Book Review: “The Mirage Factory” zeroes in on the three people who “made” LA and the Hollywood Dream


I’ve read a bit about LA’s infamous victory in “The Water Wars” that ensured this parched pueblo would become the megalopolis it is. And of course, I’ve seen “Chinatown” countless times.

And I’ve read and watched documentaries about D.W. Griffith, his most infamous film, “The Birth of a Nation,” which established Hollywood and the studios there as the entertainment capital of the world.

The PBS “American Experience” film on early LA evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, the Canadian-born icon of LA’s early turn towards faddish, malleable and upbeat belief systems, is about all I knew about her.

But all three, taken together, chiseled the image of Los Angeles into the public mind more firmly than any Chamber of Commerce pitch ever did. That’s the gist of Gary Krist’s immensely readable “The Mirage Factory: Illusion, Imagination and the Invention of Los Angeles.”

If you love Hollywood history, pre-“Hollywoodland,” pre-“An Empire of Their Own,” it’s the book for you.

The arc of the career of self-taught waterworks engineer William Mulholland, the rise and fall of genteel Kentucky racist filmmaker David Wark Griffith and the fame and pitfalls of evangelist Sister Aimee make for ripe metaphors for a city that should have never been.

Krist’s close-reading of Mulholland’s mono-maniacal heavy-handedness, how every ugly rumor of how Los Angeles “stole” water from the Owens Valley and later the Colorado River (legally, but sneakily), which became fodder for “Chinatown,” is fascinating.

Griffith’s invention of the language of cinema, his creation of a clueless and tone-deaf racist masterpiece (which read the temperament of the country all-too-accurately) and the over-reaches that followed is aptly, compactly summed up.

And his measured take on McPherson, whose generous outreach and charity work tend to be forgotten with all the focus on her mysterious “kidnapping,” and later hubris and suggestions of financial shenanigans, is a welcome one.

Her church survived her, the industry Griffith helped launch is America’s biggest export and the city Mulholland was hell bent on thirst-quenching all live on, in fact and in the global imagination.

Krist’s terrific book goes a long way in explaining how and why.

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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