quinta-feira, 23 de agosto de 2012

California Through the Lens of Hollywood by Dana Polan

From the cartoons that I watched on television in my East Coast childhood, I remember what was for me a primary image of California. Several cartoon characters were on their way to California and passed through torrential rain—a terrible downpour complemented by intensely dark skies and ear-shattering thunder. When they reached the border (literally a line on the terrain), the California side was instantly revealed as pure sunshine, a land of beautiful and resplendent weather (all of this no doubt to the accompaniment of a celebratory anthem like “California, Here I Come”).

My first awareness of an idea of California may have come, however, from yet another vastly influential televisual source—The Wonderful World of Disney, hosted by Walt Disney. In its early astuteness about the synergy required of modern media enterprises, this popular TV show promoted Disney movies and, most especially, the relatively new Disneyland theme park. For many children of the 1950s and 1960s, California was Disneyland, the goal of a quest for ultimate ludic happiness (a quest parodied in National Lampoon’s Vacation, in which a middle-American family will endure anything to visit Wally World, only to find the amusement park closed for the season).

It is a trivial question, perhaps, but I sometimes wonder which cartoon was the source of my memory of an abruptly sunny California. My suspicion, based on other recollections, is that there were similar scenes in any number of cartoons. This is just one example of a process that has gone on, to far more profound global effect, throughout the entire history of the cinema in California. Images of California circulate; modified, critiqued, or replaced, they float from film to film, often reinvigorated or reinvested with earlier mythic associations.

In a country in which one of the establishing myths is the pioneer quest, the move “out West,” it has been easy in the realm of film to associate the journey into the frontier in general with a journey toward Los Angeles and Hollywood in particular. Indeed, one of the most famous movies about Hollywood filmmaking, the 1937 version of A Star Is BornA Star Is Born, directly maps pioneer mythology onto the birthing of the star: wilting in the Midwest, Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor) takes inspiration from her granny, an old frontier woman who reminds Esther about the wagon trains and implores her to fulfill her Manifest Destiny. She must go west and realize her acting dreams in Hollywood. Esther takes Granny’s advice and becomes a big star. But she falters in her devotion to the myth of success after the suicide of her husband, and the elderly granny must make her own heroic journey to the West Coast to inspire her granddaughter and to triumph with her at the film’s finale at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, where the gleaming spotlights evoke the glittering gold that impelled earlier adventurers to California.

The pioneer mythology that imagines California to be a site central or even inevitable and necessary to American self-realization has been tenacious in American cinema. A recent striking and somewhat surprising example of this is ClockersClockers (1995), directed by inveterate New Yorker Spike Lee. The young hero of the story finally escapes the ills of East Coast ghetto life by hopping a train to California. In the film’s final images, the golden gleam of a radiant sunset plays across the young man’s face, investing him with well-deserved hope and expectation. It seems that even an ostensible independent like Lee cannot resist the seduction of California.

In the following pages, I will trace some of the meanings California has come to acquire in the popular imagination of Hollywood cinema, including such radiant seductions. My goal, however, will be less to offer a catalogue of what California has meant in film than to suggest some of the dominant trends in the construction of a cinematic mythology. There is in fact no single overriding cultural representation of California in film. The state’s image has been in flux across genres and as the film industry responds to changing social conditions. We will see, for instance, that the sunshine offered up in so many Hollywood pictures is only one side of the California experience, and that quite a number of other films from the dream factory turn to darker, less positive images. On the one hand, there is a long history of Hollywood (and California) self-promotion—what tradition has named “boosterism.” On the other hand, there is an undercurrent of discontent regarding optimistic mythologies that ranges from personal dissatisfaction (California as the place where individual destinies are doomed, as in the film noir of California-based filmmaking in the 1940s and 1950s) to apocalypse (California as the place where everything will end or fall apart). The history of these dual representations describes the arc of the unique mythology of California film.


We might begin our investigation with a question that will at first seem paradoxical: Are Hollywood films Californian? We could raise this question on several levels: style (is there a particular look to some films that we might characterize as “Californian”?); content (is there a specifically Californian subject matter?); and even artistic material (are there materials that we might refer to as Californian, as we could in the case of certain building elements in California Arts and Crafts?). Such questions can seem curious given the extent to which California and Hollywood blur in the popular imagination. In a state that has few widely shared urban or geographic icons (the Golden Gate Bridge? the pointy spire of San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid? the beach?), there is no doubt that for many, the Hollywood sign sums up the California experience. (It is one of the many ironies of Hollywood cinema that the sign originally had nothing to do with the film industry but instead had to do with real estate promotion; in the shortening of the original “Hollywoodland” to “Hollywood,” an entire art and culture of cinematic imagination sprang up.)

To be sure, Hollywood may easily seem to have been the movies’ destiny. In a 1927 lecture to business students at Harvard, Joseph Kennedy (then the owner of a film company) noted, “I suppose one of the things that may strike you as odd is that the distribution offices of all the companies are in New York City, while all the production is on the West Coast. The truth is that nature has given to California certain advantages which make it the ideal center for motion picture production. It has sunlight, a good climate, with little rain. Within a short radius of Hollywood there are mountains, plains, deserts, rivers, ruins, city streets, the sea, picturesque old Mexico. New York, on the other hand, remains the financial center.” (1) To Kennedy’s list of advantages, we could add more politicized ones, such as Los Angeles’s long history of open- shop or even antiunion labor practices, which made it a company town with a labor pool that was easy to hire and to exploit.

