From Point Break to La La Land: Travel, Film, and the Circus that is L.A

Perhaps it’s fitting that I ended my week-long sojourn to the City of Angels eating Sushi on Sunset Boulevard while sitting behind 1990s super model Fabio. As someone who came of age in the 1990s – I graduated high school in 1994 and college in 1998 — the Los Angeles of 20th century fin de siècle America, at least from the distance of the Midwest, felt more plastic and less vital than New York City. At the same time, Los Angeles of the 1990s seemed awash in troubled ambivalence.

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I can guarantee you that man sitting over my left shoulder is Actor/Model Fabio

Fabio’s vacant image seemed to be simultaneously everywhere and nowhere during the decade; we all knew who he was, but I’m not sure any of us knew why we did. The last time I remember seeing Fabio, before his recent turn as celebrity Trump supporter, was Zoolander, where he expressed gratitude over receiving the Best Actor/Model award: “You consider me the best actor slash model, not the other way around.” I must confess as we all entered the 21st century, he served as an avatar of my (inaccurate) perception of the city: shiny, vacuous, and superficial.

My very sad Generation X celebrity sighting confirmed the city’s magnificent ridiculousness, while also putting my own misconceptions about L.A. into greater clarity; today’s City of Angels continues to exert a cultural influence while experiencing less violence and maintaining its persistent devotion to the absurd. “Then it suddenly occurred to me that, in all the world, there was nor would there ever be another place like this City of Angels,” journalist Carey McWilliams wrote. “Here the American people were erupting, like lava from a volcano; here, indeed, was the place for me – a ringside seat at the circus.”[1]

Considering that I’ve written about the city for Los Angeles’s KCET since 2012, my youthful ignorance regarding it feels that much more outlandish. One could try to blame pop culture for such dubious notions—after all, films like The Player (1992) and Get Shorty (1995) cast a jaundiced if humorous eye at the city’s entertainment-obsessed culture and emphasized L.A.’s superficiality. Yet, if one actually looks back at the cinematic offerings of the ‘90s, film depicted a much more diverse, nuanced and complicated city than I acknowledged then (see the footnote).[2] The truth is Los Angeles is a circus, but one that includes a multitude of players from a constellation of backgrounds. Since the 1990s, the big top has changed.

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Hotel Casa Del Mar, Santa Monica, May 2018

Troubled 1990s Los Angeles

I bet I’m hardly the only one who at one point or another viewed L.A. narrowly. I’m guessing for many Americans the city existed on two poles: one, the cynical, superficial Hollywood dream machine and the other a gritty, troubled, drug infested, gang-ridden city inhabited by criminalized African and Mexican American residents—a perception based on films like Colors (1988), Boyz in the Hood (1991), Blood In Blood Out (1993), and Menace to Society (1993). I won’t even mention catastrophe films like Volcano (1997), because Mike Davis and Eric Avila have explored the fetish for literary and celluloid destruction of the city to much greater effect than I ever could.

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Time, 1991, Anthony Lewis Papers, Library of Congress

As evidenced by a 1991 special issue of Time devoted to the Golden State, California remained a national curiosity; a state, and by extension a city, at a crossroads. “It’s still America’s promised land – a place of heart stopping beauty, spectacular energy, and stunning diversity,” a caption from the issue stated. “But faced with drought, mindless growth, and a sputtering economy, can it preserve the dream?”

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Botanical Gardens at the Huntington Library, May 2018

Even city histories exuded pessimism. Mike Davis’s seminal work City of Quartz captured L.A.’s dark mood as it hurtled toward the millennium: “In Los Angeles there are too many signs of approaching helter-skelter: everywhere in the inner city, even in the forgotten poor white boondocks with their zombie populations of speedfreaks, gangs are multiplying at a terrifying rate, cops are becoming more arrogant and trigger happy, and a whole generation is being shunted toward some impossible Armageddon.”[3] In retrospect, Davis sounds a bit like ad-copy for the Purge movie series.

To be fair, at the time violence, though exaggerated by film and television, permeated the metropolis. The aforementioned films though empathetic to their respective characters, also helped burnish the city’s image as gang-ridden, which in part was true.

