Monday, February 8

Los Angeles from a different angle

Movies about Los Angeles have been about cars to the point of caricature. Whether it's James Dean's 1949 Mercury Coup or the drive-by shootings from Boyz n the Hood, we are led to believe that life in LA happens from within a car. In Annie Hall, Woody Allen's character Alvy whines the whole time he's in LA:

"Hey, don't tell me we're gonna hafta walk from the car to the house. Geez, my feet haven't touched pavement since I reached Los Angeles."
Steve Martin also joked about the LA and NY comparison in LA Story:
"Whatever you do, don't get dumped in L.A. I mean, it's not like New York, where you can meet someone walking down the street. In L.A. you practically have to hit someone with your car."
And then Mulholland Drive and Crash explore the darker side of the ubiquitous driving culture.

A still from 500 days of Summer
A still from 500 Days of Summer
Having only been to LA on a couple of occasions, and briefly, I've basically had to swallow the popular culture stereotype as the full truth of the matter. That is why last year's film, 500 Days of Summer, stood out to me as a unique portrait of the city - a heartfelt homage to a place that is entirely different than I've been told about. The main characters, Tom and Summer, bounce all around downtown LA - from cafes, to theaters, to museums, to work, to karaoke bars, to city parks, and to their apartments - all on foot or by transit. They take a light rail trip out to the countryside for a wedding. An old car only shows up for a quick two minute segment.

This deeply urban portrayal of Los Angeles is embedded within the characters and storyline as well. Tom's true passion is to be an architect, and he loves walking around downtown and appreciating the life of the sidewalks and historic buildings. He takes Summer to a downtown park to point out the cityscape, noting that the only blemish is two parking lots. Summer asks him to draw a picture on her arm of how the city can be infilled with more buildings.

Of course, in retrospect it's ridiculous to assume that a city of almost four million would have no urban fabric whatsoever. 500 Days of Summer does the service of telling the rest of us that it really does exist.


Daniel Walden said...

Thank you for posting on this. I recently watched this film and was surprised about the perception of LA it portrays. I too had an image of this urban realm, likely created by this pop-cultural stereotype you mention. This was a nice way to portray the city. This really brings up the interesting topic of individuals' perceptions of places and how media or culture can play a huge role in shaping that perception.

Josh Grigsby said...

Having lived in L.A. for much of my 20s, I can attest that the Los Angeles of 500 Days of Summer does in fact exist. Largely in pockets that are easily driven past or unseen or inaccessible from freeways, but it does exist. I've heard L.A. described as a city of neighborhoods, but it's really a city of cities and towns, many of which have a walkable core.

Downtown, in particular, will probably remain the epicenter of Los Angeles's continued reurbanization. I remember it feeling like Manhattan, if only for about six blocks. Where I lived, in Santa Monica, the built form was more like the familiar semi-urban or even suburban L.A. of pop-culture. Very few people moved from place to place via anything other than an automobile, despite eminent walkability. I had access to every imaginable service, hundreds of restaurants, and dozens of movie theaters, art galleries, and parks—all within a ten minute walk, skateboard, or bike ride.

The hilly topography can be a challenge, and transit (while growing) is generally nowhere near as efficient for the individual as driving. A big part of the problem is the ease of parking (both in terms of availability and cost). I never once had the sort of difficulty parking anywhere in Los Angeles that I encountered daily while living in Boston, for example.

Your post brings up an interesting question—how many relatively unknown urbanscapes yet remain in even the most overexposed cities?

Steve Davis said...

Great post, Daniel. My wife and I thought many of the same things when we were watching it. The peak of the hill in downtown LA is disgusting urbanism — the part of the hill that they chopped off and filled with new skyscrapers with terrible ground floors and blank walls. But once you walk just east of there down the hill, around near the Bradbury building and such, you begin to see the progressive-era architecture of LA that survived. Some of which was in the movie.

We loved that movie for several reasons, but its unique perspective of the city was most appreciated. And one of the first things we commented on when it was over.

Andrew said...

When in LA, a friend took us to some park on a hill from that movie. We also got to see the "behind the scenes" tour of the city, and it was much more interesting than the more popular parts of the city.