It’s March 2017 and you’re standing on the steps of the Griffith Observatory, staring at the spot on the stairs where Sal Mineo’s character dies at the end of Rebel Without a Cause, your favorite film. Donald Trump has been president for 43 days, and this is your first time in Los Angeles. The day after the election, you stayed home from work and sat on your couch, staring at the horrified reactions pouring through social media, wondering if you needed to figure out a way to leave the country, or if there was any point in staying and trying to help somehow. You’d been wanting to move to Los Angeles for a while, but did it make sense to move states to start over if you would soon need to move away from the States entirely?
But here you are, finally visiting the City of Angels, for fun but also to suss out if living here is something you actually want or if you’d be better off just leaving. I like it…I think, you think, standing next to the bust of James Dean, staring out over the city, watching the setting sun cast the Hollywood sign in gorgeous shades of pink, which fade to blue and then to black. You know lots of people hate this city, but you find that you want to believe in its magic, in its potential to offer you a different life than the one you’d become bored of and frustrated with back in Pittsburgh. In a few days, as your vacation draws to a close on the other side of another birthday, standing on a beach and watching the waves, you will tell your best friend, I’m having an incredible time, because I’ve been kind of depressed for a while, y’know? But now that I know I like this city, I feel like I finally have some direction.
It will take you two more years to move.
At the start of Miracle Mile, a sorely-underseen film from 1989, Harry Washello is aimless. “I never really saw the big picture before today,” he says in voice-over. “God, where do you begin?”
We begin at the beginning: with an animation of the Big Bang playing at the Page Museum. The entirety of the universe blossoms in front of us, and then Harry Washello locks eyes with Julie Peters, and it’s as though destiny has brought them together, in this concrete museum to the history of everything. Through a series of hypnotic tracking shots, we follow the two as they cross paths, stealing glances at each other while passing in front of murals and dioramas of ancient hunter-gatherer civilizations, wolf packs, wooly mammoths, and direwolf skulls. Moments later, outside, standing on the observation deck at the La Brea Tar Pits from which the nearby museum has pulled millions of fossils, Harry worries that he’s lost her. “My one-in-a-million girl, and I let her slip away. I felt so bad, I coulda jumped into the tar pits.”
But then she walks past again, as though drawn to him, and all is right.
Julie and Harry, played by Mare Winningham and Anthony Edwards, have an instant connection. “Fate is a funny thing,” he says, again in voice-over. “We must have been meant to be together, Julie and I…There has to be some sort of cosmic plan of some sort.” Harry’s voiceover describes Julie as “a little out of time,” which has a double meaning that becomes darkly funny upon rewatching the film, but he means that she’s “a very hip girl, but a little old-fashioned…like that trolley [they] toured the Miracle Mile in.”
They spend the day together. Harry plays a brass band concert in a nearby park and Julie watches, enraptured. They buy lobsters from a seafood restaurant and set them free in the waters off the Santa Monica Pier. Harry walks Julie to work at Johnie’s, a coffee shop at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax, promising to meet up again when she gets off work at midnight. They plan to dance until dawn.
“On the third date, Harry, I’m gonna screw your eyes blue,” she tells him before walking inside the diner.
A massive digital clock spins below the Johnie’s sign. It is 5:00.
Miracle Mile is about many things—romance and Los Angeles and the looming threat of nuclear devastation at the close of the Cold War—but also, obsessively, it’s about marking the passage of time.
Throughout the next sequence, as we approach the point where the film snaps into real-time and plays out over the course of one frantic pre-dawn, time is marked in many ways. We see the rising moon. We see a discarded cigarette burning slowly, then starting a fire that cuts the power to the Chateau Marmont, where Harry is resting during Julie’s diner shift. We see Harry set an alarm clock and we see that alarm clock stop ticking when the power goes out. When he finally wakes up, it’s late enough that the television channels he flicks through are going off the air. And we see that spinning clock outside Johnie’s Coffee Shop, marching time forward with each revolution as Julie waits for a Harry who doesn’t show—12:16. Then, 12:42. 1:05. 1:18.
When Harry arrives, Julie is long gone and the clock says 3:55. Writer/director Steve DeJarnatt writes in the screenplay: (NOTE: THE REST OF THE FILM IS IN REAL TIME. EVERY MOMENT ACCOUNTED FOR. TH (sic) NORMAL ANGLES OF LIFE).
The normal angles of life.
But for Harry Washello, who finally feels like his life has purpose, life is about to become very abnormal.
It’s March 2019 and you’re sitting in an Uber Pool on your way to LAX. Donald Trump has been president for 785 days and it is your third time in Los Angeles. You don’t want to leave; at this point you have almost stopped believing you will ever move here for good. Every time you tell people I want to move to LA, and they say then do it, and then you find yourself making excuses, you believe it will happen less and less.
