Friday, February 17, 2012

The Profile: Norman Klein

AS DISCUSSED, in class, I wanted to post some examples of the profile at work. Here is an example of a profile written by David L. Ulin about social critic Norman Klein. Pay close attention to the structure of the piece. How the lead/opening works, how Ulin handles quotes, the scene setting and how the city emerges in the piece . . .

Remember, you'll be most likely starting with a scene or an anecdote -- maybe even an idea or a question -- but you'll be trying to move your subject around a bit in a place. Also, you'll be tying them to L.A. in some way.  

(Also, you'll be reading some of Klein's work later in the semester, so here is a little introduction to him._

City of Ruins: By Excavating the Hidden Past, Norman Klein has Emerged as L.A.'s Most Innovative Social Critic
By David L. Ulin

One evening early this fall, Norman Klein sat behind a formica table, speaking softly but insistently to a small audience at REDCAT, CalArts’ performance space that occupies the rear end of Disney Hall. Beneath the table, his right leg tapped a mile a minute, like a metronome. Wearing unpressed khakis and a white button-down shirt, hair exploding in a wiry gray corona, he had the slightly disheveled look of an absent-minded professor, which, in some sense, is what he is. For 30 years Klein has been on the faculty of the School of Critical Studies at CalArts; in addition, he teaches in the graduate program for media design at Art Center. But recently he has emerged as the most innovative Los Angeles social critic since Mike Davis—fast-talking, omnivorous, a bantam-like urban theorist with heavyweight ideas. His 1997 book The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory put into language what many residents have long thought about L.A. — that this is a city where meaning has as much to do with what we don’t see as what we do. The notion also motivates his 2003 novella-cum-DVD-ROM Bleeding Through: Layers of Los Angeles 1920-1986, which he had come to REDCAT to discuss.
Bleeding Through is one of those transformative works—Klein has described it as a “data/cinematic novel”—in which the form is as innovative as the content. Framed as the story of an old woman named Molly, it blends fiction, social commentary, and historical analysis in a multimedia pastiche of 20th-century L.A., constructed around a vast electronic archive of what Klein calls “traces”: photos, news clippings, interview footage, snippets of documentary and dramatic films. If this sounds compulsive, that’s the point precisely; “I’m obsessed,” Klein enthused at REDCAT, “with the idea that the evidence is almost as exciting as the story. I find it so interesting to locate bits and pieces, scars of how memory works.” For him, such a process seems particularly suited to Los Angeles, “a city,” he writes in The History of Forgetting, “that was imagined long before it was built.” Bleeding Through, then, reflects L.A.’s own unreliable memory, a notion Klein (and his electronic collaborators) highlights by weaving “forgetfulness” directly into the project’s software, which brings up different material from the database each time you load it, so the story never unfolds the same way twice.

The idea that L.A. is inherently elusive — a fragmentary landscape of glimmers and glimpses — can get a little abstract, which may explain why Klein has taken so long to catch on. With the exception of the Los Angeles Times, his books have been largely ignored by the media. Partly, this has to do with how Los Angeles intellectuals are treated. “For some reason,” says Peter Lunenfeld, who teaches with Klein at Art Center, “L.A. only has room for one public intellectual at a time, and now it’s Norman. It’s like we can’t handle more than one conversation at once.” Partly, it is Klein’s professional status, the way he straddles several disciplines at once. If you ask, he’ll tell you he’s a writer, as opposed to a theorist or professor, then cite influences as diverse as Baudelaire and Balzac, Faulkner and Joyce. Certainly, his career can be hard to classify; untenured, he has been an adjunct at UCLA, Otis, Sci-Arc, and USC, moving from campus to campus like an itinerant, leading a patchwork academic life. His course descriptions read like outlines of his obsessions, with classes on the history of simulation, or the buying and selling of L.A. as fantasy. “You set up a problem you want to solve,” he says, his Brooklyn accent muted with resignation, “and it forces you to do research. Teaching at art schools, I don’t have the degree of support I’d get from a research institution, so I have to build it in.”

If Klein is difficult to pin down, the same could be said about Los Angeles, which reveals itself in the most unlikely spaces, spaces we might never think to look. “Did I ever tell you about the ugliest place in Los Angeles?” Klein asked me one afternoon in his office, a converted garage behind his house in Highland Park. Although we were sitting together, he peered into the middle distance, face growing animated and his voice rising slightly, as if he were a kid with a secret to impart. “I decided it was in Van Nuys, at the intersection of Fulton and Burbank. I selected it because it wasn’t poverty; it was just ugly, retinal eye burn of an extreme form. On one corner was a place called Father and Me, which repaired cars. It was surrounded by rolls of barbed wire like some old lady’s hair. Across the street was a very bad trompe l’oeil lumber yard that looked like it was going to fall over. Then, there was this strange Middle Eastern restaurant in a dumpy building with a faded image on top of a man holding a chicken. It was like that in every direction.” Eventually, Klein discovered that beneath this desolate veneer of blankness were overlapping populations of Lebanese and Palestinians and Israelis, until a map of the Middle East emerged. “Little by little,” he said, laughing at the memory, “this was not the ugliest place in Los Angeles, it was just the best erased example of urban complexity. And I thought, Wow, this is one crazy city to have that much happening with so little heat you can actually see.”

To talk to Norman Klein is an exercise in excavation. It informs not just his ideas but his way of speaking, in which he keeps returning to certain subjects: the layering he sees everywhere, his idea that L.A. is less an integrated city than “like the Holy Roman Empire, nine thousand microclimates” — another favorite word. It’s a fascinating process, not least because it reflects the structure of his writing, his tendency to circle a topic, gathering impressions, fragments, evidence. “The most important aspect of his work,” says Michael Dear, professor of geography at USC, “has to do with what it tells us about how we remember: repeating stories, always embroidering. It raises questions about the very nature of remembering.” In The History of Forgetting, Klein describes the early days of the motion picture business, which developed in Echo Park. “I learned that across the street from my apartment,” he writes, “on Glendale Boulevard, Tom Mix used to ride a horse to work from his ranch in Mixville (now a Hughes market shopping center). But no recognition could be found anywhere that the entire film industry had once been centered there.” Nearly a decade after he wrote those words, Klein and I spent a few hours looking at the former site of Mixville as well as Mack Sennett’s old studio, now a public storage space. “It’s incredible,” he said. “This is the center of our whole cultural memory. This is where the language of film evolved. If we were in Paris, and this was an atelier where Picasso had painted, it would probably be a museum.” Here, however, there was nothing, not even a commemorative sign. “All cultures,” he continued, “have some kind of erasure. But what’s curious about this erasure is that it’s done mentally. In other words, you don’t see it even if it’s right in front of you.”

For the rest of the profile jump here

photo via usc interactive

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