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Land of Smoke and Mirrors

Land of Smoke and Mirrors: A Cultural History of Los Angeles

Vincent Brook
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Land of Smoke and Mirrors
    Book Description:

    Unlike the more forthrightly mythic origins of other urban centers-think Rome via Romulus and Remus or Mexico City via the god Huitzilopochtli-Los Angeles emerged from a smoke-and-mirrors process that is simultaneously literal and figurative, real and imagined, material and metaphorical, physical and textual. Through penetrating analysis and personal engagement, Vincent Brook uncovers the many portraits of this ever-enticing, ever-ambivalent, and increasingly multicultural megalopolis. Divided into sections that probe Los Angeles's checkered history and reflect on Hollywood's own self-reflections, the book shows how the city, despite considerable remaining challenges, is finally blowing away some of the smoke of its not always proud past and rhetorically adjusting its rear-view mirrors.

    Part I is a review of the city's history through the early 1900s, focusing on the seminal 1884 novelRamonaand its immediate effect, but also exploring its ongoing impact through interviews with present-day Tongva Indians, attendance at the 88th annualRamonapageant, and analysis of its feature film adaptations.

    Brook deals with Hollywood as geographical site, film production center, and frame of mind in Part II. He charts the events leading up to Hollywood's emergence as the world's movie capital and explores subsequent developments of the film industry from its golden age through the so-called New Hollywood, citing such self-reflexive films asSunset Blvd.,Singin' in the Rain, andThe Truman Show.

    Part III considers LA noir, a subset of film noir that emerged alongside the classical noir cycle in the 1940s and 1950s and continues today. The city's status as a privileged noir site is analyzed in relation to its history and through discussions of such key LA noir novels and films asDouble Indemnity,Chinatown, andCrash.

    In Part IV, Brook examines multicultural Los Angeles. Using media texts as signposts, he maps the history and contemporary situation of the city's major ethno-racial and other minority groups, looking at such films asMi Familia(Latinos),Boyz N the Hood(African Americans),Charlotte Sometimes(Asians),Falling Down(Whites), andThe Kids Are All Right(LGBT).

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-5458-7
    Subjects: History, Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. 1-4)

    Nowhere has the discrepancy between Los Angeles’s rhetoric and historical record been more pronounced than inLa Fiesta de Los Angelesbirthday celebration. First held in 1894 and running in fits and starts through the 1930s, this “carnival, pageant, parade, fandango,” commemoratingLa Reina de Los Ángeles’sfounding as a Spanish colonial outpost in 1781, epitomizes what D. J. Waldie calls the “city of self-inflicted amnesia.”¹ Organized by the largely probusiness, virulently antiunion Merchants (later Merchants and Manufacturers) Association—a body composed largely of Anglo Protestants and German Jews—the initialLa Fiestaserved two interrelated purposes: as a “commercial...

  5. Introduction
    (pp. 5-22)

    Yaanga, Yang-na, Yabit, El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Ángeles del Rio Porciúncula, City of Angels, City of Demons, City of Chaos, Sin City, City of Dreams, City of Desire, Sunshine City, City of Blight, Bright and Guilty Place, the White Spot, the Enormous Village, La La Land, City of the Future, City of Forgetting, Nowhere City, Equivocal City, Fragmented Metropolis, Chameleon Metropolis, Mestizo City, Capital of the Third World, City of Metaphor, City of Lies, City of Quartz, Postmodern Cosmopolis par Excellence—Los Angeles has been called all these things and more, out of pride, love,...

  6. PART I Original Si(g)n

    • CHAPTER 1 The Ramona Myth
      (pp. 25-42)

      Los Angeles didn’t have to wait for Hollywood’s Houdinis to cast its own magic spell. The earliest Christian conversion of the Tongva Indians in the late 1700s was realized not only by military means but also through the arts and sciences of signs. Friar Francisco Palou, an aide to Father Junipero Serra, chief overseer of the California missions, reported the miraculous effect of sacred images in the Spaniards’ first encounters with the Indians. As Serra’s contingent prepared to break ground in 1771 on Mission San Gabriel, the first mission in the Los Angeles area, Palou wrote:

      A great multitude of...

    • CHAPTER 2 Ramona Revisited
      (pp. 43-64)

      Though the novel is no longer required reading in local schools and the two surviving film versions are now mainly of academic interest,Ramona’s mythic traces remain a fixture of the Los Angeles palimpsest: in Spanish Fantasy Past manifestations such as Olvera Street; in the Ramona Pageant held each spring in nearby Hemet; and, most indelibly, in the area’s part theme park, part reliquary, part still religiously functioning colonial-era missions.

      Befitting Ramona’s “birthplace,” Mission San Gabriel Arcangel, situated in the city of San Gabriel, nine miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, lies at the intersection of Mission Drive and Ramona...

  7. PART II Si(g)n City

    • CHAPTER 3 “City with Two Heads”
      (pp. 67-82)

      Mike Davis’s description of Los Angeles after World War II as a “city with two heads” aptly captures the region’s bifurcated power structure, whose two main “growth coalitions” divided along demographic and geographic lines: between a downtown-based, gentile (Christian) old guard tied to the Chandler family’sL.A. Times, and an upstart group of Westside Jewish megadevelopers.¹ A dichotomy prior to World War I, however, spawned by the westward migration of the movie industry, grounds the one that Davis highlights. Moreover, the gulf between the WASP elite of Harrison Gray Otis’s day and the Jews who invented Hollywood was even wider...

