Even before I moved to Los Angeles, I set about finding ways to understand it. I knew the city wouldn't make it easy for me, but at least I had plenty of representations of it on film to learn from — the very movies, in fact, which had stoked my interest in Los Angeles in the first place. Who wouldn't find themselves drawn in by, to name one notable example, the Los Angeles of 2019 as envisioned by Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, which presents a dense, Japanified megalopolis sent back to the third-world industrial stages it never went through in the first place?
Blade Runner stands as the definitive 1980s vision of the Los Angeles as the future, and perhaps as the definitive work of cyberpunk cinema as well. But in the mid-1990s, Kathryn Bigelow (now best known for films like The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, and then best known for, oh, probably Point Break) brought the tradition of high tech and low life back to Los Angeles with Strange Days, which introduces the technology of human thought storage and direct playback — a kind of combined illegal technology, illegal viewing material, and illegal stimulant — into a post-riots city characterized by violence and insecurity.
In the 21st century, Spike Jonze's Her used movie magic to create an altogether kinder, gentler future Los Angeles. It still has advanced and even troubling technology in the form of sentient operating systems, but hey, it also has — at long last! — a complete transit system. Jonze and his team dare to imagine a Los Angeles without cars, an idea that has become infinitely more plausible even since the time of Strange Days, by merging elements of the southern Californian metropolis with elements of Shanghai. Where Blade Runner sees Los Angeles headed toward Japan, Her sees it headed toward China.
In some ways, projections of the Los Angeles of the future tell you more about the city than the films that try to capture its present. Southland Tales, Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly's collision of satire, farce, polemic, zeitgeist movie, musical, and apocalypse narrative on Venice Beach, tells the most Philip K. Dickian story in Los Angeles cinema, even more so than the Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?-adapting Blade Runner. Viewers have complained, to put it mildly, about Southland Tales' overreaching ambition, obvious incompleteness, and resultant lack of sense, but perhaps an ambitious, incomplete, senseless movie suits an ambitious, incomplete, senseless city.
I've made sixteen of these "Los Angeles, the City in Cinema" video essays so far, some exploring visions of Los Angeles' future, some of its present, and some of its past. Here's the complete list, as of this writing:
- Alien Nation (Graham Baker, 1988)
- Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)
- Brother (Takeshi Kitano, 2000)
- The Crimson Kimono (Samuel Fuller, 1959)
- Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011)
- The Driver (Walter Hill, 1978)
- Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)
- The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (John Cassavetes, 1978)
- Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955)
- The Limey (Steven Soderbergh, 1999)
- Model Shop (Jacques Demy, 1969)
- Night of the Comet (Thom Eberhardt, 1984)
- Repo Man (Alex Cox, 1984)
- Southland Tales (Richard Kelly, 2006)
- Strange Days (Kathryn Bigelow, 1995)
- Timecode (Mike Figgis, 2000)
If you have any suggestions of Los Angeles movies to consider next, please don't hesitate to let me know. Every fiction film also inadvertently documents the place in which its story happens: its built environment, its social environment, or even just the way people think about it. That goes for movies new and old, mainstream and obscure, respectable and schlocky, appealing and unappealing — all the qualities, in other words, of the city itself.