The Veneer of Nostalgia: Dingbat Life in Slums of Beverly Hills

September 8, 2014

Essay by Joshua G. Stein.


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Dingbat Grids. © James Black.

Casa Bella. Another dingbat. Dingbats…that’s what they’re called. Two-story apartment buildings featuring cheap rent and fancy names that promise the good life, but never deliver.
—Vivian Abramowitz, Slums of Beverly Hills

Those dingbats are so poignant. So beautiful and heartbreaking. Little temporary homes for the underclass like tenements with fanciful aspirational names extravagantly drawn on the front like hotels. They break my heart, those buildings.
—Tamara Jenkins, writer/director of Slums of Beverly Hills1

Parallel Trajectories

The domestic landscape of Tamara Jenkins’ 1998 film Slums of Beverly Hills feels ambivalently familiar to anyone who has called the flatlands of Southern California home. A semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story, the film chronicles the awkward family life of fifteen-year-old Vivian Abramowitz. The self-conscious sequence of uncomfortable encounters and spaces constructed by writer/director Jenkins offers a potential parallel trajectory of aspiration and aimless displacement between the fictional past of the Abramowitz family and a larger cultural present shared by hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) across the Southland.

A soundless and familiar pall falls over the family as the car continues to coast through Beverly Hills.
The Abramowitzes are on the skids again–forever circling the margins of affluence and staving off
economic disaster.

Driven by the desire to live within the Beverly Hills school district, Vivian’s divorced aging father drags his family from one low-rent apartment to the next. The film plays on a nostalgia for days of innocence as well as a nostalgia for a particular patina of Southern California lifestyle. As a period piece, it expressively depicts one specific reality within 1976 Los Angeles. Poignantly, this existence is every bit as present in the contemporary city of L.A. as well. Cheap rent, faux luxe, attenuated provisionality, financial purgatory: dingbat life.

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The Abromowitzes flee The Beverly Capri to seek out yet another dingbat in a nomadic cycle of displacement. © 20th Century Fox.

With half of the movie occurring in one apartment space or another, what is particularly significant about this depiction of an Angeleno’s adolescence is its conscious use of the dingbat as both iconic symbol and experiential lived space. The Abramowitzes’ fictional story reveals the reality of millions of individual narratives quietly playing themselves out in the units that stand behind the cheaply numbered doors of dingbats across the L.A. basin and beyond.

A typical low-rent, cheap looking Southern California apartment building straining for luxury.
The words, THE BEVERLY CAPRI are printed in fancy cursive on the building’s stucco facade.
A sad solitary palm tree shoots out of a tiny patch of grass.

Early in the film, in the middle of the night, Murray Abramowitz wakes his two teen children, Ben and Vivian, and their younger brother, Rickey. They resume what seems to be a regular ritual—fleeing one dingbat for another while evading payment of the last month’s rent. After escaping the landlord of The Beverly Capri, we see them continue on to Casa Bella, then to The Camelot and then on to unnamed future dingbats. In a chutes and ladders game of social climbing, the Abramowitzes’ trajectory is one more of spatial displacement than social mobility, despite momentary glimpses of the good life.

Along the way, Vivian’s life plays out across the spaces of the dingbat; her first sexual experience with Eliot, the young pot dealer from next door; her reckoning with her own body image through bathroom conversations with her cousin Rita and laundry room encounters with pre-teen cosmetic surgery victims; and her growing awareness of class issues discussed frankly on the living room floor—her father on a recliner, the kids with pizza in hand in front of the TV.

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The spaces of the dingbat offer an awkward familiarity—makeshift furniture co-habits with remnants from former inhabitants. © 20th Century Fox.

Jenkins seems to relish in prominently housing all of these adventures within the dingbat. While the exterior facades of dingbats have made their way into the larger worlds of film and certainly photography, Slums reveals the interior spaces and surfaces with equal interest and affection. Jenkins’ original screenplay carefully identifies the place names specific to dingbat life—like Dinette Area or Laundry Room Near Garage—while the art direction faithfully reproduces their every characteristic—shag carpet, cheap curtains, flimsy accordion closet doors, and boxy metal wall heaters. Into these cramped spaces, Jenkins tenderly and inextricably folds the events of Vivian’s teen life.

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The dingbat’s clumsy relationships between the spaces of circulation and inhabitation create a mutual unease in both common and private spaces. © 20th Century Fox.

The awkwardness of Vivian’s family life is echoed and perfectly rendered in the clumsy social interactions created by the dingbat. As the Abramowitzes move into their “new” apartment in the Casa Bella, Vivian walks past a neighbor/stranger eating a bowl of cereal who looks right through her. Separated only by a layer of glass, the uncomfortable lack of privacy is palpable, the directionality of voyeurism unclear, leaving both parties feeling equally out of place. This uneasy social choreography is created by the exterior walkways that many dingbat apartments employ to access upper-level units. What seem like generous openings to the outside are in reality windows into public circulation spaces, forcing the inhabitants to choose between light and privacy. Jenkins’ humorous settings deftly reveal the character of life within the dingbat, where meager attempts at the California good life seem self-consciously languid—shared space rarely feeling social, the relationship with nature hardly natural.

