Mary McGill: Once Upon a Time in LA

“I love Los Angeles. I love Hollywood. They’re beautiful. Everybody’s plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic.”  

 – Andy Warhol

The first time I saw a face utterly butchered by plastic surgery was standing in line at a Whole Foods store in Burbank, LA. She was a tall woman, her blonde hair tied up in a vice-tight ponytail, packing expensive organic groceries into brown paper bags, her alarmed face rigid with invisible stitching. 

Fluorescent light blurring on the taut flesh of her forehead and chipmunk cheeks, she spoke in a girlish whisper through swollen lips, her eyes a wide, seaside blue.

I’m sure I stared, transfixed, trying to understand. This was what people here did to look better? It was a long way from what I was used to, an Irish country girl on a scholarship in the US, for whom the MAC counter was the height of cosmetic exoticism.

When I think of that woman now, I swap ‘alarmed’ for ‘haunted’. Unpicking the cumulative effects of years of nips and tucks there remained in her face the faintest traces of the girl she had once been, a real beauty, the likes of which we can’t manufacture any more than we can preserve it.

Where once I judged, now I think of that woman in Whole Foods with  weary compassion. The obsessions that feed LA’s ecosystem, and by extension so much of Western popular culture, are strewn with casualties, many of whom, in bleakest of perversions, we worship. My juvenile self thought that woman pathetic but now, as an adult in mind as well as body, I see her pain, desperately scrambling to save the fragile, fleeting power that youth and beauty bestow, and I’m sorry.

~

What brought me to LA was a boy. We met while I was studying at liberal arts college in Chicago. Ambitious to work in the film industry, he relocated to the West Coast where I, a film lover myself, visited him on numerous occasions in the early Noughties.

Arriving for the first time I felt starry-eyed and expectant, sailing through LAX into the piercing sunlight wanting to drink in every inch of the place. I hiked in the red dirt of the Santa Monica Mountains, caught five dollar double bills at the Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, shopped in thrift stores on Sunday mornings during their one-dollar-sales. I ate at Toi, Canters and In-N-Out Burger. I zoomed along freeways and sat in a lot of traffic listening to CDs purchased at Amoeba. I drank complicatedly-named coffees in a new place across the street from Paramount called Starbucks, where the cliché about cafés always being stuffed with wannabe scriptwriters and actors proved to be true.

I hung out with a lot of people during my visits, each of whom wanted to make it in one way or another. Such is LA. I can’t say how well all of them have fared but one or two have gone to the type of success which means I stumble across them in movies or in the credits on occasion. One, who is now on the verge of becoming a household name in the US, was, upon our first meeting, a dick of titanic-proportions. For the purposes of this piece, let’s call him Mr Funny Man.

Mr Funny Man was a close friend of the boy I was seeing. For some reason, best known to himself, Mr Funny Man found my Irishness hysterical. Out of the park hilarious in fact. If I had metamorphosed into an actual leprechaun over drinks in La Poubelle he would probably have burst his spleen laughing before pronouncing, “I knew it. Irish people are all leprechauns.”

A usual conversation would run like this:

“So, uh, do people, uh, smoke in Ireland?”

Me, deadpan. “Yeah, people smoke in Ireland.”

Cue much waw-waw laughter the likes of which you associate with fraternity bros or their spirit animals, Beavis and Butthead.

“So, like, do people, y’know, drive in Ireland?”

Me, deadpan. “I dunno. Do people drive in America? Do you drive? Are these my hands?”

Cue furrowed brows and sour internal grunting. Mr Funny Man was not a fan of absurdist verbal bitchslaps, clearly. My bad, as a Californian might say.

One night, we went to see Mr Funny Man do stand-up. Part of his act included an impersonation of Ireland’s own Colin Farrell whose star was on the ascent at the time. Sipping on a margarita as big as my face, a rare delicacy in pre-Tiger Ireland, I waited to pass judgement. Everyone was raving about how insanely talented the guy was, so why not give him a chance I reasoned.I mean, how bad could it be?

Pretty bad, it turns out. His Colin sounded and acted like Billy Connolly crossed with Brad Pitt in The Devil’s Own blender-blitzed with Darby O’Gill on amphetamines. And everyone in the comedy club laughed and laughed and laughed, so hard I wished their spleens would burst.

