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Heaven, Fortune and the West / The Promised Land

For the last installment of this series I talked to Yves Pedrono, a historian of western movies. According to him, westerns were essential in re-defining the “western conquest” and American history.

“The first movie was a western [The Great Train Robbery, 1903],” says Pedrono, “which says a lot about the impact of the genre in the American psyche.” Interestingly, he defines the real western era as spanning from 1946 (with Ford’s My Darling Clementine) to 1964 (with Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn), “because these movies carried an epic mission, which was to create, to embellish, but also to revise the foundations of American history.” After WWII the US was the leading nation in the world. Nevertheless, many directors, who themselves fought on European soil, such as Howard Hawks and John Ford, noticed that their country didn’t have testaments to a glorious past like European countries did. “They had a complex. They wanted to fill the void and chant the original glory of their nation. But which glory? It was yet to be created,” Pedrono says. Cinema would be their most powerful tool to project their fantasized glory to the rest of the world.

“From a historical perspective — and it starts with the Mayflower — the American people see themselves as the New World’s Chosen Ones. This is also true in their westerns, where striking parallels with the Bible can be drawn,” adds Pedrono. As a reference, we can go back to the nineteenth century, when Alexis de Tocqueville described, in his classic Democracy in America, that “religion […] must be regarded as the foremost of the political institutions of that country.” This relationship with the sacred would therefore be at work in the movie industry.

As the Bible states, God promised the land of Canaan to Abraham. Abraham’s descendants, the Israelites, were led by Moses to find and conquer the Promised Land. While in the desert, God meets Moses and delivers the Tablets of Law to him. The desert was a test of their faith through which the Israelites would find their promised land. “This is why the desert is so present and symbolically important in western movies: it is where the Law is fought and forged. This happens before anyone can find the Promised Land, which is California,” says the historian. “The Promised Land is the reward and the goal of the western conquest. A good example is John Ford’s Wagon Master (1950), but there are other biblical parallels. For example, the opposition between extensive and intensive farming is recurrent in this genre, which is the problem of land distribution. How will the conquerors live: as nomads or settlers? It is the same biblical confrontation of Abel and Cain.”

Besides, violence in westerns movies is often expressed and resolved through duels. Two antagonistic characters face each other as mirror reflections, mirages, nemeses and fatal enemies. The duel is a mimetic form of killing: the protagonist must move faster than his enemy. The ideology specific to westerns is that luck is on the side of the lawful. According to philosopher René Girard, mimetic rivalry, or mimetic desire, is the gate humans use to enter the vicious circle of violence. Hence violence might be a central key to understanding the culture of the west.

Where is the American Promised Land today? Is it all broken up into individual, bourgeois properties? Frank Gehry is one of the principal imagineers of LA neo-boosterism in the 1990s. As Sam Davis writes, “[Gehry]’s work clarifies the underlying relations of repression, surveillance and exclusion that characterize the fragmented, paranoid spatiality towards which Los Angeles seems to aspire. […] Yes paranoia could be a misnomer, for the adjacent streets are a battleground. […] Gehry’s [architecture] is a kind of architectural fan-base, a beachhead for gentrification. Its soaring, light-filled interiors surrounded by bellicose barricades speak volumes about how public architecture in America is literally being turned inside out, in the service of ‘security’ and profit.”

Many layers compose the imagination of the American West today: an initiatory trip, a personal adventure, a place to revisit American history or to experiment with new boundaries between faith, contemplation and intellect… Or a window on the starry vault of humanity’s greatest desires. The American Dream gave birth to a religion of success. To be successful is to be a Chosen One. The Desire behind the Dream taps resources of the imagination — a source of wealth perhaps greater than the land itself. Go West, become sacred or die trying.

by Alexandre Stipanovich

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Heaven, Fortune and the West / Mysticism

Zoe Crosher’s work explores how Los Angeles shapes our subconscious. One of her photographic series, “Transgressing the Pacific” (2008), captures various beaches where famous characters, real or fictitious, were seen for the very last time.

