Colin Marshall is a writer, video essayist and podcaster. He hosts a long-standing podcast, Notebook on Cities and Culture where he can be heard in conversation with cultural creators from around the world. His video series The City in Cinema is a collection of video essays that examine Los Angeles in film. He also writes for various publications, including The Guardian, Los Angeles Review of Books and Open Culture. See all of Colin Marshall’s recommendations.
For people that are coming across your work for the first time, what is it that you produce?
There’s a mixture of things. Number one is Notebook on Cities and Culture, which is a podcast of long-form interviews that are recorded all around the world with cultural creators, internationalists and observers of the urban scene – so listeners will find people from world cities talking about the work they do and the cities they do it in. I’ve been to London, I record many in Los Angeles where I live, I’ve been to Toronto recently, I was in Osaka a couple of years ago and I spent this last summer in Korea. And what I’m currently posting on that podcast is a Korea tour, which is forty or so long-form interviews with various people, ex-pats and natives. My blog also has links to what I write, which is almost always city-related for publications like The Guardian and various other places. I also link to the video series that I create called The City in Cinema, which so far has focused on Los Angeles depicted in film, although I have been working on other cities and have just debuted the first cut of Portland. So with cities as the nexus there’s video, there’s audio, there’s text, there’s a focus on film, urbanism and books. You can connect a lot under that banner.
Why’s it so important to you to present your ideas in so many different formats?
A lot of it has to do with what technology has made possible. Growing up, I got an early start on writing and so that’s something I’ve been practicing for a long while and thus it became one of those things where you get stuck doing the things that your skillset allows. But radio was always something of interest to me and in the early part of my career I did a lot of professional and public radio, and eventually it came the time to get into podcasts because more interesting things could be done with podcasts than with the existing radio media. When I moved to Los Angeles I realized I could do a podcast-only show and I could be mobile while doing it. The technology afforded me to go around the world and talk to people so it made something new possible and I was eager to engage in that, and it’s the same with the videos. I started seeing video essays online and it’s a form that’s not old. For example, Chris Marker is a favourite filmmaker of mine, and he pioneered the form of the video essay I like, but it wasn’t until very recently that it became doable to take parts of your favourite movies and rearrange them to make new video essays out of them. There’s an important precedent to the cities and cinema projects in Los Angeles with Thom Andersen, who I interviewed a couple of years back, and his three-hour video essay, Los Angeles plays itself, representing Los Angeles in cinema. So there were early examples of the kind of idea I’m working on but it was 2003 when he put that out, he couldn’t make a 10-minute internet video, he had to make something fit for a cinema. For me today, I’m trying to engage with what technology allows me to do, I’m not so interested in what I could’ve done two generations ago.
Every fictional film is an inadvertent documentary of the city in which it is based, and even more so it’s a documentary of the attitudes towards that city.
Do you see the role of cinema as ethnographic, as an archive, or perhaps an opportunity to make a statement, political or otherwise? What role does it play for you in understanding a city?
I can make a comparison to my predecessor, Thom Andersen, who to his mind there are a lot of political statements to be made if you draw conclusions from film. I’m less oriented in that direction but I do share the same premise that every fictional film is an inadvertent documentary of the city in which it is based, and even more so it’s a documentary of the attitudes towards that city. Films capture the real built environment and in many cases they capture people’s visions of that built environment or even the social environment. I think of Blade Runner, that re-envisions Los Angeles, which is about how people saw the city’s future, and you can compare that with Spike Jonze’s Her, which is a very different but equally futuristic vision of Los Angeles. But 95% of films made in Los Angeles are shot with whatever state the town is in at the time. So looking at the 70s or 80s movies made here I really wouldn’t have wanted to live here! I say that but there has been a tradition of dumping dystopia on Los Angeles, and it became an easy place to dystopianise. Throughout the 70s to the 90s it was depicted as a conflict-rich place. This is cyclical I suppose, but there’s been disaster movies in the 50s and in a bunch of films in the 70s, and again in the 90s. In the 80s and 90s you see a lot of gang violence and social issues, which was revived about ten years ago with Paul Haggis’ Crash. There’s definitely a history in American cinema that shows how people see the future of American cities, and what sort of conflicts people see there.
