The gold rush. Al Jolson releasing “California, Here I Come” in 1924. The Mamas and the Papas singing “California Dreamin’” about 40 years later. Successive tech booms. These moments came and went, but beneath them, the popular yearning for a better life on the West Coast continued, fueled in large part by the movie industry. For more than a century, Hollywood has been the biggest, most steadfast promoter of the American dream as a Californian one, perhaps even a siren call for the picture business itself.
Longtime San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle’s new book, Dream State: California in the Movies, takes an alternately fond, woozy, and wary look at how Hollywood became an integral part of America’s promised-land fiction. His focus isn’t so much the history involved, including the semi-arbitrary reasons (flight from restrictive East Coast camera-patent laws, for one) that the Southland became the center of the entertainment universe. Nor does he dwell much on the ways in which geography and weather influenced the content of movies. (For starters, they made the shoot-’em-up western arguably the entire industry’s bedrock product for decades.) Dream State isn’t greatly interested in the guidebook-style particulars of specific movies’ specific locations, either.
Instead, LaSalle muses on how the silver screen came to articulate, and drive, the state’s own still-powerful mythology—as a material paradise, a home to sometimes-perilous freedoms, and a bitterly broken promise, often all at once. “California is a place that breeds both spiritual satisfaction and spiritual envy,” he writes, one advertising “sex and glory and money in your pocket, and everyone loves you, and you’re beautiful forever.”
But as with every dream, there’s the threat of a rude awakening. In this mental and physical zone “almost defined by its lack of tradition, by the non-influence of family, and by the absence of religion as the ultimate defining value, there’s a disconnectedness at the heart of California life. Everyone is always remaking themselves, but everyone is starting from scratch, and that’s a recipe for loneliness, doubt, and despair. Even for the most successful and privileged, there’s a sense of reaching a dead-end at the ocean’s edge.”
That sun-kissed angst is most blatant when Hollywood looks at itself, LaSalle argues, in the tragedy-of-success scenarios of various A Star Is Born incarnations or Billy Wilder’s acidic Sunset Boulevard. Darker still is something like the Robert Altman–directed, Michael Tolkin–penned 1992 The Player, in which a ruthless studio executive (Tim Robbins) figures that the intimidating power he wields will let him literally get away with murder—and he’s right.
Gauging the nihilism that runs through many Los Angeles–set films, LaSalle writes, “Other cities and towns in the state don’t feel like they are in an active conspiracy to kill you and don’t position themselves in implicit opposition to normal human aspiration.” Yet in L.A., the “dream” is at its magnetic apex, luring hopefuls decade after decade with this “partly true fantasy that anyone can become a star.” Yes, a Meryl Streep might’ve been destined for great things no matter what. But perhaps half the movie stars we love are less exceptionally talented than exceptionally lucky, which validates the open-to-all conceit. LaSalle pegs their special “something extra” as being “at least as much about self-belief as it is about good looks or anything else.”
The yearning for fame, more acutely widespread than ever in our selfie era, is just one aspect of the questing nature that tends to pervade even what LaSalle calls “one great night” movies, in which “stories about the gloriousness (and sometimes the pain) of youth often play out over a compressed period of time.” The classic model is George Lucas’s 1973 American Graffiti, wherein teens cruise for love and adventure on a hot Modesto night in still-innocent 1962.
Hal Ashby’s Shampoo takes place six turbulent years later, but could only have been made in 1975, at the height of Me Decade hedonism and post-Watergate disillusion. Unlike those ordinary Graffiti kids looking for a party they’ll never quite find, Warren Beatty’s Beverly Hills hairdresser has invites to the most exclusive shindigs—as well as the beds of their hosts’ cheating wives. His malaise among the backyard hot tubs and tennis courts on the eve of Richard Nixon winning the presidential election sure seems hip. “In the history of cinema, there has never been a Hollywood party presented onscreen in which any protagonist ever had fun,” LaSalle notes. “Yet we always wish we were invited!”
The dissatisfaction to be found in what LaSalle calls “the gold at the end of the American rainbow” achieves more melodramatic expression in 1940s and ’50s noir films, made at a time when the censorial Production Code meant that unfettered desire should be punishable by death. Dream State calls these movies’ femmes fatales “fantasies of a female sexuality completely divorced from the constraints of morality.” In the genre classic Out of the Past (1947), a lying, lethally greedy Jane Greer pouts and asks, “Won’t you believe me?,” to which Robert Mitchum responds, “Baby, I don’t care” as prelude to a brutal smooch.
There’s a notion lurking in these films that the easy life in California (or at least its bait) makes people into monsters. In Born to Kill, also from 1947, improbably directed by The Sound of Music’s Robert Wise, an uncouth, unhinged thug (Lawrence Tierney) and a chilly San Francisco socialite (Claire Trevor) find they’re equally murderous—i.e., made for each other. In the much later neo-noir Chinatown (written, like Shampoo, by Robert Towne), Jack Nicholson’s private eye is the sole surprised character when it turns out there will be no consequences for the tycoon who’ll soon be molesting the granddaughter he fathered with the daughter he’s just murdered. “Always,” LaSalle says, “there’s the extra dose of senselessness, or of cruelty, or of strange bad fortune” lurking beneath the sparkling, beguiling affluence.
As much as audiences the world over love to dream of California, they also enjoy watching it get punished for its presumed transgressions. From 1936’s San Francisco through Earthquake and The Towering Inferno (both 1974) to the recent San Andreas, LaSalle writes, our disaster flicks are “often based on the idea that California just pressed its luck by being too beautiful, or that its people pushed it too far by being too carefree, or too happy, or not guilt-ridden enough, or too sinful.” The Golden Gate Bridge has been giddily totaled on-screen by every force from tidal wave to Godzilla.
San Francisco movies are a realm unto themselves, reflecting “a city where no one wants to conform,” yet eccentricity can be its own trap or danger. Dream State recalls that Philip Kaufman’s memorable San Francisco–set remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), in which space aliens erase all human individuality, struck residents as eerily apt when it was released a month after the assassinations of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone—a horror that chilled the city’s countercultural esprit to the bone.
“It’s hard to imagine Charles Manson or Jim Jones selling their particular brands of utopian psychosis outside of California,” LaSalle writes. “This is the place where hell begins as a great idea on a gorgeous sunny day.” Yet the ideas still seduce, and the day often is gorgeous. At the same time, Dream State takes note of the sometimes problematic, sometimes celebratory role of people of color in Cali screen narratives, as well as the comparatively sparse representation of places outside our eternal “tale of two cities”—that is, Los Angeles versus San Francisco.
But this bemusedly insightful book understands that the traditional image is still what sells, whether it’s in Gidget or La La Land: This is the place where you’ll get to be the true, exceptional you, Hollywood assures us. “We clutch at the fairy tale…but we don’t believe it,” LaSalle says. “But we want to believe it, and we’re comforted by it, even as we don’t believe it.”