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Land of Smoke and Mirrors

A Cultural History of Los Angeles

Vincent Brook

Publication Year: 2013

Unlike the more forthrightly mythic origins of other urban centers—think Rome via Romulus and Remus or Mexico City via the god Huitzilopochtli—Los Angeles emerged from a smoke-and-mirrors process that is simultaneously literal and figurative, real and imagined, material and metaphorical, physical and textual. Through penetrating analysis and personal engagement, Vincent Brook uncovers the many portraits of this ever-enticing, ever-ambivalent, and increasingly multicultural megalopolis. Divided into sections that probe Los Angeles’s checkered history and reflect on Hollywood’s own self-reflections, the book shows how the city, despite considerable remaining challenges, is finally blowing away some of the smoke of its not always proud past and rhetorically adjusting its rear-view mirrors. Part I is a review of the city’s history through the early 1900s, focusing on the seminal 1884 novel Ramona and its immediate effect, but also exploring its ongoing impact through interviews with present-day Tongva Indians, attendance at the 88th annual Ramona pageant, and analysis of its feature film adaptations. Brook deals with Hollywood as geographical site, film production center, and frame of mind in Part II. He charts the events leading up to Hollywood’s emergence as the world’s movie capital and explores subsequent developments of the film industry from its golden age through the so-called New Hollywood, citing such self-reflexive films as Sunset Blvd., Singin’ in the Rain, and The Truman Show. Part III considers LA noir, a subset of film noir that emerged alongside the classical noir cycle in the 1940s and 1950s and continues today. The city’s status as a privileged noir site is analyzed in relation to its history and through discussions of such key LA noir novels and films as Double Indemnity, Chinatown, and Crash. In Part IV, Brook examines multicultural Los Angeles. Using media texts as signposts, he maps the history and contemporary situation of the city’s major ethno-racial and other minority groups, looking at such films as Mi Familia (Latinos), Boyz N the Hood (African Americans), Charlotte Sometimes (Asians), Falling Down (Whites), and The Kids Are All Right (LGBT).

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

This book grew from a course on the “Rhetoric of Los Angeles” I have been teaching at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication since 2006. Ur-thanks thus go out to the Annenbergians who provided the opportunity: Sarah Banet-Weiser, Larry Gross, Abby Kaun, and Imre Mezsaros. Two of my teaching assistants in the course, Peter Chow-White ...

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pp. 1-4

Nowhere has the discrepancy between Los Angeles’s rhetoric and historical record been more pronounced than in La Fiesta de Los Angeles birthday celebration. First held in 1894 and running in fits and starts through the 1930s, this “carnival, pageant, parade, fandango,” commemorating La Reina de Los Ángeles’s founding as a Spanish colonial outpost in 1781, epitomizes what D. J. Waldie calls the ...

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pp. 5-21

Yaanga, Yang-na, Yabit, El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Ángeles del Rio Porciúncula, City of Angels, City of Demons, City of Chaos, Sin City, City of Dreams, City of Desire, Sunshine City, City of Blight, Bright and Guilty Place, the White Spot, the Enormous Village, La La Land, City of the Future, City of Forgetting, Nowhere City, Equivocal City, Fragmented Metropolis, Chameleon Metropolis, Mestizo City, Capital ...

Part I. Original Si(g)n

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Chapter 1. The Ramona Myth

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pp. 25-42

Los Angeles didn’t have to wait for Hollywood’s Houdinis to cast its own magic spell. The earliest Christian conversion of the Tongva Indians in the late 1700s was realized not only by military means but also through the arts and sciences of signs. Friar Francisco Palou, an aide to Father Junipero Serra, chief overseer of the California missions, reported the miraculous effect of sacred images in the ...

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Chapter 2. Ramona Revisited

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pp. 43-63

Though the novel is no longer required reading in local schools and the two surviving film versions are now mainly of academic interest, Ramona’s mythic traces remain a fixture of the Los Angeles palimpsest: in Spanish Fantasy Past manifestations such as Olvera Street; in the Ramona Pageant held each spring in nearby Hemet; and, most indelibly, in the area’s part theme park, part reliquary, ...

