[Mild spoilers ahead]
In the opening scene of Damien Chazelle’s new movie musical, LA LA Land, the sound of honking begin before the visuals start (reality check: no one honks their horns in LA, for fear of being shot). The camera pans across a line of cars stuck in traffic on the 105/110 interchange. For a movie about Los Angeles, this is about as cliche as it gets…yet, also about as accurate as you can get considering we do have the worst traffic in country.
As the camera pans across bored and miserable people baking in the sun and stuck in their cars, it suddenly climbs up above the traffic and zeros in on a specific women who starts to sing the opening number, “Another Day of Sun”. The woman jumps out of her car, convincing her fellow commuters to sing and dance their way across the freeway. As the camera deliriously pans back and forth over and around the freeway, the musical number reaches its climax, upon which everyone promptly gets back into their car and the honking resumes. The word “Winter” appears on the screen.
The audience at the Vista Theater in Los Feliz chuckled in acknowledgment.
Los Angeles is a city of great complexity and contradictions. As the movie moved onto follow two star-crossed lovers – a struggling jazz musician played by Ryan Gosling and a struggling actor portrayed by Emma Stone – I realize that director Damien Chazell, more than anyone I know, has a deep understanding of Los Angeles.
As a contextual designer, I strive to understand a place, a site, a neighborhood, a city, a state, a country or wherever I need to design. Since the majority of my current work is in Los Angeles, I need to understand Los Angeles. But, LA is a city of contradictions. We are slow to accept change, but obsessively fast to implement change once it is accepted (see: public transportation). We revere aspects of the past, but are also quick to tear down reminders of that past (see: our penchant for destroying historical landmarks).
We convey the Hollywood image to the world, but are really about our blue collar background (did you know that we are one of the largest manufacturing cities in the country?). LA LA Land uses the imagery and cliches of the City of Angels to say something more about the inner truth of this place. At one point Gosling’s character, a native Angeleno, criticizes Los Angeles: “We worship everything, but value nothing.” Even that statement is a cliche, but has truth to it.
LA LA Land plays with these contradictions and layers them throughout its 128 minute playing time. It’s a modern musical shot in 1930’s style. It’s a fanciful drama of Old Hollywood Glamour set in Los Angeles gritty post-industrial neighborhoods – a “City of Stars” that regularly crushes its occupants aspirations and dreams, always precariously edging toward disaster, but maintaining stability somehow.
What’s a designer to do? Like an author striving to write the “Great American Novel”, designers try to create the “Great American Place” – in my case, the “Great LA Place”.
Maybe the key to designing in such a place is to embrace the complexity and contradictions of this city and try to ascertain the deeper meaning. Do we contradict ourselves because we honor and miss the past but recognize the need to move forward and change? Perhaps designing for our real life LA LA Land is really about designing to the vision of what Los Angeles wants to be. Perhaps we need to design for the ideal, the glamour, the image, but make those designs accessible to the reality of the people who live in this city.
As I was walking out of the theater, I overheard the best line of the evening that wasn’t even in the movie. One man standing in line for the restroom asked his friend, “So, did that movie inspire you or make you more desperate?”
Exactly the correct Los Angeles question.