When we arrive in LA, the first thing you notice is the dust and the pollution. It’s summer, heat hangs in the air as the plane passes over the city, smothering the low, vast suburbs that spread out below. LA is really very odd. I noticed how odd it was as soon as we arrived, and our cab zoomed between cars on the clogged veins of LA’s livelihood - America’s livelihood really - the Highway. Highways under each other, over each other, twisting around neighbourhoods and buildings and other highways with perplexing regularity. Cars pile up on either side of us, some sleek and new and driven by people with Bluetooth headsets, and others battered and old and bruised and driven by people with all their belongings in the backseat. In America your car says a lot about you.
Our apartment room is mid-town, and our cab driver doesn’t have much to say about the area. Instead, he just points out a distant hill. “See that white blur, that’s the Hollywood sign.”
Our apartment is in a compound near Wilshire and Vermont, a cheap wire fence like the type you see on old tennis courts enclosing it, and the area is hot and bare and poor. We’re the only white people around, and we’re the whitest people we could be. We’re almost blue. I’m sure the Lonely Planet Guide would recommend we stay away from it, but if you were only guided by Lonely Planet you’d be broke in a week, and you’d think Rodeo Drive is what LA is all about, which of course, it isn’t.
It’s around this time I discover a few things about LA. The first is that the Hispanics have midtown as their own. Most everything is in Spanish. Shops sell tacos and burritos and odd cans of indecipherable Spanish fare, and buildings are low and dusty and falling apart. In the heat of the afternoon, I suppose the traditional siesta, men and women and children lean on shady stoops and huddle near air conditioned shops. The homeless shelter under makeshift tents in corners of car parks, road train style trolleys beside them. Many, many people are shouldering their lives in garbage bags. As the afternoon becomes cooler what sounds like a hundred children play ball in the compound beside us.
The next day the band heads to Venice Beach, where Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet played out their Malibu tragedy, and where the men rollerblade and the women bake in the sun. Everybody’s a little eccentric, but it isn’t glamorous. Muscle Beach is about as seedy as it sounds and, like everywhere in LA, everybody’s selling something. Friendly black guys accost you with rap CDs and dudes on segues try to sell medicinal marijuana. A woman in the square is selling TV audience tickets for some comedian whilst break-dancing and occasionally bursting out into song. It’s a kind of American thing, a total blind self-confidence in one’s self. Nobody fears anything in the slightest, nobody feels embarrassment and it seems, anything is possible. LA’s kind of like an entire city with Aspergers. But, like midtown, people are clutching trolleys and living on the grassy island between beach and tourist footpath. As a Hollywood native will tell us, “The City of LA is poor as shit. Half a billion dollars in debt. The City of Beverly Hills is rich as hell.”
He’s right. When Clair and I decide to do the LA thing and head out on a star homes tour, it’s like a total reversal. The pull of celebrity in LA is immense. If Highways are the life blood of LA then celebrity is brawn and muscle and sheer fucking power. Going on a star homes tour is like going on a disconnection of reality. You don’t like the idea of it, you don’t even like the reality of it, but somehow, some little piece of you is fascinated by Oprah Winfrey’s gates, Madonna’s letterbox and Michael Jackson’s old driveway. The Tour Guide, a vaguely desperate fast-talking dude, makes his dough from these gates, letterboxes and driveways. He’s a part-time paparazzi so he spend a lot of time outside them. He literally lives off these people. As we climb the half carefully manicured, half wild greenery of Beverly Hills, we pass Taylor Lautner on his afternoon jog. The Tour Guide beeps, Taylor grimaces. There’s a weird relationship between celebrity and those who make money, indirectly, from them. Later in the day, when we stand beside a couple veteran autograph hunters and paps for a film premiere, there’s an unspoken set of rules between celebrity and pap. Mary J Blige is a ‘biatch,’ Alec Baldwin an ‘asshole’, Tom Cruise ‘adorable.’ When a celebrity refuses to make his or her way over, the hunters are vicious in their dissemination of their hair, their outfit and their face. It seems unfair, but I see their point. Celebrities aren’t really people, they are business. All the pretence in the world can’t dissuade us from seeing them as weirdo zoo animals, eating and scratching behind the glass walls of public fascination. They are herded animals, sheparded from car to red carpet, house to party. Microcosms of people rely on them for income – from the guy in the Iron Man suit on Hollywood Boulevard, to the guy setting up the film camera by the red carpet, to the girl serving fries in Hard Rock Café. Celebrities are an entire enterprise, not an individual. Some of them recognise it. When Catherine Zeta Jones passes us, she recognises the autograph hunters and smiles, judiciously autographs their pristine copies of Empire and Rolling Stone in just the right place and they all nod. They wouldn’t exist without one another, and they know it.
