World Film Locations: Los Angeles
Edited by Gabriel Solomons
World Film Locations Series
Bristol: Intellect, 2011
Paperback. 128p. ISBN 9781841504858. £9.95 / $18 / €11
Reviewed by Marianne Kac-Vergne
Université de Picardie Jules-Verne, Amiens
World Film Locations: Los Angeles is Intellect’s latest volume in the World Film Locations Series, which explores how cities are represented in film through location shooting. Previous books include other favorite film locations like New York, Paris or London, but also less obvious choices like Istanbul or Dublin.
The book is organized chronologically and can be divided into six sections, each opened by a short essay on a theme, director, genre or historical period. Nicola Balkind shows how Los Angeles was used by silent-film comics including Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd to inaugurate a new brand of comedy known as “California Slapstick”. Andrew Spicer discusses the portrayal of the city in film noir and neo-noir as a “deracinated urban hell” . Benjamin Wiggins focuses more specifically on the emergence of South Central as a film location in the “hood” movies of the 1990s, lamenting Hollywood’s failure to “illustrate the richness and dynamism of South Central” . Martin Zeller-Jacques explores the contradiction between California as promised land and the representation of LA as Hell on Earth or “Hell-A”, literally so in fantasy films like The Lost Boys (Joel Schumacher, 1987), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Rubel Kuzui, 1992) or Constantine (Francis Lawrence, 2005), where it is populated by vampires and demons. Wael Khairy analyzes the alienating yet visually stunning effect of Los Angeles in Michael Mann’s Heat (1995) and Collateral (2004), while the book ends with Michael S. Duffy’s discussion of “Eurovisions”, European directors’ “alternative views of the Hollywood landscape” .
Each essay is then followed by eight brief “scene reviews” presenting a film scene set in a specific Los Angeles location, illustrated by several movie stills and a location photograph, starting with Safety Last!, directed by Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor (1923), where Harold Lloyd climbs the Walter P. Story building at 610 South Broadway, and ending with In Search of a Midnight Kiss, directed by Alex Holdridge (2007), when the two characters visit the Orpheum Theatre (842 South Broadway), awe-struck by the theatre’s grand architecture. These reviews include films immediately associated with Los Angeles—noir and neo-noir classics such as Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944), Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950), Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974) or Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001), and others, like Beverly Hills Cop (Martin Brest, 1984), Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988), or Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1995)—but also feature less predictable titles like The Exiles (Kent MacKenzie, 1961), which focuses on Native Americans’ experience of Los Angeles, as they dance and chant on “Hill X”, a place of freedom on the fringes of the city before the building of Dodger Stadium. Another “forgotten space of Los Angeles” [Benjamin Wiggins : 36] is highlighted in an interesting scene review from Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Melvin Van Peebles, 1971) that focuses on Sweetback’s escape along the concrete banks of the Los Angeles river to the railroad track to freedom.
The scene reviews can offer engaging insights into LA’s history, as does the feature on Angels Flight Railway in decaying Bunker Hill at the time of Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955), or the one on Source Restaurant, “one of LA’s legendary vegetarian alfresco dining spots back in the 70s” [Jez Conolly : 44], where Alvy meets Annie in Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977). However, most reviews adopt a predominantly visual approach which sometimes lacks depth, especially when there is no detailed textual analysis of the scene in question. The very short format of the reviews (and to a lesser extent of the essays) can indeed be frustrating, as they tend to stay at the surface of the films and scenes they examine, without delving deeper into the historical, aesthetic or narrative significance of each location. Moreover, the chronological juxtaposition of very diverse scenes and locations does not bring forth meaningful results, whereas it might have been more stimulating to group scenes by area, by type of location, or by theme.
Some recurring themes indeed stand out from the scene reviews—the importance of Hollywood of course, the deceitful appeal of the film industry being reflected onto such different shimmering LA surfaces as the Chemosphere House in Body Double (Brian De Palma, 1984), Los Angeles Union Station in Bugsy (Barry Levinson, 1991), Zuma Beach in Barton Fink (Joel Coen, 1991) or Hollywood Forever Cemetery in The Player (Robert Altman, 1992). Even in films not centered on Hollywood, Los Angeles often appears as “a latter-day Sodom and Gomorrha” [Zeller-Jacques : 87], a city of glamorous appearances underlain by widespread immorality in The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946), Point Blank (John Boorman, 1967), The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973), Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994), or L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997). Since the 1970s, Los Angeles has also become the setting for the expression of America’s racial tensions, depicting African-American, Mexican-American and white frustration, as shown in the reviews of Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett, 1977), Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Boyz n the Hood (John Singleton, 1991), American Me (Edward James Olmos,1992), Falling Down (Joel Schumacher, 1993) and American History X (Tony Kaye, 1998).
World Film Locations: Los Angeles can be a useful tool to incorporate film elements in a class on US cities and more specifically Los Angeles. It is short and easy to read, thus accessible to non-anglophone students as a reference book. Students may also enjoy the many photograms and the emphasis on well-known contemporary films. An indexed filmography makes it easy to find specific films, while a short bibliography suggests books and films to explore the city further. For an academic in film studies, the book, which includes city maps and compares movie shots with present-day location photographs, might be best enjoyed as a filmic travel guide to Los Angeles, a means to view the capital of film through a cinematic lens.
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