Your Uber driver is a tall, statuesque Italian woman and your fellow passenger is a German girl, around your age. They have just found out that you’ve been here on vacation, and they are excited to hear about your trip. Your driver wants to know if you visited the Griffith Observatory, her favorite place in the city. Of course, you say. Rebel Without a Cause is my favorite movie. She’s never seen it. You have to, you tell her. It shows off the Observatory wonderfully.
Tell us everything about your trip, the driver says. And do not feel like you have to hold anything back, because we three will never see each other again.
The German girl goes first. A year and a half ago, she quit her miserable customer service job and has been traveling the world ever since. Two months ago, she stopped in Los Angeles for what was supposed to be a weeklong visit with friends and immediately fell in love with the city. She’s been here since. The Uber driver is giddy. She says the story reminds her of herself. Eighteen years ago, she took a break from a miserable life in Italy to visit her brother in Los Angeles. As her plane flew into LAX, she began to cry. For the first time, she thought: I’m home.
It’s your turn. You know what you want—need—to say, but for a moment you wonder if you can. Remember, says the driver, sensing your hesitation. We will never see each other again, so you can tell us anything.
Well, I’m you two, except I’m still stuck at the part of the story where I’m miserable. I have a customer service job that makes me feel trapped; I feel at home when I’m in Los Angeles; I don’t know how to get here.
For the rest of the drive, they offer you encouragement. The driver tells you she doesn’t believe in fate, but she does believe there are currents in life, like in the ocean, that put people on paths. Those currents have brought us three together, she says, to meet and to learn from each other.It is possible to be happy.
For the first time in a long while, your instinct isn’t to make excuses.
At this point, about 20 minutes into what has up until now been a very lovely romantic melodrama, Harry Washello answers the ringing payphone outside Johnie’s Coffee Shop, hoping it might be Julie. The clock reads 4:03 a.m.
“Dad? It’s me, Chip,” whimpers a frantic voice on the other end of the line. “How come the phone was busy just now? I had to wake you…It…it’s happening! I can’t believe it but we’re locked into it! Fifty minutes and counting!…This is it! This is really it! This is the big one! Thor-Arthur-66-ZZD! You don’t think I woulda told you if it ever came down? Well, it is! We don’t know why! I mean, why would we? It’s for real, Dad! It’s no drill! We shoot our wad in 50 minutes! They’re gonna pick us up in five or 10, and you’re gonna get it back in an hour and 10, maybe 75 minutes!”
Harry finally interrupts. “What exactly are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about nuclear fucking war, Dad,” the voice replies.
As the camera pushes in on Anthony Edwards’ increasingly-panicked face, he listens as the voice on the other end is discovered by authorities and summarily silenced in a spray of gunfire. “Forget everything you just heard,” a new, gruff voice intones, “and go back to sleep.”
Harry stumbles out of the phone booth in a daze and gazes up at the revolving clock above him, which now reads 4:06. We find ourselves doing the calculations along with him, measuring what might be the amount of time remaining before the end of the world. If “Chip” is right, Los Angeles may only have until 5:16 a.m. before it’s wiped off the map. The only person who knows is Harry Washello, humble trombone player, who will in a few moments describe himself as “just a guy who picked up the phone.”
From here, Miracle Mile becomes a propulsive nightmare of a film, playing out in real time as Harry desperately tries to convince others that what he just overheard was not a mistake, not a prank, and that if they want to survive the night, they need to act immediately. Harry thought his life suddenly had purpose and direction when he met Julie that afternoon; now, in the pre-dawn darkness, “purpose” means something else entirely.
One of Harry’s biggest obstacles in convincing his fellow diners that he’s serious—and one of the best, ever-more-relevant touches in the script—is that, according to Chip, the United States is attacking first, and an unnamed enemy is going to be retaliating. The other people in the diner don’t believe that America would attack without provocation. “If he said it was the fuckin’ Russkies, I might believe him,” says one man.
We don’t know why, Chip said. Why would we? Post-Iraq War, in the era of Donald Trump randomly lashing out at our allies on Twitter at all hours of the night, this film’s scenario plays more plausible than ever.
Ultimately, the paranoia Harry introduces into the gathered crowd in the diner spins out of control and they head to LAX to flee to the Southern hemisphere. Harry wants to get Julie first, so they plan a rendezvous at the Mutual Benefit Life Building (a fitting name) near Johnie’s; “no later than five of 5,” one of the diner-goers will arrange for a helicopter to carry Harry and Julie to safety.
For most of the next hour, Harry treks across the Miracle Mile to get to Julie, and then to get Julie to the Mutual Benefit Life Building. We often watch film to get away from the passage of time—it’s comforting to see a cut, an ellipsis, so that the story gets to the good parts and we don’t have to live in a world bound by time constraints. It’s sometimes claustrophobic, often overwhelming, then, to watch this film where every second counts and “every minute is accounted for.”
