by Thom Andersen
This is the complete voice-over of ‘Los Angeles Plays Itself’, written by Thom Andersen and narrated by Encke King, as found on Filmkritik. Thom Andersen is one of the Artists in Focus on the forthcoming Courtisane Festival (1-5 April 2015), on the occasion of which the restored version of ‘Los Angeles Plays Itself’ will be shown.
This is the city: Los Angeles, California. They make movies here. I live here.
Sometimes I think that gives me the right to criticize the way movies depict my city.
I know it’s not easy. The city is big. The image is small. Movies are vertical. At least when they’re projected on a screen. The city is horizontal, except for what we call downtown. Maybe that’s why the movies love downtown more than we do. If it isn’t the site of the action, they try to stick its high-rise towers in the back of the shot.
But movies have some advantages over us.
They can fly through the air. We must travel by land.
They exist in space. We live and die in time.
So why should I be generous?
Of course, I know movies aren’t about places, they’re about stories. If we notice the location, we are not really watching the movie. It’s what’s up front that counts. Movies bury their traces, choosing for us what to watch, then moving on to something else.
They do the work of our voluntary attention, and so we must suppress that faculty as we watch. Our involuntary attention must come to the fore.
But what if we watch with our voluntary attention, instead of letting the movies direct us?
If we can appreciate documentaries for their dramatic qualities, perhaps we can appreciate fiction films for their documentary revelations.
And what if suspense is just another alienation effect. Isn’t that what Hitchcock taught? For him, suspense was a means of enlivening his touristy travelogues. Then maybe I can find another way to animate this city symphony in reverse. Maybe this effort to see how movies depict Los Angeles may seem more than wrong-headed or mean-spirited.
Los Angeles, it is said, is the most photographed city in the world. If you walk around enough, you’ll start to notice the mysterious temporary signs that direct crew members to a movie location. If you walk through the right neighborhoods, you’ll see the long rows of white trucks that mark and fence off a location shoot. Los Angeles is where the relation between reality and representation gets muddled.
[Newspaper headline: 2 Charged in Murder Like One in Film They Produced]
Their film is about the killing of a strip club mogul. Six years earlier, the producer and the star had conspired to murder the real owner of the strip club where the film is set and take over his empire. The strip clubs made them rich, but their movie flopped. Maybe now another producer can make another movie about their venture into film-making that will further complicate this web of fiction and reality.
A real movie shoot can create a better public spectacle than the fake movie studio tours.
In a city where only a few buildings are more than a hundred years old, where most traces of the city’s history have been effaced, a place can become a historic landmark because it was once a movie location. As it is for people, so it is for places: getting into the movies becomes a substitute for achievement. Actors have head shots, buildings get architectural photographs.
Plaques and signs mark the sites of former movie studios.
Streets and parks are named for movie stars. Even movie writers.
A small bust near the Griffith Park Planetarium marks the spot where James Dean once played a rebel without a cause. The inscription claims Dean wasn’t really a rebel: those were only roles he played. But wasn’t he more of a rebel in life than in the movies where he always played a milquetoast Oedipus, trying not to murder but to please an imperfect father who is either too stern… or too soft?
A narrow public stairway between Vendome Street and Descanso Drive in Silver Lake has been named the Music Box Steps, after the classic Laurel and Hardy short filmed there in 1932.
Some buildings that look functional are permanent movie sets. A McDonald’s in City of Industry is never open to the public. Here actors are paid so we can see them smile as they ingest their Big Macs. A roadhouse at the corner of Avenue Q and 145th Street in Palmdale has never served a regular patron, but it appears prominently in Swordfish and Brother. And other buildings that have lost their purpose can be preserved as movie locations, like the Ambassador Hotel, famous since 1968 because Sirhan Sirhan assassinated Robert Kennedy there.
Sometimes it works the other way around: a building constructed as a movie set takes on an afterlife. Mr. Blandings’s dream house, fictionally located in the woods of Connecticut, has been preserved as an administration building at Malibu Creek State Park.
Los Angeles may be the most photographed city in the world, but it’s one of the least photogenic. It’s not Paris or New York. In New York, everything is sharp and in-focus, as if seen through a wide-angle lens. In smoggy cities like Los Angeles, everything dissolves into the distance, and even stuff that’s close-up seems far off.
New York seems immediately accessible to the camera. Any image from almost any corner of the city is immediately recognizable as a piece of New York.
Los Angeles is hard to get right, maybe because traditional public space has been largely occupied by the quasi-private space of moving vehicles. It’s elusive, just beyond the reach of an image. It’s not a city that spread outward from a center as motorized transportation supplanted walking, but a series of villages that grew together, linked from the beginning by railways and then motor roads. The villages became neighborhoods and their boundaries blurred, but they remain separate provinces, joined together primarily by mutual hostility and a mutual disdain for the city’s historic center.
Maybe that’s why the movies turned their back on their city of origin, almost from the beginning. They claimed to come from Hollywood, not from Los Angeles, although the first southern California studios weren’t even in Hollywood, but in another suburb with an even more idyllic name: Edendale just north of Echo Park Lake, where Jake Gittes would spy on Hollis Mulwray in Chinatown. Mack Sennett had his studio there, and when the lake was drained in 1913, he could improvise a movie plot around it. The movies moved west, and Edendale doesn’t exist anymore. It somehow got lost between Echo Park and Silver Lake.
The movies claimed to come from Hollywood, even though there were more movie studios in Culver City, one of the small independent municipalities tucked into the west side of Los Angeles. In the golden age of comedy, when an urban setting was required, it was usually downtown Culver City. But Culver City was „the heart of screenland“ only in the eyes of its civic fathers. The greater renown of Hollywood so frustrated them that they once proposed appropriating the name for themselves. Culver City would have been renamed Hollywood. Why not? After all, Hollywood isn’t just a place, it’s also a metonym for the motion picture industry.
But if you’re like me and you identify more with the city of Los Angeles than with the movie industry, it’s hard not to resent the idea of Hollywood, the idea of the movies as standing apart from and above the city.
People blame all sorts of things on the movies. For me, it’s their betrayal of their native city. Maybe I’m wrong, but I blame them for the custom of abbreviating the city’s name to L.A.
[This Gun for Hire (1942): Raven (Alan Ladd) talking to Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake) on a train headed for Los Angeles, „Gotta find somebody in L.A.“]
[The Blue Dahlia (1946): George (Hugh Beaumont) talking to Buzz (William Bendix) in a Los Angeles hotel room, „Maybe he’s not even in L.A.“]
[Detour (1945): Al Roberts (Tom Neal) and Vera (Ann Savage) riding in a convertible with a desert landscape behind them. Vera asks, „How far did you say you’re going?“ Al responds, „Los Angeles.“ Vera: „L.A.? L.A.’s good enough for me, mister.“]
[Safe (1995): a young boy reads his school paper at the dinner table, „L.A. was the gang capital of America.“]
[The Adventures of Ford Fairlane (1990): a rock star, suspended by ropes on the cave-like back wall of a concert stage, screams, „Hello, L.A!“]
[Escape from L.A. (1996): in a concentration-camp-like setting, a prison guard, backed by row upon row of menacing soldiers, addresses a manacled Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), „Hello, Plissken. Welcome to L.A!“]
The acronym functions here as a slightly derisive diminutive. Now it’s become second nature, even to people who live here. Maybe we adopted it as a way of immunizing ourselves against the implicit scorn, but it still makes me cringe. Only a city with an inferiority complex would allow it.
When people say „L.A.,“ they often mean „show business.“
[Out of Bounds (1986): inside a plane just landed in Los Angeles, a young blonde who calls herself Dizz (Jenny Wright) announces to Darryl (Anthony Michael Hall), „I’m an actress…Did you ever see Massacre in Blood City?“]
That’s another presumption of the movies: that everyone in Los Angeles is part of their „industry“ or wants to be. Actually, only one in forty residents of Los Angles County works in the entertainment industry. But the rest of us simply don’t exist.
We might wonder if the movies have ever really depicted Los Angeles.
The City as Background
At first, Los Angeles was just a destination, not a place. Movie characters visited, they didn’t live here.
[Nobody Lives Forever (1946): Nick Blake (John Garfield) and Al Doyle (George Tobias) emerge from a studio-set train station onto a studio-set street. Doyle asks, „Are you sure we’re still in the United States?“ Blake responds, „I think Los Angeles is.“]
It was a resort, not a city. When its streets and buildings appeared in movies, they were just anonymous backdrops. Nobody called Los Angeles the capital of the Pacific Rim or worried about how it stacked up with the great cities of the world.
The varied terrain and eclectic architecture allowed Los Angeles and its environs to play almost any place. Lake Arrowhead, seventy-eight miles from downtown Los Angeles, could play Switzerland [in Three Smart Girls], and Calabasas in the San Fernando Valley could play the valley of Ling in China after M-G-M excavated some rice paddies [in Dragon Seed].
More often than not, Los Angeles played some other city…
Sinclair Lewis’s Zenith in Babbitt…
Chicago in The Public Enemy…
[Tom Powers (James Cagney) and Gwen Allen (Jean Harlow) ride in the back seat of a fancy convertible chauffeured by Matt Doyle (Edward Wood). Gwen leans forward and says, „Say, you can let me off here. I’m going to meet my friends on the corner.“]
Jimmy Cagney drops off Jean Harlow in front of the new Bullock’s Wilshire department store. Our Art Deco „cathedral of commerce“ had opened in September 1929, seventeen months before The Public Enemy was filmed. It was a new kind of dry goods emporium, located in the suburbs for the motorcar trade. Presumably only locals would recognize this Los Angeles landmark, but as they drove aimlessly around what is now called the Wilshire Center district, anyone who knows anything about Chicago might find the cityscape strangely rural.
[Tom and Gwen in the back seat of the convertible again. Tom asks her, „From Chicago?“ Gwen responds, „Not exactly. I came from Texas.“]
In The Street with No Name, Los Angeles played Center City. Again and again, it has played a city with no name.
Its landmarks are obscure enough that they could play many roles. The most venerable of these landmarks is the Bradbury Building at Third and Broadway, dating from 1893. It was discovered by architectural historian Esther McCoy in 1953. She claimed architect George Herbert Wyman had been inspired by Edward Bellamy’s utopian vision of a socialist architecture in the year 2000: „a vast hall full of light, received not alone from the windows on all sides but from the dome.“
But the movies discovered the Bradbury Building before the architectural historians did. The earliest appearance I know came in 1943. In China Girl, it played the Hotel Royale in Mandalay, Burma. The following year, in The White Cliffs of Dover, it played a London military hospital overflowing with wounded soldiers.
Its first indelible role was in D.O.A.: fatally poisoned by a luminous toxin slipped into his drink at a jazz club, Frank Bigelow has one day before dying to track down his killer, and he finds him at the Phillips Import-Export Company…room 427.
The Bradbury Building was again the site of a bizarre revenge killing in Indestructible Man. This time, an executed convict, brought back to life and given superhuman strength by a scientific experiment gone awry, hunts the three sleazy hoodlums who set him up to take the fall.
In Marlowe, the mayhem was less lethal. Here the Bradbury Building houses Philip Marlowe’s office, which Raymond Chandler had located in a shabby building on Hollywood Boulevard.
[Winston Wong (Bruce Lee) enters the office of Philip Marlowe (James Garner) and asks, „Mr. Marlowe?“ Marlowe responds, „Yes,“ and after a pause, „What can I do for you?“ Wong proceeds to smash up Marlowe’s fixtures and furniture with a deft series of karate kicks and chops.]
The Bradbury Building had become just another cliché in a film of clichés, the most misanthropic of all the Marlowe movies.
Screenwriter Hampton Fancher and director Ridley Scott disagreed about employing the Bradbury Building as a location for Blade Runner. Fancher argued it was too familiar, overdone. Scott responded, „Not the way I’ll do it.“ He gave the building a new, more elaborate facade through mattework, and he turned the interior atrium into a picturesque ruin.
After a long overdue restoration in the early nineties, it went upscale. In Murder in the First, a period movie set in 1941, it housed the offices of a prosperous San Francisco lawyer, and in Wolf, the office of a prominent New York publishing firm. Now it has found a use that seems consonant with its career in the movies [It houses the Internal Affairs Division of the Los Angeles Police Department].
