Tag: Film


Feudal-Aristocratic Drag: Neo-Liberal Erotic Imaginaries of California as Counterrevolutionary Heterotopia in The Mask of Zorro

LJ Frazier and Deborah Cohen

Flirtatious repartee and sensuous swish of swords: gliding to and fro on soft horse stable hay, the upstart peasant, now-masked swordsman, adroitly slices away the feisty noble-maiden’s chemise. Featured in trailers, this became an iconic scene from The Mask of Zorro (Martin Campbell, 1998, Steven Spielberg executive producer). Sizzling cross-class desire inflames aspirations for wealth, nobility, and power in a California of great estates, contested political control, and servile commoners.

California began the nineteenth century on the periphery of the Spanish Empire; in 1821, it was incorporated into a newly independent, but politically unstable Mexico, vacillating between monarchy and republic; and, then, in 1848, sold to the United States in the aftermath of a war of territorial conquest. This is the setting for The Mask of Zorro. One of many revisions of Mark of Zorro (1920, one of the first United Artists films), Mask foregrounds the intergenerational dynamics underlying the Zorro theme of rivalry between nobleman-turned-bandit and corrupt officials. The main protagonists in this rivalry are: the elder Zorro, landed gentleman Diego de la Vega, who avenges his own twenty-year imprisonment, shooting of wife Esperanza, and kidnapping of daughter Elena; don Rafael Montero, former Spanish governor, who carried out these acts, now aided by young U.S. southern mercenary, Captain Harrison Love; and Alejandro Murrieta, young orphaned thief of ambiguous ethnic parentage, whom Diego transforms into a gentleman-avenger to inherit the role of Zorro. This is a tale of aspirational nobility, dynastic power. Such aspirations set in California-between-empires fantastically epitomize the ideological space of the neoliberal 1990s: a cradle for a patronizing elite caste unfettered by state oversight.[1] 

To see this filmic neoliberal space in Mask, we recall Michel Foucault’s “heterotopias” –actual spaces that exist apart from, but always in relation to, the “real space of Society.” To illustrate: the horse stable (above) is a special kind of space within the class demarcations of the great-estate–unlike, say, a chicken coop or milk barn—wherein refined equestrian skills permit both an elite woman and a lower-class man to interact, triangulated via sensuous animals, in ways not sanctioned in other estate spaces, say, the dining hall. This is further illustrated in another stable scene wherein Elena (unknowingly) meets her long-lost father (Diego) posing as a servant. Moreover, while scholars have argued that film is intrinsically heterotopic; this particular film evokes quintessential Hollywood tropes to constitute California itself as a heterotopia, epitomizing late 20th century neoliberalism.[2]

 Mask’s visually-resplendent heterotopia presents something of a puzzle with respect to Jacques Ranciere’s assertion that representational politics impact possibilities for democratic spaces, namely, a plentitude of forms that correlates with plurality: what, then, are the representational practices of the unraveling of democratic formations under the guise of noblesse oblige? Historicizing its 1990s lens, we see Mask’s explicit counterrevolutionary politics.

Mapping Kingly Enterprise as Counterrevolutionary Heterotopia

Mask overlays three instantiations of heterotopia: first, within the storyline, we have visually-constituted heterotopias—specifically, maps and painterly images from a prop portrait to shots that themselves index particular nineteenth-century European/American genres and iconic paintings; second, the use of cinematic clichés to index classic films and genres that points to the ways that film as a medium is a heterotopia and this film as a synecdoche for Hollywood; and third, in ideological content, Mask offers a political imaginary of a stateless transnational California under the domain of a benevolent, racialized creole elite. Clintonian neoliberalism required such feudal fantasies which draw on elements of nineteenth-century California, what Foucault calls “slices of time,” and other available California tropes in a racialized erotic economy of images extolling counterrevolutionary transformation.

The counterrevolutionary heft of the film comes from its layering of heterotopias: neoliberal California as heterotopia, film itself as heterotopia, and particular aspects within the film as heterotopias. The counterrevolutionary lens refracts through nineteenth-century revolutions; the very shift from Empire to Nation that destabilized elite alliances and left unsettled the political form that new polities would take: republican or monarchical. We extrapolate the dimensions of gender and sexuality in Benedict Anderson’s insights about the cultural work involved in political struggles of the nineteenth century, to understand what was at stake during the 1990s heyday of neoliberalism.

Shot during the apex of neoliberalism–and President Clinton’s rhetoric of shared prosperity in unsustainable and lopsided economic growth—Mask’s heterotopia is a space of capitalist “feudal-aristocratic drag” (Anderson, 153): bucolic landed estates where creole (of European descent) settler-elite employ and protect dark-skinned subordinates, largely coded as indigenous and mestizo through language and dress. The story and the cinematic language through which it is told might be cliché. Nonetheless—indeed, because of these clichés—it maps the collective desires of those who prospered handsomely and those who aspired to wealth in the 1990s economic boom.

While Foucault suggests that some heterotopias may preserve transformative possibilities, our reading of Mask posits a counterrevolutionary transformation. [3] It disarms its viewer through tongue-in-check humor, mobilizing cinematic formulas that reference prior Zorro films (especially but not only the sword-fighting), action films (Campbell, having directed a Bond film, here offers Bond-esque closing credits: billowing plumes of slow-motion flame set to a pop song), and Westerns (for example, Shane, in the use of the young Alejandro and Joaquin’s witnessing of Zorro’s heroics at the outset of the film, and broadly, in the use of desert landscapes). This filmic indexing underscores the cinematic work of the film as a heterotopia. That is, although this retelling of the Zorro legend is fantastical and enjoyable, it is not merely escapist pleasure. Rather, the film reflects and contributes to a counterrevolutionary neoliberal project: dismantling a state nominally proactive in its defense of the (albeit limited) redistribution (away from the wealthy) of resources necessary for basic conditions of daily life; unregulated minimally-taxed private economic schemes; and the accumulation of wealth and conspicuous consumption by a small class of people whose incomes exceeded thousand-fold those of the majority of workers.

Within the film, neoliberal heterotopia is rendered visually in maps as props that overtly configure polity spatially, as well as through the staging of painterly images—in particular, landscapes, portraits, and counterrevolutionary framings of revolutionary iconography. Whereas political philosopher Jacque Ranciere connects representationally-heterogeneous and political-liberatory spaces, the visually-rich range of images here indexes a political economy increasingly oriented around the rent-seeking interests of capitalist elites and others aspiring to wealth and power. Indeed, the heterotopias visually reference economic and political maneuvers  since the 1970s, that made possible President Reagan’s rolling back of the Keynesian state and gains made by anticolonial and antiracist movements, the groundwork for Clintonian neoliberalism. These 1990s counterrevolutionary maneuvers required counterrevolutionary heterotopias to shape a hospitable terrain for such drastic re-makings.

Two key maps establish heterotopic California. One is a gigantic rendering of pre-U.S.-Alta California (today’s California, marked in reddish brown), Baja California and the rest of Mexico (in green), and the United States (in yellow); labeled Mapa Reino California (map of the Kingdom of California), this cloth map of an ostensibly-empty capacious space covers an entire wall in the courtyard of don Rafael’s hacienda. The other is a portable topographical map; hand-drawn on leather, it designates the built environment, with road and waterways, local haciendas (with Spanish names), mountain ranges, with a compass indicating directions; also clearly marked is El Dorado, the gold mine shown in the film; hence its role as a treasure map of Alta California’s riches.

These maps appear in two critical sequences. In the first, the viewer is introduced to the wall map; in the second, a long set of scenes, both maps are used. The large map situates the nation as open and available, disconnected from a state political project; while the smaller treasure map designates riches rife for elite taking. California is made a terrain of conquest in service not of state-building, but of transnational market desires.

The first map scene is set in don Rafael’s courtyard. Various dons, dressed in their finest attire, are shown seated around a large King Arthur-style roundtable, their eyes trained on Rafael; Alejandro, who has just gained entrance to this group, stands apart. After some musings over why he has gathered them together, Montero announces, “I give you the Republic of California.” He motions to one of his henchmen, who releases a large cloth covering the courtyard wall, revealing the map. Montero tells the dons of his plan to buy California from Mexican president Santa Anna, who is then preoccupied with defending the country from an encroaching United States. When the dons suggest the infeasibility of such a plan—that they do not possess enough money to buy all of California—Montero informs them that this is no preposterous idea. They are to buy it, he tells them, with gold from Santa Anna’s own mine. One of the dons derides, “You are living in a dream, Montero.” And Rafael responds, “Then why don’t we all live in the same dream together?” Bars of gold are presented for the dons to see. They are stamped not with the Mexican seal, the actual owner of the mine, but with the seal of the Spanish crown. The camera then pans over to re-frame Rafael squarely in the center of the map. The discourse of the dream here culminates Alejandro’s successful effort earlier in this sequence of scenes to ingratiate himself (unbeknownst to Rafael, as a spy) into Rafael’s camp saying, “I am a man in search of a vision.” In prominently scripting this language of dream and vision (an imaginary world apart but in relation to), the film, in effect, testifies to the importance of heterotopias for political projects.

Map of the Kingdom of California. Rafael (Stuart Wilson) and his fellow noblemen aim to buy California from Mexico with Mexico’s own gold. Courtesy of Zorro Productions.

In this space of contending nation-states, the United States and Mexico, Montero seeks to privatize California; it is to become a commodity bought with its own flesh (gold garnered from the depths of the earth). Thus, this gold constitutes a key to mapping neoliberal heterotopia: consistent with the logic of finance capitalism, gold is perversely the ultimate fetish as currency, capital, and capitalist rent “naturally” available for exploitation.

This scene works because it invokes an imagined-real California past. Foucault notes that heterotopias often entail a sense of a slice of time. Indeed, here we find the use of a past not to make a historical claim, nor to create a nostalgic sense of the good old days, but rather to enrich a sense of a fantasy parallel possibility (not unlike and partaking in the Fantasy genre of Arthurian tales). Set in a California prior to the Gold Rush (1849), the U.S.-Mexico War (1846-48), and the post-war purchase by the United States of nearly a third of northern Mexico (including California) for the bargain basement price of fifteen million dollars, the map-as-prop constitutes this place as largely open, unpopulated, and culturally Spanish with a significant indigenous population coded in the film through the presence of non-Spanish speaking people, such as Elena’s nursemaid, wearing indigenous clothing and a small mestizo population who we see mostly as grunt soldiers (Lie, 492).[4] In this sense, the concept of heterotopias is particularly useful for understanding the ideological work of the film’s setting: to conjure not an ideal past to which we should return, but rather an allegory of where neo-liberalism can take us.

Treasure map of California mine and surrounding territory. Courtesy of Zorro Productions.

Not surprisingly, the historical context invoked is more complex, a complexity which impacted the very political debates of 1990s California into which the film implicitly enters. In addition to the eleven Spanish families who in 1781 established Los Angeles, Spaniards founded missions throughout the region (1769-1820): seats of local power established to convert indigenous people to Catholicism, while protecting the already converted from attacks by groups unwilling to submit to Spanish dominance. While Mexico’s 1821 independence ousted the Spanish, war left now-Mexican California at the periphery of a state weak, fractious, and distant. Mexico’s state changed in form, from part of a colonial/imperial state to (theoretically) sovereign nation-state. Benedict Anderson attributes the work of this transformation to “creole pioneers,” who differed from those of Mother country’s original settlers not by race or ethnicity or language, but by place of birth. He sees in the Americas the great historical shift that made the nation-state the paradigm for political formation—a weakened empire. This weakened empire, he argues, enabled these so-called pioneers to seize the political opening and create both the political form of the nation and the very political philosophical justification—Liberalism (laissez-faire governance, market-facilitating infrastructure)—that would best accommodate emerging industrial capitalism. The role of creole-settlers of the Spanish post-colonial world (of which California was a part) in establishing the form-philosophy duo is confirmed in Doris Sommers’ analysis of nineteenth-century novels as “family romance.” According to Sommer, these pioneers ideologically married the interests of the landed gentry (represented in these novels by the plantation owner’s daughter) with those of the emerging financial- and trade-oriented elite (often represented as an upstart, self-made suitor).[5]

Also left in Spain’s wake was a particular racial hierarchy that situated indigenous peasants on the bottom, Spanish and creole-settlers (those of Spanish descent born in the Americas) at the top, and mestizos (the progeny of Spanish and Indian pairings) in the middle. Indians were largely dismissed, while mestizos would later have the possibility of tenuous incorporation into the post-revolutionary Mexican nation. With the U.S.-Mexico War and the subsequent integration of California into the United States, this social hierarchy would come into conflict with a U.S. white (free)/black (slave)/Indian (past) racial system. This happened, especially, during the Gold Rush, when Native Americans, Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and people from the eastern United States as well as Russia, Chile, and China flooded the region, changing San Francisco into a boomtown; other towns were rapidly chartered and California’s first constitutional convention soon held. By the late 1840s, then, the region catapulted from agrarian backwater to international economic hotbed, destination of mass migration, and the ultimate site of U.S. Manifest Destiny.

