Tag Archives: Getty Research Institute


Remembering Mike Davis at the Getty Research Institute (1996)

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Mike Davis died in San Diego yesterday at the age of 76. His numerous books amounted to a geopolitical marriage with a city and region from which he could never divorce himself, even as he flayed the cynosures of corrupted power. In his best moments, Davis was a take-no-prisoners agent provocateur whose radical critique was also entertaining. If he needed hyperbole to keep your attention, he didn’t hesitate: Davis did not hesitate to claim that hurricane-like winds barrel through Topanga Canyon. To the best of my knowledge, the highest speed recorded for wind in Topanga never approached that degree of acceleration. He was a latter-day Gramsci with a strong streak of Steven Spielberg in a Jurassic Park mood.

In the Fall, 1995, the Getty Research Institute realized that it was going to have to prepare to move from its location on Wilshire Blvd. in Santa Monica up to the mountain redoubt that was being constructed just off of the 406 freeway. Usually the institute sponsors intellectual projects that focus on art and archaeology, but having to suspend its usual focus caused them to come up with an interesting alternative: a year-long seminar on Los Angeles. Announcements were sent out asking for applications, and about twenty people ended up getting good news in the spring, 1996 that they had received either a year-long residence or a couple of months. I ended up with a two-month visiting scholar appointment that changed my life. Without encountering on a daily basis scholars such as David James, Alan Sekula, Philip Ethington, Becky Nickolaides, Ramon Garcia, waTom Dumm, Robert Flick, and Brenda Bright, I doubt it ever would have occurred to me that I might be capable of becoming a Ph.D. Their encouragement and interest in my work was unprecedented.

One of the first seminar presentations in the Fall, 1996 was by Mike Davis, who showed up without any notes whatsoever. After a brief introduction, he stood at the foot of a long table and leaned on it with the knuckles of both hands. For over an hour, he recited his paper to us, citing specific authors and titles and the summaries of their narrative with an ease that left everyone awed. “Well,” I remember someone saying afterwards, “we know who’s at the top of pyramid around here.”

It was an extraordinarily impressive performance, even if its obsession with early dystopia novels about Los Angeles seemed a bit heavy-handed in its synchronic diagnosis.

There is no doubt that Mike Davis was an inspiring social critic, and I appreciate his willingness to speak up for writers such as Mike the PoeT Sonksen and Lynell George. It was no shock to hear that he had died, for his medical condition was well known. Nevertheless, as with Peter Schjeldahl, one feels as if a voice we still need to hear had bee muted too soon.

Mike Davis (1946-2022)




The 50th Anniversary of the Social Imaginary of “THE GODFATHER”

March 13, 2022

Fifty years ago, Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaptation of Mario Puzo’s novel, “The Godfather,” premiered to admiring reviews and audiences eager to embrace an anti-hero. The audiences included gangsters themselves, very few of whom had read Puzo’s novel, but who couldn’t resist a chance to see their subculture portrayed in popular culture while knowing that the people sitting all around them were clueless about their presence. The film’s cumulative impact on the quotidian behavior of members of organized appears to have been substantial. One recent news article focused on how gangsters looked to the film as the contemporary equivalent of “conduct books” in the 18th century, which seems a perfectly believable explanation of a simulacrum having real world effects on a social imaginary.

It shouldn’t be forgotten, however, that it wasn’t just Italian-Americans immigrants and their offspring who saw the United States as a land of criminal opportunity. The Irish-Americans had their base for unreported income in Boston, and the Killeen-Mullen war was taking place even before “The Godfather” was released. In fact, it was less than two months after the film premiered that Donald Killeen was murdered outside his home. Whether Whitey Bulger was the hit man is not the relevant point of interest here. What I would love to know is whether Bulger saw the film during its first release and what his reaction to it was. My curiosity about Bulger largely derives from his long residence in Santa Monica less than three miles north of where I lived for 20 years. Even in closer proximity than that for a short time, in fact! The Getty Research Institute had its headquarters at the intersection of Fourth and Wilshire for many years, and it feels odd in retrospect to know that Mr. Bulger was a very short distance away from the seminar room at which scholars from across the United States focused on Los Angeles itself as a cultural trope during the fall of 1996 and the spring of 1997.