Crosher refers to scenes in movies — such as The Long Goodbye (1973), Coming Home (1978) and Falling Down (1993) — in which a main character disappears into the ocean. In these photographs, the ocean is the enigma that remains unsolved, and the character walks into it to surrender, desperate for an answer. Still going west, but broken hearted. Still aiming at the golden direction, but dangerously lost. In this series about disappearance, Crosher also alludes to real-life characters such as the most publicized evangelist of the ’20s and ’30s, Aimee Semple McPherson. Where Aimee Semple McPherson Disappeared at Ocean Park (2008) depicts a pearly ocean with a meerschaum delicacy reminiscent of Semple’s lace embroidery dress. “Nobody knows about her, and they should,” says Crosher. “She was this really important figure in the ’20s who was the first person to bridge theatricality and religion. In the ’20s people would go to LA to get healed, for diseases such as tuberculosis, arthritis and so on. There were a lot of healers and religions of different kinds. Aimee Semple McPherson would do these things called “narrated sermons.” She built a beautiful lake there called Echo Park, as well as a big temple to narrate her sermons. She would have a giant needle and a camel on stage, or she would dress up as a cop and ride a motorcycle up and down the aisles and pretend to be like God pulling you over to the side of the road. Or she would have a hundred virgins on stage… She collaborated with Charlie Chaplin to do all these really extensive religious performances.”

Belief and make-believe, faith and talent were tied and growing together in the Echo Park scene. The church was a theater, the blessing was an act, and the performance was sacred. Did the entire Hollywood industry inherit this spiritual bond? Crosher adds: “At the height of her popularity in 1926, she faked her own disappearance at this place called Ocean Park Pier, which is no longer there. The history of LA is also a history of forgetting.”

Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and rocket scientist Jack Parsons really hit it off, probably because they shared the same goals in life: becoming masters of the intellect. They met through their friend Aleister Crowley and his Pasadena group in the ’50s, who initiated them to Thelema, his complex system of occult beliefs. Looking for a key to the cathedral of intelligence, they were hoping to ignite unknown forces of both rational and irrational realms.

Magick was, as Crowley defined it, “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.” Just like with cinema, the fiction door could lead to a path of lush and real golden apples, and vice versa. “The important thing to realize is every act is a magical act,” said Brian Butler, Kenneth Anger’s collaborator. Anger, also a part of Crowley’s Pasadena circle, may have used this magick mostly for his art, hoping to make aesthetic talismans. In his movies, the mise-en-scène recalls a ritual, the silent scenes evoke a sacred respect, the disconcerting enigma suggests a holy message, and Crowley’s symbols ground the imagery in the occult. But is that the reason why Anger’s films are so powerful? After the recent release of the last and definitive version of Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), Brian Butler commented: “The film was shot in Samson de Brier’s House (in Pasadena), a very small house, believe it or not. But it’s Kenneth’s genius of camerawork and his expressionist set that created perspective and depth. And it looks like a huge space.” When asked if this movie is a piece of occult work or a piece of art, Butler says, “In my experience of many years of seeing the film, there is a lot to decipher. But it’s like a dream where it’s your own personal interpretation. That was the film where he really began to introduce these symbols of Aleister Crowley. But I guess, as with most art, it is for the viewer to interpret what it means.”

by Alexandre Stipanovich

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Heaven, Fortune and the West / The Dystopia

In his iconic “Hustlers” series (1993), Philip-Lorca DiCorcia photographed young men in West Hollywood waiting for their clients at dusk. In the early ’90s, AIDS was rampant, and these hustlers, with their self-reflective gaze, seem to be facing death at the front line.

The cast light is a blend of natural and electric sources, which shines on their faces to reveal their mindset — half artifice, half real. Only the light of the sky is natural — does it strike its heavenly call? On the verge of death, these dreaming bodies lay on the boulevard, solitary in the light, familiar with the night. Are they zombies, saints, slaves or heroes? Are they already dead or already immortal? DiCorcia’s use of light is a metaphor for Heaven and Hell, the California Dream’s suddenly inversion into a nightmare.

In the DC Comics universe, Kandor is the capital of Krypton and Superman’s birthplace. Regrettably, the mad scientist Brainiac shrunk it to 1/1000th of its original size, using a ray of his own invention. Superman rescued the miniature city back from the supervillain and now monitors it in his Fortress of Solitude. The city’s dwellers survive under a bell jar plugged into an atmosphere tank. The “Kandors” series (2007) by Californian artist Mike Kelley consists of a number of translucent versions of this fictitious city in tinted glass bottles. The sculptures are accompanied by videos depicting the life of Kandorians; they seem to enjoy sadistic rituals. If at first we thought Kelley’s Kandor was a utopic city, it turns out to be more complicated than that. The sculptures are reminiscent of Los Angeles: a powerful city creating its own reality and culture, breathing its own air, its own dream.

