Any city that lays claim to the greatest movie city in America is going to be a tough sell. New York is too urban, too recognizable, the prototypical Big City. London is much the same way, a generic location for generic stories. Dallas or Chicago are simply not home to enough films to enter into consideration. Though San Francisco is a serious contender, nothing compares to the City of Angels. Los Angeles can play winter playground, driest desert, a wide range of exotic locales, but feels the most at home as itself, a sprawling urban vista with a skyscraper center, and a thousand new tales everyday, as of yet untold.
There's the fact that Los Angeles is the movie city, housing all the main studios as well as Hollywood. The city can also play its own villain so well -- as in Sunset Boulevard -- dark and mysterious as it seems covered in a mess of freeways and thick smog, in addition to the beaches and sunny summers. There are, of course, the films that could be set anywhere, and just happen to be set in Los Angeles. These don't count as much. The Long Goodbye could have taken place elsewhere, but it is Elliot Gould's blasé attitude that is quintessential Hollywood fare; Die Hard, though it takes place downtown, could just as easily been transported to Chicago. This movie reduces Los Angeles to background noise, a skyscraper village with no personality, a place to be brutalized by the devious machinations of ruthless villains hell-bent on killing citizens.
Films such as Speed and Blade Runner take advantage of Los Angeles and critics of the city must adore them for including a demonic chase through the traffic-filled freeway systems and a bleak futuristic depiction of a downtrodden and dirty Los Angeles. Even Woody Allen takes a stab at Los Angeles in Annie Hall, when he snidely remarks in his nebbish way that it is so clean because "... they don't throw their garbage away, they turn it into television shows."
Chinatown and L.A. Confidential rely on and relate the history of Los Angeles, to give us a kind of thinly veiled origin story for the city, albeit one filled with greed and power struggles. Whether it happened or not doesn't matter so much as that it could have. Newer films such as Changeling build in more of this historical perspective on L.A. One wonders if these reinterpretations enter the cultural consciousness as fact, not fiction. Mulholland Drive, the mysterious David Lynch film, relies on the confusion and dreamlike quality that the city seductively exudes, as well as the lulling promise of Hollywood -- it effectively utilizes Los Angeles as a place. Imagining Mulholland Drive occurring in, say, Detroit is as unlikely as The Big Lebowski or Swingers happening anywhere but L.A.
Robert Altman's star-studded Shortcuts is a fine homage to the range that Los Angeles can play, but the city here is menacing, harboring pain and sadness behind closed doors, and smiling faces to the world. And as badly as Crash is perceived in this day and age with its pat realizations and tidy ending, the simple truth it condescendingly shares with us is that Los Angeles is a sprawling city made up of so many segments and people that it is easy to feel lost and consumed by it.
Though complex and difficult to love, the fact remains there is no better movie city on earth, with grandiose skies and a location for every plot. Within these five hundred square miles anything could, and does, happen.