Hollywood Cinema and the Real Los Angeles, by Mark Shiel. London: Reaktion, 2012. Hardback: $39.00. 336pp. ISBN: 978-1-86189-902-6
We all think we know Los Angeles. We think we know it because of the movies. As the urban theorist Edward Soja has pointed out, “probably more people have seen this place — or at least fragments of it — than any other on the planet.” Conceptions of Los Angeles may be intimately connected with cinema, yet the full extent of the relationship between the city and the screen has rarely been appreciated. Mark Shiel’s excellent new book outlines with precision how LA shaped the movies and how the movies shaped LA.
Shiel, who teaches at King’s College London, claims that film historians have failed to acknowledge the importance of Los Angeles in the medium’s development, while urban studies of the city have neglected the importance of the film industry. To bring these elements together, Hollywood Cinema and the Real Los Angeles examines the various layers that constitute their relationship: how Los Angeles has appeared on-screen; how directors have used and manipulated different areas of the city; the geographical and architectural demands of film production; how the film industry has contributed to the growth and dispersal of LA; and the myths and fantasies that have surrounded Los Angeles, and Hollywood in particular. Whereas many film critics who approach spatial questions are content to merely discuss the “representation” of certain places on-screen, Shiel builds a more sophisticated argument by combining readings of individual films with urban and economic history. As a result, this is a rigorous and evocative book, full of fascinating connections and supported by an impressive array of stills, maps, and charts.
The cinematic image of Los Angeles in recent decades has been dominated by a few over-cited examples, notably Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), the latter spawning endless debates about the nature of postmodernism. It’s a relief, then, to find in Shiel’s book coverage of films less frequently discussed for their depiction of LA. This is partly due to the historical focus he emphasizes. The book moves from the late nineteenth century and the very beginnings of the film industry in Los Angeles through the comedies of the silent era and the changes wrought by sound technology, before ending with an exploration of film noir. Even noir — which has, of course, garnered ample critical attention — feels fresh here thanks to Shiel’s emphasis on its political, economic, and spatial context.
The most extraordinary aspect of this chronology is the sheer speed and extent of Los Angeles’ growth. A city that contained just 33,000 people in 1880 had, by 1955, become one of the ten largest urban agglomerations on the planet. Shiel neatly compares the “waves of demolition and reconstruction” such expansion demanded with the relentless building work taking place at the city’s film studios. In nimble fashion, he chronicles LA’s dramatic rise to prominence by switching between geographical scales, so that we learn about the evolution of specific districts (including Hollywood, of course, but also downtown, Culver City, and the San Fernando Valley), as well as seeing the city in its state, regional, national, and global contexts. Indeed, Los Angeles, Shiel claims, is like “a Russian doll” comprising “four utopias one inside the other: the American West encompasses California, which contains Los Angeles and Hollywood in turn.”
The story of how Los Angeles became “an automatically meaningful landscape for millions in the United States and worldwide” is deeply indebted to cinema. LA’s first moving pictures were made in 1897, while the city’s first film studio — famously located in the back of a Chinese laundry — was established sometime between 1907 and 1909. A cluster of studios soon gathered in Hollywood, though that district was only officially incorporated into the City of Los Angeles in 1910. By 1922, 84 percent of all American films were being made in LA, though many industry executives remained in New York. Shiel offers a nuanced view of how and why the film industry came to settle in Los Angeles, balancing contemporary scholarship with the grandiose claims of the past. Thus, he’s more prepared than many to accept that film companies were attracted by the mythology of the West, as well as by LA’s sunshine, varied landscape, abundance of available land, and weak labor laws. He is, though, more skeptical about claims that filmmakers fled to California to escape the monopoly of film patents led by Thomas Edison on the East Coast.
Four “spatial motifs” structure Shiel’s argument: “The Trace,” “Navigation,” “The Simulacrum,” and “Geopolitical Pressure Point.” Shiel suggests that these categories “naturally arise” when one considers films made in Los Angeles alongside the broader history of the city, a claim that might make us suspicious. After all, if LA, the film industry, and cinema itself teach us nothing else, they all complicate what we consider to be “natural” and what we think is an artificial construction. Nonetheless, Shiel’s structure is a useful one, as it allows him to emphasize how the connections between LA and the film industry were manifested in different ways in different eras.
The first chapter argues that films have “the special ability today to act as traces of times and places long since erased.” Particularly spooky is Shiel’s comparison of sequences shot in three cities — New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles — between 1896 and 1900, in which we see strange glimpses of urban life, including a horse-drawn carriage in downtown LA. This is just one element of the immense research that underpins the book, archival labor infused with an evident love of the subject matter. Amongst the traces pieced together here are extracts from executive correspondence, regional newspapers, trade literature, star biographies, architectural studies, and land use surveys. Occasionally, the avalanche of historical detail can be overwhelming — do we really need to know, for instance, which LA department store first introduced underground parking? — so that Shiel’s own arguments are left struggling for breath. Yet this is also a book about what cannot be found in an archive or in the urban landscape — the sets that existed for a brief moment, the buildings bulldozed without documentation, the celluloid burnt to cinders, and thus “the partial indeterminacy of all historical knowledge of the modern city.”
