About two years ago, I was at the Northwest Film Forum to see Thom Anderson’s short film “Get Out of the Car!” Raised in LA, Anderson has this romanticized yet slightly desensitized love for the aesthetic that is LA, and the speckles and remnants that are left-over, forgotten, painted over, crumbling, or barely noticeable to the everyday passerby. He made a few comments in his lecture after the film that struck me. One being about music. We don’t necessarily remember where we were when we first heard a song. But we know how that song makes us feel about a place, or a place in time, a string of occurrences, and mostly how we can so eerily place ourselves inside that emotion as soon as the song hits our ears.
Among many questions, I got the sense that this was a man who just wanted to make something. He said it best at the beginning of the evening: he kept driving past this one deterioration billboard with a hole in the middle, and one day, a voice in him said: “Film it. If you don’t, one day you’ll drive by and it won’t be there anymore and you’ll wish you had.” How often do we do this in life—in our minds, with people, places, moments? Walking down the market streets of Camden Town in London several summers ago, I had that feeling hit me so intensely, that I took snapshots of nearly everything I saw. You wonder if you’ll ever go back, if when you do, things will have changed, and why you have this urge to record these moments. Is it absence or presence? Is it a sense of knowing yourself, a sense of deep appreciation, a sadness over change? That’s the neverending question we ask about nostalgia. What’s fueling your nostalgia? The absence or the presence?
So I started thinking about similar things—deteriorating or demolished in popular culture that I am strangely, morbidly obsessed with. While I haven’t made a 16mm film about these places, man—how I wish I could have. I’d go back in time and take a trip down to California—to the Valley, to be specific—to visit the heartbreaking and vacant Sherman Oaks Galleria where Fast Times at Ridgemont High director Amy Heckerling has said, while doing the Director’s Commentary for Fast Times, “I can still smell the way the Galleria smelled.” In the early ’80s, malls like the Galleria were in their heyday, an oasis for the Valley’s youth culture. A movie that perhaps expresses exactly what that felt like and looked like is the 1983 film, Valley GIrl. But it was in 1994 that the epicenter of mall girls, and the hustle and bustle of kids riding the escalators, was shut down after the Northridge Earthquake. When it reopened after the millennium, malls had outgrown their old, boxy, closed-in standard. This new Galleria was an open-mall, with like, a Banana Republic and a Cheesecake Factory. Totally the opposite of tubular. History erased. But I really like this rad article that came out in 1999 about it’s demise.
I’d go to Skokie, IL and venture into the one high school in the country I’d give anything to travel back in time to walk the hallways of: Niles East High, the site of the exterior and interior shots used in my favorite movie of all time, Sixteen Candles. You know, the John Hughes movie starring Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall, where the opening credits sequences us through teens arriving at school, a scrawny kid having a tough time opening his locker, lovebirds walking hand-in-pocket, girls putting lipstick on in the girls’ room, tiny Freshmen pouring out of the school buses. It’s where we watched Samantha Baker lust after Jake Ryan at the school dance in the gymnasium after she’d lost a note in Study Hall admitting her love of the studly senior. It’s the school where she’s seen crying in the hallway as the popular girls walk by and casually ask, “How’s it going?” And you may also recognize the school from other films like Risky Business and Weird Science. The school actually shut down in 1980, but in the time of its closure, these films used the abandoned school for film shooting, from 1983-1985 respectively. It was completely torn down sometime in the early ’90s, a decrepit building that had been around since the late ’30s.(Photo courtesy of: It’s Filmed Here)
So, in answer to these lingering questions, yes, it’s our want and need and desire to understand what is now absent. But it’s about the presence of that absence. It’s about stepping into a dark, abandoned mall, and smelling the stale scent of the past, a lone carousel in the food court, chain-links gating up old shops with forgotten names that housed greeting cards and pets behind glass-cases. And it’s the vague but sharp realization that at one point, malls built America, built consumers, and here we stand, in its final resting place, no longer a destination for teens to meet up, go on double dates to the in-mall cineplex, or share a carton of fries over. It’s about the cycle of life standing before you, and the sadness that ensues when these historical landmarks are torn down. So, what? It was just a high school, a mall, a place that gave someone, even a group of people, a sense of self. A haven. What remains? As writers, filmmakers, artists, archivists, historians, we need these places to exist, even if it’s on paper, or in our memories, because we need to remember their significance, however small, however distant, even if it has no tie to us in a personal way. That’s what perpetuates this blog. That’s what fuels my mind. Tying myself to things I have, perhaps, no tie to. And writing about it in a way that makes you feel connected anyway. These places are onshore shipwrecks of something that didn’t work, something that broke down, but once thrived.
So for me, it’s the instrumental version of “Kajagoogoo” that gets me thinking about Sixteen Candles’ epic opening foliage shot down onto the high school steps of Niles East. And it’s “Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin that gets my heart a-racing, and puts me in the car with Stacy from Fast Times. It’s “Girls Like Me” by Bonnie Hays that sends me over the LA hills and into the world of Valley Girls. In an interview with Indiewire in 2004, on his film LA Plays Itself, Thom Anderson said: “The movie I regret most not including is Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which is one of my favorites. It may be the classic mall movie. So is Jackie Brown in a way. I guess I have to admit to a failure there. I like malls, by the way.”