Q&A with Mick LaSalle: ‘Dream State’ & the American Soul

Zack Ravas

Local readers likely know Mick LaSalle as the longtime film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, where he’s worked since 1985. What they may or may not know is that he’s also an accomplished author: we featured his short story “Fresh Kills” in Issue 108, and he has several books to his name, including Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood, about the actresses who rose to fame during that brief window of time before Hollywood censorship took hold; and The Beauty of the Real: What Hollywood Can Learn from Contemporary French Actresses. His latest book, Dream State: California in the Movies (Heyday), offers an incisive look at the state of California as it exists on the silver screen—how our attitudes towards cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles have changed over the decades since cinema was invented, and how those changing attitudes are reflected in some of our most beloved films, from San Francisco (1936) to Dirty Harry (1971) and beyond. 

Mick recently spoke to ZYZZYVA via email about the writing of Dream State, Joan Didion, and why Godzilla might just be a stand-in for the former President.  

ZYZZYVA: This is the rare film book I’d feel comfortable recommending to casual readers who aren’t necessarily film buffs at all. To me, it’s really a book about cities and our connection to them—what they represent to the culture at large and how that gets expressed in films through the decades. What was your original conception of Dream State and did it change at all in the writing process?

MICK LASALLE: This was a hard book to write, because I didn’t have an initial conception, and there was no missionary sense of wanting to convince people of something—as there was with my books on pre-Code or the French actresses. Basically, all I had were a few ideas and some topics for chapters. So, I started out with ideas, hoping that I’d get other ideas, and you never know if you’re going to get an idea until you get it. So, there was a lot of doubt whether I’d make it to the finish until I got close to the finish. It’s like walking in the desert. You can’t carry all the water you need. You have to trust you’ll find more along the way, and you expect you will, but there was always anxiety—maybe you won’t. 

I do like what you’re saying about cities. That makes a virtue of the fact that any book about California and the movies ends up concentrating on Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Z: You write about California: “Everyone is remaking themselves, but everyone is starting from scratch, and that’s a recipe for loneliness, doubt, and despair. Even for the most successful and privileged, there’s a sense of reaching a dead-end at the ocean’s edge.” The way you write about California and its implications often made me think of the great Joan Didion, to the point that I wondered if she was a particular influence on this book?

ML: No, she’s not an influence at all, although she’s influenced so many people that I might be influenced by the people she’s influenced. I’ve never been able to finish a Joan Didion book, because I always feel that everything she says sounds great, but isn’t true. The penetrating observations strike me as not getting to the core of any actual truth. Rather they’re just pleasing the reader. I’m sure I’m doing a disservice to a great writer. But you know how it is: It’s hard to keep reading someone whose work just doesn’t appeal to you, and so you end up not being in a position to criticize, because you don’t know enough.

But when I was writing this, I’d sometimes think, “I hope I’m not just making stuff up. I hope this doesn’t just sound good. I hope this is actually true.” In fact, after I finished the book, I was watching a documentary about Joan Didion (again, I made it halfway through), and I thought, “Oh no, I hope I haven’t written a Joan Didion book.” But then, maybe if I did, that would be a good thing. Who knows?  I try to stay pure, but to a large extent, I’m not the one to judge. 

Z: As I was reading you talk about many of the classic noir films of the 1940’s and what they say about Los Angeles (“San Francisco doesn’t care if you live or die. But Los Angeles? Los Angeles wants to kill you”), I was wondering: do you feel like something has been inherently lost now that less and less films are shot on location in Los Angeles these days, primarily for budgetary reasons?

ML: I’d imagine something has to be lost in not having the movies made on location, but probably not everything. There are story aspects that just feel L.A., and they wouldn’t be lost, I don’t think.

Z: As a fan of disaster movies, particularly disaster movies of the Seventies, I felt validated by your chapter that explores the genre at length. At the same time, you come to some disturbing conclusions about what all of the apocalyptic imagery of blockbuster movies like Godzilla (2014) and San Andreas (2015) says about our culture. In the wake of recent events, including the January 6 storming of the Capital, do you think this Hollywood trend will subside or only grow in the coming years?

ML: I didn’t mention his name in the book, because I didn’t want his name in my book, and also because I figured he wouldn’t be president by the time it got published. Actually, I won’t say his name here, either. But I used to wonder about all these movies, every summer, showing our cities being destroyed, and at a certain point, I started to realize that it indicated something sick in the American soul, that something was wrong. It’s either no coincidence at all or one hell of an amazing coincidence that these films were most plentiful just before the Former Guy emerged as a viable presidential candidate. I think the spirit behind these movies was related to his appeal—a profound dissatisfaction, an unspoken anger, a desire to wreck everything and see what happens next. Basically, it took a few years for me to look back and realize it, but you-know-who was Godzilla.

Q: You discuss many classic movies in-depth, from Wizard of Oz to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But are there any films that you really wanted to include or discuss in the book but had to ultimately cut for space or other considerations? 

ML: I suppose I could have included a lot more movies, but they would have been there just to illustrate the same points that are in the book. I didn’t have any more points to make. Basically, I left all my ideas on the field. I hope they’re of some use to somebody. 

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