I’m in a hotel room in Adelaide watching Bullitt on Fox Classics. I flipped channel to find myself right at the start of the famous car chase scene. I must have seen this scene around 50 times. I had this movie on VHS, when one had such things, and used to know the exact time to fast forward to. I've just realised that, as a non-driver, perhaps this was a form of sublimation.
For what is not a great movie, by most measures, Bullitt is an influential film. What it gave us is more textural than textual. It has its moments—the car chase most obviously—but delivers moods and stylings rather than narrative or structural innovation: the blankness of McQueen; his look, and that of Jacqueline Bisset’s; Lalo Schifrin’s score; the pace of the cop movies of the following decade, involving laborious observation of detectives at work; the way that San Francisco is shot, including some handheld but also carefully sanitised of any of the social ferment present in the city in 1968.
The chase scene has three lead characters, none of which are human: McQueen’s Ford Mustang Fastback; the bad guys’ Dodge Charger; and the city itself. The actors are, in the words of Alfred Hitchcock, treated like cattle, mere action figures swapping places with the scenery, the latter foregrounded over the former. The scene won an Academy Award for best editing, but the sound design is also strong, with the explosive roar of the engines still quite shocking. They’re like external combustion engines.
Not the full chase, but close. There are hundreds of tributes and reedits on YouTube, including dull attempts at recreation, recreated in Lego, in Hot Wheels, or in Matchbox, and the ultimate accolade, a reference in The Simpsons. See also this obsessive comparison of then and now.
On the flight on the way to Adelaide, I watched Drive, at Boyer’s recommendation. This, in some ways, features contemporary Los Angeles as a character, much as Michael Mann’s Collateral did. As Mann noted, digital HD camera technology enables Los Angeles, that city of electric lights, to be ‘properly’ shot at night, and both Drive’s and Collateral’s best driving scenes are at night (whereas Bullitt’s San Francisco has rarely looked so sunny.)
Drive’s Ryan Gosling has the same studied impassive voidery of McQueen, actually ramping up the mute to new levels somehow. The driving is just as good as Bullitt, or indeed Collateral, which is at least one large part of what these movies are about. The city is the other part. Drive is a portrait of LA, just as Collateral was (and many more before it, as discussed in that old Los Angeles: Grand Theft Reality post.)
I enjoyed it hugely, as I tend to when movies are portraits of cities, rendered through mood and texture, actors as cattle.
One scene—in that hazy golden LA sunlight, actually—features the Los Angeles River as the backdrop for some mild Gosling-on-Carey Mulligan flirtation. They get out of the car, and throw stones in one of those pools of water significant enough to throw stones into, amidst the wild scrubby foliage that grows through cracks in the giant concrete culvert that forms the body of the modern river.
“Nic wanted something different and romantic for [Driver and Irene] to do. I’d heard that you can actually drive up the L.A. River,” Gosling recalled. “So we tried it, and it worked—until we got to this one spot where out of nowhere there was this patch of shrubs and trees and you couldn’t go any further. There was no reason for it to be there. It was kind of magical.” (LA Times)
Here’s the scene, 1’25” in. Again, there are lots of videos of people driving the LA River at YouTube, for example these kids, but also some kid doing commentary on driving it the river in the video game LA Noire.)
It’s a similar setting to that the impromptu "happening" I wrote about a few years ago, when I first figured out there was such a thing as the LA River. And of course the river has been the setting for numerous other movies.
Seeing this unique infrastructure again in Drive inspired me to dig out my notes on the LA River, half-written a couple of years ago. Here they are:
Walking (a bit of) the LA River
After Postopolis LA, I had a day or so in the city, and generally had a ball, walking around, taking buses, reading, writing, photographing. Having learnt a bit about the river, after that first naive post on the happening, I asked one of the local participants at Postopolis LA where I could go to see it, maybe even get into it. What I knew of LA's interwar and post-war history was filtered obliquely through Chandler, Ellroy, Polanski, Mike Davis; and the city's troubled relationship with water was as much a key character as any of Chandler's blondes or Davis's Latinos. The least I could do was go to see the river.
The next day I walked through downtown, towards Sci-ARC and the rail tracks that mark the eastern edge of what passes for the centre of LA. Sci-ARC is in a long low building that mirrors the railyards it sits in front of, and indeed the LA River, which the rail runs alongside. The size of the river’s concrete bowl indicates the flood potential of the river, even if flooding seems a little impossible given the comparative trickle of water at this point, more like an elongated puddle. Still, this part of the river has more water in it than most, and a few miles downstream the water grows in volume before becoming a vast estuary heading out to sea.
