Seven Movies That Secretly Get The L.A. Experience Right

7. The Little Rascals (1994).
The Rascals’ home base is in Echo Park? (Don’t believe me? Then watch it again!)

Seven Movies That Secretly Get The L.A. Experience Right

I’ve seen exactly one movie that gets working class L.A. right. Actually, it’s not even a movie. It’s a Rockford Files episode. And it’s not even the whole episode. It’s just one scene. Jim Rockford is alone in his car. He goes through the Jack in the Box drive-thru and orders two of those “tonight it’s food or cigarettes and what the hell, let’s go with food” tacos. He then pulls to the side of the road – some indeterminate North Hollywood side street. The low expectations and high salt tolerance associated with poverty cause Rockford to briefly smile as he eats his taco in the North Hollywood midnight. Like a lot of Californians, he’s shamelessly skirting the edge of unemployment. He’s also waiting for something to happen. It doesn’t matter what.

A few years back, I went to L.A. for the last time. My Grandpa’s dogs were loose in the field again, chasing a rabbit across the horizon. Grandpa didn’t really own any dogs, he just took in any collarless mutts that wandered within striking distance of his fence. This was a semi-daily ritual wherein Grandpa would “accidentally” leave the gate open and let the dogs roam the field. He saw it as an acid test of their loyalty. When they got tired of chasing that field’s one surviving rabbit, would they return to the gate?

I was drinking coffee, struggling to take inventory of how many dogs had come back and how many were still in the field. The two older ones had staggered back, wiser and weaker, but there were still six or seven in the field. I was never sure how many dogs he took in. But it’d been getting on three weeks of no work and no phone calls, and seclusion is only romantic for about two weeks unless you combine it with day drinking. Conversation with Grandpa, who owned a motorcycle and somehow never told me about it, generally consisted of “Don Knotts is a damn genius” or “this coffee is just as good as it was yesterday,” so I was restless. I needed to get to L.A., not to see anybody, but to have the option available. Knowing people are around is almost as good as talking to them.

6. Clueless (1995).
That liquor store is real, and it’s real creepy.

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When a friend called and said he was moving back east in two days, that was sufficient impetus to make the drive down. So I popped my trunk and pulled out my savings – five hundred bucks taped in the middle of a 1960s book on time management. I got in the driver’s seat, stared down the evil orange glow of my Check Engine light, ignored it as every poor person does at one point or another, and hit the road.

The trek over the hill didn’t happen. Not even that fantastic stretch of the Grapevine where you can get away with speeding. Well, it did happen, but any drive over an hour and a half shuts down certain cognitive faculties of the brain. So in Castaic I stopped to stretch my legs, which really means “reactivate the brain’s errant and easily fractured notions of time and space.” The sky was an ugly grey. L.A. is never the blurry golden haze we imagine it to be – that’s just what everything looked like on ‘70s film stock. Neither are its sunsets very impressive. Where the central valley’s sunsets are punishingly garish and oversaturated (think Baz Luhrmann adapting Steinbeck), L.A.’s are usually muted and slight, as if in defiance of its media supremacy.

Because twentysomething L.A. friendships are always a house of cards, my friend called me back with bad news. “Look, hey, I’m way, way behind. I guess if you wanted to help with packing or…” he stammered, in a stilted way that suggested There Are Other People In This Room And They Are Not My Friends.

When high stakes social arrangements fall through in L.A., Me Against The World syndrome happens and irrational plans, like “making your own fun” take over. I improvised: I would kill all day driving, buy a cowboy hat at Baron Hats in Burbank, and catch Emmylou Harris at El Rey.

If the drive to L.A. County didn’t happen, driving in L.A. really didn’t happen. It’s such a persistent time killer, it’s so impossible to make good time, that there’s nothing to do but shut your brain down. The parts that love people and foster creativity. It’s not unlike in science fiction movies where people wake up from decade-long comas in between traveling galaxies with no sense of the time passage.

5. Magnolia (1999).
This movie is WEIRD.

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I walked into Baron Hats, situated as it was in that part of Burbank with a thousand boutique stores that can’t possibly turn a profit and only exist because the entertainment business does. The cowboy hat selection was unfortunate. There was one theoretically owned by Larry Hagman, a lot of replicas, another David Lee Roth used to cultivate that ironic “cocaine cowboy” look, and one single black felt hat Willie Nelson wore on an Austin City Limits taping. Three hundred dollars. I bought it immediately. “Nobody knows me here,” I figured. “For one day I will be a loner who wears a cowboy hat and I will go see Emmylou Harris and then I will never go back to this town.”

