Where I used to live, one of our neighbors was an artist who primarily made her living decorating the inside walls of nouveau riche sorts with wall textures and trompe l’oeil murals. Bedrooms mottled in soothing pastel splashes, kitchens seeming to open to Tuscan landscapes through a windowless wall, that sort of thing. She made a good living at it, too. Her target market demographic seemed to be the sorts of people who were seeking a subtle pretension, nothing so extravagant as classical statues in the back yard by the barbecue, but something to distinguish their particular faux-Tuscan house from all the others. Of course, her customers’ houses weren’t all faux-Tuscan, although that sort was popular for a good long while in newer, more expensive developments in Los Angeles during the Eighties and Nineties, but the sentiment was indeed typical regardless of architectural specificity. The neighborhood just southwest of ours boasted–and I use the term literally–several faux-Tudor styled houses, actual large mansions in many cases. My painter’s own family moved up and slightly southwest themselves after a few years, but into a variation of the iconic California bungalow, a great sprawling two-story place with basement and attic, a genuine native development of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant portion of the region’s history. The only irony involved was that the painter was Jewish and her husband of pure Irish background.
Ironies abounded, however, among some of her clients. She hired me to photograph a couple of her jobs once they were finished, as I had a 4×5 camera and small lighting kit. The one that stands out most in my mind–aside from her personal paintings, which were quite good–was a house in Mountaingate, a recently-built development rich with often comical ironies. Indeed, it is hard for me not to sound a bit sneery about it, but I will try to maintain a more dispassionate tone.
Mountaingate lies (and you may enjoy the pun in the verb) in the Sepulveda Pass between West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. It’s built along the suburban-enclave plan that was outdated before it was even conceived, the ultimate cul-de-sac, remote and isolated despite being in the middle of a vast city. To reach it from Westwood, you go up the Sepulveda Pass–the old road works better than the freeway–two or three miles beyond the Getty Museum, itself built upon a city-on-the-hill image and invisible, like Mountaingate, from the roadway. A nearly nondescript turnoff with a low cast-concrete sign more typical of a business park than a neighborhood leads onto an impossibly long, steep street that resembles a firetrail asphalted over. No one who wasn’t in training for some endurance event was likely ever to walk that road, or attempt it on a bicycle. It is a long climb, difficult even for a motor vehicle, and it is the only access to the place that isn’t a rough dirt path. The place was quite obviously not designed with public access in mind, and this is not just because of an assumed intense lust for privacy among its intended buyers. No, it is because this “exclusive community” was built on landfill.
Mountaingate’s foundation is a garbage dump.
The city now recycles a good percentage of its trash, but back in the bad old days we could think of nothing better to do with it than fill up pristine canyons in the Santa Monica Mountains with cancelled checks, old newspapers, and slowly rotting kitchen scraps. Indeed, discreetly hidden near the upper ridge behind the development are small metal towers that vent the methane generated by the churning decomposition of ancient disposable diapers, soggy Kleenexes, chicken bones, discarded diaries, outdated modems, and whatever else you might find in the midden-heap of a graceless, fat, and wasteful populace. A dreary history of the culture of the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies stews in its own slime beneath the faux-Tuscan façades that stare blankly at the empty sidewalks of the curving streets.
The architecture is remarkable for its blandness, in spite of all its pretension. The houses are large, though the lots aren’t quite double-sized, by Los Angeles standards, where a “typical” house sits on a fifty by one hundred fifty foot rectangle of precious dirt, about half of which is given over to lawns and a garage. Mountaingate’s lots are only a little larger as far as I could judge, but the houses have a big footprint and are generally two stories high. There are feeble attempts at decoration, but they don’t really go too far. No farther than the builder’s accountants would allow, no doubt. There are some efforts at stateliness in the window and door surrounds, but there is a cartoonish blockiness to the results, as if someone drew only the outline of a decoration–or the outline of a desire for decoration–and left it unfilled. A symbol of a style, rather than a style itself. Indoors, likewise–the lower floors “boast” high ceilings, but high, plain ceilings; the rooms are just bigger version of the rooms in the ranch houses scattered like fallen fruit all over the county, and the windows are the usual aluminum-framed rectangles you can find at any discount bigbox “home improvement” store, being stacked onto pickup trucks by lowballing contractors. In Mountaingate, the aluminum is painted and the windows are bigger, but that’s all. The sense of having stepped into a cartoon, a world of empty outlines, is magnified once you step indoors to one of these drywall dungeons. All the marble toilets in the world–yes, that’s another “feature” in places such as this–won’t cast enough of a spell to edit that feeling out of the viewer’s mind.
