In Search of Seth Cohen: The O.C., Pelican Hill, and Pop Culture as Vacation
Reading aloud David Foster Wallace’s “Shipping Out” essay about the hilarity of luxury cruises–on the pool deck of a comically “luxurious” cruise ship, within earshot of nouveau-riche passengers who could serve as characters in the piece. Spending the weekend at a midcentury treehouse in the Hollywood Hills while listening to every song a rockstar has written in–or about–Laurel Canyon. Standing on a cliff in Massa Lubrense, Italy, the converging winds pushing and pulling at your limbs, just above Punta Campanella: the physical beach, near the Amalfi Coast, with a view of Capri, Ischia, and Proscida, where the Sirens charmed Ulysses in Homer’s Odyssey.
These are but three subjects that colleagues in the magazine business have either pitched and/or have been assigned to explore over the last year. Notice the common thread: There’s a peculiar contemporary allure to aligning the act of travel and/or vacation with reenacting pre-fabricated cultural narratives, inserting ourselves into tales already spun, to mimic and/or play out new stories within frameworks of the old. “Have you been to the North Shore of Hawaii yet?” asked a surfer in Malibu the other day. “It’s like being in that movie North Shore, where Laird Hamilton plays the evil surfer, only I don’t think Laird Hamilton is evil; he was pretty nice to my brother at a book signing.”
Travel, after all, is motion and/or dislocation storytelling in real-time, with or without a personal biographer app. But faced with the newly popular craving to jump into (real or fictional) stories that take (or took) place in one’s “vacation destinations,” it would seem that we are tiring of our own stories, perhaps inundated with everyone else’s, from Hemingway’s to that of Your Blogging Neighbor. This can be troublesome on both a macro psychological and developmental level. For one thing, sliding into another’s narrative framework is easier than crafting your own story, and if our society is interested in any two damaging acts, it’s avoiding effort and co-opting originality. Worse, we’re apparently tired of being ourselves, and will pay money to shape-shift in our minds.
But there’s a positive way to view this trend: the virtue in subsuming a travel narrative, or even a life story, in an effort to “travel.” Playing out this trend could have collective cathartic value for a society of physical, mental, and virtual nomads. For when we take a vacation at a hotel, ski mountain, beach, grassland, or city we have yet to explore, are we really escaping our lives with Wi-Fi access, pre-designed MP3 playlists, and global phone service? Another, more serious question is why so many of us seek to “escape” anything: travel isn’t, by definition, about escape, although the tourism industry would like us to think about it that way. But let’s stay on the former issue for the sake of getting something philosophically done here.
It’s the nature of our Always On contemporary lives that require so many people to seek another Layer of Pretend in efforts to achieve what they might call True Rest—in particular during the more on-the-grid, affordable trips within the borders of our country and culture; excursions that the Aspirational may feel relegated to take for economic reasons, as if Zion National Park and the Pacific Ocean are simply not enough to soothe the spirit of a 2011 mover-and-shaker.
It’s easy to mock our attempts at searching for—and re-building practices that mimic—authenticity in exotic-sounding travels, but it’s even less difficult to brand someone as unoriginal for taking a weekend in Vegas and playing a version of DeNiro in Casino (or Bradley Cooper in The Hangover), if only in his or her head. Vegas is insipid on its own—it always has been; that’s the reason for its over-the-top fauxtels—and we don’t all have imaginations as exciting as Scorcese or as zany as Todd Phillips. And what to make of such locations: over-visited places now etched into the popular consciousness, branded? Should we not attempt to explore their actual likeness to pop cultural portrayals that may color our conceptions? Adding an intellectual challenge to a holiday in a spot trampled by our culture could actually render the travel experience more engaging.
I descended into this line of thinking on a recent drive down to Orange County, south of Los Angeles, on the beloved 5 Freeway. I’d been sent below to the relative warmth of Newport Beach on assignment, and it struck me, somewhere between two giant F150 Ford trucks with rims and Picolin bumper stickers, as we inched our way through the traffic of “The Orange Crush,” that the world’s been possibly a little unfair to the The O.C., as some have come to call this region, no thanks to the deliciously epic soap opera of the same name that once ruled Fox primetime.
