Walking in L.A.

Freeways are a metonym for Los Angeles anomie and sprawl. Thom Andersen’s 2010 film Get Out of the Car shows how the city transcends them

As much as New York is a city amenable to walking, L.A. demands driving. Architecture critic Reyner Banham described Los Angeles as an “autopia,” a term later co-opted by Disneyland to name their theme-park ride that mimics freeway driving. He used the term to denote how the totality of the Los Angeles freeway system affords the notoriously sprawling city “a single comprehensible place, a coherent state of mind, a complete way of life.” The geography of the city is tamed through a coherence that echoes, at least in appearance, the city’s unwieldy chaos.

The image of the freeway, an 80-mile-per-hour commingling of individual parts cohering into a single ­bloodstream-like entity, echoes the subject matter of the early “city symphony” films from such silent-era directors as Dziga Vertov (The Man With the Movie Camera) and Walter Ruttman (Berlin: Symphony of a Great City). Galvanized by the Industrial Revolution’s momentum, their films framed the city as a technological playground where humans and machines meet to revitalize society.

Thom Andersen’s 2010 film Get Out of the Car reworks the genre of the “city-symphony” film, playing off the symbol of the car and Los Angeles’s definitive mode of transportation. It was conceived as a companion to Los Angeles Plays Itself, his 2003 documentary in the essay-film style of Chris Marker and Patrick Keiller that uses old Hollywood film footage to explore the city’s geographic history. Unlike Los Angeles Plays Itself, which has a nearly three-hour running time, Get Out of the Car runs a brisk 35 minutes, is shot on 16mm film, and explores the geography of Los Angeles’s present.

The freeways offer an analog to the Berlin of ­Ruttman’s film and the Russian cities of Vertov’s, all complex movement and the promise of progress. It evokes the mentality uniting those who, coming and going from a diverse array of backgrounds, share the six-lane motion of the freeway. Together, they predict the movements of one another. Though others had observed what Banham called “the watchful tolerance and almost impeccable lane discipline” of the Los Angeles driver, few imagined what this was symptomatic of: “willing acquiescence in an incredibly demeaning man/machine system.” The driver trades free will for the almost spiritual community of the freeways.

The “man-machine system” that Banham describes would seem to offer an easy way in for a filmmaker like Andersen. Just point your camera at the freeway and there you have it: a modern, bustling, and unique metropolis. But Andersen takes a different approach,  focusing on the unresolved complexities of Los Angeles after its industrial boom years. “Maybe, this is just a movie about getting lost,” he says off-screen, early in Get Out of the Car. Indeed, the viewer is lost, as the Los Angeles that Andersen chooses to shoot isn’t easy to navigate. We see a series of walls, mechanic shops, taco trucks, billboards, and murals, most devoid of street signs or titles that designate location. Early shots focus on billboards shorn of their advertisements, liberated industrial remnants jutting against the sky. Later, the images dissolve into a series of murals depicting the crucifixion of Christ, in a variety of styles and painted with varying degrees of talent, along the facades of restaurants, laundromats, and other small business.

This is a Los Angeles torn from the utopic euphoria of the freeways. People pass by entire communities, driving on overpasses that traverse intersections, seeing only the roofs of buildings and palm trees against the Los Angeles horizon. The driver has little stake in what passes by, ignoring what Andersen chooses to highlight outside the car. Moving from origin to destination, the external scenery taunts without explicit engagement.

Getting out of the car, as Andersen’s film in essence forces viewers to do, allows for a reappraisal of the city. Its unadorned, still-photograph-like shots, lasting anywhere from 10 to 30 seconds, focuses the camera on neglected architecture, portraits of the passing of time in the present tense. People do not appear. Cars are not filmed.

The construction of the freeways offered a specific kind of progress, a process that demolished hundreds of homes and forever altered communities but paved the way for the city’s growth. But the destruction was unevenly distributed. To put all faith in the progress of the freeways is to ignore the serious and lasting damage their construction implied. Immigrant-dominated East Los Angeles is defined by the imposition of the freeways, seven of them, whereas Beverly Hills’s civic architecture was preserved when its community, as Eric Avila notes in “All Freeways Lead to East Los Angeles,” accessed “substantial resources and connections” to force the termination of a proposed freeway seven miles to the east, in Echo Park. Today, Avila notes, the largest Spanish-speaking barrio in the U.S. lives “beneath, above, or alongside six freeways and two massive interchanges built less than one mile apart.” Freeways promised prosperity, but the socioeconomic gulf between East Los Angeles and Beverly Hills has only risen since the freeways’ implementation.

Much of the film’s soundtrack consists of forgotten or neglected songs recorded in Los Angeles, but several off-screen voices disrupt the music. These voices question Andersen’s film and his motives. “You wanna see Los Angeles?” one man asks. “Go inside this bus and look at the people. All kinds of people, races.” Another asks Andersen what he is making, as a billboard fills the screen. Andersen says, “Its a documentary about signs.”

“But there’s nothing there,” the man replies. “It’s empty.”

“It’s kind of a film about absence.” Andersen explains.

As the camera points at a neglected billboard, another voice asks, “What’s so special about that?”

Somewhere in the world, someone paid to put an image in that specific visual space—but that person does not live there and is not forced to see it daily. The billboard devoid of advertisement asserts that there may be power provided by absence. A simple beauty is found in these relics: a present yielding to a recent past. What the eye sees now, or at least when Andersen shot it, points to a very specific emptiness—a sign devoid of its sign-ness, a placeholder unsure of what is supposed to take its place.

Perhaps nothing is special about any of these shots in isolation. Taken together, however, they constitute a referendum on what happens when you stop to stare at something instead of driving by it. Stare closely at something and it becomes abstracted. Juxtapose it with another long stare, and the space that lies in between is revealed anew.

Los Angeles’s ability to remake itself differs from other, older cities, like New York City, where, according to Banham, “warring pressure groups cannot get out of one another’s hair because they are pressed together in a sacred labyrinth of cultural monuments and real-estate values.” Los Angeles asserts its ability to clear buildings and reconstruct itself. The El Monte Region Stadium, a rhythm-and-blues club, was torn down in 1974; the space is currently a post office employee parking lot. Harvey’s Broiler in Downey, once Southern California’s largest drive-in, was demolished in 2007. These relics of a particular time have barely been documented, barely registering on the city’s history.

This may be regrettable or shortsighted, but Andersen chooses not to dwell on the forgotten past, as if the present is completely devoid of hope. The murals featured in the film reflect how that demolish-and-rebuild mentality may be confronted on a local scale. These murals are not the publicly sanctioned works of art peppered throughout Los Angeles but rather are painted atop storefronts, commissioned by small-business owners, which, the artists know, can disappear at any time. Their willingness to proceed in the face of this sheds light on the sense of loss that pervades the film.

Driving on the freeway involves speed. Moving at over 80 miles per hour, the sense of danger is avoided. People feel safer driving on a freeway than walking down a street. Walking is lonely and arduous. The driver’s complacency depends on solitude, and the distance between what’s outside and what’s inside. Driving is linear.

Get out of the car? Then what? Move around the city and get lost. In the fragments of Andersen’s images, we find an absent center. What makes Los Angeles what it is is there. In this Los Angeles, fragmented and disconnected, absence is a playground for  potential reinvention. Its lack conveys possibility.