In his 2006 work Coast of Dreams, the late dean of California history Kevin Starr noted the struggle with gang violence during the 1990s grew so pervasive that local businesses morbidly adapted. “Florists in certain Los Angeles neighborhoods grew skilled in combining floral patterns with gang color ribbons. Other vendors specialized in producing custom-made sweatshirts and t-shirts with stylized messages honoring the departed,” he wrote.[4] One could even find the city’s famed diversity reflected in its gangs. By the 1990s the LAPD reported 230 black and Latino gangs with an additional 81 Asian ones, “Model Minority” myths be damned.[5]

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Botanical Gardens at the Huntington, May 2018

Police corruption ran amuck as well. The LAPD’s Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) unit descended into lawlessness under the leadership of Rafael Perez, who coincidentally served as a model for Denzel Washington’s character, Alonzo Harris, from Training Day (2001). CRASH officers beat, shot, murdered, and extorted on a level exceeding that of its criminal targets. “No Los Angeles gang could have exacted a more stylized revenge,” remarked Starr. By 2000, 70 former and current CRASH officers had either quite, been suspended and/or relieved of duty, or were under investigation.[6]

Air polloution also plagued the city. The air was thick, disturbingly thick, which proved unhealthy. Yet, at moments, the smog was also aesthetically compelling. “They say the *%*%*%*%* smog is the *#*$@*$@ reason we have such beautiful %$%#&#%# Sunsets,” bad guy mob boss Ray Barbones (Dennis Farina) dispassionately tells B movie producer Harry Zimms in Get Shorty. Beyond picaresque sunsets, air pollution in 1990s Los Angeles was bad, though better than during the 1970s and 1980s (the latter examples being a central part of the plot to 2016’s comedic noir, The Nice Guys). During the 1990s air quality improved, though on average residents endured 200 bad air days each year.

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Japanese Gardens at the Huntington, May 2018

Better Days? L.A. 2018

Since then, California, and especially Los Angeles, has righted itself. Crime has diminished, though certainly not disappeared. “Angelenos are far less likely to be murdered than in the 1990s, when homicides peaked at 1,094 in a single year,” noted the L.A. Times in late 2017. Homicides and gun violence had declined, but violent crime increased for the fourth year straight.

As for the city’s air pollution, 1991’s ripe, masculine, homoerotic action-adventure bromance Point Break encapsulates how far the city has come in this regard. “22 years. Man the air got dirty and the sex got clean,” LAPD Detective Pappas (Gary Busey) explains to partner Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves). Pappas wasn’t wrong, as noted the air was bad in 1991, but the 1990s for all its struggles would turn out to be a period of real environmental improvement as residents witnessed rapid gains in air quality. Granted, recent evidence suggests some back sliding. An uptick in pollution led to 145 bad days for the year in 2017. Angelenos had not inhaled that much pollution since 2004. Still, even this regression remained far better than where the city stood nearly 30 years ago.

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Outside LACMA, May 2018

If one wishes to enjoy whatever fresh air L.A. provides, hikes around the city and county serve as a great option. For example, one can begin a long day hike with a trip to Griffith Park. Hit up the Autry Museum of the West, which has some “old timey” exhibits but is also currently exhibiting photography of the Chicano Movement, LA RAZA. From there trek via one of the various hikes at your disposal over to Griffith Observatory, where you can take in views of the city and, afterwards, hike back down (or catch a bus or call a ride-sharing service). If you get a nice day, the views are outstanding. If you’re closer to Pasadena/San Marino, drop in on the Huntington Library, whose botanic gardens alone are worth the trip—to say nothing of its notable art collections and the library itself.

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The art scene in Los Angeles is quite impressive beyond LACMA and The Getty including the Broad and the Museum of Modern Contemporary Art (MOCA, which has more than one site), selections from the Broad are pictured here, where admittance is free but you need to make reservations

While hiking around the city, you’ll notice Los Angeles has been and is growing. Debates about economic development and housing have arguably grown more substantial and nuanced. No longer mindless, growth in Los Angeles often sparks fierce discussion particularly in the face of rising housing costs and efforts to blunt them. However, the city needs more affordable housing and better regulations. According to the L.A. Times, L.A. needs between 1.8 and 3.5 million new units of housing by 2025 to meet “existing demand and future growth.” The housing crisis has led to a homeless population of 116,000, roughly 21 percent of the national total. Attempts to allow for increased-density housing have been met with unanimous opposition.

