Film Tourists in Los Angeles – Cinema Scope The Global Tofay

Film Tourists in Los Angeles - Cinema Scope The Global Tofay Global Today

By Thom Andersen

This essay is a chapter from my forthcoming book, which I have called “a continuation by other means of my 2003 video essay Los Angeles Plays Itself, a book about how movies have represented and misrepresented the city of Los Angeles.” It was written in 2018. 

The directors who did the most to make Los Angeles a character in movies and then a subject were outsiders, like Wim Wenders and Billy Wilder, or tourists, like Antonioni. They weren’t interested in what made Los Angeles like a city; they were interested in what made Los Angeles unlike the cities they knew.

Just as there are highbrows and lowbrows, there are high tourists and low tourists. Just as there are highbrow directors and lowbrow directors, there are high tourist directors and low tourist directors. Low tourist directors generally disdain Los Angeles. They prefer the more picturesque city of San Francisco and the coastline of northern California. 

Appropriately, Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles (Simon Wincer, 2001) is the quintessential low tourist film. Along with the standard tourist spots such as Venice Beach, Universal Studios, and Rodeo Drive, there are two living tourist sites, George Hamilton and Mike Tyson. 

Michael Bay and Clint Eastwood are exemplary low tourist directors, and they both find Los Angeles uninspiring. Bay beautifully rendered Miami and San Francisco in his first two films, Bad Boys (1995) and The Rock (1996); in his most recent work, five films in the Transformers series, he has become an international tourist, from Luxor to Stonehenge. He shot scenes for some films in Los Angeles; in Armageddon (1998) and Pearl Harbor (2001), it was standing in for New York. When he finally set part of a film in Los Angeles (the original Transformers, released in 2007), he destroyed a large section of downtown. More precisely, he destroyed a large section of what is now called the city’s “historic core” in the climactic battle between the heroic Autobot robots and the evil Decepticon robots.

Transformers is an anti-nostalgia movie: what’s old is expendable, what’s new is invariably superior. Shia LaBoeuf drives a yellow 1976 Chevy Camaro, which his love interest Megan Fox calls “a piece-of-shit Camaro.” They exchange it for a prototype fifth-generation Camaro not yet in production. Production designer Jeff Mann chose the 1976 model because he wanted “this to be the crummiest Camaro possible from the worst year possible that still had chrome bumpers.” Yet nostalgia wins out despite Mann’s best efforts: even the crappiest ’70s Camaro is cooler-looking than a 2007 concept prototype, which today looks like every GM car produced from 2009 to 2017.

Nathan Lee and Vern agree that Transformers was the end of civilization as we knew it. “Transformers is not simply a story of humanity being attacked by a sophisticated breed of technological nihilism—it is that assault,” wrote Lee in the Village Voice. And Vern wrote, “Three words for Transformers: Ho. Lee. Shit. Not as in ‘Holy shit, I was blown away, it was a blast as well as AWESOME!’ But as in, ‘Holy shit, society really is on the brink of collapse.’”

Clint Eastwood adores San Francisco and the Monterey Peninsula. The first film he directed, Play Misty for Me (1971), was set in his adopted hometown of Carmel, and he included a low tourist montage of the local sights set to a Roberta Flack song, “Killing Me Softly.” Lt. Harry Callahan, featured in five films (only five?), is a San Francisco police detective, and when he leaves “The City,” it is to visit Santa Cruz, another picturesque northern California tourist town with an old-fashioned boardwalk.

His earlier film as an actor, Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971), is Eastwood’s Vertigo. Just as James Stewart follows Kim Novak around San Francisco, Clint Eastwood rushes around the city following the instructions of the Scorpio Killer.

In Eastwood’s Charlie Parker biopic, Bird (1988), Los Angeles is where bebop goes to die. A club announces, “BEBOP INVADES THE WEST!!!” but the club date is cut short without notice because of poor crowds. The Dizzy Gillespie-Parker band is banned from playing on the radio. As Gillespie puts it, “I guess they weren’t quite ready to be invaded.” Dizzy and the other musicians fly back to New York, but Parker stays on, apparently because of Audrey (Anna Levine), the beautiful blonde sculptress who enchants him on opening night, and he suffers a nervous breakdown during a recording session. He is sent to Camarillo State Hospital, where he is detained for seven months. At least he gets to catch a glimpse of his idol, Igor Stravinsky, in the doorway of Stravinsky’s house. His 17 months in California are covered in 14 minutes of a film that lasts 160 minutes.

You wouldn’t know from Bird that the band’s opening night was a sensation. You wouldn’t know that they completed their eight-week engagement at Billy Berg’s club on Vine Street in Hollywood. You wouldn’t know that Parker later arranged a long, successful residency at the Finale Club, 115 S. San Pedro Street, in Little Tokyo (Bronzeville during the war, when the Japanese were put in concentration camps). You wouldn’t know that he and Dizzy played before thousands of people in two of Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts. You wouldn’t know that he also recorded some of his greatest records during this trip. You wouldn’t know that Parker spent ten months in Los Angeles in addition to his seven months “relaxing at Camarillo,” the state mental hospital. You wouldn’t know that his stay at Camarillo was good for him, a needed vacation; it restored his health and revitalized him. And you certainly wouldn’t know that during part of his time in Los Angeles, he lived with his third wife Doris Sydnor, who in the film doesn’t exist. 

Eastwood’s The Rookie (1990) is set in Los Angeles, but it was filmed in San Jose. His films that employ Los Angeles locations are generally regarded as among his weakest—not only Every Which Way But Loose (1978) and Any Which Way You Can (1980), his San Fernando Valley movies, but also Breezy (1973)and Blood Work (2002), which were also commercial failures.

Breezy reverses the sexual dynamic of Sunset Boulevard (1950): Edith Alice “Breezy” Breezerman, played by Kay Lenz, age 19, stalks and seduces real estate agent Frank Harmon, played by William Holden, age 55. Thus, the woman is still the aggressor. It is Eastwood’s Laurel Canyon film, with many shots made at the Laurel Canyon Country Store; however, Harmon’s house, placed in Laurel Canyon, is actually the Kimball House designed by Harry Gessner in the foothills of Tarzana. Breezy lives from no-paycheck to no-paycheck by cadging food and drinks and rides. It’s the Summer of Love six years too late: her carefree lifestyle seems improbable in 1973. Breezy’s casual promiscuity and Harmon’s amused diffidence, his refusal to exploit her sexually, made their romance acceptable—at least to Clint Eastwood in 1973. But nothing can save it from improbability. 

And there is one impossibility in Breezy: the sun rising over the Pacific Ocean.