Navigating Los Angeles, with its multiple urban centers, has always been a challenge. This is a city, as Martin Amis once wrote, where “the only way to get across the road is to be born there.” Shiel pulls back from the freeway fantasies of the postwar period to look at how slapstick comedians made their way around LA in the 1910s and 1920s. In this period, the films of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Laurel and Hardy increasingly moved from downtown settings to suburbs like Venice or Edendale, part of a much wider trend toward dispersal throughout Los Angeles. This, though, was not a case of the movies simply reflecting changes taking place in the city’s landscape. In fact, the film industry’s desire for vast amounts of studio space and its preference for cars were actively fueling the suburban real estate market. What’s more, Shiel suggests that the very form of Los Angeles was influencing the development of narrative in silent film, that the chase sequences and frantic movements in slapstick comedies can be attributed to the horizontal spread of the city and the availability of new modes of transport. For instance, he claims that the hyperactive flow, rough cutting, and narrative instability of the Chaplin comedy Making a Living (dir. Henry Lehrman, 1914) is “an expression of the disjointedness of Los Angeles at this time.” All of which meant directors from across the United States, and further afield, were learning to appreciate a new kind of urban environment, while spectators were also becoming accustomed to seeing the unique forms of Los Angeles on the big screen.
The coming of sound changed this situation dramatically, pushing actors out of LA’s streets and into its studios. At the same time, the studios themselves were undergoing a transformation. Whereas the glass stages and unobstructed sight-lines of studio buildings in the 1920s aligned cinema with the modernist avant-garde, such lightness of form made way for the insulated concrete cocoons of the sound era. Shiel describes these developments as “a backward step,” “a withdrawal from the real world” that demonstrated “a diminishing interest” in engaging with the city outside the studio. However, such claims seem to uphold the false dichotomy between city and screen, and between the real and the represented, which other parts of his argument seek to break down. Does a location shoot in downtown Los Angeles capture reality more faithfully than a studio setting? Is the relationship between the city and the screen “devalued” — as Shiel suggests — when filming takes place in an artificial environment? Once again, the slippery question of what is natural and what is artificial must be posed. Given the architectural credentials of studio buildings that Shiel highlights, these structures are just as much part of Los Angeles’ reality as streets elsewhere in the city. Indeed, Shiel demonstrates how the logic of the movies consistently seeped into the world outside its sets, through the elaborate façades of the studios, the expressive architecture of movie theatres, and the lavish homes of the stars, subject to commercial tours from as early as 1914.
A different set of concerns govern Shiel’s analysis of film noir. While 1946 proved to be Hollywood’s most successful year, with record attendances, revenues, and profits, the following years were characterized by industrial dispute and the decline of the studio system. The era’s combination of dark cinematic drama, uneasy labor relations, and rapid urban development generated, in Shiel’s words, “a charged interaction between the real and the imagined city of a kind arguably never seen before or since.” This chapter is most obviously indebted to the influential “LA School” of urban theory — led by figures such as Edward Soja and Mike Davis — which has in the last twenty-five years moved Los Angeles and its history from the periphery to the very center of urban debates. Accordingly, Shiel’s reading of noir is heavily informed by statistical data, in terms of industrial production and urban growth, both in Los Angeles and across the United States. Using extensive graphs, Shiel shows how the shift in noir settings from New York to Los Angeles in the 1940s and the 1950s mirrored broader industrial shifts from the East Coast to the West. He offers a lengthy spatial analysis of the Hollywood strikes that took place between 1945 and 1947, outlining how they were hindered by LA’s dispersed terrain and paucity of large public spaces, and how the film industry’s persecution of labor epitomized the growing corporatization of America’s cities in the postwar era. Los Angeles, he argues, was emerging as “a testbed for neoliberal economics and neoconservative politics” and developments in the city provided “a template for economic, social, political, and cultural life in cities everywhere.” That the president of the Screen Actors Guild at this point was one Ronald Reagan is an irony that requires no further elaboration from Shiel.
The book’s epilogue offers a complete change of pace. Having mapped in extensive detail individual spaces and films from the 1890s to the mid-1950s — noting street signs, background advertisements, or newspaper headlines for their geographical significance — Shiel’s final section charges across the subsequent half-century at high speed. He discusses in rapid succession the fall in film audiences and the collapse of the studio system; the emergence of an underground avant-garde scene in LA (with Kenneth Anger prominent); the Watts Riots of 1965; European critiques of the city from the likes of Antonioni, Demy, and Wenders; the New Black Realism of the 1990s; and finally a “new urban ecology of the movies” that he senses today. This last claim is a guide towards Shiel’s future research — a second volume on cinema and Los Angeles is planned — though to what extent the likes of Magnolia (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999) and Short Cuts (dir. Robert Altman, 1993) can be said to represent “an important new stage in Los Angeles’ cinematic history” remains to be proven.
Early in Hollywood Cinema and the Real Los Angeles, Shiel laments the absence of an official film museum in Los Angeles — an authoritative institution that might memorialize and explicate the city’s distinctive relationship with cinema, without letting Hollywood’s own sentimental approach to history become the established story. With its blend of urban history and innovative film analysis along with a generous number of images, Shiel’s book offers a persuasive model for such an institution. Thanks to him, we already know much more about how Los Angeles came to be known through the movies.