Few if any cities have been portrayed by film and television more than Los Angeles. Unlike the U.S. East Coast, parts of Europe, and elsewhere in the world, LA is relatively young, developed primarily within the last century—rather than the years prior to 1900. LA is a city of fascination to me.
What is lacks in absolute history it makes up with rich stories, true and fictional, captivating personalities, and an allure that has drawn international and domestic immigrants from near and from far, for reasons of opportunity, stardom, and lifestyle.
My own experience with L-A started as young as I can remember, with films of the 1980s and 1990s that both informed my opinion of the city as well as molded my personality and tastes for humor and fashion.
In 1995, at age eight, Clueless was released, starring Alicia Silverstone’s charming Cher Horowitz, a wealthy teenager from Beverly Hills with pure intentions. Even today, the quotability of this film’s one-liners is immense. I am surely biased, but this indicates a certain timelessness you only find a few times in life.
In 1997, a more mature film with the same characteristic frivolity came in the form of Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion. Again, the reference potential here remains far greater than anyone could have predicted for children of the 90s who are now between their late twenties and mid thirties, i.e. “millennials.”
Both films feature female leads, with a lightness seemingly opposed to the underlying empowerment, independence, and discovery that so appealed to me at that age.
In the same timeframe, filmmakers portrayed the bleaker side of Los Angeles. In 1994, Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock outsmarted domestic terrorist Dennis Hopper in Speed in a series of attacks and hostage situations. This plot underlines a time before the common mindset worried more about religious extremists and large-scale terrorism.
And in 1997, Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche do battle of a different kind (with a natural disaster of epic proportions) in Volcano, playing on the region’s fear of destructive tectonic events. A key thread in many of the city’s action classics is innovative special effects, which make for fantastic crash and explosion scenes, resulting in terror, followed usually by graphic death.
More recently, television series like Six Feet Under and Ray Donovan have captured the city of angels (for better or worse), and documentaries like Chelsea Does, not to mention the volumes of reality t.v. we have all had to endure (my favorite was Flipping Out on Bravo, in college), build upon the image of a region we already know well as beautiful, vain, tragic, and intensely creative. Below is a list of my favorite LA-based films and shows over the years…
- Clueless (1995) Beverly Hills
- L.A. Confidential (1997) Downtown & Hollywood
- Speed (1994) LA’s freeways & Downtown
- Ray Donovan (2013-present) Calabasas, Malibu, Westside
- Liar Liar (1997) Downtown
- Nightcrawler (2014)
- Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-1996) Bel-Air
- Death Becomes Her (1992) Beverly Hills
- Six Feet Under (2001-2005) West Adams
- Volcano (1997) Westside
- Chinatown (1974) Downtown, Hollywood Hills
- Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion (1997) Venice
- Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) Hollywood
- Pretty Woman (1990) Beverly Hills
- A Single Man (2009) Westside
Another Angeleno phenomenon is that of the breaking news story, which can be attributed to the use of television helicopters equipped to live stream news from above, in an immediate format not before seen in roving reporters or next-day newspapers.
This, coupled with compelling Los Angeles nonfiction like Rodney King and O.J. Simpson, and natural disasters like the Northridge earthquake, paved the way for stringers, who capture in-the-moment raw footage of events, disasters, and aftermaths, and work freelance for local and national news outlets and entities. Jake Gyllenhaal played the creepy and macabre Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler, a film based on the exact platform of entities like Loudlabs News, a Youtube channel to which I subscribe.
Accept or deny it, humans are drawn to horrific imagery, and Loudlabs is, in its own terrible way, probably the best stringer on Youtube and one of the updates I most look forward to when I rise in the morning. Part of my fascination here is my love of fire and rescue situations—since as long as I can remember, but a career I chose to bypass.
Outside of fantastical real and imagined stories and visuals, Los Angeles holds prominence as a city of mass and rapid urbanization, commonly referred to by urban planners as sprawl.
Though car culture and suburbia are pervasive themes throughout the States and even now around the world, Los Angeles was and still is infamously spread out. When I visited in 2006, an inner-city trip from Hancock Park to Downtown easily gobbled 30 minutes each way. Downtown to Santa Monica? 45 minutes. Downtown to Long Beach? 45 to an hour. And this isn’t even the extent of the region (or the extent of the city limits). End to end (from Chatsworth to San Pedro), a traversing LA proper trip would stretch ~56 miles and take at least 90 minutes in normal traffic.
Of course, there is the psycho-social aspect of sprawl and suburbia that is fascinating too, even more when mixed with heavy first generation immigrant populations (enclaves) with varied cultures, and a patchwork of historic suburbs that exploded into each other and blew out any semblance of boundary. Glendale, to the northeast of Downtown LA, is known for Armenians. San Marino, a tiny city near Pasadena is nearly half Asian (and the 3rd most expensive neighborhood in LA County). And, West Hollywood is basically a town run by the LGBT establishment.
Excepting the mountain ranges, coastline, and the occasional freeway (of which there are many), the grid of sprawl stretches for hours.
Ironically, the population density has slowly grown to a point where many neighborhoods, especially in the center of the city and areas west have become highly walkable and transit-oriented.
Though I professed my exasperation with the professional world of urban planning, the principles and manifestations (past, present, and future) are really quite fascinating!
This is all to say that I find much to be curious about with LA. I have always been drawn to the scrubby foliage. The hazy, diffuse light. The dry heat, which makes dressing a whole lot more fun than in Florida, where the humidity ruins summertime style. And, the fact that so much cultural cool has come out of its short history.
I compiled some videos of LA in a playlist, if you care to get a taste of what I’m talking about…