"I Love LA (We Love It!)" by Winona Bechtle
By the sea stand the oil derricks. Up the canyons
The gold prospectors’ bones lie bleaching. Their sons
Built the dream factories of Hollywood.
The four cities
Are filled with the oily smell
-Bertolt Brecht, “Hollywood Elegies”
To get to work I take the 2 to the 134 and get off at Forest Lawn Drive. The drive is smooth and south and over buildings and sometimes even through encampments underneath freeway overpasses. Approximately three times a week I see the morning burials taking place at Forest Lawn, the coffins covered with a bright green tarp (same color as the grass actually) and a man sitting to the side in a small backhoe. It makes me think for a second of the zero (0) funerals I have been to and how lucky Shotgun Tom Kelly is to still be alive and yelling at me through the radio. I think of NBC to the right and the man in the backhoe to my left and all that lies in front of me as I head to my office on Sunset and Cahuenga and I can almost see Kurt Russell, I mean Snake, pull up next to me and sneer.
Thanks to mastermind John Carpenter (“Halloween,” fantastic synth compositions, “They Live”), Escape from L.A. was unleashed upon a generally unreceptive audience in August of ’96. Starring none other than Kurt Russell as Snake, Steve Buscemi as “Maps to the Stars” Eddie, Peter Fonda, and even Bruce Campbell with a plastic surgeon cameo, Escape from L.A. is the cinematic equivalent of that layer of slime and salt that covers your hair after a day at the beach. In a way it’s fun but you still feel like you need a shower afterwards. In Escape, the U.S. government has fallen under the control of a new president who decides to ban tobacco, alcohol, red meat, firearms, profanity, freedom of speech, and unauthorized marriages. Along with all of that he has also decided to relocate all of the U.S. prisons to the “island of Los Angeles,” recently detached from mainland United States in a massive earthquake (and I will say, the CG in this sequence is…. incredible). Snake (Kurt Russell) is a recently captured criminal who has been exiled to Los Angeles island but has one chance to win his freedom back- he must retrieve a remote that operates the “Sword of Damocles” (really), a super weapon that can destroy all electronics anywhere on the planet with the push of a button! Big twist- the remote is in the hands of the totalitarian President’s unruly daughter and her boyfriend (obviously modeled after Che Guevara). Snake has a limited amount of time to get this all done because he has been injected with a super-virus (everything in this movie is super) that will kill him in a matter of hours if he doesn’t have the antidote, which only the U.S. government can give him. Will he make it?
So, you see, this is the kind of film that can be summarized in 2 minutes or 2 hours depending on how many decrepit L.A. landmarks you want to recall to your decreasingly captive audience.
But I write to you not with critiques of the plot or its camp or even the truly brilliant use of Randy Newman’s “I Love LA” (though, more on that later). Instead, I think that Escape From L.A. might just be one of the most “super” entries in the genre of film noir, and an eerie explanation of my early morning commute.
In Escape From L.A., Los Angeles has entirely crumbled. The freeway systems that once connected the city to itself and the rest of the country fell with the earthquake and the best navigator in town is Steve Buscemi and his dated maps to the stars. If noir was Chandler’s Los Angeles, bleak and bloated with the only traces of integrity existing in the city’s scattered architecture (“About the only part of a California house you can’t put your foot through is the front door,” Chandler 1992), then what does that make Carpenter’s Los Angeles? If the idea of urban utopia is wrapped up in the conviction that progress is possible in cities, if we keep constructing new freeways and building to at least retain an element of that veneer, what happens when it gets knocked down during The Big One? Early on in the film Taslima asks Snake Plissken, “What are you doing here in LA?” His answer: “Dying.”
The ongoing “death” of Snake and the death of the city’s architecture does seem a far cry from the boring middle-class domesticity usually interrupted by the femme fatale and easy money, but both grapple in their own ways with Los Angeles’ fear of race, difference, and incoherency. Author Mike Davis describes this fear of losing coherency in City of Quartz, “…the last ‘coherent’ Los Angeles, that of the 1920’s, found ‘community on a civic level’ because it ‘had a dominant establishment and a dominant population.’ The report clearly implies that because of the decline of Anglo herrenvolk- i.e., the absence of a dominant culture group in an increasingly poly-ethnic, poly-centered metropolis – a ‘dominant establishment’ is more essential than ever.” Arturo Bandini was in the same boat as many of Chandler’s dissatisfied men and women, living in Los Angeles only to find that “when they got here they found that other and greater thieves had already taken possession, that even the sun belonged to the others; Smith and Jones and Parker, druggist, banker, baker, dust of Chicago and Cincinnati and Cleveland on their shoes, doomed to die in the sun, a few dollars in the bank, enough to subscribe to the Los Angeles Times, enough to keep alive the illusion that this was paradise, that their little papier-mâché homes were castles” (Fante, Ask the Dust). The threat of the other within the city is well veiled in most film noir, but the persistent fear of the crumbling coherency is what gives noir its restless and frightened tone, and to have that fear realized in Escape From L.A. is another thing altogether.
Supervillian Cuervo Jones emerges in Escape From L.A. as a real force to be reckoned with. Armed with THE remote to destroy all electronics in the world, Cuervo promises to take over America with the “assistance of an allied invasion force of third world nations that are standing by to attack.” If the closest noir ever got to its fear of an increasingly diverse and evolving Los Angeles was Fante’s description of “people taking things,” then Escape From L.A. literally destroys the social and spatial structures that occupied a place of real privilege in Chandler and Wilder’s noir. The all-seeing eyes of roving private investigators served as a surrogate of sorts for readers and filmgoers to have a centralized point of reference for the social, political, and architectural expanse of the city. With all of that flattened, Escape From L.A. is like the super-noir of the future, a vision of a completely open architecture where the physical design imposes nothing to shape the desires of the convict inhabitants. They are free to control Los Angeles, gain control of the United States, and, without ruining anything, sort of succeed in this.
Many parts of Escape From L.A. seem too smart to be a clever accident. For John Carpenter, and really, anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in Los Angeles, the city’s contradictions and layering (mainly new freeways over old freeways) are nearly impossible not to absorb in some way, to internalize, and maybe even express in the form of a sci-fi/action/greasy/oily/thriller B-movie. Crumbling, glittering, sunparched… there is no mistaking Los Angeles for other cities, and no denying the fact that Buscemi sort of predicted “I Love LA” will be the last song standing (or at least as long as KRTH keeps using it in their promo spots).