Another Blade Runner location, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis house, has had an even longer movie career. The most massive of the Mayan Revival houses Wright designed around Los Angeles in the twenties, it first appeared in the movies in 1933 as the home of a female auto tycoon. The interiors are studio sets, typical Warner Bros. Art Deco, as are some of the exteriors. Wright had left out the swimming pool.
William Castle rediscovered it in 1958, just before Wright’s death. Vincent Price has offered $10,000 to five people if they can last the night in this century-old haunted house. Once again, the interiors are unrelated to Wright’s architecture.
In 1968 Gus Brown bought the Ennis house and restored it. To help pay the maintenance and preservation costs, he began promoting it as a location site, not only for movies and TV shows, but also for infomercials and music videos. Blade Runner was his proudest catch, but my favorite is A Passion to Kill, a low-budget neo-noir film. It plays a psychiatric clinic where a patient can sometimes seduce her therapist. But director Rick King allows the architecture to upstage the action.
The Ennis house apparently transcends space and time. It could be fictionally located in Washington or Osaka. It could play an ancient villa…a nineteenth century haunted house…a contemporary mansion…a twenty-first century apartment building…or a twenty-sixth century science lab where Klaus Kinski invents time travel.
[Timestalkers: dressed like a scientist in a shiny white tunic, Kinski raves, „I got my blood into this. And now you have it. Look, right in the palm of my hand. Time! We can go back into the past and change it as we wish.“]
The Union Station is a more recognizable landmark. As the major gateway to Los Angeles in the forties and fifties, it has been a location for many movies and a favorite site for movie kidnappings.
[Nick of Time (1995): Gene Watson (Johnny Depp) is intercepted in the lobby of Union Station by Mr. Smith (Christopher Walken) and Ms. Jones (Roma Maffia). Mr. Smith tells him, „Come with us, sir.“ Ms. Jones picks up Watson’s young daughter Lynn and carries her away. Watson tries to protest, „Listen, ma’am.“ As they pass a magazine stand, Ms. Jones grabs a magazine. Lynn says, „You stole that.“]
[To Live and Die in L.A. (198): Richard Chance (William L. Peterson) grabs Thomas Ling (Michael Chang), puts a gun to his side, and says, „Know what this is?“ Ling responds, „It’s a game.“ Chance responds, „It’s no game. Just walk.“ Ling asks, „Why?“ Chance answers, „Cuz if you don’t, I’ll blow your fucking heart out.“]
Through its corridors and grand lobby have passed gangsters… drug dealers… political protesters… Munchkins… even an alien in heat disguised as a railroad conductor.
Yet Union Station hasn’t always played itself. During its fallow days in the early eighties, before its revival as an interurban railway hub, it was a police station in Blade Runner.
In the 1950 movie Union Station, the only film in which it has a starring role, it is not located in Los Angeles. Actually it’s never located anywhere precisely. The station is only a commuter ride from Westhampton, which would place it in New York City, yet one of the vi fllains takes an elevated train out of the station, suggesting Chicago. The police chase him into the stockyards. This must be Chicago, but what about those palm trees?
In The Replacement Killers, Union Station played the Los Angeles International Airport, LAX. Our airport is certainly replaceable. The best anyone might say for it is that it looks like all the others, maybe just a little worse. The railway terminal had been designed as public space; the airport was designed for crowd control. It has been an inevitable if uninspiring location for movies set in Los Angeles, but some directors have tried to sidestep its terminal blandness.
Clint Eastwood set The Rookie in Los Angeles, but he filmed the climactic airport terminal chase at the San Jose International Airport.
In Why Do Fools Fall in Love?, the „theme“ restaurant in the middle of the airport parking lot, originally intended as the control tower, portrayed a passenger terminal.
Of course movies lie about Los Angeles, but sometimes they make us wish the real city corresponded more closely to their vision. In Miracle Mile, Johnie’s Coffee Shop at Wilshire and Fairfax has a fantastic revolving sign, and it’s open all night. At the time the film was made, Johnnie’s had no revolving sign, and it closed before dinnertime. Now it’s closed indefinitely.
Other lies are simply benign. Government agencies sometimes get fictional names.
[Panic in the City (1968): Dr. Paula Stevens (Linda Cristal) walks into the office of a colleague who introduces her to Dave Pomeroy (Howard Duff), „Dr. Stevens, meet Special Agent Pomeroy of the National Bureau of Investigation.“ Dr. Stevens looks surprised and says, „N.B.I.? You don’t look like an N.B.I. man to me, Mr. Pomeroy.“ Pomeroy answers, „Well, you don’t look like a doctor, doctor.“]
People have fake addresses.
[Rebel Without a Cause: a teenage punk in the back of a car thumbs through an address book and reads, „Stark, Jim Stark. Here it is, 1753 Angelo. Well, well.“]
Or fake phone numbers…
[Rebel Without a Cause: alone in a police station, Judy (Natalie Wood) recites her phone number: „Lexington 0-five-five-four-nine.“]
[The Net: Jack Dorlin (Jeremy Northam) is driving and talking on his cell phone. He asks, „What’s the number?“ The answer comes back: „Five-five-five-seven-six-o-five.“]
[Night of the Comet: in a radio station control booth, Samantha Belmont (Zoe Kelli Simon) recites its call-in number: „Five-five-five-four-four-eight-seven.“]
[Dead Connection: a female voice purrs over a shot of a telephone, „Five-five-five-sixty-nine-sixty-nine.“]
[The Adventures of Ford Fairlane: Ford Fairlane (Andrew Dice Clay) tells a young woman at a night club, „Write down my number, five-five-five-six-three-two-one. Got it?“ She nods and starts to write it down. Then she notices something wrong. „Wait a minute. Five-five-five’s not a real number. They only use that in the movies.“ Fairlane answers, „No shit, honey. What do you think this is? Real life?“]
Other lies are annoying. To someone who knows Los Angeles only from movies, it might appear that everyone who has a job lives in the hills or at the beach.
The dismal flatland between is the province exclusively of the lumpen proletariat. And most of them live next to an oil refinery. And in death they will rest next to an oil derrick.
A hillside house may be appropriate for a hack composer [Nocturne]… or a drug dealer on the way up.
[Deep Cover: John Hull (Lawrence Fishburne) is showing his new house to mob lawyer David Jason (Jeff Goldblum). Hull says, „Yeah?“ Jason: „I like this suit. Where’d you get this furniture?“ Hull answers, „Nice Italian lady picked this out.“ Jason: „Oh, so nice. Gianni Versace, right? Mike Tyson wears Versace.“ Hull: „David, come on. Take your feet off the couch. You don’t do that at your mother’s house, do you?“ Jason responds, „Nouveau anal, I think this is called. But all right.“ Jason takes his feet off the couch and sets his drink on the coffee table. Hull: „And here…here…here…coaster…coaster.“]
Or a music promoter on the way down.
[The Limey: Terry Valentine’s head bodyguard Jim Avery (Barry Newman) is intoducing his boss to a guest at Valentine’s party: „Terry Valentine.“ Valentine (Peter Fonda) responds, „Very nice to meet you.“ Outside Eduardo (Luis Guzman) and Wilson (Terence Stamp) are standing by the infinity pool. Eduardo looks around and says to Wilson, „Yeah, if you could afford a house like this, you’d buy a house like this, you know.“ Then he points off into the distant brown haze and says, „You know, you could see the sea out there if you could see it.“]
But in reality, a bookstore clerk couldn’t afford to rent a house above Sunset Plaza, even if it is, as she claims, „small and kind of run-down.“ A fixer with jetliner views, in the local realtor jargon, would still have rented for two or three thousand dollars per month in 1995, no matter how much in need of TLC.
Her bank robber boyfriend might live in Malibu. And back in the sixties, bohemian young people did live by the sand in Venice, although I don’t remember the Infinite Pad. We may regard Cobra’s Venice loft as a relic of the golden eighties when product placement superseded script-writing and movie cops abandoned the suburbs to become urban pioneers.
But what about a struggling true-crime writer and an unemployed photographer so cash-strapped they must recruit paying passengers for their move from Pittsburgh to California? Yet when they arrive in Los Angeles, they immediately take up residence in a spacious Malibu beach cottage.
And I don’t like geographic license. It’s hard to make a theoretical argument against it. After all, in a fiction film, a real space becomes fictional. Why shouldn’t a car chase jump from the Venice canals to the Los Angeles harbor thirty miles away? Why shouldn’t the exit from a skating rink in Westwood open directly onto Fletcher Bowron Square in downtown Los Angeles, fifteen miles east? But one fiction is not always as good as another, and like dramatic license, geographic license is usually an alibi for laziness. Silly geography makes for silly movies.
[Death Wish 4: The Crackdown: Nathan White (John P. Ryan) pulls Karen Sheldon (Kay Lenz) out of a skating rink onto an empty public square, with Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) following them closely. White yells at Karen, „Come on!“ She runs away, and he shoots her in the back. Out of ammuniton as Kersey takes aim on him, White defiantly proclaims, „I warned you I’d kill her.“ Kersy literally blows him away.]
And the best Los Angeles car chase movie is stubbornly, even perversely literalist
[Gone in 60 Seconds (1974): a bulletin on the police radio: „Attention, all units. Roadblock being set up at Torrance Mazda agency, One-Nine-O street and Hawthorne Boulevard. Use caution.“]
Director Toby Halicki realized Dziga Vertov’s dream: an anti-humanist cinema of bodies and machines in motion. His materialist masterpiece was the first manifesto for a cinema of conspicuous destruction.
It was also the first southern California movie centered in the South Bay, the unglamorous southern coastal region of the Los Angeles basin stretching from Long Beach to El Segundo that would later become the domain of William Friedkin… Quentin Tarantino… and Michael Mann, who would accidentally rename the most familiar icon of South Bay movies, the Vincent Thomas Bridge.
[In Heat, Neil McCauley (Robert DeNiro) is briefing two members of his gang. He tells them, „Saint Vincent Thomas Bridge, that’s escape route number one.“]
Vincent Thomas was San Pedro’s representative in the state assembly for many years, but he hasn’t been canonized yet, not even in Pedro.
Accidents happen, but some lies are malignant. They cheapen or trivialize the real city.
One of the glories of Los Angeles is its modernist residential architecture, but Hollywood movies have almost systematically denigrated this heritage by casting many of these houses as the residences of movie villains.
It begins with The Damned Don’t Cry in 1950. Frank Sinatra’s Palm Springs retreat, designed by Stewart Williams, plays the home of a local gangster boss.
Then in 1955, a band of psycho kidnappers led by John Cassavetes holes up in a prototypically mid-century modern house in the Hollywood Hills.
And there has usually been something sinister about the Ennis house. Its most frequent role is the mansion of some gangster chieftain, often a representative of the yellow peril.
The most celebrated episode in Hollywood’s war against modern architecture is L.A. Confidential. Richard Neutra’s Lovell house, the first great manifestation of the International Style in southern California, plays the home of Pierce Patchett, pornographer, pimp, prince of the shadow city where whatever you desire is for sale.
Actually director Curtis Hanson greatly admires the Lovell house. He even gives it a special credit at the end of the film, according it the honorific title favored by its original owner: the Lovell Health House. Is it just a convention then? The architectural trophy house is the modern equivalent of the black hat or the mustache. It’s nothing to take seriously.
Well, the architecture critic of the Los Angeles Times took it seriously. He cited L.A. Confidential as some kind of proof that the utopian aspirations of modernist architecture were bogus. He wrote, „The house’s slick, meticulous forms seem the perfect frame for that kind of power… Neutra’s glass walls open up to expose the dark side of our lives – they suggest the erotic, the broken, the psychologically impure.“ So now we know. As the movies have shown, these pure modern machines for better living were dens of vice. In fact, this fiction is contradicted not only by the original spirit of the Lovell house, but by its entire history. It was designed as a kind of manifesto for natural living, and it became a center for radical left-wing political meetings in the thirties.
