“Young girls are coming to the Canyon,” sang the Mamas and the Papas in their beautiful song, “12:30.” It’s true the young girls were “coming” to the Canyon, in the sense they arrived there, as opposed to somewhere else. However, this really isn’t the right way to characterize their physical movement. Rather, it would be more accurate to say: they were “called to” the Canyon; the Canyon “solicited” them to come. In much the same way Richard Dreyfus was compelled to visit a certain mountain, in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, though without all of the extra-terrestrial folderol.
The “Canyon” the song refers to is Laurel Canyon, perched above Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, California, at the east end of what then was known, and still is known, as the “Sunset Strip.” In this essay, I will examine Laurel Canyon and its environs, as “space.” They partake of, or participate in, two completely different spatial modes. First, they are geographic “places” – points on a map, or coordinates in “Cartesian space.” Second, they are “locations” for purposeful human activity, or “existential space.”
The story is not quite this simple, though, because there is a complex and subtle interaction between these two perspectives. The Canyon would not have become a platform for human endeavor, and drawn young girls to it, had it not been for its geographical location. Its geographical location, however, would be meaningless, but for the accumulation of significations and references it had acquired, as a result of its colorful socio-economic history and its role in the development of the film and music businesses.
In this respect, Laurel Canyon presents a paradigm case of the spatial dynamic articulated by Martin Heidegger in his essay, “Building Dwelling Thinking.” Heidegger asks the reader (among other challenging questions) to imagine a bridge. “It does not just connect banks that are already there. The banks emerge as banks only as the bridge crosses the stream. The bridge designedly causes them to lie across from each other. * * * The bridge gathers the earth as landscape around the stream.”
But that’s not all it does. “Bridges lead in many ways. The city bridge leads from the precincts of the castle to the cathedral square; the river bridge near the country town brings wagons and horse teams to the surrounding villages. * * * The highway bridge is tied into the network of long-distance traffic, paced and calculated for maximum yield.”
The point of Heidegger’s story about the bridge is, once it has been built, Cartesian space becomes reorganized into, or comes to be conceived as, existential space. Our purposeful activity, and the entire range of purposes, objectives and outcomes it encompasses, accomplishes this transformation.
But, all such constructs occur against, and are constrained by, Cartesian space. To make this point, Heidegger invites us to imagine a farmhouse in the Black Forest, built by peasants some 200 years ago. The “earth” (a Heidegger term for Cartesian space, as opposed to “world,” which he uses to refer to existential space) “ordered the house. It placed the farm on the wind-sheltered mountain slope looking south, among the meadows close to the spring. It gave the wide overhanging shingle roof whose proper slope bears up under the burden of snow, and that, reaching deep down, shields the chambers against the storms of the long winter nights.”
Why did the peasants build on the wind-sheltered mountain slope looking south, instead of somewhere else? Because they decided that geographical location best suited the implementation of their human purposes. Yet, they were constrained by that location’s climate; their house had a “wide overhanging shingle roof whose proper slope bears up under the burden of snow.” They might not have needed such a peculiar roof had they built, say, on the other side of the hill, looking north.
A. Laurel Canyon
It’s not that far of a jump from the Black Forest to Laurel Canyon. That is to say, they are separated by a certain geographical distance, in terms of Cartesian space; but they are, or we are in the process of making them, conceptually related (existential space).
What was it about the Canyon that gave it the tractor beam-like capability to attract the young girls, of whom the Mamas and the Papas sang? The young girls certainly didn’t come “just for” the Canyon – that is, to experience it, and its residents, as a unique neighborhood. Nor did they come to experience it qua canyon – that is, to enjoy its many excellent canyon-like features. If they only were coming to the Canyon, for the Canyon’s sake, they would have gotten pretty bored, pretty quick. They probably would have been just as content with the many equally serviceable canyons in their respective hometowns.
From the perspective of Cartesian space, the Canyon’s two principal qualities were, its geographical proximity to the Strip; and, its relative geographical inaccessibility. From the perspective of existential space, the Strip held the promise of excitement, of forbidden pleasure, and the prospect of fame (or, at least, notoriety). And, remoteness promised an unfettered, libertine style of life.
