Review of Hard Boiled Hollywood: Crime and Punishment in Postwar Los Angeles by Jon Lewis

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This is a book about a city in transition from backwater to megalopolis, driven by a film industry itself in a state of flux, dealing with the fallout from the shift from silent to talking pictures and the dissolution of the studio system. The landscape Jon Lewis surveys is contingent; Hollywood is never exactly a place but a series of fleeting moments in often obscure locations. He describes the employees of the industry meeting to network, to audition and pitch “in restaurants and drug stores, in silent-era mansions…in Hollywood bungalows, in modest houses by the beach and in a movie star’s compound in the Hollywood Hills”. These are the locations of three important films Hollywood made about itself, Sunset BoulevardIn a Lonely Place and The Big Knife. Revealingly, these films show little if anything of the film studio. Hollywood is rarely a concrete reality here, but a set of disconnected practices in dispersed and heterogeneous sites.

This is also a book in large part about death. It starts with a murder, the unsolved 1947 Black Dahlia case, in which the body parts of an aspiring starlet were found in a vacant lot near downtown. It closes with two celebrity deaths: Barbara Payton, a now largely forgotten actress who died derelict in 1967, and Marilyn Monroe, whose 1962 death has attracted as much speculation as that of her alleged lover, John F. Kennedy. In between are any number of other deaths: those of wannabes inhabiting a dangerous demi-monde, killings of and by gangsters associated with Hollywood, deaths simply though excess.

Hollywood emerges as both a fantastic lure – the one place consistently capable of realising The Dream – and a fantastic danger, not only for those unfortunates who try and fail but also for its successes, who often enough find themselves unable to cope. The Los Angeles cityscape that emerges in film, in the media and elsewhere speaks to both qualities, especially the latter. So Hollywood’s LA was always this dangerous, transitory city. The roadside drugstore, the abandoned lot, the crumbling (yet barely old) mansion – these are the cinematic tropes of the emergent metropolis.

Hard-Boiled Hollywood deals in things that have become clichés. Hollywood is success and tragedy in equal measure, its stars likewise, the place fantasy as much as reality. What Lewis makes clear is the extent to which these clichés are based on fact. So he has trawled the newspapers for the crime reports and movie reviews that show how, for example, Billy Wilder’s 1950 black comedy Sunset Boulevard was based on entirely believable premises. It also shows how, as an exposé of the murkiest side of Hollywood, it was also a politically charged work.

In places Lewis’ language slides into a kind of Chandlerese, and it’s unclear where his voice ends and that of his subjects begins. The narrative can be hard going, too, especially on Hollywood’s flirtation with gangster society, simply because there are so many names, and so many scores to settle. But on the way fantasy and reality interact in the films of the period, and on Hollywood’s essential darkness, this is a dense and compelling book.

Jon Lewis, Hard Boiled Hollywood: Crime and Punishment in Postwar Los Angeles (University of California Press, 2017). Review first published in Times Higher Education  (1 June 2017)

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Arts Hub interview about ‘Sex and Buildings’

This very readable piece by Peta Meyer just appeared in Australian’s Arts Hub magazine. It’s an interview with me about the book Sex and Buildings and some more general thoughts on sexuality and architecture. For more about Arts Hub, click here: http://architecture.artshub.com.au/ For Peta Meyer’s blog site, click here: http://www.petamayer.com/ You can also follow her on twitter: https://twitter.com/petamayer

9781780231044‘Built for sex: how architecture dictates bedroom habits Looking back over the rumpled bedsheets of our lives, most of us can identify certain times when sex was better than others. We might credit the honeymoon period of a relationship, the energy of the season or a period of rude (so to speak) health. We rarely credit the style of house we choose with an upswing (or decline) in amatory fortunes but it might be time to look around. In Sex and Building: Modern Architecture and the Sexual Revolution, Professor of Contemporary Visual Cultures at University of Edinburgh, Richard J Williams, contends that architecture not only frames and houses our sex lives but also sets up an image of how we should be doing it.

The Family Home If the family home sat down to reveal the sexual secrets of its occupants, there might be a long awkward silence. Unfortunately this space not the hotbed of sexual passion that its fertile environment suggests. With its exalted master bedroom typically separated from the kids’ bedrooms, the family home was historically designed around the heterosexual reproductive couple. But whether it’s just a double bed with matching Ikea bedside tables or a lavishly appointed parents’ retreat, the message of the master bedroom is that sex is regular and predictable, to be organised around parenting, work and household chores. Yawn.

‘I’m amazed families manage to reproduce at all,’ Richard J Williams says. ‘Unless the home is big enough, and supplied with enough supportive domestic labour, it’s a naturally suppressing force on the sexual drive.’ The solution may be a place to escape. Williams points to the short-stay love hotels of Brazil, Japan and South Korea where couples can couples can rent rooms for sex. Seoul is home to the ‘DVD-bang’, literally ‘DVD-room’ where couples can go and watch movies and make out in peace – wipe-down sofas and tissues all-included. ‘We could do with this kind of thing in western cities,’ Williams says. ‘It doesn’t seem to be at all seedy in Korea – just an honest response to problems of space and privacy.’

