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From 'Blade Runner' to 'La La Land': These Films Showcase L.A. in a Leading Role

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling star in "La La Land."
Angels Flight as seen in "La La Land," the musical starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.
(Left) A non-operational Angels Flight is observed by pedestrians. Photo: Sara Newman/Flickr/Creative Commons License | (Right) Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone ride Angels Flight in the film "La La Land."

Although it's not set to open until December 9, Lionsgate's "La La Land" is already enjoying buzz for reviving the musical film genre. In the movie, an actress (Emma Stone) and musician (Ryan Gosling) fall in love while navigating the rocky roads of creative life in L.A. With costumes in eye-popping Technicolor hues and big song and dance numbers, it recalls the musicals of Hollywood's Golden Age while paying tribute to the city where those films were made. That the film opens with a musical scene unfolding on a gridlocked freeway is an indication of the kind of L.A. fantasy this is.

At KCET Cinema Series' screening of "La La Land" on November 29, writer/director Damien Chazelle told the audience that he wanted to start with "the least lovely thing possible about L.A." But, with dancers topping the roofs of cars, Chazelle's fantasy of rush hour on the Express Lane linking the 105 and 110 (filmed over one really hot weekend, the director told the audience following the screening) is far more breathtaking than the real thing.

In a Q&A session led by Cinema Series host Pete Hammond, Chazelle revealed that "La La Land" was, at least visually, inspired by his own experience as an L.A. transplant. "I loved the idea of L.A., but I had a very hard time actually living the life of a Los Angeles resident for quite a few years." Eventually, though, he warmed up to the city. "There's no other city like it," he added.

While "La La Land" makes use of major L.A. sites, like the Griffith Observatory, the Warner lot and Angels Flight, the city comes alive in the details. When characters dance on the cracked asphalt of local streets, the scenes truly look like Los Angeles. You can see the city in the Old Hollywood courtyard of the apartment building where Mia, played by Stone, lives. Then there are the parties in the Hills. It's not so much the hip pads that scream Los Angeles, but rather that long line of nearly identical cars parked on one side of a narrow, winding street.

But, "La La Land" is nowhere near the first movie to cast Los Angeles in a lead role. There's even a documentary about that phenomenon, "Los Angeles Plays Itself." Through the decades, directors have turned their eyes to the various angles of the city, from the glitz of the hills to the grit of strip malls. Below, we take a look at ten such films.

The 110/105 interchange as seen on "La La Land."
The 110/105 interchange as seen in the film "La La Land."

1. "Sunset Boulevard." (1950)

There's a film trope of L.A. as the villain, a city of excess and reinvention that leads to quick rises to glory and equally fast downfalls. It's the undercurrent in a lot of Los Angeles-centric stories, whether it's the aging stars in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" or the working gentleman in "American Gigolo" or the rich kids in "Less Than Zero." The benchmark for the city's fictional sinister glamour, though, is "Sunset Blvd." It seeps through the cracks of Norma Desmond's dilapidated manor, it winds through the car chase roads that look so much less developed than the L.A. we know today. In "Sunset Blvd.," Los Angeles balances bright promises with a tempestuous darkness. 

"Sunset Boulevard," 1950.
Sunset Boulevard as seen in the 1950 film "Sunset Boulevard."

2. "Rabbit of Seville" (1950)

In the 1950 Looney Tunes short "Rabbit of Seville," writer Michael Maltese and director Chuck Jones take the battle between Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny onto to the stage of the Hollywood Bowl. We hear the sounds of a summer night before our hapless hunter chases the ever-resourceful rabbit through the hills surrounding the amphitheater. Watch as they make their way backstage and your own memories of the Bowl's show season will hit hard. No doubt, this city has had as much of an influence on animators as it has on live action filmmakers. 

3. "Chinatown" (1974)

The most obvious entry on any list of L.A. movies is "Chinatown." It weaves the city's water woe's into the sort of hardboiled detective tale that nearly define's the city's literary history. "Chinatown" is an homage to the hour stylings of 1940s film and it uses the city as a canvas to let the film unfold. The striking aspect for locals is how much of Los Angeles is used in the film, from Sylmar to San Pedro and even incorporating outlying areas like Moorpark and Catalina. 

Echo Park Lake as seen in 1974's "Chinatown."
Echo Park Lake as seen in the 1974 film "Chinatown."

