The pictures-perfect city

May 21, 2006|Patt Morrison

WHY here?

Why did the distant burg of Los Angeles become to the movies what Mesopotamia and Athens were to ancient civilizations?

Why not Long Island, where the earliest filmmakers trespassed onto plutocrats' lawns and shot hurried footage until they were chased off?

Why not Flagstaff, where Cecil B. DeMille was originally headed when he left the East Coast to make a western?

Why not Paris, where filmmaking was regarded as an art in the creative pantheon of arts, not as a commodity?

Because we're a perfect match, the both of us, the city and "the industry." Quick-change artists on the make, inventive, rootless, not wedded to history -- not even dating it.

L.A. is a souffle place, built on sunshine and hot air, equal parts imagination and aspiration. Film is by nature illusory, the moment vanishing even as the eye acknowledges it, still images miming motion, fantasy miming reality. When the movies came west, the transient carnival mood of L.A. was already established, a slapdash build-up and tear-down city, cheerfully doting on its fake Venice canals, its copycat Asian temples. For years, remnants of the Babylon set of "Intolerance" crumbled amiably near Sunset Boulevard as ever-newer incarnations of six-cylinder chariots thundered by.

All this under the rotisserie glow of sunlight as full and obliging as if gaffers had set it all up for the next shot. The movies became California's second Gold Rush, and the richest vein was to be found in a dry little settlement named Hollywood.

Why not "Long Island, the Entertainment Capital of the World?" Because the arm of film patent attorneys didn't reach across the Rockies to snag the scofflaws. Why not Flagstaff? Because it happened to be snowing on the day DeMille arrived, which made it "no good for our purpose," he telegrammed, and promptly climbed back on the train to L.A. And why not France? Because in the struggle for the soul of film, the Lumiere brothers lost to the Warner brothers.

So Hollywood became the geographic shorthand for the entire entertainment industry, though its footprint reaches from George Lucas' fantasy factory in Marin County to the Death Valley vistas of "Greed," and every point of latitude or longitude that could conceivably be "on location." And although Los Angeles has prospered in making everything from jets to blue jeans, "the industry," the industry, means only one: film and TV and its numberless incarnations.

"L.A." to most of the millions of Angelenos means the whole great sprawling populated plain; it means any of dozens of towns where the only contact most residents have with movies is that they sometimes watch them. Hollywood has blithely appropriated all of Los Angeles as its terrain, their "L.A." a company town. The late former Mayor Sam Yorty said that once on his extensive world travels talking up the virtues of the city to foreign industrialists and heads of state one of them ruminated aloud to him: "Los Angeles ... Los Angeles ... is that anywhere near Hollywood?"

For fans who still step off the tour bus expecting to see this generation's Garbo or Gable awaiting them, the matrix of glamour is Grauman's Chinese, or maybe Hollywood and Vine, both on the boulevard where ground glass was mixed into the asphalt so the roadway glitters at night.

For the hard-nosed Angelenos who take Hollywood's paycheck, the epicenter was for years Beverly Boulevard and La Cienega. Thirty miles in any direction from there was "the studio zone." Beyond that was the rest of the world, and location shoots and per diems, and mileage, and the "sticks" and "hicks" of Variety headlines. It may still be L.A., but it is absorbed in other matters, other businesses. It is why studio heads of the 1930s shuttled film canisters to places like Riverside and Santa Barbara, where "real" audiences could preview them and scribble Everyman suggestions and reactions that shaped the final film.

Within that magic circle, Hollywood and L.A. are often one population commuting blithely between the real and the not-real. The fluorescent signs with a cryptic word or two, and an arrow pointing cast and crew to some day's location shoot, hang like paper fruit from street lamps and electric poles. The city itself is one vast set, recognizable even in silent black-and-white two-reelers. Laurel and Hardy still haul a piano up steps that locals traverse every day. The chameleon dress-extra, City Hall, plays the Vatican and Congress, and gets zapped by Martian rays. The heap of boulders known as Vasquez Rocks is the made-to-order set for the Neolithic Flintstones and the "Star Trek" cast.

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