As readers might have noticed, last week Just Above Sunset took a stand against commenting on tabloid news. In an item on the close of the Michael Jackson trial the idea was that there wasn't much one needed to say about that whole sorry business, and in Ric Erickson's report from Paris on Tom Cruise and what Cruise was up to there, the idea was commenting on this all was madness. Who cares?
Friday afternoon there was an email from a reader on the current Oprah Winfrey business in Paris - and on how the Columbia Journalism Review calls it a non-story - and the reader argued it really is news, because Hermes may be racist or something. You can read l'Agence France-Presse (AFP) wire story here: "US talk show queen Oprah Winfrey is convinced she was turned away from a Hermes store in Paris because she is black and she plans to tell her millions of viewers about it, a spokeswoman said Friday." Whatever.
This too is not something of much interest to the editor. So readership will suffer. Fine.
But this is Hollywood, and Just Above Sunset is here in the land of celebrity. Perhaps something should be said about Tom Cruise who late in the week on national television strongly denounced all of psychiatry and the medical stuff concerning such things as mere pseudo-science – there is no such thing as "chemical imbalance" and all medications just mask the real problems and vitamins and exercise will fix any problem. Yeah, yeah. As one wag commented: "High school dropout Tom Cruise pulled his Scientology-obsessed, crazy train into New York this morning - his zombie virgin fiancée in tow - to grace Today Show viewers with his mastery of psychiatry."
You could read the whole exchange. It's pretty amazing. And worst case? People who reverence celebrities for some reason, who are depressed and suicidal, will now not seek help, or if now in treatment will stop taking their medications and stop going to see their doctors. They'll trust Tom of "Top Gun." Some will die. And there is something deliciously Darwinian about that. This may be a good thing.
But still, some stories of the famous are amusing, and close to home. Driving home to the Just Above Sunset World Headquarters, as a friend like to call this flat, your editor has more than one time been slowed by the late evening police checkpoint just down the way on Sunset Boulevard – as you drive east in Sunset leaving Beverly Hills the stop is just as you approach the Sunset Strip, right there at the local Jaguar, Land Rover dealership. And as folks who follow the movie business know, Oliver Stone recently got in some trouble there.
Oliver Stone in LA drugs arrest
BBC - Saturday, 28 May, 2005, 20:20 GMT 21:20 UK
"Oscar-winning director Oliver Stone has been arrested for drink driving and possession of drugs. Police said the 58-year-old filmmaker was arrested on Friday night [May 27] at a police checkpoint on Sunset Boulevard, in Beverly Hills, California. ..."
So the man who gave us "Nixon" and JFK" and "Natural Born Killers" and "The Doors" and "Platoon" and "Wall Street" - and last year that "Alexander" film that bombed - got busted. So?
The back-story is cool. According to Brendan Bernhard in the LA Weekly, Stone had had his head messed up by a Frenchman: "Shortly after sharing a table with the ultracontroversial French novelist at the White Lotus, a restaurant in Hollywood known for its deafening noise and nubile Asian clientele, the film director was pulled over by the cops on Sunset Boulevard and taken down to the station, charged with driving under the influence and possession of an illegal substance. It took a $15,000 bail to get him out."
Ah, Stone was driving the other direction, west, leaving the Sunset Strip area and going home to Beverly Hills.
That explanation of what happened is from the long Bernhard piece this week on the visit of Michel Houellebecq, the French novelist, to this neighborhood. Houellebecq is the author of The Elementary Particles and Platform, two books that have come up a few times in online discussions with readers, but not in these pages.
The full item is here:
L'?tranger in a Strange Land
Michel Houellebecq's Weekend in L.A.
Brendan Bernhard, LA Weekly, issue of June 23, 2005
And this assessment seems about right:
Bernhard interviews Houellebecq, on the guy's first visit to Los Angeles, while Michel is "smoking a cigarette at a sidewalk table at Mel's Diner on Sunset Boulevard." We learn he's trying the Santa Fe Chicken Salad, but gives up on it and opts instead for a quadruple espresso. How French. But Mel's is a faux "American Graffiti" kind of tourist trap, with bad food and no carhops at all (they have valet parking, of course). Should any of you visit, we're not going there.
Houellebecq (pronounced wellbeck) may be the only writer alive to have been accused of being a Stalinist and a Nazi, not to mention a sex maniac and a drunk. He is almost certainly the only writer to have fallen asleep while being interviewed on television. (The question was too long, he explained later.) His work has been described as racist, sexist, homophobic, reactionary, nihilistic, pornographic and repulsive, as well as moving, funny and prophetic. Three years ago, he was put on trial in Paris for inciting anti-Muslim hatred after he called Islam the world's "most stupid religion" during an alcohol-laced interview with the French literary magazine Lire. Even those lovable Brazilians ("morons obsessed with soccer and Formula One") have failed to escape his satirical pen.
Is Houellebecq out of place?
And that is how Hollywood sees the French, of course.
What the passerby couldn't know, of course, was that Houellebecq was a French writer; that all French writers worth their salt drink terrifyingly strong coffee, usually in enormous quantities; and that, historically, the crème de la crème like Jean-Paul Sartre have added to their coffee habit several packs of cigarettes a day along with amphetamines in the morning and barbiturates at night. It's a tough tradition to follow, but Houellebecq was doing his best.