When Mask was produced (late 1990s), California, once again, found itself at the center of profound economic and social reconfigurations, this time critical to the constellation of the neoliberal state: sustained and increasing immigration, especially from Latin America and the global south; outmigration of capital and capitalists; and attacks on—and the unraveling of—the former model government bureaucracy and the educational system. Some reconfigurations were exacerbated by the federal government’s reorientation toward supposedly free trade and personal responsibility, announced in the passage in 1994 of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and welfare reform. The latter removed thousands of U.S. citizens from the welfare rolls, made support contingent on certain behaviors, and funneled these former welfare-supported (majority) women into low wage jobs (with an attendant and broader downward wage pressure). NAFTA devastated factory workers and professionals in the United States; it also ravaged small farmers in Mexico, making migration to the United States, and California specifically, the logical option. In turn, California reacted to this mass influx of immigrants and disruptive economic landscape by passing Proposition 187, turning teachers, police officers, healthcare workers, and clergy into unofficial arms of a state, to find and criminalize unauthorized immigrants. Proposition 187 was eventually found unconstitutional, and California is today the nation’s most ethnically diverse state and around 40 percent Latinx. These changes led to the re-emergence of an assimilationist nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment—some U.S.-born Latinxs, like their non-Latinx compatriots, favored harsh sanctions (Newton 2000). Unfolding at the highpoint of Clintonian neoliberalism, these virulent anti-immigrant movements occurred in relation to a successful sexual counterrevolution (Herzog 2008). We see in this convergence the alliance between sexual counterrevolution and the neoliberal political economy’s increasing investment in a multiculturalism where particular, eroticized incarnations of ethnic difference took on market currency. Tapping into an imagined past understood as real and connecting it to an imagined present enables Mask to work as an allegory for neoliberalism and neoliberal relations, and California to constitute a heterotopia.

Re-making this imagined past real relies on sounds and images of “the West,” ones borrowed from Hollywood Westerns and swashbucklers: the crisp sound of drums and guitars of flamenco music, the sound of boots across a wooden floor, the swoosh of the sword, the quick repeated taps of a flamenco dancer; the long shot of a crowd of peasants as they stand awaiting the execution of those pulled randomly from the crowd, tight shots of tussles between soldiers and peasants struggling against this arbitrary power, the close-ups of peasants shouting for the captives’ freedom, the Spanish flag being ripped from its pole, dirt kicked up as men on horseback ride in, an aerial view of the blindfolded peasants roped to poles, and don Rafael standing on the balcony looking down monarchically at the yelling crowd. Mask’s introductory captions, opening scenes of struggle and discord, and panoramic views confirm California as territorially expansive, open, and ruled by an illegitimate leader, don Rafael Montero, who governs through violence and arbitrary power. Gestured through the cinematic use of “the West,” California is made an available uninhabited space—a frontier, of sorts—full of dust, small shacks, mountains, open stretches of land, and blue slightly clouded skies. This West, like the Westerns it references, is peopled with dark, mestizo peasants, largely poor, humble, and leaderless. They tread lightly on a landscape where local strongmen or soldiers arbitrarily interfere on behalf of a faraway power. That is, these people and this place were open, virgin, and un-stated at the start. Spielberg relies on these quick shots to mark California as both without a legitimate leader and in need of a benevolent patriarch; it becomes recognizable as “the West”—that is, the United States—while the movie still marks it as Mexican territory.

In a second, long set of scenes, the climax of the film, both map-props –the treasure map of El Dorado and the political map of California– figure prominently. The sequence opens with Alejandro’s return to don Rafael’s hacienda, this time dressed as Zorro; he comes in search of the treasure map to the gold mine to which the dons and he, then blindfolded, had earlier been escorted. Hidden from view on the ceiling, Alejandro extends his sword to spear the treasure map from Rafael’s desk as he and his American henchman Capitan Love turn their backs in worried discussion of Zorro’s intentions. Alejandro then presents himself as Zorro and fends off Love, Montero, and Montero’s soldiers, as the fighting moves from the corridor to the courtyard. At one point in this swordfight sequence, he jumps up on Montero’s roundtable for a fighting advantage. Culminating the duel, Alejandro cuts loose the large map of California, releasing it from its mounts on the wall with flicks of his sword. The giant map floats down, enveloping the attacking soldiers and Montero, allowing Alejandro to escape. Maps, as images of (un)marked landscapes, figure as neoliberal heterotopias—they are indications of the nation under conquest, productively disconnected from any state political project.

Kingship, here condensed in the figure of Rafael Montero, lends itself to a heterotopic political imaginary because the elision of the noble body and the territory constitutes a place protected from historical temporality and everyday political contests: “The king is dead, long live the king.” Containing Rafael’s and Love’s ambitions under the giant map while Alejandro eluded capture, suggests a defanged nobility disciplined for the renewed monarchical market project—the nation is only the body of the king; no state interference needed, even as the new benevolent patriarch, now embodied by Alejandro as Zorro (whitened and gentrified in his training process) is ready to take his place. In this neoliberal heterotopia, the monarchical fantasy is not in question, only who has rightful claim to that throne and its privatized territory.

No industry glorified this fantasy of accumulation (or worried about the concomitant radical injustices it wrought) more than Hollywood. Indeed, in the “fantasy of free trade” (Dean 2009), Clintonian neoliberal “communicative capitalism” found particularly fertile soil in California’s entertainment industry. The free-trade expansionary moment brought about a revision in the Hollywood enterprise. While studios had historically marketed to other places films created for U.S. audiences, industry moguls now understood the need to make movies not just or even primarily for domestic consumption. To do this, films needed to incorporate themes and characters attractive to the rapidly expanding global markets (Jones, 13). This market re-envisioning grew out of a recognition that neoliberal policies had created a new transnational elite with the ready cash to consume their products. Not only did this elite lavishly enjoy the boom, they could now imagine themselves as and be transnational jetsetters. Moreover; elites reveled in seeing themselves reflected in the admiring, envious gaze of the wider populace (think Paris Hilton), the chimera of upward mobility through get-rich-quick schemes (think lotteries and casinos), television makeovers and celebrity benevolence (think Oprah and reality-TV stars), real estate, and other financial houses-of-cards (think Madoff).

Appealing to growing overseas audiences, in particular Latin America, necessitated re-conceiving race in movies. The Mask was part of a Hollywood neoliberal enterprise to refigure Hispanicity by promoting a market multiculturalism that whitens the category of Latino (Lie 2001). With Europeans cast elite Hispanic Californians, promotional interviews remade Spanish Antonio Banderas into a (white) Latino subject. In the 1990s, the U.S. government debuted demographic categories of “white Hispanic” and “non-Hispanic” white; creeping into U.S. popular culture at the same moment was the use of Latino as a designation for all Latin Americans (even in Latin America). Thus, for those seen as “white,” “Latino” offered an ethnic, as opposed to racial marker. This compounded the racialized erotics of promoting Banderas as a “Latin lover,” a long established designation for the (usually Anglo) men who played Zorro.

The Zorro franchise is very closely identified with Hollywood and its history—not only was The Mark of Zorro the fourth film made by United Artists, but the Zorro franchise has served as a century-long vehicle for romantic male stars (Williamson, 4).[6] In addition, Hollywood has often served as a synecdoche for California: massive highway system, housing and technology expansion, and huge influx of immigrants from Latin America identify it as both the future of the United States and the emblem, positive and negative, of neoliberalism. The map-props used in Mask re-instantiate an imagined Spanish California as a vast place of harmonious relations, even as they tie this imaginary to a neoliberal project.

Maps, as Benedict Anderson asserts, “profoundly shaped the way that the colonial state imagined its dominion—the nature of the human beings it ruled, the geography of its domain, and the legitimacy of its ancestry” as “institutions of power” upon which post-colonial nationalisms modeled themselves (64). Nationalist “dreams of racism” had their roots in class distinctions:, “[c]olonial racism was a major element in that conception of ‘Empire’ which attempted to weld dynastic legitimacy and national community” (150). Our reading of Mask suggests what happens when a postcolonial society embraces neoliberalism’s globalizations that require, like colonialism did before it, transnational elite class allegiances: neoliberal market-oriented mappings of heterotopias rely on a racialized visual grammar to instantiate the national demography, geography, and the legitimacy of the ruler.

Neoliberal Fantasy and Images of Counterrevolutionary Heterotopia

To further specify the political imaginary through which Zorro’s California served as a heterotopia for 1990s neoliberalism, we turn here to Anderson’s insights on the colonial genealogy of nationalism: in migrating to the colonies, Europeans of many levels could refashion themselves and approximate aristocratic lifestyles. This approximation—or the putting-on of a class disguise—creates a “tropical Gothic” where capitalism became a “feudal-aristocratic drag” with “dreams of rac[ial]” certainty of superiority vis-à-vis locals  that allowed a fondness for patria. In patriotic love of Empire or Nation, “what the eye is to the lover,” language is to a patriot (154). Anderson’s drag does not imply camp in the sense of a self-referential excessive costuming, but rather a kind of costuming to transform identity. The dubbing of this feudal styling underscores the artifice of newly elite colonials applying the style of an earlier era widely seen as the precursor of European capitalist imperialism. Refashioning themselves as, in their minds, quintessential aristocrats—that is, feudal lords—cemented elite allegiance to Empire and, later, to Nation. In emulating a by-then-nostalgic vision of European feudal lords and landscapes, colonial elites asserted an imperial and later transnational ideal-type of racialized class mode.

De la Vega estate. Courtesy of Zorro Productions.

Capitalism’s “feudal-aristocratic” (i.e.class) “drag” thrived in the 1990s, a moment when, ideologically-speaking, Free-Marketers subordinated the needs of Nation to those of Market. This class drag is not camp, but one positing the possibility of class transformation. Indeed, the gleeful camp of Zorro’s costume—mask, close-fitting black clothes, whip, sword, and all—might distract from earnest work of feudal-aristocratic drag, which required a thoroughly visual erotics in imagining neoliberal heterotopias. This visual language nostalgically evokes a creolized European nineteenth-century high-art-aesthetic: a set of inter-related movements in painting, mimetic or realist in approach, romantic in themes, and experimental with techniques maximizing optical perception and luminosity. This aesthetic was, perhaps, less Anderson’s “tropical gothic” than one celebrating the foundation of bucolic estates, noble lineages, and a feudal social order under the oversight of benevolent nobility. Indeed, Clintonian neoliberalism broke from its Reagan/Bush-1 predecessor by insisting that the economic expansion of the 1990s should expand prosperity for new, previously marginalized sectors.

Exploring visual aesthetics of heterotopias—implied but not elaborated in Foucault’s garden and mirror examples —we offer three key moments (among several) in the film where viewers are offered a painterly image: First, a bucolic landscape of Liberal/Neoliberal California under the care of a fiercely protective creole nobility; Second, a scene constituting the focus of all erotic drives, whose dynastic quality in its mode of feudal-aristocratic drag; and, third, one that transcends historical temporality. This fantasy content is aptly paralleled in mass media nostalgia for a (high art) media whose heyday was pre-cinematic. Neoliberal feudal fantasies are rendered through shots cinematically recreating classic painterly images and genres. Examining each moment reveals that together these painterly images instantiate feudal-aristocratic heterotopia as an aesthetic overlay for the film’s action.

The first image occurs in the opening action sequence, where the elder Zorro (Diego de la Vega) disrupts execution in the densely-packed plaza of several peasants and penetrates the governor’s palace to thwart his nemesis’ attempt to abscond with California treasure; it then moves to the scene of don Diego’s private life as landed gentleman. The transition between the masked public hero and the private patriarch/nobleman is marked with a wide-frame shot sustained for several frames. The pink and coral evening light lends an intensely colorful luminescence to a landscape scene that centers the de la Vega estate. To the left, the manor house overlooks a bay with ships and to the right, outbuildings and a vineyard cradled in a half-circle of coastal mountains; directly to the bottom half of the screen are a waterfall and lush forests. The waterfall is a classic Zorro-film characteristic as the masked bandit often hides in a cave just behind it, a lair connected by a stairway to the mansion above. The significance of the cave is cued by the only two motions in this sequence: the falling water and the downward arch of a crying seagull. The seagull’s call punctuates the scoring of strings sustaining a high C sharp. The style of the image is much like that of early JM Turner nineteenth-century romantic landscapes of estates with intense colors and shimmering light (for example, Pope’s Villa at Twickenham, oil on canvas, 1808). While these commissioned bucolic pieces lack the narrative drama and concern with cruelty and injustice of his stormy shipwreck paintings, they share the use of light to generate particular kinds of atmosphere. Similarly, in Mask, both the image (of Diego’s estate) and a later one of barracks at sunset just before Alejandro creates havoc by stealing a spectacular horse evening light suggests a kind of temporary visual calm.

J.M. Turner, Pope’s Villa at Twickenham. Oil on canvas, 1808.

In many romantic landscape paintings of large estates, both labor and politics are absented. Geographer Don Mitchell traces the history of California landscapes depicting paternalist protection of the bucolic to contain the dangers of non-elites: rural smallholders and workers, industrial workers, native communities; erasure produces California as modern yet idyllic natural space, because, for this to happen, all signs of the state’s literal production—that is, its non-natural condition—must be hidden. Douglas Brinkley also examines this production of place, exploring Teddy Roosevelt’s creation of a national park system at height of immigration and industrialization in the name of democratic liberty materialized in pristine nature even as, according to Karl Jacoby, the creation of parks curtailed food-ways of rural populations. Projects, state and national in scope, mobilized landscape as an ideological frame that demanded containment of non-elites. Nineteenth-century U.S. painters, such as Albert Bierstadt, favored panoramas to evidence the truth of Manifest Destiny, the resonant 1820s idea that the United States should bridge coasts. Zorro’s idyllic California of this opening sequence captures these costly political formations between empire and nation-state.

If California landscape has worked through dispossession, the cinematic use of a painterly invoking of romantic capitalism suggests a politics of representation in which privileging of the oil painting’s flatness, to borrow Ranciere’s insight, suggests a timeless aesthetic ideal. Feudal-aristocratic drag thrives in nostalgic visual aesthetics.

Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo, Il quarto stato (The Fourth Estate). Oil on poplar, 1901.

