Substantial City

     by Casey O’Neilconquest

Filmmaker Werner Herzog’s unique blend of outrageousness and understatement, enhanced by that sublime Bavarian delivery, makes it difficult to choose a favorite quote. Open to any page from Conquest of the Useless, and you’ll find something like this:  “4 June 1981: The camp is silent with resignation; only the turkey is making a racket. It attacked me, overestimating its own strength, and I quickly grabbed its neck…slapped him left-right with the casual elegance of the arrogant cavaliers I had seen in French Musketeer films…and then let the vain albino go.”

But my favorite quote—arguably more surprising than slapping around a turkey—comes from his interview with Henry Rollins. “Los Angeles is the city with the most substance here in the United States,” Werner tells us, “Period.” Rollins squirms in his chair in response, and I know he’s not alone.

There was a time when I would have shared Rollins’s disbelief at Herzog’s claim. But while Southern California might have more than its share of horrors, my mind was changed forever by getting to know two of the most otherworldly institutions on the face of the planet. It can be no coincidence that they find themselves kindred neighbors on the 9300 block of Venice Boulelvard in Culver City.

overlookThe Center for Land Use Interpretation is “dedicated to the increase and diffusion of knowledge about how the nation’s lands are apportioned, utilized, and perceived.” What this means in practice is that it’s “a relentless curiosity machine focused on the intersection of humans and the Earth’s surface.”  CLUI is a powerful organism—simultaneously local and national, equally vast and minutely focused. Matt Coolidge and Sarah Simons are the driving forces behind CLUI, and their book Overlook gives a sense of much of their work. But what alerted me to the truly magical depths of CLUI was their VHS library, where I stumbled across footage of Mr. Coolidge wandering through smashed storefronts amidst looters during the riots in 1992, sifting through the detritus of a jet crash in a forest, and standing on a hillside beneath a picturesque British Columbia bridge, reading the artifacts from a hurled briefcase, its contents exploded across the landscape in a dramatic transformation from private to public (there is mention of “threesomes and moresomes”). But however you experience the work of CLUI, your thinking about land and humans will be changed forever.

mr wilsonAnd as if that isn’t more than enough for a lifetime of exploration, there is The Museum of Jurassic Technology right next door. In his classic nonfiction work Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, Lawrence Weschler introduces us to the overwhelming phenomena on display at the Museum. Rows of microscopes illuminate iridescent mosaics made by arranging scales from butterfly wings. An exhibit about a bridge engineer and a classical singer leads to a geometric model for the dynamics of human forgetting. A gallery upstairs displays striking portraits of the worlds first astronauts, all of them Soviet canines. There is also the stink ant of Cameroon, and the horn of Mary Davis of Saughall. Last but far from least are John Paul II, Goofy, and Napoleon—all sculpted out of human hair, small enough to fit in the eye of a sewing needle.

Hagop Sandaljian created the three microminiatures above with an unusual technique, timing his movements between heartbeats so the pulse in his fingertips wouldn’t interfere. He talked of his “invisible labor,” a concept that couldn’t be more appropriate for the Museum as a whole. Conceived and sustained by the superhuman work of countless unseen hands, it exists as a naturally wondrous being, as if it was planted in West Los Angeles by some benevolent extra-terrestrial force. It’s an installation at the intersection of dreams and truth, a place that couldn’t be more appropriate for the city of Los Angeles as a whole.

adr“It’s wonderful to see,” Herzog continues, “ how the dreams of the world are somehow organized and manufactured here.” Matthew Specktor’s novel American Dream Machine recently brought Herzog’s words to mind, and it drove me to gather  these thoughts about Los Angeles. Starting with a man—who may or may not be George Clooney—puking in a ficus plant outside a men’s room, American Dream Machine laces itself through two generations of Hollywood, centered around the nearly indestructible figure of Beau Rosenwald, a talent agent who alternately masters and is mastered by the cutthroat machinations of the motion picture industry. It’s a universal story of parents and children dealing with ambition and failure and death, but it gains extra velocity from its surroundings. These are the men that enable Hollywood to conjure worlds out of thin air, a strange and risky labor bringing both astronomical success and catastrophic failure. What better setting for a novel could there be? And isn’t every great novel just a new way to manufacture the world’s dreams?

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