In Smog and Thunder

Depending on whom you ask, San Francisco and Los Angeles are either locked in a bitter rivalry over sports/water-rights/cultural issues, or they’re not. I’ve heard it claimed that the supposed rivalry is actually a one-sided SF based hatefest that Los Angelenos are, at best, dimly aware of. Or an ongoing joke that only Midwestern transplants take seriously. Or even just an extension of a nationwide disdain for LA’s dominance over our Hollywood-controlled subconscious.

Be that as it may, someone in LA is paying attention, as evidenced by filmmaker Sean Meredith’s 2002 mockumentary In Smog and Thunder: The Great War of the Californias. Based on an exhibition of over one hundred paintings by Sandow Birk, also a Los Angeleno, the film asks the question: What if this animosity between San Francisco and Los Angeles spilled over into armed conflict?

Low-budget, and appealingly tongue-in-cheek, the film aims for satire, not realism. Shot in the style of a Ken Burns epic, with Birk’s numerous and vivid paintings standing in for faded daguerrotypes, it features a solemn narration explaining the origins of the conflict and actors reading dispatches from the front lines and first-person survivor accounts.

In Smog and Thunder Movie Poster

As a companion piece to the movie, Last Gasp Books also published an art book of the paintings accompanied by text from the film and a CD of the first-person testimonials and war songs. While the movie is entertaining because of its lampooning of trite documentary tropes, the book is in many ways a superior experience since it allows one to get a good look at Birk’s paintings. They’re epic works from an artist born and raised in LA who draws inspiration from Delacroix and Goya paintings of the Napoleonic era as well as battle paintings from the American Revolution. Instead of soldiers and generals, we see baristas and failed starlets fighting against gangbangers and vegan activists. And in place of the battlefields of Bunker Hill and Eylau, we get bombed-out freeways and strip malls. Birk uses this style in many of his paintings of contemporary urban culture, and it’s surprisingly striking, but in this instance it’s particularly well suited to the subject matter and manages to be both superficially funny and genuinely subversive as a commentary on art, pop culture, propaganda and history.

Although it never quite rises to the category of Alternate History and comes from outside the genre proper, In Smog and Thunder appeals to the same mindset—and the world of film is sadly lacking in that particular subgenre, CSA and the TV movie Fatherland being the only two entries that readily spring to mind. The film is packed with Golden State in-jokes and takes great pleasure in lampooning our stereotypes, and anyone who has lived here even a few years will probably get a kick out of it.

~España Sheriff

SF/SF Issue #34, November 22, 2006