And yet the geographical advantages of Los Angeles do not necessarily lead to the notion of a uniquely Californian cinematic style. Indeed, other locales possessed many of the same qualities that Kennedy outlined. The earliest years in the consolidation of the American film industry coincided with the industry’s far-flung search for places in which to situate large-scale productions, from woody New Jersey, which was the site for a number of early Westerns,
including Edwin S. Portr`s breakthrough 1903 film, The Great Train Robbery) and remained a major locale for outdoor filming, to upstate New York (where D. W. Griffith filmed many adventure tales before heading west), Florida, and Cuba (sites of many productions and attempts at establishing permanent studios). American cinema was in transit, trying out many options before it settled on the Los Angeles region. (2) Moreover, as Kevin Starr notes, even if California were one logical destination for filmmaking, there was a moment in which Northern California might have become the dominant locale for West Coast cinematic production. As Starr recounts in Inventing the Dream: California through the Progressive Era,

In 1908 Essanay of Chicago established its studio outside of Southern California altogether, in Niles Canyon outside of Oakland in the San Francisco Bay area. Three years later Essanay was joined in the Niles by the Flying A Company, which produced Westerns. Had this Niles venture taken hold, [screenwriter] Anita Loos later speculated, the film industry would have developed—to everyone’s benefit— in close contact with San Francisco’s flourishing theatrical, literary, and artistic communities. A San Francisco-based film industry, Miss Loos believed, would have enjoyed California’s excellent weather along with an urban sophistication lost when films migrated from the East. (3)

Elsewhere in the same volume, Starr repeats the legendary anecdote in which Cecil B. DeMille is said to have come to the city by accident: According to an often-told story, he decided to break into the lucrative business of filmmaking with a Western tale— The Squaw Man—which he had every intention of filming in Flagstaff, Arizona. A storm forced him further west to California, which he ending up making his long-term base of operations.

From the start, filmmakers extolled the environments around Los Angeles for their potential to represent so many places. The move into massive indoor sound stages on the vast studio lots provided even greater power to construct realities far removed from California. To take just one example, much of the cinematic image of New York in the 1930s—those magical scenes in which someone steps out onto the balcony of an apartment, beyond which a joyous image of the Big Apple rises up as so many tiny lights and foreshortened skyscrapers—was created in the magical world of the West Coast studios. Hence the perception in 1949 that the Gene Kelly film On the Town had revolutionized musicals, and escapist cinematic entertainment in general, by actually filming in the outdoor spaces of New York, starting with its docks.

Of course, if California can be enlisted in the representation of other Broadway Melody, 1936 Courtesy of Bison geographies, it is also true that an imagination of California can be constructed elsewhere.
Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), a film in which Los Angeles seems so central that critic Richard Schickel declares, in a nice phrase, “You could charge L.A. as a co-conspirator in the crimes this movie relates,”4 was partly shot in Phoenix, Arizona, due to wartime blackout restrictions on the coast. (5) Nevertheless, what is perhaps most Californian about Hollywood films is not necessarily the specific representation of California locales or experiences but the very ability of the place, indoors or outdoors, to represent any experience whatsoever. Moreover, the fabricated environments of the studio system frequently share an imaginary quality that we readily associate with Hollywood style, no matter which locale is supposedly represented. Filmed “entirely in Hollywood, usa,” the end title of An American in Paris proudly announces. Whether Paris or New York, these recreated locales are now part of our mental image of the real places, yet they also seem to have something to do with qualities we attribute to California: a gleam, an ethereal artificiality, a magic that captivates by rendering its subject unreal yet imbued with a golden luster. Indeed, in one of the major attempts to argue that there is a definable uniqueness to California—what he calls its exceptionalism—the classic California writer Carey McWilliams finds one form of California specificity to lie in a sparkling luminosity, a certain glow (although he also points to the social and political ills only partially concealed by the magic). “There is a golden haze over the land,” McWilliams writes, “the dust of gold is in the air—and the atmosphere is magical and mirrors many tricks, visions, and wondrous deceptions.” (6) As such, and as part of its deception, California- based film appears as the culmination, the end point, of worldly mythologies and an inevitable force that absorbs all other experiences and realizes their implicit mythological import, gives them their ultimate meaning.

The movie industry may have settled in California only after a number of detours that seem to render the final location of its capital somewhat arbitrary, but early in its history, in film as well as in its publicity and self-promotion, the industry worked to build a theme of destiny, of Hollywood as the natural apotheosis of the American Dream. Clearly, by accident or design, the unique qualities of California and the advent of the film industry there have long had a powerfully causal relationship. Note, for instance, the way in which the language used by historian Kevin Starr to describe the history of Southern California suggests a sort of natural coming together of California and its movie industry:

Southern California—meaning Los Angeles, meaning Hollywood-possessed an affinity between medium and place that would soon attract the entire industry to it like a powerful magnet... In a very real sense the entire society [of Southern California] was a stage set, a visualization of dream and illusion which was, like film, at once true and not true. New York City, upstate New York, suburban and rural New Jersey... offered locations and scenery aplenty, but Southern California offered certain energizing affinities between art and location... Within a few short years this interaction between the medium of film and the society of Southern California would develop a symbiosis called Hollywood that would be of major importance to both the region and the film industry. (7)

To use a language of “affinity” and thereby to imply a necessary connection between Californian meanings and the look and subject of the Hollywood film requires a number of assumptions. For example, this implies that there is an overall identity to Hollywood cinema and that there is a pool of stable meanings that can be attributed to the idea of California (and beyond this, that the meaning of Hollywood and the meaning of California are always buoyantly about magic and mythology). At the same time, we find that escapism into a world of magic is not always the dominant representation in Hollywood; indeed, there is a Hollywood tradition of California films that allow little escape and tie their fatalism to specifically Californian themes.


