'La La Land': Los Angeles and the Hollywood Imagination

Driving back from LAX is often a slog, but once I escape the concentric circles of terminal hell, one of my favorite city vantage points awaits. It comes a few miles east, on the Judge Harry Pregerson Interchange, better known as the 105-to-110 interchange. If you’re in the HOV lane and it’s a clear day — obviously, neither is a given — once you reach the 130-foot peak, there’s an unobstructed panorama of the Los Angeles basin, up towards downtown, with the San Gabriels stretched across the background. The view is breathtaking, but always ephemeral as you’re quickly funneled down towards the concrete channel of the 110.

If there’s anything I marveled at during the show-stopping number that opens Damien Chazelle’s "La La Land's" show, it wasn’t just the hyper-coordinated choreography of people dancing and singing atop and between traffic-jammed cars, it’s that the production actually got permission to shut down that very Pregerson interchange to shoot it. When I saw the scene in theaters, I assumed it was all on set, with a green-screen CGI background, but no, "La La Land" lived my dream to stop a car at the apex of the interchange, get out, and drink in the view.

La La Land - Pregerson Interchange
"La La Land's" opening scene stops traffic on the Pregerson Interchange.

By coincidence, Chazelle also shot one of my other favorite places in L.A.: the Colorado Bridge in Pasadena. It pops up for all of two seconds during the falling-in-love montage between Seb (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) where they’re shown walking astride the bridge’s Beaux Arts fence and lamp posts, the sky behind them suffused in a luscious shade of thistle. (It’s the same color we see during Seb’s “City of Stars” number along the Hermosa Pier. It’s no coincidence that several key scenes all take place during this magic hour moment where, in the words of city sage Vin Scully, the sky turns “cotton candy pink with a canopy of blue, good enough to eat.”)  

To be clear: it’s not like "La La Land" shows us a Los Angeles that no one ever sees. Tens of thousands of people drive over the Pregerson Interchange every day while the Colorado Bridge is one of Pasadena’s most photographed sites. Still, there’s an instinctual thrill you get from recognizing places projected in CinemaScope. In the scene where Mia spontaneously ditches her banal boyfriend during dinner, I turned to my wife and said, “hey, isn’t that Jar?” and it felt like claiming a bingo square. And of course, immediately after, Mia runs to meet Seb at the Rialto, the (usually) shuttered theater in South Pasadena, a town I’ve lived in or around for over a dozen years. (Note: the real movie magic in that scene is how Mia survived the drive from West Hollywood to South Pasadena, during dinner time no less, and still arrived in such a good mood.)

An odd quality of "La La Land" is despite its extensive use of “real place” establishing shots — hey look, Grand Central Market! Angels Flight tram! — everything still felt like a set. I realize a film named 'La La Land' isn’t selling itself on docu-realism and moreover, the plot deliberately explores the tension between artifice and authenticity, but I still was struck by how, no matter how much the film was clearly shot here, it very rarely felt rooted here. I recognized the city’s visual landscape, but not its cultural one.

500 Days
Summer (Zooey Deschanel) and Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) overlooking downtown Los Angeles from Bunker Hill in "500 Days of Summer."

Much like "Sex and the City" and late 1990s Manhattan, or "500 Days of Summer" and post-redevelopment downtown Los Angeles, "La La Land" portrays a vibrant metropolitan playground inhabited almost exclusively by young white characters, with a token sprinkling of supporting Black roles… and very little else. To be sure, this is hardly an issue specific to 'La La Land'. If anything, the film feels like it’s lightly following in the footsteps of recent television shows set in L.A., especially the faux-eastside troika of Silver Lake/Los Feliz/Echo Park, aka “TV’s most neurotic neighborhood.” That’s where the FX comedy "You’re the Worst," Netflix’s "Love," Hulu’s "Casual" and Amazon’s "Transparent" have all spent quality time. A couple of years ago, I figured it was only a matter of time before a prestige TV series was set in Northeast L.A. and then along came Netflix’s "Lady Dynamite" (Highland Park) and HBO’s short-lived "Togetherness" (Eagle Rock). What, no love for Mount Washington?

Admittedly, it was cool to see a few scenes set in Skylight Books in "You’re the Worst" and I certainly wasn’t expecting to see the Watts Towers pop up in "La La Land" (albeit for a literal second). And sure, it’s refreshing to see fewer establishing shots of the same palm tree-lined Beverly Hills streets or more b-roll of the beach. However, the relative homogeneity in casting and narratives between these various productions make the shifts in locale feel cosmetic; it’s an on-trend swap of Hollywood’s gauche glamour for the haute hipsterdom of Northwest Los Angeles. Power lunches at Le Dome have turned into weekend brunch at Sqirl.

These are all, of course, deeply ancient grumblings about how pop culture (mis)represents entities as complex as cities, least of all this city and its denizens. My friend and colleague Colin Marshall created the phenomenal video series, “The City In Cinema,” which takes up the mantle of Thom Anderson’s epic "Los Angeles Plays Itself" by exploring how Los Angeles is represented in movies. Regarding "La La Land," Colin pointed out that there’s “a perennial obstacle to discussing Los Angeles in any form: people can always claim you didn't include enough diversity, and even if you do, they can always claim you didn't include the right diversity.” One could also add that even when some movies try, they often get it spectacularly wrong; Exhibit A: "Crash."  

If one feels exceedingly generous on this point, you could resurrect that classic bromide that “there’s no single Los Angeles.” Rather, we live within overlapping Los Angeleses, each clamoring for recognition, but only a handful ever achieving it. The challenge is less about any single production “getting L.A. right" as it is trying to nurture productions that have a feel for the other L.A.s that rarely get represented. That’s one reason why I was tickled by Rachel Bloom’s musical paean, “West Covina,” during the pilot episode for "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend." It was certainly tongue-in-cheek, but if you ever grew up in the Southland’s suburban sprawl, the song/scene’s inside jokes felt true-to-life, especially for a city that would never, otherwise, appear in the background of a movie poster.

For similar reasons, one of the things I enjoyed about Issa Rae’s new HBO show, "Insecure," is how it roots itself in historically Black neighborhoods in South L.A. such as Inglewood, Leimert Park, and Crenshaw (especially in contrast to the decades when Compton was made to stand in for the entirety of the area). Whether it’s shooting inside the storied Crenshaw club, Maverick’s Flat, or the constant flashes to the stucco apartment building where Issa and her beau live in Inglewood, 'Insecure' feels nestled in its local-ness without needing to make a grand gesture over it.

HBO Insecure
Issa (Issa Rae) in HBO's "Insecure" lives in The Dunes, a two-story stucco apartment in Inglewood.

That said, even these shows still have familiar blind spots when it comes to the region’s demographic diversity. Over 60 percent of Los Angeles county is either Latino or Asian, but you’d never guess that from watching most productions set in L.A.: be it "Insecure," the second season of "True Detective" or "La La Land." This may not undermine their narrative or aesthetic pleasures, but it continues to highlight the distance between the Los Angeles of Hollywood imagination vs. the city people actually live in. Perhaps we’re headed in some promising new directions, especially as Los Angeles increasingly plays itself. Maybe there’s a script floating out there set in Altadena or Cudahy or San Pedro that could make use of each of those place’s unique landscape and characters. After all, if there’s anything Hollywood is uniquely equipped to do is to pluck things out of obscurity and give them a star turn, people and places alike. As I drove through Chinatown the other day, I noticed the marquee below the Royal Pagoda Motel had changed: “LA LA LAND WAS FILMED HERE.”

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