La La Land, which has received a record-tying 14 Academy Award nominations, attempts to make Los Angeles a major character in its narrative. The “La” in the title refers, in one sense, to the city in which much of the musical is set. The film is, to borrow the tagline of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, a love story in the city of dreams. The problem is that the city of dreams is a relentlessly prosaic urban sprawl. All the marvellous fantasies linked with it are studio manufactured. Its most popular sights are a tacky sign originally installed to advertise a segregated housing project, and a pavement whose tiles are inscribed with names of celebrated entertainers.
La La Land falls short of the heights suggested by its hoard of nominations primarily because its songs consist of forgettable melodies and utterly banal lyrics, and its leads can’t dance or sing particularly well. These obvious drawbacks are accentuated by the fact that Los Angeles cannot equal the great cities of the world as a romantic backdrop. No filmmaker, however talented, could endow the Griffith Observatory with a distinction equalling Manhattan’s Empire State Building, Rome’s Trevi Fountain, or Paris’s Eiffel Tower.
This is partly because Los Angeles lacks a deep history. It emerged only in 1890 and developed rapidly around the booming oil and entertainment industries. Among the most remarkable sights in the city are fields of nodding pumpjacks that continue to produce the fluid that fuelled its initial rise. But oil doesn’t fascinate tourists the way entertainment does. Universal Studios theme park is the city’s most popular ticketed attraction, while the oil fields don’t figure on any list of things to do.
Place of the Hill
When I visited Los Angeles for the first time last summer, I took a trip to Universal Studios to look at whatever could be looked at for free. The open-air shopping centre was pleasant enough, but the most interesting part of the trip was the Universal City Metro station, which contained murals recounting the history of the location. Back in January 1847, the spot in North Hollywood where that station stands was the site of the signing of of the Treaty of Cahuenga (from Kawengna, meaning “place of the hill” in the Tongva language). The Capitulation of Cahuenga, as Mexicans tend to call it, was a watershed moment in the Mexican-American War, which lasted nearly two years and led to one-third of Mexico’s territory, including California, being transferred to the United States.
When Mexico gained independence in 1821, it was larger than its northern neighbour, though the latter had expanded greatly through the Louisiana purchase during Thomas Jefferson’s presidency. The states that are today on the USA’s south-western border, where Donald Trump is intent on building a wall, were all once part of Mexico. In Texas, the Mexican government encouraged migration from the US to stave off attacks by Native Americans in that sparsely populated territory. This migration led to demands for secession, the creation of the short-lived Republic of Texas and the state’s eventual accession to the US. A major battle in the Texan war took place at a fort and Roman Catholic mission called the Alamo. That skirmish has been depicted in many American films, and one of its protagonists, Davy Crockett is among the country’s best-loved folk heroes.
The Texan revolution became a Hollywood favourite because it fit the archetype of a freedom movement. No such moral certitudes could be found in the take-over of California, which was simply a matter of forcible conquest. The land grab was put in motion by James Polk, an expansionist US President who believed his country’s manifest destiny was to stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
The Mexican-American war culminated with American soldiers marching into Mexico City, taking over Chapultepec castle, and raising the American flag in the city’s central square. Mexico ceded territory that included all or part of what are now ten US states, including California.
The push to the Pacific is treated in American memory largely as a fight against natives. Largely forgotten is that Spanish, and later Mexican, imperial power was already present in many of the regions that became US territory. National memory, though, is asymmetrical, which causes a very different understanding of contemporary politics on two sides of once-contested borders. Mexicans remember the humiliations of 1847 and 1848 only too well, and continue to sulk in the shadow of US economic power. We travelled to Mexico City from Los Angeles on the summer vacation I’ve mentioned, and two things struck me immediately. First, the vastly greater cultural and historical depth of Mexico’s capital. Second, the reluctance of most Mexicans to learn English despite the opportunities that language provides. The USA may be the economic hegemon in the region, but Mexico has not allowed it to become a cultural one yet.
The Trees of Califas
The sequence of mosaics in the Universal City Metro station, created by the artist Margaret Garcia, is titled The Trees of Califas. The title refers to a fictional monarch who appeared in an early 16th century Spanish novel written by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo. Califas, or Calafia, was a black queen who ruled over an island inhabited solely by warrior women who trained birds to assist them in battle. Calafia and her Amazons joined Turkish forces trying to wrest Constantinople from Christian rule, but were captured and converted to Christianity. Calafia’s kingdom, a kind of La La Land, was called California.
When the Pacific coast of North America was first explored, a misconception arose among some cartographers that the western-most part of the territory was a giant island. They named it after Calafia’s mythical realm, which is how the richest state in the USA comes to have a name traceable to a title held by the leader of the world’s Sunni Muslims.
One could dismiss the etymology as mere happenstance, but the travel ban imposed by Donald Trump on nations where a new Caliphate has been declared tempts me to endow it with significance. The legend of Califas was created 500 years ago, in the period between the expulsion of Muslims (and Jews) from Spain and the capture of Constantinople/Istanbul by the Turks. The rivalry between Islam and Christendom was at the centre of Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo’s worldview. As Europe and the United States grew secularised, the discourse of war in those lands grew secular as well, with occasional slips into religious rhetoric. Successive US Presidents have been at pains to emphasise that their assaults on Middle Eastern nations had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with principles. Their words have had little impact in large sections of of the Muslim world, which views conflicts against Christian-majority countries primarily through the prism of religion and colonial history. Now, Americans have elected a leader who is everything that the harshest critics of George W Bush took the former US President to be.
Names like Cahuenga, Los Angeles, and California, the first Tongvan, the second Spanish, the third Arabic, speak of a layered and complex history that is remembered with greatly varying emphases in different nations and communities. Policy-making that fails to comprehend, acknowledge and respond in some measure to the complications of history is doomed to failure. Trump and his cabinet are in a La La Land of their own, one that manufactures nightmares instead of dreams.