I am, as I’ve mentioned, in the process of moving. A strange thing about it is my realization that I’ve lived in the apartment complex I’m leaving longer than I lived in the house I grew up in, almost as long as I lived in the town I grew up in. Yet I think that, if I in later years saw the apartments in a movie, my reaction would not be the excitement and delight that I get when I see Altadena, or its larger neighbour Pasadena, in movies but bewilderment that anyone was shooting a movie in Olympia, Washington. And, yes, part of that is that a lot more movies are shot in Altadena and Pasadena than in Olympia, because Olympia is not notably a suburb of Los Angeles. But it’s more to it than just that.
When I am feeling lonely and sad, I’m likely to put in LA Story. I don’t recognize everywhere in it, but it’s still a familiarity from my childhood. I was in high school when it came out; I remember a teacher talking about seeing it in the theatre, actually. (He asked a waitress for a half double decaffinated half-caf, and she got annoyed; it’s a joke a lot of people were making at her in those days, it seems, and he apologized.) There are all sorts of movies I am fond of not really because of how they portray Pasadena—which Steve Martin mentions but never visits in LA Story—but because I can see glimpses.
Okay, so the most obvious of these to me are Anywhere But Here and If These Walls Could Talk 2, both of which were filmed at the house I grew up in, albeit both in the years between when I moved and when my mother sold the house. (Though I was back home for my younger sister’s high school graduation, the day the film crew was measuring the house for Anywhere But Here, and I got to meet Wayne Wang and see him rhapsodize over our cat.) But it doesn’t have to be quite that direct; I think I’ve talked before about my joy at seeing the Martians invade the church we went to when I was a kid in the 1953 War of the Worlds.
Similarly, I kind of wish I liked Parks and Recreation, because Pasadena City Hall plays Pawnee City Hall, I believe, and I’ve always really liked that building. And I wish the movie version of Apt Pupil were better, because they filmed part of it at my junior high. Also part of an episode of Numbers. There’s a gas station a few blocks from that which hasn’t sold gas I think in my entire life and mostly just exists for people to film, and I’ve seen it in such disparate things as Crossing Jordan and Transformers—my favourite scene in the movie, in fact, because they pan pretty much 360 degrees over the course of the scene, and I can see all sorts of childhood landmarks.
Strangely, I don’t mind things like the Parks and Recreation thing, or the fact that the gas station was allegedly in Mississippi in that Crossing Jordan episode. Or that my mom’s house is supposedly in Wisconsin, in Anywhere But Here. Something like two scenes of the movie are outdoors at the house, and why should they take a whole film crew actually to Wisconsin for two scenes? I’ve seen a map of where in California the studios used to go to film movies set all over the world, if they wanted to film outdoors; it’s Hollywood tradition, and it makes a certain sense.
No, I’m more likely to be angry at The Big Bang Theory or The Man From Elysian Fields, both set in Pasadena with absolutely no sense of Pasadena geography. And I think part of that is how wrong it feels, like going into your living room and discovering that everything got moved in your absence. It’s still your stuff, but you can’t make sense of where it is. And so you get an apartment building inexplicably in an area that’s mostly single-family houses that has a view you can only have from the courthouse. It’s not quite Lovecraftian, but it’s unsettling.
Not all the landmarks of my childhood are centered in the ‘Denas, of course, and I once made someone from Long Beach feel considerably happier by telling her that an exterior regularly used on Bones was the LA County Museum of Natural History—she’d known it was somewhere familiar and was having a hard time placing it. And of course that museum is supposed to be in Washington, DC, on the show, and I’ve seen its rotunda on ER as being in Chicago and so forth. The whole museum stood in for the Met in a made-for-TV From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, with Lauren Bacall in the title role. I’ll admit that was a little unsettling.
But all in all, an advantage of having grown up in Altadena, in LA County, is that, in unsettled times, I can slip back at least a little into a happier place, when there was someone taking care of me and I didn’t have as many worries. It can be as nothing as spotting my old dry cleaner’s on a tire commercial, or it can be as complete as the fact that I recently bought If These Walls Could Talk 2 for the scene filmed so you can almost see into my old bedroom. It’s a weird kind of comfort, but I think it’s one most Angelenos have. Even if they’ve moved away.