four three official languages and 95% of all media in only one of those languages, here I'm in a place that's a bit strident about officially only speaking English, thank you very much, but where most of the billboards in my area are in Spanish. My phone came with two sets of documentation, one in English and one en español. Some would say this reflects a positive pragmatism whereby you don't prate about multiculturalism in your Government-contracted ivory tower, you just go onto the street and do it; others would retort that apparently English is the language we speak round here until you might be buying something off us, at which point ¡bienvenida a América, hermano!

But the glut of Spanish advertising I've seen would seem to be a positive spinoff of the libertarian ethos that plenty of Americans would have agreed with, before libertarianism got a capital L and became Applied Selfish Cluelessness. The market demands that Big Whatever make itself available to this large market; said market would prefer to communicate in its native tongue; hence, McDonalds' speaks Spanish now where appropriate. Is this the Free Market doing something culturally progressive without noticing? There are a lot of factors at play, and I'm sure I don't know enough about any of them to comment.

In the spirit of engaging in things I know very little about, I ate at a pupuseria the other day. The streets of East LA are studded with pupuserias and carnicerias: the former serve pupusas, which are basically little corn pikelets filled with meat and cheese; the latter, I am informed, are just the Latin version of butchers. "Pupuseria" always puts me in mind of pus and/or feces (hence the strong desire to eat at one, obviously); "carniceria" seems like it should have something to do with cancer, but it doesn't, because whenever anything has anything to do with cancer, a large, severe black-on-white sign will tell you, "THIS AREA CONTAINS CHEMICALS KNOWN BY THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA TO CAUSE CANCER". Airports, cafes, toy shops: they all got cancer! Whereas carnicerias just have the dodgy direct-to-video-grade chicken that is the least impressive thing, thus far, about America.

Anyway, so, a pupuseria will, in my experience, be more helpful to new orderers than a Taco Bell, though the young man in the Dimmu Borgir shirt will not look as wholesome as he brings you your complimentary jar of slaw; the pupusa itself will not be as satisfying as a Taco Bell taco, but then again, the meat will be more likely to be what it says it is. I have been favoured by the Critter populace of LA thus far, having seen both an opossum and a squirrel (a lifelong dream of many New Zealanders), but let's be honest: having sampled Taco Bell, Jack in the Box and Carl's Jr, I've done far more than see those animals by now.


Videomatic said...

Carl's Jr is offensive.

I agree completely on the whole yellow thing. The only difference I saw was when I was around UCLA (I think it's Culver City) and round Santa Monica. I recall Culver being more green and Santa Monica being kind of bluish.

I could not get over how different the sky looked there. It felt strange looking up and not seeing that hyper bright almost turquoise blue we get here, I hated that sort of blue/gray effect the smog created. I know exactly where you’re coming with the effect on your eyes, I found mine would sting. In fact whenever I exited a building I'd be practically hurting all over because of the phosphorous like colour and the all-encompassing heat.

You'll get homesick when you got Seattle, I did. It's tonally very similar to a lot of areas here at home.

Tui said...

hang on hang on hang on. te reo māori, NZSL, english. Where's #4?

Hugh said...

That was my question too, Tui.

I eagerly await an answer.

Homage said...

Cripes, I thought Cook Island Maori was a fourth but I was wrong, wrong, wrong. Thanks folks.

Videomatic said...

Well the way it's going some manner of Asian language may be fourth soon.

Tui said...

@videomatic: if fluent Mandarin (for example) speakers outnumber fluent NZSL speakers or, hey, fluent Māori speakers (they may do the former, fairly sure they don't do the latter) what would be wrong with that? Learning new languages is good for xenophobia and other things that ail us.

someonefromsometime said...

Fast food tends to be very crappy... no surprise there, but it is very sensitive to at least try all the different food you can get your hands on.

Until you upset your stomach that is... which is after the second day :)

As you pass SF and move on to Seattle, is there not a place with giant redwoods?? that would be something very cool to look at. I not really sure if my geography is serving me well at the moments but i do think it's northern Cali.

keep havin fun! maybe you could buy a little umbrella-hat. but then again that probably won't help with the touristic-vibe you give off.

See you around,

Homage said...

I would like to see New Zealand adopt some Asian language and culture sooner rather than later. It's the way the world's moving and the only people you're going to piss off are racists, and since when are we watching out to make sure we don't piss off racists?

Note that this is not said in that white-person "all Japanese things are awesome" tone; if we'd admit we're geo-/demographically pretty Asian already, I could hate Takashi Miike without being branded a rube.