(For more on the river itself, I can highly recommend two essays in “The Infrastructural City”, 2009, Varnelis (ed.) by David Fletcher and Lane Barden. The river's story is utterly fascinating, of a natural habitat being shaped on an almost tectonic scale. There have been numerous proposals for the river, most recent schemes pivoting around the idea of returning the river to its “natural state” or “revitalising it” Leaving aside the issue that its natural state is a highly variable flood plain, hardly conducive to hosting modern American settlement patterns, the idea of returning such radically re-shaped environments to a natural state is almost always flawed (see also former Australian PM Paul Keating's harebrained ideas for Barangaroo, Sydney, a project I worked on for a while.) These environments have been altered so much that they have undergone a form of irreversible state transition. Fletcher's piece in particular makes clear the "freakology rather than bucology" of the river, pointing out that it is really a "fully engineered flood-control system" rather than a naturally-occurring system. It is also a twisted mess of legislation and governance, with no single entity controlling the river.
Given this, the focus ought probably to be on a post-natural hybridised environment, working with the river both as it is now and in the drier Southern Californian future. Fletcher's and Barden’s essays, the latter accompanied by a compelling photo-essay that tracks the river from valley to sea, from trickle to port, make this case clearly, based on a deep understanding of the river’s history and geography.)
The sun is hot and bright, and the water is cobalt blue against the bleached white of the old concrete. It’s the colour of Chinatown streets in a James Ellroy novel, or so I imagine. The structure is just giant slabs, slammed together, the most basic form of engineering.
Standing on a bridge looking downriver, it’s quiet. (East 1st St Bridge?). As is often the case when I’m walking in cities not made for walking, there is virtually no-one around. Very few cars, even. I can hear east LA from here, which I’ve only really experienced through movies, novels and hip-hop, so I’m not sure if I can hear the squeal of tyres and wail of sirens or whether I’m making it up.
The warm wind whips through the struts supporting the bridge, the cables singing softly in the heat. The bridge has charming little extrusions every 10 metres or so, civic cut-outs from the concrete balustrades, big enough for people to stand in, to pass the time. They’re currently filled with rubbish, however. One has the remains of a filthy sleeping bag, another a dead bird.
I keep walking and head over to Union Station. I have to navigate a knot of freeways that is around 15 lanes deep in order to get from the clutches of low industrial buildings and garages on this side, over to the station on the other. It’s more difficult to ford this thing on foot than it would be to wade through the river.
Somehow on the other side, I approach Union Station, which is just spectacularly beautiful of course. Where the river’s structure, and the bridge, had been cracked and blanched, the parched white of a skeleton in a desert, Union Station’s white is creamy, pristine against the deep blue sky, offset by rich terracotta roofs. The architecture is something of a melange of the Americas, and delicately done, with perhaps the most spectacular structure on show the monumental wooden chairs in the waiting area.
I’m here for the relatively new light rail line, recently established out the back of the station, which is smooth and efficient. It feels odd in this context, this high quality, contemporary public transport. Locals look slightly incongruous on something so, well, “European”. Like seeing Ice Cube cooped up in a Fiat 500, Paris Hilton on the number 73 bus, Liberace on the tube.
The station discreetly suggests the outlines of some long lost halcyon age of American rail travel, and although this light rail seems almost Jetsons-esque, sliding into the sidings, the hefty, awkward Amtrak trains remind us of the reality of most transit on rails in the US. (As noted in Tony Judt’s memoirs, it’s as if Amtrak is kept alive on a paltry life-support machine of just-enough funding only to continually demonstrate the folly of not privatising public goods. It’s transport as political tool, run into the ground to illustrate that public transport cannot work, a hegemonic journey as much as a physical one.)
(Interestingly, the LA Metro is slowly, very slowly, re-building the network of streetcars and rail lines that once served the city, known as the Yellow Car lines around these parts, which were systematically removed in the General Motors streetcar conspiracy, a scandal which happens to form a sub-plot in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Everything is a movie round here.)
I believe I hopped off the train at Lincoln/Cypress station. As the Metro Gold line is in part elevated, I’d been able to loosely follow the river on the journey from Union Central, and so walked from the station down to a road of industrial units alongside the trees lining the man-made riverbank.