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More art from the Broad

The city remains car-centric though, as will be discussed in a moment, getting around the city has gotten significantly easier. Its history as an autotopia remains troubled. Joan Didion famously described Angelenos’ relationship to driving a form of “secular communion.”[7] Reyner Banham observed similarly that “the freeway is not a limbo of existential angst, but the place where [Los Angeles residents] spend the two calmest and most rewarding hours of their daily lives.”[8] Perhaps, but freeways also imposed costs on working class communities, particularly those of color and especially those in East Los Angeles. “By the late 1960s, after the California Division of highways had completed its assault on East Los Angeles, freeways dominated the sensory experience of daily life in the nation’s largest barrio,” UCLA’s Eric Avila notes.[9] In 2015’s Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Andersen captured the city’s tradition of imposition on non-white minorities—whether for highway construction, economic development or urban renewal—through the voice of the film’s narrator, Sortilege (Joanna Newsome): “Mexican families bounced out of Chavez Ravine to build Dodger Stadium. American Indians swept out of Bunker Hill for the Music Center. And now Tariq’s [African American] neighborhood bulldozed aside for Channel View Estates.” Though fictional, Tariq Khalil (Michael Kenneth Williams) and the plight of his neighborhood represent the city’s general attitude toward minority communities for much of the 20th century.

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Bunker Hill not far from the Broad, May 2018

In the face of this history, development arguments bleed unsurprisingly into issues of gentrification as well. In Boyle Heights long time residents battle gentrification as art studios and galleries scoop up spaces on the Eastside, having already changed the face of the nearby communities of Echo Park and Highland Park. “Newcomers, including artists, have been drawn to Boyle Heights by its rich cultural character — forged from generations of Mexican, Japanese, Russian and Jewish immigrants relegated to the city’s eastern periphery — as well as its cheaper rent and property in an increasingly unaffordable city,” writes Carribean Fragoza. As the “epicenter of all the social ferment that emerged around the Mexican American civil rights movement of the late 1960s”, Avila noted in a KCET short documentary, Boyle Heights “sustains” the current national backlash against gentrification in urban areas.

Less-visibly ethnic neighborhoods have also struggled with gentrification. Downtown Los Angeles and its Arts District serve as one example. In 1981, the city passed the “Artist in Residence” ordinance, which enabled artists to live in their downtown lofts; the L.A. Times noted in 2014 that “it became a bohemian playground – but a rough one.” One could witness drug users shooting up, cars with smashed windows, and “Christmas trees on fire in the middle of the street,” older residents reminisced. The planting of artist/hipster flags established a certain level of stability such that during the 1990s new restaurants began opening one by one, “warehouses became condos,” and new coffee shops moved in month by month.[10]

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DTLA, May 2018

The transformation of DTLA proved so stark that it even worked its way into pulp noir novels. “The Arts District was more than a neighborhood. It was a movement,” Detective Harry Bosch reflects in Michael Connelly’s 2016 L.A. noir, The Wrong Side of Goodbye. The fictional Bosch had been assigned to the district in the 1970s and remembered its various incarnations and how different they were from present day Los Angeles. “The Arts District now faced many of the issues that came with success, namely the swift spread of gentrification. … The idea of the district being a haven for the starving artist was becoming more and more unfounded.”[11]

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Little Tokyo near DTLA, May 2018

Unsurprisingly, amidst all this change, complexities abound; improvements for some Angelenos spark fear in others. For example, the late Mayor Tom Bradley established the first seeds of mass transit in Los Angeles in the 1980s. In 1985, the city broke ground on the Blue Line Light Rail; it debuted five years later and soon become one of the nation’s most used light rail lines. Since then the city has added traditional bus lines, light rail, subways, and even Bus Rapid Transit. Tough battles with the Bus Riders’ Union in the mid-1990s forced the city to adopt more environmentally-friendly buses and to expand service especially in working class areas. While these changes vastly improved transit around the city, they contributed to gentrification. In Boyle Heights, where four light rail stops have connected the once isolated community to the city, the improved transit has also opened the door for gentrification that threatens to displace thousands of longtime residents.

