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.
For serious comedic purposes, though, the slapstick tone also serves as a springboard for increasing, possibly related nonsense. We get not one but two cartoonish testicle gags: the sight of Beethoven’s balls preserved in a glass jar, and, later, the sound of a pair of post-coital gonads clanging like church bells. Elsewhere, Harris rollerskates through an art museum, which is zany enough, but it also makes the artwork come to life. Van Gogh’s sunflowers flutter in his wake; a statue turns its head in shock. This unfastened reality then allows for a swing into something more cosmic.
At a California cuisine brunch, Harris meets Sara (Victoria Tennant, Martin’s wife at the time), a journalist from London there to write about the city and also maybe reconcile with her ex, Roland (Richard E. Grant). When she smiles at Harris, an earthquake strikes. This one is more than just a joke that goes with the territory; the fact that tremors start when the couple’s eyes meet gives us the first inkling that the city itself is a living character, some kind of benevolent divinity, that has designs for its dwellers.
Harris stalls out along the freeway at night and pulls over in front of an electronic signpost. It begins to communicate with him. The sign explains that it sees people in trouble and stops them. The larger force has reached out. L.A. wants to help.
It’s a leap. We’re asked to take it not knowing whether to laugh, cringe, or sigh at the modern-day fairy tale afoot, or all of the above.
To help us along, the egghead side of the story provides steady references to William Shakespeare. According to this telling, the line from Richard II goes, “This other Eden, demi-paradise…this Los Angeles.” Harris also ruminates on Macbeth’s ‘tale told by an idiot.’ It will later be echoed in the name of the hot restaurant in town: L’Idiot. Harris stops to visit Shakespeare’s grave because, naturally, the Elizabethan playwright was an Angeleno. In the cemetery lined with palm trees, they unearth the skull of someone Harris once knew—not the court jester from Hamlet, but a magician who went by the name the Great Blunderman. “He was a funny guy,” Harris says, driving his sense of mortality almost straight into the camera.
But it’s the life of the film that counts here, and most of it belongs to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Its mystical backdrop unfolds in the natural details on this first week of spring, where birds or crickets are always chirping and the watered gardens always seem to be moving. Harris’s neighbor gives him a green health drink that she calls a “new mixture” (compared with Shakespeare’s Puck and his love juice from a magical flower). That afternoon, Harris bonds on his city tour with Sara.
All the allusions could have gone brainier and the jest a little too infinite, if not for a welcome distraction in the form of SanDeE* (Sarah Jessica Parker). She bounces and twirls through her scenes in what plays as both a New Age, aspiring spokesmodel from Venice Beach with a kooky spelling of her name, and an immortal, beaming sprite who’s dropped in from softer heavens. Pauline Kael covered L.A. Story in the New Yorker in her last-ever film review. The final line of that final piece of her career was about this character: “She’s the spirit of L.A.: she keeps saying yes.” SanDeE* is like Puck, a carefree link between the real world and the far-out, delighted by everything in the curious realm of humans she’s alighted upon.
After SanDeE* bids Harris goodnight, we close in on her building’s mural that replicates Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. It depicts Zephyr, the Greek god of the west wind, tangled up with another goddess. The shot dissolves into a larger night cityscape view so that, for a frame, these deities are blowing their gusts across the twinkling lights of greater Los Angeles.
Are these the eponymous angels responsible for setting the city in motion? Are they alive and curious, too? Does it matter? This is neither the time nor the temperature for reason. The wonderland exists for the folly, and the whole overwrought, beautiful idea here is that none of the denizens who are posing and pratfalling around inside it really bother to ask why.
Where Shakespeare’s comedies set their parameters, and most other fantasies—amusing or otherwise—hold to some sort of internal logic, this so-called Los Angeles does not.
So there’s no use in asking what the hot dog was doing in the sky, or whatever else followed it. There’s no parsing whether this is an homage or adaptation of Fellini or Shakespeare or the L.A. Tourism Board. We needn’t dig into the nature of the higher powers that cause the freeway sign and the weather to conspire over the people, nor which one of them controls the vehicles that carry the lovers to their destiny. We don’t have to ask if possibly the many naysayers are right and everything in this land is fake.
