The Sidewalk in Front of Perino’s, 1936

“What Do We See When We Look at L.A.? The Swells on Wilshire Boulevard in 1936”
Where We Are

SoCal Focus
KCET

The Great Depression did not mean that people stopped living or having fun, and these 1936 Wilshire sidewalk shots uncovered by KCET’s D.J. Waldie at his SoCalFocus blog are poignant reminders.

The photos are from USC Digital Archive’s collection of “Dick” Whittington’s study, and based on the content they look like they were done as part of a job for Perino’s.

Perino's 1936

Pop on over to Waldie’s blog for more, or, better yet, to Ryerson’s  posts on the forum Noirish Los Angeles.

Our Favorite L.A. Films

Cover of "The Day of the Locust"
Cover of The Day of the Locust

My favorite L.A. films – in fact, my favorite films about anyplace – are those that accomplish one of three things. They either hold up a mirror to the place and the people who live there, hold up a microscope to give you a view of the place that you have never seen before, or capture something about the place that makes it a little magical. The place becomes a living, breathing presence that touches the plot and the characters in a definable way.

Put simply, the best films about a place are those where the setting is a character, not mere backdrop, and they couldn’t happen anywhere else. Wayne Wang’s A Great Wall could not have been made in Shanghai or Hong Kong. It was suffused with the essence of Beijing. New Orleans should have been given an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in The Big Easy, and location was unquestionably an uncredited character in films like Elizabethtown, Juno, Napoleon Dynamite, and The Shipping News.

When the location becomes backdrop, something disappears from the cast list. One of my favorite L.A. films, strangely, was Clint Eastwood‘s Every Which Way But Loose. But watching it today, L.A. simply becomes a generic backdrop. Philo could have lived in Phoenix or Dallas. They shot at the north end of the San Fernando Valley because it was Western, working-class, and close. Christopher Nolan‘s Batman films happened in a Gotham City that was New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore all rolled into a mash that said “generic Northeast U.S. City,” taking the character of the setting out entirely, a feat I think of as location neutering.

So all of our lists of top films of the Golden West may not necessarily be the best films made in or about their settings, but in each the place is a presence, a character, a device that moves the plot forward in a way nowhere else could.

For Los Angeles, they are, in descending order:

1. Chinatown – Roman Polanski
2. L.A. Story – Steve Martin
3. L.A. Confidential – Curtis Hanson
4. The Big Lebowski – The Coen Brothers – (Honorable Mention: Barton Fink)
5. Magnolia – Paul Thomas Anderson – (Honorable Mention: Boogie Nights)
6. Falling Down – Joel Schumacher
7. Boyz in the Hood – John Singleton
8. The Day of the Locust – John Schlesinger
9. Blast from the Past – Hugh Wilson
10. The Holiday – Nancy Meyers

There were some close calls here, and there are a few omissions that I feel the need to explain. First, I don’t count Blade Runner as a film about L.A. Once you rip out the Chandleresque narration that offended many fans of the movie, the setting feels more like New York, Hong Kong, or Tokyo than Los Angeles. Beverly Hills Cop nearly made it, but the filmmakers lost me when they took serious geographic license in portraying Beverly Hills as encompassing parts of West Hollywood, LAX, Pasadena, and other random chunks of metropolitan Los Angeles. It was a Los Angeles designed to feel real to only those who had never been there.

Let me know what you think I’m missing here.

Coming next: our favorite San Francisco Films.

Los Angeles and The Noir Fiction

“Nothing More American: On James M. Cain”
Steve Erickson

Los Angeles Review of Books
December 10, 2012

In an essay included in the new Folio Society edition of James M. Cain’s classic noir novel of Los Angeles, The Postman Always Rings Twice, film critic Steve Erickson examines the significance of Cain’s novel the context of its time and genre. It was a racy book on a racy shelf, one that common sensibility prevented from being fully translated to film for five decades.

