Two and a half years ago I left Los Angeles for Chicago by choice, and since then I've struggled to write the definitive explanation, my goal being to satisfy the curiosity of the hundreds who have since asked ... why?
Why would anyone dare to check out of Southern California?
I'd all but given up. I tried, and tried. One year passed. And then, I remembered something the character Davis said in "Grand Canyon:" "All of life's riddles are answered in the movies."
So, about 18 months ago I began rewatching a lot of good films, and a lot of guilty pleasures, and I noticed an undeniable pattern -- Movie characters that succeed in their quest to reach Southern California are rewarded. Movie characters who dare leave Southern California are punished, severely ... usually with death, and not a pretty death, more like an alcoholic's death.
You see, Southern California isn't just where happy endings happen. Southern California is the happy ending, and who would ever leave that?
Sometimes, it's subtle. "Pretty Woman," for example, could have easily ended with the comely, Hollywood hooker chasing the millionaire businessman back to New York City. But no. It ends with said millionaire rushing after said hooker. He climbs her fire escape (yes, a fire escape in Los Angeles) and kisses her right there, happily ever after, in Los Angeles.
But that's not all. As the credits roll, some guy on the street hammers the audience with the not-so-subtle message: "What's your dream? Everybody comes here. This is Hollywood, land of dreams."
The story's the same in film after film. "National Lampoon's Vacation," "Midnight Run," "Little Miss Sunshine." In every one of these pictures, LA is the drop-dead goal. These characters experience desperation, devastation, and even the loss of frail, elderly relatives (and one dog belonging to a frail, elderly relative) along the way. But, once the primary characters arrive in sunny Southern California, everything is made right. The deaths of any minor characters are forgotten -- little more than collateral damage. It's party time!
In "Rain Man" the protagonist actually leaves SoCal in order to journey back to it. And how cool is it that, as difficult an expedition as that trip proves to be, once they stop in Las Vegas, they win all the money necessary to solve all the financial woes waiting back in California.
That's what happens when LA is the goal. Flop that storyline, however, and the world nearly ends.
At the start of one of my all-time favorites, "The Long Goodbye," the antagonist Terry Lennox is in a rush to leave LA for Mexico. This doesn't end well for Terry. First he tries to fake his death, but then he really dies.
In another favorite, "Leaving Las Vegas," Hollywood screenwriter Ben leaves LA ... and then he dies too, which was sort of what he wanted. Who better than a Hollywood screenwriter to figure out that the easiest way to kill yourself is to leave LA?
In "Lost In America," a husband and wife sell their house in LA intent on living an adventurous life on the road, then they stop in Las Vegas ... and then they lose the nest egg. Correction: The wife loses the nest egg. How could she lose the nest egg? The nest egg! It's the nest egg!
In "Pulp Fiction," Butch is a fighter who double-crosses the mob and must struggle to leave LA with his girlfriend and some considerable cash. First he escapes several attempts on his life by the antagonist and his henchmen. Then, he and the antagonist are taken hostage by murderous rapists. Lucky for Butch, he breaks free, slays the rapists, and saves the antagonist, the mob boss Marsellus Wallace. Taking this into consideration, the mob boss grants Butch limited amnesty. He can leave LA, but he can never speak of the situation from which he saved the mob boss, and he can never return to LA.
"You leave town tonight, right now," Wallace tells Butch. "And when you're gone, you stay gone, or you be gone. You lost all your LA privileges."
This pattern goes on, and on, and on.
Two of Michael Mann's best movies set in Los Angeles -- "Collateral" and "Heat" -- focus on men who, as the climax approaches, just need to do one more thing before they can leave LA, but it turns out the one thing they need to do is die. One gets killed by an LA cop. The other gets it from an LA cabbie.
A cabbie! A cabbie who dreams of starting a limo business that will be so pleasurable it'll trick you into thinking you've been on an island vacation when, in reality, you've been right there in that limo in LA the whole time.
Real life is nothing like that. My wife and I left LA more than two years ago and, although the transition has presented us with more challenges that we expected, none of them have involved mob bosses, hookers, car chases, or hit men (although there was this one incident involving a cabbie, but this is Chicago and everybody's got a story about a cabbie).
When I moved to LA in the mid 1990s, no one asked me "why." But when I left in 2011, "why" was all anyone wanted to know. Friends. Strangers. Everyone still wants to know why in God's name I would leave LA on purpose? The non-LA residents who ask this question inevitably share their own dream of one day moving to LA, if ever they "get enough money together." Those already living in LA mostly cling to their choice like it was money, which is even funnier considering that, if you live in LA, you never, ever have enough money.
I've thought of all kinds of clever things to say. I've explained that Route 66 was never envisioned as a one-way street. I've played to the LA stereotypes. I even, once or twice, tried to suggest that people in Chicago were nicer, but they're not, really, not at all. Chicago people would eat LA people alive, or dead, no preference, and definitely with mustard and sport peppers, but no ketchup. Seriously, NO KETCHUP!
I remember someone saying to me when I first moved to LA that it was the place people went so they could make enough money to get out of it. That wasn't me either. I loved most all my time in LA.
Nowadays I still don't know what to say. We moved here because we like Chicago. That's about it. There are things I hate about LA, but there are things I hate about Chicago too. Yes, it gets cold here. Yes, there are earthquakes there. No, people here aren't as pretty. No the food there isn't as good.
Perhaps this is another of those riddles that's answered in the movies. A Chicago movie. Maybe ... "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." Maybe it's like Ferris said:
"Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."