There is of course a standard model of the Hollywood film that includes narratives and styles of diverting luminosity and vitality—qualities, perhaps not incidentally, that Carey McWilliams and others have also attributed to the state of California. However, the history of California cinema makes it clear that this standard was never as monolithic as it seemed. Importantly, for our purposes, increased attention by scholars to the tough-minded film noir of the 1940s and 1950s—one of the pivotal genres of California-based filmmaking—has been key to a réévaluation of the meaning of California. In opposition to the cliché of California optimism, film noir offers an alternate tradition of Hollywood filmmaking that is not always about happy endings, lightness, or magical realizations of a pioneer American Dream.

Flourishing in the postwar period and into the early 1950s, film noir chronicles the misadventures of losers and loners who try to follow their dreams and desires—often to the point of criminality—and frequently end up either ruined or dead. Where earlier writings on film noir read the bleakness of the genre as somehow metaphysical or existential, it is now apparent that much of the pessimistic tone of noir comes from perceptions of the American experience that are fully sociological in nature, positing that there are flaws in the perfection and realization of the American Dream. Such films offer up a fatalism that has less to do with the terrors of the general human condition than with the grimness of the options available to many Americans in contemporary society.

Given that the state was so crucial to the imagining of the American Dream in the 1940s and 1950s, California became central to film noir. As the focus of westward expansion, the state had long been a symbol for the realization of the American Dream, so it is not surprising that a cinema of cynicism of the sort we find in film noir would center so many of its shattering narratives on a California experience that implies the impossibility of grand dreams. “There are no second acts in American lives,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald in the notes for his Hollywood novel, The Last Tycoon, and it is appropriate that he wrote this about Hollywood in Hollywood, where he failed at a career as a screenwriter. Defeat here is endemic to the American quest narrative, and failure at the California experience is seen as the summation of all other American(ist) failures.

Indeed, the effort to understand the tough films of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s as about American conditions rather than some abstract and generalized human condition has led at least two analysts of the films of this period, Noel Burch and Thom Anderson, to posit a subgenre they call film gris (gray film). Such films eschew the exoticism often characteristic of film noir, which tended to feature rarefied subjects like the private detective and femme fatale, to concentrate instead on ordinary figures caught up in criminality when mainstream options in American life fail them. (8) Here, too, California is a place where average citizens try to pull ahead of the rat race. For example, Double Indemnity—often classified as a tough-guy film for its style (trenchcoats in the night, snappy dialogue, harder than nails femmes fatales)—is in many ways not about special ways of life, the exoticism of the hard-boiled milieu, but quite directly concerned with ordinary experience and the desperate attempt by a regular Joe to beat the system. Insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and bored suburban housewife Phyllis Dietrich (Barbara Stanwyck) are both recognizable American figures rooted in a stifled version of the American Dream that they try to manipulate to their own ends.

In film gris (and this is what “grayness” alludes to), plain Americans caught in dreary lives try to break through the dead end imposed on them by resorting to desperate means. Symptomatic in this respect is a 1950 film, The Prowler, directed by Joseph Losey, who would soon after leave Los Angeles to escape the blacklist. For our purposes, The Prowler is significant for its revision of the California myth of westward progress, the myth that by going to California one can achieve a pioneer dream of self-realization. In this film, an ordinary Los Angeles cop named Webb Garwood (Van Heflin) dreams of a better life (crystallized in a scene in his seedy apartment in which he reads muscle magazines that offer an image of enviable masculinity). He thinks he’s found his chance when he begins an affair with the bored wife of a rich media figure and decides to kill the husband (played, in a deliberately ironic cameo, by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, who wrote the film’s script under a pseudonym). Garwood’s ultimate desire is both ambitious and meager, as if a man of limited means could only have limited dreams: By killing the husband and marrying the wife with her inheritance, Garwood plans to buy a motel on the route to Las Vegas and benefit thereby from the money-hungry dreams of others not so different from himself. In this way, Garwood inverts the California pioneer dream by moving away from Los Angeles, east toward a new city that incarnates the magic luster of money but that also reveals the emptiness of its promise. In the barrenness of the Nevada desert, Garwood is trapped and shot down by the police, his body now just a dead weight that rolls unceremoniously down a hill.

The 1992 film Bugsy, directed by and starring Warren Beatty, also plays on the tensions between California and Las Vegas variants of the American Dream and the pioneer quest. Gangster Bugsy Siegel comes to California from New York and immediately is entranced by the glamour of the film world. After failing in his attempt to become an actor, Bugsy shifts the focus of his dreams from Hollywood to Las Vegas, where he envisions the first large-scale casino. Like a producer or director fighting the front office, Bugsy has to struggle with his bosses as the budget goes out of control and his project threatens to unravel. The dream fails, and Bugsy returns to the West Coast, where, alone with his movie audition reel unraveling in his private screening room, he is shot dead.