Some of the old industrial buildings looked disused, though one had some sort of managed studio space in it. The newer industrial units were all set back to make way for large parking lots. I think I’m around movie business infrastructure. Some of these newer units had the distinct air of illicit, or at least immoral, behaviour about them. A sleek car with mirrored windows slides inside an automated gate, as two girls in not so many clothes lounge outside what may be a studio door, all legs and heels (I think I’m around here somewhere.)
I turn a bend and find a railway crossing, with a fine view of the hills behind, but realise—somehow—that I’m moving away from the river. I double-back. Even though the buildings are low around here, and spottily placed, it’s hard to spot a river when it’s been so thoroughly tucked out of sight. I can really only head for what looks like a line of trees and hope for the best.
I find a road running over a bridge perpendicular to the river, itself under another freeway snaking overhead, and head over to the fence leading into undergrowth.
I look in vain for gaps in the fence. At the end of the units, I walk over a road leading to a bridge over the river, thinking I can at least get a look at it from there. Yet here I see a gap in the fence.
I climb through, push past some bushes, and find myself walking at the top of the concrete culvert. There’s a clearly defined path up here, with bushes, trees and fence to my right and culvert dropping down to the left. The road bridges cut across at a daigonal.
The river is nothing more than a stream here, snaking down the middle of its concrete setting. I contemplate scrambling down the side of the culvert to get to the water, but it’s actually quite an incline, and I worry I won’t get back up. I’m wearing the wrong shoes for this, and I remember my family back home. I'm now a father. It's not worth it.
It’s here that I look back to the bridge, and notice a figure in the crisp shadow underneath it. It’s standing there, down by the water’s edge at the base of the culvert. It moves forward and bends down, and starts washing some clothes in the water. I turn and look up to the next bridge, and see two figures under that one too. I’d read that people live down in the river, and here they are.
I keep walking along the top of the culvert. It’s quiet up here, though I can see across to the other side, over thickets of trees, perhaps eucalypts, to a busy highway. Here, though, it’s a peculiar environment and actually appealing. Although I must admit to being slightly tense, having seen the people under the bridges. (Though, of course, I am probaly safer here than walking alongside the freeways.)
The foliage is thick, and vibrant. I’m sometimes walking along a well-trodden path through long grasses. Other times through gobbets of gnarled trees and bushes. There is rubbish strewn around, particularly collected around the base of the fence. These elements are twisted around each other, with vines growing over, through and around shopping trolleys, milk crates and plastic bags. The plastic bags, which after a storm adorn the higher reaches of foliage in their thousands, are known as "Los Angeles moss". (I saw the same "moss" in Melbourne on the Maribyrnong river, after a good storm there.)
It actually feels relatively harmonious, as if the fence, crates, vines, grasses and bushes have merged into one hybrid ecosystem. They're certainly better integrated here than on the (in theory) more inhabited bridge by SCI-Arc. There are wild flowers in the grasses, and no doubt animal wildlife all around. As ever with SoCal, the foliage reminds me of that found in and around New South Wales. Fletcher's essay makes clear what a gloriously productive and fertile "artifical ecology" the river now supports, or is.
Given the proximity to the freeways, the rail, the enormous concrete channel for the black squiggle of water, this feels surprisingly close to “nature”, whatever that means. If you look down and straight ahead, it’s like a wilderness trail; look up and left or right, and you’re in low-rise light-industrial LA suburb, threaded together by 1950s infrastructure.
Again, it's quiet, despite the adjacent freeways.
I carry on walking. The river is still a trickle, a little shameful really. It’s hard to believe that this stream can turn into raging flood, but it can. Naturally, it’s a wide-ranging, diffuse body of water; the brute force infrastructure of Los Angeles forced it into these tight channels, having tapped it at numerous points up stream. The river has been knocked around so much that it couldn’t actually flow at all without human intervention in the form of sewage and run-off from streets and industry. You half-wonder whether the artificially-enriched water is responsible for the abundant flora. The water in the river is greener here than at SCI-Arc.
I walk through a couple of punctured fences and under a couple of bridges, elegant examples of civil engineering from an age where engineering could be somewhat civil. They're also training grounds, so-called "graffiti universities". The language suggests the patterns of Latino-led magical urbanism increasingly shaping Southern California.
I’m keeping my eyes down to check for syringes in the dry grass and sand, but I don’t see any. I look up to see a couple walking towards me.
The man has dark glasses, straggly hair and a canvas fedora. The girl is dressed in not so many clothes, though is decent enough. I decide to look “natural” (there’s that word again.)
“Hey,” man says, with a smile.
“Hey,” I say, with a smile.
We pass by each other. I carry on walking. No idea.