Blood Work is based on a book by Michael Connelly (best known as the creator of Harry Bosch) adapted by Brian Helgeland, an Oscar winner for L. A. Confidential (1997). Retired FBI “profiler” Terry McCaleb (Eastwood), the beneficiary of a heart transplant, tries to solve the murder of his heart donor. McCaleb does some real detective work: he even goes to a library to use a computer terminal. Searching newslibrary.com for “robbery, ski mask, shooting,” he discovers a link between two apparently unrelated crimes: a simple liquor store robbery and a killing at an ATM are bizarre targeted murders. However, McCaleb owes the key deduction to a ten-year-old boy, the son of the murder victim. The plot is too ingenious, and the surprise twist at the end is too convenient. Still, it is notable among Eastwood’s films as the first one with Tom Stern as cinematographer, after 20 years of working his way from gaffer to chief lighting technician on Eastwood films. The films Eastwood directed from 2002 to 2018 have looked better with Stern as cinematographer.    

The greatest low tourist director is, of course, Alfred Hitchcock. After working with Hitchcock on the screenplay for Strangers on a Train (1951), Raymond Chandler complained, “The thing that amuses me about Hitchcock is the way he directs a film in his head before he knows what the story is. You find yourself trying to rationalize the shots he wants to make rather than the story. Every time you get set, he jabs you off balance by wanting to do a love scene on top of the Jefferson Memorial or something like that.”

Hitchcock set four memorable films around the San Francisco Bay Area; he also filmed parts of five others there. His first and fourth American films, Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941), were Gothic thrillers set in England, but they both included shots of the California coastline around Point Lobos and Big Sur; the California coast plays Cornwall and West Essex. The countryside reminded him of England, and so he bought a ranch and vineyard in Scotts Valley in the hills above Santa Cruz, which he made into his country house.

In 1942 he filmed Shadow of a Doubt in Santa Rosa, the county seat of Sonoma County, 55 miles north of San Francisco, then a town of 13,000. Santa Rosa was a thriving courthouse-square town, like my mother’s home town in Indiana, Rensselaer, where everybody (of a certain class) knows everyone else (of that class), and it represented small-town Americana, the antithesis to derelict Newark, New Jersey, where the first scenes of the film are set. For the “Merry Widow” killer, “Uncle” Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten), it is a refuge. Hitchcock chose to shoot most of the film on location in Santa Rosa, because of wartime restrictions on set building. As Gaye LeBaron of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat explained, “When the War Production Office slapped a ceiling on the amount of money that could be spent to make a movie during World War II, Hitchcock decided not to build a town, but to find a town to build his film around.”

Hitchcock exhausted all the clichés of middle-class small-town life: the late-Victorian two-story house; the neoclassical bank; the neo-Gothic church; the Carnegie “free public library”; the Kress, Woolworth, and J. C. Penney stores; the Streamline Moderne movie theatre; the bar with a corny name (the “’Til-Two”). When Joel and Ethan Coen set their 2001 film The Man Who Wasn’t There in late-’40s Santa Rosa, they did not film there. Instead, they filmed in the 16-block “Bungalow Heaven” Landmark District of Pasadena, in which almost all the houses are well-maintained Craftsman bungalows from the early part of the 20th century. Apparently, the Coen brothers decided that Santa Rosa should look like Pasadena even though it never did. The term “bungalow heaven” has been bestowed on one neighbourhood, but it fits many large swathes of Pasadena. Even the Ronald MacDonald House at the local hospital is a Craftsman bungalow. 

Vertigo (1958), Hitchcock’s ultimate tourist film, integrates many attractions to become the definitive San Francisco film. Chris Marker filmed a Vertigo pilgrimage and included it in his film Sans soleil (1983). You can follow Hitchcock’s itinerary by taking an expensive Vertigo location tour, or you can buy Footsteps in the Fog and create your own self-guided tour for less than a tenth of the cost, although it would take more than a few days to see all the sights in Hitchcock’s travelogue. Hitchcock’s single invention, according to Marker, was the bell tower at the San Juan Batista mission. But Hitchcock did not invent the tower, he remembered it. There was a bell tower when Hitchcock first saw the mission, but it was torn down in 1949 because of dry rot. 

The Birds (1963) begins in a San Francisco pet store, from which Hitchcock emerges with his two pet Sealyham terriers, Geoffrey and Stanley. The rest of the film takes place in and around Bodega Bay, an oceanside fishing village about 60 miles north of San Francisco, isolated and idyllic, totally unprepared for a massive bird attack. A number of scenes are set at the Tides Wharf Restaurant; it’s still there, much expanded, and it has become a centre for movie tourism. 

But only one of Hitchcock’s 30 American films is set even partially in Los Angeles. The first ten minutes of Saboteur (1942) are located in or around Los Angeles, but it could be anywhere in America where there is an aircraft factory. The scenes were shot in the studio, and there is nothing distinctive to the region in the sets.

Hitchcock even had Marion Crane bypass Los Angeles on her fateful journey from Phoenix to the Bates Motel in the fictional town of Fairvale, somewhere in northern California. Of course, the motel, along with the mansion above it, was a set built on the Universal studio lot, where it is now the only actual filming site on the Universal Studio Tour.

One scene in Psycho (1960) was shot on location in Los Angeles: the used car lot in Bakersfield where Marion Crane exchanged cars was actually on Lankershim Blvd., near the Universal lot.

Hitchcock also shot some scenes for Torn Curtain (1966) and Family Plot (1976) in and around Los Angeles. In Torn Curtain, the facade of a lecture hall at the University of Southern California interrupts the perfect artificiality of the film. In Family Plot, he cut together his Los Angeles footage with scenes shot in San Francisco to create a composite city. Consequently, he left the setting of the film undefined, and that is one of the reasons for its failure. He filmed the last shot of North by Northwest (1959), a railway train heading into a tunnel, at the east portal to tunnel 28 on the Southern Pacific line through the Santa Susana Pass, 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.

Hitchcock was a low tourist director, but he was also a literalist director. As Stephen Rebello relates in Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, “The Hitchcock office…had the screenwriter [Joseph Stefano] observe the style and manner of a used car dealer, Ralph Outright, at 1932 Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica. Stefano was also provided with data on every foreseeable plot point, from the topography of route 99 (including names, locations, and room rates of every motel) to details of the administration and physical appearance of real estate offices, from traffic citations and mother fixations to amateur taxidermy.” Later, when Psycho was nearing production, Hitchcock sent assistant director Hilton Green and a crew on a scouting trip. Green later told Rebello, “Hitchcock wanted to know things like exactly what a car salesman in a small town in the [central] valley would be wearing when a woman might come in to buy a car. We went up there and photographed some salesmen against a background. He wanted to know the exact route a woman might take to go from Phoenix to central California. We traced the route and took pictures of every area along the way.”