Even as it maintains the westerly direction of the pioneer narrative, another classic of film noir, the 1945 film Detour directed by the German emigré director Edgar G. Ulmer, goes even further in dismantling standard booster images of the California Dream. Detour is one of the most savage interpretations of California experience in the ways it specifically rewrites positive Los Angeles images to turn the California Dream into a nightmare. In this film, pianist Al Roberts (Tom Neal) works in sleazy New York bars, dreaming of a better life and believing that his musical talents are unappreciated and going to waste. When his girlfriend Sue understands that she too cannot realize her dreams in such a place, she announces to Al that she is going to Los Angeles to try to break into the movies. But neither Sue nor Al are destined to succeed. When Sue informs Al by phone that she has failed at becoming an actress and has ended up a waitress slinging hash, he sets out to hitchhike to her and pool their efforts. Soon, however, Al gets caught up in the tragic narrative of the deaths he causes along the way and that now prevent him from ever innocently realizing his dream (hence, the “detour” of the film’s title). One of these deaths occurs in the claustrophobic space of a sleazy Los Angeles hotel room, an occurrence that, though accidental, Al knows he will not be able to explain to the police. (In a strange but not unprecedented confirmation of the ways in which cinema and life can blur in Hollywood, actor Tom Neal himself became a has-been and was eventually convicted of a death he claimed was accidental. While working as a gardener, he shot a rich L.A. woman with whom he was carrying on an affair.)

In virtually every way, Detour is a dismantling of optimistic myths about California. The film’s process of deconstruction starts even before Al leaves for the West Coast. As Alex Barris notes in his Hollywood According to Hollywood, one strand of the affirmative tradition often recounts the story of people discovered elsewhere and brought to Hollywood to realize their talents (the pioneer allegory of A Star Is Born is in keeping with this tradition). (9) Detour very clearly establishes Al and Sue as losers in the game from the start. They will never get a break, never be discovered for their talent. Their ill-fated destiny is established at the outset. There is here no way to claw oneself to the top, and California does not serve as the culmination of an American success story. Indeed, if the notion of California exceptionalism imagines the state— for better or worse—as somehow set apart from the meanings and values of the rest of the country, Detour falls into a tradition that imagines California to be the place where the fatalism that one carries within, through the simple fact of trying unsuccessfully to live the American Dream, reaches its logical and inevitable conclusion. Detour's characters—Al, Sue, and Vera, the femme fatale hitchhiker whom Al picks up and who is already dying of consumption before he accidentally strangles her in Los Angeles—are all like the Middle Americans in Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, who mill around Hollywood because, as the novelist’s narrator declares, “they had come here to die.”

This fatalism accounts for the particularly bleak image of westward travel and arrival in Los Angeles that Detour depicts. Throughout the journey, Detour's desert is no romantic space of discovery (as opposed, for example, to A Star Is Born, in which radiant Technicolor makes the transition to the West glow with the delight of discovery) but an empty, immaterial wasteland (not unlike the desert of nothingness and mute alienation from which the antihero emerges at the beginning of Paris, Texas, a film by another German director, Wim Wenders). If anything, the transition into California is at best a move from the natural inhumanity of the desert into the human-produced inhumanity of a social world ruled by commerce and exploitative human relations: Detour’s Los Angeles is not a place of wonder—of sandy beaches or movie studios or elegant night spots—but endless commercial streets filled with ratty businesses. Los Angeles here is a universe of used-car lots (where Al and Vera have to try to get rid of their hot car) and fleabag hotels (where Al and Vera hole up and spend their time lashing out at each other until their verbal and physical spats end in death).

But if it is common to think of film noir—as well as film gris, with its even more social-realist concern for ordinary schnooks in average walks of life—as a cinematic form about the difficulty of urban existence (with Los Angeles as one of its primary locales, along with a few other choice cities such as New York and San Francisco), it must be noted that film noir is also important in the history of California representation for its suggestion that the experience of the state is more than just increasing urbanization and the compacting of destinies into the oppressive site of the city. If film noir matters first of all because it reminds us of a different Hollywood cinema than the magical buoyant one, the genre is also of interest in its depiction of a California that has no single identity and cannot be reduced to Los Angeles (and to a very specific Los Angeles at that). Central to film noir as it evolves through the 1940s and 1950s is the fact that its subject matter—the modernity of postwar America—is evolving, and not just in urban directions.

