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What Makes a Real L.A. Movie?

‘La La Land’ and the Silver Lake TV wave represent a shift in what Los Angeles symbolizes onscreen. But does that make them any truer to the city?

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

Los Angeles doesn’t tend to announce itself. Most of the time, when the city appears on our screens, it’s as a backdrop, omnipresent and therefore absent. Images of the world are manufactured here, and so L.A. becomes the world. Just like Southern California, with its deserts and mountains and forests and oceans packed into an impossibly small geological space, L.A. is a microcosm and a mirror.

That’s one of the many subjects of Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Andersen’s three-hour video essay dissecting how the city is presented on film. Released in 2004 and circulated among cinephiles ever since — it was briefly available on Netflix, then returned to contraband status — LAPI slips idiosyncratic assertions (the second half of Chinatown is all about navigating Los Angeles without a car; our association of modern architecture with bad guys reveals our phobia of nature) into a holistic survey of the city’s landmarks and their representation. Andersen’s opus will forever remain the definitive text on how Hollywood’s treatment of its hometown reflects its ideology. And since, like ideology, L.A. gains much of its power from its unquestioned dominance, LAPI’s usefulness is almost impossible to overstate.

But in a year when the Best Picture front-runner is so bold as to name itself after the first city of moviemaking, we have some more mainstream — and more literal — texts to examine. Movies like La La Land and shows like Love and Togetherness hint at shifts in what Los Angeles symbolizes onscreen: a Darwinian jungle that rewards the righteous, and an excellent place to self-pity in like-minded company. They’re different reflections that nonetheless emanate from the same source — creative anxiety, filmmaking’s defining pathology (and Los Angeles’s defining industry, for better or worse). But quietly, one of last year’s most underrated movies worked to show the city as it actually is — instead of how its chroniclers perceive it in the movies.

The calendar year 2016 began and ended with two tributes to Los Angeles as it’s preserved in the hard, rose-tinted amber of the popular imagination. The Coen brothers comedy Hail, Caesar! barely leaves the confines of Capitol Pictures, its thinly disguised version of MGM on the precipice of its twilight. Part of the point is that it never has to: within two hours of real time and 24 hours of his, Josh Brolin’s fixer Eddie Mannix guides us through ancient Rome, an aquamarine fantasia, and the old West. The apparent artifice doesn’t diminish the wonder of Eddie’s job, which the devout Catholic executes with almost literal religious fervor.

The film is a fitting companion to La La Land, a parallel that’s somewhat obscured by a polar-opposite metanarrative. (Hail, Caesar! is a late-ish period middle-of-the-road piece from established masters; La La Land is the breakout of a 31-year-old wunderkind.) Director Damien Chazelle sees the Coens’ old-Hollywood nostalgia — one of his young lovers works on a studio lot, right by the window from Casablanca; the other proposes a Rebel Without a Cause screening as a date — and raises it. La La Land broadens that movie nostalgia to encompass an entire city it grandiosely claims as its own.

Many have taken issue with Chazelle’s rendering of the city. Depending on who you ask, the opening number’s transformation of a traffic jam’s worth of lemons into Technicolor lemonade is either a clever manipulation of a stereotype or a lazy recycling of the most tired of L.A. clichés. That it’s a surface reading of the city and industry it conflates is a given; the issue is whether the film is aware of, and playing with, the fact that it’s about surfaces. Regardless, La La Land is infatuated with tropes of all kinds, blanketing them across a vast expanse, from Grand Central Market to the Santa Monica Pier. To decry La La Land for a lack of authenticity is to object to the movie’s very purpose of updating glamour and glitz just enough to carry it into the present. Which: fair enough, but then you’re past the point of argument. In La La Land’s own terms, Chazelle’s heart is with Ryan Gosling, the strict jazz constructionist who wants to spend his life replaying the classics. His head is with John Legend, who knows art must keep moving to stay afloat. Either you’re on board with that struggle or you aren’t.

Perhaps La La Land’s caught so much flak because its blatant wistfulness stands in such stark contrast with a more contemporary vision of the city. You can find it, largely though not exclusively, on television. It’s the Los Angeles of Transparent, of Casual, of You’re the Worst, even of BoJack Horseman — shows that translate New York hipsterism into the cultural language of hazy sunlight and Eastside Craftsman bungalows, following an ever-larger portion of the creative class (and the New York Times trend pieces they inspire) to the left coast. Once settled, they try and fail to drown out their cynicism with yoga, then settle for the normalized substance abuse enabled by the universal absence of 9-to-5 schedules. The most driven and successful among them parlay their observations of this new-ish phenomenon into TV shows. That particular corner of Los Angeles reached its peak in the form of Love, a new series with a title and implied ambitions even more outsized than La La Land’s. (Los Angeles includes 8 million people; the concept of love includes the entire human race.) An aspiring TV writer and actual child actor tutor meets a recovering addict working for a Dr. Drew–type satellite radio station and the result, in Love anyway, is far from aspirational. Love, and every one of its peers, could be rechristened Sleeping With the Wrong People with minimal changes.

