Snapshots from the Sunset Strip
By Donald Bull
If you live in Los Angeles long enough, the language of the billboards — the competition for space and the meaning behind them — all becomes clear. And these days, the signs are all about movies, fall-schedule TV shows, and fashion. Sorry, but it seems the music industry has no clout anymore.
On weekend nights, the Strip is packed. But at six in the morning, you can lie down in the street and stare up at the billboards–nobody would notice except the vampires heading home.
You would be able to see how Jay Leno’s billboard is in two separate places on the West Hollywood Strip. No one seems to be watching the show on NBC, though.
Meanwhile, the original British version of The Office is a show unknown to most Americans. It airs on the Cartoon Network during their time period known as Adult Swim, which is their programming for grown-ups. The reference to Adult Swim is down in the right hand corner and hard to see. This is an insider reference for hip people in-the-know about both the original Office series as well as Adult Swim.
This iPod ad occupies what is probably the most famous billboard spot on the strip. For years it was a six-storey tall Marlboro ad, on the first curve as you head west on the Strip towards Beverly Hills, just past Laurel Canyon. Because of the curve, the billboard seems to appear straight in front of you. It’s also right next to the mythic Chateau Marmont, the oldest and most famous hotel on the Strip.
The sign for Chateau Marmont was big and prominent in the 1930s, when the Chateau was built. Looking east on the Strip, it’s now dwarfed by a billboard for Gucci. Currently, the Los Angeles City Council is studying a proposal to ban signs that cover entire sides of buildings.
This billboard is also on the eastern end of the Strip, and for as long as I can remember, it’s been a Calvin Klein underwear ad. Of course, not everything on the Strip uses sex to sell.
For example, this big ad for Banana Republic seems hip, but squeaky clean.
And the enormous movie billboards aren’t nearly as sexy either, even when they feature heartthrobs like Matt Damon, in The Informant, or George Clooney, in Up in the Air.
These movie ads are all over town, and each movie has two on the Strip itself.
Similarly, the television ads are more about male action than sex appeal. This billboard is for a reality show, where Steven Segal is an actual police officer in the New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. It turns out that Segal has been a bona fide law enforcement officer for many years, and now he can also play one on TV.
You may have seen ads and marketing materials for the movie 2012, with a storyline tied to the Mayan Calendar, which ends in 2012. That, to some people, portends the end of the world. It could also mean the Mayans just got tired of counting.
Presumably, the Mayans somehow knew when the world would end, but they didn’t know enough to keep their own civilization from collapsing. Naturally, fear and superstition are always effective storytelling tools. Ghosts, monsters, boogie men and aliens fall into this category.
Animal rights advocates also know the power of shock value. This fearsome image sits at the famous spot where Tower Records once stood. It was vast, but now it’s gone. Book Soup, the independent book store across the street is still going strong. Virgin Records, at the end of the Strip, is also doing well.
Still, this was the only music album billboard I could find, on the outside of the famous club, Whisky A Go Go. It’s about eight by ten feet, at street level, so it barely qualifies. It’s aimed more at people standing in line than at cars driving past.
And here is another small one, a poster not far from the sidewalk. It’s an ad for Henry Jaglom’s latest film. He was one of the original independent do-it-yourself filmmakers; his film Can She Bake a Cherry Pie? from 1983 put him on the Hollywood map. Like Woody Allen, he’s popular in France and cranks out a movie every two years or so. His ads have always been on the Strip when his films come out. They’ve never been huge, but he’s still doing his films the same as he’s always done them. Stars and movies crash and burn on the billboards high above and flame out never to be heard from again, but Henry’s been doing his thing for over 30 years now. A good story, good acting, no special effects, low budget… and a gigantic body of work.
Web-based shows like Suzie Cocktail are even more of an unknown. At some point, we’ll all be watching on the web, but right now, none of these shows is really making any money. That means nobody is sure how this new way of watching programming is going to work.
In the cable TV arena, Showtime has overtaken HBO as the subscriber network with the hippest shows. That means series like Weeds, Californication, and Dexter. Personally, I find the Showtime shows all bleak, with dark souls. None of the characters are redeemable and I feel like taking a shower afterwards.
In Dexter, a serial killer has been urged by his now-deceased father to steer his murderous desires to kill only “bad” people who deserve to be killed. And now, Dexter is a father. Welcome to 2009. I sound old, but this is the kind of poster that would not have been possible when I was young. The image here implies that Dexter and his baby son are both drenched in the blood of someone Dexter has just killed; that they are posing for a happy family picture is supposed to be humorous.
There are other examples; horror movies, and torture movies like the Saw series are now part of popular culture, and their posters are everywhere. For Saw III, the gigantic poster showed three chopped-off fingers standing up on end in a small pool of blood. People drove underneath the ad for months without pause. It’s hard not to interpret our culture is one where blood, murder, guns and torture is normal. If so, then we are ancient Rome.
In my view, torture is another pornography, and cuts through the boredom of our cubicle lives.
The real reason I like this billboard for Virgin Australia is because there are hot chicks in it having fun. It’s a sort of nostalgic and refreshing throwback; images of attractive women are still being used to sell beer and cars, but it’s been some time since airlines used sex to sell their services in the United States.
I spotted this on the side of The Roxy Theater, another of the famous clubs on the Strip. I’d much rather see a billboard of sexy women (and men) than see babies drenched in blood.
Donald Bull is a husband, father and TV producer who has lived in Los Angeles for the past twenty years. As they say in Hollywood, you can “imdb him” here. He has made countless drives up and back along the Sunset Strip.
Watch a documentary about a life on the Strip here.