Last week DJ Waldie wrote about the great Los Angeles documentary film, "Los Angeles Plays Itself." This week L.A. Letters covers two other Los Angeles documentaries, perhaps not as well-known but equally poignant. The column will also give a brief overview of the forthcoming mega-event, the North Hollywood Lit Crawl.
Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles
"Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles" is a documentary film that aired on BBC in 1972, around the same time Banham published his seminal book, "Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies." In just under 52 minutes, Banham covers LAX, Palos Verdes, Olvera Street, Pasadena, Venice, Santa Monica, the Miracle Mile, Hollywood, and the Sunset Strip. In addition to his colorful commentary, the vintage early 1970s footage in the film is priceless on its own.
Reyner Banham was a noted architectural critic and longtime professor. He championed Los Angeles in a time when very few others did. In the film, one of the first statements Banham makes as he exits the airport in the opening sequence, is "I come here as often as I can." Back in 1972 when Banham said these words, there were very few urban theorists expressing such sentiments about Los Angeles. He notes that Los Angeles "needs some explaining." Banham briefly explains his own British upbringing and contrasts Los Angeles with London and its Georgian porches and red brick Victorians. He recalls first learning about Los Angeles years before he ever visited, at cinemas for a penny during his youth. His first memories include the works of Buster Keaton, various silent pictures, and other iconic footage like the early detective films and Perry Mason.
The defining spirit of the film, as the title suggests, is Banham's enthusiasm. Whether he's speeding on the freeway, visiting the Griffith Observatory, or perusing the Watts Towers, Banham is shown joyfully moving across Los Angeles throughout the film. Along the way he makes statements like "It's a long way from anything to anything," and "In terms of form, Los Angeles breaks all the rules."
While discussing architectural styles like the Spanish Colonial Revival, he says, "It's not a style as much as it is a frame of mind or mass produced fantasy." Banham's preferred domestic architecture of Southern California is the craftsmen home, otherwise known as the California bungalow. As a visiting professor at USC he had the opportunity to live for a time in one of the most famous Craftsmen ever created, the celebrated Gamble House in Pasadena, designed by the Greene and Greene Brothers. Banham regales in the home's elegant craftsmanship and cites its romantic design. He also makes a point to spotlight Southern California homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra, and Charles Eames. The Eames home in Pacific Palisades is where he says Machine Age materials like glass, metal, and steel came together in high style.
Banham concludes the documentary with a few particular likes and one specific criticism. He celebrates the body builders of Venice, custom car culture, and surfboard makers, as well as all forms of roadside architecture such as the unique drive-ins, hot dog stands, car washes, and he even calls the bright billboards of the Sunset Strip, "an outdoor art gallery." He criticizes the gated communities like Rolling Hills Estates and notes how he does not like the private wealthy enclaves for their closed off nature.
In the final scenes of the film the Doors song "L.A. Woman" plays as images of the Sunset Strip nightclubs move across the screen. During the last minute he's seen driving in Santa Monica as the sun sets. He notes that even though the majestic colors which comprise Southern California sunsets come from the fumes of pollution, they nonetheless make the sky beautiful. Banham does indeed love Los Angeles, and this documentary was one of the first cinematic love-songs ever composed about the City of Angels.
"Shotgun Freeway" is a 1995 documentary on Los Angeles, directed by Morgan Neville and Harry Pallenberg, that uses news footage, old stills, and direct commentary from Angeleno artists, musicians, writers, and historians like Mike Davis, Joan Didion, James Ellroy, David Hockney, Buddy Collette, Buck Henry, Bert Corona, and others. As the subtitle suggests -- "Drives Through Lost L.A." -- the core format of the film involves driving around different neighborhoods of Los Angeles and uncovering the forgotten history of each respective district, whether it is East Los Angeles, Hollywood, Central Avenue, the San Fernando Valley, the Los Angeles River, or Beverly Hills. Over the course of the film's 91 minutes the soul of the city is thoroughly examined.
