Tuesday, May 16, 2017

"Tahiti in urban form"

There were many Brits working in Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s, something Evelyn Waugh noted in his novel The Loved One: an Anglo-American Tragedy (1948), written after he, too, came west to make a buck.

But if the Brits descended on Hollywood for financial reasons, Germans were motivated by more immediate concerns: remaining in Nazi Germany had become a biological impossibility.

Thomas Mann loved Los Angeles, while others, such as Bertolt Brecht, loathed it. It was Brecht who described Los Angeles in 1940 as "Tahiti in urban form." Two years later, in a March diary entry, he writes: "extraordinary in these parts how universally demoralizing cheap prettiness stops one from leading anything like a cultivated, i.e., dignified life."

Brecht might be describing exterior architectures like the Brown Derby (above) when using words like "cheap prettiness," but is there a literary equivalent? Like the simile? Is not the conflation of "Tahiti" and the "urban" a kind of cheap (informational) prettiness?

In 1987, Peter Ustinov described Toronto as "New York run by the Swiss." He meant it as a compliment. But to those who feel their city is no longer the product of an equation but a variable independent of it ("No one runs us," I was once told by an art collecting landlord), the comment continues to burn. Raise it and you get freak-outs like this.

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