“Everybody’s plastic, but I love plastic,” wrote Andy Warhol on Los Angeles, long romanticized as the city of smog and superfice, of cosmetic surgery, health fads, and faking it. Berlin-based photographer Christian Werner’s new photobook, Los Angeles (Korbinian Verlag, 2019), turns the camera away from the city’s faces, bodies, and bravado, and toward objects and mise-en-scenes not seeking the limelight. A downtown gargoyle, a votive statue, a pigeon – these are the inhabitants of this otherwise de-populated, de-glossed Los Angeles, its famous sprawl, haze, and horizon chopped up into isolated details and dissociated vignettes. The result is a dreamscape of images that capture the muted, dust-gilded beauty of the “very LA” – though not a Warholian LA, perhaps, so much as a Brechtian one. “On thinking about Hell, I gather my brother Shelley found it was a place much like the city of London,” wrote the German dramatist and Hollywood exile. “I, who live in Los Angeles and not in London find, on thinking about Hell, that it must be still more like Los Angeles.”
If Werner, whose past publications have dealt with the disappearance of the “old” Federal Republic of Germany (Stillleben BRD, 2016) and the urban plant world (Die Blüten der Stadt, 2018), brings a continental candor and directness to the storefronts, office interiors, storage units, and in-between spaces of Los Angeles, the conversations that appear in the back of the volume bring us back to the city’s fabric of imitation and unreliable narratives. A limo driver, a police officer, a Korea Town personal trainer, and a life coach to the stars are fictionally condensed characters interviewed by Tom Kummer – a Swiss writer in LA, known for his mix of fact and fabrication. Below, Kummer interrogates “Dr. John,” celebrity counsellor and proponent of marijuana and psychotropic therapies, about spirituality and success in Santa Monica, amid Werner’s golden-hued gothic landscape.
Dr. John, we’re sitting here by the pool of a property that you bought from Philip Seymour Hofmann shortly before his death. Do you sometimes hear his voice at night, calling from the great beyond?
I will not comment about the death of Philipp Seymour Hofmann or about Whitney Houston here. I hope that’s perfectly clear to you. It was already clearly stated.
I asked you about voices in the night, calling from the great beyond.
I know exactly what you’re after. Philip and Whitney were my clients. But I had nothing to do with their deaths. That was all a long time ago and has long since been cleared up. Let’s talk about something else.
At our first meeting you told me there could be no religious salvation in Los Angeles. What did you mean by that?
People are always looking for ways to reduce stress and life’s pressures. That’s all that interests them, obsessively. They need someone to clean up that mental detritus for them. That’s where I come in.
Dr. John, if I may digress – I just noticed that there’s a robotic pool cleaner hovering in your swimming pool, just gliding around through the water endlessly. Do you ever turn that thing off?
Never. I hate dirt in the pool.
So as the life coach to the rich and famous you’re also something of a very private mental vacuum cleaner.
You could say that. Los Angeles is said to be the capital of cult membership and suicide, and there’s nowhere else you’ll find as many different religions as you do here. But in reality it’s the capital of psychiatry. The problem is very easy to pin-point: my patients simply never learned to be alone. It makes them crazy. And there’s no lonelier city than Los Angeles.
Yes. Here you’re constantly forced to reflect upon yourself. One spends too much time with “yes-sayers.” Too many hours in the car or in enclosed rooms. And still no one has learned how to productively speak with themselves. Nobody knows how to resolve their own mental crises. So they come to me for solutions.
What is it that your patients are missing?
They lack an internal and external capacity for productive aloneness, a space in which to explore their obsession with influence, glamour, wealth, and celebrity without scrutiny. That’s why I’m with them. In no other city worldwide is there such a variety of alternative spiritual practices. Cults have an easy time here – Tom Cruise is with the Scientologists.
And nevertheless people like you, psychiatrists, operate as the real saviors to the beautiful people of Los Angeles. Why?
Anyone who is trying to appear perfect on the surface all the time will eventually crash. This can be dangerous. In this respect religions don’t help very much. People who are crashing psychologically need someone to guide them through the war going on in their heads.
What do you mean by the “war” in their heads?
There are voices in the mind that are gaining traction, progressing toward meaning and turning into images and words that one doesn’t want to see or hear. Sometimes my patients complain only of a pain in the back of their heads. But there’s much more going on there.
And what can be done against that?
Perhaps I’ll prescribe more sleep. Sleep therapies help. Or I’ll prescribe medical marijuana from a dispensary.
Joints? Is that it? You’re known for prescribing psychotropics.
If you’re trying to come back to Whitney, this conversation is over.
You’re the one alluding to Whitney Houston, not me.
There’s no other city in America that consumes more marijuana. I just want to make that clear. And it helps.
But in reality your clients are tortured by insanely high ambitions, right?
They just invariably follow a syntax of success. That’s all there is.
What does that mean, a “syntax of success”?
Always take a dominant position in the room, surround yourself with a loyal group of followers, never turn your back on the battlefield. Be a vegetarian, spend money on animal welfare, always wear a smile – and get your teeth whitened every three months.
That sounds dramatic. This dramatic sensibility seems unique to Los Angeles – in no other city does it pervade every strata of society.
Yes, it reminds me of that ingenious pathology of Andy Warhol: a charming smile, a little kiss here, an embrace there – an artful realism of the performed lie, a concept with which my clients are very familiar. Everything they present as truth out in the open is a lie determined with precision and evaluated on the basis of its PR function. So again, in no other city does one thrive more under the protection of productive fictions.
A social model cut from a fabric of total logical contradiction.
Exactly. This is the world of the ingenious marketing slogan, “Fake it til you make it!” Whereas the creativity and art required of an exceptional performance, of a craft that will really touch all our lives – it’s the madness of a parallel universe, it’s a reduction. The pathology of those crazed by success, like that of those obsessed with a “sound mind,” almost always has something to do with god and the devil.
Now you sound like a preacher.
To be crazed by success is often the result of an obsessive, psychological inability to adequately process realty. Yet every sufferer meanwhile craves recognition. It’s been like that in Los Angeles forever, and it’s long been a worldwide phenomenon. It pervades every social stratus. But celebrity is just high-end slavery.
But what is it the strongest power at work in Los Angeles?
The California ideology is real. It asserts itself as the belief that humans were born perfectly and have only to find their way back to themselves – in a culture of narcissism that’s more therapeutic than it is religious, ultimately.
You’ve been connected to superstars like Scarlett Johansson, Shia Labeouf, Natalie Portman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Joaquim Phoenix, Jon Stewart, Adam Sandler, and others. What were they searching for?
For a heroic “I”. In the California ideology, narcissism has long been seen as the best way to cope with the tensions and anxieties of modern life.
And how do you find your personal inner joy in Los Angeles?
The spirit of Hollywood is broken. Changing viewing habits, tremendous competition, rising costs, sinfully expensive flops. Hollywood isn’t the center of the world anymore. As a result people invested in it are suffering. Everyone involved is in agony around it. Someties I simply stare at the surface of the pool. My pool cleaner, moving around there. The sight of it calms me. Or I stand in my office window, looking at the endless city sprawl of Los Angeles. Particularly when the street lights are all slowly turning on. An evening haze takes over. An irradiant golden cloud glides inland from the Pacific over Santa Monica, a regal shroud of smog, hope, and shattered dreams.
Los Angeles by Christian Werner, with interviews by Tom Kummer, is published by Korbinian Verlag (Berlin, 2019).