There is one modernist architect Hollywood lets off lightly: Pierre Koenig. Perhaps it’s because he had a knack for turning steel-and-glass cubes into Hollywood Regency style mini-mansions. His Stahl house is an icon of modern architecture and lately a movie star. In The Marrying Man, it plays the Hollywood pied-à-terre of a multimillionaire playboy, although the film is set twelve years before it was built. In The First Power, it plays the home of a police psychic, and in Why Do Fools Fall in Love?, it is the west coast base of Zola Taylor, the female vocalist in the Platters. We feel bad when Frankie Lymon trashes it.
On the other hand, the architect Hollywood most loves to hate is John Lautner. In Twilight, a Lautner house overlooking the San Fernando Valley is a crooked cop’s reward for his corruption.
[Harry Ross (Paul Newman) surveys the hillside house of his old friend Raymond Hope (James Garner) and remarks, „Nice place you got here. It sure beats Los Feliz.“ After a pause, he adds, „You’re up above the smog.“
[In The Big Lebowski, Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) and Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara) walk into Treehorn’s house. Lebowski says, „Quite a pad you got here, man.“]
A more elaborate Lautner house in the hills of Beverly plays the Malibu beach house of porn king Jackie Treehorn in The Big Lebowski.
[Lebowski plants himself in a seat and asks, „How’s the smut business, Jackie?“ As he mixes drinks at the bar, Jackie responds, „I wouldn’t know, dude. I deal in publishing.“]
Lautner’s most famous house is the Chemosphere, a hexagon of wood, steel, and glass raised above its hillside lot on a single concrete column. It appears in Body Double as the bachelor pad of a lunatic driller killer. Lautner’s interiors may be sometimes vulgar or excessively ostentatious, but he can’t be blamed for this one, a bit of excessive art direction designed to parody eighties excesses.
The ultimate insult to Lautner’s work came in Lethal Weapon 2. The Garcia house on Mulholland is the home office of a drug ring organized by the South African consulate. Enraged by their diplomatic immunity, Mel Gibson pulls down their house with his pickup truck. Not only is Lautner slick and superficial, he’s incompetent.
Lethal Weapon 2 is also the work of a modern architecture fan. Producer Joel Silver is famous for his tasteful restoration of a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Hollywood and a Wright-designed plantation in South Carolina. Even though Lautner was Wright’s disciple, Hollywood’s conventional ideology once again trumped personal conviction.
At least Silver has also trashed post-modernist architecture. The thirty-four-story Fox Plaza in Century City co-starred with Bruce Willis in Die Hard. When a gang of high-stakes robbers posing as terrorists take over the building and capture thirty plus hostages, the FBI would sacrifice a good number of the hostages in order to save the building.
[In a helicopter flying around the skyscraper, two FBI agents plan their assault. One asks, „What you figure the breakage?“ The other answers, „I figure we take out the terrorists, lose twenty, twenty-five per cent of the hostages. Tops.“ The first concurs: „I can live with that.“]
But the rogue cop inside has other ideas. Among all the authority figures on the scene, he alone places people above property.
[John McClane (Bruce Willis), on the roof of the skyscraper, warns the hostages,“Get down, get the fuck down!“ He fires his machine gun in the air to speed their descent. In the FBI helicopter above, one of the agents orders, „Nail that sucker.“ McClane flees]
The Fox Plaza played the Nakatomi Plaza, the Los Angeles branch office of a Japanese multinational. In the late eighties, Japanese corporations did own many of the local office towers. In the movies, they owned them all.
[Rising Sun: LAPD detectives Tom Graham (Harvey Keitel). Web Smith (Wesley Snipes), and John Conner (Sean Connery) are riding in an elevator in the Nakamoto Tower. There is a recorded announcement in Japanese. Graham remarks, „Jesus, if an elevator’s gonna talk, it should speak in American.“]
There are a few Los Angeles landmarks that almost always play themselves: City Hall… Grauman’s Chinese Theatre… Griffith Planetarium… the four-level freeway interchange… the concrete channel of the Los Angeles River… the Eastern Columbia Building at Eighth and Broadway… the Bonaventure Hotel at Fifth and Figueroa… the Beverly Hills Hotel at Sunset and Rodeo, the Paradise Motel at Sunset and Beaudry… Clayton Plumbers at Westwood and LaGrange… Circus Liquor at Burbank and Vineland… Pink’s Hot Dogs at La Brea and Melrose… the Memorial Coliseum in Exposition Park.
With hard wooden seats for all, the Coliseum is the most democratic American stadium and the last of its kind to survive. As a place where thousands of people congregate, it is a magnet for terrorists and alien invaders, like the enigmatic sniper in Two-Minute Warning with a perfect aim for aging movie stars, or the „invisible invaders“ in Edward L. Cahn’s 1959 film who utilize a zombie to commandeer the public-address system and deliver one of their laconic ultimatums.
[The announcement delivered by the zombie: „People of earth, this is your last warning. Unless the nations of your planet surrender immediately, all human lives will be destroyed.“]
And, of course, there’s the Hollywood sign. Since it marks quite literally the ascendancy of Hollywood over the rest of Los Angeles, I should despise it, as I despise the Hollywood Walk of Fame, where the stars cost the honorees or their sponsors $15,000, where the Hollywood Blacklist still lives. There are stars for the enforcers and the informers, but none for those they informed on. It should be called the Hollywood Walk of Shame.
But actually I find the Hollywood sign reassuring. Maybe I find it poignant that a decayed advertisement for a real estate development could become a civic landmark. Or maybe it’s just that we have to love it because it’s such a fat target for outsiders. Like that expatriate Englishman David Thomson, who loves everything about America except what’s worth loving. He loves Hollywood, but not the Hollywood sign. He once wrote, „That HOLLYWOOD sign is so endlessly funny, and dreadful – and L.A. is proud of it.“
These are the landmarks that are destroyed in disaster movies.
Whenever the legitimacy of authority comes into question, Hollywood responds with disaster movies. And whenever there’s a disaster movie, there’s George Kennedy.
[Earthquake: LAPD Sgt. Lew Slade (Kennedy) interrupts Jody (Marjoe Gortner) as he attempts to rape Rosa (Victoria Principal). Slade shouts, „Rosa, let’s go.“ Jody grabs a rifle. Slade warns, „Better not,“ and shoots him. Rosa runs over to Slade and throws her arms around him. Cut to Slade comforting Rosa in a jeep driven by Stewart Graff (Charlton Heston): „Come on, Rosa. Come on, settle down will ya? Earthquakes bring out the worst in some guys, that’s all.“]
Disaster movies remind us how foolish and helpless we really are and thus demonstrate our need for professionals and experts to save us from ourselves.
They define the sources of legitimate authority. We must depend on specialists, but which ones can we trust?
[Earthquake: Graff crawls out of a tunnel and reports to a group of rescue workers in hard hats, „I got through. Can you get me a jack hammer and a bolt cutter?“ On of them responds, „Use a jack hammer and then the roof will fall in.“ Graff responds, „Look, I think there are some people alive in there and I’m gonna try and get them out.“ The hard hat replies, „Well, nobody else is and you can’t do it all alone.“ Graff looks over at Slade and answers, „I won’t be alone, he’s coming with me.“ Slade thinks for a moment and then nods.]
A priest can be useful.
[Airport: a passenger in an aisle seat cries out,“We’re gonna crash, we’re gonna be killed, I know we’re all gonna be…“ A priest across the aisle crosses himself and extends his arm across the aisle to slap him across the face.]
But not a politician.
[Escape from L.A.: A presidential candidate (Cliff Robertson) in a television speech: „Like the mighty fist of God, Armageddon will descend upon the city of Los Angeles, the city of sin, the city of Gomorroh, the city of Sodom. And waters will arise and separate this sinful, sinful city from our country.“]
Mike Davis has claimed that Hollywood takes a special pleasure in destroying Los Angeles, a guilty pleasure shared by most of its audience. „The entire world seems to be rooting for Los Angeles to slide into the Pacific or be swallowed by the San Andreas fault. …In Independence Day, who could identify with the caricatured mob…dancing in idiot ecstasy…to greet the extraterrestrials? There is a comic undertone of ‘good riddance’ when kooks like these are vaporized by the earth’s latest ill-mannered guests.“ [Ecology of Fear, p. 277.]
But to me the casual sacrifice of Paris in Armageddon seems even crasser. Are the French being singled out for punishment because they admire Jerry Lewis too much? Or because they have resisted Hollywood’s cultural imperialism too fervently?
In a sense, Hollywood’s frequent destruction of Los Angeles is just as crass, but it’s more often a case of economic expediency than of ideology. Hollywood destroys Los Angeles because it’s there. Our film-makers don’t really believe the Los Angeles City Hall is a more resonant civic symbol than the Empire State Building. But they are well aware that it’s closer.
[In Earthquake, Dr. James Vance (Lloyd Nolan) scans the ruins of the city and addresses Slade (George Kennedy): „This used to be a hell of a town, officer.“ Slade responds, „Yeah.“]
In disaster movies, at least Los Angeles is finally there as a character, if not yet as a subject.
The City as Character
James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler had made Los Angeles a character in their novels, and it became a character for the movies when Chandler and Billy Wilder adapted Cain’s novel, Double Indemnity. The sense of place was so precise that Richard Schickel would later claim, „You could charge L.A. as a co-conspirator in the crimes this movie relates.“ Departing from Cain’s text, Chandler and Wilder created a protagonist-narrator who has ideas or at least opinions about the city around him, and his voice-over commentary is addressed to an esteemed colleague whose opinion he values and whose intelligence he tries to emulate.
[Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), alone in his office, speaking into a dictaphone: „Office memorandum. Walter Neff to Barton Keyes, claims manager. Los Angeles. July 16, 1938. Dear Keyes. I suppose you’ll call this a confession. Well, I don’t like the word „confession.“ I just want to set you straight about something you couldn’t see because it was smack up against your nose. It all began last May. Around the end of May it was. I remembered this auto renewal near Los Feliz Boulevard. So I drove over there. It was one of those California Spanish houses everyone was nuts about ten or fifteen years ago. This one must of cost somebody about 30,000 bucks, that is, if he ever finished paying for it.“
[Neff in flashback, introducing himself a ‘t the Dietrichson house: „I’m Walter Neff, Pacific All-Risk.“]
Like Chandler and Wilder, Walter Neff is a smart aleck and a snob.
[Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), standing at the top of the entry hall staircase, covered only by a towel: „Is there anything I can do?“ Neff responds, „The insurance ran out on the fifteenth. I’d hate to think of your having a smashed fender or something while you’re not… fully covered.“ Phyllis: „Perhaps I know what you mean, Mr. Neff. I was just taking a sun bath.“ Neff: „No pigeons around, I hope.“]
And a bit of an asshole, although less of one than the man he murders.
[As Phyllis and her step-daughter Lola play cards in the background, Mr. Dietrichson addresses Walter Neff, „Next thing you’ll tell me I need earthquake insurance, and lightning insurance, and hail insurance…“ Phyllis interjects, „If we bought all the insurance they could think up, we’d stay broke paying for it, wouldn’t we, honey?“ Her husband replies, „What keeps us broke is your going out and buying five hats at a crack. Who needs a hat in California?“]
And less of a monster than his partner in crime.
[In closeup, Phyllis smiles as her husband (offscreen) gasps for breath and fails to find it. Cut to Phyllis and Walter dragging the husband’s corpse out of the family sedan. Walter says, „This has got to be fast. Here, take his hat. Pick up his crutches back on the tracks.“]
The murder that inspired Cain’s novel had occurred fifteen years earlier in Queen’s Village, New York, but the crime seemed to fit the rootlessness and moral corruption of the southern California middle class. Double Indemnity and the Cain adaptations that followed it convinced everyone that Los Angeles is the world capital of adultery and murder.
[Walter tosses Dietrichson’s crutches and hat onto the railroad tracks and tells Phyllis, „Okay, baby,that’s it.“
[Cut to interior of Dietrichson car. Phyllis asks Walter, „What’s the matter, aren’t you going to kiss me?“ Wal 6ter moves closer. Phyllis asks. „It’s straight down the line, isn’t it?“ They kiss. Phyllis says, „I love you, Walter.“ Without conviction, Walter responds „I love you, baby.“ He hurries out of the car.]
Nowhere else is evil so banal.
Double Indemnity evokes Los Angeles without much location shooting, but each location is memorable: the Glendale train station at night, a street corner identified as Vermont and Franklin (although actually it’s Hollywood and Western), the exterior of Jerry’s Market on Melrose, and the Spanish Colonial Revival house that plays the residence of Phyllis Dietrichson, her husband, and her step-daughter.
