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Land of Smoke and Mirrors: A Cultural History of Los Angelesby Vincent Brook
Synopses & Reviews
Unlike the more forthrightly mythic origins of other urban centersandmdash;think Rome via Romulus and Remus or Mexico City via the god Huitzilopochtliandmdash;Los Angeles emerged from a smoke-and-mirrors process that is simultaneously literal and figurative, real and imagined, material and metaphorical, physical and textual. Through penetrating analysis and personal engagement, Vincent Brook uncovers the many portraits of this ever-enticing, ever-ambivalent, and increasingly multicultural megalopolis. Divided into sections that probe Los Angelesandrsquo;s checkered history and reflect on Hollywoodandrsquo;s own self-reflections, the book shows how the city, despite considerable remaining challenges,and#160; is finally blowing away some of the smoke of its not always proud past and rhetorically adjusting its rear-view mirrors.
Part I is a review of the cityandrsquo;s history through the early 1900s, focusing on the seminal 1884 novel Ramona and its immediate effect, but also exploring its ongoing impact through interviews with present-day Tongva Indians, attendance at the 88th annual Ramona pageant, and analysis of its feature film adaptations.
Brook deals with Hollywood as geographical site, film production center, and frame of mind in Part II. He charts the events leading up to Hollywoodandrsquo;s emergence as the worldandrsquo;s movie capital and explores subsequent developments of the film industry from its golden age through the so-called New Hollywood, citing such self-reflexive films as Sunset Blvd., Singinandrsquo; in the Rain, and The Truman Show.
Part III considers LA noir, a subset of film noir that emerged alongside the classical noir cycle in the 1940s and 1950s and continues today. The cityandrsquo;s status as a privileged noir site is analyzed in relation to its history and through discussions of such key LA noir novels and films as Double Indemnity, Chinatown, and Crash.
In Part IV, Brook examines multicultural Los Angeles. Using media texts as signposts, he maps the history and contemporary situation of the cityandrsquo;s major ethno-racial and other minority groups, looking at such films as Mi Familia (Latinos), Boyz N the Hood (African Americans), Charlotte Sometimes (Asians), Falling Down (Whites), and The Kids Are All Right (LGBT).
Land of Smoke and Mirrors looks at greater Los Angeles through the images projected from within and without its geographical and psychological borders. Divided into sections that probe the cityandrsquo;s checkered history and reflect on Hollywoodandrsquo;s own self reflections, the book offers revealing readings of different types of texts (novelistic, cinematic, event-related, and geographical) to expose how Los Angeles, despite considerable remaining challenges, is blowing away some of the smoke of its not always proud past and rhetorically adjusting its rear-view mirrors.
Mexico on Main Street takes us inside a forgotten world: the film culture that thrived within Los Angelesandrsquo;s Mexican immigrant community in the early decades of the twentieth-century. Drawing from rare archives, Colin Gunckel demonstrates how these immigrants not only consumed Hollywood and Mexican films, but also produced fan publications, fiction, criticism, music, and live theatrical events. This book demonstrates how a site-specific study of cultural and ethnic issues challenges our existing conceptions of U.S. film history, Mexican cinema, and the history of Los Angeles.and#160;
In the early decades of the twentieth-century, Main Street was the heart of Los Angelesandrsquo;s Mexican immigrant community. It was also the hub for an extensive, largely forgotten film culture that thrived in L.A. during the early days of Hollywood. Drawing from rare archives, including the cityandrsquo;s Spanish-language newspapers, Colin Gunckel vividly demonstrates how this immigrant community pioneered a practice of transnational media convergence, consuming films from Hollywood and Mexico, while also producing fan publications, fiction, criticism, music, and live theatrical events.and#160;
Mexico on Main Street locates this film culture at the center of a series of key debates concerning national identity, ethnicity, class, and the role of Mexicans within Hollywood before World War II. As Gunckel shows, the immigrant communityandrsquo;s cultural elite tried to rally the working-class population toward the cause of Mexican nationalism, while Hollywood sought to position them as part of a lucrative transnational Latin American market. Yet ironically, both Hollywood studios and Mexican American cultural elites used the media to present negative depictions of working-class Mexicans, portraying their behaviors as a threat to middle-class respectability. Rather than simply depicting working-class immigrants as pawns of these power players, however, Gunckel reveals their active participation in the eraandrsquo;s film culture. and#160;
Gunckelandrsquo;s innovative approach combines media studies, urban history, and ethnic studies to reconstruct a distinctive, richly layered immigrant film culture. Mexico on Main Street demonstrates how a site-specific study of cultural and ethnic issues challenges our existing conceptions of U.S. film history, Mexican cinema, and the history of Los Angeles.and#160;
From 1989 through 2002 there was an unprecedented surge in American sitcoms featuring explicitly Jewish lead characters, thirty-two compared to seven in the previous forty years. Several of these—Mad About You, The Nanny, and Friends—were among the most popular and influential of all shows over this period; one program—Seinfeld—has been singled out as the “defining” series of the nineties. In addition, scriptwriters have increasingly created “Jewish” characters, although they may not be perceived to be by the show’s audience, Rachel Green on Friends being only one example.
In Something Ain’t Kosher Here, Vincent Brook asks two key questions: Why has this trend appeared at this particular historical moment and what is the significance of this phenomenon for Jews and non-Jews alike? He takes readers through three key phases of the Jewish sitcom trend: The early years of television before and after the first Jewish sitcom, The Goldbergs’, appeared; the second phase in which America found itself “Under the Sign of Seinfeld”; and the current era of what Brook calls “Post- Jewishness.”
Interviews with key writers, producers, and “showrunners” such as David Kohan, (Will and Grace), Marta Kauffman (Friends and Dream On), Bill Prady (Dharma and Greg), Peter Mehlman and Carol Leifer (Seinfeld), and close readings of individual episodes and series provoke the inescapable conclusion that we have entered uncharted “post-Jewish” territory. Brook reveals that the acceptance of Jews in mainstream white America at the very time when identity politics have put a premium on celebrating difference reinforces and threatens the historically unique insider/outsider status of Jews in American society. This paradox upsets a delicate balance that has been a defining component of American Jewish identity.
The rise of the Jewish sitcom represents a broader struggle in which American Jews and the TV industry, if not American society as a whole, are increasingly operating at cross-purposes— torn between the desire to celebrate unique ethnic identities, yet to assimilate: to assert independence, yet also to build a consensus to appeal to the widest possible audience. No reader of this book will ever be able to watch these television programs in quite the same way again.
About the Author
VINCENT BROOK teaches at UCLA, USC, Cal Stateandndash;LA, and Pierce College. He is the author of Something Ainandrsquo;t Kosher Here: The Rise of the andquot;Jewishandquot; Sitcom and Driven to Darkness: Jewish andEacute;migrandeacute; Directors and the Rise of Film Noir (both Rutgers University Press).
Table of Contents
2 Jews in Germany
3 Jews and Expressionism
4 The Father of Film Noir
5 Fritz Lang in Hollywood
6 The French Connection
7 Viennese Twins
8 The ABZs of Film Noir
9 Woman's Directors
10 Pathological Noir, Populist Noir, and an Act of Violence
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