“You can’t trust anyone in this town. They’re sharks; they’ll smile at you and eat you alive. That’s Hollywood, baby.” Aside from the glamour—the enchantment—everyone knows that LA is a byword for betrayal. This is Chinatown, they say, as the flick knife slices your left nostril—perhaps you can borrow some coke to rub on it later, numb the pain. No time for the Emergency Room, in this town you have to be like a shark—you have to keep swimming, swim or die.
Why is it so hard for people in Hollywood to do a deal? Why do they have to have their people call your people who will call Artie’s people who will have brunch with Beth who knows Simon—who might connect you with Raphael, unless he’s out of town (I mean out-of-town-out-of-town, not “out of town”—no, really). Why does Hollywood have a state called “development Hell”, a kind of limbo for films that cannot incarnate themselves—a limbo that can last decades?
The answer is that Hollywood—LA, generally—is a low-trust society. You have to put out the feelers, lunch a lot, talk to someone-who-knows-someone, “look the part”, and so on because you are swimming with sharks—and sharks like to eat people, especially on a whim. If you live in a low-trust society where people will betray you as a caprice then you need elaborate “games” or repertoires that are not about “the real business” but are about trust establishment; you have to *ping* *ping* *ping* before you connect.
In some societies, this is pretty simple: you see someone with your school tie or college tie and you instantly trust him—he is our sort. In some societies with very high trust, little Swedish villages or Swiss hamlets, everyone is trustworthy; the general human type you grew up with is trustable—your chickens lay eggs and you leave them outside your door with an honesty box; and nobody in three decades has stolen a single egg.
Well, Hollywood is pretty much the opposite situation; why? Because Hollywood—LA’s premier industry—is a gigantic dream-machine, la-la land, where, every day, each bus and aeroplane disgorges endless dreamers who have come to live out their dreams or impose their dreams on others. So every day the city is replenished with several thousand girls who think they are the most desirable women in America—if not the world—and also several hundred men who think they are the greatest writers, directors, and musicians ever to have lived. For the few who reach the heights, they will be seen by millions upon millions of people—women will “steal their look”, teenage boys will masturbate over their pictures, and people will scream, “OMG, look who it is,” when they step out of a car, even on a routine shopping trip.
As for the men, the successful directors and writers will know that millions upon millions of people will live and long for the dreams they have thrown up on the screen: youngsters will have their childhood formed by silly plastic toys named after characters you invented one night after a few too many cocktails, and kids will rush home from church—which they will have generally ignored—to watch your characters on a screen or play your storylines as re-represented in a computer game. Your stories, fully animated by the latest industrial production methods, will compel far more immediately than any mouldy tales about carpenters from Nazareth, or what grandma wants to say about what it was like to live through the 1960s—her stories are always the same, yet out of Disney+ always something new…
What sort of people are good at this? Grandiose narcissists. Yes, LA is ground zero for grandiose irresponsible narcissists—and this is why you cannot trust anyone in LA; so even if you hire a private eye, you better hire a private eye to follow the private eye. The narcissist has his false mask—his compelling storyline—and he uses this mask to keep reality at bay; being the sensitive type, the artistic type, the mask is essential because it protects him from the pain he feels more than most.
The girl at Starbucks who usually smiles at you ignored you on Monday, actually she muddled your order too; it is now Friday, you have been in your room, with the blinds closed, all week: you ruminate, you worry, you text your friends (you have many “friends”), you text your therapist—you ask, “What have I done wrong? Why do people hate me?”. Gradually, the wound heals—the wound that other people would not have even noticed; for those with a more malicious disposition, the barista is added to the “enemies” list in the special file in Notes they keep on the iCloud.
Of course, you are here to sell fantasies—to trade fantasies, too. So you better be a good fantasist. Oddly, though LA is among the most materially wealthy cities in human history, its people live as if they are in Stalin’s Russia during the Great Purge. This is because, wealthy or not, there are certain characteristics and behaviours that recur in low-trust societies—in the type of society where your child might denounce you to the NKVD for a suspect remark, or, alternatively, the script girl might rat you out to the producer to get your job.
