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Los Angeles, the City in Cinema: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (John Cassavetes, 1978)

The 1970s grotesque of John Cassavetes Los Angeles gangster action movie takes place not in the margins of the city, but in a city made up of nothing but margins: mediocre eateries, empty gas stations, parking garages, and the strip club owned by its businessman-turned-hitman protagonist. Tasked with finding and killing the titular “Chinese bookie” in this vast, taste-orthogonal void, he must set and stick for dear life to his own set of standards, no matter how garish or delusional they appear.

You can find more of The City in Cinema on its Vimeo channel.

Los Angeles Review of Books Podcast: Sean Wilsey

I talk with Sean Wilsey, author of the memoir Oh the Glory of It All, and co-editor of the collections The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup and State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America. In his new volume of essays, More Curious, Wilsey investigates the artistic and social realms of Marfa, Texas, compulsively buys precision-engineered German appliances on Craigslist, investigates the causes of NASA’s diminishing relevance to the national consciousness, and returns to his days as a Thrasher-reading San Francisco skater.

You can listen to the conversation on the LARB’s site, or download it on iTunes.

Notebook on Cities and Culture S4E54: The Freedom to Be Foolish with Mark Frauenfelder

FrauenfelderColin Marshall sits down in Studio City with Mark Frauenfelder, founder of the popular zine-turned-blog Boing Boing, founding co-editor of Make magazine, and author of Maker Dad: Lunch Box Guitars, Antigravity Jars, and 22 Other Incredibly Cool Father-Daughter DIY Projects. They discuss whether he still thinks about Los Angeles dingbat apartments, and the extent to which their owners have customized them today; all barriers falling for the modern maker except for the one asking who’s interested; how his daughters’ fascination with card tricks preceded their interest in making things; what kind of project kids can complete under their own steam; Los Angeles as a place for makers, the current state of its maker spaces, and the making heritage offered by its historical hot-rod culture as described in Tom Wolfe’s The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby; his history with this city, which goes back to 1987, albeit one interrupted by periods in Japan, on a South Pacific island, and elsewhere; the semi-agricultural life- and making style Los Angeles affords him; how growing your own food allows you to think more clearly about food, and making your own media allows you to think more clearly about media; how his grasp of media improved as he engaged in every stage of the D.I.Y. publishing revolution; learning through mistakes, as opposed to school’s pressure not to make mistakes in the first place; the debilitating world of the “smart kid”; the “freedom to be foolish” offered in Los Angeles; the dueling temptations of broadminded generalism and singleminded obsession; his role in the cyberpunk culture of the 80s and 90s, and to what extent we live in the utopian and/or dystopian future it envisioned today; his hope for an increasingly tech-focused San Francisco to continue exporting progressive ideas; the rise of meta-making, and the promise of large-scale decentralized making of solving some of “the world’s problems”; how he deals with the firehose of amazing stuff to feature on Boing Boing and in Make; and what his daughters have taught him about making while he’s taught them about making.

Download the interview here as an MP3 or on iTunes.

Los Angeles Review of Books Podcast: Edan Lepucki

I talk with Edan Lepucki, staff writer at The Millions, founder of Writing Workshops Los Angeles, and author of California, a mid-21st century domestic relationship novel set somewhere outside Los Angeles after the whole country suffers a long, gradual apocalypse.

You can listen to the conversation on the LARB’s site, or download it on iTunes.

Notebook on Cities and Culture S4E53: A Certain Inertia with James Steele

jamessteeleColin Marshall sits down at the University of Southern California with School of Architecture professor James Steele, author of many books on architecture and architects, including, just over twenty years ago, Los Angeles Architecture: The Contemporary Condition. They discuss the how the city’s conflict with “autopia” has gone since then; the obsolescence of not just the freeways, but the city itself; whether Los Angeles has gone from too architecturally crazy to not architecturally crazy enough; the evidence for downtown’s non-revival, and what a fatal inertia and incrementalism may have to do with it; the Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything (BANANA) mentality as expressed not just in Los Angeles but the whole of America; how creative individuals can somehow add up to an uncreative city; what the Case Study houses meant to Los Angeles architectural history, and why they failed; whether the “L.A. School” of architects like Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne, and Eric Owen Moss every really cohered into a movement; how current Los Angeles architecture doesn’t express the zeitgeist, possibly because the city no longer has one; what he would change in a new edition of Los Angeles Architecture (and how much more grim his assessment would become); the emergence of a dense, connected city within a less dense, less connected one; the most fascinating architectural ideas to come out of USC; what he sees in his students’ attitudes toward Los Angeles’ built environment; the “excitement combined with confusion” he feels on his increasingly frequent trips to Asia; popular fantasies of changing Los Angeles, like halving distances or vastly increasing its transit; and how we nonetheless feel curious about what lies ahead in the city’s future.

Download the interview here as an MP3 or on iTunes.