4. "Blade Runner" (1982)

The Philip K. Dick novel, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?," upon which "Blade Runner" is based, was set in San Francisco. However, Ridley Scott's 1982 take on the tale re-sets it in Los Angeles and the results are iconic. The future L.A. presented in "Blade Runner" isn't pretty, but it's stylish. Even with the grim dystopian lens cast over buildings like the Bradbury, this is a city that doesn't just catch your eye, but stays embedded in your memory for decades to follow. 

The Bradbury Building as seen in the 1982 film "Blade Runner."
The Bradbury Building as seen in the 1982 film "Blade Runner."

5. "Pulp Fiction" (1994)

While Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield are talking about fast food in Amsterdam, bits of Los Angeles flash by through the car windows. It's the side of Los Angeles that people may love to criticize: a mess of concrete, vacant lots and drab buildings with the only dose of color coming from the occasional line of palm trees. Quentin Tarantino has used L.A. wonderfully in multiple films, but in "Pulp Fiction" he takes the most "bland" spots, like a pawn shop or a dreary apartment building, as the background for fast and smart dialogue and a lot of action. 

6. "Clueless" (1995)

In a film filled with teens who sound older than they are, "Clueless" captures coming-of-age in Los Angeles. That scene where Dionne accidentally drives onto the freeway is filled with the comic fear that hits close-to-home to anyone who learned to drive here. The argument in front of the Valley house party over the best route home feels all-too-real as well. "Clueless" combines the locations that tourists want to see with the ones you want to show them. Take, for example, Cher's maudlin walk through Beverly Hills. She hits up Rodeo Drive (of course), but then she walks past the fairytale house, too. 

7. "The Big Lebowski" (1998)

In one of the Dude's dream sequences, we see him flying over the city. Los Angeles at night may be a vast sprawl of twinkling lights, but, up close and in daylight, it's as much a character as the people whose stories intertwine in "The Big Lebowski." The bowling alley used in the film is long gone, but there are still sets of lanes that look as though they are stuck in the 1960s throughout the city. Sometimes, the shout out to the L.A. you know is subtle, like when you notice the glow of a Del Taco sign behind a mini-mall parking lot. The exact locations aren't as important as the feelings of deja vu that they evoke and after watching "The Big Lebowski," it might make you want to listen in on every random conversation within earshot at the local bowling alley or coffee shop. 

Los Angeles as seen in The Big Lebowski.
Los Angeles as seen in the 1998 film "The Big Lebowski."

8. "The Artist" (2011)

Academy Award-winning film "The Artist" shows the L.A. we wish we knew. Set at the dawn of "talkies," the silent film casts Los Angeles as the black-and-white land of movie palaces and studio lots, a growing city that's quickly blossoming alongside the industry that made its home here. Of course, that L.A. exists, but not quite in the way it's depicted. If you go to the Orpheum Theatre today, it might be for a concert or stand-up comedy show rather than a movie premiere. 

9. "Tangerine" (2015)

In 2015, "Tangerine" placed Donut Time at the center of a Christmas Eve adventure for Sin-Dee Rella and Alexandra, two trans women sex workers who comb Santa Monica Boulevard looking for Sin-Dee's cheating boyfriend. The film showed Hollywood and East Hollywood as locals know it, down to the Metro station on Santa Monica and Vermont, but it also marked the end of an era. Donut Time closed last summer. 

Donut Time as seen in the 2015 film "Tangerine."
The now-shuttered Donut Time as seen in the 2015 film "Tangerine."

10. "The Meddler" (2016)

You can see how Los Angeles has changed over the years by looking at the shopping scenes. In the '80s and '90s, characters, like many Angelenos, spent their time roaming through large, indoor shopping malls from Sherman Oaks to the Westside to the South Bay. Now, they head to hyperreal village squares like The Grove. "The Meddler," a recent comedy drama from writer/director Lorene Scafaria, stars Susan Sarandon as a recent widow who joins her daughter in Los Angeles and spends a lot of time at The Grove. The movie was inspired by Scafaria's own relationship with her mother and, as the director told the audience at a KCET Cinema Series screening, her mom spent a lot of time at that same shopping center. In "The Meddler," we watch The Grove through the eyes of someone who has yet to grow jaded by the neighborhood's heavy traffic and fruitless Saturday afternoon quests for a parking spot. 

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