Stalin’s Russia was a grandiose fantasy too, and you had to be playing the right role—or else. Fortunately, in LA, there is no one grand fantasist; there are lots fantasists—lots of little Stalins and Hitlers—for you to be seduced by. Occasionally, a terminally unsuccessful fantasist, such as Charles Manson, goes fully off the rails and decides to turn violent fantasies real—yet the difference between Manson with a record contract and Manson without is not so great; and if he had been granted a contract, perhaps he would have killed and maimed as many people—albeit in a different way…
Hence LA is, famously, a very superficial place. As in Stalin’s Russia, people have experienced deep privatisation; basically, if you cannot really trust anyone—everyone is a bullshit artist who might stab you in the back—you reduce your concerns to the daily grind, to material pleasures: food, consumption (conspicuous), and sex. Perhaps you escape, in private, with vodka or cocaine—draw the blinds and watch that pastel sunset against the palm trees through the gaps in the slats.
In short, low-trust societies are atomised societies—of course, everyone is at a party in LA (saw you on Insta, *mwah*) and everyone was at Party meetings and marches in Stalin’s Russia; and yet both exercises represent phoniness. Parties in LA are largely unreal, marches and meetings for Stalin were largely unreal. The overt socialisation conceals how empty life becomes in an atomised society. LA might be a pleasant Hell when compared to the material privation in Stalin’s Russia, but it is Hell nonetheless.
The opposite to this situation is one where people enjoy genuine hobbies and clubs. Places where people go and relate, with their work masks off, in a somewhat more authentic way. Places where people swap ideas for the pleasure of investigation, and nobody jealously spies on or steals or stabs other people in the back. It was this amateurish environment—basically cosy—that birthed the Industrial Revolution in England. Yes, envy and betrayal exist everywhere at all times—yet there are degrees. The genuine amateur is too idiosyncratic or eccentric to fit into a superficial society—whether Stalin’s Russia or LA—where what matters is whether people have bought into “the image”. People in LA might be oddball or unconventional as regards the country at large, but this is outer-directed—it is done to create an effect, it is not because they genuinely express how they see the world.
Hollywood is, as we all know, a machine that eats people. Just look at Michael Jackson: look at him as a young boy singing with his family group; admittedly the family dynamic behind the group was not healthy, yet Jackson seems to be basically happy as he sings away with the group. What happened when the industry fully processed him was that the little child became an instant star, and the instant child-star got whatever he wanted—from jellybeans to puppies. The result was the monstrous adult Jackson, a man who spoke like the child he still was. His development stopped at twelve or so, when he became “a star”, when he was granted whatever he wanted; he entered a reality distortion field. Whereas most people meet indifference and therefore discard—or modify—their childish strategies to negotiate the world, Jackson stalled at twelve; everyone flattered and indulged the whims that are, for most people, ignored. Eventually, after a grotesque spectacle, his delusion killed him.
The same story has been played out many times, it is all very predictable—from Whitney Houston to Amy Winehouse. The producers see “a product” in a particular voice; they have an image they want to produce to reach a certain market, and then the machine goes to work. The star themselves already tends towards narcissism, towards neurotic sensitivity and a concern for appearances—an inherent condition in music, film, or performance. Coupled with the star machine, they lose all sense of self in the process: the inevitable early death from drink or drugs follows—usually after outrageous and peculiar public behaviour, welcomed and encouraged by the media, that feeds into shame and emptiness and overindulgence; it all goes with the biz.
Hence it is not uncommon for megastars to begin to refer to themselves in the third person. Imagine a superstar called, for example, “Tom” (no, not that Tom—who knows what he’s really like). You meet him, sit with him awhile, discuss business—finally you suggest lunch, you know a good place for sushi. “Tom doesn’t eat sushi. That’s not who he is.” Oh. you take it on the chin. “Tom is more about ribs. That’s Tom.” It goes on like this in all situations, the star only talks about himself this way. “Tom mostly works on science-fiction projects at the moment. Tom never plays a weak character; that’s not Tom, you understand.” The mask—the performance—has become fully autonomous from what the depth psychologists call “the self”. You only talk to the mask, and the mask has very definite ideas about what it is—ideas that may or may not connect to what the entity that carries it about really thinks and feels, if they even know that at all now and have not become a hollow man.
