Fast vs. Furious, by Rachel Kushner

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Los Angeles is not “Hollywood,” and those who confuse the two should be banned from visiting. One quarter of California’s forty million residents live in L.A., which is the most populous county in the United States, and the majority are not screenwriters or actors or people whose employ has any connection to the entertainment industry. L.A. is the nation’s manufacturing capital; we make cars and airplanes and apparel. Our two ports are the nation’s largest and busiest, and the shipping and distribution of goods from those ports form yet another giant industry. Greater Los Angeles is L.A. plus its surrounding counties, which are seamlessly enmeshed into a single organism of commerce and culture comprising nearly twenty million people. One gazes into the geographical expanse of this place to try to grasp the ungraspable scale of things. But it isn’t just metrics that confirm for me Hollywood’s small share. It’s somehow a conviction, almost like a religious belief.

It could be that my denial of Hollywood’s impact has a bit of Verneinung to it, in the Freudian sense, because the movie business, in fact, makes regular incursions into the neighborhood where I live, east of Echo Park Lake. The houses here are old (late-nineteenth century) and situated on a rise above the downtown skyline. These attributes partly explain why so many TV shows, as well as legions of movies, have been set here (in Chinatown, Jack Nicholson parks his car in front of my neighbor Jeff’s house). But also, the majority of people here are renters. This isn’t Beverly Hills or Santa Monica, where homeowners’ associations would never tolerate so much filming.

I have been here twenty years and know well the earliest signs: a middle-aged man in skateboarding shoes and a sweatshirt that says something on it, walking up and down the street talking loudly on his cell phone. This is the location scout. Soon, a shady organization called FilmLA leaves notices that announce filming will take place. no parking signs follow, themselves auguring the arrival of the semitrucks that roll in under cover of night. A skeleton security force, uniformed people who sit in the dark on folding chairs, show up to guard the equipment inside the trucks. At daybreak come the self-important people with walkie-talkies, who act as if they’re coordinating something on the level of NASA, or a little above it. Diesel generators fill the air with noise and exhaust, in front of my house or yours. Banks of porta-potties, in front of my house or yours, flush away. Convoys of geezers in shiny boots appear on their cop-cycles—retired LAPD, more or less impersonating cops, although rules now ban them from wearing their police badges for these gravy positions, which involve resting their asses on their big motorcycle seats, boots propped on the steering column, their Jack in the Box lunch trash scattered on the ground.

The dislike of film crews is earned. But the hatred of them might be deeper, almost primordial, sourced in the instinct to resist an occupying army. We didn’t like it when the National Guard rolled down our street in the summer of 2020. The film studios have bigger vehicles and their forces are more hostile. They are rude, and they instigate awful scenes, like the time, a few years back, when they towed a dozen neighbors’ cars at dawn, a situation that almost devolved into fistfights.

Still, the history of overuse here doesn’t fully account for what happened last August, when Universal Studios showed up to film the tenth Fast & Furious iteration—Fast X—to be released this spring. They brought all the usual hardware, along with a DeLorean Alpha5 prototype on a flatbed trailer, several SWAT-genre vehicles, and the famous black 1970 Dodge Charger with the big blower on its hood that figures in many installments. Neighbors observed all this with stony expressions, arms folded.

The Fast & Furious franchise, which has so far grossed several billion dollars, is tethered to the street where I live. The fictional Toretto family at the heart of the story—Dom and his little sister Mia (a grown woman whom the first movie introduces, inexplicably, as something like jailbait)—live down the block from me, in a fictional house that is a real house, and they run a fictional market at the bottom of my street that is also real. I pass by their fake/real house several times a day, and I have bought milk at the little fake/real market for two decades.

Toretto’s is the grocery store in the movies supposedly run by Dom and Mia, but in the first film they are shown there only once, as if the plot so engrosses them that they entirely forget they have a market to run. The market is actually called Bob’s. I was friends with the previous owners, Korean immigrants who retired to Boston to be close to their grown son and grandchildren. They had a clientele that is starting to disappear as the neighborhood gentrifies, and I suspect that the current owners rely on the income they get from the periodic F & F shoots, and from the fans who stop in.

