The city was spectacular and I was unprepared for the sensory assault of the sea breezes, walls of cascading flowers and candy floss sunsets that greeted me. The LA I imagined was grittier, dirtier and nowhere near so picturesque – although given the city is one huge, sprawling film set, I’m not sure why it surprised me. Everywhere you walk (and I walked far around the city, as my swollen and blistered feet attested) or drive, you feel like you’re on location for something you’ve seen onscreen. China Town! Nightcrawler! Tangerine! All pass by in whirl of uncanny familiarity. I was especially fascinated by the eerie quality of light that turns sunset into a celluloid dream; headlights blur softly around the edges in a haze of warmth instantly recognisable as belonging to LA and every movie you’ve watched that traverses the city’s streets.
My film tourism involved both planned and spontaneous encounters with cinema’s history in the metropolis. Some, such as the Chaplin zoetrope that stands as a monument to the Venice’s place in the early Tramp films, I happened across by happy accident (however, I was disappointed that despite an organised search lasting most of an afternoon, I was unable to locate the Olvera Street doorway featured in The Kid). Others, for example, a walk along Broadway to photograph old theatres, I mapped out in advance. You can see the images I took, which juxtapose the grandeur of crumbling and faded art deco cinemas (including the LA Theatre, which held the premier for City Lights) with thrift stores and urban decay here. Many Broadway movie theatre, such as the Orpheum, have been restored and still contain magnificent 1930s interiors. There’s something romantic, I think, about the dilapidated exteriors and bleak concrete frontages hiding the excesses of a cinema culture consigned now to the past.
Finally, I managed to squeeze in time for a Paramount Studio tour. Paramount is the only studio still based in Hollywood so for film history geeks it’s the obvious choice (Warner Brothers, etc., have decamped to new lots in the suburbs). While occasionally I got tired of the narrative about contemporary films (there’s only so much Transformers and US daytime TV trivia I can take), there are three moments that make the tour absolutely worthwhile. First, you immediately recognise the studio gate and writers’ block from Sunset Boulevard. Second, you pull up outside the studio where Hitchcock filmed Rear Window (and our guide told us a great anecdote about how the cast and crew suffered carbon monoxide poisoning from the traffic fumes on set). And third, you get to wander round a set that features in a Nickelodeon children’s show. Not that visiting the particular studio was high on my film history agenda – until we learned from our tour guide that it was the same space used to shoot Citizen Kane. I don’t need to tell you how over-excited I was at that point and it took great strength of will not to stage whisper ‘Rosebud’ in front of the rest of my tour party.