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Los Angeles in the Movies: Banham's or Davis' vision of the city ?
Los Angeles has always been represented by the media in very opposite ways, from the propaganda images in the 1920s advertising Los Angeles as a paradise, to the noir novels of the 1940s, trying to shatter that portrayal. Urban Planners and historians also share this split view. Reyner Banham's The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971) is like a homage to the city, exploring everything that makes Los Angeles the way it is; from the freeway right down to surfboard design, Banham has an undeniable love for the city. Mike Davis, in contrast paints a very bleak portrait of the city in City of Quartz (1990), focusing on the corruption, exploitation and gangland demographics that have made Los Angeles what it is today. In The Ecology of Fear (1998), he concludes that the city should never have been built due to the frequency and inevitability of natural disasters.
These contrasting views of Los Angeles have been represented countless times through Hollywood movies. The majority of the time, when a film is set in Los Angeles, it is either crucial to the story, or at least has some role to play. One of the reasons why the city is so popular with directors and screenwriters is because of this love-hate relationship. Which side of Los Angeles the director depicts depends largely on the story itself. In this essay I will look at an array of films, analyzing whether they portray Banham's optimistic Los Angeles, or Davis's bleak interpretation. I will focus on three films in detail; L.A. Story, Volcano and (500) Days of Summer.
Los Angeles has been a topic of debate throughout its lifetime. Different parties have repeatedly tried to depict their version of Los Angeles, either for personal gain, or to simply tell a good story. As Michael Sorkin remarks, 'L.A. Is probably the most mediated town in America, nearly unviewable save through the fictive scrim of its mythologizers'. (1)
Morrow Mayo describes Los Angeles since 1988 as a 'commodity; something to be advertised and sold to the people of the United States'. This image created by writers, antiquarians, and publicists which Davis refers to as the 'Arroyo Set' at the turn of the twentieth century 'created a comprehensive fiction of Southern California'. 'Their imagery, motifs, values and legends were in turn endlessly reproduced by Hollywood, while continuing to be incorporated into the ersatz landscape of suburban Southern California'.
As the Depression hit, it shattered the dream-addicted Los Angeles and created a colony of writers intent on exposing the harsh realities of L.A. life.
'These Depression-crazed middle classes of Southern California became, in one mode or another, the original protagonists of that great anti-myth usually known as noir....a succession of through-the-glass-darkly novels ... repainted the image of Los Angeles as a deracinated urban hell'
Davis calls Banham's 'The Architecture of Four Ecolgies' 'the first serious celebration of the city since the booster days of the 1920s'. Banham went against traditional critics and declared 'I love the place with a passion that goes beyond sense or reason', he found virtue in almost everything, including the automobile, hillside homes and even surfboards.
The Architecture of Four Ecologies became a 'turning point in the valuation of the city by the international intelligentsia'. Since then it has become acceptable and commonplace to portray Los Angeles favourably, without trying to sell it as a brand. Mike Davis, amongst many others, does not share Banham's view. In City of Quartz and The Ecology of Fear he uses historical evidence to highlight the the social disfunction, economic disparity and threat from natural disaster, painitng an almost tragic image of Los Angeles. This contrast has resulted in numerous films about Los Angeles being produced, each one with a clear message portraying the city as either Banham's glorious interpretation, or Davis' bleak tragedy.
L.A Story (1991)
L.A. Story is a romantic comedy about a weatherman who finds love with the aid of a talking freeway sign. It is described as a 'celebration of life and L.A Culture', and would definitely be considered to be portraying Banham's L.A.
The title sequence shows many aspects of Los Angeles in a positive and entertaining manor, such as a street of people all collecting their newspapers in unison or a pool full of people waving at a flying hotdog promotion. Similarly to Banham, the film doesn't shy away from showing the negative aspects of Los Angles, rather it highlights them in a comical way. One example would be the main character avoiding the gridlock traffic by driving on the sidewalk and through parks, or the humorous way in which a minor earthquake effects a restaurant.