Obviously, people who live this way cannot, by definition, be very responsible. They always act at least one remove from reality, somewhat depersonalised. The mask imposes itself on reality, the mask can overcome anything—with a superhuman effort, that’s what it takes to make it in this town. Similar behaviour has long been seen in tyrants—and the only other group of people to routinely speak about themselves in this way is royalty, except the third person is acceptable here because they use it to embody the nation: when you speak to the Queen you actually speak to the British nation in embodied form. Actors and musicians, on the other hand, come to this position not through an idea that they serve something greater than themselves but because “the image” is what they sell and need to be liked—and to manipulate people. This is a more precarious business, to say the least.
This is why Hollywood is so far to the left, despite the many millionaires who live there and its great wealth—to be irresponsible is to be on the left. To be an irresponsible grandiose narcissist does not mean that you are unintelligent or incapable; it does mean that you will only take very narrow responsibility for your own survival and, above all, your own “vision” (or, less generously, the bullshit you want to impose on everyone else in order to keep your fragile ego from feeling pain)—everything else can go to Hell around you.
Thankfully, the city is much more diverse now; previously, we had very few restaurants—the food was plain; just like the food in that dull Midwestern town you escaped, with its one stop sign at its one intersection. Los Angeles is now, as they say, a very diverse city and it has many diverse problems: homeless encampments, race riots, mass shoplifting, black gangs, Mexican gangs, pornographers, school shootings, meth, and so on—all very exciting and dramatic, plenty of live action news to stave off the boredom; plenty of “causes” to feel important about. The narcissist requires a certain chaos level to feel alive, being insulated from reality; and, of course, creativity feeds off chaos—and we are in a creative industry here.
Men like the film director Roman Polanski perfectly capture this: his films are notoriously over budget, late, he has affairs with his leading ladies, he sodomises thirteen-year-old girls, he takes drugs—and yet amid all the chaos he delivers incredible films, everything is sacrificed for the film; he is responsible about the film—obsessive about it—and yet everything else, even his own personal life, goes to Hell. This is the general situation in Hollywood: the very products LA produces require almost complete delusion by definition—and delusion leads to irresponsibility, and yet the products sell and so the whole show stays on the road.
People often say actors are stupid; while not the brightest, actors are far from stupid—yet they are all delusional. They live—as do directors, musicians, and producers—by their image; and the image is a precarious thing, it can easily be tarnished or deformed. There is very little solidity to it, and without other people to affirm it the image can effectively disappear—a situation that leads to considerable anxiety. If you become successful, there is a strong risk that you will become trapped by the image; people will recognise you by the image, and this will seem exciting at first—yet because they only see the image you will eventually feel fraudulent and empty; nobody can appreciate you for who you are—actually, you are not sure who that is now—and yet you depend on the image for wealth and gratification. “What have you got to complain about? You’re a famous movie star.”
Narcissistic delusions extend to the idea you might just save the world—perhaps you could do a photoshoot on an icebreaker in the Arctic, raise awareness about climate change. If “the world” is a little ambitious—even for you—then why not the Africans? Perhaps adopt a baby or three, do a special about racism—concentrate on what it feels like to be a black man in America, or wear a hijab. At the same time as the narcissist constructs grandiose plans to save humanity, he tends to get bored—he needs drama; he needs something for the mask to get its teeth into; a meaty role, as your agent said.
This is how men like Alec Baldwin come to be, a man who has been mocked for his leftist views since at least the gross puppet show Team America: World Police (2004). Baldwin’s chickens came home to roost recently when he shot a camerawoman dead in an accident on set; ironically, Baldwin had previously complained about policemen who shoot people—particularly black people—dead in the line of duty, clearly inexcusable. Baldwin’s accident was an unwelcome reality intrusion; it turns out that if you work with firearms sometimes people are injured or killed.