Los Angeles, the City in Cinema: “Strange Days” (Kathryn Bigelow, 1995)


Strange Days counts as a Los Angeles movie, a hard-boiled detective movie, a cyberpunk movie, and a “social issues” movie, all of which came out in the shadow of the city’s 1992 riots. In an ideal setting for the subgenre’s mixture of “high tech and low life,” gentleman-loser protagonist Lenny Nero deals in pure neural data against a familiar backdrop of a urban decay, economic woe, hate-filled policemen, unexplained fires, anxiety-driven millennial partying, and the Bonaventure Hotel.

The City in Cinema comes live to Portland, Oregon’s Hollywood Theatre in January 2015. Stay tuned for details.

Notebook on Cities and Culture S4E52: The Big Pond with Pete Mitchell

petemitchellColin Marshall sits down in Pasadena with Pete Mitchell, visual artist, game designer, zombie enthusiast, and lead singer and co-founder of the band No More Kings, whose latest album III came out this year. They discuss now as an opportune time to be into zombies; how his mom got him into not just zombie movies but Dungeons & Dragons; the “love letter to the 1980s” he wrote with the first No More Kings album; his early forays into game design, typing in code line-by-line and saving it on a tape drive, later struggling against the limitations of software like Game-Maker; Game-Makerish limitations as the true drivers of art; the experience of growing up in Rhode Island, and who thrives there; being a big fish in a small pond, being a small fish in a big pond, and the appeal regardless of the ultimately more interesting big ponds; the eternal struggle to finish projects, and what we can learn from the examples of such “obsessive” creators as Francis Ford Coppola, Shane Carruth, Jerry Seinfeld, and Jiro Ono; the things you make as diamonds compressed from the coal of your time; the wide reach of No More Kings’ “Sweep the Leg” music video, which reunited the cast of The Karate Kid and continues to win the band most of its fans; his anxiety about becoming an “80s pop culture” act; specialized interests and the even more specialized places they overlap as the new stages for subculture; his time in Japan, motivated by the thought that he “can’t be the guy who only knows one language”; how, to learn languages or make things, you have to give yourself no choice in the matter; the “electric sense of potential” and “ambient ambition” in a city like Los Angeles, not often felt even in “nicer” places; this city as the most internet-like actual place yet established; and the reasons not to want to go back to Old Economy Steve‘s economy, or to the days of a powerful cultural mainstream — even if, as in the 80s, that mainstream produced a lot of neat stuff.

Download the interview here as an MP3 or on iTunes.

Los Angeles, the City in Cinema: Time Code (Mike Figgis, 2000)

I still remember sitting in the theater when I first saw Timecode, watching the screen divide into four, knowing I was about to see something truly knew. The film’s Hollywood industry satire — replete with glamor, seediness, earthquakes, art, commerce, drugs, adultery, girls, jealousy, aspiration, desperation, a limousine, and a gun — plays out in those four frames at once, in real time, with not so much as one cut, making for a daring and under-recognized entry in the canon of 21st-century Los Angeles cinema.

Notebook on Cities and Culture S4E51: “Just” Mexican Food with Javier Cabral

cabralColin Marshall sits down in Highland Park with Javier Cabral, the “food, booze, and punk rock” writer formerly known as The Teenage Glutster, and currently known as The Glutster. They discuss his mission to change the official punk rock food of Los Angeles from the Oki-dog to the taco; the reasons for the taco’s current surge of general popularity; the reputation Mexican food has, even among the otherwise culinarily aware, as “just Mexican food”; the humbling his Mexican-food expertise received at the hands of his girlfriend; the singular form of “tamales”; what the bean-and-cheese burrito stands for in Los Angeles Mexican cuisine; his Korean food outing with Matthew Kang; how punk rock got him exploring Los Angeles first, and how looking for punk show listings exposed him to the food writing of Jonathan Gold; what kind of music develops in the backyards of east Los Angeles; the pots of food his mom made for the attendees at his free 21st birthday punk show; how much he enjoyed comped meals (and drinks) on La Cienega as a young, broke food writer, and why he swore off them; why the eastside and westside continually accuse one another of having no food; the cultural overlap he’s found between food and punk rock in the most logical city for those two to come together; his long-form Saveur piece “Mexico Feeds Me“, which took him back to his family’s home state of Zacatecas (and which finally got his parents understanding his job); his love of street food, and his refusal to write about it for fear of getting its purveyors shut down; how both street food and punk rock always come back, no matter who tries to stamp them out; the burden of listicle-writing; and the etymology of the word “Glutster”.

Download the interview here as an MP3 or on iTunes.

Los Angeles, the City in Cinema: Repo Man (Alex Cox, 1984)


Los Angeles, the City in Cinema, my new series of video essays, examines the variety of Los Angeleses revealed in the films set there, both those new and old, mainstream and obscure, respectable and schlocky, appealing and unappealing — just like the city itself. Its debut pays a visit to the punks, drunks, thugs, loners, feds, and aliens — all driving cars, and rarely the flashy kind — that populate the 24-hour industrial Los Angeles of Alex Cox’s own 1984 debut, Repo Man.