~

My favourite views in LA are from the Getty Museum by day and Mulholland Drive by night, which is to say that the place really lends itself to being enjoyed from above. Hence, the wealthy tend to live in the hills – preferably the hills closest to the Pacific.

Jean Paul Getty was, at one time, the richest man in America. Despite his fortune he was a notorious penny pincher, chastising his fifth wife for spending too much money on treatment for their son, who died of a brain tumour in 1958. Getty was in England at the time and didn’t return for the funeral. He is also remembered for trying to negotiate with his grandson’s kidnappers in 1973 rather than pay the ransom. Quite the guy.

One project he did splash the cash on was the Getty Museum in the Brentwood Hills, a palatial oasis sitting like a Zen master above the LA sprawl. Upon Getty’s death in 1982, the museum became the best endowed in the world, housing much of his private art and antiquities collection. It is, experts say, quite possibly the greatest of its kind in existence.

On the days we took the tram up the hillside to the Getty it felt as though we were climbing into the clouds, scrubbing from our skin and psyche the thick heat, roaring freeways and incessant on-ness of the urban labyrinth below.

In a city where cars and screens are God, on the grounds of the Getty you can hear and feel yourself breathe again. You can gaze out at LA from the plaza, marvelling at how an azure sky  and the permanent smog cloud above downtown can co-exist so peaceably. You can lay on the grass, run your fingers through the fountain water, stroll the cool, air-conditioned halls admiring exhibits whose very existence amplifies the transience of all living things.

In a place without history, where the pursuit of unending youth is as prevalent as oxygen, the Getty’s decaying sculptures and old paintings underscore the inevitable: in the end, no fairytale or pretty image can save us from the fact of being human. In the Neverneverland of LA, ancient art provides a refreshing smack of honesty.

~

Driving along Mulholland Drive at night, looking out the passenger window at LA below, the city becomes a blanket of scattered embers spread over miles, glowing orangey-yellow beneath the Santa Monica Mountains. The place is too energised, too pumped, too hooked on whatever the next big thing is to ever truly sleep. The night air acts like a type of lid, taking proceedings down a notch for a few hours, but LA’s internal pulse never fades. Travelling through the dark, with headlights flashing in your eyes, you can still sense it throbbing in the ether and hear the ghosts of Hollywood past whispering.

On Mulholland Drive you feel suspended in time and space, close to but just out of reach of the city, surrounded but so alone. The road twists and contorts for miles and miles around canyons and scrubland, its gated communities barely visible in the dark, hidden from the hungry-eyed new arrivals and the long termers who still hope. 

~

Although I haven’t been back to LA in years, I find it impossible to escape. It’s omnipresence is no match for land mass nor ocean. The city is mix of the best of the American dream and the very worst, a hazy, overlapping binary that ferments in the heat of the Californian sun before being exported across the globe.

After dreaming of LA for so long, I realised very quickly that I could never settle there. I could not take seriously the behaviour typical of the place, like Mr Funny Man’s then agent, described as ‘disease-y’, a polite way of saying she had imbibed the toxicity of the star system to such as extent that her values had become completely skewed. Unless you were within sniffing distance of fame, you simply ceased to exist to her. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how empty this approach to life is and how boring it becomes.

In her essay On Self Respect, the incomparable Joan Didion, herself an astute chronicler of the Californian lifestyle, writes that whatever our situation, we each have to lie down in the bed that we make for ourselves through our actions and choices. In short, there is no escaping the self and  its tributaries. Andy Warhol may have gloried in the plastic but I’m pretty sure it will never lead to the type of self-acceptance and character development Didion sees as fundamental to any meaningful life.

LA showed me that dreams pursued for the wrong reasons are traps in disguise and feasting on the adulation of strangers will always feel like driving along Mulholland at night, lonely, but with a breathtaking view.

Give me flaws before perfection, truth before deception. Give me air I can breathe.

Mary McGill is a writer, journalist, contributor and rabble-rouser. She was recently awarded a Hardiman Scholarship for her research into gender performativity in the selfie phenomenon.  She blogs here and tweets at @missmarymcgill

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