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The Valley Plays Itself

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Los Angeles

Three of Paul Thomas Anderson’s first four movies take place in the San Fernando Valley, where he and I both grew up. This alone probably made me a mark for PTA fandom, as no other director has ever portrayed the Valley as Anderson does: lovingly. The Valley’s reputation in Los Angeles is a bit like New Jersey’s in New York. People in Los Angeles proper are known to hate on the Valley for being 10 degrees hotter, for its supposed lack of culture, for being far away (mostly psychologically). But if you’ve grown up there, you find that those hang-ups are irrelevant. The Valley is its own creature, part of Los Angeles but also a world of its own. Suburban sprawl means lots of space for riding bikes, green city parks, big backyards with avocado trees and swimming pools. It includes a diverse cross-section of industrial zones, rich neighborhoods littered with tacky McMansions, and ranch land right out of the Old West.

Paul Thomas Anderson, like his L.A. forefather Robert Altman, embraces the sprawl. Why not tell several different stories with loose threads? Why limit yourself to one great performance in a movie if you can get 20? Why pick one genre when you can pull from everything and make movies that push the whole idea of genre to its city limits?

There are a couple of actual backlots (Universal Studios and Warner Bros.), but many shows and movies are shot in locations throughout the Valley. If you have watched television or films at any point over the last half-century, you are familiar with the Valley. Most things shot in the Valley are theoretically set somewhere else. The Valley is the Spielbergian suburbs of E.T., the dystopian dust-land of The Terminator, and the literal dust bowl where the Joads live in The Grapes of Wrath. The Bates house was built on that Universal backlot for Psycho in 1960, modeled after the Edward Hopper painting House by the Railroad, and the airport runway good-bye between Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca was shot in part at Van Nuys Airport. While the Valley’s many suburbs often play safe, suburban small towns, the Valley proper is more complicated. When you Google “shot in the valley” without specifying “film” or “TV,” all kinds of nightmare news stories come up, some of which were also recycled into plotlines in Hollywood movies. The 1997 North Hollywood shootout that’s referenced in Nightcrawler and whose perpetrators were reportedly inspired by Heat happened at a Bank of America a couple of miles from my family’s house.

In the ’80s, the Valley became famous for the mall culture depicted in Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High and for the yuppie subtype known as the Valley girl, skewered in Martha Coolidge’s brilliant Valley Girl. The Valley girl was denigrated as empty-headed and consumerist, perpetuating the downfall of the English language through upspeak, “like,” and, later, vocal fry. But as a Valley girl hanging out aimlessly at the mall in the ’80s, I didn’t see the mall as a cultural wasteland. It was just a place to observe human beings in a habitat, to check out an endless carnival of faces. To, like, y’know, hang out? Susan Sontag graduated from North Hollywood High at age 15, which means that “Valley girl” is a term that encompasses both Sontag and Kim Kardashian, each pushing her own unique brand of California English.

The Valley is everywhere and nowhere in media. But in reality, it’s peculiar and extraordinary, which is exactly what Paul Thomas Anderson captures in his movies set there. He portrays the Valley as a specific place, rather than as a stand-in for Anytown, USA. And furthermore, he saw the same beauty that I felt I saw in the Valley’s wonderland: the Ed Ruscha–like beauty of mini malls and gas stations painted against dark night skies and flat, open, blue daylight.

PTA’s Boogie Nights (1997) focuses on the porn industry, which has traditionally been located in the Valley. I have always found the porn world fascinating, and not just for the obvious reasons. It’s such a microcosm of the movie studio system, with its own stars, awards shows, premieres, and studio rivalries. (Like the real studio system, the porn studio system has also fallen victim to pirating and the widespread availability of content on the Internet.) Just as porn is the fun-house mirror version of the studio system, the Valley is the fun-house mirror version of Los Angeles. L.A. has mansions that are rented out for films, but it’s only in the Valley that the mansions are rented out for porn shoots, too. Boogie Nights is a valentine to the ’70s golden age of porn, but it’s also a nostalgia trip for porn in the late ’90s, when the studio system in the Valley was at its most baroque.

PTA returned to the Valley for 1999’s Magnolia and for 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love, and each is, in its own way, a love letter to its setting. I saw Magnolia on Magnolia Boulevard, at the AMC Burbank Town Center 8, a multiplex that already felt like a dinosaur by then. I watched Punch-Drunk Love, which made me homesick, in an East Coast college dorm room with a confused friend who kept yelling, “THIS MOVIE IS WEIRD!” despite my repeated death stares every time she did so.

What follows is a selected Los Angeles travelogue related to Paul Thomas Anderson’s San Fernando Valley trilogy, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love,1 with a couple of non-Valley locations.

Boogie Nights

Hot Traxx Disco

Filming location of Hot Traxx in film, Boogin NightsJohn Humble

You probably know the San Fernando Valley suburb of Reseda from The Karate Kid. The building that plays Hot Traxx Disco, where Boogie Nights opens, was actually a musical venue called the Reseda Country Club in 1979, around the time the movie takes place. Generations of important West Coast acts played the club, including the Beach Boys, Guns N’ Roses, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The club, whose interior also serves as the interior of Hot Traxx, closed in the late ’90s, and the site has since been repurposed into a church, but the club entrance as it appears in the movie is still clearly visible.

