"LOS ANGELES ... has never recovered from the inferiority complex that its movies nourished," Pauline Kael once wrote. James Sanders uses Kael's quote in "Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies," a persuasive demonstration that film artists created a magical New York City on studio lots in Hollywood, Burbank and Culver City, inspired, at least in part, by the disdain and contempt they felt for the city in which they worked and lived. The real Los Angeles was no match for their mythic Manhattan.
Los Angeles has changed dramatically since 1933 when "42nd Street" and the original "King Kong" were released, but the feeling has lingered. When Village Voice cartoonist Tom Tomorrow covered the 2000 Democratic National Convention here, he declared, "Los Angeles isn't a city -- it's a scientific experiment designed to drive New Yorkers crazy."
But we can't blame our city's low self-image entirely on those snobby New Yorkers exiled in paradise and projecting their unhappiness and sense of isolation onto the city that nurtured it. Sure, Herman Mankiewicz called it "goddamn lotus land," and Nathanael West wrote that the only cure for Los Angeles' domestic architecture was dynamite. But they didn't write Los Angeles movies (when "The Day of the Locust" was finally filmed in the mid-'70s, nostalgia tempered the venom).
When the movies did make Los Angeles a character (and sometimes even a subject), they created another mythological city -- but it wasn't exactly magical.
Hollywood movies didn't really notice Los Angeles as more than an occasional backdrop until they turned to the novels of Marylander James M. Cain -- "Double Indemnity," "Mildred Pierce," "The Postman Always Rings Twice" -- in the mid-'40s.
In those stories, sex and money and a little ambition spawn murder, and Los Angeles is the breeding ground. "You could charge L.A. as a co-conspirator in the crimes this movie relates," Time magazine film critic Richard Schickel wrote of "Double Indemnity." And you could say the same for "Mildred Pierce."
If Los Angeles is to blame, it's because of a rootlessness that isn't limited to the movie colony. Cain looked around Southern California in 1933 and saw a city of exiles. It might still have seemed a paradise then, a land of promise, of destiny, but Cain believed that the intense sunlight, a boon for moviemakers, created "a vast cosmic indifference" and made "human beings seem small and of no importance" so that it makes no difference what they do.
But the movies made from Cain's novels ignored his brutal sunlight. Their murders are crimes of night. The movies took the sunlight for granted until color filming became dominant in the '60s, and only then did they acknowledge the California dream of sun, surf and limitless mobility that boosters had been touting for 80 years.
They were just in time to proclaim the dream obsolete. Roger Corman poignantly evoked this dream and its destruction in his 1966 biker-gang movie "The Wild Angels." Bruce Dern can casually quit his job on a seaside oil rig and ride off with Peter Fonda on a pilgrimage to a desert town called Mecca to retrieve his stolen chopper. The shoreline and the desert and the mountains have never been more beautiful.
But beneath their bravado, these Hells Angels are just like the mob of the discontented in "The Day of the Locust," "savage and bitter," lacking "the mental equipment for leisure" and burning with resentment, as West put it. Too late, Fonda will realize that the freedom they cultivate is illusory. He will come to understand that real freedom is the acceptance of necessity, finding a place to stand and a place to rest. His last words (and the film's) are: "There's nowhere to go." In the end, we have to ask ourselves: Do we believe the script or do we believe the images?
Stuck in 'Chinatown'
The sunlight is even more intense in "Chinatown." Somehow it captures the '30s glare evoked by Cain, bleaching the colors out of everything and making the works of man look insignificant. Now the disillusionment is complete. There's nowhere to go, and nothing to be done. Even memory is a snare: It's better to forget. The pervasive aura of disenchantment in "Chinatown" is so seductive that it's even led some credulous viewers to question the very legitimacy of Los Angeles as a city. After all, it's founded on water stolen from some better place. But then, so are San Francisco and New York, and most other mega-cities.
Released just as the Watergate scandal was ripening, "Chinatown" also struck a new note in Los Angeles movies: It blamed the power elites, not the ordinary people (or the masses, as they were once called), for the rot and corruption in Los Angeles. Is it a left-wing movie then? I suppose it is -- for a left that's content to exalt its own impotence. The rest of us may feel that our removal from history is bogus.