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I started this series of Virtual Cultural Trips with the city I grew up in, San Francisco, and for Chapter Two we’re moving down the coast to Los Angeles. As someone with Bay Area pride, I’m supposed to hate LA, but the truth is the City of Angels has kinda grown on me over the years, and as the home of America’s entertainment industry, it’s certainly a place that produces a lot of great art. (Think how hard it was for me to pick five films from all the movies Hollywood has made about itself.) Same caveat applies as last time: This isn’t a definitive list; rather, it’s a collection of books, movies, and songs that take my mind to Tinseltown. I hope they do the same for you.
1. Ask the Dust by John Fante
Considered by many to be the definitive Los Angeles novel, this 1939 book tells the story of Arturo Bandini, an aspiring writer living in a seedy Downtown LA hotel during the Great Depression. Bandini stumbles through a series of tragicomic misadventures—largely based on Fante’s own—that take him across the LA Basin, from Long Beach and the Pacific Palisades to the Mojave Desert, surviving an earthquake and falling in love with a Mexican waitress along the way. The novel was adapted into a film, starring Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek, in 2006.
2. The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
It’s ironic—although not inappropriate—that many great noir works are set in sunny Los Angeles. The godfather of LA noir is the author Raymond Chandler, whose signature detective, Philip Marlowe, dug through the city’s underbelly in classic novels including The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, and The Long Goodbye. The latter, which Chandler considered his finest work, was published in 1953 and sees Marlowe investigating a pair of alleged suicides and warding off the femme fatale Eileen Wade. There’s also a fun film version of this one: In Robert Altman’s 1973 adaptation, Elliott Gould plays Marlowe as a gumshoe Rip Van Winkle who has awoken after 20 years and found himself in hippified ’70s Southern California.
3. Post Office by Charles Bukowski
Perhaps the writer most associated with Los Angeles, Bukowski was a prolific, much-imitated poet, but he’s maybe best known for the autobiographical novels starring his alter-ego, Henry Chinaski. The first of these, Post Office, was published in 1971, when its author was already 50 years old, and details the decade-plus he spent working for the U.S. Postal Service in LA. The prose is frank, dark, and sometimes lurid—imagine if Hemingway gave up all pretense of grandeur and fully gave himself over to gambling and drink. (There’s a reason Time magazine called Bukowski “a laureate of the American lowlife.”)
4. The White Album by Joan Didion
Perhaps no one was a more honest critic of American culture in the second half of the 20th century than Joan Didion, and in this 1979 collection of essays, she turns her eyes squarely on California subjects such as the Manson Family, The Doors, Hollywood, the shopping mall, and, of course, herself. She is characteristically uncompromising in her portrayal of each.
5. The Sellout by Paul Beatty
This novel, which in 2016 became the first by an American author to win the Man Booker Prize, also casts a harsh light on Los Angeles—although this one does it in the form of a hysterical satire. Its narrator is an LA black man who attempts to reinstitute segregation and ends up seeing his legal case go to the Supreme Court. Beatty leaves no sacred cow unslaughtered, and while the prose is definitely not for the profanity-averse, the novel will leave readers alternately laughing out loud and cringing at blunt truths about race in 21st-century America.
Want to pick up one of these books? Consider ordering from one of Los Angeles’s great independent bookshops, such as The Last Bookstore or Skylight Books.
Roman Polanski’s 1974 noir classic builds its plot around Los Angeles’s original sin: the California Water Wars, which saw LA, let’s say, “redirect” water away from the agricultural communities of the Owens River Valley. In the course of investigating the murder of engineer Hollis Mulwray (who is based on real-life civil engineer William Mulholland), Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes tangles with the evil Noah Cross (John Huston) and the beautiful Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway). Polanski insisted on a tragic ending—a response, in part, to the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, at the hands of the Manson Family—and the film closes with one of the greatest (and most devastating) lines in film history: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
2. Boyz n the Hood
The movie that launched a whole genre of growing-up-in-the-hood films, John Singleton’s 1991 directorial debut brought the tribulations of life in South Central Los Angeles to the mainstream. (Who can forget high school football star Ricky getting shot dead, only to have his mother find out later that he scored high enough on the SAT to get into college? Crushing.) Singleton was the first African American to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Director, and Boyz n the Hood kickstarted the acting careers of both Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ice Cube.
3. Point Break
My choices have been a little too serious, haven’t they? Let’s have some fun, then, with this totally bonkers action flick about a gang of surfers who rob LA’s banks while wearing rubber masks of former U.S. presidents, and the college football star–turned–undercover FBI agent who takes up surfing in pursuit of them. Sounds completely insane and implausible right? Well, that’s what makes it awesome. The campy dialogue is wildly quotable, and the action sequences, from the surfing to the skydiving to the gunfights, are thrillingly unrealistic. (After seeing this back in 1991, who would have predicted that Keanu Reeves would someday become the world’s biggest action star, or that Kathryn Bigelow would eventually win a Best Director Oscar?) Even though I’ve probably watched this cult classic a hundred times, I can’t sum up my affection for it any better than this Honest Trailer does:
4. The Big Lebowski
As Sam Elliott says in the opening monologue of the Coen Brothers’ 1998 comedy masterpiece, “Sometimes there’s a man, he’s the man for his time and place—he fits right in there—and that’s The Dude and Los Angeles.” More than 20 years later, The Dude abides, and Jeff Bridges’ stoned, jellies-wearing, White Russian–sipping, fumbling shamus is unimaginable in any place other than LA. Sadly, the Hollywood Star Lanes, where the bowling scenes were filmed, has since closed, but anyone familiar with LA will catch tons of SoCal jokes (such as which In-N-Out Burger is closest to Larry Sellers’s house or the Malbu sheriff screaming “Stay out of my quiet beach community!”). Plus, film geeks will note that the plot of Lebowski mirrors that of the LA noir classic The Big Sleep.
