Sunday, April 5, 2020

Cabinet of Curiosities: Modern Los Angeles on Film

I don’t think Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself gets enough credit for making Angelenos want to feature their hometown again. Having grown up here I’m accustomed to seeing familiar places on screen. Living right at the border of Los Angeles and Orange Counties we would even occasionally have film crews come shoot establishing shots of the beach community I grew up in. A friend of mine in Long Beach resides on a street lined with houses featured in Donnie Darko, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and American Pie 2. But around the early 2000’s things began to change.

Suddenly, Film and TV didn’t look so familiar. Thanks to tax incentives, Toronto, Atlanta, and New Orleans became the new hotspots that could stand in for Anywhere, USA. Despite all the infrastructure already being here, it was too expensive to film in this “industry town”. Runaway Production was unstoppable...until it wasn’t.

Of course Andersen’s essay film (constructed exclusively of footage from other movies) only showed every so often and in places like The American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theater, but the right people were seeing it. Filmmakers and film lovers were seeing it.

By the time it made its way to Netflix and blu-ray (thanks to the appropriation of other works being deemed “fair use”) you could already start seeing places like The Lovell Health House and The Bradbury Building popping up in films like (500) Days of Summer and Beginners. Even Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman jumped on the bandwagon by featuring LACMA’s Urban Lights sculpture in the Ashton Kutcher Vehicle No Strings Attached. But what about the other neighborhoods?

Of course one of the goals of Los Angeles Plays Itself was to get people to take the city seriously. In the film’s narration, Andersen even decries the use of the abbreviation “LA” as borderline obscene. But the other aim of the film (aside from dispelling popular myths propagated in films like Chinatown, L.A. Confidential, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit) was to sing the praises of the filmmakers who really told stories of and about Los Angeles in films like Killer of Sheep, The Exiles, Bush Mama, and Bless Their Little Hearts.

So far, most of the current wave of LA Cinema is about as diverse as a Woody Allen film. The same neighborhoods. The same shops. The same landmarks. You could make up Bingo Cards. And I know gentrification is a big contributor to this phenomenon, but it really feels like most of these filmmakers are only interested in depicting the coffee shops and book stores that they personally frequent.

Only in Period Films, Crime Films, and the occasional story about people on the margins does the city really start to look like itself. Celeste & Jesse Forever this is not. Tangerine this is. But of course realism doesn’t sell. After a career’s worth of excellent location work in films like Jackie Brown and Collateral, it was the gloss of La La Land that finally netted an Oscar for David and Sandy Wasco. See also: Barbara Ling winning for Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood a quarter-century after the amazing location work of Falling Down.

Los Angeles is not a monolith. There is no epicenter. As historian Carey McWilliams stated, “God never intended Southern California to be anything but desert...Man has made it what it is.” Prior to irrigation, Southern California was a veritable blank slate. Gradually over the course of decades, numerous villages/neighborhoods spread, bled, and merged with one another to form one giant, un-unified (sub)urban sprawl.

Here you can find Spanish Architecture, next to Tudor, next to Googie. The quite old can exist right next to the brand new and (thanks to the Post-War Boom) lots of Mid-Century in-between. Living in Southern California, one gradually comes to accept the strangeness as normal.

But sometimes if you slow down enough, you’re able to see the strangeness again. Suddenly the world around you becomes a cabinet of curiosities where odd juxtapositions are just waiting to spark your creativity. Thesis + Antithesis = Synthesis. And nowhere is this better exemplified than in the work of prominent Angeleno, David Lynch.

Much of David Lynch’s work seems to exist in a time period all its own. Lynch himself once poetically described this phenomenon thusly: “When the light is just right in old neighborhoods, you get a rush from your childhood, and then a modern car drives through bringing the two things together.” That collision exemplifies life in Los Angeles. Is it future? Or is it past? What if it is both?

While Lynch’s informal trilogy of Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr, and Inland Empire are all about the psychological turmoil of reconciling dualities with their protagonists, they are also about wrestling with the dualities of the city in which they are set.

In his book Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity, Los Angeles gets its own (brief) chapter where he hints at this duality:
“I love Los Angeles. I know a lot of people go there and they see just a huge sprawl of sameness. But when you’re there for a while, you realize that each section has it’s own mood. The golden age of cinema is still alive there, in the smell of jasmine at night and the beautiful weather.”

Los Angeles may be composed of different “moods” but they are all undeniably Los Angeles. It is a city that is both rich and poor. It is both young and old. There are those in “The Industry” and there are the “normies”. Even “The Industry” is subdivided between “above the line” and “below the line”. To present only one reality is cinematic erasure of its inverse. What is the toll of ignoring all that stratification? It certainly doesn’t make the problem go away. Eventually the wood shack will explode. Eventually reality will chase you down. Eventually you will get a screwdriver in the abdomen.

*      *      *

Whenever chaos bubbles to the surface in the form of a murder or civil uprising, many are quick to proclaim that they never saw it coming. He was always such a nice fellow. I had no idea things were so bad out there. But as the reportage starts to come in, it becomes clear that this was a long time coming and inevitable. The signs were just ignored. The same is true of positive things.

Every “overnight sensation” has been at it for years. Who knew this cute little restaurant  was here? Lots of people and they’ve been eating here for years, catch up! Just because you aren’t aware of something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Open up your eyes and have a look around. We all have hi-def cameras in our pockets, find a story and tell it! Before long the Los Angeles on screen will more accurately reflect the city itself. We can no longer feign ignorance. And when it happens we will know it because we will be looking for it. Los Angeles will truly be playing itself.

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