There is good reason behind all of this. As Erickson pithily observes, “Noir was to cinema as punk was to rock and roll.” Noir was where you felt for the ragged edge of literary (and cinematic) tolerance, that point where art was an inch away from becoming pornographic. Postman was the literary Piss Christ of the 1930s.

Unfortunately, an otherwise brilliant review is undermined by an irritant: either knowingly or otherwise, Erickson buys into The Noir Fiction: it wasn’t just people that were bad in the stories of Cain, Chandler, and others. It was the place.

Still just a euphemism for Hollywood, Los Angeles was Cain’s natural habitat more than he knew, teetering between the transcendent and the tawdry, swarming with the forsaken, disenchanted, and besotted, among them fugitives from Hitler’s coming holocaust. Centerless and gravityless, Los Angeles was the Elba of Entropy for exiles like Cain who, writing scripts within a martini’s throw of Faulkner and Fitzgerald, honed self-loathing into an aesthetic.

That reads pretty well, doesn’t it? It should. It could have come out of a Cain story, or a Chandler novel, or an early treatment of the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink. There is something wrong with L.A., something fundamental that is missing, and that either screws up the good people who come to the city or attracts all of the nasty elements.

This is the unspoken conceit that underlies noir fiction and film. You read it in Dashiell Hammett, Horace McCoy. You see it in Chinatown, in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, in L.A. Confidential as the two good-but-damaged people leave L.A. for, of all places, the corrupt company mining town of Bisbee, Arizona. Better to live at the whim of the strike-busting Phelps Dodge Corporation, the filmmakers are telling us, than to live in a dysfunctional shit hole like Los Angeles.

Just in case we missed his point, Erickson delivers it at the end, this time in a tighter wad than before.

James M. Cain left Los Angeles in the late 1940s and his fiction was never the same. It wasn’t so much that he belonged in Los Angeles: the whole point of Los Angeles is not belonging there; it’s a city for people who don’t belong anywhere.

I have lived in L.A. long enough – and been away from it long enough – to know that there are people for whom this is profoundly true, and there are Angelenos who know that this is pure slander. For some of us, there are times in our lives where it rings true, and others that prove its falsehood. When I was young, I loved this town and it ripped the guts out of me and spit me out in a way no native son should experience. Now I’m older, and things are different, and the place seems to be returning what was once unrequited. Yet I also know now that it never was the City. It was always me.

The Noir Fiction that L.A. is broken, a silent malevolent force, is an artful projection, a conceit, a device. It is a way of assuring readers that there is nothing wrong with people, really, it is just time, place, and circumstance that screw us all up. Nothing wrong with that, as long as we recognize that this device so freely shared by the guys in the back room at Musso and Frank was less a true description than an artistic tool.

Erickson seems to adopt this hyperbole, this shot-glass of Chandler dripped on one’s shirt, as the truth without reflection or examination. It is fashionable to do so. How could so many of the great L.A. authors have written about the city in that way if it all weren’t true? Conveniently, it serves the purposes of the legion of literary wanna-bes locked up in rent-controlled fifth-floor closets in Manhattan who slip six times on the ice on the way to their miserable day-jobs. L.A. isn’t a place. Manhattan, on the other hand…

The literary trade is most susceptible to the Noir Fiction. After all, its what the elite have told themselves for decades, and to be from L.A. and gain access to the halls of literary respectability, you must repeat the Noir Fiction like the Boy Scout oath, a credo: L.A. is not a real place, and nothing good emerges from it without influence from elsewhere.

Erickson, whether he believes the Noir Fiction or not, is paying his fraternity dues. That doesn’t mean we have to. We can instead recognize Los Angeles for what it is: a neutral place that has brought out the best in some (Cain and Erickson among them) the worst in others, and in the shadow of the long, slow decline of Hollywood has become the heart of a new capital of literature, arts, and culture that rivals Manhattan and Paris.

And, more prosaically, it is a place where a lot of us belong, where we feel an attachment to the people, to the place, to the very earth even when it quivers beneath our feet. We know, to borrow a line from Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, that L.A.’s not bad: it’s just written that way.