Is cinema unique in understanding cities? I think of a filmmaker like Julian Temple (Requiem for Detroit; London – The Modern Babylon) who uses music as a representation or a kind of wayfinding for a place and its history. Does cinema offer anything new or different to our understanding of a city that, say, music or art cannot?
Film offers a certain degree of accessibility. There’s an immediateness to film where even someone who hasn’t thought much about cities and cinema are, aware on some level of the representations of various cities they’ve seen. With cities and film, I wouldn’t say it’s easy but it’s possible to cut, to shape and to highlight the specific areas that a filmmaker wants to talk about. Talking about cities and music demands a lot of imagination and the same can be said of art too. Although there are certainly books that I can think of on Los Angeles from the perspective of how visual artists like Ed Ruscha or David Hockney understand the city.
We have very emotional connections to cities, so is the role of an outsider an important one in order to assess a city like Los Angeles properly?
I think so, in Los Angeles I don’t know too many natives that have produced views of the city that have really shaped it. There are a few but often it’s actually Englishmen that have provided the richest studies of the city. I think of Richard Rayner’s novel, Los Angeles without a map, or again the paintings of David Hockney. The reason I find the outsider view so important in Los Angeles in particular is because it is a city so long characterized by outsiders coming to it, it’s not a city that has been defined by a native point of view, certainly not for very long. And in many ways the Los Angeles’ natives know the least about Los Angeles, I think! In my experience they’re not as interested as the people who come here, which has provided a definite skew towards recent arrivals in terms of the accounts of the city.
Just how diverse is LA? Can you try to compare it with other cities in America and across the world?
Well comparing it to cities across America it’s amongst one of the most diverse. You get some statistical weirdness here as I think the most diverse, technically, depending upon the metric you are using is Long Beach, which is a city in Los Angeles County. It’s a city that people clump in with Los Angeles because of its proximity, even though it makes the region preposterously huge! Certainly the county of Los Angeles which is what people think about often when they think about Los Angeles, if it’s not the most statistically diverse region in the United States I would be very surprised. It’s what drew me here in a lot of ways. It might sound clichéd, but downtown Los Angeles is what you could say is a microcosm of the world. In LAX, when you first arrive used to have a banner that said ‘Welcome to Los Angeles. The city that is a world in itself’, which is a good depiction of the place.
In some of these films that you’ve mentioned there’s a lot of depictions of Asian culture, I think of Blade Runner in particular, and you refer to Asian culture regularly in your work. Is there something particular about that culture that interests you or does it act as a basis to talk about immigration in Los Angeles?
They’re really tied together. I’ve tried to understand better my interest in Los Angeles and my interest in East Asia, and as you say there’s Asia within Los Angeles, and in fact Los Angeles within Asia. The influence of Asia in Los Angeles is what attracted me in the first place. I went to the neighborhood Little Tokyo before I lived here and I got a real sense of its potential, there are not just elements of Japan in it but also fascinating elements of an older Japan that is preserved, an era between mid-twentieth century through to 1990s that really interests me. And then I found Koreatown, which is where I live, and it’s a place where you can practice the Korean language, which I’m studying. And you could theoretically only use Korean and get by. I haven’t mentioned China at all but food enthusiasts, of which in Los Angeles there are many, go nuts over the San Gabriel valley, which is a suburban valley to the east of Los Angeles where a lot of Chinese people live and cook authentic food which is the next best thing to China itself. Without this element of Asia, Los Angeles would not be as interesting as a place. The same could be said of Latin America, Los Angeles wouldn’t be as interesting without the vast Mexican presence. But as far as Asia is concerned I don’t know what came first my interest in Los Angeles or Asia, but the city by its nature ties these together.
