Friday, February 15, 2013

Karl Scholgel and Me

Last week I went to Los Angeles to attend a conference about student success.  Before and after the conference, I toured the city and some of its near neighbors, including Hollywood, Santa Monica, Malibu, Oceanside, and Santa Barbara.  Readers of this blog won't be surprised to hear that the author, who lived briefly in Southern California about twenty-three years ago, quickly became entangled in what Abraham Lincoln once called the "mystic chords of memory."  Everywhere I turned I discovered a new memory, a new association, a new reminder of my former lives.  The experience wasn't unpleasant but I felt like a snorkeler who treads over the surface of a vast, deep ocean, only occasionally peering down into the depths to discover magnificent but dark and vaguely threatening shapes moving about on the ocean floor.  One can't help but think of Marcel Proust, who merely sipped a cup of tea before getting hit by a tidal wave of recollections.  Everywhere I looked in the City of Angels unleashed new bubbles of memory from the depths of my previously unconscious mind.

While in Hollywood, I visited my old place of work on Sunset Boulevard.  I remember how excited I was on the day of my interview for that job.  Not knowing anything at all about Southern California, I only knew that I was going to be interviewed by somebody in the film industry on one of the most famous streets in America.  Driving from Santa Monica, I soon found myself on the border between Bel Air and Beverly Hills, and couldn't believe my good fortune.  The street gently rolled between a series of magnificent mansions until finally emptying out a stretch of Hollywood that featured cafes, giant billboards, a famous Tower Records store, and storied corporate headquarters.  Even then, I knew my future was bright:  I had a beautiful girlfriend, a sunny commute, and now, I felt sure, a spectacularly glamorous job.  Little did I know that Sunset Boulevard, like life itself, has a dark side.

My job, it turned out, was in a dark, seedy corner of Hollywood.  At the corner of Sunset and LaBrea, my new employer looked out at the historic Seventh Veil strip club which was regularly patrolled by crack addicts, whores, and various Bukowsky lowlifes--"pimps and magicians," as Joseph Brodsky might have written.  The job itself was worse than its environs, sheer hell:  my introduction to the unrelenting awfulness of working life.  A post-production studio, I soon learned, was a collection of small, dark edit bays and related mechanical rooms.   My particular post-production studio was worse than that, a random assortment of decaying, dishevelled buildings.  And I worked in the worst part of this bad place, in a small, windowless room called "the vault," which was literally surrounded by steel bars in order to protect the company's vast collection of films and VHS tapes.  

My job, and the job of my equally unfortunate friend, Mitch, was to act as video and film archivists, finding specific versions of a film whenever the technicians were asked to format or otherwise alter some version of a film or tape.  At the bottom of the food chain, Mitch and I envied everyone, except perhaps for the shipping clerks, the couriers who not infrequently turned out to be former child stars or other Hollywood riffraff, and the guy who sat in the company's warehouse on the other side of town,  disturbed only two times a day by my visits to collect tapes.

The tragedy of the place wasn't merely in the dark, thankless, underpaid work.  Putting stickers on tapes, and going blind from searching for the endlessly misplaced stock, wasn't the worst thing in the world.  No, the tragedy of the place was that it was located in Hollywood, and half of the employees had come here in the hopes of becoming actors, cinematographers, and directors.  One colleague, Shawn, wanted to be a director.  Once he told Mitch and me that his mother had sent a high school VHS film he had produced to Steven Spielberg with a note, explaining that her son was a protege and deserved Spielberg's patronage.  The only thing sadder than this, I felt, was the actual VHS film, a bleak, nostalgic "music video" of his former high school sweetheart twirling about a park to the accompaniment of Shawn's crude camera effects.  The homely, red-headed receptionist aspired to be an actress.  One of the video technicians had a distant cousin who helped to produce the show, the Simpsons, and so he naturally assumed he'd be offered a job on staff at any moment.  In Hollywood, everyone had come to the city for the same reason:  they wanted to strike it big.  

But like Proust, my mind wanders.  Driving around the city, every spot seems to trigger some volcanic eruption from the past.   I only lived in Los Angeles for about a year, but in that year a thousand things happened, or so it would seem from the volume of memories that overwhelmed me on my short visit.  