“I would take issue with Los Angeles being a utopian city,” says curator Neville Wakefield. “I see LA as this idea of being a repository for a spiritual America in the same way that that Dante-esque image that Richard Prince made of Brooke Shields is Spiritual America. It’s oiled, it’s preadolescent, it’s lubed up and sexualized, and really weird. I don’t see it as utopic in any way. I see it as essentially — if anything — dystopic. I see it as a kind of desperate new world.” Did LA not keep its promises? “Don’t get me wrong,” he adds, “because I see it as largely dystopian doesn’t mean to say I don’t love it — I’m drawn to dystopia — but I think the attraction is to do with this idea of it being chimerical. It’s an architecture of ideas; that’s what draws people.” From Joseph Smith and the Mormons to the influx of refugees after World War I that formed Hollywood, the West has been a destination for people fleeing from structures of oppression and persecution, for refugees from all kinds of reality.

The idea of going West became a global mindset, more than a simple destination. With Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles (1950), one can fathom the human astronauts’ endeavor as a metaphor for the real migration toward California. In Bradbury’s book, the explorers don’t find El Dorado, and they realize their dangerous mistake. They are rewarded with indifference, incomprehension, despair and even death. Dystopia can be a harsh awakening after a long, endlessly hopeful trip. In Herman Melville’s “The Piazza” (1856), the narrator fantasizes about what seems to be a house in the distance, probably a fairy’s home. Once he gets there, after a long trip, he meets miserable and lonely Marianna, who is sighing over his house. Does happiness only lie in perspective? Is it the horizon line that makes things attractive? As Polanski says of LA: “There’s no more beautiful city in the world … provided it’s seen by night and from a distance.”

In Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), the water wars are a clear example of how dystopic LA can be. The pipes that engineer William Mulholland had constructed to get access to water were about 220 miles long. “That to me is the artificiality of California,” says Neville, “that water is essentially the occupation of aridity and the entire infrastructure is about the distribution of water.” Which leads us to another film that alludes to the relationship between LA and water: Blade Runner (1982), where it never stops raining. In a famous scene, the replicant claims he is actually human, because he can feel, and has stellar, moving memories, all while the rain is pouring over him. Is it a take on artificiality? “It’s not just an analogy,” says Neville, “that’s a baptismal dream that is rooted in every kind of cleansing myth from the beginnings of spirituality to science fiction.” In LA film noir, it often rains when something is about to happen. “I think rain has a revelatory function,” continues Neville, “Rain in LA, in that part of California, means flash flood, generally. It brings this revelatory, cleansing, flooding moment and then it’s gone.”

by Alexandre Stipanovich

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Heaven, Fortune and the West / The Desire behind the Dream

Neville Wakefield has written fascinating texts on Californian artists such as Ed Ruscha and David Benjamin Sherry. He is also preparing a project that will, hopefully, take place in Death Valley. Therefore, his interest in the American West and the California Dream is very real.

But for Wakefield, the concepts of the Dream and the West are very different things. As he puts it: “The West embodies this idea of frontier that has embraced American culture from cowboys to spacemen. It is something different from the California Dream, which seems to be based on a certain kind of relationship to lifestyle as much as it is to landscape, light and space, and the ideals of freedom they embody.”

Hence, the West and the Dream are two distinct ideas, two different cultures. Have these ideas evolved dramatically? It appears that what we’re seeing in California now is not necessarily being built upon the same foundation. Furthermore, a lot has been written about the way the Dream has been broken. “My interest is less in the California Dream and more in the American West,” adds Wakefield, “and the way that landscape and particularly unbounded space has come to embody certain ideas of freedom.”

Nonetheless, there are commonalities between the Dream and the West. The biggest commonality is the idea of spatial expansion. “It is about laying claim to new possibilities,” Neville says. “The West is clearly an idea as much as it is a place in America. It’s a state of mind.” But is it a state of mind fed by special geographic features and cultural myths?

