Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) Movie Script

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.
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:
...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 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.
"Gotta find somebody in L.A."
"Maybe he's not even in L.A."
"How far did you say you're going?"
"Los Angeles."
"L.A.'s good enough for me, mister."
"L.A. was the gang capital of America."
"Hello, L.A!"
"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."
"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.
...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.
"Are you sure we're still
in the United States?"
"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,
...and Calabasas in the
San Fernando Valley...
...could play the valley
of Ling in China...
...after M-G-M excavated
some rice paddies.
More often than not,
...Los Angeles played some other city...
...Sinclair Lewis's
Zenith in Babbitt...
...Chicago in The Public Enemy...
"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.
"From Chicago?"
"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.
"Mr. Marlowe?"
"What can I do for you?"
The Bradbury Building had become just
another clich in a film of clichs,
...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.
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.
"I got my blood into this..."
And now you have it...
Look, right in the palm of my hand.
"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.
"Listen, madam."
"You stole that."
"Know what this is?"
"- It's a game."
"- It's no game. Just walk."
"- Why?" "Cuz if you don't, I'll
blow your fucking heart out."
Through its corridors and
grand lobby have passed...
...drug dealers...
...political protesters...
...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 villains 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,
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.
"Dr. Stevens, meet Special Agent Pomeroy
of the National Bureau of Investigation."
"You don't look like an N.B.I.
man to me, Mr. Pomeroy."
"Well, you don't look
like a doctor, doctor."
People have fake addresses.
"Stark, Jim Stark. Here it is,
1753 Angelo. Well, well."
Or fake phone numbers...
"Lexington 0-five-five-four-nine."
"What's the number?"
"Write down my number..."
Got it?"
"Wait a minute,"
"...five-five-five's not a real number.
They only use that in the movies."
"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...
...or a drug dealer on the way up.
"Where'd you get this furniture?"
"Nice Italian lady picked this out."
"Oh, so nice. Gianni Versace, right?
Mike Tyson wears Versace."
"David, come on. Take your feet off the couch. You
don't do that at your mother's house, do you?"
"Nouveau anal, I think this is called.
But all right."
"And here... here... here...
coaster... coaster."
Or a music promoter on the way down.
"Terry Valentine."
"Very nice to meet you."
"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.
"I warned you I'd kill her."
And the best Los Angeles
car chase movie...
...is stubbornly,
...even perversely literalist.
"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 Californian
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.
"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,
...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--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.
"Nice place you got here...
...It sure beats Los Feliz".
"You're up above the smog."
"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.
"How's the smut business, Jackie?"
"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.
"What you figure the breakage?"
"I figure we take out the terrorists...
...lose twenty, twenty-five per
cent of the hostages. Tops."
"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.
"Get down, get the fuck down!"
"Nail that sucker."
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.
"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,
...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.
"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 ressuring.
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.
"Rosa, let's go."
"Better not,."
"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?
"I got through..."
"...Can you get me a jack
hammer and a bolt cutter?"
"Use a jack hammer and then
the roof will fall in."
"Look, I think there are some
people alive in there..."
"...and I'm gonna try and get them out."
"Well, nobody else is and
you can't do it all alone."
"I won't be alone..."
"...he's coming with me."
A priest can be useful.
"We're gonna crash, we're gonna be
killed, I know we're all gonna be..."
But not a politician.
"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.
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.
"This used to be a hell
of a town, officer."
In disaster movies,
...at least Los Angeles is
finally there as a character,
...if not yet as a subject.
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 cares about...
...and whose intelligence
he tries to emulate.
"Office memorandum..."
...Walter Neff to Barton
Keyes, claims manager...
...Los Angeles. July 16, 1938.
Dear Keyes.
I suppose you'll call this a
confession when you hear it.
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."
"I'm Walter Neff, Pacific All-Risk."
Like Chandler and Wilder,
...Walter Neff is a smart aleck and a snob.
"Is there anything I can do?"
"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."
"Perhaps I know what you mean, Mr. Neff..."
"...I was just taking a sun bath."
"No pigeons around, I hope."
And a bit of an asshole,
...although less of one
than the man he murders.
"Next thing you'll tell me I
need earthquake insurance,"
"...and lightning insurance,
and hail insurance..."
"If we bought all the insurance they could think up,
we'd stay broke paying for it, wouldn't we, honey?"
"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.
"Ok. 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.
"Okay, baby, that's it."
"What's the matter, aren't
you going to kiss me?"
"It's straight down the line, isn't it?"
"I love you, Walter."
