“Drive west on Sunset to the sea
Turn that jungle music down
Just until we’re out of town
This is no one-night stand
It’s a real occasion
Close your eyes and you’ll be there
It’s everything they say
The end of a perfect day
Distant lights from across the bay
Babylon sisters shake it
Here come those Santa Ana winds again..."
-Steely Dan, “Babylon Sisters”
Chicago is the Windy City, a picturesque metropolis on the shores of Lake Michigan that wears its points of pride— Michael Jordan, the blues scene, deep-dish pizza, Mike Ditka, uh, Roger Ebert— like a badge of honor, and being a citizen, especially a native, is something many Chicagoans, particularly celebrities like John Cusack, Bonnie Hunt, Dan Akroyd (a Canadian, but a Chicagoan by way of the Blues Brothers), routinely brag on. The same can most definitely be said of New York City, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta and many other major American cities.
So when I was finishing up compiling the responses to Mr. Hand’s Spring 2005 Pop Movie Pop Quiz last week and came across the answers to the question, “What is the best Los Angeles movie?” (meaning a movie shot in Los Angeles whose locales are integral to the plot, or whose thematic text or subtext is some critical aspect of life or work in this city), I was struck not by the lack of answers— they were plenty and varied— but by another angle on those answers that was thrown into relief by a comment set forth by commenter Alison. She abstained from submitting an answer because “there’s nothing good about L.A.”
At first I just kind of chuckled at the sweeping generality of Alison’s statement. But as I continued to think about it in the context of the question, I came to realize that, although I tended to agree with her in terms of how grueling and demanding and expensive and maddening day-to-day life in this city can be, I felt that at least one would have to say that, considering the films listed under this category, Los Angeles had to be good for something, namely that these films came either directly from the city or as a response to it themselves.
But then, a quick look at the titles-- To Live and Die in L.A., Sunset Boulevard, L.A. Confidential, The Long Goodbye, Mulholland Dr. and Chinatown— seemed to suggest pretty definitively that at the same time they are all, to one degree or another, brilliant films, they are also pretty uniform in their view of Los Angeles as a singularly curdled, corrupt and decadent place.
For whatever reason, there is not, as far as I can tell, a whole lot of bragging going on about being an Los Angeleno. The city demands an inordinate amount of attention from government at the state level, thanks to its size and, more recently, the movie-star governor. Likewise, so much media attention, statewide and nationwide, is paid to L.A. that those from the northern part of the state, as well as all points south (if the recent debate over the ex-Anaheim Angels' association with the city at the expense of their allegiance, legal and otherwise, to the citizenry of Orange County is any indication), are routinely and often severely unimpressed by anyone traveling to their regions and crowing about Los Angeles and its cultural contributions. As Oregonians view Californians who migrate to the state and, by implication, bring their corrupt value system along with them, so does the rest of the country, and probably the world, view Los Angeles as ground zero for the cultural manifest destiny that is invading and homogenizing civilization worldwide. It’s not all Los Angeles’ fault, of course— folks on Madison Avenue and Wall Street have a little something to do with the fact that there will probably one day be a McDonald’s on top of Mount Everest-- but “Hollywood”’s pervasive influence is as metaphorically demonic and widely accepted an umbrella with which to cover the world’s ills as there is in operation today.
It’s not too difficult to find a movie that glorifies or romanticizes, say, a city as picturesque as San Francisco. Even a bleak psychological portrait like Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo doesn’t presume to hold the beautiful geography of the Bay Area responsible for Scottie Ferguson’s dementia— that geography may lend the film an often eerie quality, but we’re never to believe that there's a specifically San Franciscan malaise seeping through the film. Genuflections toward the wonders, beauty and implied hip qualities of Chicago can be found in The Blues Brothers, Grosse Pointe Blank, Continental Divide, and the entire oeuvre of John Hughes, as well as other films that may be even more pertinent. And though there are likely many more cinematic examples of the seediness and desperation of life in New York City than of its splendors, one need look no further than Woody Allen’s Manhattan or Hannah and Her Sisters to view its official enshrinement as The Greatest City In The World.
The question that rings in my mind after all of this is: Is there a movie that romanticizes or glorifies life in Los Angeles in a roughly equivalent manner to any one of these films that depict these other American cities? I’ll admit, I’ve done no research at all on this, but I figured if there were one or two that they would eventually come floating to the surface of the tar pit that passes for my mind. But so far, I’ve come up with nothing. I rejected L.A. Story, which was submitted as an answer to the question, because it’s not a love poem like Manhattan (to which it has been insufficiently compared), but instead a somewhat softheaded satire of the excesses of Los Angeles life.
And that’s as far as I’ve been able to get. So I’m putting it out there. I’d love to know about a movie or movies with these qualifications, not only for my own curiosity, but because my own capacity to be held by any kind of wonder for what this city has to offer has pretty much been whittled down to the view of the San Gabriel Mountains, and the perfectly green cut of the infield, from a seat on the third base side of Dodger Stadium. I’d like to maybe not exactly believe again, but at least see the city through the eyes of someone who still finds room to be amazed and inspired and swept away by the spectacular sprawl of cars and culture clashes that make up this city of no seasons, where almost everything seems somehow effected by viral corporate groupthink or the venality and superficiality of the movie business. Is there a movie that has as its subject the richness, vibrancy and vitality of life and/or love and/or work in Los Angeles, a movie that glorifies life in this city with even a tenth of the romantic intentions of a movie like Manhattan? Or do people, and, more aptly, filmmakers, just not see the city that way?
Babylon Sisters, shake it…
UPDATE 5/4/05: I'll be ready to tackle this subject again in a few days, but until then, Alison checks in with her own observations on the quintessential L.A. movie on her blog Electric Shadow.