"Chinatown" created a mold that's still in place for movie versions of Los Angeles history. In all these films, the people are excluded, and secret cabals decide everything. This cynical, conspiracy-theory history is particularly inappropriate for Los Angeles, where you could always read about all manner of civic corruption in the daily newspapers. The San Fernando Valley land grab, the big scandal that inspired "Chinatown," was exposed by the Hearst press in a timely fashion, although in the movie, the coverup succeeds. You could even read about police brutality and racism in the old Daily News and the Sentinel.
Our history isn't secret, it's just forgotten. Still a city of immigrants, Los Angeles lacks a collective popular memory. "Chinatown" screenwriter Robert Towne is a Los Angeles native, but he discovered the story behind the movie by reading a book ("Southern California Country: An Island on the Land" by Carey McWilliams), just as a New Yorker might.
Movies might help us to create this collective memory, but too often they mislead us or mythologize our stories. Unfortunately, in the years since "Chinatown," the people who make Hollywood movies have become more and more provincial in their perceptions of the city. We don't call it "the movie colony" any more, but the phrase is more apt than ever.
Here's one particularly obnoxious example of a provincial misconception (although one not limited to the movie colony): the notion that the Eastside of Los Angeles begins at La Cienega or La Brea. Actually, the dividing line is Main Street (thus the address of the Times building, between Spring Street and Broadway, is 202 W. 1st St.).
The unspoken assumption behind this geographical howler is that the people who live on the Eastside don't exist, and in fact they're rarely visible in Los Angeles movies. When genuine Eastsiders do appear, if they're black or Latino, they're forced into commercial generic conventions that are, at bottom, racist. In the movies, "South Central" and the Eastside are so gang-infested that it's hard to imagine anyone living past the age of 21.
"Crash" is an honorable exception. The only unequivocally "good" major character is a Latino locksmith, who lives in Eagle Rock. However, in its portrait of race relations in Los Angeles, "Crash" seems strangely cut off and abstract. But maybe that's the point: Los Angeles isn't a "real" city where people walk and touch one another. This old cliche is a half-truth at best; there are plenty of us walking and riding the bus, but apparently we don't count either.
It appears that Paul Haggis created the film to exorcise his own racism, although he didn't quite succeed. He is capable of seeing blacks and Latinos as human beings, but his imagination can't extend to include Korean Americans. For them, old-fashioned comedy-relief stereotypes are good enough. Why not? Hollywood always needs at least one ethnic group to ridicule and demean. Moreover, since Haggis believes we are all racists, he can cannily implicate himself without compromising his message.
In this movie, good intentions are not only futile, as in "Chinatown," they're dangerous. "Crash" preaches the same old cynicism that runs from "Chinatown" through "L.A. Confidential," but Haggis throws in a few cheap miracles to provide the inspirational message of hope and redemption our mayor appreciated. Didn't Villaraigosa even notice the knee-jerk contempt for liberal politicians that has passed for tough-minded realism in so many demagogic Hollywood movies since 1971's "Dirty Harry"?
This insistently improbable collective portrait is widely accepted, and I have to conclude that our movie-made inferiority complex has only intensified over the years and that we've learned to internalize the self-loathing projected onto us by Hollywood filmmakers. At a time when there are at least tentative signs of real civic redemption, don't we deserve better?
Thom Andersen wrote and directed "Los Angeles Plays Itself," a video essay about Los Angeles and the movies. He teaches filmmaking at the California Institute of the Arts.