The interiors not filmed on location for Vertigo were reproduced precisely in the studio. The famous restaurant Ernie’s was reproduced exactly on a sound stage. As Kraft and Leventhal write, “Ernie’s second-floor Ambrosia Room, with waist-high dark wood paneling and red velvet damask wallpaper with Victorian red-swirl design, antique light sconces, and finely detailed wood furniture, was almost perfectly replicated by Hitchcock’s crew. The set included artwork and table settings from the restaurant.” Hitchcock even had Ernie’s chefs prepare a typical meal from the restaurant for the extras to eat. The Venetian Room at the Fairmont Hotel where Scottie takes Judy dancing was also recreated precisely. Like Stroheim, Hitchcock took pains with details no one would notice. For this scene, he brought in ashtrays from the Fairmont.

Another low tourist director, Woody Allen, plainly expressed his disdain for Los Angeles in his most popular movie, Annie Hall (1977). When his best friend Rob (Tony Roberts) talks about moving to Los Angeles, Woody responds, “I will not move to a city where the only cultural advantage is you can make a right turn on a red light.” Like Jack Webb before him, Allen always gives himself the last line. 

Allen rarely strayed from his native milieu of Manhattan until he fell out of favour there and began filming in Europe’s most picturesque cities: London, Paris, Barcelona. Allen was the cinematic chronicler of New York’s middlebrow middle class, the people who believe what they read in the New York Times.

In Los Angeles, we certainly don’t believe what the Times publishes about our city. For us, ridiculing Times writers for their cluelessness about Los Angeles is a birthright. Reid Larsen’s “L.A. Reverential,” a guide to quiet places in the city and its environs, “spaces of refuge and retreat across the city’s endless suburban sprawl,” published in July 2018, was particularly hilarious. The Times had to publish a number of corrections and an apology. Larsen wrote, “To get downtown, I did what one normally does in a city: I took the subway. Except the subway in Los Angeles is not underground and it is, at least when I rode it, practically empty.” The correction read, “An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Los Angeles subway is not underground. Los Angeles Metro Rail includes underground lines.” So the Times is forced to admit that the Los Angeles subway runs underground. When I’ve ridden it, the subway was practically full, standing room only.

Typically, there are mistakes that could have been avoided by consulting a map. The Huntington Gardens are not located in Pasadena, as Larsen writes, but in the adjoining city of San Marino. The town of Landers in the Mojave desert where he visited the Integratron was not wrecked by the 1994 Northridge earthquake, as he claims. Landers is 108 miles from Northridge; it was devastated by a stronger earthquake in June 1992 with an epicenter only a few miles away. The Times even felt constrained to apologize for one passage about Olvera Street that could be taken as racist. Larsen wrote, “I emerged from the cavernous, Art Deco masterpiece of Union Station into a strange neighbourhood where each shop seemed to be peddling only one thing: the shop selling Jesus statuettes was next to the shop selling giant stuffed bears was next to the shop selling soccer uniforms for babies was next to the shop selling piñatas. It soon became clear to me that these three blocks were the source of all the useless items in the world.” 

The editors responded, “Our Travel cover feature about retreats and sanctuaries in and around Los Angeles has received numerous complaints from readers who found the piece dismissive of Latino culture and clichéd in its portrayal of the city. We want to assure readers that was absolutely not our intention. Readers took issue with the reference to a historic street in downtown Los Angeles that sells Jesus statuettes and piñatas as the source of ‘all the useless items in the world.’ We now see how it came across as offensive. We appreciate the feedback and know we can do better. We have long recognized that Latino culture and Mexican-American culture in particular, in many ways defines the identity of Los Angeles…Your concerns are being heard, and the issues you raise make us aware that we need to do a better job capturing the true Los Angeles, which did not come across in this piece.”

We can only hope that the Times will never grasp “the true Los Angeles.”

In Annie Hall, Rob does move to Los Angeles, and Woody and Annie follow—although only for a visit. As they drive through Beverly Hills in Rob’s Mercedes-Benz convertible, Woody is not favorably impressed. “The architecture is really consistent, isn’t it? French next to Spanish, next to Tudor, next to Japanese,” he complains. Allen’s criticism is only a pale echo of the view expressed by another New Yorker, Nathanael West, in The Day of the Locust: “Only dynamite would be of any use against the Mexican ranch houses, Samoan huts, Mediterranean villas, Egyptian and Japanese temples, Swiss chalets, Tudor cottages, and every possible combination of these styles that lined the slopes of the canyons.”

The architect Richard Neutra blamed the eclecticism of Los Angeles architecture on the movies, writing, “Motion pictures have undoubtedly confused architectural tastes. They may be blamed for many phenomena on the landscape, such as: half-timber English peasant cottages, French Provincial and ‘mission bell’ type adobes, Arabian minarets, Georgian mansions on 50- x 120-foot lots with ‘Mexican Ranchos’ adjoining them on sites of the same size.”

By contrast, New York City residential architecture has only one virtue: its uniformity. Okay, two virtues: most New York tenements were built in the 19th century, when, as Norval White and Elliot Willensky write in their guide to the architecture of the city, “architecture for the lower-income population was still architecture.” 

Allen’s tale of two cities becomes a tale of two marquees. In New York, Woody and Diane Keaton linger under the marquee of the Thalia, where The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) is playing. In Los Angeles, they drive past the Baldwin Theater on LaBrea (now a Citibank branch office), and the marquee announces a double bill of House of Exorcism (1975) and Messiah of Evil (1974). In fact, The Sorrow and the Pity did play in Los Angeles—I saw it here—and, for all I know, House of Exorcism and Messiah of Evil may have played in New York, perhaps on a double bill together.

Allen made his peace with Los Angeles many years later in Café Society (2016), a movie set in the late ’30s. There are no Los Angeles jokes this time, and the architecture is not eclectic: it is almost entirely Spanish Colonial Revival. However, it’s a movie about Hollywood, an island on the island of Los Angeles.

Coincidentally Café Society was released five months before a film with the same theme and almost the same story, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016). In both, beautiful young heterosexual lovers are torn apart by the woman’s decision to choose something safer, more practical. In La La Land, Mia leaves Sebastian to pursue a movie career in Europe; in Café Society, Vonnie leaves Bobby to marry an older, richer man. Against all odds, Café Society is the more moving film, perhaps because Allen allows his young lovers more time and maturity for reflection on what was lost, and he surrounds each of them with a family. The militant communist in Bobby’s family is at first an object of ridicule, and the gangster is a source of innocent fun, but in the end the tables are turned: the communist becomes the voice of moral authority, and the gangster is exposed as a monster.  