The Fast and the Furious came out in 2001. It was a must-see if you loved cars, and the first film to showcase the creative culture of SoCal Asian racers and tuners who started modifying Japanese cars in the Nineties. The movie looks like L.A., and the people in the movie look like the population here, which is 75 percent not white. The first race scene, set in Hawthorne, is filmed in a way that creates the beautiful “optic flow” effect that racers talk about, using visual markers in their depth of field as they accelerate and steer.

Our street debuts when the actor Paul Walker pulls up to Bob’s—I mean Toretto’s—Market. In the camera frame, behind his red truck, is a Victorian that was restored by a neighborhood character named Murray Burns, who happens to have been the onetime landlord of the City of Quartz author Mike Davis, as Mike mentioned to me upon realizing I lived on his old street. And there’s our street again—mine and Mike’s—as Dom and Mia and Dom’s gearhead girlfriend, played by Michelle Rodriguez, say grace at a picnic table next to the house, the downtown skyline behind them.

There are corny moments, and some ridiculous lines, like the one about “double-clutching,” which makes no sense. The “race wars” scene looks like Burning Man merged with the Americana at Brand shopping mall. Over a police scanner, racers hear that cops are tied up with a “one-eight-seven in Glendale,” suggesting that the screenwriters weren’t aware Glendale has its own police department. But the movie is great fun, entirely lovable. The problems, at least for the people around here, didn’t begin until after the franchise took off.

The broad intersection in front of Bob’s is rubbed black these days, from skid marks left by fans who come to the neighborhood to pay homage to the fictional family that does not live on our street nor run the market. They arrive daily, do burnouts and doughnuts and practice their drifting (typically in a leased Dodge Challenger R/T or Hellcat whose horsepower they definitely can’t handle). They take pictures and block traffic and race their engines. Any unlucky resident whose car is damaged or even totaled by an unskilled drifter, anyone who is almost run over by the convoys of wannabe street racers, is an obstacle to their cultural communion with a multibillion-dollar global franchise.

I can hear the engine screams of a takeover at Bob’s as I write this. I used to go to these kinds of gatherings, when young, in San Francisco. They were called “rodeos” then, not takeovers, but they were the same thing—burnouts and wheelies and doughnuts. But I’m a middle-aged bourgeois now. I am trying to file a column that is literally called “Easy Chair,” and I wish these guys would go somewhere else.

I once knew some people who lived in the Toretto house, and I went to a kid’s party there roughly a decade ago. No one mentioned F & F. Now residents seem to move in and out of that place every few months or weeks; it’s not a real place where you could put down roots, what with people blocking your driveway and forming crowds out front on a daily basis. In 2013, when Paul Walker died while drifting in a Porsche Carrera, we were warned that ten thousand people were coming to a memorial in front of the house (the crowd turned out to be much smaller). When Universal Studios invaded our neighborhood last summer to film Fast X, residents had had enough. Protesters organized, attempting to stop the filming.

With the arrival of an invading army come resisters with courage and ethics, but also collaborators with their moral degradation and venality. And like in France under German occupation, as Universal rolled in, some remained principled while others sold out. On the first day of shooting, I ran into a neighbor named Andrea at CVS. “They’re paying off the whole neighborhood!” she said. Andrea is a paragon of civic virtue. I have seen her volunteering at our polling station. She also volunteers in the courts as a mediator. She sings with her husband, who is a professional mariachi, at our local farmers market every week. And so I was too cowardly to admit, when she said Universal was paying people off, that I, too, had accepted a little of their blood money. Instead I shook my head in dismay that our very own neighbors were taking bribes from this evil franchise.

