Tag Archives: Hollywood

My Own Eve Babitz Obsession

Probably it’s too soon for me to me to be diving into this trend, but Eve is very much on my mind right now. For one thing, I have a massive hangover. For another, I’m in a February funk and inclined to be jealous of those sunny, smoggy L.A. days she describes in those books of hers that pretend to be fiction but are blatantly based on her own utterly insane life.

Wonderfully formed pieces lacking remorse, just right there in your face like her take on sex. So many of her love affairs are public record: Harrison Ford, Jim Morrison, Paul Ruscha, Steve Martin (she told him to wear that white suit), and on and on. There’s never any hint of coyness or manipulation, she’s just fully there, shockingly entire yet pure. No wonder that famous photo with Marcel Duchamp works so well: Eve with her face hidden but her fulsome nakedness on display, him bent over his chess game, entirely in his head, and both divinely oblivious.

I am so envious of her days with no pleasure declined, no curiosity unrelieved, everything just see and take. I love it, the whole sex and drugs scene of the late sixties and seventies. What a perfect vicar she is for all of us so weighted down with responsibility and stratagems and fear. Worrying about getting hurt and also about who we might ourselves hurt, entrenched in our rules and laws and other boring nonsense.

It takes a narcissist I suppose, but Eve’s got an unflinching and unmistakably loving eye, because that’s what loving means. And she’s got the language of a woman raised on the best literature, the sense and rhythm of it is in her blood and bone, all that instinctive selection and refinement and pacing and purpose. She’s an artist in the service of art and nothing else ever, and so she’s also separate, isolated. 

And she’s all the craze these #MeToo feminist days, especially among the millennials, and I suspect for all the wrong reasons, taken totally out of context. Naturally there’s a recent biography (Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A. by Lili Anolik), a truly pathetic if unintentionally hilarious one worth reading for its key to all those roman a clef identities, but equally for its wonderful subtext. The author practically harasses her legendary but reclusive subject in order to promote herself, to claim literary equality with Babitz and Joan Didion to boot with a rudely inserted thesis on the novel to justify it all, and just – no. Lauding Slow Days, Fast Company over the fresher, freer Eve’s Hollywood because who needs all that joy? Oh, you have to read it to enjoy both these woman playing each other, and for the way Eve somehow forgets the other’s name every time they meet, and cadges meals, and then flicks her away like cigarette ash.

Not that Eve smokes or does drugs or even drinks anymore; AA helped there, and others have stepped in to steady the always wobbly writer now this resurrection is bringing in some fresh funds.

But Eve, following a devastating accident in which half her body was burned (thankfully not her face or feet), took a hard right turn, politically. I find this interesting and perhaps disturbing, speaking here as the author of an entire novel concerning a woman who took a hard right turn, and why, and what happened afterward. So I’ve been examining Eve through her writing to try to figure this out, in effect to remember what I was thinking then myself.

Is Eve’s conservative stance a defiant declaration of independence, a projection of her old fear, as she put it, of being adjectivized? I think that’s part of it. But Eve, who noticed everything (the black music blaring over a very white party in Sex and Rage) apparently never feels the urge to interfere; she observes, and that’s it. Why bother with politics when you have a life? So instead she watches the L.A. riots from a suite at the Chateau Marmont, merely regretting the destruction of familiar sites. Or so she implies, and it matches what we know of her. So maybe the ground was tilled all along, just waiting for the right seed. Maybe it has something to so with what’s always been missing from Eve, all the usual internalized cultural crap, the need to be good. But what do I know?

Except I know that the artist always protects the artist, whatever it takes. So that’s happening.

Photo credits: Chateau Marmont by Kelly Smith (CC BY-SA 2.0) / Hollywood by LWYang (CC by 2.0)

(PLEASE NOTE: The sale on the Kindle version of Worthy of This Great City ends on February 15th, so right now it’s as low as it goes. BUT before buying the book please read the Reader Alert on the Home Page, then the full Prologue on the Excerpts page. Really, do that.)

