The Light in August
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L.A. may be a theatrical town, but of course, theater requires just the right conditions—a darkened room, the proper music. Too much light at the wrong moment, and the illusion disappears.
That's why we Angelenos have an uncertain relationship with summer. I mean, this is supposed to be our most theatrical time of year—you know, girls on the boulevards, bands on the beach.
But sometimes the sun is just too bright. Sometimes, come summer, the city seems shabby, dusty…unsexy. It's like someone opened the back door of the auditorium in the middle of a movie.
Today it's high August and the Urban Man finds himself driving across the Valley to meet with an important producer. I'm a little nervous, but I have five good ideas in my briefcase, and I'm rehearsing my personal theater. I recall that I'm wearing a sharp orange shirt and casual slacks. I tell myself I'm creative, connected, armed with clout.
Unfortunately I've forgotten my sunglasses, and as I cruise up Victory Boulevard in the 103 degree heat, the too-bright light of summer seems to be wearing down my L.A. bravado and turning all my poetry to prose.
I crank up the music and the a/c, but it doesn't seem to help.
Many painters have tried to capture the special light of L.A. I'm sure that folks like David Hockney have caught the sharp edge of winter, even spring. But I'm not sure anyone has successfully captured August in the Valley.
Just now the light has a strange, concrete quality—like a blinding wall between me and the city. On a day like today, everything seems to lose its color. Though the sky is clear, it's not blue. At the zenith it's merely a pale puce, and down near the horizon, nearly white.
As I look down the long boulevard, all dimension seems to get lost, as if I were peering through a telephoto lens where buildings and mountains become grey paper cutouts and palm trees seem no more romantic than telephone poles.
I've read that scientists actually have a name for this light. They call it "Airlight"—an L.A. phenomenon caused by atmospheric particles that have the same diameter as the wavelength of sunlight. You don't see the smog, at least not nearby, but the sun appears to bounce off the air itself and trouble the eyes. That's why August light has that solid quality, and shade almost ceases to exist. Why the sun seems to emanate from all things: not just the atmosphere, but Taco Bells and parking lots.
At such times, all local magic disappears.
Sure enough, my meeting takes place in a room with a big plate glass window looking down on a shadeless rooftop where tarpaper bakes in the sun. The producer has a smart, eager expression. But in the glare of his perpetual grin, all five of my formerly good ideas become pale, transparent, and undramatic. I try to give them life, but after 30 minutes, it's me who ends the pitch.
I take my time heading home. I run some unnecessary errands and let myself get lost in the wide-open grid. I suppose I'm waiting for night, and sure enough, as I head back over the Sepulveda pass, it finally arrives in a welcome blaze of color.
Eagerly, I head for my backyard, where I turn on the light in my pool and ease myself down into the water, careful not to make waves. Calmly, the Urban Man floats on this even green radiance and looks up at the red-purple of the sky—lit not by the sun, but the afterglow of a billion cheerful city footlights. Across this stage fly many scattered jets, and yes, little by little, I watch theater return to L.A.
Copyright © 2007 Marc Porter Zasada. All Rights Reserved.
NOTE: For a wonderful discussion of the light in L.A., from which some facts have been drawn for this piece, see "L.A. Glows" an essay by Lawrence Weschler in Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. Weschler's work is also collected in Writing Los Angeles the excellent compendium by David Ulin which every Angeleno should own.
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