Offering these two inducements, Laurel Canyon invited its residents to live there. If they had been asked, those would be the “reasons” the inhabitants would cite. Correspondingly, the young girls never would have come to the canyon, had those two elements not been in place. There would have been no persons of interest for them to meet.
“Laurel Canyon drew rock and roll people in the same way it had attracted artists of all types for half a century. * * * A singular advantage of Laurel Canyon was that a car got you down to the clubs and coffeehouses on the Sunset Strip in minutes. * * * Everybody was up there, and all the young girls were looking for all the rock stars. They’d wander the hills calling out names.”
It’s not possible for young girls to go looking for rock stars, if there are no rock stars to be found. And the rock stars were drawn to Laurel Canyon because of its peculiar combination of proximity and isolation. “Laurel Canyon has what the oenophiles call terroir – the theory that the place where the grapes that make a great wine are grown should be evident with every swallow. In that sense, when you hear ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,’ you are hearing Laurel Canyon, vintage 1969. Laurel Canyon has great terroir.” In other words, it is a place where cultural activity, and music in particular, seemed to occur naturally.
B. The Sunset Strip
What was it about the Strip, in turn, that enticed the Canyon’s residents? By the time the Mamas and the Papas recorded “12:30,” Sunset Boulevard already had metamorphosed through several lifetimes. “During the 1920s and 1930s various nightclubs, movie studios and a number of architecturally fine apartment houses were built to meet the needs of the free spending movie industry. * * * By the mid-1930s, the Strip was the center of Hollywood’s public social life, and the names of its nightclubs – the Trocadero, Mocambo, Ciro’s and a host of others – were synonymous with the carefree, glamorous existence to which every starlet aspired.” Another important factor: “It was outside of city limits and therefore outside the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles Police Department,” a particularly handy attribute during the Prohibition era.
The Strip aggregated its constituents, then, by combining several different elements. These included, most significantly, its geographical proximity to Hollywood (Cartesian space), which is where the movie industry was based (existential space); and Beverly Hills (Cartesian space), which was home to stars, executives, and others who, if they couldn’t afford a “carefree, glamorous existence,” at least could afford to go out at night (existential space).
At the same time, it was relatively geographically isolated from the City of Los Angeles (Cartesian space). This encouraged the growth of clubs, nightlife, and an atmosphere of permissiveness, if not downright licentiousness (existential space). The Strip couldn’t simply be “anywhere.” Rather, its role as a distiller and concentrator of cultural activity (existential space) depended significantly upon its geographic location (Cartesian space).
Though of course, the nightclubs along the Strip were built for a reason, which was to service the needs of their constituents – the denizens of Hollywood. The nightclubs would not be able to survive economically without their patronage and cachet. The prospective proprietor of a nightclub doesn’t simply decide to build it at any old place, as favorable as the geographic location might be. Rather, she carefully analyzes the region’s economics, with a view towards discerning if it will be able to support the venture, from a demographic and socio-economic standpoint (existential space). Even if we accept, then, that the Strip was the ideal location for Hollywood nightlife, what drew the movie industry to Hollywood?
The story goes something like this. In Eastern Europe, Jews faced economic hardship and persecution. The United States drew many of them because of its immigration policy, political tolerance, and economic opportunity. Some of these new arrivals were knowledgeable about fashion and retail. They understood public taste and merchandising. They were driven by fear of failure. And, they were sensitive to the dreams and aspirations of the working class. Synthesizing these multifaceted ingredients, they became exhibitors of motion pictures.
Because of chronic product shortages in this nascent industry, they began making their own films to exhibit to their expanding audiences. In 1908, however, Thomas Edison created a kind of producer’s oligarchy, which became the exclusive licensee of his patents for the motion picture camera and projector. Because they were outside of the establishment power elite, the new arrivals were excluded from this cartel. Edison’s goons disrupted their filming, sometimes violently. Whereupon the newly-minted, would-be moguls decided to move to Hollywood.