If New York has Woody Allen to live down, we can’t feel superior: we have Henry Jaglom, who is even balder, even more narcissistic, even more solipsistic. At least he wears a hat, but he lacks Allen’s sense of humour. The only good jokes in his movies are at his expense.

Jaglom was a New Yorker who moved to Los Angeles at the end of the ’60s, but did not begin to shoot films here until the mid-’80s. Like Allen, he writes or co-writes his films, and he is quite prolific (21 feature films against Allen’s 48).

Just as Woody Allen has his Louise Lasser period (1966–1972), his Diane Keaton period (1973–1979), and his Mia Farrow period (1982–1992), so Jaglom has his Patrice Townsend period (1980–1985), his Victoria Foyt period (1994–2005), and his Tanna Frederick period (2006–). These women had been their muses, as they say, wives and lovers who also starred in their films.

Both Allen and Jaglom starred in their films until middle age. Allen quit playing romantic leads only after Hollywood Ending (2002), when he lost a young girlfriend—Debra Messing, age 34—but won back his wife—Téa Leoni, age 36. At the time of filming, Allen was 66. Jaglom bowed out earlier, with Venice/Venice (1992), at age 48, after his Patrice Townsend period. 

Woody Allen is the Ralph Lauren of cinema: a stylist who does not create new forms but has impeccable taste. (Appropriately, Lauren received screen credit for the clothes in Annie Hall and Manhattan [1979].) Jaglom is an anti-stylist: he doesn’t seem to care about camera placement or montage. He can cut from the middle of a zoom to a static shot. He often employs parallel editing to juxtapose two conversations taking place in the same space. Nor does he care about clothes. He was slovenly in his first films, and he has remained slovenly ever since. And so have his other characters.

Jaglom is wealthy enough to produce and exhibit his films without external financing. He makes films that are as distinctive as Allen’s. You know a Jaglom film when you see it. 

Whatever he may think, whatever he may intend, Allen’s films are objectively misogynistic. Jaglom claims that he is a feminist filmmaker, and calls himself “a male lesbian.” Right or not, he makes women’s pictures. In some of his films, Jaglom cuts in shots of women talking about food (Eating,1990), movies (Venice/Venice), motherhood (Baby Fever, 1994), shopping (Going Shopping, 2005), menopause (The M Word, 2014), but I can’t recall women talking about equality, patriarchy, misogyny, sexual harassment. He may be a feminist, but his characters are not.

I find Allen’s narcissism tolerable because it is always mingled with self-deprecation. Jaglom admits his narcissism, but he claims, in Venice/Venice, “Bad narcissism is when you stop at only looking at yourself; good narcissism is when you use your initial healthy self-love to then turn to somebody else and try to get a sense of who they are.”

Always (1985), Jaglom’s fifth film and his first set in Los Angeles, set a pattern of hermeticism that he has followed in almost all of his subsequent Los Angeles films. It was shot entirely at his home, and the actors are his friends. He is the star; his ex-wife (Patrice Townsend) plays his ex-wife, whom he is trying to win back. When it focuses on three couples, Always is sheer tedium, but some more interesting guests arrive for a Fourth of July barbecue. Bob Rafelson plays an angry neighbour who comes to complain about a car blocking his driveway, but stays long enough to seduce the wife of Jaglom’s best friend. André Gregory spouts charming nonsense (“Life is like a stone…”). The director’s older brother Michael Emil (né Michael Emil Jaglom), always a welcome presence in Jaglom films, harangues whomever is within earshot. It is hard to imagine any of them going to see The Sorrow and the Pity.

We never learn what the characters do to earn a living, with two exceptions: Jaglom’s ex-wife is a yoga instructor, and her sister’s boyfriend drives an ice cream truck. But presumably the others hold more lucrative jobs.

Jaglom’s next film, Someone to Love (1987), follows the same pattern. Jaglom throws a day-long party for people who are alone on Valentine’s Day at the Mayfair Theatre in Santa Monica and films it. “I am trying to find a certain truth emotionally,” he tells Oja Kodar. She tells him, “What do you want from me? If you want from me something that you want in front of the camera, it’s not what I want.”

Someone to Love is probably Jaglom’s best film because of Orson Welles (in his final film), who explains everything, and a surprisingly touching song over the end credits, “Long Ago and Far Away” by Gershwin and Kern, sung by Bing Crosby. It also has two welcome auto-critiques. First-billed Andrea Marcovicci asks Jaglom, “Who do I have to fuck to get out of this movie?” Earlier, Michael Emil excoriates this and all Jaglom films: “To me it’s all a kind of ridiculous nonsense, and even a self-indulgent, pretentious nonsense. What is all this stuff? They’re so interested in themselves. They’re so in love with themselves. The whole world centres around their emotions, you know. And they’re engaging in this pseudo-group, third-rate pseudo-group psychotherapy.” 

Both Allen and Jaglom are now regarded—wrongly—as has-beens. In Allen’s case, extrafilmic events led to his fall in public esteem: Mia Farrow caught him sleeping with her adopted daughter Soon-yi, and then accused him of sexually abusing their daughter. I haven’t seen most of the films made during his exile period (2004–2015), but I liked both Café Society and Crisis in Six Scenes (2016), a belated auto-critique. Although I watched it on my computer, I sometimes laughed aloud. Let’s face it: as an actor, Allen is funny, and funnier when he doesn’t try to be charming.

In Crisis, Allen gives himself the lead role of Sidney J. Munsinger, and Elaine May (who is actually a few years older than he is) plays his wife Kay. They are quite credible as a couple who have learned to live with each other’s foibles. Allen imagines what might have been if he were a little less clever, a little less hard-working, a little less ambitious. A failed novelist, Munsinger writes TV commercials for useless products such as singing toilets. In the first scene, he asks his long-time barber to give him a James Dean haircut; instead, the barber offers a devastating critique of his novels, refusing every effort Woody makes to let him temper the insults. When he asks his wife what movie star he looks like, she suggests Franklin Pangborn and Elisha Cook Jr. In the next scene, friends come over for dinner and tell him his haircut makes him look like Percy Helton: “You know, he always played a kind of cringing, squeaky-voiced little loser.” (Helton began in movies in 1915, but his most memorable role was as the coroner in Kiss Me Deadly [1955].)

