LARB Quarterly

LARB Quarterly, no. 39: Air

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No. 39: Air

LARB Quarterly is our signature print magazine featuring original fiction, essays, and poetry. Air is the third installment in our “Elemental Year” collection.

No. 39: Air | Letter from the Editor

Dear Reader,

When Michael Mann was preparing to shoot Heat (1995), his long-gestating Los Angeles crime epic, he took his director of photography and a handful of location scouts on a three-hour helicopter ride over the city. The flight, which cinematographer Dante Spinotti would later remember as “endless,” was only one aspect of a scouting process that would last four months and yield entire rooms full of photographic references for vanishingly small details—the chipped paint on crucifixes, the trim on laminated diner menus. Almost none of the locations themselves had appeared on film before: gray trainyards, coastal expanses full of rusting shipping containers, concrete crevices where rhizomatic freeway interchanges swirl overhead. The result is an L.A. entirely different from the innumerable versions seen in movies for 70 years, one that looks as inhospitable as the desert the thieves cross to buy designer explosives in Arizona.

As severe and specific as Heat’s L.A. is, there’s one image that eluded Mann. When Robert De Niro’s career crook opens up (barely) to his love interest, he does so on the balcony of her home, which overlooks Sunset Plaza. The actors were shot on location, but in front of a green screen; the cityscape, added in during postproduction, was photographed in a very low framerate to maximize exposure. On initial home-video releases, the effect was passable. But as time went on and fidelity improved—and as Mann’s initially maligned 2000s experiments in digital video were becoming celebrated as strokes of auteurism—this scene started to look faker and flimsier, unfit even for a cheaply produced commercial. Vidiots, the alternative video store that was founded in Santa Monica in 1985 and relaunched this year at the renovated site of the Eagle Theatre on Eagle Rock Blvd. recently held a screening where the balcony scene elicited laughs from an otherwise adoring crowd. And yet when Heat was reissued on Blu-ray in 2017, as a “Director’s Definitive Edition,” Mann eschewed the film’s famous poster, opting instead to make the cover a similar constellation of city lights. Los Angeles had proved impossible to take in as a whole, all at once, but it hadn’t stopped him from trying.

For this issue of the LARB Quarterly, our 39th, we used the air itself as an imperfect lens on the world. This issue examines the environments we live in (and the political implications of the ways we talk about them), but also seeks out gaps in our knowledge, the invisible fissures in daily life, and the unbridgeable divides between people. In a survey of the new language and philosophy of basketball writing, Tosten Burks traces syntactical drift like the arc of a shot in the air; Susan Finlay spends her short story, “The Perfume Thieves,” wondering if what is invisible can be real, be quantified—be stolen. Through vibrant prose, poetry, and fiction (and with an eye on the same skies that captivated Mann, by way of the research team analyzing the history of police helicopters), Air zooms all the way out, then back in again, hovering around every vantage point imaginable.



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