The Apartment Typically associated with Playboy magazine, the bachelor flat iconicised a form of 60s masculine consumer pleasure and desire. However, with the advent of feminist and gay liberation, as well as the move to high-density urban living, the single-person’s dwelling has become a serious alternative to suburban family life for a range of genders, sexual orientations and life stages.

The one-bedroom residence places a premium on sexual experience by reducing needless distractions. Open the door to the bachelor flat and you’re more or less in the bedroom anyway. Who cares if it’s the office and kitchen as well? Apartment living also puts you nearer the centre of the action, facilitating multiple, spontaneous sexual encounters. The relative anonymity afforded by the generic façade of the apartment complex repels messy emotional bonds. Easy access also means easy exit when the sun rises and the hangover sets in. With a quick glimpse at TramTracker, you can let your new friend know their ride is just five minutes away.

The Share House The share house is the anomaly of architecture and sex. The living room may reek of garlic, the shower drain may be filled with pubic hair and the kitchen home to cockroaches, yet it inspires a frenetic level of copulation. The share house’s multiple bedrooms and its mobile and transitory population enables polyamorous arrangements. Students in share houses may also be inclined towards experimental behaviour, and, in lieu of an entertainment budget, create their own leisure activities.

By appropriating the site of family home, and transforming it into a space which accommodates alternative financial, social and sexual needs, the share house reflects the way in which our use of space often precedes the inventions of architects and urban planners. The gaybourhoods of Melbourne, Sydney, Manchester and San Francisco, where gay communities have transformed inner-city spaces, reflect a similar phenomenon.

Lecturer in Interior Architecture at Monash University, Nicole Kalms, contends that in the last 10-15 years architecture has become more engaged in ‘”bottom-up design” which is where we involve the people who are ultimately the recipients of architecture.’ Kalms references Melbourne’s architectural magazine Post which is concerned with issues of post-occupancy, or what happens when the architect leaves.

‘More architects are working with participatory architecture,’ Kalms says. ‘This kind of research would be appropriate for thinking about how the domestic space is co-opted by different kinds of living.’ The enemy of share house style sex? Employment. Sex loves to waste time, writes Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence. Share houses may lack luxury carpet but a lifestyle that doesn’t have career goals – or a cleaning schedule – leaves time for pleasure. Williams believes well-run houses are not good places for sex.  ‘Efficiency’s a big turn-off. You need profligacy and waste and­—thinking of the Victorians­­—places in which to hide.’

The Retirement Village No longer is it acceptable to see sexual desire and reproductive capacity as interlinked. A proliferation of films about mature-age sexuality signifies the issue’s entry into mainstream discourse. ArtsHub film critic Sarah Ward listsCloudburstMeet the FokkensAway from Her, Irina Palm, Bright Days Ahead andLe Week-End as examples.

Like a university college for the graduates of life, the retirement village’s closely linked bedrooms,  communal spaces and focus on leisure  provides residents with the means to increase the opportunity for intimate encounters. Sexual contact has physical and psychological benefits for the elderly. To what degree does the retirement home acknowledge that people continue to be sexual beings in old age? ‘My guess is not at all, which if true, seems a terrible shame,’ says Williams. ‘After all, this might be a good time to gently reactivate the libido.’

As a model for retirement accommodation that promotes a good sex life, Williams suggests vacation-style accommodation such as the large-scale complexes in the Mediterranean might just be what the doctor ordered, regardless of age or infirmity. ‘They bring lots of people together, give them lots of leisure time and sunshine so they can take their clothes off, and some interesting, playful spaces. The question is why don’t we live like that all the time,’ he says.

The Mansion Williams acknowledges that Sex and Buildings focuses mainly on the homes of the wealthy. ‘There did seem to be a correlation between wealth and sex, which isn’t to say the wealthy have more sex, but that they have an ability to invest in staging it in their homes,’ he says. Not on the cards for many of us, but broadcasting the message that sex doesn’t just belong the in the bedroom is the luxury dwelling tailor-made for sexual activity. When the sexual libertarian needs a bigger space for the mirror there’s the bachelor pad writ large, recognisable from the movies.  John Lautner’s classic Elrod House in Palm Springs is an example featured in the James Bond movie, Diamonds Are Forever. Another is the Sheats-Goldstein residence in Beverley Hills, home of fictional pornographer Jackie Treehorn from The Big Lebowski. LA. Both boast sumptuous wet-areas predisposed to encourage dishabille, massive comfortable couches and a premium on the sensory that acts as continuous environmental foreplay. A touch of these techniques might bring a bit of spark into your sex life. Closer to home, you only have to look at Cassandra Fahey’s Sam Newman House, with its giant patterned glass mural of Pamela Anderson, whose mouth opens to allow access to the garage, to wonder what sex means for the monied.