A small hand lovingly strokes thick new carpet.
It’s plush!
Rickey, splayed out on the floor rubs the wall to wall rust shag carpeting. Murray and Ben mill around
the new spread. It’s sunny and filled with bad hotel-like furniture.
Vivian enters with her box. Eliot right behind her.
Look Viv. Feel it.
Wow. It’s furnished!
(standing by dinette set)
Check out the Formica

Big step up from Casa Bella

Halfway through the film, the arrival of rehab-escapee cousin Rita, followed by her father’s support checks, allows the family to upgrade from the Casa Bella to The Camelot, the “deluxe” apartment complex across the street. This larger structure is a derivative of an innovation in the dingbat typology profiting from two adjacent lots: a “double-wide” dingbat constructed as two mirrored and conjoined twins with underground parking and a unifying façade. The new common space created between the two wings offers room for added amenities—elevators, lobby, interior hallways, and a pool. However, in the film, the barely perceptible differences between the spaces of The Camelot and the Casa Bella only highlight the tenacious qualities of dingbat life, the hierarchy of socio-economic strata within this world rendering its defining characteristics all the more palpable.

Commonplace Quirky

While the Beverly Hillbillies were exceptional outsiders, the characters in Slums are commonplace—the true stuff of the city. The dingbat represents their specific anyplace. While its formula is generic, it is the exact condition of genericity that is quintessentially L.A., a city defined by the post-war obsession with mass-produced consumer commodities, including the home. The quirkiness of the narrative of Slums seems eccentric only in its specifics, while still representing a larger set of “atypical” living patterns that feel completely at home within the dingbat and within L.A.

Maybe in Torrance we could afford other stuff like furniture

(snapping awake)
Goddamn it! We’re stayin’ here for the school district. Furniture is temporary. Education is forever.
Forget the furniture. Forget Torrance!

The Abramowitz family structure depicted by Jenkins directly parallels the new normal of the inhabitants of the contemporary dingbat and the larger city of Los Angeles. Explicitly shedding the trappings of a traditional nuclear family, Slums instead depicts a single-parent family. A divorced father of three with a long-term visiting relative stands in for the many various contemporary cohabitation structures—a creativity born of necessity. The Abramowitzes’ nomadic lifestyle reveals an ambition—or at least a restlessness—to better one’s lot. Justifying the constant uprooting of his family, Murray explains, “Furniture is temporary, education is forever.” However, despite this drive for the self-betterment of his family, the film points more towards a downward trajectory, a steady decline from the higher ground of middle-class standing. While Murray once owned a family home and business, divorce disrupted this stability, pushing this restructured family into its current state of drift. Their story makes apparent the fact that while the dingbat may have been originally popularized to house aspiring transplants arriving from the Midwest, by the ‘70s it had already become the barracks for the upwardly ambitious yet laterally mobile.

This view of Los Angeles through the lens of Jenkins’ narrative is a productive, if pessimistic, update to popular Hollywood stereotypes. In theater and film, the brownstones of Brooklyn or the duplexes of the Bronx have emerged as the flip-side to Manhattan’s skyscrapers. But while so much of New York’s screen persona is defined by childhood tales from the boroughs, L.A.’s depiction in the media is often glamorized or downplayed, either embodying the glitz of Hollywood or standing in for any city or suburb in the country. Slums, however, offers a Los Angeles corollary to New York’s double image, replacing skyscraper/brownstone with beach/dingbat or Hollywood/dingbat. In other words, the dingbat represents the space of the everyday, the every Angeleno. This dingbat is tenement housing with a happy face, where the ghettoized squalor of nineteenth-century New York is replaced by the global itinerancy of post-Fordist Los Angeles.

Anachronistic Veneer of Nostalgia

While the Spanish colonial architecture of film noir or the green lawns and sprinklers of the suburbs are the dominant establishing scenes of the ‘40s and ‘50s and ‘50s to ‘80s respectively, Jenkins’ displaced ‘60s dingbat aesthetic seems oddly appropriate for millennial Los Angeles. More than a simple retro aesthetic, this patina of the passé that coats all surfaces of Slums seems an all-too-accurate depiction of a large portion of the present housing stock of Los Angeles. These structures were built on the cheap with materials and finishes that were never intended for any real longevity. In Slums, which is set in 1976, the apartment aesthetic already feels dated, expressing the plight of a family that can only afford an aesthetic/lifestyle already ten to fifteen years old.

Perhaps the anachronism of the ‘60s veneer creates a certain discomfort that is essential to the yearning to move upward—or at least move on. The temporary feeling of living in another time, living outside of one’s own aesthetic, makes it clear that there must be something better, or at least something more “current” to come in the near future. This dingbat life is also crassly democratic—equally (un)comfortable for immigrants from Latin America as for those from elsewhere in the United States, each looking to L.A. for a new definition of prosperity or success. Upon first arriving to this new set of opportunities, maybe there is something reassuring about assuming the life of some anonymous tenant of the past—like buying random family photos at the flea market. After all, the West has always been the place to redefine oneself.

The cheapness of it all also somehow seems to offer room for improvement, both individually and collectively. Los Angeles is a place of ambition and self-betterment while remaining a city continually poised to blossom. “Forever circling the margins of affluence” seems to aptly describe and bind together a population more united by a patient search or wait than any demographic alignment. Perhaps this ethos is best summed up in the Spanish esperanza, translating as a conflation of both waiting and hoping. No longer a city of Middle America’s American Dream, L.A. is now a landscape of aggregate micro realities—half fulfilled hopes suspended in a sunny and sweet smog of “getting by.” The dingbat is the architectural embodiment of this condition, a stucco veneer of anticipation propped up by the stick wood framing of earnest provisionality, simultaneously hopeful for the future and resigned to its position in the present.

And perhaps within this deceit lies the larger charm of L.A.—it always seems surprisingly normal and livable, despite the gap between the reality of dingbat life and the anticipation of streets paved in gold, parties attended by stars and starlets, economic liberation, and professional success. Los Angeles—for the moment—is not such a bad place to live.

1 Email correspondence with LA Forum regarding the Dingbat 2.0 Competition, June 16, 2010.