Everything is both a starry dreamworld and an authentic place in the sand. The truly foolish idea is to attempt to make sense, like the freeway sign’s riddle that, instead of the wisdom of the ages, merely solves into “Sing ‘Do Wah Diddy.’”
This comedy is romantic, hopelessly. Our four lovestruck main characters fall in and out of their spells. The tone gets mushy. The freeway sign is embraced. The paradise could be believed.
L.A. Story premiered in early 1991. During its theatrical run, Rodney King was beaten at length in the street by five LAPD officers. Later that same month, 15-year-old Latasha Harlins was shot by a convenience store owner in South Central Los Angeles over an allegedly stolen bottle of orange juice. Both incidents were filmed. The entire city and the rest of the world would learn of these tragedies of racial injustice as anger seethed through the next year and then erupted into the L.A. Riots.
These things happened nowhere near L.A. Story. The juxtaposition of this gossamer movie vision and these real events is jarring. It becomes problematic for the name L.A. to be used in this film title at all.
Many detractors have pointed out the lack of multiculturalism in L.A. Story, which purports to encapsulate what was then, and is all the more so now, one of the most diverse metropolitan areas in the world. Thom Andersen’s excellent documentary, Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), decries L.A. Story’s complete absence of people of color (a criticism albeit that elides several speaking parts, notably the line from supermodel Iman that would become a de facto catchphrase when she orders “a twist of lemon”).
We’re also limited to a perspective that Harris describes at one point as “big, dumb male.” Though we’re watching a gentler male fantasy, the gaze still sometimes sucks the enchantment right out of a scene. At a clothing store, Harris ogles a topless woman in a dressing room. We get a purposeless flash of nudity, a shot that even candid sex comedies of the 21st century would forego.
So we don’t see the early ‘90s neighborhoods of Inglewood and Compton explored by John Singleton, or the leeching sins of Hollywood satirized by Robert Altman, or the pensive white guilt appearing that same year in Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon (also featuring Steve Martin).
L.A. Story is even lighter in tone than the Tinseltown throwback of La La Land (2016), which would be a kind of mashup of this film and another Martin reverie, Pennies From Heaven (1981). There would be many more stories falling short of the full picture.
But in this one, in this city, Martin knows that he’s presenting a rarefied privilege as much as he knows his world is unreal. He has spent the movie telling us how absurd his hometown is. He began by showing us how he ignores the person in the park having a non-imagined heart attack.
So maybe the tale is simply archaic in the same way it was ever fathomable that non-tourists might have dinner at the Hard Rock Café, as Harris and SanDeE* do. Or that anyone ever fantasized about Mel Gibson, as Roland and SanDeE* do. These are now bygone possibilities.
From my own fortunate experience, I would come to see locals and transplants who could’ve either inspired these depictions or who, by the late ‘90s, were imitating them, and with a stereotypical lack of self-awareness. I would hear the request of a ‘twist of lemon’ without a twist of irony.
I also often encountered gallows-style humor from Angelenos of all backgrounds over the subjects of riots and carjackings, the same kind of blithe fatalism used to speak of the area’s recurrent natural disasters.
I saw the extremely privileged side of the city, too. In schlepping errands at a production company job, I witnessed displays of wealth another stratosphere above those of Harris and his brunch group. The movie sometimes wasn’t preposterous enough.
Still, I had my old friend. He had given me the gift of making the place feel forever promising.
He laughed the most when the outlook was bleak. He had a health condition that I suspected took more of a toll than his sense of humor indicated. He joked that fall about the dry Santa Ana winds, and explained that the first thing we do every morning is greet the day by looking out our window to make sure the hills aren’t on fire.
Sara admonishes Harris, “You’re just amusing yourself, and me.” A B-material gag about full-service gas stations offers an immediate response.