This is followed by an account of some really dull conversation, but then we get this -
Sounds very French to me. And Bernhard comments that Houellebecq is one of the few French novelists since Camus to win a substantial audience outside France. In recent decades the country "has produced enough incomprehensible philosophers, critics and theorists to fill several large cafés, but precious few writers of exportable fiction." This guy is different. He tells stories.
Few doubt his intelligence on the page, however, or the sense of isolation and loneliness that underlies his satire. The tone of his work is one of radical estrangement and ennui, and his books are studded with statements bleak even for a French writer who was once frequently treated for nervous depression.
For example: "Anything can happen in this life, especially nothing." Or: "It is in our relations with other people that we gain a sense of ourselves; it's that, pretty much, that makes relations with other people unbearable."
"Life is painful and disappointing," he wrote 14 years ago in the opening sentence of his first published prose work, H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, a study of the American writer that has just been brought out in translation by Believer Books, an imprint of McSweeney's. "We generally know where we stand in relation to reality and don't care to know any more. Humanity, such as it is, inspires only an attenuated curiosity in us."
What kind of stories? Try gloomy realism.
Well, he was acquitted.
Houellebecq's first novel, Whatever, was about a bored, deeply unhappy software engineer who travels around France with a pitifully ugly co-worker, teaching a new computer program to business clients. It was short, pithy and filled with a visceral loathing for just about everything. ("I hate this life. I definitely do not like it," the narrator says. "The society in which I live disgusts me; advertising sickens me; computers make me puke.") It was based at least partly on the author's own life and had the unmistakable tang of reality. (During the 1980s, he worked as an agricultural engineer and debugged computers for the French National Assembly, often traveling around the country to do so.) As he would continue to do in his next two novels, Houellebecq had given voice to a class of people - alienated white-collar office workers, basically - who tend to be ignored by literary novelists.
... The Elementary Particles, published in 1998, was an international best-seller and made Houellebecq famous. The story of two half brothers, one an asexual scientist, the other a sex-addicted writer, it is about the end of the human race and is supposedly narrated by a member of the more evolved, peace-loving race of post-humans who, thanks to cloning, eventually replace us. Published in 1998, a time of relative optimism and economic expansion, the novel stunned people with the depth of its anger and pessimism, and the way it threw contempt on the once revolutionary baby boomers now running France and the West in general. As a child, Houellebecq was abandoned by his hippie parents and raised by his grandmother (his mother is said to have converted to Islam). This was payback time, and the fearlessness of his satire shocked France's literary world, which didn't seem to know what to do with him.
The problem became even more acute with the publication of Platform, a novel about the construction of a sex-tourism paradise in Thailand that is blown to pieces by Muslim terrorists, killing the narrator's girlfriend in the process. It appeared shortly before 9/11, and has a distinctly prophetic feel. The novel's central idea - that financially solvent but sexually uncharismatic Western men should make common cause with Third World women who "have nothing left to sell except their bodies and their unspoiled sexuality," bringing about a mercenary sexual relationship satisfactory to both parties - was a typical Houellebecq provocation, equal parts genius and lunacy. (Outside the West, Houellebecq pointed out, there are millions of attractive women who'd be perfectly happy to marry a dullard so long as he brought home the bacon.) The book's withering critique of Islam made it especially controversial, and all hell broke loose when Houellebecq spouted off against the religion himself in the interview in Lire. Following a suit brought by groups including the Saudi-based World Islamic League and the French Human Rights League, he was forced to defend himself in court in October 2002.
And Perhaps There Is an Island, his new novel about cloning, will be published in France at the end of the summer. Should be fun, or something.
What did he do here? He stayed at the Bel Age hotel down the street, was interviewed on KCRW in Santa Monica by Michael Silverblatt on Bookworm, he spoke at the Armand Hammer Museum over in Westwood on Lovecraft.
And there were two "performances" by the Velvet Hammer Burlesque troupe, but it's best not to ask.
That about sums up a lot of how we react to French novels.
After the show, Houellebecq went upstairs to the reception, where he spent a couple of hours smoking cigarettes next to the THANK YOU FOR NOT SMOKING signs, autographing books, and schmoozing and posing for photographs with the dancers and other female admirers. He spent about 15 minutes talking to Kim Murphy, a.k.a. "Rocket Sapphire," the troupe's contortionist. Coincidentally, Murphy told me later, she was in the midst of reading one of Houellebecq's novels. Her boyfriend has only one book in his apartment, and it's Platform. "At the beginning, it was, like, what the hell is this?" she said about her reaction to the novel. "How am I going to read this book about this person who is not attached to the world at all? But now I can't stop reading it.
Anyway, we also get an account of a dinner at Kate Mantilini's down on Wilshire Boulevard. Houellebecq ordered a steak, heaped his salad on top of it, and had red wine. Much talk. So he got used to LA, and the food is actually pretty good there.
And what did he think of his first visit to Los Angeles, to Hollywood?
He obviously understands life out here. This seems the appropriate response to the world of Tom Cruise and his scientology, Oliver Stone and his arrest, Oprah and her problems, and Michael Jackson.
"But people don't understand," he protested, saying that Californians kept demanding to know what he thought of them and their state. "Sometimes you think nothing, you have no impressions. Nothing happened, it was an ordinary story with normal people. It was a human experience."
At the words "human experience," Houellebecq doubled up with laughter.