Friday, August 17, 2018

Los Angeles: Movies, Water, and Wacky Religion

Los Angeles, as we all know, came into its own as a world-class city largely on the strength of the entertainment industry. When the moviemakers of old moved west, enticed by SoCal’s climate, scenic opportunities, and distance from east-coast pieties, L.A. developed its personality as a city of creativity, ambition, and comfortable lifestyle choices. Historian Gary Krist has  previously captured the origin stories of New Orleans (Empire of  Sin) and Chicago (City of Scoundrels); his new book, The Mirage Factory is subtitled Illusion, Imagination, and the Invention of Los Angeles. Starting out with L.A.’s liabilities – “often bone dry, lacking a natural harbor, ad isolated from the rest of the country by expansive deserts and rugged mountain ranges”—he establishes how this implausible spot zoomed past San Francisco and became one of America’s largest, richest, most memorable burgs.

Krist has done his homework. I cringed, though, when he flubbed the first name of the man who dreamed of creating a new Venice—canals, gondolas, and all—a short distance from the Pacific shore. It’s Abbot (not Albert) Kinney, and he’s been memorialized via a prominent Venice, CA boulevard. But I admire the way Krist has chosen to probe the three main strands of early L.A. life by focusing on three unique and powerful individuals. Discussing the start of the film industry, he chronicles the up-and-down career of D.W. Griffith, who pioneered many of filmmaking’s most essential techniques. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was the first big national blockbuster, and also (through its presentation of the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic force) had grave social consequences for American life, as Spike Lee points out in his new BlacKkKlansman. Griffith continued to experiment as a director and producer, and continued to be revered by his former troupe of actors, but the end of his life was a sad one, as the rise of the studio system, coupled with new aesthetic tastes, left him on the sidelines.

Krist’s second major player is a name well known to all Angelenos: William Mulholland. (Yes, he too has a street named after him, that romantically winding byway that snakes along the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains.) Mulholland, a self-educated Irish immigrant, was for years the superintendent and chief engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. He was responsible, through both foresight and a bit of chicanery, of bringing to the thirsty Los Angeles basin water from the Owens Valley. Once his 230-mile aqueduct was completed, L.A. had what it needed to fuel a population boom that has yet to slow down. Some aspects of Mulholland’s achievements (and his personality) have been worked into the character of Hollis Mulwray in Robert Towne’s script for Chinatown. But the movie does not explore the tragedy of the St. Francis Dam disaster of 1928, in which Mulholland’s miscalculations caused 600 deaths and essentially ended what had been a glorious career.

Along with water and movies, Krist sees as essential to the rise of L.A. a common fascination with new spiritual paths. His exemplar here is the very colorful Aimee Semple McPherson, whose Foursquare Gospel Church was a Pentecostal ministry that attracted thousands. The Angelus Temple built by Sister Aimee near Echo Park still welcomes saints and sinners. Growing up in L.A., I was accustomed to viewing McPherson as a fraud and a schemer, especially given her hugely mysterious disappearance and later reappearance (she claimed she’d escaped kidnappers) in 1926. Krist is able to point out more appealing aspects of her character. But I’m surprised Hollywood hasn’t truly gotten its hands on her story.

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