The Vast Immensity of it All: Fear and Loathing on Sunset Boulevard

Los Angeles meth abuse counselor Thom Hunt leans slightly forward in his seat on a Metro Link bus traveling down Sunset Boulevard in the eclectic community of Silver Lake. His close-cropped hair is brown, his checked shirt is brown, and the eyes that stare intensely into the camera are a dark hue of brown. He grips the headrest of the empty seat in front of him for balance, one supposes, as the commuter bus plunges into potholes, or perhaps for composure because Thom Hunt is not a happy man.

“I often ask myself, What am I doing here on planet Earth?” Hunt remarks. “These human beings, they kill each other; they only look after themselves; and yet I must be here for some reason that I ultimately chose, so there’s a weird dichotomy going on. I just don’t feel like I’m in the plane of existence I belong in. My take on our race as a human species is not very good. We’re a mess.”

Hunt is one of dozens of subjects in Patrick Ecclesine’s Faces of Sunset Boulevard, a journey through Los Angeles in all its guises, states of mind, and urban terrains, a narrative in words and documentary photography format that is every bit as engaging as any novel, an east-to-west journey that begins in downtown L.A. and threads its way through Echo Park, Silver Lake, East Hollywood, Hollywood, and West Hollywood, before finally heading out to the sea via the upper echelons of Beverly Hills, Bel-Air, Brentwood, and Pacific Palisades.

Faces of Sunset Boulevard is nothing less than a masterful visual representation of Joan Didion’s oft-quoted observation that California is “a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension” (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 1968).

What cannot be ignored or overlooked in exploring the fruit of Ecclesine’s labor is the law of unintended consequences that hangs over this book like a traffic cop hidden in a blind-spot at a four-way intersection. When commercial photographer and L.A. native Patrick Ecclesine first began his socio-economic essay on L.A.’s fabled Sunset Boulevard on 4 July 2004, there was no way he could have known that when he emerged on the other side on 8 July 2008, the assembled project would stand as an enduring document of years, if not decades, of failed economic policies in the United States overall and in California and Los Angeles specifically.

And it’s done in a manner and style not at all dissimilar to the way in which photojournalist Dorthea Lange’s stark black-and-white imagery humanized The Great Depression. With Faces of Sunset Boulevard, Patrick Ecclesine picks up the baton from another influential documentary photographer, Nan Goldin, whose startlingly direct color images from New York City of the late ’70s and early ’80s documented the heroin-laced post-punk New Wave music scene as well as the dark edges of gender politics.

“Sunset Boulevard,” Ecclesine writes in the introduction, “begins downtown at the birthplace of Los Angeles and runs from the barrio to the beach, through some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city to some of the wealthiest communities in the world.”

The world-famous “Boulevard of Dreams”, the photographer says, “is more than a street. It is a symbol of hope for those who move to the City of Angels in search of a better life. On Sunset Boulevard everyone has a story to tell; some are simple, some are profound, all are truthful.”

And the truth, as repeated examinations of Ecclesine’s labor of love reveals, can indeed be a bitter pill to swallow. Among the denizens of Echo Park that the reader is invited to get to know there are Cookie and Smiley, described as Partners for Life. They are hardened, battle-scarred ex-convicts who paid their dues and did their time but are still paying off their debt as if their mere existence has proven them to be a burden upon society.

“I just wasn’t making it at Taco Bell and Jack in the Box,” Cookie says in the type of brief narrative text that accompanies every image in the study. “I had kids to support and I wasn’t going to get raped again walking home at night, so I started selling drugs again, doing burglaries again. The shit you have to do to survive you wouldn’t believe.”

There’s Nay Nay Davis, a young, single African-American mother of two toddlers, photographed outside the oxymoronic Paradise Motel, who walks the streets asking for money every day. “That’s all I do until I find a job … It’s getting to the point where I’m about ready to do anything for these kids. Well, almost anything.”

The documentary photographer poses and captures individuals in their natural environment, as opposed to street photography, a form that captures subjects in candid situations, usually unaware that a camera shutter was fluttering in their vicinity. Both forms allow the photographer to tell a story with his or her lens, but when done correctly the posed and staged images in documentary photography form are somehow, paradoxically, more visceral and real than the so-called candid shot.

One of the most haunting images in the early pages of the book is a staged image in a brick-walled alley featuring five hardcore Latino gangbangers: Godfather, Paco, Kricket, Glimpy, and Dreamer.

“You own what you own and you don’t let nobody take it away from you,” Paco says. “And you have to respect everybody else, that way they have to respect you.”

Author: Shiva Naipaul
Book: Journey to Nowhere
Subtitle: A New World Tragedy
US publication date: 1981-05
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 9780671424718

The proud bravado on display in this arresting photograph (one of the subjects is indeed armed with a small caliber handgun) brings to mind the words of Octavio Paz, the Nobel Prize-winning poet and essayist from Mexico, who wrote about his first encounter with the Los Angeles pachucos, the progenitors of the modern-day street gangs, in The Labyrinth of Solitude (1961):

“The thing that seems to me to distinguish them from the rest of the people, is their furtive, restless air – of maskers, of creatures who fear the gaze of a stranger as if it could strip them bare. When you talk to them you notice that emotionally they are like a pendulum, a crazy pendulum which oscillates violently and unrhythmically.

