Looking at some street poetry on a sign in the San Fernando Valley—it was a half-haiku that said “Magnolia Blvd. DEAD END”—I got to wondering, how did we get from Magnolia to La La Land? I can find the line from Magnolia, in 1999, when it rained frogs, back to Short Cuts, with its tremors, six years before. Paul Thomas Anderson had breathed the same yellow air as his idol Robert Altman (and even stood behind him as “back-up” director when Altman later finished his last movie, A Prairie Home Companion). From there, I can see connections all the way back to The Long Goodbye, Altman’s weirdly random Los Angeles detective film, released by United Artists in 1973. Films in that family portrayed marginal show business characters who would have been at home in John Schlesinger’s The Day Of The Locust, before they burned the city down.
In fact, The Long Goodbye is something I watch a lot, and not just because I’m fascinated by Los Angeles street cinema. I never miss the Mexican ending, where Elliott Gould does a little dance after shooting the buddy who double-crossed him. But the best part, other than young Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cameo, is the way Gould’s Philip Marlowe wanders around mumbling, more or less, “it’s all right by me.” It’s his way of coping with the strange, almost ineffable eccentricity of this town.
There’s also a dirty, broken line that runs from The Long Goodbye back to Robert Culp’s Hickey & Boggs, another detective film, which was released by United Artists a year earlier. Walter Hill was the writer. Both pictures belong to the “smog noir” resurgence, and this one, by my hazy recollection, had an early modern version of the moment where the anti-heroes, played by Culp and Bill Cosby, get tongue-lashed by a police superior. In one way or another, the scene surfaced in pictures from Lethal Weapon to Last Action Hero. They were all distant cousins in big, messy, palm-lined metropolis that we pretended was paradise, when everyone could see it wasn’t.
Elsewhere, the cinematic string ran to some uncomfortable places. At one point, in 1997, Anderson turned our show-business myths inside out with Boogie Nights, about hopes and dreams in the porn world. In another direction, the gang movie Colors begot Boyz N The Hood begot Straight Outta Compton.
All of those were too deeply rooted, too real, to be pretty. On most days, after all, Los Angeles is not a pretty place. But they were beautiful, like the corruption in Chinatown.
Then came Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, with its 14 Oscar nominations—obviously a fine film, but so perfect, so sweet. How did we get there? It can’t be a reach back to Singin’ In The Rain. That picture was made in 1952, 33 years before Chazelle was born, in Rhode Island, in 1985. And no one took it all that seriously even then—it got just two Oscar nominations, and no wins.
There might be a kinship with Swingers, Doug Liman’s lounge-hipster, movieland fable of 1996. But that story was a broke-down tour of hangouts of a sort that look so much tidier, so much more appealing in La La Land.
Then again, Jon Favreau wrote and co-starred in Swingers, which was shot around Hollywood and Los Feliz some 20 years ago. And even he lives in my la-lovely neighborhood now.