Budget deficits and legislative rancor led many to dismiss 1990s California as unmanageable. However though once denuded of funds, today state coffers brim with dollars. “We’re nearing the longest economic recovery in modern history,” Governor Jerry Brown told the public in May 2018. Even the state’s Rainy Day Fund now holds billions of dollars primarily to address homelessness, infrastructure needs, and mental health service. “Isaac Newton observed: What goes up must come down,” said Governor Brown. “This is a time to save for our future, not to make pricey promises we can’t keep. I said it before and I’ll say it again: Let’s not blow it now.”

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Hiking in Griffith Park, May 2018

As a result, Los Angeles—even acknowledging the above struggles—feels like America’s most vibrant city. Whether depictions have expanded the public’s idea of the city remains debatable. L.A.’s celluloid identity during the early aughts was certainly helped by films like the confusing but mesmerizing Mulholland Drive (2001), Paul Thomas Anderson’s odd Punch Drunk Love (2002), the Rampart-scandal-inspired Training Day (2001), Kurt Russell’s problematic rogue cop and the 1992 L.A. Riots in Dark Blue (2002), the overwrought Oscar winning Crash (2004), the Shane Black noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), the East L.A. coming-of-age story Real Women Have Curves (2002) and more recently films and television series like Tangerine (2015), Beginners (2010), Insecure (2016 – present) and Barry (2018) have expanded the nuances of the city’s image.

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Hiking in Griffith Park with Griffith Observatory in background, May 2018

One controversial example, the simultaneously maligned and celebrated La La Land (2016), seems to be a sort of standard bearer for modern Los Angeles (at least through sheer repetition, considering its numerous showings on HBO):  “a love letter to Los Angeles like the ones Woody Allen gave Manhattan, with fireworks popping over the cityscape (minus the Gershwin) and a romantic bench looking out on the Hollywood Hills instead of the Queensboro Bridge. I ♥ N.Y., but they made L.A. a ★,” New York Times assistant editor Dave Renard wrote in 2017. Perhaps it goes without saying that even those voices that criticize the film often use it as a reference point for what observers misunderstand or obscure about Los Angeles.

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Hiking at Will Rogers State Park, May 2018

Putting aside one’s feelings about La La Land as a movie, the film highlighted some of the city’s most notable, and mundane, destinations: the Griffith Observatory, 105/110 Freeway Exchange, Hollywood Drive, the Rialto Theater, and Griffith Park among several others. Of course, the film is anything but realistic; it’s an oddly nostalgic fever dream based on earlier films like Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). For example, you don’t witness many homeless people (or any at all really), despite homelessness being a persistent, grinding and tragic problem for the city. Even I, who really enjoyed the film, can see why the idea of white Angeleno Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) as Jazz purist and apparent savior along with Mia’s (Emma Stone) tale of a lone actress trying to make it in the big city annoyed many viewers.

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Hiking at Will Rogers State Park, May 2018

To be honest, having lived in Southern California for half a decade during graduate school, Los Angeles felt like gravity; it was an irresistible force, yet it wasn’t an open city. Hanging out there depended on your L.A. connections. Did your friend know the best bar in Silver Lake to knock back a few drinks? What about cool restaurants in gentrifying DTLA? Or the best time to hit Comedy Meltdown in Hollywood?

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The Last Bookstore in DTLA, may 2018

In contrast, New York City, where I lived for a decade, is so dense, crowded, and threaded together by the subway that one can find old time bars, hip cafes, and alluring dives almost by accident. Stumble off the F train at 2nd Avenue or Delancey Street and you’re bound to find something. The expanse of Los Angeles makes this sort of geographic serendipity nearly impossible. “There are not enough dimensions for a film to truly convey the meaning of Los Angeles, so vast it is in its miles of sprawl,” noted Emily Hunt Kevil at cinemathread.