That evening, the two sneak away from a dinner party to get it on in the garden. They spot a deer grazing in the lawn. The city starts to resemble a lush forest. The soundtrack goes full Enya. The lovers turn into children walking hand-in-hand wearing adult clothes. The grass pushes up time-lapsed through the pavement. The Eden comes to life.
Martin acknowledges that most viewers by this point may be looking at him with the kind of puzzled glance that Harris gave the roadside stranger talking to the freeway sign at the film’s outset. He knows that the saccharine dreaminess has appeared out of nowhere.
But L.A. Story exists to remind us that delusion may be the only thing that belongs in the landscape, the very reason people have come this far. And if pressed any further on the question of why his narrative went from screwball to maudlin, or why anything else happens, the only true answer is: love.
The idea is as simplistic as a slapstick gag. It is also—to use the term that has long been a critical deathblow to any piece of art—sentimental.
But this is where Martin’s antics and his deadpan tone have led. His sarcasm lifts to reveal a flood of sincere passion and heightened emotion. While he would explore the overlap of dream and reality, the smart and the silly in other works, it would never conclude with more feeling than in L.A. Story.
Here, he asks us to watch—if we can be smart enough to stop thinking—the fantastical way that we fall in love, this greatest trick, this most hysterical bit, this most dazzling potential artifice or profound true meaning that we humans continue to pull off, without the faintest idea of understanding how. Whoever is watching our show must be mesmerized.
For all the despair we cause, for all the continual disillusionment of this setting, someone took the time to tell this part of the story, too. It happens to be the part that will stand the test of time. Because when we’re done rolling our eyes, it’s the melodrama that holds us. For its romanticism to be true, this story needs to be generous and very much over the top.
L.A. Story salvages itself not in spite of, but because of, its sentimentality. The soaring emotion is the link between this world and a paradise, the egghead and the wacky united into heart. What the brain can’t articulate and the jest can’t subvert is proposed here as openly sensational.
Or, as Harris says as he falls head over heels, “All I could think was: wonderful, wonderful, wonderful…and most wonderful.”
More recently, I returned for a visit. I tried to remind myself to be more breezy, less nostalgic. I drove through familiar Los Angeles neighborhoods using Harris’s line that “some of these houses are over 20 years old!”
There was a hazy beauty still. But two decades after dreaming of going back, the gulf over all the things I wished were true had widened.
The traffic had gotten scarier and the locals more sensible. The homeless people on Sunset Boulevard seemed to have quadrupled in number, with no other option but to form blocks of encampments along its main drags. The wind was drier and the wildfires closer. Other aspects of the city looked cleaner, more uniform, and, despite newly legal drugs, more sober.
As far as elements of the movie I’d always held a soft spot for, the Tail o’ the Pup hot dog stand was gone, but with coming plans to be plunked back down again and reopened. Sarah Jessica Parker had long ago traded in her role as SanDeE* for sex in a colder city. Steve Martin would remain a comedy legend, but L.A. Story had marked a kind of high-note end point after which his humor downshifted, less goofy and less poignant.
These were the changes I could take. There was one I couldn’t.
My old friend who’d first welcomed me to Los Angeles had passed away.
He’d taken an abrupt turn for the worse just before my trip. He was a generation older than I was but still too young to die for anyone that knew him.
He was the funniest person I’d ever known, and also one of the most generous. For me, he was Southern California magic. Some of its tricks and easy breezes had disappeared with him. The city had grown more realistic.
I stepped out of the car with a new dull heave of loss. I didn’t need reminders of the apocalypse. I didn’t need warnings of the late-stage capitalist wasteland in this 21st-century arid sprawl, or accounts of how the California dream is dashed.
I could’ve used, instead, a funny story. And maybe some sentimentality at the end.
Most likely for William Shakespeare, a new world on this distant western shore was entirely unimaginable. If someone today were to time-travel back to describe our modern lives to an Elizabethan, contemporary L.A. would sound several measures more supernatural than the fairy kingdom of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
I stared up at palm trees that couldn’t plausibly be standing at that height. The sun was coming out of a haze.
I continued down the street looking for familiar locations. And I went in search of new, unbelievable stories. Someone once told me that this place was promising.