“This state of mind, or mindlessness, has produced what is called the pachuco – a strange word that has no precise meaning, or, rather, like all popular creations, is charged with a multiplicity of meanings. Whether we like it or not, they are Mexicans and represent one of the extremes to which the Mexican character can go.

“Incapable of adjusting to a civilization that spurns them anyhow, the pachucos have found no answer to a hostile environment except an exacerbated affirmation of their personality.”

That “exacerbated affirmation of personality” is all over Ecclesine’s narrative like a swarm of part-time waiters at an open casting call. Ken Costanza, an actor profiled in the East Hollywood chapter of Faces of Sunset Boulevard, tells us that he is going to be a leading man, a star actor with a first-look deal at the major movie studios because … well, because he says it is so.

“My goals are all I have in my life, you know?” asserts Costanza, one of many too-handsome-for-his-own-good young Hollywood hustlers. “My dreams are not really dreams. It’s just part of who I am. I don’t have a choice, you know? I want a better life than surviving all the time. It’s not the way I want to live. It’s not the way I want to live. I want a better life.”

It’s not the way I want to live.

The death of dreams and the occasional stench of denial are the key themes in the first two-thirds of Faces of Sunset Boulevard. In downtown L.A. we meet Ronald Raydon, a homeless man pushing the ubiquitous shopping cart filled with all of his earthly possessions. Raydon vows that he “would be up in one of those towers” that dot the Los Angeles skyline if he could get one of his books published or one of his plays produced.

“But some people are just more talented than others,” Raydon concedes. “Or they have the gift of gab or whatever. Me? I’m a high school dropout. I’ve got a whole box of rejection slips. I carry them with me.”

Persevering in spite of the past is elemental to survival in Los Angeles, any Raymond Chandler novel will tell you that if you didn’t know it when you stepped off the plane or the Greyhound bus. Holly Weber, a beautiful young model and actress who graces a sumptuous two-page layout in the West Hollywood segment of Faces of Sunset Boulevard, “shot in guerilla fashion right on Sunset Boulevard with no barricades or security to keep people from walking right through the shots”, unintentionally reinforced this point when she spoke with The Deconstruction Zone about her experience working with Patrick Ecclesine:

“I’ve been noticed more as a lingerie and bikini model over the past few years (so) I was excited to shoot a different type of look for this book. It may come as a surprise, but for the past few years I have been trying to be noticed less for my photos and more for my acting. I’m always happy for the opportunity to work with accomplished photographers who are interested in where I am going more than where I have come from.”

A true Chandler femme fatale could not have said it better as she ran out the back door in hurried flight from her past.

“For many, California is indeed the last stop, the end of the line,” writes Shiva Naipaul in Journey to Nowhere: A New World Tragedy (1981). “The triumphant cry of Eureka! must wither and die on a multitude of lips every day … If colors are deeper and metals are shinier, so, in proportion, are the derelictions of failure and madness more vividly expressed than elsewhere.”

Or, as burlesque dancer Anna Bells puts it to Ecclesine: “(Los Angeles) is a circus full of dangerous and exotic things that, if you’re not careful, can hurt you instead of entertain you.”

As the book (and the journey) continues its westward trek into the plush regions of Sunset Boulevard, the story becomes even more unsettling but for a completely different set of reasons. Those who live in Bel-Air and Beverly Hills and the Palisades above the beach never see the glow of the fires raging in the hearts and souls of the Gorky-eqsue denizens of the lower depths of Sunset Boulevard. Consider the words of famed broadcaster Larry King (whose iconic image appears in the Hollywood section of the journey, though he resides in Beverly Hills):

“Most very successful people are driven. They all wanted what they’ve got; they didn’t get it by accident. A lot of them will admit that luck played a part, but they were all driven. They all had a sense of purpose, a sense of who they are … They have vision, you know, the kind of thing a layman doesn’t have.”

Contrast King’s remarks with those of Senor Dioniscio Robles, an aging cowboy whose image was snapped in downtown L.A.: “When I was a young man I had dreams. I wanted to have a home, a family, and money, but none of it came true. Now I just live.” Or James C. Rogers, a man with the face of a friendly pensioner, described as a writer with 54 unsold screenplays. Rogers came to Los Angeles “after sending scripts out to California for a year or so” and one day receiving a phone call “from a guy (who) was interested” in one of Rogers’ screenplays.

“When I got here, he wasn’t here,” Rogers explains. “I couldn’t find him. I got stuck out here, so here I am.”

The end result of Faces of Sunset Boulevard, a four-year undertaking, is, writes Ecclesine, “a mixture of carefully crafted set-up shots and random improvisations.” The revealing quotes were culled from interviews that the photographer conducted at the time of the shoot “and serve to illuminate the subject’s inner landscape above and beyond the images.” Ecclesine took great care, he notes, to tread gently and never portray his subjects in any way other than how they wished or agreed to be presented. What is presented in this landmark book that advances the form of documentary photography are “their ideas, their words, their truths, their stories.”