Especially because, even though the film is playing out in real-time, as Harry’s panic mounts and he begins to doubt whether he’s doing the right thing and whether he is really about to witness the end of the world, he starts to lose his grip on the passage of time. He is constantly estimating how much time they have left, and because the film is as obsessively concerned with ticking off the passing minutes as Harry is, we get frequent markers along the way that he is wrong. Asked for an estimation of their time remaining, Harry is off by a good 20 minutes. A character says “it’s been an hour!” even though we see on the good old revolving clock outside Johnie’s that it’s only been about 50 minutes. Harry seems to forget halfway through the movie that he has an hour and 10 minutes until LA “gets it back,” and marks the end of his world against the 50 minute American missile launch instead.
And finally, as the frenzy reaches its highest point and Harry feels himself losing grip on his sanity, he finds himself in a clock room at a department store, full of what the screenplay describes as “alarm clocks, mouse clocks, clock radios, you name it. All set to different times. It pisses him off.” They’re all ticking madly, counting down the precious few seconds Harry has left to get to safety…if this really is about to happen. Is he late? Does he still have time? How much time does he have? How long have we been watching him? We find ourselves desperate to check our watch, to calculate the time since Chip gave him a deadline of an hour and 10 minutes.
At the climax of the film, word has spread throughout Los Angeles, and as the sun begins to rise, the streets have filled with panic-stricken residents trying desperately to get out of the city, convinced they have minutes left to live. People fornicate in the streets; people loot from shattered storefront windows; people drive their cars over prostrate bodies and light fires just because they can. The air fills with screams and shrieks and gunshots and cries for help. It’s cacophonous, a dreadful, horrific melange of murder and mayhem and madness and sadness, a Hieronymous Bosch painting come to life on the streets of the Miracle Mile.
Harry is trapped across the street, so close to the towering Mutual Benefit Life building and potential salvation, but unable to reach it because of the chaos. After climbing atop a van, he realizes that his only option is to go down. He drops to the street and crawls, past crushed bodies and through pools of blood, bullets ricocheting around him, until he drops down a sewer grate and has to wade through humanity’s filth before he reaches the basement of the Mutual Benefit Life Building. Only by going down can he rise above the mass hysteria. He becomes Dante, passing through the horrors of the Inferno before he can ascend to Purgatory and escape to a Paradise that hopefully still awaits him at the top of the skyscraper.
“Do you think the end of the world will come at night-time?” Sal Mineo’s character asks at the end of Rebel Without a Cause, another film that takes place over the course of one chaotic night, a personal, teenage, generational apocalypse standing in for a world-ending one.
“Mm-mm,” James Dean replies, his eyes searching the darkness for his friend, who will moments later be slain on the steps of the Griffith Observatory. “At dawn.”
Harry and Julie will soon find out if that’s true.
It’s May 2019 and you’re standing at the La Brea Tar Pits, gazing up at what used to be called the Mutual Benefit Life Building across the street, the location where Miracle Mile comes to an end. Donald Trump has been president for a while and will be president for a while longer, and you have been living in Los Angeles for 20 days. Almost three weeks ago, two months to the day after your Uber Pool ride to LAX, you touched back down in the city you now call home, ready to make it work for as long as you can.
As you watch the tar bubbles break on the surface of the lake in front of you, you imagine that Harry and Julie’s helicopter is down there somewhere, and they are being pressed into diamonds, as they imagine as the tar fills the chopper at the end of the movie. You also imagine that maybe it is you who will be in a helicopter down there someday; after all, the world didn’t end in 1989, but it sure still might.
There isn’t a payphone outside Johnie’s Coffee Shop anymore—you looked when you walked past earlier in the day—but it’s very easy to imagine being awake late at night in this city full of possibility, and as Twitter-addicted as you are, it’s quite possible you will learn before the people around you that the world is about to end. You think you probably wouldn’t have much trouble convincing your fellow citizens that America would be the one to attack first, and that makes you kind of sad.
You stare up at the palm trees that ring the tar lake, remembering how horrific they look aflame at the end of the film, and how horrific they looked aflame in the documentary you recently watched about the 1992 LA Uprising. Palm trees to you have always said “vacation,” and “paradise,” but here they’re an everyday part of life, and when everything burns, so too will the palm trees. For now, though, you appreciate how majestic they look against the too-blue sky, and you appreciate that, for now, you can look at this view every day. You hope you won’t stop appreciating that view.
Later that afternoon, you watch Miracle Mile again, for the third time since you moved here. As you watch Harry Washello crawling through the filth on the streets of Los Angeles so he can reach salvation atop the Mutual Benefit Life Building, you gaze out your window, where you have a view of that very same building, and of the Hollywood sign over which the missiles will fly a few moments after Harry ascends the skyscraper. If you squint, you can even make out the Griffith Observatory, where you stood 822 days ago and decided this city was the right move for you.
“All your life, you think you have time to do everything,” Julie says, toward the end of Miracle Mile. “And then it just…” She trails off, overwhelmed at the thought of the nothingness that may await her.
You may not have time to do everything, you think, but then, who does? It’s time to start doing something.