Philippe Vergne is a French man who, in a way, has responded to the call of the West by agreeing to become director of MOCA Los Angeles. Vergne insists on the fact that there are different ways to approach the California Dream: the dream that Mike Kelley had when he came to California to go to school, to find space to make, think and dream. Or the dream that Virginia Dwan pursued when she empowered artists like Yves Klein and helped Michael Heizer explore the desert. Although Double Negative is in the Nevada desert, it nonetheless could not have happened without the fascination of the West. There is also the horizontal dream that is embodied in Ed Ruscha’s work. The dream of endless urban space that Ed Ruscha has been documenting and transcending in his work since the 1960s. “There is not only one dream, but there is a fabric of dreams. They are extremely tangled together,” Philippe tells us. Were these artists just looking for room, or did the appeal of the desert play a role as well?

In his book City of Quartz, Mike Davis mentions the “Museum Archipelago.” Were the museums like islands in a metaphorical desert? If institutions are really rooted in reality, museums are places of artifacts and artifice. “The California Dream is a brand that is very good for tourism,” adds the new MOCA Director.

Interestingly, the former Dia director used to work at the Walker Art Center — a museum in the middle of a frozen plain in Minnesota, another type of desert. The Walker and the Pasadena Art Center together organized the first retrospective of Marcel Duchamp. “When you live in the desert, California, or in a plain in Minnesota, and you bring Marcel Duchamp… it’s not a dream, it’s a desire. The desire to change something in your city or the context you live in.” Thus the desert could be a metaphorical desert; and the dream could be to create a system of irrigation, “a metaphorical irrigation that would bring the world to your place.”

A desire that transcends geography, sparkles on the sand dunes and gives birth to a constellation of dreams. As Neville puts it: “The [California] Dream is a mirage that has come out of the American West. I don’t think the Dream would be the Dream without the West. What gives birth to this dreamscape and what one sees butted up against each other — particularly in California — is basically a very simple opposition between abstraction and configuration, a dialogue that has been going on throughout the history of art. This has been made manifest within the physicality of California.”

by Alexandre Stipanovich

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Heaven, Fortune and the West / The Pacific Horizon

Pioneers, explorers, gold-diggers, fortune-seekers… They reached the West and settled. Then what happened to their mindset? Did it become still or did it still roam — dreaming of going further west, walking on the ocean, thinking of the impossible? Can we accept at once the physical limits of something we’ve only dreamt?

As Jean Cocteau once said, “The soul doesn’t travel as quick as the body.” It is this peculiar state of mind that I will try to portray through different examples of films and artworks. A dream in the distance is a desire; a dream at hand is an opportunity. Los Angeles is the city of distant dreams, often projected onto a silver screen. What if the entire city were a solitary room whose inhabitants dream collectively? New York, on the contrary, offers less time for contemplation: it is a city of opportunities. Its natural horizon line is concealed. Horizontal lines are traded for vertical ones. If the LA landscape offers self-reflection, the NY landscape urges you to channel and focus on your career.

Seconds (1966) by John Frankenheimer gives a fascinating perspective on this LA-NY opposition. Arthur Hamilton is a wealthy middle-aged man who lost interest in life. With the help of a secret company, he is offered a new identity (through surgery) and a new life. Under hypnosis, he vocalizes his childhood dream: to be a painter. Once set, he flies to LA to move into his new house, his new life, his new name and his new self. As he walks on the beach, he stares at the horizon, hoping he will be able to live up to the dream of a new self. NY is a factory that designs new identities, and LA is a playground where these fresh identities can spread their wings. NY and LA are, respectively: the laboratory and the tarmac; the ant and the grasshopper; the center of the universe and the surrounding milky way; centripetal and centrifugal force; speed and stillness.

In the photogravure diptych Paradise (1989), John Baldessari captures two moments at the beach: a woman wandering and a couple chatting near the dunes. In the sky, their symmetrical double, in a Matissian collage fashion, are upside-down, like falling Icaruses. Paradise is the place where one expels his cumbersome doppelgänger and defeats his nemesis. Beyond the sun and the balmy wind, paradise is a place where identity forges itself and shines.

The final scene of Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) is a poignant moment on the beach in which Blanche tells the truth to her sister Jane. Blanche was once jealous of her sister’s success as an actress and confesses she tried to kill her. But this only led to her own injury and paralysis. The two sisters realize they have lied to each other their entire lives. It’s too late: Jane’s mental condition is deteriorated, and she starts dancing in front of a small crowd to get the attention she’s been craving for so long. Here, the beach is the very last stage before oblivion, and Jane performs for the very last time, in a decadent glow, before her own madness washes her away.