The actual character of this Los Angeles couldn’t be more different from La La Land’s: instead of serving as a mecca for tireless strivers fueled by uncut enthusiasm, this L.A. is defined by its fatigue. Rather than chase success or perfection, its citizens have stagnated into ennui. There’s a movie version of this spiritual malaise as well, represented by Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, and Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups, a triptych of prestige depicting varying degrees of decay and depravity among L.A.’s uber-moneyed class. A model, an art dealer, and a screenwriter either have status handed to them or achieved it long ago. Their awards are, respectively: getting eaten, getting a 200-page subtweet from her ex-husband, and sleeping with hot women, but in a sad way. Some high life.

From Love’s Gus and Mickey to Transparent’s Josh Pfefferman to Nocturnal Animals’s Susan, these people may be vestigial to the so-called industry or at least nominally “creative,” but they’ve either lost their motivation to climb the ladder or ascended so high they no longer need it. Instead, they turn their attentions to personal unhappiness, fraying marriages and spiraling depressions spinning out in well-appointed homes down the street from well-appointed coffee shops. (In Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, family money affords a grieving mother and her record-producer boyfriend both the time to join a death cult and a fancy abode to trap their unwilling friends in.) These characters provide a more intimate, less wide-eyed portrait of a city, one that zooms in on a wide-angle portrait of a profession by following its professionals home after they clock out.

By necessity, though, this Los Angeles is still limited in scope, and maybe even more so than Golden Age tributes; the average moviegoer may not care about Hollywood as much as the average Academy voter, but at least they’re familiar with its output. (Can most people say the same of Silver Lake?) The focus in this new, frustrated Los Angeles remains tightly on rarefied, sometimes-broke-never-poor professionals — just on what they feel, not what they do. Which is why the most effective snapshot of the city in recent memory isn’t one that perpetuates its retro iconography or even updates it. Instead, the film rejects that image in favor of a more inclusive, and true-to-life, alternative.

I moved to Los Angeles in May, no small part of why I’ve paid particular attention to how the culture I consume for a living was attempting to introduce my new home. Laura Gabbert’s City of Gold, a straightforward look at the Los Angeles Times’ near-deified food critic, was the first movie I saw in a theater after I arrived, and to someone in my very particular situation at the time, I can’t imagine a more influential viewing experience. Food is never just food, and Gold’s body of work could never be mistaken for a mere collection of restaurant reviews. His life’s work could be seen as a rebuttal of a certain brand that’s become one of L.A.’s primary exports — shallow, polished, homogeneous, blindingly white. He’s a true meritocrat, as likely to give column space to a San Gabriel Valley Sichuan joint as a West Hollywood celebrity magnet, making a subtle but insistent point in the process. Gold himself brings up the sunshine-and-palms myth in the opening minutes of City of Gold, and the audience instantly knows what he’s referring to. It’s the Los Angeles of La La Land, or less seductively, of Love, or least seductively of all, Knight of Cups. It’s the Los Angeles that leaves out almost everything Gabbert and Gold uncover as she tags along on his daily rounds.

When Jonathan Gold ventures into Hollywood, it’s not for an audition. It’s to visit Jitlada, the strip-mall domain of Jazz Singsanong that Gold was instrumental in boosting. (When I ate there a few weeks later, there was a City of Gold poster wedged under the glass of my tabletop.) Small, immigrant-owned, and beloved, Jitlada is the sort of place Gold specializes in understanding and Los Angeles specializes in fostering, a perfect match of writer and inspiration. What truly distinguishes Los Angeles from other cities, rather than the aimless and/or idealistic millennials that populate so many of them, is its countless communities and the proximity its manifestly unplanned sprawl forces them into. While a traffic-jam dance number may wink at an outsider’s impression of the city’s flaws, Gold successfully spins its infamous breadth into a virtue. New York may get credit as America’s foremost melting pot, but only L.A. has the chaos and zoning laws that put Gold’s favored haunt, Koreatown, right next to the old-money manses of Hancock Park.

City of Gold failed to make the Oscar short list for Best Documentary, even as La La Land remains the odds-on favorite to win Best Picture. The conventional wisdom behind Chazelle’s film triumphing over the likes of Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea, invoked in blog posts and awards podcasts the world over like a mantra, is that “Hollywood loves itself.” It’s a particularly clear piece of evidence that Hollywood doesn’t equate to Los Angeles — and that even as Hollywood’s self-understanding remains largely the same, Los Angeles is in constant flux, as are most good-faith efforts to capture it.