In this respect, the 1949 film Thieves’ Highway, normally classified as film noir but closer to film gris in its emphasis on ordinary workers who just want to make a buck, is key to the history of cinematic representations of California life for its recognition of a world beyond the urban experience of Los Angeles. The film narrates the bleak and often fatal experiences of fruit and vegetable truckers who go from the state’s valleys to the wholesale markets of the Bay Area, where they encounter all sorts of hucksters and harlots out to plunder their meager gains even by means of violence. From its opening shot in which we see a tractor plowing farmlands up above a city, Thieves’ Highway suggests that urban experience is inextricably linked to other geographies— the life of the farm, the transition from country to city—and presents the source of this linkage as the certainty of toil, the pressures of the system on the dreams and desires of the individual. Thieves’ Highway chronicles the stages of capitalist production—from the harvesting of produce to its consumption in the restaurants of the state—and implies that at every point in the chain of production, the worker’s dream of success is vulnerable to weakness, to accident, to systematic exploitation. California here is not the golden achievement of a dream (as the hero discovers when even his radiantly blond girlfriend deserts him) but the blunt realization of the fact that dreams matter less than inescapable entrapment in oppression and exploitation (this, despite the fact that Thieves’ Highway has a happy ending, since even the cheerfully hokey, tacked-on conclusion—Thieves’ Market, the book on which the film is based was much bleaker—seems to imply that an optimistic outcome can only be artificial, a forced magical solution). (10)


From the start, both film noir and film gris, as well as a major part of the pulp and detective fiction that fed into them, avoided a univocal representation of urban California experience. For example, San Francisco, with its sense of old-world mystery, became just as logical a locale for film noir as the more modern city of Los Angeles. Indeed, one of the works frequently cited as initiating the film noir cycle, John Huston’s 1941 The Maltese Falcon, is very pointedly a San Francisco film, playing on alternative myths of that northern city as a space of flux (a port city with all sorts of curious personages in transition) and as a site of exoticism. San Francisco here is not a place where dreams are realized but where all projects and hopes are betrayed and subverted. The progression from The Maltese Falcon to later San Francisco-based film noir like Out of the Past (1947) is a logical one. In the latter film, Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) is a former San Francisco private eye who is drawn back into intrigue in the big city but also forced to wander endlessly between city and country, as if to suggest that there is no longer any fixed space for the experience of self and that California’s function is not so much to fix or free identity as to turn it into something errant (and Bailey himself will have several identities as he tries to hide out from a destiny that, in the film’s title, will come “out of the past” to haunt and pursue him).

Indeed, if California can serve in boosterist mythology as the final desired place of stability and of self-realization in the American pioneer dream, a city like San Francisco, with its connotations of exoticism, can increasingly come to figure as a marker of difference and of the dismantling of a confident image of the California experience. Granny’s pioneer lesson in A Star Is Born is unambiguous in the clarity of its optimism about Los Angeles as the place where American Dreams come true. In contrast, San Francisco comes to represent a geography beyond understanding, a site so given over to the transitory (as for the crooks just passing through in The Maltese Falcon) that the possibility for clear and fixed meanings is rendered difficult. Take, for instance, the 1986 film, Big Trouble in Little China, directed by John Carpenter, a director trained in a film school (use) and who is quite aware of the history of American film, its perfection in the classic studio system, and eventual deconstruction in a postclassic period. A kung-fu science-fiction horror film, Big Trouble in Little China is an unstable hybrid work. What is intriguing for our purposes is the way in which the film’s eclecticism has also to do with its subject: macho Caucasian truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) discovers that for all his boldly overexpressed confidence, San Francisco represents an experience beyond his understanding, one that endlessly comes to challenge his confident self-image of assured masculinity. To be sure, like the Los Angeles film Chinatown, with its suggestion that what undoes the quest for white male truth comes in large degree from impenetrable “Asian” mystery (“forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown”), Big Trouble in Little China is not free of its own reifying exoticism in its image of an inscrutable Chinatown that will teach Jack his own relative place in the world. (In this respect, in passing, we might note how important has been the attempt in Californian independent filmmaking to construct nonexoticizing representations of the Asian American experience. For filmmakers as varied as Wayne Wang and Rea Tajiri, an investigation of what it means to be Asian in California becomes a way of interrogating just what California as a privileged site for the American Dream means as well.)

But for all its own vulnerability to cliches of the exotic, Big Trouble in Little Chinais important for the ways it does dismantle sustaining myths of pioneer masculinity. Kurt Russell plays Jack Burton as a near parody of John Wayne and, in its depiction of the clashes and confusions that arise when this swaggering masculinity finds out how limited its sway and power really are, the film becomes an allegory of the fate of all optimistic and affirmative myths when they bump up against universes of meaning too complex to be held within the boundaries of simple mythologies. To come to California is not to realize the pioneer mythology but to lose hold of it.

It is significant to Big Trouble in Little China's allegory that Jack Burton be a truck driver. Through this, the film suggests first of all that for all his swaggering attempt to play out male conquest fantasies, Jack is an ersatz, even fallen, version of the frontiersman. As with Thieves’ Highway, with its theme of the inevitable exploitation of wildcat truckers (as its very title suggests), Big Trouble in Little China offers no romance of the road, no uplifting mythology of the trucker as modern-day frontier hero. Just as he cannot be John Wayne, Jack Burton cannot be a cowboy but only a derivative cliched rendition of the now-faded romantic image of the Westerner. California is not (or is no longer) a place that sustains pioneer ambition but, quite the contrary, a force of modernization and multiculturalism that shows up boosterist machismo as an anachronism (just as Jack’s big truck seems a clumsy intrusion as it gets stuck in the fog in the tight and narrow streets of Chinatown).

