California dreaming

Making telly in La-La Land.

Alan Miller

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Eighteenth-century writer Samuel Johnson once observed that when ‘a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’ (1). But he never had to spend a contemporary winter in the angst-ridden place. This winter, I got tired of London and embarked for the shores of California.

Of course, there was no shortage of people warning me not to go. Los Angeles is superficial and glib, they said, the land of dreams and nightmares and smog. Some shamelessly quoted from Hill Street Blues: ‘Be careful out there….’

But think of everything LA’s got going for it. Bombay might have superseded all other cities for number of films made, but LA is still the movie centre of the universe. Okay, lots of films are now shot in Vancouver as a cost-cutting exercise, but the big studios and head honchos are still based in LA. It‘s a young city (only claimed by the USA from the Mexican army in 1846), and encapsulates all that is good and bad about modern America.

The Golden Globe Awards in January 2002 epitomised one side of LA – starland. There were some silly results (Russell Crowe as best actor for A Beautiful Mind? Please), but the awards captured the clamber for celebrity that seems to be the only yardstick contemporary society has for judging a life’s worth. As the ‘stoner’ lead who can’t even string a sentence together in Todd Solondz’s wonderful Storytelling tells his careers adviser: I want to be a TV anchor man.

When gritty social realist British director Ken Loach announced a couple of years ago that he was making a movie in LA, there was much predictable murmuring about ‘selling out’. But he came, conquered and wonderfully portrayed the duality of life in Hollywoodland in Bread and Roses – a film about Mexican immigrants who’ve had enough of cleaning movie moguls’ offices for pitiful wages.

It has been some time since LA gangs the Bloods and Crips were at war. A producer friend of mine is making a documentary about some of those who were involved in the clash of the gangs 10 years ago, and how they eventually got into music and brought a new generation of hip-hop stars into the studio. Harrowing stories about kids in the midst of the ‘projects’ – almost naked, unfed and unfamiliar with white people – is testimony to some of the pressing issues still affecting the USA’s inner cities.

What about high culture, some people ask? LA ain’t got any of that. But visiting places like the Getty Centre, you can’t help but be impressed by the calibre of LA’s cultural institutions. There’s the Museum of Cultural Art, the Los Angeles Museum of Art, or Chinatown, Little Tokyo and Olvera Street, where you can consume contemporary culture to your heart’s content.

What about theatre? Well, there are more (small) theatres in LA than just about anywhere else in the world, with some wonderful productions fronted by well-known faces (Bleak House, currently at LA’s Write Act Theatre, is well worth a look).

But inevitably, everywhere you go people are talking about films. Who’s financing whom? Who’s shafting whom (in every sense of that word)? What films are out, what films are coming out? Filmmakers peddle projects ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous – but at least the USA has a film industry.

An hour from LA and you have the Joshua Tree park and an arid desert; two hours in another direction for skiing at Big Bear; another drive in a different direction offers surfing on the coast…. Can I just reassure Americans that not everybody hates them post-11 September?

While in California I overheard one of the most popular tunes from West Side Story, a film about divisions between gangs. Ironic, then, that the song makes me think that, if we sang it together, we must just help world reconciliation. Altogether now: ‘Life is so good in America, la la la la la America….’

Alan Miller is currently directing a TV show in LA.

(1) See the Samuel Johnson website

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