They’d paid me for letting them film from my back gate. The location people had buttered me up with compliments. “What a great place,” they’d said. I’d vainly agreed. Our alley has an awesome view of downtown. It feels like a wonderful secret. But when I returned from CVS and surveyed the crew’s prep work, I understood that the location scout and art directors liked my place for how junky they thought it was. Next to the random containers of used motor oil, they’d lain a dead motorcycle with a rusted tank, stripped of its seat. There was now a trashed air conditioner. More leaves and debris than I recalled being there. They had added more faded and rotting bamboo screening to my cyclone fence, to “continue” a theme of modest urban decrepitude, a theme I was not aware of until they ran with it.

The crowd at the protest against Fast X was fairly small. The number of newscasters and camerapeople and TV vans that converged to report on it felt larger than the number of those gathered to voice their discontent. At least three news helicopters hovered above to film this protest of filming. Am I in a John Waters movie?, I wondered, thinking of the comic “protest” scenes in Polyester, as I stood in front of Bob’s, listening to my longtime neighbor Tad speak into a mic.

Tad owns a fabrication business and runs a pizza place. He’s involved in car racing, and occasionally rips by in a silver 1966 Austin-Healey Sprite. His property is exactly the aesthetic the F & F production people are trying to fake, with a genuine scatter of cars and cycles, a school bus, an old Volvo, mysteriously torched. Tad is also an involved community advocate who worked to get speed bumps put on our street. “As an enthusiast for these things,” he said into the camera, “we have to put them in context.” He talked about the problems that arise when people try to live out a fantasy: “Men’s prefrontal cortexes don’t fully develop until age twenty-eight, if ever.” People laughed.

Next to speak was a guy from the organization Streets Are For Everyone, or SAFE, whose members had come from outside the neighborhood to support the protest. The thought crossed my mind that the interests of the neighborhood were somewhat separate from the concerns of an organization like SAFE. I personally think Universal should build us a minipark in front of Bob’s as a way to prevent drifting, and to give back to a place they’ve taken from; this is a different demand than that street racing be stopped altogether. I watched the SAFE guy talk. My gaze traveled downward, to his prosthetic leg. This was not a John Waters movie. The woman next to him was holding a large poster of her dead daughter.

Instagram, in combination with the pandemic, might be responsible for a recent spike in crashes and deaths from street racing. But also, the late-model cars popular with street racers are too fast for the skills of those driving them; an old car can be pushed to its limits much more safely. In his recent book Why We Drive, Matthew Crawford describes the programmatic destruction of old cars that began in the Nineties and was basically underwritten by the oil industry, programs that tragically and bogusly wiped out the models people used to modify—VW bugs and Datsun 510s—cars that provided a terrific sensation of torque while not going all that fast. “There’s nothing better than seeing a fast guy in a slow car,” Tad told the newscasters.

We left the protest together and walked up the street. A rent-a-cop with a push-broom mustache blocked us, demanding our IDs before he would let us pass through to get home. The filming went on, unhindered by protesters, until 2 am, with smoke and explosions and a huge balloon of light floating over the street like a blimp. The next day, they packed out. Phew, we thought. It’s over. A day later, a black helicopter swooped in low and hovered for hours. It had a huge camera mounted on it. When it finally left, the silence was almost unnerving.

After the dust settled, a technical adviser on the first two films posted a YouTube video mocking the protesters. He blamed street racing on liberal efforts to defund the police. He blamed it on Grand Theft Auto. When the video ended, the algorithm pulled up a CNN report on the protest. There was the guy with the prosthetic leg. I wondered how he lost it. I googled: a hit-and-run, while bicycling. A video popped up of him being interviewed about a different hit-and-run. He was talking, I realized, about someone I knew, a man who’d been bicycling, a few months back, training for an AIDS-research fundraiser, when a speeding driver struck him and fled the scene. That cyclist’s name was Andy Jelmert. His death was deeply unjust. Andy was an incredibly gentle and kind person. The reason I know him is that twenty years back, he was the realtor who sold me my house here.


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