We are pleased to offer an excerpt from the June 2022 edition of the online magazine Bright Wall/Dark Room. Their theme this month is “Melodrama.” In addition to the excerpted essay below by Nathaniel Missildine on “L.A. Story,” the new issue also features essays on “Brief Encounter,” “All About My Mother,” “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “Fear of Fear,” “The Happiness of the Katakuris,” “Polyester,” and “Simon Schama’s Power of Art.”
You can read our previous excerpts from the magazine by clicking here. To subscribe to Bright Wall/Dark Room, or look at their most recent essays, click here. The below art is by Tom Ralston.
I once laughed at a story while in Los Angeles that made the whole world into an easy, ocean breeze. I’d just arrived to the city from the other end of the country, with the usual delusions of thinking I understood the delusions, and had settled into the generosity of a temporary place to stay offered by an old friend. He was recounting an awkward interaction with a minor celebrity at a party “in the hills.” Whether his story was embellished or even true at all was beside every single point. I hadn’t come all this way for disbelief.
I would never fully drop preconceptions about the place, even after losing a job working on the periphery of the lives of other minor celebrities. Even after my persistent self-consciousness told me I didn’t belong. Even after driving home slowly one night and turning south off Sunset Boulevard, where I dipped toward the infinite lights of an unraveling metropolis and realized that no movie about L.A. had come close to conveying its wondrous radioactive spectacle. No lofty vision of either paradise or apocalypse could compete with the sprawling actuality. No one had arrived yet, and nothing at all ever belonged.
The opening shot of L.A. Story is of a sun-dappled swimming pool, with a view toward downtown as a giant hot dog passes overhead. It’s an allusion to another movie, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), where a helicopter transports a Christ statue over modern-day Rome. This updated vision, replacing a savior with a snack, is from Steve Martin (who wrote and starred in the film directed by Mick Jackson). We’re looking at the beloved Tail o’ the Pup stand as it’s suspended over the new post-decadent sweet life of Los Angeles, California. From the deck of the pool, a woman in a bikini waves back.
More daydreams follow. Neighbors synchronize a slow-mo dance through morning sprinklers. There’s a sign for “Libra Parking Only,” and a man on the phone in the backseat of his stretch limo getting towed. Over it, Charles Trenet sings “La Mer,” the original version of “Beyond the Sea,” as though this setting has sailed far west of its own coast.
Nonetheless, we land on a big-name comedian. Steve Martin plays and resembles the narrator and hero, Harris K. Telemacher. “I’ve had seven heart attacks, all of them imagined,” Harris explains in voiceover while on a stationary bike in the park. Another stationary bike rider collapses behind him, clutching his chest, and is carried away on a stretcher. Harris, oblivious, rhapsodizes about this Eden.
His is a practiced blasé. Harris drives in traffic detours through backyards and down steps while yawning. He barely shows up on time for his job as a TV weatherman, a post that, given the unchanging 72°, can only be appropriately done by making fun.
All this is to say that Harris is unhappy, in his work, in his love life, and in his balmy living conditions. This sets up his crisis and our conflict—a meet-cute of the existential and the clownish. Or as the bratty boss at the news station (played by a young Woody Harrelson) warns after the weather report, “More wacky, less egghead.” It gives us a theme that will turn loopier, more mannered, and finally, way out there.
But first, we’ll need the wackiness for narrative momentum. On the freeway, Harris exchanges gunfire with fellow motorists like it’s a casual traffic nuisance. He drives his car ten feet to visit his adjacent neighbor. At night, he’s politely mugged by one of the robbers in an orderly line at an ATM.
These tropes were broad enough, well-worn already in the early ‘90s, to reassure a general audience that such societal ills would only ever happen, and could only be casually tossed off, in fast-lane L.A. It’s not like the city could ever be a bellwether for the rest of the country or anything.