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In L.A., Out of Control

Emilio Spadola


FIRST: This is not an essay about LA It's about movies. Be assured however, this distinction is only temporary, and next-to-useless, and will dissolve shortly. Second: It's about centers, and whether or not LA has one, though this distinction too is teetering on irrelevance.

Regarding centers, Jacques Derrida writes: "Even today the notion of a structure lacking any center represents the unthinkable itself."(1) For the moment, let us suppose LA to be a structure. Some perspicacious folks may disagree: LA is a sprawl, not a structure. A structure implies order and logic; LA implies anarchic knots of freeway. A structure is three dimensional; Los Angeles is, well, limited in that regard.

For now however let's assume it is a structure and that it revolves around some, as Derrida suggests, center. LA as decentered is a more familiar line. Author and Angeleno Mike Davis describes his hometown as a city of multiple "epicenters" based on "eutopic (literally no-place) logic."(2) In The Crying of Lot 49 Thomas Pynchon sees similar Southern Californian rationale in his fictional LA suburb San Narciso: "Like many named places in California it was less an identifiable city than a grouping of concepts—census tracts, special purpose bond-issue districts, shopping nuclei, all overlaid with access roads to its own freeway." (3) Most cities center on a set of landmarks. New York, by way of landmarks, suffers an embarrassment of riches. LA in contrast seems starved for history. Aside from those freeways, the Hollywood sign is L.A.'s most recognizable landmark. One senses some magical power exuding from it, that 'round the stocky base of each letter a band of moguls dance, a la Stonehenge, in hopes of appeasing the entertainment powers. The mayor and police chief occasionally make a pilgrimage. Pilgrimages are abundant in LA (Did I mention those freeways?)

Speaking of representing, which is what we're intimating with this idea of the Hollywood sign, if we are to propose a center to LA, it is probably an effect of movies, images, and fictions made in LA about that selfsame city. The center is probably a screen. The whole city is a movie.


Can the city without a center be "thinkable?" Does LA "represent the unthinkable?"

What matter, this gnomic assessment? Maybe I've jumped the gun a bit and bypassed my point; surface-as-center can wait. First let's think of an unthinkably centerless city. Picture the sun imploding and orphan Earth cast into a cold dark vacuum. Picture its sad sibling planets spinning awry. Given the vicissitudes of the '90s LA isn't so odd a metaphor of chaos. Reports from the field have fed us an LA of turmoil, of class- and race-based conflict, of questionable justice. The rampant police brutality and Rodney King beating, the 1992 riots, the Northridge earthquake, the OJ trial: LA is out of control.

How did America experience the riots? In the streets? As riots? A friend in LA refers to the events as a class uprising, as it required the desperation of the underclass more than that of one race. Floating above the street level riots, the helicopter TV cameras reported people carrying off food and diapers, also furniture sets and stereos. My friend said the cops had a simple method for sniffing out looters: outside houses police found piles of old replaced furnishings waiting for the garbage truck. The cameras also recorded the beating of Reginald Denny, and defensive store owners and Rodney King's exhortation, "Can't we all just get along?"

The cameras were everywhere and everyone watched it on TV. Mediated slivers of real street-level time and space subsumed any other logic of the event; the actions in the streets (never mind the white collar violence, the economic and social conditions that perpetuate the ghetto) were reduced to self-evident riotsof which we could say with absolute certainty, this really happened. LA is something that happens on TV, something to see in the movies. Do its residents rely on the screen to know what city they live in? "Compton, 90210?"

A while back a crop of movies sprouted up that presaged bleak and chaotic futures for LA: BladeRunner, Predator 2, Robocop, Strange Days, Demolition Man. The last one, released in 1993, used the Rodney King beating as its springboard. The nervousness of the year rippled through the script.

D-Man takes the riots and puts them several safe decades in the past. It is 2032 and the city (now renamed "San Angeles" to reflect the merging of the megalopolis spanning from San Diego to Santa Barbara) is sterile and clean. The city is kept pacified with constant surveillance; an implanted computer chip protects citizens from their criminal urges, which are now about as sinister as a set of foibles. There are, however, some malcontents. These "scraps" live under the city in a carnivalesque multicultural sewer.