"I love you, baby."
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
this 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...
...or a vigilante hero out for revenge.
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.
"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.
"Daddy says, southern California is
the coming part of the country..."
...Dad dy says, six out of every ten
veterans will settle here after the war...
"...Daddy says..."
"Never mind about your daddy. Don't
you have any ideas of your own?"
"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.
"That's a fine way to behave."
"Well, you know who he takes after."
"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.
"Hit your lights!"
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 Angeles.
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.
"My dear sir."
"Now tell me about the key."
"Just a minute, sir."
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.
"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.
"This is Crestview
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."
"Hello, Mike, just checking
to see if you got home...
Please call me when you..."
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.
"Tell this character we want to go..."
"Can I help you, sir?"
"Oh, yeah. Give me five
gallons of regular."
"I thought you said we
were going to dancing..."
"Come here, homes. Come here,
I want to talk to you."
"Could you check under
the hood, too, please?"
"Hello, there. Fill'er up?"
"Two dollars, no knock!"
"Yes, sir."
"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?
"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.
"You really think this
could work out for Danny?"
"I think this place could be
anything you want it to be."
"Yeah, but what the hell to call it?"
"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.
"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.
"Thanks, Amy."
At least the Far East Caf 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 at
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.
"Ah, buena sera, mamma mia."
"Buena sera."
It was film noir territory,
...but it was a refuge from the
meaner streets of the city.
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...
"A guy could get a heart
attack walking up here."
"Who invited you?"
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 1961.
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.
"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.
"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.
"You know, I can't believe that
this is really Beverly Hills."
"The architecture is really
consistent isn't it..."
"...French next to Spanish, next
to Tudor, next to Japanese."
"God, it's so clean out here."
"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.
"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.
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.
"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 guidebookto
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,
...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.
"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?"
"Yeah, I do. I understand."
The opinion expressed by Raquel
Welch in Flareup is more typical.
"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."
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."
"...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.
"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.
"That dam's a con job."
"What dam?"
"The one 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."
"To the Valley?"
"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 man-made
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.
"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?"
"- Shut up!
- ...can get away with anything."
"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."
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."
"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.
"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.
"Curly where's your car?"
"- In the garage.
- Where's that?"
"Off the alley."
"Can you give me a ride somewhere?"
"Sure, soon as we eat."
"Right now, Curly. It can't wait."
"I'll tell my wife."
"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.
"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.
"Joseph C. Gillis?"
"That's right."
"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.
"You couldn't let a man
sit here for five minutes..."
"...take a rest on your
precious piece of shit hill?"
You want my briefcase?"
"I'll get it for you alright?
You can have my briefcase."
"Here. You want my briefcase?
Here's my briefcase!"
"Hey! Where you goin' huh? Where
you goin'? You forgot the briefcase!"
"You forgot the briefcase!"
But his condescension is so thick you
have to sympathize with his victims.
"Drink, eighty-fie cents.
You pay or go!"
"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?"
"I'm not Chinese. I'm Korean."
"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.
"Hey, mister, ain't you got a car?"
"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,
...discriminatory pricing,
...and poor service...
...had been endemic for
more than thirty years.
But after the war,
...there was indeed another
kind of trouble.
"Several months ago I had the good providence
to stumble upon a plan of the City Council..."
"...a construction plan
of epic proportions."
"They are calling it a freeway."
"A freeway?..."
"...What the hell's a freeway?"
"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."
"C'mon, nobody's going to
drive this lousy freeway..."
"...when they can take the
Red Car for a nickel."
"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 80's 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.
"Which one, ese?"
"Don't matter."
"Fuck it, homes."
"La Primera lives!"
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.
"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.
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.
"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.
"Johnny Stompanato."
"A hooker cut to look like
Lana Turner is still a hooker."
"She just looks like Lana Turner."
"She is Lana Turner."
"She is Lana Turner."
A real scandal:
In the early morning hours
of Christmas day 1951,
...drunken cops had beaten seven
prisoners arrested after a bar fight,
"This is for ours, Poncho."
...and the Daily News came to call it:
"Bloody Christmas."
Other scandals were fictional.
"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.
"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.
"What does Exley think of all this?"
"You know, I haven't told him yet..."
"...I just came straight
from the Records Bureau."
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.
"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.
"If we can get the kid to play ball..."
"...who's to say what happened?"
"Maybe Dudley Smith died a hero."
Cynicism has become the
dominant myth of our times,
...and L.A. Confidential preaches it.
"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.
"- All right, hands up on the wall.
- Not this time. I've got friends with me."
