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Hollywood Cinema and the Real Los Angeles - review

Hollywood Cinema and the Real Los Angeles
Mark Shiel
Reaktion Bpoks, 336pp, £25

America’s romance with Hollywood, like all legendary love affairs, is conflicted, selfdestructive and ineffable, as no less an expert on romance than F Scott Fitzgerald understood. At the beginning of Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, his narrator, the daughter of a Hollywood mogul based on Louis B Mayer, remarks:

At the worst I accepted Hollywood with the resignation of a ghost assigned to a haunted house. I knew what you were supposed to think about it but I was obstinately unhorrified . . . You can take Hollywood for granted like I did, or you can dismiss it with the contempt we reserve for what we don't understand. It can be understood too, but only dimly and in flashes. Not half a dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads.

This hasn’t stopped any number of writers from trying, and in the 60-odd years since Fitzgerald wrote these words, countless studies of Hollywood have been published, trying to offer the whole equation. In Hollywood Cinema and the Real Los Angeles, the film scholar Mark Shiel sets out to offer not the whole equation, but some of its foundational calculations, to establish the importance of the real Los Angeles, as opposed to the imaginary place “Hollywood”, to American cinema.

The book-jacket blurb opens by asserting that “Hollywood cinema and Los Angeles cannot be understood apart”, a dogmatic claim that is arguable, to say the least; happily it is not one that Shiel ever makes within the book. However, he does want to maintain the primacy of Los Angeles in the development of the Hollywood “dream factory” during the first half of the 20th century. To do so, he traces the evolution of Hollywood cinema across four chapters that use what he calls “a spatial motif” to tie together a dominant genre of film in a given period with what was happening in the urban development – loosely defined –of Los Angeles at the same time.

The first chapter uses the “trace” – images of memory, history, survival – to look at films in the earliest period of film-making, from roughly 1900-20. The second chapter concerns “navigation” in slapstick comedies from the ’teens through to 1930. The third suggests that the “simulacrum” helps us read films about films in the 1930s; finally the book closes with its longest chapter, on “geopolitical pressure points” in films noirs of the 1940s and 1950s, tying these to the Hollywood anti-communist witch-hunts and Los Angeles labour riots.

The description of the last chapter may give an inkling as to some of the questions raised by this structure, which by the end is quite forced and schematic. It’s not clear, to begin with, in what ways “traces” or “simulacra” are necessarily “spatial motifs”. I’m still not sure exactly what Shiel means by saying that films noirs represent Los Angeles as a “geopolitical pressure point” – most of them are resolutely, defiantly local, for starters. I’m also not sure it matters much, however, as the concept is in abeyance for much of the chapter – as indeed, are most of the spatial motifs that Shiel claims will help him interpret the interplay of film-making and urban development. They are themselves a trace of navigation, a latent organisational concept rather than an active heuristic device.

The strength of Shiel’s study is its range and breadth: his knowledge of the films featuring Los Angeles is staggering; there are scores, if not hundreds, of films mentioned here, many of which were new to me (a filmography might have been helpful). As a work of interdisciplinary scholarship, it is impressive, mastering not just film history, but also the sociological study of urban development, while integrating both within a broader conception of American history. It is ambitious, wideranging and intelligent, full of interesting facts and figures.

The first film studio in Los Angeles was apparently established in the back of a Chinese laundry, some time between 1907 and 1909, while the first feature film completely made in Los Angeles was Cecil B DeMille’s The Squaw Man (1914). Early Los Angeles films were surprisingly willing to represent local Mexican and Native American populations, including several early film versions of Helen Hunt Jackson’s bestselling Ramona (an 1884 novel that deserves rediscovery in its own right, as a romance whose identity politics are a century ahead of its time).

The familiar claim that Hollywood was founded so that film-makers could escape Edison’s aggressive enforcement of his camera patents on the East Coast, which I always thought was true, appears to be at least exaggerated, if not pure urban myth (Shiel argues that there is some element of truth to the story). But film-makers also settled in Los Angeles because its climate was better for filming, offering many more hours of brighter sunlight; and because of its variety of landscapes, from coastlines to mountains to deserts to the Spanish missions. By 1922, Los Angeles was responsible for 84 per cent of all film production in the US; a few years later, Los Angeles was described as “a harlot city – gaudy, flamboyant, richly scented, sensuous, noisy, jazzy”, like a “three-ring circus”.

As Los Angeles began to form into a city, Shiel explains, the shapes it took affected the films that were being made and set in it. This is true, if unsurprising: cultural hubs draw people to them who then reflect those surroundings in creative works; London is at the centre of the Victorian novel for the same reason. There is some belabouring of the obvious: it can’t be said that sentences such as “the activity of moving from one part of the city to another was especially prominent at this time” add much to the analysis. And there is the odd lapse – Shiel tells us that the stories of Raymond Chandler brought “into southern California something of the stratification by class of architectural styles so ingrained in his native England”. Chandler was born in Chicago and raised in Nebraska until he was 12, when he moved to England. He returned at 24, settling in Los Angeles for the rest of his life. This would be a minor factual error did it not presume that England had a monopoly on architecture as a marker of class status, when in fact Chandler could easily have learned that lesson in Chicago – or from sitting at home reading The Great Gatsby, with its symbolic houses indicating old and new money. In other words, he falls prey more than once to tendentiousness: trying to locate the significance of Los Angeles can lead him to overstate its singularity. Ultimately, Shiel could have sacrificed some of his breadth for greater depth. His chapter about LA film noir does little more than list a great many of them, and note their urban locations: Murder, My Sweet, much stressed in the introduction, gets a few pages; Sunset Boulevard, two sentences; such classic LA noirs as Out of the Past, Mildred Pierce and Chinatown are not even mentioned.

I would also like to take this opportunity to place a ban on all academic books purporting to use Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacrum – a copy that has no original or real version behind it – for the next half-century. Shiel quotes Baudrillard’s famous claim about Disneyland and America, which has surely outlived any usefulness it might once have had: “Disneyland exists in order to hide that it is the ‘real’ country, all of ‘real’ America that is Disneyland . . . Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, whereas all of Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real but belong to the hyperreal order and to the order of simulation.” As a hyperreal, simulated American from non-Disneyland, I’d like to point out that all of these italics and scare quotes around the idea of a real America make Baudrillard sound suspiciously like Sarah Palin. I refute it thus: by kicking myself.

In the end, this is an impressively researched, ambitious book with much to recommend it. It will be indispensable to students of American film history and representations of Los Angeles; for others, it may end up being slightly less than the sum of its parts.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The London Issue