There is a map of Southern California drawn up in 1925 by Paramount Studios to illustrate the variety of locations available to filmmakers throughout the region. It‘s disorienting indeed, like one of those post-card maps of America that shows only places like Manhattan, Tennessee, and Brooklyn, Texas. On it, the Salton Sea has been renamed the Red Sea. Venice Beach has become Venice, Italy, and lies just down the Santa Monica coastline from Wales, the Malay coast, the coast of Spain, Holland, Africa, the Nile River and Long Island Sound. Farther inland is Sherwood Forest, England, and hard up against the Nevada border one finds Siberia, the French Alps, Switzerland, New England and ”Wyoming Cattle Ranches.“ Across the border, there is nothing . . . just the Sudan Desert.
This infinitely adaptable version of Southern California is just one alternative perspective on the region, another imaginary means of carving sense and logic (and in this case, profit) from its wildly varying landscapes. Everybody constructs his own California, depending on the angle from which he approaches it: Hockney, Hitchcock, Horkheimer and Adorno, Sirk, Woody Guthrie, Robert Frank, Isherwood and Chaplin, Tupac Shakur, Nathanael West, Tom Waits, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chester Himes and Raymond Chandler — try reconciling any two or more of their mutually antagonistic re-imaginings of L.A., Hollywood and California. Then there are the perspectives of native-born and newly arrived Latinos, Asian immigrants, gays and lesbians, avant-gardists, and political and aesthetic dissidents of every stripe. This isn’t merely a rainbow coalition of opposed L.A.s; it‘s a kaleidoscope.
As an illustration of this teeming variety, USC’s School of Cinema-Television has assembled an admirably eclectic series called ”Los AngelesHollywood on Film: Exporting the Idea of Southern California,“ which gives some sense of the myriad competing Californias that have been wrestled onto celluloid in the last century by newcomers and immigrants, both within the mainstream movie industry and at its bolder fringes.
Most of the films have been selected for the degree to which they interact with the region, and especially the city of Los Angeles, as a built or tamed environment. Some do this accidentally, as in the case of several early silent comedies that inadvertently reveal the wildly different land- and cityscapes L.A. offered in the ‘teens and ’20s. One is surprised to learn they even had Kids‘ Auto Races at Venice in 1914, let alone movies about them starring Charlie Chaplin. And an old Mack Sennett two reeler such as Lizzies of the Field, while genial enough in its intended role as a comedy, is even more delectable today for its portrait of the emerging city. Huge areas seem disorientingly empty, and then just as suddenly one is impressed at how congested and built-up other areas already appear. Even a timeworn classic such as Double Indemnity is rejuvenated when viewed as a movie about the city, especially given its realistic depiction of the Los Feliz–Hollywood Hills neighborhoods in which it takes place. Like its companion piece, Mildred Pierce (also from a James M. Cain novel, but not in the series), Indemnity is location-specific even down to the cross-streets it mentions: ”Meet me at the newsstand on Vermont and Franklin“ — where a 7-Eleven now stands. In the deep background of director Billy Wilder’s mise-en-scene, we can detect precious fragments of hidden history and obsolete social topography.
Progress in Los Angeles is a boosterish Aro Realty Company promotional short, made in 1928 and showing, among other things, ”Wilshire Boulevard — gateway to the exclusive new developments,“ ”beach homes on the new Roosevelt Highway — gas, water and sewage pipes to the curbline,“ ”Vine Street, the Fifth Avenue of Hollywood“ and ”Santa Monica — the aristocratic home city of the Bay District, California‘s Riviera.“ In contrast, The Exiles is a 1961 documentary about one Friday night in the lives of 12 Native Americans, born on Arizona reservations and now living in Los Angeles. The ostensible subject matter is fascinating enough, but the film also offers priceless, almost magical nighttime footage of the old Bunker Hill neighborhood around Angels Flight (also visible in parts of Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly), which was soon razed to make way for the thicket of characterless skyscrapers we now call downtown. These versions of L.A. are almost unrecognizable today, and yet one asks oneself, were they any more recognizable then?