By now, most of the people who saw “The Godfather” in 1972 are either dead or collecting social security, but the appeal of gangster narratives has far from abated. “The Sopranos,” for instance, was a massive success. As with “The Godfather,” I ended up watching it long after its debut, but I found each instance more than worth my attention. What did surprise me, twenty years ago, was how young people did not know of “The Godfather” at all. I remember working as a teaching assistant in Revelle College at UCSD around 2003 and I made a reference to the scene with a horse’s head in a bed. Not a single student in the classroom knew what I was talking about. Mind you, these were mostly pre-med students whose social background were hardly that of deprivation and limited access to high or low culture. It’s in this context that I point to a very fine interview with Al Pacino and a comment that he makes about those whose cultural curiosity seems to have been stifled well before they entered high school. “”Have You Seen the Horse’s Head / Leaking All over the Bed?” Apparently not.

NY TIMES: Do you get self-conscious about watching your own films?
AL PACINO: No. I enjoy watching films I’ve been in. …. “The Godfather” plays no matter what. But you’re surprised when you realize how many people never saw it.

NY TIMES: You’re encountering people who are aware of “The Godfather” as a cultural phenomenon but haven’t actually watched it?
AL PACINO: They’ve heard about it. You get that. “Oh, I heard — were you in that? That was a film, wasn’t it?” Yes. So was “Citizen Kane,” by the way — I was in that, too. Why not? They don’t know.

Thank you, Mr. Pacino, for a good laugh.


With ‘The Godfather,’ Art Imitated Mafia Life. And Vice Versa.

Books Ground Level Conditions Poetry Small Press Publishing

“From a Secret Location….”

Saturday, April 1, 2017

More Secret Locations

About: From Book to Web


I began working on a literary history of some of the communities of poets in Los Angeles County in the mid-1990s. I had no realization whatsoever how long this account and accompanying contextual analysis would take to complete. As I worked on the initial outline, however, worrying about the publication date was a luxury I could not afford, for it was primarily a project motivated by dire circumstances. After many years of making a living as a typesetter, I was unemployed and had no likelihood of ever finding work again in that occupation. One evening, in mid-November, 1995, I spotted a flyer on a lobby counter at Beyond Baroque. The Getty Research Institute was requesting applications from scholars and cultural workers who would contribute to a year-long seminar on Los Angeles. I set to work on a proposal that I spend two months doing research on the poets in Venice West, and turned it in on the last day of the application date. In mid-Spring, I received a special delivery notice that I had received one of the visiting scholar awards. It was a radical shift in my life, in that it led to a decision to engage in graduate study at UC San Diego, starting in 1997.

The first few years that I was in grad school were impatiently devoted to doing the coursework for a Ph.D., during which time I felt encouraged by the publication of A Secret Location on the Lower East Side. It was the kind of book that emanated a lifetime of passionate involvement in the underground publication of poetry in the two decades after Donald Allen’s anthology first appeared, and it bespoke the necessity of my own project, which I saw as a spoke on the Great Wheel of this compendium by authors/archivists, Steven Clay and Rodney Phillips. At the many points at which I felt discouraged, I thought of their book as proof that Holdouts was more than individual nostalgia for what L.A. Times book critic Robert Kirsch had called the “golden age” of Los Angeles poetry.

As was the case with Holdouts, in which I had to leave out vast amounts of information, A Secret Location was merely the first major sifting of the period under examination (1960-1980). In making the entire original book available for anyone with a computer and internet access to read, Steven Clay and Rodney Phillips have performed an extraordinary act of scholarly generosity. They have taken the project further, though, and added entries for other notable magazines and small press outfits, such as Abraxas, Extensions, Luna Bisonte Prods, New American Writing, Oink, Streets and Roads, Sugar Mountain, the, Tooth of Time Review, Grist, Long News in the Short Century, Sunshine, Unmuzzled Ox, Search for Tomorrow, and Tansy.

For those who missed the post a few days back, you can also listen to David Wilk’s recently posted interview with me as a way of hearing about some of the books that are mentioned in the checklist on this very personal instance of a Secret Location.

David Wilk interviews poet and publisher Bill Mohr