There was a real Hot Traxx, an actual disco on Van Nuys Boulevard. But it was 21-and-under, so it’s more likely that the fictional club is a conflation of 21-and-up ’70s Valley discos like My Uncle’s Disco and Shot of Gold. The Boogie Nights script describes the club as being in Van Nuys, which makes more sense than Reseda because Van Nuys was the epicenter of the porn industry during the golden age. Van Nuys is, to me, the ur-Valley neighborhood: simultaneously urban, suburban, and industrial; at once run-down and brand gleaming new. The neighborhood is oriented around the main drag of Van Nuys Boulevard, an arterial thoroughfare that runs north and south through the heart of the Valley. In the Boogie Nights ’70s, Van Nuys Boulevard was a hub for cruising, the practice of aimlessly driving up and down the strip to show off your sweet customized ride. The Van Nuys cruising2 culture is captured for all eternity in the 1979 movie Van Nuys Blvd., which, like Boogie Nights, is an amazing depiction of Los Angeles on the cusp of the ’80s. It’s a must-see, along with Exhausted: John C. Holmes, the Real Story, for Boogie Nights completists and anyone who likes B movies.

Jack Horner’s House

Filming location for Jack Horner's house in movie, Boogie NightsJohn Humble

Jack Horner‘s house is presumably in the San Fernando Valley, but the actual shooting location is in West Covina, a suburb in the neighboring San Gabriel Valley. Nevertheless, Jack’s place is a quintessential Valley house. In California homes, the swimming pool is the hearth, the place where all the action takes place. Pools serve as gathering places for families and friends who don’t have pools, and in Boogie Nights, the pool is the home base for Jack Horner’s pseudo family of porn stars and film crew. The tiki bar, sadly, does not line the pool in real life, but other than that, the backyard still looks pretty much exactly the same as it does in the movie, although it feels more wholesome without the cocaine that flows like guacamole throughout that scene.

While Hollywood’s rich and famous live in tony communities like Bel Air, Brentwood, and Malibu, the Valley is the home of celebrities B-list and under and all the people who work below the line (although, Calabasas … ). It’s not exactly porn, but the Valley accommodates all kinds of entertainment fringe communities — like the one PTA’s father, Ernie Anderson, a horror-movie-show host by the name of “Ghoulardi,” was part of. Ernie moved to L.A. and found success as a voice actor, and entertained friends like Tim Conway and Harvey Korman with drinks and jokes at his Studio City home. Conway has said he thinks Horner was based on Ernie Anderson.

There’s never an L.A. season when it’s inappropriate to lounge around the pool, and February just means more reason to turn on the hot tub. If that sounds like nonstop hedonism, it’s mostly a lot more innocent than that. The California pool party is characterized by a few phenomena familiar to locals: the presence of random children running around, the wafting scent of pot smoke, and infinite reserves of chips and salsa. Some other great depictions of the California endless pool-party lifestyle are found in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Laurel Canyon, and that fairly recent episode of Mad Men in which Don Draper trips the light fantastic at such a gathering.

The Drug Dealer’s House

Location of Rahad the drug dealer's house in movie, Boogie NightsJohn Humble

On the Boogie Nights director’s commentary track during the epic drug-deal-gone-wrong scene in the last third of the movie, PTA says, “This scene, I think, is also just a definitive Valley scene. If you grew up in the fuckin’ Valley and you ever went up to any of those houses in the Hills, y’know, it makes sense for you. With the rocks on the wall.” And yes, growing up in the Valley, you eventually find yourself in a car on the way to some random house of ill repute in the Hills, through a friend of a friend of a friend, feeling weird and tense in the party atmosphere. The winding roads and many cul-de-sacs of the Encino Hills are a favorite stop for teenagers aimlessly driving around, since they are a great spot to … study.

If the Encino house where Alfred Molina’s character, Rahad Jackson, lives looks familiar, it might be because it looks like any number of houses in vintage porn. Like the movie itself, it’s a symbol of transition, the tropes of one decade’s louche drug mansions morphing into those of the next. The ’70s are still there in the “rocks on the wall,” but the jewel-toned lighting scheme and brand-new technology (cassettes!) are pure ’80s. It’s still early when we see the house in Boogie Nights, but in a few years, sketchy mansions like these will have assumed their full ’80s coke-palace form: ultramodernist boxy architecture, black leather couches, walls of Lucite bricks, plush white carpeting, glass-and-marble furniture.

The whole scene at Rahad’s house is a heavily fictionalized take on some aspects of the Wonderland murders. While Dirk Diggler is mostly based on John Holmes, Rahad Jackson is based somewhat on Eddie Nash, the cocaine kingpin whom Holmes betrayed. Anderson was beguiled by the description in a Rolling Stone article of the “sheen of sweat” on Nash’s body in a Speedo. The real Wonderland murders took place not in a Valley mansion, but in a Laurel Canyon townhouse. In contrast with the actual Wonderland massacre, which was one of the bloodiest and most notorious L.A. crimes since the Manson family murders, Anderson gives Boogie Nights an upbeat twist and delivers one last reversal you’re not expecting. It’s a surprise ’70s happy ending!


