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8. Hockney Goes to the Movies

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Where are we? In the movies. In the quick, cheap, hurly-burly silent comedies and melodramas made in L.A. between 1909 and 1929. In the light of L.A. . . . the dialectical light that the insensitive nitrate film stock required then. Lawrence Weschler, in a 1998 piece for the New Yorker about the light in L.A., quoting the painter David Hockney: “As a child, growing up in Bradford in the north of England, across the gothic gloom of those endless winters, I remember how my father used to take me along with him to see the Laurel and Hardy movies; and one of the things I noticed right away, long before I could even articulate it exactly, was how Stanley and Oliver, bundled in their winter overcoats, were casting these wonderfully strong, crisp shadows. We never got shadows of any sort in winter. And already I knew that someday I wanted to settle in a place with winter shadows like that. In fact years later, when I staged The Magic Flute, it’s that aspect of the story that I keyed onto - this journey from darkness toward the light, how the light pulls and pulls you. It certainly did me, anyway: the light and those strong, crisp shadows.” In a darkened English movie theater, the winter darkness outside, and Hockey sees a shadow of Los Angeles light or, perhaps, more an instance of preserved L.A. light, and he imagines himself here. As a boy and from time to time, he lived an hour or two in Los Angeles in a darkened theater, long before he arrived to live here as a young man, drawn by the light.

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(The Flemish poet Paul van Ostaijen, writing in 1918 in Occupied City - “You will be forgiven much because you have seen many movies.”)

Sound changed that and the city changed (and you couldn’t set up a camera on a street corner, give the actors the rudiments of a scenario, and have them go at it in the everyday traffic of Colorado Boulevard).The movies had changed, and we changed and saw L.A. in a different light. William Faulkner, bitter about being in Hollywood (which he mistook for Los Angeles, which he mistook for L.A.) found the light ironic, perverse. From Golden Land, a short story from 1935 when Faulkner returned the second time (and then again and again until his death) to write for the movies and for money: “He emerged onto the terrace; the voices ceased. The sun, strained by the vague high soft almost nebulous haze, fell upon the terrace with a kind of treacherous unbrightness.” That’s daylight, but it’s noir already. It’s the light in Glendale turning to murderous night in Phyllis Dietrichson’s house in Double Indemnity. What had seemed clear in our light, had seemed particular, now seemed merely pitiless. The light that bears down on the clueless Jake Gittes in Chinatown, the film image slightly overexposed. We learned at the movies to distrust that light. We learned to distrust L.A.

The image associated with this post was taken by Flickr user Here in Van Nuys. It was used under Creative Commons license.

hoto by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

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