A second key painterly shot is not a still transition, but rather, culminates the climatic sequence of the film. It is a filmic rendition of Italian painter Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s famous (1901, oil on poplar) neo-impressionist painting, “Il quarto stato,” (the fourth estate, or, the proletariat); this image was famously used during the opening credits of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976 Italy/France/Germany), an important film in collectivist socialist cinema. In the painting, striking workers, men and women, are advancing forward (from assumed darkness) into the light, with two male farmers and a woman with baby in the forefront with clearly delineated and interacting figures following. Not the nuclear family, this is a revolutionary collectivity united in class cohesion and struggle. Like in Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, where he states that history happens twice, the first time as tragedy and the second as farce, Mask perversely appropriates this revolutionarily socialist image to anoint a neoliberal monarchical counterrevolutionary allegory. The image, restaged a la 1990s, shows a mass of inarticulate brown people—the film calls them “slaves”—just freed from captivity in an illicit gold mine, being led out of the dust from the exploding mine not by fellow workers, but by the new Zorro, Alejandro, and the creole (“princess”) Elena, both fiercely benevolent patrons rescuing children from a certain explosive entombment. Since the previous shot showed Elena and Alejandro breaking open the “slaves” cells, this subsequent scene does not need to do the work of advancing the plot, but rather securely encapsulated the counterrevolutionary framing of these events.  As the aesthetic resolution of the capitalist greed instantiated in the treasure map-prop, this neoliberal scene shows a responsible elite protecting those in their care. No mention is made of seizing the means of production–the gold mine–for public good; all we understand is that crude exploitation for personal greed has been foiled.

As the people faintly emerge from the plumes of smoke and dust, we hear composer James Horner’s symphonic score of low strings; then as the figures take shape, the strings make an extended crescendo and are then echoed in brass. These bars make it clear that this is an epic moment. This long shot takes its time in developing from opaque white smoke to Alejandro carrying a child and Elena guiding another; they move into depth of field with the mass of bodies following behind still slightly out of focus. Interestingly, this is a 2-shot within a group shot since only Alejandro’s and Elena’s faces can be seen; and even the children’s faces are averted, visually delimiting the protagonists of the scene. The new creole nuclear family is featured both through these shots, camera focus, and costuming. The tones of the costume and the dusty backdrop are all creams, browns, and blacks, giving the overall shot a sepia, vintage tint. Alejandro stands out in his black Zorro outfit and Elena is the most visually striking with her white v-neck blouse showing plenty of pale neck and chest skin. The faces of the so-called slaves, children and adults, cannot be distinguished not because they are just out of focus but also because of the narrow palette of the scene. In no uncertain terms, the film visually produces phenotypic difference, a racialized social order of a white benevolent elite leading brown humble, even abject, masses.

Alejandro and Elena leading the “slaves” out of the mine. Courtesy of Zorro Productions.

Curiously enough, by the end of the sequence of frames, the exception to imperceptibility through this visually-produced racial-class difference is an indigenous-marked woman standing to the left of Elena. Both her face and stocky build are discernible compared to the rest of the freed “slaves.” She represents, quite possibly, the biological mother of the escorted children, reassuring the audience that a racialized social order will be secured not through the rupturing of stratification, but through its benevolent reform. Any threat of cross-class revolution leading to a miscegenated family is further neutralized both by foregrounding intra-elite warring (for sexual access to the creole princess and for access to non-elite labor and allegiance) and in the film’s subsequent resolution. The 4th estate scene ends with a blinding-white iris and bleeds into a once-again all-white screen, where the dying Diego joins Elena’s and Alejandro’s hands and commands that there must always be a Zorro. In this sequence of scenes, proper, racially-contained reproduction—the productive comingling of Elena and a now whitened and elite Alejandro—is assured as the native, non-elite subjects are absented in favor of the white, creole (birthed on California soil) baby—a prince—born into a legitimate patriarchal noble family. The ongoing mass appeal of this feudal-aristocratic drag marks the success of the neoliberal counterrevolution, a nuanced counterrevolutionary project savvy in building heterotopic spaces to imagine and enact its political revision.

The final painterly shot that interests us is one at the end of the film. The shot forms a portrait of Elena posed in the doorway of the nursery, watching now-husband Alejandro tell chivalrous Zorro tales to baby Joaquín. She is silhouetted by the arches of the hacienda’s outdoor hallway, through which we glimpse their lush estate, a now fully patriarchal redux of the opening estate landscape shot. In this medium shot, Elena is on the left of the screen and the audience is looking at her from over Alejandro’s shoulder on the lower right; out of the depth of frame, the upper right of the screen is filled by the parallel arches of the exterior manor corridor leading off to estate gardens, a sunset shown in the distance. Elena’s costume exactly mirrors the colors of the sky, with orange embroidery on sheer beige shoulders and sleeves, and a deep blue bodice and skirt. Her sleeves and Alejandro’s shirt are the same colors as the stone walls lit by the orange fire of torches. The audience’s perspective overlaps that of the baby prince, the lord and lady of the manor are thus organically part of the built and natural environment. In this two-shot, we are visually assured that this is a long-term, procreative union as the sunset comes to them. Indeed, this redoing of the opening scene is not unusual. As Simmon claims for Westerns, “the narratives seek to reestablish the tableau idyll of the first shot by the time they arrive at their last shot” as they carry “further [an] aura of loss and melancholy.” This, then, is how they enact their “allegorical imperative” (Simmon, 18).

Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) at the estate house. Courtesy of Zorro Productions.

The score further asserts that this is a quintessentially domestic scene. Harmonious in melody carried by wind instruments, the music still pulses with percussive flamenco guitar rhythm suggesting ongoing libidinal drive echoed in subsequent spoken dialogue whereby they declare their love for one another. When Elena states that she’ll “dream” of Zorro, we are reminded of the tension in these layered heterotopias: between feudal-aristocratic drag, Alejandro’s class transformation and securing of the dynastic lineage; and camp, the playful donning of the Zorro gear and pursuit of further adventures. These adventures do not require enactment in other forms of political space; the monarchy is the political body.

Edmund Blaire Leighton, Stitching the Standard. Oil on canvas, 1911.

This portrait is very much like English pre-Raphaelite paintings–for example, Stitching the Standard (oil on canvas, 1911) among other historic genre oil paintings by Edmund Blair Leighton–in which he poses medieval women against stone buildings and elaborate gardens. The noblewoman’s domestic duty is also one of militant loyalty as she leans against a stone parapet overlooking the estate’s fields at sunset. Pre-Raphaelites often nostalgically mobilized such medieval themes depicted mimetically. A most iconic image of this school of painting further layers this nostalgia by harkening back to medieval imaginings of the Arthurian dark ages, as in William Morris’ The Defense of Guenevere (oil on canvas, 1858), where the heroine is presented as the archetypical pre-Raphaelite women: long dark hair, slender, long-limbed, and pensive. Such maidens grace Fantasy films since the 1980s from Excalibur to The Lord of the Rings. Thus, as with the previous image, this one nostalgically indexes both high European art and prior appropriations of painterly images as cinematic clichés.

This end of film vision of Elena in the estate is bookended by a quite similar image early in the film of her mother, Esperanza, seated in front of their manor house, awaiting her husband’s return from Zorro adventures. Akin to shot of Elena, in the first frame, we view the bay at sunset over her shoulder, then the camera switches its angle to center her in front of the manor house; her body constitutes the link between the panoramic California landscape and feudal estate as the legitimate instantiation of power. These bookending mother-daughter shots use dusk lighting to intensify the color palette; both merge the body of the wife with that of the patrimonial estate, in part, by extending the colors of the landscape lighting to the costuming: dusk, in Esperanza’s golden dress, and sunset, in the pinkish orange embroidery and deep blue of Elena’s gown.

Esperanza (Julietta Rosen) in front of the De la Vega manor house. Courtesy of Zorro Productions.

The use of romantic portraiture links patriarchy and patrimony, the feudal landscape and the body of the wife, a linking made all the more apparent by a key film prop: the portrait of Esperanza. This portrait first brings the viewer intimately into Zorro’s private life as don Diego, and next into Rafael’s hacienda, this time misrepresented to daughter Elena as Rafael’s lost wife. Painterly images capture the idealized white creole-settler woman whose body, as the font of feudal patrimony, is the libidinal focus; these thoroughly domesticated images of nobility derive further erotic appeal from their connection to passionate scenes.

The channeling of creole erotic desire into dynastic reproduction restores the pastoral to an aristocratic landscape now populated with dynastic fruits. Moreover, attention to this channeling of desire restores the pastoral to the visual dimensions of heterotopic erotics, reminding us that these erotics are racialized through representational practices. Thus, painterly images visually punctuate the narrative with neoliberal heterotopias that exceed the drives of narrative to appeal to a feudal-aristocratic aesthetic enduring beyond, outside, despite, and instead of actual history. 

In The Mask of Zorro, we see that heterotopias both generate and resonate with eroticized visual economies, beginning with the relationship between heterotopias and everyday spaces; that is, heterotopias are a priori eroticized, racialized through particular representational practices. As we have argued here, this Hollywood blockbuster constitutes a neoliberal heterotopia in and of itself. This heterotopic effect is magnified both by the self-referentialism of this Zorro (re)interpretation as an iconic film—indeed, the film is replete with references to prior Zorro renditions —and by its setting in California, connecting a mythologized past of an open western frontier directly to this (post)modern neoliberal space cast as the U.S. future. The film overlays a (fantastical) California origin moment with the neoliberal context, thus re-imagining both past and present through heterotopias within the heterotopias: the narrative role played by depictions of political spaces, namely, maps as key props, and the use of lush (European-esque) painterly shots to punctuate the narrative arc with a nostalgic aesthetics.

Heterotopic aesthetics undergird the narrative’s counterrevolutionary political thrust: California of the early nineteenth century (best) epitomizes the ideal late twentieth-century neoliberal space: a site of white (creole) oligarchic socio-economic privilege and libidinal gratification unfettered by the state. Transnational capitalists, too, eschew the fetters of acting within the confines of any particular political space. If Ranciere’s heterotopy implies that representationally-rich spaces might signal emancipatory potentiality, then our foray into questions around this Hollywood blockbuster’s multiple and erotic aesthetics of political heterotopias that mark the giddy culmination of the neoliberal counterrevolution forces us to think carefully about equating representational heterogeneity with liberatory political spaces (45).

[1]  “Neoliberal” references justifications for dismantling the New Deal state (roughly 1933-1989, reorienting state priorities toward the global Market.

[2] Adrián Pérez Melgosa, “Opening the Cabaret America Gallery,” contends that film is a heterotopia and shows how a film can reflect and negotiate political conundrums, in his case the workings of race and intra-American hemispheric politics at the beginning of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy.

[3] Foucault’s post-sixties theorization of place, space, and politics counters classic theorizations of a revolutionary utopia—an ideal future place—with heterotopias–actually existing places that stand in contrast to ‘real’ ones, that reflect, alter, and comment upon so-called real spaces. See Christophe Bruchansky’s incisive analysis of Disney as heterotopia. By way of an example, he offers the honeymoon trip, suggesting more broadly that spaces of sexual initiation often are heterotopias, for they are marked as apart from, but condense, real domestic space. Film (industrial commodity and cultural imaginary), is arguably the quintessential heterotopic space; like Foucault’s example of the mirror, it exists, even as it is understood to have an attenuated relationship to non-filmic places. The political impact of a heterotopia depends on its embodiment of alternative power formations (Surin). Historicizing variations in heterotopias, then, is critical to seeing the contours of political geographies of place within heterotopic filmic spaces, including the status of counterrevolutionary transformation.

[4] Leonard Pitt, cited in Lie.

[5] For more on romance and Latin Americanism, see Adrián Pérez Melgosa, “Cinematic Contact Zones.”

[6] This, though many Zorro movies are either non-Hollywood products or Hollywood collaborations with overseas studios.

Work cited:

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1991).

Douglas Brinkley, The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America (New York: Harper Perennial, reprint 2010).

Christophe Bruchansky, “The Heterotopia of Disney World,” Philosophy Now 77: Sept/Oct 2012; http://philosophynow.org/issues/77/The_Heterotopia_of_Disney_World (accessed Sept 27, 2012).

Jodi Dean Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).

Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias” (1967); http://foucault.info/documents/heteroTopia/foucault.heteroTopia.en.html (accessed Oct 9, 2010).

Dagmar Herzog Sex in Crisis: The New Sexual Revolution and the Future of American Politics (New York: Basic Books, 2008).

Dorothy B. Jones “Hollywood War Films, 1942-1944,” Hollywood Quarterly 1: 1945: 1-19.

Nadia Lie, “Free trade in images? Zorro as cultural signifier in the contemporary global/local systemNepantla: Views from South 2001: 2: 3: 489-508.

Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New York: Wildside Press, 2008).

Adrián Pérez Melgosa, “Cinematic Contact Zones: Hemispheric Romances in Film and the Construction and Reconstruction of Latin Americanism,” Social Text  28: 3: 104: 2010: 119-150.

Adrián Pérez Melgosa “Opening the Cabaret America Allegory: Hemispheric Politics, Performance, and Utopia in Flying Down to Rio,” American Quarterly 64: 2: June 2012: 249-275.

Lina Y. Newton, “Why Some Latinos Supported Proposition 187: Testing Economic Threat and Cultural Identity Hypotheses,” Social Science Quarterly 81: 1: 2000: 180-193. 

Jacques Ranciere, The Future of the Image tr. Gregory Elliot (London: Verso Press, 2007).

Jacques Rancière, The Hatred of Democracy, trans. Steve Corcoran (London: Verso, 2006).

Scott Simmon, The Invention of the Western Film (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

Doris Sommer, Foundational Fictions, The National Romances of Latin America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

Kenneth Surin, Freedom Not Yet: Liberation and the Next World Order (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).Catherine Williamson “‘Draped Crusaders’: Disrobing Gender in The Mark of Zorro,” Cinema Journal 36: 2: Winter 1997: 3-16.