Banham sees the 'automobile as a work of art and the freeway as a suitable gallery in which to display it'. During the title sequence of L.A. Story we are shown many examples of customized cars. There is also an elderly couple strolling along with walking aids, who then get into a Ferrari and speed off, reminiscent of Banham's reference to 'Aunt Nabby' driving her 'chrome yellow Volkswagen with reversed wheels and a voom-voom exhaust.'
For Banham, the freeway system is 'one of the greater works of man', he sees it as an integral part of Los Angeles, not only in the way it transports its residents but also in the way it makes us read Los Angeles, through 'movement, not monument'. He describes the Santa Monica/San Diego intersection as 'a work or art, both as a pattern on the map, as a monument against the sky, and as a kinetic experience as one sweeps through it'.
Davis, contrary to Banham, sees the freeway system simply as the destruction of the natural landscape.
'The automobile also devoured exorbitant quantities of prime land. By 1970 more than 1/3 of the surface area of the Los Angeles region was dedicated to the car. What generations of tourists and migrants had once admired as a real life garden of Eden was now buried under an estimated 3 billion tons of concrete.'
Many movies have depicted the freeway system in a positive manor, and L.A. Story is no exception, with it's beautiful night time shots of the busy freeways, or by following a single car down a coastal road, L.A. Story goes beyond that of many other films by giving the freeway system (and arguably Los Angeles itself) a personality. A freeway sign starts communicating with the main character, saying 'Los Angeles wants to help you'. The fact that a freeway sign was chosen as the method of communication with the main character shows what an important role the freeway system plays in this movie, and also within Los Angeles itself. If Banham had to give Los Angles a method of communication with a resident, I think it would be the freeway 'For the freeway, quite as much as the beach, is where the Angeleno is most himself, most integrally identified with his great city'.
L.A. Story also picks up on the idea that newcomers to the city are a lot more likely to fall for its charm and allure than people raised there. The British journalist acknowledges this when she compares her view to that of Rolland's; a born and bred Angeleno.
'Rolland thinks L.A. Is a place for the brain-dead, he says if you turn off the sprinklers the place would turn into a desert but I think, I don't know, I think it's a place where they've taken a desert and turned it into their dreams.'
This is an idea that is very relevant in the case of Davis and Banham. Davis was born and raised in a suburb of Los Angeles, and so has a very in depth knowledge of the workings of the city and uses this to an advantage in his book. Banham on the contrary, moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s and immediately fell in love with the place. As Davis quotes in the first page of City of Quartz, 'The superficial inducement, the exotic, the picturesque has an effect only on the foreigner...' Walter Benjamin.
The opening scenes to Volcano seem to be that of peaceful anticipation for the day ahead, porters can be seen laying out fresh towels around pools, shop front are being polished, dogs are being walked. Radio snippets are played over the top of the images to create an impression of what an everyday morning in Los Angeles consists of.
'It's 9am, temperature is 72 degrees ... a backup on the 10 westbound on hoover due to police activity on the offramp, apparently there was a driveby shooting ... eyelid surgery, body surgery, citric acid peels, whatever it takes to create a whole new you ... a boy of 15 is sentenced to 10 years for armed robbery... test drive a mercedes from your local dealer...'
At first glance it seems as though the film is trying to portray the sunny, paradise that is used to attract outsiders though coupled with what you are hearing on the radio you realize that this Los Angleles is one of disillusionment. The director is subtly highlighting the city's problems, such as the crime, the traffic problems, the shallow cosmetic nature, whilst showing residents going about their daily lives in their created paradise without concern for these factors. To highlight this point further, the camera keeps cutting away to the volcanic activity beneath the city, whilst the residents are blissfully unaware of the imminent disaster.
The manner in which the series of images flicks through 'all thing L.A' is similar to that of Banham and the topics discussed in his book, such as quirky commercial architecture, the Angeleo and his active lifestyle, advertising on bill boards as well as part of buildings. Even so, the message here is clearly that of Davis's view. That this superficial paradise has come at an enormous cost and those that cannot see it, are simply choosing not to see it.