Robin Perine, an accomplished L.A. rock photographer who posed for Ecclesine’s lens, praises her colleague for “looking into the spirit in an intimate way, without stirring thoughts of vulnerability. The eyes are the window to the soul.”

And what souls.

Ecclesine’s motley crew of Nathanael West-inspired performers can be dizzying and nightmarish, the stuff of Aldous Huxley’s worst LSD-induced vision of Hell: thieves and hustlers, starlets and hopeless wanna-bes, plastic surgeons and day laborers, curvaceous burlesque dancers and obnoxious white boy rappers, stand-up comics and seven-year-old pageant queens, a retired stuntman and a concentration camp survivor from Bosnia, a famous baseball player and the outlandish denizens of the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. It’s all here, it’s all horrifying, sometimes delightful and hopeful, but mostly sad and heartbreaking and all too real. The “all too real” part, however, doesn’t always work for the back end of the book, though what lurks back there is still nightmarish in its own right.

Faces of Sunset Boulevard is, without a doubt, one of the strongest statements about man’s dark fate in the West ever committed to paper in the author and photographer’s chosen form, whether or not Ecclesine intended for the book to have profound impact. He may indeed have carved a genre niche for himself above the commercial work he has performed for Fox, Warner Bros., TNT, CNN, and CBS if he sticks to portraying the gritty and the doomed and disenfranchised, all those wonderful broken faces in the crowd that Charles Bukowski would’ve known, those are the faces that love Ecclesine’s camera the most.

This writer can sit and look at the image of crack addict George Blakeney for hours on end; the image tells a gripping tale and begs for your attention and imagination. There’s something lurking in high school student Victoria Rawlins’ face with her overpainted lips, leaning against a telephone pole in Hollywood, 17-years-old, she’s the My Space generation, she’s the next generation, there’s something in that image that bears examination and I can’t tell you what it is because my story might not be the same as your story; that’s the subjective power of the still image when it is being used in place of words to tell a story. In that light, some of the glossy and over-produced shots in the West Hollywood section of the book are simply too slick and too commercial unless the style is deliberately employed to underscore and parody the outright irrelevance of most of these people to the story we’ve been told in evocative imagery so far.

Homes and lives and cars and careers do indeed get larger than life the further west you go on Sunset Boulevard, of course, that’s a fact, and the book reflects that keenly, but the stories in the faces in a great many of these shots are “all too real” in their … well, utter lack of life, characters begging for a narrative that is not there, actors in a Pirandello play in search of their Vogue magazine layouts.

If it was Ecclesine’s intention to radically underscore the vast socio-economic differences between Silver Lake and Echo Park against Pacific Palisades and Beverly Hills, then he did an excellent job and reminds us vividly that the privileged are not the holy, yet the stark difference is like being forced to choose between William Burroughs and Judith Krantz. It’s an art versus commerce issue, an issue between those who have and those who will never have, brought colorfully to life as a nation is on its knees economically. The Law of Unintended Consequences.

Unless he is a shrewd economist, Ecclesine could not have known that the work he put into Faces of Sunset Boulevard will forever be critically viewed as a series of snapshots of a fragile socio-economic system on the verge of collapse. It made me glad I no longer live in L.A. where there’s no sense of a city, no feeling for a shared geographic experience. All those diverse communities are simply patched together by mutual nonaggression treaties. Faces of Sunset Boulevard sheds a light on this fact, delivering a sad statement about what has happened to our urban core. Somewhere in the body politic there was once a notion that all Americans are equal and should be given equal chances to achieve, but we’ve become too large a nation to accommodate that quaint notion any longer. The vast immensity of it all.

In the end, Jean Baudrillard, the late French cultural theorist, philosopher, sociologist, and photographer, sums up best, in an excerpt from his book America (1986), what Ecclesine captured in his journey that focused on only one boulevard but many, many human lives:

“There is nothing to match flying over Los Angeles by night. A sort of luminous, geometric, incandescent immensity, stretching as far as the eye can see, bursting out from the cracks in the clouds. Only Hieronymus Bosch’s hell can match this inferno effect. The muted fluorescence of all the diagonals: Wilshire, Lincoln, Sunset, Santa Monica. Already, flying over the San Fernando Valley, you come upon the horizontal infinite in every direction. But, once you are beyond the mountain, a city ten times larger hits you. You will never have encountered anything that stretches as far as this before. Even the sea cannot match it, since it is not divided up geometrically. The irregular, scattered flickering of European cities does not produce the same parallel lines, the same vanishing points, the same aerial perspectives either. They are medieval cities. This one condenses by night the entire future geometry of the networks of human relations, gleaming in their abstraction, luminous in their extension, astral in their reproduction to infinity. Mulholland Drive by night is an extraterrestrial’s vantage point on earth, or conversely, an earth dweller’s vantage point on the galactic metropolis.”