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CULTURE WARS

Why L.A. Is Synonym for Disaster

August 16, 1998|Mike Davis | Mike Davis is the author of "City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles." This is an excerpt from his new book "Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster." A review of the work appears in today's Book Review

PASADENA — The City of Angeles is unique not simply in the frequency of its fictional destruction, but the pleasure that such apocalypses provide to readers and movie audiences.

No other city seems to excite such dark rapture. The tidal waves, killer bees, H-bombs and viruses that occasionally annihilate Seattle, Houston, Chicago or San Francisco produce a different kind of frisson, an enjoyment edged with horror and awe. The destruction of London--the metropolis most persecuted in fiction between 1885 and 1940--was imagined as horrifying, equivalent to the death of Western civilization. The obliteration of Los Angeles, by contrast, is often depicted as a victory for civilization.

Thus, in "Independence Day," a film that GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole endorsed as a model of Hollywood patriotism, devastation wreaked by aliens is represented first as tragedy (New York) and then as farce (Los Angeles). The boiling tsunami of fire and brimstone that pours down Fifth Avenue is truly horrifying, consuming as it does genuine human beings. When the aliens turn to Los Angeles, however, who could identify with the caricatured mob of hippies, New Agers and gay men dancing in idiot ecstasy on a skyscraper roof to greet the extraterrestrials? There is a comic undertone of "good riddance" when kooks like these are vaporized.

The gleeful expendability of Los Angeles in the popular imagination is in no small part due to Hollywood, which, when not immolating itself, promotes its environs as the heart of darkness. No city, in fiction or film has been more likely to figure as the icon of a really bad future (or present, for that matter). Post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, overrun by terminators, androids and gangs, has become as much a cliche as detective Philip Marlowe's mean streets or Gidget's beach party. The decay of the city's old glamour has been inverted by the entertainment industry into a new glamour of decay.

Los Angeles' reigning status as Doom City is a phenomenon that demands clarification. The city's propensity for spectacular disaster, from fires to earthquakes, obviously provides a quasi-realist context for its literary destruction, but environment exceptionalism only takes us part of the way toward an explanation. There is a deeper, Strangelovian logic to such happy holocausts. Certain fundamental propositions can help provide a critical framework.

First, there is a dramatic trend toward the merging of all Los Angeles fiction with the disaster or survivalist narrative. Like some monstrous blob from a 1950s sci-fi movie, the form has absorbed every competitor. Despite the critical obsession with Los Angeles as the home of hard-boiled detective fiction, the disaster novel has long been an equally characteristic local export. It is also true in the broader sense that disaster, as allusion or metaphor, saturates almost everything now written about Southern California.

More important, the abiding hysteria of Los Angeles disaster fiction, and perhaps of all disaster fiction--the urge to wipe out an entire city and its inhabitants--is rooted in racial anxiety. In the United States, more than in Europe, the disaster novel remained fixated on the specter of subversive immigrants and nonwhites. From the earliest 19th-century examples of the literary destruction of New York, to the latest survivalist fantasies about Los Angeles, white fear of the dark races lies at the heart of such visions. It is this obsession, far more than anxieties about earthquakes or nuclear weapons, that leads us back to the real Los Angeles as well as to the deepest fears of our culture.

If race ultimately unlocks the secret meaning of Los Angeles disaster fiction, its apparitions have changed over time. In novels written before 1970, when Los Angeles was still the most WASPish of large U.S. cities, racial hysteria was typically expressed as fear of invading "hordes"--variously yellow, brown black, red or their extraterrestrial metonyms. After 1970, with the rise of a non-Anglo majority in Los Angeles County, the city turns from an endangered home into the Alien itself; and its destruction affords an illicit pleasure not always visible in previous annihilations.

Hollywood has also been experimenting with the concept of shipwrecked aliens as Los Angeles' next ethnic minority. In the shadowlands of white anxiety, the distinction between the images of space alien and illegal alien was subjected to repeated elision. Immigration and invasion, in a paranoid register, become synonyms.

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