This documentary offers more of a direct history than Banham's. The narrative goes through each generation, from the 19th Century Spanish and Mexican history to the rise of the automobile in the early 20th Century. Each of the different eras are covered, from the citrus boom to the oil frenzy, to the rise of Hollywood to the construction of the freeway system. The film closes with a discussion of the fixation on natural disasters in Southern California and the economic restructuring of the 1980s and '90s.
The expert commentary offered in each generation and area debunks popular myths and sheds great insight into forgotten chapters of the city. For instance, the former city official Frank Wilkinson talks about Chavez Ravine and the McCarthy era backlash of the public housing structure that the city almost built there a few years before Dodger Stadium. Wilkinson noted the eradication of the streetcar system and the transformation of the city during the 1950s.
Noir author James Ellroy discusses both his own mother's murder and how the Black Dahlia murder made him obsessed with crime. He also shares his personal history as a peeping tom as a teenager in Hancock Park. Mike Davis is shown talking along the Los Angeles River and describing the giant orange grove owned by William Wolfskill that existed in the mid-19th Century between Downtown Los Angeles and East L.A. He also talks about the destruction of the original Bunker Hill and how it was replaced with the current collection of skyscrapers. Davis is also shown at Evergreen Cemetery, and calls East Los Angeles "the mother of L.A.'s ethnic communities." Davis is also shown at Belmont Tunnel where he converses with poets and painters in the underground tunnel.
The Chicano leader Bert Corona is seen walking through an empty Union Station discussing the repatriation of Mexican-Americans during the Great Depression. Joan Didion talks about how her own fear of driving on the freeway helped her create her protagonist for her book, "Play It as It Lays." The jazz great Buddy Collette is shown talking about watching Simon Rodia build the Watts Towers, and how he grew up with Charles Mingus in Watts and along Central Avenue. Collette also talks about other musicians like Dexter Gordon and Eric Dolphy and the after-hours jazz sessions he grew up in. Artist David Hockney talks about his love for Mulholland Drive and how there are hundreds of versions of Los Angeles. Hockney extolls the light colors of the city and how it changed his painting during the 1960s.
"Shotgun Freeway," is very comprehensive and does an excellent job covering the evolution of the city. While Banham's film offers more of a portrait of the early 1970s, "Shotgun Freeway" traces the entire history and all the neighborhoods. The old footage connects well with the contemporary commentary. The racial, social and economic divisions of the city are described in detail. In the 19 years since "Shotgun Freeway" was filmed, hundreds of books and dozens of films have emerged on the city's history; nonetheless this pioneering film remains as relevant as ever.
North Hollywood Lit Crawl
Finally before closing this column out, North Hollywood will be hosting its second annual Lit Crawl on Wednesday, October 22nd. Up and down Lankershim Boulevard in the North Hollywood Arts District there will be 30 different literary events from 7 to 10 p.m. with many of L.A.'s best known scribes and literary personalities sharing their work. A number of notable local publishers and Southern California literary magazines will be featuring special readings throughout the evening in galleries, coffeehouses and bookstores.
There are more writers and personalities presenting than there is room to list but some of the participants include the Avenue 50 Gallery, Beyond Baroque, Dirty Laundry Lit, Heyday Books, Queerwise, the San Gabriel Valley Quarterly, Cultural Weekly, Tongue & Groove, Cal State Northridge, 826LA, the World Stage, Red Hen Press, the Rumpus, Homeboy Industries, Black Clock Magazine, Writers at Work, What Books, PEN Center and the Black Man of Happiness Project among many others. There will be three rounds of readings that will be 45 minutes each. An after-party follows from 10PM to midnight.
Similar Lit Crawls have been happening in Brooklyn, Seattle and San Francisco over the last few years. The Arts District in North Hollywood works especially well for this event with the proximity of many excellent venues clustered together over a short distance. Lit lovers will not be disappointed, dozens of celebrated writers are on the bill.
"Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles" and "Shotgun Freeway," are two excellent documentaries covering our fine city. Though they both were produced in the latter part of the 20th Century, the insight offered in both remains more relevant than ever. And for those looking for the latest scoop of Los Angeles culture look no further than the North Hollywood Lit Crawl. These films and this mega-event are critical touchstones in the landscape of L.A. Letters.