LJ Frazier works on political cultures of the Americas and Europe through transnational and global analytics. Trained in Anthropology and History, her interest in the intersection of cultural studies theories of power, subjectivity, and ideology with questions of political economy has resulted in publications on gender and sexuality, nation-state formation, and empire, human rights, mental health policies, memory, activism, and feminist ethnography: authoring Desired States: Gender, Sexuality & Political Culture (Rutgers),  Salt in the Sand: Memory, Violence and the Nation-State (Duke) and co-editing Gender’s Place: Feminist Anthropologies of Latin America (Palgrave) and (with D. Cohen) Gender and Sexuality in 1968 (Palgrave).

Deborah Cohen, Associate Professor of History/Director of Latina/Latino Studies at University of Missouri-St. Louis, brings questions of race, gender, imperialism, and labor to bear on nation-state formation and other political projects. Her first book, Braceros (University of North Carolina, 2011; paperback, 2013) reveals the paradoxes of modernist political economies and the predicaments of transnational subjects in the United States and Mexico; whereas her new project, “Loyalty and Betrayal,” examines how transnational migration reshaped the pressures and pleasures of affective ties of family, race, ethnicity, and people-ness. She and Frazier are co-authoring three books: on ’68 in Mexico; a global ’68 history; and one that uses Zorro films to map shifting imaginaries of political projects, economic orders, and notions of social justice.


Water is Life

Alessandra Bergamin
Briana Flin

It is a Saturday evening in April and Celerina Chavez is making albondigas—Mexican meatball soup. In a heavy pot, the soup simmers gently, sending the smell of carrot and cilantro throughout the house. With an oven mitt, Celerina lifts the hot lid. “The soup needs more water,” she says.

On the tiled bench beside the sink sits a large container of purified water, the five-gallon kind found in office buildings. Smaller bottles of water sit on the table, ready to drink with dinner. Celerina fills a pitcher from the five-gallon jug and pours a dash into the soup. She stirs it, then tastes it. Dinner will be ready soon.

Earlier that afternoon Celerina and her husband Bartolo made the trip from their home in Arvin to the Costco in Bakersfield. Every week they drive more than twenty miles to buy bottled water in four heavy pallets. Tomorrow, Bartolo will go to Arvin’s water district to use his two tokens, provided by the city, and refill that five-gallon jug at a purified water station.

They cannot drink the water that runs from the faucet.

Arvin is one of more than ninety public water systems across California having water contaminated with 123-Trichloropropane, or 123-TCP. The chemical originated as a by-product of two soil fumigants, D-D made by Shell Oil and Telone from Dow Chemical. These products were used heavily in agriculture from the 1940s until they were discontinued in their original formulation in the mid 1980s. During that time, however, they leached into the groundwater, contaminating the wells that most of the Central Valley relies upon.

Kern County is the most affected in the state. While Bartolo and Celerina have lived in Arvin, a town in Kern, for more than twenty years, they only discovered their water was contaminated three years ago. Before that, they and their three children unknowingly drank the contaminated tap water.

“We’re in the United States, it isn’t just any country, so why is the water bad, why is the water so contaminated?

“We’re in the United States, it isn’t just any country, so why is the water bad, why is the water so contaminated?” Celerina says in Spanish, her and Bartolo’s native tongue.

Bartolo Chavez leads the way through his three bedroom home to the bathroom. There, he turns on the shower and lets the water run. It is warm but not hot enough to be steamy. The overhead fan whirrs. They are cautious about bathing too—short and cold showers are routine in their household, although not in others.

“The warmer the water, the more dangerous,” he says. “In the community, the people do not know that.”

For more than twenty-five years the State of California has classified 123-TCP as a known carcinogen. Yet the chemical was only regulated earlier this year. July 2017, following a public and stakeholder comment period, the State Water Board set the maximum contaminant level for 123-TCP in drinking water at five parts per trillion. With the contaminant at this concentration, communities still have an increased risk of developing cancer compared to those with uncontaminated water, but that risk is less than one case per 100,000 people.[1] It comes as good news for communities across the Central Valley, many of which have 123-TCP concentrations of more than seven parts per trillion, meaning higher cancer risks.[2]

“This new health-protective regulation for 1,2,3-TCP is a victory for all the Californians… seeking to secure for themselves and their families what most of us have the luxury of taking for granted—the basic human right to safe drinking water,” said Jonathan Nelson, Policy Director for Community Water Center in a press release shortly after the announcement.[3]

But treating water is also an expensive undertaking and the burden of cost may be placed upon consumers who live in smaller water markets and already pay higher rates. Because of this, many public water utilities, including Arvin’s, have filed lawsuits against Shell Oil and Dow Chemical for damages.[4] Most complaints claim the products’ problems outweighed the benefits and that the companies failed to disclose 123-TCP as an ingredient.

“We have internal documents that show they [Shell and Dow] knew from a very early point in time that 1,2,3-TCP was in the products and not doing anything to help the farmers but yet, it remained,” said Jed Borghei, an attorney representing Arvin’s public water utility.[5]

Some, such as Clovis, have already received some recompense, settling a lawsuit against Shell Oil in 2016 for $22 million.

Treating the water also takes time—anywhere from a few months to a few years. Meanwhile, residents of affected communities, like Bartolo and Celerina, still shoulder the burden of procuring clean water.

“It is something good they are going to do,” Bartolo said of the regulation prior to its adoption. “But they need to act fast because if they wait more time, that is more harm to humanity.”



[1] California State Water Resources Control Board, “Frequently Asked Questions: 1,2,3-Trichloropropane (TCP) in Drinking Water,” 18 July 2016, https://www.waterboards.ca.gov/drinking_water/certlic/drinkingwater/documents/123-tcp/123tcp_factsheet.pdf.

[2] California State Water Resources Control Board, “1,2,3-TCP Concentrations Above 5 ppt,” last accessed 11 October 2017, https://www.waterboards.ca.gov/drinking_water/certlic/drinkingwater/documents/123-tcp/123tcp_map_5ppt.pdf.

[3] Community Water Center, “Press Release: State Votes to Protect Californians From Carcinogen, TCP,” 18 July 2017, http://www.communitywatercenter.org/tags/tcp/.

[4] Robins Borghei LLP, “Robins Borghei LLP: The Leader in 1,2,3-TCP Groundwater Contimination Litigation,” last accessed 11 October 2017, http://rbwaterlaw.com/tcp-litigation/.

[5] From video interview with Jed Borghei of Robins Borghei LLP, conducted by Alessandra Bergamin and Briana Flin, 26 April 2017.


Alessandra Bergamin is a freelance journalist who reports on agricultural communities, environmental justice and inequality. Her work has been published in Bay Nature, Misadventures and Flint Mag. She is a former Harper’s Magazine intern and current student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on twitter @AllyBergamin.

Briana Flin is a Bay Area-based multimedia journalist interested in culture, immigration and social justice. She’s produced stories for Rewire.org and Oakland North and her work has been shared by PBS. She’s currently a new media student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on twitter @BrianaFlin.

Copyright: © 2017 Alessandra Bergamin and Briana Flin. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/


What Color is My City?

by Adam Rogers

From Boom Fall 2015, Vol 5, No 3

Night lights are changing L.A.’s complexion

When I was old enough to have a car but too young to have anywhere to go, late in the night on weekends my two best friends and I used to drive to downtown Los Angeles. This was in the mid-1980s. The parts of downtown that weren’t Skid Row were as empty as if they’d been neutron-bombed. We were looking for Blade Runner; we got The Omega Man.

We’d head for Bunker Hill and Grand Avenue, carving through the middle of what city mapmakers used to call the “central business district.” In the city’s infancy, grandees lived on the hill in Victorian mansions. Twentieth-century business ambitions replanted the landscape with a forest of skyscrapers amid a brutalist-meets-futurist combination of super-wide surface streets, overpasses, underpasses, below-ground malls, and elevated pedestrian paths.

My friends and I would park in front of the then-new Museum of Contemporary Art—as sci-fi-looking a building as any Angeleno could have hoped for. The lights suspended above the empty streets gave the whole experience an acid, radioactive glow, bouncing off the smog corralled against the mountains. Other than our voices, there was only silence, which is downright eerie in a city.

When we goaded each other into it, one by one we’d walk out into the middle of Grand, and we’d lie down.

We were not risk-taking kids, particularly. Honestly, it was probably as safe as lying down in our backyards. We could hear cars coming miles away, and two of us always stood guard. That didn’t matter, though. None of us could manage to stay prone against the asphalt for more than a minute or two. It felt wrong. Streets are not for lying down on.

Like all good Angelenos, we had grown up thinking about movies. We watched a lot of them. We went downtown chasing the peculiar authenticity of being in parts of the city we’d seen on screens. The ubiquitous orange hue of the streetlights was part of our actual experience of Los Angeles—and also the experience of the city we shared with anyone who had seen the thousands of TV shows and films set there.

Neither of those cities, real or cinematic, exist anymore. Illuminated nighttime Los Angeles is in flux. Today, if I went downtown in the wee hours and laid my head against the Grand Avenue pavement—well, for starters I’d get run over, now that people work and play downtown again. But the last thing I’d see before the Prius crushed me would be a black sky, not an orange one. The glow around me would be bright blue-white. A citywide program, one of the most innovative in the country, is swapping out a half-million streetlight bulbs for the colder, paler glow of light-emitting diodes.

In a city with as long-term a relationship with electric light as Los Angeles has had, that’s a striking difference. The color of the city is changing, literally. Not during the day—as writers from Raymond Chandler to Michel Foucault have pointed out, LA’s stark, raving sunlight bleaches color from the wide, flat city. That’s still true. But at night, lights bring color back to LA—in a characteristic, unnatural spectrum. Now that spectrum is changing, which means the city’s identity will be transformed, too.

Photograph by Alex Scott.

Los Angeles electrified its streetlights early. The first pole with lights on top illuminated downtown in 1881, just a year after New York first installed arc lights—high voltage, power-hungry, and burning in air (as opposed to a competing technology, Thomas Edison’s incandescent lightbulb, which used an electrified filament that glowed in a vacuum). Soon enough, LA, filled with boosters whose pride belied a certain, let’s say, insecurity about the metropolises of the East, was touting lights more brilliant than Chicago’s and a Great White Way to rival New York’s. Leapfrogging to electric technology gave the city’s leaders a kind of legitimacy. “You can imagine that in New York and Boston the gas industry fought against electrification,” says Sandy Isenstadt, an art and architecture historian at the University of Delaware who studies city lights. “But Los Angeles had this intimate start.”

The timing wasn’t accidental. After staying roughly stable for 300 years, the raw price for artificial light—any kind, all the way back to fire and whale oil—began to drop precipitously around 1800. By the early decades of the twentieth century, lighting cost a fifth of what it had a century before,1 and the technology—multiple technologies, actually—took off.2 What really made Los Angeles special happened in 1924: the word Packard, glowing orange at Seventh and Flower3 in the heart of today’s downtown, a few blocks south of where I used to lay in the street. It was part of the country’s first crop of neon signs. Later improvements in the coating of the glass tubes that contained the light, and the use of gases other than neon, expanded the color palate to two dozen. The night no longer meant an absence of color; it was quite the opposite.4

To commemorate the completion of Hoover Dam in 1936, which would provide a surplus of power to booming Los Angeles, a billion-candlepower beacon surrounded by pinwheeling searchlights turned the sky over downtown white. Over the next few years, those same type of searchlights would come to arc and dance in front of movie theaters lining the new cinematic corridor of Hollywood Boulevard, a symbol of local industry and glamour visible from anywhere in the Los Angeles basin.

The mid-century city, with neon signage blaring from high buildings, entire skyscrapers awash with light, streets blazing with hundreds of thousands of streetlights, had become something entirely new, unlike any city on Earth.

Fighting back darkness over 500 square miles of city isn’t easy—or cheap. “I’ve been here since 1977, since I was 17,” says Ed Ebrahimian, director of LA’s Bureau of Street Lighting. “I’m very aware of what a huge city Los Angeles is, and how many miles of streets and streetlights it has.” (For the record, it’s more than 4,500 miles of lit streets, second only to New York City.)5 By the time Ebrahimian took over the bureau in 2005, the city’s annual bill for streetlight electricity was $16 million a year. In 2008 he pitched a new approach: convert the mostly sodium-vapor bulbs in the “cobrahead” streetlights, tall towers with big, flared-out heads that cantilevered over major thoroughfares, to a relatively new technology: light-emitting diodes, or LEDs.

It made sense. Sodium bulbs heat sodium metal until it vaporizes; in a gaseous state, the metal glows when current runs through it. LEDs last years longer and kick out more than double the light per watt.6 Their lighter draw on the grid appealed to then-mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who wanted the city to have a smaller carbon footprint. Ebrahimian predicted saving $7 million a year on electricity and $2.5 million in maintenance.7

Photograph by Alex Scott.

For once, history was on Los Angeles’s side. Other cities have been trying to make the same switch—Seattle, Austin, Las Vegas—but because LA is so big and was first, its demands can drive the market toward certain technologies (and a more palatable price), and street lighting is an infrastructure improvement the city can actually afford. Back in the 1930s, LA created a maintenance assessment fund to pay for street lighting; anyone with a streetlight in front of their property pays into it, and the money can only go to streetlights. “Because of that, funding has not fluctuated like it has in other big cities,” Ebrahimian says. “All those other cities, they use the general fund for street lighting, and it competes against fire, police, and other priorities.”

The trick for Ebrahimian was picking the right kind of light. The noontime sun contains roughly equal measures of all the wavelengths of light visible to humans, plus some infrared (heat) and ultraviolet (suntan, cancer). Artificial sources of light are wildly variable. Incandescent bulbs emit the whole visible spectrum, but they favor the red end over the blue—meaning no ultraviolet to tan by, but lots of infrared, which is why they burn your fingers. Sodium lights emphasize yellow-orange wavelengths almost to the exclusion of all others.8

But a light’s spectrum is actually less important than what people see—and believe it or not, those things are different. The color of an object is a combination of the wavelengths of light hitting it, the wavelengths it reflects, and what your eye can actually register. (You don’t see ultraviolet, for example, but some insects do.) What really determines what color you see—and this is the most important part—is how your brain combines all that information with the light and context around it.