Making Our Yards Like California


Grass
Grass (Photo credit: DBduo Photography)

“Bloom Town: The Wild Life of American Cities”
Maggie Koerth-Baker

NYTimes.com
November 27, 2012

Confession: I love my lawn. But I feel guilty about it.

My homeowners’ association says I have to have grass, and it has to be green. That doesn’t break my heart. I confess that there are evenings when, even in our mild Southern California winters, I will walk shoeless out my front door, risking the ire of my spouse, simply to experience the sensual pleasure of walking barefoot on grass that is just catching the night’s coastal dewfall.

Yet I know that same patch of grass is responsible for the majority of the water consumed by our three-person household. I know that somehow it is wrong, even if it feeds the Audobon’s Cottontails that in turn feed the hawks in our neighborhood, and even if it helps employ my irrigation guy and my landscape maintainers. Lawns are water-sucks.

In an article in the The New York Times, BoingBoing.net science editor Maggie Koerth-Baker explains that in places like Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Miami, up to 80% of the urban space is natural surface, and that means that what we grow in our gardens collectively alters ecology.

Koerth-Baker is not calling for a wholesale change of lifestyle or human geography as much as she seems to want us to cultivate gardens made up of indigenous flora, like many people in Phoenix do with their desert-like front yards. This practice, called “xeriscaping,” seems to have great benefits. While much lighter on water requirements, the xeriscaped gardens appear to capture more carbon and absorb more heat than their natural counterparts up the road.

I’ll confess I’m not thrilled at the idea of giving up my lawn for the kind of natural ground cover I see growing on the dunes behind our house. But I can see the virtue, and I’ll bet our homeowners association will start to agree in ten years as the cost of the water to irrigate our common areas becomes our most expensive outlay.

The future of the California yard is, thus, California. We should welcome that, and, rather than fighting for our grass, start figuring out ways to make our California yards more appealing.

The Street Screenwriter

“The Cop Whisperer”
Ed Leibowitz
Los Angeles magazine
.

A profile of writer-director David Ayer, a self-taught writer-director who has translated his experiences growing up on the rough side of Los Angeles into a growing oeuvre.

You probably know Ayer for his 2001 film Training Day, starring Denzel Washington. His new End of Watch, shot with big stars on a tiny budget, is in theaters, and his next project is the reinvention of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Why a Valley Boy Came home

Joseph Gordon-Levitt – L.A. Story – Los Angeles magazine.

Regardless of your opinion about Mr. Gordon-Levitt and his work (I enjoyed 500 Days of Summer more than my age might suggest I should, and his turn as the idealistic young cop Blake was a bright point in The Dark Night Rises), he waxes so near-poetical about Los Angeles that I wound up nodding my head for the entire last three paragraphs.

I like his point about L.A. being a hard city to show to people. That’s something we’d like to fix.

L.A.: From Freeway to Greenway

Southern California freeways
Southern California freeways (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Los Angeles freeways are the ruins of the future.”

Thus begins Dutton Architects provocative examination

of the future and eventual fate of one of Southern California’s most defining man-made features: the freeway system.

The rising cost of petroleum, Angelenos’ growing acceptance of mass transit, and a gradual rise of a new California lifestyle that places sustainability ahead of mobility could mean that SoCal’s reliance on the automobile has plateaued. Dutton’s manifesto begins with a call to abandon the car as a dysfunctional element of our lifestyle, introduces the idea of a a “Slow Move” future to go alongside our presumed “slow food” future, and then lays out the implications for urban planning and lifestyles.

The car, Dutton suggests, has dominated our city for too long. It is time to approach things another way. By shifting to an integrated, hierarchical network of sidewalks, bike paths, light rail, and subway networks beneath the greenways that take the place of freeways, the study suggests we can claim a lifestyle in keeping with our ideals and our climate.

As with many such studies, there is an thick band of utopianism woven throughout this picture. Southern California has been zoned, built, lived, and governed with the car at the center. Changing that means changing much more than repurposing freeways, and thus it presumes either a burst of instant national enlightenment or a cataclysm (economic or environmental) that will convince Californians that they no longer have a choice.