Just as, in principle, the police want suspects to come peacefully yet find that criminals are basically so stupid that they will not put down a knife when a man with a gun tells them to and will, instead, advance on that man, so too Baldwin finally discovered that accidents happen; or, as he would be the first to admit as regards the woman he killed, “It’s complicated.”. Of course, Baldwin never gave the policemen he condemned the benefit of the doubt—never considered that it might “be complicated” for them when they deal with criminals; no, they were “bad people”, for the narcissistic narrative life is simple; as for your own life, when difficulties impinge, “It’s complicated.”. You deserve the benefit of the doubt. This is why rightists delighted in saying Baldwin murdered the camerawoman, of course no such thing happened—it was an accident; and yet it was a chance to show Baldwin what it is like when, as with the policemen he condemned, you do not consider that it might be “complicated” and not a morality play with wicked white cops and innocent black victims.
Only a very few artists, such as Orson Welles, come to realise that they are fake; or an original fake, anyway—and that is all anyone can aspire to be. Hence Welles made a late film called F for Fake (1973) where he appears in the opening frames and says: “I’m a liar, a fraud, a charlatan…”. This is a very mature position, although Welles doubtless had quite a few narcissistic delusions throughout his career. If you can at least admit you are a fake—as we all are, in a sense—then you have the mask under control: “I’m a real fraud” is a mature position, the dangerous people have no idea they are charlatans—in simpler terms, they buy their own bullshit.
This is an absolute cliché, but it is absolutely true: you sell your soul to Hollywood. People treat this as a joke, it is just too commonly said—and this is because they think the soul is some floaty immaterial thing that goes up to Heaven or down to Hell, and anyway science has not detected such an entity so it cannot exist. Except, if we slightly rephrase “the soul” as “your holistic interaction with reality as you perceive it to be” then, indeed, you do sell your soul to Hollywood: you must live by and for an “image” if you are to be rewarded, the image is your prison—you will never be allowed to step out from it. As a reward you get money, fame, and women—the price is that you can never “be yourself”; as with the actor who speaks about “himself” in the third person you may never even know “yourself” again—let alone “be it”.
Hence “Hollywood accounting” is synonymous with dishonesty; in Hollywood, a film that is a blockbuster hit will be recorded as a loss—all through clever accounting tricks to avoid tax. From stem to stern, the Hollywood machine relies on illusions and flim-flammery—notoriously, perhaps historically now, funded by pension funds from Midwestern dentists. Nothing is real about Hollywood, even the money is unreal—in topsy-turvy Hollywoodland profit is loss and loss profit; the hit The Producers (1967) is not far off the mark, there probably have been people who have set out to make money from a film that tanks—congratulations, you now own 1/6 share in…
The Producers—the eponymous producers being “Bialystock, Bloom, and Liebkind”—brings us to the Jews and Hollywood. A common complaint on the radical right is that the Jews corrupt the West’s morals through Hollywood, through a generally negative approach to Christianity and the Western tradition in films. Why do the Jews do so well in Hollywood; why are they the premier race there? Put simply: the Jews are actors—they have to be. For centuries, the Jews lived by the grace of various kings, viziers, and emperors; they were kept on sufferance because they provided various forbidden—though useful—services to Christian gentiles, namely interest-bearing loans. Periodically, kings would run up debts—or their subjects would run up debts and petition the king—and the Jews were massacred or slung out; probably also, quite often, the Jews made bad or exploitative loans to people. I have not studied the exact situation, but a play like The Merchant of Venice must exist for a reason—Shakespeare is quite acute when it comes to reality. Anyway, whether it was mostly the Jews or mostly the borrowers who were at fault, the fact remains that the Jews lived on sufferance—on pain of death, quite often.
People who live at another’s mercy have to dissimulate; they have to mollify, say, the emperor because the peasants have petitioned him as regards the high interest on the loans they took out with Jewish bankers. They have to convince, persuade, evoke pity, seduce, moralise, deploy rhetoric—they have to because they have no army, what other choice do you have if you are to survive? As with all actors, this is a womanish or feminine way to behave—yet Christians wanted loans, and the survival techniques worked (in Darwinian terms, the best actors lived and the worst were pogromed). Similarly, the Jews served as functionaries in Muslim empires—and, again, they had to use similar techniques to avoid expulsion or massacres. The Jews have served many peoples—sometimes they have served two peoples at the same time—it is just how they survive. The strong do what they will, and the weak do what they must—the weak become actors.