In the time that I have lived in Los Angeles, I have seen shows like MTV’s “unscripted” Laguna Beach, something concerning O.C. Housewives on Bravo, and a number of others that have helped turn my stomach against the county south of Los Angeles. (It didn’t help, of course, when certain pettily politicized bills—say Prop 8 or the recent marijuana legalization attempt—failed to pass because of the overwhelming conservatism of O.C. voters.) What’s more, the only time that I had previously spent in the O.C. was a couple of days in Laguna Beach, surfing with a friend, and one day chronicling the life of a ridiculously wealthy Aussie cellphone carrier mogul who kept a helicopter and Bentley on the grounds of his Newport Coast McMansion estate, along with the token ex-model blonde plastic wife and worldview that failed, in terms of intellectual rigor, to rival, say, Sarah Palin’s.
I still had to speculate, though: What if I took aspects about the coastal O.C. clichés that I liked—say, the phantasmagoric ocean waves, often stocked with dolphins and the occasional shark, the less-smoggy sunset (actual orange, as opposed to L.A. Blood), the exceptionally large infinity pools—and attempted to negotiate them with what I may not think I like about Orange County? I had always associated with the indie-rock, Jewfro-ed Seth Cohen character from The O.C., the soap opera, even if he was younger than me and liked objectively limited emo “bands.” This kid was a new-era Woody Allen for the Gen Y SoCal set: a smart-ass with vision and creative talent who owned his own little schooner and dictionary of nerdy stoner cool; a smoked lox out of water, literally, and a bad fit with the pre-fab castle-living droids that populated his TV world.
In fact, most of Seth Cohen’s dialogues were rants about Newport Beach’s lack of virtue. He even once sailed away from the place, seeking asylum in Seattle, claiming he’d never return. And yet over time, throughout the course of the show, Cohen, as his ironically named girlfriend Summer called him, made peace with his homeland, finally fitting into its harmonic rhythm, loving the Summer-esque aspects of his Homeland. Would it be more fun to indulge in playing out these stories on the gelatinous DVR called My Brain, or should I just drive into The Real O.C. with my pre-conceived notions and everyday worries?
Speeding through the rolling, chaparral-covered brush of the dramatic canyon hills leading into Newport Beach’s coastal area, my phone already showed three missed calls from a variety of people back east I was glad to have missed. Would it be more fun to channel Seth Cohen today? I was to check out and assess a location—the recently re-launched and newsy, hotel-media hotspot Resort at Pelican Hill—not terribly unlike the sort of place the privileged house the Cohens called home, at least in terms of ocean views and vast interior space. Maybe, I, too, would make snarky jokes about it but then come to see hidden virtues. Or maybe I just needed a drink after three hours in the car. The Cohen route won.
Pelican Hill, a gigantic expanse set on lush hills overlooking the Pacific—in particular Crystal Cove State Beach, with its refurbished shacks from the 1930s and panoply of giant black rocks around which live various urchins (sea), starfish, and less glitzy O.C. ocean-devotees—is imposing yet humane. A fantastically large and perfectly round swimming pool surrounds a tiered outdoor power-dining area, replete with straight-ahead sea views, and along with a legitimately fantastic Italian restaurant in the main house, there’s a café serving fresh gelato. Coming from an Italian family (by marriage, of course), I could not see the resort as anything like my father-in-law’s castle town nestled into the rustic mountains of Abruzzo, but a) It wasn’t trying to be anything other than what it is, and b) it was really clean and open-bubble-ish enough to shield me from the disquieting realities of California life (gas fumes, gregarious plastic surgery raconteurs, etc.).