The trucker image is important too for its emphasis on movement, on an experience of identity that is itself transitory (the film begins and ends with Jack in his truck, unable to settle down, forced to be always on the move, not able to make California his end-point home). If pioneer mythology figures California as the site of destiny and destination—the place where one comes into identity and builds up a future—the flip side of this mythology is that no place can be stable. California is then not so much the site of assured values as the extreme rendition of the instability of all value systems, of a geography so much in flux that it can never be settled. One of the ultimate Los Angeles films, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, represents the city precisely in opposition to booster mythology that would see it as the culmination or realization of the pioneer quest. Los Angeles here is not a place one would willingly voyage to in hopes of realizing a dream. On the one hand, those who stay in Blade Runner's Los Angeles are portrayed as the flotsam and jetsam of a society that has gone beyond them; the city has become a backwater filled with scavengers, the ill, and the ill-fated (as in The Day of the Locust, so many of the city’s people are “here to die”). On the other hand, the aerial ships that glide over the darkened city and speak of a better life elsewhere, “off-world,” indicate that for privileged pioneers, Los Angeles can only be an ephemeral point of transit, no longer a destiny or a destination but one more memory to be cast off as one continues the quest elsewhere.


In this respect, it is important to note that from its very founding, there is something contradictory and even self-destructive or self-defeating about the pioneer myth as a defining structure of the American experience. If it succeeds, the pioneer mission fails; to be precise, if the point of pioneering is to quest after a site of settlement, the achievement of that quest implies that there is no longer any place for pioneering. The pioneer cannot settle down without becoming something other than a pioneer. Numerous works in the history of American culture play on this paradox—for example, James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo enables others to go on to settlement even as he knows the new America he is helping to build can have no place for him. The Hollywood epic How the West Was Won (1962) no doubt intends to celebrate the western spirit, but its euphoria is undercut by an irony specifically linked to the film’s depiction of the West Coast as an inevitable and unsurpassable end point. As the past tense of the title suggests, How the West Was Won is a film of nostalgia, of fixation on the past (the past of a golden age of Hollywood in the process of fading away as much as the past of the pioneer quest). Winning the West means the termination of the ongoing vitality of the mythology of western conquest. The film’s triumphalist depiction of the American spirit is tinged with sadness and even regret as it dissolves from the fictional story of one-time pioneers at the end of their narrative to documentary footage of a Southern California freeway alongside the ocean.

It is not accidental that many films after the decline of the old Hollywood studio system make central reference to another Western, John Ford’s The Searchers. That film’s image of the errant frontiersman Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), who can know no sustaining home life, is also a metaphor for a cinema that admits the limitations of optimistic myths and can do no more than narrate them with sad nostalgia. Characters like Ethan Edwards and lack Burton can rescue kidnapped or strayed figures and return them to the fold of community, but these men themselves can belong to no community and must always, like Huck Finn, light out ahead of civilization. Wim Wenders’s The State of Things (1982) strikingly captures the paradox of quest narratives like The Searchers—if you stop moving, you’re out of business—and maps it specifically into a bleak representation of the California experience. In this film, the searching hero (a filmmaker who has run out of funds for a pet project) tracks down and stays with a Hollywood producer on the run from gangsters he owes money to and who hides out in a mobile home that endlessly winds its way through the streets of Los Angeles (passing, at one point, a movie theater showing The Searchers). Such endless transit sustains a barren and desperate survival, and it is only when the “caravan” comes to rest for just a moment that the pursuers are able to catch up and the nomads are gunned down. To settle down is to die. (But to be on the move is to live in a constant state of paranoia.)

For all its sadness at the errancy of the loner hero, The Searchers also appeals no doubt for the optimism of its belief that errant heroes can indeed be heroic—helping to build civilization by restoring its lost children to it— even as they can find no place in the civilization they have aided. And yet, as things become more desperate and constrained for would-be heroes in a non-heroic age, heroism itself can turn into an irrational fixation on quirky acts of violence that supposedly give one’s life meaning but are really signs of meaninglessness. Stuck on the West Coast, with no place to go, no new frontier to conquer, ersatz frontiersmen turn inward, confronting inner demons and manifesting their fatalism as inevitable violence.

Emblematic in its sense that the old mythologies of salvation no longer work in a new California is the controversial ending of Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye(1973) in which L.A. detective Philip Marlowe’s discovery that he has been a patsy all along for a get-rich scheme by his supposed buddy, Terry Malloy, leads Marlowe to ungloriously shoot Malloy down and walk off. Many viewers found this conclusion to be a betrayal of novelist Raymond Chandler’s insistence on Marlowe as a man of honor (“Down these mean streets a man must go ...”) but Altman’s point seems to be that the 1970s version is more in touch with the demythologizing impulses of the age. There is no longer any honor in heroism, and the new antiheroes have internalized the ugliness of the mean streets that they used to wander down. In The Long Goodbye, as Marlowe walks away from his act of violence, the melody of “Hooray for Hollywood” comes up on the sound track. If boosterist films like A Star Is Born celebrate Hollywood as an ostensibly natural conclusion to the pioneer quest, cinema since the breakup of the classic studio system looks back on Hollywood with pessimistic and ironic attitudes ranging from bittersweet nostalgia to hard-edged and relentless cynicism.


