Land of Smoke and Mirrors: A Cultural History of Los Angeles

Land of Smoke and Mirrors: A Cultural History of Los Angeles

Land of Smoke and Mirrors: A Cultural History of Los Angeles

Land of Smoke and Mirrors: A Cultural History of Los Angeles


Unlike the more forthrightly mythic origins of other urban centers--think Rome via Romulus and Remus or Mexico City via the god Huitzilopochtli--Los Angeles emerged from a smoke-and-mirrors process that is simultaneously literal and figurative, real and imagined, material and metaphorical, physical and textual. Through penetrating analysis and personal engagement, Vincent Brook uncovers the many portraits of this ever-enticing, ever-ambivalent, and increasingly multicultural megalopolis. Divided into sections that probe Los Angeles's checkered history and reflect on Hollywood's own self-reflections, the book shows how the city, despite considerable remaining challenges, is finally blowing away some of the smoke of its not always proud past and rhetorically adjusting its rear-view mirrors.

Part I is a review of the city's history through the early 1900s, focusing on the seminal 1884 novel Ramona and its immediate effect, but also exploring its ongoing impact through interviews with present-day Tongva Indians, attendance at the 88th annual Ramona pageant, and analysis of its feature film adaptations.

Brook deals with Hollywood as geographical site, film production center, and frame of mind in Part II. He charts the events leading up to Hollywood's emergence as the world's movie capital and explores subsequent developments of the film industry from its golden age through the so-called New Hollywood, citing such self-reflexive films as Sunset Blvd., Singin' in the Rain, and The Truman Show.

Part III considers LA noir, a subset of film noir that emerged alongside the classical noir cycle in the 1940s and 1950s and continues today. The city's status as a privileged noir site is analyzed in relation to its history and through discussions of such key LA noir novels and films as Double Indemnity, Chinatown, and Crash.

In Part IV, Brook examines multicultural Los Angeles. Using media texts as signposts, he maps the history and contemporary situation of the city's major ethno-racial and other minority groups, looking at such films as Mi Familia (Latinos), Boyz N the Hood (African Americans), Charlotte Sometimes (Asians), Falling Down (Whites), and The Kids Are All Right (LGBT).


Nowhere has the discrepancy between Los Angeles’s rhetoric and historical record been more pronounced than in La Fiesta de Los Angeles birthday celebration. First held in 1894 and running in fits and starts through the 1930s, this “carnival, pageant, parade, fandango,” commemorating La Reina de Los Ángeles’s founding as a Spanish colonial outpost in 1781, epitomizes what D. J. Waldie calls the “city of self-inflicted amnesia.” Organized by the largely probusiness, virulently antiunion Merchants (later Merchants and Manufacturers) Association—a body composed largely of Anglo Protestants and German Jews—the initial La Fiesta served two interrelated purposes: as a “commercial boon and tourist lure” and as a diversion during the Pullman railroad strike then at its peak. “As an icon in the invention of regional tradition,” William Deverell elaborates, “the event proved a brilliant advertising stroke, boosting the city it simultaneously explained”—but also explained away. For in concocting “an entire artificial landscape” from its mythic Spanish-Mexican past, this paean to the city’s origins made a mockery of them.

The fiasco was seemingly most glaring in regard to the local Tongva Indians, whose participation in the celebration masked the confiscation of their lands, the changing of their name (to the quasi-Spanish “Gabrielino”), the devastation of their culture, and the continued lack of legal standing among the few who had survived their people’s near-total annihilation. If some representation is better than none, then another flagrant foul was committed against African Americans, who were excluded from the event altogether. This despite the fact that blacks and mulattos had made up the majority of the pueblo’s first forty-four pobladores (settlers), along with Spaniards, Mexican Indians, and mestizos. Technically, however, the most fundamental lacuna pertains to the (mis)identification of the region’s first settlers themselves, who were neither Africans nor Indians—although, in this instance, little blame can be attached to La Fiesta’s organizers. Indeed, in spite of the latest archaeological tools, and extensive ongoing investigation . . .

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