The ocean horizon overlaid with text in Ed Ruscha’s paintings could refer to conversations we have with ourselves while staring at the sea: a chat with the ocean of our own desires. Sea of Desire might be the California Dreamer’s inner voice; he has reached the end of his trip. His desire can’t take him further, unless he acknowledges that the sea is the measure of his quest. Travel Agency’s purpose is different still. It’s a conversation between two people staring at the horizon. Relaxed, we can even picture them smiling, delighted to have found the ultimate place. John Divola’s “Zuma Beach” series (1977) has its own cinematographic quality. The photographer found deserted, vandalized houses and spray-painted them himself, adding to the sense of desolation. The romantic landscape is framed by decaying windows. The dark habitat and the clear sky thereby collide, as if they were placed together in a collage. The viewer is left to contemplate the grandiose from a derelict point of view; to encounter nature’s wonders from the vantage of urban waste; and to metaphorically look to the afterworld at the verge of death. The last stop of the California Dream itinerary is the beach. With our feet in the sand, our desires seek the horizon line. We can hear our inner voices (Ed Ruscha), feel anxiously romantic (John Divola), see how we handle the truth and dance our delusions away (Robert Aldrich) or decide it’s time to embrace our uniqueness (John Frankenheimer and John Baldessari).

by Alexandre Stipanovich

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Heaven, Fortune and the West / Introduction

How does the California dream infect art and cinema? Reciprocally, how do Californian movies and art feed the American dream?

We can hardly dissociate dreams and visions from the culture itself: it is a symbiotic relationship. But culture starts with agriculture and landscape, with action and contemplation; it has its feet grounded in the history of the land.

The relationship between the land, its culture and its associated dreams (for example, the imaginative power that El Dorado evokes) is a complex but fascinating ecology. In this series of articles, we aim to dissect the artistic emanations of Californian culture and their relationship to the land (geology and geography) and the people (history). Before we excavate the nature of the dreams produced by the Californian psyche through art and cinema, we must understand how an isolated, poor, sparsely populated area became the center of attention for millions over only a few decades.

The imaginary springs from reality. Maybe a prosperous reality sets an optimal ground for a more vivid imagination. But California wasn’t attractive at all for several centuries. When this area fell under Mexican authority in 1821, the sanctioning of foreign trade lured the affluence of ships from all over the Pacific Ocean. Think of all the sailors and the oral tales that abounded. Meanwhile, the English and the French started to take a serious interest in this window for lucrative trade with Pacific territories. But it was merely a window: the region lacked agriculture, cattle, anything appropriate for European settlement. Coincidentally, shortly after California became annexed in 1847, the first evidence of gold was discovered near San Francisco. This discovery triggered a massive influx of people from Chile, Peru, Mexico, Hawaii and various eastern US territories. The new argonauts were born. With the Gold Rush, all associated businesses boomed. Luck and hard work could buy anyone a place in heaven. This poor and remote region suddenly became a very interesting, exotic territory: a promised land.

With the Gold Rush, the west polarized the US both economically and culturally. And it didn’t stop there. Early in the 20th century, East Coast-based Thomas Edison controlled crucial patents in the cinema industry and threatened producers who would use them without his consent. To escape him, many directors and producers fled to California to start their own studios, out of Edison’s reach. Hollywood was born. Its pleasant climate and spaces offered perfect environments for shooting outdoors or in gigantic studios. To those coming from the east, California was a miraculous silver screen reflecting the culture of the boldest, set between the Pacific Ocean and the starry vault of the sky. California wasn’t the end of the US territory; it became a springboard, a gate to a self-imagined heaven or hell.

Other booms occurred in California that fed the idea of an Eldorado that keeps rejuvenating itself: Silicon Valley, the aerospace industry, the wine industry and the dotcom boom. Meanwhile, during the second half of the 20th century, Los Angeles became a visual art capital, rivaling New York.

Art and cinema are two arms of the same dreaming body, the fantasies of a collective psyche of people who conquered and build a place. We’ll explore how Californian art emanates from a particular perception of geography and history, and will investigate how the resourceful west extends reality with fiction. Writers, curators and artists will join the discussion: Neville Wakefield will talk about his upcoming project in Death Valley; and NY-based artists who relocated to LA — such as Sam Falls and David Benjamin Sherry — will share their thoughts on the reality of the California dream and the American west.

by Alexandre Stipanovich

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