Seen in the light of the pioneer paradox, film noir becomes important to the analysis of California mythologies less for its image of fixed spaces of alienation than for its instabilities, its images of transitoriness, its recognition that movement as well as stasis is fraught with fatalism. For instance, so much of the modern experience of California is intimately connected with the auto¬mobile and with the changes in perspective and position that being on the move can enable. Film noir catches this mobile sense of California in several ways. First, it looks at the city and shows its vulnerability to the modernizing influence of the car. Those aspects of city life that cannot keep up with vehicular modernization will be left behind, turned—like all of Los Angeles in Blade Runner—into so much refuse and rubble. Thus, as Edward Dimendberg notes, the 1955 film noir Kiss Me Deadly, a classic of the genre that is considered by some scholars to constitute an apocalyptic implosion of the genre as it falls apart under the sway of modernity, is among other things a depiction of a side of Los Angeles that has not been able to keep up, that has been unable to modernize. Kiss Me Deadly depicts the conversion of the once-romantic Bunker Hill area of Los Angeles into a site ravaged by decay and inhabited by losers who do not have the will or the power to be on the move. (11)

By the 1950s, film noir increasingly depicts the city as taken over by the car. The car can enable a new freedom, a new power, as Kiss Me Deadly`s Mike Hammer realizes when he tools around in his sports car (described by his mechanic as possessing “va va voom,” a term invented for the film). But if the car can give new social subjects a feeling of power and mobility, that sense of accomplishment is often undone by the very speed at which things happen, by the sheer diversity and excessive richness of new experiences that come flooding in as one takes to the road and opens up to movement. It is part of the logic of film noir that so many of its California narratives revolve around vehicular motion and tie their images of transit to themes of dreams projected and dreams shattered—for example, Garwood’s dream of motel success crushed in The Prowler; Al Roberts’s quest for golden Sue and golden Los Angeles turning out to be a voyage through fleabag hotels and used-car lots in Detour; gumshoe Jeff Bailey’s attempt to stay ahead of the game, leading to his being killed ignominiously in a car in Out of the Past. Indeed, if it has been typical to see the end of film noir in classic works like Kiss Me Deadly (the detective trying desperately to make sense of a modern world that ends in apocalyptic atomic explosion) or 1957’s Touch of Evil (the detective now a fallen, dissipated figure playing out downtrodden dreams of nostalgia in a backwater border town between California and Mexico), Dimendberg takes another, lesser-known late 1950s film to sum up the logical outcome of film noir in its bitter depiction of just what happens when someone literally tries to “outrun” the system: In the 1957 low-budget film noir Plunder Road, a gang of small-time crooks tries to beat the odds by stealing a railroad shipment of gold that they plan to smuggle out of Los Angeles by melting it down into parts of their car, only to find their dreams of success along the “road of plunder” dashed miserably when their overburdened car gets stuck in a freeway traffic jam and the head henchman is shot down on the asphalt of the highway system. From the hubris of crooks who bring a speeding train to a standstill to the banality of the traffic jam that comes in ironically to dash their hopes, Plunder Road treats California mobility as a metaphor for human rise and fall.

If one culmination of the boosterist mythology of California is the optimistic “architecture of reassurance” (12) embodied in Disneyland (whose opening is coincident with the dedication of the 1950s interstate highway system that will enable Americans to “see the usa in their Chevrolet” on their way to their theme-park destination), the 1950s are also important as a period in which the cynical side of the American Dream and California’s central role in its formulation and perfection are insisted upon. Note, for instance, how one of the great works of American horror at the end of the period—Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho—is in large part readable, for all its Gothic emphasis on strange people at the edge of society, as a specifically California narrative about the dangers of life on the road for ordinary Americans whose ambitions outrun them. Dreaming,
like so many film noir characters, of making a big score, Marion Crane leaves Arizona and heads west in her car for what she hopes will be the joys of small-town California, passing along the way through the used-car consumer culture of Bakersfield into the rural valleys and coming to her dismal end in a trashy motel off the main highway. The shock of Psycho comes as much from its ordinariness as from its weird nature. For all the bizarreness of its story, it is also about touchingly real people—Marion, Norman, Sam—caught up in some very average social dilemmas about get¬ting by with the American Dream. It may be the film’s unromanticized look at ordinary losers that accounts for some of its impact in the period. Only a few short years after the exuberant dedication of the interstate highway system, Psycho shows the danger of getting on the road, of moving out into the dangers of unknown territory.

It is not common to think of Psycho as a California film—Californian, that is, in its depiction of meanings typically associated with the state. But seen in this sociological light, the film gains in resonance, and certain of its details take on symbolic overtones. For example, the rain that obscures Marion’s vision and forces her off the main highway to the Bates motel has
an immediate narrative function (it causes her to get lost and it increases the shock of seeing the motel come up out of drenched obscurity), but it also serves as a poignant reminder of this film’s bleak and nonboosterist vision of things. Like the rain that endlessly drenches the Los Angeles of Blade Runner, and unlike the exuberant and eternal sunshine that greets voyagers at the border in boosterist mythology, Psycho’s California rain is a cruel commentary on pioneer dreams. From the downpour that cuts across her windshield and blinds her vision, to the supposedly purifying shower stream soon to be broken by the slashes of a knife, to the lonely tear that glides down her cheek in death, to the muck of the swamp her body will end up in, Marion is caught in a watery world that puts the lie to the dream of golden splendor in the dry radiant sunshine of California. Marion has come west to realize a dream— just as Norman Bates’s family had earlier taken the same trail in search of success, only to be pushed aside by the progress of modernity (the new highway that has turned the Bates motel into a relic)—but all she gets is a violent shattering of hope.

