A View from the Other Valley

Licorice Pizza (2021)



Westwood is a concrete-and-glass ghost town most nights; you’d never know that in the ‘70s, teens would crowd its wide sidewalks so deeply you had to step into the street to get by. Everyone was always headed to a movie. Successive revitalization efforts rose and fell, finally succumbing to the pandemic’s swath, but on one corner tonight, a neon marquee is a night bloom. Inside, couples take pictures in front of the poster for Licorice Pizza, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film.

The vibe in the air is very much ‘Hometown Hero Made a Movie About Us.’ We all remember how Anderson evoked ‘70s L.A. in Boogie Nights. Tonight, we’re looking to collectively time travel again; we need it.

I reach for the door to my cinematic flight, but a young man beats me to the handle and opens it for me. Normally I’d give a quick glance of thanks or do a dance of “no, you first,” but when I see him, I stop in my tracks. This guy’s wearing a Levi’s jacket with patches on it; he dips his head to get his long brown hair out of his eyes; he’s handsome like early James Taylor. I pause and look at him longer than either of us expected because, well…  

Can I tell you something about what happens when you get older? You will see young people who, looking for a style, choose the garb of another era. They will appear indistinguishable from the people you saw and flirted with in your youth. This can cause a moment of, not déjà vu exactly, but temporal dislocation—the need to recalibrate reality. Peering inside the theater, I see this ‘Paul Thomas Anderson Is a God’ audience and realize that most of them were born decades after the film’s setting. Even Anderson himself was only three years old in 1973.

But Licorice Pizza has a particular gravitational pull for me, beyond my appreciation of its director. I was a 15-year-old living in Southern California in 1973. I’ve come to the film hoping for both a movie and a collapse of chronology, a celluloid-induced memory trance. Can needle drops of glam rock take me back to those nights in my teenage bedroom when I studied every detail of a Bowie album cover?  

The puzzled and puka-shelled young man gestures me in. I gather myself and thank him. 

I hadn’t expected my reverie to begin before I even got in my seat. 

The San Fernando

Although I’m tremendously disappointed to find out that Licorice Pizza doesn’t feature a single scene set in the eponymous Southland music chain—and that Alana Haim will not be playing a record store clerk—I pass through its time portal easily. Anderson opens with an image I remember well: long bathroom mirrors, in which I joined other boys as we perfected the swoops of our hair. This moment of authenticity ushers me into the story of Gary (Cooper Hoffman), a San Fernando Valley sophomore gobsmacked by Alana, a 25-year-old photographer’s assistant who is offering students in the school picture line a mirror, navigating indifference from them. Gary doesn’t ignore Alana; he sees her and offers brash worship like she’s a goddess in a skort.

Alana is a bewitching combination, self-possessed but vulnerable and a little lost in life. In old movies, she’d be the ingenue yet to be discovered, and one of the great rewards of Licorice Pizza is that, in the present, Alana Haim is discovered as an actor of huge talent and potential—wholly original but suggesting Barbara Stanwyck by way of Cherie Currie. Haim has that rare gift of looking like she’s listening to other characters and reacting in real time—quizzical, defensive, but still open. Alana’s parade of dismissive reactions to Gary’s pick-up lines immediately anchor the film. Haim and her ebullient emotional acuity are this generous film’s most generous gift.

Licorice Pizza’s period details get me drunk. Aqua Princess wall phones. Flowered foil wallpaper. Titanic station wagons that seated 12. My Proustian madeleine is Alana hiding behind a very specific type of plywood three-paneled door found in every SoCal mid-century tract home’s bathroom. 

I could nearly smell the Clairol Herbal Essences or Lemon Up shampoo in her hair. Did we know witty tough girls like Alana? Yes, and they indeed would shush you by pronouncing “Tell the whole block!” as seven musical notes. Did parents really let their kids run around day and night on their own? Yes, they were all exhausted from working two jobs. At age 11, I took a bus 20 miles just to find a copy of The Hollywood Reporter, and no one noticed. With no such thing yet as ‘milk carton kids,’ a phone call home pretending to be “at a friend’s” was all you needed. 

(Speaking of running, Alana and Gary are always sprinting in the film, but if Anderson wanted greater verisimilitude, their galloping would be cut short by “smog chest.” The air pollution in LA was so bad back then, after you exerted yourself you’d feel like a burning hoof was standing on your sternum. We were so naïve and accepting of our fate that we would tease anyone whose chest didn’t hurt after recess, saying they didn’t play “hard enough.”)