Beverly Hills is gated and guarded and private and I understand why. When we pass the Wilshire Hotel our Tour Guide beeps at the bus boy. “That’s George,” he explains. “I pay him a lotta money to tell me what celebrities check in.” Because you see, celebrites are surrounded by these mini armies of paps, autograph hunters, informants, manipulators and leeches who will happily destroy them at a moments notice. Even us, the loyal masses, will cut them down. So they hide away in the hills, like hunted animals, sheltered in gigantuous mansions and ridiculously extravagant compounds and create their own worlds made with their unjustly large paychecks because quite honestly, the real world is not their friend.
When we stop by Tom Cruise’s compound we’re informed that if the flag is flying, Tom is home. Tom’s the King of Beverly Hills. So when we see Tom Cruise at the film premiere, it feels unreal. Because Tom Cruise, the man standing directly in front of us, isn’t real. He looks like the guy in the cinema, but I know he isn’t real. Because he’s so good at this celebrity thing now, he’s such a pro, that he’s groomed himself to look like Tom Cruise from every angle. His smile is perfect. His face perfectly symmetrical. His manner pleasant, genuinely interested, constantly enthusiastic. If somebody was told to pretend to be Tom Cruise, they would be just like this fellow. He’s a nice guy. He arrives an hour before his co-stars because he judiciously greets every fan, signs everything, takes every photo demanded and is always, always, smiling. After the premiere, the King Of Beverly Hills is herded back into a tinted jeep and taken to the after party, where he will grin and shake hands and pose for photographs and look like Tom Cruise from every angle yet again. Because he understands the fundamental deal with the devil; when you are famous you will always be at the mercy of others. His power is his and our illusion, and he knows it. Celebrities only last as long as those in the real business – not show biz per se, more like mega fame biz - want them to, and the poor guy can only look over his shoulder and bury his mind in a fake religion and buy time with surgery and an all-too-neat hairline.
Winding back down through Beverly Hills and onto Rodeo Drive (where we slow at cafes to ‘spot the celebrities’ as though they are wild mongoose on a safari), we pass the mansions of the rich. And in almost every garden are a small army of Hispanic men and women trimming hedges, weeding and watering impossibly green grass. They’re the men and women of our area, mid-town, and this is where they get up at 5am every morning and carpool in battered old wagons to earn their money from the celebrities and super-rich. And they’re sweating it out under the horrible sun and aching backs and you begin to understand that if Tom Cruise lost his job as King of Beverly Hills, a bunch of hardworking individuals would also lose theirs. So like them or hate them, celebrities aren’t just useless wastes of exorbitant sums of money - though some are – they are the back on which LA rests. The film industry isn’t just a money industry, it’s an industry of the soul. Films are our meter, our gauge and our social sphere. We watch movies about people and lives we will never lead, illusions of reality, voyeurs of some far out world that is never our own, no matter how similar it seems. We compare ourselves to celebrities, some devote themselves to them; to all intents and purposes they are the better looking, more successful, cooler and highly desirable versions of ourselves, and likewise their films. And the celebrities hidden away in their alternate universes of high gates, tinted windows and compounds, feel the weight of expectation hardest. We’re pulling them down as much as we’re pushing them up.
When we leave LA through LAX the smog over the city is unbearable, like the city is choking itself into submission.