Of course, the message of Psycho is not the truth of California any more than the booster narratives were. Just as boosterist narratives can become false and overbearing, so too can the narratives of California nightmare become extreme, luxuriating in a pessimism that becomes chic fashion and blocks real analysis of the contradictions of life in the state. Indeed, if a film like Blade Runner can be thought of simultaneously as film noir and apocalyptic cyberpunk science fiction (what has been called the science fiction of the “Near Bad Future”), this is so because the cynicism of both genres overlaps: They chronicle the dead ends faced by ordinary citizens who find their personal projects unrealizable in spaces of modernity. Where film noir culminates in anarchic acts of random, desperate violence—as in Marlowe’s unceremonious shooting down of Terry in Altman’s The Long Goodbye—the apocalyptic film shows violence erupting everywhere, spreading through all walks of life. From film noir narratives of personal doom to ones of larger, geographic doom (California as site of the apocalypse), the distance is not so great. Blade Runner already suggested that its Los Angeles rain was part of a toxic ecological backfire, but there the ecological theme was secondary to a personal narrative (the hero Deckard’s existential crisis about the killing of androids). For all its fatalism, film noir at least contains images of individual human will, even if such will could only manifest itself as failure, as erratic violence, as ersatz parody of optimistic heroism. In the narrative of apocalypse, however, agency drops out (or reappears only in heavily romanticized fashion, as in the cowboyish hero of Volcano who solves urban disaster and reinvents the family unit at the same time), and analysis surrenders to paranoia. Destruction is everywhere and has causes both cultural and natural. In the apocalyptic narrative of films like Independence Day (and earlier ones like Earthquake), an entire region suffers, rather than just isolated individuals. (13)

Perhaps, then, the point is not to settle in on any one cinematic image of California but to take meaning from the fact that no single image is adequate. The history of Hollywood’s California is complicated, even contradictory, but it is not random. Film style and subject are governed, as we have seen, by convention, cliché, and myth, and there are regularities in the representation that can be categorized. On the one hand, for example, I have suggested that there are overarching narratives about the founding of the Los Angeles film industry and its exploitation of the pioneer myth, of California as a migratory destination full of promise, and of the rise of Hollywood and its mythology of fame and stardom in the sun as a dream destination in itself. On the other hand, opposed to the radiant image of buoyant California possibility, there are depictions of losers and outcasts whose narratives represent a dark side of the Hollywood-California Dream. Nearly a century after the perhaps arbitrary but feted founding of Hollywood, and long after the bitter breakdown of the studio system in the postwar period, these two strands of light and dark in the history of Hollywood cinema form a permanent part of a still-evolving mythology that continues to speak to the triumphs, tragedies, and contradic¬tions in the California experience.

Dana Polan is professor of critical studies in the School of Cinema-Television, University of Southern California. His publications include The Political Language of Film and the Avant-Garde (1985), Power and Paranoia: History, Narrative, and the American Cinema, 1940-1950 (1986), In a Lonely Place (1993), Pulp Fiction(2000), and forthcoming books on directors Jim Jarmusch and Jane Campion.

1 “General Introduction” to Joseph P. Kennedy, ed., The Story of the Films; as Told by Leaders of the Industry to the Students of the Graduate School of Business Administration, George F. Baker Foundation, Harvard University (Chicago and New York: A. W. Shaw Co., 1927), 21-22.
2 For an excellent discussion of alternative sites on the way to Hollywood, see Richard Koszarski’s An Evening's Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915-1928 (New York: Scribner, 1990).
3 Kevin Starr, Inventing the Dream: California through the Progressive Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 288.
4 Richard Schickel, Double Indemnity (London: British Film Institute, 1992), 10.
5 Hollywood Reporter (Sept. 14, 1943) 2.
6 Carey McWilliams, California: The Great Exception (1949; reprint, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999) 4.
7 Starr, Inventing the Dream, 293.
8 Noel Burch and Thom Anderson, Les Communistes d'Hollywood: Autre chose que des martyres? (Paris: Presses Universitaires de la Nouvelle Sorbonne, 1995).
9 Alex Barris, Hollywood According to Hollywood (New Brunswick, N.J.: A. S. Barnes, 1978).
10 A. I. Bezzerides, Thieves’ Market (1949; reprint, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997).
11 See Edward Dimendberg, Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity (Harvard University Press, forthcoming) and his published essays on films that I discuss (with grateful acknowledgment of having borrowed from him): “Kiss the City Goodbye” Lusitania 7 (1995): 56-66 (on Kiss Me Deadly); and “The Will to Motorization: Cinema, Highways, and Modernity,” October 73 (summer 1995): 90-137 (on Plunder Road).
12 Karel Ann Marling, ed., Designing Disney's Theme Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance (Montreal: Centre Canadien d’Architecture; Paris and New York: Flammarion, 1997).
13 For a catalogue of California apocalypse narratives in film and fiction, see Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1998).

In: READING CALIFORNIA: ART, IMAGE, AND IDENTITY, 1900-2000. Edited by Stephanie Barron and Sheri Bernstein Ilene Susan Fort. Los Angeles, University of california Press, 2001, pp. 128-150. 

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