In twelve short months I lived in Santa Monica, Westwood, and the edge of Beverly Hills, worked in Beverly Hills and Burbank, volunteered on a federal senate campaign, worked for a UCLA professor, babysat, saw movies, strolled the Third Street Promenade, went dancing, bore witness (if only from the comfort of a Westwood chair) to the L.A. riots, smoked weed for the first time, saw movie stars walking around town (once a roommate reported that he partied with Gary Coleman, who allegedly wore a purple cape and surrounded himself with women--the image stuck with me), traveled across the state, visited Tijuana for the first time, spent New Year's Eve in Vegas, flew to Missouri to see an old friend, traveled up the 101 all the way to Vancouver and back again, hosted friends and family, got a dog, moved in with a girlfriend, got dumped by a girlfriend, rode a horse, spent time at Disneyland, toured Venice Beach and Marina Del Ray and Pacific Palisades, applied to graduate schools, interviewed for countless jobs (at a congressman's district office, at a congressman's campaign office, at an assemblywoman's district office, at the Israeli lobby's office, at the State Department, at the L.A. City Treasurer's Office), and yes, dear Soviet Roulette fans, read Tolstoy's War and Peace--all of it, every page--although I was sometimes sorely tempted to skip the domestic scenes in favor of those which were set in the Napoleonic Wars.  (For what's worth, I remember thinking that there were two types of people in this world, those who wanted to read about Natasha, and those who preferred to read about Napoleon.)

What should the reader make of this surfeit of memory?  What's the connection to Soviet history?  I can scarcely find any.  But on my recent trip, I stopped into a Hollywood bookstore and bought Karl Scholgel's Moscow 1937.  This book takes a synchronic rather than a diachronic look at the events of 1937.   That is to say, the author tries to look at a constellation of overlapping events rather than a line up of incidents.  At first I wondered what the difference in approaches might look like, or mean.   But then I thought about my own experience in Los Angeles.  In many ways my life in 1991-1992 wasn't connected to my life in either 1990 or my life in 1993.  I wasn't the same before or after L.A.

In fact, when you visit Southern California you instantly understand how and why a piece of history can't always be understood in relationship to that period of time which precedes it or succeeds it. I remember the first time I landed in L.A.  The plants weren't the same, the girls weren't the same, the weather wasn't the same, the homes weren't the same, the geography wan't same, the work wasn't the same.  My job was a case in point.  In Chicago or Washington, D.C., your boss was generally older, more educated, and better dressed than you.  In L.A. the reverse was true:  you expected your boss to wear horrible Hawaiian print shirts, swear constantly, and eventually reveal that he had dropped out of high school in his junior year of high school.  I remember one such boss who called my colleagues and I into a conference room to give us his best rendition of a motivational speech.  "This firm is like a family.  I want you all to know that.  However, if you f##k up you'll be fired.  It's that simple."  

At any rate, I suspect that Russia in 1937 wasn't quite the same as Russia in any other year.  It's certainly possible to explain the year of the purges by referring to Lenin's brutal philosophy of politics.  It's also possible to explain 1937 with reference to Russia's tortured experience with Tsarism and global war.  But these explanations hide something unique about the chaos and terror of the worst years of show trials, purges and gulags.  In fact, Scholgel's tour de horizon of Moscow in 1937 helps us to isolate something rare and terrifying about this moment in time.  And that is that this society at this time was terrified, disorganized, and hovering on the brink of collapse.  Ordinarily, we think of Soviet Russia in 1937 as brutal but efficiently totalitarian, moving the country inexorably toward victory over the NAZIS and global superpower status.  But isolating 1937 from the Soviet Union's glorious short-term future deflects us from the realization that Stalin and his colleagues were desperately trying to manage demographic anarchy, cultural and social change, international isolation, technological vertigo, and colossal economic failure. 

If you look at 1937 as one moment in a long string of moments, you might just miss the main point.  As one moment in a string of moments, 1937 is the year in which Stalin employed terror to consolidate his hold on power as he moved his country toward superpower status.  But viewed without reference to either the past or the future, 1937 was a moment in which Stalin and Bolsheviks in general struggled desperately to remain in power by blaming others for the general disarray of their world.  The Revolution was twenty years old in that year, but it hadn't brought peace, prosperity, security, or even the basic promise of socialism:  planning.  In fact, things were anything but well planned in the age of five year plans.  Nothing was where it was supposed to be;  no one was doing what he was supposed to do;  everything seemed to be falling apart.  There were only two explanations for the chaos:  either socialism wasn't effectively managing modernity, or socialism was being sabotaged.  Stalin, and perhaps Russians to a greater extent than we might like to acknowledge, choose sabotage.  

Fade back to L.A.  The year was 1991.  1991 was like no other year, before or since.  It wasn't the continuation of my high school life;  nor was it an anticipation of my Midwest or East Coast or even Southwestern lives.  It was a year like no other.  

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