Friday, September 23, 2011

Drive Me Crazy (on the streets of L.A.)

What could be more L.A. than a film about driving? I just saw Drive, the new Ryan Gosling flick that won a major award for director Nicolas Winding Refn at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Drive, a somewhat curious blend of brutality and sentimentality, doesn’t always make sense, but it’s riveting, nonetheless. I’m certain what the Cannes judges liked about Drive is its unerring sense of style. I myself responded strongly to Refn’s vision of my hometown in a film-noir mood.

Gosling’s role is that of an ├╝ber-driver, a master of the road who can fix cars, do movie stuntwork, and moonlight as a getaway man who helps nogoodniks elude the cops. That last job of course requires special talent. I recently tried to link up with a fellow biographer. Accustomed to tooling around Nashua, New Hampshire, this savvy woman found herself completely baffled by L.A.’s geographical sprawl. For her the distances between such SoCal destinations as Woodland Hills, Santa Monica, Rosemead, and Long Beach—not to mention the complexity of our freeway system and the vagaries of rush-hour traffic—must have seemed thoroughly daunting. Who can blame her? My knowledge of L.A. driving habits ramped up the pleasure I took in watching Gosling effortlessly maneuver through the city’s mean streets, with never a wrong turn or wasted motion.

Much of Drive alternates between the nocturnal glitter of Downtown L.A. and the blue-collar seediness of the area surrounding MacArthur Park. It makes sense that these characters would live and work in that vicinity, and that our protagonist would be able to contemplate the downtown cityscape from his apartment window. Kenneth Turan, in his L.A. Times review, pinpointed the Big 6 supermarket at which several characters shop. Personally, I couldn’t identify many exact locations, but one of the film’s strengths for me is that its geography has clearly been carefully considered. The L.A. of Drive seems like a real place, and when Gosling gets behind the wheel I understand where he’s going.

This was my problem with another recent Ryan Gosling movie. Crazy Stupid Love struck me as a film about L.A. made by people who’ve never lived in L.A., which (given the nature of the entertainment industry) is a crazy, stupid thought indeed. Here’s my evidence: Steve Carrell as a successful insurance guy lives in a palatial suburban home with a wide expanse of lawn and some foothills in the distance. Given the size of his house and lot, coupled with the topographical features of the area, he’s got to be living deep in the San Fernando Valley. He connects with ladies’ man Gosling in a bar that doesn’t look to be far from his home, but for some reason they make an appointment to meet in Century City, near Beverly Hills. Much later, at a time of charged emotions all around, various Carrell neighbors and family members are shown driving through what looks like a well-known Beverly Hills residential intersection. Does all of this matter? Probably not for most audiences, but for me the inauthenticity of the landscape proved a major distraction. And I would argue that a film that’s sloppy about its sense of place risks giving the impression that it’s set in neverneverland.

I want my L.A. films to feel like L.A. Whether this means glamour or grit, L.A. has it all. That’s partly why the movie industry came here in the first place. Now that so many movies are shot out of town, it seems all the more important for the land of the smoggy palm to show off its own true self.

(By the way, I’ve just discovered that L.A. Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne, agrees with me on Drive. He’s published a very smart article on the film’s authentic sense of its surroundings. Enjoy!)


  1. I haven't seen this film yet, so I don't have a lot to comment. But I have been thrown off by reworkings of geography when I know the places involved. The terrible 3000 Miles to Graceland was certainly guilty of this, placing the outlying Riviera hotel and casino near Fremont Street downtown. Epic fail! That wasn't the only reason I detested this movie; but it was certainly one of them!

    1. It's definitely worth checking out, even if you're not familiar with L.A.'s highways and byways.