Yet such criticism is somehow unfair, as it presumes more than what the study was intended to offer. Dutton’s team is proffering a vision of the post-automotive city that can be in many ways better than what we have, not worse. It is not a roadmap on how to get to that future.

I’m not ready to buy yet, but I wish more of California’s planners and architects would pursue such innovative thinking. It might just get us someplace.

Richfield Tower, Downtown Los Angeles

Beneath the mesh radio tower in the right center of the picture is the Richfield building, the erstwhile headquarters of Richfield Oil of California.

Richfield was incorporated in 1905 and opened its first service station at Slauson and Central in Los Angeles in 1917. The building in the photo, a black and gold art-deco masterpiece, was completed in 1929 on the cusp of the Great Depression.

Richfield would bounce between receivership and prosperity during the 1930s, and in February 1942 had its Ellwood Oil Field in Santa Barbara County bombarded by the Japanese submarine I-17.

The company prospered with the war and the following boom, becoming one of the launch sponsors at Disneyland and discovering Alaska’s first major oil field.

The merger boom of the 1960s, however, would see Richfield combined with Atlantic Petroleum, becoming Atlantic Richfield and later ARCO. The headquarters building, an architectural jewel in the tiara of the downtown skyline, was demolished in 1968. Just as sad and permanent, ARCO’s purchase by BP, and its pending sale to Tesoro, removed yet another headquarters from Southern California.

Ships, Westwood, 1984

Ships, Westwood, 1984 by jericl cat
Ships, Westwood, 1984, a photo by jericl cat on Flickr.

There are bits of history that should never be forgotten, and high among those are the bits that went into our bellies.

My first hamburger was a quarter of a Ship Shape burger taken out from Ship’s Westwood years before McDonald’s showed its face in West Los Angeles.

The quasi-streamline-moderne architecture, the neon, and the unrepentantly retro fixtures, along with a San Francisco-style hamburger on sourdough instead of a bun, made this place iconic.

I think about it every time I drive past the intersection of Wilshire and Glendon.

California Sound: Something Old, Something New

Buzzin - Shwayze w/ Cisco Live at The Roxy on ...
Buzzin – Shwayze w/ Cisco Live at The Roxy on Vimeo (Photo credit: nicadlr)

We can debate about how long there has been a distinctive “California Sound,” but at the very latest that sound was born in November 1961 when the Beach Boys released their first single on Los Angeles radio stations KFOX and KDAY. The Beach Boys are ever the quintessential California band, and their recent reunion as septuagenarians was covered in an incredible piece by Newsweek’s Andrew Romano that read like it belonged in Rolling Stone.

He goes on to offer a soft lament about the state of the music industry.

There is a reason all these aging rock stars keep reuniting and touring: we keep shelling out for tickets. The Beach Boys are no exception. In 2011, Bon Jovi, U2, Take That, and Roger Waters topped the box-office charts with joint receipts of $821 million, and so far, 2012’s live bestseller list—Black Sabbath, Bruce Springsteen, Van Halen, Madonna—isn’t much fresher. Meanwhile, surveys suggest that the vast majority of all downloaded music is stolen, and album sales are half what they were at the turn of the century. We’re witnessing a massive shift in revenue from new recordings to live music—and in large part it’s live music that was originally released more than 20 years ago. The record industry is no longer a record industry. It’s a touring industry for geezers.

There is some truth to this, but there is more to the industry than touring alter kackers. The music business is in the heart of a tempest caused by a change in technology and a change of habit. This has happened before, first with the growth of music publishing, then with recorded music, then with radio, and now with digital technology.

But the beat goes on, and a walk down Sunset Boulevard on any given night offers ample evidence – from Amoeba to the Roxy – that American music is as healthy as it has ever been. The problem remains a hidebound industry more interested in defending its business model than in the product itself. The slow, disreputable whittling down of the artists and repertoire (A&R) function within the major labels is testament to as much. The industry is in decline as a result, but we can already see, here in California, the foundations of a new music industry that is rising in its place.