Why Hollywood? First, it was 2,500 miles away from New York (Cartesian space), which was just about as far away as you could get from the Edison Trust (existential space). Second, its geographical latitude (Cartesian space) created a balmy, year-‘round climate. This was important, since at the time of this migration, there were no “enclosed” sound-stages; movies still were shot entirely outside (existential space). Third, the same geographical latitude (Cartesian space) created a wonderfully limpid daylight, which transfixed perfectly on to the volatile, nitrate-based photographic stock (existential space). Fourth, there was no political, municipal or administrative infrastructure to speak of (existential space). The cops were bribable; the newspaper was tractable.
These factors enabled the studios to create their own worlds, both “real” and imaginary. “Universal City,” for example, became an actual incorporated city, and all of the other studio premises were fiefdoms in their own right. Each studio owned a vast “back-lot,” on which stood acres of framed “false-front” structures, and dozens of sound-stages. Inside of the sound-stages, places like Oz flourished as confections of sets, fabrics and finishes. These elaborate “make believe” worlds each had their own conventions, protocols and rules, many of which only incidentally corresponded to those of the “real” world. Rather than being confined by its constraints, the studios could pretend the world would obey them.
The most significant thing about the studios is that they organized what previously had been a chaotic set of creative and business practices. They acquired expensive equipment, such as lights, cameras and editing rooms. They built up complex infrastructure, such as costume departments, prop fabricators, and scenery constructors. People acquired “roles” – not “acting” roles, but rather, roles as users of the equipment, and as experts in its deployment. This in turn gave them an identity within the structure of the organization, and also gave the equipment a domain of functionality.
A 10K Fresnel light, for example, has certain luminescent characteristics; a 400mm lens has certain focal properties. These were within the specialized expertise of gaffers and camera operators, respectively. They were intimately familiar with highly specialized tools, and could use them unthinkingly to best effect. When a producer wanted to construct a set, he didn’t abstractly wonder, “What do I do next?” Rather, he turned to a production designer, whose specialty was to conceive and implement the specifics of the producer’s vision. That role carried with it a specified set of skills and expectations, thereby enabling the producer to delegate an important task, and concentrate on something else.
“A world … has three characteristics. It is a totality of interrelated pieces of equipment, each used to carry out a specific task such as hammering in a nail. These tasks are undertaken so as to achieve certain purposes, such as building a house. Finally, this activity enables those performing it to have identities, such as being a carpenter. These identities are the meaning or point of engaging in these activities.”
“Classical” Hollywood unquestionably was just such a world. It was “a period when various social, industrial, technological, economic, and aesthetic forces struck a delicate balance. That balance was conflicted and ever shifting but stable enough through four decades to provide a consistent system of production and consumption, a set of formalized creative practices and constraints, and thus a body of work with a uniform style” (emphasis added).
This shared set of “creative practices and constraints” in turn created a web of meanings – a disclosive space – that organized the world of its participants. It gave it unity and coherence. It structured their roles and activities, the way they worked together, their relationships to each other, and to the work it was their job to create. “When we say that things are meaningful, we mean that they fit with the practices we have for using them. If we did not have practices for working at desks or eating at tables, we would not encounter desks, chairs, and tables as meaningful. We would encounter them as mere artifacts, requiring explanation. * * * We see them as odd artifacts until we become familiar with their use, and then we become virtually incapable of seeing them as strange. * * * The same is true for people.”
The resulting construct (“Hollywood”) was so powerful, and exuded such an aura, that it in turn compelled people from across the world to come to it. These people included novelists such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nathaniel West and Raymond Chandler; stage actors of renown, such as John Barrymore; financiers, such as William Randolph Hearst, Howard Hughes and Joseph P. Kennedy; and myriad technicians, workers, roustabouts, would-bes, wanna-bes, and young ingénues of every persuasion.
The combinations and permutations of their efforts resulted in movies and television shows, which in turn enraptured millions. Viewers – all of whom were essentially passive and inert – became exposed to the worlds the studios conjured. The studios did an extraordinary job of encapsulating, then defining, pop culture. As a measure of their pervasive influence, the dispositions and understandings of those millions of viewers became shaped by the imaginary worlds the studios presented.
