In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Los Angeles and Cinema

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The Mission Legend
  • Edendale
  • Weimar on the Pacific
  • Los Angeles Modernist Architecture
  • Los Angeles Art
  • Noir
  • Los Angeles and New Hollywood
  • Los Angeles Disaster Cinema
  • Los Angeles and African American Cinema
  • Los Angeles and Chicano Cinema
  • Los Angeles Punk
  • Los Angeles Auteur Filmmakers
  • Documentary Films

Cinema and Media Studies Los Angeles and Cinema
John Trafton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 July 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0266


This article discusses the history of cinema in Los Angeles and the complex relationship that American film has had with its host city throughout film history. First, General Overviews considers the essential texts on Los Angeles and Southern California history. Although many of these works are not part of the literature on cinema and media studies, they nevertheless provide a critical starting point for scholars studying the role of Los Angeles on film. The Mission Legend examines the mythical allure of the region that enticed film pioneers to leave the East Coast for the land of sunshine. Edendale features texts on the early studios of the 1910s. Weimar on the Pacific is on the contributions that Austrian and German émigrés made to the cultural landscape, including crucial theorists and German-Austrian filmmakers who fled to the United States. Los Angeles Modernist Architecture discusses another group of German-Austrian immigrants—modernist architects who constructed homes that would later become iconic film locations. Film noir has had an enduring relationship with the City of Angels, and Noir focuses on Los Angeles as a noir character in its own right. Los Angeles and New Hollywood reviews depictions of Los Angeles in films from the late 1970s to the early 1980s, including those by American filmmakers and European tourist filmmakers with their own take on Los Angeles: Michelangelo Antonioni, John Boorman, Jacques Deray, and Wim Wenders, to name a few. Los Angeles Disaster Cinema has remained consistent in Hollywood cinema over the last forty years, and as such, a scholarly focus on this aspect of Los Angeles Cinema is featured. Los Angeles and African American Cinema discusses texts on the L.A. Rebellion School, which invigorated a neorealist cinema about the Los Angeles African American experience, as well as studies on the L.A. “hood films” that emerged during the early 1990s. Los Angeles and Chicano Cinema offers a series of texts for scholars looking to engage with this field. The music industry has also played a crucial role in L.A. history, but the Los Angeles Punk movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s also energized a punk aesthetic in cinema that emerged from films like Repo Man. Toward the end of the twentieth century, many auteur filmmakers, heavily influenced by New Hollywood cinema, created portraits of Los Angeles, and Los Angeles Auteur Filmmakers provides some key texts on these filmmakers. Lastly, this article features a section on Documentary Films, because there are so many nonfiction films that will serve scholars of Los Angeles Cinema well in their research.

General Overviews

Crucial starting points for this study are McWilliams 1973 (originally published in 1946) and Davis 1990, as both texts provide valuable critical frameworks for bridging Los Angeles history with film history. To expand on these ideas, Klein 2008 and Fine 2000 provide the critical frameworks. From there, Starr 1986 offers an insightful look at California history in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century that furthers the work of McWilliams 1973 and Davis 1990. Banham 2009 (originally published in 1971) shows Los Angeles as a set of four different ecologies, each with a distinct presence in Los Angeles Cinema. Lynch 1960 is recommended for the model of city study it provides, through comparative study of several American cities. Ulin 2015 and Hise 1997 draw on urban theory and Los Angeles history to address many issues at stake in key film texts and works discussed in later sections (e.g., Los Angeles Modernism). Shiel 2012 translates the ideas from these sources into a direct study of Los Angeles Cinema, an overview of Los Angeles on film from which the scholar can make direct, focused studies. Lastly, the Southern California Quarterly is included as it is a crucial source for academic conversations about Los Angeles, both current and past.

  • Banham, Reyner. Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. 2d rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

    Argues that Los Angeles is divided into four ecologies, each serving as a unique character in its own right: the flatlands, the beach cities, the freeways, and the foothills. As each ecology features throughout Los Angeles Cinema in varying ways, Banham provides some useful critical frameworks for addressing these settings as they appear in films.

  • Davis, Mike. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. New York: Verso, 1990.

    Interpreting Los Angeles history from a Marxist perspective, Davis is most effective early in his book when he divides into different groups the pioneers who projected different images of Los Angeles during the first half of the twentieth century: the boosters, the noir literature authors, the Weimar diaspora, and the scientists of Cal Tech, to name a few.

  • Fine, David M. Imagining Los Angeles: A City in Fiction. Las Vegas: University of Nevada Press, 2000.

    Provides useful frameworks for linking Los Angeles literature and cinema to its broader history, with a special attention paid to conversations about the historical/cultural erasure that Klein, McWilliams, and others have discussed. For scholars exploring the literary component of Los Angeles fiction, there is an illuminating section on turn-of-the-century fiction in Southern California that anticipated the region’s propensity for constructing movie-inspired attractions and simulacra.

  • Hise, Greg. Magnetic Los Angeles: Planning the Twentieth Century Metropolis. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

    While not focused on Los Angeles’s cultural economy in the way that other works in this section are, Hise’s approach to understanding L.A.’s formation as a postmodern city is important for discussing the formation of Hollywood as the city’s alter-ego (or the driving force behind the city’s identity projection).

  • Klein, Norman M. The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory. London: Verso, 2008.

    Provides a continuation to Davis 1990 by critically interrogating the myths on which the city was founded. Part of a constellation of critical frameworks that are useful for using Los Angeles Cinema as a site for developing alternative histories of Los Angeles.

  • Lynch, Kevin A. The Image of the City. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1960.

    An influential, essential text of urban studies, readily adaptable to studies of cities on film. It is important to consider this work in building a workable concept of “reading” the city.

  • McWilliams, Carey. Southern California: An Island on Land. Santa Barbara, CA: Peregrine Smith, 1973.

    A critical work of journalism, McWilliams was an influence on film narratives about Los Angeles (in particular, screenwriter Robert Towne). Originally published in 1946 as Southern California Country: An Island on the Land, important chapters that are applicable to other sections include “The Growth of a Legend” and “The Island of Hollywood” (chapters 4 and 16), the latter being of great interest because it documents the reason the studio system moved to its current location in Hollywood in 1930.

  • Shiel, Mark. Hollywood Cinema and the Real Los Angeles. London: Reaktion, 2012.

    Focusing on early Hollywood history, Shiel highlights the ways in which the Los Angeles film industry must be read as an essential component of the city’s evolution into a premier American metropolis.

  • Southern California Quarterly. 1884–.

    Published by the Historical Society of Southern California since 1884, the journal is aimed at both academic and nonacademic readers, including publications on regional history, ethnographic studies, and the republication of important primary sources in early Los Angeles history.

  • Starr, Kevin. Inventing the Dream: California through the Progressive Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

    Provides an extensive history of California from approximately 1880 to 1920, often referred to as California’s “Progressive Era” or the era of “boosterism.” Film and media scholars will benefit greatly from Starr’s perspective on the early film pioneers and the conditions that drew them to Southern California.

  • Ulin, David L. Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1525/9780520963092

    In dialogue with the essential L.A. urban studies texts, Ulin offers both a personal narrative of the city and a provoking discussion on Los Angeles not only as a city, but also as an environmental space.

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