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He reads the script

The Vatican to Vegas: A History of Special Effects; Norman M. Klein; The New Press: 506 pp., $27.95

March 21, 2004|David Thomson | David Thomson is the author of numerous books, including "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film." His new book, "The Whole Equation," will be published in January.

Only a few months ago in these pages, David L. Ulin asked, "What is the appropriate form of storytelling for Los Angeles? L.A., after all, is a city that defies traditional narrative, even as it requires us to impose our own structures on the chaos of the place. It's no coincidence that some of the most iconic Southern California art has not been narrative but imagistic, as are the Light and Space creations of Robert Irwin and David Hockney, or aggressively elusive, like the barely controlled bombast of the 1970s punk scene."

I have respect for Ulin: His 2002 anthology, "Writing Los Angeles," is as enjoyable as it is useful, and I can hardly wait for his next work, "The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith." It's a title that says it all, or all I can think of, and his book will surely enlarge the remarkable shelf of meditations on Los Angeles that has been steadily supplied by writers such as Carey McWilliams, Reyner Banham, Mike Davis, Lawrence Weschler and now Norman M. Klein -- to say nothing of that other army of the sunlight that includes Aldous Huxley, Joan Didion, Thomas Pynchon, James Ellroy, John Fante, Gavin Lambert and so many others, all the way to Art Pepper and David Lynch.

What I'm trying to say is that although solid ground may be unreliable (one day in 20 years), it does support a ton of books and their authors; and that if Los Angeles defies traditional narrative, it should be admitted that it has fostered what many people consider a new traditional narrative: the movie. To come to the heart of this matter, though I'm thrilled by the title of Klein's 1997 book, "The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory," still I cannot see how anyone, academic or private eye, Michel Foucault or Kobe Bryant, can deny the weight of paper: that Los Angeles is the most intensely studied, imagined, dreamed of, forgotten and informationally retrieved city in the United States.

Which brings me to this dazzling, if not blinding, book by Klein, the cultural critic and media and urban historian -- who may have reckoned to deliver a book for the general reader as accessible as Didion, Lambert or "Chinatown." Well, that accessibility is perhaps the book's best joke (though Klein is merry with humor). I have to imagine that this book bespeaks a kind of teaching (at Cal Arts) that is brilliant, inspiring, provocative and life-altering, but which, if any student came in tomorrow and said, yes, yes, he thought he had the whole picture in his mind (the mind, of course, being but the human-friendly version of a computer), then Professor Klein would be driven to conjure even more instinctive and hermeneutic synapses, enough to restore furrow to the brow of any briefly elated student.

And why not? Why should the professor of such things ever wait for shared insight when his labyrinthine Los Angeles depends upon the notion of some ineffable and likely dangerous secret -- such as, why are they pouring water out on the beach when there's a water crisis? -- that every soul in the city must pursue? Klein is thoroughly academic (despite the recent release of a DVD-ROM, "Bleeding Through: Layers of Los Angeles," that attests to his passion for a fictitious L.A. -- could that mean Lies or Leaps Allowed?). But in the truest sense he wants to turn education into a mystery, and fact into dream.

I admit that I have come to the work of Klein only recently but I must begin by saying that "The Vatican to Vegas" is one of the most astounding, exciting, infuriating, murder-making books I have ever read. Klein sees Hollywood and its special-effects artistry as providing an organic connection between the popular culture's architectural and theatrical forms and a kind of virtual space common today. And inasmuch as its attention is steadily directed toward what Klein means by special effects -- the great domes on which theater, masque, religious rapture, baroque trompe l'oeil, industrial exhibition, cinema, Las Vegas are projected -- so this book aspires to a running, jumping transcendence. The magnificent hard-boiled coda of his notes comes like a 70-page Dashiell Hammett novella tacked on to a Busby Berkeley film.

I realize that this book I am recommending -- no, insisting you acquire -- may sound far-fetched; my tone may be somewhere between the ravished and the ironic. You must accept in advance the unlikelihood of ever understanding this book, plus the sheer technical difficulty in "reading" it, or keeping up with it. But many Californians, let alone freaks for L.A. books, realized some time ago that comprehension and even reading were less important than scanning (or having the coverage). You have to meet the mind of Norman Klein and the stunning stand-up act he has made (half-Robin Williams, half-Jorge Luis Borges) out of the whimsical notion that "special effects" and whole illusionist environments (like a Vegas casino) are central to our cultural identity.

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