This dynamic plays out in real life all the time, but the most famous recent instance might be the Internet meme flare-up over a photograph of a dress that appeared blue and brown (or black) to some people and white and gold to others. Passed through Photoshop, the actual pixels that comprised the photographed dress were indeed blue, and the trim was brown. But something about the lighting around it—the time of day it implied, the position of the sun, maybe the suggestion of shade—made the image of the dress polarizing. People saw colors that were really there, but weren’t real, if there can be said to be such a thing as real when it comes to color.

Color, if you ask a philosopher, is a big problem. If it arises from a blizzard of photons descending on and then bouncing off an object (and then funneling through the lens of an eye, triggering uncountable biochemical reactions among the pigments and neural connections of the retina, setting off even more biochemistry in the interconnected neurons of the visual cortex), then do objects actually possess intrinsic color at all?

For now, put those late-night-dorm-room thoughts aside and light a candle at the altar of neuroscience. The human eye and brain together create an image of the world, in part by doing all that analysis of photon wavelength unconsciously. Lighting can change the color of something as effectively as a coat of paint; that streetlight orange you see in a movie might well be an effect of a gel like Rosco’s “Urban Vapor,” designed to make lights simulate sodium’s glow. But in real life, our brains fight the effect. They try to keep the color of an object constant even as the light around it changes.

So LEDs, for example, look white or blue-white to the naked eye. But they often drop the blues or reds at either end of the spectrum. Things that would look yellowish under full-spectrum sun or incandescent light may look white under LEDs. Skin tones look unnatural, even dead.

Lighting specialists try to avert those kind of catastrophes by carefully measuring the color of light. One metric they use, the Color Rendering Index, measures the fidelity with which a light reveals the color of an object (the accuracy of CRI is a matter of some controversy).9 A second measure, color temperature, gauges the color of the light itself. Its units are degrees Kelvin, because it calculates what temperature you’d have to heat an idealized object called a black-body radiator so that it would glow the color you were looking for. For example, 4,000K is a sort of bluish white, and 3,000K is more yellowish. Incandescent bulbs tend to register between 2,700K and 3,000K. For Los Angeles’s needs, LED manufacturers pitched Ebrahimian 6,000K—the hard-edged glare of an electronic flashbulb.

Ebrahimian didn’t go for it. A city needs romance, not 5,000 miles of lights that evoke nothing more than paparazzi and selfies. His group did a little research and figured out that the color temperature of the moon was about 4,100K. So that’s what they asked for. All the new cobrahead lights are 4,000K, plus or minus 300—tiny grids that shine like moonbeams. “Downtown, you really notice it,” Ebrahimian says. “Go to Pinks on La Brea, or just walk on Sunset or Hollywood, and it’s an amazing feeling.”

Los Angeles and lights evolved in parallel. As the city went nonlinear in its expansion—or rather, rectilinear but in every direction until it ran up against the mountains or the Pacific—cars needed lights to follow new routes. Isenstadt, the architecture historian, points out that bright streetlights were perfect for the 1930s and 1940s, when the city wanted to extend shopping hours and connect multiple urban cores.10 Illuminated buildings, neon apartment building signs, and bright movie theater marquees, all aimed at people driving cars, became the defining characteristics of Los Angeles.

The proliferation of glaring lights marked, as one book put it, a “victory of symbols-in-space over forms-in-space in the brutal automobile landscape of great distances and high speed.”11 That book was Learning from Las Vegas, and it didn’t come out until 1972. But the lessons that the other pop-up city in a desert teaches were apparent in LA thirty years earlier, had anyone cared to learn them.

Artificial lights don’t illuminate everything equally. Brighter nighttime lights leave darker nighttime shadows. They call attention to edges, outlines, themselves. The movies solidified the role of lights in Los Angeles’s mythology. Noirish writers like Chandler and directors like Billy Wilder loved the irony of a city so brightly lit (day and night) hiding horrors in its shadows. By the 1950s, garish neon on screen was a shorthand for harshness and danger.

Neo-noirs made artificial light sources glorious. In Chinatown, the classic of the form, detective Jake Gittes smashes the taillight on the car of someone he’s following so he can track the car at night. That’s as much of a foreshadow of what happens to the dame in question, Evelyn Mulwray, as the imperfect mote in her eye. (Spoiler: She gets shot through the eye in Chinatown—right in the headlight, as it were.)

And then there’s Blade Runner. The Los Angeles that director Ridley Scott constructed owed more to Kyoto and Times Square than to LA, though it did absorb the Las Vegas lessons on signage. Flying cars require skyscraper-sized animated billboards, and permanent acid rain refracts a vast plain of yellow-orange street lighting. Somehow Blade Runner managed to frame what LA might become without being much like LA at all, except for the color of the streetlights, which felt right even if the idea of rain in LA now seems more like science fiction than ever.

Photograph by Alex Scott.

But then movies have their own authenticity; for an Angeleno steeped in them, they become as real as the city outside. When Michael Mann made the movie Collateral, one of his goals was to make nighttime Los Angeles a character, and the city’s lights—shot with a dizzying array of digital technology—have never looked better. Mann started his career on Miami Vice and made the heist movie Heat; he is arguably Hollywood’s king of depicting cities at night. But the effect he creates is just that—an effect. Mann thought the combination of LA’s actual sources of illumination looked weird on his monitors; he and his crew tweaked it in post-production to look “real.”

Lights are not the same as movies of lights. And memories of lights and movies? That’s a whole other thing. Color and the memory of color, already filtered by the eye and brain, dance a few steps even further away from whatever we might call the color of reality when recorded by technology, by a camera. “Remembrance of the city is mediated by a technology that is itself sensitive to the way the light is produced,” says Bevil Conway, a neuroscientist at Wellesley College who studies color and vision. “In very blunt terms, there’s a difference between your experience of the sodium light and your experience of a picture or movie shot using sodium illumination.”

To Conway, the key is that trick the human visual system plays. It’s called color constancy. In essence, it’s the ability of the eye and visual cortex to correct for the color of illumination that’s spilling across a scene and reflecting back to an observer. Most of the time, humans can subtract the “spectral bias” of a source.

Photograph by Alex Scott.

Occasionally, artificial or external effects break color constancy—accidentally, as with the dress, or intentionally, in the theater or a movie. Our brains “see” a color that isn’t really there. Different light sources can set off the same color coding in the eye under one set of conditions, but not another. Look at a shirt in the store and it matches your pants; get it home and it doesn’t. Color constancy has played you for a patsy. “As you switch from one lighting condition to another, from sodium to LED, you are profoundly changing the way color objects appear,” Conway says. “And that’s huge. It’s going to change the associations people make.”

Sodium lights are effectively monochromatic, which means that while you can see by them, you essentially have no color vision, though just as in dim lighting you’re unlikely to notice. As with black-and-white images, Conway argues, memories add a kind of personal retrospective colorization, but LEDs drag everything into full color. “I wonder whether your nostalgia for sodium-illuminated LA has something to do with this,” Conway emails later, after we talk. “Under sodium lights, you can experience the city with your own private visualized colors, and these don’t align with the real colors given to you with LED lights. It’s disappointing, just as seeing a movie based on a favorite book is rarely satisfying.”

The lights of Los Angeles are going to keep changing. Now that he has converted the cobraheads along commercial streets, Ebrahimian is targeting the 50,000 or so decorative streetlights in residential areas. He figures the city has 400 different styles. And they need a different color temperature, he says; the bureau is going with the more yellowish-incandescent hue at 3,000K. “It keeps the neighborhood feel,” Ebrahimian says.

Because LEDs can essentially be turned into computer chips, it’s easy to attach them to a network. Philips Electronics is working on adding to every cobrahead fixture a wireless connection to the Bureau of Street Lighting. It’s just a little control module that plugs into the light and then sends its status back home, via the Internet, to Ebrahimian’s bureau—on, off, broken, whatever. It won’t let anyone change the color of the light—that would need a different kind of LED—but it will mean that the fixtures will deliver more than just illumination. They’ll deliver information.

Maintenance is just the beginning. Streetlights could flash in unison when paramedics barrel down a thoroughfare. You could guide people to certain streets to control entry and egress to a mass event, like a ball game at Dodger Stadium. How about connecting real-time traffic information collected from a phone app like Waze? If that sounds like the exposition that comes before a villainous hacker brings Los Angeles to its knees, well, wait for it. I’m sure that script is already in development.

In cities, light defines space. In a way, the placement of every source of artificial illumination encodes a priority of the city. People chose to illuminate this, not that.

Artificial light, though, also defines time. “By night, motion is calibrated against an episodic, even flickering visual field rather than the uniform rendering of form that comes with an even wash of daylight,” Isenstadt writes. “By night, Los Angeles is a radiant and reflective construct, no longer beholden to the geometric structure and material resolution of the day.”13 The nighttime downtown where my friends and I lay on the street twenty-five years ago did indeed have a certain radiance and reflectivity. But I don’t remember—or at least I don’t remember remembering—light decoupling from the geometry of buildings and the street grid. The light didn’t just define the city; the city defined the light.

Any new memories of the city I form will be literally colored—tinged, maybe—in a new way. Old movies star my city; new ones will feature the city. The same apocalyptic fate that always seems to come to Los Angeles in movies has finally arrived in my orange-lit, neon-bordered version: Fade out.



2 John A. Jackle, City Lights: Illuminating the American Night (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 73.

3 Lydia DeLyser and Paul Greenstein, “Signs of Significance: Los Angeles and America’s Lit-Sign Landscapes,” Overdrive: LA Constructs the Future, 1940–1990, Wim De Wit and Christopher James Alexander, eds. (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2013), 104.

4 John A. Jackle, City Lights: Illuminating the American Night (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 86.






10 Sandy Isenstadt, “Los Angeles after Dark: The Incandescent City,” Overdrive: LA Constructs the Future, 1940–1990, Wim De Wit and Christopher James Alexander, eds. (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2013), 49.

11 Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas, Revised Edition, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1977), 119.

12 http://www.theasc.com/magazine/aug04/collateral/index.html.

13 Sandy Isenstadt, “Los Angeles after Dark: The Incandescent City,” Overdrive: LA Constructs the Future, 1940–1990, Wim De Wit and Christopher James Alexander, eds. (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2013), 62.


Future of Hollywood

From Boom Winter 2013, Vol. 3, No. 4

We asked Jennifer Holt, Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, about the future of Hollywood and movies.

Boom: Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have warned that Hollywood is going to “implode.” Do you think this doom-and-gloom forecast of the industry’s future is accurate?

Jennifer Holt: Certain aspects of the entertainment industry are facing some serious challenges, thanks to new technologies, consumer demands for “anytime, anywhere” access to entertainment, and new options for distributing content that open the playing field dramatically. That doesn’t necessarily mean Hollywood is going to “implode,” but it does mean those working in film and television production at the studios are going to have to continue adjusting the way they do business. Don’t forget that we have heard these cries of impending doom before, many times. And yet, Hollywood is alive and well, and Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are still making movies, television, and money.

Boom: Can California survive without Hollywood?

Holt: I don’t think a “California without Hollywood” is a scenario we are going to be realistically facing anytime soon. While the percentage of films being produced in California is definitely shrinking, the state still accounts for nearly 40 percent of all entertainment employment nationwide, and 60 percent of all labor income in the industry is earned in California. That doesn’t even begin to account for the service and support sectors that are crucial to the workings of the entertainment business—everything from dry cleaners to hotels and restaurants—or the goods purchased by the industry, most of which come from California. Hundreds of films and television series are produced in California each year, and entertainment is consistently one of the country’s largest exports. This industry is facing challenges, but it is not facing extinction.

Boom: You’ve done work on deregulation in entertainment. How will this phenomenon impact the entertainment industry of the future?

Holt: Deregulation will continue to impact the entertainment industry and the audience in profound ways, until the government decides to take action on behalf of consumers. The consolidation of media industries that has resulted from the deregulation that began in the 1980s has impacted the quality of our media culture, the accessibility of information, and ultimately the fabric of our democracy. The same conglomerates that create the latest blockbusters also produce most of the television news that Americans consume. Companies like Comcast also control the cable wires and Internet service that deliver this information. Further consolidation in these industries only means less choice, higher prices, and more homogenized media. Future combinations of high-tech industries and content producers are something to watch. Should they begin to gobble up one another and impact competition that would limit our options even more.

Boom: How do you think the increasing availability of film and television online will affect American culture?

Holt: I think in one sense, it will continue to fragment the audience. We have more choices of what to watch on any given night with streaming platforms such as Netflix or Hulu, and more devices on which to enjoy this content. We don’t have to limit ourselves to one viewing space either—studies have found that many people are increasingly using tablets to stream media in the bathroom, bedroom, and kitchen. So the more connected devices and available content we have, the less likely we are to converge in one place, around one screen, to watch the same show. Media is also becoming easier to share and discover with online delivery, so there is also the potential for exposure to more and different types of shows that we would otherwise see, even if we are watching them alone, on our phones.

Boom: What would you include in a time capsule for 2050?

Holt: I would include an episode of “The Bachelor,” because otherwise nobody in the future will believe this actually happened, a cable box, a clunky remote with buttons that you actually have to push, a special section for physical media such as DVDs, CDs, newspapers, and books so we don’t forget what they once looked like, an iPhone which we might all laugh at someday as much as the brick phone, a landline telephone with its connection cord, a cable bill, a modem, a copy of Minority Report (set in 2054), a broadcast network scheduling executive, and pictures of domestic and public spaces that don’t have screens on the walls—that will probably look as quaint in 2050 as images of families gathered around the radio do now.