Neff’s voice-over places this house in the hills of Los Feliz, and that location seems right, although the actual house is a few miles to the west, just above the north end of Vine Street, close to Hollywoodland where Cain had placed it. They must have searched for a house that matched his description as closely as possible: „It was built cock-eyed. The garage was under the house, the first floor was over that, and the rest of it was spilled up the hill anyway they could get it in.“
Although all the interiors were filmed on studio sets, Wilder stuck close to reality here, taking his inspiration from the dramatic entry hall staircase. He simply moved the living room from the left side of the entry hall to the right side.
For Wilder, a consistent modernist, the phony historicism of the architecture and interior decor reflects the dishonesty of the lives contained within. But tastes have changed. Now we all love those red-tile roofs and that wrought iron grillwork and would do anything to preserve them. So just as modernist architecture connotes epicene villainy, the Spanish Colonial Revival suggests petty bourgeois good taste. It’s the ideal home for a good-bad call girl ripe for reform [L.A. Confidential] or a vigilante hero out for revenge [Death Wish 2]. Genteel respectability is the message in Mildred Pierce, Hollywood’s second version of a James M. Cain novel, in which the suburbs of Los Angeles have a bit part.
[Mildred Pierce in voice-over: „We lived on Corvallis Street, where all the houses looked alike. Ours was number eleven-forty-three.“]
It’s an odd observation since the houses we see don’t all look alike, but a typical criticism of Los Angeles. If you don’t like one thing, complain about its opposite as well. The architecture is too eclectic, but it’s also too uniform.
Once again, the drama ends in murder. And so it will in The Postman Always Rings Twice, the last novel in Cain’s southern California trilogy. Hollywood filmed it twice, in 1946 and again in 1981.
Cain’s novels were written in the thirties, and they reflect the fears of a lower middle class hit especially hard by the Depression. Explicitly or implicitly, the mid-forties movie adaptations are period films.
The contemporary postwar world looked brighter.
[Till the End of Time (1946): A young woman dresed like a tomboy, Helen Ingersoll (Jean Porter), is addressing a returning vet, Cliff Harper (Guy Madison), still in uniform, „Daddy says, southern California is the coming part of the country. Daddy says, six out of every ten veterans will settle here after the war. Daddy says…“ Harper interrupts, „Never mind about your daddy. don’t you have any ideas of your own?“ She responds coyly, „Well, for a returning Marine, I’ve got some super ideas.“]
A new suburbia was created for the vets back from the war. They could look forward to a good job in the booming aircraft industry, a detached house for every family, a trash incinerator in every backyard, and plenty of bathrooms without toilets–at least for movie characters.
In movies, there were many harbingers of a baby boom, yet these excessively cute kids would become, in just a few years, the excessively troubled teenagers of Rebel Without a Cause, the first teen noir.
[Jim Stark (James Dean), at a police station, is confronted by his father, his mother, and his maternal grandmother. His mother scolds,“That’s a fine way to behave.“ The grandmother chimes in, „Well, you know who he takes after.“ Jim cries out, „You’re tearing me apart!“]
Director Nicholas Ray photographed real locations around Los Angeles to look like sets in a studio musical. Musicals establish alternate worlds, and that is precisely Ray’s achievement. The teenagers live in a world that is parallel to the adult world of normality and stability, in a world they have created for themselves and that is almost a parody of film noir. Their world is more dangerous than that of their parents – and more attractive.
[Standing between two rows of parked cars on a hgh bluff at night, Judy yells, „Hit your lights!“ The headlight of all the cars come on, illuminating the path for a „chicken run“ off the cliff.]
It is also privileged in the film. We see the adult world through their eyes. But we have no other perspective on theirs.
The teenagers are able to create their own separate world only because of their easy access to automobiles. They were the first teenagers with cars, at least in the movies, and maybe that’s why Rebel Without a Cause seems so prophetic and so evocative of Los Angeles.
More conventional noir films only fitfully revealed the look of the city. Those streets dark with something more than night were still more often than not located on studio back lots. Film noir generally shunned the mean streets for the meaner sewers.
The real streets appear in Kiss Me Deadly, although this urban road movie didn’t announce itself as a portrait of Los Ange les. It’s a private eye movie, a revisionist version of Mickey Spillane that tries to reverse his hyperfascist version of McCarthyism by giving Mike Hammer enough rope to hang himself.
[Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) pulls some bills out of his pocket to bribe the desk clerk at the Hollywood Athletic Club. The clerk looks down at them disdainfully and says, „My dear sir.“ Hammer grabs him and slaps him around. He says, „Now tell me about the key.“ The chastened clerk responds, „Just a minute, sir.“ As he walks away, Hammer picks up the bribe money off the counter and stuffs the bills in his pocket.]
Yet it’s close to definitive as a portrait of the city in the mid-fifties. Kiss Me Deadly is a literalist film. Mike Hammer has a real address: 10401 Wilshire Boulevard. And when he pulls away from his apartment building in his new Corvette, what we see is what was really there.
[Hammer drives the Corvette east down Wilshire, his friend Nicky (Nick Dennis) by his side. Nicky jabbers, „My mustache, my father’s mustache. Let’s go to the freeway. I want to see how this little bird flies.“]
Mike Hammer’s journeys, all shot on location, reveal a city divided. The rich… and the poor. The old… and the new. What was new then is still with us.
[The phone rings in Mike Hammer’s apartment. Hammer doesn’t respond. After a few rings, the prerecorded message from an answering machine, which features reel-to-reel tapes, comes on: „This is Crestview five-four-one-two-four. Mr. Hammer, whom you are calling, is not available at present. If you wish to leave a record of your call, please state your message at the sound of the tone.“ The voice of Velda responds, „Hello, Mike, just checking to see if you got home. Please call me when you…“ Mike turns off the machine and picks up the phone. He answers, „Velda.“]
What was old has been destroyed. Images of things that aren’t there any more mean a lot to those of us who live in Los Angeles, and practically nothing to everyone else, except perhaps when they represent things that have disappeared from urban centers everywhere, like drive-in restaurants or drive-in movies.
Of course, there are certain types of buildings that aren’t designed to last. They must be rebuilt every five or ten years so they can adapt to changing patterns of consumption. So the image of an obsolete gas station or grocery store can evoke the same kind of nostalgia we feel for any commodity whose day has passed. Old movies allow us to rediscover these icons, even to construct a documenary history of their evolution.
[The Exiles: a Oldsmobile convertible, with a couple in the front seat and another in back, pulls into a brightly-lit gas station. The woman in the back seat says, „Tell this character we want to go…“ A uniformed attendant approaches the driver and asks him, „Can I help you, sir?“ The driver answers, „Oh, yeah. Give me five gallons of regular.“ The attendant repeats, „Regular,“ and walks over to the pump. The woman says, „I thought you said we were going to dancing..“ One of the men says, „Come here, homes. Come here, I wnt to talk to you.“]
[Flareup: at an Ace gas station, the attendant is putting the nozzle of the gas pump into the fuel tank of a small yellow convertible. The driver Michele (Raquel Welch) asks, „Wo Puld you check under the hood, too, please?“ The attendant replies, „Sure,“ and walks around to the front of the car.]
[Messiah of Evil: a reddish pickup truck pulls in. The attendant walks over, saying, „Hello, there. Fill’er up?“ The albino truck driver replies,“Two dollars, no knock!“ The attendant responds, „Yes, sir.]
[Outside Wrigley Field, a radio boadcast of the game inside: „There goes Williams. He slides. He’s in there, safe.“]
But who cares about our old minor league baseball parks, Wrigley Field, home of the Angels, and Gilmore Field, home of the Hollywood Stars, or the Twinks, as our local sportswriters liked to call them?
[The Atomic City: David Rogers walks into Gilmore Field. A vendor is hawking seat cushions: „Cushions a dime. Ten cents only. Be comfortable for a dime. Get your cushions here.“]
Who remembers Steve Bilko and Bobby Bragan and Carlos Bernier?
The crowd scenes in The Atomic City feature real baseball fans, not professional extras, who were then still cast according to the requirements of a production code that prohibited „any scenes showing the social intermingling of white and colored people.“ They suggest that Los Angeles may have been more comfortably integrated in 1952 than it is today.
And who mourns the Pan Pacific Auditorium, our Streamline Moderne palace, once the city’s most famous landmark, where the college basketball teams played their games, where Robert Frank photographed the Motorama in 1956. It played a dog racing track in Johnny Eager and an arena for ice skating shows in Suspense.
In 1980, after the Pan Pacific had been abandoned, Lawrence Gordon produced an ill-fated fantasy of what the preservationists call adaptive reuse. A muse inspires a young artist to convince an aging clarinetist that it is the ideal locale for the nightclub he wants to open.
[Xanadu: the muse Kira (Olivia Newton-John) and the artist Sonny Malone (Michael Beck) stand outside the Pan Pacific at night. Sonny asks, „You really think this could work out for Danny?“ Kira answers, „I think this place could be anything you want it to be.“ Cut to interior. Danny (Gene Kelly) muses aloud, „Yeah, but what the hell to call it?“ Kira materializes and recites, „In Xanadu did Kublah Khan a stately pleasure dome decree.“]
Alas, their dream turns out to be… a roller disco. The film failed, and what was left of the Pan Pacific burned down nine years later. It deserved better, both in the movies and in reality.
[Olivia Newton-John sings, „A place where nobody dared to go/ A love that we came to know/ They call it Xanadu.“]
So did the Richfield Building, which had to make way for taller, uglier skyscrapers. There are many photographs, but only a few movie shots. Thanks to Antonioni.
What about Ship’s Westwood, a coffee shop that was open all night? It was an institution, but it didn’t stand a chance when someone realized you could put a skyscraper in the same space.
[Into the Night: inside Ship’s, a waitress (Amy Heckerling) sets down two desserts in front of Ed (Jeff Goldblum) and Diana (Michelle Pfeiffer). Ed says, „Thanks, Amy.“]
At least the Far East Café is still there. It closed down after the 1994 earthquake, but it is supposed to reopen soon.
And so is the Angel’s Flight. Our beloved funicular, „the shortest railway in the world,“ built in 1901, ripped up in 1969 by the Community Redevelopment Agency, reconstructed in 1996, a block south of its original location, closed after a crash in February 2001, just a few days after I filmed it. But it’s still there… sort of. The reconstructed Angel’s Flight was a tourist ride, a simulation, because it had lost its original purpose. Bunker Hill, the residential neighborhood Îat the top of the Angel’s Flight, had vanished.
The movies loved Bunker Hill. The lords of the city hated it. Rents were low, so it put the wrong kind of people too close to downtown. Bunker Hill became a target for slum clearance or urban renewal. They had to destroy it in order to save it. And destroy it they did, although it took more than ten years.
Bunker Hill was the most photographed district in Los Angeles, so the movies unwittingly documented its destruction and depopulation. In the late forties, it could represent a solid working-class neighborhood, a place where a guy could take his girl home to meet his mother.
[Shockproof (1949): Griff Marat (Cornel Wilde) sweeps into the family house with Jenny Marsh and greets his mother, „Ah, buena sera, mamma mia.“ The mother replies, „Buena sera.“]
It was film noir territory, but it was a refuge from the meaner streets of the city.
[The Unfaithful (1947): a news vendor stands at the top of the Angel’s Flight. He cries, „Paper! Paper, lady? Morning Examiner!“]
By the mid-fifties, it had become a neighborhood of rooming houses where a man who knows too much might hole up or hide out. Hollywood had come to accept Raymond Chandler’s vision of Bunker Hill as „old town, wop town, crook town, arty town…[where] you could find anything from…crooks on the lam [to] ladies of anybody’s evening to County Relief clients brawling with haggard landladies in grand old houses with scrolled porches…“
[Kiss Me Deadly (1955): Mike Hammer climbs a long public stairway to the Hillcrest Hotel. He walks into the lobby and greets the landlady, who is sorting letters: „A guy could get a heart attack walking up here.“ She responds, „Who invited you?“ Hammer asks, „Carmen Trivago, what room?“ The landlady replies, „Follow your ear.“]
The best Bunker Hill movie is The Exiles, an independent low-budget film by Kent MacKenzie, about Indians from Arizona exiled in Los Angeles, shot in 1958, completed in 1962. It reveals the city as a place where reality is opaque, where different social orders coexist in the same space without touching each other. Better than any other movie, it proves that there once was a city here, before they tore it down and built a simulacrum.
