Downtown Los Angeles in Film: Its Grimy, Gorgeous Past and Its Many Futures
Maybe I prefer my sci-fi romance with a little more dystopian grit, but the world of Spike Jonze’s Her was too sterile for my taste, particularly downtown Los Angeles. This was the clean corporate future of 2001, not the messy dilapidated future of Blade Runner and Alien. I found the antiseptic downtown L.A. of Her much more depressing than the ramshackle Blade Runner version, but just as Blade Runner’s dimly lit pan-Asian dystopia spoke to America’s ’80s anxieties, Her’s warm-toned, hyper-gentrified hybrid of L.A. and Shanghai landscape spoke to current concerns about the city’s direction. My nostalgia for the shitty dystopian downtown, the downtown L.A. of The Terminator and They Live and Repo Man and Demolition Man, has everything to do with my upbringing in the shitty dystopian L.A. of the ’80s and ’90s, which was cloaked in smog and social unrest and complicated racial politics.
While the gentrification of downtown has resulted in a lot of brand-new pre-fab skyscrapers that have the faceless attractiveness of downtown as envisioned by Her, even the most cleaned-up areas remain bordered on all sides by extreme poverty. Skid Row doesn’t exist in the L.A. of Her, only colorfully dressed office drones heading off to their meaningless web jobs. The hybrid city is sparkling and soulless, like an urban planner’s dream blueprints for the safest possible city in the moments before they make contact with the grime of reality. Sometimes I felt like I was watching a really expensive advertisement for a downtown of the future where everything has been converted into Groves and ArcLights. I realized Her’s future was going to be more creepily utopian than flat-out cynical from the moment we found out Twombly had worked for LA Weekly. In Jonze’s sunshine-dappled future, there are no police helicopters and alternative local weekly newspapers still exist.
Her’s sci-fi aesthetics reminded me not of the future, but of the ’90s. It’s the future as imagined via a certain kind of Los Feliz graphic design made popular by the “Beautiful Losers” crew of artists, a clique that included Jonze, and which brought the influence of skateboarding culture and a guerilla feel into their work. But nothing about Her feels particularly guerilla, even when Twombly is trying to break free. There is no rush of blood to any part of the body at any point. Everything is art directed to the point of OCD, and there’s never any physical messiness to mirror the emotional messiness of the human-computer love connection. We never see Twombly ejaculating onto his smartphone’s screen, or anywhere else. When OS Samantha directs Theodore to hit a carnival and spin around, instead of exhilaration there is just the hollow thunk you hear when watching someone strain to look like they’re having the best time ever while taking a selfie.
Her’s subtle dystopia just freaks me out more than an obvious Mad Max dystopia because it’s so plausible. It’s creepy and soulless and spirit-killing the same way that an Apple Store is. Perhaps that’s the point. Her’s production designer, K.K. Barrett, says they “cleaned up the city” and “took away things that weren’t of interest.” Excising the influence of Skid Row, which extends beyond Skid Row itself and is as much a landmark of downtown as the Bradbury Building, was clearly a purposeful choice. The question is, were we supposed to see it as an improvement? Barrett’s comparison of Her’s aesthetics to the interior of Jamba Juice suggests maybe not. Twombly repeatedly stares out the plate-glass picture windows of the Watermarke Building at the beautiful floating skyscape. Is the empty beauty of the twinkling lights meant to mirror the empty comfort of Twombly’s lifestyle, which has never met an important question it wouldn’t prefer to shirk away from in fear? Is he just living in a bubble of ignorance, insulating himself further from reality with games and apps and nudes? Or are we supposed to think it’s actually beautiful? Is the comfort at the expense of reality supposed to be superficially seductive but ultimately awful and artificial, just like OS Samantha? There is horror and dread lingering in the air from the very first shot. Are we supposed to want to live there? I sure don’t. It’s as if David Fincher’s IKEA nightmare world from Fight Club (1999, shot heavily at downtown locations like W. 8th Street, the Olympic Theatre, and South Figueroa) came back to second life.
