Film

Filming California’s Oldest Freeway and the Communities It Traverses

Communion Los Angeles visits the different communities the 110 is carved through, from the mountains to the sea.

From Communion Los Angeles (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

Los Angeles is a city of astounding, infamous sprawl, made possible by an extensive network of freeways. These arteries let the beast grow, pulsing millions of humans along. In Communion Los Angeles, directors Adam R. Levine and Peter Bo Rappmund trace Route 110, California’s oldest freeway, along its 35-mile length through the city, from the mountains to the sea.

The documentary, which screened most recently at the Camden International Film Festival, is not merely a series of shots of this one highway — though it certainly has enough way stations, scenic stretches, and torturously complicated interchanges to be visually interesting on its own. The camera visits the different communities the 110 is carved through, such as San Pedro, Carson, Downtown, and Pasadena. In a major metropolitan area, one extended landmark will connect a port, oil fields, urban centers, suburban neighborhoods, and everything in between — an intimate relationship which the movie’s title alludes to.

From Communion Los Angeles (screenshot by author)

The film adopts an omnipresent point of view. One shot may be from the side of the freeway, while the next will be perched from atop a hill for a big panorama, and then the next will be seen through a car dashboard. Some scenes are of milieus so static that they might well be still images, while others capture the dizzying swarm of activity within these spaces. The movie’s progression is purposeful, moving along the 110 from the mountains and then south over the course of its runtime, the day transitioning from morning to evening along the way. It’s like the travelogue of a roving spirit, able to observe people at work and pigeons at play with equal curiosity.

From Communion Los Angeles (screenshot by author)

Adding to this ethereal mood is the visual style. Many shots are purposefully stuttered — cars do not flow down the road but instead hop and skip as if time is out of joint. At times it feels as though the film’s eye is inhabiting security cameras. This isn’t the conventional mode of observational documentaries, which usually favor a smooth, unobtrusive presentation to help the viewer lose themselves in the act of watching. Instead, you are reminded of your disconnect, that technology’s illusion of transporting you to another time and place is, in fact, an illusion.

Communion Los Angeles reminds us that geography, too, has an active role in human life, though its easy to dismiss as background. The 110 both enabled easier transportation across a large area and destroyed ways of life as it was carved out of the earth. Boyle Heights was the center of Jewish life in the city until two freeways and redlining fractured the community there. Following this one road will not merely show you the workings of the city around it, but also its social inequities. The road is simultaneously a bridge and a wall. In that light, the movie’s name is both straightforward and ironic. In its daylong road trip, the movie picks at these contradictions.

From Communion Los Angeles (screenshot by author)

The Camden International Film Festival paid for the writer’s flight and accommodations. 

Communion Los Angeles by Adam R. Levine and Peter Bo Rappmund screened at the Camden International Film Festival. Check the movie’s website for upcoming screenings.

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