Image at top by Waltarr.


Postcards From the Future

by Kristin Miller

From Boom Winter 2013, Vol. 3, No. 4

Utopian north, dystopian south

Touring around California you could be forgiven for thinking you’re living in the future, and not just because of the Silicon Valley wizardry that surrounds us all. We also have to thank Hollywood’s movie magic, which has turned the state into a backdrop for countless science fiction films presenting futures both terrible and wondrous. It’s not just that so many are filmed here—writers and filmmakers have been exploring the future through California sets for decades.

In the early days of big-budget sci-fi, New York often embodied the worst fears about society, urban living, and technology: Soylent Green (1972), Escape from New York (1981), and others capitalized on New York’s bankrupt and crime-ridden nadir—a genre that Miriam Greenberg refers to as “New York Exploitation.”¹ With the city’s campaign to reposition itself in the 1990s, Los Angeles became the symbol of urban blight, perfectly demonstrated by John Carpenter’s relocation of his Snake Plissken sequel, Escape from L.A. (1996). While dystopian sci-fi also has a home in the United Kingdom (thanks, George Orwell) and has been used for self-reflection by most of the world’s filmmaking cultures, there is something about the frequency with which California and “the future” are used synonymously.

In sci-fi movies and the books that serve as their inspiration, the future of the Golden State goes something like this: 10 to 150 years from the present, California has succumbed to natural disaster/economic and governmental collapse/a pandemic, which leaves Southern California a corporate-fascist-military state with gross financial and racial inequality and urban squalor—while Northern California rips up its pavement, learns permaculture, gets spiritual, and models better living through technology and communitarian diversity.

This binary began in the 1940s with Earth Abides (1949), a book about a scientist starting over in Berkeley after a global pandemic, while in Aldous Huxley’s Ape and Essence (1948) Los Angeles slouches toward the apocalypse. The movies Planet of the Apes, The Terminator, Escape from L.A., Star Trek, and the books Ecotopia, The Fifth Sacred Thing (soon to be a feature film), and Snowcrash all play variations on this theme. Collapse and division is almost a foregone conclusion at this point—not just a future that might happen, but one many almost expect and therefore accept.

“Every American city boasts an official insignia and slogan. Some have municipal mascots, colors, songs, birds, trees, even rocks. But Los Angeles alone has adopted an official nightmare,” writes Mike Davis in Ecology of Fear.² Hollywood has perpetuated this dystopian vision of its own home in the southland. From the Planet of the Apes series (1968–1973) on, future LA has been routinely trashed by nuclear, technological, and automotive catastrophe, police brutality, pollution, and crime. A Malthusian nightmare, the city is dark, filthy, and collapsing under the weight of its immigrant population, or barely held in check by totalitarian government and structural inequality—what Mike Davis called LA’s “spatial apartheid.”³

Downtown Los Angeles in 2154 in Elysium, TriStar Pictures, 2013.

Davis notes that this was so accepted as a likely trajectory for the city, that it was written into an LA redevelopment plan as a warning of what could happen were the plan not adopted. The plan, LA 2000: A City for the Future, calls this “the Blade Runner scenario: the fusion of individual cultures into a demotic polyglotism ominous with unresolved hostilities.”4  While it might be tempting to dismiss this as the fever dream of the bad old days, before hipster gentrification, smart growth, and downtown redevelopment, Southland Tales (2006), In Time (2011), and Elysium (2013) have done little to alter its imagery.

Northern California-as-utopia, on the other hand, is strongly linked to the countercultural movement of the sixties, with its guides for technologically advanced back-to-the-land living. One can read Ernest Callenbach’s influential novel Ecotopia (1975) as the possible future seeded by Whole Earth Catalog. Ecotopia is a fictional “field study” of a future Pacific Northwest society that has split from an apocalyptic United States and is governed according to ecological principles. While much technology has been abandoned, the Ecotopians have selectively retained public transit, electric cars, networked computers, and improved recycling (Callenbach was a longtime resident of Berkeley). Ecotopia‘s themes were later picked up and elaborated in the eco-feminist tales of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home (1985), a cultural anthropology of latter-day Napa Valley-ites who have returned to indigenous ways; Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing (1993) about a pagan, nonviolent San Francisco threatened by southern biological warfare; and Octavia Butler’s Parable books (1993, 1998) where refugees from the LA wasteland grow a new eco-religion, Earthseed, in the forests of Mendocino.

These texts depict Northern California as central to both speculative and practical visions of sustainable survival. While Bay Area research parks, universities, and experiments in urban living serve as laboratories for near-term development, the region is also a visual and narrative shorthand for distant, alternative, and ideal futures. The twin giants of popular sci-fi, Star Trek and Star Wars, both used Northern California as a location—for the headquarters of the United Federation of Planets in the Star Trek universe, and as site of the water and forest planets (Naboo and Endor) of Star Wars‘ “galaxy far, far away.” Wired published a paean to San Francisco upon the release of the latest Star Trek film, explaining why there couldn’t be a more perfect location for its technologically idyllic future:

“What sets Star Trek apart is the attention it pays to one little city, barely seven miles across, when the other points on its journey are not cities or countries, but planets and star systems…And it’s a city whose culture of curiosity, craftsmanship and tolerance have left an indelible mark on one of the world’s most successful sci-fi franchises.”5

In the frontier myth of American history, California represents the completion of a manifestly destined expansion across the continent. It’s easy to see Utopian San Francisco and “Hell A” as twin land’s-ends for idealists and cynics. In the north, beyond the Golden Gate there lies only “space, the final frontier.”6 Conversely, in Richard Kelly’s apocalyptic Southland Tales (2006), the Santa Monica pier is where the world ends “not with a whimper, but with a bang” taking LA’s palimpsest of corrupt politicians, soulless celebs, activist porn stars, and deranged cops with it.7

A third, smaller, but consistent vein of sci-fi unites both utopian and dystopian futures without mapping them onto a Nor Cal–So Cal binary, and dispenses with the quasi-biblical tales of Sodom and Eden. More importantly, it allows the possibility of multiple futures for rethinking the present. A number of films depict the north as a dystopia-within-utopia: Gattaca (1997) set in a near future where genetic modification is cheaply available, and earlier films such as THX 1138 (1971) and Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), in which developments that promised well-being and peace surveil and threaten human civilization, speak to an unease with the promise of information technology. Similarly, the rebooted Planet of the Apes films have replaced fortress LA with the sleek research complexes of Silicon Valley. In William Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, San Francisco suffers the noir-ish malaise of Blade Runner LA; this time due to free-agent capitalism run amok, with a community of squatters inhabiting the rusting hulk of the Bay Bridge, and bike messengers, data pattern analysts, and a rogue pop idol with artificial intelligence in the lead roles. In the south, Kim Stanely Robinson’s Three Californias trilogy (1984–1990) posits three possible directions for Orange County: The Wild Shore follows nuclear apocalypse, The Gold Coast extrapolates a 2027 “autopia” from 1980s suburbia and hyperconsumption, and Pacific Edge allows that even the OC might have access to a sustainable future, as communities reclaim the coast from cars and concrete.

The sci-fi imagination has a strong link (one might even call it a feedback loop) to the tech and entertainment industries that drive California’s economy, and therefore, its very real, near-term growth. Sci-fi narratives are, after all, allegories for the times in which they are created, but they also generate a nostalgia for past images of the future, which shape communities’ actions as they build and plan—and as those communities experience their lived environments. Some critics have made much of the fact that Ridley Scott originally planned to film Blade Runner in New York and the studio requested a location change. But this is largely irrelevant, as the movie’s imagery and subject matter have resonated with audiences, and played a huge role in how LA is viewed and how the city has imagined itself over the past few decades. On the day I visited to photograph the atrium of the Bradbury Building, the only other people present were fans of the movie looking for traces of that elegantly distressed future. Repetition of the tropes of urban decay versus ecotopia might become self-reinforcing in a way that precludes thinking differently about the present, or even seeing that the future that we’ve come to expect might not be the one we’re likely to get.

Fredric Jameson argues that the value of utopian/dystopian sci-fi is not that it delivers images of possible futures, but instead is its ability to “defamiliarize and restructure our own present.”8 The photographs in the slideshow above show how filmmakers have taken familiar California locations from downtown Los Angeles to Berkeley to do just that.

Download the embed code to share Kristin Miller’s slideshow on your website.


Image at top: San Francisco in 2259 in Star Trek: Into Darkness, Paramount Pictures, 2013.

1 Miriam Greenberg, Branding New York: How a City in Crisis was Sold to the World (New York: Routledge, 2008), 157.

2 Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear (New York: Picador, 1999), 359.

3 Mike Davis, City of Quartz (New York: Verso, 2006), 230.

4 As quoted in Ecology of Fear, 359.

5 Ted Trautman, “Why Star Trek Made San Francisco the Center of Its Futuristic Utopia,” Wired, 21 May 2013. Accessed online: http://www.wired.com/underwire/2013/05/star-trek-san-francisco/? cid=8173514.

6 Carl Abbott, “Falling into History: The Imagined Wests of Kim Stanley Robinson,” Western Historical Quarterly 34 (Spring 2003): 29.

7 Richard Kelly, Southland Tales, 2006.

8 Frederick Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future (New York: Verso, 2005), 286.


Forget it, Jake

by William Deverell and Tom Sitton

From Boom Fall 2013, Vol. 3, No. 3

Searching for the truth in Chinatown

Don’t ask us how many times we’ve seen it—it’s embarrassing. Chinatown is a justly famous triumph of American filmmaking, acting, directing, cinematic sound, and more. The screenplay is ingenious, filled with puzzles, puns, and side plots. Too much ink has been spilled discussing the merits of the film as history. That’s beside the point. What’s more interesting is to lay film and history alongside one another—as Robert Towne so clearly did in writing his screenplay—and see how they compare. In that spirit, and recalling what a friend of ours recently said (“the movie is wrong and right all at once”), here are some thoughts—in the midst of the Los Angeles Aqueduct’s one-hundredth anniversary—about the movie and its nonfiction counterparts in Los Angeles history.

What’s with the eyes? Eyes are the organizing principle of the film—more so than Jack Nicholson’s nose stuck where it shouldn’t go. We’re hardly the first to point out that so much of the movie revolves around ocular metaphors and both missed and gotten clues. Jake Gittes is a private eye, of course, but he doesn’t see very well in the film. He misses a lot. He can’t detect. He tries, in the county archives, to see the truth, but the light works against him and truth is obscured. He can’t see “across,” or “a Cross,” even when the truth is right in his face. Faye Dunaway has a flaw in her eye, and she can’t see what’s going on, either—and ends up getting shot through the eye in the end. And who can forget the fish staring up at Jake from his luncheon plate, seeming to dare him to see, at long last, exactly what’s going on? Seeing is often a long way from understanding, as Jake Gittes makes plain in the film.

And what about our eyes—the eyes of the viewer? We might as well admit it: we’ve seen the movie, collectively, fifty times or more. Chinatown demands some patience, which it amply rewards. Let’s take a closer look.

What is going on?


Chinatown revolves around businessman Noah Cross, who plots to bring Sierra Nevada water to his recently acquired agricultural acreage in the “Northwest Valley” by murdering an opponent of a $10 million bond issue that would finance the building of an aqueduct and reservoir. Cross uses hired muscle and city personnel to enforce the secrecy of the fraud. Private investigator Jake Gittes eventually uncovers Cross’s plan to convince Los Angeles taxpayers that drought necessitates that they pay for the transfer of water, which would irrigate his land, raise prices, and make him another fortune.

The conspiracy theory concerning the origins of the actual Owens Valley project evolved in the early 1900s as newspaper editor Sam Clover, local Socialists, and others sensed a plot by regional capitalists to use public funding to enrich themselves. In 1910, William T. Spilman wrote a little booklet called The Conspiracy, which spelled out the ramifications of the theory embellished by others ever since. But Steven P. Erie, Abraham Hoffman, and other scholars have demonstrated that the overall theory does not hold up. A syndicate—including newspaper publishers Harrison Gray Otis and Edwin T. Earl, railroad magnates Henry E. Huntington and E.H. Harriman, banker Joseph F. Sartori, developer L.C. Brand, and several others—publicized their plans to develop agricultural land in the San Fernando Valley long before the aqueduct project was even a possibility. In fact, one invited investor, Dr. John R. Haynes, confided to Upton Sinclair that he declined to join the syndicate precisely because there was no mention of a water project. The syndicate did not become aware of the aqueduct project until city engineers had already decided to pursue it; one of the water department commissioners most likely passed the inside information to them. After that, the syndicate members acted as typical Angeleno boosters, campaigning for a project that would advance the interests of the city as well as themselves.

That said, there certainly was plenty of conflict of interest to go around, including on the part of a former Los Angeles mayor (Fred Eaton) purchasing land in Owens Valley, a water commissioner who was also an investor in the San Fernando Valley, and an engineer working for the federal government and city of Los Angeles at the same time.

Who do we see in Hollis Mulwray?

The easy answer is that he’s supposed to be William Mulholland, chief engineer of the Los Angeles water department. Their names at least kind of echo off one another anagramatically. But he’s really multiple personalities and puns wrapped into one character. Somehow the reception of the film has tended, in popular consciousness, to amalgamate the real Mulholland with Noah Cross, the searing and sneering figure so brilliantly played by John Huston. But Mulholland is more like both Mulwray and Cross, somehow. He’s the civil servant who wants merely to provide water to the people whose water bills pay his salary, and he’s also the vainglorious titan who will stop at nothing to bring about an imagined future for the metropolis he both serves and rules.