Did ‘70s teens really start up random businesses to hustle spending money? Maybe the child actor Gary does so with unexplained sources of capital, but at a lower level, yes. My best friend and I tried to turn the looming Bicentennial into riches by walking door-to-door with stencils and red, white, and blue spray paint, offering to turn a home’s curb numbers into Old Glory. Our response to the gas lines depicted in the film was to carry plastic tubs of produce up and down the rows of cars, tempting bored drivers with a saved supermarket trip. 

Anderson’s remarkable achievement here, as with Boogie Nights, is to immerse us in Los Angeles’ past affectionately but with a wary eye for its betrayals. By highlighting the spontaneity of young people on a journey of discovery, Licorice Pizza stays buoyant even when excavating Hollywood’s most poisonous sediments. The masterful director stages set pieces with satisfying clarity; a story involving Alana driving a truck is like a perfect short within the film, and every sequence gets an unexpected button. There are scores of cameos from characters you want more time with—my favorite is Gary’s agent, with fabulously unpredictable line readings by Harriet Samson Harris, but why choose in such a feast? 

All these felicities made it easy to travel back in time; the film screen became a permeable portal to cinematic intoxication. Until.

Until that screen became a wall, and I hit it with a sobering thud. Until a film that felt true began to feel unnecessarily false. Until Anderson, so clear-eyed in satirizing Hollywood and hucksterism, contributes to a perpetuation of one of the film industry’s most persistent sins. 

Yes, I was 15 like Gary in 1973. But I was also 15, and queer, and Mexican-American. And I lived in L.A.’s other valley—the one, I would argue, you intentionally never see in film.

The San Gabriel 

If you oversimplify the topography of Southern California as a straight line—Los Angeles and Hollywood at the center, ocean in front, mountains in back—then the San Fernando Valley rests to the west side, and the San Gabriel Valley sprawls on the other. When you hear people talk in pop culture about “the Valley,” what they mean exclusively is the San Fernando Valley. 

Johnny Carson and talk show comedians made jokes about “the Valley.” Since the start of visual media, numerous films and TV shows have been set there. Licorice Pizza is only the latest within the genre of coming-of-age films: there’s Foxes (1980), Valley Girl (1983), Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), The Karate Kid (1984), and, more recently, Booksmart (2018). In the ‘90s, indie directors seized on the Valley for ironic use. Anderson himself has set four of his films there.

Now, count the number of films set in the San Gabriel Valley. You won’t need more than one hand—which reminds me of a game my family played in the ‘70s, and one theory for this puzzling discrepancy.

My movie-mad family enjoyed a double feature a week. In our Bel-Air station wagon on the way home from seeing an entirely white-cast film like Yours, Mine and Ours (which I was obsessed with), we’d ask, “Aren’t there any Mexican-American movie stars?” and our parents would tell us to “count them on your fingers.” Anthony Quinn, one finger. Ricardo Montalbán, Cesar Romero—now our middle finger was left extended uncomfortably. Quickly we’d cheat and add Chicano singers—Vikki Carr and Trini Lopez. Our parents gave us a You see? look, and then offered, “Maybe when you kids are grown up, you’ll need both your hands and feet to count!”

The perception of the San Gabriel Valley is that it’s “browner,” meaning more people of color live there than in Hollywood’s spillover of whiteness, the San Fernando. Since many people in “the industry” come from somewhere other than L.A., they seldom venture beyond its studio terrains; the San Gabriel is what you pass on the way to Palm Springs. Hollywood doesn’t look to its other valley not only because of location economics, but because it seems afraid or ignorant of it, in the ways that white people have always been confounded by the culture of color (yet they appropriate it; witness how many characters in Licorice Pizza mangle Spanglish, a white Angeleno habit Anderson captures that can make Latinx people seethe.)

If they had ventured across town, they would have discovered that in the ‘70s, the San Gabriel was a remarkably integrated place. Once acres of orange groves, it became a sprawl of bedroom communities after WWII, with houses similar to the ones in Licorice Pizza. Home buyers were often vets, and the block I grew up on in Pico Rivera was like a war movie platoon: Italians, Irish, Scandinavians, Germans, all interspersed with many of Mexican descent. In the San Fernando, workers pursued the dream of moviemaking; the dads of San Gabriel pursued the era’s other great dream: conquering the heavens. My own Mexican immigrant father installed the heat shield on the Apollo that went to the moon, and he was thanked by the white Neil Armstrong. 

I don’t want to discount the sting of white conservatism that ruled California under Reagan’s governorship; I remember the “Go Back to Mexico!” snarls my mother and I got outside supermarkets when we asked shoppers to “boycott grapes.” A mean white kid could still fling “Beaner!” at you as he rode by on his Schwinn. 