Like the luxe housing development on The O.C., Pelican Hill’s rooms appeared to be fairly luxurious, in a true sense of the word, with extra-large, water-facing balconies—the place even had large private villas, one of which was recently enjoyed by a certain pop star hiding from a certain abusive boyfriend. It felt like a very nice small town without problems. Up the hill from some of the residences, a centrally located spa that avoided irritatingly new-agey spa-cliches seemed to regularly release satisfied customers. (Was Cohen against some old-school shvitz-taking? How could he be? He might not approve of the place, on paper, but like his in-person experience of Palm Springs, home for old people of the Hebraic persuasion, as he would have it, he would surely recognize the virtues of proper muscle relaxation in a dry heat, and he’d doubtlessly become comfortable here quickly, perhaps in the wake of a weekend trip to Silverlake.)
A unique sense of peace pervades Pelican Hill, hence all the good press–one that could hardly be achieved at resorts in Newport Beach proper or storied Laguna Beach to the south, with its tacky Chico’s-unifored artists and annoying tourist hotels. What PHill, as Cohen might dorkily call it, brings to the SoCal hotel space is an actual old-school-feeling resort without a generic brand character—a self-contained place owned by someone with everything you could find at some fully featured St. Lucia luxury spot you might have ended up at in the 1980s if you had well-to-do parents (so I hear). It’s relatively isolated, the property, right up against one of the most redeeming state-supported ocean beaches on the West Coast, and it seems more like a campus of opportunity than a singular hotel.
All a Cohen needs, I guess, is one boat-tipping or fall on the rocks—or even just a long day in the sun, among the prehistoric sea creatures and magically realistic beach girls—to realize that it’s not a rustic little shack that will provide ideal shelter from the O.C. elements. Cohen would easily seek out Pelican and find some way to get on the books for a starter room on sale, perhaps with some of that persuasive gusto from his Bronx-born attorney father Sandy. Once inside, Cohen could slap some posters of Deathcab and The Walkmen up on the walls, and watch as much anime as he wanted on the over-sized LCD with the door closed. Outside, sun, surf, space, and compressed, fuzzy guitar chords on the iPod would await, and Cohen would have trouble hating on anything as long as some water polo roiders didn’t attack. For good measure, I played a YouTube clip from The O.C. as I walked the grounds, and I didn’t incur the wrath of one fratty bully, but a nice bellman asked me if I needed help when I nearly tripped over my own two right feet traversing the traditional Italianate brick path. Too bad central casting was all the way up in LA. Are you reading this, Josh Schwartz?
One of the reasons Seth Cohen was always able to remain so snarky and virtuous, after all, was the relative comfort in which he had been raised. Look at Ryan Atwood, his best friend and adopted brother from the rough bumps of Chino. The guy was utterly humorless. So, in fact, maybe there’s a need for a place like Pelican Hill, for Cohens and Atwoods. For as much as it shields you from the rough and tough realities of the universe, at large, it also cordons you off from the worst of the O.C. Yes, locals who resemble scheming Julie Cooper may populate the restaurant, but so do creative types, and why not enjoy the chance to observe all of them and then go about your day without having to engage with strangers? It’s better than jumping into the flatscreen, and a lot more pleasurable than having to deal with such people in your real life, which would be the case at practically any other SoCal hotel that doesn’t provide you as much private, open real estate to roam.
To put matters in perspective, my next stop on this work drive would take me down to San Diego, where I’d look into more lodging options in perhaps the most boring city in America. I was sad to move on. It’s one thing to have nothing to do but watch the Pacific do its thing in plain sight for hours; it’s another to look at San Diego’s faux urbanites, living just miles from a similarly gorgeous ocean inside a faux-city, reenacting pseudo-urbane lives they watched on 90210 in 1991. Somehow the narrative vacation strategy doesn’t work in reverse, at least not for an observer from the east side of Los Angeles. I think Seth Cohen would agree. I’ll ask the version of him I’ve downloaded into my head the next time I take a trip onto his turf and hope my Summer doesn’t send out for a shrink.
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