The end of Bunker Hill is visible in The Omega Man. By 1971 it made a good location for a post-apocalyptic fantasy. Charlton Heston plays an urban survivalist in a cityscape depopulated by biological warfare. He has learned to become totally self-reliant. If he wants to see a movie, he has to project it himself.
[Robert Neville (Charlton Heston) watches Woodstock. He mouths the words from the soundtrack, an interview with one of the festivalgoers: „This is really beautiful , man. If we can’t all live together and be happy? If you have to be afraid to walk out in the street, if you have to be afraid to smile at somebody, right? What kind of a way is that to go through this life?]
All his movie shows are matinees, because at night he must fight off a gang of Luddite hippie vampires, his only companions in the city.
Thirteen years later, the same plot and the same location reappear in Night of the Comet. In the wake of a disaster apparently brought on by comet dust, a small band of human survivors again battle zombie-like mutants, but the center of the action, Bunker Hill, has been totally transformed.
The new Bunker Hill looks like a simulated city, and it played one in Virtuosity.
But the directors who did the most to make Los Angeles a character in movies and then a subject were outsiders, like Wilder, or tourists. They weren’t interested in what made Los Angeles like a city; they were interested in what made Los Angeles unlike the cities they knew.
Just as there are highbrows and lowbrows, there are high tourists and low tourists. Just as there are highbrow directors and lowbrow directors, there are high tourist directors and low tourist directors. Low tourist directors generally disdain Los Angeles. They prefer San Francisco and the coastline of northern California. More picturesque.
The greatest low tourist director is, of course, Alfred Hitchcock, and he set four memorable films around the San Francisco Bay Area. But only one of his thirty American films is set even partially in Los Angeles. The first ten minutes of Saboteur are located in or around Los Angeles, but it could be anywhere in America where there is an aircraft factory. The scenes were shot in the studio, and there is nothing distinctive to the region in the sets.
Hitchcock even had Marion Crane bypass Los Angeles on her fateful journey from Phoenix to the Bates Motel in northern California. But he never had an unkind word for his adopted home town, at least in his movies.
Another low tourist director, Woody Allen, plainly expressed his disdain for Los Angeles in his most popular movie
[In Annie Hall, Alvy (Woody Allen and his friend Rob (Tony Roberts) are walking along a street in Manhattan. Alvy says to Rob, „No, I cannot… You keep bringing it up,. but I don’t wanna live in a city where the only cultural advantage is that you can make a right turn on a red light.“]
As the cinematic chronicler of New York’s middle-brow middle class, the people who believe what they read in the New York Times, Allen rarely strays from his native milieu. But his best friend does move to Los Angeles, and Woody follows – although only for a visit.
[Alvy and Rob are driving along a palm-lined street in Beverly Hills in Rob’s Mercedes-Benz convertible, with Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) in the back seat. Annie says, „You know, I can’t believe that this is really Beverly Hills.“ Alvy responds, „The architecture is really consistent isn’t it, French next to Spanish, next to Tudor, next to Japanese.“ Annie marvels, „God, it’s so clean out here.“ Alvy responds, „It’s because they don’t throw their garbage away, they make it into television shows.“]
His tale of two cities becomes a tale of two marquees. In fact, The Sorrow and the Pity did play in Los Angeles – I saw it here – and, for all I know, The House of Exorcism and Messiah of Evil played in New York.
But if New York has Woody Allen to live down, we can’t feel superior. We have Henry Jaglom, who is even balder, even more narcissistic, even more solipsistic.
[In Venice/Venice, Jaglom talks to an interviewer at the Venice Film Festival: „I’ve learned that risks are the best thing. Everything that happens good and exciting, that happens in film – and in life – comes as a result of risk. Risk is my middle name.“]
While New Yorkers are generally hostile, the British are often fascinated. In The Loved One, Tony Richardson acknowledges his ambivalence. The local architecture is kitsch, but it is transcendent kitsch. A movie studio is a cruel court where everyone is subject to the most wayward whim of its mogul, but the back lot is an enchanted village of accidental surrealism.
[As they walk through the back lot, Sir Francis Hinsley (John Gielgud) is lecturing his cousin Dennis Barlow (Robert Morse), „The climate here suits me admirably. And the people here are so kind and generous. They talk entirely for their own pleasure, and they never expect you to listen.“]
People who hate Los Angeles love Point Blank. British director John Boorman managed to make the city look both bland and insidious, like the gangster organization Lee Marvin smashes, which goes by the name Multiplex Products Company.
For me the highlight of the film is the astonishing tableau of grotesque interior decoration schemes. It’s enough to make you believe the seventies began in the mid-sixties.
Is an LSD movie low tourist or high tourist? Roger Corman, the director of The Trip, is no tourist in Los Angeles, but he probably needed a guidebook to open the doors of perception. Luckily he had Jack Nicholson to write the script, Peter Fonda and Bruce Dern as traveling companions, and Dennis Jakob to create the montage sequences.
Experimental high tourist film-makers like Corman, Maya Deren, Andy Warhol, and Fred Halsted discovered a pastoral arcadia near the heart of Los Angeles.
Deren and her collaborator Alexander Hammid could find a private Eden just by gazing out the window of their Spanish Colonial Revival duplex above the Sunset Strip.
For Warhol, Hollywood formulas represented an innocence that could be regained only „sort of,“ but Sam Rodia’s towers in Watts were a bit of paradise not yet lost. In the early sixties, the Watts Towers were the first world’s most accessible, most user-friendly civic monument.
Fred Halsted’s gay porn masterpiece recapitulates the loss of Eden, moving from the idyllic rural canyons to the already mean streets of Hollywood. As the landscape becomes more urban, the sex gets rougher.
Continental European directors are usually high tourists, so they appreciate Los Angeles, even the tacky stuff we hate, like the Sunset Strip. In The Outside Man by Jacques Deray, a Parisian hit man stranded in Los Angeles discovers a city of parking lots, motels, bus stations, coffee shops, strip bars, and real estate opportunities. It’s all quite ugly, I suppose, but it adds up to a precise portrait of the city in 1973, just as I remember it.
Like most Europeans in southern California, Antonioni was more interested in the desert than in the city. (If you should ever find yourself in Death Valley in August, you will hear more German spoken than English.) But before heading for Zabriskie Point, Antonioni took his protagonist on a high tourist spin around Los Angeles, starting with the now-famous murals at the Farmer John’s meat packing plant in Vernon, later featured in Brian De Palma’s Carrie and Jon Jost’s Angel City. His tour of industrial Los Angeles ended abruptly and improbably at Sunset and Rodeo.
Jacques Demy loved Los Angeles as only a tourist can. Or maybe I should say, as only a French tourist can. I resented Model Shop when it came out because it was a westside movie. Its vision of the city didn’t extend east of Vine Street. But now I can appreciate an early poignant attempt to defend Los Angeles as a city. It’s totally incoherent, but if you live here, you have to be moved.
[George Matthews (Gary Lockwood), talking to a rock musician friend: „I was driving down Sunset, and I turned on one of those roads that lead up into the hills, and I stopped at this place that overlooks the whole city. It was fantastic. I suddenly felt exhilarated. I was really moved by the geometry of the place, its conception, its baroque harmony. It’s a fabulous city. To think some people claim it’s an ugly city when it’s really pure poetry, it just kills me. I wanted to build something right then, create something. Do you know what I mean?“ The friend responds, „Yeah, I do. I understand.“]
The opinion expressed by Raquel Welch in Flareup is more typical.
[Michele (Raquel Welch) looks out over the city lights arrayed below her in the distance and proclaims to her friend Joe (James Stacy), „It’s better from up here than down close.“]
Roman Polanski later stole her line and improved upon it: „There’s no more beautiful city in the world…provided it’s seen by night and from a distance.“
The City as Subject
It was the outsider Polanski who made Los Angeles a subject for movies, working in collaboration with a native, screenwriter Robert Towne.
The city could finally become a subject in the early seventies because it had finally become self-conscious. It could no longer be mistaken for a sunny Southern town. It had big-city problems: big-city racism and big-city race riots.
The 1965 Watts uprising had revealed a racial faultline in Los Angeles. The open secrets of police brutality and housing discrimination could no longer be swept aside. The rioting could be evoked in movies only after it had safely passed into history, and even then it required a golden oldies soundtrack.
Yet the shadow of Watts loomed over movies about Los Angeles. Isn’t the notion of Chinatown as the forsaken hellhole of civic negligence a displaced vision of Watts?
The endless boom was ending, and the new depression hit southern California particularly hard. As David Gebhard and Robert Winter wrote in their guide to architecture in Los Angeles, „no one seemed sure of the future any longer. Smog, the congestion of people (and their extension – the automobile), the continual destruction of farm land, potential and real water shortages created doubts of such magnitude that even the usual boosterism of Southern California found it increasingly difficult to reassert the old beliefs.“
The questions began. How did we go wrong? When did we go wrong? Although Los Angeles is a city with no history, nostalgia has always been the dominant note in the city’s image of itself. At any time in its history, Los Angeles was always a better place „a long time ago“ than in the present.
What was new in the seventies was a nostalgia for what might have been, a sense that everything might have been different except for one defining event. We began to look for an originary sin. Robert Towne took an urban myth about the founding of Los Angeles on water stolen from the Owens River Valley and made it resonate.
Chinatown isn’t a docudrama; it’s a fiction. The water project it depicts isn’t the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct engineered by William Mulholland before the First World War. Chinatown is set in 1938, not 1905. The Mulholland-like figure, Hollis Mulwray, isn’t the chief architect of the project, but rather its strongest opponent, who must be discredited and murdered. Mulwray is against the Alto Vallejo Dam because it’s unsafe, not because it’s stealing water from somebody else.
[Mulwray, addressing the city council, „In case you’ve forgotten, gentlemen, over five hundred lives were lost when the Van der Lip Dam gave way… And now you propose yet another dirt-banked terminus dam with slopes of two and one half to one, one hundred twelve feet high, and a twelve-thousand acre water surface. Well, it won’t hold. I won’t build it. It’s that simple.“]
But there are echoes of Mulholland’s aqueduct project in Chinatown.
[Jake Gittes and Evelyn Mulray are riding in a convertible through an empty stretch of the San Fernando Valley at dusk. Gittes: „That dam’s a con job.“ Evelyn asks, „What dam?“ Gittes responds, „The on e your husband opposed- they’re conning L.A. into building it, but the water’s not gonna go to L.A. It’s coming right here.“ Evelyn asks, „To the Valley?“ Gittes: „Everything you can see. Everything around us… They’re blowing these farmers out of their land and then picking it up for peanuts. You have any idea at all what this land’ll be worth with a steady water supply? About thirty million more than they paid for it.“]
Mulholland’s project enriched its promoters through insider land deals in the San Fernando Valley, just like the dam project in Chinatown. The disgruntled San Fernando Valley farmers of Chinatown, forced to sell off their land at bargain prices because of an artificial drought, seem like stand-ins for the Owens Valley settlers whose homesteads turned to dust when Los Angeles took the water that irrigated them. The Van Der Lip Dam disaster, which Hollis Mulwray cites to explain his opposition to the proposed dam, is an obvious reference to the collapse of the St. Francis Dam in 1928. Mulholland built this dam after completing the aqueduct, and its failure was the greatest unnatural disaster in the history of California.
These echoes have led many viewers to regard Chinatown not only as docudrama, but as truth, the real secret history of how Los Angeles got its water, and it has become a ruling metaphor for non-fictional critiques of Los Angeles development.
„Chinatown Revisited“ is the phrase Mike Davis coined for the downtown skyscraper boom of 1973 to 1986, and he cast future mayor Richard Riordan as its prime fixer. A publicly financed civic project had again generated windfall profits for a wealthy ring of insiders.
Chinatown set a pattern. Films about Los Angeles would be period films, set in the past or in the future. They would replace a public history with a secret history. Jake Gittes tries to expose a con job, but he fails.
