The Valley in literature

You could fill a shelf with books, movies and music set in, or about, the San Fernando Valley. The oeuvre begins with the diaries of a Franciscan priest, Fray Juan Crespi, who chronicled the 1769 visit by the Portola expedition. It continues through the early 20th century novel Don Sagasto’s Daughter to films like Magnolia, and from Bing Crosby’s wartime hit “San Fernando Valley” to Frank Zappa’s “Valley Girl.”

The following exploration of the Valley’s literary record first appeared in The San Fernando Valley: America’s Suburb. For more treatments, visit Observing the Valley. New material always appears first on the Blog.

Books

At the top of any serious reading list on the Valley should be the non-fiction books that begin to form a small canon of required works. These include The Owensmouth Baby and Calabasas Girls by Catherine Mulholland, respectful accounts of Pacoima barrio family life by Mary Helen Ponce in Hoyt Street and Taking Control, and Earl Anthony’s The Time of the Furnaces, chronicling the 1968 black student rebellion at Valley State College.

The writings of Sandra Tsing Loh also add to what we know of the Valley. Her books include collected essays in Depth Takes a Holiday and the more recent A Year in Van Nuys. Loh’s 1997 novel, If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home By Now, treats readers to the angst of a Gen X couple who try to earn their bohemian credentials by eschewing L.A. for a rented three-bedroom in Tujunga:

“Don’t you see? Being out here is so Lancaster Desert, so Frank Zappa-esque. It’s like living in Los Angeles but refusing to be a part of it. Like starting our own tribe. Denying the whole fou-fou trendy La Brea/Melrose/giving over to the style-weasels thing.”But Bronwyn, the heroine of the book, isn’t buying it:

“No, 23511 Colton Place was more David Lynch than Frank Zappa. It was the sort of place where a querulous old woman with an eye patch would live with her inbred adult son, Hank, clad in a big old diaper. It was the kind of place you saw featured on ‘A Current Affair.’ “

The Valley’s literary community has included F. Scott Fitgerald, who rented a guest house at the Belly Acres estate of actor Edward Everett Horton at 5521 Amestoy Avenue in Encino while he was writing The Last Tycoon in 1938-39. Nathanael West wrote scripts for Republic Studios in Studio City and lived in brick house on Magnolia Boulevard. Susan Sontag attended North Hollywood High, not altogether happily, and has written about her time in the Valley. “In his parents’ blue Chevy or my mother’s green Pontiac we perched at night on the rim of Mulholland Drive, the great plain of twinkling lights below us like an endless airport, oblivious of the mating couples in cars parked around us, pursuing our own pleasures,” she recalled in one story.

The Valley received its first serious literary treatment in the 1930s in James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. Cain wrote in a rented two-bedroom Craftsman on Bel Aire Drive in the Burbank hills and apparently sensed an air of criminal-erotic desperation in the rural corners and roadside cafes he visited on long drives in his Ford roadster.

Postman, regarded by some as the first modern American bestseller, was set in the general area of Agoura, in just such a gas station-cafe run by Nick Papadakis and his steamy wife Nora. She is terminally bored, both with Nick and with waiting on the motorists who pull off the highway for lunch. Into the cafe one day comes drifter Frank Chambers, who senses Nora’s simmering needs and falls hard for her.

The amorous couple, using an Encino rabbit breeder as their alibi, kill Nick and then fake a car accident on Malibu Lake Road in an (unsuccessful) effort to cover up the deed. In the 1946 film, starring John Garfield as Frank and Lana Turner as Nora, the Papadakis name was dropped as too ethnic — Nick and Nora became Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

Cain’s second novel, Double Indemnity, continued on the theme of lust-begets-homicide and was set in Glendale. Adapted to the screen by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, the film starred Fred MacMurray as an unassuming insurance agent who falls for Barbara Stanwyck, a scheming housewife. In Cain’s story the conspirators talk themselves into killing her husband and running off with his insurance policy, confident their tracks are covered. A dogged investigator, played by Edward G. Robinson, suspects them of foul play and makes the case.

Crime novelists seem to like the Valley as a locale for dastardly deeds and retrograde characters. The Harry Bosch series of books of Michael Connelly, who used to cover the Valley cops for the Los Angeles Times, often ply the suburban streets. Fatal Convictions by Shari P. Geller involves a serial killer exacting his own justice on Valley child molesters and is set partly at Tommy’s Burgers on Roscoe Boulevard — “the only true landmark in the San Fernando Valley.”

Vic Daniel, the private detective in a series of books by David M. Pierce, is based in “that scurvy part of California known as the San Fernando Valley” where the smog settles in “like cheap hairspray on a home permanent.” The Ritual Bath by Faye Kellerman involves a rape at a Valley yeshiva; in Barbara Seranella’s No Human Involved, Munch Mancini is a waifish street junkie and ace car mechanic whose run from the law takes her as far as a garage at the corner of Sepulveda and Ventura. She kicks her heroin habit at Narcotics Anonymous meetings at Reseda High School.