But there’s a dash of Collis Huntington in here, too. After all, it was Huntington atop the Southern Pacific that tried—and failed—to shove Santa Monica down the throat of Los Angeles as its Pacific port at the tail end of the nineteenth century. And it could be that the screenwriter wanted to at least whisper, by way of Hollis-as-Collis, that filmgoers contemplate Henry Huntington, too. Collis’s nephew, Henry, later married Collis’s widow (and thereby kind of became his own uncle?) and did exercise a lot of clout on the Los Angeles landscape at just this same time.

Fred Eaton is in here, too; the former mayor of Los Angeles figured that the aqueduct offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do good and do well, very well, at the same time. Making the aqueduct happen was very much part of Eaton’s role, and he also thought he’d get very, very rich in the process, especially if he could see his “long valley” site in the Owen’s Valley as a holding reservoir for a lot of money. He couldn’t, and thus the aqueduct’s managers ended up, with Mulholland as the chief instigator, building a storage facility behind the fated St. Francis Dam. When it fell down in the late 1920s, it took hundreds of lives—and Mulholland’s fame and reputation—with it. In the film, the dam that has fallen down is the Vanderlip, which calls up yet another titanic figure—far lesser known—in Frank Vanderlip, banker, financier, and the man who laid out, with the help of Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., Palos Verdes as a would-be Italian hill village on Portuguese Bend in the same era as the aqueduct.

“My sister, my daughter”

One of the storylines that explodes toward the end of Chinatown is Jake Gittes’s discovery that Evelyn Mulwray, wife of the murdered water department head, had been raped at fifteen by her father, Noah Cross. The daughter from this union is then rendered vulnerable to Cross at the movie’s shocking conclusion (thus evil, whether incest or corruption, moves forward through Los Angeles generations). This revelation of incest explains some of Evelyn’s erratic behavior throughout the movie and, more important, casts Noah Cross (and perhaps the Los Angeles elite) as irredeemably treacherous. Greed is but one of his/their vices; he/they aim to control everything within reach. “You see, Mr. Gittes,” Cross points out, “most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything.”

While there is no known rape or incest incident attributed to any of the Los Angeles figures involved with the Owens River Aqueduct project, rape became a common description and metaphor for what the city did to the Owens Valley. Critics such as Carey McWilliams (whom Towne read closely) castigated city officials for their actions in altering the environment while removing the valley’s water, its life blood. Author Morrow Mayo entitled one chapter of his 1933 book Los Angeles, “The Rape of Owens Valley.”

The Mar Vista Rest Home

In order to hide his true identity in purchasing land that would increase in value when the water project is completed, Noah Cross had the title for his purchases placed in the names of residents of a senior citizens’ home. The movie depicted these seniors as uninformed about, or incapable of understanding, their role, as Cross could then easily manipulate them and see his nefarious plans through. Thus, he exploited the seniors while hiding his machinations until the property was secured, all before news of the water project would encourage others to invest in acreage on the verge of a big increase in value. Jake Gittes shows them the truth so that they can see it—even if they don’t comprehend it.

It is true that city water department officials quietly began to purchase property in the Owens Valley without informing residents there of the possible water project in order to avoid the escalation of land values. As to the syndicate with land in the San Fernando Valley, it already had options on big chunks of thirsty land well before the aqueduct project had developed—and it proudly trumpeted news of its actions in city newspapers.

In the mid-1950s, the incorporators of the City of Industry in eastern Los Angeles County expanded the proposed boundaries of the new municipality in order to harness the in-residence population of a sanitarium and its employees. As journalist Victor Valle has noted, critics complained that the patients there did not have the mental capacity to be concerned citizens of the new city, but that did not stop incorporation.


The real-life argument in favor of the city’s need for more water was based on the needs of an expanding population coupled with the effects of crushing drought. In Chinatown, there is a heat wave, but the drought is treated as a myth generated by the elite conspiracy to bring Owens Valley water down from the mountains. In fact, it is depicted as man-made in several sequences in which water gates are purposely and secretly opened to allow runoff of thousands of gallons of water held in a city reservoir. Wasting water was an important component of the overall conspiracy to grab more water for the city and enrich Noah Cross. The motion picture made the most of it.

William Mulholland’s granddaughter Catherine has shown that there was a water shortage in the early twentieth century. The previous decade saw below average rainfall and more of the available ground and below-ground water was consumed by the expanding population. There do not seem to be any substantiated reports of water being purposely drained away by water department personnel. There were always breakdowns in aging infrastructure at the time, but claims about dumping water seem more like overheated campaign accusations made by opponents of the project. That said, the demand for water would prove largely insatiable; one aqueduct became two, the Colorado River would soon be brought to the very borders of Los Angeles, and the state water project would follow in due course. As William Mulholland said of Los Angeles, its growth, and its water needs: “If Los Angeles does not secure the Owens Valley water supply, she will never need it.”

Government officials, noir, and the Depression-era setting

The film is set in the late Depression, calling up noir settings and plot lines. The events that the film is wrapped around are events of twenty-five years earlier. We like the later setting. The Depression setting has the better cars. The distinctions between rich and poor stand out sharper. The Depression setting helps create characters, too. Jake Gittes, for example, calls out his antagonist in the orange groves of the “Northwest Valley” as a “dumb Okie,” a nod to the heavy migration of Dust Bowlers throughout the 1930s to greater Los Angeles. It’s not that someone wouldn’t have used the regional and ethnic slur in, say, 1913. They could have. But the prevalence of the epithet—and its regional elasticity, expanding well beyond the boundaries of Oklahoma—is a product of the Depression years.

To state the obvious, that neo-noir atmosphere of Chinatown does not present public servants in the best light. Los Angeles City Council members are treated derisively in a scene in which a flock of sheep bleat their way through not-so-august chambers. Are they sheep, too? Water department employees seem to be aiding the secrecy of the water project, and the doomed chief engineer Hollis Mulwray is pictured as the lone dissenter. LAPD officers appear reasonably able, but in the end they are not going to pursue the wealthy and influential Noah Cross for his crimes.

Given its setting in the 1930s, Chinatown is actually soft on local government officials and employees of actual Depression-era Los Angeles. Political reformers charged Mayor Frank Shaw’s administration with many misdeeds—city commissioners accused of corruption were fired or convicted of crimes, and Shaw was finally recalled from office in 1938. This followed a major police scandal based on an attempted murder and a cover-up of widespread corruption. Several county officials were also removed for malfeasance in the 1930s. The county district attorney was often accused of ignoring official corruption, protecting the leaders of an underworld syndicate amid gangland killings—and kowtowing to the demands of the anti-labor business elite (of which Noah Cross would have been a stalwart member). The Depression did not favor those who vowed to protect and serve the city and county rather than their private pocketbooks.

Let’s see. Water, power, intrigue, greed, corruption, murder, incest, rape, echoes—even shouts—of Raymond Chandler, Nathanael West, James M. Cain. A dash of Carey McWilliams. Faye Dunaway in her prime. Jack Nicholson as J.J. Gittes: dashing and bumbling all at once. Los Angeles as its own metropolitan character actor: on the make, grasping, secretive. Depression-era costumes and cars. Ensemble cast. Haunting, gorgeous soundtrack. What more could you want? Asking a feature film drawn to storyline and narrative and make believe to be true to history is missing the point. Better yet to sit back and watch the film, eat some popcorn, clean your glasses, and then engage it. Talk about it. Read about it. Then go out into the greater Los Angeles landscape, a landscape at least partially remade by the Los Angeles Aqueduct a century ago, and see for yourself. And see the movie again. And again.


Images from Chinatown, Paramount Pictures, 1974.


Honey Pies and Aquadettes

by Malia Wollan

From Boom Summer 2012, Vol. 2, No. 2

Stories that stretch forever

California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.
—Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Skateboarders in Fresno ride the drained-out insides of foreclosed swimming pools. Silicon Valley tech nerds join fight clubs to punch each other, bare-knuckled, in suburban garages. A man in San Marcos, some thirty-five miles north of San Diego, sculpts made-to-order, anatomically correct, life-sized plastic dolls. A mariachi musician in East Los Angeles polishes his trumpet and says wistfully, “Mexican music is like a fever.”

Photograph courtesy of Zackary Canepari

These are just some of the haunting video portraits in a series of web videos by filmmakers Drea (pronounced Dray) Cooper and Zackary Canepari. The growing collection of three- to ten-minute video vignettes is called California Is a Place. The project has attracted more than three million viewers since the first videos went online in early 2010. Widely distributed across the Internet, the videos have won awards and been featured on news sites including PBS’s NewsHour, the New York Times, The Atlantic, and the Los Angeles Times. “People are craving honest stories,” Cooper says. “They want stories that are unmitigated by the television structure of dramatic moments.”

One of their films, the ten-minute long “Aquadettes,” was chosen for the Short Film program at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Set in a southern California retirement community called Leisure World, “Aquadettes” tells the story of 76-year-old former nurse Margo Bauer, who takes up medical marijuana to ease the nausea of multiple sclerosis, enabling her to continue with her synchronized swimming team. “This year is the first year I’ve been aware of my disease in the water,” Bauer says. And while her voice contains the aches of age and illness, the camera captures a gaggle of tan, elderly ladies in ornate swim caps turning graceful flips in chlorine-blue water.

Photograph courtesy of Zackary Canepari

California is not an easy place to conjure up. The country’s most populous state is home to over thirty-seven million people. It is a tangle of every kind of person and every imaginable aspiration—a mash-up of poverty, opulence, beachside mansions, suburban sprawl, technology, farming, ocean, deserts, the broken-down, and the over-built. While California Is a Place is no summation of California as a place, the videos do evoke something elemental about the stories and obsessions that play out on this particular hunk of land.

Cooper, 34, and Canepari, 33, met in 2005 on a shoot for a Sega video game commercial in San Francisco. They were production assistants armed with walkie-talkies who became friends. They shared a visual aesthetic and for years talked about making “something” together. Four years later California Is a Place started to take shape. “We had this idea that we wanted to do short things, but what were those short things?” says Cooper. “At first we thought they would be about America. Then we thought they’d be about the West. Then we were like, ‘No this is about California.’”

Canepari, who had been freelancing as a photographer in India, moved back to California in 2009. Cooper quit his job teaching multimedia skills to high school students in San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood. He had just completed a master’s degree in film at San Francisco State University.

That June, the duo set off carrying Canon 5D cameras capable of shooting high-definition video. They filmed four stories over three summer months. “The great thing about documenting the state you live in is that nothing is that far away,” says Canepari.

Photograph courtesy of Zackary Canepari

Their first piece, “Cannonball,” took them to Fresno, where they the hopped fences of foreclosed homes to film skateboarders bent on draining backyard pools to ride their smooth, concave surfaces. Sometimes the pair go into a story already knowing who their central characters will be, but for other films they just go somewhere and trust that they will find someone with a tale to tell.

For “Borderland,” which was shot along the California-Mexico border, they knew their geography but didn’t yet have a central subject, so they gave themselves a few days to hang around filming different people until the right ones emerged to tell the story of illegal border crossings, volunteer militias, and drug smuggling.

Finding their film subjects is part luck and part a keen ability to filter through news, overheard conversations, and images for tidbits of information that lend themselves to moving pictures. “We’ve got similar tastes,” says Canepari. “We’re always passing along different things to each other that might work within our palette.”

Photograph courtesy of Zackary Canepari

Cooper spotted the used-car-salesman character from their film “Big Vinny” driving around Alameda, his childhood home. They found their synchronized swimmer, Margo Bauer, mentioned in a small, online news story. Even before they met her, they could visualize underwater shots of aging bodies, lithe legs, and pointed toes. “At the end of the day, this is a visual medium,” Cooper says. “What we make needs to look beautiful.”

Cooper (who lives in Oakland) and Canepari (who calls Los Angeles home) research, shoot, and edit the videos on their own dime and in their extra time. While that independence is sometimes a challenge financially, it also allows them to make the films they want to make, to maintain complete control over aesthetics and content, and to capture their California the way they see and experience it.

On occasion, the two get caught up in the visual potential of something only to find there is nothing in it to make a story. They spent a few days filming a women’s roller derby team in Santa Rosa and toyed with the idea of following some Berkeley unicyclists. But the stories felt flat—full of motion but lacking narrative tension—and so they moved on.

Within days of uploading their first stories to the video-sharing site Vimeo in early 2010, thousands of people were watching and sharing them. “All of a sudden it was like, ‘Oh, there is a real community online where people want to watch interesting stuff and not just another freakin’ cat video,’” Cooper says.

Although they are not paid for the videos, the viral success of California Is a Place has won them commercial work. Just like individual viewers, companies are drawn to Cooper and Canepari’s brand of visceral, visual storytelling. The two now make commercials for major corporate clients such as Toyota and Ray-Ban. “We do the commercial work in order to fund the personal work,” Canepari says.

Photograph courtesy of Zackary Canepari

Shot with professional actors, studio lights, and big budgets, their commercial work contains residues of the filmmakers’ core aesthetic—a flicker of blown-out sky, a shallow depth of field, a camera mounted on a bicycle, fading light through dry grass, a sense of place.

Thus far, California Is a Place is comprised of nine videos, but the duo has a long list of possible Golden State stories and issues they want to explore including Indian gaming, water, the agriculturally rich Central Valley, and subcultures like gangs and the cultish fans of the hip-hop duo Insane Clown Posse. Following their participation in Sundance, they are considering expanding “Aquadettes” into a feature-length documentary.

Someday Canepari and Cooper want to take their cameras across state lines and film stories elsewhere—an “America Is a Place.” They talk about maybe moving east from here, finding a handful of stories to tell in each state, a kind of documentary road trip. But that would require time and funding. For now they are keeping to this stretch of land between the Siskiyou Mountains and the Tijuana River Estuary, from Bishop to Cape Mendocino. “The state is endless,” says Cooper, “and there are stories forever.”