Since the film industry took permanent root in Los Angeles about a century ago, downtown L.A. has been a very convenient place for filmmakers to shoot in. As the city developed from a handful of distantly scattered landmarks into a major metropolis, the film business evolved around it concurrently. Tracing the history of downtown through its onscreen depiction, you can watch the changes to the cityscape occur in real time. There is an infrastructure in place that makes it possible for buildings to take on a double identity as actual spaces and filming locations, like the college student by day/hooker by night in the downtown-set Avenging Angel (1985). Many major locations in downtown Los Angeles are familiar to anyone who watches movies, since they are substituted in for other places so often, and these buildings have become synonymous with the genres they show up in most frequently.
Downtown itself has undergone multiple transformations over the years, blooming and rotting in tandem with the financial and ecological fortunes of Los Angeles itself. In the last decade, it has once again undergone what optimists would call a “revitalization process,” although cynical realists might just call it gentrification. The expensive apartment complexes, tony restaurants, and sleek shopping centers that popped up as part of this renaissance may seem to have appeared overnight, but it was really a years-long process of development that occurred in fits and starts. These new environments serve dual purposes; as real locations and sets.
It sometimes seems like developers, eager to lure new residents into relocating to downtown, forgot that downtown L.A. isn’t actually just a large stage where filming sometimes takes place. While buildings in formerly desolate neighborhoods were flipped into spaces that could be advertised as artists’ lofts and commuter apartments, it wasn’t until halfway through the ’00s that a Ralphs supermarket was finally built to service the local residents. Before the grocery store opened, downtown residents who’d been lured in by lofts complained about actual livability. All those beautiful new spaces disguised that the area was also a food desert, and a complaint that had been long circulated was suddenly heard at the top once the yuppies and their money started shuffling in to fill up the brand-new empty high-rises. There’s a lazy joke about Los Angeles to be made here; build the facade and the rest will follow! But the joke had a punch line: People kept moving in.
There are a few locations downtown that have been seen on film so many times they form their own sort of genre alphabet, symbols of eras and genres noir, sci-fi, and action comedy.
Why do movie studios love to shoot L.A.’s City Hall – using it as a substitute for all kinds of generic government buildings? Because it’s free! City Hall opened in 1928 and immediately became one of the most frequently shot locations in film. The first proto-noir filmed in downtown L.A. is 1928’s While the City Sleeps, starring Lon Chaney, which shows the newly opened City Hall in the background of a shot. Lady Killer (1933), which stars James Cagney as a gangster who becomes successful in the movie business, also features the building. City Hall appears in the 1953 version of The War of the Worlds, as the shrouded fog of noir begins to give way to the nuclear mist of science fiction. The ’20s also saw the beginning of the construction of more than a dozen Art Deco theaters, which still survive in various states of disrepair, and which are rented out regularly for shoots.
The Bradbury Building
By the ’30s, the utopian splendor of downtown’s first filmed incarnation was already fading into dereliction, setting up the next big genre to utilize downtown’s landscape: film noir. Downtown’s decline could largely be traced to the decline and fall of the Pacific Electric Red Car, once the greatest and largest public transportation in the country, as it fell victim to unprofitable lines and the rise of car culture. The Red Car scandal is documented fictionally in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, just as the machinations of the California Water Wars were illuminated in Chinatown. As crime films became popular, the idea of downtown became inextricably linked with the idea of crime. In the ’40s, Double Indemnity (’44) shot at La Golondrina Cafe on Olvera Street, while Mildred Pierce (’45) and The Blue Dahlia (’46) both lurked downtown at City Hall. The Bradbury Building, built by a gold-mining tycoon in 1893, became an icon of film noir in the ’30s and ’40s, and then later on a symbol of neo-noir. Just a glimpse of its interior, and your mind goes to the dusty urban catacombs of Blade Runner, even if it’s just a subconscious recognition.
The downtown Los Angeles train terminal Union Station appears in countless movies. Sometimes it plays itself, but it’s also been set dressed to stand in for locations like a New York station (Pearl Harbor, 2001), a Miami bank (Catch Me if You Can, 2002), and a 1940s Star Trek holodeck (Star Trek: First Contact, 1996). The Hustler (1961) takes place in New York, but was also filmed in downtown L.A. and at Union Station. By 1969, film noir nostalgia was already setting in, resulting in movies like Marlowe (1969) which uses noir favorite locations the Bradbury Building and Union Station. The Way We Were (1973) uses Union Station for one of its many tearful farewells.