Theodore Pratt’s Valley Boy is a 1946 novel about an 11-year-old lad who finds the affection he lacks at home in a matronly next-door neighbor and a trained sea lion. The San Fernando Valley described in the book is an odd place with odd inhabitants and establishments, “a fey gash in the surface of the earth that bred and molded its own brand of people and ways.” There is a restaurant named “Dyspeptic Bill’s,” a store called “The House of a Good Egg,” and a girl who dresses in shorts and a full-length fur coat. Pratt’s Valley is an eccentric and optimistic slice of suburbia: “There was nothing else like it.”

Michael Crichton’s 1996 thriller, Airframe, was set in the Burbank factory of the mythical Norton Aircraft Co., manufacturer of airliners that mysteriously fall out of the sky. The novel’s heroine, Casey Singleton, is a quality assurance vice president who has weathered numerous layoffs in the aerospace industry and divorce from a drunk. She lives on a Glendale street where, in modern suburban fashion, she hears the pop of gunfire in her sleep and frets about sending her daughter to a school system where fifty languages are spoken.

In the farcical The Dreyfus Affair: A Love Story, Peter Lefcourt gives the Valley an American League baseball team, since the TV networks decreed that “Phoenix didn’t have the demographics that the San Fernando Valley did.” The Vikings play in a 125,000-seat stadium in the Sepulveda Dam basin. Their star is Randy Dreyfus, the ultimate suburban fantasy jock: the best young shortstop in the sport, “the fastest white guy in the league,” and happily married to a blond Rose Queen. But Randy endures a long slump, is distracted on the field and surly at home in their gated community. He can only blame it on one thing: he is secretly in love with D.J. Pickett, the Vikings’ black second baseman.

Suburbia’s comforts and travails for the young were explored in depth in a pair of novels that looked at the Valley through the eyes of teenage girls.Wet Paint, by Gwynn Popovac, exposed the loneliness that can infect family relationships. Her Flora Jackson attends a thinly disguised Birmingham High and is ready to burst at the strictures placed on her desires for love and adventure in the postwar Valley.

Her relief comes in her fantasies about the slightly dark, slightly troubled boy from the hills south of Ventura Boulevard who shares her easel in art class. Their bohemian art teacher lets the students hang out in the studio at lunch and consummate their crushes in the supply room. The book is filled with insight into teenage pain, tracking Flora’s emotional spikes as she tries to make her way socially and sexually, and portraying parents more concerned with dichondra and harsh discipline than listening and love. Wet Paint also is thick with familiar Valley references.

My Sister from the Black Lagoon, published in 1998, covers somewhat similar ground. Author Laurie Fox bares the frigid dysfunction of a middle-class Valley family in the postwar rush, and the impact on a sensitive and aware teenager like Lorna Person. After a difficult childhood with parents who don’t understand her, Lorna must change high schools when her family moves from Burbank to Tarzana. The differences between the two communities are shown as stark, and the move upsets her already lonely life. But the new school and new friends ultimately give Lorna the fresh start that she needs.

The Valley also plays a bit part in books on larger themes. The futuristic Valley portrayed in Snow Crash, the cyber-fiction standard by Neal Stephenson, has devolved into a crazy quilt of turfs, or “burbclaves,” each ruled by militias, religious cults, global corporations or the Mafia. J. G. Ballard, in Hello America, spun a fantasy set a century in the future with soldiers loyal to President Charles Manson digging through the ruins of the old Lockheed plant in Burbank in search of nuclear weapons to launch against Las Vegas.

Films

Robert Towne’s script for Chinatown oozes with shadowy intrigue. What the film lacks in historic accuracy it made up for with twists and styling more compelling than the truth. Jack Nicholson starred as Jake Gittes, a private eye in 1920s Los Angeles who looks into the homicide of the city’ s water czar, Hollis Mulwray, a loose allusion to William Mulholland. Gittes deciphers an elaborate conspiracy by hidden downtown powers to dump water in the ocean in order to create a false shortage, squeezing Valley ranchers to sell off their withering orchards at distress prices.

“Most of the Valley has been sold in the last few months,” he tells Mulwray’s widow, played by Faye Dunaway. The buyers are counting on the fake drought to pressure voters into paying the tab for a water pipeline and reservoir that will transform Valley orange groves into hugely valuable suburban real estate.

In a 1990 sequel that Nicholson directed, The Two Jakes, the setting is updated to the early postwar boom years. The orange groves are being torn out for suburban culs-de-sac, just as in real life. Gittes is older and mellower but allows himself to become embroiled in a murder case that turns on oil, rather than water, and on the real estate ambitions of the other Jake, the developer of “El Rancho San Fernando,” played by Harvey Keitel.

Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction also made a stop in the Valley, and it was a bloody one. Gangsters Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) are driving along a main boulevard when Vega accidentally blows the head off an associate in crime riding in the backseat. They need to get off the street, since as the bad guys observe, cops tend to notice cars with blood-smeared windows. But where to?

