LOS ANGELES – Any visitor to the City of Angeles complains about the sprawl and superficiality as if they were the first to notice them. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find that these seemingly unrelated elements mix unexpectedly and combust into a new cultural compound. It’s the culture of self-perpetuating peculiarity. The strange don’t squat – they own the place. In fact, if it wasn’t for sprawl and superficiality LA wouldn’t be the creative capital of the Western world it is today.
Take Clifton’s Cafeteria. Located on the “Old Broadway” of Downtown, the restaurant essentially serves the poor and the homeless. Their motto “Dine Free Unless Delighted” still hangs above the fluorescent assortment of jellies. Built in the early 1930s, it is a kind of Pacific North-West wunderland; an eerie prophecy of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Arranged on multiple floors, the pedestrian dinning tables are framed by an elaborate mise en scène featuring life-size bears who fish and a deer who guards a neon crucifix. The customers appear to be unaware (or unmoved) by the giant moose that hovers above them as they balance jelly on their cafeteria spoons. No one, except perhaps modern art collectors from Europe, appear to notice any of the cartoonish scenery at all. It’s just another cafeteria. A more dated and less successful IHOP. No more, no less.
The very existence of Clifton’s, its anonymity among Angelenos, and its ambivalent normality to its customers expresses the uniqueness of the social context it thrives in. You see, in Los Angeles there is a culture of enforced positivity. You’re only allowed to be openly negative when someone isn’t being positive. This is why Hollywood is often called the only town where you “can die of encouragement.” But the quote – often attributed to famed New Yorker critic Pauline Kael (but I’m not so sure…) – only expresses one side of positivity. Because no one will say no to you, when you say – “I have an idea, let’s decorate our restaurant with woodland creatures!” So, far from dying of encouragement – you live off encouragement. Clifton’s has been standing for nearly a century. Nobody said, “no, you cannot do that, that’s ridiculous,” so they built it. And it’s still here because of that.
This rule of Los Angles (one of my many), stems from two social peculiarities. The first is physical – Los Angeles truly has no center (a debate for another day) – so there is no “in” crowd dictating what’s hot and what’s not. Simply because there’s no concentrated downtown for such a crowd to form. The sprawling nature of LA means that you can always find a space for your peculiarity to flourish. One of my favorites, the Safari Room – imagine an American diner in Rhodesia – exists in the far reaches of the Valley in Mission Hills. It isn’t ironic: they believe this is the classiest joint in South California (and I agree with them). It’s just that nobody said, “no, you can’t do that, you can’t put hunting rifles on canvass walls along with tribal African spears next to portraits of tigers.” So they did it. And it’s found a market – the locals who love the steak, and me.
The second feature comes from a prevailing “industry” (read: Hollywood) that dictates so much of the culture in LA County. Many work in the machine, even more want to, and those who don’t know people who do. And because stardom is so stochastic (to use the statistical term for random) nobody knows who will strike it big next. No one wants to burn bridges with anyone. For all you know, they could be your next boss. This is why as a writer or actor or director you’re always “wonderful” and a “genius” even though nobody will give you a job. It’s why as an agent or an executive other suits will return your phone calls (or go through elaborate means to pretend they did – but that’s another story). Everyone wants to appear as if they’re everyone elses good side. Even if they’re not.
Superficiality, therefore, has its benefits. Sometimes bad ideas need to be encouraged. Sometimes a bad writer, with a lot of support, can become a great one. Countless blockbuster movies – from Indiana Jones to Pulp Fiction – were rejected by studios. In 1982, when prankster Church Ross sent out the screenplay to Casablanca to every agency in town – with only the title changed – only three agencies out of the 217 he had sent it to had any interest in submitting it to studios (and one of the three thought it might make a good TV movie). Because in a marketplace where consumer tastes are varied, continuously change, and are a function largely of what their friends like, you really can never know who or what’s going to succeed.
That’s why the rule of “no is never an answer” isn’t just an idiosyncrasy of Los Angeles: it’s a general law of cultural innovation. Or at least, it should be.