Hollywood Cinema and the Real Los Angeles
London: Reaktion Books, 2012
Hardback. 336 pages. ISBN 978 1861899026. £25
Reviewed by Allister Mactaggart
In this fascinating book, Mark Shiel centres his study upon the importance of geographical location in the making of the North American film industry, rather than upon the usual methods of film studies. By doing so, he is able to offer fresh insights into the relationship between the American film industry and the city that is synonymous with film. As he points out, in the period from the origins of the industry at the end of the nineteenth century through to the heyday of the Hollywood studio system in the middle of the twentieth century, “the city shaped films and films shaped the city in symbiotic, incestuous and internecine ways” . This book traces and follows that trajectory through to the present in a very skilful manner, presenting a vast array of research materials in a most informative and interesting way for the reader to follow his line of argument.
In the Introduction, Shiel points out how “Los Angeles’ growth was a function of visualization as well as physical effort, as it became a centre of fine art and photography well before motion pictures” . Thus, cinematic avant la lettre, the city provided an ideal location for the rapidly expanding industry as companies relocated from the East coast to take advantage of the freedoms the city provided. Yet, as Shiel demonstrates, the city features in the various films produced “as an escapist utopia or a nightmare that was all too real” .
The book is divided into four main chapters, each of which covers considerable ground. The first, “The Trace”, sets the scene by explaining how rapidly the city developed and how “early cinema actively shaped and structured Los Angeles’ history and appearance” . The speedy development of the city brought about by the arrival of “boosters” sought to maintain the illusion of “blending urbanism and Arcadia, the modern and the timeless” , but the reality was much more contingent and chaotic. However, whilst the film industry started out with makeshift studios spread over a wide geographical area, by the mid-1910s Hollywood had emerged as the area with the most important concentration of studios.
Having thus set the scene, chapter Two, “Navigation”, provides a most interesting case study about how silent film, in particular “slapstick comedy, arguably the most fundamental of all Hollywood film genres, took as one of its key subjects the internal navigation of Los Angeles and its environs” . Shot around the city, these films humorously depicted the rapidly changing urban environment that many people had to come to terms with in the early part of the twentieth century. Yet, at the same time, while these films were in some ways historically accurate, “Their imaginative mappings were ideologically biased by gender, race and class, and skewed in favour of an accelerated free-market capitalism” .
Chapter Three, “The Simulacrum”, explores how the advent of sound led to film companies retreating from using actual locations in the city to its simulacra based in sound studios. The difficulties in recording sound in the city meant that vast expense was undertaken in creating “studios as cities” . Shiel points out how this move towards studio shooting was at odds with the specificity of place provided by slapstick comedies and that “it stands as a historical contrast to the striking return to location filming that would mark film noir in the 1940s” .
Chapter Four, “Geopolitical Pressure Point”, delves into the dystopian return to location filming explored in film noir in the deepening economic and political situation during and after the Second World War and the Cold War. His section on the “Hollywood strikes” of 1945 to 1947 is particularly illuminating in demonstrating the differences between the utopian dream presented by the industry and the reality of many people who worked in it. The strikes became increasingly acrimonious with studio bosses bringing in the Mafia to seek to break them up. The strikes and the subsequent blacklist against Communists in the industry during the witch hunt promoted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) may appear to be specific to the film industry, but Shiel argues that it paved the way for “the subsequent consolidation of a new rightist dispensation in American society and politics whose legacy remains today”  and which has been experienced throughout the world through the propagation of neoliberalism. Shiel also points out, “If the focus by HUAC upon Hollywood may be said to have made the Cold War somehow cinematic, specific events in the history of the strikes uncannily resembled the film noirs being made” .
In the Epilogue Shiel takes us from the beginnings of youth subculture films, such as Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955), up to the present, to explore how the relationship between these films and the city has changed since the original film noir cycle into neo-noirs and on to contemporary “indie” films of Tarantino and others, and what this tells us about the relationship between contemporary Los Angeles and the film industry. He suggests that “Perhaps the most striking aspect of the recent relationship between cinema and the city in Los Angeles has been a disjuncture between its objective status as one of ‘the most propulsive and superprofitable industrial growth poles in the world economy’ and the small scale of very recent films…” . At the end of the book Shiel provides quite an optimistic stopping off point, suggesting that “these developments may portend a new urban ecology of the movies” . I’m not sure if he’s not being a little overly optimistic here, but with his expert knowledge of the industry and and the city, I look forward to hearing what else he reports in the future.
Overall, this is a very detailed and impressive book. It is well presented, with a most appropriate photograph by Weegee on the front cover and suitable use of a manual typewriter style font used for the contents page and chapter headings, together with 143 black and white illustrations and an appendix. Thus it visually sets the scene for its contents in a most appropriate way. The book is rich in insights and demonstrates the value and importance of research and its dissemination in film studies and in the wider arts and humanities.
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