That, no doubt, is why, in desperation, they call my neighbor, the specialist in faux finishes and trompe l’oeil: to bring a bit of illusion into their house. If I recall correctly, the job I was to photograph comprised both faux finishes in the living room and bedrooms, and a Tuscan landscape painted onto a kitchen wall, rolling hills falling away from a terrace, quilted with vineyards and dotted with oak and olive trees and stone houses. Outside the walls, of course, a landscape that could have rivaled Tuscany did in fact roll away from…not a terrace but the usual California yard, planted with a glaring green grass that never thrived here before white people, a view–obscured by the closely-packed semi-mansions–that had once been dotted by oaks, but was now scarred by roads, chainlink-secured utility yards, powerlines, and–of course–the roaring freeway at the bottom of the canyon, the notorious 405, eternally jammed with humpbacked cars and boxy trucks inching their way between the Valley and the Westside. In other parts of the state, olive trees and vineyards do thrive, watched over by sentinel oaks on the slopes of rounded hills, but here it required a paintbrush to bring the obliterated past back into view, rebadged as “Italian,” like the counterfeit olive oils, cut with cheap soy, sold in pricey boutiques at the foot of the violated mountains.
The whole scene invited both pity and scorn, and made me rather sad, despite the admirable skill with which my friend wrought her deceptions. More so when I chanced upon the denizens of the house I invaded with my giant camera.
The baron in his hall made a poignant sight: in this case, he was a tall, very thin, pasty-skinned man, prematurely balding, and wearing black-rimmed glasses, a baggy and immaculately white T-shirt, and, of all things, Bermuda shorts. He drifted vaguely by the thick wooden dining table, and looked quite lost in the shadows under the high ceiling, amid the expensive but mismatched furniture. I suspect he was trying not to notice us at work, not to get in the way. His hands made small, slow, irresolute gestures, and he gazed down at the floor as though a text were written there. The effect was that of a leftover party balloon, slowly sinking through the day after as the helium leaked out. I suppose it was a sort of day after for him: buying the house was the big event; living in it not so much. It was an inconvenient place to stay, up the canyon on the ever-jammed 405 or the dreary frontage road, and then up the long blank grind of the access road formerly traversed by parades of garbage trucks, and then the neighborhood with nothing in it but pretentious houses, no place to gather, no place to go, and a long inconvenient drive to anywhere else. The liquor cabinet and the large-screen TV would have to sum up the totality of life after office hours.
I duly photographed the wall treatments and the cleverly deceptive mural my neighbor had painted to support the house’s architectural delusions, and off we went down the hill. I returned a few months later, though, in mid-winter, with another friend of mine, a fellow photographer. We followed the road to the ridge behind the development as far as the car could grind, then she and I hiked up a little further, to where we could see the entire filled-in canyon, its curving streets, its red tile roofs, its unused swimming pools. We were high enough that clouds of a gathering storm were rolling into the canyon itself below us, wreathing the hollow mansions in fingers of mist, burdening the stucco walls with dampness, drenching the still-new shrubberies and stunted trees. I snapped my shutter as the chilling mists closed in on Mountaingate, the red roofs graying in the storm light, cold fog condensing on the metal shaft of the methane vent near which we stood. It was spectacular, as if the clouds were mocking the false serenity of all those desperately grandiloquent walls.
It was the 1980s, and Montaingate was picture-perfect for its time.
It made a better picture than a life.
This is an an excerpt for a set of biographical notes I may never publish, which I call Incomplete Sentences. I have written a fictional version as well. The photograph is the one I mention near the end of the article.