And, a small but significant percentage of those viewers received the call to abandon their current trajectory, whatever it may have been, and immigrate to Hollywood. They got off the Greyhound Bus at Hollywood & Vine to become contestants in the great demolition derby the movie industry had organized, as a means of winnowing out new entrants. With a logic and a resoluteness as severe and vicious as the cycle of predation in the deepest, darkest and remotest areas of the globe. The survivors became stars; the rest were cast aside, to resume their ordinary, hum-drum lives in their bleak, mundane worlds.
D. Rock Music
Then something happened: the studios self-destructed. A series of court cases forced them to divest their exhibition circuits, on anti-competitive grounds. Their long-term contracts with stars were invalidated. As a result, “the staggering investments in overhead – back lots with their wardrobe departments, acres of props, contract players, and so on – [became] a thing of the past.”
There also was a profound generational shift. “In the mid-‘60s … the studios were still in the rigor-mortis-like grip of the generation that invented the movies.” As a result, the industry became “more vulnerable to the onslaught of television. The old men who ran the studios were increasingly out of touch with the vast baby boom audience that was coming of age in the ‘60s, an audience that was rapidly becoming radicalized and disaffected from its elders.” The studios, however, “were still churning out formulaic genre pictures.”
Thus, the demise of the “studio system.” The infrastructure, however, did not disappear. Rather, it simply disaggregated, or decompiled. The specialists in the use of equipment became independent contractors. When a studio wanted to make a movie, it simply comprised a “virtual” company, made up of all of the required personnel, who thereupon assumed their customary roles within the context of that production. The studios themselves became “primarily financing and distribution companies for pictures that were ‘packaged’ by agents or independent producers.”
In contrast, the music business was just starting to take off. Of course its economics are completely different than the movie business. But it only takes an instant’s worth of reflection to assess which aesthetic work better reflected the pop culture of the day: “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band,” released by the Beatles in 1967; or, “Finian’s Rainbow,” released by Warner Bros. in 1968.
The studio era was long gone by the time the Mamas and the Papas recorded “12:30.” There no longer was a need for a plethora of nightspots on the Sunset Strip. “[P]eople began to stay at home with the advent of television. Celebrities, no longer under the control of a strong studio system, also chose to socialize out of the public eye. Political reform and the McCarthy era also produced lower profiles among members of the film community. * * * By the 1950s, the glitz of Las Vegas had eclipsed the glamour of the Sunset Strip.”
Clearly, the Strip wasn’t about to move somewhere else. It couldn’t just roll up its asphalt, or re-contour the way it wove through Hollywood’s foothills. So, it did the only thing it could do – adapt. The swank nightlife of the 1930s and the 1940s was replaced by a new wave of rock clubs. “[T]een clubs like Ciro’s, The Trip, and the Whisky-A-Go-Go [began] displacing the former staid adult supper club set. * * * [T]he clubs grew exponentially through 1966 to include the Galaxy, Sea Witch, Pandora’s Box, Bido Lito’s and the London Fog, among others.” These clubs in turn required bands, which formed to fill the need, often luring their members from across the country. Among dozens of others, many lost in time, groups like The Doors, The Byrds, The Buffalo Springfield and Love comprised the core of this new scene.
“The Sunset Strip boasts an unchallenged reputation as not only a hotbed of immortal music, but also a powerful magnet for the kind of freewheeling decadence with which rock ‘n’ roll is so often linked. No other stretch of real estate can lay claim to as many fabled live performances, nor as many trashed hotel rooms, wrecked limos, ravished groupies, smashed amps, and wasted lives. The sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle may not have been invented on the Strip, but there’s no question it was perfected there and practiced by more people with more reckless abandon than on any other street in the world. Things happened there that simply could not have happened anywhere else.”
This is the scene that beguiled the young girls to come to the Canyon. It had a distinctive schematic of its own, calling the young girls forth. Once they arrived, it organized everything they encountered, making it intelligible. Because the world was capable of being understood, it made the young girls understand. It made it possible for them to experience whatever (literally) “showed up.” It invited them to use its equipment, admire its things, and assume its roles. It structured their activities, and gave order and meaning to their lives.
