The first time I went to Burbank, I realized two things: that the version of Los Angeles I’d been sold all my life wasn’t entirely accurate, and that more than any other city — even Manhattan! — I’d been sold a version of Los Angeles as a place I needed to know about.
Even the versions that were critical of the city were still stressing the idea that you needed to know about LA so you could make fun of it. After several trips over the last 25 years or so, including an extended stay last week where we explored some neighborhoods, I feel like I’ve got a better idea of the city. Not as much as a resident would, but much more accurate than a Randy Newman video.1I always just assumed that that song was sardonic, but now it just sounds “love-it-despite-its-faults” sincere, which makes me hate it even more. Some of the movies that formed my opinion of the city are just too solipsistic or too stylized for me to appreciate anymore, but here are the ones that got at least one aspect right:
E.T. The Extra Terrestrial
I’ve read that E.T. was Steven Spielberg’s ode to childhood, and the San Fernando Valley wasn’t meant to be a specific place so much as “The Suburbs.” As a kid, I was just struck by how much cooler and more exotic the California suburbs looked than my own suburbs; the whole thing was alien. Now when I drive around the valley, it has a sense of familiarity from a childhood that wasn’t mine.
Drag Me to Hell
This is locked in my memory as a distinctly LA movie, but I couldn’t recall any details of the plot that demanded it be set in Los Angeles. Now, though, it seems an essential part of the story, not just a generic setting: it has to be some place large enough to have multiple cultures commingling, and hostile or careless strangers with little sense of community. It has to have enough history, and distinct enough buildings, for its magical seance sequence. And its main character has to be visibly middle class: better off than some, but definitely not “rich” in any sense of the word. In that sense, it’s as LA as it gets.
I don’t think of this as a particularly romantic version of Los Angeles, but it somehow does an amazing job of making the ugly and banal parts of the city seem exciting and interesting. I remember the ads for this movie being all about fast cars and nightclubs and neon, while the reality was mostly apartment buildings, garages, and strip malls. To me, this most felt like a classic film noir in the way it made low-to-medium-density sprawl seem mysterious and exotic.
For all the futurism that Blade Runner throws at us, the only two aspects of 21st century Los Angeles that came true were the influence of Asian cultures and the overall sense of people feeling defeated and replaceable. I think it’s darkly hilarious that it shows a dystopia of soul-crushing skyscrapers shooting jets of flame into the night, and streets soaked with constant rain, while in the real 2021, people in LA are practically begging for more water and more building density.
Los Angeles has a ton of fascinating history that no one seems to be particularly interested in, except for how it pertains to clothes, cars, and architecture. Everyone invested in the city seems to want it to exist in a perpetual present, with a theme-park-style callback to interesting buildings completely removed from their actual context. The question of whether L.A. Confidential is “accurate” is completely irrelevant; just by existing, it’s one of the most inherently Los Angeles artifacts there is. Overlong, filled with celebrities riding a wave of fame, spending tens of millions of dollars to present a lurid, fantastic version of itself.
La La Land
This one also sells you a fantasy version of LA, and it’s really the charisma of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, not Los Angeles, that wins you over. But the parts of LA that it’s selling happen to be the parts of LA that I actually like, so it works for me. The Griffith Observatory really is one of the most beautiful places anywhere. Some of the best places in the city are tucked away in an ugly strip mall. The city’s large enough that you can be a total nerd about a topic and find an entire subculture devoted to it. And it certainly feels like you can wander into a random nightclub and run into someone you haven’t seen in years.
The satire in this movie is about as subtle as you’d expect from a movie starring Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes, but I also kind of feel like they nailed it. Sandra Bullock is the soul of the movie and the source of all its charm, as well as feeling like one of the few people who understood that it was an action comedy. But what charmed me the most were the idea of a Los Angeles that’s sprawled out to absorb San Diego, obsessed with fast food and product placement, and controlled by a fascistic police state that sells itself as a peaceful utopia.
- 1I always just assumed that that song was sardonic, but now it just sounds “love-it-despite-its-faults” sincere, which makes me hate it even more.