The Fox Fire Room

Fox Fire Room - filming location from MagnoliaJohn Humble

In making “the epic, the all-time great San Fernando Valley movie,” PTA set much of the action along the east-west thoroughfare of Magnolia Boulevard, which spans the east side of the SFV. The Fox Fire Room is where William H. Macy’s character, “Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith, has a meltdown confessing his love for Brad, the hot bartender with braces. The Valley is dotted with dive bars like the Fox Fire, dark holes in the wall lit with dim Christmas lights that feel permanently stuck in the mid-’60s, despite now being shoulder to shoulder with dispensaries and vaporizer stores. Los Angeles is not much of a bar town for one very obvious reason (driving) and a less obvious one: There is nothing that is not better in Los Angeles when done outside. I have always felt that the dark, dim confines of a bar might be more appealing to me if I had bad weather to escape from. For bars to escape into, though, the Fox Fire Room is perfect. It has dark wood and wine-colored carpeting, and it’s impossible to tell what time of day it might be outside when you’re in there.

Bryson Apartment Hotel

Bryson Apartment Hotel - Location from film, MagnoliaJohn Humble

Magnolia’s prologue takes place at the Bryson Apartment Hotel, a historic building in MacArthur Park that dates back to 1913, which in Los Angeles qualifies as incredibly old. It was designed in the Beaux Arts style and became known as a glamorous destination in the ’20s, before fading into disrepair as MacArthur Park became increasingly run-down over the years. The Bryson played Walter Neff’s home in Double Indemnity, and it also shows up in late-20th-century neo-noirs The Grifters and Barfly. It was designated a historic place in 1983 and received a multimillion-dollar makeover in 1999 that brought it up to snuff. With its rooftop sign and glowering towers, the Bryson is a symbol of L.A. noir, which made it the perfect place to stage the darkly comic opening sequence about a paradoxical murder, narrated by magician Ricky Jay. MacArthur Park was built in the 1880s to be the Riviera of Los Angeles, but by the 1980s it was considered derelict and sleazy, like Times Square and many other aging urban centers during that decade. In 2007, a May Day rally for citizenship for undocumented immigrants ended with the LAPD coming in wearing riot gear, firing rubber bullets, and wielding batons, in an incident dubbed the “May Day Melee,” foreshadowing current events.

Punch-Drunk Love

Barry’s Office

Location of Barry's office from film, Punch Drunk LoveJohn Humble

As a city of cars, Los Angeles is by necessity also a city of auto mechanics. Barry Egan works in a nondescript warehouse in Chatsworth that looks like any number of nondescript auto body shops in the Valley — a boxy building with a painted logo lettered on the outside. The genericness of Barry’s office helps the specific and surreal narrative of the movie to feel as if it’s taking place on a heightened plane. Punch-Drunk Love is PTA’s last real SFV movie, and he depicts the Valley as William Eggleston did the South. Anderson finds the beauty in the Valley’s unpretentious qualities — its concrete everywhereness, its beautiful neon lights, the breadth of Light and Space.

The Mattress Man’s Store

Location for Dean's Mattresses from film, Punch Drunk LoveJohn Humble

The mattress store is another transformation of a mundane space — in this case, changing a little box mattress store in Pomona into the terror-dome where Barry confronts his nemesis, Dean the Mattress Man. PTA’s Mattress Man, portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a spoofily loving re-creation of an ’80s commercial outtake featuring “Vinnie T The Furniture Guy.” This is another example of Anderson infusing a very generic and common sight with holiness. The mattress store today is a 99-cent store. Even though it’s the type of thing you see everywhere, this building feels Californian to me, if only for the amount of plate glass used.

Le Petit Chateau

Le Petit Chateau location from Punch Drunk LoveJohn Humble

The restaurant where Barry beats up the bathroom on his dinner date with Lena is a 50-year-old establishment in North Hollywood on Lankershim Boulevard. It is one of a handful of traditional fancy French restaurants in Los Angeles dating back to the Mad Men era, when they were most popular. With a Loire Valley castle exterior and a kitschy Francophilic interior, it feels frozen in time in a good way. In the Valley, recent history is blended down into one unidentifiable time span. That’s one of the reasons it makes for such a great filming location: It can sub for any decade from the ’40s onward. Any era before that, you’re better heading downtown or to a soundstage. Le Petit Chateau is notable for surviving this long without changing, because in Los Angeles a restaurant from 1964 is practically an ancient relic. 

This piece has been updated to reflect that the fictional settings of There Will Be Blood were New Mexico and California, not Texas, and that the perpetrators of the North Hollywood shootout were reportedly inspired by the movie Heat, not the other way around.

Filed Under: Paul Thomas Anderson Week, Movies, Paul Thomas anderson, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, Los Angeles, San Fernando Valley

Molly Lambert is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ mollylambert