It thereby let them be encountered. It set them free to play a role. The young girls became who they were, and acquired the traits and characteristics they had, by embracing that scene, and by entering into relationships with it, with the objects in it, and with the other people in it. By disposing themselves to that world, they became attuned to it. They became specialists at its protocols, its standards and practices, its conventions. The Canyon enabled them to become groupies, or cocktail waitresses, or rock-star wives (although probably not brain surgeons). More importantly, having arrived at a world, or emerged within it, they in turn re-created it. They opened the door to the canyon for their successors, who still arrive today.
And those would be people who are cosmopolitan swingers like Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan. Their primary skill is to “make the scene.” Which is to say, the party somehow is inferior, unless they show up; the club comes alive, when they enter; and the restaurant is validated in the eyes of the cognoscenti, by their presence. In other words, by deploying their personality, they transform an ordinary geographic location – a humdrum, mundane place (in Cartesian space) – into one sizzling with excitement, potential and opportunity (when perceived as existential space). They unfold a clearing, which in turn permits that place to be seen as something more than what it is – say, a dreary nightclub – and instead, interpreted in the semiotics of modern pop culture.
Like Madonna herself sang in “Hollywood”:
Critical to their success is the media, both tabloid and mainstream. The media needs something to write about. It conceals an entire infrastructure of reporters, editors, designers, printers, delivery persons, and retail outlets (such as grocery store checker lines, subscription services, and stand-alone kiosks). Without personalities such as Paris, Britney and Lindsay, those structural elements would wither.
Which is to say, if Paris, Britney and Lindsay were not there to service the media’s architectural framework, “the media,” understood as an organism requiring constant servicing in order to maintain its infrastructure, would invent them. Paris, Britney and Lindsay simply are the deer caught in the headlights. They pose fetchingly and assume their allotted roles, bewildered at why they are not regarded as anything more than zombies.
The media in turn offers up personalities such as Paris, Britney and Lindsay to the public, in order to service the public’s insatiable demand for scandal, gossip, curiosity, perversity, titillation, and other prurient behavior. It solicits its readers to experience a cheap vicarious thrill, by perusing its wares. All the time pandering to a lowest common denominator of public taste and opinion, in order to achieve the broadest possible circulation.
Celebrity culture long has been recognized as one of the primary – and tastiest – ingredients in the media food-chain. Particularly noteworthy is the Sunset Strip’s ability to accumulate personalities in a kind of self-reinforcing media centrifuge. “The nightclubs also served an important function in publicizing the idea of Hollywood glamour and excitement to an international audience of movie fans, as they provided a setting for stars to dress lavishly, to socialize together, and perhaps most important, to be photographed.”
Which is exactly the way the “star system” was supposed to work: “the talent searches, the screen tests, the physical makeover, the invention of new names and biographies, the slow buildup through publicity shots and column items, the screen debuts in supporting parts – all leading to the creation of a full-fledged movie star.”
Are Paris, Britney and Lindsay the latest incarnation of the “star machine” in action, or are they exceptions to it? Says Camille Paglia: “These are women who are clearly out of control because the old studio era is over. The studio system guided and shaped the careers of the young women who it signed up. It maximized their sexual allure by dealing it out in small doses and making sure you don’t have — what has become here — a situation of anarchy.”
Ms. Paglia’s assessment is incorrect. Paris, Britney and Lindsay are as much of a frothy media concoction as were Lana Turner and Marilyn Monroe in their day. The media needs them, and if those particular persons were not there, as incumbents for a role that was required to be cast, then someone else would have taken their place. Writers like Tyler Cowen adopt a “bottom-up” approach. They believe fame proliferates because fans create stars, who them become famous. This, however, is precisely backwards. It is society’s need for fame that invites certain people to become stars, which in turn catalyzes their fans.
