The City in Cinema Mini-Documentaries Reveal the Los Angeles of Blade Runner, Her, Drive, Repo Man, and More

What do movies like Blade Run­ner, Her, Dri­ve, and Repo Man, sep­a­rat­ed by the years and even more so by their sen­si­bil­i­ties, have in com­mon? All come from auteur direc­tors, all have accu­mu­lat­ed con­sid­er­able fan fol­low­ings, and all have styles all their own. But to my mind, one impor­tant qual­i­ty unites them more than any oth­er: all take place in Los Ange­les. What’s more, all take place in a dis­tinc­tive vision of Los Ange­les, that most pho­tographed but least under­stood city in the world. Every fea­ture film that uses Los Ange­les as some­thing more than a back­drop, whether it tries to rep­re­sent or reimag­ine it, also acts as an acci­den­tal doc­u­men­tary of the city: of its built envi­ron­ment, of its peo­ple, of the ever-shift­ing ideas we have of it.

On that premise, I cre­at­ed Los Ange­les, the City in Cin­e­ma, a series of video essays meant to exam­ine the vari­ety of Los Ange­le­ses revealed in the films set there, both those new and old, main­stream and obscure, respectable and schlocky, appeal­ing and unap­peal­ing — just like the con­tra­dic­to­ry char­ac­ter­is­tics of the city itself. At the top of the post, you can watch my episode on Blade Run­ner, Rid­ley Scot­t’s 1982 pro­to-cyber­punk future noir that remains, to this day, the pop­u­lar idea of the Los Ange­les of the future (as evi­denced by the pejo­ra­tive cur­ren­cy of the term “Blade Run­ner-iza­tion” among NIM­BYs): denser, dark­er, thor­ough­ly Asian­ized, and tak­en back to a third-world indus­tri­al phase it nev­er real­ly passed through in the first place.

But more recent­ly, a com­pet­ing vision of Los Ange­les’ future emerged in the form of Her, Spike Jonze’s tale of a mus­ta­chioed, ukulele-play­ing mil­que­toast who falls in love with a sen­tient com­put­er oper­at­ing sys­tem. He does so in the high-ris­es and high-speed trains of, by com­par­i­son to Blade Run­ner, a glossier, gen­tler, future Los Ange­les not only free of killer android repli­cants but — even more sur­pris­ing­ly to many an Ange­leno — free of cars. My video essay on Her com­pares and con­trasts Scott and Jonze’s ideas of what lies ahead for the city: would you rather live in the for­mer’s Los Ange­les, hybridized with a grit­ti­er, less order­ly Tokyo, or the lat­ter’s, hybridized with a san­i­tized Shang­hai?

Nico­las Wind­ing Refn’s Dri­ve gave us a new take on the old tra­di­tion of Euro­pean film­mak­ers exam­in­ing Los Ange­les with a kind of per­plexed fas­ci­na­tion, as pre­vi­ous­ly exem­pli­fied by John Boor­man’s Point Blank, Jacques Der­ay’s  The Out­side Man, and Jacques Demy’s Mod­el ShopEng­lish cult direc­tor Alex Cox added his own rough-edged vol­ume to that shelf with 1984’s sci-fi punk favorite Repo Man. In 2000, Cox’s coun­try­man Mike Fig­gis pulled off his real-time, four-screen exper­i­ment Time­code on the Sun­set Strip, not far from the strip club where John Cas­savetes set much of The Killing of a Chi­nese Book­ie more than twen­ty years ear­li­er. You can find video essays on these movies and oth­ers on the list of those I’ve pro­duced so far:

New videos, includ­ing episodes on this year’s sol­id Los Ange­les pic­tures, Night­crawler and the Thomas Pyn­chon adap­ta­tion Inher­ent Vice, will appear reg­u­lar­ly. If you live any­where near Port­land, Ore­gon, note that I’ll give a talk and screen­ing there enti­tled “Los Ange­les and Port­land: The Cities in Cin­e­ma” at the Hol­ly­wood The­atre, fea­tur­ing nev­er-before-seen video essays on both Los Ange­les and Port­land films, on Jan­u­ary 25, 2015. Keep an eye on their site for details.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Every Frame a Paint­ing Explains the Film­mak­ing Tech­niques of Mar­tin Scors­ese, Jack­ie Chan, and Even Michael Bay

Chaos Cin­e­ma: A Break­down of How 21st-Cen­tu­ry Action Films Became Inco­her­ent

Watch 7 New Video Essays on Wes Anderson’s Films: Rush­moreThe Roy­al Tenen­baums & More

A Drone’s Eye View of Los Ange­les, New York, Lon­don, Bangkok & Mex­i­co City

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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