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  • Replacing L.A.: Mi Familia, Devil In a Blue Dress, and Screening the Other Los Angeles
  • Karen Voss* (bio)

A type of narrative about Los Angeles that seems to grow increasingly familiar within the mainstream is the “history of Los Angeles narrative.” Moving back from L.A. Confidential, a significant roster of contemporary films straddling crime and historiographic genres could be assembled that use a fictive cover to make truth claims about the history of the city. 1 The “authenticity” of a particular old L.A. is typically generated through movie studios’ own publicity machinery, but occasionally a truth effect about the filmed landscape enjoys an after-life, as with some scholars’ conclusions that Chinatown continues to serve as a crucial source for popular understanding of L.A.’s civic history. 2 As Paul Skenazy speculates in “History as Mystery, or Who Killed L.A.?” a marked tendency of contemporary detective fiction set in Los Angeles includes self-conscious attempts at historical reanalysis and a certain vigor for “redirecting low-brow genres to high purpose.” 3 If we were to inflect Skenazy’s suggestion along spatial lines, contemporary “history of L.A.” films from Chinatown to L.A. Confidential represent a key field of inquiry for analyzing how mainstream film works to construct popular urban history dependent upon reconstructing the physical structure of the city and the spatial norms governing who lives where. These L.A. “near-histories” dovetail with a parallel trend in historiographic writing on L.A. which openly acknowledges the fictive as a means to gauging components of popular consensus about the city, within such formats as the noir city myth, the touristic, or the docu-fable. 4 [End Page 157]

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Figure 1a.

Jose Sanchez’s East L.A. house in Mi Familia. Video frame enlargements.

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Figure 1b.

Easy Rawlins’s house in Devil In a Blue Dress. Video frame enlargements.

These L.A. histories also function in the realm of urban commemoration, bathing specific (often lost) built forms, urban social relations and mobility (literal and metaphoric) with nostalgia; this spatialized nostalgia deserves further attention, especially in the case of Mi Familia and Devil In A Blue Dress, two recent films that reconstitute the racial landscape of Los Angeles prior to the ‘hood. In attempting an intervention in both the narrow range of popular histories of L.A. and the prevailing criminalization attached to contemporary representations of the inner city, these films offer the opportunity to examine the terms of inclusion within mainstream historical imaging of Los Angeles. While both films ultimately succumb to reductive narrative closure, they both attempt an overt remapping of popular urban history, pointing to the crucial role that constituting and re-coding spatial distinctions play in articulating the terms of L.A.’s diversity.

While Edward Soja’s oft-cited call for a “spatialization of the critical imagination,” which has otherwise lagged within “a [modernist] critical hermeneutic still enveloped in a temporal master-narrative, in a historical but not yet comparably geographic imagination,” proves invigorating, what this can mean in terms of a specific reading protocol for film remains somewhat unclear. 5 For my purposes here, I will capitalize on both the literal and more metaphoric connotations of “space,” arguing that we can best read the “other” L.A. constructed by both of these films by assuming that the films’ topographies are going to resonate on several spatial levels: in making thematic valuations of narrative spaces; in mobilizing a certain “imageability” that may reinforce or challenge L.A.’s stereotypical visual lexicon; 6 and finally, in constructing what Michel de Certeau terms an “erotics of knowledge” about the city space, encompassing the power relationships involved in providing and consuming a particular panorama of urban space. 7

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Figure 2a.

Reconstituing lost L.A. spatialities: street scenes from Mi Familia. Video frame enlargements.

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Figure 2b.

Reconstituing lost L.A. spatialities: street scenes from Devil In a Blue Dress. Video frame enlargements.

In reconstituting a lost L.A. spatiality (an innocent, sunny inner city) both films apply...

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pp. 157-181
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