"- Would you rather do it downtown?
- Ah, get off my back. You know I'm clean."
"Are you? Hands up on the wall."
"All right, take everything
out of your pockets."
"- Where am I gonna put it?
- The ground will hold 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.
"- Will you be seeing my father
after you leave? - Sure."
"Ask him to read the Bible."
"The epistle of Paul
to the Ephesians."
"- Maybe he'll understand.
- How's that?"
"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."
"Try chapter five, lady."
"The apostle Paul also said this:"
"Yes, what is that?"
"See then that ye walk circumspectly,
not as fools, but as wise."
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 citizens 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.
"Quinn, we'd like you to
come down for a show-up."
"Mr. Friday, you'd just as well
know now, I'm not gonna do it."
"- You afraid to testify, Quinn?
- I just don't remember."
"What is it? Your family,
your wife and children?"
"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."
"You'll have to go before the grand
jury; they'll subpoena you."
"Mr. Friday..."
"...I'd like to ask you a question:"
"...if you was me, would you do it?"
"Can I wait awhile?"
"Before I'm you."
Friday's heavy-handed
irony never lets up.
None of the witnesses or
suspects he questions...
...penetrate his wall
of condescension.
- " You don't believe anything I've said.
- You make it a little difficult, lady."
"Why? I've told you the truth."
"Sure you did, three different ways."
"As I've been saying, I deal
in ideas, nothing more."
"I might even sell you a few."
"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.
"Ah, the powers of
flowers draw you here."
"- No ma'am. We're police officers.
- Oh, how lovely."
"Are you Miss Deleon?"
"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."
"I'm not like some. I dig the fuzz."
"After all, you're like the
flowers yourselves."
"You have to live, too."
"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.
"Mr. Mill, I'm detective
DeLongpre, Pasadena Police."
"No, I... You're putting me in
a terrible position here..."
"I would... I would hate to get
the wrong person arrested."
"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.
"We see things sometimes - cops.
Other people don't see..."
"...leaves stains."
"When you're investigating
and collecting clues?"
"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.
"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.
"This is my friend Ralph."
"- You didn't tell me you were...
- Sit down."
"Don't you even get angry?"
"I'm angry."
"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!"
"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...
"Well. I will be soon, baby,"
...a pussy-whipped cop...
"Say it."
- Okay.
- Say it.
"I'll be home soon."
"No, say it!"
"I'll be home soon... and I love you.
...and an uncontrollably horny cop,
...a slave to his dick.
"Are you a whore?"
"Well, I wanna tell
you something..."
"- I like whores.
- Yeah?"
"Oh, I like 'em alot."
"- I bet you know a lot of 'em.
- I do."
"I'll fuck your brains
out for fifty bucks."
"Forget about that burger."
"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.
"So tell me, man, what's
up with the beads?"
"These here? It's called a
mhala, Tibetan prayer beads."
"What do you use them for?"
"I use them to calm my mind
and purify my thoughts."
"Yeah? I use Jack Daniels."
"- Shut up!
- What's so threatening about it?"
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.
"All right now. You go run away;
We don't want you anymore..."
"Run away, we don't
want you anymore..."
"Look at this."
"It's a bone."
"All right, go get it."
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.
"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..."
"...I'd appreciate it,
if he shows up,"
"...if you could look after him,
or give him a bowl of milk..."
"They're not even there."
"It's okay with me."
"So, you murdered your
wife, huh Terry?"
"She didn't give me any choice."
"You didn't have much choice, huh?..."
"So you used me."
"What the hell, that's what friends
are for. I was in a jam..."
"...what the hell, nobody cares."
"Yeah, nobody cares but me."
"Well, that's you, Marlowe."
"You'll never learn.
You're a born loser."
There's no chance Marlowe will get
the good-bad girl at the end.
He won't even find his lost cat.
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
pathetic 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...
"Uh, yes, you're the
first ones to arrive."
"Right this way, please."
Both restaurant employees.
"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.
"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.
"Hey, what time is it?"
Those flickers of lunacy that can
separate us from our fellows.
"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.
"Eve, are you not going to speak to me?
Is that what this is all about?"
"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.
"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.
"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?
...Kasdan finds solace
in the little triumphs...
...and epiphanies of everyday life,
...like a driving lesson.
"Sorry, dad."
"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.
"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."
...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.
"The baby's dead..."
"You understand what I'm saying?
The baby's dead..."
"She's dead."
"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 it's 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.
"Y'all better run along or
you'll be late for church.
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 Good Year factory in
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.