The Biltmore Hotel
In 1984, Eddie Murphy starred in Beverly Hills Cop, which uses the Biltmore Hotel (built in 1923) as the fictional Beverly Palms Hotel, and kicks off the era of the big-budget action-comedy star vehicle (several Police Academy jawns were shot downtown). On the yuppier side you have Splash (1984, at the Biltmore), Bachelor Party (1984, also Hanks, also the Biltmore) and Pretty in Pink (1986, the Biltmore yet again). At the same time that these ’80s excesses are rolling out, there are movies that reflect the more punk, countercultural side of ’80s culture like Repo Man (1984), To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), Barfly (1987), and They Live (1988), which took an actual two-by-four to the chaos of downtown L.A.
In 1990, Garry Marshall declares downtown to be safe again by setting a scene in Pretty Woman there, and Steve Martin echoes that sentiment in L.A. Story (1991), although the Coen brothers respectfully disagree (Barton Fink, 1991). Ghostbusters, a movie that helped rescue New York’s reputation from crack and crime and reestablished it as a safe place to visit (after a rain failed to come and wash the streets clean) was also shot partially in downtown L.A. There are exterior shots of the New York Public Library, but it’s the Los Angeles Central Library’s interior that gets haunted in the movie, and the Ghostbusters HQ is historic Los Angeles landmark Fire Station no. 23. Last Action Hero (1993) marks the death knell of the big-budget action comedy, as Beverly Hills Cop III (1994, shot on location at City Hall, the Biltmore, and the 6th Street Viaduct) sputters out and is outshone by Speed (1994), which swiftly demolishes its competition like a grunge knight coming to slay hair metal.
The Westin Bonaventure Hotel
Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971) is the first huge sci-fi film to use downtown as its backdrop, and the decade sees a resurgence of sci-fi, noir, and the birth of the modern action comedy. By the ’80s, whatever lingering glamour downtown still had was buried under a layer of the toxic soot called smog. This made it the perfect place to shoot Charles Bronson movies (Death Wish II, 1982), have parts of it substitute for Pittsburgh in Flashdance (1983), and use it in the alien invasion miniseries V (1984). By the ’80s, all the previous incarnations of downtown had collapsed in on each other, resulting in a fascinating cross-cultural wasteland that was not too far off from the futuristic projections of Blade Runner (1982).
The Westin Bonaventure Hotel, built between 1974 and 1976, is a cluster of reflective cylinders with a revolving restaurant at the top. An icon of postmodern architecture, the Bonaventure is also an icon of ’80s L.A. and the action comedies that became popular during that decade. Downtown’s Biltmore Hotel may be the most commonly pictured hotel in film, but while it has a luxe, old-timey feel, the Bonaventure is an icon of glowering minimalism; it looks like a Kraftwerk song sounds. The Bonaventure appears in Lethal Weapon 2 (1989), True Lies (1994), and Strange Days (1995). Heat (1995) is practically a sonnet about the Bonaventure, and is generally an elaborate love letter to downtown Los Angeles conducted through many, many, awesome parking-lot shootout scenes. Downtown appears as its dystopian future version in The Rock (1996), Independence Day (1996), Con Air (1997), Face/Off (1997) and Starship Troopers (1997) and then as the naturalist noir version of itself in L.A. Confidential (1997). In 1999, David Fincher uses downtown as a playground for the characters of Fight Club, who treat it like the no-man’s0land it was in 1999, on the cusp of the construction of Disney Hall and the opening of Staples Center.
The 2nd Street Tunnel
Giant irradiated ant movie Them! (1954) utilized a number of downtown locations that would become classics of sci-fi and action: the 6th Street Viaduct tunnel, the 6th Street bridge, and the L.A. River. The L.A. River was once an actual river, but since I have been alive it has been the concrete flue memorialized in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Last Action Hero (1993), and Grease (1978). The 2nd Street tunnel is lined with white ceramic tiles and lit with long strips of neon that you have seen in a billion car commercials, as well as in every action movie ever made.