Allen’s dull suburban life is interrupted by the arrival of Lenny Dale (Miley Cyrus), the granddaughter of the woman who became May’s saviour after the death of her parents had forced her into an orphanage. Lenny has become a terrorist, and she shows up in the middle of the night because she has just escaped from jail and needs a place to hide out. 

The performance of Miley Cyrus has been much criticized; somehow she doesn’t fit into Woody Allen’s universe. I cannot agree: if she asked me to blow up an FBI office, I’d do it. She radicalizes everyone except Sidney, including their regular houseguest Alan Brockman (John Magaro)—the son of Sidney’s oldest friend, who is staying with them while studying business administration at NYU—even the ladies of Kay’s book club. Alan almost blows himself up building a bomb in his bedroom, and the old women in the book club read Mao’s Little Red Book and plan a nude sit-in at the local draft board.

Jaglom lost his appeal when his Tanna Frederick period began. In Queen of the Lot (2010), she reads aloud a review that calls her “a tall thing with a bushel of red hair, a wide toothy mouth, and a Second Avenue schnozz.” Frederick is flamboyant, like Viva in Warhol films—a kamikaze conversationalist who thrives on contestation. She expects response, she demands it—and she gets it. 

However, she is responsible for the funniest scene in Jaglom’s work. She has a bad date with a young architect. “What kind of stuff do you build?” she asks. “Mostly mini-malls and stuff like that.” “Mini-malls are so great!” He is chagrined: “No, they’re not, actually. What I’d like to be doing is getting into bridges.” “You could start with mini-malls, where you put a bridge from the hair salon shop to the yoga studio. Wouldn’t that be great?” He nods, but explains, “There’s not a lot of flexibility with mini-malls. They are what they are. I don’t know if a bridge would be in the budget for something like that.” “Do you use the compass and the protractor when you draw?” she asks. He runs away.

Like many others, I find her annoying, but I admire Jaglom’s loyalty to her. Beginning with Hollywood Dreams (2006), he has cast her in every film he has directed.

Allen, Jaglom? Advantage: New York.

As with bald directors, so it is with real estate developers. New York has Donald Trump (I’ll call him the Big Donald); we have Donald Sterling (the Little Donald). There are remarkable similarities in their careers, and striking differences. The Little Donald was a poor Jewish kid from East Los Angeles who worked his way through law school. The Big Donald would claim, “It has not been easy for me”: he explained that he started out with “a small loan of a million dollars” from his father. But he took over his father’s business when he was 25 years old.

Both built real estate empires specializing in residential high-rises, both were targets of discrimination suits accusing them of rejecting Black tenants, and both settled the suits without admitting guilt. “And according to depositions from former employees in discrimination cases,” wrote Sandy Banks in the Los Angeles Times, “Sterling liked Korean American tenants because they ‘will live in whatever conditions he gives them and pay the rent without complaining.’ He considered children ‘brats’ and he didn’t like renting to African Americans or Latinos because black tenants ‘smell,’ and ‘Mexicans…just sit around and smoke and drink.’”

The Donalds both established charitable foundations. In 2015, Trump claimed that he had personally given $102 million to charity in the last five years. Reporter David A. Fahrenthold won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles in the Washington Post about Trump charities. He couldn’t verify any gifts Trump had made to charity during these years.

In 2006, Trump did give the State of New York 436 acres in Westchester County that became Donald J. Trump State Park. Trump had purchased the land in the ’90s for $2 million to develop as a golf course, but local townships foiled his plans. When he gave the land to the state, he claimed it was worth $100 million. The park was never developed, and it closed in 2010.

The Trump Foundation was small, and its money was misused to offset fines for questionable business practices with charitable contributions. 

Sterling publicized his charitable giving with full-page advertisements in the Los Angeles Times listing the organizations he supported. He placed the ads on the final page of a newspaper section and printed them in colour to make them stand out more. He made small contributions to many organizations so that he could fill up the page.

Both bought sports teams. The Big Donald bought the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League from oil tycoon J. Walter Duncan in 1983. The USFL played its games during the spring and summer, thus avoiding direct competition with the established National Football League. Trump wanted to force a merger with the NFL by playing in the fall, but his ploy destroyed the league after only three seasons.

Michael Tollin made a documentary about the demise of the USFL for ESPN Films, Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL? (2009), that put much of the blame on the Big Donald. When Tollin sent a rough cut to Trump, he got his cover letter back with Trump’s annotations: “MIKE— A THIRD-RATE DOCUMENTARY—AND EXTREMELY DISHONEST (AS YOU KNOW)— BEST WISHES P.S. YOU ARE A LOSER.”

The Little Donald bought the San Diego Clippers (formerly the Buffalo Braves) of the National Basketball Association and moved the team to Los Angeles in 1984. The Clippers were so benighted and consistently inept that the team was deemed to have fallen under the sign of the “Clipper Curse” (not to be confused with the “Kardashian Kurse,” which destroyed the pro basketball careers of Kris Humphries, Lamar Odom, and Tristan Thompson, as well as the mind of Kanye West). The Clippers were so bad that Sterling heckled his own players from his courtside seat.

Until the 2011–2012 season, the Clippers had only two winning seasons, and they won only one postseason series. Forward Blake Griffin and point guard Chris Paul made the Clippers respectable, but the Curse continued. After they traded for Paul in December 2011, they had five straight winning seasons, but they never advanced past the second round in the playoffs.

In 2012, they upset the Memphis Grizzlies in seven close games, but they didn’t win a game against the San Antonio Spurs in the second round. In 2013, the Grizzlies beat the Clippers in the first round.

In 2014, the Clippers managed the biggest collapse in NBA playoff history. After beating the Golden State Warriors in the first round, they faced the Oklahoma City Thunder. With the series tied at two games apiece, in the crucial fifth game, they lost a 13-point lead in the last four minutes and 13 seconds, and a seven-point lead in the last 49 seconds.

In 2015, they topped themselves: they beat the San Antonio Spurs when Chris Paul made an astonishing comeback from a pulled hamstring in the final game of the series. It was regarded as “the greatest victory in the history of the team.” In the second round, they led the Houston Rockets three games to one. In the fifth game, played in Houston, they were blown out by the Rockets. The sixth game became their last chance to win at home, but they blew a 19-point lead in the final 15 minutes to lose. In the seventh game at Houston, they never led; they lost 113-100.

In 2016, the Clippers lost in the first round after Paul and Griffin were both injured in the fourth game and couldn’t play in the rest of the series. Bill Plaschke wrote, “After the NBA’s most haunted team lost its two best players on the day their title hopes were at their highest, how can anyone continue to deny it? The Clipper Curse lives…For a third consecutive postseason, the Clippers have gone from legitimate title contenders to pitiable puddles in a matter of hours.”

