Monday 19 December 2016

Letter From Los Angeles by Catherine Cyran

Arriving early morning at Paramount Pictures Studios in Los Angeles. Cover picture and photograph above by Norman Buckley
Screenwriter and film director Catherine Cyran reflects on quotidian life in LA after a tumultuous Trump presidential victory. Her own career trajectory is the epitome of the American Dream, from growing up in New York's Brooklyn (before its transformation into a wealthy hipster enclave), the daughter of a Polish dockworker, to classical violinist and Harvard University graduate to today's Hollywood writer and director. But in a divided USA, where the forces of globalisation and rich man's politics are disenfranchising a generation, the American Dream seems a mirage. But the sushi is still good in LA, the surfers are out and emigrating to Vancouver could still be an option. Photographs of Los Angeles by American director Norman Buckley

Catherine Cyran shooting on location
LA is an early town. Maybe it’s the surfers who set the clock for us, rising at dawn to catch the best waves. Or maybe it’s because all the restaurants close by 9pm or 9:30pm at night, which means that there’s less occasion to stay out late, so why not get some sleep and try to accomplish something in the morning? In any case, I too am often up before the sun is, and sometimes I go for a walk in the dark, heartened by the lights of our local Starbucks, which opens at 5:30am. Try getting a cappuccino in Rome or Barcelona at 5:30am. On the other hand, if you’d like to dine or meet for drinks at midnight in those towns, you’re in luck. Anyhow, as soon as the first rays of the unflagging LA sun make their presence known, the streets start filling with other early-birds, running, blading, and biking, probably in part to look as good as they feel they should and in part to gird themselves for the frustration they soon will be experiencing, as they submit to the shocking rush-hour traffic in order to get to work.

 Hopperesque: Starbucks before dawn
If they have jobs, that is. A lot of people in LA don’t. Let me qualify that: a lot of people in “the industry” don’t have jobs, at least not regular ones. By “the industry,” I mean Hollywood: the movie business, which is my world. Here, you’ve got actors trying to schedule auditions that don’t pay off 99% of the time, ditto for directors prepping for “pitch” meetings, and countless writers who “work” from home penning screenplays they have about as much a chance of selling as gamblers in Vegas have of striking it rich.

Of course, in other spheres LA has a lot of folks who have real jobs, doing real things: saving lives, patching roads, collecting garbage, watching other people’s children, tending other people’s yards. Painting other people’s houses, selling other people crap they don’t need. It can be a very lonely place. To get anywhere, you have to get in your car. This is because we all treasure our privacy so much that we need our big yards, our single-family homes, where we don’t have to interact with anyone other than the aforementioned nannies, gardeners, etc...

Early morning, Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles 
This makes LA a very spread-out place: a “suburban” city with no real centre, or perhaps a city with many, many small centres, with everyone living in his own little “bubble.” (More on living in bubbles later.) The result of all this is, we live apart from everyone else, then we get in our cars and drive apart from everyone else. And that’s only if we must go somewhere, because in LA if you don’t absolutely have to go somewhere, how much better is it to avoid the choked roads and freeways and just stay in your house? LA is a great place to live in many ways. It has beautiful, endless beaches, towering canyons and mountain ranges, overflowing farmers’ markets, and a blessed climate – a place where, as it’s said, you can ski in the morning and go swimming in the afternoon. It also has an abundance of museums, cultural venues, and restaurants, as befits any large city.

Up as the sun rises, Lionsgate Bridge, Vancouver
By comparison, I love Vancouver, which is right up the coast from LA (a mere twenty-one hours by car). I may well live there soon – I am applying for Canadian residency even as we speak, not least of all because Vancouver, or “Hollywood North” as it is known, has a thriving film industry – but after having spent a month there recently, during which I was supremely happy, waking to the cries of seagulls and honks of geese outside my downtown loft, despoiling the oyster beds of The Lobster Man’s Granville Island shop, and circumnavigating glorious Stanley Park, I returned to LA only to realise, to my chagrin, that you could throw a rock and hit a better sushi restaurant in Los Angeles, for the price, than you could find in Vancouver after two hours trawling Trip Advisor.