Volcano plays on the fact that Los Angeles is built on top of fault lines, whilst going beyond the usual earthquake scenario. There is nothing new about the plot of the film, the idea that Los Angleles suffers a natural disaster and is destroyed (or almost destroyed) has been a frequent Hollywood occurrence, with no less than 183 movies about the destruction of the city. Volcano sees the Office of Emergency Management (O.E.M) battle an underground volcanic eruption, that showers the city in deadly fire bombs and an endless tide of lava from the Brea Tar pits, down Wiltshire Boulevard and through the metro red line.
In The Ecology of Fear Mike Davis begins by listing the numerous routine disasters L.A. experiences, from earthquakes, floods and wildfire to hurricanes, cyclones and blizzards. He talks about how Angeleos have become 'genuinely terrified of their environment'.
"The destructive February 1992, January 1993, and January 1995 floods ($500 million in damage) were mere brackets around the April 1992 insurrection ($1 billion), the October-November 1993 firestorms ($1 billion) and the January 1994 earthquake ($42 billion)."
He looks in great detail at the disasters that have effected Los Angeles from the early 1900's to the late 1990's and using data of the area right back to the medieval period, concludes that L.A. was actually built during a 'mild' period and in fact 'nature may just be waking up after a long nap'. Therefore the disaster movies created are not quite as fictional as they seem, according to Davis' research.
Davis uses numerous examples to make his case a very strong one. 'Market-driven urbanization has transgressed environmental common sense. Historic wildfire corridors have been turned into view-lot suburbs, wetland liquefaction zones into marinas, and floodplains into industrial districts and housing tracts'. His view is that Los Angeles has been 'putting itself in harms way for generations',
Volcano shares this view that the disasters abundant in L.A. are at least in part, caused by over development. The first minor eruption of the volcano was caused by the construction of a subway extension. The geologist who first suspects a volcano remarks 'This city is finally paying for its arrogance, building a subway on a city that's seismically active' to which the head of the O.E.M replies 'it was a foolish man that built his house upon the sand, Matthew 7.26'.
Volcano depicts Davis's version of Los Angeles completely, from the whole idea of this huge scale natural disaster, to the way it was represented on screen. It even has a clear message about the racism present in Los Angeles. The crew manage eventually to divert the lava to the sea, thus avoiding the destruction of thousands of homes, even so, the volcano caused billions of damage and killed hundreds. A message comes up on screen at the end naming the volcano as 'Mount Whilshire - status: ACTIVE' showing that this minor victory is not a permanent one and Los Angles residents are still under threat.
(500) Days of Summer (2009)
(500) Days of Summer has been described as 'some sort of love letter to Downtown Los Angeles (and Ikea)'. It is the story of how Tom meets Summer, their relationship, and eventual break-up, presented in a non-chronological format, each scene being introduced by which of the 500 days it is.
Initially this may seem quite hard to place as neither Banham nor Davis spoke favourably of Downtown. Davis's description of downtown is incredibly bleak, a stark contrast to the Downtown depicted in the film.
'Downtown is usually shrouded in acrid yellow smog while heat waves billow down Wilshire Boulevard. Amid hundreds of acres of molten asphalt and concrete there is scarcely a weed, much less a lawn or tree.'
Banham does not necessarily criticize Downtown, but states that it is not particularly relevant in a city such as Los Angeles, who has no need for a conventional 'centre'. Downtown is given a note 'because that is all downtown Los Angeles deserves'. He explains that because the city has had no regular centrifugal growth, 'other areas in the plains, foothills and coast had begun to develop before the pueblo could mutate convincingly into an authoritative downtown'.
With its glamour shots of old downtown building exteriors and landmarks like the Bradbury building, (500) Days of Summer clearly isn't Banham's Downtown, although it is Banham's Los Angeles. Tom see's Downtown in a way which most people don't, he see's the beauty in the city and teaches Summer to see it too. Similarly to how Banham see's the beauty in Los Angeles along with her ugliness. Whilst pointing out the buildings along the L.A. Skyline, Tom explains to Summer 'that's a parking lot... that's also a parking lot... there's a lot of beautiful stuff here too though, I wish people would notice it more'.