Future  plans New housing styles are developing to meet the range of family types and sexual behaviour now commonplace in western societies. Ricardo Bofill’s Walden 7 project in Barcelona is a large-scale private housing development that identifies as ‘a proposition for a new mode of life’. The flats subvert traditional boundaries between spaces with mirrored walls, futons instead of beds and large public bathrooms.

Architecture as a profession is beginning to address these issues too. Currently Kalms says that the theory component of an Australian architecture degree includes only a ‘very, very small’ amount of gender, sexuality and body theory.But Stockholm’s KTH has introduced a gender component embedded in the architecture school. At Monash, Kalms discusses the way in which public-space imagery generally depicts young, white, hetero-normative subjects and sexualised and objectified images of women. Reminding us of the statistics of female homicides which show that ‘most women are killed in their homes’, Kalms argues that the architecture of public space also impacts on our private experiences in the domestic home. In this sense, it’s impossible to separate public/private spheres.

Richard J Williams believes that we’ll see architects paying greater attention to sexual behaviour in the future. ‘The reemergence of cities will change things,’ he says. ‘It might take a decade or so, but it’s on the agenda globally. If that happens, and we get cheaper housing, then we’ll see some changes. I’m generally optimistic in the long term.’

The Creative City. It’s War.

0041-1THE USE OF ‘WAR’ TO DESCRIBE CITY LIFE IS A CULTURAL STUDIES CLICHE. In City of Quartz (1990) Mike Davis famously described Los Angeles as ‘militarized’, thinking of the bum-proof benches of downtown, and signs on suburban lawns warning of ‘armed response’ to intrusion. Teresa Caldeira’s account of São Paulo, City of Walls (2001) did something similar for the Brazilian metropolis, describing a city so conditioned by fear of crime that it might as well be at war. I’ve used the metaphor of warfare plenty of times myself, for example in my own accounts of Brazilian cities, which noted the tendency of local journalists to describe them as being in a state of de facto civil war. In that piece, I referred to a much-quoted statistic: during the four-year siege of Sarajevo 1992-6, more people of were killed on the streets of Rio de Janeiro, ostensibly a city at peace. War is a cliche, however, and an increasingly inaccurate one in these terms. LA, New York, São Paulo, Rio (etc. etc.) have become immeasurably safer since everyone started talking about how dangerous they were. And while Baghdad kills 50 or so people per day in a state of genuine warfare, it is frankly unethical to even use the term in relation to what are safe and wealthy places.

Still, that is what I am going to do. In my last post, I mentioned Richard E. Caves’s Creative Industries (2000) in relation to the sociability, or otherwise, of the creative city. The  intense, but intermittent, sociability of the creative city is in fact that of a condition of emergency. As Rebecca Solnit has written lately (A Paradise Built in Hell, 2009) natural disasters destroy communities, but also  produce  marvellous new ones. The more I thought about them, the more Caves’s core principles suggested such a condition of emergency. ‘Nobody Knows’, the ‘Motley Crew’, ‘Time Flies’ (and the rest) invoke an exceptional state of being. The future is unknown and unknowable, threats are permanent, change is ever-present, the project (movie, exhibition, artwork, performance, book, campaign) routinely demands the impossible. Time is  essential; everything must be now. The resources required are immense: it must store materials, skills and ideas in anticipation of a future that may never occur. It is subject to high levels of security and secrecy. Its workers are mobile and rootless, and live in de facto camps, separated and sometimes secured from the city proper. And each project – for which read ‘campaign’ – demands absolute commitment. Desertion is death.

Caves doesn’t describe the creative city in quite these terms, but the implication is there to  be had. And at the time he was writing, there were plenty of other writers invoking a sense of emergency in contemporary life: the sociologist Ulrich Beck’s ‘risk society’ is a perfect example.

On the ground, there are real figures of this metaphorical war. Superficially, many of the most creative cities have also been literal ruins at some stage of their development, caused, often enough by conflict (Berlin, London and Manchester bore until recently the literal scars of war). Artists have always been drawn to the ruined parts of cities for economic reasons, but they have also long cultivated an aesthetic of ruination – and resisted attempts to clean up. The creative city and the ruined city often seem to overlap.

However there’s more to this metaphorical war than ruins. Caves says a lot about LA and the movie industry, and if you know that city, you know how reminiscent its great studio complexes are of military encampments or munitions factories: sprawling, secure complexes, surrounded by high walls, blind to the outside world. And inside, they’re populated by transient gangs working secretly to impossible deadlines, for campaigns that become apparent only when they’re in progress. Making movies is uncannily like going to war. It’s no accident that war has been such a natural movie genre. And it’s arguably no accident that LA’s other main activity, at least until the 1980s, was armaments.

If the creative city is also metaphorically a city at war, is it right? The creative city undoubtedly suits those with the wits and education to take advantage of it, and weather its vicissitudes. I have thought of myself in that category often enough. But how does the creative city suit the weak, the sick, the very young? How does it work for anyone thinking beyond the next pitch?

Picture: Still from Alfred Hitchcock, ‘Saboteur’ (1942). Exploding munitions factory created on a Warner Bros studio lot.