Consequently, the Jews are natural actors; they have been bred to it—and this is why they flourish in the contemporary entertainment industry. For centuries, they “danced” to keep the king or emperor satisfied—now they dance for the mass audience, to make their living. So the Jews are at home in this environment: a very flexible environment that involves appearances and masks—less generously, lies. Of course, the Jews have Israel now; they have an army—they do not need to dance. Yet this has been bred very deep: committed Zionists who look for honour and dignity in Israel may well disdain their brethren who continue to “dance” in an undignified way outside Israel—yet it is a good living and the behaviour is quite ingrained at the biological level, so not everyone is going to sell up shop to work on a farm in a West Bank settlement (indeed, to imagine a Jewish Hollywood mogul doing so would be quite a funny film idea…).
The difference is encoded in language. Think about the comedic terms that derive from Yiddish: schtick, schlemiel, chutzpah. You do not find any comedic terms from Hebrew in international use. The reason for this is that Yiddish—a hybrid with German—was associated with internationalist socialist Jews; and, of course, with Jewish immigrants to the United States. Hebrew, by contrast, was a recovered language that was explicitly nationalist and Zionist in nature and an altogether purer—actually, inherently less funny—beast.
Jews who were leftist—internationally inclined, more feminine—were bound to end up more often than not in Hollywood, leftists being more feminised. The “entertainers” who did not fancy hard work on a kibbutz never really picked up Hebrew; and so Yiddish remained as an entertainment language. Now, even in America, Yiddish has died away—Hebrew remains. Yet this fault line in language also represents a fault line between more masculinised Jews who identified with Israel and more internationalised feminised Jews who were more into the traditional “entertainment” role. Hence there is a comedic archeology in Yiddish, yet not in Hebrew—one language is naturally for the cosmopolitan “entertainer-survivor” and the other is for the “settler-nationalist”.
We can tell all this is so because it is not just the Jews who do well in Hollywood: the Armenians, another commercial race that depended on the forbearance of others, also thrive in Hollywood. Just think about the biggest stars in the last decade: the Kardashians, those whom we must keep up with—children to the Hollywood lawyer who represented OJ Simpson; and, please, do not forget dear old—very old now—Cher (aka Cherilyn Sarkisian).
Aside from the Jews and Armenians, the homosexuals also do well in Hollywood—especially, it goes without saying, the more prissy or effeminate homosexuals. Where would fashion, set design, make-up, hairdressing—you know the usual roll call of professions—be without highly camp homosexuals who like beautiful objects? The answer is obviously nowhere, everyone knows that a male homosexual is a good bet for the aesthetic touch—even if it is more on the kitsch side. At the same time, homosexuals are notoriously narcissistic—they do love their own sex, after all—and bitchy. In short, they are natural actors—as are the Jews—and both groups resemble women; and, again, women do very well in Hollywood too—they thrive on the narcissism and bitchy drama.
So it is no wonder that these groups play such an outsized role in Hollywood, it is just the activity that they have a natural talent for—entertainment. The Jews and the Armenians also have quite high ethnocentricity, so they will form the patronage networks of the type that are essential in an industry where there are few objective standards to judge a product or person—“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” applies to Hollywood above all because, surely, much of the industry involves no “knowledge”; it is all about image creation or the image you cultivate—plus, who you know; i.e. who you can get to “buy-in” to the image, who you can seduce.
Given that most people involved in the industry are narcissists who you cannot trust, high ethnocentricity will be an even greater asset—it will help you navigate an extremely low-trust environment, and, indeed, high ethnocentricity is associated with low-trust environments. Similarly, homosexuals, being a somewhat despised group apart, also form close patronage networks to protect themselves; so homosexuals have “acquired” ethnocentricity. The women, on other hand, cannot do so—they are cattle herded between feminised men, as you can see with the Harvey Weinstein scandal.
