Basement Songs: “L.A. Story”

Written by Basement Songs: 52 Saturday Nights, Film

Scott Malchus falls in love with Los Angeles and Steve Martin’s “L.A. Story”

Let your mind go and your body will follow.

A group of us drove out to a second run theater just outside of Toledo. It was a Saturday night and we decided to have some laughs with the latest Steve Martin film, L.A. Story. The commercials made it appear to be another one of his slapstick laugh fests. While L.A. Story does include some zany, off the wall situations, there is s much more to L.A. Story that the ads didn’t tell us. Then again, how to you relate to the average moviegoer that the film written by and starring the brilliant Steve Martin is not just a comedy, but also a poetic reflection on love and how, in a city of millions like Los Angeles, you can find your soul mate. Yeah, it’s kind of hard to cram all of that into a 20 second spot between Doritos and Volkswagon commercials.

Martin plays Harris Telemacher, a “wacky” TV weatherman whose time on camera is about making people laugh, not really giving them a forecast.  What’s it matter, anyway, it’s always sunny in Los Angeles, right?  Harris is stuck in a miserable relationship with the deplorable Trudi. After one of her diatribes, Harris remarks to her, “You know, I don’t think you understand how unattractive hate is.” Trudi is played perfectly by Marilu Henner, whose hair is pulled back so tight on her head it’s no wonder she’s never happy.

At a lunch with some of Trudi’s friends, a sequence that includes the now classic decaf cappuccino ordering scene, Harris is introduced to Sara, a British journalist visiting L.A. to write an article about the city and its culture. She is played by Martin’s then wife, Victoria Tennant (they also appeared together in All of Me). The moment Harris and Sara meet he’s in love. In a voice over he says,

“As far as I’m concerned, there are three mystical places in the world. The desert outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, the tree of life in the Arab emirates of Bahrain, and the restaurant on the corner of Sunset and Crescent, because that’s where I first met her and touched her.”

This is just one of the many lovely quotes Martin came up with throughout L.A. Story.

When Harris’ car breaks down on the freeway, he comes face to face with a magical freeway sign, the type that usually tells drivers the road conditions up ahead. This freeway sign begins giving Harris advice and this being a story about the idiosyncratic craziness of L.A., he follows it. First, Harris pursues a purely sexual relationship with a woman half his age, the flaky valley girl, SanDeE* (Sarah Jessica Parker in an early, scene stealing role). At the same time, Harris gets to know Sara, and falls deeper under her spell, prepared to give his heart to her.

Harris and Sara consummate their attraction for each other during a small dinner party, sneaking into the backyard for some “fresh air.” Later, Harris and Sara wander into a street corner garden under neon lights. Enya’s “On Your Shore” plays underneath this touching scene. Flowers instantly bloom, grass grows, stone lion statues bow their heads in reverence and the two characters are mystically transformed into children. Enya’s lyrics appear to be chosen on purpose when she sings, “And so, this is where I should be now.” In that moment, we understand that these two are soul mates.

No, L.A. Story certainly wasn’t just another slapstick movie. It’s as much a fantasy film as it is a film full of absurdities. And there are plenty of absurdities, like a perfectly timed driving sequence at the top of the movie in which Harris is rushing to get to work, a meeting with the German proprietor of a trendy restaurant (pitch perfectly played by Patrick Stewart) in which Harris’ finances are reviewed to determine whether he’s worthy of a dinner reservation, and the famous sequence when Martin shows his gift for physical comedy, roller skating through the L.A. County Museum of Art.

The romanticism of the movie is enhanced further by the direction of Mick Jackson, an English director who had little knowledge of Los Angeles before he undertook the film. Instead of shooting L.A. Story in the flat, bright colors we typically associate with comedies, he chose to give the film softer look, more European. Furthermore, he inserts artistic shots of sped up traffic moving in a blur, the sun rising in seconds, and shadows moving across the screen dramatically. The camera of cinematographer, Andrew Dunn,  is fluid throughout the film, with several steadicam sequences that add to the dream-like quality of the film.

Having just watched the movie again what pleases me is how fresh it still feels, even though it was released 20 years ago. The mood and the tone are just as beautiful and romantic as they were back when I saw the film in that movie theater with my friends. The unabashed optimism that the film contains is what really strikes me. In Martin’s writing, Jackson’s direction and all of the performances, there is a gentleness about L.A. Story that so lacking in most current films. Moreover, there is a fearless aspect to the movie. Martin was unafraid to play to the emotions of his audience, especially when Harris tries to convince Sara to stay in Los Angeles. He tells her,

“…on the day your plane was to leave, if I had the power, I would turn the winds around, I would roll in the fog, I would bring in storms. I would change the polarity of the earth so compasses wouldn’t work and your plane couldn’t take off.”

Countless romantic comedies have given us lines like that one in the past decade, but few are as convincing as Martin when says them, nor are they as beautiful.

I’m unsure how my friends reacted to the film. For me, L.A. Story was a revelation. As a writer, I came away believing that anything was possible, that delivering something from the heart could move people and would lead to success. As a young man about to embark on life, I came away believing that there was someone out there for all of us. Even in a city of millions like Los Angeles, where making a connection with someone seems impossible, Martin and company were saying that it was possible and that eventually, true love finds you. I wouldn’t find true love for another year and a half, but I had hope.

Here’s a clip from next week’s movie.

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