When I was in South Korea recently, I was working on an article for a magazine called Boom, a journal of California, travelling around Seoul and there was Los Angeles iconography everywhere. On t-shirts were Venice beach, the LAX theme building, the Dodgers, and even a t-shirt celebrating South Central Los Angeles. These cultures are intertwined to a surprising degree, especially Los Angeles and Korea. There are these stark lines where two cultures meet where you see a girl on the Seoul subway wearing a South Central Los Angeles shirt or where you can go to a stretch of Olympic Boulevard in Los Angeles and feel like it’s 100% Korea.
They had these grand ideas that they would talk about in the press about how to introduce Los Angeles to the world. And that sense of wanting to introduce Los Angeles stuck with me, mainly because if the Los Angeles they wanted to introduce ever existed it doesn’t exist anymore.
When you visit a city for the first time, how do you go about understanding it?
Walking around and talking to people is the dominant strategy in all of my travels, especially if I’m going there specifically to record podcasts. So much is written about walking in cities that I don’t know if there’s anything new I can say! That tradition exists especially among the English, in fact probably one of my favorite writers the British author, Geoff Nicholson, who is a friend of mine who has lived in Los Angeles for probably 15 or 20 years. He’s written books like The lost art of walking and Walking in ruins more recently. Walking is certainly the most fine-grained way of seeing a city, and some cities are more conducive to walking than others. Seoul is, and I found London to be, Los Angeles however has come to be regarded as a place that you can’t walk, I think due to movies. A lot of movies ignore walking as a way of getting around but it is possible. The reason people say nobody walks is because of the sort of distances involved. If you need to get 30 miles you’re probably not going to walk it. Yet most neighborhoods are walkable, it’s just that there’s so little in between the neighborhoods that you’re walking through miles of dead space, which may also be the source of that impression. But I do think that it is important here, as anywhere, to walk around and understand the city, and there are more dedicated walkers here than I am.
You use the word ‘primer’ in your titles. A primer on… a certain subject. To me, that suggests an introduction or a snippet of something, a kind of brief excursion into someone’s life or some thing. Is it fair to say that breadth is more important than depth to you? Where do you sit on that divide?
I’ve used that phrase, in particular with the book that I’m working on now, and it’s in reference to an art exhibit that Dennis Hopper and David Hemmings, the star of the movie Blow-Up, wanted to do in the late 60s which they wanted to call ‘A Los Angeles primer’. It never happened but they had these grand ideas that they would talk about in the press about how to introduce Los Angeles to the world. And that sense of wanting to introduce Los Angeles stuck with me, mainly because if the Los Angeles they wanted to introduce ever existed it doesn’t exist anymore. It may have existed to them, and it’s true that everybody’s Los Angeles exists to that person in some form. The experience of places are rarely comparable, anybody describing their lives in Los Angeles, their experience of the place or even drawing a map is giving a primer to their own Los Angeles. So that reference to a primer suggests an introduction and so breadth in the form of a subjective study of the place, there can be no objective primer to a city. It’s true that I like the idea of a primer, but one that is a basic introduction, a travel guide say, that tries to be objective, is selling a false claim.
What does LA have to offer in terms of magazines, blogs and journals. What do locals read?
It has what seems to me to be a robust body of writers writing about it right now, or at least that is emerging. I feel like it has been underserved in the past 30 years or so. The best books about Los Angeles were published before the war or just after it, it dries up by the time it hit the 80s, although Mike Davis’ City of quartz gets cited a whole lot, which is from the late 80s but that’s more of a polemic. Home-grown publications here tend to be very specialized, and I’m not sure many people are putting a whole lot of stock into The Los Angeles Times or Los Angeles magazine. Although they do have interesting writers, for example the Los Angeles Times’ architecture critic, Christopher Hawthorne, is writing very perceptibly about what the city has become. So I would say here that quality isn’t necessarily found as a whole in what publications produce but can be found in the output of individual writers.
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