Local readers probably know Mick LaSalle as a longtime film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, for whom he has worked since 1985. What you may or may not know is that he is also an accomplished writer: we featured his short story “Fresh Kills” in issue 108, and he has several books under his name, including Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre- Code Hollywood, about the actresses who became famous in that short window of time before Hollywood censorship; and The Beauty of the Real: What Hollywood Can Learn From Contemporary French Actresses. His latest book, Dream State: California in the Movies (Heyday), offers a succinct look at the state of California as it exists on screen – how our attitudes towards cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles have changed over the decades since cinema was invented and how these changing attitudes are reflected in some of our most popular films, from San Francisco (1936) to Dirty Harry (1971) and beyond.
ZYZZYVA: This is the rare movie book I would recommend to casual readers who aren’t necessarily movie buffs. For me, it’s really a book about cities and our connection to them – what they represent for culture as a whole and how that has been expressed in films over the decades. What was your initial idea of Dream State and has it changed in the first place during the writing process?
MICK LASALLE: It was hard to write this book because I had no initial idea and there was no missionary feeling of trying to convince people of anything – as was the case with my books on Pre-Code or the French actresses. Basically, I just had a few ideas and a few topics for chapters. So I started with ideas in the hope that I would get other ideas, and you never know if you get an idea until you have it. So there was a lot of doubt as to whether I would make it to the finish until I was close to the finish. It’s like walking in the desert. You can’t take all the water you need with you. You have to trust that you will find more along the way and you expect to do it, but there has always been fear – maybe you won’t.
I like what you say about cities. That makes a virtue of the fact that every book on California and the movies ultimately focuses on Los Angeles and San Francisco.
WITH: You write about California: “Everyone makes themselves new, but everyone starts from scratch, and that is a recipe for loneliness, doubt and despair. Even the most successful and privileged feel like they are at a dead end on the ocean’s edge. ”The way you write about California and its impact made me think of the great Joan Didion many times until I wondered if she had a special influence on this book?
ML: No, it has no influence at all, even though it has influenced so many people that I might be influenced by the people who influenced it. I’ve never managed to finish a Joan Didion book because I always feel like everything she says sounds great but isn’t true. The pervasive observations seem to me as if they do not reach the core of a real truth. Rather, they only please the reader. I’m sure I’m doing a great writer a disservice. But you know what it is like: it’s hard to read someone whose work just doesn’t appeal to you, and so you end up being unable to criticize for not knowing enough.
But when I was writing this, I sometimes thought, “I hope I’m not just making up something. I hope that doesn’t just sound good. I hope that’s actually true. ”In fact, after I finished the book, I was watching a documentary about Joan Didion (again, I’m halfway through) and thinking,“ Oh no, I hope I don’t have a Joan Didion – Book written. ”But then maybe it would be a good thing if I did. Who knows? I try to stay pure, but for the most part, I’m not the one to judge it.
WITH: As I read, you are talking about many of the classic noir films of the 1940s and what they say about Los Angeles (“San Francisco doesn’t care if you live or die. But Los Angeles? Los Angeles wants to kill you”), me asked myself: do you feel like something has been lost as fewer and fewer films are being made on location in Los Angeles these days, mainly for budget reasons?
ML: I could imagine that something would have to be lost if the films weren’t made on location, but probably not everything. There are parts of the story that just feel LA and they wouldn’t get lost I don’t think so.
WITH: As a fan of disaster films, especially disaster films of the seventies, I felt vindicated by your chapter, which examines the genre in depth. At the same time, one comes to some disturbing conclusions about what all the apocalyptic images from blockbuster films like Godzilla (2014) and San Andreas (2015) say about our culture. Do you think that following recent events, including the storming of the capital on January 6th, this Hollywood trend will weaken or only intensify in the years to come?
ML: I didn’t mention his name in the book because I didn’t want his name in my book and also because I thought he wouldn’t be president when it got published. Actually, I’m not going to say his name here either. But every summer I wondered about all these films that show our cities being destroyed, and at some point I realized that it indicated something sick in the American soul, that something was wrong. It is either no coincidence at all, or an incredible coincidence, that these films were the most numerous just before the former guy emerged as a viable presidential candidate. I think the spirit behind these films is related to its attraction – a deep dissatisfaction, an unspoken anger, a desire to destroy everything and see what happens next. Basically it took me a couple of years to look back and realize it, but you already know who Godzilla was.
Q: You thoroughly review many classic films, from Wizard of Oz to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But are there any films that you really wanted to include or discuss in the book, but which you ultimately had to shorten for reasons of space or other reasons?
ML: I suspect I could have included a lot more films, but they would only have been there to illustrate the same points that are in the book. I had no further points to make. Basically, I left all of my ideas on the field. I hope they are of use to someone.