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

By Ascárate, Richard John | Film & History, Summer 2015 | Go to article overview

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


Ascárate, Richard John, Film & History


Land of Smoke and Mirrors: A Cultural Flistory of Los Angeles. Vincent Brook. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2013. ISBN 978-0-8135-5456-3 Paper 311pp. $27.9

"This book exhumes the many faces, facets, and feces of Los Angeles by viewing the Tongavillage-turned-world-city as a rhetorical text," declares Vincent Brook in Land of Smoke and Mirrors: A Cultural Flistory of Los Angeles (5). He explains that this involves delving into the "physical spaces and genealogical traces of Los Angeles (as city, county, and region)...via the myriad, often contradictory, images of Los Angeles that have been projected from within and without its geographical and psychological borders" (5). In the ten chapters that follow, he largely succeeds in his project, offering a well documented, good-humored account of how one of America's most culturally diverse metropolitan sprawls has been represented from pre-cinematic times to the present.

Brook opens by excavating the city's archaeological substrata, noting that the first Angelinos were the Tongva Indians, who themselves displaced or absorbed even earlier Native American peoples sometime before 500 CE. The Tongva also bore the brunt of the Spanish policy of cultural obliteration and religious conversion several centuries later, a practice that moved an indignant Helen Hunt Jackson in 1879 to write Ramona. Jackson intended her enduring novel of forbidden love set in ranchero-era California to cast light on the unjust treatment of the Indians, to restore to them a dignified place in history. Through no fault of her own she failed. L.A. boosterism and the burgeoning film industry uncoiled their tentacles and co-opted the story for commercial exploitation. Four film versions, an annual pageant, and competing claims about the true site of Ramona's onetime residence ensued. As Brook argues, "Ramona, rather than serving as a vehicle for social reform, became a mother lode for L.A.'s fledgling tourist and real estate trades" (29).

The author then investigates the two camps-"East Coast movie-industry interlopers, top heavy with European Jewish immigrants and other hyphenated Americans," and "staid Midwesterners" (67)- that fought for the soul of L.A. from the turn of the century. The era witnessed rampant anti-Semitism as Jewish directors, studio heads, and theater owners enjoyed increasing success purveying and exhibiting films the WASP establishment found offensive, if not downright pornographic. Brook provides a short, informative sketch of Will Hays, the Presbyterian deacon hired by Hollywood's moguls to head the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. Hays's mission was to clean up an industry tainted by news stories of celebrity divorces, affairs, rape, murder, drug use, and bigamy. Despite the deacon's establishment of a production code to govern behavior onscreen and a morals clause in actors' contracts to govern it everywhere else, he failed as well, again due to forces larger than himself. In the end, Hollywood's reputation for depravity had "boosted box-office returns and tourist revenues" (74).

No cultural history of Los Angeles would be complete without pausing for film noir, and Brook does not disappoint. "As a challenge to both classical Hollywood cinema and U.S. society," he argues, "and through its associations with Weimar cinema's artistic aspirations, film noir offered exiled filmmakers the nearest thing to dialectical exchange with the culture industry as was possible from within the belly of the beast" (107). He recounts the history of the genre, from H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan's Black Mask magazine of the 1920s to the crime fiction of Dashiell Hammett. He elucidates Raoul Whitfield's novel, Death In a Bowl (1931), whose title refers to the Hollywood Bowl (then less than a decade old) and whose plot features the obligatory private eye, along with a movie star, a director, and a variety of thinly veiled characters modeled after contemporary celebrities and film executives. …

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