18 January 2006

Southern California Dreamin'

Pooh has this post about films that define the American spirit.

Screw America, I want to define Southern California. People think they know, but they don't know, the Dream Factory is what it is, and what it isn't, yet what people assume is often different from the realities.

Ten films in no particular order that illustrate aspects of Southern California.

1. Repo Man
Marginal folks, sardonic, laconic, dirty, industrial, unglamourous. this IS L.A.

2. Orange County
Before The O.C., there was Orange County, and it was good. Clueless upper income parents raising stoner/losers and striver/acheivers. It has a little bit of everything, great dialogue, and Jack Black too.

3. Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
The vast untamed, unknowable, empty desert is part of Southern California, too. This film expresses the isolation, danger and insanity that region sometimes breeds. Plus Varla is the most kickass bad ass ever in film.

4. Pulp Fiction
The Valley. To see this film is to know it. The old school coffee shops, the nostalgia merchants, the crappy apartments, the multi-layered, multi-ethnic, multi-legal stew of everything and nothing.

5. The Decline of Western Civilization; Part II: The Metal Years; Part III
Penelope Spheeris' amazing documentaries about the punk and metal scenes in Los Angeles. The last one not as amazing as the first two, but the first two are some of the best musical documentaries around, and express a lot of what it was like here then.

6. The Big Sleep
A fantasy version of L.A. around the time of WWII, but a great fantasy version. This story could have been anywhere, possibly, but it still seems like it's setting in L.A. matters. And Raymond Chandler did much to define the L.A. myth as it is perceived worldwide so to leave out an adaptation of one of his works (by William Faulkner!) would be sacriligeous. The hard-boiled detective and Los Angeles are forever linked in film and novels (now let's start seeing more Walter Mosley pictures (but only if they are done well))

7. Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Inspired by my alma mater, starring many fellow Vikings. Sean Penn defines the surfer dude and made checkerboarded Vans acceptable (sorry about that). The list of actors who had real careers after this movie (even in the bit parts) is phenomenal. Maybe one of the best cast films ever. (and Phoebe Cates, mmmmmmmm). Southern California is perpetually adolescent, this film expresses that best. This movie will have to stand in for all of the stoner/surfer/skater culture, even if that is only a small part of this film.

8. Towering Inferno
The L.A. of most people's imaginations is a fearsome beast of dreams granted and disasters lurking around the corner. Whether that disaster be, Earthquake, Volcano?, or Pauly Shore, L.A. has been portrayed as a place where nature suffers humans to survive only to snuff them out in large quantities when it suits her.

9. Alien Nation
There is a strange absence of good films about the presence of so many immigrants (legal and otherwise) in Southern California. The ones that do get made are so full of liberal do-gooderism and white guilt that they are stultifyingly boring to watch (Crash, The End of Violence two prime examples). I would include Born In East L.A., but that's not exactly a classic. Hollywood, get to work, quit with the Spanglish tripe, and make a real movie about the people who make Los Angeles work, they have stories worth telling, and those stories need not be told from a 'white guilt' perspective. Leave it to SciFi to tell a part of that story, with Aliens substituting for the migrants.

10. The Wood
A film about the real middle class black folk that predominate the black community locally (All your Menace and Boyz, etc. are an exaggeration of a small dangerous percentage of hoodlums, the real black experience locally is one of intergration and success, but the video game version of all these movies is AWESOME) Friday wouldn't be a bad choice in this slot, but that's just a humorous Cheech & Chong style fantasy, which also fits into the L.A. stories, but I'm cutting this list off.

I could include others, many, many others (Where's Chinatown? Where's Gidget? Where's Z-Boys?) but this isn't about the best films set in Southern California, this is about films that represent aspects of the Southern California experience and how they resonate across the world.


bill said...

I've never been to Southern California, but looks like a nice list to me.

Would "Devil in a Blue Dress" (Denzel Washington) be a good choice for post-WWII neighborhoods?

Icepick said...

I saw Pooh's post and thought, "Why no Fast Times at Ridgemont High? I'm glad it made your list, even if yours is only about SoCal. FTaRH defines what HS was like in the 1980s far better than The Breakfast Club.

Pooh said...

"The Player"?

"Get Shorty"?

Actually, I think all you need to know about SoCal is handled with great skill in "The Running Man"

XWL said...

I give 'Devil In a Blue Dress' a shout out in the Big Sleep mention (it's the Walter Mosley link).

And anything too 'Industry'-centric was rejected out of hand.

There is so much more to SoCal than the film industry that I made a conscious decision to make a list that reflects this diversity.

(And I would have included films like Better Luck Tomorrow but that wasn't as well done as it could have been.

Actually, if I was going for Hollywood decadence and decay then, Sunset Blvd. or even Mulholland Dr. would have been the top choices.

(This can be a surreal place, Mulholland Dr. with all its artifice might be more 'true to life' than a lot of films set in Hollywood)

The idea that Southern California is some awful dystopia that will fall into the sea is born of jealousy and wishful thinking.

I've been thinking it's about time to make a post-apocalyptic film set in France (say after terrorists blow up a series of their Nuclear facilities, something which they have far more of than here) rather than the U.S..

vbspurs said...

Magnificent post, XWL!

I may rip off your idea (or as we say in blogosphere-speak, hat tip you), and do one about England or South Florida...

Probably England. ;)

I would love to see more posts along these lines, so consider that a standing request!