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The California Myth of Escape in TV & Film

I was 24 when I finally visited California, so my impression of the Golden State was formed by an accumulation of TV and movies.

In this way, it is similar to New York City, my current home -- familiar to me -- and most of the world -- not from living there, but from watching movies and TV. 

They are two very different identities of course. NYC is everything over every era: chic, (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Rear Window), society dropouts (Hair) quirky, neurotic people (Annie Hall)  drug central (Panic in Needle Park) gritty (Taxi Driver, French Connection, Saturday Night Fever), yuppy (“Friends,” “Seinfeld”). Across all of these periods (except maybe the 1990s) New York is substantive.

California can seem light. Some of my earliest exposure to the state was through the cheap sets of TV shows like “Saved by the Bell” and “California Dreams”—which actually has a theme song that begins “Surf dudes with attitudes...”

But of course California is much more. There's the racially polarized city that we saw in the 1990s during the Rodney King riots and the OJ trial, when the memorable 1995 film Higher Learning came out. It's set at a large California college that is roiled by misogyny and rape, racism and white supremacy, identity politics, and violence. Higher Learning feels both important for its time and heavy-handed, like the movie felt compelled to address every hot button issue of the '80s and '90s culture wars. The antidote to Higher Learning is Troop Beverly Hills, a movie where you find yourself not only rooting for the One Percent girl scout troop from Beverly Hills in a David versus Goliath story that pits us against Big Girl Scout and its camping savvy. Clueless, which came out in 1995, took the One Percent protagonist to the next level. I looked down on the Valley before I even really knew what the Valley was.

 Few TV shows or movies have shaped my sense of California more than “Beverly Hills 90210," for better and worse.

Few TV shows or movies have shaped my sense of California more than “Beverly Hills 90210," for better and worse.

But no cultural product shaped by sense of California more than “Beverly Hills 90210.” I watched so much “90210,” that the first time I went to L.A., in 2011, I couldn't stop making connections between where I was and a show I hadn't watched for years. Is Venice Beach where Dylan McKay surfed, or Malibu, or somewhere else? Where could I actually see those sterile glass houses that Kelly, Donna, and Steve grew up in? Where was Kelly living the year she was the victim of arson? Why did Dylan go to Baja anyway?

The most beautiful California I've seen is in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, from 1958. In this film about a detective who becomes obsessed with a woman he is hired to follow, we are treated to the redwoods of Muir Woods and Spanish mission architecture at the Mission San Juan Bautista, in technicolor VistaVision. We see elegant San Francisco and seedy San Francisco–which is elegant in its own way, from the vantage point of main character Scotty (Jimmy Stewart): as he drives up sloped streets, to his modern, low-rise apartment building, through pastel Victorian architecture, as he enters from an alley into a department store with a breathtaking floral display, and to a gloomy motel. 

 Some of my favorite shots in Alfred Hitchock's  Vertigo  are the Victorian buildings and sloped streets of San Francisco, from main character Scotty's car.

Some of my favorite shots in Alfred Hitchock's Vertigo are the Victorian buildings and sloped streets of San Francisco, from main character Scotty's car.

After this California lodged in my mind, the state began to seem more appealing, more beautiful and varied. This was furthered when I saw Play Misty for Me, a 1971 thriller starring Clint Eastwood set in his hometown of Carmel-by-the-Sea. The modern, timber and stone oceanside home where Eastwood’s protagonist lives put the Monterey Peninsula on my list of idyllic places. Despite that as the film goes on, Eastwood’s bachelor-driven isolation becomes a liability, it still looks wonderfully peaceful.

  Play Misty for Me , starring Clint Eastwood, takes place in Monterey County, an often misty oceanside community.

Play Misty for Me, starring Clint Eastwood, takes place in Monterey County, an often misty oceanside community.

Another favorite film of this time, The Way We Were, with Barbara Streisand and Robert Redford, showed California as the place where people go when they leave New York City to live an easier life.

Another California is the world of cults, psychedelic drugs, and bizarre violence. It's Helter Skelter, an intricate chronicle of the Manson murders of 1969 by the man who prosecuted and put away the Manson Family, Vincent Bugliosi. Most Manson's cult "family members" met him in the Haight Ashbury social scene of the late 1960s, where he was a musician and considered a cool guy. They then went with him to L.A. Manson had his family take over a ranch that had been used as a set for old Westerns. They did lots of drugs, had sex with each other at their leader’s behest, and absorbed Manson’s theories about the coming race war.

California is a great cult setting, because the state is conceived out of a utopic idea: if you keep going far enough West, you’ll arrive, make it, and escape your past. You’ll find farmland or gold or wine or fame or fortune or people who finally get you. It never exactly ends well, of course, whether its Manson or or Jim Jones’s People’s Temple.

This California of cults, new religions, and alternate ways of living life is portrayed in Joan Didion’s skeptical Slouching Toward Bethlehem, a collection of narrative non-fiction pieces set in 1960s California. In one, called “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” Didion quotes the father of a woman who ends up dead: “Lucille wanted to see the world, and I guess she found out.” There's that theme again of California as a dangerous mirage.

 Santa Barbara wine country is the setting for the mid-life crises of the movie  Sideways .

Santa Barbara wine country is the setting for the mid-life crises of the movie Sideways.

A slightly different, and more grounded vision of California is offered in the 2004 film Sideways. The state’s beautiful Santa Barbara County is that place for the two lead female characters, played by Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh, who have settled into a life of wine pouring and connoisseurship, discussing the fine points of Pinot Noir and enjoying as opposed to enduring life, as the two male characters, played by Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church are doing at the beginning of the movie. Those two men are forced to face their demons among the vines of wine country.

California is supposed to be somewhere where you go to escape and find yourself, but you can't really do one without the other. Whether its 90210, Vertigo, or Sideways, our characters have to accept their reality to find themselves -- or die (sometimes literally), trying.