    • CHAPTER 4 What Price Hollywood?
      (pp. 83-102)

      “Nobody dreamed that a day was close at hand,” Anita Loos recalled from her days as a silent-era screenwriter, “when that one word Hollywood would express the epitome of glamour, sex, and sin in their most delectable forms.”¹ This tantalizing image not only enhanced the marketability of Hollywood’s films, film stars, and physical location; it all but ordained that the movie capital itself become the object of cinematic scrutiny. A few comedy shorts depicting Los Angeles as a prelapsarian “land of cinematic make-believe,” such as Mabel Normand’sMabel’s Dramatic Career(1913) and Charlie Chaplin’sA Film JohnnieandThe Masquerader...

  8. PART III L.A. Noir

    • CHAPTER 5 Bright and Guilty Place
      (pp. 105-125)

      “The rough beast that is film noir … slouched toward Los Angeles to be born,” Alain Silver and James Ursini declare inL.A. Noir: The City as Character.¹ Los Angeles provided “the quintessential dramatic ground of film noir,” “the essential elements in the invocation of the noir mood,” not because it was darker, meaner, or more hellish than other urban areas but because of its chameleon nature: its ability to combine, as Raymond Chandler himself encapsulated, “mean streets” with “a special brand of sunshine,” natural fecundity with a “wet emptiness,” a “beatific Our Lady Queen of Angels” with the city...

    • CHAPTER 6 Neo-noir
      (pp. 126-150)

      Though it may have taken film noir to a narrative cul de sac,Kiss Me Deadlywas not quite the generic endpoint Paul Schrader suggested. The cycle straggled on, withTouch of Evil(1958)—shot in Venice, California (as a stand-in for a Calexico border town), with an opening scene capped by a car bomb—marking the consensus expiration date. Even the “postnoir” interim of the early to mid-1960s, Foster Hirsch has shown, “far from being a limbo for noir, was a particularly rich period”:Psycho(1960),Blast of Silence(1961),Cape Fear, The Manchurian Candidate(both 1962),Shock Corridor...

  9. PART IV Multicultural L.A.

    • CHAPTER 7 LAtinos
      (pp. 153-169)

      The sixteenth-century novelist Garci Ordóñez de Montalvo, whose mythic description of California as an island paradise inspired the first Spanish explorers, was not far off the mark. “Although physically attached to North America, California is still most accurately thought of as an ecological ‘island,’” explain historians Richard B. Rice, William A. Bullough, and Richard J. Orsi. “Its geographical history is distinct from that of the rest of the continent. Winds, currents, mountains, and deserts isolate the region biologically as effectively as if it were girded by an ocean moat.”¹ Extending the metaphor,SouthernCalifornia, which Helen Hunt Jackson a century...

    • CHAPTER 8 bLAcks
      (pp. 170-188)

      To fill the multicultural gap Hector Tobar finds at the new Plaza museum, more than only Europeans and Asians need to be included. Blacks deserve a place at the table as well, if not at the very head. Not just a few but a majority of the pueblo’s original forty-four pobladores (ten of the twenty-two adults; sixteen of the twenty-two children) were either of full or part African descent. One of the pueblo’s firstalcaldes(Spanish equivalent of mayor), Francisco Reyes, appointed in 1793, was a mulatto.¹ Yet at the city’s first major public celebration of its origins, the La...

    • CHAPTER 9 LAsians
      (pp. 189-208)

      Accepting that the Paleoamerican and Amerindian migrations embarked from the Asian continent, and not counting the African origins ofHomo sapiens, the Asian connection to Los Angeles is the most primordial. By the time of the European incursion in the 1500s, however, this line had become a faint trace in the genealogical palimpsest, long since absorbed into the Chumash, Tongva, and other Amerindian strains. A more recent Asian and Pacific Island imprint was etched courtesy of the Spanish conquests, which included the Philippines, and enabled the Mexican Filipino Antonio Miranda Rodriguez to qualify as a quasi pobladore. Quasi because (as...

    • CHAPTER 10 LAnglos and LAGBTs
      (pp. 209-232)

      If many of the city’s Latinos and African Americans still lack economic parity, and the Asian community a political voice, its Anglo population, while no longer all-powerful, has not been left in the cold. TheL.A. Times, “inventor” of the modern-day metropolis, no longer reigns supreme. The Committee of Twenty-five, an unofficial, all-white chamber of commerce that “held sway through the 1950s and early 1960s,” has long since loosened its clandestine grip. And the city of “two heads” (WASP and Jewish) has sprouted a few more, not all exclusively white.¹ Yet, by the late 1990s/early 2000s, as Edward Soja and...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 233-242)

    Gentrification (and its “ethnic cleansing” adjunct) is not the sole province of Echo Park. Its most powerful effects, since the 2000s, have been felt downtown. As I suggested in chapter 6,Blade Runner–inspired retro chic and postmodern gloss have transformed a noir inner “city of regret,” a governmental center that once “emptied every night,” into a cultural, entertainment, and upscale residential in-spot, largely for affluent whites.¹ Hollywood, of course, has played the transformation both ways. The first film in theTransformersfranchise (2007) and TV series such asNCIS: Los Angeles(2009– ) have mined the burnished inner city...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 243-280)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 281-302)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 303-304)