A city is never one thing. Each individual in every metropolis traces their own day, their own night through neighborhoods, businesses, or homes, along bus or subway routes. Each person has places and people to see, a view through their window, things to buy. The feeling of being in a city is both cacophonous and isolating — sometimes euphoric, sometimes uncanny, sometimes sad.
Every city also has its own character, and most people agree that Los Angeles is special. It's a repository of dreams and a reflection of American extremes. This month, as we reflect on the theme of Space, we asked two creators, writer/director Miranda July and writer Carvell Wallace, to reflect on the City of Angels in different formats. Exclusively for Departures, July made three short films in three iconic LA locales, and Wallace wrote an impressionistic reminiscence of his youth in the city. Together, they form a kind of conversation — told through pampas grass and flowers, Pacific Ocean waves and puppets — about the vivid color, occasional loneliness, and enduring appeal of life in the city.
Emerging from a cape amid sparkles and flashing lights, July struggles to entertain onstage at the historic Bob Baker Marionette Theater for a stoic audience of puppets. Louis Vuitton cape, jumpsuit, shirt, and boots. Chopard rings.
July moves sensuously — during normal business hours — through a stall in the iconic flower market in Downtown LA, responding to the bundles of natural color, texture, and aroma in this industrial space. Alexander McQueen jacket and boots. Fogal tights. Miu Miu bag. Paul Smith sunglasses. Stylist’s own bow.
by Carvell Wallace
WHEN I WAS JUST A SEMI-HOMELESS TEENAGER in Los Angeles, I auditioned for a Pringles commercial. I had an agent. She came as part of the prize package for a citywide acting competition that I had taken the bus to. If you won you got the agent and $500, which I gave to my mother. For the commercial, I had to dance and sing and rap a little. “Once you pop you can’t stop,” I said. I really wanted it because I was a child, and children want to be on television. I don’t know why. Maybe they want people to see them, to be forced to acknowledge their existence. Maybe they want the power that comes when people are forced to acknowledge their existence.
I got a callback. They made me wear a top hat. I wasn’t sure what was happening. I was in a conference room dancing and sweating and rapping about Pringles; I might have thrown in a running man or two, I can’t rightly say. My hopes were high, but I didn’t get the part. When the commercial aired, the dude they cast was in a sleeveless suit jacket and the same top hat I wore, dancing around like a Costco brand Flavor Flav, saying words that didn’t rhyme but were just vaguely rappy-sounding. Everyone else was white. I was glad I didn’t get it. I still wished I had gotten it, just so I could say I got it, just so I could say I wished I hadn't got it. Milla Jovovich was in it too, sexily eating a Pringle. It was embarrassing. I wanted it so badly. I was this close. This city makes you want things that you do not want and are glad you do not have.
Time here is flat because there are no seasons, no way to remember when anything happened. You cannot say, “Oh yes, that was in the dark of winter when mother was in the hospital,” or “Right, this was in the luminous spring when we collapsed into a field of Mexican marigolds, cured ourselves of lightning strikes, and built freeways in and out of our dreams.” For all I know this Pringles thing could have happened yesterday. Maybe it was tomorrow. Actually, it might not have happened at all, now that I think about it. For a place that records so many things, it’s weird that nothing here is ever really remembered.
This city makes you want things that you do not want and are glad you do not have.
They say that when the last days come we shall see visions. I drove across the city from Pasadena to the beach taking only Huntington Boulevard; and then Cesar Chavez once I crossed the bridge; and then Sunset once I passed the vast, fake Tuscany Apartments at Figueroa.
It is rush hour and this is a road trip. You have to stop for snacks and maybe gas, and you have to find a place to pee. You’re wearing sunglasses. You’ve already bought a novelty bumper sticker and an air freshener, and you’re only at the Scientology complex by the children’s hospital and the strip club. Pace yourself.
I was feeling pretty good even though she wasn’t texting back. I went into the discount sneaker store in East Hollywood and I was sweating in the parking lot. The heat has taken residence here. It is never going anywhere. It owns everything. Dumpsters and hot chips, parking garages and bandanas, the waist-high stucco walls that separate the parking lots from the sidewalk — those walls you put your plate from the taco truck down on when you go to check your phone, getting al pastor grease all over the screen. All of it belongs to the heat now.
Vans were on sale. I thought about getting the red Sk8-Hi’s, but then I realized Vans are always on sale and Sk8-Hi’s, like memories, are plentiful and cheap. We won’t need them where we’re going anyway. We won’t need anything. I always think there are going to be some Chucks that I have to buy because they’re so good. But they never are, and it’s been 30 years and I just keep buying the same ones over and over again. I’ve done this ever since I was auditioning for the Pringles commercial, when the Chucks were red, the color of the rouge I would have tagged my cheeks with had I gotten the part. I wanted to look like a wooden apple, cool and bright and entirely artificial. I smoked a cigarette and then suddenly I was feeling terrible that she wasn’t texting back.