In 2017, the Clippers again lost in the first round after Griffin injured his toe in the third game and missed the rest of the playoffs. They managed to take it to seven games, but then collapsed again.

“Over the last six seasons, the Clippers came to be viewed as the most whining, complaining and grumbling team in the NBA,” wrote Broderick Turner in the Los Angeles Times. Paul was traded in June 2017, along with two other starting players, and the Clippers started over again.

Paul took the Clipper Curse with him when he moved to the Houston Rockets. The Rockets already had a gifted player, James Harden (who had himself narrowly escaped the Kardashian Kurse), and with Harden and Paul the Rockets got to the third round of the playoffs, the conference finals. Playing the Golden State Warriors, they won the fifth game to take a lead of 3-2. But Paul tore his hamstring in the final minutes of the game, and was unable to play in the final two games. Golden State won the sixth game to tie the series, and then they also won the final game, in which Houston set an NBA record by missing 27 three-point shots in a row.  

That the Little Donald might achieve a notoriety outside of Los Angeles equalling that of the Big Donald seemed highly unlikely until April 2014, when the tape of a conversation between him and his mistress V. Stiviano found its way to TMZ. He told her to avoid being seen with Blacks at Clippers games, mentioning by name local hero Magic Johnson. Given an opportunity to apologize on television, the Little Donald instead lashed out at his critics, especially Johnson. Understandably, he felt that he had been betrayed and that his privacy had been violated. But Magic Johnson is beyond criticism in Los Angeles: when he announced that he had HIV, he did more than Rock Hudson to make the disease respectable. 

Sterling was publicly humiliated, and the NBA demanded that he sell the Clippers. He resisted, but his wife had him declared incompetent and then sold the team to Microsoft executive Steve Ballmer for $2 billion. So Sterling’s racist rant made him a billionaire.

A year later, in June 2015, the Big Donald made insulting remarks about Mexico and Mexicans during the course of a 50-minute free-association rant announcing his candidacy for the presidency of the United States. Because of his derogatory comments, NBC cancelled his television show The Apprentice and announced it would no longer broadcast his Miss Universe and Miss USA pageants. According to Forbes, these cancellations cost him $125 million.

Before announcing his candidacy, Trump collected $2.4 million a year from 19 companies to put his name on their products. There was Trump Success cologne, even at one time a Trump urine test. After his speech, he lost all but two. His income from branding fell to $370,000.

But he found a new constituency among those who couldn’t afford a Trump Suit or a Trump Steak, and his improbable candidacy succeeded for reasons I will simply call overdetermined. He won the presidency, but he can’t go back to New York. His election was like the assassination of John Kennedy: everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news.

And in the end, Trump made out like a bandit: he discovered that the presidency was more lucrative than all his TV programs and brands. He could charge the government all the expenses for his weekly trips to Trump resorts. Instead of branding his name, he could now sell it directly: T-shirts and Make America Great Again baseball caps, of course, but also beach towels, dog collars, pet leashes, model trucks, wrapping paper, coffee mugs, beer glasses, and more, all for sale at shop.donaldjtrump.com.

Trump, Sterling? Advantage: Los Angeles.

Another famous New Yorker, Mike Nichols, regarded The Graduate (1967) as “a great comic opportunity to dissect a certain stratum of vulgar new-money West Coast culture that movies had not yet exploited for laughs, probably because so many of the people who made them were too close to that culture to recognize anything funny about it.” The Graduate “would be a poisoned arrow aimed from New York toward the heart of Los Angeles,” writes Mark Harris, whose exemplary account of the film’s genesis and realization is largely based on interviews with its creators, particularly Nichols and screenwriter Buck Henry. “California,” Nichols said, “is like America in italics, a parody of everything that’s most dangerous to us.”

In some ways, The Graduate is a mid-cult film. As Pauline Kael wrote, “The small triumph of The Graduate was to have domesticated alienation and the difficulty of communication, by making what [protagonist] Benjamin [Braddock] is alienated from a middle-class comic strip and making it absurdly evident that he has nothing to communicate—which is just what makes him an acceptable hero for the large movie audience.” Ben has just graduated from college with honours, but he has no friends, no interests, just a vague sense that things aren’t right in the world his parents and their generation have made. Because he’s so empty, we can read what we want into his character. What Kael writes is plausible, although harsh, and it corresponds to what I felt when I first saw the film 50 years ago. But there’s more to the story. 

Kael does not give Nichols credit for the casting coup of Dustin Hoffman. He plays Benjamin as he would later play Raymond in Rain Man (1988),that is, as an autistic mega-savant whose apparent passivity and simplemindedness hide a surprising intelligence.  

While he was filming The Graduate, Nichols listened to mid-cult folk rockers Simon and Garfunkel every morning before he started work. He started cutting the film to their song “The Sound of Silence,” so it seemed natural to commission songs from them. However, Nichols didn’t like the two songs they played for him (“Punky’s Dilemma” and “Overs,” which turned up on their Bookends album). So they proposed a half-finished song which Simon called “Mrs. Roosevelt.” It could just as well be “Mrs. Andersen” or “Mrs. Tarkington” or “Mrs. Robinson.” It appeared in four different versions in the final scenes of the film: first whistled, then scatted (“dee di-di-di dee dee dee”), then sung (only one verse), and finally reduced to a rhythm track that slows down and dies as Ben’s Alfa Romeo runs out of gas. Nichols also used other Simon and Garfunkel songs on the soundtrack, and thus The Graduate became the first Hollywood movie with a music score made up of pop songs.

The campaign against tobacco is a favourite mid-cult cause, and The Graduate is one of the first movies in which cigarette smoking is employed as a symbol for moral depravity. The introduction of Mrs. Robinson at Ben Braddock’s homecoming party is unforgettable: she is the only guest sitting by herself, and she is the only one smoking. She comes up to Ben’s room and asks for an ashtray. He doesn’t have one, but she lights her cigarette anyway. For her ashes, the floor will do. She literally chain smokes her way through the movie. During his affair with her, Ben takes up smoking, but he drops the habit after it is over. 

Nichols’ vision of Los Angeles is more no tourist than low tourist. Charles Webb’s novel is about Pasadena, to which Webb returned after graduating from Williams College in 1961, but the movie appears to be about Beverly Hills. Pasadena, established as a winter resort for wealthy Easterners in the 1880s, is old money; Beverly Hills, a planned city not incorporated until 1914, is new money. In the film, however, it could just as well be New Canaan, Connecticut. For Nichols, Los Angeles is a mirage, not unreal exactly, but floating in some liquid medium so that nothing can really happen. It is cursed by its swimming pools. To find life, Ben has to run away.