Beyond Hollywood

by Scott Simmon

From Boom Winter 2011, Vol. 1, No. 4

A hidden history of California filmmaking

California has a wilder, more diverse movie heritage than we’d know from Hollywood blockbusters or even from the dustier aisles of video stores. A core sample of this buried history is back on view through the most recent of the DVD anthologies that I put together for the National Film Preservation Foundation. Treasures 5: The West, which was published last September, brings together forty silent and early sound films—narrative shorts and features, documentaries, promotional films, newsreels, and travelogues—showcasing the American West as it was recorded and imagined from 1898 to 1938. It’s the fifth volume in the foundation’s Treasures from American Film Archives series, through which nonprofit and public archives join to make their hidden holdings available on DVD.

Typical of what’s newly unearthed is The Sergeant (1910), lost for a century until a single print turned up in New Zealand, of all places, and was returned to the United States in 2010. About 90 percent of American films from before 1930 are now lost, but because they were originally distributed worldwide, such finds abroad are not uncommon. The Sergeant is the first surviving narrative film shot in Yosemite—and a spectacular hybrid it turns out to be, telling its story within something of a travelogue. The intertitles relate both the story and the shooting location. One title reads “IN LOOKING FOR THEIR HORSES THEY LOSE THEIR WAY. ILLILLOUTTE FALLS” (the characters are lost but viewers aren’t). At release, Variety raved, “Worth the price of several admissions. If one doesn’t care a rap about the plot, he can find ample entertainment in viewing the picturesque natural scenery.” An army sergeant, stationed in Yosemite Valley, is in love with his commander’s daughter. (The army’s Fourth Cavalry was Yosemite’s police force when the film was made—before the creation of the National Park Service—although the army’s presence may be a little anticipatory for a story set in the 1880s.) An “Indian renegade” steals the couple’s horses while they are exploring Cascade Creek. The sergeant is busted down to private and must prove himself heroic before the one-reeler’s fifteen-minute running time ends. The film’s lead and writer, Hobart Bosworth, is a former Broadway Shakespearean who had come west to recover from tuberculosis. The climate must have done the trick, to judge from his stunt swim down the frigid Merced River. As Bosworth put it archly in 1915 about his demanding location work in early one-reelers, “I feel a particular personal interest in California because I have fallen down most of it, either from the top of a cliff or from a horse.”

Hobart Bosworth and Iva Shepard in The Sergeant (1910), the first surviving narrative film shot in Yosemite. PRESERVED BY THE NEW ZEALAND FILM ARCHIVE AND THE ACADEMY OF MOTION PICTURE ARTS AND SCIENCES

You might assume that the first California Westerns more or less resembled Hollywood’s later patterns—if the films saved by archives didn’t tell a wider story. In the first half of the 1910s, Northern California rivaled the south as a production center, and probably the most surprising long-lost film in Treasures 5 is the inaugural feature from the San Francisco–based California Motion Picture Corporation. Salomy Jane (1914) is a seven-reel (ca. 90-minute) film whose visual beauty and directorial sophistication upend assumptions of what a first feature by an untried company ought to look like. Feature-length films were still novel back then, and the company’s Northern California boosters had not the slightest experience making movies. But national reviewers recognized something extraordinary, with admiration split between the film’s photographic splendor and its dramatic arc. For The New York Dramatic Mirror, “Unless nature betters her handiwork in the forests of California, it is difficult to see how producers are going to improve upon the scenic beauty of Salomy Jane.” That the film is forgotten is due primarily to the destruction of all of the company’s original negatives in a 1931 fire at its abandoned Marin County studio. A single print of Salomy Jane, found in Australia in 1996, is the source of preservation by the Library of Congress.

The full onscreen title promotes the locations: Salomy Jane, A Story of the Days of ’49, Produced in the Famous California Redwoods. In expanding Bret Harte’s 1898 story “Salomy Jane’s Kiss” for the stage in 1907, Paul Armstrong borrowed characters from other Harte writings and invented vengeance subplots. Although titled for its lead, Salomy Jane is a community story, set in the summer of 1852 in Hangtown (the gold-mining settlement more welcomingly renamed Placerville in 1854). In the title role is twenty-four-year-old Beatriz Michelena, promoted on the musical stage as the “California Prima Donna” and America’s first Hispanic movie star.

The California Motion Picture Corporation had high ambitions and built a glass-enclosed studio, as impressive as any at the time, in San Rafael (a few miles from where Lucasfilm’s Skywalker Ranch now sprawls). In 1914, the company launched its Golden Gate Weekly newsreel (none of whose issues are known to survive) and then shot Salomy Jane in locations along the Bay Area coast—standing in for the Sierra foothills—as far north as the Russian River and south to Santa Cruz. Closer to the studio was the Lagunitas Creek location for the final kiss under an arching tree. In just two years the new corporation would be defunct—a victim of the growing stranglehold on distribution by vertically integrated production companies with theater chains—but Salomy Jane survives to give vivid witness to the flourishing of the Northern California film industry in the years just before the conglomeration of Hollywood.

San Rafael also had been home to the Essanay company’s more makeshift studio for an earlier one-reeler in the DVD anthology: Broncho Billy and the Schoolmistress, shot in 1911 by the movies’ first Western star, Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson. It’s among the fifty films Anderson directed during an eight-month stay in Marin County. As it opens, a stagecoach arrives in Essanay’s usual frontier town, “Snakeville,” played this time by downtown Fairfax. The historical era isn’t specified, but the film didn’t need inventive art direction; in 1911 Fairfax still had a stagecoach line running to Bolinas on the coast.

House Peters and Beatriz Michelena in the closing tableau of Salomy Jane (1914), the only surviving feature from the California Motion Picture Corporation. In the background, Mount Tamalpais and Lagunitas Creek. PRESERVED BY THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

The Western film is associated with its cowboys—and the first true cowboy star, Tom Mix, is represented in the anthology by Legal Advice (1916), which he directed at his rough studio in Newhall in the Santa Clarita Valley—but the first Westerns were also populated with surprising numbers of fighting heroines, Mexican Americans, even Asian Americans. For a few brief years at the start of California moviemaking, Native Americans were regularly hired to play Indian roles: A Lakota Sioux tribe transplanted from South Dakota to the “Inceville” studio above Santa Monica is at the center of the moving cross-cultural tragedy Last of the Line (1914). Real-life sheriffs and outlaws reenacted history that they had made themselves. Former bank- and train-robber Al Jennings—after the commutation of his life sentence—was producer and star of the autobiographical The Lady of the Dugout (1918), in which the Mojave Desert stands in for Oklahoma, and Tehachapi plays a Texas town. The film’s director, W.S. Van Dyke, shows a feel for arid Western lands that perhaps ran in the family. His uncle, the Rutgers art historian John C. Van Dyke, had staked out an aesthetic defense in The Desert (1901).

In Del Monte’s two-color promotional film Sunshine Gatherers (1921), Mission Santa Barbara. PRESERVED BY THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART

Indeed, the first California Westerns document California’s deserts before their transformations. Representative in the DVD is the Museum of Modern Art’s new restoration of D.W. Griffith’s Over Silent Paths: A Story of the American Desert (1910), surprising now for its determined heroine who avenges her father’s murder, but praised in reviews of the time mainly for its locations in the “far-off California desert, wild and rugged and splendidly photographed.” Its story of gold greed could have been made as a forty-niner tale, but it is both filmed and set in the contemporary San Fernando Valley, mainly on land soon to be incorporated into Los Angeles. It was, after all, a different valley landscape back then, so vacant and cactus-filled that “the desert wanderer” in the film loses his bearings in post-crime panic. Mileage can be glimpsed on a road sign as the miner’s daughter pulls into frontier San Fernando in her covered wagon: “BURBANK, 10.2.” Before 1910, Westerns had been made almost exclusively on the East Coast, giving them a lush and woodsy look. But that year several motion picture companies began filming in California, including Griffith’s Manhattan-based Biograph Company. Over Silent Paths was shot with typical speed over two days in April 1910, with abandoned Mission San Fernando as backdrop. The previous week Griffith had taken a relatively leisurely four days with Ramona: A Story of the White Man’s Injustice to the Indian, an adaptation of Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel of 1840s California (and available in the NFPF’s earlier Treasures III DVD set).

What made the San Fernando Valley bloom—and ended its days as a desert movie location—is given unintentionally revealing form in Romance of Water (1931), available here thanks to the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s 2010 restoration. In the guise of an educational film, it was sponsored by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to tell its side of the most contentious battle in the West’s water wars—around the creation of the aqueduct and reservoirs to transport water from Owens Valley 250 miles north. The film builds its argument without mention of the two essential stories behind it: the violent resistance to the aqueduct from Owens Valley farmers and the catastrophic 1928 collapse of the department’s San Francisquito Canyon dam. “CORPSES FLUNG IN MUDDY CHAOS BY TIDE OF DOOM,” read a typical headline about the perhaps 450 killed (although with so many bodies washed out to sea an accurate count proved impossible). The film substitutes “romance” for all this, as aqueduct water winds its “peaceful way” down Owens Valley and “safely” into Los Angeles. The narrator’s soothing voice informs us, “Formerly these waters were wasted in the saline bed of Owens Lake. Now the enterprise of man has harnessed the river … for the benefit of the thriving metropolis far to the south.”

In Del Monte’s two-color promotional film Sunshine Gatherers (1921), contented cannery workers look out onto California peach orchards. PRESERVED BY THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART

California was also fodder for the newsreel stories, travelogues promoting rail and auto tours, town portraits, and product advertisements included in Treasures 5—and the passing years have only made these nonfiction types more revealing. In The “Promised Land” Barred to “Hoboes,” Hearst Metrotone News reports on the 1936 crackdown on immigration from other states. Life on the Circle Ranch in California (1912), probably the earliest surviving full-reel documentary about ranching in America, trumpets on its title card its location: Santa Monica (not where one might think now to look for cattle). The early “Prizmacolor” Sunshine Gatherers (1921) opens with a pastoral history of California, with the arrival of Father Serra “from Spain’s romantic shores” and his missionaries teaching Indians the “first principles of horticulture.” The ironies are compounded by ads touting Sunshine Gatherers as “the Story of America’s Garden of Eden.” The only initial hint that the film is an elaborate advertising pitch is the red shield shape enclosing the title; the association with the Del Monte brand of fruits and vegetables would have been more than subliminal.

Colorful art labels on citrus crates shipped east long had pushed an association of California with sunshine, beauty, and health. Now California’s sunshine would be packaged for the nation year-round. Print ads trumpeted that Del Monte fruits were “Canned in the Sunny Orchards, where They Grow,” a claim carried over to the film’s smiling young female cannery workers bathed by sunlight from picture windows opening onto orchards. The film’s director, George E. Stone, ran his own studio in Carmel-by-the-Sea, where the reenactment of Serra’s arrival was staged.

Women hikers race up Half Dome in Seeing Yosemite with David A. Curry (1916). PRESERVED BY THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

In a sense, the years have turned even fiction films into travelogues. The indisputable comic masterpiece of the DVD set is Mantrap (1926), which transports a beguiling Clara Bow into Canada’s “Great Outdoors,” played by Lake Arrowhead and the San Bernardino Mountains. In Mexican Filibusters: An Incident in the Recent Uprising (1911), El Paso is impersonated by Glendale. The Better Man (1912) was shot when Santa Monica beachfront could play a deserted frontier: The gambler rides up to an oceanfront saloon, he’s thrown off a sandstone cliff by the Mexican outlaw, and the needed doctor lives in a beach hut.

In the true travelogues, California is already teeming with visitors. What strikes one now when viewing the 1916 promotional film Seeing Yosemite with David A. Curry is just how many people—and motor vehicles—are already jammed into the park. David Curry (1860–1917), the larger-than-life manager of Yosemite’s Camp Curry, welcomes the arrival of a motor bus loaded with happy campers. In the year of the film, Tioga Pass Road from the east was opened to cars, and the new National Park Service issued its first “automobile guide.” An apparently endless line of enthusiastic hikers can be seen making rapid climbs up Half Dome and 13,000-foot Mount Lyell, the park’s highest peak.

Also from 1916 is Lake Tahoe, Land of the Sky, which captures the opening of the lake to automobile tourism. The first shots throw us into heavy snowfall at Truckee but we’re then magically transported from any evocation of the Donner Party up to a sunny Emerald Bay. The single-word intertitle “Contentment” sets the reel’s tone, notwithstanding something new to the lake: motorists. Tourists could drive from the Truckee River outflow to South Shore along the new twenty-five-mile “Automobile Boulevard” that is seen rising impressively above Meeks Bay—and one gets the sense that the filmmakers have rounded up all the cars they could find to create their shot of the traffic-filled boulevard. The film may borrow its title from the lake’s first guidebook, George Wharton James’s 1915 The Lake of the Sky, which admires the heroic construction of the road “blasted through fiercely solid and hostile rock” and provides gentle encouragement to the auto adventurer: “Naturally it is not as easy to negotiate as a San Francisco boulevard, but with the wheel in the hands of a careful chauffeur there is perfect safety.”

Water skiing (“A Thrilling Sport”) in Lake Tahoe, Land of the Sky (1916). PRESERVED BY THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

The automobile opened remote California regions to unprecedented numbers of visitors in the 1910s, but the way most people first discovered the state was at the movies. By and large, these early films and the others in Treasures 5: The West have been hidden for decades in archives and known only to the more determined of researchers. To help recover the stories behind the films, twenty-three Western historians, film scholars, and archivists were tapped to put things into context through audio commentaries, available on the DVD as an alternative sound track for each film. The complexity of the West—as a concept, a landscape, a borderland, a tourist destination, a burgeoning economy, and an arena for clashing cultures—is on view again through these long-forgotten movies.

A full list of the forty titles, and the commentators, can be found at the National Film Preservation Foundation’s website: www.filmpreservation.org.