Jules: I ain’t got no partners in the 818.
Vincent: Take it to a friendly place, that’s all.
Jules: We’re in the Valley, Vincent! Marcellus ain’t got no friendly places in the Valley!

Gratuitous swipes at the Valley never seem out of favor. That was especially so in movies made in the late 1990s.

In the comedy Clueless, Alicia Silverstone’s cheerful Beverly Hills ditz Cher Horowitz endured a socially humiliating night deep in the Valley and filled the screen with barb after barb. Silverstone was back again, with Brendan Fraser, in Blast from the Past, a 1999 romantic comedy in which the Valley transforms from a Wonder Bread suburb into a “post-apocalyptic hellspace of dirt, decay and debauchery,” as one reviewer put it. Also in 1999, a bad year for the Valley’s image, a savvy city girl in Gowarned her whiny girlfriend, “Don’t get 818 on me,” and audiences got the area code joke.

The Valley’s image used to be associated more with the suburban optimism of The Brady Bunch and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial but it now is more commonly depicted as a soured, even menacing place. In 187Samuel L. Jackson portrayed a New York school teacher brutalized by his students who moves west, thinking the San Fernando Valley would be a haven from urban insanity. Instead he finds gangs that are even more murderous.

Murder and the Valley worked together as black comedy in the off-beat Two Days in the Valley, in which James Spader played a sociopath-hit man and Paul Mazursky an aging film director. Director John Herzfeld called the Valley an uncredited character in the story about people who need second chances to succeed: an Olympic skier who has yet to win her medal, a detective trying to make the homicide squad, a bumbling killer working at a Domino’s Pizza on Ventura Boulevard.

“The movie is about a lot of people who either never achieved their goals, or screwed up their lives, or dropped the football the first time it was thrown to them,” Herzfeld said in the Times. The funniest line comes from an older man who hears a violent fight in the upstairs apartment and quips to his wife: “Maybe that’s how they make love in Tarzana.” The essential Valleyness of the film was too much for French audiences. There, the title was translated as Two Days in Los Angeles.

The frustrations of adolescence in the suburbs showed up in Foxes, a 1980 film directed by Adrian Lyne that follows four bored girls from the Valley who go on night-life adventures in Hollywood. Jodie Foster played the wise one who watched out for her wilder friends. The girl played by Cherie Currie, who was a singer with the band the Runaways, pays dearly for her fascination with seeking out ever higher highs, while the other girls grapple with being overweight or oversexed.

Another take on growing up in the Valley was presented in La Bamba, the 1987 film that told the Ritchie Valens story in part by fictionalizing his family relationships.

Films by two young directors who have spent some or all of their years living in the Valley portrayed the place as both desirable and repulsive. In Safe, Todd Haynes’ suburbs are so smothering as to be biologically toxic. Julianne Moore starred as a west Valley stepmother who lives behind closed gates out where the newest suburbs meet the chaparral. After she drives behind a smoking truck on Ventura Boulevard and breathes in fumes, she is besieged by allergies and toxic reactions to the suburban environment.

Moore also starred in Boogie Nights, which takes place almost entirely entirely within the dark clubs, walled-in backyards and otherwise tacky milieu of the Valley’s home-brewed pornography industry circa 1980. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, the cast included Burt Reynolds as the porn king of Reseda, Valley native Heather Graham as a teen porn actress who never removes her roller skates, and Mark Wahlberg as a pimply dishwasher who becomes the legendarily studly Dirk Diggler, loosely a reference to the late porn star John Holmes.

Moore serves as the mother figure to an extended family of fading porn players, wannabes and hangers-on who pine for better lives while they put on sophisticated airs at the pool and cocktail parties they hold between filming triple XXX footage. Modern-day Sherman Way is the location for several brutal scenes, including a robbery that turns bloody inside a doughnut shop, the stomping of a college boy by Rollergirl, and the pummeling of a destitute Diggler by gay bashers.

Many in the cast, including Moore, returned to the Valley with Anderson in Magnolia, which depicts a place riven with dysfunctional relationships and hit with a plague of frogs from the sky.

The Valley Girl phenomenon which swept the country in the 1980s also set off a new film genre. Valley Girl, directed by Martha Coolidge, sought to cash in on the buzz. Deborah Foreman played a popular high school girl who goes against her Valley friends and dates Nicolas Cage, who portrays a bad news dude from Over the Hill. She takes him on a tour of a few local landmarks: DuPars coffee shop, Casa Vega restaurant, Encino Bowl, Mulholland Drive. The film’s advertising tagline was “She’s cool. He’s hot. She’s from the Valley. He’s not.”

The Valley Girl phenomenon unloosed a torrent of film references that poked fun at the Valley. In Encino Man, Brendan Fraser played an icebound caveman thawed out by nerdy Valley boys and taught how to party. A spin-off, Encino Woman aired on network TV. The comic high point of the genre might have been Earth Girls Are Easy, in which three extra-terrestrial aliens splash to Earth in the pool of an air-headed Valley manicurist, played by Geena Davis. “As if things weren’t bad enough, now I’ve been abducted by aliens,” she whines.

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