So, broke and armed with a hat Willie Nelson wore while singing “Whiskey River” once, I drove to Jack in the Box, because I could park there and self-consciously smoke cigarettes without getting stared at or asked to leave. Along the way, I listened to the clanking and rattling of my busted engine, leaning my head down and squinting, as if frequently giving money to mechanics meant their skills at diagnosis were going to rub off on me.

I parked and looked at the street sign. Laurel Canyon. A place Neil Young described as “full of famous stars.” Peculiar lyric, since from the Jack in the Box parking lot, all I saw was a Chevron and a medical marijuana dispensary. (Progressive city planning or happy accident?)

I popped my hood and checked my oil, because I’d seen other people do that and it made me feel like a real person who doesn’t just go to L.A. to loiter around Burbank, like Tarantino before he sold something. Just then, a homeless man approached me and asked for a cigarette. I happily obliged, since I prefer homeless people to Los Angeles twentysomethings as conversation partners.

4. Drive (2011).
Gosling + Fast Cars = Sex.

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He was in his late 50s but, aside from that, he was just like most of the college graduates I knew trying to make it in entertainment: a hardcore day-drinking dirtbag. Although in the case here that's actually how he described himself. He also professed to be a brilliant film editor and “about as good a musician as David Crosby.” He couldn’t be telling the exact truth, but he wasn’t necessarily lying either. Was he this creative with every stranger who shared cigarettes?

Then, seemingly impressed by my “probably has an estranged uncle in Nashville” cowboy hat, he stopped smugly dismissing David Crosby's musicianship and said, in a hushed tone, “I was Bob Dylan’s muse.”

3. The Sandlot (1993).
You’d be awkward too if Dennis Leary was your new stepdad!

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“How’s that?” I said, unfazed at questions of veracity in contexts like this one.

“I sold him dope for years. From Malibu to Inglewood. Everything. Blow…speed…” he said, before grinning and giggling like a disobedient child. “Acid.” He started rapidly name-checking managers and agents, some of the names surprising him when he remembered them, before getting to the point: there was a storage unit in Van Nuys proving the whole story. Signed 8x10s, the original “Basement Tapes,” the whole shebang. “But it’ll all be auctioned off if I can’t come up with a thousand bucks. You can't auction off personal belongings; it's the law. I looked it up but they're doing it anyway.” He paused for dramatic emphasis. “All my friends have fallen off the face of the earth. Only there in the good times… You know, I just had heart surgery,” he said, eyeing me up to see if I believed any of this. I was actually with him on a lot of it, but I didn’t want to give him any false hope, and so he walked off – his conversation ending as forcefully and without warning as it began.

2. Mulholland Drive (2001).
We couldn’t find one unsexy still for this! Not one!

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So I went to Jack in the Box, ordered two tacos for ninety-nine cents, and retreated to my car. The sun was going down now. I’d killed two hours talking without even realizing it, and now I was alone. I realized the Emmylou Harris show started in 20 minutes. I got an overwhelmingly sober sensation, a sickness of anticipation with the knowledge that I now have to get it together. Dissecting the plan, I realized choreographed, high-pressure nights on the town, like the one I was about to jump into, are useless and generally wind up dark and lonely – at least for me. I would even have to work the line to ask people for a ticket.

1. Breaking Bad (2008-2013).
The underbelly of L.A. as experienced by the dad from “Malcolm In The Middle?” And it’s the Best Show Ever?

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Suddenly it all felt grimy. California. Willie Nelson’s cowboy hat. Wayfaring strangers with elaborate stories about Bob Dylan. All of it. I started my car with intentions of driving back home, but it didn’t turn over. I had no money and no mechanic. So I sat and waited for something to happen. Didn’t matter what.

The homeless man was now inside Jack in the Box, telling someone else his story.

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  • Daniel P

    Abstract and beautiful. Well done.

  • Hammiepants

    As an Angeleno, I heartily endorse “Rockford Files” as representative of the LA experience, both good and bad. Plus Jim was pretty fine.

  • guygers1

    Breaking Bad is set in Albuquerque.

    • WhatTheFlux

      Which is basically Reseda surrounded by a desert.

  • calliecallie

    Carl’s Jr. Libel!