The shots of Los Angeles are perfunctory. The Taft Hotel where Ben and Mrs. Robinson meet is the Ambassador, but in the film it is generic. There are also a few night tracking shots along the Sunset Strip and the exterior of the Robinson house. 

The most expressive architecture was the creation of art director Richard Sylbert: the interiors of the Braddock residence and the Robinson residence. The Braddock house is bright and “largely in white and full of right angles—an environment for bright, sunny, square people,” as Harris writes. Its most salient feature is a small backyard swimming pool, where Ben spends his days when not staring at his aquarium. The Robinson house is grander, “full of shiny black surfaces and sensual curves, a nighttime lair for predatory animals, with a glassed-in overgrown garden off the living room.”

All of the interesting locations are outside of Los Angeles. Driving up and down the California coast, Ben takes the picturesque “blue highways,” the back roads that are coded blue on the map, even when he is desperately trying to get to the church in time to save Elaine Robinson (Katharine Ross) from an arranged marriage. The “Santa Barbara” church where the wedding takes place is the United Methodist Church in La Verne, a town in the citrus belt 30 miles east of Los Angeles—a striking Brutalist structure with concave panels made of white concrete, designed by Thornton Ladd and John Kelsey. It can be rented out for weddings, but its severity might put off some potential clients.

Edgar Z. Friedenberg objected to a shot of Ben driving across the Bay Bridge on its top level: in the world of the fiction, he was driving east from San Francisco to Berkeley, but the top level of the bridge is actually reserved for westbound traffic. His criticism seemed to me then like nit-picking, and it made me question my literalist conception of cinema, but more recently I’ve thought that maybe he was right. By showing Ben on the top level of the bridge, Nichols could rely on a clichéd shot: the aerial shot that keeps Ben’s car in the center of the frame. It would have been more challenging to film Ben driving on a lower level of the bridge. Mark Harris claims this is simply a mistake, “the movie’s one famous gaffe,” but that’s not possible. Surely Nichols knew that Hoffman was driving west toward San Francisco.

Although Webb’s novel had been written only five years earlier, The Graduate feels like a period film in contemporary dress, like Hollywood’s James M. Cain adaptations of the ’40s. Nichols, writer Buck Henry, and producer Lawrence Turman could say, “We all thought we were Benjamin Braddock.” But they were all between 35 and 40 years old in 1967, almost a generation older than Benjamin. When Ben follows Elaine Robinson to UC Berkeley, he discovers a school untouched by the Free Speech Movement or anti-war mobilizations. The fraternities and sororities still rule campus life as they did in the ’50s. 

The University of Southern California stands in for UC Berkeley. I can’t condemn the substitution, since UC Berkeley did not allow commercial filming then. It’s actually an appropriate choice, since USC circa 1967 was as conservative as UC Berkeley in the ’50s. Instead of the Free Speech Movement, USC gave us Nixon’s dirty tricks gang, the self-anointed “ratfuckers” from Sigma Chi: Ron Ziegler, Donald Segretti, Dwight Chapin, Herb Porter and Gordon Strachan, who learned their dirty politics in the USC student government.

Buck Henry worried that the first joke of the film was too dated to include. At Ben’s homecoming party, Mr. McGuire has some advice to offer him—privately. “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening?” “Yes, I am,” Ben replies robotically. “Plastics.” After a long pause Ben asks, “Exactly how do you mean?” “There’s a great future in plastics. Will you think about it?” “Yes, sir, I will.”

By 1967, plastics were no longer the future, but it didn’t matter. The joke is still funny, thanks to the mock gravitas of Walter Brooke, who plays Mr. McGuire; all Dustin Hoffman has to do is keep a straight face. And Ben Braddock may be a square who wants nothing more from life than to marry the daughter of his father’s partner, a girl he barely knows, but the hysterical opposition of her parents makes him a rebel hero by default.

Nichols made two more Los Angeles movies: The Fortune (1975), a 1920s period piece which was dismissed by the critics and flopped at the box office; and Postcards from the Edge (1990), Carrie Fisher’s adaptation of her own novel.

The Fortune is certainly less ambitious than The Graduate. Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty play Oscar and Nicky, a team of inept would-be Bluebeards, and Stockard Channing plays their intended prey, Frederika Quintessa Biggard (“Freddie is fine”), a tampon heiress. Oscar and Nicky are not natural-born killers, so their plans to do away with Freddie become increasingly farcical. 

The film is centred on a drab Spanish Colonial Revival apartment courtyard where the trio sets up housekeeping in Los Angeles. The only effort toward decoration is a birdbath in the centre where Oscar and Nicky will attempt to drown the intoxicated, unconscious Freddie in two inches of water. The grass is dead or dying; the landlady pretends to water it so that she can spy on the peregrinations of her three strange new tenants. The courtyard is strangely isolated, with only a few nondescript buildings nearby, perhaps because it was built on a studio back lot.

The Fortune has its moments. After their attempt at drowning Freddie fails, Oscar and Nicky put her still unconscious body into a trunk, and then stop in the middle of a deserted bridge with the intention of throwing the trunk over the railing. But as they struggle with the trunk, the empty bridge becomes the site of a traffic jam worthy of Laurel and Hardy, all recorded in an amazing single static shot—a great moment in the history of cinema.

Postcards from the Edge is another “black comedy.” In the first scene, drug-addicted movie star Suzanne Vale (Meryl Streep) ruins a long take because she’s high. In the next scene, she is passed out in the bed of a stranger, who notices she’s unconscious and drives her to the hospital, where her stomach is pumped. But as a drug rehab counsellor (CCH Pounder) notes, “addiction is not the problem, it’s the solution; to remove the solution, you’ve got to find what the problem is.” As she finishes the line, the problem walks in: Suzanne’s talkative, clueless showbiz mom Doris Mann (Shirley MacLaine). The problem gets worse when Suzanne is told that, to get insurance for her next film, she must live with a “responsible party”—that is, her mother. “What am I, a teenager?” asks Suzanne. So it becomes an odd-couple movie.

Postcards does get one thing about Hollywood right: the executives are chiefly concerned with escaping responsibility. In politics, it’s called “deniability.”

New Yorker Peter Bogdanovich adopted the nostalgic tone of the native in his very first film, Targets (1968). As horror-film star Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff) passes by endless rows of used car lots in the San Fernando Valley on his way to a personal appearance at the Reseda Drive-In, he complains, “Gosh, what an ugly town this has become.” As he utters this line, he is passing a car dealership designed by Paul Williams, the most successful Black architect in Los Angeles. Some preservationists now regard it as a landmark of mid-century modernism.

