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 Shop. English 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:
- Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)
- Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011)
- The Driver (Walter Hill, 1978)
- Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)
- The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (John Cassavetes, 1978)
- The Limey (Steven Soderbergh, 1999)
- Model Shop (Jacques Demy, 1969)
- Night of the Comet (Thom Eberhardt, 1984)
- Repo Man (Alex Cox, 1984)
- Strange Days (Kathryn Bigelow, 1995)
- Timecode (Mike Figgis, 2000)
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.
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.