In 1977, while hunting for a used western shirt, 14-year-old Charles Phoenix experienced the strange magic of thrift shopping. The consequence of that discovery was evident in every dusty artifact he'd go on to acquire, but it wasn't until 1991 that he traded a modest obsession with mid-century design for an addiction to old photo slides, the preservation and presentation of which would be revealed as his calling.
Whether or not Phoenix was destined to become the Ambassador of Americana is beside the point. The fact is, with six books to his credit and a sell-out slide show, Phoenix is undoubtedly the Ringmaster of Retro Culture. And in this plastic era, this silicone age, he couldn't be more relevant.
His latest book, Southern Californialand: Mid-Century Culture in Kodachrome, a fluffy stack of buttermilk images, begs the question, “Where did it all go wrong?”
“I don't think anybody really knows,” answers Phoenix. “It was a rare, brief period where creativity and culture really kind of collided for an interesting effect.”
While the images do arouse a spectrum of warm fuzzies, Phoenix is quick to point out that the good ol' days weren't necessarily all that.
“There was dysfunction then just as there is now,” he says. Moreover, the prevalence of racial inequity in mid-century America is made evident by the glaring absence of color from Southern Californialand. “The 35-millimeter slide genre of photography was very much an upper-middle-class white medium,” Phoenix explains. For the majority of that demographic, close encounters with non-whites were rare and therefore not present in the typical living-room slide show.
Such truths may leave a waxy build-up on white America's conscience, but they are what make Southern Californialand so compelling. They do not represent, as Phoenix says, “the self-conscious Hollywood version” of mid-century reality, at least in Southern California. They provide authentic documentation of a period in American history as seen by ordinary people living ordinary lives under the big black sun.
You won't see Marilyn or Elvis. There are no “Whites Only” signs. There are no dramatic shots of naked Vietnamese children running from American troops.
What you will see is a teenage greaser with a perfect DA waiting to ride Autopia at Disneyland in 1956; the “perfect suburban couple” in their 1960 living room replete with atomic wall clock and boomerang ashtray; a 1955 Dodge Royal minutes after it crashed into a 1955 Buick Special and the women responsible; the interior of the Alpha Beta supermarket in Arcadia in 1960 when a can of Crisco cost 49 cents; Christmas morning in 1953 Palm Springs and dinner with the Kelloggs, featuring meatloaf sandwiches on Van de Kamp's bread.
There's something comforting about the imperfection of these amateur images and the people they capture-and maybe that's why Phoenix craves them. The allure of the slides has not waned for him, and people routinely deposit their personal collections on his doorstep.
“I see many things in the slides,” he says. “I see history, I see art, I see culture, I see sociology. It's the truth. And that's what I love 'cause, you're really getting down to the ground zero of reality.”
Surf Noir, Strait Up
by R.L. Buss
Just south of San Diego, where the Tijuana River empties into the sea, the borderland is heavy on desperation and madness.
Like an international airport, it's the boundary between the first and third worlds, the territory of travelers, the refugee, the no man's land of conflict and transition.
If evil ever truly does lurk, it does so here, like a bandito on a midnight mountain pass. Crockett and Tubbs faced it in Miami, a young Jedi followed a more gleeful version, and many of Conrad's characters went upriver, as they say. No great story has ever been told about the gods sitting on their thrones clipping their nails.
With his novel Tijuana Straits, author Kem Nunn has tapped this source.
Fahey is a washed up, middle-aged surfer who likes meth, worms and avoiding trouble. Magdalena is an assistant to a Tijuana environmental attorney, a sort of Mexican Erin Brockovich, and a very controversial woman.
There's villainy, a glue-sniffing, beer-pounding demon for hire with a personal vendetta.
Yeah, 'nuff said.
Nunn's strength is his ability to recast a standard tale and make it feel relevant in the now. Like Rushdie, he effectively deals with the contrast between the modern and developing worlds, and Straits is as much a political statement as any of Michael Moore's snide miscellanea, twice as entertaining and thrice as empathetic.
Nunn tends to overwrite, treading into melodrama and sounding a bit like Gabriel Garcia-Marquez without the Garcia-Marquez, but this is noir-surf noir, and no one does it better.
What is noir?
“What he knew for certain was that some ceremony would take place there, a ritual of blood, in whose performance particular events could be assigned their rightful place in the economy of a universe that was none but his own. He knew this and one thing more. It was a ceremony in which her attendance would be required.”
Straits is Fahey's world, and Magdalena's and the hungry ocean's. Theirs is a world crossed by streams bloated with toxic runoff, powered by virtual slavery and inhabited by a lack of justice.
Characters who appear guilty are innocent, and those who are innocent are few and far between. They hang suspended between darkness and light, regret and action, greed and salvation.
This is the world of the Tijuana Straits, and it's right under your nose.