In their role as media spokespersons-cultural icons, Paris, Britney and Lindsay powerfully affect the common meanings we take for granted – the ways in which we “attune” ourselves to modern society. In fact, the best way to refer to them might be as “agents of common meaning,” because they pervasively influence, for example, what is erotically appealing, or our perception of Gen Y women. They have absorbed the prevailing cultural ethos of the time, and processed it – translated it, synthesized it, distilled it – and then fed it back to the rest of society, consuming themselves in the process. One might object to their influence as potentially negative female role models. This factor, however, is far outweighed by everybody else’s fascination with their various contretemps.
“We experience such attuning when literary works or a television movie bring us into tune with changed situations. A figure like Marilyn Monroe or Humphrey Bogart brings us into attunement when she or he speaks and acts in such a way as to make us sensitive to the feel of things in our world and, thereby enables us to act more spontaneously and effectively. * * * Since this power is neither subjective nor objective – it does not reside in either our subjective response to Marilyn Monroe or Humphrey Bogart or in them as people or even as actors – we should not be disturbed when the power comes free of subjects and objects”
Paris, Britney and Lindsay only are temporarily luminescent, at a certain moment in space and time. They only are as in control of their celebrity as (speaking figuratively) the culture-gods will allow. The montage of attributes they present is significantly different than, say, Madonna; who in turn was significantly different than, say, Marilyn Monroe. But Madonna’s influence has waned, and Monroe’s now is difficult to detect, except in a post-modern, ironic sense.
Martin Heidegger completely understood these relationships. In another essay, he stated: “The forester who, in the wood, measures the felled timber and to all appearances walks the same forest path in the same way as did his grandfather is today commanded by profit-making in the lumber industry, whether he knows it or not. He is made subordinate to the orderability of cellulose, which for its part is challenged forth by the need for paper, which is then delivered to newspapers and illustrated magazines. The latter, in their turn, set public opinion to swallowing what is printed, so that a set configuration of opinion becomes available on demand.”
 Phillips, J., “12:30” (1966).
 Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).
 So named in honor of Rene Descartes, who invented the concept of the res extensa, or absolute space.
 Heidegger, M., “Building Dwelling Thinking” in Krell, D. (ed.) Basic Writings 323 (1977).
 Ibid. 330.
 Ibid. 330.
 Ibid. 338.
 Hoskyns, B., Hotel California 19 – 30 (2006).
 Walker, M., Laurel Canyon – The Inside Story of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Legendary Neighborhood xix (2006).
 http://www.visitwesthollywood.com/media/media-room/history/ (2007).
 This history is from Gabler, N., An Empire of Their Own (1988). I am not sure if Mr. Gabler would agree with my interpretation of it.
 Spinosa, C., Flores, F. & Dreyfus, H., Disclosing New Worlds 17 (1997).
 Schatz, T., The Genius of the System 8 (1988).
 Spinosa, C., Flores, F. & Dreyfus, H., Disclosing New Worlds 17 (1997).
 Biskind, P., Easy Riders, Raging Bulls 18 – 19 (1998).
 Schatz, T., The Genius of the System 4 (1988).
 Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band (1967).
 Finian’s Rainbow (1968).
 http://www.visitwesthollywood.com/media/media-room/history/ (2007).
 Einarson, J. & Furay, R., For What It’s Worth 67 (1997).
 Quisling, E. & Williams, A., Straight Whisky xiii (2003).
 Madonna, “Hollywood” (2003).
 http://www.visitwesthollywood.com/media/media-room/history/ (2007).
 Kilday, G., “No saving Turner from poke in the public eye,” Hollywood Reporter (Nov. 2, 2007); Basinger, J., The Star Machine (2007).
 “Camille Paglia says Madonna Gave Britney the ‘Kiss of Death,” U.S. Weekly (Dec. 8, 2006).
 Cowen, T., What Price Fame (2000).
 Spinosa, C., “Heidegger on Living Gods,” in Wrathall, M. & Malpas, J., Heidegger, Coping, and Cognitive Science 226 (2000).
 Heidegger, M., “The Question Concerning Technology,” in Krell, D. (ed.) Basic Writings 299 (1977).