But there's trouble in River City. Back in '96 the last of the riots fizzled out with the arrest of wundercriminal instigator Simon Phoenix, played by Wesley Snipes. The cop responsible for his apprehension is ubercop John Spartan, one Sylvester Stallone. (Significantly, the film opens with a shot of the synecdochic Hollywood sign burning; that's how we know it's LA) Unfortunately Spartan transgresses official police procedure in the arrest and he, along with Phoenix, is thrown in the "Cryo-prison" for extended frozen hibernation. Now the diabolical leader of S.A. has unfrozen Simon Phoenix for use as a bounty hunter of the leader of the scraps, the fast-talking Edgar Friendly, played by Dennis Harvey. Soon Phoenix (looking like Dennis Rodman in overalls) is kicking some seriously unprepared S.A.P.D. ass. The protagonist, however, is not Phoenix; it's the tough cop who is thawed out to hunt him down like he did back in the day, and he ain't going by the book this time either! Finally, Spartan kills Phoenix and overthrows the regime of surveillance established by the corrupt leader of S.A.

In D-Man the old days are presented as indulgent of crime and destitute of the tough love of a good cop. John Spartan is a sympathetic Sergeant Stacey Koon, and 2032 S.A.P.D. just can't dig his 'tude. When the police chief drops a rhetorical red herring, "I'm not sure he's any different from Simon Phoenix at all," the film foregrounds their difference. Spartan is human, vulnerable, and resorts to violence only under mitigating circumstances; Phoenix lives his credo, "You can't take away people's right to be assholes." The film enlists an Uncle Tom figure, black cop Zach Lamb, to support the racism and brutal policing of the old days: "Simon Phoenix is an old-fashioned [black] criminal, we need an old-fashioned [ass-kicking cracker] cop." The final dismantling of S.A.'s panoptic society guarantees that the same cameras that kept the populace submissive will never, ever interfere with police brutality.

The revising of Rodney King continues. The white-robed mayor mimic's King's sad request with "People just wanted the madness over." The video taping of the King beating is replaced as scenes of Phoenix versus the S.A.P.D. are presented through the grainy film of surveillance cameras. It's the King beating, but simulated. Phoenix surrounded by cops; Phoenix killing cop after cop; Phoenix jubilant! Violence for Phoenix is pleasure. In the finale he enlists the aid of his former criminal posse (all black and Latino) and offers a pep-talk that presents looting and rioting as a team sport. He incites them to destroy the city "like we did in the good old days!" The LA Riots would be a great name for a football team.

D-Man's conflation of race and smacks of George Bush's denouncement of the uprising as the criminal acts of a few bad seeds; in both cases the uprising is isolated, and reduced to an aberration. I'm reminded of the vacuous TV news anchors who, as the smoke cleared, pronounced wistfully that LA was once again the "City of Angels." Does anyone believe that an uprising has no smoldering cause, that a riot burns in a vacuum? D-man's script spares the riots any ambiguities. Riots happen. It makes sense.

To characterize LA as 'out of control' is to point to the double valence of the concept; it means both outside of the scope of order and law, and emerging from and through a system of order and law (4). It is not just the repeated images of gangs, drugs, illegal aliens, traffic-snarls, riots, and the apocalypse that suggest that LA is out of control, it's the fact that these images are available; the hypersurveillance of the city has spread well beyond the paramilitary police force, past the architecture of hypercontrol, through the Thin Blue Line and into the entertainment industry. Forget neodocumentaries like Cops, and 911; Hollywood guarantees that even the most minor and constructed infraction will appear in a movie, replacing life with entertainment. Prison, or the screen—those are your choices. The city is built on nothing else.

Michael Sorkin writes, "LA is probably the most mediated town in America, nearly unviewable save through the fictive scrim of its mythologizers." (5) It left its center behind, or thrust it onto the screen for everyone to see. As the city flirts with the apocalypse, a wave of movies hypes it to a frenzy, and renders that chaos intelligible to sell, sell, sell. Who knows where the real city went? Who needs it? Piece enough film together and you have a photo negative of LA, a simulacrum of the city in black and white.

1. Derrida, Jacques, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourses of the Human Sciences" in Writing and Difference Trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978) p. 279.

2. Davis, Mike, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. (New York: Vintage, 1990) p. 6.

3. Pynchon, Thomas, The Crying of Lot 49. (New York: Harper & Row, 1966) p. 24.

4. My play on this phrase is inspired by Stephen A. Tyler's essay "On Being Out of Words." Rereading Cultural Anthropology. Ed, George E. Marcus. (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1992)[p.1-7]. "Out of control" may also mean 'having exhausted the supply of order and law' thus invoking, again, the specter of LA on the apocalyptic edge.

5. Sorkin, quoted in Davis, 1990, p. 6.

Copyright © Emilio Spadola 1996

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