[Jake Gittes to police detective Lou Escobar: „This is Noah Cross, if you don’t know. Evelyn’s father, if you don’t know. He’s the bird you’re after, Lou. I can explain everything, but just give me five minutes. That’s all I need. He’s rich; do you understand?“ Escobar interrupts: „Shut up!“ Jake continues, „…can get away with anything.“ Cross interjects, „I am rich. I am Noah Cross. Evelyn Mulray is my daughter.“ „He’s crazy, Lou. He killed Mulray because of the water thing. I’m telling you. Just listen to me for five minutes.“ Escobar has Gittes dragged away.]
Noah Cross is too powerful. He can murder his incorruptible ex-partner and get away with it. He can rape the land-figuratively- and rape his own daughter -literally- and keep the child produced by this incestuous union. The truth will never come out. I could quote David Thomson again: „I know the additive of corruption in L.A.’s water. I’ve seen Chinatown, and I know there’s no sense in protesting.“
[Duffy pulls Jake Gittes away and tells him, „Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.“]
Chinatown teaches that good intentions are futile. It’s better not to act, even better not to know. Somehow this dark vision hasn’t offended anybody.
[Escobar, off-screen: „All right, clear the area. On the sidewalk, on the sidewalk. Get off the street.“]
This is history written by the victors, but as usual it is written in crocodile tears.
In fact, the truth was always out there. The public history is the real history. The insider land deals were exposed by the Hearst press in 1905, two weeks before the public voted on a bond issue to purchase water rights. The bond issue still passed fourteen to one, and no artificial drought was required to fool the voters. The Los Angeles Aqueduct wasn’t a con, and it was less destructive than the water projects New York and San Francisco were building around the same time. Los Angeles might have been more generous to the genocidal Indian fighters of the Owens Valley, but if there had been no aqueduct, today our city would be just another Santa Barbara, a complacent tourist town where the rich feel no obligation to acknowledge the existence of the poor.
For locals like me, what gives Chinatown its special resonance is its subsidiary theme: the struggle to get around Los Angeles without a car. Jake Gittes loses his wheels halfway though the film. Suspicious San Fernando Valley farmer shoot out the radiator and a front tire. For the second half of the movie, he’s dependent on others, and his sense of mastery disappears.
[Jake Gittes is hustling his ex-client Curly (Bert Young) from the dinner table into the kitchen of Curly’s modest San Pedro duplex. Gittes asks, „Curly where’s your car?“ Curly answers, „In the garage.“ Gittes: „Where’s that?“ Curly: „Off the alley.“ Gittes: „Can you give me a ride somewhere?“ Curly: „Sure, soon as we eat.“ Gittes: „Right now, Curly. It can’t wait.“ Curly: „I’ll tell my wife.“ Gittes: „Tell her later, Curl, huh?“]
He’s always one or two steps behind, and he never catches up. The loss of a car is a form of symbolic castration, in the movies and in life.
The best films about Los Angeles are, at least partly, about modes of transportation. Getting from place to place isn’t a given. Cars break down, they get flat tires, they get towed.
[Midnight Madness: as a tow truck dirver is hoisting a compact sedan onto the rear of his tow truck, four young women in identical red sweaters run up. One of them asks, „Hey, what’s going on here?“]
Or you don’t have a car. You have to catch a bus or you have to walk.
In Sunset Blvd., the action is set off by a visit two repo men pay on Joe Gillis.
[Gillis, in his bathrobe, is typing on his bed. The doorbell rings. He walks to the door and opens it. Two men in suits enter. One asks, „Joseph C. Gillis?“ Gillis responds, „That’s right.“ The repo man announces, „We’ve come for the car.“]
Soon they are chasing Gillis’s ‘46 Plymouth convertible along Sunset, and a blowout strands him in the driveway of silent screen star Norma Desmond. Without a car, he will die.
In Falling Down, a hellish traffic jam induces William Fisher to abandon his car and set off on a long march across Los Angeles. He will become an urban terrorist for a day, railing against the degradation of public space.
[Fisher (Michael Douglas) and another man are arguing outside a parking lot phone booth. Fisher: „You know what?“ The other man: „What?“ Fisher shoots up the phone booth with a round of automatic fire from his assault rifle and announces, „I think it’s out of order.“]
But his condescension is so thick you have to sympathize with his victims.
[The owner of a small grocery store is arguing with Fisher over the price of a can of Coke. He explains, „Drink, eighty-fie cents. You pay or go!“ Fisher responds, „What’s a ‘fie’? I don’t understand a ‘fie.’ There’s a ‘v‘ in the word. It’s ‘fi-ve.’ They don’t have ‘v’s’ in China?“ The store owner corrects him, „I’m not Chinese. I’m Korean.“ Fisher responds, „Whatever. You come to my country; you take my money; you don’t even have the grace to learn how to speak my language?“]
Transportation is the central theme in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which offers itself as a cartoon version of Chinatown. It updates the downfall of Los Angeles to 1947, with the death of the trolleys and the birth of the freeways.
[The hero Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is sneaking a ride on the back of a trolley car with three kids. One of the kids asks him, „Hey, mister, ain’t you got a car?“ Valiant responds, „Who needs a car in L.A.? We’ve got the best public transportation system in the world.“]
In 1947, many would have disagreed with Eddie Valiant’s endorsement of Pacific Electric’s Big Red Cars and the yellow cars of the Los Angeles Railway. Complaints about overcrowding, slowness, discriminatory pricing, and poor service had been endemic for more than thirty years. But after the war, there was indeed another kind of trouble.
[Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd), explaining his plot to Eddie Valiant and Jessica Rabbit: „Several months ago I had the good providence to stumble upon a plan of the City Council’s, a construction plan of epic proportions. They are calling it a freeway.“
[Eddie Valiant: „A freeway? What the hell’s a freeway?“
[Doom: „Eight lanes of shimmering cement running from here to Pasadena. Smooth, safe, fast. Traffic jams will be a thing of the past… I see a place where people get on and off the freeway, on and off, off and on, all day, all night. Soon, where Toontown once stood, there will be a string of gas stations, inexpensive motels, restaurants that serve rapidly prepared food, tire saloons, automobile dealerships, and wonderful, wonderful billboards reaching as far as the eye can see. My God, it’ll be beautiful.“
[Valiant: „C’mon, nobody’s going to drive this lousy freeway when they can take the Red Car for a nickel.“
[Doom: „Oh, they’ll drive. They’ll have to. You see, I bought the Red Cars so I could dismantle it.“]
The fictional machinations of the diabolical Judge Doom were modeled on the real intrigues of National City Lines, the public transit company controlled by General Motors and other automotive interests. During the forties, it bought up interurban railways throughout the U.S. and replaced streetcars with buses, allegedly to sabotage public transportation. Another conspiracy to destroy Eden, but in this movie there is a counter-historical happy ending. There is no need for words of consolation. Nobody has to tell its detective hero, „Forget it, Eddie, it’s Toontown.“ Valiant kills Judge Doom after a protracted duel, and we may assume the Red Cars are saved, along with Toontown, but once again, the people are excluded, although the toon characters get to rejoice in the happy ending.
Actually trolleys had been on the way out since the twenties when proposals for public ownership were defeated. Eddie Valiant himself gets around town by automobile after a single Red Car ride at the beginning of the movie.
The real postwar struggle over mass transit reached a climax in 1949 when a proposal for a new light rail network was narrowly defeated in the City Council. An alternative to cars and buses was defeated not by General Motors and its allies, but by the promoters of decentralized suburban development.
Downtown was doomed. In the eighties, it went vertical, and there was an attempt to promote loft living on its eastern margins, an effort advertised in a few films, but even artists found the new urbanism daunting.
For movie-makers, a real downtown existed only in the past or in the future. The wartime downtown evoked by Edward James Olmos in American Me was a dangerous place for Mexican-Americans. Olmos didn’t need the alibis of artistic license to isolate where and when it all went wrong for Los Angeles: June 1943, the Zoot Suit Riots. Stirred up by racist propaganda in the local press, gangs of sailors went on a week-long rampage, beating and stripping self-styled pachucos because their baggy suits had become a provocative symbol of a defiant ethnic identity. Olmos depicts these assaults as a humiliating defeat that disgraced and disarmed the greatest generation of Chicanos and produced a sick culture of amoral masochistic toughness as a reaction formation.
[At dusk, Pablito climbs into a car with two gang buddies as his grandfather watches helplessly. The driver calls back over his shoulder, „We’ll be right back.“ Cut to Pablito in the front right seat of the car, holding a revolver in his hand. It’s night now. He asks the driver, „Which one, ese?“ The driver answers, „Don’t matter.“ Defiantly, Pablito says, „Fuck it, homes.“ He shouts out the window, „La Primera lives!“ He fires the revolver into a crowd of scattering pedestrians, and the screen goes black.]
The downtown of the future appeared with a vengeance in Blade Runner, a movie set in 2019. By then suburbia has moved off world, the dark satanic mills of the industrial sublime are belching overtime, and the smog has turned to acid rain.
Blade Runner has been called the „official nightmare“ of Los Angeles, yet this dystopian vision is, in many ways, a city planner’s dream come true. Finally, a vibrant street life. A downtown crowded with night-time strollers. Neon beyond our wildest dreams. Only a Unabomber could find this totally repellent.
The streets are littered with electronic parking meters, but there are no cars parked next to them. The VTO has replaced the SUV, but there are no traffic jams in the sky.
The hero Deckard drives his car home from his job downtown, yet when he pulls into the grounds of the hundred-story apartment building where he lives, he finds a parking place right next to the front door. Apparently he is the only tenant with a car.
Blade Runner is easy to criticize. Pauline Kael noted that it lacks even the slightest curiosity about how the world got to this state – in just forty years. Harrison Ford diagnosed its narrative deficiencies in his complaint, „I played a detective who did no detecting.“
No one seems to agree about what the film means, not even the film-makers themselves. Director Ridley Scott and his collaborators couldn’t even agree on whether the protagonist is a human or a replicant.
[Deckard (Harrison Ford) picks up a small origami unicorn and hears the offscreen voice of Gaff (Edward James Olmos), as if in memory, „It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?“]
Yet Blade Runner continues to fascinate. Perhaps it expresses a nostalgia for a dystopian vision of the future that has become outdated. This vision offered some consolation because it was at least sublime. Now the future looks brighter, hotter, and blander. Buffalo will become Miami, and Los Angeles will become Death Valley, at least until the rising ocean tides wash it away. Computers will get faster, and we will get slower. There will be plenty of progress, but few of us will be any better off or happier for it. Robots won’t be sexy and dangerous. They’ll be dull and efficient, and they’ll take our jobs.
Just as Blade Runner is the Los Angeles movie of the eighties, another period film, L.A. Confidential, is the Los Angeles movie of the nineties. The period is the early fifties, and it got it right, by not trying to make everything look up-to-date. In reality, we live in the past. That is, the world that surrounds us is not new. The things in it – our houses, the places we work, even our clothes and our cars – aren’t created anew everyday. So any particular period is an amalgam of many earlier times, and L.A. Confidential acknowledges the pastness of its present.
Like Chinatown, L.A. Confidential evokes real events, real scandals. The scandal-mongering magazine Hush-Hush is based on the pioneering tabloid Confidential, and the TV series Badge of Honor is based on Dragnet.
[On the set of Badge of Honor, the star Brett Chase (Matt McCoy) interrupts a witness: „Excuse me, ma’am. Just the facts.“]
Dragnet made its debut on radio in 1949 and moved to television in 1952. Some real historical figures appear in the cast of characters without fictional names.
[Bud White (Russell Crowe) walks into a bar and moves next to a patron (Paolo Seganti) seated alone at the counter. By way of greeting, he intones, „Johnny Stompanato.“ ]
[Edmund Exley (Guy Pierce) leans over a bar table and addresses Lana Turner (Brenda Bakke), „A hooker cut to look like Lana Turner is sill a hooker.“ Her escort Johnny Stompanato interrupts, „Hey!“ Exley continues, „She just looks like Lana Turner.“ Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) says, „She is Lana Turner.“ Exley asks, „What?“ Vincennes repeats louder, „She is Lana Turner.“ Lana Turner throws her drink in Exley’s face.]