The story of the film’s gestation is legendary, and here I will print the legend (which is probably true). Boris Karloff owed Roger Corman two days of work, but Corman was too busy to make a picture with him. So he offered the work to Bogdanovich, who had been his assistant on The Wild Angels (1966). He told Bogdanovich he could make any film he wanted as long as he could find a two-day part for Karloff, use 20 minutes from an earlier Corman-directed, Karloff-starring film, The Terror (1963),and keep the budget at $125,000. 

You could tell from his first movie that Bogdanovich was here to stay, and that he would settle on the south side of the Hollywood Hills, where the used car lots are filled with foreign models. Bogdanovich hated the Valley, and it shows in Targets. When he moved from Manhattan to Los Angeles in 1964, he and his then-wife Polly Platt rented a house on Saticoy Street in the heart of the valley for $125 a month (thus, Targets is a Saticoy Production). It wasn’t his dream house; after he had some success with The Last Picture Show (1971), he bought a mansion on Copa de Oro Drive in Bel-Air, across the street from John Ford, one of his heroes. When journalist Margy Rochlin asked him to revisit his Los Angeles residences in 2002, he couldn’t find his Saticoy Street house, and he wanted to get away as quickly as possible. “I’m going to get shot at here,” he complained. 

Targets becomes a tale of two cities: the San Fernando Valley and the “westside,” the Sunset Strip and Beverly Hills. The valley is the home of a psycho killer who eats Baby Ruth candy bars (a caricature of American normality), garage rock (supplied by the Daily Flash), oil tanks, and square-looking teenagers. The westside is courtly movie stars, hotel suites, room service, limousines, and good booze. Even the TV is better. In the valley, they have Joey Bishop and Regis Philbin trading lame jokes; on the westside, they have a rare classic film, The Criminal Code (1931), directed by Howard Hawks.

But the westside section of the film is completely wooden, and Targets comes alive only when it moves to the valley. The valley section is open; the camerawork is fluid. Although their roles as written are black holes, the actors are alive and exciting. The westside section is claustrophobic, almost entirely filmed in a screening room and Orlok’s hotel suite. The camerawork is classical to the point of stodginess. The characters are predictable and dull. Bogdanovich himself appears as tyro director Sammy Michaels, creating an unflattering self-portrait. A guy who cares only for his career, he is already sour and self-pitying. “All the good movies have been made,” he says after watching a few minutes of The Criminal Code. He is a walking encyclopedia of film lore, but about Howard Hawks, he can only say, “He really knows how to tell a story.”

The two cities come together at the Reseda Drive-In. The killer hides behind the screen and picks off the customers with his high-powered rifle. The 80-year-old actor Orlok, who can’t walk without a cane, faces him down and subdues him with a slap in the face. He wasn’t so tough. It’s a victory of the old artifice over the new, incomprehensible reality. 

New Yorker Jim Jarmusch is a high tourist, so in his five-city (Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome, Helsinki) taxi-driver movie Night on Earth (1991), you won’t find the Hollywood sign or the Empire State Building or the Eiffel Tower. 

Jarmusch’s portrait of Los Angeles at dusk is certainly not literalist, but it is evocative, and it has aged much better than the hysterically pessimistic visions of the city prevalent in the early ’90s. As in The Replacement Killers (1998), the downtown railway station stands in for the airport. Taxi driver Corky (Winona Ryder) takes casting director Victoria Snelling (Gena Rowlands) to “Beverly Circle.” As a rule, such a trip would proceed north on the San Diego Freeway (now known as “the 405,” the most congested, despised freeway in Los Angeles), then east on Sunset Boulevard, and through the residential quarters of Bel Air and upper Beverly Hills, which have a spooky, funereal quietude at night. (I wouldn’t live there if they paid me.) Visually it wouldn’t be very interesting, and it wouldn’t reveal much of the city. Instead, Corky takes what we call here “surface streets,” and the sights glimpsed in passing are not to be found on any direct route from the airport to Beverly Hills, with one or two exceptions. 

Jarmusch concentrates on structures that some might call seedy, but are actually just ordinary. He values a takeout stand as much as a landmark (a virtue he shares with Quentin Tarantino). The only landmarks in Night on Earth are the Forum in Inglewood (then still a sports arena) and the statue of Rocky and Bullwinkle on the Sunset Strip (removed in 2013, and now pending reinstallation at another site on the Strip). There are also some icons, such as a car under a tarp that recalls a famous photograph from Robert Frank’s The Americans taken in Long Beach. Frank’s car was flanked by two small palm trees, and Jarmusch concentrates on these iconic transplants, which always look a bit scraggly in his movie (as palm trees often do outside of Beverly Hills).

Most of the shots come from around Hollywood, with an emphasis on its poorer eastern end. I recognized a Pioneer Chicken stand on Western near Sunset (since demolished), and a mini-mall at Sunset and Harvard (a local foodie would recognize Jitlada, a Thai restaurant made famous by food critic Jonathan Gold). Things change, things stay the same: if you re-photographed most of Jarmusch’s locations today, they would be changed beyond recognition, but every shot could be almost exactly duplicated somewhere else in the city. And maybe that used car lot that could be anywhere is still there, and still under the same ownership. Auto dealerships are now our most enduring institutions.

We take Jarmusch for granted, just as an older generation of critics and fans once took Howard Hawks for granted. The pleasures Hawks’ films provided were evident, but predictable. There is also a female cab driver in Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946). Winona Ryder’s cab driver is more like Cagney in Taxi (Roy Del Ruth, 1932), or John Payne in 99 River Street (Phil Karlson, 1953), or George Raft in I Stole a Million (Frank Tuttle, 1939). The philosophical cab driver Gus Hoffman (Paul Lukas) in Deadline at Dawn (Harold Clurman, 1946) inserts himself into the film’s action, and eventually overshadows the stars. 

More than any of these filmmakers, John Cassavetes stands out as the director who most prizes cab drivers. Aside from the New York cab driver who protects Gloria from the mobsters tailing her, there are the Los Angeles cab drivers: one protects Minnie when she’s drunk in Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), and there is also the kindly, patient driver who helps Sarah in Love Streams (1984) unload a whole menagerie of animals that she had impetuously purchased at a farm-like animal shelter: two miniature horses, a dog, a duck, a goat, and a bunch of chickens.








Thom Andersen


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#Film #Tourists #Los #Angeles #Cinema #Scope

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