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Ten Great California Films: The Split Personality of The Golden State

Ten Great California Films: The Split Personality of The Golden State

Picture of Anya Kordecki
Updated: 25 October 2016
Los Angeles has the glamour of Hollywood and the sun-drunk skateboarders of Venice beach, however it is also thought to have around 450 gangs and is sometimes called the ‘Gang Capital of America’. San Francisco has similar ‘rough’ areas but is most well known for its Castro District, one of the United States’ largest and best-known gay neighbourhoods, and the bohemian Haight Ashbury. What follows is a list of ten films that capture the distinct character of California’s two main cities.

American History X (1998)

Tony Kaye’s American History X is an incredibly brutal film about hate-crime in Los Angeles. The film follows Derek Vineyard, who has been released after three years in prison for killing two black gang members. Before his incarceration, Vineyard was the leader of a Neo-Nazi gang following the murder of his father by a black drug dealer. He is unashamed of his actions in killing the two men, as evidenced by a smile he flashes to his brother as he is arrested for the crime. His experience of prison leads him to drastically change his views, and he tries to prevent his younger brother from following in the same path. The scenes after Derek’s release are shown in colour with flashbacks in black and white, which could be considered as a commentary on Derek’s changing points of view.

Killer of Sheep (1979)

Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep conveys urban African-American culture in the Watts district of Los Angeles. It uses similar pacing to Italian neorealist cinema, creating snapshots of everyday experience. The film portrays the difficult life of Stan, a hardworking, intelligent man who is affected by his long working hours in a slaughter house, which has a heavy impact on his relationship with his wife and children. Fragmented scenes show his struggle to take control of his situation. Charles Burnett shot this low budget film in black and white using friends and relatives as his cast and crew, thus lending to the its authenticity and gritty realism.


Lords of Dogtown (2005)

Lords of Dogtown follows the Venice Beach ‘Z-Boys’, a group of skateboarders who revolutionised the sport in the early 70s, honing their skills in the empty swimming pools of unsuspecting suburban homeowners. The director, Catherine Hardwicke, concentrates on a careful portrayal of the distinct personalities of each Z-Boy through the use of different camera techniques to display their individuality. She illustrates the great extent to which their lives revolved around skateboarding, and uses a point-of-view camera from a skateboard’s wheel to convey the rush they felt.

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard is a film about old Hollywood, which is represented through the portrayal of Norma Desmond. She is a silent-screen actress who dislikes ‘talkies’ and proclaims: ‘we didn’t need dialogues. We had faces’. This was the first film to show the more ruthless side of Hollywood, leading to accusations that Billy Wilder was ‘ruining the industry’; Norma Desmond symbolised the fading glory of Tinseltown. As Hollywood moved away from silent films, they left behind actresses such as Norma who then became bitter and resentful of the industry. Norma’s conviction that she was still a star, and should continue to be treated as such, led to a loss of sanity and withdrawal into her own fantasy world.


L.A. Confidential (1997)

Sunset Boulevard broke the mould to allow future films to explore the nature of Hollywood in a negative light. Set in the 1950s, Curtis Hansen’s L.A. Confidential is a story of police corruption in Hollywood. A complex crime is investigated by three very different characters: Ed Exley, who is willing to do almost anything to get ahead, Bud White, who is ruthless in his search for justice, and Jack Vincennes, who adores the celebrity lime light. Based on James Ellroy’s book of the same title, the story is notable for its selection of complex characters, and for its setting within a Los Angeles in which the golden era of dreams comes crumbling down.

Chinatown (1974)

This detective film isn’t a California-specific trope, but Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) is a complex story of murder and corruption involving the water supply in the city of Los Angeles. The film follows J.J. ‘Jake’ Gittes, a private investigator hired to follow Hollis Mulwray who is suspected of having an affair. When it is revealed that the woman who hired him is not Mr. Mulwray’s wife, Gittes begins to investigate the nature of his client’s, as well as his own, involvement in the case. Polanski uses a setting that is true to the period, whilst hinting at more ominous themes, which are slowly revealed throughout the film. He balances plausible and unpredictable plot twists using the very real issues relating to the loss of water supply that occurred in LA at the time.


The Big Lebowski (1998)

When reflecting upon California’s relaxed way of life one film in particular springs to mind: The Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998). The easygoing attitude of the title character, known as ‘The Dude’, proved so popular that there is now an annual Lebowski Fest in over 20 US cities. The narrative of The Big Lebowski begins when ‘The Dude’ is mistaken for another Lebowski, and two thugs who have broken into his home, threaten him and urinate on his rug. He then goes to meet the other Lebowski, for whom he has been mistaken, in order to ask for a replacement. The film’s free-flowing narrative is laced with bizarre fantasies that have since become iconic.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Chinatown is considered by many as an homage to film noir and in particular The Maltese Falcon, which set the standard for the genre in the 1940s. Humphrey Bogart plays Sam Spade, a San Francisco detective, who gets pulled into a complex treasure hunt when his partner is killed. The chilling end of Chinatown has a similar feel to the last scene of The Maltese Falcon, which highlights Spade’s seemingly cold adherence to his morals. Author Dashiell Hammett described his main character as ‘a blond devil’, and though Bogart does not match up to the physical description, no one else could portray the complex and sinister character as well as he does. Sam Spade: ‘Don’t be too sure I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be.’


Milk (2008)

The Castro is a particularly famous district in San Francisco. By 1969, the city had a larger gay population than any other in American due to the number of gay men expelled from the military who decided to remain in San Francisco rather than return to their home cities. Gus Van Sant’s Milk traces the life of Harvey Milk’s as he runs for public office the 1970’s. Unhappy in New York, Milk moved to San Francisco in 1972. Here he gained interest in politics when he grew aware of the discrimination against homosexuals, even in the predominately gay neighbourhood of The Castro. In 1977, after two unsuccessful attempts, Milk became the first openly gay man to win a seat in a major public office in the United States stating: ‘I am not a candidate, I am part of a movement. The movement is the candidate.’

The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)

Based on the true story of Christopher Gardner, Gabriele Muccino’s The Pursuit of Happyness is based on Gardner’s best-selling biography in which he depicts his struggle against poverty in 1980s San Francisco. Chris Gardner and his five-year-old son are homeless, but Gardner must maintain appearances for work and present himself in a suit and tie everyday. He is given an opportunity for a better life through a stockbroker internship, which requires him to live without a salary for six months. Chris must gamble everything for the chance to become a self-made man.