Why is that? For one thing, LA has a very diverse population – We have more Vietnamese people than any other country outside of Vietnam, more Iranian people than any other country outside of Iran, more Thai people than any other country outside of Asia – but Vancouver also has a very diverse population. So why is our sushi so much better than Vancouver’s (just to use sushi as an example)? LA is also a big city. Far bigger than Vancouver, with a bigger talent pool to draw on, and a richer populace to boot. But is money the salient factor? Are people in LA just willing (and able) to spend more money to get good sushi? I don’t think so. You can get good sushi cheap in LA, certainly as cheap as you can get it in Vancouver (even considering that, at this writing, the Canadian dollar is worth about a third less than the American dollar).

Places close early in LA: Zuma Beach, Malibu
No, I think the real reason is that people in LA are more demanding and more worldly wise in their tastes. They have high standards; they know what good is. And I like this about LA. I love Rome, but in Rome, every sushi place is an “all-you-can-eat” place. Not that sushi is bad in Rome, if you can find it, but can you imagine an “all-you-can-eat” pasta place in the Eternal City? Ha. Ironically, only American tourists would go there. It’s complicated. Another thought: Recently, I went to downtown LA – There is a “downtown” in LA, a very urban place, and, yes, it has a lot of great museums and performance centres, but really, if you live on the West Side, closer to the ocean, in Beverly Hills, say, and have to drive an hour to get there, then compete for parking and resign yourself to paying $20-$30 for four hours in order to see a show that finally got here from New York a year after its debut and costs $150 per ticket, before plunking down $200 for dinner, then drive an hour back to Beverly Hills, is it really worth it? On a regular basis?

If you want to drive, LA has the world's food available
Anyhow, I braved this trek with my boyfriend for his birthday, and we went to The Broad, a new contemporary art museum that is both beautifully designed and richly endowed, then went to one of the new, hot restaurants that touts a new slant on “fusion” cuisine, which, as it turns out, is a cross between Southern European, Asian, and Middle Eastern palettes – and I thought: Is that necessary? Are we that bored that we have to eat three types of food at once? Must I have Abkhazian spiced avocado with my hamachi crudo? I also found myself contemplating the cost of an appetiser ($23), which, nutrition-wise, was roughly equivalent to the amount I might taste of something I was cooking in order to determine whether the seasoning was right, and I thought again: In some countries, I could feed a family of four for a month on what I am about to spend for one appetiser that probably contains fewer calories than would sustain a single person for more than a couple of hours. How wrong is that? Not that I’m a bleeding heart. Well, maybe I am.

Waiting to vote in Poinsietta Avenue, during the election
Look, the strong prevail, the weak are left by the side of the road. Nowhere is this more true than in America, and at no time has this been more true than in the wake of an election that made Donald Trump the President-elect of America. After eight years of President Barack Obama, no less. Eight proud, somewhat relieved years of showing both our own people and the peoples of the world that we actually believe in our Constitution, that we believe in guaranteeing individual freedoms, tolerating diversity in all its forms, and rejecting racism, sexism, and religion-ism; that we believe in the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” The “golden door.” Right. In August, I was in Bergen, Norway, where I noticed a Mexican restaurant that wittily advertised, “Food so authentic Donald Trump would build a wall around it!” Touché.

My compatriots on the right – and I use the word “compatriots” loosely ~ claim that people like me, people in LA, in Hollywood, are living in a “bubble.” A bubble in which liberal, other-oriented, educated people seek to protect the climate, provide health care for the poor, and guarantee the rights of women and people who might be different from them: Mexican immigrants, disenfranchised African-Americans, LGBTQ, Muslims, etc.. Apparently, this is bad. And the right is now rejoicing that all of this will soon be a thing of the past, as they prepare to dismantle Medicare (health care for the old), Obama-care (health care for the poor), and abortion rights for women, while gearing up to bring back the coal industry and build more pipelines so that we can continue to do our best to destroy the environment. It is an utterly divided country. Look at the map. No, wait, I’ll save you the bother. On the “left” coast, you’ve got California, Oregon, and Washington – a “blue” swath of country that abuts both Canada and Mexico, which Trump lost handily and whose huge population generates a huge proportion of the national GDP (California alone is the fourth biggest economy in the world.) Then on the east coast, you’ve got New England, New York, and on down roughly to the Mason-Dixon line (a line that more or less delineated the northern states from the slave-holding southern states during the Civil War). These states also voted against Trump.