A real scandal: in the early morning hours of Christmas day 1951, drunken cops had beaten seven prisoners arrested after a bar fight,
[Dick Stensland (Graham Beckel) pushes a Mexican prisoner into a cell door and announces, „This is for ours, Poncho.“ He proceeds to slug him in the gut]
And the Daily News came to call it „Bloody Christmas.“
Other scandals were fictional.
[In the City Hall rotunda, a city councilman (Jim Metzler) is handed a set of photographs of him in compromising positions with a prostitute. Cut to the council chamber. The councilman announces, „It may surprise some that a man in public office would admit to making a mistake, but after due consideration, I’m changing my position on the matter before the council.“]
Blackmail wasn’t necessary to build the freeways.
[At a groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of the Santa Monica Freeway, a dignitary proclaims, „From downtown to the beach in twenty minutes.“]
And there was no conspiracy within the Los Angeles Police Department to take over the local rackets from Mickey Cohen’s gang in the early fifties.
[Jack Vincennes is seated at a kitchen table in the home of Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell). Smith hands Vincennes a cup of coffee and asks,“What does Exley think of all this?“ Vincennes answers, „You know, I haven’t told him yet. I just came straight from the Records Bureau.“ Smith turns around and shoots Vincennes in the heart.]
L.A. Confidential suggests another secret history of the city. The police conspiracy is smashed and its mastermind is killed, but the good guys achieve a strictly private victory.
[Seated at a bare table in a police interrogation room, Exley speaks slowly and carefully, „Beginning with the incarceration of Mickey Cohen, Captain Smith has been assuming control of organized crime in the city of Los Angeles. This includes the assassinations of an unknown number of Mickey Cohen lieutenants, the systematic blackmail of city officials. Captain Smith admitted as much to me before I shot him at the Victory Motel.“]
There is a coverup, and the public never gets the real story.
[In a conference room overlooking the room where Exley sits, D.A. Ellis Loew (Ron Rifkin) tells the police chief (John Mahon), „If we can get the kid to play ball, who’s to say what happened? Maybe Dudley Smth died a hero.“]
Cynicism has become the dominant myth of our times, and L.A. Confidential preaches it.
[In a city hall ceremony, the police chief proclams, „It is with great pleasure that I present this award to Detective-Lieutenant Edmund Exley, two time Medal of Valor recipient.“]
Cynicism tells us we are ignorant and powerless, and L.A. Confidential proves it.
Actually the real scandal of the day was on the front pages of the newspapers almost every day from December 1951 to May 1953. It took a public battle to destroy public housing, a tragedy from which Los Angeles has yet to recover. The defeat of public housing doesn’t demonstrate that the people are powerless. Just the opposite. After its opponents began to denounce public housing as „creeping socialism,“ the people voted it down. The LAPD and its chief William Parker spearheaded the campaign against it. Parker leaked Intelligence Division files to discredit city housing authority spokesman Frank Wilkinson as a Communist. Then just before the municipal elections of 1953, Parker helped smear incumbent mayor Fletcher Bowron, a public housing supporter, for being soft on Wilkinson. Bowron lost by 30,000 votes, and the new mayor killed public housing for good.
The LAPD didn’t control the rackets in the fifties; it controlled the city. The police corruption in L.A. Confidential is quaint by comparison.
What was really wrong with the police during the Parker years is revealed quite precisely (if unintentionally) by Dragnet, the TV series parodied in L.A. Confidential. Parker introduced the paranoid style into American police work, striving to create a police force that would be feared and hated by criminals and citizens alike, and Sgt. Joe Friday, the Organization Superman, embodied it perfectly.
[In the 1954 Dragnet movie, Sgt. Friday (Jack Webb) and his partner Frank Smith (Ben Alexander) walk up to Max Troy (Stacy Harris), who is standing with some female friends outside the Wilshire Arena. Friday orders Troy, „All right, hands up on the wall.“ Troy responds, „Not this time. I’ve got friends with me.“ Friday: „Would you rather do it downtown?“ Troy: „Ah, get off my back. You know I’m clean.“ Friday: „Are you? Hands up on the wall.“ Troy complies. Friday pats him down and tells him, „All right, take everything out of your pockets.“ Troy: „Where am I gonna put it?“ Friday responds disdainfully, „The ground will Ghold it.“]
Joe Friday thinks like a computer. He walks and talks like a robot.
Actually, I love Dragnet, particularly its late sixties reincarnation when Friday got a new partner and took on the youth culture.
[Friday and his partner Bill Gannon (Harry Morgan) are interrogating a cleancut young couple in the living room of their suburban tract house. The wife Jean Shipley stands facing Friday and Gannon as her husband Paul sits below her on a couch. Jean asks, „Will you be seeing my father after you leave?“ Gannon replies, „Sure.“ Jean says, „Ask him to read the Bible. The epistle of Paul to the Ephesians. Maybe he’ll understand.“ Gannon asks, „How’s that?“ Jean replies, „Because of what it says about our generation. Tell him to read Chapter six. ‘Fathers, provoke not your children to wrath. The old ways are not their ways. Your dusk is their dawn. The future is theirs.’”
Friday responds,“Try chapter five, lady. The apostle Paul also said this.“ Jean asks, „Yes, what is that?“ Friday quotes, „See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise.“ Friday and Gannon walk out as Jean and Paul look at each other quizzically.]
Its creator and star Jack Webb directed each episode with a rigor equaled only by Ozu and Bresson, the cinema’s acknowledged masters of transcendental simplicity. Dragnet admirably expressed the contempt the LAPD had for the law-abiding civilians it was pledged „to protect and to serve.“ It protected us from ourselves, and it served us despite our best efforts to make the job more difficult.
[In the 1954 Dragnet movie, Friday and Frank Smith are talking to witness Jesse Quinn (James Griffith) in the diorama hall of the natural history museum. Friday tells Quinn, „Quinn, we’d like you to come down for a show-up.“ Quinn responds, „Mr. Friday, you’d just as well know now, I’m not gonna do it.“ Friday asks, „You afraid to testify, Quinn?“ Quinn responds, „I just don’t remember.“ Unconvinced, Friday asks, „What is it? Your family, your wife and children?“ Quinn answers, „I don’t have no family. I’m it, the whole kit and caboodle, but I don’t want to go downtown and get all mixed up in something.“ Friday warns him, „You’ll have to go before the grand jury; they’ll subpoena you.“ Quinn responds, „Mr. Friday, I’d like to ask you a question: if you was me, wold you do it?“ Friday answers, „Can I wait awhile?“ Quinn: „Huh?“ Friday continues, „Before I’m you.“ Friday and Smith walk away as Quinn lowers his head in shame ]
Friday’s heavy-handed irony never lets up. None of the witnesses or suspects he questions penetrate his wall of condescension.
[In an LAPD interrogation room, female suspect Jana Altman (Kipp Hamilton) complains, „You don’t believe anything I’ve said.“ Friday responds, „You make it a little difficult, lady.“ She asks, „Why? I’ve told you the truth.“ Friday answers, „Sure you did, three different ways.“ ]
[Brother William, an intellectual LSD prophet in a Nehru jacket, clearly modeled on Timothy Leary, is lecturing Friday, „As I’ve been saying, I deal in ideas, nothing more. I might even sell you a few.“ Friday responds, „You couldn’t sell me directions to the men’s room.“ ]
The grotesques and lunatics he encountered every week must have gone a long way to establish the city’s reputation as the world capital of the weird.
[Friday and Gannon are in a flower shop to question the proprietor, a blonde hippie in a minidress (Luana Anders). She greets them, „Ah, the powers of flowers draw you here.“ Friday explains, „No ma’am. We’re police officers.“ She responds, „Oh, how lovely.“ Friday asks, „Are you Miss Deleon?“ She answers, „Noradella DeLeone was my given name, my family name. But I changed it about an hour ago. It’s so contrived, so out of it. Just call me Agnes Hickey.“ Gannon says, „Yes, ma’am.“ She continues, „I’m not like some. I dig the fuzz. After all, you’re like the flowers yourselves; you have to live, too.“ Friday: „Yes ma’am. Did you report your purse stolen by a dog?“]
Of course, Dragnet isn’t a documentary portrait of the LAPD, and its detectives weren’t really like Joe Friday. What’s scary is that he represented the department’s ideal.
Sometimes I wonder if we are more obsessed with the police than people in other cities. Is there any other city where the police put their motto in quotation marks? Are they trying to be ironic? Can there be a movie about Los Angeles that isn’t about its police? Only if it’s a movie about the film industry, and even then the police usually get called in, although it’s often a suburban police force, not the LAPD.
[In The Player, Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) is driving his Range Rover down the driveway from his mansion. At the gate, he is stopped by detective DeLongpre (Lyle Lovett): „Mr. Mill, I’m detective DeLongpre, Pasadena Police.“ Cut to Pasadena police station. Mill sits at a desk across from detective Susan Avery (Whoppi Goldberg) with a book of mug shots in front of him. Mill demurs: „No, I…You’re putting me in a terrible position here. I would…I would hate to get the wrong person arrested.“ Avery responds, „Oh please, this is Pasadena. We do not arrest the wrong person. That’s L.A.“]
The Dragnet image gave way first to the existential realism of Joseph Wambaugh, LAPD sergeant turned novelist and screenwriter. In Wambaugh movies, police work makes cops alcoholic or neurotic
[In The Glitter Dome, Sgt. Al Mackey (James Garner) is talking to his friend Willie (Margot Kidder) in her kitchen, „We see things sometimes–cops–other people don’t see, leaves stains.“ She asks, „When you’re investigating and collecting clues?“ He responds, „We don’t collect clues, we collect garbage and pray somebody confesses.“]
They behave badly, they lose fights, they are humiliated, they die.
During the youth gang hysteria of the eighties, the stoically heroic cop made a comeback, and urban movie violence turned toward the apocalyptic. A cop killing machine emerged: James Cameron’s Terminator.
[The terminator (Arnold Scharzenegger) glances around the foyer of a police station and announces to the distracted desk sergeant, „I’ll be back.“]
Cameron enjoyed killing off cops, and all of us cop haters got a kick out of watching the massacres he staged.
At the same time, the image of the Los Angeles policeman was splintering. Sylvester Stallone essayed two versions of the dandy cop. Mel Gibson played a suicidal cop, and Richard Gere a homicidal cop. Andy Garcia and Al Pacino played cops with arty wives who make them live in uncoplike designer houses.
[In Heat, police lieutenanat Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) returns home and finds a stranger relaxing on the couch and watching TV. His wife Justine (Diane Venora) introduces him casually, „This is my friend Ralph.“ Ralph mumbles, „You didn’t tell me you were…“ He starts to get up. Vincent coolly orders him, „Sit down.“ Ralph complies. As she walks away, Justine aks her husband, „Don’t you even get angry?“ Vincent replies quietly, „I’m angry.“ Justine responds „Oh.“ Vincent turns to Ralph and addresses him, „Yeah, I’m very angry, Ralph. You know, you can ball my wife if she wants you to. You can lounge around here on her sofa in her ex-husband’s dead-tech, post-modernistic bullshit house if you want to. But you do not get to watch my fucking television set!“ He rips the TV cord from its socket. Justine responds, „For God’s sake.“]
After the videotaped and then televised beating of Rodney King in 1991, Los Angeles movie cops got even weirder. There was a psycho cop…a pussy-whipped cop…
[In Falling Down, Prendergast (Robert Duvall), seated at his desk in the police station, is talking to his wife on the telephone. He says, „Well. I will be soon, baby.“ His wife Amanda (Tuesday Weld) responds imploringly, „Say it.“ He answers, „Okay.“ She repeats louder, „Say it.“ He responds, „I’ll be home soon.“ Amanda again, more insistently: „No, say it!“ He whispers into the phone, „I’ll be home soon…and I love you. Okay?“]
…and an uncontrollably horny cop, a slave to his dick.