The foliage is opening up a little, which means I’m more visible. The freeway is running right alongside the river, on the other side. It’s a good feeling finding this haphazard home-spun walking trail running through these long arteries of concrete. The bank to my right sometimes drops down, such that the fence running along the path has flowers either side.
Parts of the trail really are rather lovely. sheltered by the odd bridge, trees and bushes. For some of the way there's a fence on the left too, securing the concrete 'riverbed'; at other points, it would be possible to scramble down. Again, I don't fancy it.
It's a shame that the this unique, highly pleasurable experience is so difficult to access. As I noted before, walking in Los Angeles—specifically, where you are not really supposed to walk—is one of the most appealing urban encounters I've had (and yes, I'm aware that it may be appealing to walk here because it is difficult to walk here.) Although Reyner Banham famously said he learnt to drive in Los Angeles so he could "read it in the original", and while I too have learnt much from being driven around LA, there are other ways to read this place, equally "original", if you like. This is sublime.
There have only been a few gaps in the fence along the route, so I decide to walk back. In that peculiar way of things, it seems like no time to get back simply because I know where I’m going this time.
Again, I see dark silhouettes in the deep shadows under the bridges. I cannot imagine what that life must be like.
As I approach the road, I have a quick look through the fence, so as not to startle anyone. I slip through the gap and step out onto what passes for a pavement around here, as cars zip by. I turn my back on the river and walk away.
The river quickly slips out of sight again. I walk back towards Lincoln/Cypress station. I had walked a very small section of the river, but it was one of the more memorable urban walks of my life.
It’s possible to see the river as a sorry state of affairs; the waterway that made the city, to some extent, and whose water was the subject of so much controversy, corruption and capital, has been effectively neutered. You might see that it has been brutally manhandled such that a mighty regional-scale ecosystem has dwindled to a concrete-encased dribble.
Yet this is a romantic view. The river is still a mighty regional-scale ecosystem; but it is now a hybrid system, reinforcing itself with human inputs and outputs. It has become something else. The question of whether it is “sustainable” is moot; it just is, and so it is sustainable. The river is no longer a “natural” system in a pre-human sense (by which we at least 8000 years ago) but it will always be there. It now has different performance, and our perceptions of what “natural” is need to be radically recalibrated.
Los Angeles was enabled by the river, at least in part, and now Los Angeles in turn enables the river. The idea that the way forward for this environment is to somehow attempt to recapture some kind of natural, pre-human state should recognise that the river is comprised of effluence and affluence as much as anything else.
In fact, the river exists as a constant flow only because of these human interventions. Fletcher's essay states that the river was actually dry in summer, and then flooding in winter; only in forcing the river down the channel, and enhancing it with run-off and sewage, does it achieve this "steady state". Fletcher says, "In the sense that the river has more continually running water than it has had in its post-colonial history, it is by many definitions more a *river* today than it ever was."
Equally, contemporary thinking about ecosystems—such as the second part of Adam Curtis's "All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace"—suggests that nature is not some harmonious, steady-state system, with zero waste and maximum design efficiency. Fletcher also describes this updated thinking:
"Stability in nature is an illusion; moreover, non-natural factors such as urbanization, global warming, and the heat-island effect all have to be included in the ecological equation. Thus the native versus exotic debate is oversimplified; the landscape assemblages should not be mistaken as the cause of environmental degradation, when they are actually an ecologically appropriate result." (Fletcher, in The Infrastructural City, Varnelis (ed.), 2008)
The river has cultural value as much as environmental, as indicated by the numerous movies and other artefacts that have used it as scenery. At this present time, it is in an in-between state, a form of linear liminal zone. It is both accessible and inaccessible; movies like Drive suggest that it is some kind of gilt-edged urban park, the ideal place for a young family to play on a Saturday afternoon, albeit a getaway driver’s young family.
The movies indicate that it is one of the most spectacular settings in a city made from celluloid, and yet it is also sometimes mundane, banal, largely forgotten. At its clearest, I will never forget watching the paradox of people cleaning their clothes in sewage. It is hybrid. It is not something we can clean up. In an interesting adjacency, it occurs to me that “revitalising” or “recovering” the river might be as flawed as the idea of “the recovery” that Benjamin Bratton had taken down at Postopolis LA a few days earlier.
Walking the river as it is now is essential to understanding these kind of urban systems, essential to thinking about how to take hybrid environments forward, rather than work against the grain of history by looking backwards.
Rivers tend not to go backwards, after all. And resilient cities also adapt, finding new ways to flow, just as rivers do.