Monday, May 02, 2005

HERE COME THOSE SANTA ANA WINDS AGAIN: Is There A Movie That's In Love With Los Angeles?

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.


Anonymous said...

Arggh! I'm still wracking my brain to think of one. I can think of many movies that made L.A. seem appealing to me--starting with old silent comedies--but none so far that seem to be in love with it. I must say, however--and I gladly tell my fellow bay area residents--that I love the town, and always enjoy going there. The last time I was there, in Feb. of this year, I tooled around the downtown area, where I had a meeting, and enjoyed the drive out to Glendale from downtown, especially going through the old tunnels with their faux-Egyptian look, as if DeMille had commissioned them. It was particularly nice because it had started raining (and hadn't started raining hard yet), so it felt a little Raymond Chandler-esque. I'm a glass-half-full person, but I tend to think of the beautiful places there: Griffith Park where we took your girls to ride the ponies and the train; that new Getty museum; the Warner Bros. lot with its for-real tour and evocative stucco buildings; the old Will Rogers house and grounds...don't get me wrong, I'm glad I live here, but really, someone ought to make a movie that loves L.A.

Anonymous said...

HEAT, COLLATERAL, basically anything by Michael Mann.

Also SWINGERS, GO (both Doug Liman obviously)


Those are what come to mind immediately.

Thom McGregor said...

I do think "L.A. Story" should count because, despite the satirical aspects, it seemed to be a rather sincere attempt by Steve Martin to salute his hometown. But the fact that it stank up the room probably didn't do L.A. any favors. I have a theory about the lack of Los Angeles movie valentines. I believe a lot of directors/writers come from other cities originally, and once they succeed in Hollywood, they have all these fond memories of their roots, their "peeps," so to speak, and then write/direct their cinematic valentines to their hometowns and people they grew up with. I've lived in L.A. all my life, grown up seeing familiar buildings, streets, backgrounds in almost every movie and TV show I saw (the entire carnival finale of "Grease" was filmed on my high school gym field), but it is very hard to think of a movie that was openly in love with the city. L.A. itself is so spread out and varied, it's kind of hard to reconcile South Central and Malibu in real life, much less in the movies. How about episodes of "Dragnet" where Jack Webb starts each episode in voice over, giving the current day, time (to the minute) and weather of Los Angeles-- "This is the city." THE city. "Singing in the Rain" made Hollywood seem like a pretty fun and clean place to be too! I don't care. I love L.A.! Sixth street!

Anonymous said...

While I try to come up with a movie title in order to answer your question, I will say this in defense of LA. No matter what anybody believes, Hollywood, and Los Angeles by extension, taught the rest of the world how to make movies just as Henry Ford and Detroit taught the world how to make cars. Ultimately, the movie valentine to LA are the studios themselves-- as Bruce noted, the great old buildings on the Warners lot, or the Paramount gate-- and the Chinese Theater and the Walk of Fame and the folks selling maps to stars' homes. Does anybody in New York try to sell you a map so you can stand outside of some star's apartment building? Do any of the stars from Chicago still spend their winters there? And no matter what you say, Michael Jordan is from North Carolina, and I don't think he lives in Chicago these days, whereas Magic Johnson came here to stay.

But you know what, just like we don't need no stinkin' football, we don't need no stinkin' valentines. This might be a corrupt place, but we take pride in our corruption. We stole the Rams from Cleveland and eventually let 'em go to Anaheim. We stole the Dodgers from Brooklyn, or at least gave Mr. O'Malley a place on a hill to put his ball club by obliterating a whole neighborhood, and we lured the Lakers away from Minneapolis.

Okay, I thought of a movie that could serve as a kinda, sorta valentine to LA, a movie that features my own son no less-- 1941.

So that doesn't work. Is anyone who's actually from Los Angeles going to lose sleep over it? Nah, 'cause we hate the freeways, but at least they don't smell like a century's worth of urine like the subways of NYC do after a good rain. It gets hot in LA, but when it gets hot in Chicago, people die, a lot of people. And have you noticed that it keeps happening when they have those heat/humidity waves in the Midwest, and still they laugh at us for drinking bottled water.

When the Celtics were playing the Lakers for the NBA title in the '80s, it was Bird versus Magic, working-class Boston versus Hollywood Showtime Los Angeles. There is so much more manufacturing done in Los Angeles than Boston that the whole setup was preposterous, but stereotypes are stereotypes. So we're La-La land and Boston is working-class.
(To me, Boston is the last city in major leagues to have an integrated baseball team, and it didn't happen until 1959, TWELVE YEARS after Jackie Robinson broke in with the then Brooklyn Dodgers, and Bird vs. Magic was very much about white vs. black, but like I said, stereotypes are stereotypes.)

GIDGET? ED WOOD? REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE? Although it might be another movie about about corrupt Los Angeles, DEVIL WITH A BLUE DRESS was every bit as brilliant as L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, and it was set in parts of the city that few people would recognize as Los Angeles-- not just the suburbs, but the suburbs where postwar African-American vets set down roots. Why is DEVIL so easily forgotten? Could it be that black/white thing again?


I'm not doin' any good here. The defense rests.

Virgil Hilts

By the way, I was born in East LA, in Lincoln Hospital on Soto Street.

My mom, when she was a kid, lived on a ranch east of Los Angeles, where her father was a tenant farmer. Richard Nixon used to deliver groceries to the ranch.

Yeah, this place sucks. And I love it because it's home and ALL my family lives somewhere around here. Don't need a movie to tell me that.

Alison said...

i may have to do a response to this in my blog =) i think i have tomorrow's work cut out for me.

Thom McGregor said...

You go, girl-- I mean, Mexican hairless! What a great response. You should start your own blog, Virgil. I agree, agree, agree. And thank you for reminding me of "Devil with a Blue Dress," one of the most underrated movies ever. I will never forget those outdoor street sets, especially in the evening, full of life, romanticized but believable and beautiful. I miss you so much, Virgil, and your "essay" reminded me why. I need you to stop by my room and stir my brain up every day!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

For right now, all I wanna say is that these are the kinds of comments I always hoped for when I started this blog-- thoughtful and intelligent ones that inspire others to think and respond, that turn on lights in the reader's head (or at least mine) and make you reconsider your previous ideas or spur you to investigate them further. In fact, if I hadn't already copped within the main article to not having taken much time to really think about an answer myself I'd be even more shamed than I already am, because the comments are so much more interesting than the original post, and I suspect Alison will be forthcoming with some good stuff of her own on her page, Electric Shadow (see the SLIFR sidebar for a link). I'll write more after a few more days have passed, and hopefully a few more comments have come in, because I'd really like to put Virgil, Blaaagh and Thom's comments up on their own page and talk more about some of the movies (and TV shows) mentioned that I'm embarrassed I didn't think of myself, including 1941, Shampoo, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Dragnet, Devil in a Blue Dress, Collateral and, yes, the Paramount gates and the Warner Brothers water tower. I ended my article with the hope that some filmmaker might help me see the city through different eyes; well, that's just what you guys have done. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Dennis, you lie! You know you wanted a blogspot where only your ideas, likes and dislikes ruled supreme and unquestioned! Everyone knows that one goes to Steve's blog if you want to share ideas!

By the way, I forgot to mention two films by Alan Rudolph in my post last night-- the fabulous CHOOSE ME, and the uneven and cynical WELCOME TO L.A. Then, in thinking of Alan Rudolph, it came to my mind that THE PLAYER would have to be considered a movie about L.A., no?

And given that THE GODFATHER is so revered, you'd think that someone would have mentioned it as the best movie about New York City.

Virgil Hilts

Anonymous said...