”Exporting the Idea of Southern California“ comes at its subject from four perspectives. The ”Classic Visions“ program assembles various portraits, accidental and intentional, of the landscape of Southern California itself, and of the movie industry as viewed by Hollywood itself (King Vidor‘s Show People) and by outsiders such as Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapich, whose ominous Life and Death of Extra 9413 can, along with Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon, lay claim to being the wellspring of L.A.‘s rich underground-cinema tradition. Programs Two and Three, ”The View From Abroad“ and ”The Independent Eye,“ examine versions of the region concocted, respectively, by foreign visitors and by a marginalized groups. The first includes Tony Richardson’s super-campy 1965 adaptation of Evelyn Waugh‘s satire on the American way of death, The Loved One, which centers around Forest Lawn’s aggressive taming of the grim by the kitsch, and its impact on a group of lotus-eating, pink-gin-sipping English expatriates.
Be There or Be Square comes at the city from a present-day Chinese perspective — the New West approached from the half-communist, half-capitalist New East — and offers a vision that is half familiar, half foreign. It‘s mirrored by two features from the Asian-American production and distribution organization Visual Communications (VC), which was established in the late 1960s to serve such emerging Asian communities as were ignored by the studios. They examine the ways in which West Coast immigrant experiences differ starkly from the myths and legends associated with Ellis Island. Hito Hata (Raise the Standard) tells one typical story of an aging Nissei in Little Tokyo, nostalgic for his youth as an itinerant fruit-picker but also weighed down by the experience of World War II internment that looms so large in the folk-memory of his generation. Haile Gerima’s rarely seen, African-inflected Bush Mama represents UCLA‘s great school of new black filmmaking of the mid-’70s, though one wishes the programmers had also included Charles Burnett‘s equally hard-to-see Killer of Sheep, or even his more available To Sleep With Anger, both of which engage with the Southern memories ever-present in the minds of his black Angeleno families. And while the omission of Kenneth Anger, demon dad of the old queer cinema and a radical reconfigurator of Hollywood’s sense of itself, is frankly incomprehensible in the context of the series, Gregg Araki‘s Totally Fucked Up represents new queer filmmaking’s take on the City of Night as a comically murderous, cheerfully amoral teenage wildlife documentary. There‘s also a smattering of avant-garde work by the likes of Barbara McCulloch (Water Ritual #1: An Urban Rite of Purification) and others.
And in the end we come to Blade Runner, which along with L.A. Confidential and Zoot Suit forms the ”Postmodern Perspectives“ program. Each is based on the creative fission that results from the juxtaposition of apparently incongruous elements. Zoot Suit tackles real local history — the early ’40s Zoot Suit Riots and Sleepy Lagoon murder case — but the movie brashly retains the radically theatrical, anti-realist methods of El Teatro Campesino‘s stage version. L.A. Confidential engineers a productive clash between mendacious pulp tabloids and classic Hollywood noir, ineradicable police corruption and criminal barbarity, all seething beneath the merest meniscus of sun-soaked civility.
Blade Runner seems to compress all tenses, all nationalities and all L.A.s into one dystopian endless night. The many noir touches (Sean Young’s piled-up Crawford hairdo, the later-excised voice-over narration) are from 40 years earlier, yet the film‘s action unfolds 40 years hence. Like California itself, the present is composed of memory and expectation. And in this future, the corporations are already advertising the next California. One announcement echoes both the fliers posted by railroad and development companies in fly-blown, depressed Iowa farm towns in the ’teens and 1920s to advertise the paradise of L.A., and the similar expectations stoked by promos such as Progress in Los Angeles: ”A new life awaits you in the Off-World Colonies. A chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure.“ Here we go once more, selling new Californias to new Californians.