Driving through Los Angeles

Los Angeles is one of the “great” American cities, the home of modern cinema, a bastion of capitalism and the “freedom” it provides. Yet this “great” city is sick. The extent of this sickness depends on who you are, and there will often be a difference between reality and fiction. Last years Jake Gyllenhaal fronted film Nightcrawler and 2013/2014 Grand Theft Auto V, with its simulacrum of LA in the form of Los Santos, both portray a city filled with individuals whose drive is to obtain the so called American Dream regardless of the human cost.

It is striking the similarities between these two initially very different pieces of media. In both the role of the car is crucial for the livelihoods of the central characters. LA might have a mass transit system but, typical of most American cities, it is underfunded and is always forgotten in favour of the personal automobile. Although the car has a sacred position in US society, being seen as a symbol of independence and freedom; ideals held dear in the continent sized country.

Because of the necessity of vehicles in the environment that these characters inhabit they are used to help quite literally drive the plot forwards, with a considerable amount of the screen time being occupied within the shell of a vehicle. The vehicles driven might change, but without the use of vehicles the characters would be stuck, unable to navigate the urban sprawl that separates them from their goals, and their riches.

However the riches that they pursue are hardly from noble causes. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom makes his money from what is referred to as “nightcrawling” in which he records footage of accidents and crimes that occur throughout the night and then sells it to news channels. LA is supposedly a city where crime is falling, and as a result the ratings of news channels are also falling because they are unable to provide shocking footage that the American public craves. Therefore if they can hype up that crime is starting to pour into the more affluent “white” suburban areas, and accompany this so called “threat” with shocking and nauseating footage then more people will tune in. What’s more they’ll feel the need that they have to tune in.

Of course this highlights the hypocritical nature of the American psyche. People will complain about crime, talk of how it sickens them, and call for certain media to be banned that they disagree with. Yet they all tune in to catch a glimpse of contemptible footage showing the horrors that are present where they live. They are fascinated by violence and crime, lapping it up, all the while perpetuating their fear of it. This feeds the inane arguments when they talk about their god given right to bear arms, because somehow more guns will solve the problem. However the issue of drones is viewed with open hostility, because they invade people’s privacy (even though the NSA can do so anyway).

While Nightcrawler acts as a distorted mirror, one that aggrandises the faults that are present, GTA feeds off of this hypocrisy and provides continuous satirical jabs. Trevor Philips (one of three playable characters) makes a mockery of the entire US system of gaining human intelligence, along with the extreme freedoms that are afforded by the country. This comes across more due to his desire to exploit these “freedoms” which are more prevalent than in his Canadian homeland. The radio stations are also frequent sources of the insanity of American beliefs and ideals, highlighting the hypocrisy of gun toting rednecks criticising guns whilst simultaneously praising gun ownership, all “enjoyed” whilst driving through the urban sprawl or the desolate desert backcountry.

GTA Online also demonstrates the fallacy of the argument that more guns will make people safe. In this largely narrative free virtual space players will kill others (who do possess weapons) for no reason at all aside from the fact that they are in the same location. One can simply be driving along a coastal road admiring the spectacular scenery that San Andreas (California) has to offer, only to be gunned down inside your vehicle because you happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then again given the the nature of certain gun related crime in the US this does not seem out of place.

Nightcrawler is more subtle in its approach, but is still scathing. Louis is someone from the 20-30s age bracket, the one which the global recession has hit hardest, without a stable job and is willing to work for free, because an internship is better than nothing. It takes the misfortune of another for Louis’ eye opening break, yet his entry into his chosen “career” is by no means legitimate. The initial funding is obtained utilising his ability of thievery which has been the only means of supporting himself so far.

What follows is a series of deception, betrayal, and a severe lack of ethics on the part of Louis or his associate at the news channel. Yet morals are viewed as a hindrance, they keep people back from making decisions that are necessary to proceed. Doing the right thing doesn’t help ones bank balance. During discussions with his own intern during stakeouts in their movable base of operations Louis continually bemoans the lack of taking risks and determination which are needed to go forward in this world. Louis’ own determination is both commendable, the kind of entrepreneurial spirit that America loves, but also deplorable. His total lack of regard for anyone else at all is chilling; Louis’ whole demeanour makes ones skin crawl.

Both pieces can be seen as exploring the notion of the American Dream. At the start the American Dream is a lie, a fallacy. Louis, despite his hard work, cannot get a break and is constantly rebuffed for efforts. GTA V sees Franklin making an “honest” living (honest for the hood) but is still ultimately trapped where he grew up with the same friends holding him back. Trevor, despite all the bravado regarding Trevor Phillips Industries, lives out of a rundown caravan in the middle of a desert town. The only success seen from the beginning is retired bank thief Michael, living out the closest thing resembling the American Dream; except he’s miserable, and his existence is a lie. He feels the need to visit a psychiatrist who provides him with useless advice for an unreasonable fee, and this fee is increased if he makes an impromptu phone session whilst driving through San Andreas.

During their drive in and around LA/LS the characters all become wealthier as a result of the actions that they carry out from their vehicles, yet they don’t necessarily grow as individuals. Their preexisting flaws are only further ingrained, as this is what has allowed them to succeed in this city. Yet if it weren’t for their vehicles they would be stuck in place ripe to be a victim of someone that they could have become, someone driving through.

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