But in many ways, Southern California then had more of a relaxed diversity than today, when we more self-consciously promote it, and Chicano culture had an influential edge. The ethnically diverse men on our block got together every Saturday to help each family build brick fences, and then hold patio luaus, dancing to rancheras on the hi-fi. White moms used to hang out in my mother’s kitchen, begging her to teach them how to make better enchiladas. My best friends were Anglo, Mexican and biracial Black; we readied ourselves for a summer’s day by making peanut butter and jelly burritos. 

Its near-total whiteness makes the otherwise authentic Licorice Pizza ring bafflingly false. Even San Fernando Valley schools had been integrated through busing by 1973; could Gary and Alana not have a single foregrounded Chicano friend or co-worker? I’m not just being churlish about what we today call representation; it simply rings untrue. It’s almost like the fastidious Anderson has intentionally neglected the way the middle class integrated in pursuit of economic survival. I could understand this troubling omission if Anderson was a non-native, but have you ever read an interview with him where he doesn’t talk about his California youth? Can a sensitive 2021 film set in L.A. have Latinos in the credits only as extras or waiters? Would my late parents want to know that 50 years on, we still count only on one hand?

Taking cues from scenes in Licorice Pizza, let me counterbalance by offering stories from a queer Chicano’s ‘70s youth in “the other Valley.” 

The Valley of Memory

Reduced to its plot thread, Gary’s brashness as he pursues Alana is not unlike hundreds of other movies. I enjoy their dance of attraction, but from a familiar distance. Gary’s open pursuit is afforded by his straightness; it’s outside of what was possible for gay youth at the time. 

Queer boys still had lusts and infatuations, but my experience in navigating them was more akin to the storyline in Boogie Nights in which porn crew member Scotty (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Cooper’s father) tries to hide his love for Dirk Diggler. Scotty finally gives himself away in the banality of a tract home driveway, launching Hoffman into indelible self-excoriation with, “I’m such a fucking idiot.”


There is one moment in Licorice Pizza that does approximate the sublimation of teen queer desire; it’s the scene when an exhilarated Gary and Alana rest on one of the waterbeds they’re selling, which Anderson lights like another planet. Neither moves, but they allow their fingers to touch. Gary lets his hand hover near Alana’s breast, and, afraid of rejection, pulls back.

I had an undeclared crush on my high school best friend, Sam. He drove a gold El Camino, wore a cowboy hat, and always smelled like Irish Spring and Tide. (After years of internalizing the racist slur “dirty Mexican,” I thought that white people’s skin genetically retained the scent of soap.) My waterbed was the El Camino’s tonneau at the Starlite drive-in. 

‘70s drive-ins really were a place of teen autonomy, with everyone freshly driver’s-licensed and post-pubescent. We willingly piled into deep Impala trunks to avoid paying for an extra admission; we paraded around with paper shopping bags, grease-spotted with homemade popcorn; we congregated in the kid playgrounds until the cartoons started, taking rowdy command of the merry-go-rounds.

When my buddies and I saw Jaws at the Starlite, instead of parking with the windshield facing the screen, Sam backed his truck bed up so that we could stretch out in the open July air. The four of us laid out blankets to watch a story that played into every SoCal boy’s fears, that the ocean we loved could take our lives. With no space between us, our knees and shoulders touched; with every thrumming of that ominous theme music, I could feel Sam’s muscles tense. When the shark leapt from the water, cars pounded their horns and we screamed with 500 other teenagers. Our bodies flung up involuntarily with each fright, and, each time, I hoped we’d resettle with Sam’s cannonball shoulders pressing contact again. I drank in that intimate sensation more than the canned root beer we downed, only to feel my contentment shattered with every sight of a fin: damn shark! 

Like a lot of closeted youth, I was having a double-experience at the Starlite, monitoring myself for any sign, including movement in my OP shorts, that I was enjoying our physical proximity too much. Sam had the freedom to touch or move away, unselfconscious, and I think I was attracted to that most in him; I was only self-conscious. 

Though Gary hides his desire on the waterbed, if he experienced rejection, he could move on to another girl without social ramification. But in the ‘70s, if a boy was discovered to enjoy the nonchalant touch of other boys, it was a sure way to never experience it again—or worse. If Alana rejected Gary, he would get his life back; I could literally lose mine. I loved that night at the drive-in, but whenever I hear people talk about how terrifying Jaws is, I think: you have no idea.

