Friday, July 15, 2011

Carmageddon --- The Monster That Ate L.A.?

Carmageddon is here, and it’s not pretty. Everybody knows about L.A.’s longstanding love affair with the automobile. Well, this weekend the exasperating but invaluable 405 Freeway—which normally trundles masses of L.A. motorists from the bedroom communities of the San Fernando Valley toward the ocean, the airport, and parts beyond—is totally shut down. It’s the price we Angelenos pay for a freeway widening that will result in more lanes and, inevitably, more cars and more gridlock.

Movies, of course, have helped to glamorize the connection between Southern California and its automobiles. Think of all those scenes where the hero tools down Pacific Coast Highway in a sun-kissed convertible, or the bad guy slaloms through the curves on Mulholland Drive in a lethal-looking sports coupe. When TV was coming into its own, the popular detective show 77 Sunset Strip brought stardom to Edd “Kookie” Byrnes as a young hipster with the most L.A. of job descriptions: valet parking guy.

But Carmageddon (the word sounds like Pixar’s take on a disaster movie) reminds me that some films do acknowledge that bane of modern existence, the traffic jam. Jean-Luc Godard has been French cinema’s enfant terrible for more than five decades. Back in 1967 he captured moviegoers’ attention with a dark comedy called Weekend. Its centerpiece is an eight-minute tracking shot of a horrendous traffic stoppage, complete with blaring car-horns on the sound track, that throws a quiet country road into near-chaos. Re-watching that footage today (thanks, YouTube!), I’m forced to confess that it doesn’t look so bad. Believe me, I’ve been in worse.

It’s often said that part of L.A.’s problem is the failure of Angelenos to support public transit. Maybe so. I once worked on a Concorde-New Horizons thriller called Final Judgement (yes, there’s a misspelling in the film’s official title). I well recall screenwriter Kirk Honeycutt, now international film critic at The Hollywood Reporter, submitting a scene in which the killer has an unnerving encounter aboard a local bus. Though this was one of the strongest, most original moments in the entire script, it was nixed by Roger Corman, who was not pleased by the idea of a villain as a bus commuter. Shrugging off Kirk’s argument that it might be fun to go against convention by depriving the bad guy of his own set of wheels, Roger decreed that the fiend should ride a cool motorcycle. And so it came to pass.

Though Roger wasn’t willing to buck convention, several big studio films have taken advantage of the apparent oxymoron of L.A. and mass transit. Speed, of course, cleverly used a city bus to take audiences on a thrill ride. The American re-make of The Italian Job is an all-star heist flick in which canny crooks manufacture a traffic jam as part of their plot to steal a truckload of gold. The details are fuzzy in my brain, but I recall the henchmen’s cars, Mini Coopers of all things, actually zooming onto the rails of L.A.’s fledgling Metro to make a quick getaway. (Eventually, the gang says adios to Los Angeles—perversely enough—on the Coast Starlight.) I’m also a fan of Michael Mann’s Collateral. This atmospheric suspense drama starts with a taxi driver cruising L.A.’s night-time streets and alleys, but ends in a tense shoot-out as hero and villain pursue one another through the cars of the city’s near-empty subway. Come to think of it, maybe I’ll stick to driving my Toyota.


  1. Wow - I think my traffic is bad over here in coastal NC - I have no conception of real traffic woes. My condolences to everyone in LA.

    1. Well, for us it's a way of life. Actually, Carmageddon got us all worried that when it happened it was no problem at all.