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A Hollywood lesson in L.A. geography

'The Italian Job' follows a route that in many ways makes geographic sense. What a switch.

June 08, 2003|Mark Olsen | Special to The Times

In the Midwest, people talk endlessly about the weather. In New York City, they obsess over rent. In Los Angeles, what gets people going is navigation of the metropolis.

In a city so connected to the experience of driving and the ensuing traffic hassles, how to get from point A to point B frequently requires a mix of planning, foresight and improvisation. Longtime residents are accustomed to seeing familiar landmarks captured on film, often representing far-off, exotic locales rather than their neighborhood park. But the depiction of that most defining of experiences in contemporary L.A. -- the process of getting from here to there -- rarely makes it into the movies in a way that even remotely makes geographic sense.

Particularly with the current fast-cutting, keep-it-moving philosophy of Hollywood filmmaking, it is often difficult to decipher what is happening on screen, let alone where it is happening. So it is all the more enjoyable when a film like the new version of "The Italian Job" actually takes the time to craft a sense of physical location that Angelenos recognize as realistic. Taking in the Hollywood Hills, the Argyle Hotel, Grauman's Chinese Theatre and the Hollywood & Highland complex before racing through downtown on the way to Union Station, the film pays surprisingly strong attention to keeping the actual geography of Los Angeles intact and realistic during the drive.

The original 1969 version of "The Italian Job" featured a gang of thieves who manipulated the traffic computers in the crowded city of Turin, Italy, to create and control a monumental traffic jam as a means of escape. Screenwriter Donna Powers recalls that when she and her husband, Wayne (the two share the final screenwriting credit), were brought on to the new project after other writers had taken a crack, it was still set entirely in Europe. The Powerses initially planned to utilize the original's most basic elements -- the gold, the traffic jam and its iconic use of Mini Cooper automobiles -- and to move the final sequences to San Francisco.

Eventually, Powers said they came to the conclusion that setting the new film in San Francisco "wasn't really working for us. We felt we'd seen those streets a lot, and we just didn't really know the city. To really build the whole latter part of the film, which has to do with this intricate car chase and getaway through the city, we felt we really needed to know what we were writing about. We would sit in miserable traffic every day here in Los Angeles, and finally we said why are we putting the biggest traffic jam in history in San Francisco? It's right here around us. So we decided to write what we know, as they say."

Individual landmarks are chosen for particular visual reasons -- they help establish mood or provide an interesting backdrop -- but the movie context doesn't usually bear any relation to reality. The convenience store from "Ghost World" and the auto garage from "Lost Highway," for example, are realms apart in the on-screen worlds they depict. But they actually stand at opposite ends of the same block of La Brea Avenue, just below Wilshire Boulevard. Reducing actual locations to specific pockets disconnected from their larger environments is part of the practical logistics of filmmaking, which makes it fun to see a movie where you can follow the characters from one location to the next.

There's just something exhilarating, both for the jolt of recognition and the sense of verisimilitude, about such moments as the one in "Ocean's Eleven" when Brad Pitt and George Clooney take an open-topped convertible a few blocks west from Hollywood and Vine, swing a right on Cherokee just as the sign to the venerable Musso & Frank comes into view, then take the quick left into the parking lot behind. Next they're seen plotting over cups of coffee in one of the restaurant's red booths.

It's not just Hollywood and downtown; other settings in greater Los Angeles benefit from geographic specificity. Paul Thomas Anderson's "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia" (named for a street, after all), and "Punch Drunk Love" assay the byways of the Valley, while Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown" affectionately rambles through the South Bay.

Perhaps the ultimate movie for any well-oriented Angeleno, however, is Michael Mann's "Heat" (1995). Even though it occasionally takes outrageous liberties with geography, the film creates a sense of place that is overall fairly recognizable. Opening with a heist on Venice Boulevard beneath the tangle of freeway onramps just south of downtown, "Heat" also includes a deftly choreographed helicopter and car chase along the 10 Freeway and a sequence that finds a group of bank robbers fighting their way out of a street-corner accurate downtown -- except when the crooks run to a supermarket that is supposedly around the corner from the Central Library.

Cinematic detours

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