by John Bailey
“The best films about Los Angeles are, at least partly, about modes of transportation. Getting from place to place isn’t a given. Cars break down; they get flat tires; they get towed.” Thom Andersen’s narration of the trials of Chinatown’s Jake Gittes, a man without wheels after his car crashes head-on into a tree while being shot at by San Fernando Valley farmers, demonstrates how diminished even a cynical detective can become when deprived of a vital Los Angeles badge of identity: “ The loss of a car is a form of symbolic castration, in the movies and in life.” Gittes’ dependency on other drivers is more disturbing to him through the rest of the film than his sliced nostril that slowly heals from scene to scene.
In Sunset Blvd. Joe Gillis (sounds a bit like Jake Gittis) is jumpstarted into the nightmare delusions of silent film queen Norma Desmond when his car, about to be re-possessed by pursuing goons, blows a tire on Sunset Blvd. and he screeches into her driveway.
Michael Douglas abandons his car in Falling Down when he faces traffic gridlock and begins an ever more violent odyssey across an urban Los Angeles wasteland. In many of these films, it is our car that keeps us insulated from the chaos seeping out of the mean sidewalks.
As in his analysis of the myth versus the reality of “water wars” in Chinatown, Andersen looks at Who Framed Roger Rabbit? as a parallel narrative of greed and corruption. The once upon a time illusory golden era of Los Angeles public transportation via the red and green streetcars, is deconstructed by Andersen. The true villain is revealed: not the auto manufacturers, but the city itself…
Re-posted with permission.