Even movies that take place elsewhere and mostly shoot there will have a climactic scene that is shot at one of these locations. Boxing movies routinely use Grand Olympic Auditorium to stage big fight scenes; it appears in Rocky, Raging Bull, and Ali. 1936’s Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie, Swing Time, has Los Angeles substitute for New York, which becomes so common that nostalgia for downtown L.A. as a lost era of New York eventually spawns its own show called Mad Men, which premieres in 2007.
They Live is probably my favorite downtown Los Angeles movie; it captures the exuberant chaos of L.A. in the ’80s. It’s also a movie about subliminal messages in corporate advertisements, about being critical and questioning of the media that you are submerged in further every year; in other words, a movie Theodore Twombly should probably revisit. Her’s pedestrian-friendly city, where residents can remain sequestered in pod-like apartments away from the realities of human interaction, isn’t unrealistic just because it’s not to my taste. Los Angeles has never been a city that can be measured by its verticality. It’s a horizontal place, which can lead to charges of sprawl from those looking for a high-rise skyline to orient themselves by. L.A. has no center because it has a hundred different centers. To try to orient the city around a small array of skyscrapers is to try to make Los Angeles into something it is not and doesn’t need to be: New York. Why aim to be a city of skyscrapers when you’re already a city of strange blobby shaped green places dotted with humans and places?
Ever since the ’50s, a long-running criticism of Los Angeles has been its resemblance to Disneyland, where the ungainly aging of a place’s past iterations due to cultural and technological evolution can always be paved over with a coat of paint, some new construction, and a generous planting of fresh flowers, until there is no past left at all. It’s more correct to say that Disneyland is itself patterned after Los Angeles (and, more specifically, after Los Angeles’s Griffith Park), with its different lands standing in for the city’s diverse neighborhoods, all of which can be accessed by a freeway-like monorail loop around the perimeter. But even at Disneyland, there are vestiges of the previous decades, of old outdated rides and projects abandoned halfway through. You just have to know where to look. The blinding flash of new exteriors only goes so far toward distracting viewers from the secret world hidden in the shadows. This phenomenon is not unique to Los Angeles; I have heard New Yorkers talk in the same tones about how there is now a farmers’ market in Union Square where Kids is set. It is dumb to be nostalgic for crime, but it’s not as if crime has vanished since then; it’s just been pushed elsewhere. You need walk only a few blocks away from the nicest parts of the new downtown Los Angeles, the boutique hotels and the fancy coffee shops, to find yourself in a totally different world, landscaped with security gates and sprawling tent domiciles. The L.A. of Her makes more sense if you imagine it’s a giant gated community in the center of an Elysium future.
Or maybe I just didn’t like Her as much as everyone else seems to because I thought Buddhist philosopher Alan Watts (who posthumously befriends Samantha in the AI-inhabited noosphere) was my own private OS, a secret that only I knew about, and I didn’t love the idea of having to share him with everyone else, even though that that’s not very Zen of me. But now I’m willing to share, because Watts understands exactly what I’m trying to say when I talk about why I don’t want Los Angeles to become more like downtown, even though I do actually want the option of public transportation and pedestrianism. Here is Watts laying forth on the future and all that sort of jazz in a speech called “From Time to Eternity”:
We want to abolish the limits of time and space. Therefore we want to get rid of space. We call it the conquest of space. We want to be able to get from San Francisco to New York in nothing flat. And we are arranging to do just that. We do not realize that what the result of doing this will be — that San Francisco and New York will become the same place. And therefore it will not be worth going from one to the other. When you go to another place you say you think you would like a vacation and so let’s go to Hawaii where we think we will find girls in grass skirts dancing the hula on sandy beaches under the sun and the lovely blue ocean and coral reefs and all that sort of jazz. But tourists increasingly ask if such a place, ‘has it been spoiled yet,’ by which they mean ‘Is it exactly like Dallas?’ And the answer is ‘yes.’ The faster you can get from Dallas to Honolulu, Honolulu is the same place as Dallas, so it wasn’t worth taking the trip. Tokyo has become the same place as Los Angeles and increasingly, as you can go faster and faster from place to place, that they as I say, they are all the same place. So that was the result of abolishing the limitations of time and space. Also, we are in a hurry about many things.