This cannot be taken to mean that “the Jews” or “the Armenians”—or any other group mentioned here “runs” Hollywood. This is not one monolithic patronage network; this is more like the Italian mafia, another ethnocentric artefact made up from many close families—and yet these families do not exactly, how youse English say, get on terribly well together. So even within relatively cohesive groups there will still be cut-throat competition between different “families”; and little love is lost when a rival family is rolled up by the FBI, or suffers some other misfortune—“It’s just business, Tony.”. Also, remember that the Armenians, Jews, and homosexuals in Hollywood are all those people from those groups who are the most narcissistic—the most superficial and least trustworthy; and, further, every other racial, social group, or individual from around the world—this being an international business—that pitches up in Hollywood will also be selected for narcissism. So the city, as a whole, is selected to be a shark tank—quite aside from any racial, sexual, or religious particularities; throats, usually metaphorical, are slit in all directions.
Remember that not everyone in LA is this way: the film and music industries require carpenters, electricians, lighting men, cameramen, CGI designers, animal wranglers, stagehands, armourers, model-makers—a great many practical roles that actually select against irresponsible narcissism. Yet, of course, this does not change the fact that the cutting edge is dominated by irresponsible narcissists—that some ancillary roles, such as hairdressing and make-up, are narcissistic—and that the city is also clogged with thousands upon thousands of people who never “made it” or still hope to; in other words, aside from the actual industry there are also all the receptionists, personal trainers, waitresses, dog walkers, podcasters, and so on who are there for the industry—have all its negative characteristics—but have ended up in the nearest thing to professional acting they can get, perhaps they play the medieval knight at an Olde English theme restaurant.
The radical right likes to abhor and hate LA because it derives a certain gratification from disgust. It looks at this over-ripe city—over sweet, soaked in cherry vapes—and condemns the decadence; except they half-desire the city’s twilight, the purple sunset—they want to pick their way barefoot past Muscle Beach, but with one eye on the ground to look out for used hypodermic syringes half-buried in the sand. Disgusting. Putrid. This type is somewhat sentimental; he hates the decline, yet he was born in it and partially feels at home in the twilight—he indulges in it as he condemns it. It is the “going-down-of-the-West” to give Spengler’s The Decline of the West a literal translation. Where is it going down? Into the ocean, into the Pacific—this is the place the roads run out.
The city is a great whore; her legs spread open towards the Pacific, towards Asia (in the early 1990s the Japanese bought up a lot of real estate in LA, but they never really bought the whore—fear of the Yellow Peril receded, for a time). The radical right fancies itself as a private eye, the knight errant who, in a fundamentally disloyal and debauched environment, retains his own private code of honour and sense of rough justice that does not necessarily match what is on the law books. And yet this fantasy itself contains a certain narcissistic tinge, the private eye is himself an LA fantasy created by three LAites: Dashiell Hammett (Communist; Sam Spade), Raymond Chandler (alcoholic; Philip Marlowe), and James Ellroy (panty-sniffing pervert, by his own admission; LA Confidential).
Unfortunately, the upshot from industrial-scale narcissism is that you are going to produce and popularise some very unsound ideas—and, thanks to modern technology, you will make these unsound ideas seem extremely attractive; especially, as the cliché goes, to impressionable young people. Entertainment is not evil in itself, everything in moderation—except the contemporary entertainment landscape has long-been characterised as one where we are “entertaining ourselves to death”. It is extremely cheap to pour endless live-streamed videos into your eyeballs via Netflix, and what you will absorb—consciously or otherwise—from these shows represents narcissistic delusions, often with a politicised edge.
I would say the difference between art and entertainment is roughly that entertainment is escapism—it tries to make you forget your humdrum life and the various disappointments that confront us all, sometimes daily—and it does so through imagined, often delusional, worlds. Art, by contrast, does not help you forget: it helps you remember—and so it rebinds you to reality, rather than being an escape; it rebinds you to reality in such a way that you do not want to escape from it.