California sunset, Griffith Park
Then... you’ve got the vast “middle.” The “red” states, most of which are far less populous (and productive) than the coastal ones, but which were guaranteed by our founders to have a more-than-equal voice in electing our president via the electoral college. Without troubling the reader with the details, what this means in present-day America is that, as a Californian, my vote counts for two-thirds less than the vote of someone living in Wyoming, say. This was, and remains, a constitutionally mandated system intended to protect small states from the tyranny of large ones (but which also had the effect, perhaps not inadvertently, of protecting the large landowners of yesteryear from the unwashed masses in the cities). What isn’t constitutionally mandated, however, is a furthering of the electoral system adopted by all but three of our fifty states to employ a “winner-take-all” method of reckoning up their electoral votes, so that, in short: to the victor goes the spoils and to hell with the “minority.” Never mind that in the case of our recent election the “minority” was actually the majority; Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, and without “winner-take-all” she would have won the electoral vote too. This is the system by which Donald Trump became our President-elect. And this is what we, in LA, will have to live through for the next four years, if not eight.

Welcome to Hollywood: Bob Hope Health Centre 
This is why I am despondent. This is why most of my friends are despondent. It puts a whole new spin on living in LA: to know that our votes count for “less than,” to live with the prospect of being ruled by a man who in no way represents us and vandalises our belief systems every day. How meaningless it feels to be trying to get a silly job making a silly movie that only people made truly desperate by the paucity of their own lives would take the time to check out, when the future of our nation appears so dire. Not that all movies are silly. Movies, like books and other art forms, at their best serve to shed light on the human condition, often evincing efforts by their creators to reach out to others, to say: “I am alone. Are you? Maybe we can be alone together.” So I understand. I need to go to Netflix once in a while too, to stem the flood of despair.

And I’m not disparaging my counterparts in middle America, or not entirely. I can’t, because I am them. My only sibling, my brother, whom I love dearly, lives in the “middle.” For his entire working life, he slaved in factories, often on midnight shifts, to provide for his family. And provide he did. Was he under-employed? He was. Was he underpaid? No doubt. But he believed in America, he believed that the fact that he had to tear his body apart in order to provide food, shelter, computers, the occasional hockey game tickets, and the latest software for his kids and grandkids was worth the price. In so many ways, he is my hero. And he voted for Trump. I tell myself: He’s in his own bubble too. I’m in my bubble; he’s in his. But it’s heart-wrenching that I cannot bring myself to talk to him. Not now.

Reflections from a car: a lone palm tree & traffic lights
And I hate what this election has done to me, to us, and to our country. I hate that I am embarrassed to be American. I hate that I have to hang my head in shame. I hate that we have to fight these fights all over again. I hate that it is the poor who will suffer most under Trump’s regime, since the rich already have their health care, can fly their daughters to other countries to terminate their unwanted pregnancies, and can pay for eldercare and childcare and whatever else they need. Most of all, I hate that I hate so much. I am tired of it all. In LA, we live apart, now more than ever. We always have been outliers, literally on the edge of the country, but now it feels as if the middle of America might well rejoice if, in what they would likely see as an act of divine retribution, the San Andreas fault finally imploded and dropped California in the Pacific ocean. Humans are communal animals, and presently there is no community in the United States. Nor, I think, will there be for the foreseeable future.

Santa Monica, California, December 16, 2016

Read Catherine Cyran's brilliant new children's novel "Island of The Last Great Auk":

Subscribe to support our independent and original journalism, photography, artwork and film.