[In Nails, Harry „Nails“ Niles (Dennis Hopper) is talking to a buxom Chicana (Teresa Crespo) who is seated next to him at the counter of an open air hamburger stand. He asks her, „Are you a whore?“ She responds, „Maybe.“ He says, „Well, I wanna tell you something. I like whores.“ She interjects, „Yeah?“ He continues, „Oh, I like ‘em alot.“ She says, „I bet you know a lot of ‘em.“ He answers,“I do.“ She moves toward and him and announces, „I’ll fuck your brains out for fifty bucks.“ He stands up and addresses the fry cook: „Forget about that burger.“ As they walk away, he puts his arm around her and tells her, „God, this exciting for me. Is it exciting for you?“]
There was even a New Age homicide detective, usually attired in a collarless jacket with a string of Tibetan prayer beads around his neck.
[In The Glimmer Man, police homicide detectives Jack Cole (Steven Seagal) and Jim Campbell (Keenen Ivory Wayans) are riding in their squad car. Campbell turns to Cole and asks, „So tell me, man, what’s up with the beads?“ Cole responds,“These here? It’s called a mhala, Tibetan prayer beads.“ Campbell asks, „What do you use them for?“ Cole: „I use them to calm my mind and purify my thoughts.“ Campbell turns toward Cole and says, “Yeah? I use Jack Daniels.“]
Then there’s ‘the dog-hating motorcycle cop in Robert Altman’s gallery of beautiful, miserable people, living lives of noisy desperation, transposed from Raymond Carver’s Pacific northwest to southern California.
[Short Cuts: Motorcycle patrolman Gene Shepard (Tim Robbins) is getting ready to go to work with the little family dog barking at his heels. He snaps at the dog, „Shut up!“ His wife Sherri (Madeleine Stowe) is talking on the phone: „What’s so threatening about it?“ She glances up at Gene and tells him. „Close the gate… He might get run over.“ Gene rides off on his motorcycle with the dog tucked into a box in the back. In another residential neighborhood, he sets the dog on the street and tells him, „Come on, all right now. You go run away; we don’t want you anymore. Run away, we don’t want you anymore.“ He shows the dog a bone, saying, „Look at this. It’s a bone.“ He throws the bone off into the distance and says, „All right, go get it.“ As the dog runs to the bone, he rides off in the opposite direction.]
Introducing a collection of the Carver stories he adapted, Altman wrote, „The setting is untapped Los Angeles, which is also Carver country, not Hollywood or Beverly Hills – but Downey, Watts, Compton, Pomona, Glendale – American suburbia, the names you hear about on the freeway reports.“ In other words, if you actually lived in one of those places, instead of just hearing their names on the radio traffic reports, you wouldn’t be reading this book. But the cityscapes in his film don’t look like Watts, or even Glendale, and they’re not. Only one couple lives in the Hollywood Hills, but the others live closer to Hollywood than to Downey.
Altman’s condescension toward the outer suburbs suggests the difficulties Hollywood directors face in trying to make a contemporary film about Los Angeles. They know only a small part of the city, and that part has been tapped too often. A genre film or a literary adaptation is the safest bet. Altman’s best film is both. His version of Philip Marlowe turns Raymond Chandler’s Anglo-Saxon white knight into a chain-smoking Jewish Don Quixote, a noble saphead.
[The Long Goodbye: Phillip Marlowe (Elliot Gould) walks over to see his neighbors, a group of young women practicing some form of meditation on the porch of their house. He addresses them, although they seem to barely notice, „Hi, girls. Have you seen my cat? Well, the other day he ran away, and I’m leaving town for a couple of days. So…uh, I’d appreciate it, if he shows up, if you could look after him, or give him a bowl of milk.“ He walks away and mumbles to himself, „They’re not even there. It’s okay with me.“
[Cut to Marlowe in Mexico, confronting his friend Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton), „So, you murdered your wife, huh Terry?“ Lennox answers, „Well, I killed her, but you can’t call it murder. I hit her; I didn’t try to kill her. I hit her; I didn’t mean it.“ Marlowe: „I saw the photographs, boy, you bashed her face in.“ Lennox: „She didn’t give me any choice.“ Marlowe: „You didn’t have much choice, huh? So you used me.“ Lennox: „What the hell, that’s what friends are for. I was in a jam, what the hell, nobody cares.“ Marlowe: „Yeah, nobody cares but me.“ Lennox: „That’s why I got you, Marlowe. You’ll never learn. You’re a born loser.“ Marlowe: „Yeah, I even lost my cat.“ He pulls his gun and shoots Lennox.]
There’s no chance Marlowe will get the good-bad girl at the end. He won’t even find his lost cat.
How can I say this politely? It’s hard to make a personal film, based on your own experience, when you’re absurdly overprivileged. You tend not to notice the less fortunate, and that’s almost everybody. If you ridicule your circle of friends, your film will seem sour and petty. If you turn their problems into melodrama, your film will seem bathetic and self-pitying.
In L.A. Story, Steve Martin followed the path of ridicule and created an honorably failed romantic comedy. Of course, it’s L.A., not Los Angeles. Martin’s L.A. is almost as white as Woody Allen’s Manhattan. There are two blacks with speaking parts… both restaurant employees.
[A lisping black maitre d’ greets Harris K. Telemacher (Steve Martin) and Trudi (Marilu Henner) at a garden restaurant, „Uh, yes, you’re the first ones to arrive.“ He picks up two menus and leads them to their table: „Right this way, please.“ At a chic restaurant, a rapping waiter recites the menu, „I’m gonna tell you what we got to eat/ We got primavera pasta, six diifferent kinds of meat.“]
You could call these racist stereotypes, but the whole film is nothing but stereotypes.
[Telemacher stares down at his plate and says, „Gee, I’m done already, and I don’t remember eating.“]
The comedies of John Cassavetes cut deeper because he had an eye and an ear for ordinary madness – those flickers of lunacy that can separate us from our fellows.
[In A Woman Under the Influence, Mabel Longhetti (Gena Rowlands) stands on a busy street corner accosting passers-by: She asks a woman, „Hey, what time is it?“ The woman just goes on walking. Mabel yells after her as the woman walks away, „Hey, listen. I’m waiting for my kids at school. You mind giving me the time, do you? What’s the matter with you, what the…?“]
His comedies face up to tragedy and reject it. Suffering is self-evident, and its promise of wisdom is illusory. For Cassavetes, happiness is the only truth. So he drank himself to death.
Diane Keaton’s Hanging Up takes the path of melodrama. An absent mother and a prematurely grumpy and old father produce an intense rivalry among three sisters.
[The three sisters storm into their father’s hospital room and sit down arouind his bed, Eve (Meg Ryan) on one side, Georgia (Diane Keaton) and Maddy (Lisa Kudrow) on the other. Eve pouts. Georgia asks her, „Eve, are you not going to speak to me? Is that what this is all about?“ Maddy chimes in, „And why aren’t you talking to me? I didn’t even do anything.“]
But the father’s death restores harmony, at least long enough to allow for a happy ending. The three drama queens babble hysterically on three-way cell phone hookups, transforming any space they occupy into a pajama party den. Keaton insists Hanging Up is a film about Los Angeles, but public space is reduced almost entirely to a tunnel and a bridge allowing passage through a city stripped of its population. In Hanging Up, the people are missing.
Lawrence Kasdan tried to find a middle way in Grand Canyon, a liberal version of the urban nightmare. Bad things happen to good people, and they start to wonder about what it all means.
[As they stand at a kitchen table, Claire (Mary McDonnell) is talking to her husband Jake (Kevin Kline): „The world doesn’t make any sense to me anymore. I mean, what’s going on? There are babies lying around in the streets. There are people living in boxes. There are people ready to shoot you if you look at them. And we are getting used to it.“]
But this metaphysical turn feels complacent, and Kasdan’s movie wallows in its own incomprehension. A mugging is as inexplicable as a miracle.
[As Claire jogs through an alley, she passes a homeless man, who mumbles loudly enough so that she can hear, „Why bother trying? Keep the baby. You need her as much as she needs you.“]
If the social fabric has disintegrated, can’t we at least try to understand how it happened?
Instead, Kasdan finds solace in the little triumphs and epiphanies of everyday life, like a driving lesson.
[Mack is giving his teenage son Roberto (Jeremy Sisto) a driving lesson in the family minivan. Making a left turn at a busy intersection, Roberto freezes when the light changes and gets stuck in cross-traffic. Drivers honk, cars swerve around them. Finally he is able to pull out of the intersection and get over to the curb for some calming of nerves. Roberto says, „Sorry, dad.“ Mack responds, „Hey, this is difficult stuff. Making a left turn in L.A. is one of the harder things you’re gonna learn in life.“]
There’s a certain ironic wisdom here, but it’s impossible to forget that this particular challenge is a privilege.
But there is another city. The real downtown, full of people who are appparently invisible to those who say it’s deserted after working hours.
And another cinema. A city of walkers, a cinema of walking. It begins with The Exiles by Kent MacKenzie. You could call it neorealist. Since it comes from outside the Hollywood studios, you could call it independent, but it’s not exactly Pulp Fiction.
[Yvonne in voiceover, as she walks from Broadway to the Angel’s Flight: „I used to pray every night and fall into bed and ask for something that I wanted and I never got it or it seemed like my prayers were never answered. So I just gave up. And now I don’t hardly go to church or don’t say my prayers sometimes.“]
MacKenzie, who died too young after making just one more feature, was the pioneer. Fifteen years later, there was finally a neorealist movement in Los Angeles led by young black film-makers from the south: Haile Gerima from Ethiopia, Charles Burnett from Mississippi, Billy Woodberry from Texas.
Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama is another movie about the police, but it is one of the first to show cops entirely from the other side, from the viewpoint of the brutalized, the black people of south Los Angeles, who are made to feel they live in an occupied territory.
Neorealism describes another reality, and it creates a new kind of protagonist: Dorothy, the bush mama, is a seer, not an actor. There is a crack in the world of appearances, and she is defenseless before a vision of everyday reality that is unbearable.
Who knows the city? Only those who walk, only those who ride the bus. Forget the mystical blatherings of Joan Didion and company about the automobile and the freeways. They say, nobody walks; they mean no rich white people like us walk. They claimed nobody takes the bus, until one day we all discovered that Los Angeles has the most crowded buses in the United States. The white men who run the transit authority responded to the news not by improving service, but by discouraging ridership. They raised fares. They stopped printing maps of the bus system. They refused to post route maps or schedules at bus stops. They put their money into more glamourous subway and light rail projects. Sued for discrimination, they accepted a consent decree and then rejected its provisions.
Neorealism also posits another kind of time, a spatialized, nonchronological time of meditation and memory.
[Dorothy stares out her window, hearing voices. A gruff old man: „The baby’s dead. You understand what I’m saying? The baby’s dead. She’s dead.“ A smooth young man: „What you doin’ up there, woman?“]
In Bush Mama, everything is filtered through Dorothy’s consciousness, and the film follows it as it slides freely from perception to memory.
Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep seems suspended outside of time. Burnett blended together the decades of his childhood, his youth, and his adulthood, and added an idiosyncratic panorama of classic black music, from Paul Robeson to Lowell Fulsom. So a portrait of one family and their neighborhood became an epic of black endurance and heroism.
The police are absent in Killer of Sheep, and everyone has a car or a truck, although they’re often more trouble than they’re worth. The protagonist has a job. He is the killer of sheep. But a job can break your heart, too.
White America had declared a crisis of the black family as a cover for its campaign of incremental genocide against its expendable ex-slave population, rendered superfluous by immigrant labor power, so black film-makers responded by emphasizing families and children. Although Hollywood would lend credence to the assault by imagining „south Central“ as a dystopian theme park of crack whores and drive-by shootings, independent black film-makers showed that the real crisis of the black family is simply the crisis of the working class family, white or black, where family values are always at risk because the threat of unemployment is always present.
So many men unneeded, unwanted in a world where there is so much to be done.
Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts takes a drive by a reverse landmark, one of the closed industrial plants that had once provided jobs for the black working class of Los Angeles. Built in 1919 and closed in 1980, the Goodyear factory on south Central Avenue was the first and largest of the four major tire manufacturing plants once located in the Los Angeles area. Once upon a time, visitors could take a guided tour and see how tires were made just as today they can take a studio tour and see how movies are made.
(c) 2003 Thom Andersen
Los Angeles Plays Itself
director, production, scenario: Thom Andersen
cast: Encke King (narrator)
camera: Deborah Stratman
editor: Yoo Seung-Hyun
sound: Thor Moser, Craig Smith
running time: 169′