About Anne, and about Oscar

(Originally posted October 7, 2018)

Last week I was browsing in that bored-at-work way when I stumbled on the topic of Holocaust films, specifically Sidney Bernstein’s lost documentary German Concentration Camps Factual Survey. The project was shelved because its recorded horrors clashed with Britain’s post-war policy regarding Germany, and perhaps also due to a fear of further inciting Zionist fervor. One article led to another until I found myself deep into a consideration of Hollywood’s near-obsession with prestige Holocaust movies, despite the arguable obscenity of creating something beautiful out of a topic that should, by all that’s decent, remain irrefutably ugly.

That intricate dilemma caught my attention.

I know there are libraries of literature on this topic, but this is just a blog, and anyway I’m about talking popular culture here, the moral and aesthetic impulses that rule the entertainment business. Easy enough to understand why these movies exist: Hollywood is Hollywood is the rest of the film industry, and these are important movies, right? They force us to remember, and we have to remember, so a well-deserved pat on the back to the filmmakers and the filmgoers, too. No need to rudely dismiss such noble efforts as self-serving and pretentious Oscar bait.

Take my own introduction to the genre, the film version of Anne Frank’s fairly typical teenage journal, and the sublimity of its final expression of faith in the essential goodness of man. How beautiful is that declaration, repeated as it is at the finale against that poignant score, and that shot of seagulls soaring free above the deserted secret annex? Or how about a little girl in a bright red coat? It’s a beautiful shot. Life is Beautiful!

Should such horrors be transmuted into beauty? Is it simply a matter of degree? And what exactly does it mean, anyway, to make something beautiful? What, if anything, is objectively accomplished? Does beauty by definition make the terrible more acceptable? Does it somehow encompass and make manageable its subject? Does it reveal truths we never realized before? The below from Ruth Askew in my own novel Worthy of This Great City:

“Whatever the medium, a statement is just that – a statement. Art requires more.” The taunting was mitigated by obvious fondness but still uncomfortably acerbic. She might be furious.
There followed a lengthy pause, but Thom must have tacitly, graciously encouraged a renewed assault, because she resumed her argument with that same condescending, outsized patience. She was wearing a very unfortunate shade of bright blue. “Art has a purpose: it’s about making things beautiful so they can be grasped, incorporated, and left behind. That’s what beauty means. You can’t just appoint something art if it doesn’t work. You do not have that prerogative.”

Well, a questionable opinion from a questionable character.

Holocaust movies often invite us to identify with a victim; after experiencing one, we dutifully struggle to multiply our empathy by many millions, but the fact is we can’t, our minds refuse such alien numbers. Fictionalized accounts humanize the inhumane solely on an individual basis; documentaries that study the whole speak only in the tolerable abstract.

We’re told these films serve as a necessary reminder – but of what, exactly? Not of the events leading up to the main action: the significant political ploys and poisonous resentments that no one understood or anyway checked. And they rarely if ever visit the minds of the perpetrators, because who would pay to see that, who would dare to identify, and yet what other information is more urgently required? Movies are all about the dramatic culmination, the visual horror, the ovens and the careless piles of emaciated bodies and the extracted teeth. The possibilities, I suppose. Valid enough.

But here’s what I think: If everyone in the world were legally required to watch every Holocaust film ever made on a regular basis it would not in the least mitigate the global recurrence of genocide. Granted, probably not everyone in Rwanda caught Sophie’s Choice, but even so I feel pretty confident here. As promulgators of tolerance, as cautionary tales, these movies are utterly useless.

And I suspect that’s because it’s impossible to make the Holocaust itself beautiful. I can’t imagine what it would mean for humankind if we could: would it signify our salvation, or instead lead to the extermination I sometimes think we seek? Maybe it would it make no difference whatsoever. I wish I could claim that history offers hope, but an optimistic example eludes me right this minute.

Not that it matters: artists have a job to do, and they’re relentless. I know; I am one.
Based on which admittedly shallow analysis, supported by natural inclination, I don’t think it’s at all unforgivable to pull a work of art from a Holocaust story. For one thing, history demands constant verification these days. And movies show that this terrible thing really happened, and that it was really terrible: Anne Frank, that’s the Holocaust; that was awful, she died, but she thought people were basically good, so that makes it all very sad.

It’s only Anne’s story, you see. And it’s inadvertently, tragically beautiful, which is why we remember it.

Photos: Anne Frank; Auschwitz TSAI Project CC by 2.0