In West Hollywood, a leading man was running with flopping shorts and nothing else, and I don’t think he looked cool in the precise way he thought he looked cool. Rather, he looked timid and so absurdly human and vulnerable and ridiculous that it made him seem beautiful, bouncing pointlessly — he was along the incline away from Carney’s and toward The Comedy Store. Horses once drew wagons filled with flowers from the farms by the sea into the town along this route. Wagons filled with flowers, wagons filled with flowers, barrels of florals, clomping and swaying, pampas grass, centurion tall, staring down in judgement at me as if the feather blades of its cream-colored undulating mop tops didn’t break off and kill birds from the inside out like razor blade confetti; as if the grass didn’t invade and spread itself upon and murder entire mountainsides; as if it didn’t once push the land all the way down the hill, across the Pacific Coast Highway and into the sea in a giant mudslide, a climate disaster so extreme that it almost drowned Soulja Boy and he had to tweet about it. Number one, how dare you.
I forgot what I was saying. That always happens here. It’s this rainless halcyon light, how it makes everything a memory even while it is happening. Look — I went to junior high school there, right around that curve, where the Sunset Strip grows dark and rural. We waved at O.J. Simpson from the school bus and he waved back. I ran the mile in gym class over this creek (concrete trench) and through the woods (hemlock, Canada thistle, and empty corn nuts bags), my body bouncing, my joints saltating, limbs all asunder like my forearms were connected to my elbows by a pin, like I was being carried along by string, hoping I might one day be a real boy. Look — I won another contest to give the junior high commencement speech, and we did it on the Palisades field, and I talked about Lee Iacocca, who courageously rescued Chrysler from the jaws of defeat by taking a chance on the LeBaron Super Coupe. I talked about the future collapse and about greatness and success and about “the constantly ticking time bomb that has been placed in our hands by the older generation.” It was 1989. It is just now dawning on me that I might have been a winner this whole time. What an appalling thing to realize now that the game is very nearly over.
I am near the beach now, almost there, just looking for parking, just looking for a place to pee. Then I’ll find you. I promise. The man leaning on a BMW in the parking lot has his shirt unbuttoned and his butt so impossibly cute in those shorts, talking on his phone, letting the wind play with his hair, modeling his Tom Ford shades. Being on the Westside without pecs and a six-pack is like being in Manhattan without walking shoes. This beach is so vast; that’s the hilarity of it. It’s a beach to which you come for your things to be dwarfed, a shrink-ray beach, a honey-I-shrunk-your-reality beach. The parking lot itself is literally a mile long. Even the boundless thirst for relevance is just a grain of sand here.
I cried listening to Joni Mitchell’s “Little Green” here once, but it didn’t count. I only cried because it was that time of day, late afternoon transmuting into pre-dusk, the hour of act three transitions, and you know how the light is then — so belligerently wistful that nothing that isn’t maudlin stands even a specter of a chance. I only cried because I had come over Laurel Canyon, past the McDonald’s where me and Vincent went to clean up the blood and glass from our cargo shorts after someone in Beverly Hills threw a bottle through our car window.
I only cried because I keep trying to get seen even though I’m too old and don’t believe in commercials anymore and fired my agent. I only cried because I just remembered that we took our senior class trip to this beach and I was the first kid to run into the surf because we were graduating, which to me was the same as saying we were dying but in the best possible way. And my friend Rebekah later told me that it was so funny seeing me run into the waves, by myself; I was like a little kid she said, so cute. It was the first time it occurred to me that other people could see me and be pleased. I got the part.
Oh, and did I tell you that my agent from the Pringles commercial was in “A Nightmare on Elm Street”? She was. To this date, it remains her biggest credit.
Header video: July performed in three uncontrolled public spaces, reacting intuitively to the sights, smells, sounds, and people in the environment. At Will Rogers State Beach she asked strangers if she could dance in front of them, briefly blocking their view of the ocean. Hermès dress and silver chain necklace. Manolo Blahnik heels. Fogal tights.
Carvell Wallace Writer
Carvell Wallace is an author and podcaster based in California. He writes about art, culture, family, relationships, music, sports, and memories. His memoir on love and trauma will be published by MCD/FSG in 2022.
Miranda July Artist
Miranda July is a writer, filmmaker, and artist. She wrote, directed, and starred in "The Future" and "Me and You and Everyone We Know" — winner of the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, a Special Jury Prize at Sundance, and part of the Criterion Collection. A book of all July's work to date, including her novel, short story collection, and her participatory art works, was published by Prestel in April 2020. In fall 2020, she debuted her third feature film, "Kajillionaire." Raised in Berkeley, California, July lives in Los Angeles.