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The Last Bookstore in DTLA, May 2018

Yet, everyone has a vision of Los Angeles. “People who have never lived or even breathed in Los Angeles have an idea of what Los Angeles is. But I don’t know if they’re wrong. That’s the privilege of Los Angeles,” Kevil asserts. “It’s the privilege of a city that claims the home to Hollywood and Paramount and Warner Brothers and whose buildings have been reproduced countless times across countless screens all over the world —it’s everybody’s city.” The circus, after all, was meant for everyone.

Between improved mass transit and ride sharing options, one can take numerous paths through, around, and parallel to the L.A. circus. Early in 2018, the New York Times, famous for its awkward coverage of the city, journeyed along all 22 miles of Sunset Boulevard from Echo Park to the Pacific Ocean chronicling the changing face of the city along the way. The newspaper did so always with an eye toward pop culture depictions: “at any point along the route, you will see the images that movies, TV shows and magazines have implanted in your brain.”

I spent my last three days in the city in West Hollywood on Sunset, where one can find great views of the city and the mountains that hem it in, but also a tangle of billboards, bars, and restaurants. During my first three days I crashed in Mar Vista on my younger brother’s sofa. Only blocks from Sawtelle Japantown and a thirty minute walk from Santa Monica, I took in Venice Beach, Korean cuisine, and, after a bit of a trek, Will Rogers State Historic Park, where one can tour the humorist’s old home (house tours only on Thursdays and Fridays however) and go for a short hike in the mountains just behind it.

From Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place to The OC to Insecure and the ill-fated season two of True Detective, Los Angeles’s image will always remain tied to television and film depictions. Yet, change has always been afoot; 1993 Los Angeles differs greatly from its 2018 reality. Fabio might stay the same but the city hasn’t. It remains a circus, but an ever-changing one.

[1] Carey McWilliams, Southern California: An Island on the Land, (Gibbs-Smith, 1946), 376.

[2] Plenty of other films along the way depicted L.A. very differently, the neo-noirs Grifters (1990) and L.A. Confidential (1997), the Cohen Brothers through-the-looking-glass comic noir of The Big Lebowski (1998), the racist dog whistle of Falling Down (1993), the Mexican American saga of American Me (1992), the inspirational Stand and Deliver (1988), the tragic heist caper of Heat (1995), the magnanimously weird Ed Wood (1994), the San-Fernando-centric porn tale Boogie Nights (1997), SoCal’s take on Jane Austen, Clueless (1995), the groundbreaking Boyz n the Hood (1991), and the underrated but equally captivating Menace to Society (1993). Throw in Generation X staple Swingers (1996), the Walter Moseley-based Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), the paranoid parable regarding fascism Barton Fink (1991), the overly long but also moving Magnolia (1999) and the iconic post-Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure Keanu Reeves in both Point Break (1991) and Speed (1994). I dig 1999’s revenge tale The Limey (1999) as well, but this is getting ridiculous. Still, one more thing: once Boyz and Menace demonstrated an ability to make money (see Straight Outta Compton (2015) for a more recent example), Los Angeles filmmakers treated the public to a string of movies like Boyz, such as Baby Boy (2001) and South Central (1992) which inspired more purposely ridiculous variations of the theme in Don’t Be Menace in South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood (1996) and the horror/black exploitation of Tales from the Hood (1995). I’m not even counting 1988’s controversial Colors. This is all to say, yes, I realize much more was offered to the public than Get Shorty and The Player.

[3] Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles, (Verso, 2006), 316.

[4] Kevin Starr, Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2003, (Vintage Books, 2006), 78,

[5] Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles, (Verso, 2006), 316.

[6] Kevin Starr, Coast of Dreams, 93.

[7] Joan Didion, The White Album, (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1979), 83.

[8] Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971), pg. 204.

[9] Erica Avila, The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City, (University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 120.

[10] Marisa Gerber, “Arts District’s changing landscape is worrisome to longtime residents,” Los Angeles Times, July 29, 2014.

[11] Michael Connelly, The Wrong Side of Goodbye, (Grand Central Publishing, 2016), 312.

 

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