In Los Angeles, Autopia Meets Noir

Double Indemnity /

In 1971, architectural historian Reyner Banham wrote Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, which revised the view of L.A., at its lowest point, as a “polluted, monstrous, empty place,” said Vincent Brook, who teaches media studies at UCLA, at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in Los Angeles. “Banham was a neo-booster of the city, a revisionist, laying out a vision of a proto-New Urbanist movement.” Brooks describes the tenets of Banham’s book, and then takes them further, describing how film makers have played with idealized images of the city and its car culture, “autopia,” to create “L.A. Noir,” a special kind of noir found in classic films like Double Indemnity (seen above), Chinatown, L.A. Confidential, and, finally, Blade Runner.

The modern poet Gertrude Stein famously went to Oakland, California, and said “there’s no there there.” That sentiment, Brooks said, was widely applied to Los Angeles by the end of the 60s as well. The view was it was a “set of suburbs in search of a city.” But Banham saw the “complex unity and unique qualities of the city, with its many-centered growth.” Los Angeles, he explained, is a multi-hub city.

Banham identified four facets of this amalgamated urban landscape:

Surfurbia: A combination of surf community and suburbia. The beach-side communities, including Malibu and Santa Monica, promoted an alternative lifestyle. They formed a “city on the shore,” which was “anti-materialist and anti-consumption.” While those communities may have started out that way, today, that materialism has taken over today, as outdoor shopping malls are omnipresent.

santa monica
Bohemian beach boys and girl, Santa Monica, early 60s / Rosamondpress

The Foothills: “In Los Angeles, the higher you go, the more affluent it gets.” There, the great West Coast modernists began experimenting with new forms. In the Hollywood Hills, Richard Neutra built his many glass houses, as Pierre Koenig created the Stahl House (Case Study House #2), and John Lautner created the Bond villain getaway, the Chemosphere. Many of these modern architects were actually influenced by the Spanish hacienda style, which called for integrated indoor and outdoor spaces, with open fronts and backs.

Chemosphere by John Lautner / Pinterest

Plains of Id: This is what Banham called the “endless grid of streets in the valley below.” There he found the “cathedrals of consumption, with its assemblage-style ‘dingbat’ architecture.” It’s there, along with New York, that subdivision mania first struck, and, unfortunately, spread across the country and the world.

Example of Dingbat architecture in Los Angeles / Architizer

Autopia: “This is perhaps his most creative contribution to our understanding of Los Angeles.” With the car, he saw a “city of mobility playing out against its monumentality.” He saw Los Angeles as a “text that can only be read through the rear-view mirror.” The automobile, with its expansive yet fast views out the window, is deeply connected with the motion picture. “They are both about moving.” Being in a car is “not unlike being in a movie.” In the mid 50s, Disneyland created a theme park ride called Autopia; Los Angeles just scaled it up.

Autopia at Disneyland / Disney Wikia

But just as autopia started as a exciting, shiny new thing, its dark side soon became apparent. “Los Angeles has always had a deep ambivalence. It’s both the new Jerusalem and the new Babylon. It’s a paradise and a hell. A bright but also a guilty place.”

These ideas have played out in the movies. In the classic noir Double Indemnity, the automobile plays a central role. Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), an insurance salesman, and Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) plot to kill her husband for the insurance money. Neff eventually strangles Mr. Dietrichson from the backseat of a car while Phyllis drives on.

Here, “the automobile is about mobility but then immobility,” as Neff kills Phyllis to cover his tracks and is then invariably caught by the police. “The idea of the freedom and independence of the car, the opportunity for upward mobility, is turned on its head. In noir, the car has to lead to tragedy and downfall.”

Walter Neff in car in Double Indemnity /

Brooks traced this narrative through a slew of L.A. noir films over the decades, from Chinatown to L.A. Confidential and then Crash, “where the only way to meet anyone in L.A. is through an accident.” In recent years, Drive and Nightcrawler, neo-noirs, have continued this dark dialogue with the automobile.

Finally, we get to Blade Runner, “future noir,” where there is a striking absence of cars on the streets, given they all fly through the sky in the Los Angeles of the near future. But, in the first-run release (not the later director’s cut), Harrison Ford and Sean Young drive off into the light.

“It’s an autopian note. They are heading to never, never land.”

One thought on “In Los Angeles, Autopia Meets Noir

  1. roadtripjamie 06/05/2015 / 8:48 pm

    I enjoyed the piece, and the links, but wanted to fine tune one part. You wrote “The modern poet Gertrude Stein famously went to Oakland, California, and said “there’s no there there.”

    The truth is, Gertrude Stein grew up in Oakland, and years later she went back home to a neighborhood that had totally changed (her old house demolished and its gardens subdivided, as per usual.) Other nearby prose in her Autobiography makes her longing / nostalgia more clear:

    “… The house the big house and the big garden and the eucalyptus trees and the rose hedge naturally were no longer existing… what was the use… if I had not been I then that place would not be the place that I could see..”

    PS Somewhere on YouTube is a link to a fantastic 1972 BBC TV show (Reyner Loves LA) that tracks Mr. B as he drives around LA — guided by the “Baede-Kar”, an 8-track tape recorded tour.

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