L.A. driving on the big screen

NO modern movie about Los Angeles is complete without an establishing shot of freeway signs. It's the single image that has come to represent us on film, whether we like it or not. No matter what sights are contained within this sprawling, diverse city, it is universally recognized for the thoroughfares that snake around it.

Movies set in New York open on sunset views of Central Park or a gilt skyline at sunrise, not the Holland Tunnel at rush hour. But L.A. has to settle for this thatch of mixed messages looming over a tangle of tar-hardened arteries.

Cars, movies and Los Angeles have been intertwined in the popular imagination as long as the three have existed. If the image of interlocking freeways doesn't fairly represent Los Angeles qua city, it does reflect its history, its shape, its problems and its virtues. It also hints at the ways each has affected the other in subtle and profound ways. Stories about L.A. are by definition stories about driving, driving being one of the few universal experiences the city has to offer.

Of course, most people don't say this out loud, for fear of sounding simple, while others make "Crash."

As metaphors, cars are remarkably pliable and susceptible to overuse. They can be symbols of freedom and containment, connection and isolation, status and of dread. But for every corny car movie, there's a sublime movie about Los Angeles that gets at the experience of being a driver here in an oblique, pitch-perfect way. When they get it right, we brighten at their authenticity.

In "Grand Canyon," a father-son driving lesson is complicated by the difficulty of making left-hand turns in the city. In "Play It as It Lays," an emotionally crippled actress takes to the freeways in a ritualized imitation of actually going somewhere. In "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," a red-light flirtation turns humiliating when the hero realizes that the hot blond in the cool car isn't looking at his ride (and his fast-food uniform) quite in the way he'd hoped. In "Clueless," two daughters of Beverly Hills privilege take to the freeway in a very large, and very expense machine that threatens to flatten anyone who gets in their way.

But it's film noir, especially, that relies on cars to propel the story forward, standing in for the hero's agency and drive.

"The Big Sleep," "Chinatown" and "Collateral" all center on a hero whose power is largely vehicular. The car drives the plot forward, advancing the protagonist's understanding with every leg of the journey. Alone in his car, the protagonist follows an endless series of red herrings and false clues; the car itself often winds up mirroring what its driver is going through. In "Double Indemnity" the characters flirt in car metaphors, engaging in a kind of vehicular foreplay.

Phyllis: Mr. Neff, why don't you drop by tomorrow evening about eight-thirty. He'll be in then.

Neff: Who?

Phyllis: My husband. You were anxious to talk to him, weren't you?

Neff: Yeah, I was, but I'm sort of getting over the idea, if you know what I mean.

Phyllis: There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.

Neff: How fast was I going, officer?

Phyllis: I'd say around 90.

Like "Double Indemnity," "Chinatown" is not a movie about cars in any literal sense, but as the story of the city's expansion, and the effect that expansion has on the environment and the community, it couldn't be more emblematic. Jack Nicholson's character, Jake Gittes, enters the maze of L.A. politics as he drives from one location to another, trying to uncover an ever-widening web of corruption. In one scene, Gittes drives his car — a convertible — past a series of "No Trespassing" signs into an orange grove, where he is chased by men on horseback who fire at his car, then chase him through the trees. At the end of the chase, he is dragged from his crashed and overheated car, bloodied and broke. Not only had the gumshoe of film noir been replaced long ago by the rubber tire, but we now realize how the man in the car has also come to supplant the man and his horse as the symbolic representation of the modern American.

And how's the modern American feeling behind the wheel these days? Call 1-800-NOT-GOOD. In the early '90s, Michael Douglas was abandoning his car on a clogged freeway where drivers express themselves through bumper stickers. A decade later in Michael Mann's "Collateral," the beleaguered driver (a taxi driver no less) loses control of his life when he is carjacked by a sociopathic stranger.

In the '80s, the threat of nuclear annihilation inspired Alex Cox to make "Repo Man," a movie about an errant car with a trunkful of nuclear devastation. That threat has been replaced by another, articulated more directly in films such as Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth." You could say the L.A. movie driver is a driver with an extra-purposeful purpose. He's exploring the outer limits of contemporary life, limning its secrets, contributing to its demise. Elsewhere, he might be waiting patiently for the light to turn, or getting jostled in a crowd. But where's the freedom, the romance, the isolated self-obliteration in that?