Part II. Si(g)n City

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Chapter 3. "City with Two Heads"

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pp. 67-82

Mike Davis’s description of Los Angeles after World War II as a “city with two heads” aptly captures the region’s bifurcated power structure, whose two main “growth coalitions” divided along demographic and geographic lines: between a downtown-based, gentile (Christian) old guard tied to the Chandler family’s L.A. Times, and an upstart group of Westside Jewish megadevelopers.1 A dichotomy ...

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Chapter 4. What Price Hollywood?

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pp. 83-102

“Nobody dreamed that a day was close at hand,” Anita Loos recalled from her days as a silent-era screenwriter, “when that one word Hollywood would express the epitome of glamour, sex, and sin in their most delectable forms.”1 This tantalizing image not only enhanced the marketability of Hollywood’s films, film stars, and physical location; it all but ordained that the movie capital itself ...

Part III. L.A. Noir

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Chapter 5. Bright and Guilty Place

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pp. 105-125

“The rough beast that is film noir . . . slouched toward Los Angeles to be born,” Alain Silver and James Ursini declare in L.A. Noir: The City as Character.1 Los Angeles provided “the quintessential dramatic ground of film noir,” “the essential elements in the invocation of the noir mood,” not because it was darker, meaner, or more hellish than other urban areas but because of its chameleon nature: its ability to combine, as Raymond ...

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Chapter 6. Neo-Noir

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pp. 126-150

Though it may have taken film noir to a narrative cul de sac, Kiss Me Deadly was not quite the generic endpoint Paul Schrader suggested. The cycle straggled on, with Touch of Evil (1958)—shot in Venice, California (as a stand-in for a Calexico border town), with an opening scene capped by a car bomb—marking the consensus expiration date. Even the “postnoir” interim of the early to mid-1960s, ...

Part IV. Multicultural L.A.

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Chapter 7. LAtinos

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pp. 153-169

The sixteenth-century novelist Garci Ordóñez de Montalvo, whose mythic description of California as an island paradise inspired the first Spanish explorers, was not far off the mark. “Although physically attached to North America, California is still most accurately thought of as an ecological ‘island,’” explain historians Richard B. Rice, William A. Bullough, and Richard J. Orsi. “Its geographical ...

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Chapter 8. bLAcks

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pp. 170-188

To fill the multicultural gap Hector Tobar finds at the new Plaza museum, more than only Europeans and Asians need to be included. Blacks deserve a place at the table as well, if not at the very head. Not just a few but a majority of the pueblo’s original forty-four pobladores (ten of the twenty-two adults; sixteen of the twenty-two children) were either of full or part African descent. One of the ...

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Chapter 9. LAsians

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pp. 189-208

Accepting that the Paleoamerican and Amerindian migrations embarked from the Asian continent, and not counting the African origins of Homo sapiens, the Asian connection to Los Angeles is the most primordial. By the time of the European incursion in the 1500s, however, this line had become a faint trace in the genealogical palimpsest, long since absorbed into the Chumash, Tongva, and ...

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Chapter 10. LAnglos and LAGBTs

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pp. 209-232

If many of the city’s Latinos and African Americans still lack economic parity, and the Asian community a political voice, its Anglo population, while no longer all-powerful, has not been left in the cold. The L.A. Times, “inventor” of the modern-day metropolis, no longer reigns supreme. The Committee of Twenty-five, an unofficial, all-white chamber of commerce that “held sway through the ...

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pp. 233-242

Gentrification (and its “ethnic cleansing” adjunct) is not the sole province of Echo Park. Its most powerful effects, since the 2000s, have been felt downtown. As I suggested in chapter 6, Blade Runner–inspired retro chic and postmodern gloss have transformed a noir inner “city of regret,” a governmental center that once “emptied every night,” into a cultural, entertainment, and upscale ...


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pp. 243-280


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pp. 281-301

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About the Author

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Vincent Brook was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley and has lived in Silver Lake for more than thirty years. He teaches at USC, UCLA, Cal State LA, and Pierce College, and has authored or edited the following books: ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780813554587
E-ISBN-10: 0813554586
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813554570
Print-ISBN-10: 0813554578

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 44 photographs
Publication Year: 2013

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Los Angeles (Calif.) -- History.
  • Hollywood (Los Angeles, Calif.) -- History.
  • Motion picture industry -- California -- Los Angeles -- History.
  • Los Angeles (Calif.) -- Social life and customs.
  • Popular culture -- California -- Los Angeles.
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