Politics & Media
Mar 08, 2023, 05:57AM

Institutional Intrigue

Books and films gaze upon modern sleaze.

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Jonathan Leaf has written an admirably stupid book about Los Angeles.

I don’t mean there’s anything wrong with his plotting, pacing, or word choice in City of Angles. I mean that for a man best known for brainy, philosophical plays in which historical figures argue about feminism, psychiatry, and politics, Leaf does a funny and seemingly effortless job here of capturing how many layers of moronic behavior can weigh down a hapless Los Angelina unfortunate enough to be caught up in a crime—or a callback for an acting audition, or both at the same time.

As the Oscars near, this novel about a struggling actress/producer who finds the murdered body of a thinly-veiled Tom Cruise analogue in her car trunk is a good reminder that L.A.’s a flimsy veil of glamour atop a foundation of grifting and insanity.

Our protagonist Vincenza—too harried, dim, and stoned to make rational decisions about what to do with the body of Cruise-like actor Tom Selva—is pitiably torn between comparably dumb options such as mooching off one of her friends while getting high (she works at a marijuana dispensary when not going to mostly-futile acting auditions) or throwing herself into the arms of the very Scientology-like church of which she and Selva were members. (The religion’s “Supreme Pilot” promises believers he will one day fly them all to a new, greener planet on a spaceship, but even the planning for Selva’s funeral is more about earthly p.r. and celebrity photo-ops.)

It takes about two-thirds of the novel just to get the confused and distracted Vincenza to the point where she’s ready to go talk to cops, which she knows very well is merely Step One in coping with her situation. But show her some sympathy: Our dysfunctional civilization requires her first to wend her way through such hurdles as actor rivalries, food anxiety, transactional sex, polyamorous come-ons, weird homeless guys, and cops eager to build a high-profile and coherent crime narrative around her as the most likely suspect but themselves weighed down by bureaucracy and a sudden media circus.

There are interlocking dysfunctional institutions on display here, to put it mildly—ones we’ve all glimpsed and grown to accept because they seem vast and intractable, not coincidentally the way the sullen characters in mid-century noir films accepted that no matter how this particular mystery works out, the gangs, goons, corrupt cops, dizzy dames, and dangerous wharfs probably aren’t going anywhere. As it turns out, some of those mid-century moral blights did fade away, only to be replaced by new, slightly glitzier forms of sleaze, still forming a morass likely to doom an innocent—or semi-innocent—newcomer who makes one wrong move.

Leaf is transposing some old methods of exposition onto current absurdities in a fashion akin to Tom Wolfe’s dry analytics. Like Wolfe, he manages to do it with a light, humorous touch. Slow-reacting Vincenza’s criminal L.A. is a little like the pit of teenage apathy with a murder at its bottom that was seen in the film River’s Edge—but funny. One is left with the worrying impression that having a Hollywood agent or a college degree will not protect you from probably doing the wrong thing when you find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time, just like any stupid slob on Cops. What an entertaining book. What a horrifying and silly world.

My friends and colleagues at Bombardier Books also recently put out an important non-fiction book about crime and celebrity intersecting: The Devil’s Triangle: Mark Judge vs. the New American Stasi, essentially Judge’s self-defense against the onslaught of negative media attention he got for being one of future Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s party-animal youthful acquaintances.

I wasn’t in the room when Kavanaugh’s alleged misbehavior occurred, but when I see the immense, largely futile effort to which his Democrat opponents went to make him sound like a sexual menace, I can only imagine what would become of the reputations of most of the population of former 1980s teens if we suddenly had complete archival footage of every dick-waving, tit-flashing, bong-hitting party from decades past.

What the hell would become of half the (liberal) performance artists and tech gurus out west if the most zealous MeToo activists really scrutinized the thousands of hours of footage that must exist of the annual Burning Man Festival? Were all genitals there displayed in an egalitarian and sensitive fashion? Was the body-paint sheen carefully calculated to avoid triggering epileptic seizures during glowstick dances?

Instead of perfect archival records of such ambiguous events, though, we’re left with things like action-movie director Doug Liman’s documentary-in-progress Justice, which contends that Kavanaugh wasn’t hounded nearly enough about the sexual misconduct accusations against him. The finished film isn’t out yet, and maybe it’s brilliant, but it’s interesting that despite the vast cottage industry of Kavanaugh-scrutinizers, it sounds like his detractors are still left cobbling together accusations out of things like a purportedly damning audiotape… of someone who heard a rumor… that Kavanaugh might once have… etc.

I don’t know if Kavanaugh’s scum, but I know Liman is both a professional creator of Hollywood melodrama and, like me, an alum of hyper-political Brown University, where the 1980s was basically a constant juxtaposition of frat parties and Marxist denunciations of things like frat parties, denunciations especially prone to come from people in the orbit of the film-making, film-deconstructing Modern Culture and Media Department. I’d trust the impartial documentary judgment of a fellow Brown alum about as much as I’d trust a public relations man from the Cuban film ministry.

Brown’s also the place where in the late-1980s what began as a short, controversial graffiti list of purported rapists on campus quickly evolved (in the short-sighted, self-defeating way of so many leftist protest efforts) into a broader list of men deemed non-allies or pro-patriarchal or otherwise guilty of oppression, including me, then a controversial campus-libertarian columnist but, then as now, certainly never a sexual assailant. The leftists allowed themselves plenty of ambiguous creative license back then, and many of them work in media now, covering topics such as Brett Kavanaugh.

Yet we’re to believe Kavanaugh’s critics (who seem to have arisen very suddenly when he was nominated to the Supreme Court despite his quiet decades of prior judicial activity) are terrified to speak out against him and that his high-profile chief accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, has now been rendered reclusive by the whole ordeal. Liman, in his bold quest for truth, didn’t bother to interview her, supposedly concluding she has been through enough.

If that leaves you craving a political film with a more clear-cut moral triumph as its resolution, I’m pleased to see Pinball coming to Amazon next week, telling the important (and Who-song-influencing) story of the man who in the 1970s played pinball so well that he proved to the government of New York City that it was a game of skill, not just chance, and shouldn’t be banned as a form of gambling. Prior to that, New York City—during World War II, mind you—regarded pinball as such a crisis that Mayor LaGuardia ordered pinball machines tossed into the East River.

If this city remains at all free, surely that has less to do with its insane left-wing politicians than with the rebels, from backroom gamers to neo-rockabilly stoners, who were too busy having illicit fun to learn what regulations they’re being subjected to. Out west, in the comparably rebel-filled yet socialist-controlled state where City of Angles is set, I see Gov. Newsom’s office is reportedly telling people it’s not responsible for getting food to people trapped in snowdrifts, and local cops are “helping” by issuing stern warnings that charity food shipments can’t come in without formal approval. It’s as if each system humanity devises is one more layer of chains on an already drowning man, but at this point, at least he’s sometimes laughing.

Todd Seavey is the author of Libertarianism for Beginners and is on Twitter at @ToddSeavey


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