The way Tom see's Downtown is represented by his faith in love. There's a pivotal scene in which Tom goes to a party at Summer's apartment expecting to have a romantic reunion but in reality she is now with someone else. The scene is split into two screens; reality and expectation. As he leaves, sad and dejected, the street and the downtown skyline turns into Tom's hand-sketched version of the same view, then get's erased. As Tom's dream girl disappears, so does his dream city. The morale of the story is not one of despair though, by the end of the film, both Summer and Tom believe in his idea of love, and see the city for it's beauty, just as Banham saw Los Angeles' beauty when other intellectuals were quick to criticize it.
Originally the plot was to be set in San Fransico but that didn't suit the idea of Tom seeing the beauty in things a lot of other people miss. In an interview about the film, the two writers discuss the choice of city.
Scott Neustadter: [Tom] romanticizes everything; we had not seen L.A. as a romanticized city in the way that you see Rome in a Fellini movie or New York in a Woody Allen...
Michael Weber: Or San Francisco, too. It probably worked out better because we know San Francisco is beautiful. For me being a New Yorker, I didn't know. I'd never seen that side of L.A.
Although the subject of Downtown is not as Banham would have described, it is worth noting that Banham was looking at a 1970s Downtown and could not have forseen it's present day transformation. Even so, (500) Days of Summer remains a Banham-esque look at Los Angeles not because of the particular region depicted but because of the manor in which they both make the audience look past the commonly held negative view to find something beautiful.
Generally, a lighthearted film, such as a comedy usually portrays Banham's version of Los Angeles whereas a more serious, tense film, possibly a thriller, would use Davis' model. Film noir (including modern day adaptations) and disaster movies are two genres that exclusively depict Davis' woeful interpretation.
Chinatown (1974), along with many other private eye films, explores the corruption, conspiracy and deception present in Los Angeles. The film unravels an intricate scandal involving L.A's fresh water supply, where farmers are being forced to sell their land because of drought, after which a new dam would redirect water there greatly increasing the real-estate value. The film was based on a real scandal that took place at the beginning of the century. Davis goes into detail about the process in which developers took control of the land through corruption and as a result, land which should have been a legal impossibility to build on was approved. Both Chinatown and Davis' books remind us of how the selfish manipulations of rich and powerful businessmen has left the land barren and abused.
The many films about the sinister side of Hollywood essentially represent Davis' Los Angeles. Sunset Boulevard (1950) deals with what becomes of yesterdays stars when they are cast aside. Norma Desmond refuses to believe that her stardom has passed and becomes more and more crazed as she lives out her fantasy world in the seclusion of her deteriorating mansion. The way in which the house is described as 'like the woman in great expectation, Mrs Haversham, rotting in her wedding dress' creates a tragic image of L.A's private life as well as the architecture. As Davis quotes from John Rechy; 'You can rot here without feeling it'.
The Italian Job (2003) would be an example of Banham's L.A. Although they intentionally produce the worst traffic jam in Los Anegeles' history, they whole thing is done with a sense of exaggeration and sleekness reminiscent of Los Angeles itself. The concrete river defense that Davis hated so much, is used as a means to playfully test out the car's performance during a chase scene. Banham describes some of the buildings in Los Angeles as 'lovably ridiculous', which would be a perfect way to sum up The Italian job. The same can be said for Pulp Fiction (1994), although there is a large amount of violence within the film, the frequent Pop-references create a Los Angeles that would not feel out of place within Banham's 'Architecture fantastic' chapter. The scenes in 'Jack Rabbit Slims' restaurant as well as Jules and Vincent's famous 'Royale with cheese' dialogue would be examples of this.
In conclusion, Los Angeles is a favourite topic among directors and screenwriters and has been the set of countless films. The vast majority of these representations of Los Angeles can fit neatly into opposite corners of the spectrum; Banham's glorious city, where even the ugliness is part of a larger beauty, or Davis's time bomb city that should never have been built in the first place. I believe that the reason why so many films feature Los Angeles as a prominent role is because of these contrasting attitudes. Few cities can boast such extreme representations of the same topic. Most films are out to either glorify something, or condemn it, and Los Angeles provides the perfect backdrop for that task.
'Los Angeles seems endlessly held between these extremes: of light and dark - of surface and depth. Of the promise, in brief, of a meaning always hovering on the edge of significance' Grahame Clarke