I’d be remiss if I didn’t start by saying the title for this entry is from one of my favorite songs (Los Angeles, I’m Yours) by one of my favorite bands (The Decemberists). Give it a listen, it’s one of those beautifully ironic odes that confronts the ugliness and wretchedness of a city so many people fall in love with.
It’s pertinent this morning for me because my thoughts are on that city, its shine and its stink, the vast disparity in wealth and class it harbors, the clashes of culture, history and art within it and how the sprawl makes this at once so crucial yet so ephemeral. Two of the stories I’ve been bouncing around writing of late are set in Los Angeles. I expressed my frustration yesterday with Gunn & Balloo, and one of the major frustrations is that Los Angeles is mere backdrop to the story.
Los Angeles isn’t unique in this regard: if it’s going to be your setting, it has to be more than just the patch of earth on this rotating marble that your characters happening to be standing upon. It has to, in its own way, be a character. It’s a unique character, with its sprawl and the paradoxical traits I mentioned above. So I’m spending my day doing some outlining and planning on how to make it much more of an entity in my projects.
It’s been done very effectively before, so I’m hoping reviewing my favorite film representations of Los Angeles helps order my thoughts a bit. (Note: It’s also been ineffectively as well, which may be a worthwhile follow up to this.)
The Big Lebowski
Like many people, I first saw this in high school long before I ever considered coming to LA for college, far less staying out here, but my best friend was from LA and clued me in to all the subtle LA notes painted throughout: Ralph’s, In N Out, the variety of cops, etc.
What’s become more apparent since I moved out here is that the characters themselves are archetypes of the various clashing cultures and histories in LA. Jeffrey Lebowski is the moneyed white culture you find up in Pasadena, Maude the beatnik Downtown artist scene, Jackie Treehorn is the cliche smut producer.
Even the detective tailing the Dude is a symbol of the still pervasive LA Noir detective that LA Confidential (which will not make this list) dissected thoroughly. What’s most essential to these motifs is that the dude, Walter and Donnie all represent a second or third generation white working class that keeps relatively isolated in the South Bay outside LA proper.
The humor in the movie, indeed its funniest moments, are all from the clashes of cultures and classes among the Los Angeles sprawl as the Dude tries to get remuneration for his rug. It’s a good primer for anyone considering moving here.
I love this movie and if you disagree with me, I. Will. Fight you. On its own merit, this is a truly funny, heartfelt movie of a young woman coming into her own in terms of recognizing her talents, worth, and passions- and how to use that to be a better person as well as a better friend.
At the same time, it’s a tremendous send up of Los Angeles culture. Everyone remembers it (not unjustly) as having plenty of gags about how wealthy Alicia Silverstone’s Cher and Stacy Dash’s Dionne are, but here’s a small note about its sensitivity to reality of LA social classes: Donald Faison’s Murray is noted as being from lower income, but his mother gets him to go to the posh school in Beverly Hills by using her employment zip code. This is a true thing that does happen in LA.
There are a lot of other sensitivities it has to Los Angeles realities as well- particularly the geography and cultures of those different areas (burn out, stoner skaters of the beach cities versus Beverly Hills money), but here’s one that knowing Los Angeles actually affects:
There’s a throwaway joke when Cher is being taught how to drive, Paul Rudd’s Josh suggest they move onto parallel parking, to which Cher retorts, “Why? Everywhere you go has valet.”
To those not from LA: Ha, silly rich girl thinking there will always be someone to park your car for you. How silly.
For those from LA: Well, yeah, I guess all the malls, restaurants and strips she goes to will have valet, valid point.
That’s not an exaggeration, valet services are incredibly prevalent out in LA, and it should also be noted that Los Angeles is one of the few driver exams for a license where your road test does not require you to parallel park. If it weren’t for the back up camera in my car, I’d be hopeless at it too.
This, in my opinion, is Tom Cruise’s most underrated film. Not just on Cruise’s own merit: it’s the only time he’s ever played a villain, and the pathos and menace he brings to the amoral and nihilist hitman, Vincent is astounding. More than Cruise, this film is a masterpiece in itself of suspense, building stakes, and twisting dynamics.
If there’s anything most movies set in Los Angeles are guilty of that makes me automatically roll my eyes, it’s “fast travel.” Character in Downtown says: “you’re in Venice? I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
Even with NO traffic, that’s a half hour, on a Tuesday afternoon? I hope you have a few podcasts queued up for the ride. Right from the start, we see Jamie Foxx’s Max driving his taxi around Los Angeles, and when he picks up Jada Pinkett Smith’s Annie they have a very true, and very accurate conversation about possible routes to get her to the court district in Downtown. The SNL skit is 100% correct: whereas everywhere else in the world small talk consists of discussing weather, in LA (since the weather never changes) we talk traffic.
Okay, traffic aside, it’s a thrilling, gritty movie, and a helluva story, but there’s more to it that makes it so perfectly Los Angeles: Vincent makes Max drive him around the sprawl, to different areas and different cultures occupying their own pockets across the city, and finding out how they’re all invisibly tied to one another: a crime family, subject to the law and a potential federal case being helmed by Smith’s Annie.
It may be heavy handed, but Vincent remarks early on that he hates LA. It’s the kind of city where a man gets on the subway and dies. The body just sits there and keeps riding for hours because no one notices the man, that’s he dead, or even thinks of checking that a fellow passenger is ok. Spoiler warning, but that gets repeated at the end, and it’s a harrowing question of what any life is worth when it become so cheapened by life in a faceless city like this one.