Economists have lots of ways to measure the woes of the auto industry. There's the decline in the seasonally adjusted annual sales rate, the increased days of inventory and the bailout billions. To these I would add one more: the Tunnel Index.
The 2nd Street Tunnel in Los Angeles is probably the most recognizable city landmark most Americans have never heard of. The tunnel -- a 1,500-foot-long bore lined with white tile, like a bathroom that never ends -- has been used as an exterior in dozens of films and TV shows, most famously in the sci-fi masterpiece "Blade Runner." The tunnel will get more big-screen love this weekend in "The Soloist": The once-homeless violinist Nathaniel Ayers used to be a regular at the tunnel's west entrance.
But purely as a function of screen time, the tunnel has achieved its obscure fame for the number of car commercials shot there. Since 2006, 73 commercials for brands from Alfa Romeo to Volvo have been filmed in the tunnel, where the structure's white-glazed tile pours a strangely liquid and idealizing light over the cars. The effect can make even the most dog-ugly cars on the planet -- Pontiac Aztek, you're wanted on the set! -- look desirable.
"It's a beautiful reflective surface," said Tom Dunlap, senior vice president for Deutsch in Los Angeles, who has shot several car commercials at the tunnel. Particularly at night, when the city would prefer commercials were shot, the tunnel "creates really interesting light textures," Dunlop said. "It really is an amazing backdrop."
But the light has gone out of the tunnel of late. According to FilmL.A., the nonprofit organization that coordinates on-location shooting in the city, no permits have been issued in 2009 for car commercials. Although commercial production in the city is flagging anyway -- down 34% in the first quarter -- the 100% drop in tunnel permits suggests "very tough times in the car business," FilmL.A. spokesman Todd Lindgren said.
It would be impossible to metricize the tunnel's number of impressions -- that is, the total number of times the tunnel has been seen by individuals in all media -- and so it would be hard to defend the assertion that the tunnel is the most-seen landmark in L.A. But it would also be hard to refute. Sure, landmarks like the Walt Disney Concert Hall or the Santa Monica Pier show up a lot in film and TV. The U.S. Bank Tower downtown is a standard establishing-shot trope in the sleazy landslide of reality TV shows based here.
Yet compare those potential impressions to the arithmetical leverage created by 73 car commercials (just the last three years) running in heavy rotation on untold cable channels. The frequency numbers quickly escalate from millions to billions.
It's a testament to the force of mass media that more people probably have seen this scrappy bit of civil engineering than have seen St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
The tunnel is the perfect architectural metaphor for automotive advertising. Because it's only a quarter-mile long, both entrances are always in view inside the tunnel.
A car photographed there seems to be emerging out of the light -- seemingly being born in a burst of Wordsworthian glory -- and coursing restlessly toward the other light, which reads as destination, aspiration, the future, the sublime.
For advertisers appealing to younger buyers, the tunnel conveys a sense of high-key urbanism and bright-light, late-night modernity.
Also, the tunnel has very different entrances: the grittier east entrance and the glowing aperture of the west side, with flaring buttresses reminiscent of the shell of the Hollywood Bowl. That means "it can be made to look like pretty much anywhere, or it can look like iconic L.A.," Dunlop said.
Another advantage of the tunnel is that it is easily cordoned off, so carmakers shooting commercials for new, as-yet-unseen models can avoid spy photographers. A good sneak-peek image of next year's model can be worth thousands of dollars.
But mainly it's the light, the dazzling mirror-ball effect of thousands of white tiles.
"Lighting a car is very specific," said Jon Yarbrough, creative director of RPA in Los Angeles. "You need very good light in all directions to reflect off the sheet metal."
And to think the tunnel almost missed its close-up.
The 2nd Street Tunnel project was boot-deep in controversy from the day in 1916 when it was begun until it was completed -- pretty much as it stands today -- in 1924. One dust-up was caused by the use of the white-glazed tile. Apparently some people objected because the tile was sourced from Germany, and there was some discussion of changing the design accordingly -- protectionism had teeth in those days. In the end, the contractor got his way.
It's the German tile that makes the tunnel act like "one big light box," Yarbrough said. (A light box is a device photographers use to throw a soft, diffused light onto a subject.)
"Of course, it takes a lot of light to pull the light box off," he said.
For a recent Honda spot, Yarbrough's crew laid 2.5 miles of cable and arrayed 100 lights to create eerie green ribs on the tunnel vault.
The decline in car commercials is bad news for the tunnel, where large patches of tile have flaked off and the rude script of graffiti is everywhere. The city spends very little time or money maintaining the tunnel, as anyone who uses it knows.
Film crews routinely spruce up the tunnel for shoots, leaving it better than they found it. Once the film is back at the studio, postproduction technicians using computer-generated imagery are able to patch the walls, erase the water stains and otherwise bring the tunnel back to its 1924 prime.
If only the city would do that in real life.