California dreamin’/On such a winter’s day.
Truer words were never spoken. And it’s only fall!
This is why last night I found myself watching Laurel Canyon, Lisa Cholodenko’s 2002 slice of neo-hippie SoCal living, on the Sundance Channel. I’d seen it before, but it holds up well to repeat viewings.
The movie is seductive because it touches on so many forbidden pleasures: California, drugs, bisexuality. From the opening shots of Laurel Canyon Boulevard winding through the hills above Los Angeles, with its quaint Canyon Country Store and rows of old-fashioned mailboxes, I was sucked in.
In the movie, Christian Bale plays Sam, a recently graduated psychiatrist from the stuffy Northeast who moves to Los Angeles to start his residency in a local hospital, bringing along his equally stuffy girlfriend, Alex (Kate Beckinsdale), who is doing a dissertation on genomics.
While in town, they plan to stay at the vacant Laurel Canyon house of Sam’s mother, Jane, a record producer played by the always-entertaining Frances McDormand. Unfortunately for Sam (and fortunately for his girlfriend, as it turns out), Jane is recording an album there with a band fronted by Ian McKnight (Alessandro Nivola), a man 16 years her junior that she also happens to be fucking.
During the course of the movie, Sam develops an attraction for Sara (Natascha McElhone), one of the female residents at the hospital, while his girlfriend develops an attraction for Ian. High jinks ensue.
This movie touches on so many themes that are near and dear to my heart, among them authenticity and the primacy of rock music’s place in the culture. There are no chain stores in Laurel Canyon in 2002, and I just read Graham Nash’s and Linda Ronstadt’s autobiographies, where they describe Laurel Canyon in the ’70s as being some kind of singer/songwriter’s mecca.
Then there’s the thrill of living vicariously through someone else (preferably someone else with more money), the same thing that originally attracted me to the Real Housewives of Orange County and reality TV, in general.
A lot of Laurel Canyon plays like some kind of lesbian fantasy, which is not surprising considering that Ms. Cholodenko also wrote and directed the lesbian-themed High Art. Two of the main characters are conveniently bisexual, which strains one’s credulity even more than the idea of Kate Beckinsdale doing a doctoral dissertation, especially when Frances McDormand’s character makes out with her son’s girlfriend in front of her own boyfriend. There may be such a thing as being too laid back!
But it sure is fun to wallow in a little uninhibitedness for a while.
Near the end of the movie, there’s the requisite mea culpa, with Sam vowing to save his relationship with Alex.
But then, in the last shot, he receives a call from Natascha McElhone’s character, who says, “What you said last night isn’t true. I can’t control my heart.”
Neither can I, Natascha. Neither can I.