5. Mulholland Drive
In 2001, David Lynch reimagined LA noir as only he can, with this tangled tale of a young, new-to-Hollywood actress (Naomi Watts, in her breakout role) who tries to help a woman with amnesia figure out who she is and what happened to her. Or, at least, that’s what the plot seems to be. Mulholland Drive is quintessential Lynch, which means that even if I tried to tell you what really happens in it or what any of it means, you’d have no idea what I was talking about, and I’d probably be wrong anyway. In other words, it will require multiple watches—perfect for quarantine!
Sunset Boulevard (“I’m ready for my close-up”); Blood In Blood Out (famed for its San Quentin scenes, it’s also a touching story of an East LA family); Swingers (hilarious, pitch-perfect portrayal of the mid-’90s Hollywood party scene); American History X (captured SoCal’s simmering racial tensions), Training Day (a corrupt cop’s tour of LA’s gangland, inspired by the LAPD Rampart scandal)
1. “California Girls” by The Beach Boys
In the early to mid-’60s, no band defined the California sound—or the way people across the U.S. imagined the Golden State—more than the Beach Boys. This 1965 hit saw the band at a crossroads, as Brian Wilson began to move away from the surf aesthetic and experiment with psychedelics, and the Beach Boys took on the shimmery sound that would soon become the trademark of their groundbreaking record Pet Sounds. But, at its core, behind those sweet harmonies, “California Girls” is still just a simple song about how the West Coast is the best coast.
2. “L.A. Woman” by The Doors
If “California Girls” is about your ’60s teen dreamgirl, the title track of the final album The Doors made before Jim Morrison’s death sees her all grown up and becoming “another lost angel” in the “City of Night.” The Doors formed in Venice Beach in 1965, and from the 1967 release of their self-titled debut album until Morrison joined the 27 Club four years later, they helped shift the Southern California sound from the bright sun, sand, and waves of the Beach Boys to the strung-out blues of Hollywood Boulevard. The Lizard King may be buried in Paris, but his spirit still lives in LA.
3. “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses
In 1985, a band called Guns N’ Roses became a Sunset Strip sensation thanks to its hard-driving gigs at clubs such as the Troubadour and the Whisky a Go Go. In 1987, GNR released their debut studio album, Appetite for Destruction, and by the end of that year they were the biggest rock band in the world. While that record is rife with hit singles, its signature song is “Welcome to the Jungle,” which captures the feeling of arriving in the City of Angels only to find that Hollywood is perhaps … not such an angelic place. (“You know where you are? You’re in the jungle, baby!” And you’re gonna diiiiiiiiie…”) The legendary music video ups the ante, with Axl Rose getting off the bus with a piece of straw between his teeth and then becoming, well, Axl Rose.
4. “Straight Outta Compton” by N.W.A.
From its late-’70s birth through most of the ’80s, hip hop was dominated by rappers and DJs from New York. That all changed with N.W.A.’s explosive 1988 debut album, which essentially invented gangsta rap, put California at the forefront of the rap game, and made stars out of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy-E. The lyrics, mostly written by a teenage Cube, were so explicit in their portrayal of life in the ghetto and in their antipathy toward the police that the FBI complained to the N.W.A.’s record label, and the group was banned from performing at venues throughout the country. Of course, that didn’t stop “Straight Outta Compton” from becoming one of the most influential records in music history. (Note: Maybe chase the kids out of the room before pressing play on this track.)
5. “Under the Bridge” by The Red Hot Chili Peppers
Sometimes I feel like I don’t have a partner
Sometimes I feel like my only friend
Is the city I live in
The City of Angels
Lonely as I am
Together we cry
The second single from RHCP’s breakthrough record Blood Sugar Sex Magik, “Under the Bridge” is both a love letter to lead singer Anthony Kiedis’s adopted hometown and a meditation on addiction. If you were alive in 1992, there’s no way you didn’t hear this song—or see its award-winning music video, which was directed by Gus Van Sant (!) and follows Kiedis as he wanders the streets of LA—a million times, and there’s no way you didn’t hum the melody while you read the opening verse above. The Chili Peppers are inextricable from LA, and this song, more than any other, is the reason why.
“La Bamba” by Ritchie Valens (the iconic song from a Chicano kid who became a rock god and teen idol before tragically dying at just 17 years old); “Desperados Under the Eaves” by Warren Zevon (my personal favorite LA song, about a down-and-out alcoholic’s dreams of earthquakes and salty margaritas); “I Love L.A.” by Randy Newman (I hate the LA Lakers, but I have to include the anthem they play after every victory); “Free Fallin’” by Tom Petty, (the lyrics ooze LA, from Reseda Boulevard to Mulholland Drive); “To Live & Die in L.A.” by 2Pac (the greatest rapper ever writes a love letter to “the City of Angels and constant danger”). And for even more LA songs, check out the full playlist.