Gary and the L.A. Sheriffs 

A bravura shot capturing adolescent-baiting capitalism at a teen expo is suddenly interrupted when Gary is nabbed by L.A. cops, and later unceremoniously released. I thought of how many Latinx people I knew who would often not get released even if they had been arrested in error. I thought of how white L.A. County Sheriffs would pull over Mexican-American girls like my sister just to hit on them, and then harass them if they didn’t respond.

And I thought of queer ‘house parties.’

When I took my first nervous trip to a gay bar, I went to West Hollywood. My furtive research discovered it as a place where gay men could walk on the streets openly, and the only location I could find where I could do what I enjoyed best—dancing—but with another man. 

What I didn’t know was that the gay community’s liberation did not transcend racism, and my first walk through a queer club door was an instant lesson in social stratification. The whole bar was filled with the era’s dominant white-clone look, which ranged from ‘Midwestern guy in form-fitting jeans and flannels’ to ‘Midwestern guy in form-fitting khakis and Lacoste polos.’ It was an aesthetic not available to me. Rather than worry that I was too conspicuous, I was instead invisible. It felt horrible, shunning. 

One night, I met a fellow Latino, and he clued me in to a Latinx alternative.

He told me about house parties for the jotería in El Monte, a town in San Gabriel with little to offer but blocks and blocks of stucco homes. On weekends after dusk and at houses that looked just like Alana’s, brown gay people of different genders would pull up in lowriders or Datsuns, walking in as heterosexual couples, but coupling up or presenting as they preferred once inside. I saw gender-fluid Latinx in drag imitating our gossipy tías, or a tough-looking cholo with his arm tight around his boyfriend near the backyard kegs. Funk and oldies ruled the speakers; couples made out behind the garage. Until.

The sheriffs arrived. They had a special zeal in breaking up queer house parties while not touching the straight quinceañeras down the block. People ran, tires squealed, but if you were unlucky or talked back, they’d cuff you and haul you away with enough commotion to bring the neighbors out and turn on the shame along with the porch light. 

Licorice Pizza tries to be attuned to layers of social oppression, including of the era’s LGBTQ persons; Anderson includes a portrayal of former L.A. Councilman Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie), a passionate and charismatic politician who in his early career felt compelled to hide his sexual orientation. Yet a scene in which we are meant to see the toll such pressure took on Wachs’ relationships serves primarily to provide another step in heterosexual Alana’s delayed coming of age; witnessing Wachs’ tormented machinations ‘wises her up.’ When she later walks with a rejected gay man, Anderson’s dialogue feels unusually tin-eared, as though the most the writer can muster is, “Men, huh! Whaddya gonna do?”  

Jon Peters’ assistant, Steve (played by the choreographer Ryan Heffington), signals as another gay character, and he’s bullied by his hyper-straight boss. Heffington skillfully redeems Steve’s odd inclusion in the story through hilariously deadpan line readings and gestures, but Anderson’s eye here, too, seems to lack confidence. The point may be that Steve’s fountain of fabulousness is unfairly constrained to sideline jobs, but he’s distractingly dressed and directed like he’s right out of The Gay Deceivers (1969) or a Charles Nelson Reilly outtake; it feels off.

The jotería house parties in San Gabriel may have risen from the need for queer people of color to gather because the California promise of sexual freedom did not extend to them. The parties may have been shut down by a hypocritically selective L.A. County Sheriff’s department. But the way Latinx LGBTQ persons thrived within the tensions of the ‘70s was by re-gathering the next Saturday night anyway. Those parties had verve, style, soul, intra-cultural diversity, and gut-busting humor. Most of all, they had something Anderson doesn’t seem ever to imagine in his queer characters: sexiness and joy. Connection. 

Both Valleys

Licorice Pizza offered me more of the joys of cinema than anything has in years, but I regret its perpetuation of an erasure ironically similar to that practiced in the era Anderson satirizes. The film’s generosity doesn’t extend widely enough. 

When I was 15 in 1973, I used to ride my Stingray up the Slauson hill in Pico Rivera so I could speed down, my black hair flying in the descent. Just before, I’d look out to see a vast technicolor sunset; in those days, the vista extended all the way to L.A.’s city hall. The brilliant sky colors were caused by smog’s chemical refractions; in Southern California, as Paul Thomas Anderson knows, illusions rule—beauty has an underside. 

From that vantage point, I convinced myself that I could even glimpse the Hollywood sign, and it made me feel things I couldn’t find words for, but one of them was hope.

I just wish that, in 2022, Hollywood would turn from the hometown valley it’s been so focused on to the valley—and all the stories in it—that it’s ignored. 

Maybe it would see hope, too.